Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden to the center of the plateau.
They have met with the Keeper of Tenlyres among the Oshomi nomads, the woman who it is their mission to protect.
However, the forces of the Red Lector have closed the distance.
The jaws of their trap bite down in the form of artillery from the mechanized force while riders try to cut off the way to the Central Lyre.
The day will be bloody.
Hooves and claws galloped and bounded over steppe-grass. Oshomi nomads on horseback surrounded Ilsa and Lemuel. The naturally-bred animals easily kept pace with Ilsa’s strider. The Keeper of Tenlyres rode just ahead of them, her horse leaping over the plains moving north. Ahead of them, in the distance, the curved stone of the Central Lyre rose from the plateau’s surface, strings glinting in the morning sun. The sound of artillery thundered in the opposite direction.
A slender red and blue line snaked toward the lyre from the west, the force of the Red Lector on their light striders and runners. The troops raced to block Ilsa and the Oshomi’s path to the center of the plateau. Ilsa doubted that they would be safe, even if they got to the lyre, but she had now choice now except to trust the Keeper’s word.
The strangely pale, red-eyed Oshomi woman with the bow slung across her back, leaned over her steed’s neck as if to whisper in the horse’s ear. Any sound she made was lost to Ilsa. The smell of Ayochian auto-launch propellant was overwhelming on the breeze.
Blue and the rest of the travelers capture by the scarred Oshomi chief with Ilsa and Lemuel, caught up with them. Blue rode the same great strider that had carried her from Dal alongside Ilsa. She shot a glance at Ilsa as she moved alongside, with Cass Kalteri just behind her on a runner.
“Ilsa, aren’t we going the wrong way?”
“The Keeper says we’ll be safe at the Central Lyre.”
Blue grimaced. “Did she say why?”
“Not precisely. But she seemed confident.” Ilsa heard the note of doubt in her own voice. She grunted. “Can’t exactly go back, now.”
“Point made. All days be damned.” Blue guided her strider closer to Ilsa and squinted into the distance. “Looks like going forward isn’t gonna be easy either.”
“The path is red,” said Cass. “Be red to walk it.”
Ilsa turned at the other priestess. “Shit, Cass. Now is not the time for your words.”
“And yet, there may not be another time.” Cass pressed her palms together and then pulled them apart. A submachine gun appeared from one bonded palm. She loaded the weapon with a magazine from her belt.
Ilsa nodded. “It is time for that.” She produced a pistol and loaded it. Then produced her shotgun and loaded that. The Red Lector’s lines continued to crawl across the land before them. They reached past the Central Lyre and began to curve to encircle the massive monument.
Lemuel’s small right hand fell onto her shoulder. He leaned forward, chest to her back. “How are we to pass them?” he whispered.
She stiffened her spine. “Hold on tight. We’ll break through.”
“And what if one of us is shot?”
“Then don’t let go.”
She squeezed her legs together around Hailek’s midsection. The strider quickened his already stern pace. He made no complaint, but Ilsa knew he had reached his fastest, and would tire quickly at this speed.
Blue fell behind by a few meters, but Cass on her runner kept pace with Ilsa and Lemuel on her runner. The cat-like steed’s sides’ heaved with exhausted breaths. Cass kept her eyes ahead and checked the slide on her machine gun.
“They’re going to be ready for us.”
“Ready for a fight.” Ilsa grimaced at the small army a kilometer ahead of them. “Not ready for us.”
Cass did not answer. They moved ahead in the Oshomi formation and caught up with the veiled Keeper on her galloping mare. Ilsa glanced at the Oshomi woman. The Keeper unslung the bow and then tugged three steel-tipped arrows from the quiver attached to her saddle, ignoring the smaller quiver hanging from a sling across her shoulders.
“Keeper,” said Ilsa, “Are your people ready to charge?”
The Keeper’s flat voice answered. “Duruko will lead the formation.”
A gunshot cracked the air from behind Ilsa, loud, nuanced by a whistle of air, Chogrumian long-rifle, Tirica Chollush’s weapon. One of the soldiers in the Red Lector’s army pitched off his light strider. The Oshomi closed the distance. Six hundred meters. Five hundred. Four hundred. Three hundred meters from the Ayochian line. Two hundred meters from the red and the blue. The Oshomi got to within one hundred meters.
In the fore of the riders, Duruko shouted the order to charge in the language of the Oshomi. Lightning lances and rifles rose from the formation, mixed with mundane swords and spears, traditional bows and arrows, and a few smaller firearms loaded with Dalite and projectiles. The Oshomi raced toward the lines and their weapons began to speak like thunder.
The Red Lector’s troops returned fire.
Riders fell. Screams echoed in the morning air. The smell of blood and propellant mingled in Ilsa’s nose.
