“EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT!” Holly roared. “PULVERIZE THEM!”
Volley after volley exploded on the slopes, flooding the air with thunder and smoke. Barbarian troops flinched back from the godlike force that washed off the peaks. Holly didn’t notice; she sat astride Gucci tense and erect, eyeing the barrage with unwavering focus. It went on for well over an hour.
“SIGNAL YOUR EMPTIES!” Yinhalka called as the fire abated. “SIGNAL YOUR EMPTIES, CROM DAMN YOU!” She squeezed her thighs, sending her raptor into a brisk trot. “LOOK ALIVE, CAPTAINS! SEND YOUR REPORTS, YOU SLACK-ASS ORC FUCKERS!”
Blast-team captains rode past their squads, gathering confirmations amidst a thick blanket of gritty-tasting smog. It wasn’t easy; their men were choking and spitting, trying to pass info between coughs and hacks.
“CAPTAINS!” the general roared, pulling back on her reigns and causing her mount to rear high in the air. “YOU’RE WASTING MY FUCKING TIME!”
The captains finished. Five red flags were hoisted in the air.
Yinhalka turned to Holly. “The battlefield’s prepped. I’ll give the order to—”
Holly cut her off with an enraged scream. She snapped her reigns, sending her raptor into a headlong sprint. Forty Death Riders followed her lead, spreading out into a wedge-shaped formation.
“CLOSE ON MY HEELS!” she roared. “I WANT SKULLS ON PIKES!”
Yinhalka’s voice had faded and dimmed, until it was little more than a muted drone. But when she’d told Holly the field was prepped, everything crystallized. A moment later the cheerleader queen was charging the pass, forty Death Riders following in her wake.
She was struck by a sudden flash of panic. Several regiments had been tasked with launching a glorious (suicidal) offensive, diverting the focus off Holly and her Riders. The thing was, she hadn’t waited for them to assault; she’d gotten excited and jumped the gun. If Yinhalka hadn’t mobilized those troops, then Holly was up shit creek without a padd—
Ah. A sideways glance allayed her fears—Indashi soldiers were trotting toward the slopes. As they hit the first bit of incline, they broke into a sprint.
“For Kor’Thank! For AKANAX!”
The cheerleader smirked beneath her helmet. Akanax. Another bullshit deity, as far as she was concerned. But Holly Dent was a consummate politician—this was a good opportunity to leverage their faith.
“FOR AKANAX!” She drew her scythe-sword. It jumped from its sheath in a glittering flash. “FOR THE INDASHI!”
An answering roar from Flaysac’s bandits: “For life and freedom!”
Arrows zipped by, filling the air with deadly, whistling blurs. Two of her Riders spasmed and fell; one of them took a shaft in the throat, the other sprouted a missile from his eye.
“Ready the candala!” Holly shouted. She looked over her shoulder and spotted Estilian, riding bitch with her chief badass: Lorgpug the Limb Render. The mage was brandishing a magical explosive (it looked like a glowing bird’s nest made of steely wires) in his right hand. He leaned down in his saddle, chanted something fast and slippery, and blew into its center. Sky-blue light poured from the bomb, washing the slopes like a roiling tide.
A defender cried, “Mage to our front! He’s wielding an enchanted expl—”
Before he could finish, Estilian flung the candala. The peaks were flooded with merciless shine, then—
Estilian had assured her the candala would act like a shaped charge: it would blow everything inward, along the trajectory of its initial path, so there’d be no chance of getting caught in the back-blast. Still, as hurricane winds buffeted Holly’s face, she couldn’t help but fear for her life.
When she glanced up, relief flashed through her battle-tautened mind. The bomb had worked exactly as prescribed—the gate had blown inward. Beyond its shattered remains, Holly could see a giant wave of pressure continuing on, kicking up a mile-wide swell of furious dust.
“COME ON!” She screamed. “BEFORE THEY RECOVER!”
Her warning came too late. One of her men jerked and twitched as several missiles pierced his armor. He tumbled from his saddle in a backwards roll.
Fuck. Holly flinched as an arrow scored her calf. She flinched again as another grazed her neck. Then she was charging through the middle of the pass.
“Estilian!” she shouted. “WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?” She needed access to his magical—
“HERE, MY LORD!” Lorgpug—Estilian’s guardian—was fifty yards back, slashing arrows from the air with his serrated blade. Holly’s heart lifted in her chest. The mage was fine. As long those two were safe, then—
A trio of arrows lanced toward Lorgpug: zwip zwip zwip! He cut through two, but the third slipped past and punctured his guts.
