Sunrise arrived just ahead of the Red Lector to Korlom. Ilsa watched the western horizon from within a stand of tower grass east of the village. When she sighted the black flags with red flame emblems approaching, she lowered her binoculars and then glanced at Blue. Her friend chewed a scrap of dried meat from her day’s ration.
They had ridden out of Korlom before dawn. Ilsa had tasked her strider to wake them early before she had gone to sleep in the lean-to the previous night. The Red Lector’s scouts had not been moving around an hour ago, but Ilsa had seen them rouse themselves and their runners ten minutes before the flags of the Red Lector’s main force came into view.
Blue’s morning-dusted eyes met Ilsa’s gaze. “How are you so awake?”
“The Red Lector wants something in the east. He’s a religious leader, so he wouldn’t be leading an army just to fight Chogrum.” She frowned and turned toward the village. She raised the binoculars and looked through them. “What is he after?”
The column of the Red Lector’s forces did not look huge at a distance, but they moved into Korlom at speed. Ilsa guessed there must be about a thousand light striders, creatures similar in build, but smaller than the great striders Ilsa and Blue had ridden from Dal. Here and there she spotted the forms of low cat-like runners and taller great striders.
Despite the rumors she had heard back in Morhoi, about the increasing mechanization of Ayoch’s military, this force seemed to be all riders. Ilsa saw no sign of autos or crawlers. She supposed that made sense, given the potentially treacherous terrain of the steppe and the speed of the modified animals on the plateau. Plant-piles beneath the ground could create sinkholes but striders and runners were usually light enough to avoid, or agile enough to escape a collapse.
Blue put a hand on her arm. Ilsa lowered her binoculars. Her friend wore an expression of concern. “That’s a lot of troops to ride into a tiny village.”
“The Filami should be alright until fighting breaks out with Chogrum.” Ilsa hoped what she said was true, but she did not trust the Ayochian forces or the Red Lector. “We need to get ahead of them if we want to beat them to the center.”
“Ilsa,” Blue said. “What do you know about the Red Lector?”
“Of the five Lectors that serve the royalty of Ayoch, the Red Lector is traditionally the most warlike.”
“That explains why that’s the one leading troops here.” Blue frowned. “I can barely get my head around a priest leading an army.”
Ilsa frowned. “Scripture from Ayoch tells that Tenlyres is important to the monarchy.”
“Hmm…” Blue shook her head. “They don’t really know a whole lot about the lyres, though, do they?”
“Nobody does.” Ilsa did not want to delve into the lack of belief Blue had for any religion, especially when she did not believe in Ayoch’s religion herself.
“Somebody does.” Blue glanced over her shoulder at their silent steed, crouched behind the stand of tower grass.
Blue gave a frustrated sigh. “We had better ride unless you want me to try to stop them here.”
“We can’t fight a thousand soldiers.”
“But I could control their commander. Have him lead them away.”
“If you could concentrate that long on him, maybe.” Ilsa shook her head. “It’s too risky. And besides that, if they have anyone with mind senses or any war magi, we’d be completely out of place.” And out of luck.
“War magi?” Blue frowned. “What makes you think they have magi at all?”
“Ayochian forces don’t usually go into battle without them. The Red Lector could well have more than one, or even his own mind eater.”
“Let’s hope not. This is gonna be dangerous enough.” Blue turned toward the striders. “We should ride east.”
“In a moment.” Ilsa raised the binoculars and looked through them. She looked among the troops riding all over the village until she spotted a man who rode a great strider onto the main street between two rows of little houses.
He wore a deep blue coat with a red scarf hanging across his shoulders. The deep blue, the same color as the Ayochian Flag gave him away as a nobleman, and the red scarf made Ilsa wonder at religious affiliation. Even through Ilsa’s binoculars, the man’s long white hair and weathered skin gave away his age.
She guessed he might be an officer, or even the Red Lector himself.
“Blue,” she said, still looking through the binoculars, “Can you sense the mind in the center of the village?”
“Can you tell me about the men there?”
“The troops are in awe of the guy in the middle. They’re all focused on him.”
