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Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
Following a bloody battle in the pass leading south, Ilsa sees a flying creature descending onto the Lake of Saints.
This creature is called a locust, and is used for air travel. But who is controlling it?
Koor’s locust descended onto the glittering icy surface of the Lake of Saints. Ilsa’s eyes were ready to ache with hope at the sight as the massive manta-shaped locust slid off its restraints and into the cold water with hardly a sound, and left the long, boat-like sky carriage bobbing in the water.
Lemuel’s eyes widened and he stepped backward. “Could they be Ayochian?”
“Not with that name written on the carriage,” said Ilsa. “They’re on our side.” Part of her sighed with relief, another part of her only feared more. Surely Koor would not have been foolish enough to come to the mountains personally.
Many nations, including Ayoch, craved the chance to destroy any leaders behind the Unification.
The Red Lector’s artillery may have been destroyed, but the camp was hardly safe.
Ilsa waved her arms in the air in an attempt to draw the attention of someone in the sky carriage. She called and waved until a pair of propeller engines on the back of the carriage spun into life. The floating vessel approached the rocky shore where she and Lemuel and Siuku stood.
Blue ran to Ilsa’s side. Her skin looked gray, and her eyes shot with blood. “I can’t believe it! What is Koor doing here?”
“My bet, he’s trying to help us,” said Ilsa.
“How did he know?” Blue frowned for a moment, then shook her braids. “Wait a minute. I should know better than to ask that question.”
“Probably,” said Ilsa, gaze still locked on the sky carriage. “Koor has his ways.”
The front walkway of the sky carriage lowered so its end touched the stones less than a meter in from the water. A stiff, cold wind blew from the pass in the opposite direction. Tents shuddered and flags whipped. Water splashed onto the walkway.
From within, a cluster of people emerged, about two dozen in all, but difficult to see because of the shadows of sunset cast over Nurse Mountain’s long western arm.
Ilsa straightened her back. Blue folded her hands. Lemuel glanced at Ilsa as the people from the carriage made their ways over the walkway toward the shore where they stood. She put a hand on his back.
“It’s alright. Koor is the one who sent me and Blue to find the Keeper.”
Blue looked down at her hands “He’ll only try his best to help us. That’s got to be why he’s here.”
Lemuel nodded, still looking stunned. Ilsa pressed her hand to his back in what she hoped was a reassuring way. She squinted to see the face of the heavily clad man in the lead of the group and recognized the craggy features of Koor, Morhoen’s highest priest in the Unification. She bowed her head to her mentor.
He nodded to her and Blue. “Be at peace, you two.” His eyes twinkled like dark glints of steel. “From what I have heard, it seems I was right to send you to find the Guardian of Tenlyres.” His gaze moved to Lemuel and Tirica. “Who are you?”
“Lemuel Chollush. My sister and I encountered Ilsa and Blue on the steppe and joined them in looking for the Keeper.”
Koor smiled, aglow with inner warmth, despite his hardened eyes. “I take it you have also heard then, about the Gray Lector?”
Ilsa’s eyes widened. There was that term again, the renegade priest of Ayoch.
“I have indeed heard things,” said Lemuel. “I’m not sure what they mean.”
Blue glanced in his direction, confusion evident in her bloody eyes. She turned to Koor. “Is the Gray Lector near here?” she asked.
Koor shook his head and stepped off the walkway onto the shore. He motioned for his companions to follow him. “As far as I can tell, the Gray Lector is making his play, but you may know more about that than I. Someone freed the demons of the Central Lyre, and I have heard rumors you witnessed that event.”
“The Uzan,” said Ilsa. “Black Powder released them. He played the lyre with those odd pistols.”
“Odd? How?” Koor’s gray eyebrows rose.
“They were integrally silenced. Wooden grips. Looked really old.”
“This is disturbing. Black Powder has the song guns, and that means he only needs the True Blackwood staff if he wants what I think he wants.” Koor turned to Ilsa. “I will tell you what I’ve learned since your departure, and perhaps you can confirm my suspicion.”
“What suspicion?” Ilsa asked.
“Your father, Henry Vel, Black Powder, may be the Gray Lector.”
Ilsa’s stomach lurched. The bruise by her heart throbbed. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Let us get out of this wind,” said Koor. “We must gather The Four, along with the Guardian. They must hear what I have to say.” His gaze fell on Siuku. “If you agree, Guardian?”
Siuku nodded. “You make sense, Koor of Morhoen.”
The wind numbed Ilsa’s every fiber almost as though an ice magus was trying to freeze her heart again. Her brows knit together as she met Koor’s questioning eyes with hers.
