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Ilsa has returned to the allied war camp with terrible news. But the war continues.
There are created enough people to face any challenge, whether natural or supernatural.
The prince’s command tent was far smaller than Ilsa had expected but still dwarfed the camp structures around it.
Ilsa and Lemuel made their way inside through a double-wide front entrance, following the keeper, Ganara, and the other leaders. Blue brought up the rear.
Inside the tent, Siuku took to one side with her chieftains at her back. The Vogmem, including Ganara, stood opposite the Oshomi. Forming a triangle with them, the prince of Chogrum in his robes and holding the True Red staff of Hathani, spread his arms, flanked by generals and guards.
“Everyone,” he said. “The Keeper of Tenlyres has proposed a plan to stop this war before the monsters can strike back at us.”
Ilsa glanced at Siuku. The keeper stepped forward.
“My predecessors and I have studied the lyres for as long as our history remembers. The Uzan are not sealed fully within them, but are bound by the song when it is played.”
“They were freed by song,” said Lemuel. “It is likely they can be imprisoned again by it.”
“More like certain,” said Ganara. “But we need to know the song to play.” She tossed her hair back. “We don’t exactly have notes to read.”
The Prince motioned toward Ganara. “I believe I have your answer.” He held out the red staff. “This is the true staff of Hathani. With the notes Mister Chollush has made, it can assist in guiding someone to understand the notes properly, as long as the one who wields it can communicate to the one who plays.”
“Are you certain?” asked Ganara. “I have wielded the black staff and I never noticed such a power.”
“You never carried it to a lyre,” said Siuku. “I believe the prince is right. There is one other difficulty, however.”
“What is that?” asked the prince, a frown forming on his lips.
“We will need the song pistols to play the notes perfectly.”
“And Black Powder has them,” said Ilsa.
Siuku nodded. “That is true.”
“Then we must retrieve them,” said the Prince.
“He leads Asurdeva’s army now,” said Ganara. “How can any of us get to him?” Her eyes moved toward Ilsa. “Unless…”
“He knows I’m not his ally, though I am his daughter.” Ilsa grunted. “But there may be another way.” She glanced at Blue. “Can you tell where Black Powder is now?”
Blue shook her braids. “Unlikely. He has Uzan sense magi scattered around his camp, so I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“This is foolish,” said one of the Oshomi chieftains. “We can raid the Uzan, kill Black Powder. He is only a man.”
“Just a man. But the most dangerous man on all the plateau,” said Siuku. “To pursue him into the heart of his camp would be suicide.”
The chieftain grunted, then fell silent.
Ganara growled, “I hate to agree with that, but it is true.”
Ilsa narrowed her eyes, brows bent in thought. Father always rode with mercenaries before. And mercenaries had no laws, no exploitable customs, only their own pride mattered to her father’s company. Pride could make one do foolish things.
“Insult them,” she said.
“What?” The prince raised his eyebrows. “Priestess, elaborate.”
“We challenge their pride. Most mercenaries don’t care about honor, but Black Powder’s troops aren’t just mercenaries. They’re his disciples.”
“Explain,” said Siuku.
“The bonds Black Powder teaches them to use, bonds to the spirit, are the source of their pride. We can insult that pride to draw him out. They’ll want to prove their master’s ability can match anyone else.”
“A cult of skill,” said the prince. “I begin to understand. But their abilities are great. If Black Powder accepts this challenge, then who can we send to duel? My guards have weapon bonds, but I’ve heard of his skill. Any of them would lay down their lives for us, but none would survive long enough to even distract him.”
Ilsa took a deep breath. “I’ll fight him.”
“No,” said Lemuel. “No, Ilsa.”
“Lemuel, I know I can beat him.”
He shook his head. “That doesn’t matter. He bonded those weapons to you.”
A sinking feeling in Ilsa’s stomach told her he was right. Her father and his troops would not care if she fought. She might as well be one of them.
“You’re right. I can’t insult them the way we need to.”
A figure detached herself from the wall of the tent on the far side of the Oshomi leaders.
“I’ll do it,” said Cass Kalteri.
Ilsa started, then stared at her oldest friend, her fellow priestess, the one who had betrayed her to the high priestess, and who had still ridden out to help her.
“Cass,” Ilsa said. “Are you sure?”
“I’d put my skills to the test against anyone, Ilsa. And Black Powder is Saint Banyeen’s greatest rival.” The red-haired priestess bowed to the prince of Chogrum. “If you’ll accept my offer, I can challenge him at dawn.”
