Tenlyres Chapter 16

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue have traveled across the plateau of Yr and found the Keeper of Tenlyres.
They and their allies have fought their way through the lines of the Red Lector, but allies have been left behind.
This is the final chapter of Part 1 of Tenlyres, but the story is far from over. Part 2 begins here on May 20th.

Previous Chapter

The strider’s wooly hair blew in the cold breeze, a breeze that carried the smells of blood and powder to Ilsa’s nose. Streaks of pink granite radiated from the edges of the Central Lyre’s base, and she followed one of them to the ramp that led to the inverted arch of the lyre.

Behind her in the saddle, Lemuel cradled his sister’s head in his shrunken hand. His other hand was pressed to her bloodstained side.

“How is she?” Ilsa asked.

“Her wound is serious.” Lemuel sagged forward so his forehead touched Ilsa’s shoulder. He spoke into her ear. “We need shelter, as soon as we can get inside.”

Her face flushed from the heat of battle and from having his hands pressed to her heart. She nodded, then turned toward the Keeper of Tenlyres. The veiled Oshomi woman sat in her horse’s saddle at the center of some thirty riders who had managed to break through the line.

The Keeper’s red eyes scanned her remaining comrades, then locked on Ilsa’s gaze, still fresh from her tears. Cass had been there for her this time. The Keeper said nothing for a long moment, then turned toward Blue.

“Mind eater,” she said in the steppe’s common language. “Let me join you.”

Ahead of Ilsa, Blue guided her strider to the strings that hung from the stone arch of the lyre overhead. Blue’s shoulder slumped with weariness, but she did not appear hurt beyond her fatigue. Ilsa rode to a stop beside Blue, under the arch. “If the Lyre really is hollow, how do we get inside?”

“The lyre will show us the way,” said the Keeper in her flat voice. “Have patience.”

Ilsa looked over her shoulder, past Lemuel and Tirica, at the lines of the Red Lector where the sounds of gunfire were beginning to diminish. Her eyes narrowed. She prayed Cass would survive, and Ferdinand too.

“Do not fear, priestess. I told my people to surrender once we broke through.” The Keeper craned her neck and looked up a the crosspiece where the lyre’s strings looped around rings of black stone. “Your friends will be safe, and soon we will free them.”

“Confidence,” said Blue. “I like that.”

“Keeper,” said Lemuel with sweat on his brow, “My sister is hurt.”

“I have eyes, scholar.” The Keeper said the words with her usual lack of inflection. “I will see to her once we are inside.” She reached out gingerly and touched a metallic string of the lyre. The string did not move, stiff and tough as the unbreakable stones around them. “Priestess.” The Keeper’s gaze moved to the submachine gun in Ilsa’s hand. “Your weapon.”

Ilsa frowned at the strings of the lyre. She reached out with the barrel of her gun and carefully flicked the fire mode selector to semi. The weapon’s barrel brushed a static metal string on either side, the two closest together on the lyre and pointed northward, away from the battle.

“Good,” said the Keeper. “Now hold it steady and fire. Once.”

Ilsa squeezed the trigger. Her tired arm shuddered with the recoil, but not so much she couldn’t hold the weapon steady. The bullet sailed away and the strings vibrated, to form a single low note. The note rumbled on as the sound of the gunshot faded from Ilsa’s ears. Her eyes flicked from one end of the lyre’s arch to the other.

All strings stilled, but the note of the two she had played with her gunshot lingered, echoed, thundered in the air. Ilsa’s heartbeat quickened. Behind her, Lemuel cried out in surprise. She looked back. He pointed toward one side of the lyre’s arch with his shrunken hand, jaw slack. The stone shifted, melted, reformed into a passage large enough for a strider to pass. The passage led downward.

“Now.” The Keeper’s voice contained no emotion. The riders guided their steeds through the tunnel in the stone. Ilsa and Blue followed the Keeper in last. The solitary note she had played on the strings faded completely from the air as they entered the passage.

And downward they rode on a spiraling slope of black stone. Yet within the tunnel, there was light. Veins of pale pink crystal glowed with weak illumination that cast the shadows of riders and horses along the walls. The air in the tunnel was warm. Weariness descended on Ilsa as they rode out into a vast cavern a few moments after they began their descent.

The ceiling ran with the same pink crystalline lights as the walls of the passage. Still, shadows stretched at the sides of the huge chamber.

The Keeper’s voice echoed from ahead of them. “We rest here.”

With care, Ilsa helped Lemuel carry Tirica down the climbing line from the saddle to the floor of the cavern. She was about to climb down herself when Hailek gave a grunt of exhaustion and settled onto his haunches. Ilsa slid down his back. The strider laid down his head.

Ilsa patted his side. “Rest, my friend,” she murmured.

Blue’s strider lay down beside Hailek. Blue dismounted. She walked over to Ilsa and Lemuel and Tirica. She looked back toward the tunnel they had come through. It gave no sign of sealing behind them.

“Someone needs to guard our exit,” Blue said.

Ilsa nodded to Blue.

Her friend put a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll do it.” Her eyes moved to Tirica’s pale face and Lemuel hunched over her. “Help them.” Blue turned to a few nearby Oshomi. “Hey, that door isn’t going to guard itself.”

The Oshomi exchanged glances, then dismounted, and followed Blue back up the passage.

“Stay safe,” said Ilsa, “Blue.”

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Blue sent back mentally. Ilsa halfway smiled at that.

The Keeper of Tenlyres walked over to Ilsa, moving slowly on foot. Her horse followed a short distance behind her, apparently just as eager to serve with the wound across its back as without. Ilsa looked at the Keeper’s red eyes, then motioned to Tirica.

“I’ll do what I can.” The Keeper unfastened a tie that held up her veil. When Ilsa saw the face the thin cloth had been hiding, she gasped. The Keeper’s features were Oshomi, clearly, but also strangely Dalite. She bore the kind of fine features Ilsa always associated with her mother.

Mother’s words returned to her from before she started this ride. “Beast daughter,” she whispered.

The Keeper’s red eyes met Ilsa’s, equally surprised. “Siuku has that meaning in my language. How did you know my name?”

“My mother has hallucinations—Visions. She sees a horse with a human face. Your face.”

“And she calls this spirit her beast daughter.”

“Yes.”

The Keeper knelt down beside Tirica. Her strange face fell into shadow and she spread her hands over the wound in the girl’s side.

Lemuel hovered over his sister, still crouched low. “Can you help her?”

“She is hurt deep. It will take time to heal.” The Keeper pressed her hands to the bloody wound and closed her eyes. She said nothing, did not appear to move, but light began to pour from her hands. Tirica shuddered and groaned. Lemuel hunched toward her. She opened her eyes at the same time as the Keeper.

“Lemuel,” she said. “Where am I?”

“Safe,” he said. “We made it.”

Tirica looked down at her wound. The Keeper’s hands remained pressed to the bloody coat.

“Tired,” Tirica said. She settled her head back on the stone and closed her eyes.

“Rest,” said the Keeper. “You will recover.” She took her hands from Tirica’s side and then stood up.

Ilsa frowned at her. “How did you do that?”

“The spirits of this place are not mysterious to me. That is what it means to be the Keeper of Tenlyres.”

“Siuku,” Ilsa said, “That’s your name.”

“Yes.” The Keeper faced Ilsa. She spread her arms and then wrapped them around Ilsa in a firm embrace. “Thank you for your help, priestess.”

“My mission isn’t over.”

“I know.”

“We will fight together again, Ilsa Barrett.”

“I want to know the truth. Why can my mother see your face?”

“Some things are mysterious, even to me.” The Keeper’s horse snorted behind her. “For now, we must survive.”

Ilsa put her arms around the Keeper and hugged her back. “Thank you. I’m sorry about the chief.”

“Duruko was a warrior. The spirits will guide him to his rest.” Yet there were tears in the Keeper’s eyes when she withdrew from their embrace. “Be kind to my people.” She walked away from Ilsa, toward the Oshomi who had made it from the camp to the lyre.

Lemuel straightened his back and turned to Ilsa. He said nothing but held his small hand in his ordinary hand. There were tears in his eyes too.

She walked to his side. “We must be the first city-dwellers to stand in a place like this in a long time.”

He looked at her with an exhausted but genuine smile. “It’s shame we probably won’t get out of it.”

“Don’t worry about that.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Right now, we have the present.”

“You sound like your friend.”

Ilsa frowned. “Blue talks a lot.”

“And she’s right a lot too.” Lemuel touched her hand. He sank down beside his sister.

Ilsa sat down beside him. “You think so?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“And you know what?” Ilsa shook her head. “I may agree with you.”

Tenlyres Chapter 15

 

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue have found the Keeper of Tenlyres, but the forces of the Red Lector are right behind them.
With a group of Oshomi, they must fight toward the Central Lyre.
A fierce battle continues.

Previous Chapter

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The battle lines reeked of blood and powder. Where the Oshomi had charged, the line of the Red Lector had been shattered into pockets of survivors who still fought with fanatical zeal. The wings of the Red Lector’s forces swept toward the center.

Ilsa’s ears rang with the whine of Ayochian artillery bombarding the Keeper’s camp kilometers behind her. Just a hundred meters from the Central Lyre, only the Lector’s command party and scouts stood in her path. She reloaded her machine gun with a full magazine from her saddlebag.

A loud ring of metal on metal broke through the whines and crashes of distant artillery.

The Oshomi Chief, Duruko, parried another stroke from Kaij’s long blade. The scar-faced nomad leader pivoted in his saddle, greatsword in both hands, and slashed along the side of Kaij’s runner. The blade scored a bloody gash in the cat-like steed’s flank. The creature hissed and swiped at Duruko with a deadly claw.

Nearby Ilsa, the Keeper of Tenlyres shouted a warning, the first time Ilsa had heard her with any heat in her voice. Duruko swayed away from the claw, but it drew blood from his side and leg nonetheless. His horse whinnied and carried Duruko out of reach of Kaij and his lethal steed.

Close behind the Keeper, Blue’s eyes rolled in her head. Kaij, in the process of turning to pursue Duruko, took on a blank expression as Blue attacked his mind. Then confusion passed across his face. His focus returned. His nostrils flared.

Between two other scouts, Kaij’s brother, Yunn, chanted an incantation under his breath. Blue flinched though her eyes remained unfocused. “He’s countering me. And he’s good at it.”

The Keeper of Tenlyres turned her steed toward Kaij. She raised one of her few remaining arrows to her bowstring and drew the weapon taut. Kaij produced a pistol from one hand, his eyes once again sharp with focus. He trained the gun on the Keeper.

Ilsa’s machine gun rounds hit Kaij, one in the shoulder, and the other in the gun hand. Blood flew from both new wounds. He kept his grip on the pistol. His wounded hand shook but he pulled the trigger.

The bullet cut a bloody wound on the neck of the Keeper’s horse. The animal cried with pain and bucked. The Keeper’s arrow flew wide of the scout leader. More scouts and survivors from the Red Lector’s line troops ran toward Kaij. He dropped his bloody pistol from his wounded hand. In one hundred heartbeats the weapon would vanish as was the way of bonded weapons. Ilsa had a clear shot at the man.

She leveled her machine gun and knew she would not need a burst to kill him. A chill ran through her at the thought. The cold sensation flowed down her arm into her chest. She hated to kill. She hated that this man and she must be locked in a deadly confrontation. Her heartbeat slowed. The effects of adrenaline began to slacken.

The old wounds along her thigh and in her shoulder began to throb with pain, no longer dimmed by her fury in the fray. Her whole arm felt numb. Her finger fell from the trigger guard of her submachine gun.

“Ilsa!” Blue shouted at her. “It’s the ice magus.”

She looked down at her chilled arm. Frost clung to her sleeve and up to the shoulder, but she knew it went deeper. A man’s hand moved from her side to her arm. The sensation was of dull needles as Lemuel’s fingers pressed down on her arm, trying to massage feeling back into her nerves.

She grimaced. “Thanks, but that’s not the only place.” Her heartbeat thudded slow and loud.

“Cass,” Blue called to the red-haired priestess. “We need to take out the magus.”

Cass Kalteri replied with a grunt. She trained her gun on Yunn and pulled the trigger. Shards of ice formed from the blood of riders from both sides arose from the ground and caught each bullet as Cass fired. Shadows crept from fallen men and women, horses and striders, and climbed up the strider where Cass hung onto Tirica’s limp form with one arm and her weapon in the other.

Cass cursed. She kicked at the grasping shadows created by other Ayochian Magi. Her foul words reached Ilsa across the battlefield. Not very much like the young priestess Ilsa had met back at Saint Banyeen’s Garden all those years ago.

Her hand twitched from pain of the cold and from the complaints of nerves. Her strider carried her and Lemuel forward at a steady pace. Kaij closed with Duruko again. A hand pressed to Ilsa’s chest.

“Excuse me,” Lemuel murmured in her ear.

Ilsa grimaced at the pain in her heart and lungs, the same needles of numbness that stabbed at her arm. “That’s where I need help.”

She raised the machine gun with agonized slowness. Duruko and Kaij passed each other like jousters. Red gleamed on Kaij’s blade.

Duruko tumbled from the saddle. The greatsword fell from his fingers. The Keeper of Tenlyres launched one of her two remaining arrows at Kaij, a cry of rage in her formerly flat voice. The arrow struck the leader of the Red Lector’s scouts in his already-wounded arm. His blood streamed down the shaft.

Yunn brought his hands together, eyes locked on Ilsa. The cold around her heart intensified. She sighed out a breath of pure frost that hazed her vision. Lemuel’s small hand joined his good hand in pressing down on her chest, trying to spread heat through her. In one way, it worked, but he could not seem to go deep enough through her coat.

She sagged against his chest, her strength fading. The strider kept moving. Kaij turned toward her, pain warring with a maddening expression of joy on his face. How man heartbeat had it been since he lost his pistol? Less than a hundred, for certain. She still had time, if she could just move.

The Red Lector’s armored bodyguards advanced on the remaining Oshomi. The sound of bullets seemed distant. Scouts with their short blades and Oshomi with lances clashed at close quarters, but the scouts’ runners were larger and more dangerous than the Oshomi’s horses. They would lose.

“No.” Ilsa heard herself say. “No.”

Kaij rode toward her and Lemuel, sword in one hand, ignoring the bloody wounds on his other side.

A white strider barreled across her misted vision. Ferdinand Thoss, the bandit, and grave robber held a javelin in one hand, and a long spear with a black blade in the other. Shadows leaped from the spear’s black point and caught hold of Kaij’s sword arm. The tendrils of darkness wrapped the Ayochian man’s wrist and held him at bay. Ferdinand gave a wild yell and hurled his javelin at the ice wall formed between Yunn and Cass.

Ice splintered and broke. Cass squeezed the trigger. Yunn’s folded hands turned red with spattered blood. He looked down at his hands, clenched them together tight as he saw the bullet wound in his abdomen. An icy stab ran through Ilsa’s chest. Then the ice magus tumbled from his runner’s saddle.

Kaij roared in rage as his brother fell. A pistol appeared in his wounded hand. He pressed the weapon into his armpit and started to load it one-handed. More scouts surrounded Ferdinand. Cass yelled and charged toward them, closely followed by Blue on her strider.

Feeling began to return to Ilsa’s chest, and with the pain came a flush of pleasure. She willed the thoughts away. Her coat hung open and Lemuel’s hand were pressed to the center of the chest, large hand over shrunken hand. She nodded to him.

“Thank you.” Her gun hand twitched. She raised the weapon just as Kaij finished loading his pistol.

The magical shadows from Ferdinand’s long spear still held Kaij’s sword arm. Ilsa swung the barrel of the machine gun toward the scout leader. He shot Ferdinand’s strider in the side. The white steed made no sound but slowly slumped onto its hind legs. Ferdinand swung his legs over one side of the wounded strider and jumped down, holding his spear in both hands. The shadows connecting the end of the spear to Kaij’s arms tugged Kaij with him. And they both fell to the blood and grass of the steppe.

