Ilsa, Blue, and their allies have arrived at the Lake of Saints.
But there is more in the mountains than the crater lake.
Enemies have followed them from the steppe.
The Red Lector’s troops have caught up.
The Lake of Saints was dark, but those infuriating lights still bounced along the far shore. In the shadow of Nurse Mountain, those lights were the only reflections on the water, the stars hidden by the curving peak. Ilsa clenched her free hand into a fist but knew even if she had a rifle she would not be able to hit anything on the opposite shore. At night, in shadow, and so far away she doubted even her father could shoot accurately.
Blue shook from head to toe. “Why did Ashnia ask where the Keeper was? They were already headed after her.”
“We can’t be sure why this happened.” Ilsa glanced at Blue. Her friend was hot with rage, so hot her skin could have been burning in the night. “But you’re right. We need to catch up, and fast.”
“I thought the Lake would be safe.” Blue glared at the lights.
“I’m surprised there are still Ayochians going after the Keeper, even after the Uzan attacked them. But there it is.”
“There it is.” Blue’s voice was almost a growl.
Ilsa grunted. “How do we catch up?”
A hawk cried from behind Ilsa and Blue. Megalli stood on the shore by the lodge, holding a long rifle by the barrel. A great hawk, even larger than the one Banasi had ridden over the plains, circled low and then landed beside the Vogmem leader.
Megalli waved them over. “If you’re light enough, one of you can ride with me.”
Ilsa gave the hawk a sideways glance. “You sure?”
“Sure as anything, priestess. Akirette and the Keeper need help. And I’m just one pretty little rider with decent aim.” She leaned close to the hawk and whispered something in the bird’s ear.
Ganara and four or five other Vogmem emerged from the doorway of the lodge. The yellow-haired Vogmem chieftain marched toward Megalli, Ilsa, and Blue, boots thudding on the stony shore. The smell of powder wafted in the air.
Ganara’s nostrils flared as she looked across the lake. “Vada damn them all. The Ayochians are going to attack the hermitage. There’s no way the runners will get there in time.”
Ilsa frowned at Megalli. “How many skyriders are camped here?”
“I have my personal guard. Ten riders and twenty hawks, but rousing them will take time.”
“We don’t have time,” Ganara said.
“I hate to agree with her, but she’s right.” Blue’s hot anger had subsided. She sounded numb. “That man who attacked us is dangerous on his own, and I sense at least ten riders on the far shore.”
“Can you take any of them over?” asked Ilsa.
“A strong magus is protecting them. I can’t get a grip on any individuals.”
Ilsa glanced at Megalli and her hawk. “We can’t just wait here. Megalli, I’ll fly with you.”
“Two guns are better than one.” Megalli loaded her old rifle with the tell-tale second clunk of an extended magazine bumping against the stock. She took the rifle the by the stock and then wrapped her other hand around one of the handles on the cloth saddle stretched between the hawk’s huge wings. Her legs folded into a crouch. Megalli turned to Ganara, all traces of her earlier teasing gone. “We’ll slow them down. Bring as many of your riders as you can rouse quickly.”
“I’m not going to let you fight alone.” Ganara folded her arms. “No honor in that.”
Hiragen and Lemuel made their way out of the lodge as Ilsa climbed onto the back of the hawk, loaded pistol in one hand. Lemuel ran up to Ilsa and the hawk. The bird shot him a gold-eyed glare. He backed off a step, both hands up in a soothing gesture.
“Ilsa, protect Tirica.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Lemuel gave a nod, his eyes on hers.
“Hold on, priestess,” Megalli said. Then she leaned forward and spoke to the hawk. The great wings beat and they lifted off the shore to fly across the dark waters. The hawk called into the howling wind, a piercing shriek that seemed as thought it could wake the dead.
Cold ran through Ilsa. Her fingers wrapped around one of the wooden handles on the back of the saddle, rough to the touch. The rocking motion of the great hawk’s wings nearly made her sick as they ascended. Then her stomach jumped as those wings spread and they fell into a steady downward glide.