“He might be the Red Lector.” Ilsa followed the white haired rider as he slowed his mount. A light strider rode to his side and handed him a scroll case. At first, the soldiers around the main street stood at attention, but then as one, they fell to one knee. Ilsa lowered the binoculars. “Definitely the Lector.”
Blue nodded. “Can we get moving, then?”
Ilsa turned toward their striders. “Let’s ride.”
The Red Lector did not stay long in the village. Ilsa looked back an hour’s ride east of Korlom and saw the column of troops appearing to follow her and Blue. The scouts on their cat-like runners rode ahead. They moved fast, even faster than the pace of Ilsa and Blue’s striders.
Ilsa urged her steed forward, but knew already the runners could catch up if they ran at top high speed for the next hour or two and paced themselves. She made a face as she considered having to explain to the Ayochians why she and Blue were riding east at speed. The Oshomi nomads might be able to ride away when they were in danger, but Ilsa was of the city of Dal, regardless of the fact that it was built on the plateau. If she and Blue could not find the Oshomi before the Red Lector did, completing the mission would be nearly impossible.
Blue shot her a glance as they barreled across the low grass flatland. Their striders accelerated and kicked up mud from the steppe as they went. The mud provided evidence to Ilsa the days were getting warmer. Spring was on its way. She hugged herself to the strider’s thick neck and turned her head toward Blue.
Her friend’s eyes shifted toward the column behind them. “They’re quick. Have you got a plan?”
“I think I fooled them last time, but that was back in the village.” And I never mentioned to them that my traveling companion was from Chogrum. She shook her head. “We have to outlast them.”
“How long before those runners get tired?”
“An hour, I would guess, maybe two. But if they sprint when they get close enough they could get us in rifle range in that time.”
“It’s three-hundred kilometers to Fort Sardul, and a hundred more to the lyres on the other side.” Blue frowned. “Can the striders get us that far without stopping?”
“That’s over four days in a straight line, so I doubt it,” said Ilsa. “And we can’t afford to circle like before, not with the army so close behind.”
“We can’t fight them either.” Blue grimaced over her shoulder. “There are too many, even if we got lucky and they were all useless shots.”
“Something tells me they’re not. We can’t let them get in range to start shooting.” Ilsa glanced behind her.
Eight scouts rode ahead of the column, all on fast and vicious-fanged runners. They looked to be a kilometer or more behind, but they were gaining fast. Someone with good aim might be able to hit a target with a rifle from that distance if stationary. The same shooter on a strider’s back could probably manage a similar range, but only the best and most experienced could compensate for the rolling gait of a runner.
Ilsa once saw her father make that sort of shot, years ago. His runner had been at full pace and his rifle hadn’t even had telescopic sights. She cursed the thought. Father was exceptional, maybe even unique, in his skill with all firearms. They called him Black Powder in the fraternity of mercenaries, still to this day.
Her eyes narrowed as she watched the runners gaining. A towering man on the back of one of the two lead cats raised a thick-barreled rifle. They were still hundreds of meters away. Ilsa thought she recognized the man by his build and height. Kaij Haram, the leader of the scouts, stood high in the saddle, cast in the light of morning. He leveled the weapon in their direction.
A red thought ran through Ilsa’s mind. The image of herself with a bullet-wound torn through her back and out her front surfaced. She prayed to Hathani though she knew the goddess only answered wishes with reality. At this point, her gamble for spying so long seemed foolish.
A gunshot cracked the air behind Ilsa. Both she and Blue looked back. Neither of them had been hit. Kaij had fired the weapon skyward, an ultimatum trying to convince them to stop fleeing.
Ilsa smirked. “He doesn’t think he can hit us from there.”
“I don’t know many who could.” Blue put a hand to her armored chest. “He sure scared me, though.”
Me too. Ilsa kept her eyes on the leader of the scouts. His runners’ chest heaved. The great cat began to slow. Other scouts caught up with their leader. Evidently the steeds lacked the endurance Ilsa had dreaded possible.
The scouts began to recede, now only stalking the plain. She turned to Blue. A cold breeze picked up from the northeast.
She frowned. “That’s odd.”
“The wind felt warm this morning.”
“It’s the weather. You can’t predict everything.” They urged their striders forward.
