“EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT!” Holly roared. “PULVERIZE THEM!”
Volley after volley exploded on the slopes, flooding the air with thunder and smoke. Her troops flinched from the godlike force, but Holly didn’t notice; she sat astride Gucci tense and erect, eyeing the barrage with rapt focus. It went on for 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 scurried through their squads, gathering confirmations amidst a thick blanket of gritty-tasting smog. It wasn’t easy; the men were choking and spitting, trying to pass info between coughs and hacks.
“CAPTAINS!” The general pulled back on her reigns, 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 let loose with a bone-quaking scream and sent her raptor into a headlong sprint. Forty Death Riders followed in her wake, spreading out into a wedge-shaped formation.
“CLOSE ON MY HEELS!” she roared. “I WANT SKULLS ON PIKES!”
Yinhalka’s voice faded and dimmed, until it was little more than a muted drone. But when she said the field was prepped, everything crystallized. A moment later, the cheerleader queen was charging the pass.
Holly was struck by sudden panic. Her foot-soldier regiments were supposed to launch a glorious (suicidal) offensive, diverting the focus off Holly and her Riders. The thing was, she hadn’t waited for them to begin the assault; she’d gotten excited and jumped the gun. If Yinhalka hadn’t mobilized those extra 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 perfect chance 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 came from Flaysac’s bandits: “For life and freedom!”
Arrows zipped by, filling the air with 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 Limb Render. Having a passenger on his extra-large raptor would slow him significantly, but Holly wanted to protect Estilian, and no one could fuck shit up like good ol’ Lorgpug.
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 in its center. Sky-blue light poured from the bomb, washing the slopes like a roiling tide.
A defender cried, “Mage to our front! He has an enchanted expl—”
Before he could finish, Estilian flung the candala. The peaks were drenched in merciless shine, then—
According to Estilian, 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, she couldn’t help but fear for her life. She ducked down and hugged her mount.
When she glanced up, relief flooded her battle-tautened mind. The bomb had worked exactly as promised—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 swirling dust.
“COME ON!” She screamed. “BEFORE THEY RECOVER!”
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 magical cover, and he was the only—
“HERE!” The mage and his guardian were fifty yards back. Lorgpug was crushing it, slashing arrows from the air with his serrated blade.
Holly’s heart lifted in her chest. 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!”
To Holly’s right, a Rider caught an arrow in his upper 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’d already cast Senkilo’s Cannon. He pumped his fist and 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 and spat, surrounded by veins of crackling lightning. When it hit the slopes, a hundred-foot plume of smoke and fire blew from the earth, sending charred bodies flying through the air.
The mage aimed thirty degrees left, toward a nest of archers. They sprinted out from their shelter but it was too late—the round hit with a gut-dropping WHOOSH. Fleeing bowmen catapulted skyward.
“My lord!” Estilian yelled. “I need concealment! Shindalthi’s Cloud—cast it NOW!”
Holly jerked right as an arrow slipped by, opening a fresh cut on her left cheek. Shindalthi’s cloud, she thought. Concentrate, Holly. She closed her eyes and let her psyche unwind. A surge of ecstasy ran through her being, 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 wide, expelling a deep, resonant GRAAAAAAAHHHH. Ebony smoke billowed from her lips, filling the pass with impenetrable black and concealing the Riders within its midst. The bandits’ arrows, instead of cutting away cloth or flesh, now clattered against rocks or hardscrabble.
Holly’s mind returned from the acosmic reaches. “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 into the churn of raptors’ talons, the rattle and shuffle of saddle-side gear, the rush of wind as Holly 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.
Holly glanced back. Yongthung and Horgoth were close behind. Lorgpug was with them but he didn’t look good; a big-ass arrow was protruding from his gut.
“We need to slow down!” Estilian called. “Lorgpug is injured!”
Holly gritted her teeth—Estilian worked for her, goddammit, not the other way around—but the mage was right. They’d made it clear of the pass, and more importantly, clear of the archers. No reason to ride their raptors into the dirt.
“Slow down!” she yelled. “Slow the fuck down!”
She became abruptly aware of her feverish skin, her sweat-soaked clothes under her sweltering armor, the rush of blood in her pounding temples. The four Indashi looked dumbly around, wondering how in the hell they were still alive. They were the only ones who’d made it through.
Lorgpug slumped onto his mount’s neck.
Holly stared at him, trying to decide what to do next. If she took time to save him, then—
Yongthung and Horgoth quickly dismounted and pulled him off his raptor. Estilian rummaged through his saddlebags, withdrew a fur-covered hide, and laid it on the ground. The three barbarians eased their comarde onto the blanket.
Holly hopped off and strode toward them. “How is he?”
“Can’t say,” the mage replied tightly. He nodded at Yongthung. “Cut off his plating.”
Yongthung unsheathed a bone-handled knife and sliced through Lorgpug’s fastenings. Horgoth pulled off metal and fabric, revealing a massive, hairy chest. Down below, near his belly button, the skin around the 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, get him to the cave. Start a fire to keep him warm.”
“The smoke,” Holly protested. “Flaysac will see it.”
“We must keep him warm. Otherwise, his humors might lapse into a fatal slumber. His soul will be left 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 directed Horgoth to sit Lorgpug up so they could wrap the wound. “I cannot say. I must canvass the terrain, gather 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, and 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 from the desert-dweller Mongo. Only three remained, clinging to the folds of her 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 look up. 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. “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 friends 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 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 had 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 turned 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.
The cheerleader knelt. She wiped her blade on Lorgpug’s dressing. “He’d slow 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 blankly 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 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 it. “Food, you idiots! We have to eat, fuckers! And this sack of tri-tips has the macros we need!” She launched a kick into Lorgpug’s corpse. “So string him up and carve his ass apart!” She stroked her chin and her brow furrowed. “I wonder if we could whip up a marinade…I could definitely go for a rack of babyback…”
The three Indashi looked 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 and patted his 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 voice:
“You’ll get the backstraps. You’ve earned ’em.”