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Ilsa and her team ride east to try to form an alliance with the city of Chogrum against the monstrous forces raised by Black Powder. Now they approach the city…
And when life ends, let it end with peace.
No matter how much one must struggle to survive.
Chogrum appeared the next day, and the five of them rode right toward it, along the eastern cliffs of the plateau. The horses kept a good pace, but it still took them until late afternoon to make it to the city. At the outskirts, Ilsa began to become nervous their steeds would make them suspicious, but Lemuel assured her horses were not unknown in Chogrum like they were in Dal.
Not for the first time, she missed Hailek. The strider would have given her a higher vantage point to observe the street around them. Siuku and the other Oshomi took in the sights of the city with awe.
The people around them regarded the five weary, bloody, worn riders with curious, sometimes nervous, gazes in return.
In Chogrum, the people varied even more in appearance than Dalites. They ranged from the dark skin of the southern continental peoples to Morhoenese, to pale skin like could be found in Dal or Ayoch. Some could have belonged to the Filami or even the nomad peoples.
The buildings on the outskirts were less different from each other than the people Ilsa saw. Almost all of them were two-stories with vines and creepers turning green in the summer sun crawling along their sides. Some of those vines attached to plant piles where the pavement parted, bulging at the edges where the roots pushed up from below concrete. Almost every one of the gray structures was topped by a glowing screen. Letters in Yrian common that scrolled across each one.
To her surprise, Ilsa noticed uniformed soldiers patrolled the rooftops on the main thoroughfare that led toward the city’s center. Yet, no one stopped the obviously armed Oshomi riding down the street. Maybe they figured five riders made little difference against the numbers of troops in the neighborhood. They were probably right.
Trash filled containers in alleyways, but the smells were muted compared to the massacre, still fresh in her mind.
Eventually, they moved into a less dilapidated part of the city, a few kilometers from the edge. There, Ilsa began to feel the presence of Blue nearby.
Feel may not have been the right way to think about it. She understood Blue’s mind was extended, and it brushed against her spirit senses at the edge of awareness. She took the lead and followed that sense.
They made their way to a hotel, five times the height of the buildings around it, where they reined in the horses and then, led them to the stable next door. The stable was built for larger animals, and Ilsa spotted the dark-colored strider Blue had brought from Dal in a stall next to Ferdinand’s white one. Part of her heart surged with new confidence because of the knowledge her friends had made it to Chogrum safely.
She followed the others out of the stable. They had paid with coins collected from troops at the massacre site.
Ilsa felt sick at the thought of the slaughter. They checked into the hotel with the same tragic currency as collateral. The group had enough for a week in two rooms. Plenty of time. Thanks to their scavenging and the little money given to them by the Vogmem tribals when they separated a month ago.
They went up to the rooms. How odd they must look, walking down the halls of even a small hotel. The Keeper of Tenlyres and her warriors. And Ilsa and Lemuel, who probably did not look much different from the Oshomi, after two months as nomads.
Ilsa and Lemuel took one room. The Oshomi took the other.
While Lemuel took the first shower, she reached out with her mind and looked for Blue.
At first, the vast number of people in the city around her was overwhelming, chaotic, shifting, difficult to comprehend. She touched the locket, focused on it. Blue’s connection to the locket brought her back, guided her around the hotel, and quickly brought her to the suite just above hers and Lemuel’s room.
Her friend was at the center of a group of familiar spirits in the suite. Ilsa hopped up from the edge of the bed where she had been sitting. She went out into the hall, taking her room key with her. She headed upstairs and knocked on Blue’s door.
Audible motion came from within. After a moment, the door opened inward.
The room on the other side was far larger than the room Ilsa and Lemuel had been in downstairs on the ninth floor. Blue stared at her from the center, by a crescent-shaped couch. She still wore the same set of body armor she always did, and her hair hung back in thick braids. Her eyes widened when she saw Ilsa.
“Get in here,” she said in a thick voice, almost slurring her words. Ilsa hurried into the room. Blue wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “You made it!”
“So did you,” said Ilsa.
Someone chuckled off to her left. Ferdinand Thoss shook his head as she looked in his direction. “I thought you never missed, priestess?”
“You thought wrong.” Ilsa felt tears in her eyes. She half-wished his joke was true.
At the window, where she had been looking over the city, Cass turned toward Ilsa. “Hathani, you’re crying, Ilsa.”
“I know.” She wiped her eyes. “I’m just—I’m just glad you all made it.” She looked around the lavish room with three bedrooms connected to it by adjoining doors. “Looks like you sprang for some nice rooms.”