She looked toward the fires of the Vogmem camp near the lodge. A few other winged shadows wheeled around the flickers of flame. Ilsa hoped they would be quick to follow her and Megalli. The wind bit into her skin, cold as any winter.
Ilsa returned her gaze to the bobbing lanterns passing along the rocky lake shore ahead of them. Her teeth chattering, she began to see that Blue had underestimated their numbers. Not ten, but twenty or more runners were cast in the lantern light, and these were only the ones riding with illumination. For all she knew, there could easily be twice that many.
Megalli spoke to the hawk with words Ilsa did not understand. The bird banked westward. The lights of the stars fell behind the shadows of Nurse Mountain. Ilsa squinted into the shadows. “Where is the hermitage?”
Megalli pointed with her rifle barrel, directly into the shadows at the base of the Mountain. “He lives in a cave near an abandoned Morhoen trading post.”
“A trading post?”
“There used to be an Ayochian fort, and before that a temple to Vada built by my people.”
Ilsa shivered and leaned in close behind Megalli. “There’s a lot of history to this place.”
“They say the hermit saw it all.”
“How old is this hermit?”
Megalli lowered the barrel of her rifle. “He was old when my grandmother became chieftain of the skyriders, and she has been gone for twenty years.”
Ilsa frowned as she considered the sort of lifespan that implied. “How?”
“I can’t be sure. But there are stranger things than immortal monks in this world.”
“Maybe. But I’ve never met an immortal.” Or have I? She scowled as her thoughts turned to Blue’s explanation of the Temple of Colors, and then to the Uzan.
“Neither have I. Only Akirette and Hiragen visit the hermit.”
The hawk banked to the east. They caught an updraft and Ilsa’s stomach lurched as they soared high over the shallows, then over the lake shore. She lost any thread of the conversation as Megalli guided the hawk in a dizzying downward spiral.
The outline of the old trading post appeared before them. The rotten supports of a collapsed pier extended into the water from a still-intact but vacant collection of wooden structures a short distance from the shore. Ilsa smelled decay but with it the flowers of white roses, the flowers of Hathani.
She peered into the darkness ahead of them as the bird glided to land beside the largest structure. Though she could not see, she knew Cass was close. Good. The hawk had been fast enough to outrace the Ayochian party. Ilsa climbed off the hawk. Her footsteps felt strange and comforting on solid ground once again.
Megalli nodded to her. “I’ll get airborne and cover you. Find the others, priestess.”
Almost funny, how authoritative the otherwise flighty young chieftain sounded now. Ilsa nodded to her. “I can smell one of them. They’re close.” At least, Cass is close. She prayed silently that Cass had not separated from the others.
The hawk beat its wings and ascended with Megalli.
Ilsa crouched and slipped through the shadows, moving her feet carefully to avoid as many loose stones possible. The smell of rotten wood seemed all the more intense when coupled with the fresh breeze off the lake. She made her way past one collapsed structure on the eastern side of the trading post and then froze. The lights of the Ayochian Party approached along the curved shore of the lake where traces of ice floated in the shallows.
At the head of the riders a tall man rode, a lantern pole propped against one shoulder and his other arm in a sling. Ilsa squinted to confirm her suspicion, but she could have guessed Kaij Haram would not have died back at the Central Lyre. Even after his wounds when the Oshomi broke through the Red Lector’s lines, and despite the Uzan’s brutal attack, he still rode high in the saddle. Behind him, she glimpsed the pale face of his lethal twin brother, the ice magus Yunn.
She gritted her teeth as she thought of the icy chill Yunn had sent to her heart. If not for Lemuel’s warmth and Cass’s sure shooting, she would have died on that field before ever reaching the Central Lyre. Her fear of the Red Lector’s sons was real, and somewhere Ferdinand lurked under the control of the Lector’s daughter. No telling about any others.
Ilsa kept moving toward the mountain, eyes adjusting to the inky darkness. Skin prickling with the cold, mouth dry, she breathed as softly and steadily as she could. She left the shelter of the trading post and crept up the steepening slope of the barren mountainside. Boulders strewn here and there provided her shelter, but she doubted they would have missed spotting her in those first few seconds.
