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Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
In the midst of a bloody battle, a massive explosion rocks the mountain pass. Ilsa takes shelter.
Ilsa’s mother swam into view before her eyes.
“Ilsa,” she said, “I’m glad to see you.”
“Mother…” Ilsa gasped as she remembered the explosion. The world seemed far away, the pain, and the tears distant. Melinda had killed Hailek. She had forced Ilsa to kill her. “It’s all so terrible.”
“What’s terrible Ilsa?”
“War,” she said. “The battles I’ve been fighting. It’s all wrong. But I felt like I had the best reasons.”
“It’s war,” said her mother seemingly from far away. “And war is awful, no matter why someone fights.”
“You’re right. Of course, you are.” Ilsa’s heart felt ready to burst. “Is it strange? I’ve fought so many battles, but I never realized that before now.”
The world swam around her. The pass returned, cold, and painful, and filled with bitter smells. Lemuel lay beside her, his arm around her. They lay side by side within the curve of Hailek’s still bulk. Ilsa’s ears were ringing, yet she knew what her mother said next despite physical deafness from the explosion.
“It’s alright, Ilsa. Everyone keeps learning.”
“Mother,” she said and sat up. The bodies of mercenaries and Vogmem warriors were scattered across the stones before her. Further down the pass, she glimpsed the banners of the Red Lector, many of them torn and tattered from flying debris. Small fires burned in bodies and wreckage all around.
Lemuel groaned and looked at her. He said something, but she could not hear his words, and judging by the look on his face, neither could he. She shook her head and tapped one ear.
He nodded. She got up carefully, a pistol in her left hand, and her right locked tight from Melinda’s poison, the gun she had held in it dropped in the rush to find cover.
The girl’s body lay near Hailek’s head, completely still except for the spreading blood around her. Someone so young should have been given the chance to survive, Ilsa knew, but she had given Melinda every chance she could. Damn her, Ilsa thought with a flush of rage as she looked at Hailek. But there was no way left to punish her steed’s killer.
Lemuel stood up and put his hand on Ilsa’s shoulder. She noticed the revolver still tucked into his waistband. He had yet to fire a shot.
Hopefully, he would never have to feel what she experienced in the heat of the fray.
A gun held in an angry hand. She scanned the battlefield as her hearing began to return little by little. The other Vogmem group had survived the blast of the exploding artillery shells unscathed, but Ganara’s lead troops had been devastated. Blue had fallen behind in the charge, so Ilsa could hope she was safe. Most of the other riders and goat runners were in the same state as Ilsa and Lemuel or lay bloody and torn, unmoving.
She wandered back the way they had come, looking this way and that, Lemuel at her side, carrying her still-unloaded shotgun in his big hand. The machine gun had returned to Ilsa, and if she tried to summon it now she would have a full magazine of ammunition. So that would be simple enough to remember.
She stumbled between two runners and glimpsed a black staff beyond one of them, lying close to pale, out-stretched fingertips. Ilsa circled the fallen goat. Ganara lay beside her steed, her fingers slack where she had been reaching for the staff. Bloody lines and holes cut through her coat, and red speckled her face from chin to closed eyelids.
But her breath still misted in the air above her.
“Lemuel,” said Ilsa, in a voice that sounded far away. “We need to get her help.”
Ilsa sank down beside Ganara.
Lemuel stayed standing and looked this way and that, but no one else moved nearby. Ganara’s wounds looked serious, life-threatening judging by the amount of blood on the shards of shrapnel beyond her. They had to move quickly.
Ilsa pressed her good hand to the largest wound, a gash across Ganara’s shoulder and nearly down to her chest. She applied what pressure she could with her one hand to hold back the blood-flow, and her fingers quickly turned red and sticky.
“Ilsa?” But it wasn’t Lemuel who spoke. It was Ilsa’s mother, standing by her side in a ghostly white hospital dress.
“Mother,” Ilsa said. “She’s dying.”
“The spirits can heal her.”
“Siuku,” said Ilsa. “Of course. We need to find her.”
She reached out, searching for Blue’s spirit. Two bright beacons in the other column of Vogmem, far from the front line, appeared in her vision. Blue rode near Ashnia Haram. She must have gone to make sure the Ayochian mind eater did not escape.
“Blue,” Ilsa said. “Get Siuku. I need your help on the other side of the pass.”
Blue answered her with a confused flurry of thoughts. Of them, only one stood out intelligibly. “Ilsa, you’re alive!”
“I am,” she said. “But Ganara is dying. Get Siuku now.”
