Ilsa and Blue ride north from the Central Lyre with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
A deal has been made with the Vogmem nomads to avoid war between the tribes.
But have Ilsa and her allies really escaped the conflict from the Central Lyre?
The more northerly they go, the more Ilsa worries.
The band of Oshomi continued northward. Ilsa rode close to Lemuel and Blue for the next few days, talking and sometimes even laughing with them. The steppe of Yr fell behind them, and the mountains towered up ahead.
The closer they got to the edge of the plateau, the further they would be from the monstrous Uzan. Ilsa always felt a stab of guilt as she considered the abominations she would have freed, had her father not beaten her to the action. She promised herself she would find a way to stop them, though even the Red Lector’s armored crawlers had apparently done very little.
They passed into a wide Lotok formation where cold geysers shot water from the ground. When they camped in a stable spot, Lemuel took the chance to dig a meter into the soil with Ilsa’s help. Once the plant pile that formed the basis of the underground Lotok was exposed, Lemuel jabbed the attachment spike of his reading tablet into the root to connect.
He rattled off a thread of information Ilsa did not understand. When she asked, he told her that the Vogmem appeared to be the only riders in the area. Finally, some good news, Ilsa thought. The next morning they rode on.
As the land became rougher and rockier she began to notice heavy hoof-prints in the grass and soil. Those hoof-prints looked to Ilsa like signs of the modified goats ridden by the Vogmem in place of the cat-like runners and high-legged striders of other regions.
Despite the Central Lyre falling farther into the distance behind them, she still feared what lay back there. The Uzan. The Red Lector. Black Powder.
On the fourth day since their escape from the siege, with the mountains just hours northward, a cloud of black smoke raced across the sky above them. The line sliced by with a horrible metallic scream, spreading the smell of propellant, but unlike any shot Ilsa had ever smelled before. She wrinkled her nose and frowned up at the trail.
“What was that?” asked one of the riders near Ilsa.
One of the others turned in her saddle and looked to the south. “It came from the Central Lyre,” she said in the language of the Filami.
Siuku, riding just a few meters ahead, turned toward the two Oshomi who had spoken, Ilsa, and the others. “It’s true. Spirits curse it, but it’s true.”
“How can you tell?” Tirica scowled at the black scar that continued to cut toward the mountains.
“The smoke is not ballistic propellant. It looks like fuel from a beast engine.” Siuku whipped her head around as the high-pitched scream echoed back to them from the mountains. The trail of black smoke curved.
Ilsa squinted, trying to make out the shape from which the dark cloud billowed. There’s no mistake, she thought. The smoke-spewing flying machine, still heavily obscured by the cloud, hurtled toward the Oshomi, Ilsa, and the others.
A flying machine. Ilsa had never seen anything quite like this noxious engine. She had flown in locusts, great airborne beasts modified by the city-dwellers to fly across impassable or dangerous land. Those could only land in water because of their aquatic origins. This abominable thing was different.
Locusts flew with slender white trails of lighter-than-air gas.
The machine belched smog from a small hole in the front and a roaring fire at the back.
Locusts ranged from the size of a strider to the huge transport beasts like the one which had last flown Ilsa into Ayoch before she returned to Dal, and they were shaped like manta rays. This black dart of churning iron-rust-colored metal rings looked nothing like an animal. It more resembled…
“It’s a bullet,” said Ilsa under her breath.
Lemuel glanced at her. “What?”
“It’s like a giant bullet.”
“Last time I checked, a bullet flies straight,” he said.
“Could be like an Ayochian extended round.” Blue stared at the bullet. “Just a lot bigger.”
Ilsa grunted. “It’s headed toward us. If it’s going to explode, we need to take shelter.” She turned to Siuku. “Keeper, we need to get to cover.”
Siuku’s pale pink eyes were wide. “What have we done?” she murmured, barely audible over the approaching roar of the monstrous flying machine.
Ilsa drove her legs into Hailek’s sides. “We have to split up. That thing could explode.”
The riders all looked at Siuku. The Keeper of Tenlyres snapped her eyes shut. “Go. Scatter and meet again at the pass north through the mountains.”
The Oshomi turned their steeds and raced off in small groups, like scattering spray from a shotgun. The smoking missile cast a dark smear against the blue and gray mountainsides not far away. But Siuku did not move. She stayed on her steed and stared at the approaching object.
“Keeper.” Ilsa rode to her side.
“What have we done?” Siuku repeated. “The Uzan are behind this.” Tears ran from her eyes and vanished behind her veil. “And we freed them.”