Kaij raised his pistol toward Ilsa. Her bullet hit his knee and he buckled, then fell to the ground. The sword and gun both fell from his hands. Blue and the Keeper of Tenlyres reached Ilsa’s side, with a few more of the Keeper’s riders close behind.

“We go forward,” said the Keeper in a steady voice. “For Duruko!” She squeezed her legs into her horse’s flanks. Ilsa and Blue followed the Keeper toward the thin line of the Red Lector’s guards. Where Duruko had fallen, Ferdinand stood, his basket-hilted lance in one hand and a javelin in the other. The scouts around him had retreated or fallen. A dozen wounded or unhorsed Oshomi gathered with him. Two of them stood over Duruko’s still body, rifles bitter with the smell of use.

Ferdinand nodded to Ilsa as she neared. “We’ll hold them here for now,” he called. “Then I’ll catch up with you.”

Cass rode back toward Ferdinand, cradling the wounded Tirica to her. The scouts had fallen or retreated behind her. “The way is open.” She pointed through the bloody gap she had made in the Ayochian line. “Go, now.” Ilsa, Blue, and the Oshomi turned their steeds toward the gap. Ilsa and Cass’s striders passed close by each other.

“Take her,” said Cass. She dragged Tirica’s leg over the side of the saddle. Together Ilsa and Lemuel lifted Tirica and set her between the two of them on Hailek’s saddle. Cass nodded to them. Blood coated her front, but none of it appeared to be hers. Ilsa hoped not too much of it belonged to Tirica.

She took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Cass.”

“Now we’re both red.” Cass’ eyes gleamed as she met Ilsa’s gaze. “Good luck.” She wheeled her strider toward the Red Lector’s command party. Ferdinand turned in the same direction.

The voice of Ilsa’s oldest friend spoke again. “Go with the Keeper. Help the girl.”

Ilsa nodded to Cass. Tears threatened her eyes. “Don’t lose yourself, Cass. I owe you one.” She urged Hailek toward the Central Lyre. The Keeper of Tenlyres rode with her. And they broke through the Ayochian Lines.

Tenlyres Chapter 14

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden to the center of the plateau.
They have met with the Keeper of Tenlyres among the Oshomi nomads, the woman who it is their mission to protect.
However, the forces of the Red Lector have closed the distance.
The jaws of their trap bite down in the form of artillery from the mechanized force while riders try to cut off the way to the Central Lyre.
The day will be bloody.

Previous Chapter

Hooves and claws galloped and bounded over steppe-grass. Oshomi nomads on horseback surrounded Ilsa and Lemuel. The naturally-bred animals easily kept pace with Ilsa’s strider. The Keeper of Tenlyres rode just ahead of them, her horse leaping over the plains moving north. Ahead of them, in the distance, the curved stone of the Central Lyre rose from the plateau’s surface, strings glinting in the morning sun. The sound of artillery thundered in the opposite direction.

A slender red and blue line snaked toward the lyre from the west, the force of the Red Lector on their light striders and runners. The troops raced to block Ilsa and the Oshomi’s path to the center of the plateau. Ilsa doubted that they would be safe, even if they got to the lyre, but she had now choice now except to trust the Keeper’s word.

The strangely pale, red-eyed Oshomi woman with the bow slung across her back, leaned over her steed’s neck as if to whisper in the horse’s ear. Any sound she made was lost to Ilsa. The smell of Ayochian auto-launch propellant was overwhelming on the breeze.

Blue and the rest of the travelers capture by the scarred Oshomi chief with Ilsa and Lemuel, caught up with them. Blue rode the same great strider that had carried her from Dal alongside Ilsa. She shot a glance at Ilsa as she moved alongside, with Cass Kalteri just behind her on a runner.

“Ilsa, aren’t we going the wrong way?”

“The Keeper says we’ll be safe at the Central Lyre.”

Blue grimaced. “Did she say why?”

“Not precisely. But she seemed confident.” Ilsa heard the note of doubt in her own voice. She grunted. “Can’t exactly go back, now.”

“Point made. All days be damned.” Blue guided her strider closer to Ilsa and squinted into the distance. “Looks like going forward isn’t gonna be easy either.”

“The path is red,” said Cass. “Be red to walk it.”

Ilsa turned at the other priestess. “Shit, Cass. Now is not the time for your words.”

“And yet, there may not be another time.” Cass pressed her palms together and then pulled them apart. A submachine gun appeared from one bonded palm. She loaded the weapon with a magazine from her belt.

Ilsa nodded. “It is time for that.” She produced a pistol and loaded it. Then produced her shotgun and loaded that. The Red Lector’s lines continued to crawl across the land before them. They reached past the Central Lyre and began to curve to encircle the massive monument.

Lemuel’s small right hand fell onto her shoulder. He leaned forward, chest to her back. “How are we to pass them?” he whispered.

She stiffened her spine. “Hold on tight. We’ll break through.”

“And what if one of us is shot?”

“Then don’t let go.”

She squeezed her legs together around Hailek’s midsection. The strider quickened his already stern pace. He made no complaint, but Ilsa knew he had reached his fastest, and would tire quickly at this speed.

Blue fell behind by a few meters, but Cass on her runner kept pace with Ilsa and Lemuel on her runner. The cat-like steed’s sides’ heaved with exhausted breaths. Cass kept her eyes ahead and checked the slide on her machine gun.

“They’re going to be ready for us.”

“Ready for a fight.” Ilsa grimaced at the small army a kilometer ahead of them. “Not ready for us.”

Cass did not answer. They moved ahead in the Oshomi formation and caught up with the veiled Keeper on her galloping mare. Ilsa glanced at the Oshomi woman. The Keeper unslung the bow and then tugged three steel-tipped arrows from the quiver attached to her saddle, ignoring the smaller quiver hanging from a sling across her shoulders.

“Keeper,” said Ilsa, “Are your people ready to charge?”

The Keeper’s flat voice answered. “Duruko will lead the formation.”

A gunshot cracked the air from behind Ilsa, loud, nuanced by a whistle of air, Chogrumian long-rifle, Tirica Chollush’s weapon. One of the soldiers in the Red Lector’s army pitched off his light strider. The Oshomi closed the distance. Six hundred meters. Five hundred. Four hundred. Three hundred meters from the Ayochian line. Two hundred meters from the red and the blue. The Oshomi got to within one hundred meters.

In the fore of the riders, Duruko shouted the order to charge in the language of the Oshomi. Lightning lances and rifles rose from the formation, mixed with mundane swords and spears, traditional bows and arrows, and a few smaller firearms loaded with Dalite and projectiles. The Oshomi raced toward the lines and their weapons began to speak like thunder.

The Red Lector’s troops returned fire.

Riders fell. Screams echoed in the morning air. The smell of blood and propellant mingled in Ilsa’s nose.

She looked down the barrel of her pistol, searching for the Red Lector himself, as Hailek carried her and Lemuel over the ground. Cass’s weapon spoke in a careful ballistic chant. Two soldiers fell from their saddles.

The Keeper’s arrows flashed through the air, silent against the sound of gunfire. Her arm moved in rapid draw and release. Draw. Release. More soldiers fell, with shafts in their chests.

Ilsa spotted the Red Lector’s command party a few meters behind the line, directly in front of the Central Lyre. His scouts, with his sons, Kaij the weapon-bond and Yunn the ice magus, rode with them. Their rifles and blades remained silent and still, but Ilsa had no doubt they would be ready when the Oshomi broke through the line.

Short and heavy General Boraij Kanan carried a long-barreled revolver. The red-armored Lectoral Protectors clustered on their striders, a fortress that surrounded the Red Lector himself. Goji Haram carried no weapon, but at his right hand rode Ozleji Sammhar, the fang-masked Ayochian weapon-bond, disciple of Ilsa’s father. A chill ran down Ilsa’s spine at the sight of the towering bodyguard. Of all the Ayochian soldiers she feared him the most.

“No time for that,” Blue’s voice said into Ilsa’s mind.

“No time for what?” Ilsa sent back.

“You’re the scariest killer on this field. Use it.”

Ilsa could swear she heard laughter in Blue’s message. She grunted in annoyance. The situation was no joke.

Ozleji Sammhar clenched both hands into fists. The huge pistol Ilsa had seen before appeared in one, and an ornate shotgun appeared in the other. He propped the pistol against his armored hip and loaded the shotgun. Guns roared and men and women screamed in every direction.

She extended her arm and picked off a rider with a standard. One of the Red Lector’s banners tumbled to the steppe-grass and mud below. Ilsa turned int the saddle, tugging at Lemuel’s hand where he held her waist.

A pull of the trigger went first. A flare of the muzzle and the kick of the pistol followed. Another standard bearer fell, further down the line opposite the first one.

Clusters of Ayochian soldiers scrambled to retrieve the fallen flags. Where one group fought, an Ayochian lightning lance thundered with its deafening blast. Electricity leaped and shot and chained through the group, and they all fell.

The scarred Oshomi Chief, Duruko, shoved the lightning lance back at the rider from whom he had grabbed it. A rifle appeared in his hand, in the heart of a cluster of nomads near the fore of the charge. Blades cut down Ayochians. Bullets knocked Oshomi from their horses.

The sounds of battle could overwhelm the inexperienced. Somehow Ilsa found it all too familiar. She turned and shot. Aimed. Shot again. And again. Her pistol was down to the last loaded bullet, but she had yet to fire her machine gun. The Ayochian center wavered under the onslaught.

Claws extended, Cass’s runner leaped onto a light strider just ahead of Ilsa. The cat-steed pulled down both the soldier and the strider. Two more soldiers took aim at Cass as her runner bit and tore at the fallen pair.

Cass shot one with her pistol. The soldier fell. The other raised an assault rifle.

One bullet hit Cass’s runner in the shoulder. The cat-steed howled with pain as it pitched onto one side. The runner’s bulk crushed the bloodied form of the Ayochian soldier it had been intent on slaughtering just an instant before.

Another bullet slashed through Cass’s saddle and chipped a fragment from her staff. Red-painted wood flew skyward. Cass turned her submachine gun towards the soldier.

A third bullet hit Cass in the back of the hand that held her weapon. An eruption of blood sprayed across Cass’s chest up to her hood and her collar. She screamed and ducked her head. Her retaliating shot went wide.

Ilsa killed the soldier who had shot Cass with two rounds from her submachine gun. She then dropped two more with the same burst. Seven bullets spent. Twenty-one left in the magazine.

She rode to Cass’s runner as the cat struggled to stand despite its wounded shoulder.

“You’re hit.” Ilsa’s voice sounded almost as flat to her as the Keeper’s.

Cass grimaced but did not look at her hand. She swung her legs over one side of her saddle. Her unwounded hand pressed to the fur of the runner’s head. She leaned over the creature and spoke into one feline ear. “Hathani bless you and protect you. Greet no other gods on the pathway to paradise.”

Tirica caught up beside Ilsa on her strider. Her rifle was slung across her shoulder and she held a pistol. “Priestess, Kalteri. Are you alright?”

Cass’s brow furrowed. She turned to Tirica. “I could use a lift to the lyre.”

Tirica guided her steed closer and tossed down the line for Cass to climb up to the saddle. Cass freed the bag with her staff from the wounded runner’s saddle and slung it over one shoulder. She started to climb.

Blue reached Ilsa’s cluster. Her eyes were unfocused and her lips moved in a subvocal chant Ilsa could not hear over the sounds of the fight. Ayochian troops were in retreat from the center of their line.

Duruko’s forward group of riders strung out in a line across the broken portion of the Ayochian line where Ilsa and her group gathered. They whooped and yelled and drove the Red Lector’s troops back with guns and spears. Ilsa found the Keeper of Tenlyres riding just behind that line, a lone rider on a bloody battlefield.

Ferdinand’s white strider appeared on the other side from Tirica. The adventurer’s face glowed with fevered excitement. He held a javelin in one hand, and his basket-hilted lance in the other. His eyes continued to move as he searched for enemies. “This, I will have to write home about.”

“Don’t speak so soon,” said Ilsa.

Cass reached the saddle of Tirica’s strider. She fastened her bag to the saddle and then slung her leg over the strider’s back. She bandaged her bleeding hand with a white cloth from her saddlebag.

In the pocket formed by Duruko’s line of riders, Ilsa turned toward the Red Lector’s command party, now isolated just beyond them.

Goji Haram shouted orders, his face as white as his hair. His ten armored protectors remained clustered around him and General Kanan. The scouts, including the lector’s sons, had left his side. Surviving soldiers from the broken line had rallied with their leader. A few other adjutants and lesser clerics of the Ayochian religion looked around furtively from within the formation of soldiers that surrounded the Red Lector.

Ilsa scowled at the red armor, the blue cloth, the white face of the Red Lector, most warlike of the religious leaders of the monarchy. She thought of how she had felt, rendered powerless without her weapons when she had first met him. His condescension had been irritating, and his level of knowledge frightening. Her eyes moved to the Keeper of Tenlyres, now all too close to the Red Lector’s party. Goji Haram’s mission to capture the Keeper ran directly counter to Ilsa’s. She would not let him succeed.

She raised her submachine gun and looked through its iron sights. She aimed for the heart of the Red Lector, barely visible in a gap between his protectors. Ilsa squeezed the trigger.

Ozleji Sammhar lurched to one side and swung his hand cannon toward Ilsa. Two gunshots echoed from the quiet center of the battle lines. The lull broke into a staccato of more shots and shouts.

Ilsa’s shot struck Sammhar’s armored collar with the crack of metal on metal. He fell from his great strider and crashed to the ground a few meters below. His own shot went wide of Ilsa.

Tirica grunted with pain and then slumped forward in her saddle. Blood spattered from the black wound Sammhar’s bullet had torn in her side. Cass shouted a late warning and grabbed the young woman’s wounded side with one hand. Blood ran through fingers as she applied pressure. Lemuel released a strangled cry. His hand slipped from Ilsa’s waist.

The Red Lector’s other guards sprang forward toward Duruko’s Oshomi, where the Keeper of Tenlyres rode just behind the line.

Ilsa stared at Tirica and Cass. The stench of ballistic propellants was overpowering. Blue’s eyes snapped shut, then open again. Those eyes focused on Ilsa. “Move it,” she said. “I can’t make stall the scouts any longer.”

As if to illustrate Blue’s words, the Red Lector’s scouts hit Duruko’s thin line with a sudden fusillade. Shards of red ice flew from the bloody ground, stabbing into horses and riders alike. Ilsa snapped her attention from Tirica and Cass. She drove her heels into Hailek’s side and rode toward the Keeper of Tenlyres as the woman drew back her bowstring.

Blue’s strider matched Hailek’s pace on one side of Ilsa while Ferdinand charged on the other. As they approached the line of Oshomi, Kaij Haram led the scouts on their runners in charge from the other side. Great cats leaped and clawed at horses. Duruko’s rifle felled a burly man, but then the scouts were upon his group. He tossed away his rifle and drew a two-handed sword from a bond on his palm. Kaij rode straight for the Oshomi chief, a long-bladed sword emerged from his own bonded palm. Steel rang against steel.

An arrow dropped another scout. Ilsa and Blue caught up with the Keeper as she lowered her bow. Only a few arrows remained in either of her quivers. “Keeper,” said Ilsa. “We have to get through before they close the gap.”

The albino woman looked back at the direction they had charged. Horses and striders, Ayochians and Oshomi, lay scattered in their wake. Some Oshomi had broken through the line and made it to the black stone base of the Central Lyre, but the Red Lector’s bodyguards were fanning out to block any more nomads from reaching the monument. The Keeper took a deep breath that pulled in her veil around her mouth.

“You are right, Priestess. We must go. Now.”

Ilsa looked over her shoulder. Cass had gotten control of Tirica’s strider while holding the wounded woman against her chest. Tirica’s eyes were closed, but Ilsa could see her breath in the chill created by the ice magus’s powers. The two of them moved forward slowly, but they kept moving. Ilsa’s gaze fixed on the glittering strings of the Central Lyre. She urged her steed forward.