“We’ll talk, but I don’t see how its possible my father could be the Gray Lector.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Koor. “Or things will only become more complicated.” He marched after Siuku toward the lodge, with Ilsa, Blue, Lemuel, and the rest of Koor’s party in his wake.
Inside the lodge, Ilsa found three of the Vogmem’s four leaders. Only Megalli was absent, probably out scouting over the cliffs on hawk-back. Ganara, Akirette, and Hiragen gathered around the central fire and Koor introduced himself to each of them.
Ilsa felt only half-present during the minimal formalities. She only knew Koor suspected her father, always a bastard and a pain in her life, of being one of the masterminds behind a rebellion in Ayoch. The Gray Lector? How could that be? And why?
Black Powder was a killer, a mercenary, and a terrible father, but he had once told Ilsa he would never ride with someone he called an enemy. And the Red Lector was the Gray Lector’s deadliest foe. Yet, he had released the Uzan. What more proof did she need?
She watched a few prisoners as Koor’s troops hustled them out of the lodge before the meeting could begin in earnest. Ashnia Haram was not among them. Once the last of the prisoners left, Siuku joined the other leaders inside.
Blue stepped back from the group and closed her already bloodshot eyes. Ilsa knew what she was doing, covering the group from spying by the hermit. They could not trust the mind eater who lived on the other side of the lake not to have some way to observe what went on in the lodge.
At last, Blue nodded to Ilsa. Ilsa turned to Koor. “We’re safe. No one else is listening.”
Koor faced the Vogmem Chieftains and the Keeper of Tenlyres and then bowed to them. “The coming battle means more than even you know,” he said. “The Queen of Ayoch has sent the armies of the other four Lectors to the Plateau of Yr. Her military is committed to capturing every piece of Tenlyres.”
Fear clutched at Ilsa’s heart along with the prospect of the full onset of war between Ayoch and Dal on one side, and Chogrum and it’s Morhoenese allies on the other. She had not seen such a war in her lifetime, and things would be even worse with the renewed freedom of the Uzan.
“Are you certain?” asked Hiragen. “We have to be if we are to commit.”
Ilsa frowned at the cautious chieftain. “The Red Lector and his wife are already waging war. The Queen of Ayoch wants Tenlyres. She will not give Chogrum a way out unless she sees strong opposition.”
“You want us to ally with Chogrum?” Ganara glowered at Ilsa and Koor. “You are a fool, Ilsa Barrett. As are you, Koor.”
Ilsa felt Lemuel’s back stiffen at her side.
Akirette hissed an intake of breath. “Damn it, but we must be careful. If we do not act, that could spell our doom.”
Ilsa nodded to the oldest of the Vogmem chieftains.
“What about him?” Ganara turned toward Lemuel. “You are Chogrumian, as is the lancer who nearly killed the priestess beside you. What can you say for your city?”
“Not much different from Dal. But we all value knowledge.” His eyes fell unsteadily on the black staff, the staff of Vada herself, which Ganara held in one hand with its butt on the floor.”That staff. What is it, really?”
“Vada’s staff, of course.” Ganara shook her head. “I would be training my daughter to wield it today, had she not been killed by raiders from your city, Chogrumian.”
A flicker of pain and cold raced from Ilsa’s bruise to the top of her spine. She clenched her jaw. She could understand how Ganara would hate the Chogrumians after that.
“I’ve lost family to Chogrum as well,” she said. “My uncles and grandparents all died in the last war.”
“And yet you stand beside that man, so close. I can tell your feelings.” Ganara’s eyebrows became an angry formation like birds flying south for the winter. “Don’t deceive us because you deceive yourself, priestess.”
“Nonsense,” said Koor. “Ilsa’s feelings are not the matter here. Chogrum and Morhoen can help the Vogmem and the Oshomi.”
Ganara’s lips drew back into a snarl. Her gaze fixed on Koor’s calm face. “You are right,” she said. “But I’ve never been one to pray for Unification. And I do not know you.”
“You are right to be cautious. But don’t take umbrage.” Koor raised his gray eyebrows. “This is the greatest challenge for humanity, finding peace.” His voice stayed even. “Ganara, we will stand as each other’s allies from this day forward. You need only agree for your people to unify when the time comes.”
“Now you seem to be asking for a great deal more.” Ganara’s eyes darkened. She spat into the fire pit. Her saliva sizzled amid the flames.
Akirette nodded to Ganara. “She’s angry. But she is also right. We do not know you. Besides that, what do you bring to this battlefield? A dozen soldiers at most.”
“All of them are war magi,” said Koor. “And each is a tested veteran. We do not lack for war in Morhoen.” His eyes looked sad, but everything else about Ilsa’s mentor remained completely calm.
