“EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT!” Holly roared. “PULVERIZE THEM!”
Volley after volley exploded on the slopes, flooding the air with thunderous impacts. Holly’s warriors—the ones who weren’t working a ’pult or a cannon—winced and flinched from the godlike force that washed off the peaks. Holly didn’t notice; she sat astride Gucci tense and erect, impatiently eyeing the unfolding devastation. The barrage went on for close to four hours.
“SIGNAL YOUR EMPTIES!” Yinhalka called as the fire abated. “SIGNAL YOUR EMPTIES, CROM DAMN YOU!”
Blast-team leaders hoisted their flags—stark white circles on pitch-black backgrounds.
Holly squeezed with both thighs, sending her raptor into a brisk trot. “LOOK ALIVE, CAPTAINS! SEND YOUR REPORTS, YOU SLACK-ASS ORC FUCKERS!”
The captains—they were riding back and forth between their teams—picked up the pace, trying to garner speedy confirmations amidst a thick blanket of smog and debris. It wasn’t easy; everybody was choking and spitting, trying to pass info between coughs and hacks.
“CAPTAINS!” the general roared, pulling back on her reigns and making her mount rear high into the air. “YOU’RE WASTING MY FUCKING TIME!”
The blast-team captains finished their counts. 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 and charged the pass. Forty Death Riders followed behind in a wedge-shaped formation.
“CLOSE ON MY HEELS! I WANT SKULLS ON PIKES!”
Yinhalka’s voice had become a muted drone. But when she’d stated that the field was prepped, everything had crystallized, and a primal scream had erupted from Holly’s throat. A second later she was charging into the pass, forty Death Riders following in her wake. As they spread out into an arrowhead formation, savage, murderous cries leapt from their throats.
Estilian was riding bitch with Lorgpug the Destroyer. The wizard could’ve had his own mount, but Holly wanted Lorgpug—her most formidable Rider—guarding the magician.
She was struck by a sudden flash of panic; her regular troops were tasked with attacking the slopes in a glorious (suicidal) offensive, diverting the focus off Holly and her Riders. The thing was, she hadn’t waited for the regulars to assault; she’d gotten excited and jumped the gun. If Yinhalka hadn’t gotten them into gear, then Holly was up shit creek without a padd—
Ah. A sideways glance allayed her fears—Indashi soldiers were heading for the slopes in a brisk trot. As they hit the first bit of incline, they broke into a roaring sprint.
“For Kor’Thank! For AKANAX!”
Holly shook her head, smirking beneath her helmet. Akanax. Another bullshit deity, as far as she was concerned. But Holly Dent was a consummate politician, so she decided to capitalize on their misplaced faith.
“FOR AKANAX!” She drew her scythe-sword; it jumped from its sheath in a glittering flash. “FOR THE INDASHI!” Some of the Death Riders picked up her cry.
An answering roar came from Flaysac’s bandits: “For life and freedom!”
Arrows zipped past her, filling the air with deadly, whistling blurs. Two of her Riders spasmed on their mounts; one of them took a shaft in the throat, the other sprouted an arrow from his eye.
“Ready the candala!” Holly shouted. She looked over her shoulder and spotted Estilian 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. Ocean-pure blue swept out from the bomb, washing across 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 as hard as he could. The peaks were flooded with merciless light, then—
Estilian had explained it would be the equivalent of a shaped charge—that it would blow everything inward, along the same trajectory of its initial path. Still, as hurricane winds buffeted Holly’s face, she couldn’t help but question his assurance.
When she looked up, relief flashed through her battle-tautened mind. The candala 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.
The entire battlefield went momentarily silent.
Holly was the first to recover. “COME ON!” She urged Gucci with a squeeze of her thighs. “BEFORE THEY GET THEIR BEARINGS!”
Her warning came too late; arrows began whistling, taking down Riders to either side of her. One of her men jerked and twitched as several missiles punched through his body. He tumbled from his saddle in a backwards roll, clutching his skewered neck and gurgling blood.
