Ilsa must protect the Keeper of Tenlyres from the forces of Ayoch.
Enemies are everywhere in the shadow of Nurse Mountain.
Tirica leaned on Ilsa as they made their way past the hairy bulk of a resting strider on the way into the hermit’s expansive cave. Ilsa frowned into the shadows ahead of them. “Where are the other steeds?”
“The Keeper sent them away to find food.” Tirica grimaced. “She said she would call them when they were needed. We sure could use them now.”
“I’m not so sure.” Ilsa looked over her shoulder at the still-darker night outside the cave. The lantern lights of the Red Lector’s troops bloomed among the boulders down the slope. “They’re going to have us surrounded soon.”
Tirica shuddered. “Damn it. My arm is going numb.” She flexed her fingers, but they only opened halfway.
“Must have been Melinda’s shots. She uses poison in her bullets.”
The girl nodded as they reached a bend in the passage. “Set me down here. I’ll watch our backs.”
“Lemuel told me to protect you. And I plan to do that.”
She barked a harsh laugh. “I’m used to protecting him. Let me do this.”
Ilsa looked at Tirica’s face. Sweat ran along her brow and her cheeks were pale. She shook her head. “You’re already hit. We need to get you to Siuku.”
“She can heal you.”
“Seems like that’s half of what she does.” Tirica groaned, and then lurched away from Ilsa. She stumbled and nearly fell, extended her arm and braced herself on the wall. “They’ll trap us in here if we both go. And I can’t walk alone.”
Ilsa thought about protesting, then nodded. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t do anything risky.”
“Thanks.” Tirica sat down, back to the wall, and unlimbered her rifle. She looked down the telescopic sight and watched the opening of the passage behind them. “Now go. The others should be straight down this passage.”
She left Tirica by the bend and proceeded along the smooth-worn stone floor of the chill cave. Warm orange lamplight grew as she continued, but the gentle tinge of color it gave the walls did little to ease her mind. Hopefully Blue and the others were on their way already. Megalli, and whatever small group of skyriders she could gather at this hour, simply would not be a match for the scouts alone.
Ilsa did not like being trapped. She might have studied at Saint Banyeen’s. She might have once longed for the chance to return to that place. Still, she would not want to be stuck in any kind of cage. And tactically this situation was terrible. At least twenty scouts outside.
Kaij. Yunn. And Ferdinand possessed and turned against her.
They were all deadly opponents. She wished she had taken the chance to finish Melinda, despite the cold feeling the idea of killing someone so young started to form in her stomach. As it was, Melinda could definitely be after them as well. Ilsa emerged from the passage with worry filling her mind.
Siuku, Cass, and two of Siuku’s riders stood on one side of the lampstand in the center of the small, roughly circular chamber. On the other side, a small man in what appeared to be his early sixties sat upon a thick mat, probably stuffed with goat wool. He wore Vogmem-style hide clothing, had Morhoenese features, white hair, and his eyes were closed tight. Pale lips moved as he chanted in a voice so low Ilsa could not make out any hint of his language. The hermit did not react as Ilsa entered.
A wizened Vogmem woman, who looked even older than the man on the mat, detached herself from the wall beside the mat. Deep lines crossed her face. She reached for a small revolver at her waist, even as Siuku and the others turned toward Ilsa.
Ilsa raised her hands. “It’s alright,” she said. “I’m here with the Keeper.”
Siuku nodded to the woman. “She speaks truth, Akirette.”
Shadows deepened in Akirette’s face. “Where is the other one? What about the shots we heard?”
“Tirica was hit. She’s okay, and watching the entrance, but there are a lot of Ayochians outside.” Ilsa turned to Siuku. “Can you go help her?”
“From the sound of things we are outnumbered.” Siuku’s eyes moved toward the hermit and Akirette over her veil. “I will return in a moment.” She turned to the rider on her left, a young man. “Okko. Bring your lance and follow me.”
He picked up a short lightning lance from where it was propped against the wall behind him. “I only have one shot of lightning left, Keeper.”
“Then we will make the most of it.” Siuku turned to the other rider, a scarred woman, older than the young lightning catcher. “Takudu, stay here and protect the hermit.”
