Ilsa and Blue’s mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres has brought them into conflict with Ayochian forces.
During a bloody encounter with a group of scouts serving the mysterious Gray Lector, Ilsa discovers her former friend, and fellow priestess of Hathani traveled east with them. She still does not know if she can trust Cass, but know she and Blue need all the help they can get.
Cass led the group of runners from the Ayochian scouts from the back of her own steed as night began to fall across the plateau. Ilsa watched her and the great cats at the corner of her vision. She could not help the feeling of disgust with herself for killing their former riders. Yet she had only mortally wounded one of six runners in the process.
Spots of blood still clung to the sleeve of her coat. The moon began to rise in the eastern sky, opposite the setting sun. Orange light cast long shadows from the party so they stretched out before them with black emptiness. The shadow shows one side of every spirit, the side that cannot help but do harm.
Ilsa remembered her father with a flicker of annoyance. He bore a rifle across his shoulder, the butt resting in his palm. His shadow stretched across the low grass of the plain. His black and marble-furred strider stood parallel to him, facing a sunset in another time and another place.
She could practically feel the rough grass beneath her young toes, practically smell the powder from her father’s shots. To say one thing for him, he had not killed anything they did not need to survive, but at the time, she had not appreciated that fact. His imposition to take her from the edge of the plateau and further onto the steppe had left her mother in tears.
Mother had, even before her visions began to intrude, lacked the strength to stop father from taking Ilsa with him. He had told her he wanted to help her, not harm her. In the end, that had been a lie.
Later, with powder smell in her nose and the echoes of shots still ringing in her ears, father had built a fire. He had burned the weapons he would bond to her one by one, and he had branded each of her hands twice. Ilsa had not been able to resist, and it had cost her a place at Saint Banyeen’s despite her best attempts to hide the truth.
The bonds were of his style, connected to the spirit, with weapons contained by eternal fire rather than the traditional shrines used by most of Hathani’s clergy. And they showed the evidence of her father’s corruption, which would see Ilsa expelled from the garden, years later.
By the time she had joined the garden, however, Father had been gone for another four years. And she had not seen him since. The fault for her expulsion fell not fully on the monstrous shadow the sun cast from him the day he had bonded her to her weapons. No, the fault fell on Cass Kalteri and the High Priestess.
In the present moment, Ilsa turned from Cass and squeezed her eyes shut. She could only barely recall the events without tears.
Blue’s voice reached her. “So, she is the one who betrayed you.”
She looked at her friend’s concerned face. “You don’t need to be a mind eater to know that.”
“Absolutely true.” Blue guided her strider alongside Hailek. “Can you tell me if she’s really on our side?”
“I can’t.” Ilsa scowled. “But she’s been caring for my mother back in Dal. I don’t know if that means much.”
Blue frowned. “If I had enough family to know, I’d tell you.”
She nodded. “Blue. You never talk about your family.”
“Because far as I know I don’t have one anymore.” Blue smirked. “Sometimes it’s convenient, but usually, it isn’t.” She looked behind her to where Lemuel and Tirica rode behind Cass and the runners.
Ilsa followed her friend’s glance. Tirica still carried her rifle openly but had relaxed her grip over the hours so it now hung from the sling around her shoulder, unattended at that moment. They had not seen any sign of other outriders from either side. But they would have to ride all night to catch up with the Red Lector’s forces before the Ayochians reached the Central Lyre.
Tirica nodded to Ilsa, finally silent. Her face had been pale when Ilsa had caught back up after killing the scouts. She sighed. Tirica had shot two of them herself, but what kind of woman her age had seen that kind of bloodshed before?
Lemuel patted his strider’s neck with his good hand but did not look in her direction. If Tirica had been shocked by the sight of Ilsa’s actions, Lemuel could well have been horrified depending how much he had witnessed.
She did not blame him if that was the case.
She took a deep breath and turned back to Blue. “We’ll see what happens.”
“We always do, I suppose.” Blue dropped her pace and fell back on her strider.
