Ilsa’s lethal battle at Nurse Mountain has driven the scouts back.
But the larger war is just beginning.
Recovering from the night battle, Ilsa has a plan to buy time against the Ayochians.
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When Siuku woke later that day, Megalli sent a skyrider under a flag of negotiation to General Haram. Once Ilsa and the others informed the Keeper of their plan, the camp mobilized quickly. Ilsa and Blue rode with Siuku, her two closest riders Takudu and Okko, and a party of Ganara’s Vogmem. Their group left the larger force, led by the other Vogmem chieftains and accompanied by Lemuel, Cass, and Tirica, and climbed the slopes on their steeds.
They crested the mountain’s arm and wheeled to the northwest, toward the glade of trees off the western shoulder of Nurse Mountain. They arrived at the appointed place in the late afternoon. The summer sun was still high in the sky as the month approached the solstice, but despite the bright day, the air was cold.
Down in the glade, nestled between the rocky slope of two mountains, Ilsa slowed Hailek’s pace with a tug on his reins. She did not like the scarcity of brush and bracken beneath the evergreens. Besides the trees themselves there was not a lot of cover in this place. And trees would not always stop a small fast bullet like those of the caliber she used in her pistols. She reminded herself they were not here to fight. They were here to talk.
She kept her hands closed as they rode into a clearing at the center of the glade. From the other side of the clearing between trees, the Ayochian party advanced. A dozen soldiers rode lighter steeds behind two women on great striders.
The older of the two women, Ilsa guessed, was General Shayi Haram. She wore a red cloak and a gray and blue uniform with a fine layer of gilded metal along the edge of her shoulders. Strangely, she wore a hood pulled over her gray hair so only one short strand was visible on either side of her face. She carried no visible weapons, but ammunition belts hung across her saddle, and she held the reins of her strider without gloves despite the chill in the air.
She must be a weapon bond, Ilsa thought. Judging by the varied calibers of bullets, she probably had multiple guns bonded to her. Ilsa had never heard much about Shayi Haram’s personal fighting skills but was still glad they were here to parley.
Blue stiffened as the younger woman brought her strider even with General Haram. She wore a heavy coat, with the hood pulled back. Yellow hair and the same color of eyes as her brothers, along with Blue’s reaction, made Ilsa certain this was Ashnia Haram, the young mind-eater Blue had met in the Temple of Colors. Elegant features and a confident bearing combined with what must be a brilliant talent as a magus to explain Blue’s attraction.
Ilsa’s friend sent a thought to her. She’s cute, but don’t let your guard down. She can be ruthless.
The rider closest behind Ashnia and Shayi reaffirmed Blue’s comments to Ilsa. Ferdinand Thoss rode his white shaggy strider with a dull expression on his face, still under Ashnia’s mental control. Ilsa wondered how long she could keep up that kind of power, but Ashnia gave no indication of effort as she and her mother approached the Vogmem and Siuku.
Ganara rode out in front, holding a black staff that marked her status as a priestess of Vada, along with Siuku in her white veil, feathered raiment, and steppe clothes. The Keeper of Tenlyres looked small on horseback next to the much larger striders and Ganara’s goat runner. Ilsa and Blue followed the two leaders toward Ashnia and Shayi.
“Chieftain Ganara,” called Shayi in a throaty voice. “And the Keeper of Tenlyres, I presume?”
“Indeed,” said Siuku in her usual monotone.
“Strange partners.” Shayi’s eyes glinted. “Last year when I arrived in this place, you were enemies.”
“Times change.” Ganara grimaced. “Sometimes we must choose one thing we hate over another.”
“So, you wish to choose this Oshomi over my queen’s friendship?”
Ganara’s hand was steady, the staff held before her. “Your queen in Ayoch does not offer friendship for my people, only death.”
Ilsa frowned. This negotiation would not go anywhere if Ganara kept talking. Her eyes flicked to Blue. “Can you do anything?” she asked in a low voice.
Blue shook her head. “Not with my powers. She is countering me.”
