Tim here everybody.
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Ilsa barely survived her encounter with First, but an alliance between Chogrum and the nomad peoples has been formed. Ilsa rides westward with a combined army. What lies ahead of her? War.
When enemies put aside their differences, Hathani is there.
When friends become enemies, Hathani is there.
But there also are human beings in all our varieties.
They rode out of Chogrum with a column of troops the next day. Once the column met Megalli’s Vogmem warriors, Ilsa, Siuku, and the others took a branching path toward the village of Atalem. They were accompanied by a detachment of Chogrumian troops.
Through the next night, and the following day, a summer storm swept in from the north. Ilsa and Lemuel huddled together as rain and wind battered the camp.
Even when they could move again, the rain continued to fall in showers until they reached the Filami village by the Flowering Lyre.
The Oshomi there came out to meet Siuku. She told them of their successful alliance, and they rode into the tiny town.
Then, in the light rain, Ilsa, Blue, and Lemuel broke from the rest and made their way back southward, to the lyre where First had captured Tirica originally.
Shielding her eyes against the falling droplets, Ilsa peered at the instrument. She felt the urge to cry just looking at the place among the flowers. Even with Chogrum on their side, could they really defeat the old god? Asurdeva was awake, and right by Tirica’s side.
“Hathani help us,” she breathed.
Blue glanced at her. “Something has you worried, and it isn’t this little bit of rain.”
She nodded. “What does it mean that the Uzan have their own god? I mean, what does it say about the world?”
Lemuel guided his horse out ahead of them. “What does it mean that the staves of the Three are real? It means there is more to the world than science and electricity and powder.”
“More than magi,” said Blue.
Ilsa closed her eyes and felt the rain on her skin, cool against her remaining bruises. “If Asurdeva is god of the Uzan, why does my father serve him? He always swore never to serve a single master. He laughs in the face of Unification. And he can do things no one else can.”
She told them again about how First had escaped through the explosive seals.
“No matter how dangerous he is, that doesn’t make him right,” said Lemuel. “I’m not a priest, but I have my own morals.”
“Before this mission, I didn’t believe the gods were literally real.” Blue sighed. “In spite of my time in the Temple of Colors. Or maybe because of it.”
Ilsa looked at her friend. She took a deep breath, felt the pain swell near her heart, a wound that she would always remember, the one Ferdinand had dealt her while under Ashnia’s control in the mountains.
Her hands tensed on the reins. Now, Tirica was the one in the clutches of an enemy. She waited in meditation, feeling pain from new thoughts and old memories. She released her breath and loosened her grip on the reins of her horse.
“We’ve all changed.” Ilsa held up one palm and caught a few raindrops. “I hate to admit it, Blue, but I was wrong about the mission when we left Morhoen.”
“We both were.”
“I’m not sure. I thought I was looking for something that would give my life meaning, to justify the things I’ve done. I was looking for the wrong thing.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Lemuel.
She sighed. The void sensation in her chest contracted with her exhalation. “I thought I could justify killing other humans if it made the world a better place if it served the Unification or the Three. I still believe in Unification. But killing… I don’t know if I can go on doing it.”
Blue looked down at her hands, cupped over her strider’s saddle. She said nothing, betrayed no thoughts of her own. Her silence worried Ilsa. Blue usually had some kind of answer.
“I killed Melinda, at Howling Pass,” Ilsa said.
Lemuel frowned. “She would have killed us both if you hadn’t.”
“She wasn’t any older than your sister, Lemuel.”
“She was insane. Tirica has nothing in common with her.”
“They were both like me. We all carry guns, use weapons. I wonder. Why do we bother, when the only use of them is to destroy people? Maybe it would be better to step back from violence altogether.”
Blue snorted. “Tell that to Black Powder. Or the Gray Lector. Hell, even the prince of Chogrum. Every nation uses weapons, and as long as they exist, we’ll need to fight against them.”
“I understand, Blue. But I don’t have to enjoy killing.”
“Do you enjoy it?”
“I tell myself I don’t.”
“What brought this on?” asked Blue. “Now is not the time for pacifism, Ilsa. The Uzan will kill us. your father will kill us. The Ayochians will kill us if we don’t fight back.”
“I learned from you, Blue. Passionate belief is better than rigid dedication to a cause.”
Blue looked down at Ilsa from her saddle. “A good lesson. I didn’t realize I was teaching it.” She shook her head. “But passion does not mean you have to enjoy killing. Do what you have to do for the sake of justice, and enjoy what you can.”
Ilsa’s eyes narrowed, but she could think of no argument for her friend.
Lemuel pointed at the lyre standing among the flowers ahead of them in the rain. “I hate to interrupt, but there is someone up there.”
Ilsa looked toward the lyre, eyes still narrowed, and saw he was right. She produced her pistols. “Lemuel, stay back.”