She looked down the barrel of her pistol, searching for the Red Lector himself, as Hailek carried her and Lemuel over the ground. Cass’s weapon spoke in a careful ballistic chant. Two soldiers fell from their saddles.
The Keeper’s arrows flashed through the air, silent against the sound of gunfire. Her arm moved in rapid draw and release. Draw. Release. More soldiers fell, with shafts in their chests.
Ilsa spotted the Red Lector’s command party a few meters behind the line, directly in front of the Central Lyre. His scouts, with his sons, Kaij the weapon-bond and Yunn the ice magus, rode with them. Their rifles and blades remained silent and still, but Ilsa had no doubt they would be ready when the Oshomi broke through the line.
Short and heavy General Boraij Kanan carried a long-barreled revolver. The red-armored Lectoral Protectors clustered on their striders, a fortress that surrounded the Red Lector himself. Goji Haram carried no weapon, but at his right hand rode Ozleji Sammhar, the fang-masked Ayochian weapon-bond, disciple of Ilsa’s father. A chill ran down Ilsa’s spine at the sight of the towering bodyguard. Of all the Ayochian soldiers she feared him the most.
“No time for that,” Blue’s voice said into Ilsa’s mind.
“No time for what?” Ilsa sent back.
“You’re the scariest killer on this field. Use it.”
Ilsa could swear she heard laughter in Blue’s message. She grunted in annoyance. The situation was no joke.
Ozleji Sammhar clenched both hands into fists. The huge pistol Ilsa had seen before appeared in one, and an ornate shotgun appeared in the other. He propped the pistol against his armored hip and loaded the shotgun. Guns roared and men and women screamed in every direction.
She extended her arm and picked off a rider with a standard. One of the Red Lector’s banners tumbled to the steppe-grass and mud below. Ilsa turned int the saddle, tugging at Lemuel’s hand where he held her waist.
A pull of the trigger went first. A flare of the muzzle and the kick of the pistol followed. Another standard bearer fell, further down the line opposite the first one.
Clusters of Ayochian soldiers scrambled to retrieve the fallen flags. Where one group fought, an Ayochian lightning lance thundered with its deafening blast. Electricity leaped and shot and chained through the group, and they all fell.
The scarred Oshomi Chief, Duruko, shoved the lightning lance back at the rider from whom he had grabbed it. A rifle appeared in his hand, in the heart of a cluster of nomads near the fore of the charge. Blades cut down Ayochians. Bullets knocked Oshomi from their horses.
The sounds of battle could overwhelm the inexperienced. Somehow Ilsa found it all too familiar. She turned and shot. Aimed. Shot again. And again. Her pistol was down to the last loaded bullet, but she had yet to fire her machine gun. The Ayochian center wavered under the onslaught.
Claws extended, Cass’s runner leaped onto a light strider just ahead of Ilsa. The cat-steed pulled down both the soldier and the strider. Two more soldiers took aim at Cass as her runner bit and tore at the fallen pair.
Cass shot one with her pistol. The soldier fell. The other raised an assault rifle.
One bullet hit Cass’s runner in the shoulder. The cat-steed howled with pain as it pitched onto one side. The runner’s bulk crushed the bloodied form of the Ayochian soldier it had been intent on slaughtering just an instant before.
Another bullet slashed through Cass’s saddle and chipped a fragment from her staff. Red-painted wood flew skyward. Cass turned her submachine gun towards the soldier.
A third bullet hit Cass in the back of the hand that held her weapon. An eruption of blood sprayed across Cass’s chest up to her hood and her collar. She screamed and ducked her head. Her retaliating shot went wide.
Ilsa killed the soldier who had shot Cass with two rounds from her submachine gun. She then dropped two more with the same burst. Seven bullets spent. Twenty-one left in the magazine.
She rode to Cass’s runner as the cat struggled to stand despite its wounded shoulder.
“You’re hit.” Ilsa’s voice sounded almost as flat to her as the Keeper’s.
Cass grimaced but did not look at her hand. She swung her legs over one side of her saddle. Her unwounded hand pressed to the fur of the runner’s head. She leaned over the creature and spoke into one feline ear. “Hathani bless you and protect you. Greet no other gods on the pathway to paradise.”
Tirica caught up beside Ilsa on her strider. Her rifle was slung across her shoulder and she held a pistol. “Priestess, Kalteri. Are you alright?”
Cass’s brow furrowed. She turned to Tirica. “I could use a lift to the lyre.”
Tirica guided her steed closer and tossed down the line for Cass to climb up to the saddle. Cass freed the bag with her staff from the wounded runner’s saddle and slung it over one shoulder. She started to climb.
Blue reached Ilsa’s cluster. Her eyes were unfocused and her lips moved in a subvocal chant Ilsa could not hear over the sounds of the fight. Ayochian troops were in retreat from the center of their line.