“RUUUUUHH!” he screamed. “WHORESON ORCFUCKERS!”
Holly glanced right; a Rider caught an arrow in the chest. Another Rider was hit in each thigh, pinning his legs to his velociraptor mount.
“Estilian!” Holly shouted. “Fucking DO SOMETHING!”
The mage didn’t respond, he was already casting Senkilo’s Cannon. He pumped his fist, chambered a round. It spun and burned before the cannon’s muzzle. Calls of Magical ordnance! ran up and down the bandits’ lines.
Estilian leveled his arm and fired the orb. It blazed through the air, surrounded by veins of crackling lightning. When it hit the slopes, a hundred-foot plume of smoke and fire erupted from the earth, sending charred bodies flying through the air.
The Mage aimed thirty degrees left, toward a nest of archers on the other side of the pass. They sprinted out from their enclosure but it was too late—the next round blew with a gut-dropping WHOOSH. Fleeing bowmen were launched skyward.
“My lord!” Estilian yelled. “I require concealment! Shindalthi’s Cloud—cast it NOW!”
Holly jerked right as an arrow slipped by, opening a fresh cut on her left cheek. The next one tickled the hair on her neck, the third sliced through one of her plate-straps.
Shindalthi’s cloud, Holly thought. Concentrate, Holly. She closed her eyes and let her psyche unwind. A surge of ecstasy ran through her, titillating and terrifying at the same time. She fought it off with animal rage—get OFF ME—and kept her mind from dissolving into novelty.
She spread her arms and opened her mouth, expelling a deep, resonant GRAAAAAAAHHHH. Ebony smoke billowed from her lips, filling the pass with impenetrable black. The bandits’ arrows, instead of cutting away cloth or flesh, now clattered against rocks and hardscrabble.
Holly’s mind returned from the acosmic reaches and slipped back into her (or to be more precise, Kor’Thank’s) body. “ESTILIAN! WE GOOD?”
The mage shot two more rounds—chnk-chnk, SHOOM, chnk-chnk, SHOOM. “They’ve lost their range! Keep riding!”
The world faded, narrowing down into the churn of talons against the earth, the rattle and shuffle of saddle-mounted gear, the rush of wind as she charged through a lightless, murky void. After a seeming eternity, she burst from the cloud in a flash of scales. Dark vapor trailed off her body in wispy, lingering strands.
Holly glanced back. Yongthung and Horgoth were close behind. Lorgpug didn’t look so good; a big-ass arrow was protruding from his gut.
“We need to slow down!” Estilian called. “Lorgpug is injured!”
Holly gritted her teeth—fucking Estilian worked for her, goddammit, not the other way around—but the mage was right. They’d made it clear of the pass, clear of the archers. No reason to ride their raptors into the dirt.
“Slow down!” she yelled. “Slow the fuck down!”
She was abruptly aware of her feverish skin, her sweat-soaked clothes beneath her sweltering armor, the rush of blood in her pounding temples. The four Indashi looked around with glazed eyes and parted lips, wondering how the hell they were still alive.
Lorgpug slumped onto his mount’s neck.
Holly stared dumbly at him, trying to figure out what to do. If she took the time to save him, then—
Yongthung and Horgoth quickly dismounted and pulled him off his raptor. Estilian did the same and rummaged through his saddlebags. He withdrew a fur-covered hide and laid it on the ground. The three Indashi eased Lorgpug onto the blanket.
Holly hopped off and strode toward them. “How is he?”
“Too soon to say,” the mage replied tightly. He nodded at Yongthung. “Cut off his plating.”
Yongthung unsheathed a bone-handled knife. Its honed edge sliced easily through Lorgpug’s fastenings. Horgoth pulled off metal and fabric, revealing a massive, hairy chest. The skin around the protruding arrow was puckered and ugly.
“Mrrrhh…” Lorgpug shifted and moaned.
“We must dress his wound.” Estilian cast a quick glance around. “There.” He pointed at a dark, rocky mouth at the base of a mesa, a hundred yards distant. “We’ll fashion a stretcher, put him in the cave. Start a fire to keep him warm.”
“The smoke,” Holly protested. “Flaysac will see it.”
Estilian shook his head. “We must keep him warm. Otherwise, his humors might lapse into a fatal slumber. His soul will be raw and unguarded: easy prey for the Starlight Scythe-Wielder.”
Holly was stumped. “ ‘Humors might lapse into—’ you mean go into shock?”
“ ‘Go into shock?’ What do you—”
She shook her head. “Never mind. How long?”