The forms moving on the lyre belonged to Uzan and weapon bonded mercenaries from Black Powder’s unit. Ilsa’s sense of their spirits infused her with awareness of each set of weapons they carried. She loaded her pistols and rode closer to the lyre through the falling rain.
“Blue, can you suppress them?”
“I can do more than that,” her friend answered. “I’m ready.”
On the lyre, humans and monsters turned toward Ilsa, Blue, and Lemuel. All along the stone base of the instrument, the soldiers of Black Powder produced weapons.
She did not sense her father. That did not put her at ease. None of the mercenaries or Uzan opened fire, though she spotted a few rifles in their midst.
They have the range, so why aren’t they shooting?
“Blue, are you stopping them?”
“I would be if they wanted to shoot you.”
“What is it with these guys? It’s like they’re not willing to kill me. First was different. She shot me.” And tried to blow me up.
Ilsa knew she should retreat, call out to the others to fall back to Atalem. Still, she pushed her horse toward the Flowering Lyre. Drops of rain felt like nails in the wind.
“Ilsa, don’t get too close. I can’t stop them all at once,” Blue said into her mind.
“I know,” she said under her breath. “But I have to see.”
She guided her steed around the lyre’s southern side. Her fear, the sort that built in her gut even at a gallop was confirmed. A dark line of Uzan strung out in the distance, interspersed with the tall shadows of striders and the silhouettes of even larger things that looked a little like the electric crawlers used by Ayoch, but with far larger weapons protruding from their backs. Those shadows dwarfed striders, Uzan, and human forms and towered like Dal or Chogrum’s skyscrapers. She counted five of the machines, rolling slowly over the land.
“Damn it,” she said. “They’ve got war machines.”
“Ilsa, get out of there!” said Blue, her mental voice carrying the sensation of strain. “I won’t be able to keep them from shooting at you.”
Ilsa pulled her horse’s reins to turn the animal. She raced to cover the range on her way back toward Blue and Lemuel, who were themselves pulling back. Well, Blue was. Lemuel waved her on, even as the enemies at Ilsa’s back finally went for weapons.
Ilsa made a face. She grunted and kicked her horse to drive the animal faster. It whinnied in annoyance, frustration, maybe fear. She crouched down in the saddle.
The mercenaries started taking pot shots. The Uzan lumbered toward her, climbing down from the lyre. Soft sounds of fear came from Ilsa’s steed. She drove the horse toward Lemuel and the hint of some kind of safety. The horse carried her clear of the Uzan’s range. She waved at Lemuel to move.
He turned his horse and headed toward Atalem, not needing a second urging. Ilsa went after him, angry at her own headstrong desire to see the other side of the lyre. She would not make that mistake again, not with his life on the line. She owed him better than that, and maybe even owed herself more too.
She gritted her teeth and sighed unevenly.
Enemies drove them northward.
Ilsa paced the command tent, uneasy with memories thick in her mind.
“Mercenaries have often talked about the perfect war,” her father had told her. “And I want to give it to them.”
That had been years ago, but Ilsa still remembered, still hated the man for his arrogance, his evil thought.
“A perfect war?”
“A war that never ends. Ideal for my kind.”
And over the years his kind had become her kind. Though she fought for the opposite cause, she had still fought, and killed, for others just like he did.
The hell he had brought to her when he had bonded her spirit to the guns only got deeper. Over the years, she had stopped thinking of herself as a priestess most of the time. Only when she met Koor did that sense of herself begin to return. But even he would not fight for what he believed in on the field. In some ways, that made him better than her. But it did not make her hate him less for his abandoning them in the mountains.
She stopped pacing and sat down in the large command tent of the Chogrumian general preparing the defense of Atalem. His role was one of many terms the prince and the parliament had agreed to when they formed their alliance with the Keeper of Tenlyres.
They had plans to make. They had ways to go. To prepare the village’s southern and western sides as a shield to break the tide of the Uzan and mercenaries.
They would come. And they would fight. That much, Ilsa could be certain about.
Would they put any kind of effort into sparing the defenseless? Not likely. Would Black Powder, the Gray Lector, or their lieutenants be there? Perhaps. The Uzan could set up their war machines and begin the battle from a distance. And unlike at Howling Pass, Ilsa doubted they could break through to destroy the massive weapons before they found the range.
The casualties could be tremendous, but here she sat, listening to the general and his sub-commanders trying to plan around the earth-shattering weapons of the ancient demons.
Yes, this would be a deadly battle. Ilsa could hardly expect to feel ready for it.
Siuku arrived with Blue. They began to make suggestions to the Chogrumian officers, but Ilsa could scarcely follow them. She had to be ready to die, but for once her life seemed important. For Tirica. For Lemuel. She had to survive to make sure they did too.
As night fell, she returned to her tent, exhausted, afraid for what tomorrow would bring. She resolved not to give up her life in vain.
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