Ilsa and Blue ride north from the Central Lyre with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
They have reached the Lake of Saints and found potential allies among the Vogmem tribes on the northern edge of the plateau.
Four Chieftains command the Vogmem, and the Oshomi Ilsa and Blue ride with are no friends of any of them.
Can they unite two long-time enemies in time to resist the foes close behind them?
Sweet and strange-smelling smoke wafted through the meeting lodge by the Lake of Saints. Ilsa stopped just inside the doorway, behind Blue and Lemuel. She planted the base of her red staff on the floor and looked down the length of the room, searching for Siuku’s pale hair or white veil. She did not find her.
Blue turned to Ilsa. “She isn’t here.”
Blue tapped the side of her head. “Yeah.”
She looked around the lodge and spotted the red-bearded Hiragen, and the gray-clad Ganara on the far side of the room among a cluster of other people. She grimaced as the blond Vogmem chieftain turned in her direction. Ganara motioned them closer.
“Then, she’s late,” Ilsa muttered. She started across the room toward the two chieftains. Blue and Lemuel walked with her. Tirica and Cass had stayed in the camp nearby to rest. She didn’t blame them for being tired, and she admired the calm it took not show anxiety at the possible decisions of the Vogmem’s four leaders.
Smoking pipes and a burning fireplace in the center of the lodge made the place warm and strange to smell, but could not mask the powder scents of weapons carried by the people within. Mostly the weapons smelled of archaic propellants, but she caught whiffs of Ayochian auto-launch and Dalite-made Calbuin Company ammunition.
Ilsa passed the fireplace with its cage-like iron guard. She, Lemuel, and Blue approached Ganara and Hiragen. She leaned her staff the wall nearby.
“Chogrumians,” said Ganara. “Where is the Keeper of Tenlyres?”
Lemuel glanced at Ilsa at the same moment as Blue.
She shrugged. “We don’t know. She should be here any time now.”
“A likely story. Where are you from? You don’t sound Chogrumian, priestess of Hathani.”
“You know…” Hiragen puffed on his pipe. “Ganara, I trust them.”
“You would, wouldn’t you? Anything to get under my skin.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.” He sucked in the smoke from his pipe and smiled. Then he turned to Ilsa. “The others will be here soon. You should introduce yourselves to them, though I think they will be able to pick you out once they arrive. You are all clearly not Vogmem.”
“Megalli,” said a voice into Ilsa’s ear. She whirled, unable to hide her surprise and halfway to producing a pistol.
A slightly built woman with dark hair stood behind her. The woman stepped back, still on her tiptoes. She smirked at Ilsa, then twirled. Strings with beads on them shimmered at the hem of her waist-length coat. “That’s my name. I’m Chieftain Megalli of the eastern skyriders.”
“You?” Ilsa frowned. “You look like a kid.”
“And she acts like one too,” said Ganara.
“If you are done trying to insult me, Ganara, I have something to tell you,” said Megalli.
Hiragen’s eyes moved past Ilsa to focus on Megalli’s face. “Speak.”
“Akirette and the Keeper of Tenlyres are not coming to the lodge tonight.” Megalli shrugged her hands. “They are going to Nurse Mountain to meet with the hermit. They took the priestess with the broken arm and the Chogrumian girl with them.”
Blue raised her dark brows. “Why didn’t the Keeper tell us?”
“She seems to think you can negotiate with us better than she could. She may be right.”
“Megalli.” Ganara glared at the other chieftain. “Sit down.”
“I’d rather fly.”
“You aren’t on your hawk now. Sit.”
“Ganara, you are very intent on being annoyed. Why bother?”
“Not all of us can be as flighty as you.”
Ilsa glanced at Lemuel, hoping he could lend her some patience to handle the bickering of the Vogmem leaders. He did not take her cue, only shook his head and frowned. She leaned close to him and under her breath said, “Probably not wise to butt in?”
“Probably,” he murmured.
Despite the tension of the situation, he seemed distracted from the moment. Distraction could be dangerous, even in situations with far lower stakes. Ilsa’s eyes stayed on his face.
“What’s bothering you?” she asked.
“Tirica went to Nurse Mountain without telling me first.” His frowned deepened. “We traveled west together, but I guess she thinks we’re safe now.”
“Definitely not true.” Ilsa put a hand on his arm. “But don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”
He gave her a weak smile. “I know.” But his expression did not convey the same confidence.
Ganara and Megalli were glaring at each other, apparently at a loss for words to express their distaste over the argument. Then, Hiragen laughed and clapped them each on the shoulder. They rounded on him as one, both temper’s obvious.
He sat back and raised his hands. “Be calm. Akirette isn’t here, so we must represent the Four Tribes of Vogmem without her tonight.”
