“EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT!” Holly roared. “PULVERIZE THEM!”
Volley after volley exploded on the slopes, flooding the air with thunder and smoke. Barbarians flinched from the godlike force that washed off the peaks. 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 rode past their squads, trying to garner speedy confirmations amidst a thick blanket of smog and debris. 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 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. 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 steadily faded, until it was nothing more than a muted drone. But when she’d told Holly the field was prepped, everything had crystallized. A second later, the evil cheerleader was charging the pass, forty Death Riders following in her wake.
She was struck by a sudden flash of panic; her foot soldiers were supposed to attack in a glorious (suicidal) offensive, diverting 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 didn’t get her troops in 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 berserker 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, 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!”
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, who was riding bitch with her chief badass: Lorgpug the Destroyer. 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 swept out 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 as hard as he could. The peaks were flooded with merciless shine, then—
According to Estilian, the candala was the equivalent of 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 backblast. 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 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.
“COME ON!” She urged Gucci with a squeeze of her thighs. “BEFORE THEY RECOVER!”
Her warning came too late. 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 neck and gurgling blood.
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?” Her Riders were valuable, but not nearly as valuable as her High Mage. Her options would be severely restricted if she didn’t have access to his magical prowe—
“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—Estilian 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 looked right and saw a Rider catch an arrow in his chest. His companion caught two through each thigh, pinning his legs to his velociraptor mount.
“Estilian!” Holly screamed. “Fucking DO SOMETHING!”
The mage didn’t respond, he was already casting Senkilo’s Cannon. He pumped his fist, chambering a round that 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 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.
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—the next round detonated with a gut-dropping WHOOSH. Fleeing bowmen were launched skyward.
“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 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 at the same time. She fought it off with animal rage—get OFF ME—and kept her mind from dissolving into novelty.
She threw her arms back and opened her mouth, expelling a deep, resonant GRAAAAAAAHHHH. Ebony smoke poured from her lips, filling the pass with impenetrable black. The arrows, instead of cutting away cloth or flesh, 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. “WE GOOD?”
The mage shot two more rounds—chnk-chnk, SHOOM, chnk-chnk, SHOOM. “They’ve lost their range! Keep riding!”
The world faded. All that remained was the beat of talons against the earth, the rattle and shuffle of saddle-mounted gear, and 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 and heaving flesh. Dark vapor trailed her body in wispy, lingering strands.
Holly looked 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 hurt!”
Holly gritted her teeth—fucking Estilian worked for her, goddammit, not the other way around—but the dmage 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 armor, the rush of blood in her pounding temples. The four Indashi that had made it through were looking around with shock-glazed eyes and parted lips, wondering how the hell they were still alive.
Lorgpug slumped forward onto his mount’s neck.
Holly sat there staring dumbly, 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 and laid it on the ground. The three Indashi eased Lorgpug onto the blanket.
Holly hopped off and strode toward the injured warrior. “How is he?”
“I’m not sure,” the mage replied tightly. He nodded at Yongthung. “Cut off his plating.”
Yongthung unsheathed a wickedly curved, bone-handled knife. Its honed edge easily sliced through Lorgpug’s fastenings. Horgoth pulled away metal and fabric, revealing a massive, hairy chest, coated in a lather of clammy sweat. The skin around the protruding arrow was puckered and ugly.
“Mrrrhh…” Lorgpug shifted and moaned.
“We need to dress his wound.” Estilian cast a quick glance around. “Over there.” He pointed at a series of dark, rocky mouths lining the base of a mesa, maybe a hundred yards distant. “We’ll fashion a stretcher, place him in a cave. 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. 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 whilst Yongthung and Horgoth place him in 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 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 compartment of her left saddlebag 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 the ruined bag.
She stuffed two in a belt pouch and gulped the third down. “Ahhh.” She wiped her lips with the back of her wrist and turned back around. Estilian and the others were fretting over 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 on their butts and hands, shocked by the violence of her sudden movement. 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 he’d been decapitated was a thin line of red at the base of his throat. His three caretakers had shielded their eyes from instinctive fear.
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, crimson blots.
“What…why…” Estilian’s mouth opened and closed as he tried to form the question.
The cheerleader knelt and wiped her blade on Lorgpug’s dressing. “He would have slowed us. 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?”
They stared back at her with disbelieving eyes.
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 face with the flat of her hand. Fifty yards distant, a sunbaked tree stood by itself. It resembled the dried 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? 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, there’s no signs of life. We’re going to make do with what we have.”
They still didn’t get it. Uncertainty and confusion played through their eyes.
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 start carving!” She stroked her chin and her brow furrowed. “Maybe we could marinade him…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, spraying 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. 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 tone:
“You’ll get the backstraps. You’ve earned them.”