Apparently, Ashnia must have power to spare. She looked completely collected and serene despite managing her control of Ferdinand and blocking Blue’s power. Ganara scowled at Shayi. “I take it you want me to hand over the Keeper?”
“Have these Unificationists been in your ear, Ganara?” asked Shayi. “This is not like you.”
Ganara bristled. “Stranger that you would meet me in person. Coward, that you are.”
“I’m not afraid of you and that artifact in your hand. You may believe in three gods, but I believe in my queen and my troops.”
Siuku folded her arms. “And your husband, the Red Lector? Do you believe in him?”
“He was able enough to block your escape route through the pass southward. I’d say my faith is well-placed.” Shayi smiled. “You did well to evade him and my sons to get here, Keeper of Tenlyres. But the time has come to join Ayoch. All the blood you’ve shed will be forgiven.”
“I’m hardly confident in that,” said Siuku.
“We are at war with Chogrum and the rebel forces in our own land. I do not think the Queen desires the Oshomi as another enemy, and the same goes for the Vogmem.”
Ganara snorted. “I’ve had my whole life to learn not to trust Ayoch.”
“Then your life may not be much longer, chieftain. And I wonder if the other three will be so eager to die for this new alliance.”
Blue’s brow furrowed with concentration. “Someone’s coming,” she said under her breath.
Ilsa leaned toward her. “Who? Can you tell?”
“No,” said Blue. “Too much interference. The Hermit is against me too.”
“Is he definitely allied with Ayoch?”
“With Ashnia. The Temple of Colors fights for its own.”
“Damn.” Ilsa’s eyes moved this way and that, looking for signs of new arrivals behind Shayi’s forward party. She saw no one else in the frosted glade.
Ganara was glaring at Shayi. “I do not know why the others thought negotiating with you was worthwhile, Summer Devil. The name we gave you is fitting.”
“As I understand it, devils are an important part of your culture. Sounds as though your respect me.”
“As an enemy, perhaps.” Ganara’s lips drew back in a snarl. Ilsa was amazed at the woman’s constant temper. The Vogmem chieftain spat in the frost between her and Shayi.
Ashnia leaned toward her mother and said, “I take it that is the end of this parley?”
Behind the Ayochian mind eater, Ferdinand shifted in his saddle. Ilsa kept her eyes on the possessed adventurer, watching for signs that he would summon a weapon. A dull crunch of slow footsteps approached through the trees in the silence that followed Ashnia’s question.
Ilsa listened closely, but as the sound grew louder the deliberate noise made it obvious whoever walked in the woods was drawing near. She looked this way and that, searching for the source of the steps. Siuku did the same, along with her riders.
Shayi and Ganara’s eyes locked. Shayi’s smug smile slipped into a fierce glare. “Reinforcements, Ganara? Do you mean to betray our truce?”
“I would ask you the same thing.” Ganara grimaced. “But I take it you did not plan this either.”
“I have every advantage. There’s no need for me to divide you like this to strike.”
Ganara drew a pistol from her belt, but did not aim it at anyone. Shayi’s hands tensed on the reins of her great strider. Ilsa’s eyes narrowed as she glimpsed the scar on the back of Shayi’s hand, a weapon bond. Shayi’s words hung in the air as the footsteps crunched closer.
Two sets of feet from what Ilsa could tell. Still, no one from either advance party moved to leave the circle, for to move would be to risk setting off the violence bubbling like a cauldron beneath the surface.
Blue’s brows furrowed. She glanced at Ilsa. “They aren’t human,” she said in a low voice.
Ilsa’s eyes widened, and she smelled an unknown propellant she recalled from the steppe days ago. Uzan. “They’re here,” Ilsa murmured. She turned to Ganara and Siuku and raised her voice. “The creatures approaching are real devils,” she said, “There are Uzan in this forest.”
“What are you saying?” Shayi never took her eyes from Ganara, but let her reins fall from her hands. “I was told they would not approach the lake.”
“We know little about the Uzan,” said Ilsa. “And what we think we know could be wrong.”