“I had some cash saved from the last time I was here,” said Blue.
“I’ve never stayed anywhere this nice.” Ferdinand whistled, “But then, I never knew how to save money.”
Cass gave a snort of laughter.
“We needed the top room,” said Blue.
“Why? For a lookout?” Ilsa asked.
One of the bedroom doors opened. Ilsa stepped back in surprise at the sight of the lithe form of Megalli standing in the doorway. She wore Chogrumian city clothes, including a pair of white trousers and a small-brimmed hat.
The chieftain of the Vogmem skyriders grinned at Ilsa. “For my people to land on, priestess.”
Ilsa could not help the smile that crept onto her face. After days of riding with worry about Tirica, and witnessing the sight of the massacre on the way to the city, Ilsa had needed some good news.
“You’re awake! Blue didn’t tell me you had joined her group.”
“They only caught up with us yesterday,” said Blue. “Ten skyriders and Megalli.”
“The greatest of the skyriders, that is,” said Megalli with a grin. “Since the keeper healed me, I made a decision for my people. We may never convince the others, especially not Ganara. Still, my people can do what is necessary to fight the Uzan, even allying with Chogrum.” She bounced up and down. “I’m the only one to enter the city so far. The first Vogmem chieftain in over a century.”
“You led the way.” Ilsa nodded. “I’m glad to see you.”
“Me too,” said Megalli. Her faced grew serious. “I did not expect to survive my wounds when I fell in the pass. I remember thinking: This is death. It felt so simple. I wonder if Akirette felt the same?”
Ilsa bowed her head.
Blue put a hand on Ilsa’s shoulder. “Ashnia’s here too, still suppressed of course.”
Blue motioned to the bedroom. “In there. She has been sleeping a lot.”
Ilsa nodded. “I had better get back downstairs. Lemuel was in the shower, and I don’t want him to worry about where I’ve gone. He has enough to worry about.”
“Go,” said Blue. “Keep the man reassured. We’ll look for Tirica tonight.”
Ilsa left the suite and made her way back to the room below.
Ilsa sat cross-legged on the floor of the room she shared with Lemuel. Her eyes were closed and she breathed deep and calm. Her arms crossed in front of her. She held Blue’s hand with one of hers, and Siuku’s hand with the other. Their minds joined, and they sought for Tirica’s mind located who-knew-how-many kilometers away across the steppe.
Human spirits were few and far between once they passed beyond the armies of Chogrum and Morhoen arrayed between the city and its western foes. Feeling as though she was flying on a hawk over a ghostly world, Ilsa realized the way she and the others had ridden into Chogrum was now being closed by Chogrumian troops. Those troops moved through the night.
They had only just slipped through the net.
She turned her consciousness westward extended by Blue and Siuku’s powers. As the weakest of the three, she served the team by leading the way, the rider to their combined psychic steed.
It took hours of searching westward, before she saw the first hint of Tirica’s presence. A group of mercenaries just on the other side of the horizon from the view of Chogrum’s westernmost army contained Black Powder himself. She recognized her father’s spirit as sure as her mother’s as if he was standing right before her, giant against the land. He knew where Tirica was, she could feel, but did not have the power to dig deeper.
Neither First nor Tirica was in his camp.
Blue’s grip on Ilsa’s hand tightened in the physical world. “She’s not that far away.”
“Closer? I combed the steppe. She isn’t anywhere near us out there.”
“She could be in the city,” said Siuku. “I can barely distinguish individual minds with so many around us.”
Ilsa’s brows bent. “I don’t have your abilities, but I grew up in a city. Let me try.”
She reeled in the extension of her conscious mind, pulling back to the city. Chogrum was a seething soup of different thoughts, hatred and fear, love and joy, all swathed in a heavy layer of nervousness from the approaching conflict. Somehow, it made sense to her.
People were pressed so close to each other, they formed chains of spirit between them. The nomads were tight-knit on the plateau. But Ilsa could see the same sort of bonds among the different communities of Chogrum. She cut through that mental jungle like a machete and cleared her way to the bright beacon formed by the object of her search.
Tirica was close. Once she brought herself into the city, she could sense the girl’s presence clearly.
However small the star, it still provided a little light. Ilsa dug deeper into the center of Chogrum, chasing that light.
“She’s in the city. Somewhere near the middle. I can’t tell exactly.”
“Careful, Ilsa. The Temple of Colors has a strong presence in Chogrum.”
“Blue.” Ilsa’s spirit reached for the tiny source of starlight within the veils and chains made by the city’s people. “I’m almost there.”