The temperature dropped fast. The muddy ground felt firmer under the striders’ steps. A faint whiff of propellant with a metallic tinge reached her nose. “Do you smell that?”
“Ayochian auto-launch powder.”
“I don’t smell any powder,” said Blue.
That did not mean there wasn’t any. Ilsa’s sense of smell was sharper than Blue’s.
Ilsa frowned up at the sky. The air temperature dropped even further. Above her, she glimpsed a tiny shape, perhaps the size of a hummingbird, gliding fifty meters overhead. She squinted to make out the shape more clearly. Her breath misted in the frigid air and the new chill reached through her coat. Ilsa shivered but kept her gaze on the solitary bird above them.
“Blue.” She pointed upward. “Can you sense that bird’s mind?”
Blue looked upward. “I can see a speck up there. You sure it’s a bird?”
Blue closed her eyes as they rode. Frosty white patches began to form in the long mane of Ilsa’s strider. Something about that bird was off. Blue opened her eyes. “There’s no mind up there. Can’t be a bird.”
“Completely.” Blue frowned. “There is something odd up there, but it’s not a mind.”
Ilsa trusted her friend’s mental senses. She held the reins in her left and then clenched her right hand, then spread the fingers wide. A brand burned. Her bonded shotgun appeared with its barrel pressed into her palm. She closed her grip on the weapon and began to carefully load the gun with three shells of bird shot. No sense wasting heavier ammunition on something so small. This would be enough.
Blue glanced at her. “What are you doing?”
Ilsa raised the shotgun and aimed it at the small form above them. “I’m testing a hypothesis.” She sniffed the air. The smell of auto-launch propellant remained, despite having ridden a few hundred meters since she had first noticed it. She aimed at the shape with its tiny wings. It was angling down.
The air froze at her fingers and made her wish she could afford to wear gloves. But with gloves on she could not use her weapon bonds. She looked up the shotgun barrel, eyes almost closed to keep the little shape centered. She pulled the trigger.
The shotgun roared in its familiar voice. A ring of metal on metal followed an instant later, only audible to Ilsa due to her trained ears. Her airborne target lost a wing to the bird shot, but no blood came forth. She watched the shape of the target spiral down to the plain ahead of them. Immediately the chill in the air began to recede.
Ilsa watched the ground for the fallen shape as they approached. She slowed her strider. “Blue, I want to get a look at this.”
Blue glanced behind them. Ilsa checked as well. The scouts were still over a thousand meters away.
“Alright,” Blue said. “But be quick.”
Ilsa spotted a glint of metal in the low grass. She kept her strider moving and slid part way down the mounting rope, legs pressed together to keep her steady, just like she and Cass Kalteri had done as initiates years before. Her feet bobbed just above the mud and grass without touching any of it.
She snatched the hot, bird-shot-battered, form from the ground with one hand. It was small enough to fit in her palm. She stuffed the wreckage into her pocket and then scurried up to the saddle. Her steed had only slowed a little the whole time.
Blue raised her eyebrows. “What is it?”
Ilsa took the wreckage from her coat pocket. She turned it over in her hands and frowned. The shape resembled an overly-long bullet, but with a bent and broken wing of aluminum-like metal on one side and groove along each edge, where the wings must have collapsed. The thing reeked of propellant with additional auto-launch fuel. It’s sides were etched with mystic syllables in High Ayochian, writing marred by furrows of bird-shot.
“It’s a projectile,” said Ilsa. “Based on an Ayochian magus round, I think.”
“So they do have war magi.”
The air felt warmer around Ilsa already. War magi powers had limited range, but symbols like those on the bullet could be used to extend that range. She frowned. “I’d say at least one ice magus, probably among the scouts.”
“This continues to get better.” Blue sighed.
“It doesn’t change our plan. We have to stay ahead of that army.”
“Fair enough,” said Blue. “But I don’t know if I can beat a full magus.”
“Hopefully, it won’t come to that.” Ilsa stuffed the magus round into her pocket. We have to keep up our pace. She looked ahead. In the distance clouds hovered on the eastern horizon. Keep on hoping, Ilsa thought. Another memory of Cass returned, this one far more recent. Stay red, Ilsa.
Stay red. She urged her steed to full pace. Blood pounded in her veins.