Tenlyres Chapter 13

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden toward the central lyre, in search of a means to prevent the brewing war.
Now, captured by a group of Oshomi nomads, Ilsa is closer than ever to the Keeper of Tenlyres.
She and her friends have convinced the Oshomi Chief to take them to the Keeper.

Previous Chapter

 

The tent of the Keeper of Tenlyres was the largest in Duruko’s camp. Ilsa stood just inside the entryway, Lemuel at her side. The tent was without light, except for a single small and halfway-covered lightning lamp standing on a pole pounded into the ground in the center of the circular enclosure. On the opposite side of the lamp from Ilsa and Lemuel and Duruko sat a woman on a meditation pad, legs folded into a lotus position.

Lamplight cast the woman’s shadow behind her but illuminated pale hair, unusual among the Oshomi. A gray veil covered her face below her eyes, and her eyes were closed. Ilsa felt the urge to step forward and bow to the woman because she knew she had to be the keeper, as no other Oshomi women wore veils.

“Keeper,” said Duruko, the scarred Oshomi chief, “My scouts captured a group of city-dwellers.”

“Where did you find them?” asked the woman in a flat tone, eyes still closed.

“West of here. Riding toward the Central Lyre. This man has studied the Lyres. You may be interested in his knowledge.”

“Perhaps.” The woman’s eyes opened slowly. Her irises were pink but flecked with specks of darker color. Her red gaze fell upon Lemuel. “He is a cripple.” She spoke without inflection, stating a fact and nothing more. “That is interesting.”

Her red eyes moved to Ilsa. “Duruko. You did not mention you brought me a woman as well.”

“A priestess, Keeper.” Duruko bowed his head. “Forgive me, but she told me she is on a mission to protect you.”

“You do not trust her.”

“How could I? She was born in a city and rides a strider.”

“Trust her.”

Duruko’s head jerked up from his bow. “Keeper, she could be lying.”

The Keeper’s eyes remained on Ilsa’s face. Ilsa froze under the red gaze. Her breath caught as the woman studied her impassively. Their eyes met and Ilsa held the gaze of the Keeper for a silent minute. She felt no tendrils in her mind, only her heartbeat and breathing.

The Keeper’s gaze did not waver Ilsa. “She is not lying.”

Duruko nodded. “That is good news, Keeper.”

“You were right to bring her to me. There are others.”

“Indeed. Three more women, and one more man, with runners and striders as steeds.”

“You are a priestess.” The Keeper’s flat tone never changed.

“I—I am.” Ilsa found herself stammering like she never had, even as a girl in school or at Saint Banyeen’s Garden years ago. Had she not been in such awe at the Keeper’s strange presence and finally meeting the holiest nomad leader, she might have been annoyed at her own cracking voice.

“You belong to Hathani’s clergy, the white rose, the red staff.”

“Yes, Keeper.”

“There is another priestess with them, another white rose.”

“How did you know?” Ilsa asked.

“I saw a small hand pointing down a path between two white roses. And that path led toward the sunrise.”

Ilsa frowned. “Where did you see this? How?”

“I have dreamed it more than once. Always I have remembered it. But one cannot say a dream is true until it unfolds.” The Keeper looked to Lemuel. “Your arm is shrunken, yet you have knowledge of Tenlyres.”

“Yes.” Lemuel straightened his back but did not return the Keeper’s gaze. “Yes, I do.”

“Let me meet you with joy.” The Keeper’s eyes fixed on Lemuel’s arm. “Tell me what you know.”

“Every lyre is larger than it appears. They go deep into the earth.”

The Keeper nodded once. “Continue.”

“I have studied the resonant frequency of every lyre but the central one. Though they are all different, they all protect the lyres from erosion and other damage.”

“Curious. You know a great deal.”

“I have studied the lyres my whole life.”

“That is good. Chogrumians must not forget they were once a village of the Filami people.”

“The Filami?” Ilsa had never heard of a direct relationship between the plant pile farmers who dwelt in villages on the steppe and the people of Chogrum.

“Once the people of Chogrum lived among the lyres and knew of the maze. Memory is good.” The Keeper continued to look at Lemuel. “Do not confuse yourselves. The divide has grown deep.”

He nodded, but still kept his eyes averted from the Keeper. “I will remember that.”

“As you should.” The Keeper’s red-eyed gaze moved to Ilsa’s face. “Priestess, who do you really serve?”

“The Unification. We wish to see all the gods worshiped as one.”

“You who dwell in cities know nothing of gods. The blood of wounded horses. The heartbeat of the newborn foal. The wind in the ears of the rider. These things connect nomads to the lyres.”

Ilsa frowned, annoyed with the Keeper’s dismissal. “The blood of wounded humans and horses is much the same.” She closed her eyes and listened. Her ears had always been keen, but at that moment, the world seemed still except for the gentle thump of her pulse and the breath of herself and Lemuel. The lamplight flickered in the covered glass that contained it and made the inside of the tent seem darker in its momentary absence. “Our hearts beat the same. The wind reaches all of us.”

The Keeper studied Ilsa’s face in silence for seconds, a minute, two minutes. “That is your creed.”

“Yes.” Ilsa released a breath she only then realized she had been holding.

“Do not be confused. The Unification does not anger me.”

“Koor of Morhoen sent my friend and me to protect you.”

“You cannot protect yourselves. I have every Oshomi on the steppe in my service.”

Ilsa inhaled a long, slow breath. “Is this camp the center of your army? Can you call to your people and see them at your side?” She worried she was being too rude, but she plowed on, seeing her chance to make her case. “Have you seen the Red Lector? His forces must be near by now, and his riders outnumber this camp by five to one.”

The eyes of the Keeper narrowed, but the rest of her face remained hidden by her veil. She unfolded her legs from the lotus position and stood on the floor of the tent. The pale skin of her bare feet looked sallow in the dim yellow light of the lamp. “I have seen this army. He will need to ride faster to catch us on the plateau.”

“What about the Central Lyre? He will reach it any day now.”

“So he will. But it will do him little good unless he knows what this scholar knows. And that knowledge has never belonged to a city dweller before.” The Keeper’s gaze burned with ice. “You are a priestess, but you have never known the truth.”

“What truth?” Ilsa took a step forward toward the Keeper. “Please, tell me.”

Duruko grunted. One hand fell to his belt, moving toward a knife. The Keeper’s eyes flicked to the chief. “Peace, Duruko.”

He grunted again and folded his arms. “Take care, priestess. You walk on dangerous ground.”

“Is this ground more dangerous than a Lotok where the geyser erupt with the cold? I have seen the steppe. I have seen the Lyres and the nomads. And I have seen the Red Lector, his army, and his sons. Let us take you to safety where Ayoch cannot go.”

“You will need better words to convince me to abandon my people,” said the Keeper.

Ilsa lowered her voice. “There is another army on its way here from Ayoch.”

Duruko started. “What? Why did you not tell me before?”

“Information is powerful. I only learned this piece through a chance encounter.” Ilsa kept her eyes on the pale face of the Keeper, what little was visible over her veil. “This army belongs to someone called the Gray Lector, but its mission cannot be anything good, being this far across the plateau. We met forward scouts from them just yesterday. We killed them.”

Duruko scowled. “My scouts heard brief gunfire west of here. That was you?”

“Probably.” Ilsa clenched her hands in tension, not to summon any of her weapons. “The truth is, I do not know this army’s intent, but they have machines, vehicles, heavy weaponry, and who knows how many there are of them.”

Duruko’s scarred face furrowed. “Fear mongering.”

“Truth,” said Ilsa. “Days west of here, at Doubtless Manor, I intercepted a communication between them and Lord Palend.”

Lemuel glanced at her, unspoken questions in his wide and nervous eyes.

Ilsa bowed to the Keeper of Tenlyres. “My only concern is your safety, Keeper. If you will not leave your people, we will need to find shelter somewhere all of us can go.”

The Keeper’s eyes closed. “I believe you, priestess. Ride with us to the Central Lyre.”

“But that is where the enemy is going,” Lemuel said. “Surely, further east would—”

“The lyre is only a day’s ride from here. And it never refuses shelter to my family.” The Keeper of Tenlyres opened her eyes. “The spirits are with us.”

Ilsa bowed her head to the Keeper. “Thank you, Keeper.”

A gunshot split the air from outside the tent, unmistakable, loud, irrevocable, lethal. Ilsa smelled Ayochian auto-launch propellant. She raised her head. “It’s the Red Lector.”

Duruko grabbed Ilsa’s arm with weathered fingers. He whirled and dragged her from the tent. Bright daylight blinded her. Lemuel stumbled out of the tent after them.

“Tirica,” he shouted, “Where are you?”

His sister replied with a cry of alarm. “Get down,” she called from her crouch few dozen yards away, dismounted among the tents, horses, and striders. She carried her rifle with its telescopic sights. Cass, Blue, and Ferdinand were clustered nearby in similar posture, with their own weapons drawn. Oshomi nomads ran for weapons. A body lay beside a horse by the tent where Blue and the others crouched.

“It’s Ayoch,” said Blue, “But this isn’t the Red Lector.”

A high-pitched whine from high above made the bottom drop out of Ilsa’s stomach. In Morhoen artillery shells made a very similar sound. “Damn it.” The Gray Lector’s army had gotten into range. Ilsa pulled her arm from Duruko’s grip. “We need to ride now.”

“This camp is all warriors,” said Duruko, “We ride for the central lyre.”

The first shell overshot the camp and exploded on the far side.

“They haven’t found the range yet,” said Ilsa, “We have a chance to get away until they do.”

Duruko turned to each of the guards who stood outside the tent. “She is right.”

Then, he raised his voice and shouted in the Oshomi language, words Ilsa did not understand with a ululating sound. A pair of horses broke from a herd and galloped to his side. He sprang onto one’s back.

“Hailek,” called Ilsa.

Her silent weeping-haired strider answered her by trotting up from beside the tent. Ilsa turned to Cass and Blue. “We’re going with them,” she called to the others. As the others mounted as quickly as they could, Ilsa pulled down the mounting rope from Hailek’s saddle. “Climb up,” she said.

“What about you?”

“Right behind you, but first, we need the Keeper.”

He answered her with a nod of his head.

The second horse Duruko had called stamped the ground nearby. More bullets cracked the air. Oshomi fired back at the unseen foes. Another shell whined in the distance.

Lemuel started to climb up to Hailek’s saddle, awkward with his shrunken right arm, but without complaint.

Ilsa turned back to the tent. The Keeper of Tenlyres stood in the entryway, a cloak across her shoulders, veil over her face. She held a reflex bow in one hand, and a quiver of arrows in the other. While the battle made the camp thunder and blister and scream, she stood serene. Her red eyes moved to the nearby horse Duruko had called. “I am with you, priestess.” Her tone was flat as ever. She climbed into the saddle of the second horse. “We ride.”

Tenlyres Chapter 12

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden toward the central lyre, only to be captured by the Oshomi nomads.
Even so, Ilsa knows the Keeper of Tenlyres is close. If she can survive, her mission is only beginning.

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa regained the sense of her hands and arms as the Oshomi led her and her captured companions to the east. In the dark, she smelled the powder of weapons, especially once the stench of burnt ozone faded and she regained her hearing after the defining lightning attack. For his part, Ferdinand seemed rattled, but otherwise relatively unhurt. Hailek, as usual, made no complaint. They rode to the east.

The sky had begun to brighten by the time they approached a small cluster of tents ringed by horses and dark-cloaked sentries, an Oshomi campsite. Ilsa hoped the Oshomi would give them some chance to explain themselves. For that, still being alive had to be a good sign, but nothing was certain. Only she and Ferdinand appeared to have been it the by the lightning but the Oshomi who had attacked from behind must have numerous, for she could not remember hearing so much as a shot from Tirica or Cass before they had surrendered.

The big and scarred Oshomi, who still carried the lightning lance he had blasted Ferdinand and Ilsa with, rode close to her side, one weathered hand clenched on Hailek’s reins. The man carried only a few long knives for additional weapons, but Ilsa’s roving eye spotted a strange scar on the back of the hand holding the reins, the kind of scar that looked deliberate. Brands were not the only way to make weapon bonds, scars and tattoos could be used as well. Likely he had a more flexible weapon, such as a rifle, bonded to that hand. Ilsa sniffed out the powder whiffs and detected a few from him. Probably a gun bond.

She sniffed again, seeking the location of the nomad’s ammunition. The scarred man glanced at her. “Smell something good?” he asked in Yrian, the language common both within and between the cities of Dal in Chogrum. His tone was amused, but his dark eyes looked harsh in the cold morning light.

“You’re a weapon bond,” she said in the same language, one many people, even off the plateau, would understand. “Guns, right?”

“Yes.” He motioned toward her with the lightning lance. “You are too.”

“Right,” she said. “Can you tell me where you’re taking us?”

“We are there, already.” The man snorted in a nasal laugh. “This is my war camp.” He motioned to the cluster of tents around them. “Here I will decide your fate.”

“So, you’re the leader here.”

“My name is Duruko. I am the chief of my tribe.”

“What is the name of your tribe?”

“You ask too many questions, woman.”

“You’ve given me answers so far.”

“Do not push me. I can make things worse for you.”

She assumed that meant he had not decided their fate yet. Good. “I’m a priestess of the Unification,” she said.

He poked his lightning lance at one end of the red staff that stuck out from her saddle. “That is a Hathanian symbol.”

“I was trained as a priestess of Hathani. But I serve the Unification.”

He snorted again. “You city-dwellers will say anything when you’re trying to save your lives. Cowards.”

Her face flushed with anger. She took a breath. “Call me a coward if you want—”

“I just did.”

“—I am here to help you.”

“Funny.” But this time, he didn’t snort or chuckle. “I saw you riding with the westerner. The red banner.”

“My friends and I were just trying to get closer to the Central Lyre.”

He looked at her and their eyes met.

“That’s where the Ayochians are going, chief.”

“Don’t make this about them. This is about you.”

Ilsa kept her eyes on his. “But you don’t trust them because you saw me riding with their column.”

“You can try to push me, but you people who live in cities will never know how to argue with an Oshomi.”

“I’m not trying to argue with you.” Ilsa looked toward the large tent at the center of the camp. “Look, I want to protect the Keeper.”

His brow creased for the first time. “Say something more. Prove it.”

“Koor of the East sent my friend and I find and protect the Keeper of Tenlyres because we think that could be a way to prevent war.”

“War is here already.” The man’s scarred face furrowed.

“It will be worse once Chogrum and Dal start to fight. The weapons the cities have now won’t care if you’re Filami or Oshomi. The people of the plateau will see worse slaughter than last time.”

“Last time, the Keeper did not need protection from the Unification.”

She frowned at him. He raised a hand to stop the party. Their gazes locked once again. “The Red Lector wants to capture the Keeper. I want to help you stop him.”

“If you are telling the truth, there would be no need to destroy you.” He set his jaw. His eyes appeared distant, dull with what might have been remembered grief. “But I have seen too many liars to trust any city dweller.”

Ilsa nodded. “If there is a way to prove our intentions, please, allow us the chance. My friend is a mind eater. Let her send the memory of Koor’s orders to you.”

“What good is a priest’s word? He does not know the plateau. He has never seen the tower grass or the Lotok geysers. He has not fought Vogmem or touched a lyre’s endless stone or unbreakable strings. And neither have any of you.”

An excited sound came from behind Ilsa. The leader of the Oshomi riders turned and glared past her at Lemuel. She followed the scarred man’s gaze to the scholar. “Speak,” said the Oshomi. “What brings you into this, cripple?”

Lemuel stared at the man, a mixture of outrage and fear mingling on his face. He swallowed visibly but did not look away from the scarred leader. “You seem to know the true value of the lyres, sir. In that case, I think I have something that may interest you.”

The leader’s scarred face split into a mirthless grin that twisted the scars on his cheeks into ragged, spiraling patterns. “What could you know that I do not?”

“I know why the lyres can’t be broken.” Lemuel grinned and slowly held up a scroll case. “If you like, I can share this with you.”

The Oshomi outriders that surrounded the group exchanged glances. The leader’s eyes moved from the scroll case to Lemuel’s shrunken arm. “You are a cripple. Had you been born among my people you would not have survived your first winter.”