Fuck. Holly flinched as a missile scored her calf. She flinched again as another grazed her neck. Then she was charging through the pass.
“LORGPUG!” she shouted. “WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?” Her Death Riders were valuable, but not nearly as valuable as her High Mage, who was guided by her chief badass: Lorgpug. Her options would be severely restricted if she didn’t have access to his magical prowe—
“HERE, MY LORD!” Lorgpug was fifty yards back, slashing arrows out of the air with his serrated blade. Holly’s heart lifted in her chest—Lorgpug was alive and so was Estilian. As long those two were safe, then—
A trio of arrows lanced toward Lorgpug—zwip zwip zwip! He cut apart two, but the third one slipped through and punctured his gut.
“RUUUUUHH!” he screamed. “WHORESON ORCFUCKERS! FIGHT LIKE MEN, DAMN YOU!”
Holly looked sideways. Every Rider on her left had been picked off. She looked right and saw a Rider warrior catch an arrow in his chest. His right-flank companion caught two through each thigh, pinning his legs to his velociraptor mount. Arrow number three slipped through his plates and pierced his heart.
“Estilian!” Holly screamed. “Fucking DO SOMETHING!”
The mage didn’t respond, he was already casting Senkilo’s Cannon. A pump of his fist, and he chambered a round. It spun and burned before the cannon’s four-clawed aperture. Calls of Magical ordnance! ran up and down the bandits’ lines.
Estilian leveled his arm and fired a round. It blazed up the slopes, surrounded by crackling veins of searing lightning. When it hit the incline, a hundred-foot plume of smoke and fire erupted from the earth, sending charred bodies flying through the air.
“Keep shooting!!” Holly yelled.
The Mage swung his arm 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—his next round disappeared into a firing slit and detonated with a gut-dropping WHOOSH. Fleeing bowmen were launched into the air.
“My lord!” Estilian yelled, racking another round. “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 chest-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 being, titillating and terrifying her at the same time. She fought it off with animalistic rage—get OFF ME—and managed to keep her mind from dissolving into novelty.
As this was happening within her psyche, her body threw its arms back and opened its mouth, expelling a deep, resonant GRAAAAAAAHHHH. Ebony smoke poured from her lips, filling the pass with impenetrable black. The arrows were still coming, but instead of cutting away clothing or a piece of flesh, they were now clattering 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!” she shouted. “ARE WE GOOD?”
The High Mage shot two more rounds—chnk-chnk, SHOOM, chnk-chnk, SHOOM—and shouted, “They’ve lost their range! Keep riding!”
The world faded. All that remained was the beat of talons against earth, the rattle and shuffle of saddle-mounted gear, the rush of wind as she charged headlong through a lightless, murky void. After a seeming eternity, she emerged from the haze in a burst of scales and heaving flesh. Dark vapor clung to her body in wispy, lingering strands.
Holly looked back. Yongthung and Horgoth were hot on her heels. Lorgpug didn’t look so good; a big-ass arrow was protruding from his gut.
“We need to slow down!” Estilian called. “Lorgpug is hurt!”
Holly gritted her teeth—fucking Estilian worked for her, goddammit, not the other way around—but the magician 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 abruptly became aware of her feverish skin, her sweat-soaked clothes beneath her armor, the rush of blood in her pounding temples. The four Indashi that had cleared the pass with her were looking around with shock-glazed eyes and parted lips, wondering how the hell they were still alive. Lorgpug slumped forward on his mount’s neck. Holly sat there staring dumbly at him, trying to figure out what to do. If she took the time to save him, then—
Yongthung and Horgoth leapt from their saddles, hurried over, and pulled him off his raptor. Estilian dismounted and rummaged through his saddlebags. The mage withdrew a fur-covered hide, laid it on the ground, then the three Indashi eased Lorgpug onto the blanket.
Holly got off her mount and strode toward the injured warrior. “How is he?”
Yongthung and Horgoth were undoing his armor. Estilian was holding a waterskin over his body, preparing to wash the wound.
