Kiss of the Dragonfly

57. Gambits



Through the eyes of the dragonfly, Gronnor recognized the airship’s pilot from Cort’s description of the tattoo on his forehead. Years before, that man had killed his half-brother.

The pilot died screaming.

For good measure, Gronnor had the dragonfly kill the other three crewmen. He never had liked Flays. Then he sent it into the dark to hunt for Petra.

The dragonfly still remembered its target. It seemed to have an idea where she was. Of its own accord it flew toward a small hill that poked up from among the trees. Flares rose from a tower ruin there. It didn’t take the bug long to reach the spot, then pass to the north of it, where a narrow spur continued as straight as a rod.

Below, stark in the red light of the flares, a knot of men were fighting. But just then, that did not interest Gronnor. The dragonfly had marked Petra from the way her shadow moved against the snow, and the target ring drew tight around her. She was running northward along the spur, her coat open and a sword in her hand.

Gronnor grinned as the dragonfly swooped silently upon her. His gaze fixed on the nape of her neck with delicious anticipation. He made the claw-fingered movement that told the dragonfly to strike and own its prey.

Without the courtesy of a knock, without even removing his shoes, Kradik barged into Gronnor’s tent.

“What the hell do you want?” snarled Gronnor, whipping off the ring.

Three men with loaded crossbows followed Kradik.

Gronnor felt a sinking inside. Kradik had found some backbone after all. But this time, Gronnor was seated, and Mollos and Gench weren’t there.

“What’s that?” asked Kradik, sweetly.

“This? Nothing of interest to you.”

“It looks like a tarlic. They’re always interesting. And they are the property of our mutual lord.”

“It is what I use to communicate with Jalla,” lied Gronnor, with growing desperation.

But Kradik wasn’t intimidated. Perhaps he smelled the fear. “Fascinating. I would like to give my greetings to the sublime lady.” He held out his hand.

In Gronnor, the sinking feeling became a terrible pit of despair. If Kradik learned of the dragonfly’s power, all was lost—for him, and for Jalla too. His voice grated weakly. “It could be unhealthy.”

Kradik’s grin widened and the fingers of his guards whitened on the trigger bars.

Gronnor handed him the ring.

Kradik placed it around his ear, then folded his hands over his paunch, his face serenely expectant.

A moment later, he was thrashing on the floor with bloody foam bubbling from his mouth.

Gronnor Brok had not escaped the consequences of his deeds by being slow-witted. He regarded the writhing man with an expression of casual disdain. “Jalla is devouring his soul,” he told the horrified raiders. “She does that to people who annoy her.”

It took Kradik hours to die. By the time he did, his men were Gronnor’s.

 

Hearing the hiss behind her, Petra skidded and whirled to look back. The dragonfly was hovering inches from her face, glowing a shimmery blue to her skully-enhanced vision. She jerked her head back to see the bug without crossing her eyes. “Bes!”

“Fear not. I have regained control and will not lose it again.”

Bane growled at the hovering bug.

Petra blew out a breath. “That was fast.”

“It was not by skill alone,” said Bes, modestly.

“Still—good job.”

“I’m done with watching. It’s time for killing.”

Petra winced as a scream cut through the mist from where she’d left Ward and Fallon’s men. Steel rang against steel. But she had her orders and must not hesitate. “We have to find this Commander Skar, the one who’s going to ambush Pa.”

“Not Otta-boy first?” The snark was back in Bes’ voice. He was evidently recovering quickly from his embarrassment.

Petra scowled, then turned to peer northward.

At her feet, Bane whined and pressed against her leg. Petra put a reassuring hand on his head. She’d almost reached the end of the spur. Ahead, beyond a pile of obsidian rubble, were scattered trees, then the barren, rising slope of Attica’s flank. Few hiding places. The brook’s ravine was three hundred yards away, but the flames had retreated higher up the slope. The blood in the water must be thinning.

She said, “Fallon knew Pa’s plans. So would Skar. And this is the best path to the knoll. So, Skar would—”

“Stop,” said Bes, sharply. “Look to the trees.”

Petra turned her head slowly, peering at the gnarled junipers. Between them lay deep snow that would show careless tracks, but enough rocks poked through to hide the tracks of skilled trailsmen. Hide them from just one perspective: hers. The hairs rose on the back of her neck and her skin tingled. The bunched foliage of some trees glowed faintly. There were men hiding in them, well within bowshot of her, on both sides. She’d run straight into their midst.