Hiragen stroked his beard. “We could use your help tomorrow if we are to ensure our survival. What else can we offer you, Koor of Morhoen?”
“I’m afraid there is little else.” He turned to Siuku. “But regardless what you Chieftains of Vogmem decide, I would speak to my agents and the Guardian of Tenlyres alone.”
Ganara pointed at the door. “This is the Lodge of the Four. Talk outside if you want to discuss without us.”
“Very well,” said Koor. He bowed to the three Chieftains present, then turned to Siuku. “If you will, your holiness.”
Siuku’s atonal voice answered with a grunt. Dark bags hung beneath her eyes, and she looked older, even with the veil covering most of her face. Blue followed Koor and Siuku to the door.
Ilsa turned to Lemuel. “I hope I won’t be long.”
“So do I,” said Lemuel. “But say what you have to say.”
“I’ll do my best.” She clasped his hand for a brief moment, then released him. Ilsa followed others out of the lodge and into the chill of evening.
They walked to the edge of the camp, still near the lodge. Blue prepared her defenses around them, to keep the hermit from overhearing. Then, Blue nodded to Koor.
“I am honored to stand in your presence, holiness,” said Koor. “But the situation is grave.”
Ilsa put a hand to her bruised chest, which still pulsed with pain. She did not like the soothing tone Koor used. It was meant to convince without persuading, the sort of voice one used to distract from the words one said.
Her mentor continued. “We sighted at least two-hundred Uzan approaching from the South, and they are not all without talent. Some are silencers, or sense magi, capable of concealing their kin from our mortal senses while they move. Thus, there could be far more on their way.”
Ilsa’s brows knit together. “How far south?”
“They will enter the pass tomorrow, before noon if they continue.”
Siuku folded her arms. “What is your point?”
“I have my Locust, and there is room in the carriage for you and your tribesmen.” Koor gazed evenly at the Keeper of Tenlyres. “Your holiness, we have set out to take you from this place. It is the only sensible thing to do.”
Ilsa scowled. Hot rage mixed with tingling shock at Koor’s cold plan to abandon the Vogmem formed an alliance within her.
Siuku’s tired eyes narrowed. “You want me to flee? My people are at truce with the Vogmem for the first time in ten generations. I will not be the one to break this fortunate peace.” Her voice might have stayed flat, but she spoke haltingly, a sign of exhaustion and, Ilsa guessed, temper. “I have healed their wounded as if they were my own. They have bled for me, just like the priestess beside you, Koor, just like the mind eater at your back.”
“I know I ask for a difficult thing.”
“Such an act would make me unworthy of the power and the visions my predecessors passed down to me.”
Koor folded his hands. “But if you die–”
“Then I die!” Siuku’s voice cracked, but the monotone was gone, replaced by tempestuous passion. “Like my band on the plains. Like my friend Duruko. I will die if I must, but I will not give up this chance to end a conflict I thought would outlive me as surely as it claimed my parents’ lives. I am not a pawn on a board. I am a human, maybe an extraordinary human, but I will make my own decision. You cannot convince me otherwise.” She swayed on her feet.
Ilsa stepped forward and reached for Siuku to steady her. “Keeper.”
Siuku accepted Ilsa’s help and leaned on her. She glared at Koor. “You cannot decide who survives, priest of Morhoen.”
“Evidently not.” Koor’s eyes darkened. “But I will not throw my life away for this lost cause. Neither should you.”
“Lost cause?” Siuku shook her head. “Have you seen the future?”
“No, but my oracles have advised me.”
“Your oracles are charlatans. The spirits have shown me countless visions, but every one of those becomes real in its own way.”
“Have you foreseen the death of rulers tomorrow?” Koor’s knuckles turned as white as his hair, his hands clenched together. “My oracles see death for crowns. The readers of cards and bones, the seers, and the water casters all predict such events. If I can prevent your death, I will.”
“Then stay. Fight at our side.” Siuku glowered at Koor.
He said nothing.
She closed her red, weary eyes. “You would trade the lives of others for mine. But you will not risk your own?”
“Unification needs leaders. I will not throw away my movement.”
“Or your power.”
Koor’s hands unlocked from each other. “Ilsa. Blue.”
“Yes?” said Blue, eyes still glazed with mental distance.
“Will you continue to protect the Guardian? Or would you return to Morhoen with me?”
Ilsa grunted. “I will stand with the Keeper.”
Blue’s eyes gleamed as she released her mental defenses. “As will I,” she said.
“So be it.” Koor nodded to them. “I will leave with the Locust tomorrow before dawn, but there is one other matter to attend to while I am here.” He turned to Blue. “The Temple of Colors. I understand you have an agent to interrogate.”
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