Ganara grunted, but then nodded.
Megalli shrugged. “Fine.”
Ilsa couldn’t help a slight smile. “I’m hardly able to speak for most of the Oshomi, but I know the Keeper wants an alliance. If she didn’t she wouldn’t be traveling with the fourth chieftain and without me and Blue.”
“As a priestess of Vada…” Ganara turned toward Ilsa and Blue and Lemuel. “I think peace would be best for now.”
“We stand together on this.” Megalli giggled. “Of course, I’d rather be airborne.”
Hiragen bowed his head to Ganara, then to Megalli. “I’ve wanted peace a long time. This will suit my people.”
“Sadly,” said Blue. “Peace with the Oshomi does not mean total peace.” She motioned to Ilsa. “If the Red Lector of Ayoch survived the Uzan he will be after the Keeper. That could lead him here.”
Ganara shook her head. Yellow hair shimmered. “If not the Red Lector, the Summer Devil.”
Ilsa frowned at the chieftains. “The Summer Devil?”
“There is an Ayochian General who returns when the thaw comes to the mountains. She brings troops almost every year.”
“I didn’t know Ayoch wanted the Lake of Saints.”
“Ayoch must want everything that is,” said Ganara.
Hiragen exhaled smoke and nodded.
“You’ve both fought her many times,” said Megalli. “If my people lived further west, I’m sure I would feel the same.”
Ilsa folded her arms. “This Summer Devil is a threat. And we have real devils on the plateau too.”
Hiragen’s expression turned grim. “The Uzan. Banasi isn’t the only scout who spotted them.”
“My lookouts on the peaks have only reported one great shell falling.” Megalli leaned toward Lemuel so her side brushed his shrunken arm. “I suppose that’s good news.”
“A great shell.” Ilsa thought back to the way the ground had shaken and burst apart when the huge bullet had impacted the Lotok formation. “We saw the effects of one on our way to the mountains.”
“They shatter the earth.” Ganara’s eyes closed. “I would not believe it, had I not seen it myself.”
“Yeah, that’s it exactly.” Blue turned to Lemuel, who was looking down at Megalli by his side. “Any idea where it came from?”
He backed carefully away from the slim Vogmem leader. “I’ve never read of such a thing. The records only go back so far.”
Ilsa’s brows bent. “Then we’re blind. They could have more, and they could show up anywhere. We can’t know.”
“Now you sound like me,” said Blue. “But they have to have some way to target those things and to launch them.”
“It definitely came from the Central Lyre,” said Ilsa. “They must have some sort of cannon there.”
“Could be.” Lemuel stroked the thin beard on his chin with his small hand. “But given the frequency of the Lyres, there is another possibility.”
Ilsa’s eyes met his, and he answered before she could ask her question.
“Think about this. The Uzan have been imprisoned beneath the Lyres since prehistory. At least three thousand years. I don’t think they’re immortal.”
“That’s an assumption we shouldn’t make.” Ganara’s eyes narrowed into slits. “These are the enemies of the gods, after all.”
Blue rolled her eyes. “No such thing as immortals. Ilsa killed two of them that I saw.”
Ganara glared at Blue. “What is an unbeliever doing with the Unification.”
“Fighting the good fight.”
“Go on, Lemuel,” said Ilsa.
He nodded. “Right. If the Uzan don’t have an immortal lifespan it is possible the Lyre did more than seal their bodies underground.”
“Some other kind of magic preserved them?” Hiragen shook his head. “Even magi can’t stop time.”
Ganara gave a snort of feigned laughter. “I don’t believe it either.”
“You said it yourself,” Megalli turned to Blue. “No such thing as immortals.”
Blue looked down at the floor. “I did say that.” She sighed. “But there are ways to avoid aging. I know that too.”
Ilsa raised her eyebrows at Blue. She had never heard Blue mention anything like this before, but then, her friend was much less talkative than usual when it came to past events. When the mind eater did not continue, Ilsa reached out and touched Blue’s arm. “What do you know?”
Blue raised her face, eyes unfocused but not completely lost to a magical trance. “There’s a place old mind eaters talk about. It’s called the Temple of Colors.” She looked pensive for a moment as if searching on a shelf for a tool she did not often have cause to use. “I didn’t think it was real until I went there myself.”
“I don’t understand,” said Ganara. “What does this temple have to do with the preservation of the Uzan?”
“I joined the Temple when I was sixteen.” Blue took a deep breath. “And I studied in the Temple for twenty years.”
“Impossible,” said Hiragen. “You’d have to be my age if you’d done that, and I can tell you aren’t yet near thirty.”
“Where is this temple?” asked Ganara. “Chogrum? Morhoen? I’ve never heard of such a place.”