“Yet here I am.” His gaze moved to the Oshomi leader with confidence. “Do you want me to tell you what I know, or not?”

Ilsa doubted Lemuel could know much about the Lyres. The mystery of their pristine material was millennia old. The Oshomi leader nodded to Lemuel. “Do this, and if it pleases me, I will show you to the Keeper.”

Ilsa’s eyes widened in surprise. She would not have guessed this Oshomi would care enough to ask.

Lemuel nodded to the leader. “Thank you, sir.”

“Talk.”

“Right. You see, most people who have studied the lyres study their physical properties to divine their purpose.” He glanced at Ilsa. His hands were trembling.

She hoped she kept the worry she felt from showing on her face. He had to be confident, or this would not work. “What is their purpose?”

He brightened a little. “I’m not entirely sure. But one thing is certain. I discovered last year, using a geometer that each lyre goes far further down into the earth than we ever theorized. What we see on the surface is less than a tenth of the full height of the structure.”

“How is that possible?” Ilsa frowned. “Moving that much material?”

“How is any of it possible?” Lemuel grinned at her, then turned to the Oshomi leader.

“Get to the point,” said the scarred man. “Why are the lyres unbreakable?”

“Yes, of course.” Lemuel rubbed his small hand into his larger, left hand. “Because of their size, I was able to use a resonator to measure their frequency. The lyres are never still. They vibrate at a subtle, frequency, inaudible to humans. To be honest I don’t fully understand the way it works. But the frequency is what keeps plants from growing on them, keeps wind and rain from eroding them and so on. The geometer also indicates that the lyres have large hollows somewhere beneath the surface.” He bowed to the Oshomi leader. “I suppose I could say more, but I’d rather your guarantee our lives before I continue. Sir.”

The scarred man grunted. “My name is Duruko, and I am the chief of this tribe. You, Chogrumian, have my attention.”

Lemuel raised his head. “Really?”

“My people and I may not live in cities or have fortresses, but we are not fools. Your findings will be of interest to the Keeper.” His face twitched into a smile. “You, cripple—Pick one of your comrades to accompany you to the keeper. The rest will be safe here.”

Lemuel glanced over his shoulder at Tirica. His sister nodded to him. Then Lemuel turned to Ilsa. “The priestess should go with us.”

Tirica gave an irritated grunt from behind them.

Duruko slipped his lightning lance into a loop on one side of his horse’s saddle. “Very well.” He turned to Ilsa. “Follow on foot, and do not attempt any treachery.”

“I understand.” She exchanged a nervous glance with Lemuel.

Duruko dropped from his horse onto the flattened steppe grass. Lemuel and Ilsa dismounted. She patted Hailek’s foreleg. The weeping strider pushed gently back against her touch. She turned, and followed Lemuel and Duruko toward a tent at the center of the camp.

Blue sent her a thought as she walked. “Don’t mess this up. I can’t help you if something goes wrong.”

Ilsa looked over her shoulder at Blue and nodded to her friend.

Tenlyres Chapter 11

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue’s mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres has brought them into conflict with Ayochian forces.
During a bloody encounter with a group of scouts serving the mysterious Gray Lector, Ilsa discovers her former friend, and fellow priestess of Hathani traveled east with them. She still does not know if she can trust Cass, but know she and Blue need all the help they can get.

Previous Chapter

Cass led the group of runners from the Ayochian scouts from the back of her own steed as night began to fall across the plateau. Ilsa watched her and the great cats at the corner of her vision. She could not help the feeling of disgust with herself for killing their former riders. Yet she had only mortally wounded one of six runners in the process.

Spots of blood still clung to the sleeve of her coat. The moon began to rise in the eastern sky, opposite the setting sun. Orange light cast long shadows from the party so they stretched out before them with black emptiness. The shadow shows one side of every spirit, the side that cannot help but do harm.

Ilsa remembered her father with a flicker of annoyance. He bore a rifle across his shoulder, the butt resting in his palm. His shadow stretched across the low grass of the plain. His black and marble-furred strider stood parallel to him, facing a sunset in another time and another place.

She could practically feel the rough grass beneath her young toes, practically smell the powder from her father’s shots. To say one thing for him, he had not killed anything they did not need to survive, but at the time, she had not appreciated that fact. His imposition to take her from the edge of the plateau and further onto the steppe had left her mother in tears.

Mother had, even before her visions began to intrude, lacked the strength to stop father from taking Ilsa with him. He had told her he wanted to help her, not harm her. In the end, that had been a lie.

Later, with powder smell in her nose and the echoes of shots still ringing in her ears, father had built a fire. He had burned the weapons he would bond to her one by one, and he had branded each of her hands twice. Ilsa had not been able to resist, and it had cost her a place at Saint Banyeen’s despite her best attempts to hide the truth.

The bonds were of his style, connected to the spirit, with weapons contained by eternal fire rather than the traditional shrines used by most of Hathani’s clergy. And they showed the evidence of her father’s corruption, which would see Ilsa expelled from the garden, years later.

By the time she had joined the garden, however, Father had been gone for another four years. And she had not seen him since. The fault for her expulsion fell not fully on the monstrous shadow the sun cast from him the day he had bonded her to her weapons. No, the fault fell on Cass Kalteri and the High Priestess.

In the present moment, Ilsa turned from Cass and squeezed her eyes shut. She could only barely recall the events without tears.

Blue’s voice reached her. “So, she is the one who betrayed you.”

She looked at her friend’s concerned face. “You don’t need to be a mind eater to know that.”

“Absolutely true.” Blue guided her strider alongside Hailek. “Can you tell me if she’s really on our side?”

“I can’t.” Ilsa scowled. “But she’s been caring for my mother back in Dal. I don’t know if that means much.”

Blue frowned. “If I had enough family to know, I’d tell you.”

She nodded. “Blue. You never talk about your family.”

“Because far as I know I don’t have one anymore.” Blue smirked. “Sometimes it’s convenient, but usually, it isn’t.” She looked behind her to where Lemuel and Tirica rode behind Cass and the runners.

Ilsa followed her friend’s glance. Tirica still carried her rifle openly but had relaxed her grip over the hours so it now hung from the sling around her shoulder, unattended at that moment. They had not seen any sign of other outriders from either side. But they would have to ride all night to catch up with the Red Lector’s forces before the Ayochians reached the Central Lyre.

Tirica nodded to Ilsa, finally silent. Her face had been pale when Ilsa had caught back up after killing the scouts. She sighed. Tirica had shot two of them herself, but what kind of woman her age had seen that kind of bloodshed before?

Lemuel patted his strider’s neck with his good hand but did not look in her direction. If Tirica had been shocked by the sight of Ilsa’s actions, Lemuel could well have been horrified depending how much he had witnessed.

She did not blame him if that was the case.

She took a deep breath and turned back to Blue. “We’ll see what happens.”

“We always do, I suppose.” Blue dropped her pace and fell back on her strider.

Cass caught up with Ilsa, lower to the ground while riding on her runner’s back than any of the others on their tall striders. She turned to Ilsa. “I’ve never seen anything like that, back there.”

Ilsa’s lip twitched. “Anything like what?”

“Like how you fight.” Cass frowned. “There was a time I never thought I’d see you shoot again.”

Ilsa faced rising moon up ahead and grimaced in the diminishing orange blaze from behind her. The only times before that quickly diminishing day when she remembered shooting around Cass were nearly eight years gone, and the vast majority of them had been simple targets.

She shook her head. “I don’t like to fight.”

“That’s odd, coming from a mercenary.”

Ilsa put laid her palm on the red staff that crossed her saddlebags. “I fight for Hathani and the Unification and for that I will do things I don’t like.”

Cass frowned. “Dal is in chaos just thinking about a fight with Chogrum. You think you can stop a war?”

“I can do my duty and hope for the best.” She sighed. “I trust my leaders.”

“Who are these mysterious leaders. I’ve only heard of Koor, the priest out in Morhoen.”

“Koor is the one I’ve met when I joined as a full member.”

“Koor can’t be the only one, though. Is he?”

“I’ve spoken to others. Mostly they don’t make themselves known to outsiders.”

“So you’re not going to tell me?” Cass frowned. “Not very friendly of you.”

Ilsa shrugged. “I didn’t kill you. That doesn’t mean we’re friends.”

“But we were.”

“Too long ago.” She scowled into the distance as the sun sank away behind them.

Hailek snorted. His woolly muzzle released a stream of condensation. Ilsa shivered. The sunset brought with it a drop in temperature.

The silver moon cast only slight shadows. Twilit steppe grass raced beneath them. They passed out of the region dotted with tower grasses and continued the ride east.

Every few minutes, Ilsa released a breath into her cupped hands. The wind picked up, blowing dust and rivulets of snow. Ilsa wondered how many kilometers they were from the Central Lyre. The Keeper of Tenlyres would likely still be near the timeless landmark. Oshomi tradition dictated the keeper stay close to that place for some mysterious reason. Ilsa had studied them, but she knew little of what to make of their strange religion, focused as it was on animals and plants left unmodified by human hands.

They rode expertly bred, but not otherwise engineered, horses. They trained horses, dogs, and birds without the aid of the signals used in civilized cultures to condition animals. In some ways they were intentionally primitive, but Ilsa had the feeling what they adopted from the settled societies was more pragmatic.

Striders might be virtually tireless compared to horses, and runners could out pace any normal animals, but the advantage of each was slight over a horse in many circumstances, and the Oshomi tradition revered the horse first. Ilsa frowned as she recalled her mother’s vision, the one she had told Ilsa about when they had last seen each other. Body of a horse, face of a nomad woman, and a voice like Ilsa’s. The human mind could play tricks on itself, and those tricks could often be less than funny.

Mother’s mind was no exception.

Ilsa urged Hailek forward, pushing the strider toward the silver beacon of moonlight on the horizon. Beneath the moon, a shadowy shape flickered in gray and white, riding ahead of Ilsa and Blue and the others. She frowned at the distant rider, but there was no mistaking he tall shadow belonged to a strider with a human on its back.

Who would be out here, riding by night on a white strider? Ferdinand Thoss rode a white strider. Ferdinand Thoss had been moving east. Ilsa fished in her saddlebag for her binoculars. She retrieved the double lenses with cold fingers and then peered through them as Hailek continued forward at his steady, disciplined pace.

The figure on the strider’s back belonged to man in a heavy coat with the bulk of ballistic armor beneath. No mistake from the hair and build, though Ilsa could not see his face. The thief and grave robber, Ferdinand Thoss was riding ahead of them. The slight pain of the stitched cut on Ilsa’s leg reminded her of the sharpness of his bonded lance.

She lowered the binoculars and looked over her shoulder at the rest of her group. Cass and Blue rode ahead of the Chollushes, side by side. Ilsa had to wonder, if they had been talking, what had they said to each other. She frowned at the two of them.

“We’ve got company up ahead.”

“Friend or foe?” asked Cass.

“A bit of both.”

Blue raised her eyebrows. “You recognize them?”

“It’s just one rider. Ferdinand Thoss.”

Lemuel pushed his strider forward. He caught up alongside Blue. “Thoss is heading our way?”

“He’s riding the same direction we are,” said Ilsa. “I just saw him.”

Lemuel squinted into the distance. “You can see anything in this?”

Ilsa tilted her binoculars to indicate them to him. “It’s definitely him.”

“Who is he?” asked Cass.

“A thief and outlaw from Chogrum.” Lemuel scowled. “He steals from the living and the dead equally.”

Ilsa could not disagree with that. “He’s also a weapon bond. A lance and two javelins, at least.”

Blue nodded. “Could be dangerous.”

“I don’t think he’d be against us.” Ilsa recalled Ferdinand’s trade with her back at Palend’s Manor, information for his freedom. “He owes me.”

Cass glanced at Blue. “Do I want to know why?”

“He overspent his side of a trade of favors.” Ilsa put her binoculars back into a saddlebag. “Trust me.”

“I can trust you, if you can trust me.”

Ilsa grimaced, and then turned to face forward in the saddle. She urged Hailek forward, choosing to chase down Ferdinand rather than reply to Cass. She gripped his furry hide with her bare hands, letting his wool shelter her fingers from the cold. Hailek, ever reliable, found the strength to accelerate. His feet pounded over the plain.

Ferdinand’s strider must be slowing, for she began to catch up quickly. She closed the distance to less than a kilometer. He did not look back, evidently unaware of her approach.

Ilsa pressed her legs into Hailek’s side to urge him to quicken his pace, sacrificing ease of the ride for speed. He obeyed. With every spring of Hailek’s legs the moon bobbed. She caught up within fifty meters. Ferdinand turned and looked back at her.

When he spotted her, he tugged on the reins of his strider. The animal wheeled to face Ilsa and Hailek. Moonlight cast them in cold light. Reflections of the same light danced on the glassy patches of snow frozen to the ground.

She drew in Hailek’s reins until he stopped, just ten meters from Ferdinand and his white strider. His face split into a white grin beneath his dark hair. “Priestess. It’s good to see you again. Eager to speak to me, are you?”

The sounds of runners and striders approached from behind Ilsa. She kept her eyes on Ferdinand as she sat back in her saddle. She folded her arms, reins still in one hand, and wished she could wear gloves without rendering her bonds unusable.

“I suppose I was. We’re deep in Oshomi territory. What are you doing out here?”

“Still trying to get back to Chogrum.” He frowned and fished in the pocket of his coat until he retrieved a battered compass. He looked at the device as he shifted it in his bare hands. “Damn thing must be broken, I thought I was headed southeast.”

“You’d better turn that way, then.” She pointed to the south. “We’re getting pretty close to the Central Lyre.”

“Sh-Shit. Th-that’s n-not good.”

The others caught up, Cass first with her runners in tow, followed by Blue, then Lemuel and Tirica. Ferdinand raised his eyebrows. “Seems you’ve grown, priestess.” His gaze roved from Cass, to Blue, to Lemuel, and then came to rest on Tirica. “I see you’ve recruited some old friends.” He did not sound unhappy to see them, though, because he spoke without a stutter.

Tirica glared at him. “Where are you going, Thoss?”

Ferdinand raised his compass. “The wrong way, apparently.” He shook his head. “Look, I’m not up to anything unlawful. Just trying to get home.”

Tirica put one hand on her hip while the other moved toward the pistol on her belt. “I don’t believe you.”

“Believe it or not. It’s the truth.” Ferdinand raised both hands. “And to be honest, girl, I’m getting tired of you trying to pick a fight.”

She grimaced at him. “You seemed ready for one, last time I saw you.”

“Yeah, but its the middle of the night.” He jabbed the hand with the compass at the moon overhead. “Can you at least wait until morning. Pistols at dawn, maybe?”

“You’d lose that,” said Tirica. “I’ve never seen you even hold a gun.”

“I think you’d be surprised.” Ferdinand shifted his gaze to Lemuel and grinned. “Tell her to ease up, Lemuel.”

Lemuel clenched his reins in his gloved left hand. He looked to Ilsa. She met his gaze and then nodded to him. Lemuel took a deep breath. “Tirica, there’s been enough killing for one day.”

“I’ll leave him ‘til tomorrow, then.” Tirica shot a glare at Ferdinand. “Tomorrow, Thoss.”

“Tirica,” said Lemuel in a firm voice.

“No, brother. If we let him go we’ll just have to deal with him later, when we may not have the advantage. And I’m sick of taking orders from this priestess.” She turned her glare toward Ilsa. “This mission of hers doesn’t matter to me, and besides, she’s a Dalite. For all we know she’s been lying to us all along.”

Ilsa matched Tirica’s glare. Blood ran hot through her, threatening to ignite into outright rage. She unfolded her arms, breathing deep. She did not have time for anger. Still, one hand clenched, halfway to summoning one of her pistols. Lemuel was right though. Enough blood had been shed today.

Blue closed her eyes, but spoke firmly. “I think you’ve all said enough. Now listen to me.”

“Why should we?” Tirica rounded on Blue. “You’re a traitor to our city.”

“A city is not separate from the rest of the world.” Blue spoke softly. “All things connect to each other, and when they fight, they all suffer.”