The prince glanced at his generals. Murmurs ran through the leaders, city-dwellers, and nomads.
Siuku nodded. “I trust your courage, priestess.”
Ilsa’s throat felt tight. Her own life, she would gladly risk against her father. She could not let Cass sacrifice herself, though it could give them a path to victory. She clenched her unburnt fist and looked at her friends around her.
“It could work,” she said. “But Cass—He’ll kill you.”
“Or maybe I’ll kill him. We’ll see,” she said. “In the meantime, someone can find the song pistols. Once we have those we can beat the Uzan all at once.”
“It’s true,” said the prince. He bowed his head toward Cass. “To you, Priestess Kalteri.”
Ganara turned to Ilsa. “That camp won’t be easy to infiltrate, but I have a feeling you and your mind eater will be able to make it in.”
“Agreed,” said Ilsa. Sick to her stomach, she added, “We have to make this worth it.” Her eyes met Cass’s. “Good luck, my friend.”
Cass nodded to Ilsa. “Let’s hope he takes the bait.”
“He will,” she said. That’s what I’m afraid of now.
Lemuel silently reached for Ilsa’s hand. She let him hold her tight.
The next morning the sun was just rising when Cass rode toward the camp of Asurdeva with the prince’s guards, under a flag of parley. Ilsa watched them from a distance, sheltering in the ruins of Atalem with Ferdinand. The rest of the raiders who had survived the battle at the Uzan artillery were with them.
The black shapes of wrecked war machines still stood to the south of them. Ferdinand breathed a curse.
“Damn this p-plan,” he said. “I-if he a-accepts, sh-she is n-no m-match for him.”
“I wish I could go instead,” said Ilsa.
He sighed. “Y-you would p-protect h-her if you c-could. B-but I w-would h-hate i-it either way.”
Ilsa blinked in the bright light of the sun shining from the east. “We have to believe. In her. She does.”
“I b-believe in her,” Ferdinand said. “I j-just wish I could help.” Ilsa glanced back through the ruined village to where Ferdinand’s steed sat hidden from the view of Black Powder’s camp by the few walls still standing. “You are helping. Blue’s strider is enough to carry both of us in, but most mercenaries ride their own striders. Thanks for letting me borrow yours.”
“Vortimer will get you in and out,” said Ferdinand “Don’t let him show you too much attitude.”
The fact that he didn’t stutter made his confidence in the strider clear to Ilsa.
She left Ferdinand and moved to where Blue and the two striders stood. She had to put Cass’s challenge out of her mind. What she was about to do could be just as dangerous.
Blue gave her a nod, and sent a sense of meditative calm, that almost masked the tension beneath it. They rode out of Atalem and headed south past the ruined hulks of abandoned Uzan artillery.
Once Vortimer carried Ilsa out of sight of the mercenary lines, she threw on a heavy coat, too hot for summer. It had a hood to conceal her face. Blue put on a helmet that went with her ballistic armor and pulled down the face mask. They turned toward the mercenary camp. Ilsa bent down to urge Vortimer forward. She made a face when the strider snorted at her.
She pulled back, wrinkled her nose, but the white strider accelerated anyway. They needed to hurry. Black Powder would have to accept Cass’s challenge immediately or risk losing face. His pride would not allow that.
She marked the time by the sun in the sky. They reached the outer sentries of the mercenary camp. Blue muddied their minds, allowing the two of them to ride into the camp.
They carried no visible weapons, but anyone with a sense of weapons could tell Ilsa was bonded.
She brought Vortimer to a stop among the tents of the camp. A pair of Uzan marched past them. Huge feet left heavy prints in the already worn down steppe-grass of the camp.
Ilsa dismounted and led Vortimer after the Uzan. Blue did the same with her strider. As they walked Ilsa made sure to follow the other mercenaries going toward the center of the line closest to Atalem.
Blue’s eyes lingered on the gray-skinned Uzan. Ilsa tried to ignore the monstrous creatures and their warped, evil-feeling spirits.
They reached the front just as Black Powder stepped forward from the lines to address Cass. She sat on a runner’s back. Cass had always preferred the lighter, faster creatures. A chill ran through Ilsa as Black Powder’s long coat swished over the grasses.
“You are bold to challenge me, but why should I accept on the eve of my victory?”
Cass drew herself up. “Tomorrow will be a red day,” she said, “Don’t pretend to be yellow now.”
