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Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
Following a difficult mental struggle to interrogate a captured mind eater, Ilsa prepares to fight the coming battle despite word of predictions that leaders will die in this fight.
The locust left as the sun rose, taking Koor’s sky carriage with it. He did not even bother saying goodbye to Ilsa, though Blue told her he had wished them all luck. Siuku had refused his offer to the last moment. Ilsa did not know if she could be glad for that, especially given the revelation of the Gray Lector from the previous night.
She and Lemuel stood near Blue and Tirica and Cass as they watched the locust leave its glittering trail in the cold air. The aquatic sky beast circled the lake once, then flew eastward, toward Morhoen and safety.
Not one of Koor’s war magi remained behind. Evidently, the Four could not agree to unify with the rest of the people of the steppe even now. Old grudges ran too deep, Ilsa could tell, and they were so different from the city-dwellers they would hate to make peace them.
From the western shore of the lake, banners and lights indicated Shayi Haram’s forces moving toward the camp. Ganara approached Ilsa and the others with the locust just leaving over the western peaks.
“We have to break one of the Ayochian forces if we are to escape. The Four have decided to leave this lodge until we can fight to reclaim it some other day.” As she spoke the Vogmem broke camp all around them. Ganara raised her voice and addressed the assembled warriors not helping to mobilize everything. “We are all nomads today, my people. We will ride with the Oshomi and wage war on Ayoch, and the Uzan on the plateau.
“Red Lectors. Gray Lectors. Queens. Generals. They are all the same to us. Animals we hunt.” Ganara raised her black staff over her head.
Her warriors cheered and clapped. Ilsa found herself joining them. Today, all of them were nomads. And today, all of them were warriors, even Lemuel. She glanced at him. He kept his revolver tucked into his waistband. He found her gaze, but his hands trembled.
She put her arm around his waist and rested one hand on his hip, by the weapon. “I won’t let you down, Lemuel.”
“I won’t let you go alone. Not this time, Ilsa.”
“You’ve saved me in battle before,” she said.
“Not as many times as you saved me.” He bowed his head. “Let’s get through this together.”
We have to try. But nothing is certain, Ilsa thought. She lifted his chin and pulled him close. They kissed fiercely, warmth against warmth in the cold light of dawn.
She pulled him onto Hailek’s back behind her. She loaded her machine gun, then her pistols, and her shotgun. She wore them all on the outside for the moment. She needed to be ready.
They rode back toward the windy gusts of the pass together. Blue and Tirica joined them, closely followed by the small cluster of Oshomi that surrounded Siuku.
The Keeper of Tenlyres nodded to Ilsa through the crowd of horse riders.
A flight of great Vogmem hawks with skyriders on their backs glided past overhead. Ilsa glimpsed the glint of steel, and the pennant on Megalli’s spear-point rising from one bird’s back.
Hiragen’s troops held the the pass. Akirette and Megalli had skyriders on the cliffs, ready to act as snipers before they took off to escape for themselves.
Cass waited by the mouth of the pass on a borrowed goat runner. She and Ferdinand, along with one of Ganara’s lieutenants were in charge of the prisoners, from the hulking form of Ozleji Sammhar to the slim form of Ashnia Haram, riding behind him.
This whole mass of humanity and beasts needed to break through the pass before the Uzan closed their trap on everyone. Two hundred indestructible monsters made for a deadly force on their own.
Indestructible. There must be a way to kill them, to cancel whatever magic preserved their lives despite fatal wounds. But for the moment, mortal humans stood between them and their escape. She took a deep breath of crisp morning air. The time to run was coming, but they would have to fight through the Red Lector to have any chance of survival.
Blue and Tirica fell back from them as the column advanced. Both were better fighters at a distance.
Damn Koor’s oracles and seers. She would see Siuku through this battle. Ilsa guided Hailek into the pass with Ganara’s Vogmem vanguard.
Shots rang out from the cliff top as the cavalry split into two serried columns to use the large boulders and wreckage from the previous battle on either side of the pass for cover. Ilsa and Lemuel rode with Ganara and her troops on the eastern side of the pass, the one that would take them into the heart of the Ayochian forces. She spotted the immobilized gun carriage just behind the Ayochian line as men and striders raced this way and that. The few remaining armored vehicles were spread out among the troops, forming a barricade to hold the nomads back. With Shayi Haram’s force advancing on the Vogmem rear from west of the lake, the Red Lector hoped to trap the tribal forces in a pincer movement.
