In days long gone, when The Three of Yr walked the world, the plateau was lush with life. White roses, primrose, and even the bird of paradise flowers abounded. When The Three returned to their hidden places most of Yr withered out of longing for their presence. So wrote the First Speaker for Hathani in one of the books Ilsa had studied at Saint Banyeen’s Garden, years ago.
In the present, the fourth month waned and winter’s chill was fading into the muddy hope of springtime, Ilsa guided her weary strider, Hailek she had decided to call the beast, around a broken patch of ground where a plant pile from a Lotok formation had broken the surface. The dark green mound of memory cells climbed up through a crack in the soil. She was grateful to see any green. Over the past days of restless, riding there had been nothing to see except the occasional stand of tower grass. Only that morning had they reached this miles-wide swath of Lotok.
A few yards away, a gout of cold water and mist erupted from the earth and startled Blue’s nearby strider. The normally unflappable creature bucked backward out of the spray. Blue held onto the reins and fought for stability, a common Morhoen curse on her lips. “Tomorrow break you!”
Ilsa kept her eyes on the ground, looking for other points where cold geysers might erupt. The green on the surface of the plateau might have faded when the Three deities disappeared, but the plant piles beneath the surface remained thick in some places. Nourished through symbiotic connection to the plains-grass above, the piles could well out-last human civilization. They had survived the fall of many nations in the past.
Blue steered her mount away from the geyser. Her coat and her strider’s hair dripped with icy spray, water forced to he surface by the plant piles shifting below the ground. She turned in her saddle and glanced at Ilsa. “Any sign of the fort around here?”
“We rode straight. Fort Sardul should be less than half a day from here.”
“If we actually rode straight.” Blue frowned at the empty horizon, then shook her head. “I don’t see it. That’s for sure.”
Blue might be gifted with an invincible immune system, but Ilsa knew her friend’s long-term patience was far more limited.
“I’ve never been to the fort.” Ilsa scanned the distant plains. No one could build directly over a Lotok formation, but Ilsa was certain Fort Sardul must be near. The map certainly supported the fort’s location. She squinted through wafting mists from the occasional geyser eruption. Her eyes caught on a glint of glass.
Glass in the window of a house—What Ilsa had thought a formation of gray granite that rose from the ground on its own appeared to be part of some hidden settlement. She studied the area around the window as she fished out her binoculars from the saddle bag behind her back. She raised the lenses to her eyes. A crude, five-meter-high wall of thick granite circled the carved house a hundred or so meters out from its sides.
It all looked derelict, and was built too close to the Lotok for comfort, given the gradual creeping movement of the underground formation. Ilsa frowned at the thought. She had never heard of a primitive homestead like one so from Dal whether abandoned or not. Any families with holdings on the plateau would be wealthy enough to build something better.
She pointed with her free hand, toward the glint of glass.
“Looks like someone used to live over there.”
Blue squinted at the point. “If you say so. Just looks like a pile of rocks to me.”
“Well, it’s not in good repair,” said Ilsa. “So it can’t be the fort.” She lowered the binoculars.
“Think we should check it out?” asked Blue.
“Better to be on the safe side.” Ilsa guided her strider toward the ruined homestead. She wished she had been able to find more information on the central region of Yr, but the plateau seemed very nearly to devour information. The Oshomi people and their herds of genuine horses were the most famous element beyond the Tenlyres themselves, but near the forts people could settle in relative safety, or so Ilsa had heard. She and Blue rode toward the ruins.
The walls looked sheerer up close, and far from ruined. What had appeared crude now looked as architected as any structure Ilsa had seen in Dal or Morhoi. She peered over the wall, standing on her Strider’s saddle, and glimpsed a finely crafted manor house that had looked like ruined stone from the distance.
Blue pressed a gloved hand to the polished surface of the wall. Lines from dripping water streaked the dark surface. “Seems a lot different up close.”
“Yeah.” Ilsa frowned. “Too different.” She looked along the curve of the wall. A gate was situated in the structure, high enough for a great strider to pass under it, and with slender watchtowers on either side. Ilsa guided her steed toward the gate.
She stopped before a pair of black-sealed iron doors with rust marks in places where the coat had peeled away. Ilsa looked up at the tower window above. “Hey!” she called. “Anyone there?”
Blue rode to her. “What are you doing?”
“It definitely doesn’t look abandoned.” Ilsa kept her eyes on the window. A shadowy face appeared in the frame, looking down at Ilsa. She raised her arm and waved up at the person keeping watch.
The face and in the window turned and said something Ilsa couldn’t hear through the glass. Ilsa saw the mouth move, but could not determine much else through the misted glass pane.
Blue glanced at her. “I hope they’re on our side.”
Ilsa shrugged. “It’s not like we’re criminals. Lots of Dalites on the plains support unification.”
Both of the heavy doors clanked open. Ilsa rode into the gateway and then stopped, seeing three figures standing just a few meters inside. The one in the center was a man in a warm but well-tailored Dalite coat, with dark hair and pale skin. The other two were only vaguely humanoid, but distinctly not human.
Glittering glass camera eyes peered out from beneath the guard of metallic domed helmets. Long steel arms hung at their sides. Even longer legs of the same material carried each of the sentries forward toward the gate. A glint of a blade was visible along each of their forearms, and Ilsa spotted gun barrels on the opposite side of each limb. The man raised a hand and the mechanical sentries halted.
