This chapter took a long time for me to get my head around, but now the story is back from hiatus. Thank you for your patience, and look for more Author’s Notes about the story in later chapter releases.
Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
Negotiations between the forces have been interrupted by the Uzan.
Ilsa and Blue have the Ayochian mind eater captive, but can they escape?
Hooves and strider feet pounded on the rocky mountainside.
“How did they sneak up on us?” Blue asked as they crested the ridge.
“We don’t know much about Uzan,” Ilsa said. “But I wouldn’t have guessed they could be so stealthy either.”
A clip of feet on the rocks and tufts of grass behind them made Ilsa look back. She spotted Ferdinand on his white strider, fast in pursuit. His hands were empty, and his feet swung into the sides of the creature to force it faster up the slope. His eyes were focused in a cloudy, fearsome, way that made obvious the fact of Ashnia’s continued control. Ilsa grunted in frustration.
The Ayochian woman seemed to be hovering somewhere between consciousness and a daze, slung across the saddle between Ilsa and Blue, but still, her control of Ferdinand remained.
“How is she doing this?” Ilsa asked Blue. “Shouldn’t her powers have broken?”
“The Temple has a way of extending the powers of their members.” Blue’s brow furrowed, eyes with the distant look she always wore when using her powers. “Usually they need some way to connect to anyone who uses their abilities.”
“How would they connect right now?”
“A plant pile with an interface device.”
Ilsa looked down at Ashnia, struggling against the saddle before her, pinned down by her knees and Blue’s back. As the strider carried them down the path from the ridge, Ilsa frowned. “Where would she keep a plant pile?”
“It only has to be a small piece of one. Sometimes they manage to grow them small enough to fit on a piece of jewelry, like a brooch or a pendant.”
Ilsa’s eyes caught a flicker of pendulous motion just below Ashnia’s face. A locket, the kind made to be hollow, previously tucked into her coat swung at the end of a silver chain and bounced back and forth with the strider’s gallop.
“Or a necklace?” Ilsa said.
She felt Blue’s touch in her mind. Her friend went stiff in the saddle for a second.
“Ilsa, grab that locket. It could weaken her powers.”
Ilsa leaned sideways on the back of the saddle, easing the pressure of her knees on Ashnia’s back as she did. The stunned mind eater’s eyes flicked in her direction, but Ilsa experienced no mental attack as her hand darted toward the locket at the end of the chain. Her outstretched fingertips brushed the edge of the metallic necklace, nearly able to grip the egg-shaped jewelry. She felt a rough fuzz like moss on the outside of the shell. No doubt, this was the object the Temple was using to assist Ashnia.
Ilsa stretched her arm, still leaning over the side to get the locket, hanging away from her as they went downhill. Ashnia’s eyes met hers, but the woman said nothing. The locket swung back toward Ilsa as Blue slowed her steed for an instant.
Ashnia’s eyes narrowed. She swung her forehead into Ilsa’s nose. The impact sent a blunt pain from her nose to the back of her skull. An explosion of pale spots flashed across Ilsa’s vision. She reeled backward and her legs lost their grip on the saddle. Ashnia shoved her whole body into Ilsa and they tumbled off the strider’s back.
Ilsa hit the hard-packed earth of the mountain. Her head thumped against soil. In a haze of pain, she pushed Ashnia off of her chest and scrambled backward to dodge the step of Ferdinand’s great strider.
The Chogrumian adventurer thundered down the slope about twenty meters behind Blue and her strider but then wheeled his mount toward where Ashnia and Ilsa lay battered and struggling to stand up.
She scowled and did not bother feeling her nose, from which dripped a trickle of blood. I am not giving up. I am getting out of here alive.
Further away on the slope of Nurse Mountain’s shoulder ahead of Blue, Siuku, Ganara and the rest of the survivors from the parley had reached the larger Vogmem force, a line of riders on heavy goats stretched across the slope silhouetted against the pale waters of the Lake of Saints below.
Ilsa faced Ferdinand. Her nose and skull throbbed. The man drew a javelin from one of his feet. He readied it in one hand, while his short-bladed lance with its basket guard emerged from the bond on the other. Ilsa stretched out her arms and her pistols appeared between clenched fingers.
This time, she might not be able to spare him. This time she might not be able to survive his attack. This time she had to give it her all. She loaded her pistols as best she could, keeping her eyes on Ferdinand. Ashnia rolled onto her front, gasping for breath. A stone had opened a cut by one ear, and blood trickled into her hair on that side. She put her hands to the ground to push herself to her feet.