Duruko’s forward group of riders strung out in a line across the broken portion of the Ayochian line where Ilsa and her group gathered. They whooped and yelled and drove the Red Lector’s troops back with guns and spears. Ilsa found the Keeper of Tenlyres riding just behind that line, a lone rider on a bloody battlefield.
Ferdinand’s white strider appeared on the other side from Tirica. The adventurer’s face glowed with fevered excitement. He held a javelin in one hand, and his basket-hilted lance in the other. His eyes continued to move as he searched for enemies. “This, I will have to write home about.”
“Don’t speak so soon,” said Ilsa.
Cass reached the saddle of Tirica’s strider. She fastened her bag to the saddle and then slung her leg over the strider’s back. She bandaged her bleeding hand with a white cloth from her saddlebag.
In the pocket formed by Duruko’s line of riders, Ilsa turned toward the Red Lector’s command party, now isolated just beyond them.
Goji Haram shouted orders, his face as white as his hair. His ten armored protectors remained clustered around him and General Kanan. The scouts, including the lector’s sons, had left his side. Surviving soldiers from the broken line had rallied with their leader. A few other adjutants and lesser clerics of the Ayochian religion looked around furtively from within the formation of soldiers that surrounded the Red Lector.
Ilsa scowled at the red armor, the blue cloth, the white face of the Red Lector, most warlike of the religious leaders of the monarchy. She thought of how she had felt, rendered powerless without her weapons when she had first met him. His condescension had been irritating, and his level of knowledge frightening. Her eyes moved to the Keeper of Tenlyres, now all too close to the Red Lector’s party. Goji Haram’s mission to capture the Keeper ran directly counter to Ilsa’s. She would not let him succeed.
She raised her submachine gun and looked through its iron sights. She aimed for the heart of the Red Lector, barely visible in a gap between his protectors. Ilsa squeezed the trigger.
Ozleji Sammhar lurched to one side and swung his hand cannon toward Ilsa. Two gunshots echoed from the quiet center of the battle lines. The lull broke into a staccato of more shots and shouts.
Ilsa’s shot struck Sammhar’s armored collar with the crack of metal on metal. He fell from his great strider and crashed to the ground a few meters below. His own shot went wide of Ilsa.
Tirica grunted with pain and then slumped forward in her saddle. Blood spattered from the black wound Sammhar’s bullet had torn in her side. Cass shouted a late warning and grabbed the young woman’s wounded side with one hand. Blood ran through fingers as she applied pressure. Lemuel released a strangled cry. His hand slipped from Ilsa’s waist.
The Red Lector’s other guards sprang forward toward Duruko’s Oshomi, where the Keeper of Tenlyres rode just behind the line.
Ilsa stared at Tirica and Cass. The stench of ballistic propellants was overpowering. Blue’s eyes snapped shut, then open again. Those eyes focused on Ilsa. “Move it,” she said. “I can’t make stall the scouts any longer.”
As if to illustrate Blue’s words, the Red Lector’s scouts hit Duruko’s thin line with a sudden fusillade. Shards of red ice flew from the bloody ground, stabbing into horses and riders alike. Ilsa snapped her attention from Tirica and Cass. She drove her heels into Hailek’s side and rode toward the Keeper of Tenlyres as the woman drew back her bowstring.
Blue’s strider matched Hailek’s pace on one side of Ilsa while Ferdinand charged on the other. As they approached the line of Oshomi, Kaij Haram led the scouts on their runners in charge from the other side. Great cats leaped and clawed at horses. Duruko’s rifle felled a burly man, but then the scouts were upon his group. He tossed away his rifle and drew a two-handed sword from a bond on his palm. Kaij rode straight for the Oshomi chief, a long-bladed sword emerged from his own bonded palm. Steel rang against steel.
An arrow dropped another scout. Ilsa and Blue caught up with the Keeper as she lowered her bow. Only a few arrows remained in either of her quivers. “Keeper,” said Ilsa. “We have to get through before they close the gap.”
The albino woman looked back at the direction they had charged. Horses and striders, Ayochians and Oshomi, lay scattered in their wake. Some Oshomi had broken through the line and made it to the black stone base of the Central Lyre, but the Red Lector’s bodyguards were fanning out to block any more nomads from reaching the monument. The Keeper took a deep breath that pulled in her veil around her mouth.
“You are right, Priestess. We must go. Now.”
Ilsa looked over her shoulder. Cass had gotten control of Tirica’s strider while holding the wounded woman against her chest. Tirica’s eyes were closed, but Ilsa could see her breath in the chill created by the ice magus’s powers. The two of them moved forward slowly, but they kept moving. Ilsa’s gaze fixed on the glittering strings of the Central Lyre. She urged her steed forward.