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Ilsa and her comrades are facing an approaching battle in the mountains.
Her old mentor, Koor, as arrived, and wishes to interrogate one of their prisoners, an Ayochian mind eater Blue met in the Temple of Colors.
Danger lurks in the mind.
Ashnia Haram lay on a bedroll in a tent near the center of the Vogmem camp, separate from the other prisoners. She appeared to be unconscious, rolled onto her side, and did not stir when Ilsa, Blue, and Koor entered the tent. Cass stood at the foot of the bedroll, broken arm in a sling, and her good hand gripping her red staff of office.
Ilsa stopped short when she saw her. “Cass.”
Cass looked up in surprise as Ilsa and the others entered. “Ilsa,” she said. “What is it? Who is this?”
“This is Koor,” said Ilsa. “Morhoen’s highest priest of the Unification.”
Cass’ eyes narrowed. “What is he doing here?”
“Making plans, alliances.” Koor nodded toward Cass. “You are also a priestess of Hathani?”
“I am. I’m from Saint Banyeen’s Garden, like Ilsa.”
“I know who you are,” said Koor. “Perhaps one day you will accept the importance of Unification.”
“She’s still asleep,” said Blue as she walked over to Ashnia. “Mostly fatigue, I would guess.” She sank to her knees beside the unconscious blond woman.
Koor nodded. “Luckily, we won’t need to wake her to begin our interrogation. There is much even Blue could not tell us about the Temple of Colors, not to mention our current situation caught between the forces of the Red Lector and the Uzan.”
He walked over to where Blue sat, then, supported with one hand on her shoulder, sat down on the mat beside her. “We will have to make sure the hermit does not interfere. Can you do that?”
“I’m not sure. If you help me, then maybe.”
“I’m not the magus I once was.” Koor looked at Ilsa. “But I have a sense Ilsa can assist us.”
Ilsa started with surprise. “What? I’m not magus.”
“Maybe not, but you have seen a vision, have you not?”
“When Ferdinand stabbed me, I saw my mother, but it was just a hallucination, I’m sure of it.”
“Indeed not. You have a connection to the spirit world, just like your mother.” He motioned her forward. “Please, take Blue’s hand. We will both need a connection with her to be of any use.”
“And what about me?” asked Cass. “I’ll be useless in this.”
“Far from it. It’s good you’re here,” said Koor. “Keep an eye on us for physical reactions. And be prepared to go for help. If none of us can take clear action things could become dangerous.”
“How dangerous can an interrogation be?” asked Cass.
“Dreadfully so,” said Koor, “When the Temple of Colors is involved.”
Ilsa sat down, legs folded, beside Blue. She reached for her friend’s hand. “We need to know what she knows.”
“I agree,” said Cass. “Good luck.”
Blue grasped Ilsa’s wrist, leaving her hand free. “Be ready to use your bonds,” she said.
Koor took Blue’s other hand. “Be not hasty, though. This is a rare opportunity.”
And a rare person, Blue thought into Ilsa’s mind.
Blue, Ilsa sent back. You still care for her?
“We have to do this,” Blue said aloud. “Let us begin.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes tight.
Together their minds melted into the world of thoughts.
Such a communal process is similar to the Temple itself, only smaller, Blue related to them mentally. The voice of the hermit reached Ilsa’s ears from outside in the following moment.
“You think to try me?” he used Ashnia’s voice, but the tone was absolutely that of the old man in the cave across the lake. “You are more foolish than I thought, Nameless.”
“It is not you I try, Hoon. You are only one obstacle to batter down.”
“I have studied in the temple for more decades than you have years as a mind eater.”
Ilsa turned her attention from the mind eaters’ conversation to the outer sensation of a world beyond their enclosed bubble of conflict. She could definitely sense other things out there, hazy, amorphous, but not threatening. She focused on the nearest one, the one she felt sure belonged to Ashnia’s mind.
Then the hermit was between her and the mind of the girl on the bedding. “Priestess.” Hoon’s mind yawned, wide leonine jaws, to bite at Ilsa. “You are full of surprises.” He smashed against her and sent her tumbling to the edge of the bubble where she and Koor and Blue were situated.
Her sense of the outside dimmed. She focused on pushing back against the hermit. Koor’s mind did the same, along with Blue. A piercing scream and flash of rainbow light filled Ilsa’s senses.
