Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
The two of them have met up with a scholar and his sister at the manor and now must race to catch up with the Red Lector’s army.
One day’s ride west of Palend Manor the sun rose behind an illusory haze, evidence of the Red Lector’s war magi in action against the Oshomi. Ilsa glanced at Blue from her saddle, as Lemuel and Tirica climbed onto their striders. The scholar and his sister had not slowed them down the previous day, but they moved slower in the morning.
Tirica shot a disgruntled look in Ilsa’s direction. “Hey, I’m not used to getting up at the ass-crack of dawn.”
“Fair enough,” said Ilsa. “But we are in a hurry.”
“You think I don’t now that?”
“I think you’re dragging your feet.”
“I am not anywhere to close that.” Tirica’s face flushed. “You should watch yourself, priestess.”
“I try to,” said Ilsa. “That’s why I’m worried we won’t get to the central lyre in time.”
“Alright, cool it.” Blue rode her steed between Ilsa and Tirica. “If it’s any consolation, you’re both wrong. We need their help, Ilsa. And we also can’t be at each other’s throats’, Tiri.”
“My name is Tirica. Don’t try to get familiar.”
“I once knew a girl with the same name as you.” Blue grimaced at some memory she had never shared with Ilsa. “She was stubborn too.”
Ilsa frowned at her friend. “Alright. I’ll leave it there.”
Tirica glared at Ilsa, then at Blue, and then rode her steed ahead of them toward the rising sun. Lemuel caught up with Ilsa and Blue on the back of his own wooly black strider. “I apologize for my sister. She is not always happy with my decisions even when she goes along with what I want.”
“Really?” Blue smirked. “I couldn’t tell.”
Ilsa couldn’t help a small smile. “I wish it was that easy. The way you two argue makes me think she respects you.”
He sucked his teeth. “More than I deserve.”
“Maybe so,” said Blue.
“Maybe not,” said Ilsa.
“Oh this is gonna be a good day. We can’t agree on anything this morning.”
“Seems that way,” said Ilsa.
Blue grinned. “Gotcha. Sweet irony, am I right?”
Ilsa released a bark of laughter. “You are.”
Lemuel smiled. The sunlight glinted on his glasses. He guided his strider into a lope after Tirica. Ilsa and Blue did the same.
They rode east at speed. They had passed the ninth lyre the previous afternoon, but the central lyre was still not visible, even with the vast distances one could see on the steppe.
Ilsa rode on one side of Lemuel, with Blue on the other and Tirica in the lead by a few great strides. For her part, Lemuel’s sister kept looking around, scanning for danger. As they moved further east and away from the Lotok formation that curved around Palend’s manor tower grass became more common, sprouting up so high it could block the view. Luckily, few of those clumps were dense enough to hide anyone from a distance if one kept her eyes on the stand while moving forward.
They followed the trail of footprints and broken grass left by the Red Lector’s troops.
At about ten in the morning, Ilsa smelled increasingly familiar Ayochian powder, borne on the eastward breeze. She looked back and spotted a line of six runners with riders in Ayochian Blue uniforms also galloping along a trail left by the Red Lector’s column, less than a kilometer back from Ilsa and the others.
They were not scouts from the Red Lector’s force, and they did not carry a standard. Ilsa had to guess they were from the rearguard, and thus owed their allegiance to Boraij Kanan. And through their general, they were controlled by the Gray Lector.
She turned to Blue. “Ayochian outriders. Behind us.”
“That nose of yours is damn useful.” Blue glanced back at the scouts, then turned to look at Lemuel. “Can you fight?”
He raised his shrunken right arm. “I’m afraid I’m rather useless in physical altercations.”
Ilsa nodded. She looked back. Each of the riders behind them looked to be on a fresh steed, judging by the pace of the great cat-like beasts. “We’re not going to get away from runners if they keep that pace.”
Blue shook her head. “Well, Lemuel. Best get your sister. This is gonna be up to the three of us.”
“There are six of them, and three of you.”
“Truly a scholar. You can do math.” Blue took a breath. “I can try to even the odds, at least, a little. And Ilsa doesn’t miss.”
“My sister is a good shot,” said Lemuel. His eyes looked watery with nerves. “Fine, if we have no choice.”
“There’s always a choice.” Ilsa sighed. “I’ll try to negotiate first.”
“If they really are with this renegade Gray Lector, what good will that do?” said Lemuel. “We don’t even know this person’s true goal.”
“We should, at least, try to find it out.” Ilsa folded her arms.
Blue turned to her with a furrowed brow. “I hate to say this, but they’ve got us outnumbered two to one. If we let them get close enough to talk, that advantage becomes a lot bigger.”
“I understand.,” said Ilsa. “I also don’t think—”
“No, priestess.” Tirica must have slowed her steed because the three of them had caught up with her. “We’ve got you outvoted. Shoot first, and see if we can take any of them alive afterward. That’s what I say.”