Ilsa leveled her machine gun at the enemy lines as they drew closer. Pounding of the feet and hooves of steeds thundered in her ears. Black Powder and his mercenary company shifted behind the front line to form up between the Vogmem advance where Ilsa rode, and the immobile gun carriage further back.
Evidently, her father knew they would break through the thin group of Ayochian regulars between them and the artillery. But did he really think his few hundred troops, however well-trained, would hold if the troops in front of them a routed?
No. He had to have another plan. A counter-attack? That would make sense. Given the deadliness of modern weapons in the hands of skilled and bonded soldiers, he could be planning to stop Ganara’s charge by picking off troops during the fight at the front line, then closing to push them back.
Ilsa gritted her teeth. Too late to change plans now.
Ganara whirled the black staff over her head, then thrust it’s point forward as she bellowed a battle cry. The Vogmem joined her. In the din of shouts and screams of pain, Ilsa thought she her Lemuel’s voice join them. She urged Hailek to accelerate with her heels. The lines closed with each other.
Bullets whined and shotgun blasts sprayed. Troops on both sides fell, but the Vogmem steeds proved as tough as ever at this range. They often continued forward when wounded, with few even making sounds of complaint and fewer still that were audible over the drumbeat of hooves.
The Ayochian troops began to retreat before Ganara’s charge could meet them. The Vogmem column raced towards Black Powder’s mercenaries.
The line of her father’s troops looked heavy, thick with the long shadows of ballistic pavises interlaced with the barrels of rifles ending in bayonets. They were prepared for a charge.
Ilsa urged Hailek forward. Her fearless strider followed her heel’s pressure as law. He accelerated. She took her shotgun in one hand, and her machine gun in the other. Recoil from the two combined could make her less accurate, compared to using one with a pistol, but she needed the options against the dug-in troops.
She and Lemuel reached the front of the column. Hailek jostled with the steeds of Ganara’s vanguard, close to the Vogmem chieftain herself.
She raised her voice and shouted to Ganara, “They’re ready.”
“Not ready enough.” She held her staff before her, dragging bullets and shot to form a halo around her as Black Powder’s mercenaries began to open up. The black staff held the projectiles just a moment each, before bouncing them back the way they had come. Most of the reflected shots impacted on the steel shields in the front rank, but a few mercenaries yelled in pain and went down.
Ilsa scanned the ranks, looking for her father. She spied him by the artillery, his hands empty. So confident. She gritted her teeth. Arrogant as ever.
Ilsa took shots when she saw them. A wounded shield bearer collapsed, and she killed the mercenary behind him with a blast of her shotgun. She hugged close to Hailek’s long-maned neck, felt his hair whip against her face in the wind. Her blood pulsed as she aimed, and shot, and killed.
The Vogmem column hit the mercenary line. There, the resistance intensified. Mercenaries with lances and axes fought hand to hand with Ganara’s warriors in close quarters. But they could not hold out long as more Vogmem poured into the fray.
Ilsa’s guns blazed. Her machine gun ran out of bullets, and she replaced it with a pistol from her hip. Lemuel took the fully-automatic gun and started to reload it. She felled another with the last loaded shotgun shell and he took that as well.
A pistol in each hand, she slew foe after foe. All around her Vogmem began to drop, lacking the protection of Ganara’s staff at such close quarters. Step by bloody step, Black Powder’s troops retreated to the bulk of the immobile gun carriage.
Ilsa reached Ganara in the midst of a lull as warriors surged around them in pursuit. “We have momentum,” said Ganara. “Keep moving.”
Ilsa’s bruised chest ached. “Something is wrong. Black Powder wouldn’t just throw away so many troops.”
Ganara scowled at her. “Time is already low. Press forward.”
Ilsa could not disagree with that. The Uzan could be only minutes way by now. She wheeled Hailek to continue the attack.
Behind her, Lemuel cursed under his breath as he fought to reload the shotgun. “This mechanism is impossible.”