“We can set it right. But we can only do that if survive.”
“Hathanian words. A platitude, priestess.”
“If you’re dead, you aren’t any use to your people.” Ilsa grimaced.
Blue rode up on Siuku’s other side. “Keeper, I don’t know what you are, but you can heal people. Don’t throw yourself away.”
“Yes, and you can do even more.” Ilsa reached out and touched Siuku’s arm. “Come with us to Morhoen, to Koor’s Temple. We can work from there.”
Siuku turned her teary eyes to Ilsa. “You are convincing, priestess. I will ride with you to fight another day.”
They turned their steeds, and like the others left the path of the missile. Its cloud and scream closed with then. Only when they reached the point where they should pass the horrifying machine almost a kilometer away from its massive shadow, Ilsa realized her gamble would not work. The machine banked toward the three of them and then angled to dive toward the ground.
The machine closed the lateral distance. Ilsa drew her pistols and loaded them with full magazines. She glared at the approaching missile even as she tried to guide Hailek to evade the impact. The shroud of smoke fell over Ilsa, Blue, and Siuku, even at full gallop. The scream of turning rings on the machine’s side became piercing. The sound felt as if it cut clear through Ilsa’s mind to her soul.
The missile outraced them and then plunged the final few meters down into the earth, tearing apart the steppe between them and the mountains. Ilsa winced at the scream and roar and shower of earth, plants, and icy water that erupted from the impact. The ground below Hailek rippled. Then, like a geyser in reverse, the ground fell away beneath her and her steed. Ilsa fell with a shout of warning she could barely even hear.
Ilsa tumbled from the saddle but managed to land on her feet. Her boots splashed into the freezing, ankle-deep water of a broken Lotok well. Large root systems that made up the plains-dwelling plant piles in this area were visible amid the earth and debris from the impact. Jagged crevasses ran through the plains where the well had ruptured.
Her spine ached. She grunted and straightened her back, still holding both pistols. She and Hailek had fallen around six meters, but there wasn’t enough room for Hailek to muster the momentum to jump out of the hole, even if the surface was safe. For his part, the wooly strider lowered his hairy head and sniffed at Ilsa’s dirty face. She patted him. “We’ll get out of here. I’ll find a way.”
Her ears still rang from the massive sound of the impact and her own words sounded far away. She climbed up the line to Hailek’s back and stood on the saddle to look over the edge of the hole. She peered out carefully, balancing with her hand against the dirt of one nearby wall.
The ground was cracked and broken in every direction. What had been an area of fragile ground formed by a Lotok’s series of wells, geysers, and piles just moments ago, had become a morass of leaky ponds and open rifts in the earth. Smoke billowed from the impact crater ahead of them.
Ilsa shivered as water sank through her boots and into her socks.
She could not see Siuku, Blue, or either of their steeds, but she knew she had to find them. Her eyes darted this way and that. At last, she sat down in Hailek’s saddle. With a groan, she realized with pain that something in her back must be bruised. She scowled, and turned Hailek to head toward the chasm in the walls that looked just big enough to let him through to the next nearby well which had also broken open by the impact.
The narrow gap made for a tight squeeze. Ilsa turned side-saddle and pulled up her legs to give Hailek passage. Water and roots dripped around her, gnarled roots formed a canopy over her head, turning the skinny space dark. She emerged into the next open well and found the horse Siuku had been riding, lying broken and twisted in the water.
The poor animal was dead, neck bent the wrong way. The saddlebags were gone. Siuku must be looking for a way out of the collapse. The well stretched out longer than the one where Ilsa had fallen. The steppe she could see on the far end looked stable enough for a strider.
She switched her legs to sit astride her steed and then urged Hailek with pressure to the flanks. He leaped onto the surface of the plain, a plain crumbling for kilometers around. The ground shifted, but remained in place enough for him to walk forward a few more steps.
Ilsa rocked back in the saddle. Her aching back flared in protest, but she held herself upright. She gritted her teeth and scanned the way to the mountains. The missile fired from the Central Lyre still smoked. Its nose was buried halfway in the earth up ahead, but otherwise, the huge metallic chunk looked the same as when it had been airborne.
Shapes either black as night or pale as paper, moved around the monolithic piece of ammunition. Each of those shapes, while vaguely humanoid, was clearly too large to be a normal human. Each was well over three meters tall, Ilsa judged, and their necks were far shorter. Patterns crisscrossed their skin, dark on the light-skinned creatures and light on the dark-skinned ones, though they were difficult to see well through the wisps of smoke.