“You’re too eager to kill.”
“And you’re too reluctant.” Tirica pulled her rifle from the straps that held it to her saddle. She loaded it with a fresh magazine. “Am I wrong?”
Ilsa grunted. “One can never be too reluctant to kill.”
“Unless you die because of it,” said Blue. “We have the advantage now. Let’s not waste it.”
Tirica checked the slide and safety of her rifle and turned her strider toward the scouts. She looked through the telescopic sites of the weapon. “They’re riding with weapons out.”
“I smelled them because they’ve got ready powder somewhere in their group.” Ilsa sighed inwardly. “I admit it, but it’s likely they’re probably not planning to let us talk either way.”
Blue and Ilsa turned their striders.
Ilsa turned to Lemuel, then motioned to the nearest stand of tower grass. “Go, hide over there. We’ll find you once the fighting is done.”
“Good luck.” He rode his steed toward the tower grass. He had almost reached the tall grass, when Tirica’s first shot cut the air and polluted Ilsa’s nose with the smell of burning Chogrumian powder.
One of the riders approaching from the west rocked in his saddle though the shot must not have been immediately lethal. The Ayochians shouted warnings to each other. In seconds, they all had weapons in hand and were slowing their runners. A hundred meters away and the shots quickly began to buzz and whistle through the air.
They shot without any real hope of accuracy. Blue’s eyes were unfocused as she mentally reached out toward the scouts. Ilsa gave her friend some distance. She rode toward the scouts.
A pistol appeared in each hand. She braced one on her hip and loaded the other, then repeated the process for the second weapon. She thumbed both safeties off. She kept Hailek going westward with her knees, and leaned around him in the saddle. She took aim, despite the thirty or more meters between her and the scouts.
The pistols felt light in her hands, and she was grateful for their small caliber, a rare insight of her father’s that still helped her. Damn it, you may have tied me to the name Black Powder, but I am not going to follow your path. Her lips drew back in a snarl.
Ten meters from the scouts. Behind her, Tirica’s rifle sounded again. She must have missed this time, for the scouts focused on Ilsa. One of them twisted a shotgun toward her.
She squeezed one trigger. The man with the shotgun fell. Blood leaped into the air as he tumbled from the saddle.
Ilsa shot another scout as the man scrambled for a machine gun. His arm snapped back, but he got a burst off. The shots stitched into the air over Hailek’s head. Her pistols barked again. The machine gun fell silent.
A third scout spurred her runner to leap at Hailek’s neck from one side. Ilsa whirled in the saddle. She fired her first shot underhand. Pain flared in Ilsa’s wrist from awkward recoil position, but she fired again. The second shot hit the runner in the foreleg. The riding cat sprawled out of Hailek’s path, claws flicking through the air with no flesh to rend.
The rider screamed and went down under the wounded steed. Still she reached for a pistol. Ilsa beat her to the draw, and the scout fell limp. Red trails ran up to her uniform’s collar.
Ilsa turned and came face to face with a fourth scout. This was the one already hit by Tirica’s first shot. This close, she could see the man had suffered a broken collar bone from the bullet. He swayed, one hand on his chest while the other claw toward a pistol. Ilsa shot him in the hand. He screamed and lost his balance. He fell from the saddle and lost his pistol in the fall.
She turned toward the last two scouts. A shot rang out from Tirica, and one of them fell from the saddle. The other ducked her head and then dropped to the grass of the steppe below, dragging a redwood staff from her saddle in the process. She threw back her hood in a flash of strawberry blond hair. A submachine gun materialized in her hand.
Cass Kalteri trained the weapon on Ilsa.
“Hold your fire,” The red-haired priestess said through gritted teeth.
Ilsa stared at her. She heard herself yell to Tirica. “Stop shooting. We’ve won.”
Cass looked up at her from the ground. “I told you to be red. Should have known that wouldn’t be your problem, Ilsa.”
Trickles of blood ran down Ilsa’s forehead. More spattered cover her sleeves, with speckles of red on the shirt she had taken from Palend’s manor. She lowered her pistols, breathing hard.
“Cass. What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you, damn it.” Cass looked around at the fallen scouts. None of them moved, except for the blood leaving their wounds. Ilsa gasped for air. She had done this. Again, she had killed without care. Never mind that she had protested Tirica and Blue.
This kind of killing was always within her.
She nodded to Cass, feeling light-headed.
“Ilsa.” Cass looked toward Blue and the others. “If I’m correct about your mission, we need to go.”
“We?” Ilsa scowled. “Those days are long gone, Cass.”
“Maybe. But today, I’m here to help you. Just didn’t think I’d have to keep you from killing me first.”
Ilsa grimaced. “Let’s ride. You can explain why you’re here on the way.”