“Too early to say,” the mage replied tightly. He scooted closer and nodded at Yongthung. “Cut away his undershirt.”
Yongthung reached down to his waist and unsheathed a wickedly curved, bone-handled knife. Its honed edge sliced through Lorgpug’s fastenings. Horgoth pulled away plating and fabric, revealing a massive, hairy chest. It was coated in a lather of clammy sweat.
“Mrrrhh…” Lorgpug shifted and moaned.
“Fuck,” Holly hissed.
“We need to dress his wound.” Estilian cast a quick glance around. “Over there.” He pointed at a series of dark, rocky mouths that lined the base of a mesa, maybe a hundred yards distant. “We’ll fashion a stretcher, carry him to one of those caves. We’ll start a fire to keep him warm.”
“The smoke,” Holly protested. “Flaysac will find us.”
Estilian shook his head. “We must keep him warm. Otherwise, his humors might lapse into a fatal slumber. His soul will be left raw and unguarded, making him easy prey for the Starlight Scythe-Wielder.”
Holly wrinkled her brow, trying to figure out what the fuck he was saying. “ ‘Humors might lapse into—’ you mean go into shock?”
It was Estilian’s turn to look puzzled. “ ‘Go into shock?’ What do you—”
She shook her head. “Never mind.” She gave Lorgpug a once-over. “How long will it take?”
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 assess the terrain and determine what herbs will boost his vitality. I will reconnoiter the land whilst Yongthung and Horgoth carry him to a 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 under 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 compartment of her left bag had been 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 some ledges created by the interior folds of her ruined bag.
She stuffed two in a belt pouch and gulped the other one down. “Ahhh.” She wiped her lips with the back of her wrist and turned back around. Estilian and the other two were still fucking with Lorgpug.
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 bone.
“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—”
Holly unsheathed her blade with a swipe of her arm; it made a nerve-shredding shiiiIIING as it leapt from its scabbard. Lorgpug’s minders fell onto their butts and hands, shocked by the violence of Holly’s movements.
She swung her sword in a vicious, downward stroke, then straightened up just as swiftly. Due to her uncanny speed and the keenness of her blade, Lorgpug’s head remained seemingly attached to his gutshot body. The only clue that she’d decapitated the warrior was a thin line of red at the base of his throat. His three caretakers had shielded their eyes. It had been an instinctive gesture; they’d both been afraid she was going to kill them.
Pussies. She suppressed a sneer.
Lorgpug’s body began jiggling and shaking. His head rolled away, and 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 nothing but a spongy, crimson blot.
“What…why…” Estilian’s mouth opened and closed as he tried to form the question.
The cheerleader knelt and wiped her blade off on Lorgpug’s dressing. “He would have slowed us. I was being merciful.” She cast a casual glance at him. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Estilian gulped. He forced himself to nod. “Merciful. Yes.”
She turned to Yongthung and Horgoth. “Merciful, right?”
They stared at her with disbelieving eyes, and 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 his body, feet toward the sky.” She shaded her eyes with the flat of her hand. Fifty yards to her right, a sunbaked tree stood by itself. It looked like the dried claw of an arthritic witch. “Over there.” She pointed at it. “Lash him to the tree.”
“What…what for?” Estilian asked shakily.
She gave him an exasperated look. “How much food do you have, Estilian?”
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? Are you also carrying the standard packout?”
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. Their eyes were wide with uncertainty and confusion.
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. She glared at the Indashi. “So string him up and start carving.” She stroked her chin and her brow furrowed. “Maybe we could make a marinade…I’m in the mood for some barbequed ribs…”
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, sending a spray of sand into 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 them. His expression mirrored theirs; it was numb and blank. Holly walked beside him and clapped him on the shoulder.
“You’ve done good today.”
“Thank you, milord.” He mumbled it reflexively, without feeling.
She patted him again and forced a note of sympathy into her tone:
“You can have the backstraps. You’ve earned them.”