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Ilsa, Lemuel, and Tirica go to scout the nearest Lyre to Chogrum. They are looking for Uzan, but have the Uzan found them?
When war wracks the land, armies band together, only to fall apart amid the fray.
Even in defeat, strive to help others.
Ilsa dashed up the lyre’s passage and ducked into open air. She kept her pistol ready as she turned toward Tirica. The Chogrumian girl continued to look through the scope of her rifle.
“Lemuel guessed right,” she said. “Two Uzan and a woman.”
Lemuel caught up with them, hand still on his revolver. He crouched and looked out over the field of flowers that stretched around the base of the lyre. “Where did you see them?”
“Just at the edge of the flowers,” said Tirica. “They sort-of appeared there. I took a few shots at one of the Uzan. Hit his god’s name with the first one, but missed the second. After that, they vanished.”
“Vanished?” said Lemuel. “Into thin air?”
“They must have a sense magus with them,” Ilsa said. “Koor mentioned some Uzan could conceal themselves and others back in the mountains.”
Tirica muttered an old-fashioned Chogrumian curse. “What are the odds that one of two has that ability?”
“Pretty likely,” said Ilsa. “If those two are meant to move around unseen.”
“So, how are we supposed to know where they are?” asked Tirica.
“Look for the depressions in the flowers?” said Ilsa.
“Even better. If we connect to the pile, we should be able to sense their ground pressure through it.” Lemuel took his hand off his revolver and pulled his interface screen from his pack.
“Good plan,” said Ilsa. “Tirica—”
“I’ll cover you two while you climb down,” said the girl.
Ilsa nodded to her, then drew her shotgun from its brand. She loaded the weapon and raised it. Then, she gave Lemuel a glance. He nodded back.
They hustled to the edge of the lyre’s base. She kept the shotgun ready as he climbed down, but saw no disturbances in the pattern of flowers beside where they had ridden up to the lyre.
Their Oshomi horses stamped the ground and snorted nervously as Lemuel dropped down. Ilsa was reminded of Hailek. Her poor loyal strider had always remained calm, right up until the end.
Horses, without the carefully engineered loyalty and genetically tweaked intelligence and confidence of a strider, could be spooked easily compared to such animals.
Ilsa kept scanning for Uzan but saw no sign of them or the woman who Tirica had seen accompanying the monsters. Her gaze locked on the path they had taken to the lyre’s base on horseback. Most of the trampled flowers had begun to shift again in the wind. Ilsa squinted and found a few small flowers, still plastered flat.
She smelled some kind of faint propellant on the wind. The scent was was subtle, but distinct enough to let her know that propellant did not belong to Tirica’s bullets.
An idea to test the wrongness of the flowers and the whiff of propellant combined to cut through her other thoughts.
She crouched low and dropped over the side of the lyre. She landed in the flowers there and leveled her shotgun at the spot she had found before.
Lemuel lowered himself to his hands and knees between her and the three horses. He inserted the needle of his tablet into a stem with as much care as his speed would allow.
Ilsa did not dare wait for him to make her certain of her guess. “Time to test a hypothesis,” she whispered.
She aimed her shotgun down the line of the path she and the others had ridden and pulled the trigger.
The spray of shot went airborne, then vanished from sight completely mid-flight. She scowled at the spot it had disappeared into a veil of illusion. The shape of an Uzan, taller than any man, with dark gray skin and the name of Asurdeva carved into its forehead, the arcane letters already marred by the slash of a bullet, appeared from the fading veil.
The Uzan bellowed in rage more than pain as shot speckled its chest and shoulder. A gun-barrel emerged from the monster’s open mouth and aimed at Ilsa. Blood ran from the Uzan’s wounds. Ilsa knew the creature was mortal for the moment.
Her shadow wavered among the flowers, but her body did not hesitate. She darted sideways and fired her pistol. The blast of the Uzan’s weapon rebounded from the lyre behind where she had been standing. Her bullet cut the jaw of the creature. Dark blood flecked the flowers.
Lemuel looked up in shock at the sounds of their shots. Ilsa ran toward him. The Uzan whirled to follow her. She skidded in the flowers, trying to change direction away from the horses.
More weapons emerged from the Uzan’s flesh. It could kill Ilsa, Lemuel, and all the horses in the next second if it fired.
Another shot interrupted the monster’s pivot. A hole burst through the Uzan’s forehead. Rather than completing a lethal sweep, the Uzan sagged sideways and collapsed in a heavy wheeling motion.
Ilsa kept her pistol braced and trained on the fallen demon, but Tirica shouted in triumph. “Hey, Ilsa, you’re not the only one to kill a monster now.”
“Don’t get overconfident,” said Lemuel as he fiddled with the interface. “We still need to find the other one and that woman.”
“Right,” said Ilsa. “Keep your eyes open.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing all this time? Got you both covered.”
The Uzan Tirica had dropped did not move. Really dead? It must be.
Lemuel finished reading the interface. “That was the only one on this side.”
“What about the others?” Ilsa asked.
“Looks like they could be circling around, right at the edge of the pile formation.”
“Damn.” Ilsa turned and scrambled up the side of the lyre’s base once again. She reached the top with her hands pressed to warm stone and shouted a warning at Tirica. “Check the back. They’re trying to flank us.”
