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Ilsa pursues her father’s first apprentice from a bloody melee outside the government center of Chogrum.
A chance at reconciliation is not too much to ask from the gods.
First limped down an alleyway, trailing blood from the wounds Ilsa’s bullets had left in her hand and leg. Damn it, though, she kept moving. Ilsa glimpsed her father’s wounded apprentice just as she flashed around the corner ahead of her.
She dragged herself forward and reloaded her pistols with the magazines she had kept under her torn skirt. These city clothes were less durable than the sort she had worn on the steppe. Far less.
She rounded the corner, both pistols readied. First crawled onto the rooftop to her right. A rusted, iron tube for vines hung down a meter from the edge, just over the dented roof of a small car.
Ilsa doggedly pulled herself up and onto the hood of the vehicle. The pain in her leg might as well be nothing after the trial Hathani’s staff had put her through in the dark passage.
She stuffed both her pistols into the waistband of her pants.
She threw herself at the crook of plastic tubing that reached the top of the building. One ankle flared with pain but she got a grip on the tube. Her fingers dug into a layer of rust.
With a surge of adrenaline, she forced her arms to boost her upward. She reached for the edge of the roof above her. Her outstretched fingers passed over it then came down and grabbed hold. She pulled herself over the top.
Panting with pain and exertion, she crouched there and looked around the flat roof of the squat building. First looked back at her with a grimace from the far side of the building. A figure in a hooded jacket threw down a crude bridge from the rooftop across the next alleyway ahead of First. First did not hesitate.
Neither did Ilsa. She drew her pistols and stormed after the woman. Her legs were battered, but First was already dragging one appendage. Ilsa fired the moment she found the range.
The bullet clipped First’s shoulder. The bullet ripped the press badge from the woman’s disguise. A splash of blood hit the rooftop in front of her, but she did not slow for a second.
“Slow her down,” First said.
The other figure faced Ilsa across the bridge as Ilsa raced across it. Her footsteps thudded on the scrap metal and boards tied together by hasty hands.
Then she was on the other side. She took aim at the mercenary in her path. “Out of my way.”
“It’s me, Ilsa.”
The hood fell back. Tirica’s dark hair and pale face appeared. Ilsa twisted her hand to aim away as she continued forward. Her finger fell from the trigger. Instead, she spread her arms wide and wrapped Tirica in a hug that bowled the girl over backward.
They rolled onto the rooftop.
“Ilsa, get away,” said Tirica. “She’s got me wired to go.”
Ilsa’s eyes widened.
She pulled open the front of Tirica’s jacket. Rows of powder explosives with their natural smell were wrapped around Tirica’s chest, and neck.
“Pitiful. You fell for it,” wheezed First as she backed away from them across the rooftop. She held a small but unmistakable detonator in one hand and a pistol in the other.
Tirica shoved Ilsa in the chest. Ilsa’s legs bunched together, then she kicked out. With strength of desperation she shoved Tirica in the chest. The girl rolled to the edge of the roof. Ilsa sprang up, trying to get as far as she could in the second before the bombs detonated.
“Don’t do it!”
First panted for breath. “Too late.” She dropped the detonator to the rooftop. The blast from behind Ilsa ripped through the roof. She tripped forward toward First.
“Damn you!” Ilsa swung the barrel of her pistol into First’s face. The weapon cracked against bone. Tears streaked Ilsa’s face.
Tirica, gone into the air, just like that.
She swung blow after blow into First, until the woman sagged to the rooftop.
First grinned up at her with flecks of blood on her puffy face. “I guess you’re angry.” Her eyes were cold. “Totally meant to do that, but you know the best part? You don’t. Or you wouldn’t be beating me. You’d just finish me off.”
Ilsa stepped back from the woman’s battered form. She looked down at her, tears running from her eyes. “What do you mean, you twisted bitch?”
“She’s not dead. It’s just an old trick.” First lay on her back, looking up at Ilsa, head on the cracked plaster that covered the rooftop.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Your father never told you about blast seals, did he? Turns out—” She coughed and blood trickled down from her broken nose. Then a laugh broke from her, real audible mirth.
Ilsa stared, trembling, at the bloody mess laughing at her.
“—You can summon a human from anywhere to anywhere using the same technique as bonds. You just need a lot more bang!” She pulled open her own coat, revealing a vest of explosives like the one Tirica had been wearing.