“As you wish, Keeper. Though I would prefer to accompany you.”
Ilsa nodded to the Oshomi woman. “Stay. I’ll protect the Keeper for you.”
The hermit’s eyes snapped open and fixed on Ilsa’s face. “No. Ilsa Barrett. Stay where you are.” His voice came out as series of wheezed breaths, and though his eyes focused on Ilsa, their green irises wobbled as if not fully focused.
A chill crept through Ilsa as she met his wavering gaze. “How do you know my name?”
“I know you. You are a friend to Nameless.”
“You mean Blue.”
“She still calls herself Blue? She earned that privilege, but abandoned it when she fled the temple.”
Ilsa started toward him. “You. You’re a mind eater.”
The hermit’s pale lips parted in a grimace of pain. “I am indeed.”
Akirette’s eyes flicked down toward the hermit. She scowled. “I don’t believe it.”
“You should know better by now, child,” the hermit said without looking at the Vogmem chieftain. “After all our discussions, I never told you before because I thought you would not understand.”
“I’m no magus.” Akirette’s brows furrowed. “But I am the eldest of my people yet living.”
“Indeed.” The hermit’s eyes remained on Ilsa. “But next to a thousand years of study you still have much to learn.”
Ilsa glared at the man before her. “That doesn’t explain how you lived so long.”
“Ten years in the Temple of Colors are as one year in this world. But while we commune within, we are suspended outside of time.” The hermit grinned with dirty teeth. “I am confident you will believe me, Ilsa. After all, you trust Nameless.”
“We have no time for this,” said Siuku. “Hermit, we have a battle to fight.”
“Bring me Nameless,” said the hermit. “Give her to the temple, and I will help you survive this night.”
Ilsa grunted. “We can’t give you Blue. She has to decide for herself.”
Akirette’s lined, shadowy scowl moved so her eyes locked with Ilsa’s. “How many are there?”
“At least twenty. All Ayochian veterans.”
“We will need help to survive long enough for help to arrive,” said Akirette.
Ilsa glared at her. “They’re close by now.”
A gunshot echoed down the passage, the familiar sound of Tirica’s long rifle.
“The Ayochians are closer.” Akirette’s eyes narrowed. “Negotiate for your friend if we live through this.”
Siuku nodded to Ilsa. “I agree with the Vogmem. Much as I hate to say it.”
“Blue fought for you. For us.”
The hermit smirked. “She will continue to fight for you. But right now, I am here and she is not.”
Another shot from Tirica’s rifle sounded. Staccato fire from the Ayochian scouts answered this time. Ilsa gritted her teeth. She turned to Cass. “What about you?”
Cass inhaled a deep breath. “Hathani keep me. I don’t want to die here.”
“We won’t have to, either way. At least fifty Vogmem riders are on their way around the lake.”
“Give up Nameless. I will guarantee all of our safety.”
“Do you even have that much power?” Ilsa felt the urge to cry, as she had before she last saw her mother back in Dal. She fought back that urge.
“One thousand years of study are at my command. I will bend these foes to my will. Just say the words.”
Ilsa turned her back on him. She clenched her fist at her side. Her other hand found her pistol. “I will not give up my friend.”
“Then you will fight this battle without me.” The hermit’s eyes became unfocused, their intensity fading. His posture did not change, but Ilsa could tell his senses were gone from the world.
Akirette gave a high-pitched laugh. “Should have known. I always hated Dalites. And you clergy are the worst of them all.” She turned to Siuku. “Keeper, we must fight.”
“I know.” Siuku picked up her bow and her half-full quiver of arrows. “Fortune be with us.”
“Fortune favors the careful.” Akirette drew her revolver and checked its chambers. She glanced at Ilsa. “If I die here, I will haunt you, girl.”
“I look forward to it.” Ilsa stalked down the passage toward the insistent and growing sounds of gunfire.
She hated the sense of dread that built within her mind as she walked. Had she thrown away their chance at survival? She would not think on it. She unfolded her clenched hand and produced her shotgun as she did. The bond burned, almost as hot as the original branding. But pain meant nothing at that moment. She listened to Siuku and the lightning catcher’s footsteps behind her. Akirette stayed further back with Cass.