Cass caught up with Ilsa, lower to the ground while riding on her runner’s back than any of the others on their tall striders. She turned to Ilsa. “I’ve never seen anything like that, back there.”
Ilsa’s lip twitched. “Anything like what?”
“Like how you fight.” Cass frowned. “There was a time I never thought I’d see you shoot again.”
Ilsa faced rising moon up ahead and grimaced in the diminishing orange blaze from behind her. The only times before that quickly diminishing day when she remembered shooting around Cass were nearly eight years gone, and the vast majority of them had been simple targets.
She shook her head. “I don’t like to fight.”
“That’s odd, coming from a mercenary.”
Ilsa put laid her palm on the red staff that crossed her saddlebags. “I fight for Hathani and the Unification and for that I will do things I don’t like.”
Cass frowned. “Dal is in chaos just thinking about a fight with Chogrum. You think you can stop a war?”
“I can do my duty and hope for the best.” She sighed. “I trust my leaders.”
“Who are these mysterious leaders. I’ve only heard of Koor, the priest out in Morhoen.”
“Koor is the one I’ve met when I joined as a full member.”
“Koor can’t be the only one, though. Is he?”
“I’ve spoken to others. Mostly they don’t make themselves known to outsiders.”
“So you’re not going to tell me?” Cass frowned. “Not very friendly of you.”
Ilsa shrugged. “I didn’t kill you. That doesn’t mean we’re friends.”
“But we were.”
“Too long ago.” She scowled into the distance as the sun sank away behind them.
Hailek snorted. His woolly muzzle released a stream of condensation. Ilsa shivered. The sunset brought with it a drop in temperature.
The silver moon cast only slight shadows. Twilit steppe grass raced beneath them. They passed out of the region dotted with tower grasses and continued the ride east.
Every few minutes, Ilsa released a breath into her cupped hands. The wind picked up, blowing dust and rivulets of snow. Ilsa wondered how many kilometers they were from the Central Lyre. The Keeper of Tenlyres would likely still be near the timeless landmark. Oshomi tradition dictated the keeper stay close to that place for some mysterious reason. Ilsa had studied them, but she knew little of what to make of their strange religion, focused as it was on animals and plants left unmodified by human hands.
They rode expertly bred, but not otherwise engineered, horses. They trained horses, dogs, and birds without the aid of the signals used in civilized cultures to condition animals. In some ways they were intentionally primitive, but Ilsa had the feeling what they adopted from the settled societies was more pragmatic.
Striders might be virtually tireless compared to horses, and runners could out pace any normal animals, but the advantage of each was slight over a horse in many circumstances, and the Oshomi tradition revered the horse first. Ilsa frowned as she recalled her mother’s vision, the one she had told Ilsa about when they had last seen each other. Body of a horse, face of a nomad woman, and a voice like Ilsa’s. The human mind could play tricks on itself, and those tricks could often be less than funny.
Mother’s mind was no exception.
Ilsa urged Hailek forward, pushing the strider toward the silver beacon of moonlight on the horizon. Beneath the moon, a shadowy shape flickered in gray and white, riding ahead of Ilsa and Blue and the others. She frowned at the distant rider, but there was no mistaking he tall shadow belonged to a strider with a human on its back.
Who would be out here, riding by night on a white strider? Ferdinand Thoss rode a white strider. Ferdinand Thoss had been moving east. Ilsa fished in her saddlebag for her binoculars. She retrieved the double lenses with cold fingers and then peered through them as Hailek continued forward at his steady, disciplined pace.
The figure on the strider’s back belonged to man in a heavy coat with the bulk of ballistic armor beneath. No mistake from the hair and build, though Ilsa could not see his face. The thief and grave robber, Ferdinand Thoss was riding ahead of them. The slight pain of the stitched cut on Ilsa’s leg reminded her of the sharpness of his bonded lance.
She lowered the binoculars and looked over her shoulder at the rest of her group. Cass and Blue rode ahead of the Chollushes, side by side. Ilsa had to wonder, if they had been talking, what had they said to each other. She frowned at the two of them.
“We’ve got company up ahead.”
“Friend or foe?” asked Cass.