“I am Raheb Suel, the chief guard. What business do you have with Lord Palend?”
Ilsa frowned at the sentries. “Lord Palend? Since when does a Lord of Dal live in Tenlyres?”
Raheb shook his head, face grim. A handgun flashed from his sleeve into his hand. “You women owe me an answer, not the reverse.”
“Look,” said Blue, “We don’t want any trouble.”
The man’s eyes widened. “You’re from Chogrum.”
“Shit.” Blue raised her hands. “We’re not here to fight.”
Raheb moved fast. He raised his pistol and took the safety off in the same motion. He aimed at Blue. Ilsa seized the small bag of ammunition and then leaped from her strider, a warning shout on her lips. Blue’s steed leaped forward without any audible command, vaulting one of the metal guardians. A shot rang out, but not from Raheb.
Blue’s armored shoulder took an impact of a rifle round. From the clang and whine of the shot, Ilsa guessed the armor had just saved Blue’s life. The force of the shot knocked her friend backward over her saddlebags. She fell from the strider onto the grass inside the courtyard walls. With a groan, Blue struggled to stand up.
Ilsa landed on the ground, her strider between herself and Blue. One of the sentries swung a rapidly-extended blade straight at her face. Ilsa dodged to one side. Air whistled past the strike. She clenched her right hand. A brand burned.
A pistol appeared in her grip. She loaded it in an instant, as she darted away from the sentry, following the curve of the wall away from Blue and the gate. One of the sentries followed her. The other rushed toward Blue. Both sets of forearm blades extended to the length of short swords.
“Suel, call this off!” Ilsa shouted. “We don’t mean any harm.” She smelled powder wafting from the manor house behind the well-dressed man. A glint of a scope’s reflection told her whoever had hit Blue was lining up another shot.
“I can’t. The master will not deal with Chogrumians.”
Raheb paced toward Ilsa. Blue found her feet. The sniper’s glinting scope angled toward Ilsa. The metal sentry swung a blade at Blue, but she was out of its way, moving out of its path away from Ilsa. Ilsa’s opponent lunged at her. She fired twice, smashing the eyepieces of the glass cameras in the helmet. The sentry continued forward.
Ilsa dodged to one side and the sentry plowed into the wall behind her, evidently not knowing to stop itself now that it was blinded. Blades clanged as they struck stone. Ilsa turned to face Raheb.
“I don’t want to hurt you, or anyone here.”
Raheb scowled. “You rode here with a Chogrumian.”
“We’re with the Unification. Both of us.”
“Even worse.” Raheb kept his pistol trained on her. The sniper would definitely have a shot lined up by now.
Ilsa ducked low and rushed at the man, then leaped to one side. He squeezed off a shot, well wide of her. The rifle cracked from the great house rooftop. A bullet seared across Ilsa’s shoulder, drawing blood. She winced in pain, but brought her gun to a stop under the man’s chin. He backpedaled in time to avoid a potential shot, but she used the moments of cover his retreat provided her to produce her other pistol and load it. The magazine clicked into place.
She aimed the newly summoned weapon at the clanking sentinel following Blue and fired twice. The machine’s head burst in two places and steam issued from the back of its dome. The sentry collapsed. Ilsa shot her friend a glance. “Blue, can you stop that sniper from here?”
Blue nodded to her, eyes closed. Ilsa kept her first pistol on Raheb. His hands shook as he fought to keep the gun aimed at Ilsa.
“Who are you?”
“Ilsa Barrett. Priestess of the Unification, and of Hathani.” The pain in her shoulder built, despite the damage from the wound not seeming serious otherwise. “Please, put down that gun.”
His wavering hand steadied. His eyes flicked toward Blue. “What is she doing?”
“Eating your sniper friend’s thoughts probably. Don’t count on someone else shooting me anytime soon.”
He gritted his teeth. “You bitch. How dare you!”
“Got her.” She turned to Raheb. “Sniper’s aimed at you now, man.”
His eyes widened. A clunk of wood on a paved path drew Ilsa to glance toward the main entrance of the house. The slow shape of a man leaning on a black staff of wood made his way toward them from the covered porch at the front.
“That’s enough,” called the old man. “Raheb, put away your gun. I believe these women are with the Unification.”
Raheb grimaced. “Lord Palend,” he lowered his pistol to his side and bowed to the old man. “Whatever you command is my call.”
Palend nodded to him and then turned toward Ilsa as he approached them. “Catch those striders of yours. Then, I want to talk to both of you.”
Ilsa glanced in the direction of Hailek and Blue’s strider, who had both run along the outer wall, away from the gunfire. She nodded toward the old man, grateful for his sanity. “As you wish.”
He glanced at Blue. “You too, miss. Release Jia as a show of good faith.”
Blue hesitated with an intake of breath. She glanced at Ilsa.
“Trust me,” said Palend. “She won’t shoot.”
Blue breathed out. “She is released.”
The scope’s reflection vanished from Ilsa’s sight. She unloaded her pistols and then withdrew them into their seals. Blue’s will had already reined in the two striders. Ilsa turned to Palend. “Let’s talk.”