Ilsa told herself they would win, with or without the hermit’s help. She loaded the shotgun with the one set of shells she had brought with her for it and stayed close to the wall as she walked toward where Tirica sat by the bend in the passage.
Tirica pressed her back to the dark stone and started to reload, knees pulled in tight. One of the scouts ducked around the mouth of the cave and trained his gun on her. Ilsa raised her arm. She dropped the man with a shot from her pistol. She felt hollow as he fell back with a scream of pain. The smell of her powder burned in her nose.
Her first shot of the battle rang in the ear. Let it not also be the last, she hoped in a dark prayer. This is where the missions had always led her, to blood and pain.
She twisted at the hip. Her aim was true when she fired again. Another Ayochian soldier fell to the stony hillside. The sound of a rifle skittering down the slope scraped at Ilsa’s ears. She stopped beside Tirica, who finished reloading. Her eyes scanned for any signs of movement in the darkness.
“You holding up.”
“Trying.” Tirica sounded breathless.
Siuku crouched down beside Tirica, searching her shoulder for the holes Melinda’s bullets had torn in her clothes. She did not take long, once she found the traces of blood.
Okko, the young lightning catcher, caught up with Ilsa. He held his short-hafted lance like a rifle. He saw the fallen Ayochian on the slope and at the mouth of the cave. His off-hand fell to the butt of a pistol in his belt. “Tell me where you want me, priestess.”
“Follow me. How much lightning do you have?”
“Only one shot left, but a big shot.”
“Stay close.” Ilsa glanced at Siuku and Tirica. The Keeper of Tenlyres removed her veil with one hand. She pulled back the fabric from the hole where dark blood welled up.
Two bullets. One wound. Melinda shot with deadly precision. How could she have failed to kill Tirica with accuracy like that?
Ilsa took a breath and turned to face the lake, where moonlight gleamed on the water. She stepped forward, moving cautiously. She had to avoid being detected by Yunn or he could easily freeze her where she stood if his powers were still as strong as they had been back at the Central Lyre.
She held the shotgun in one hand, and her pistol in the other. She stalked toward the mouth of the cave. She heard Cass’s voice exclaim in concern when the other priestess reached Tirica and Siuku.
Ilsa swept the muzzle of the shotgun in an arc, silent for the moment, but ready to roar with lethal power at a moment’s notice. Okko’s footsteps were nearly silent, close behind her. Blood and propellant wafted in the fresh air. But mostly, she smelled the water of the lake with a hint of the moldering trading post below. The wind was soft and cold on her face. Good. Kaij and Melinda with their bonded senses would likely not be able to pinpoint her by smell, even once she started shooting.
She and Okko walked past Tirica’s strider. The animal might have a simple mind, but it was smart enough to have cringed against the wall of the cave to minimize its visibility to the outside. At the very mouth of the cave, Ilsa stopped in her paces. She spotted a flurry of movement around the boulder where she had fought Melinda.
The psychotic girl’s form was gone from the top of the stone. Kaij stood with a rifle in hand, aiming down the sights despite the sling on one arm. Ilsa ducked back, pushing Okko behind her with the arm that held her pistol. Kaij’s shot whined through the air, then cracked the rocky ceiling within the cave mouth. Traces of gray dust drifted down.
Judging by the large size of the bullet, and the small flickers of etched text visible on its sides were it had not vanished into the stone, this was a magus round. Ilsa’s mind conjured a dozen curses as Yunn’s power began to manifest in frosty tendrils creeping out from the crack where the bullet had embedded itself in the stone.
Okko stared. “What is that?”
“War magic,” said Ilsa. “Don’t let the frost touch you.”
Okko answered with a grunt as he retreated toward the bend where Tirica and Siuku were still in cover. Frost crept toward Tirica’s unflappable strider, moving down the wall of the cave in feathery patterns. The animal seemed completely unaware of the spreading danger.
Ilsa yelled at the strider. The animal raised its head and turned toward her. “Get outside,” said Ilsa. “Go.”