Estilian gestured to Horgoth, directing him to sit Lorgpug up so they could wrap the wound without disturbing the arrow. “I cannot say. I must canvass the terrain; gather some herbs to boost his vitality. I will reconnoiter whilst Yongthung and Horgoth place him in the cave.”
“Unacceptable,” Holly said flatly.
Estilian’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “What other options might we pursue?”
Instead of answering, she marched back to Gucci. She dug through her saddlebags, cataloguing their contents beneath her breath. It was a standard packout—three days of food, five days of water, and some basic emergency gear: wraps, sparklocks, gold drogos.
“Goddammit,” she muttered. The bottom pouch on her left saddlebag was sliced open. It had contained her supply of wormy-squirmies, the vitality-boosting creatures she’d gotten off the desert-dweller Mongo. Only three remained, clinging to the interior folds of the ruined bag.
She stuffed two in a belt pouch and gulped the third. “Ahhh.” She wiped her lips with the back of her wrist and turned back around. Estilian and the others were still fretting over their wounded comrade.
Idiots. She gritted her teeth and marched back over. Her shadow fell across Lorgpug’s face. “Change of plans,” she declared.
They didn’t acknowledge her. Estilian threaded a second piece of cloth behind Lorgpug’s spine and over his belly. The mage reached in his robe and withdrew a finger-sized pin made from polished femur.
“Change of plans,” Holly repeated.
“A moment, milord.” Estilian’s eyes stayed fixed on Lorgpug’s wrap. “These bandages will be ready in just a—”
She freed her blade with a cat-quick swipe; it made a nerve-shredding shiiiIIING as it leapt from its sheath. Lorgpug’s minders fell on their butts and hands, shocked by her swiftness. She swung her sword in a downward stroke, then straightened up just as briskly.
Due to her uncanny speed and the keenness of her blade, Lorgpug’s head remained seemingly attached to his gutshot body. The only sign he’d been decapitated was a thin line of red at the base of his throat. His three caretakers raised their hands in an instinctive gesture, shielding their faces from potential harm.
Pussies. She suppressed a sneer.
Lorgpug’s body began jiggling and shaking. His head rolled away, his throat transformed into a gruesome, spurting wound. Blood gushed across the ground, but it didn’t collect into pools or puddles; it was immediately absorbed by the dusty earth, leaving a series of spongy blots.
“What…why…” Estilian’s mouth opened and closed as he tried to form the question.
The cheerleader knelt. She wiped her blade on Lorgpug’s dressing. “He would have slowed us down. I was being merciful.” She cast a casual glance at the horrified magician. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Estilian gulped. Forced himself to nod. “Merciful. Yes.”
She turned to Yongthung and Horgoth. “Merciful, right?”
Their only response was a disbelieving stare.
Her gaze darkened. “Speak.”
The two warriors nodded hastily. “Yes. Merciful,” Yongthung said. Horgoth repeated it.
She rose to her feet and sheathed her sword. “Now string up the body, feet toward the sky.” She shaded her eyes with the flat of her hand. Fifty yards distant, a sunbaked tree stood by itself. It resembled the claw of an arthritic witch. “Over there.” She pointed at it. “Lash him to the trunk.”
“What…what for?” Estilian asked shakily.
She gave him an exasperated look. “How much food do you have?”
He stared back at her, not comprehending. “How much food do I—I carry the standard packout. Three days’ worth.”
“Three days.” She turned to Yongthung and Horgoth. “And you two? Standard packout, right?” They both nodded. They, like Estilian, failed to understand the gruesome implication behind her question.
“Aside from that fucked up tree, I don’t see any signs of life. We’re going to make do with what we have.”
They still didn’t get it. Confusion played across their faces.
Holly lost her patience. “Food, you idiots! We need food! And this sack of tri-tips has the macros we need!” She launched a kick into Lorgpug’s corpse. “So string him up and make some fillets!” She stroked her chin and her brow furrowed. “Maybe we could marinade him…I could definitely go for a rack of babyback…”
The three Indashi were looking at Holly like she’d lost her mind. She was instantly pissed.
“Get TO IT, fuckers!” She kicked the ground, spraying sand in their faces. “The meat’s gonna spoil!”
Yongthung and Horgoth began dragging Lorgpug toward the tree. They were still in shock; their eyes were glassy and their lips were slack. Estilian followed. His expression mirrored theirs—it was numb and blank.
Holly walked up beside him and patted his shoulder. “You’ve done good today.”
“Thank you, milord.” He mumbled this reflexively, without feeling.
She patted him again and forced a note of sympathy into her voice:
“You’ll get the backstraps. You’ve earned them.”