“Unification bullshit,” Tirica said. “Give it a rest, mind eater.”

“I won’t.” Blue’s eyes opened a crack, but appeared unfocused. “Please, keep your voice down.”

“Blue?” said Ilsa, “What do you sense?”

Blue’s eyes closed again. “Horses.”

Ferdinand’s eyes flicked to Blue. “H-Horses?”

Blue’s eyelids pressed down tight. “And riders.”

“Oh no.” Lemuel’s face went pale. “Oshomi outriders?”

Ilsa looked around, searching the darkness for any sign of the riders. Her breath misted before her, maddeningly obscuring her vision. “How far.”

A flicker of blue-white electricity crackled to the northeast, behind Ferdinand. The whole group fell silent, listening for the riders Blue had detected. At first the sound of hooves seemed soft in comparison to their arguments, but then Ilsa smelled powder traces, old-fashioned, maybe even primitive. Burnt ozone stench reached her nose.

She scowled in the moonlight. Lightning without clouds. A bolt of electricity shot from the night, booming with instant thunder. The lightning bolt struck Ferdinand and his strider, then leaped in an arc to Ilsa and Hailek.

Searing pain exploded through her nerves. Her ears rang with the thunder and she shuddered in the saddle. She could not hear her own agonized scream.

Ferdinand slumped forward against his strider’s neck as the creature bucked and whined with pain. The bright scar of the lightning bolt upon Ilsa’s vision began to fade. Hailek shook. She held on with her one good hand as her strider released an involuntary whimper.

The thunder of the lightning bolt reverberated in the air. Ilsa’s head jerked to the left and she glimpsed Tirica and Lemuel circling behind her to meet up with Cass and Blue. Ilsa shuddered with another agonizing shock of electricity leaping through her muscles. She swung her head back in the deafness left by the thunder.

Moonlight illuminated a dozen Oshomi riders spreading to encircle her and the others. They looked gray in the moonlight. The one in the lead rode on a huge horse and carried the two-pronged lightning lance, now dark with its electricity expended. He rode up to Ilsa, big and old with a heavily scarred face. She blinked at the pain, but could not unlock her jaw to speak. More hoof beats drummed behind Ilsa’s back.

As her hearing returned she heard the big man speaking from the back of the horse front of her. His words were in the language of the Oshomi, but she caught most of their meaning. “They are not from the west.” He turned to another rider who caught up beside him. “For now, keep them alive. They could be useful.”

Then he yanked Hailek’s reins from Ilsa’s numb fingers and pulled the strider with him as he turned his steed toward the moon. Ilsa gritted her teeth as the Oshomi led her, and Ferdinand and the others, toward the Central Lyre. One way or another, she had to get there, but at that moment, it was all she could do just to stay in the saddle.

Tenlyres Chapter 10

Recap

Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
The two of them have met up with a scholar and his sister at the manor and now must race to catch up with the Red Lector’s army.

Previous Chapter

One day’s ride west of Palend Manor the sun rose behind an illusory haze, evidence of the Red Lector’s war magi in action against the Oshomi. Ilsa glanced at Blue from her saddle, as Lemuel and Tirica climbed onto their striders. The scholar and his sister had not slowed them down the previous day, but they moved slower in the morning.

Tirica shot a disgruntled look in Ilsa’s direction. “Hey, I’m not used to getting up at the ass-crack of dawn.”

“Fair enough,” said Ilsa. “But we are in a hurry.”

“You think I don’t now that?”

“I think you’re dragging your feet.”

“I am not anywhere to close that.” Tirica’s face flushed. “You should watch yourself, priestess.”

“I try to,” said Ilsa. “That’s why I’m worried we won’t get to the central lyre in time.”

“Alright, cool it.” Blue rode her steed between Ilsa and Tirica. “If it’s any consolation, you’re both wrong. We need their help, Ilsa. And we also can’t be at each other’s throats’, Tiri.”

“My name is Tirica. Don’t try to get familiar.”

“I once knew a girl with the same name as you.” Blue grimaced at some memory she had never shared with Ilsa. “She was stubborn too.”

Ilsa frowned at her friend. “Alright. I’ll leave it there.”

Tirica glared at Ilsa, then at Blue, and then rode her steed ahead of them toward the rising sun. Lemuel caught up with Ilsa and Blue on the back of his own wooly black strider. “I apologize for my sister. She is not always happy with my decisions even when she goes along with what I want.”

“Really?” Blue smirked. “I couldn’t tell.”

Ilsa couldn’t help a small smile. “I wish it was that easy. The way you two argue makes me think she respects you.”

He sucked his teeth. “More than I deserve.”

“Maybe so,” said Blue.

“Maybe not,” said Ilsa.

“Oh this is gonna be a good day. We can’t agree on anything this morning.”

“Seems that way,” said Ilsa.

Blue grinned. “Gotcha. Sweet irony, am I right?”

Ilsa released a bark of laughter. “You are.”

Lemuel smiled. The sunlight glinted on his glasses. He guided his strider into a lope after Tirica. Ilsa and Blue did the same.

They rode east at speed. They had passed the ninth lyre the previous afternoon, but the central lyre was still not visible, even with the vast distances one could see on the steppe.

Ilsa rode on one side of Lemuel, with Blue on the other and Tirica in the lead by a few great strides. For her part, Lemuel’s sister kept looking around, scanning for danger. As they moved further east and away from the Lotok formation that curved around Palend’s manor tower grass became more common, sprouting up so high it could block the view. Luckily, few of those clumps were dense enough to hide anyone from a distance if one kept her eyes on the stand while moving forward.

They followed the trail of footprints and broken grass left by the Red Lector’s troops.

At about ten in the morning, Ilsa smelled increasingly familiar Ayochian powder, borne on the eastward breeze. She looked back and spotted a line of six runners with riders in Ayochian Blue uniforms also galloping along a trail left by the Red Lector’s column, less than a kilometer back from Ilsa and the others.

They were not scouts from the Red Lector’s force, and they did not carry a standard. Ilsa had to guess they were from the rearguard, and thus owed their allegiance to Boraij Kanan. And through their general, they were controlled by the Gray Lector.

She turned to Blue. “Ayochian outriders. Behind us.”

“That nose of yours is damn useful.” Blue glanced back at the scouts, then turned to look at Lemuel. “Can you fight?”

He raised his shrunken right arm. “I’m afraid I’m rather useless in physical altercations.”

Ilsa nodded. She looked back. Each of the riders behind them looked to be on a fresh steed, judging by the pace of the great cat-like beasts. “We’re not going to get away from runners if they keep that pace.”

Blue shook her head. “Well, Lemuel. Best get your sister. This is gonna be up to the three of us.”

“There are six of them, and three of you.”

“Truly a scholar. You can do math.” Blue took a breath. “I can try to even the odds, at least, a little. And Ilsa doesn’t miss.”

“My sister is a good shot,” said Lemuel. His eyes looked watery with nerves. “Fine, if we have no choice.”

“There’s always a choice.” Ilsa sighed. “I’ll try to negotiate first.”

“If they really are with this renegade Gray Lector, what good will that do?” said Lemuel. “We don’t even know this person’s true goal.”

“We should, at least, try to find it out.” Ilsa folded her arms.

Blue turned to her with a furrowed brow. “I hate to say this, but they’ve got us outnumbered two to one. If we let them get close enough to talk, that advantage becomes a lot bigger.”

“I understand.,” said Ilsa. “I also don’t think—”

“No, priestess.” Tirica must have slowed her steed because the three of them had caught up with her. “We’ve got you outvoted. Shoot first, and see if we can take any of them alive afterward. That’s what I say.”

“You’re too eager to kill.”

“And you’re too reluctant.” Tirica pulled her rifle from the straps that held it to her saddle. She loaded it with a fresh magazine. “Am I wrong?”

Ilsa grunted. “One can never be too reluctant to kill.”

“Unless you die because of it,” said Blue. “We have the advantage now. Let’s not waste it.”

Tirica checked the slide and safety of her rifle and turned her strider toward the scouts. She looked through the telescopic sites of the weapon. “They’re riding with weapons out.”

“I smelled them because they’ve got ready powder somewhere in their group.” Ilsa sighed inwardly. “I admit it, but it’s likely they’re probably not planning to let us talk either way.”

Blue and Ilsa turned their striders.

Ilsa turned to Lemuel, then motioned to the nearest stand of tower grass. “Go, hide over there. We’ll find you once the fighting is done.”

“Good luck.” He rode his steed toward the tower grass. He had almost reached the tall grass, when Tirica’s first shot cut the air and polluted Ilsa’s nose with the smell of burning Chogrumian powder.

One of the riders approaching from the west rocked in his saddle though the shot must not have been immediately lethal. The Ayochians shouted warnings to each other. In seconds, they all had weapons in hand and were slowing their runners. A hundred meters away and the shots quickly began to buzz and whistle through the air.

They shot without any real hope of accuracy. Blue’s eyes were unfocused as she mentally reached out toward the scouts. Ilsa gave her friend some distance. She rode toward the scouts.

Clenched fists.

A pistol appeared in each hand. She braced one on her hip and loaded the other, then repeated the process for the second weapon. She thumbed both safeties off. She kept Hailek going westward with her knees, and leaned around him in the saddle. She took aim, despite the thirty or more meters between her and the scouts.

The pistols felt light in her hands, and she was grateful for their small caliber, a rare insight of her father’s that still helped her. Damn it, you may have tied me to the name Black Powder, but I am not going to follow your path. Her lips drew back in a snarl.

Ten meters from the scouts. Behind her, Tirica’s rifle sounded again. She must have missed this time, for the scouts focused on Ilsa. One of them twisted a shotgun toward her.

She squeezed one trigger. The man with the shotgun fell. Blood leaped into the air as he tumbled from the saddle.

Ilsa shot another scout as the man scrambled for a machine gun. His arm snapped back, but he got a burst off. The shots stitched into the air over Hailek’s head. Her pistols barked again. The machine gun fell silent.

A third scout spurred her runner to leap at Hailek’s neck from one side. Ilsa whirled in the saddle. She fired her first shot underhand. Pain flared in Ilsa’s wrist from awkward recoil position, but she fired again. The second shot hit the runner in the foreleg. The riding cat sprawled out of Hailek’s path, claws flicking through the air with no flesh to rend.

The rider screamed and went down under the wounded steed. Still she reached for a pistol. Ilsa beat her to the draw, and the scout fell limp. Red trails ran up to her uniform’s collar.

Ilsa turned and came face to face with a fourth scout. This was the one already hit by Tirica’s first shot. This close, she could see the man had suffered a broken collar bone from the bullet. He swayed, one hand on his chest while the other claw toward a pistol. Ilsa shot him in the hand. He screamed and lost his balance. He fell from the saddle and lost his pistol in the fall.

She turned toward the last two scouts. A shot rang out from Tirica, and one of them fell from the saddle. The other ducked her head and then dropped to the grass of the steppe below, dragging a redwood staff from her saddle in the process. She threw back her hood in a flash of strawberry blond hair. A submachine gun materialized in her hand.

Cass Kalteri trained the weapon on Ilsa.

“Hold your fire,” The red-haired priestess said through gritted teeth.

Ilsa stared at her. She heard herself yell to Tirica. “Stop shooting. We’ve won.”

Cass looked up at her from the ground. “I told you to be red. Should have known that wouldn’t be your problem, Ilsa.”

Trickles of blood ran down Ilsa’s forehead. More spattered cover her sleeves, with speckles of red on the shirt she had taken from Palend’s manor. She lowered her pistols, breathing hard.

“Cass. What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you, damn it.” Cass looked around at the fallen scouts. None of them moved, except for the blood leaving their wounds. Ilsa gasped for air. She had done this. Again, she had killed without care. Never mind that she had protested Tirica and Blue.

This kind of killing was always within her.

She nodded to Cass, feeling light-headed.

“Ilsa.” Cass looked toward Blue and the others. “If I’m correct about your mission, we need to go.”

“We?” Ilsa scowled. “Those days are long gone, Cass.”

“Maybe. But today, I’m here to help you. Just didn’t think I’d have to keep you from killing me first.”

Ilsa grimaced. “Let’s ride. You can explain why you’re here on the way.”

Tenlyres Chapter 9

Recap

Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
After encountering the thief and adventurer, Ferdinand Thoss, at the Palend Manor, the two of them have fallen behind the Red Lector’s forces who are still headed east. However, Ilsa learned the depth of Lord Palend’s enmity against the Red Lector from a message Palend sent to an Ayochian rearguard on the plain, addressing a mysterious ‘Gray Lector’.
They rested one night in the manor, but the longer they wait, the further they fall behind.

Previous Chapter

Cover

Morning light poured through the window of the manor house and fell onto the bed and woke Ilsa. She opened her eyes, felt the three fresh stitches in her leg were Ferdinand’s lance had cut her, and grimaced. He could have just punched her. On the other hand, the blood made her story to Lord Palend more convincing. She could hardly complain much. It had worked.

From what Ilsa could tell, Lord Palend trusted her more now than he had before. A pang of guilt ran through her stomach. But all of this was necessary.

One of Palend’s groundsmaids had bandaged her leg the previous afternoon and later made sure to change it before Ilsa slept. Ilsa climbed out of bed and glanced at the white bandages on her thigh. Fighting as a mercenary in Morhoi, an occupation where men and women were lucky to have a full single set of clothes, she had gotten used to being filthy. For the short term, she considered a cut a day for a bath a day a reasonable trade. She was no stranger to cuts and burns.

Ilsa walked toward the window where she had left her clothes. Her wounded leg twinged as she reached the chest of drawers. She dressed, but her leg’s nerves complained more and more as she did. Fully clothed, she buckled on her ammunition belt and walked to the door.

She stepped out into the hallway on the second floor. Hardwood gave a slight bounce under her step. A jolt of pain ran through leg from the wound in her thigh to the back of her knee. She grunted and shifted to lean against the wall plaster. Once the pain subsided she continued down the hall, ginger on her feet and one hand pressed to the wall for balance.

After limping down the stairs, she made her way to the dining room. The smell of cooking meat greeted her from the kitchen on the other side of the long hall that stretched along the Eastern outer wall of the mansion. Sunlight poured into the room and cast Lord Palend’s shadow from where he sat in his chair at he head of the long table.

He turned and smiled at Ilsa as she entered the room nearby him. “Good morning, priestess. How is your leg?”

She bowed her head to him. “It’s a bit painful. Looks like he may have cut deeper than I first thought.”

“Hopefully it’s not an infection.” Palend scowled. “I wouldn’t doubt the blackguard who did this does not keep his blades clean.”

“He is a weapon bond. I’m not entirely sure why, but once summoned, the weapon arrives completely clean.”

“Completely?” Palend raised his eyebrows.

“It would be difficult to find a more sanitary blade than one conjured through a bond.”

“Well, that is good, I suppose.” Palend shook his head. “How is your friend, the mind eater?”

“I haven’t seen her this morning.” However, Ilsa had told Blue the truth the previous day, before Lord Palend and the Suel’s returned from Fort Sardul, and after Ferdinand’s escape from the manor.

“I hope the Oshomi did not hurt her too badly.”

Ilsa shrugged. “She isn’t used to meeting another mind eater who can match her. Blue is very skilled in her art.” She knew what she said was true, but unimportant truths did not help her feel better about her lie to Lord Palend. However, he still had not mentioned the Gray Lector or his conversation with the Ayochian rearguard. Though he admitted to hating the Red Lector, supporting some sort of assassination attempt otherwise seemed beyond him.

“I see. You know, I’ve only met a few mind eaters in my life. And none from Chogrum.”

“They are the rarest form of magi, from what I understand. Chogrum trains more than Dal, but they’re colleges are almost unknown in Morhoi.”

“Interesting.” Palend drew in a deep breath through his nose and then sighed happily. “Well, it seems the lighter meat is about done.”

Ilsa sniffed, following the smell of the cooking meat. “Lighter meat? You eat them out here?”

