“EVERYTHING YOU’VE GOT!” Holly roared. “PULVERIZE THESE FUCKERS!”
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.
The Indashi general squeezed her raptor with both thighs, sending it 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 confirmations through a thick blanket of smog and debris. It wasn’t easy; everyone was choking and spitting, trying to pass information in between coughing fits.
“CAPTAINS!” the general roared, pulling the reigns on her mount and causing it to 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, who was staring straight ahead at the smog-covered slopes.
“The battlefield’s prepped. I’ll give the order to—”
Holly cut her off with an enraged scream, “RRRAAAAAAHHHH!!!” and charged the pass, forty Riders following in a wedge-shaped formation. “CLOSE ON MY HEELS! I WANT SKULLS ON PIKES!”
Yinhalka’s voice had been a muted drone in Holly’s ears. But when the general had stated the field was prepped, Holly’s senses kicked into overdrive. Everything had crystallized, and a primal scream had erupted from her throat. A second later she was charging toward the pass, forty Death Riders following in her wake. As they spread out into an arrowhead formation, they unleashed savage, murderous cries.
Estilian was riding bitch with Lorgpug the Destroyer. The wizard could’ve had his own mount, but Holly wanted Lorgpug—her most formidable Death Rider—guarding her magician.
She was suddenly struck by a flash of panic; her regular troops were supposed to support her charge. They were under orders to attack 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 troops were heading for the slopes in a brisk trot. As they hit the first stretch of incline, they broke into a roaring sprint.
“For Kor’Thank! For AKANAX!”
Holly shook her head, smirking under her breath. Akanax. Just another bullshit deity as far as she was concerned. But Holly Dent was a consummate politician, so she decided to capitalize on it.
“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!” they screamed.
Arrows zipped past, filling the air with deadly, whistling blurs. War cries changed to bloodcurdling screams; she glimpsed two of her Death Riders spasm on their mounts. One of them took a shaft in the throat, the other sprouted an arrow from his right eye.
“Get the candala ready!” Holly shouted. She chanced a wild look over her shoulder and saw the High Mage holding a magical explosive—it looked like a glowing bird’s nest made of steely wires—in his right hand. He leaned down, chanted something fast and slippery, then blew into its center. Waves of purest blue swept out from the charge, washing across the slopes like a roiling tide. Flaysac’s defenders shouted in alarm.
Someone cried, “Mage to our front! He’s wielding an enchanted expl—”
Before he could finish, Estilian flung the candala with all his might. He managed to blurt a frantic “DUCK!” before he hunched low in his saddle. The candala shot forward like a burning star. Barbarians and bandits shielded their eyes or turned their heads to the side. The peaks were flooded with merciless light, then—
—the candala hit the mountain-pass gate with a thunderous crash. Holly became dimly aware that Gucci was screeching.
Estilian had assured her the candala was the equivalent of a shaped charge; it would blow everything inward, along the same trajectory of its initial path. Still, as hurricane winds buffeted her face, she couldn’t help but doubt her mage.
When she looked up, relief flashed through her battle-tautened mind. The candala had worked exactly as prescribed—the gate had blown inward and taken every bit of shrapnel along with it. Beyond its shattered remains, Holly could see a giant wave of pressure continuing onward, kicking up a mile-wide swell of swirling, furious dust.
The battlefield went momentarily silent.
Holly was the first to recover. “COME ON!” She urged Gucci on with a squeeze of her thighs. “BEFORE THEY GET THEIR BEARINGS!”
Her warning came too late—arrows began whistling, taking down Death Riders to either side of her. One of her Riders jerked and spasmed 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 an arrow scored her calf. She flinched again as another grazed her neck. Then she was charging through the blasted gate.
“LORGPUG!” she shouted. “WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?” Her Death Riders were valuable, but not as valuable as her High Mage. Her options would be severely restricted if she didn’t have access to magical enchantme—
“HERE, MY LORD!” Lorgpug was fifty yards back, slashing arrows out of the air with his serrated blade. Holly’s heart immediately lifted. Lorgpug was alive and so was Estilian. As long those two were safe, then—
A trio of arrows lanced toward Lorgpug—zwip zwip zwip! His sword flitted back and forth, cutting apart two, but the third one slipped through and punctured his gut.
“RUUUUUHH!” he screamed. “WHORESON ORCFUCKERS! FIGHT LIKE MEN, DAMN YOU!”
Holly glanced over her shoulder. Nearly every Rider on her left had been picked off. There was a stout battle-axe wielder named Yongthung, and a spiked club-man named Horgoth, but that was it. She looked to her right and saw a Death Rider catch an arrow through the chest and another get pierced through each thigh, pinning his legs to his velociraptor mount. A third arrow slipped through his plates and pierced his heart.
“Estilian!” Holly screamed. “Fucking DO SOMETHING!”
He 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, flooding the air with baleful light.
Calls of Magical ordnance! ran up and down the bandits’ lines.
Estilian as he leveled his arm and fired a round. It blazed up the slopes, surrounded by crackling veins of searing lightning. When it hit, 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 the densest nest of archers on the left side of the pass. A burning orb went zipping toward them, marking its path with a flaming arc of eldritch blaze. Archers sprinted out from their fortified enclosure but it was too late—the orb disappeared into one of their firing slits and detonated with a gut-dropping WHOOSH. Fleeing bowmen pinwheeled their limbs as they 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 her, opening a fresh cut on her left cheek. If I focus on casting, I won’t be able to dodge these goddamn arrows. Two more went streaking by; one disturbed the hair on her neck, the other sliced through one of her chest-plate straps.
If she didn’t do something, they were going to turn her into human shish-kebab.