Ilsa scowled at her, eyes cloudy. “Why are you telling me this?”
“He told you to quit fighting. You didn’t. He won’t spare you again if you meet him on the steppe. Bye now.”
Then, First pulled the detonator cord on her vest.
The explosion was larger, and the building, already damaged by the first explosion, collapsed in on itself. Ilsa fell into agonizing darkness.
Spirits with human faces and horse’s bodies crowded around where Ilsa lay. They looked just like her mother had always described them, horse up through the mane, then the eyes followed by features of people Ilsa knew.
They spoke to her, told her things she couldn’t understand in voices that sounded like musical instruments ranging from drums to silver to wind.
She saw her mother among the horses, fully humanoid, in her gown. “Mother,” she said. “Hello, again.”
“Ilsa, you’re hurt.”
“Must be pretty bad this time.” Ilsa grunted. “I can’t even tell where I am now. I was in Chogrum.”
“You’re still alive.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Ilsa, do you trust me?”
“Now that I’ve seen what you see, yeah.”
“You know I’m not crazy. I can go free if you help me, Ilsa.”
“Yeah… It wasn’t right to leave you in that place. I’ll get you out of there. Just let me… Just let me…”
“I trust you, Ilsa. But right now, you have to wake up.”
“Wake up,” Ilsa said. “Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say. I have to tell Lemuel. His sister survived.” She reached out her mind and found she could feel the entire plateau. She smiled as best she could through the pain that began to eat at the edge of her senses. Tirica was out there, within a few days travel of Chogrum. So were Black Powder and First.
There was also something larger, a spirit but unlike the ones she saw as horses with human faces. At once it seemed more powerful, far stronger, but also more brittle. Her mind pulsed as she regarded the being through building pain.
“Asurdeva.” As she said it, she knew she was right. The ancient god of the Uzan seethed and turned in her direction. She looked to her mother. “Yeah, I need to go. Need to warn the others. And you need to warn Dal if anyone will listen.”
“Warn Dal about what?”
“The army is moving east. It should be ready to fight a god.”
She woke with a sweaty brow, and pain. Aches ran through her whole body. A soft pillow supported her head. She was alone, and that worried her. But she hurt too much to get up.
For the next few days, she saw only a few nurses who came in with food and changes of underclothes. She found her legs worked, and she had no need for breathing tubes or other devices. One arm had apparently been dislocated at some point, and she was bruised all over. Considering the shape the building she had been on was in, she could have been a lot less fortunate.
And Tirica was still alive. On the third day, she felt well enough to leave the hospital. One nurse gave her a map of the city, a cane, and the coins she had with her when she had been found. Ilsa took the tram back southward to the hotel where Siuku had been staying with Blue, Lemuel, and the others.
She arrived, tired and aching.
Blue met her on the ground floor. “Ilsa.”
“Why didn’t you visit me?” she asked, sounding petulant, even to herself. “I’m lucky to be alive.”
“We knew where you were, but if we let on, we were worried the mercenaries would try to kill you.”
“Oh.” Ilsa blinked. “That makes sense.”
“Lemuel fought us on it. I insisted. Sorry.”
“No, you were right.” Ilsa flushed. “I need to tell him, his sister is alive, but she isn’t in the city anymore.”
“How do you know?”
“First told me. And I sensed her while I was out.”
“Alright. It’s going to take some getting used to, you just knowing things when you wake up.” Blue frowned. “We need to get ready. Chogrum is moving, and the prince wants us to ride with the army.”
“I guess we succeeded then.”
“It’s true. I almost think it’s a trap, the way they attacked the prince so close to the first battle. It’s like they meant for Chogrum to bring more forces against them. It worked for someone, one way or the other.”
Ilsa frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Someone got Ashnia away from the suite while we were out.”
“Maybe. Either way, she’s gone.”
“Damn,” said Ilsa. “We should watch out then.”
Blue nodded, then sighed. “We have to get moving, no time to worry about her now.” She touched Ilsa’s shoulder gently. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“Me too,” said Ilsa. “We’ll find her again, Blue. I know she’s important to you.”
“Dangerous too,” said Blue. “If her brother freed her, at least she’s safe.”
Ilsa nodded. She did not know what else she could say. Ashnia was a powerful mind eater and a dangerous enemy. Still, Blue cared for her.
But the war was here, and it was guiding them west.
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