Chapter 16 can be read below the cut.
Lisel drummed her fingers against the side of her rifle impatiently. Sirilrhis and Kiyaska were both looking around for any sight or sound of the Imperial soldiers, but they hadn’t found anything yet. “Hirúka,” she said. “Climb a tree and look for the Imperial soldiers.”
Hirúka walked around the clearing, looking for the sturdiest, tallest tree in the area. He found one that seemed reasonable and jumped up a good four meters, digging his claws into the bark. There was no way for him to climb up to the top of the tree in either his human or tiger forms without breaking too many branches, so he settled for climbing up as far as he could.
The tree was tall enough that Hirúka got a good view of the surrounding area. The road they’d been taking went through a relatively large, low valley among the mountains. A river to the west fed a lake, and most of the area was forested with the occasional natural clearing.
Initially, Hirúka saw nothing but birds and a deer wandering by the lake. Then he heard noises coming from the road about a kilometer ahead. The noises were obviously the sounds of people talking, but he couldn’t make out any individual words – all he could tell was that the intonation and sounds of the words made it obvious they were speaking Meitsung soré. After staring for a few more moments, he saw a few of them moving through the trees. At this distance, it was impossible to tell how many of them there were.
Hirúka jumped all the way back down to the ground and leaped over to Lisel. She flinched backward when he ended up right in front of her with one jump. “Well?” she asked after taking a moment to calm herself. “What did you see?”
Hirúka switched back to his human form and pointed down the road. “There are people coming this way,” he said. “They’re about a kilometer from us. I couldn’t tell what species they were or what they were wearing, but I heard them talking.”
“How many of them are there?” Lisel asked.
“I don’t know. I could barely see them,” said Hirúka. “And they weren’t even camouflaged or anything. I know you elves can do that.”
“Of course not,” said Lisel. “When we use that magic, we become invisible even to spirits and dragons. The crows wouldn’t have seen them otherwise.”
“But why would they want people to notice them?” Hirúka asked. “Shouldn’t they at least be trying to be sneaky?”
“That magic only grants us a few seconds to hide from sight and sound,” said Lisel. “Using it repeatedly is draining and not worthwhile. They’re saving their energy for when they run into people. Like us.”
“Do you think they know we’re here?” Kiyaska asked.
“I don’t know,” said Lisel. She looked to Hirúka. “They didn’t notice you, did they?”
Hirúka bristled. “Of course they didn’t!” he protested. “They were way too far away to notice me.”
“Get back in the trees and watch them. We’ll get a trap prepared,” said Lisel. She turned to Sirilrhis and Kiyaska. “You two also need to get in the trees. I need you to shoot them. Try to make sure you kill or seriously injure them in one hit, okay? I’d rather get this done quickly.”
“Are you going to make more explosion spells?” Kiyaska asked.
“No,” said Lisel. “I don’t want to be responsible for another forest fire. Sirilrhis, if you can write some kind of spell that helps, please do that.”
“I’m not sure I know any,” said Sirilrhis.
“It doesn’t actually matter. Just get in the trees and shoot them. I’ll stay on the ground and deal with killing the rest,” said Lisel. She tapped her fingers against her rifle. “I don’t know what these soldiers are armed with, but there’s a good chance that some of them have rifles like mine. If they do, do not let them shoot you. Gunshot wounds are among the worst to deal with.”
“You won’t use yours?” Sirilrhis asked.
“It’s a last resort weapon. I have to manually load it after each shot,” said Lisel. “And if there are other Imperial soldiers in the area – which I’m sure there are; one squad on its own is unrealistic – I don’t want to alert them. I’d like to keep this operation as quiet as possible.”
The three of them took their positions: Sirilrhis and Kiyaska up in trees on either side of the road, Hirúka ahead of them, far up in the trees, and Lisel hiding in the bushes on the side of the path closest to the lake. After about ten minutes, the soldiers came into view: seven of them, all elves. Every single one of them had a dao, and two had jians in addition. Lisel noted with relief that only one of them had a rifle. She looked up at Kiyaska’s tree. She’d hadn’t told them to take out the gunner first, but she hoped one of them would figure it out.
