The einherjar spread out one by one in a crescent formation. Melrakki and Bregda joined the vanguard while Sax claimed a spot on the ridge about twenty feet from the mouth of the passage, perching above it with the deftness of a hawk.
Kžarine pulled up the hood of her dress cloak, and at once the scarlet material of the garment possessed shimmering, reflective properties. A single tug on Hydrapier’s polished grip confirmed her sword would ease from its sheath if the need arose. Commander Vulkan gestured in acknowledgement: he knew all too well the stealth rituals of the Dragon Assassin.
“May the Fates show you favour,” he bade.
“The Fates can go screw themselves.”
Without another word, Kžarine hastened up the gradient, the heels of her leather boots treading softly among the dried bracken and pinecones. But for the dull cacophony of the Vimur, the setting was tranquil, and only the flight of darting sparrows bothered the bristly silhouettes. She arrived alone and unnoticed at a crest of the bluff, finding there an entanglement of foliage. Her sole means of obtaining a viable elevated view would be from the rowan trees.
Adjusting the scabbard on her spine so that Hydrapier would not inhibit her movement, she started up the bulkiest of the trunks. The bark was rough and simple to hold on to, allowing Kžarine to climb with speed. A falcon cawed at her angrily from his nest as it swayed back and forth, but she paid him no heed, quickly vaulting onto one of the protruding limbs. The branch groaned under her weight but did not budge. Creeping along, she emerged a few dozen feet above a grassy embankment, still veiled by her light-bending cape.
The small patch of land was situated between a rock face and the river, accessible only by the pathway etched from the hillside. Following the curvature of the gorge a short distance, the shore tapered and ended against a boulder that leaned awkwardly across the water.
The site again reminded Kžarine of the story of Thor’s visit to Geirröd’s hall: Geirröd’s own daughter, Gjalp, had inadvertently stalled the Thunderer by disrupting the flow of the Vimur, almost drowning he and Loki. The giantess had ultimately suffered Thor’s wrath.
A male figure stood by the river’s edge, slim with wavy blonde locks. He was draped in the same ragged mantle that the reports had described, inspecting the magistone chamber on his pulse rifle with military precision, yet he could have been no older than fifteen or sixteen.
As Kžarine studied him, a second youth stepped out from a hidden alcove. She too was cloaked in faded black, striding on long legs as dark, rose-highlighted hair swept across her shoulders, guiding a pair of magnificent stallions by their bridles. They were Skinfaxen, purest white with shining manes, their heads protected by elegant neurohelms.
“There is little chance of persuading the last of the viscounts,” Kžarine heard the boy say as his partner approached. His accent was unusual, not one Kžarine was familiar with. “If Utgard has refused to send a representative from Jotunheim, so will the other provinces.”
“This council is for their own benefit,” she replied, allowing the horses to graze.
“That may be so, but we cannot afford to waste any more time.”
“Our mission is not to decide for them,” countered the girl. “Each realm must be given the opportunity.”
“Of course,” he reluctantly accepted. “Then, I will ride south to the Hnitbjorg at once.”
“And I direct to Chancellor Orkaja at Gastropnir."
With a swift leap, Kžarine dropped through the air like a dart, landing silently on the embankment behind the children. Her fingers wrapped around Hydrapier’s grip and slipped it from its sheath as she rose from her crouch, causing the Skinfaxen to whinny in fright. Retreating from the intruder, the stallions drew the attention of the enemy, though their frantic gazes took a moment to spot the reflection of her disguise.
The boy hurriedly aimed his rifle at the Assassin, while the female snatched a pistol from the holster on her hip. The shrill thrum of laser fire resounded in Kžarine’s ears as she danced around the energy blasts, deflecting the beams with graceful swipes of her longsword’s twin dragonbone blades. Advancing, she ducked and weaved to evade the barrage, twisting this way and that. The targets could not track the camouflaged motion as their lime green rounds singed the earth and fizzed against the sheer cliff beyond, growing increasingly wayward.