Then, the hermit’s mind was gone from the edge of the bubble. She could not tell what had happened to him. But the resistance to her approaching Ashnia’s mind faded.
They turned their collective attention to Ashnia.
Blue broke through the outer barriers of the unconscious mind eater’s defenses in seconds.
Ilsa, Blue sent, be ready to leave us. Koor and I can take it from here.
But I can help, Ilsa replied.
You can help more on the outside. Someone has to listen for what she says, and I can tell Cass is going to have her hands full already.
I’m going. Ilsa pulled free of Blue’s hand and found herself in the tent once again.
She turned to Cass, who leaned on her staff, eyes on Ashnia. “Get ready to listen if she starts talking,” said Ilsa.
Ashnia rolled onto her back, pushing her hands, tied behind her back, against the bedroll. Ilsa got to her feet and felt her wrist where Blue had held it. The spot ached from how tight her friend had held on.
A guttural grunt escaped Ashnia’s lips. Another grotesque sound followed. None of the sounds belonged to any language Ilsa knew, on or off the plateau.
The string of grunts and growls continued. Ashnia writhed on the bedroll. She tossed her head this way and that.
A cold feeling crept through Ilsa’s heart. “What is she doing?
Cass dropped her staff so it thudded to the floor of the tent. “She’s speaking. It’s some kind of pre-ancient Yrian. I can’t tell what she’s saying, though.”
Ilsa snapped her fingers. “Lemuel. He probably could.”
“Go get him. I’ll keep watch,” said Cass.
“Right.” Ilsa turned and rushed out the flap of the tent. Her shoes thumped on the stone and earth. She made her way toward the lodge, where she had last seen Lemuel. At the edge of the main camp, she stopped and looked toward the water’s edge.
His shadow stretched over the water near the sky carriage’s side. She sprinted over to him. “Lemuel,” she said.
He turned toward her, hands folded, small inside of large. “Ilsa, what is it? Are the Ayochians attacking?”
“No. But follow me, we need your help.” She explained as quickly as she could about Koor’s interrogation of Ashnia. “She’s speaking in some old language. Neither Cass or I can understand her.”
“Is it a harsh tongue?” He asked as they made their way back toward the tent where she had left Blue and the others.
As they approached, a terrible, inhuman, howl of fury erupted from within the canvas coverings. “It sounds that way,” Lemuel added in shock.
Ilsa pulled the flap aside. Lemuel stared through the opening for a second. He gulped back obvious fear, then went through it. Ilsa followed him, cautious at the sound of the scream.
Cass had moved around Ashnia’s bedroll to stand opposite Blue and Koor. She looked down at Ashnia, who writhed below her, screaming, growling, and swinging her body with restrained wrath.
Good thing her arms and legs are all bound. She could be really dangerous otherwise.
Ilsa dropped down beside Blue, where she had sat to commune when they had begun their attack on Ashnia’s mind.
Blue’s face was gray, and tears gleamed on her cheeks. Ashnia roared in a voice like a lion. Lemuel stared at her from behind Blue and Ilsa.
“She is talking,” he said. “The language of the gods. I’ve only seen it written before now, but that’s got to be it.”
Ilsa grimaced. “What is she saying?”
“It could be one of a few things, but given context…”
“Now!” said Cass. “Spit it out, scholar.”
“She’s talking about the Gray Lector,” said Lemuel. “She’s saying he leads the Uzan.”
“He’s with them? Those monsters?” Shock ran through Ilsa. Even Black Powder would not dare go to war beside the Uzan personally. “Why wouldn’t they just kill him?”
“He’s one of them. Or she’s saying he’s part of them. I guess it’s clear.”
Ilsa scowled. “He’s an Uzan?”
“The Gray Lector could be anyone, right?” said Cass. “And he has waged war in Ayoch for almost twenty years.”
“This is his motive,” said Lemuel with a frown as he translated the grunts and roars from Ashnia’s lips. “He’s a missionary, a demon who serves the gods.”
“The gods?” Ilas asked. “Hathani? Another of the Three? Vada? Jath?”
“It’s tricky. I don’t think so.” Lemuel bit his lip. “I’ve got to keep up. Asur-Asurdeva is one of the old gods of the steppe, referred to in Lyre lore.”
“That helps,” said Ilsa. “He’s fighting for this old god?”