Siuku spoke. “I sense aggression, a powerful temper.”
Blue’s hand tugged on Ilsa’s. The fingers in her grip ached. “She’s right. The temple has found us.”
Ilsa pulled back the last veil from Tirica’s spirit. A blinding light filled her vision. Then, like she had been kicked by a strider, pain bloomed in her chest. She released Blue’s grip and fell onto her back on the hotel room floor. Her eyes flew open. The pain in the back of her head from the impact with the floor could not match the agony in her chest.
She gasped for air.
Blue slumped where she sat.
Lemuel rushed to Ilsa’s side. “You alright? What hurts?”
“My heart.” Ilsa pressed a hand to her chest. “Maybe it’s the old wound Ferdinand gave me.”
Siuku got to her feet. “Focal pain. That wound awakened Ilsa’s spirit senses, but it also serves as her weak point.”
Blue nodded and took a deep breath. “Mental attacks can have physical consequences. The temple knows how to strike both ways.”
Ilsa looked up at Lemuel, her own breathing ragged. He clasped her hand. “It’s alright. She’s close. We can try to find her another way.”
Ilsa nodded. Her chest throbbed. “Good idea.”
He helped her sit up. She pressed a hand to the back of her head. “I got overconfident, didn’t I?”
“It happens to many with new abilities,” said Blue. “The temple doesn’t need someone with your potential to train into a mind eater. But you could have been a strong one if you studied with them early.”
Ilsa looked at her friend as pain wracked her from sternum to skull. “I’m glad I didn’t. This power hurts.”
Blue unfolded her legs and got to her feet. “It gets easier, but mental attacks always hurt. No one is invulnerable.”
“Indeed,” said Siuku.
Blue frowned. “Did you see your attacker?”
“No. I just saw light.” Ilsa sighed. “I wish I had more to tell you.”
“Sounds like you saw enough. Brightness is a calling card of a few temple members. We can guess they are operating separately from Black Powder and his people, I would say.”
“Would they interfere in the war?”
“I can’t say for sure. My gut says they don’t care who rules.” Blue shook her head. “The temple is crazy that way.”
Ilsa turned toward Lemuel. “I won’t give up on Tirica.”
“None of us will,” said Blue.
Siuku bowed her head. “It is getting late. The sun set long ago. We should rest.”
“Yeah.” Ilsa got to her feet with Lemuel’s help. The others left their room.
Ilsa stretched her arms, cleaner than she had been since Dal, following her shower that afternoon. She was a little hungry, but as she looked at Lemuel, she forgot about it.
He looked at her with bright eyes. “Thanks, for looking for Tirica. I wish I could have helped.”
“You can get started on helping more tomorrow,” said Ilsa. “After all, this is your city.”
She sat down beside him on the broad bed and smiled wearily as the pain began to fade away.
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Lemuel with a smile. “Not many people even think I’m still alive, probably.”
“You’ve still got family here, don’t you?”
“A few,” said Lemuel. “But right now, I’m not worried about most of them.” He took a deep breath. “Say, do you remember how we met?”
“In Dal, where that idiot was shouting about Chogrum outside a stable.”
He nodded and adjusted his glasses. “It was after that, at Doubtless Manor, the last time I had a shower. But at that I point, I still didn’t know who you were. Not really.”
“Now you do,” she said, one hand on his.
He put his small hand to her cheek. Warmth came from within. “I’m thankful I met you. All the time.”
She drew herself closer to him and they kissed in the heat of their embrace. Ilsa guided him back onto the bed.
The next morning, the group ate breakfast together in the hotel restaurant. Ilsa almost could not believe the taste of city food could be so good after months of travel rations on the steppe. Megalli told stories about her best hunts, and how the meat had been afterward.
After breakfast, the group split up.
Some went to search the city, while other remained to plan a way to get an audience with the prince. Megalli, Lemuel, and Okko went with Ilsa to scout the house owned by Lemuel’s parents close to the city center for Tirica.
As they moved deeper into Chogrum’s urban jungle, the buildings became higher until they reached for the sky in the center-most districts around the arched rooftops of the prince’s palace, with the lower-built government buildings spread out all around.
Snatches of song drifted over the market street from a speaker system as the group made its way north toward the palace. They were already close to the city center. Ilsa wondered how close First would have gotten to the palace without raising suspicion if she had Tirica with her as a prisoner.
Slavery was outlawed all across the plateau, which would make it easier for people to see Tirica was being led around captive. Most likely, First had hidden the girl wherever she was staying. She could not have arrived in Chogrum too long before Ilsa and her group.