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 the desperation of someone whose only chance of survival was to unleash every ounce of animal rage—get the fuck OFF ME—and managed to keep her mind from dissolving into a whirlpool of novelty.
As this was happening within her psyche, her body threw its arms back and yawed its mouth open, expelling a deep, resonant GRAAAAAAAHHHH. Ebony smoke poured from her mouth, filling the pass with impenetrable black. The arrows were still coming, but instead of cutting away clothing or a piece of flesh, they were clattering against rocks and scrabble, or thunking into the unforgiving earth.
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—before he shouted, “They’ve lost their range! Keep riding!”
The world faded away; all that was left was the beat of saurian talons, 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. So were Lorgpug and Estilian. 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 nevertheless, the magician was right; they’d made it clear of the pass, and they weren’t being shot at. No reason to ride their raptors into the dirt.
“Slow down!” she yelled. “Slow the fuck down!”
Holly was abruptly aware of her feverish skin, her sweat-soaked clothes underneath her armor, and the blood rushing through her temples. Her four remaining soldiers were looking around with shock-glazed eyes and parted lips, their chests working like stoked bellows, wondering how the hell they could still be alive.
Lorgpug slumped forward on his mount’s neck. Holly sat there staring at him, trying to figure out what the hell to do. If they took the time to save him, then—
Yongthung and Horgoth leapt off their saddles and began pulling him off his raptor. Estilian dismounted and rummaged through Lorgpug’s saddle-bags. The mage withdrew a fur-covered hide and laid it on the ground. The three Indashi eased the injured warrior onto the blanket. Holly got off her mount and strode over to Lorgpug.
“How is he?” she asked.
Yongthung and Horgoth were undoing the clasps on Lorgpug’s armor. Estilian had grabbed a waterskin off Lorgpug’s mount, and was preparing to wash the wound.
“Too early to tell,” the High Mage replied tightly. He scooted closer and nodded at Yongthung and Horgoth. “Cut away his undershirt.”
Yongthung reached down to his waist and unsheathed a wickedly curved, bone-handled knife. Its honed edge easily cut through Lorgpug’s fastenings. Horgoth pulled away the plating and fabric, revealing a massive, hairy chest. It was covered in a lather of clammy sweat.
“Mrrrhh…” Lorgpug shifted and moaned.
“Fuck,” Holly hissed. She’d been hoping Lorgpug would remain an asset, but apparently, that wasn’t in the cards.
“We need to dress his wound.” The High Mage 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 and carry him into a cave. We’ll start a fire to keep him warm—”
“The smoke will give us away,” Holly countered. “Flaysac will find us.”
Estilian shook his head. “We must keep him warm. Otherwise, his humors shall be tempted to lapse into slumber. His soul will be left unguarded, and he will be easy prey for the Starlight Scythe-Wielder.”
Holly wrinkled her brow, trying to figure out what the fuck he was saying. “Humors will be tempted to 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 this take?”
Estilian gestured to Yongthung and Horgoth, directing them to sit Lorgpug up so they could wrap the wound without disturbing the arrow. He turned back to Holly. “I cannot say, my liege. I must assess the terrain and determine what herbs I can use to aetherically boost Lorgpug’s vitality. I will reconnoiter whilst Yongthung and Horgoth transport Lorgpug to a cave.”
“Unacceptable,” Holly said flatly.
Estilian’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. “What other options might we pursue?”
Instead of answering, Holly turned around and marched back to Gucci. She dug through her saddlebag, 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 saddlebag had been sliced open by a bandit’s arrow. It had contained her supply of wormy-squirmies she’d gotten from the desert-dweller Mongo. Only three of them remained, clinging to ledges created by the interior folds.
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 over Lorgpug’s face.
“Change of plans,” she declared.
They didn’t acknowledge her. Estilian directed Yongthung and Horgoth to sit Lorgpug up a little higher, so he could thread another piece of cloth behind his 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 were fixed on Lorgpug’s wrap. “These bandages will be ready in just a—”
Holly backhanded him across the face, sending him tumbling across the barren ground. She unsheathed her sword—it made a nerve-shredding shiiiIIING as it leapt from its scabbard. Yongthung and Horgoth fell onto their butts and hands, shocked by the violence of Holly’s movements.
She swung her sword in a vicious, downward stroke, and rose 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.
Yongthung and Horgoth had shielded their eyes. It had been an instinctive gesture; they’d been afraid that 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 became a gruesome, spurting wound. Blood gushed across the desolate ground, but it didn’t collect into pools or puddles; it was immediately absorbed by the dusty earth, leaving nothing behind but a spongy blot of moisture.
Estilian came running over. “What…why…” His mouth opened and closed as he tried to form the question
The cheerleader knelt and wiped her blade off on Lorgpug’s torso dressing. “He would have slowed us down. I was being merciful.” She cast a casual glance around. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Estilian gulped once. He forced himself to nod. “Merciful. Yes.”
She turned to Yongthung and Horgoth. “Merciful, right?”
They stared at her with disbelieving eyes.
Her gaze darkened. “Speak.”
The two warriors nodded hastily. “Yes. Merciful,” Yongthung said. Horgoth repeated it.
“Glad we’re on the same page.” She stood up and sheathed her sword. “Now string up his body, feet toward the sky.” She shaded her eyes with the flat of her hand. A hundred yards to her right, a spindly, sun-baked 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, idiots! We need food! And this sack of tri-tips and back straps has the macros we need to fill our bellies!” She launched a kick into Lorgpug’s headless corpse.
She glared at the Indashi. “So string him up and start carving.” She stroked her chin and her brow furrowed. “Maybe we can 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, like theirs, was numb and blank.
Holly walked up beside him and clapped him on the 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 can have the backstraps. You deserve them.”