A clatter of pebbles from ahead of her made her turn. A figure hunkered down behind a boulder ten meters further up the slope from Ilsa. She carried a long rifle of Chogrumian make, with a telescopic sight. Tirica shifted, and dislodged another few pebbles. They skittered down the slope, bouncing off other stones on the way down to the derelict buildings by the shore.
Ilsa waved a hand around the side of her boulder, motioning to Tirica, but did not call out, for fear of attracting too much attention to Lemuel’s sister. The Red Lector’s sons and their party of scouts had reached the trading post. The breathing of their animals was loud, interspersed with low purring sounds, and the click of claws on stones. Runners were vocal more often than the stoic-natured striders.
The bustle of motion below gave Ilsa the chance to sneak up the slope. She held her breath until she reached the stone where Tirica was hiding. She looked over her shoulder, but did not think Kaij, Yunn, or their troops had spotted her. At any rate, they did not fire a shot.
“Tirica,” said Ilsa. “Where are the others?”
“At the hermitage.” Tirica jerked her finger at the wide opening of finished stone in a section of sheer rock face, up the slope to the northeast, about forty meters away. “I was keeping watch.”
“Do you think we can get to the cave without them seeing us?” Ilsa asked.
Tirica exhaled. She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
The scuffle of the runners below drew Ilsa’s attention. One of the animals had broken away from the main group and was making its way up the slope slowly, riderless, paws padding on the stony scree. Ilsa frowned at the creature.
“What is it doing?” she murmured.
Tirica leaned in behind Ilsa. “What’s going on down there?”
“A distraction of course!” crowed a girlish voice from the rock above them. Ilsa glanced up and glimpsed the flicker of an iron barrel. She grabbed Tirica’s shoulders and pulled her sideways.
Melinda, her father’s apprentice, turned in her place atop of the boulder. “Found them,” she called to the scouts below.
Ilsa’s eyes narrowed as she lurched painfully up from the stone where she had pulled Tirica. She leveled her pistol at Melinda. Nothing to be gained from being stealthy now, she thought. It’s time to fight.
She squeezed the trigger.
Melinda fell to her belly on the top of the boulder, flattened to the stone. Ilsa’s shot went wide. One of Melinda’s arms extended. She held a pistol in her grip.
“What about you?”
“Get to the hermit.”
She gave no sign she had heard Ilsa but clutched her rifle to her chest.
Ilsa leveled her pistol at Melinda. The slim young gun bond grinned at Ilsa from beneath a mop of frizzy hair, still pressed to the top of the boulder.
Melinda rolled and spun on her back. Ilsa lost her view of the girl. She pelted toward the boulder and leaped. Melinda fired twice.
Blood rushed from Ilsa’s face as the wind and the shock of the sounds hit her. Yet there was no pain except for the ache of the impact when she hit the side of the rock. Her fingers found purchase. She scrambled to the top of the boulder just as Tirica’s running silhouette stumbled. Tirica fell.
Melinda cackled with laughter and rolled onto her back. Both pistols flew to aim at Ilsa. Ilsa’s pistol barrel slammed into the girl’s chin.
Melinda’s skull cracked against stone and the shots she fired went wide. The roar of powder came from the slope below. Bullets whistled past Ilsa from the scouts.
She fell into a crouch with a grunt and slammed her father’s psychotic apprentice again. Melinda’s laughter died away. Her eyes rolled back in her head and the pistols fell from her fingers.
Ilsa glanced down at the slope. One of the other scouts handed Kaij a shotgun. They stood just ten meters away. Ilsa slipped over the side of the boulder. She ran up the slope to where Tirica had fallen.
Tirica groaned as Ilsa touched her side.
Ilsa smelled blood, mingled with spent propellant. “Where did she hit you?”
“My shoulder.” Tirica grunted.
Ilsa helped her to her feet, feeling the wet of blood on her hands. “She’s down. We have to hurry.” And she helped Tirica to the mouth of the hermit’s cave.