Ilsa reached her and kicked her in the stomach.
Ashnia twisted to one side with a cry of pain. She scowled up at Ilsa, eyes focusing. Ilsa aimed one pistol at Ashnia, and the other at Ferdinand to keep him wary. “Call him off. Or you die.”
Ashnia gritted her teeth. “Damn it. You’re a Dalite. Why are you fighting us?”
Thunderous hoof-beats and crunching steps announced the approach of Uzan even as warriors rode up the slope, led by Ganara. Siuku hung back. Good, Ilsa thought, glad the Keeper was keeping herself out of direct danger for the moment.
Ilsa brought her focus back to Ashnia and Ferdinand. The controlled Chogrumian adventurer rode straight for them, a second javelin in his hand.
The Uzan sounded close, and again Ilsa wondered how they had moved so silently through the grove to spring their ambush. They certainly made plenty of noise now.
Blue sent a thought into her mind. I’ve got the hermit on defense. I’ll have Ferdinand free in–Give me a minute.
Blue’s presence vanished before Ilsa could send back. Don’t have a minute. Ferdinand’s white strider carried him within ten meters. He hurled his javelin.
A jolt of raw fury mixed with Ilsa’s adrenaline. She ducked forward, in a fractured moment, stepping onto Ashnia’s chest in the process. A gasp of air left the mind eater’s lungs. Ilsa’s hands steadied to aim her pistols at Ferdinand as his javelin flew over her shoulder.
She fired twice from each weapon. One of the bullets took Ferdinand in the shoulder and made him drop the long lance he carried. His basket-hilted lance appeared in his other hand.
Five meters. Four. Three.
Ilsa took aim.
Ferdinand stabbed down at her. She tried to reel herself backward, but fingers wrapped around her feet. Ashnia locked her in place. The blade of the lance stabbed toward Ilsa’s chest. She dropped her guns and brought her hands toward the blade.
A pin-prick of pain erupted into a screaming burst of unequaled agony as the weapon carved a wound just below her collar centimeters from her heart. Ilsa’s pistols fell into the dirt. She held her hands tight on the rounded sides of the lance blade.
She took the weapon with her as she fell backward. Ashnia released her feet and let her tumble to the cold ground. Her head hit a rock with a crack that made her see lights, her mother’s face from her childhood, the moment she had realized Blue was a mind eater, and the image of Cass on the day they had both been initiated by the high priestess.
The lance rose over her like a flagpole planted in her chest, radiating pain from where blood welled up through her tunic and coat.
One arm felt cold and far away. She clenched the other, nearly blind with pain, and nauseous from her fall. She felt the grip of her machine gun form as she relaxed her grip just enough. The brand burned. She turned her aching head to one side. Two Uzan approached. Both already had bullet-holes visible in their heads, and she recognized them from her encounter with the huge shell back on the plains.
Damn them. Some things cannot die. She coughed, and found her spit mercifully free of blood. How deep did this lance go? She knew she was going into shock. Her legs jittered, uncooperative. The life of a mercenary often ended this way. Her mother’s face swam into view again.
“I can’t,” she said.
Luca Barrett appeared like Ilsa had last seen her, pale and alone in her room in the hospital, for her own safety. The same room where Ilsa had told her she would return.
“Mother, I can’t.”
“Ilsa, where are you?”
“I’m in the mountains. Mother, I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again. But I’m glad I can see you now.”
With a soft groan, she let her machine gun settle to the rocky ground at her side, still pointed toward the Uzan.
“Ilsa…” her mother said, “…Is this really you?”
“Yes. No. Damn it, I think so.”
“I can hear you. I can’t see you.”
“I’m north of Yr, in the mountains. By The Three, I think I’m dying.”
You aren’t going to die, another voice said in her mind. Ilsa.
“Who are you?” Ilsa said in a dry, husky voice that sounded far away.
Ilsa, it’s Blue. I’ve got them. Ferdinand and Ashnia. I stopped them.
The Uzan, Ilsa. Please, I’ve got them stopped. You just need to pull the trigger.
So Ilsa did. She squeezed the trigger of that distant arm. Recoil made the gun jump up when fired one-handed, but she compensated with the weight of her body rolling to one side. Even touching her body brought pain, but the bulky, hazy shapes of the two Uzan fell from her shots. Somehow she had found a way to aim at them without knowing it. They continued to pull themselves forward on their arms and hands, dragging their mutilated legs.
Then Ilsa lost the thread of reality.
She sank into her vision of her mother, back in the hospital.