“Let me make my point,” Blue said in a soft voice. “The Temple of Colors is not a place you can travel to physically. It is a mental place. Only a few trained mind eaters even know how to get there. I found the way when I was young. I spent twenty years studying, and when I returned for the final time it wasn’t after twenty years of our time, only two.”
“You expect us to believe this?” Ganara scowled. “Chogrumian liar.”
Blue shrugged. “It’s the truth, chieftain. The Temple of Colors is real. Most students aren’t as intense as I was. Mostly they don’t forget who they were before.”
Ilsa’s eyes widened. “Is that—?”
“That’s why I call myself Blue. I don’t remember my old name.”
“Fascinating,” said Lemuel, “Are you suggesting the Uzan could have some similar form of preservation?”
Blue nodded. “Their’s would have to be more extreme than the temple’s or they would still have to live for hundreds of years.”
Ganara gave a loud grunt. “Suppose they were preserved. That doesn’t explain how they fired the great shell, does it?”
“Actually, it just might.” Lemuel glanced at Blue. “If what you say is true, then it is possible not all the Uzan were sealed within the lyres themselves. The notes Black Powder played did more than unseal the Lyre’s lower levels,”
“He woke up the Uzan.” Ilsa nodded.
“Like a rooster on a farm,” said Lemuel with a grimace. “A really terrible rooster.”
“So the music of the lyre broke the spell,” said Ilsa, “Is is possible the weapons the Uzan used to fight against the gods were preserved too?”
“Beneath the ground.” Blue shrugged. “Anything is possible.”
Megalli twirled on her feet. “I think I believe all of this. But either way, the Uzan could well have another great shell.”
“It seems likely to me,” said Blue.
Ilsa snapped her fingers. “If it were me I wouldn’t fire my only magic bullet so soon.”
“Are you an Uzan?” asked Ganara.
Ilsa scowled at the blond Vogmem chieftain.
Ganara shifted back in her chair. “Then you should not assume you know what the Uzan will do.”
“We can predict them. They don’t seem very intelligent.” Ilsa put a palm to her forehead. “It’s the one who set them free that I don’t understand.”
“Black Powder,” said Lemuel.
“The mercenary leader?” Megalli grabbed Lemuel’s arm. “What does he have to do with this?”
“He’s the one who freed the Uzan,” said Ilsa.
Ganara scoffed at Megalli. “Keep up, skyrider.”
“Black Powder rides with the Red Lector’s army.” Ilsa hated to admit it, but her father would know how to avoid being killed by the Uzan or he never would have freed them. “He’s traveling with a number of his apprentices.” She rubbed the back of her hand where Melinda’s bullet had torn through it back at the Central Lyre. Siuku had healed the wound, but the memory of the pain remained. “But I don’t know what he wants.”
“If he rides with Ayoch he is the enemy,” said Ganara.
“Agreed.” Hiragen breathed out a cloud of smoke.
Ilsa wrinkled her nose at the smell. Whatever the Vogmem smoked, Hiragen had chosen something pungent and bitter, even compared to powder. She nodded to the chieftains. “We will help you fight the Lector and Uzan. In truth, we are all one people.”
“Humanity,” said Blue.
A loud crash from the far end of the lodge made Ilsa and Lemuel turn. The door swung back from where it had slammed. Her heart jumped. She smelled blood through the smoky scents of the room. The figure hunched in the doorway was awkward but unmistakable.
Ferdinand Thoss lurched forward into the lodge. His eyes gleamed through the haze and found Ilsa on the far side of the room. Tracks of dried blood ran from a cut beneath the disheveled black hair on his forehead. He wore his armor but carried no weapons openly. He walked into the room, ignoring everyone but her.
The Vogmem stared at him except for one big man who stepped into Ferdinand’s path. He held out his hand to stop the man before him. “Who are you?”
“I h-have f-friends h-here.” Ferdinand looked up at the big man. “S-stand aside.”
“You did not arrive with them, stuttering fool. I saw the whole group.”
As he lost his stutter, Ilsa darted past the fireplace. She put a hand on the big Vogmem’s shoulder. “It’s true. He was with us, but we got separated back at the Central Lyre.”
“At the lyre? That’s a long way off.”
“Look, you simpleton.” Ferdinand glared at the man. “I did not ride for days and evade the Uzan just to be stopped by some idiot tribal.”
The Vogmem’s pale face turned red. He raised his arm to strike Ferdinand, shrugging off Ilsa’s hand. Ferdinand danced backward, still surprisingly quick despite his obvious exhaustion. The Vogmem’s blow found only air.
“I-Ilsa,” Ferdinand said. “Wh-where is the Keeper?”
Blue clapped a hand over Ilsa’s mouth from behind. “Stop, don’t say anything.”