Why haven’t they shot me?” she asked, silently.

“Likely they are waiting for a sign from their leader, and he is unwilling to risk exposing their position for the wrong target. But if you make a sound, or move farther in the direction of your father, they will act.”

Northward, at the lip of the brook’s ravine, was movement. Shadows in darkness, shadows that glowed. Her father’s men had come downslope in the concealing ravine, but had to abandon it to reach the spur. If they arrived unaware of the presence of the Flays, they would die.

“We have to expose the men in the trees,” Petra said to Bes. “The fly can do that. You should be doing that.” The dragonfly was still hovering a couple of feet from her.

“It can’t without leaving you.”

Petra clenched her jaw. “What use is it to me? Warn our men or kill the Flays.”

She knew Bes’ weakness now, why he’d made mistakes. And she remembered Ward’s words: Anything can be a weapon—any friend, any foe. Use them.

She goaded Bes. “You said it yourself: you’re a nest-defending demon. This calls for a direct assault—and you’re hesitating.”

Bes’ bellowed in her head. “I am an ORCICE! Offensive Retaliation-Capable. Get that straight, girl.”

“Okay,” said Petra. “I’m under attack, and you’re going to retaliate. Offensively.”

“Say what?”

“They’re going to shoot at me.”

“A stupid sacrifice,” yelled Bes.

Every nerve in Petra’s body tingled at the thought of what she would do. She felt nimble. She was nimble, and she wasn’t going to just stand there. “I’m not stupid. What’s the dragonfly’s field of vision?”

“180 degrees high-acuity, 360 decently,” said Bes.

“And mine, with the skully?”

“95 degrees.”

Petra shrugged off her coat, tossed it and her sword to one side. She made a slender target, gray wool against the mist and snow, like smoke in darkness. But the Flay scouts would be good marksmen.

“Let’s see how good you are, Bes, and how quick I am. I’ll watch the right, the dragonfly the left. You watch both through us. Tell me exactly what to do—forward, back, left, right. No other words. Remember, once they shoot, it’s too late. You have to judge the angle in advance.”

“Madness! I can hardly see—”

Petra ignored common sense and her own fear. “I know how well you can see. If you get the chance, bite them, and make it loud.”

“Fool girl—”

At the top of her lungs, Petra screamed, “Drakhorns!”

A snap behind her and a bolt whiffled past her right ear, tugging her hair with its wake.

“Left!” squawked Bes.

“Say it sooner!” complained Petra. Aloud, she screamed, “Enemies!”

Bane was barking now, loud and deep. He’d spun toward the tree the first bolt had flown from.

“Right!”

Petra leaped right. She saw no movement, never saw the bolt, but heard it thrum past between her arm and side.

“Back! Right!”

A plink, a whine, and snow leaped as bolt rebounded off a rock to her left. A hiss overhead.

From the corner of her eye, she saw the hovering dragonfly, and something she’d not seen before. The finest thread of violet light strobed from the bug toward a target out of view.

There came a curse, a yell of terror, then a scream.

“Got him,” muttered Bes. Then, “Right!”

As Petra hopped rightward, her sweater sleeve jerked. A searing pain burned the outside of her left arm, near the elbow.

Airgun,” said Bes.

“No other words.”

Bane was bounding from rock to rock toward the nearest tree.

“Back,” shouted Bes.

Petra jumped. A bolt whistled under her chin.

The dance went on for seconds that seemed endless.

The foliage of one of the trees in her view jerked, swayed, and a dark-clothed body fell from it. At the edge of the wood, among the boulders, then among the trees, shadows moved. Karl Drakhorn’s men.

Bane reached his tree and leaped. He swung there with a man’s boot in his jaws. The tree shook and the man inside cursed.

“My chance,” said Bes. The dragonfly’s hiss became a thin scream as it shot towards the trees.

From the ground came a stutter of snaps. The Drakhorn raiders had targets now, and many of Skar’s men had wasted their shots on Petra. The juniper wood rang with war cries and screams.

Petra stood where she was, just breathing. She wasn’t shivering yet, but that would come.


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