“I stopped them.”
“That’s good, Ilsa,” said her mother.
“I’m protecting my friends.”
“I thought you didn’t have friends?”
“I’ve been wrong about that before. I’ve always had them. Always.”
Blue’s real voice stabbed back into her like another lance.
“Ilsa, you have to come back.”
“Blue. I see my mother.”
“You’re hurt, but not that bad.”
“Well, I’m hallucinating, so I’d say it’s that bad.”
“The lance is out. Siuku is almost here.”
“Well, tell her I’m not gonna be all there. Sorry.”
“We’re safe for now. Ilsa, don’t do this to me.”
“Don’t do what?”
Mother said, “Go with your friends, Ilsa.”
“You can hear her?”
“She told you not to die.”
“Yeah, not much I can do about that.” Ilsa’s eyelids fluttered. A soft swish of sound. Siuku’s pale face and pinkish eyes looked down at her. Ilsa’s eyes opened wide. The lance lay on the ground to one side, a good half-meter of its blade speckled with her blood.
Before Ilsa’s eyes, the deadly length of steel with it’s edge etched in patterns like serpents twining together faded into the smoky haze of a bonded weapon returning to its master.
Siuku uttered a cry and pressed her white hands over Ilsa’s heart.
Fiery feeling ran fresh through Ilsa’s previously numb arm. Warmth and pain crept back through her body. She lurched toward Siuku.
“Mother.” She felt tears in her eyes. “I felt her.”
“Priestess, be still,” Siuku said in a breathless voice. “You were close to the edge. I don’t know if I could repair it all. It…” She sat back on her knees, eyes looking at the sun overhead. “It brought me there too.”
Blue caught Siuku about the shoulders before she could fall. With a dull sense of satisfaction, Ilsa noticed Blue held Ashnia’s locket in her other hand.
Ganara and her Vogmem warriors had formed a circle around the three of them, as well as Ashnia, and Ferdinand. They helped Ilsa and Siuku onto the backs of different steeds and then retreated down the rough rocks of the mountain’s shoulder.
She could not sit up but clutched her bloody coat together at her chest, hands pressed to her heart, which somehow kept on beating, despite the pain of a bruise forming so near it. Every beat reminded her she was alive, at least for now.
Ilsa limped away from the Vogmem rider who had helped her back to the main body of troops and then to the camp. She did not get far before a wave of dizziness ran through her and she sagged to the ground near the lodge where the Four of the Vogmem met.
A team of skyriders circled above the camp on their hawks. Ilsa sat, head bowed, eyes closed, breathing deeply. She heard rather than saw the Oshomi helping Siuku back to her tent, and Blue ordering a close guard to be kept on Ashnia.
Ilsa’s whole body smelled of her own blood, a smell that was growing far too familiar to her lately.
Lemuel and Tirica approached on soft feet, but their voices gave them away despite being hushed in tone. They drew near and Lemuel knelt down beside her, one hand on her arm. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“No, I don’t think I am.”
The memory of her mother from childhood mingled with the conversation she had just hallucinated. That woman was still in one piece, not yet ruined by father.
Ilsa sighed and looked at Lemuel’s face. “I don’t know what happened. I had a feeling like I was somewhere else.”
He put his small hand around her side. “I’ve heard that happens sometimes when someone is hurt.”
“I’ve heard of it. It never happened to me before, not even last night.” Ilsa grimaced down at her lap. “I’m still not sure if that’s even what it was. I saw–I saw my mother, Lemuel.”
“She’s still alive, isn’t she?”
“She is. I just. I don’t know why, but I could talk to her.” Ilsa shook her aching head. “I need to rest. Help me up.”
Together, Lemuel and his sister got her to her feet. She did not know how she managed it, but she made it to the tent and then lay down on her bedroll. Tirica left. Lemuel touched her arm. “I can stay if you want.”
She nodded faintly to him, then lay her head back on the thin pillow. “Stay.” Where her wound had been, a dark bruise showed through the hole in her layers of clothes. Just looking at it made her nauseous and the tent around her swam with odd shadows and colors. But she did not hear her mother. She shivered at the cold of the mountain beneath the bedroll. She rolled onto her side, facing away from Lemuel.
“Would you lay down,” she asked. “Please?”
He tentatively lowered himself down beside her. “Anything you need.” He eased himself against her back and wrapped his longer arm around her side. She reached for his hand and held it tighter than she meant, smooth in her scarred palm. His small hand brushed the back of her neck.
“Thanks,” she murmured.
And without another thought, she drifted to sleep.