Visech stooped down and into the dirt. Tufts of prairie grass burnt around him and his queen; the broken bodies of morehl corpses smoldered where their blood had spilled. A massive hellhound, taken down by amazon warriors, belched smoke into the sky.
The old man planted his rump into the dirt next to Ilichus and wiped away the blood from his brow. He leaned against the queen’s busted chariot; it hung at an odd angle, tilted upon its busted wheel with spokes bent askew.
“You were victorious again, your majesty.”
Ilichus scowled and bit her lip. “Yes, but at a greater cost.” Her eyes lingered upon a pile of human casualties.
A crew of amazon tinkers hurried to their location. They carried tools and a replacement wheel for the royal vehicle.
“True. This battle was more costly than the others thus far,” Visech eyed the defeated monster that laid dead on the battlefield. “It is a testament to how effective your strategies have been up until now.”
Ilichus snorted a hot blast through her nostrils. “Up until now,” she repeated, looking across the field with dark eyes. She recognized the faces of many of their dead.
Visech slapped her half-heartedly on the shoulder. “This is to be expected. There will be some losses—and still more to come as we cut deeper.”
She eyed him dispassionately, knowing he was right… wishing he were wrong. Ilichus was grateful for the old man’s wisdom; it kept her grounded.
“You are not lopping off mere branches any longer.” He pulled his queen’s falchion from its sheath and swung it like a hatchet. It sank into the side of Iluchus’s chariot, embedded.
She shot him a strange look and grabbed the handle to remove it. The weapon had stuck firm. She wrenched on it for a few moments but it held fast.
“No more branches,” Visech repeated. “You are whittling away at the main trunk, now. Sometimes the best way to fell a tree is with help—even changing your tools if necessary. He winked, leading his pupil to think for herself.
She quoted an old proverb. “If the ax doesn’t work, find a saw?”
Visech nodded with approval.
“We are not far from the Gwich’in,” Iluchus observed.
The old man smiled. “I am sure they can help remove this blight from the land.”
Slapping the side of the chariot, the workers signaled that the craft was again drivable.
Iluchus took the closest one and clasped his forearm. “Work with haste,” she said. “We must move out as soon as possible.”
He nodded and joined the others, using hand gestures, he signaled the large cart at the edge of the battlefield. The wagon containing parts moved towards the center to speed repairs on whatever wrecks remained salvageable or to scavenge off of those that weren’t.
Visech joined Iluchus in the chariot which the queen drove on a circuit.
She informed her generals of their next move. “Meet us at Potshari,” she told them one after another. “Visech and I will go on ahead. Bring the rest of the people with you. We should not divide ourselves for long.”
A short while later, the Iluchus and Visech sped into the outskirts of Potshari, home of the Gwich’in: the people of the land. Tanned faces looked out and watched her arrival from their permanent dwellings made of clay. Unlike Iluchus’s tribe, the Gwich’in were not mobile. They’d molded Potshari into a center of worship and knowledge; the Gwich’in focused their efforts on learning the arcane and natural knowledges of Esfah. They fell under Iluchus’s rule, but she respected their sequester enough to leave them to their self-effected seclusion. Now, her need had grown too great.
Iluchus pulled the reins and quieted her horse in the center of Potshari.
Visech stepped out and immediately locked eyes with an old woman who still bore the marks of beauty despite her age.
A spark of understanding lit on her face and she stepped forward to embrace Visech. “It has been many years,” she said quietly.
The woman stepped back and observed decorum. “Queen Iluchus,” she greeted. “I am Cheyamna, the oracle of the Gwich’in.”
“Good,” Iluchus said flatly. “You and I have much to discuss.” She quickly brought Cheyamna up to speed on the situation between their people and the morehl. “We have need of support.”
“I’m not sure how much the Gwich’in can help,” Cheyamna began making excuses. “We are a peaceful people. Most of our magics are meant for healing or growing or making art.”
Iluchus stood tall and looked down at the old woman sternly. “We stand together as humans,” she said flatly. “If my forces fail, you will fall next. Potsherd is already well within the perimeter of lands the morehl now claim as theirs.”
Cheyamna smiled. “They have not found. They will not… because of our magic. For all their bluster, the Obsidian Grotto lacks folk trained in the arcane arts.”
Visech fixed her eyes on his old friend. “Your disguises will not hold. How long will it be before the enemy broadens their tactics beyond artillery? Emperor Kurlahk does not appoint fools—as soon as they tally the damage we’ve inflicted, they will change their methods. They may even attack Potshari preemptively, in fact, just to ensure you cannot join our efforts against them.”
Cheyamna wordlessly worked her mouth and then she bowed. Visech was rarely wrong; even the Gwich’in knew that. “I will assemble our seers, some of those with shamanic skills who can draw upon the elements will surely volunteer to aide you.”
Visech bowed to her. “With your help, perhaps we can end this war before it spirals into something far worse.”
The oracle looked to the horizon and spotted a cloud in the distance. Dirt billowed skyward, stirred up by more than a thousand sets of hooves.
Iluchus smiled. The amazon army would join them soon. She finally felt they had what it would take to chop down this particular montimbanco.