“He thinks so. The Uzan he leads are on the same side. They all serve this being.”
“Why war in Ayoch?”
Lemuel’s brow furrowed at the next screams from Ashnia. “The crown. The royalty of Ayoch, they ruled them. They controlled the Uzan once, a long time ago.”
“Holy shit,” said Cass. “If they could do that now, they could rule the world.”
Ilsa nodded. “Imagine what they did back then.”
“They conquered the continent,” said Lemuel. “Maybe the whole world. The Gray Lector wants all of that for himself and his god.”
“Asurdeva,” said Ilsa. “Asurdeva.”
Ashnia’s back arched. The bonds on her wrists split with an audible crack and snap. Her hands lashed free and then scrambled for her feet.
Ilsa dove for the Ayochian mind eater’s legs. She wrestled to keep Ashnia from untying the bindings on her ankles. Ashnia’s muscles must be pumped with adrenaline because she seemed stronger than Ilsa had ever felt someone of her size before that moment. All the while, Ashnia barked and growled in the language of the ancients.
Cass cringed back and produced a pistol from a bond. She started to load the weapon.
Lemuel glanced at her. “What are you doing?”
“We have to be ready if she breaks free completely.”
Ilsa fought for one of Ashnia’s arms. The other one snaked out and wrapped around Ilsa’s neck. She gave up her struggle to keep Ashnia from freeing her legs and sought to keep the girl from choking the life out of her with her adrenaline-fueled strength. Spots of darkness danced in her vision.
Automatic chaos, a deliberate incitement of a violent reaction, Blue said into Ilsa’s mind. Hang on, we’ve almost disabled her attack responses.
Ilsa grunted, unable to focus on anything except prying the arm from her throat. She managed to keep her ability to breathe but lost the battle to understand anything else. Still locked within Ashnia’s arm, she slammed herself down on the Ayochian’s belly. The blow forced air from Ashnia’s lungs and weakened her hold enough Ilsa could slither free of her grasp.
She lay on her back beside the mats. Cold ground sent tendrils clawing up through her flesh. She snarled and forced herself upright. Ashnia’s limbs went still.
Blue’s eyes remained closed, but she spoke between ragged breaths. “I—We-have what we need.” She sagged in on herself. “And she won’t fight back for now.”
Koor opened his eyes. Unlike Blue, he seemed completely, infuriatingly, composed. “It seems she knew a great deal.”
Ilsa looked in his direction. Lemuel stood off to one side. “She didn’t say that much,” he murmured.
“No, but her secrets are now in my mind,” said Koor. He got to his feet slowly. When he left Blue’s side, she spilled slowly onto the mat beside Ashnia. “Thank you, Blue.”
Blue nodded, eyes open, but said nothing.
“I am leaving this camp at dawn,” said Koor to Ilsa. “Make it clear to the Guardian of Tenlyres that she can still join me if she wishes.”
Ilsa glowered up at the man, pain still fresh in her mind and body. “I’ll tell her.” But she knew Siuku would not change her mind.
“Good.” Koor turned to Lemuel. “Thank you for your assistance, Mister Chollush. You are a skilled interpreter.”
“I did my best.” Lemuel crouched down beside Ilsa. “Are you alright?” He offered her his hand. She took it and pulled herself to her feet. “I’m not hurt as bad as Blue. Come on, let’s get her out of here.”
They helped Blue up, though she had to lean on Ilsa every step of the way back to her own tent. The cold of the night sent them all to their own places, except for Lemuel, by the time she spotted Hailek outside her tent. He appeared to be in good shape despite all the shooting earlier that day and the day prior.
“Good strider,” said Lemuel. “He found his way back.”
“He’s pretty smart.” Ilsa smiled wearily. “Like someone else, I could name.” She pressed against his side. “Thank you, for being where I need you.”
“I don’t know where else I would go.”
“But you know enough not to run away.” Her hand felt down his back to his belt. “Thanks.”
“We’re both tired. Aren’t we?”
He put his chin into her overgrown hair. “You don’t mean–”
“What do you think I could mean?”
“I almost think you want me to sleep with you.”
“I do. Just sleep tonight. Have to be ready.”
“For the morning.” He sighed against her. “It’s alright. I know.”
They slipped into the tent, and lay down on Ilsa’s bedding, fully clothed. She had not realized how tired she was until he wrapped his arms around her. Then she slept immediately.
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