Black Powder snorted. “You have something of a tongue, priestess. You Hathanians are all talk, and your bonds are no match for mine.”
Cass smirked. “Yet you’re hesitant to fight me.”
“Don’t throw your life away. Ride back. Leave this line. Killing you would only give me a moment of satisfaction anyway.”
He turned to First who stood just behind him. Ilsa squinted out from under her hood. She saw the song pistols, twin integrally silenced weapons, hanging on her father’s belt. Her teeth ground together. So close but so far.
“You carry many weapons,” said Cass. “But do you trust the ones you are bonded to by your spirit?”
“Of course I do.” Black Powder folded his arms. “But if you will not take no for an answer, we will duel.”
“Not such a coward after all,” said Cass.
“Funny, I was thinking the same of you. Don’t think I don’t know you—The one who betrayed my daughter all those years ago. Thanks for that, as it stands.”
Blue put a hand on Ilsa’s shoulder, holding her back even as Ilsa tensed with anger and let go of Vortimer’s mounting line. She glanced at Blue. “It’s alright. I won’t lose my temper,” she whispered.
The mercenaries around Black Powder laughed and murmured. A man shouted, “Run away, Hathanian. Or come to me instead, pretty thing.”
Ilsa felt her eyes narrow.
Other men took up the cry. “Come to me.”
Then a few broke into gales of laughter.
Black Powder held up a hand to silence his troops. The sounds of the crowd died in seconds. Ilsa and Blue slipped through the crowd, creeping closer to Black Powder and First.
Ilsa could see now that her father’s first apprentice was leaning on a cane, and still looked battered after the beating Ilsa had given her on the rooftop in Chogrum.
Ilsa’s face made a snarl, expression hidden by her hood.
Black Powder unfastened his gun belt with the song pistols. He handed the whole set to First. The woman took the weapons in reverent hands.
Ilsa glanced at Blue.
“Just let them start,” said her friend in her mind. “We need the distraction.”
First walked away from Black Powder as Cass climbed down from her runner. They faced each other before the mercenaries.
Cass frowned. “How can I trust your troops not to interfere when we’re so close to them?”
Black Powder shrugged. “First, get the others back. Wouldn’t do for stray bullets to hit them.”
The whole mass of troops and the few Uzan at the front with them fell back from the duelists. Cass checked the magazine of ammunition for her pistols where it hung on her belt.
First stood at the front of the mercenary onlookers, but the group now gave Cass and her runner twenty meters or more in berth. Ilsa and Blue were right behind First when Black Powder said,
“Then draw on five. Count for me, Tirica.”
Tirica’s voice came from somewhere else in the crowd, wavering slightly with each number.
Cass shifted her feet, both hands free.
Ilsa brought herself to a space just beside First, a little back and to the right.
Black Powder spat onto the grass between them.
Blue sent to Ilsa. She said she would try to slow Black Powder down. Ilsa tensed.
They drew and loaded in split seconds. But Black Powder was faster. Only ten meters from Cass, in broad daylight, he would have killed her with his first shot if she had not thrown herself backward as she finished loading her pistol.
His gun barked and ripped a stream of red through Cass’s shoulder. She gritted her teeth and retaliated. Her bullet tore through his coat. Ilsa and First both stared as her father prepared another shot.
“Ilsa, I’ve got the others suppressed,” Blue sent to her, “Now is our chance.”
She conjured a pistol in her burnt, clenched hand. And she swung overhand. The gun barrel connected with First’s head. First cried out and fell, but the sound was lost in the crack of the next gunshot.
Cass’s knee burst and blood ran down her leg. She wobbled, somehow staying upright. Her shot clipped Black Powder’s sleeve and drew blood.
He shot her gun arm and the bullet blew through the other side. The pistol flew from her fingers.
Cass staggered and fell.
Ilsa had the song pistols without looking at them. She fought back through the crowd of pacified mercenaries, eyes on Blue and the striders not far behind them. She heard a shout from behind her, but not another shot. Ilsa gritted her teeth as they fled.
Back at the camp. Ilsa heard the rest of what had happened.
Ferdinand had ridden out to find Cass, but Black Powder had driven him back. Even if she still lived after those wounds, Ilsa’s first friend was now a prisoner of the enemy.
Ilsa prayed the song pistols were worth it.
They could end the battle, even if they might not be able to save Cass.
But if they hurried, Ilsa had hopes they could do both. Still, as she rode, tears threatened her eyes.
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