“A bit of both.”
Blue raised her eyebrows. “You recognize them?”
“It’s just one rider. Ferdinand Thoss.”
Lemuel pushed his strider forward. He caught up alongside Blue. “Thoss is heading our way?”
“He’s riding the same direction we are,” said Ilsa. “I just saw him.”
Lemuel squinted into the distance. “You can see anything in this?”
Ilsa tilted her binoculars to indicate them to him. “It’s definitely him.”
“Who is he?” asked Cass.
“A thief and outlaw from Chogrum.” Lemuel scowled. “He steals from the living and the dead equally.”
Ilsa could not disagree with that. “He’s also a weapon bond. A lance and two javelins, at least.”
Blue nodded. “Could be dangerous.”
“I don’t think he’d be against us.” Ilsa recalled Ferdinand’s trade with her back at Palend’s Manor, information for his freedom. “He owes me.”
Cass glanced at Blue. “Do I want to know why?”
“He overspent his side of a trade of favors.” Ilsa put her binoculars back into a saddlebag. “Trust me.”
“I can trust you, if you can trust me.”
Ilsa grimaced, and then turned to face forward in the saddle. She urged Hailek forward, choosing to chase down Ferdinand rather than reply to Cass. She gripped his furry hide with her bare hands, letting his wool shelter her fingers from the cold. Hailek, ever reliable, found the strength to accelerate. His feet pounded over the plain.
Ferdinand’s strider must be slowing, for she began to catch up quickly. She closed the distance to less than a kilometer. He did not look back, evidently unaware of her approach.
Ilsa pressed her legs into Hailek’s side to urge him to quicken his pace, sacrificing ease of the ride for speed. He obeyed. With every spring of Hailek’s legs the moon bobbed. She caught up within fifty meters. Ferdinand turned and looked back at her.
When he spotted her, he tugged on the reins of his strider. The animal wheeled to face Ilsa and Hailek. Moonlight cast them in cold light. Reflections of the same light danced on the glassy patches of snow frozen to the ground.
She drew in Hailek’s reins until he stopped, just ten meters from Ferdinand and his white strider. His face split into a white grin beneath his dark hair. “Priestess. It’s good to see you again. Eager to speak to me, are you?”
The sounds of runners and striders approached from behind Ilsa. She kept her eyes on Ferdinand as she sat back in her saddle. She folded her arms, reins still in one hand, and wished she could wear gloves without rendering her bonds unusable.
“I suppose I was. We’re deep in Oshomi territory. What are you doing out here?”
“Still trying to get back to Chogrum.” He frowned and fished in the pocket of his coat until he retrieved a battered compass. He looked at the device as he shifted it in his bare hands. “Damn thing must be broken, I thought I was headed southeast.”
“You’d better turn that way, then.” She pointed to the south. “We’re getting pretty close to the Central Lyre.”
“Sh-Shit. Th-that’s n-not good.”
The others caught up, Cass first with her runners in tow, followed by Blue, then Lemuel and Tirica. Ferdinand raised his eyebrows. “Seems you’ve grown, priestess.” His gaze roved from Cass, to Blue, to Lemuel, and then came to rest on Tirica. “I see you’ve recruited some old friends.” He did not sound unhappy to see them, though, because he spoke without a stutter.
Tirica glared at him. “Where are you going, Thoss?”
Ferdinand raised his compass. “The wrong way, apparently.” He shook his head. “Look, I’m not up to anything unlawful. Just trying to get home.”
Tirica put one hand on her hip while the other moved toward the pistol on her belt. “I don’t believe you.”
“Believe it or not. It’s the truth.” Ferdinand raised both hands. “And to be honest, girl, I’m getting tired of you trying to pick a fight.”
She grimaced at him. “You seemed ready for one, last time I saw you.”
“Yeah, but its the middle of the night.” He jabbed the hand with the compass at the moon overhead. “Can you at least wait until morning. Pistols at dawn, maybe?”
“You’d lose that,” said Tirica. “I’ve never seen you even hold a gun.”