“Why, of course. Our old generator here at the manor began to fail last winter, and once the new one arrived, I had the old one slaughtered. Of course, given the size of our generator, my staff and I have been eating the meat we from one lighter for over a year.”

Ilsa smiled. “I’ve never had lighter before. In Morhoi they have a taboo against it.”

“But you’re not from Morhoi.”

“I wasn’t preparing a lot of different kinds of meals either. On campaign, things get very stretched, even if you’re on the winning side.” Ilsa did not want to go into the other hardships of war, but if the Red Lector died Ayoch might well step in to fight Chogrum more seriously. “You were never a soldier, were you, Lord Palend?”

“Never,” said Palend. “But I’ve seen death on this plateau.”

Not enough death to keep you from plotting against an enemy, evidently, Ilsa thought. She limped to the table. A woman appeared from a door on the near wall behind Lord Palend’s seat, carrying a serving platter of steaming slices of meat that ranged from dark to light in color. The woman set the platter before Lord Palend, just in front of his own large dinner plate.

“Please, have a seat, priestess. I don’t believe Hathani forbids meat, am I correct?”

“True.” Ilsa pulled out the chair nearest Palend. She sank gratefully into the seat. “How can I refuse?”

From the passage behind Ilsa, a squeal of excitement announced Blue’s arrival. She stepped into the room wearing a long white dressing gown she must have borrowed from someone on Palend’s staff. “I knew I smelled lighter meat! Lord Palend, I would be infinitely grateful if you would supply me with a few slices of this delicacy. It has been years since I’ve had any!”

“Of course, of course.” Palend’s lined face split into a grin. “You seem far more excited than Priestess Barrett.”

“Never mind, Ilsa. She doesn’t know what she likes, and if she does, she seems set on denying it.” Blue walked to the table, grinning wide and sniffing at the air.

Ilsa grunted. “I know what I like.”

Blue pulled out a chair and sat down.

Palend called for two more plates. As the server brought out plates for Blue and Ilsa, Jia Suel marched into the room from the entrance leading to the front of the house. “Lord Palend,” she said. “Your other guests have arrived.”

“Ah, good.” Palend smiled. “Send them in.”

Ilsa looked at Blue in surprise, unable to keep the cold sense of fear from creeping down her spine. Could the Ayochian rearguard have made it to the manor so soon? Did that mean the Gray Lector, whoever that might be, was here too?

Palend chuckled. “Don’t look so alarmed, priestess. I have a feeling you are familiar with both of these guests. Blue told me you encountered my friend Lemuel and his sister on your way here.”

“Lemuel Chollush?” Ilsa could have laughed with relief, but held it in. “The scholar from Chogrum?”

“Indeed.” Palend smiled. “I made his acquaintance in the summer when he passing this point on his way west.” He turned to Jia. “Please, direct them in here. I’m sure they’ll appreciate the food as much as Blue.”

Blue laughed so loud, the server stepped back from her in surprise. “I doubt that they’ll match me, Lord Palend.”

“Perhaps not.” Palend shook his head.

Jia ducked out of the room, and then returned a few moments later with the Chollush’s following her.

Lemuel looked unruffled, especially for having traveled across the central plateau for at least another few days. Somehow, his pale face remained free of stubble and his long dark hair could have been washed that morning for all Ilsa could tell. He wore a coat as dark as his face was pale.

His shrunken right hand folded into his ordinary-sized right palm. He carried his two scroll cases on his belt, perhaps, Ilsa guessed, containing rolled data screens as well as rolls of paper for notes. A calligraphy box hung behind them on the belt.

Plant piles needed plants to interface with inside every device humans used to view the data stored in the genetic code of each one. Ilsa stood, though her bandaged leg twinged with pain, and turned toward Lemuel and his sister.

The younger Chollush looked almost as put together as her brother. She wore the same dark traveling clothes and black cloak and an empty holster on her hip. Her eyes flashed as she met Ilsa’s eyes. Their gazes locked.

Lemuel might be a scholar, but his sister fancied herself a killer. Ilsa did not like that in someone so young. Tirica did not break her gaze from Ilsa’s, stubborn eyes but with little else to indicate defiance.

The room was silent except for the sounds of Blue eating. Her fork scraped on the plate. A knife rasped as she carved a piece of meat.

“Ilsa Barrett.” Lemuel bowed low to Ilsa. “It is good to see you again, priestess.”

“And you, Lemuel.” Ilsa nodded to him and Tirica.

Lord Palend motioned to the table. “I see we are all acquainted. Sit, my friends. We have breakfast to eat.”

Lemuel smiled. Tirica turned toward Palend and dipped her head. “Thank you, Lord Palend.”

“Please, all of you, call me Chakeb. On this plain, as everywhere, the point of status and money is to do good, not demand respect.”

“With respect, Chakeb. That makes me less than comfortable,” said Lemuel.

“And you should know, that is no argument at all. Take a seat, my friend.” Palend laughed and waved at the table. Tirica and Lemuel followed his motion and walked around to the far side of the table and then sat down across from Ilsa and Blue. Palend turned to the server. “Two more plates, please.”

The server bowed and then bustled out of the room. Ilsa sat down again. She faced across the table at Tirica.

Lemuel coughed to clear his throat. “I regret to say this.” His Chogrumian accent seemed thicker as he slowed his voice. “I have to warn you, Chakeb, there is another Ayochian force heading this way. I don’t know their intentions though they fly the banners of the Red Lector.”

Lord Palend’s eyes widened slightly. “More Ayochians?” He frowned though he had already known about the Ayochians, being that he had sent them a message through his plant pile. “How are they traveling?”

“Armored vehicles,” said Lemuel, “A column of forty or fifty crawlers with some striders and runners as outriders. There must be at least five hundred soldiers, but there could be a lot more.”

“Could be twice as many, depending on the crawlers.” Ilsa glanced at Lemuel. “You’re sure they have crawlers?”

Tirica scowled at Ilsa. “My brother wears glasses, but he has eyes like you and me.”

Blue spoke through a mouthful of food. “She’s got you there.”

“Fair point.” Ilsa sat back and took a deep breath. “But that only makes our mission more urgent. If those crawlers get to the central Lyre first, the Oshomi will have to flee, and then who knows where they’ll take the Guardian of Tenlyres.”

“The Guardian of Tenlyres.” Tirica’s scowl darkened. “What’s so important about this person?”

“Sister—”

“I’m serious, Lemuel. Why bother protecting one person when there’s a way about to begin?”

Blue gulped down her food and frowned down at her empty plate.

“The Unification believes the Guardian of Tenlyres might have the divine authority to end a war, but that won’t happen if Ayoch captures the guardian.”

“The Unification is bullshit.”

Ilsa glared at Tirica. Blue looked up from her greasy plate with a grimace on her face.

Lemuel raised his good left hand. “Tirica—”

“No, Lemuel. They don’t have a real reason, just superstition.”

“You’re wrong.” Ilsa closed her eyes. “The Guardian is a powerful figure in Ayochian lore. Historically, the Lectors owe their existence to this place. Five Lectors. Ten Lyres. Each Lector is officially the protector of two Lyres, and Ayoch has always wanted to possess them, as well as the Guardian. If the Guardian pushes for peace, most of the Lectors will too. Without Ayoch’s support, Dal will want peace with Chogrum.”

“Lectors don’t rule Ayoch. The queen does.”

“Sister.”

“Lemuel—”

“No, this time, I know you’re wrong. Without the authority of the Lectors, even a supposedly divine monarch does not control the Ayochian people.” Lemuel took a deep breath and turned to Ilsa. “Please, Ilsa, let us help you get to the Guardian.”

“But brother, what about your research?”

“If there is a war the future could be at stake.” Lemuel sighed. “I do not usually like to admit this, but we have to live in the same world as everyone else, regardless of any knowledge we have of the past.”

Palend raised his eyebrows. “Lemuel, my young friend, you have grown since I last spoke to you.”

“I should hope so.” Lemuel looked down at his shrunken right side. “I have to make up for the things I cannot change, somehow.”

Palend nodded.

Lemuel turned to Ilsa. “Will you accept help from my sister and me?”

She frowned at him. Blue put a hand on Ilsa’s forearm. “We’ve fallen behind. We need all the help we can get.”

“You’re right.” Ilsa folded her hands beside her plate. “I don’t like to admit that, any more than you like to admit history isn’t anything, Lemuel.”

He smiled weakly at his sister.

Tirica shrugged. “I’ll protect you, whatever you choose, brother.”

“Thank you, Tirica.”

“Just tell me one thing,” said Tirica.

“Alright,” said Ilsa.

“Are you willing to kill for your mission, priestess?”

Ilsa’s eyes narrowed. The memory of killing the Oshomi rider during the fight near the Ninth Lyre returned, as did the numbness in her heart and mind that followed. She set her jaw. “I will do what I have to do.”

Tirica nodded. “Glad to hear it.”

Palend whistled. “You three are all so serious. If you want to reach my age, perhaps you should be more like Blue. Please, let us eat.”

Blue laughed. “I’ve been trying to tell Ilsa that all along, old man.”

“Blue,” Ilsa muttered.

“Just accept something for once.” Blue burped. “Enjoy yourself.”

Ilsa rolled her eyes but refused to argue. “We have to leave later today,” she said, “but for now, I’ll try to relax.” She dished up a slice of lighter meat with her fork. She took a knife and carved the food for her breakfast.

Tenlyres Chapter 8

 

Recap
Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
After a skirmish with the Oshomi, Ilsa and Blue have returned to Palend Manor to recover their strength.
When they arrived at the manor, Ilsa discovered the thief, Ferdinand Thoss had broken in, and was siphoning money from Lord Palend’s account through a plant pile. Ferdinand and Ilsa find that Lord Palend has been in contact with the Red Lector’s general, Boraij Kanan as well as a mysterious figure known as the Gray Lector.
Ilsa has decided to lie to Lord Palend about her encounter with Ferdinand in order to secure shelter at the manor until Blue can recover from a mind eater attack.

Previous Chapter

A hundred Oshomi riders circled the scouts at a distance, and then charged towards the Red Lector’s column. Kaij shouted an order and the scouts turned their steeds to ride back toward the main column. Ilsa and Blue rode with them.

Her heartbeat accelerated as first shot cut the air, a single echoing clap from somewhere near the column. She could not tell who had opened up first, the Ayochians or the Oshomi. In the next moment, the resounding crack of the first shot was lost in the roars of the fusillade that followed.

Bolts of electricity shot from a few Oshomi, the ones who carried lances with straight metal prongs instead of angled points. Those lightning catchers rode ahead of the rest of the nomads. The sound of their weapons rumbled across the plain. Men and striders pitched to the ground from within the Red Lector’s formation.

Ilsa grimaced and clenched her branded right hand. She drew her submachine gun from within the bond. Her hands worked automatically and she loaded the forty round magazine under the weapon’s sleek barrel. All of this without Hailek breaking his stride.

The sound of gunfire and thunderclaps died away for an instant as the Oshomi skirted along the hastily forming lines of the Red Lector’s forces. Ilsa and Blue on their striders fell behind the accelerating runners of the scouts, but they made it to within a hundred meters from the head of the column before the shooting resumed.

Uniformed and armored Ayochian soldiers on light striders still taller than horses, returned fired on the Oshomi. They lacked the thundering lances wielded by Oshomi lightning catchers but made up for the absence of the terrifying weapons with sheer numbers and the discipline of their engineered steeds. The blue and red line wavered along its length, but at no point did it break.

In the lead of the scouts, the Red Lector’s sons outpaced even the others on runner-back. Ilsa watched Kaij level a rifle as he drew alongside the front his father’s troops. He slowed his steed and fired. An Oshomi lightning catcher who had been lining up a shot on the Red Lector’s command party fell from the saddle.

Yunn pressed his palms together and the ground rapidly iced over beneath the hooves of a group of galloping nomad horses. The animals whinnied in surprise, skidded, and several of them fell.

The other scouts began to catch up with Kaij and Yunn. They readied guns and slowed their runners. Another great shout went up from the Oshomi, and half the riders swept around in a ring to encircle the Red Lector’s command party at the front of the column. The Ayochian line behind the Red Lector’s group broke.

Ilsa turned in her saddle to follow the path of some dozen more Oshomi stringing themselves out to attack the scouts at the head of the column. She raised her submachine gun and traced the route of the lead rider, a big woman who almost casually fitted an arrow to her towering bow at full gallop. Ilsa flicked her weapon’s selector to semiautomatic, to improve her aim and not waste bullets.

She looked down the iron sights of the machine gun. The lead rider loosed an arrow toward Ilsa and her steed. Ilsa drove her heels into Hailek’s flanks. The strider lurched forward. He grunted as the arrow slashed across the back of his head and made blood flow into his mane from a cut behind his ear. Ilsa did now want to shoot, but she knew in that moment she would not have the choice for long.

Wind whistled in her ears, audible even over the sound of screams and shots and thunder. She squeezed the trigger. She smelled the powder ignite inside her weapon.

Speed of movement. Judged by sight.

Distance. Estimated with precision.

Cover. Nonexistent.

Only the shifting steppe winds could interfere. Half of Ilsa would not have been surprised if the Oshomi had the wind on her side.

Wind or no wind, the rider tumbled from her saddle. Ilsa trusted the aim her father had taught her those years ago when he had first branded her to bind her weapons to her spirit. The woman she had shot would not rise, thanks to the bullet in her heart.

“Hathani keep you,” murmured Ilsa. She turned Hailek toward Blue. The sound of the battle faded into the background as her friend met her gaze.

Blue nodded to her.

Ilsa shivered. She had taken another life. All too quick. Far too easy. She rode toward the Red Lector’s troops.

Blue’s eyes lost their focus as she devoured the courage of the Oshomi riders behind Ilsa. The string of riders that been trying to outflank the scouts broke and retreated from the battle. Ilsa watched them go, numb to the scene.

Ahead of her, she glimpsed Ozleji Sammhar, the Lectoral Protector trained by Ilsa’s father, brandish a massive hand cannon of a pistol in one fist as he hefted an ornate shotgun in the other. The fanged visor of his helm was down, hiding his face. The few Oshomi who had closed with the Lector’s command party lay broken and bloody on the ground before him, shredded by shot along with their horses.

Some Oshomi were still close by, but all of them were in retreat.

Blue turned to Ilsa. “I’d say this was the battle he talked about.”

“Yeah.” Ilsa lowered her machine gun to her side and flexed her free hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

Blue nodded. Then she flinched. A tremor ran through her whole frame. She swayed in the saddle.

“Blue?” Ilsa asked.

Blue grimaced. “There’s a mind eater here.” Sweat ran along her brow. “Whoever it is, is taking a swing at me. No problem. I can handle—” Her last word became a scream of pain. She shuddered and then slid sideways.

Ilsa reabsorbed her machine gun and urged Hailek sideways. She caught Blue before she could fall completely from her saddle. Her friend looked up at her face with dull eyes.

“Shit.” Ilsa’s grip on Blue’s shoulders tightened.

“That’s what I was gonna say.” Blue went limp, but her heartbeat remained audible.

Ilsa pulled her friend sideways onto Hailek’s saddle, then grabbed the reins of Blue’s strider. She glanced in the direction of the Red Lector, then down at her friend’s slack face. She turned the two striders back toward Palend’s Manor.

“Just a few kilometers,” she said to Blue. “I’ll get you some help.”

 

Ilsa supported Blue along the front of the saddle as the two of them rode through the gates of Palend’s Manor. Blue’s strider loped in behind them. Her friend looked up at the great house as they entered the yard. At first, Ilsa thought Blue was still unconscious because she had thrashed and shifted at different times on the ride back.

Then Blue said, “This place again?”

“Yeah.” Ilsa sighed. “At least, they aren’t shooting at us this time.” The stitched wound in her shoulder throbbed as a reminder of their last entrance to the building.

She halted Hailek and in the yard, a few meters from the front of the house. “Can you get down from here?” she asked Blue.

“Sure. Don’t worry about me.” Blue twisted her waist and then lurched into a sitting position. “Don’t worry.”

“Excuse me if I do.”