She kept her eyes on the enemy. On the loading platform of the gun carriage, stood Black Powder, Henry Vel, her father. One sleeve was pulled back and marked with the long red line of a fresh brand from wrist to elbow-joint. He was trying to bond to a new weapon. But why now, in the thick of battle?
“Leave the gun, and hold onto me.” Ilsa pushed her heels into Hailek’s sides and the strider bounded forward.
Lemuel fumbled with the shotgun but put his small arm around Ilsa’s waist. Hailek carried them to rejoin the front of the Vogmem column, with Ganara not far behind them.
At the head of the column, the fighting continued, just a short ten meters from the gun carriage where Black Powder stood. Ilsa shot down another pair of mercenaries and closed.
The strider obeyed, leaping over the front line of mercenaries fighting on the ground. Ilsa killed another of them in mid-air. A small shadow darted between her and the gun carriage.
Hailek’s head bucked back. Blood spurted from his jaw, then his right leg gave out as he landed. Ilsa shouted, surprised. Her strider stumbled forward, half-dragging the limp right leg, then collapsed onto the stones.
Hailek’s blood flowed down his weeping yellow mane in thick rivers. Ilsa leaned close to the strider’s head as he struggled, still trying to stand, despite his uncooperative legs. She felt tears in her eyes. “Rest,” she said. “Hathani keep you, my friend.”
Lemuel grabbed her shoulder with his big hand. “Ilsa.” He pulled her sideways from the saddle. She grunted as they hit the ground a meter blow. A hail of bullets raked across the saddle where they had been sitting and cut the saddlebags to pieces, sending splinters of Ilsa’s red staff flying.
She leaped to her feet and ran past Hailek’s ragged, bloody body. Before her stood Melinda. Her father’s psychotic apprentice leered at Ilsa. “There you are.” She giggled. “Sorry about your strider, but Black Powder must not be interrupted.”
Even with the battle raging, Ilsa could swear she heard Hailek scraping on the stone, still trying to move. Always trying.
Ilsa’s narrowed gaze met Melinda’s gleaming eyes. “All gods damn you.”
“Dull curse. He deserves better than you for a daughter.” Melinda’s pistols both aimed at Ilsa, and with Lemuel somewhere behind her, Ilsa did not dare dodge.
Instead, she took aim with both guns.
Melinda’s breath misted before her. No more words. A flame kindled atop the gun carriage at her back. Black Powder stood just behind the fire and reached for the artillery gun with his branded arm.
Melinda ducked toward Hailek and opened up on Ilsa. Their bullets could have crossed in flight. A rush of pain flooded Ilsa’s right elbow, followed by the creeping numbness of Melinda’s poisoned bullet.
But her fingers still worked. She twisted her wrist, one eye closed in concentration. Her finger hit the trigger as Melinda’s foot touched stone. Ilsa’s bullet went through the girl’s chest, just below the collarbone.
For a moment Melinda stood, halfway paralyzed. Ilsa’s stomach churned. “Sorry,” she murmured.
Blood bubbled between Melinda’s lips. Her knees buckled. She slid sideways to the stony ground beside Hailek. Ilsa held her left pistol aimed at Melinda until the guns fell from the girls’ limp fingers.
Lemuel caught up with Ilsa. He looked at where Hailek and Melinda lay still. His eyes went wide and he turned to Ilsa. “Dead?”
“Both of them,” she said. “I’m sure.”
She turned toward the gun carriage. Suddenly the mercenaries seemed very far away. But the flame on the gun carriage still burned. Black Powder’s shadow danced against the wall of the pass. His hand gripped the dull steel base of the artillery gun as the fire crept toward the munitions piled by the gun’s autoloader.
Over the sound of Vogmem hoof-beats catching up to them, Ilsa heard her father’s voice say, “Bond to me, dear weapon.” And the long brand on his arm burned red.
Ilsa remembered the way the ritual fires flared when father had bonded her guns to her as a child. The flames ignited a collection of shells on the front of the carriage.
Too late to run away.
Shelter. Need shelter. Ilsa shoved Lemuel toward Hailek’s sagging bulk with her shoulder. She pressed herself close to him and dragged him down to the ground behind Hailek’s body.
The explosion of the gun carriage rocked the entire pass.
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