Before the duo were able to readjust, Kžarine was upon them, kicking the gun from the girl’s hand, and pressing Hydrapier’s serrated edge to her throat.
“You’re both under arrest,” she snarled, using her captive as a shield. “Lower your weapon.”
“No,” the young man responded flatly. His blue eyes narrowed as he glared at Kžarine down the barrel of his rifle, his breathing measured, a neuroglove primed on the trigger.
“If you value your comrade’s life, boy, you will surrender immediately.”
“And if I do?”
“You will be escorted to Stellarheim to await judgment by the king.”
“We do not answer to a usurper,” he retorted, sharing a brief glance of understanding with his friend.
“Then, you will answer to me.”
“You’ll have to catch me first.”
Pursing his lips, the blonde boy gave a piercing whistle, and the Skinfaxen suddenly reacted. From beneath his cloak, he grabbed a black riding respirator and slotted it onto his jaw, while his partner began to struggle inside Kžarine’s clutches. The Dragon Assassin instantly sensed the horses’ intentions and prepared to intercept, but the girl’s writhing was too strong as they galloped towards their masters. With a violent thrust, the commander smashed Hydrapier’s hilt against her temple, and she fell to the ground unconscious.
Holding out his spare arm, the boy grasped the crystalline reins on the larger stallion as it careered past, and used its momentum to swing himself onto its saddle. No sooner had he regained his balance that the connection was made between his gloves and nodes on the reins, activating their respective neuro-conductors. The ivory steeds thundered straight up the ravine’s trail, their hooves scattering the gravel as they bade for the summit.
Where my Huntsmen are ready for them…
Stepping over the girl’s slumped body, Kžarine crossed the clearing to the shore. The rush of the current was treacherous here, but the riverbank offered an unobstructed view of the jutting outcrop and the wall of conifers that loomed over it.
She watched the fleeing Skinfaxen reach the height of the path, only to rear up on hind legs as Captain Melrakki appeared from the trees. Bregda and a half dozen soldiers accompanied him, while Sax jumped down from his elevated position to complete the blockade. The horses neighed wildly, and the young man fought to maintain control as the einherjar closed around them like a snare.
Although, what happened next Kžarine had not anticipated.
Sax was the first to near the riderless beast, light of foot and axes drawn. Clasping at the dangling bridles as the snorting Skinfaxi staggered from side to side, there was an explosion of electricity, and he was thrown ruthlessly from the ridge. A protective field crackled around the harness: it had been rigged to prevent thieves hijacking the stallion.
Exploiting the gap in the ranks, the hooded boy wheeled his mount and charged back in the direction of the embankment.
He’s going to generate the speed he needs, Kžarine realised. We cannot let him escape!
“Pixiedust!” she bellowed.
The Destined Lieutenant Bregda had also identified the threat, and was already a blur too quick to call normal, tailing the Skinfaxen as they hurtled down the decline.
Each second counted now to halt their acceleration, and she gained on them easily, leaving a phantom trajectory of twinkling particles in her wake. With impossible agility, Pixiedust sprinted up the rock face and launched herself onto the empty saddle, careful to avoid the electrified reins as she veered to wrestle with the target. The boy lashed out and she dodged his fist with an amused smirk, but there was little she could do as secondary laser fire struck her armoured vest, causing her to topple backwards.
Kžarine spun to see the young female on her knees, blood trickling from her forehead, a determined expression on her features. She swayed drowsily, yet her pistol’s aim had been true.
Still wielding Hydrapier, the Wane raced at the oncoming horses in one last effort to stop them, but was thwarted by another volley of concentrated energy rounds. Diving aside, she turned in time to witness the blonde boy seize the harnesses of both stallions and take flight over the River Vimur. As her partner soared into the sky and vanished on the horizon, the girl tossed away her weapon and collapsed in surrender.
The Dragon Assassin knew right then that her mission was failed.
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