“No thanks. You gotta relax a little. Some Oshomi mind eater just dropped a bomb in my mind. I’ve done that to too many other people to whine now.”

Ilsa grunted and swung her legs over one side of the saddle. She dropped the line and descended it to the ground.

She looked around the yard and found no sign of any people or even the metal sentries that had greeted them last time. With Oshomi forces clashing with the Red Lector only a few kilometers to the east, Palend may have ordered most of his people inside, or they might be sheltering at Fort Sardul, not far away.

Blue groaned and started to climb down the line from Hailek’s back. Ilsa waited below, looking upward, ready to catch her friend if she slipped.

The wind whistled over the walls. Ilsa scanned the parapets from the inside. She finally spotted a shape, barely humanoid, on one wall, looking east. One of Palend’s plant-brained metal guards, she could tell from the silhouette. Everyone else seemed to be indoors if they were in the manor at all. But someone had opened the gates for them.

Ilsa frowned and glanced back toward the gatehouse. A man with long hair and ballistic armor stepped out from the gatehouse, all too familiar. Ferdinand Thoss, a man the Chollushes had called a dangerous bandit, looked down from the wall at Ilsa and Blue in the yard. Ilsa frowned up at him, one question circling in her mind.

What is he doing here?

Blue struggled to the bottom of the line. She slumped against Hailek’s leg. “Who is that?”

“The grave robber from the Western Lyre.” Ilsa shook her head. “Somethings wrong.”

“Definitely.” Blue grimaced and sank to the ground, still pressing against Hailek’s leg. The strider paid her no attention.

“Blue,” said Ilsa. “I’m gonna go talk to him.”

“Be careful. He has a weapon bond.” Blue grimaced. “And I’m not exactly up for stopping him.”

“I’ll see what he’s doing here. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.” She began to march back toward the wall. She considered producing one of her guns, but she had already taken one life today. Blood she had not even truly seen with her own eyes now spread across the steppe grass beside the Ninth Lyre. Ilsa stopped a few yards from the gatehouse.

She looked up at the spot where Ferdinand stood. He met her eyes. “Priestess Barrett,” he called. “It’s good to see you again.” His gaze shifted to the garden on the south side of the manor house where black-trunked trees completely unnatural to the steppe stood, cultivated by Lord Palend and his servants.

Ilsa returned her eyes to Ferdinand’s face. “I hope I can say the same. What are you doing here?”

“I’m a guest of the old lord of this manor. Besides, I hoisted this gate for you and your mind eater, so shouldn’t you be grateful?” The corners of his lips turned upward in a small smile. “What ever happened to not looking a gift-horse in the mouth?”

Ilsa glanced at the gates, still standing open. Something was off about what Ferdinand said, and he was Chogrumian despite the traces of Morhoen ancestry she guessed he had in his past, judging from his unusual facial features.

“That a Chogrumian saying?”

“Nah,” said Ferdinand. “But when you grow up on a farm you get used to the concept.”

“A bad gift is a bad gift.” Ilsa grunted. “You still heading east?”

“That I am.” Ferdinand paced along the top of the wall. “Charming though you are, I have a feeling I should leave sometime today.”

“Oh? Could it be you aren’t as welcome here as you said before?”

“What an odd accusation. I assure you, priestess, I am in good stead with the lord of this manor.”

“Interesting. His servants didn’t want to trust Blue just because of her accent.”

“Interesting is right. Pr-priestess. Y-you have c-cut right to the h-heart of th-this.” His stutter grew obvious despite his apparent attempt to suppress it. Ilsa recalled the way he had muddled his speech back at the Western Lyre when upset.

She clenched her hand to produce a pistol, just in case. Once she opened her hand she would be armed, but she hesitated. Ferdinand stared at her for a moment. His eyes narrowed for an instant, then he bolted along the wall that encircled the manor, heading toward the garden.

Ilsa cursed. She opened her fingers and then locked the gun that appeared in her hand in a tight grip. She swiped a magazine from her belt and loaded the pistol, but did not thumb off the safety until she hit her stride. Her finger hovered outside the trigger guard as she ran.

Ferdinand did not look back. About ten meters from the garden he dropped into a low crouch, still moving at a high pace. A sound like a tree branch whipping against stone rang through the air. In Ferdinand’s next stride he leaped off the parapet, gripping a wooden javelin in each of his fists. He launched farther than would be possible for an ordinary human. He flew into the garden of gnarled black trees and vanished from Ilsa’s view even with the branches bare from winter.

Ilsa looked after him with a grimaced, but kept her pace up and ran toward the garden. Her heartbeat became loud to her as she reached the tree line on the outside of the dense copse at the center of the plot of cultivated soil.

She searched between the trees with her eyes, seeking any sign of Ferdinand. Evidently the large lance with the basket guard was not the only weapon he had bonded to him. At range her guns should have a significant advantage over his javelins though the small spears were designed to be thrown, so he would not be completely defenseless.

Best to be careful. If Ferdinand was sneaking around the manor, where were Palend and his servants? Had he hurt them?

Ilsa took a deep breath. It did little to slow her heart. Good, because I may need the adrenaline if he has any more tricks up his sleeve. She stalked to one black tree trunk and then pressed her back against it. The smells of fertilizer, moss, and fungus mingled in her nose.

Ferdinand’s soft footsteps crunched slowly over the stiff grass and traces of snow and moved toward the center of the copse of trees in the garden. Then his footsteps stopped. “W-well, th-this could be inconvenient. I’m gonna need new boots.”

Ilsa peered around the tree trunk. Ferdinand paced around one side of a plant pile where it emerged from the earth in a clearing at the center of the garden. The pile looked like a mound of dark green bulbs piled about a meter over the ground, but with small tendrils creeping out and upward, reaching toward the pale sun. Behind the pile, a fuzzy white mountain shifted.

The heavier sound of a strider rumbled to Ilsa’s ears as Ferdinand’s steed stood up from behind the pile, shocking white against the deep green bulbs and yellowish tendrils of the plant pile. Ferdinand reabsorbed his bonded javelins into his bare feet and then patted the strider’s side with an open palm.

Ilsa held her breath and watched him reach up and take a tablet from a saddlebag that hung down his strider’s white flank. He knelt down beside the pile and extended the connector pin from the tablet. He turned to look over his shoulder. Ilsa darted back behind the tree. She took the pistol she held in both hands and double-checked the safety. It was still locked. She thumbed it off but kept her finger off the trigger.

He might be quick to draw, but judging by his movements earlier, she was faster.

She stepped out from behind the tree trunk, barrel of the pistol down. “Ferdinand Thoss.” She walked forward with careful, deliberate steps. “What are you doing?”

Ferdinand looked up from his tablet with a start. He turned toward Ilsa with a grimace on his face. “I’m checking up on Lord Palend. Looks like he’s been busy networking.”

“Networking?”

“Yes, quite a bit of networking.” Ferdinand’s eyes moved to the gun in Ilsa’s grip. “I think you may interested in this.”

Ilsa scowled. “So you’ve hacked into his connection logs?”

“It’s not difficult to do if you know where to look.” Ferdinand bowed his head. “Ilsa, you may want to hear this.”

“Alright.” She took another step toward him. “What’s interesting?”

“Lord Palend contacted an animal pile on the plains west of here this morning. Turns out, that plant pile is registered to some Ayochian General called Boraij Kanan.”

“General Kanan.” Ilsa remembered the heavyset angry man in the Red Lector’s command tent the night before. She frowned. “But he’s already riding east with the Red Lector.” She walked to Ferdinand’s side and looked down at the tablet he crouched before.

He nodded. “The message is to his second in command, some captain whats-his-name. Who cares? The message was to be relayed to the General, according to the log.”

“What did he say?” Ilsa peered down at the screen.

“Not so fast.” Ferdinand quickly shifted to hide the screen from Ilsa with his back. “I want you to promise to let me go before I share.”

“That depends. Why were you here in the first place? Something tells me you didn’t come here to help me spy on the Red Lector’s general.”

Ferdinand took a deep breath. “Maybe Chollush was right about me being a thief. I’m here to skim some funds from Palend’s account before I head east. Dalite credit can be useful in Chogrum, you know.”

Ilsa frowned. “I believe you. If it’s just money, I can let you go.”

“Good.” Ferdinand smiled. “You’re very reasonable, especially for a priestess.”

“Don’t push your luck.”

“Alright. Alright.” He shifted so she could see the tablet.

She read the transcription of the digital message from the screen. Her lips began to murmur the words as her gaze moved down the screen.

“General Kanan should know that I have his back against the Red Lector. When the time comes I will see Haram beaten, one way or another. Tell him I’m happy with his performance last night, and I think I played my part for Haram to put more trust in him. I may not pay homage to your religion but you may trust my alliance with your Gray Lector. One last thing. Be careful should you choose to move too soon. An honor bound priestess of Hathani is traveling with Haram at the moment. I have a feeling she may interfere though I cannot fully predict her actions. Please inform the general. Respectfully yours, Lord Chakeb Palend.”

Ilsa scowled. “Lord Palend is working with the general? But he threatened to kill Palend last night.”

“The performance, perhaps?”

“Looks like it. The general must have been faking.”

“But he connected with someone who worked for a Gray Lector. Ayoch has five high-up Lectors, right? Each one named for a color?”

“Yeah.” Ilsa’s breath caught and she paused with realization. “But none of them are called Gray.”

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Looks like they’re planning something against the Red one.” He yanked the pin from the plants, leaving a small hole in the bulb he had stabbed to access the memory of the pile. Without information to process, the tablet’s screen immediately went blank, showing the pattern of a leaf beneath the glass cover. He stuffed the device into his saddle bag and turned to Ilsa. “Time to go. Good luck.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“Thank you, priestess. Hope your friend is alright.”

Ilsa nodded. “Blue should be fine. But she’ll need a day or two of rest. I was hoping Palend would let us stay here.”

“Then you’ve got one more problem. Thanks to his sentry’s logs, Palend’s gonna notice I was here, even if you let me go.”

She frowned at him. “Do you have any ideas?”

He nodded to her. “If you look like you tried to stop me, he’ll definitely let you stay.”

“You’re right.” She clenched the grip of her pistol against her palm brand.

“We’ll look like we fought.” He extended one arm away from his steed. “That work for you?”

She frowned. Deceiving Palend would not have felt good just an hour ago, but he had deceived her and Blue, if only for an apparent personal vendetta against the Red Lector. She took a deep breath and then nodded to Ferdinand.

He smiled. “Good doing business with you.” He produced the steel lance in a flash. The edge of the blade sliced along her outer thigh.

Ilsa gasped with pain and thrust her arm out. She fired her pistol skyward. The gunshot roared and Ferdinand’s lanced slipped back into his bond. He leaped onto his steed and rode out of the garden and toward the gateway.

She looked down at her leg. Blood ran from the cut in her slashed pants, shallow, but painful. She swayed, dizzy, and then started to limp after Ferdinand. She would tell Blue the truth, and they would make plans on how best to talk with Lord Palend. She blinked at the pain and kept limping forward.

Tenlyres Chapter 7

Recap

Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
Following a skirmish at a manor close to the Ninth Lyre, Ilsa and Blue learned of the Red Lector and the nation of Ayoch’s agenda of conquest from Lord Palend.
They have decided to ride to the nearby fort where Red Lector has camped, in an attempt to learn more about his mission and how it may conflict with their own.

Previous Chapter

Cover

7: Eastward Questions

At dusk, the illusory veils around Fort Sardul parted and Ilsa and the others approached. Her weeping-haired strider, Hailek, covered the cooling ground without complaint. Ilsa, Palend, Blue, and Raheb circled the fort toward the gates.

The walls were higher than those of Palend’s Manor, surmounted by parapets and crenelations. Fort Sardul’s stones were gray granite streaked, lined and cracked and streaked with pink veins that reminded Ilsa of blood vessels.

Iron gates bore the same circular emblem as Dal’s flag wrought into their center. Double doors opened, separating the sigil’s two sides. Ilsa followed Lord Palend, who rode a dark-haired great strider of his own. They passed through the open doors and into the courtyard of the fort.

Designed like an ancient castle, Fort Sardul was one of the oldest forts on the whole plateau. However, the people who had built it seemed to have known as little about Tenlyres as Ilsa did in the present. The fortress walls had withstood over eight centuries of weather as well as countless wars. The same could not be said for the nation that hard ordered it constructed. Ancient conquerers from what was now Ayoch had occupied the central plateau, but where nomads still roamed the remains of their settlements were difficult to find.

Oh, the settlers had fought wars to hold the land, just as all nations did. Just as all nations, they eventually failed. Ilsa looked up at the central citadel of Fort Sardul, six stories high and built of material far newer than the walls. The citadel had to be tall, to get the best view of the land. During the latest war with Chogrum, the fort’s commander had leveled the original citadel in an attempt to destroy his attackers after the enemy breached the inner gates.

Cracks and scars marked unfeeling walls by the gateway where the fighting had been the fiercest during the most recent siege.

Ilsa halted her steed alongside Lord Palend, just inside the courtyard. The broad space was full of tents and small striders. The banner of Ayoch flew in the center of the Red Lector’s camp. Blue caught up with Ilsa, closely followed by Raheb Suel, the manservant who acted as Palend’s bodyguard. From the open doors of the citadel came a party of soldiers in the pale blue cloth and black armor-plated uniforms of the Dalite garrison.

A sturdy woman with a lined face and thick gray hair held up a hand and halted the group’s advance on the gateway. Her gaze moved over the four striders and the people on their back. Ilsa thought she could see the woman’s eyes linger on Blue, but eventually, she shifted toward Lord Palend.

“Chakeb Palend. Good to see you, old friend.”

“Commander Sevett.” Palend bowed in his saddle. “I have brought my friends—” He motioned with one hand to Ilsa and Blue. “—To meet the Red Lector.”

Commander Sevett raised her eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to go down that road? Lector Haram may not be happy to see you.”

“And I won’t likely be happy to see him. But I need to see him, commander, as do my friends.”

The commander turned to Blue, then glanced at Ilsa’s red staff, sticking out sideways from her saddle. “Are you a priestess of Hathani?”

“I am,” said Ilsa. “My name is Ilsa Barrett.”

“And you.” Sevett nodded toward Blue. “What’s your name?”

“Call me Blue.”

“Blue?” Sevett wrinkled her nose. “That’s your name?”

“Same today as it will be tomorrow.” Blue smiled. “I’m at your service.”

“She’s from Chogrum.” Sevett scowled. “How do you know this one, Chakeb?”

Palend raised his eyebrows. “Commander, I have friends from all over the world. I assure you, the Red Lector’s plans are safe with Blue.”

Sevett motioned to her escort. “You will all be under guard until you leave the fort.”

Ilsa nodded but didn’t like the implication, even if they were just scouting. Palend waved a hand. “Of course. Any level of security you like, commander.”

They dismounted their striders. Ilsa took her staff with her. She patted Hailek’s flank once she dropped to the ground. Flanked by guards, they walked toward the citadel. The Red Lector’s encamped forces surrounded them. Clusters of troops surrounded small fires.

Up close the people of Ayoch could have been Dalites. In the gathering gloom, they could also have been monsters. Ilsa knew all soldiers had that ability. All people contended with sides both good and evil.

Even so, Ayoch’s imperialism made these soldiers, sheltering from the cold breeze, tending fires, cooking food, the enemies of Unification. The monarchs of Ayoch seemed to love their new lands more than their subjects. Ilsa set her jaw as she walked past fire pits where most of the soldiers didn’t even seem to notice her and Blue and the people around them. Their group moves slowly, with Palend and Sevett in the lead, flanked by Dalite guards.

She had never been in a war this personal before, a war like the one that had destroyed her family.

They reached the fire pit closest to the center-most tent, a tent that bore the unmistakable insignia of Red Lector’s rank and a brightly illuminated script in High Ayochian on a pole by the entrance. Two guards, both big men with rifles propped to their shoulders, stood beside the banner pole. One of them, a whole head taller than the other, raised a gloved hand in motion to halt Sevett.

“Commander.” The giant guard’s gaze shifted to Ilsa, then to Blue. “Who are your guests?”