Ilsa struggled against her friend’s grip. She considered trying to bite one of Blue’s fingers. But then her friend released her.
“That’s not Ferdinand,” said Blue.
“What do you mean? It has to be him.”
“It’s his body. But I can tell he’s not calling the shots.”
Ferdinand’s weary face shifted from outrage to a sneer. “Perceptive, aren’t you, Nameless?”
He still sounded like Ferdinand. Ilsa tensed, ready to produce a pistol at a twitch of her hand.
The big Vogmem glanced at Ilsa, confusion on his face.
Ferdinand’s long spear flashed forth from his palm. The blade stabbed into the big man’s chest. Ilsa ducked sideways. The point of the slender spearhead emerged from the Vogmem’s back. Blood ran from his mouth. He fell with a grunt.
Ferdinand straightened his back and chuckled. The other Vogmem in the room erupted to their feet and went for their weapons.
Blue glowered at the man before them. “The Red Lector didn’t ride with any mind eaters. Who are you?”
Ferdinand backed toward the door. “I’m someone who knows you, Nameless.”
Ilsa lowered her hand to one side. She clenched her fingers into a fist but did not produce the pistol immediately. She needed to look for an opening.
Blue paced around the fallen Vogmem man, eyes on Ferdinand. “You’re with the Temple of Colors.”
The sneer stretched unnaturally. The point of the spear followed Blue. “Like you.”
“I left the temple.”
“If only you would return. We could forgive you.”
Blue continued circling further from Ilsa. The possessed Ferdinand’s spear point continued to move like the arrow of a compass. Ilsa’s heart sounded loud in her ears. Her fingers dug into her branded palm. The pistol waited, just a touch away.
Ferdinand tensed to thrust the spear at Blue. Ilsa drew and slammed a magazine into her pistol in one motion. Off went the safety. She aimed at Ferdinand but did not pull the trigger.
Ganara, Hiragen, and Megalli caught up. Megalli knelt down by the man Ferdinand had stabbed. Ganara held an old pistol in one hand and trained it on Ferdinand. Hiragen’s eyes unfocused, but there was no other sign of outward magic from him.
Blue glared at Ferdinand, who backed to the doorway. “You shouldn’t have come in here yourself.”
“This puppet is expendable,” said Ferdinand’s voice. “Unlike the other members of my team. Of course, I did not come alone.”
A gunshot roared through the windowless lodge. The barrel of Ganara’s revolver rose to join with the vapors the Vogmem had been breathing while relaxing. Ferdinand’s form hunched, head bowed, spear loose in his grip.
Ilsa frowned at him. Ganara took a step forward as she chambered another round. “That should have killed you,” she said.
“You Vogmem don’t have armor like we do in the west,” said Ferdinand. “Technology is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?”
She raised the gun to fire again. He stepped through the doorway and his spear vanished, letting the portal shut between him and Ganara.
Ilsa rushed to the doorway, pistol in hand. She heard footsteps retreating outside, despite the ringing of Ganara’s shot in her ears, and the din of shouts from the angry Vogmem who filled the lodge. Blue slammed into the door just ahead of Ilsa and threw it open. She charged out onto the rocky, starlit shore of the Lake of Saints. Ilsa followed her. The Vogmem camp was roused, but Ferdinand was gone.
“Blue, wait,” Ilsa said. “This is dangerous.” She conjured an image of snipers waiting on the mountain ridges high above them.
Blue stumbled to a halt on the shore by the lodge. Ilsa caught up with her friend and clapped a hand on her shoulder. There were tears in Blue’s eyes. “Ashnia,” she said in between two breaths. “A mind eater from the west. It makes sense. It has to be her.”
“Ashnia?” Ilsa repeated. “You know her.”
“When I met her in the Temple she was the Red Lector’s renegade daughter.”
“Looks like she found her way home.”
Blue looked over her shoulder at Ilsa. “Either way, she’s the enemy now. I won’t hesitate to drive her out, next chance I get.”
Ilsa listened to her heartbeat slow as she led Blue back toward the shelter of the lodge. I hope so, she thought.
“It’s alright, Blue. We’ll make it through this.”
“Is that all you worry about?” Blue grimaced. “Ilsa, I cared for that girl.”
Ilsa frowned up at the mountain pass. She squinted, trying to spot possible shooters, but found none overlooking the camp. Then she turned toward the lake. Nurse Mountain’s shadow darkened the waters. Blue leaned against Ilsa’s shoulder and looked in the same direction.
Her tears stopped.
Small lights bobbed along the far shore at the base of the famous mountain. The lights moved in a manner consistent with runners.
Ilsa’s breath felt like it would freeze in her lungs. “They’re going after the Keeper.”