“EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT!” Holly screamed. “PULVERIZE THEM!”
Volley after volley exploded on the slopes, flooding the air with thunder and smoke. The Death Riders flinched from the godlike force, but Holly didn’t notice; she sat astride Gucci tense and erect, eyeing the barrage with rapt focus.
“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. The men choked and spat, passing information between coughs and hacks.
“CAPTAINS!” The general pulled on her reins, making her mount rear high. “YOU’RE WASTING MY FUCKING TIME!”
The captains finished. Five red flags were hoisted in the air.
Yinhalka turned to Holly. “The field is prepped. I’ll give the order to—”
Holly and her raptor sprinted for the mountains. 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 told Holly 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. She hadn’t waited for the soldiers to engage; she’d gotten excited and jumped the gun. If Yinhalka hadn’t given the order to attack, Holly was up shit creek without a padd—
Ah. A sideways glance allayed her fears—Indashi footmen were trotting forward. 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 great chance to play up 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. Another took a shaft in the hollow of his throat.
“Ready the candala!” Holly shouted. She looked over her shoulder and spotted Estilian, riding bitch with her chief badass: Lorgpug the Limb Render. Riding with Estilian would slow Lorgpug down, but Holly wanted to protect the mage. He’d worked night and day for the past few months, channeling his soul into a magical explosive.
Estilian brandished the fruit of his labor (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 off 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 the mage, the candala would act like a shaped charge: it would blow everything inward, along the trajectory of its initial path, so she wouldn’t get hit by errant back-blast. Still, as hurricane winds buffeted Holly, she couldn’t help but question his assurance. She ducked down and hugged her mount.
When she glanced up, relief flooded her battle-tautened mind. The bomb had worked exactly as prescribed—the gate had blown inward. Beyond its shattered remains, Holly saw a giant wave of pressure continuing on, kicking up a mile-wide swell of swirling dust.
“QUICKLY!” she screamed. “BEFORE THEY RECOVER!”
Too late. One of her men jerked and twitched as four missiles pierced his armor; he tumbled off his saddle in a backwards roll. Fuck. Holly flinched as an arrow scored her calf. Flinched again as another grazed her neck.
Then she was charging through the middle of the pass. High above her, bandits cut the ropes on a pile of boulders, filling the gateless cavity with falling rock.
“Estilian!” she shouted. “WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?” She needed magical cover, and he was the only—
“HERE!” The mage and his guardian were a dozen 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 flew at Lorgpug: zwip zwip zwip! He cut through two, but the third slipped past and punctured his guts.
“RUUUUUHH!” he screamed. “WHORESON ORCFUCKERS!”
Twenty meters right, a Rider caught an arrow in his chest. Another Rider was hit in each thigh, pinning his legs to his screeching 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. When it hit the slopes, a plume of smoke and fire shot 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 not fast enough—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 her 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 poured from her lips, filling the pass with impenetrable fog. 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 down into the churn of talons, the rattle and shuffle of saddle-side gear, the slipstream 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 her body.
Yongthung and Horgoth were close behind. Lorgpug was with them but a big-ass arrow was hanging 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 cleared the pass, and more importantly, shaken 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 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. Out of forty-some Riders and thousands of troops, they were the only ones who’d made it through.
Lorgpug slumped onto his mount’s neck, eyes rolling back in his massive skull. Holly stared at him, trying to decide what to do next. If they took time to save him, then—
Yongthung and Horgoth quickly dismounted and pulled him off his raptor. Estilian rummaged through a saddlebag, withdrew a fur-covered hide, and laid it on the ground. The three barbarians eased their comrade 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 drew a bone-handled knife and sliced through Lorgpug’s fastenings. Horgoth pulled off metal and fabric, revealing a massive, hairy chest. An inch below his navel, his skin puckered around the arrow.
“Mrrrhh…” Lorgpug shifted and moaned.
“We need to dress it.” Estilian cast a quick glance around. “There.” He pointed at a dark, rocky mouth at the base of a mesa, a hundred yards distant. “Once we’re finished, we’ll fashion a stretcher and get him to the cave. We’ll start a fire and keep him warm, then I’ll see if I can remove the arrow.”
“The smoke,” Holly protested. “Flaysac will see it.”
“There’s no other choice—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 instructed Horgoth to sit Lorgpug up so they could wrap his torso. “I cannot say. I must canvass the terrain—gather herbs to boost his strength. I will reconnoiter whilst Yongthung and Horgoth place him in the cave.”
“Unacceptable,” Holly said flatly.
Estilian’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “What do you suggest?”
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.
“Goddammit,” she muttered. The bottom pouch on her left saddlebag had been sliced open by a bandit’s arrow. 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 grabbed them all and gulped them down. “Ahhh.” She wiped her lips with the back of her wrist. 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. The other three barbarians fell back on their butts, shocked by her swiftness. She swung her sword in a downward stroke, then straightened up just as quickly.
Due to her speed and the keenness of her blade, Lorgpug’s head remained seemingly attached to his gutshot body. The only sign that he’d been decapitated was a thin line of red at the base of his throat. His three caretakers had instinctively raised their hands, shielding their faces from potential harm.
Pussies. She suppressed a sneer.
Lorgpug’s body began jiggling and shaking. His head rolled away, and his throat became a gruesome, spurting mess. Blood gushed across the ground, but it didn’t collect in pools or puddles; it was immediately absorbed by the thirsty earth, leaving a series of spongy blots.
“What…why…” Estilian’s mouth opened and closed.
The cheerleader knelt, wiping her blade on Lorgpug’s dressing. “I was being merciful.” She gave him a casual glance. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Estilian gulped. Forced a 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, like the severed 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 are you carrying?”
He stared blankly at her, not comprehending. “How much food am 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 beneath 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! And this sack of tri-tips has the macros we need!” She launched a kick into Lorgpug’s corpse. “So string his ass up and carve me some steaks!” She stroked her chin and her brow furrowed. “I wonder if we could whip up a marinade…I’m kinda in the mood for some barbecued ribs…”
The three Indashi stared at Holly like she’d just lost her mind.
“Get TO IT, fuckers!” She kicked the ground, spraying sand in their faces. “The meat’s gonna spoil!”
Yongthung and Horgoth began dragging the corpse toward the tree. They were still in shock; their eyes were glassy and their lips were slack. Estilian followed a few yards behind.
Holly walked up beside him 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 get the backstraps. You’ve earned ’em.”