The recorded music fluted in the air. Birds rustled their wings on the rooftop. Ilsa smelled fresh fruit and cured meat rather than powder and blood. Everything seemed warm and safe, compared to the steppe, even in spite of the undercurrent of nervous tension that ran everywhere through the city.
Lemuel plowed ahead of Ilsa through the crowds, using his larger arm to push past people. His black clothes and height made him stand out among the people flowing around him. She followed in his wake, with Okko behind her. Megalli kept pace close to Ilsa’s side.
The four of them were almost to the place, Ilsa realized, where she had sensed Tirica’s spirit the previous night. She held out one arm to stop Okko and then closed her eyes. Tirica’s spirit had gone.
“She’s not here.” Ilsa frowned. She pushed past a few people to catch up to Lemuel. Megalli and Okko followed her.
“What’s wrong, priestess?” asked the Vogmem chieftain.
“Tirica’s gone. First must have moved her.”
Megalli nodded. “Isn’t it odd for someone to want to be called that? First?”
“It is strange, in every culture.” Ilsa took a deep breath and caught a whiff of propellant, and not Chogrumian propellant. This had the auto-launch scent found in ammunition from Ayoch. No shots had been fired so far, but someone in this crowd had a foreign weapon.
“Lemuel,” she said, “Wait.”
He turned just in time for Ilsa to glimpse the towering, hooded form of Kaij Haram over his shoulder, among the Chogrumians. Her eyes went wide. She shoved Lemuel by the chest. He stumbled backward, nearly tripping over himself.
Kaij lunged through the crowd. The huge cavalry sword he had bonded to him slashed out from his palm and toward Ilsa. She produced one of her pistols by instinct and ducked. Her hands worked automatically. She slammed the magazine into the pistol.
A chill fell over the marketplace. Kaij faced her in a gap formed by Lemuel’s stumbling. People drew back from him with cries of warning.
So much for keeping things quiet.
He glared at her over his blade. “Where is Ashnia, priestess? I know you know.”
This close, her gun gave her little, if any, advantage. She had to fight carefully. Yunn must be here too. Someone’s powers were already lowering the temperature on the street. Ilsa’s bet was on Kaij’s twin.
Her eyes followed the glint of Kaij’s blade.
“My sister, priestess. Tell me, or this time you won’t survive.”
Ilsa glared at the big Ayochian. “I can’t tell you.”
He gritted his teeth and swung his blade. The motion was swift. But she had guessed it was coming. Ilsa darted backward and out of reach.
Okko, his lightning lances left in the stable, cried out, a harsh, blood-curdling battle cry as he circled around Ilsa to rush at Kaij from the side.
He slipped on traces of ice as they formed on the surface of the street beneath his feet. Okko fell, dropping a small electric dart he must have concealed somewhere when he left the hotel.
Kaij pursued Ilsa as she fell backward. Her pistol was loaded, but she could not take him down without risking hitting a civilian with a miss or ricochet.
A horn echoed over the street. Ilsa kept her focus on Kaij. Megalli had vanished into the crowd.
Chogrumian soldiers emerged from alleyways ahead and behind Ilsa and Kaij.
He cut at her once, twice, three times. Each time, she fell back further to avoid the cut. The fourth strike caught up with her.
She got the butt of her pistol in the way and deflected the tip of the blade so it slashed along her forearm, opening the clothes and a shallow gash beneath.
Her eyes narrowed with the pain.
Kaij pressed forward. A shadowy shoe, small and in the Chogrumian style snaked out from the crowd. The foot hooked around Kaij’s ankle. He fell forward and caught himself on one knee. Megalli vanished into the crowd again.
Ilsa pointed the pistol at Kaij’s temple. He looked up at her. Hatred seethed in his eyes.
Chogrumian soldiers closed in on them.
Ilsa counted a dozen she could see, but she did not dare turn and give Kaij a chance to attack again.
“Drop the weapons. Hands in the air.”
Ilsa let her pistol fall to the ground at her feet, fully loaded. She raised her hands and met the sergeant’s gaze. A pair of hands grabbed her arms. Another soldier forced her to the ground. She heard radios crackle as the soldiers sent word of the situation to their commanders.
Two more soldiers grabbed Okko, and another pair went for Kaij. As they led Ilsa away, Lemuel followed behind them, but not held by the soldiers. He nodded to her as they passed each other on the way to the nearby security center.
A prisoner in Chogrum. Ilsa could have imagined the day going better.
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