The strider lumbered to its feet and lurched out of the mouth of the cave. Ayochian bullets screamed and whined through the air. The strider must have been hit at least once because it roared in pain. Then the steed charged off into the night. It’s feet thudded on the slope.
The sound of gunshots faded. Ilsa backed away from the frost, which had reached the floor and filled the exit of the passage. Ice crystals began to build up. She grimaced at the growing bluish mirror that reflected the light from around the bend behind her.
She held the shotgun out in front of her. “Is this your plan, Yunn? To trap us in here?”
“Not at all, priestess,” Yunn replied from the darkness around the mouth of the cave. “I’d rather kill you, to be honest.”
Ilsa frowned. Something above her rattled. She glanced up at the ceiling just as a shard of ice dropped. She threw herself backward, but the ice cut along her sleeve and drew blood from one arm. Another icicle wobbled overhead. He had sent the ice further into the cave along the ceiling faster than she had hoped. Her shotgun blast shattered the icicle into a freezing spray.
She retreated further, showered in biting, clinging frost and pelted by ice.
Ilsa rounded the bend. “Get back, everyone.”
Siuku helped Tirica to her feet. Cass retreated along with Akirette, almost to the Hermit’s inner chamber.
Okko glanced around the corner, his breath mist in front of him. “They’re coming in.”
Ilsa could tell he was right from the sound of footsteps and reflections of lantern light glimmering on the icy walls. She stepped out, both guns raised. Kaij and Yunn stood behind four other Ayochian scouts.
“End of the road, priestess.” Yunn’s eyes were unfocused. He gritted his teeth with concentration and sent a wave of ice creeping around the bend beside Ilsa. The frost leaped to Tirica and Siuku.
Ilsa released a frustrated growl, words gone in her anger, and opened up with her shotgun and pistol. Arms shook with recoil and ears rang with the deafening din of fire. The scouts ducked to the walls and retaliated. Kaij pulled Yunn to one side, as their soldiers covered them.
She could not approach the wall, but kept moving forward. One bullet cut through her shoulder in an explosion of pain. Another rang off the barrel of her shotgun and made her aim with the weapon go wild. A third round whistled by her ear. A spray of shot perforated her leg just below the knee. Ilsa’s breath caught in her chest.
Pain burned through her middle, but she realized she had not been hit there. The pain was her own heart thumping. Another shot hit her side and she fell to one knee.
She turned the shotgun with one round left and pulled the trigger. A scout leveled a rifle at her. His shot would have hit her in the forehead had she not fallen flat as she retaliated.
The last of the four scouts between her and the Red Lector’s sons shuddered and slumped to the ground. Ilsa gasped in breathless pain as she aimed her pistol at Yunn. “Call off your brother, Kaij,” she said through gritted teeth. “Or I will.”
“Too late for your Chogrumian friend, I bet.” Yunn’s eyes refocused, and he looked nervous.
Kaij fired two shots from a borrowed pistol. Both hit Ilsa, one cut across her hip. The other ripped a gash in her stomach as she rolled over, trying to dodge. She grunted in pain and refocused to shoot. But the brothers Haram were gone from the cave.
Ilsa struggled to stand up but failed. She settled for pressing her hand to the blood wound across her abdomen. The cold and pain and dizziness from blood loss were intense. She lay on her back, wounds bleeding and looked around the bend to where the others had hidden.
Siuku and Tirica held each other tightly for warmth from Yunn’s frost. Tirica seemed barely conscious, but Siuku nodded to Ilsa over the girl’s shoulder, tears in her red eyes. Okko stood behind them, with a helpless expression on his face.
Her vision wavered. The sound of hoofbeats approached along the lake shore. But all she smelled was her own blood and powder, fresh and pungent. The cold closed in around her as Siuku helped Tirica to support herself on Okko, then turned toward Ilsa.
“You fought like a demon,” said Siuku, as she limped to Ilsa’s side and then sank to her level.
Ilsa gave a dull nod as Siuku unfastened the button that held up her veil. The world swam with agony. Ilsa drifted into blackness.