“I think you’d be surprised.” Ferdinand shifted his gaze to Lemuel and grinned. “Tell her to ease up, Lemuel.”
Lemuel clenched his reins in his gloved left hand. He looked to Ilsa. She met his gaze and then nodded to him. Lemuel took a deep breath. “Tirica, there’s been enough killing for one day.”
“I’ll leave him ‘til tomorrow, then.” Tirica shot a glare at Ferdinand. “Tomorrow, Thoss.”
“Tirica,” said Lemuel in a firm voice.
“No, brother. If we let him go we’ll just have to deal with him later, when we may not have the advantage. And I’m sick of taking orders from this priestess.” She turned her glare toward Ilsa. “This mission of hers doesn’t matter to me, and besides, she’s a Dalite. For all we know she’s been lying to us all along.”
Ilsa matched Tirica’s glare. Blood ran hot through her, threatening to ignite into outright rage. She unfolded her arms, breathing deep. She did not have time for anger. Still, one hand clenched, halfway to summoning one of her pistols. Lemuel was right though. Enough blood had been shed today.
Blue closed her eyes, but spoke firmly. “I think you’ve all said enough. Now listen to me.”
“Why should we?” Tirica rounded on Blue. “You’re a traitor to our city.”
“A city is not separate from the rest of the world.” Blue spoke softly. “All things connect to each other, and when they fight, they all suffer.”
“Unification bullshit,” Tirica said. “Give it a rest, mind eater.”
“I won’t.” Blue’s eyes opened a crack, but appeared unfocused. “Please, keep your voice down.”
“Blue?” said Ilsa, “What do you sense?”
Blue’s eyes closed again. “Horses.”
Ferdinand’s eyes flicked to Blue. “H-Horses?”
Blue’s eyelids pressed down tight. “And riders.”
“Oh no.” Lemuel’s face went pale. “Oshomi outriders?”
Ilsa looked around, searching the darkness for any sign of the riders. Her breath misted before her, maddeningly obscuring her vision. “How far.”
A flicker of blue-white electricity crackled to the northeast, behind Ferdinand. The whole group fell silent, listening for the riders Blue had detected. At first the sound of hooves seemed soft in comparison to their arguments, but then Ilsa smelled powder traces, old-fashioned, maybe even primitive. Burnt ozone stench reached her nose.
She scowled in the moonlight. Lightning without clouds. A bolt of electricity shot from the night, booming with instant thunder. The lightning bolt struck Ferdinand and his strider, then leaped in an arc to Ilsa and Hailek.
Searing pain exploded through her nerves. Her ears rang with the thunder and she shuddered in the saddle. She could not hear her own agonized scream.
Ferdinand slumped forward against his strider’s neck as the creature bucked and whined with pain. The bright scar of the lightning bolt upon Ilsa’s vision began to fade. Hailek shook. She held on with her one good hand as her strider released an involuntary whimper.
The thunder of the lightning bolt reverberated in the air. Ilsa’s head jerked to the left and she glimpsed Tirica and Lemuel circling behind her to meet up with Cass and Blue. Ilsa shuddered with another agonizing shock of electricity leaping through her muscles. She swung her head back in the deafness left by the thunder.
Moonlight illuminated a dozen Oshomi riders spreading to encircle her and the others. They looked gray in the moonlight. The one in the lead rode on a huge horse and carried the two-pronged lightning lance, now dark with its electricity expended. He rode up to Ilsa, big and old with a heavily scarred face. She blinked at the pain, but could not unlock her jaw to speak. More hoof beats drummed behind Ilsa’s back.
As her hearing returned she heard the big man speaking from the back of the horse front of her. His words were in the language of the Oshomi, but she caught most of their meaning. “They are not from the west.” He turned to another rider who caught up beside him. “For now, keep them alive. They could be useful.”
Then he yanked Hailek’s reins from Ilsa’s numb fingers and pulled the strider with him as he turned his steed toward the moon. Ilsa gritted her teeth as the Oshomi led her, and Ferdinand and the others, toward the Central Lyre. One way or another, she had to get there, but at that moment, it was all she could do just to stay in the saddle.