Tirica uttered an inarticulate curse and whirled to look around the arm of the lyre, rifle in hand. A shot roared from nowhere and through the scope from lens to lens. Tirica flinched back, though she had not been hurt by the shot. A shadow fell across her. The second Uzan, the sense magus, materialized out of its illusions.
Chest still flat on the stone, Ilsa grabbed and fired her pistol at the Uzan. The first two bullets opened holes above and below the name of Asurdeva on the monster’s brow. It leered crazily, with iron-colored teeth and back-handed Tirica. She flew two meters and fell onto her front by the lyre’s strings.
A set of light footsteps approached around the other arm of the lyre. A woman in her mid-forties and wearing a scroll case on a belt without a firearm holster, but with two magazines of large pistol rounds stood over Tirica. She held a large caliber pistol with a smoking barrel in one hand.
Another weapon bond. Could she be one of Father’s apprentices?
The Uzan sense magus leveled an arm bristling with weapons at Tirica. The girl groaned and rolled onto her back. She looked alright, considering the force of the Uzan’s blow, but her nose was bleeding in two trickles that ran to her lips.
Ilsa did not give the Uzan another chance. Her shotgun roared and the name of Asuredeva shredded with dozens of pieces of shot. The weapon bucked in Ilsa’s hands and then settled against stone.
The woman who stood over Tirica smirked. The veins in her bare arms stood out as she aimed her pistol at the girl on the ground.
Tirica grimaced up at the gun.
“You’re a pretty good shot for someone unbonded,” said the woman.
Tirica coughed, sending blood from her nose into the air. “Sneaky,” she said.
Ilsa grunted. “Tirica, stay calm. I’ll get you out of there.”
“Sure you will.” The woman’s eyes flicked toward where Ilsa had risen to a crouch. “I heard you killed Melinda. Is that true, Ilsa?”
Ilsa’s stomached churned. “She gave me no choice.”
“What if I give you a choice, this time, my dear.”
“Who are you?”
“You don’t remember me? I suppose you wouldn’t. You were, what, ten last time we met?” She smiled. “Ah, those were the days. I was still getting over not wearing gloves in the cold.” she waggled the fingers of her free hand at Ilsa. They were all bare.
“You. You were one of his apprentices.”
“Not just one. I am the first. And I’m a little proud of that fact. You can just call me First because that’s who I am.”
Ilsa gritted her teeth. At this range, the shotgun could easily hit Tirica if she used it, but her pistol was down to the last few bullets loaded. “First,” she said. “You had a name when I met you before.”
“But you don’t remember it. That’s obvious.” First rolled her eyes and then looked down at Tirica. “Time to go, my talented young friend.” She aimed with her pistol. Like all of father’s students, she preferred to target the heart over the head.
Tirica squeezed her eyes shut.
Ilsa rolled onto her side to aim her pistol at First. The woman did not hesitate but immediately swung her weapon around. Without looking, she shot Ilsa in the abdomen. Searing pain burned through her, not the numbing of the paralytic venom used by Black Powder’s younger apprentices. The hot agony of a solid metal slug.
She fell onto her back but kept her pistol trained on First. She squeezed the trigger, but as she did her stomach spasmed and the shot went high. Her bullet deflected from the lyre’s arm behind First.
First shot the gun from Ilsa’s hand with her next bullet. “I think we’re done here, child. Shame I’ve been asked not to kill you. Yet.” She frowned down at where Ilsa writhed on the base of the lyre. “Your father isn’t happy about you killing Uzan.” She leaned toward Tirica. “You either.”
A cold wave of panic hit Ilsa she struggled to move the shotgun, fighting the pain of her wounds. First grabbed Tirica’s collar and tugged her up.
The Chogrumian girl spat drops of saliva and blood onto First’s face. The woman showed no sign of surprise, and she did not slow. She slammed Tirica’s skull against the lyre’s stone. With a dull thud, Tirica went limp.
First shrugged her head, but did not bother to wipe the blood and spit from her face. She slid one arm under Tirica and lifted the girl onto her shoulders.
Ilsa tried to turn the shotgun toward her. Her eyelids fluttered, close to blacking out from the shock, though not as bad as when Ferdinand’s lance had stabbed her. The bullet was still lodged in her, searing hot. Blood coated her shirt around the wound. She forced her eyes to open fully.
First and Tirica were gone. She groaned and sagged against the lyre’s base. No. Damn it. She had to get up, to go after them. Her legs responded, but she only barely got to her hands and knees, one hand on the grip of her shotgun.
Something thumped against the stone behind her. She looked at Lemuel. He crouched where had just climbed up the base. He met her desperate gaze with one of his own. “Are you alright? Where’s Tirica?”
“That woman took her,” Ilsa managed. “Not sure which way they went.” The world swam around her and her arms trembled.
Lemuel’s eyes found the dead Uzan not far away. He turned toward Ilsa. “She shot you.”
“Yeah. I don’t know how long I’ve got before I pass out.” She grunted. “Sorry.”
He crawled to her side. He brought his face close to hers. “Tirica’s still alive. We can go after her once you’re healed.”
She nodded unsteadily. He brushed her cheek with his fingers. “I can help you get to the horses. Come on.”
They moved to the edge of the stone, where he climbed down first. Ilsa slipped during her descent, but he steadied her with both hands, then helped her into the saddle. Blood stained her hands, saddle, and the bags hanging from it. She hunched forward in agony. They turned the horse back toward Atalem where Siuku could put and end to this pain.
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