Lemuel put a hand on her shoulder. His voice sounded small after the blast. “Who are you talking to?”
“Blue. I contacted her.”
“You can do that?”
Beside Lemuel, Ilsa’s mother nodded, and made a small smile.
“Yeah,” said Ilsa. “I-I think I’m like my mother.”
“She was never crazy. She saw things other people couldn’t.”
Mother folded her arms and her smile grew. “Ilsa, I have to tell you something. Your demons can be killed. If you separate them from their god.”
“She’s talking to me now.” Ilsa turned to Lemuel. “We can kill the Uzan if we separate them from their god.”
“The old gods… Asurdeva.” Lemuel circled Ganara and knelt down to press his hands to a wound on her side opposite Ilsa. He grimaced and turned pale as his hands became bloody. “Every Uzan has a name on its brow,” he said. “I’ve seen it, and they’re written in the old language.”
“Their god’s name?” said Ilsa.
“It’s worth a shot,” he said. “Literally.” He turned his head, averting his eyes from Ganara’s wounded form.
Ilsa nodded to him, but tears formed in her eyes. She leaned her face to Ganara’s ear. “You can’t die,” she said softly. “We’re all nomads today, and nomads keep moving, no matter what happens.”
Ganara’s eyes twitched open. She gave Ilsa a sideways glance but said nothing before she closed her eyes again. But she went on breathing. She went on living.
Ilsa did not know how she and Lemuel held Ganara before she heard the steps of striders and the hoof-beats of horses. The Oshomi arrived, Siuku in the lead, and Blue riding beside Tirica Chollush, who carried her long rifle across her saddle. A group of Vogmem leading the prisoners including Ashnia Haram, and Ozleji Sammhar, followed behind the steppe nomads.
Ilsa looked up at Siuku. “Quickly, Keeper, she needs your help.”
Siuku leaped from her horse’s back and then ran the final meters. She unfastened her veil as she reached Ganara’s side. Her hands moved and touched and healed.
Ganara remained still for a long time. One eye opened. “I never thought an Oshomi would save my life. But you, you’re paler than me…” she said. Then her eyes rolled back and closed. She slept.
A cheer went up from the Ayochian line. The Vogmem who had pressured them on the western side of the pass had been forced to a stalemate. A few of the hawks from Megalli’s skyriders lay on the field where they had fallen. In a moment of fear, Ilsa realized she could not see Megalli herself among the riders still circling over the battlefield.
The Red Lector and his few remaining protectors stood at the front of the Ayochian line where the Vogmem had lost their momentum. Haram himself waved a red-streaked saber in his hand and shouted loud. “Which of you Four barbarians shall fall next?”
Siuku’s riders helped Ganara onto one of their horses along with her black staff. The Vogmem chieftain slumped in the saddle between two Oshomi, still unconscious. Ilsa and Blue exchanged glances.
“I’m losing my sense of Megalli,” Blue said softly.
Ilsa’s stomach turned.
War is terrible. War is always terrible, and Koor’s oracles were right that they would lose a leader.
To fight a battle is always to lose the peace, Ilsa thought, as tears ran down her cheeks.
The Keeper of Tenlyres turned to Ilsa. “Ride. We can still break through. His line is weak, no matter who he has killed.”
Ilsa and Lemuel climbed onto separate horses, behind different Oshomi riders. The Keeper of Tenlyres collected the survivors of Ganara’s column. She wheeled her forces, both Vogmem and Oshomi and pressed the attack on the broken side of the Ayochian line where Ilsa’s father had detonated the gun carriage.
Had he known it would explode? Could even he survive that blast? Ilsa doubted it, but she had no tears for him when so many others had died in this windy pass already. She rode through gaps of the enemy lines in the wake of Siuku’s fresh troops.
The Red Lector’s forces fell back to a rise in the center of the pass two or three kilometers back from where the Vogmem charge had begun. They could not stop the nomads fighting past them on either side.
For a few minutes of riding and fighting, Ilsa thought they could escape without much more resistance. Then, a roar went up from the column ahead of them. A typhoon of incredibly varied gunshots and the smell of ancient propellant, bleak on the wind, reached Ilsa. Huge semi-humanoid shapes waded into the fray, uncaring if they killed Ayochians or nomads.
With bursts of bullets and swinging hammer blows, they killed.
With furious blasts of shotguns grown from bloated bellies or yawning jaws they killed.
Screams and roars and cries of despair rang out from both sides.
The Uzan had arrived.
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