Ganara trained her revolver on Shayi. “Ride away, and we will not shoot. Go.”
“Lower that weapon.” Shayi’s eyes narrowed at Ganara. “I will not turn my back only for you to make your words a lie.”
“I have honor, unlike you.”
Ilsa looked over her shoulder, frustration building as the footsteps crunched closer. She flexed her hand, ready to produce a pistol, but uncomfortable with the possibility the Uzan would have the first shot if the leaders kept bickering.
Siuku seemed to sense the same thing. She put a hand on Ganara’s arm. The Vogmem chieftain pulled away from the Keeper.
Siuku shook her head. “I hear at least four Uzan, but cannot tell where they are. We will not win if we fight each other.”
Ganara jerked her head toward Shayi, Ashnia, and Ferdinand. “I will not join one devil to fight another.”
The smell of propellant igniting, subtle to most but sharp to Ilsa, drifted to her on the wind. A bittersweet burn preceded the roar of not one but many guns.
Ilsa shouted a warning and waved her arm over her head. Too late.
The fusillade of bullets tore into steeds and riders on either side of the evergreen glade. Screams from both Ayochians and Vogmem echoed around Ilsa and the others in the center of the parley. Takudu and Okko’s horses sprang forward and caught up with the center, but the cries of goats and striders, men and women, howled through the glade, almost as loud as the thunder of Uzan guns.
Ganara locked eyes with Shayi. The Ayochian General clenched her left hand and conjured a pistol, medium caliber, larger than Ilsa’s pistols. She turned her strider. Ganara’s shot missed. Shayi did not retaliate, but loaded her weapon and scanned the glade behind her where her troops began to return fire against Uzan hidden in the trees. There had to be more than four of them, far more, surely.
Ilsa pressed her feet heels into Hailek’s sides. Ashnia squeezed her eyes shut.
Ganara screamed in pain and rage. The revolver trembled in her hand, then moved toward her temple. Blue grunted. Her face contorted with effort. Ganara dropped her pistol and it fell into the snow.
Ilsa rode toward the chieftain and the Keeper as the mind eaters battled for control. Behind her, she heard the Vogmem returning fire on the assailants she had yet to see.
Smokey scents, the crack of shots, and the biting cold, surrounded her. She rode Hailek between Shayi and Ganara just as the Red General leveled her pistol at the blond Vogmem leader. A pistol appeared in Ilsa’s hand, and she loaded it as she took aim. Shayi sensed her preparing a shot. The general’s arm extended toward Ilsa.
A 9mm round screamed from her pistol. Ilsa did not return the shot. A loud clank sounded behind Ilsa. Blue fell from her strider’s saddle, armored over her heart dented by the impact of Shayi’s shot.
Ashnia’s eyes snapped open and she looked to where Blue had fallen. Ilsa turned Hailek toward her fallen friend. Blue started to stand up, looking dazed but otherwise unhurt.
An arrow from Siuku’s bow buried itself in Shayi’s steed, just in front of the Red General’s extended gun hand. The great strider barely seemed to notice the wound.
Ganara broke free of Ashnia’s control just in time to deflect a spear thrust from Ferdinand with her black staff. She shouted over the sound of the battle, “Riders to me.” Her voice carried through the glade. Another Vogmem sounded a horn.
Ilsa hoped the noise would be enough to get them reinforcements from the larger force outside the glade.
She rode toward Blue, as her friend got to her feet.
A javelin bounced off Blue’s armor, and she staggered with a grunt. Ferdinand and Ashnia on their great striders closed with Ilsa and Blue.
Ashnia’s eyes fixed on Blue. “Nameless, surrender and I will show mercy.”
“I believe you.” Blue nodded to the Ayochian mind eater. “But you don’t speak for the whole Temple.”
Ilsa reached Blue’s side. Her friend’s strider circled behind Blue and bent down for her to climb up.
The roar of Uzan gunshots died away. Ganara and Siuku and the other Oshomi rode back toward the surviving Vogmem who seemed to have driven the Uzan back, despite their losses. Ilsa trained her pistol on Ashnia and squeezed the trigger. Ferdinand’s second javelin leaped from the sole of his foot, the leg extended behind it in a kicking motion. It struck Ilsa’s pistol and made her shot go wide. The gun flew from her hand.