One of the dark Uzan raised a bulky, four-fingered hand and pointed at Ilsa. Two others looked at the first, then turned toward Ilsa with grunts and growls.
She scanned the opened wells of the Lotok around her, desperately searching for Siuku and Blue in the watery bogs. She did not find them. I’m not going to leave without them, she thought. They were both her mission and her friends.
The two Uzan marched toward Ilsa, now just twenty meters away. Ilsa checked her pistols. Both still clean and dry enough to fire, despite the fall through dirt and water. She leveled them at the two demonic monsters as the Uzan started to pick their way across the surface of the broken Lotok toward her.
A foreign thought flickered into her head.
I’m with the keeper. We’re a few meters North of you, in the pit.
Blue’s mind-eater communication was unmistakable.
Ilsa did her best to push one thought to the fore of her nervous mind.
Can you sense the Uzan?
Two of them, coming at you. I feel them, Blue sent back.
As the Uzan closed to ten meters from Ilsa, they each began to walk with an unstable, awkward gait. Gun-barrels emerged from their etched chests as if they pushing out of a liquid instead of flesh. The lead one also produced the barrel of a gun from the palm of each hand. Though no weapons appeared fully-formed, Ilsa guessed the monsters would not need to have the guns completely free to use them.
She grimaced and took aim, unsure of what bullets would do to the monsters.
Blue, if you’re going to take one of them over, now would be a good time.
No answer. All Ilsa’s thoughts were her own for the next minute. The lead Uzan raised the barrel of the guns in its palms. Guns roared just as real as any other. Hailek lurched as a large round cut a bloody trail across his side. A shot any closer to his center of mass might have killed him.
Ilsa cringed low in the saddle and urged the strider sideways with her bodyweight. She peered over the saddle. Hailek’s blood began to flow from the wound. The lead Uzan took another step forward and prepared to fire again.
The second monster shot the first in the back with all the weapons that had emerged from its chest.
The fusillade ripped the lead Uzan’s back to pieces and the monster sagged to its knees. Ilsa stared, surprised, and relieved. The creature’s arms reached up and seized the sides of its head. A struggle passed through the yellow eyes of the Uzan.
Blue was trying to make the monster kill itself, but the creature fought back, a strength most humans who weren’t magi did not possess without extreme training. Slowly, the creature pulled its fingers free from the sides of its head. Ilsa did not give it the chance to recover and shoot.
She pumped one of her pistols into the creature’s head. The first bullet struck the forehead and left just a dent and a trickle of blood. The second disappeared through the eye of the monster. The Uzan staggered and then tumbled into one of the open Lotok wells.
At least they’re not immortal. I can kill them, she thought.
Ilsa urged Hailek forward. Blue’s open voice called to her from the largest well yet. She sat on her strider’s back, Siuku on the saddle behind her. Both looked wet and dirty from the fall into the Lotok.
Blue kicked her heels into the strider’s side and the creature crouched. Her steed carried her and Siuku out of the well with a high leap.
“Which way?” Ilsa asked.
“To the pass,” Blue called. “We’ll be safe at the Lake of Saints.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m a magus. I’ll explain the details later.” Their striders sprang over the pitted steppe. More Uzan began to clamber out of the larger crater where their huge bullet had crashed. Weapons began to emerge, but Ilsa and Blue’s striders were swift. They circled around the fallen shell. As they rode, Ilsa saw Blue’s face looked gray with strain. Her eyes were rolled this way and that as she battled the minds of each different Uzan.
Ilsa kept her pistols drawn and aimed at different Uzan. At least she could kill them if they got within range, but after the first two, they appeared warier. They stayed back. She hated the lack of a rifle. If her friend could not keep them from opening up with their weapons, she would be vastly outgunned by the hurricane of fire even one of the monsters would unleash.
“Keep it up,” she called, hoping to sound reassuring. “We’re almost there.”
Blue replied with only a grunt. Her eyes twitched involuntarily as they raced away from the fallen pod and toward the mountains. Ilsa counted every second, expecting a salvo of bullets in the back. But it did not come.
She took a cloth from her saddlebag beside her red staff of office and pressed it to the bleeding wound on Hailek’s side. “We’ll get through this,” she said to the strider. “We’ll get through.”
Blood spotted the makeshift bandage and leaked onto Ilsa’s hands. She pressed it tighter.
Two striders raced toward the pass in the mountains just a few kilometers ahead.