“Two women in the service of Lord Chakeb Palend,” said Sevett. “And they have my trust.”

This meeting had become so simple, with Palend’s help. Too simple.

“Names?” asked the guard. His eyes moved back toward Ilsa. Dark brows bent inward.

“Ilsa Barrett,” said Ilsa.

“And I’m called Blue.” She smirked. “I think your Lector will want to meet us. He knows Lord Palend already.”

The guard nodded to Blue. “I recognized him, myself, Chogrumian.”

Blue gave an unhappy hiss. “Don’t judge me by where I was born.”

“Regrettably, that is part of my task.” The guard wiped a glove across his sweaty forehead, visible through the raised toothy visor of a full helmet. “I am a Lectoral Protector.”

“You got a name, protector?” Blue asked.

The other guard grunted and clenched a fist tight.

“Ozleji Sammhar.” The guard’s eye glinted in the firelight. He clapped the other guard on the shoulder. “Leave it.” The huge man motioned to the tent. “You may enter, but first, leave your weapons here.”

Raheb handed over his pistol, Blue the knives she kept at her belt and in her boot. They were all allowed past the guards and into the tent. Ilsa moved to follow them. Ozleji Sammhar’s heavy glove fell onto her shoulder. She looked up in surprise. Her gaze met his dark eyes and her breath caught.

His lip curled. “Your weapons, Barrett?”

She scowled at him, staff clenched in one hand. “I’m not carrying any weapons.”

“Not on the outside. But you are a weapon bond, aren’t you priestess?”

Ilsa pulled away from his hand. “How did you guess?”

He let her step back from him without complaint. “Each style of bond is noticeable to a tutored nose. I’m surprised you didn’t notice mine. From your presence, I think we have the same form of bond.”

Her glare locked on his smile. “What are you talking about?” But even as she spoke she began to smell the powder-dust aura of her father emanating from him. As unmistakable as the Red Lector’s standard, the aura of weapons bonded to human spirit by fire.

His grin widened. “I never thought I would have the chance to meet another like me, someone trained by Black Powder.”

Her eyes widened. “Black Powder?”

“My teacher.” Ozleji Sammhar nodded, then pulled off one glove. “He taught me how to bond weapons to my spirit with fire.” A pale crescent brand became clearly visible on the man’s palm. “But I can tell he taught you more.”

Ilsa stared at him. “He didn’t teach me much.”

“Then why did you seek him out?”

“I never sought out that man.” She made one hand into a fist. She felt her brand begin to burn anew.

“Pardon me for not believing that,” said Ozleji. “Only he has mastered the technique of bonding weapons without the need of a shrine to keep the original. Only he teaches how to bind firearms to the very spirit of a human.”

“I didn’t say I’d never met him.” Ilsa felt her lips pull back into a savage snarl. “He is my father.” She clenched her fists and produced both pistols, but held the empty weapons at her sides.”Do not mention him again. And don’t let those go untouched for over a minute unless you want them to return to me.” She handed the empty firearms to the guards, followed by the shotgun and submachine gun she produced next. She did not trust them with all her weapons, but she saw no other choice. “Now, let me through.”

“With pleasure.” Ozleji Sammhar bowed to her. “An honor to meet you, as well.” He motioned her to follow the others into the tent. She walked after them, shaking in anger with every step.

 

Inside the Red Lector’s command tent, a ring of halfway shuttered lamps cast their light onto a central table. Shadows crept from metallic markers indicating locations on the flat steppe, stuck into the table’s ports at the appropriate places. Small lights flickered up the sides of the marker at the center, one of ten shaped like tiny versions of the Ten Lyres.

Two men looked up from the table as Ilsa stepped into the tent. Lord Palend and his bodyguard Raheb Suel stood on one side of Blue just within the entrance. Ilsa stopped on the other side of her friend and looked at the two men by the table. A familiar smell of cured meat wafted from the table.

The tall man with long white hair and thickly woven red scarf folded his arms and looked at Ilsa. Despite his faded hair and creased skin, he did not look as old as Lord Palend, but he was probably past sixty. Ilsa remembered him from her spying in Korlom and everything added up. He must be the Red Lector.

The man on the other side of the table was shorter than Ilsa, and a few years younger than the Red Lector, but still well into middle age judging by the strands of silver in his red hair. He had a heavy paunch but was not so flabby as to lose his facial features completely to the fat in his cheeks. Beady brown eyes shifted from the Red Lector to Ilsa.

“Is this all of them?” the heavy little man asked.

The guard from outside, Ozleji Sammhar, spoke from behind Ilsa. “Yes, General.”

She grimaced. Somehow she had missed him following her inside. Ilsa planted the end of her staff on the carpet that made the bottom of the tent. “My name is Ilsa Barrett.”

“The priestess who ran from us at Korlom. A pleasure.” The Red Lector smirked. He spoke Yrian without any noticeable accent, which alone was fairly normal for an Ayochian with a strong education. “It suits you to meet us here, but not there?”

Blue’s gaze flicked toward Ilsa. She looked like she wanted to speak up, but Ilsa knew all too well that Blue was already in a tough enough position. Dal had been allied with Ayoch for years out of necessity, but Chogrum had never been on good terms with the western monarchy.

Ilsa dipped her head to the Red Lector. “Your eminence,” she said using the formal Yrian word for a high priest or priestess. “I regretted not meeting you in Korlom, but my partner and I could not be sure of your understanding, given the situation with Chogrum.”

“Ah yes, the brewing of war.” The Red Lector’s smirk did not slip but became even more smug. “A frightening thing for many to see, but not you, I’d wager. You two have experience in these matters.” He nodded to Ilsa, and then to Blue. “My sons tell me you shot down a magus round. Quite impressive.”

Ilsa snorted. “It seemed necessary. Your scouts did not appear willing to let us go.”

The short general glared at Ilsa. His Yrian was rougher, intermingled with harsh-sounding signs of his Ayochian origins. “What makes you think the Lector will let either of you go now? You may be Dalite originally, but we know your true nature now, priestess.”

A cold stab of fear crept into Ilsa’s chest. She did not let it spread out to become visible. She raised her eyebrows. “I am not proud of my work in Morhoi. That is one reason I returned to Yr.”

“Interesting.” The Red Lector steepled his long fingers. “I do have to wonder why a priestess from a prestigious Dalite Clerical Garden found the need to become a mercenary in the east, let alone consort with a Chogrumian Mind Eater.”

Blue closed her eyes, arms folded. A short series of thoughts lashed from Blue and snapped into Ilsa’s mind. They’ve done their research. What now?

Ilsa frowned at the Red Lector. “How did you contact Saint Banyeen’s?”

His smug smiled looked so broad as to be painful. He picked up a small device that looked like a small tablet with a speaker attached. “Ayoch does not live in the past, priestess. I have been in contact with my forces in Dal since the day we left the city. It was not difficult to get in touch with High Priestess Uopemm using the pile networks. She told me you were quite a troublemaker but did not elaborate.”

“I have not often been on good terms with the High Priestess.” Ilsa seethed with frustration but tried to keep the feeling internal. She had not realized the Ayochians had mobile pile access so far across the plateau. If she had known she might not have given the scouts her real name when she first met them in Korlom. The habits of both a priestess and mercenary, both careers reliant on reputation, had betrayed her.

The Red Lector’s smile finally slipped a little. “No need to be upset. General Kanan is a bit overzealous. I see no reason not to let you go your own way.”

“But they spied on us!” Spittle flew from the general’s lips. He turned to the Lector. “Eminence, please reconsider.”

“I have a deal to offer you and your partner.” The Red Lector’s expression returned to full leer. He motioned to the board. “The forces of an Oshomi tribe have been spotted just east of here, by the Ninth Lyre. We are to engage them in the morning if they stand in our way and would appreciate your assistance if we encounter them.”

“You want us to fight?” Blue started.

“You are mercenaries, are you not?” The Red Lector did not even look at Blue. His gaze remained on Ilsa. “One battle in my service, then I will pay you and you may go on your way.”

Ilsa took a deep breath and tried to slow her heart rate. His offer would give them leeway to get away if they actually fought the nest day and he kept his word. She had no illusions that between his war magi and his troops they would not get away from the fort tonight if the Red Lector did not allow it.

Lord Palend thumped his black staff on the carpet. It hit with a dull sound and left a dent in the ground beneath. Ilsa glanced at him, a bit surprised the old man could muster enough strength for that. He glared at the Red Lector. “I will not allow this coercion, Goji.”

“Goji?” The Red Lector’s nostrils flared. “You would do well to watch your tongue when choosing to address me, Palend.”

General Kanan took a step toward Palend and raised a hand, palm open. He swung his arm. Raheb caught his slap before it could strike the old lord. “Manners, general,” he said. “My master is too old for you to strike him.”

The general’s face reddened. He pulled his hand way. “Why, you!” he reached for the pistol at his belt.

Ilsa’s world dilated as the man seized the grip of his pistol. He began to raise the weapon, a worn and common nine millimeter with an extended magazine jutting from the base of the grip. An inch out of the belt, Ilsa tensed to leap at him. She would not let the man kill for such a stupid reason.

“Kanan, stop.” The Red Lector shrugged his shoulders. “The servant has the right of it, no matter how rude Palend has been by addressing me by my given name.”

Kanan slammed the pistol back into its holster and glared at Raheb. He turned so his face fell into shadows, but Ilsa could tell he had turned crimson in complexion. Red. Too much red.

She relaxed her stance and then turned to the Red Lector. “I think your terms are almost fair.”

“Almost?” The Lector’s smile returned, but nowhere near as broad as before. Compared to his prior expression he looked thoughtful. “What can we do to even terms?”

“Tell me,” Ilsa said. “Why are you taking this army to the central lyre? Answer that and you will have us for one battle, free of charge.”

The Red Lector raised on eyebrow. “Very well. We have a mission to capture the Keeper of Tenlyres who lives among the Oshomi.”

Ilsa’s heart skipped a beat. A chill ran down her spine and she stiffened. Ozleji Sammhar laughed.

“You appear to have struck a nerve, your eminence.”

Blue turned to Ilsa, eyes wider than Ilsa ever wanted to see. Her friend’s thoughts were muddled as they mingled with Ilsa’s own.

Tenlyres.

Oshomi.

The Keeper.

He knows too much.

Does he know our mission?

Ilsa took a deep breath. “Thank you, your Eminence.” She dipped her head to the Red Lector. “We will ride with you to the Ninth Lyre.”

 

Palend returned to the manor that night. Ilsa and Blue set up at the edge of the Red Lector’s troops and rested until morning. Then, restless in the early light, they rode out of Fort Sardul with the scouts and the Lector’s twin sons.

Kaij took the lead on his runner but kept his pace slower than the great cat-hybrid could go at its quickest. Ilsa and Blue rode just behind him, but ahead of the rest of the scouts.

Ever since Sammmhar, the Lectoral Protector, had returned Ilsa’s weapons and she had reabsorbed them, the brands had seemed to itch.  That made one reason she had not slept easy, but not the main one. She scowled at the faint rays or rising sun, filtering through a layer of pale gray clouds. The Red Lector really had known too much the previous evening.

A few kilometers distant, the silhouette of the Ninth Lyre loomed over the land, looking much like the Westernmost Lyre by Korlom. Ilsa wondered where Lemuel and his sister, and even the grave robber, Ferdinand, were now. She offered a silent prayer to Hathani to keep them. The prayer felt redundant when left unspoken.

The Three deities kept everyone, in one form or another.

Through the hazy morning sky the glistening form of a locust cruised over the plateau, several kilometers overhead. The hybrid sky creature looked nothing like a bird, bearing more resemblance to an immense sting ray Ilsa remembered from books about the southern seas, but with thousands of small flight tubes blossoming in clusters from the center of its back. Those tubes inflated with lighter than air gas to carry the creature as high as the clouds. A passenger compartment hung beneath the creature and swayed on its tethers as the beast banked in flight.

Ilsa and Blue had taken a Locust from Morhoi to Ayoch on their way to Dal. The creatures could only land in water, and such pools were  not seen in Dal because of the prohibitive cost. She did not like that form of travel, but she would take it compared to riding with possible enemies close on every side.

Kaij looked over his shoulder at her. “You two gave us the slip quite well, leaving Korlom.”

Ilsa shrugged, trying to ignore Kaij’s lingering eyes. “Doesn’t matter much now, does it?”

“We’re all riding together for the moment,” said Blue. “That much is a fact.”

“You understand that our Eminent Father has been quite generous to both of you.”

“Oh, yeah. Really generous. He only surrounded us with thugs.” Blue laughed with false mirth. “I tell you, he truly burdened us with options last night.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” said Kaij. “But one option is one more than the Chogrumian forces will get from us when we meet them.”

Ilsa raised her eyebrows. “You’re confident.”

“Of course, I am.” He snorted, then turned to face forward in his saddle. He tilted to one side and wheeled one arm in the air. Most of the other scouts spurred their runners and caught up with Ilsa and Blue. Only Kaij’s brother, Yunn, and one other of the dozen riders hung back.

Blue glanced at Ilsa. The thought she sent her asked if she knew what they were doing. Ilsa shrugged. She didn’t know much about Ayochian military signaling, having spent most of her mercenary career east of the opposite side of Yr.

She looked back to the skinnier but all too similar Haram brother, Yunn, and the scout riding beside him, whose form was bundled up so heavily it could have belonged to anybody, man or woman. A kilometer behind the scouts, the Ayochian column advanced. Yunn’s yellow hair trailed in a braid from the back of his tall hat. He wore a pair of black gloves, which he kept on the reins of his runner. The expression on his handsome face was uneasy, and his eyes appeared unfocused.

He didn’t seem to see anyone else in the party, not his brother, not his comrades, and certainly not Ilsa nor Blue.

Blue frowned at Ilsa. “He seems to have detected my sending to you. He could be looking for someone to suppress.”

“Right,” said Ilsa. “He’s a war magus.”

“An ice magus,” said a hiss of a voice from behind them. “I am an ice magus.”

Ilsa glanced back at Yunn.

He urged his runner to catch up with Ilsa and Blue, a grimace on his face. “My powers are good for more than war.”

“That’s good to know.”

Blue shrugged her shoulders. “All magic has more than one application. In in Morhoi people bond to their favorite tools, after all.”

Yunn scowled at her. “And the ability to eat others’ thoughts is far worse than even freezing the blood in someone’s veins.”

“Say what you like. I’ve never stopped someone’s heart with my powers.”

“No, but I wager you’ve made someone take other lives.”

Blue sniffed and turned in her saddle to look forward. Ilsa had to acknowledge to herself that Yunn had a point. She had seen Blue command people to fight for her more than once, not to mention the hammer blows Blue could deliver with the adrenaline boost provided by nourishing off the thoughts she stole.

Ilsa grunted. Blue closed her eyes, perhaps because she could tell Ilsa did not fully agree with her. A tiny smirk curled Yunn’s lip, a contrast to the way his father’s grin seemed to split his whole face in half.

He nodded to Ilsa. “You see, we’re all guilty here. Right, priestess?

“I don’t know.”

Yunn looked like he wanted to say something, but his eyes grew distant in the next moment. His hands trembled. He shouted, “Oshomi are close!”

Kaij turned in his saddle to look back at Yunn. “Are you certain brother?”

Blue’s eyes flew open. “Just listen, you idiot. I sense them too.”

Kaij twitched toward Yunn and then glared at Blue.

Ilsa turned this way and that, searching for any sign of nomadic warriors. A shout louder than either Yunn or Blue roared from a hundred voices ahead of the scouts, in the shadow of the Ninth Lyre. She turned just in time to see a hundred riders spill out from behind the monstrous instrument.

Though cast in the shadow of the lyre, the Oshomi were unmistakable. Feathers fluttered in the hair of humans and horses. Hide and cloth, braids and beards, bows and rifles. Wild-born horses were far shorter than striders, but a hundred of them sounded like thunder. Hooves unlike the paws of runners or the feet of striders crashed over the ground.

Ilsa stared at the nomad warriors and realized she could be near meeting the Keeper of Tenlyres.