She grunted and drew her machine gun from its brand. As she moved to load it, Ferdinand’s long spear swung around to point at Ilsa. Ilsa grimaced as he stabbed at her. She did not want to hurt him if she did not have to, but that qualification seemed more and more tenuous by the second.
She ducked the blade, but a blunt force hit her in the small of the back as the weapon snaked over her shoulder. He pulled the spear back and Ilsa fell from Hailek’s saddle.
She tumbled to the ground beside Hailek but managed to land on her feet with crunch of boots in frost and grass. “Move,” she called to the strider. “It’s too dangerous here.”
Hailek obeyed and ran toward the Keeper and the other riders on their side of the clearing.
Siuku shouted a warning and aimed her bow at Ferdinand. She drew back the string and arrow as one. His spear spun, and knocked the first arrow off course. The following shots kept him distracted.
Blue leaped onto her strider’s back and turned the steed toward Ashnia.
“Don’t fight me, Nameless,” said the Ayochian mind eater. “Don’t make me harm you.”
Blue frowned at her. “You still belong to the Temple, and to Ayoch.”
“This is not about Ayoch,” Ashnia’s eyes met Blue’s. “It is about us.”
Ilsa looked between the two as Ferdinand continued to duel with Siuku at a distance. If there was some way to disrupt Ashnia’s control over him, they could get away for sure. The Ayochians who had survived the Uzan onslaught had rallied together with their general and begun to advance into the clearing at the center of the glade. If those troops caught up, Ilsa had a gnawing feeling she and Blue would not escape.
She fired two shots from her machine gun into Ashnia’s speed. The creature bucked and groaned, but was too hardy to fall immediately from such damage. Ilsa hated to hurt the animal but saw her actions result as Ashnia cringed to the saddle, clutching the reins in both hands.
Ilsa fired one more shot, splitting the reins from the strider as the steed reared up.
Ashnia fell backward, holding the broken reins. She did not cry out and hit the ground with a thud that likely made speech impossible as it drove the air from her lungs.
Ilsa scrambled forward and snatched her pistol from where it had fallen. She reached Ashnia and leveled the weapon as the mind eater started to stand up. The barrel of the pistol pressed to Ashnia’s forehead. Her eyes went wide and she looked suddenly very young and afraid.
Ilsa’s finger moved toward the trigger.
Blue and Ashnia’s eyes locked over Ilsa’s shoulder. One of her friend’s thoughts flashed into Ilsa’s mind.
Don’t kill her. Please.
Ilsa’s mouth went dry. She lacked the time to send back. The Ayochians would be in range in seconds. She drew back the pistol, finger on the trigger. Ashnia closed her eyes. Ilsa slammed the butt of the gun against Ashnia’s skull. The mind eater staggered and her knees buckled. Ilsa caught one of Ashnia’s arms and pulled the stunned Ayochian with her toward Blue and her steed. Ilsa pulled her up to Blue’s saddle despite the protests of mind and muscle.
She slung Ashnia across the saddle between her and Blue. Her friend turned the strider and they retreated, the last to leave the glade following Ganara and Siuku and their troops. As they rode, Ilsa glanced back and spotted two pairs of Uzan, one on either side of the clearing, trudging after them, guns withdrawing into their bulky bodies.
She turned to Blue. “Faster.”
“Not an option,” said Blue. She grimaced back at Ashnia and Ilsa. Her eyes moved from the Ayochian who was struggling to move. Ilsa pinned the girl to the saddle with her knees. Blue looked up at Ilsa’s face. “Thank you.”
Ilsa grunted with the effort of keeping Ashnia pinned but nodded to Blue. She owed her friend enough not to question why Blue wanted to spare Ashnia. But she began to wonder exactly what lay between the two, as they rode up the slope into a freezing mountain wind, even as she kept her eyes on the Uzan marching behind them.