As if answering her thoughts, an arrow flew out of the trees from Sirilrhis’s side of the path and hit the gunner in the left eye. The soldier next to him noticed immediately, but didn’t have any time to react before Kiyaska’s arrow embedded itself right in between his eyes.
“FIND THE ATTACKERS!” shouted one of the other elves.
That same elf was subsequently hit in the head with another one of Kiyaska’s arrows. He went down immediately. She’s faster than I assumed she’d be, thought Lisel.
The other four soldiers started running. One of them jumped past the tree line on Sirilrhis’s side of the road. He didn’t make it very far; Sirilrhis dropped out of the trees and landed on top of him. He grabbed the soldier’s head and twisted until Lisel heard a loud crack, then drew his jian with his free hand to lazily block another soldier’s attempt at slashing at him.
Lisel stood up as one of the soldiers ran past her. He looked at her – once, twice – before the realization of who she was set in. “Lisel Tsensung,” he snarled as he drew his jian. “You traitor. I’ll be the one to kill you.”
Queen of Air and Darkness, lend me your magic for just a moment.
The invisibility only lasted for a few seconds. Lisel used those seconds to kick the soldier’s legs out from under him and flip him so that he started tumbling down the hill toward the lake. As Lisel flickered back into view, she grabbed her rife. Aiming and pulling the trigger took her about a second; the bullet hit the soldier in the forehead before he had time to get to his feet.
Lisel and Sirilrhis both ran back onto the road. “Where did the last one go?” Lisel asked, hurriedly reloading her rifle.
“I didn’t see where he went,” said Sirilrhis.
Lisel looked up toward the trees. “Hirúka! Kiyaska! Where’d the last soldier go?” she yelled.
Hirúka started climbing down the tree. “I have no idea!” he said. “There was way too much gong on for me to pay attention to any one thing.”
“He’s there!” Kiyaska yelled suddenly. “He was invisible!”
Lisel spun around and blocked the soldier’s dao with her rifle. Sirilrhis used that moment of distraction to stab his jian through the soldier’s torso. Once the soldier dropped his dao and stumbled backward out of Lisel’s range, Sirilrhis beheaded him.
“That’s it,” said Lisel. “That was the last one. It’s over.”
Kiyaska climbed down the tree and jumped the last few feet to land on the ground. “Is that really wall of them?” she asked, sounding disappointed.
Lisel slung her rifle back over her shoulder. “Yes, thankfully. Now go find all the bodies and bring them here. We can take anything valuable they have.”
“We’re going to loot their corpses?” Hirúka questioned.
“We’re going to loot their corpses,” Lisel confirmed. “They’re dead, Hirúka. They’re enemies. It doesn’t matter if we take their things. They don’t need them anymore.”
Hirúka still looked uneasy. “If you say so, I guess.”
Several minutes later, all seven corpses were piled up in the middle of the road. One of the soldiers had been carrying a large travel bag; Lisel had thrown all their weapons in it. They’d also taken all of the food and other valuables or useful items the soldiers had on them.
“Well, all that’s left is to burn then,” said Lisel.
“Really?” said Hirúka. He looked horrified.
Lisel frowned at him. “Do you really think it’s okay to just leave a pile of dead bodies in the middle of the road? That’s not safe or sanitary. Anyway, can you tweak your protection spell and make it so that the fire won’t go beyond the circle?”
“I can try,” said Hirúka.
Hirúka crouched down and stared at the ground; Lisel assumed that he was thinking. After a couple of minutes, he stood back up and drew a modified version of the protection spell around the pile of corpses. He backed up, and Sirilrhis stepped forward and tapped the arm of one of the soldiers. It caught fire and spread much more quickly than a normal fire would.
The four of them stood there, staring at the pile of burning bodies until Hirúka coughed and stepped backward. “Should we go now?” he asked.
Sirilrhis took his eyes off the fire to look at Lisel. “They know who you are?” he said.
Lisel remained staring at the burning pile. “Yep,” she said.
“Just how well-known are you?” Sirilrhis asked.
Lisel let out a quick laugh. “Sirilrhis, I was Commander of the Firearms Division for years. It’d be weird if anyone in the Imperial military didn’t know who I was.” She adjusted her rifle and the weapon bag. “Come on. Let’s go.”