Tenlyres Chapter 33 – Visions from Room 216

Hello, everyone, Tim here.

2016 is almost over!

I really appreciate all the visitors reading through the story and listenng to the podcasts. It’s been a good year for me online.

In case you weren’t aware, at the top of the sidebar of my website there is an email list sign-up form. You can also sign up at this link.

Sign up, and you will receive my new short story in the Tenlyres world, Mount Higatha, for free!

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

Buy Tenlyres II and read the rest of this story right away!

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.

            In the midst of a bloody battle, a massive explosion rocks the mountain pass. Ilsa takes shelter.

Ilsa’s mother swam into view before her eyes.

“Ilsa,” she said, “I’m glad to see you.”

“Mother…” Ilsa gasped as she remembered the explosion. The world seemed far away, the pain, and the tears distant. Melinda had killed Hailek. She had forced Ilsa to kill her. “It’s all so terrible.”

“What’s terrible Ilsa?”

“War,” she said. “The battles I’ve been fighting. It’s all wrong. But I felt like I had the best reasons.”

“It’s war,” said her mother seemingly from far away. “And war is awful, no matter why someone fights.”

“You’re right. Of course, you are.” Ilsa’s heart felt ready to burst. “Is it strange? I’ve fought so many battles, but I never realized that before now.”

The world swam around her. The pass returned, cold, and painful, and filled with bitter smells. Lemuel lay beside her, his arm around her. They lay side by side within the curve of Hailek’s still bulk. Ilsa’s ears were ringing, yet she knew what her mother said next despite physical deafness from the explosion.

“It’s alright, Ilsa. Everyone keeps learning.”

“Mother,” she said and sat up. The bodies of mercenaries and Vogmem warriors were scattered across the stones before her. Further down the pass, she glimpsed the banners of the Red Lector, many of them torn and tattered from flying debris. Small fires burned in bodies and wreckage all around.

Lemuel groaned and looked at her. He said something, but she could not hear his words, and judging by the look on his face, neither could he. She shook her head and tapped one ear.

He nodded. She got up carefully, a pistol in her left hand, and her right locked tight from Melinda’s poison, the gun she had held in it dropped in the rush to find cover.

The girl’s body lay near Hailek’s head, completely still except for the spreading blood around her. Someone so young should have been given the chance to survive, Ilsa knew, but she had given Melinda every chance she could. Damn her, Ilsa thought with a flush of rage as she looked at Hailek. But there was no way left to punish her steed’s killer.

Lemuel stood up and put his hand on Ilsa’s shoulder. She noticed the revolver still tucked into his waistband. He had yet to fire a shot.

Good.

Hopefully, he would never have to feel what she experienced in the heat of the fray.

A gun held in an angry hand. She scanned the battlefield as her hearing began to return little by little. The other Vogmem group had survived the blast of the exploding artillery shells unscathed, but Ganara’s lead troops had been devastated. Blue had fallen behind in the charge, so Ilsa could hope she was safe. Most of the other riders and goat runners were in the same state as Ilsa and Lemuel or lay bloody and torn, unmoving.

She wandered back the way they had come, looking this way and that, Lemuel at her side, carrying her still-unloaded shotgun in his big hand. The machine gun had returned to Ilsa, and if she tried to summon it now she would have a full magazine of ammunition. So that would be simple enough to remember.

She stumbled between two runners and glimpsed a black staff beyond one of them, lying close to pale, out-stretched fingertips. Ilsa circled the fallen goat. Ganara lay beside her steed, her fingers slack where she had been reaching for the staff. Bloody lines and holes cut through her coat, and red speckled her face from chin to closed eyelids.

But her breath still misted in the air above her.

“Lemuel,” said Ilsa, in a voice that sounded far away. “We need to get her help.”

Ilsa sank down beside Ganara.

Lemuel stayed standing and looked this way and that, but no one else moved nearby. Ganara’s wounds looked serious, life-threatening judging by the amount of blood on the shards of shrapnel beyond her. They had to move quickly.

Ilsa pressed her good hand to the largest wound, a gash across Ganara’s shoulder and nearly down to her chest. She applied what pressure she could with her one hand to hold back the blood-flow, and her fingers quickly turned red and sticky.

“Ilsa?” But it wasn’t Lemuel who spoke. It was Ilsa’s mother, standing by her side in a ghostly white hospital dress.

“Mother,” Ilsa said. “She’s dying.”

“The spirits can heal her.”

“Siuku,” said Ilsa. “Of course. We need to find her.”

She reached out, searching for Blue’s spirit. Two bright beacons in the other column of Vogmem, far from the front line, appeared in her vision. Blue rode near Ashnia Haram. She must have gone to make sure the Ayochian mind eater did not escape.

“Blue,” Ilsa said. “Get Siuku. I need your help on the other side of the pass.”

Blue answered her with a confused flurry of thoughts. Of them, only one stood out intelligibly. “Ilsa, you’re alive!”

“I am,” she said. “But Ganara is dying. Get Siuku now.”

Lemuel put a hand on her shoulder. His voice sounded small after the blast. “Who are you talking to?”

“Blue. I contacted her.”

“You can do that?”

Beside Lemuel, Ilsa’s mother nodded, and made a small smile.

“Yeah,” said Ilsa. “I-I think I’m like my mother.”

“Your mother?”

“She was never crazy. She saw things other people couldn’t.”

Mother folded her arms and her smile grew. “Ilsa, I have to tell you something. Your demons can be killed. If you separate them from their god.”

“She’s talking to me now.” Ilsa turned to Lemuel. “We can kill the Uzan if we separate them from their god.”

“The old gods… Asurdeva.” Lemuel circled Ganara and knelt down to press his hands to a wound on her side opposite Ilsa. He grimaced and turned pale as his hands became bloody. “Every Uzan has a name on its brow,” he said. “I’ve seen it, and they’re written in the old language.”

“Their god’s name?” said Ilsa.

“It’s worth a shot,” he said. “Literally.” He turned his head, averting his eyes from Ganara’s wounded form.

Ilsa nodded to him, but tears formed in her eyes. She leaned her face to Ganara’s ear. “You can’t die,” she said softly. “We’re all nomads today, and nomads keep moving, no matter what happens.”

Ganara’s eyes twitched open. She gave Ilsa a sideways glance but said nothing before she closed her eyes again. But she went on breathing. She went on living.

Ilsa did not know how she and Lemuel held Ganara before she heard the steps of striders and the hoof-beats of horses. The Oshomi arrived, Siuku in the lead, and Blue riding beside Tirica Chollush, who carried her long rifle across her saddle.  A group of Vogmem leading the prisoners including Ashnia Haram, and Ozleji Sammhar, followed behind the steppe nomads.

Ilsa looked up at Siuku. “Quickly, Keeper, she needs your help.”

Siuku leaped from her horse’s back and then ran the final meters. She unfastened her veil as she reached Ganara’s side. Her hands moved and touched and healed.

Ganara remained still for a long time. One eye opened. “I never thought an Oshomi would save my life. But you, you’re paler than me…” she said. Then her eyes rolled back and closed. She slept.

A cheer went up from the Ayochian line. The Vogmem who had pressured them on the western side of the pass had been forced to a stalemate. A few of the hawks from Megalli’s skyriders lay on the field where they had fallen. In a moment of fear, Ilsa realized she could not see Megalli herself among the riders still circling over the battlefield.

The Red Lector and his few remaining protectors stood at the front of the Ayochian line where the Vogmem had lost their momentum. Haram himself waved a red-streaked saber in his hand and shouted loud. “Which of you Four barbarians shall fall next?”

Siuku’s riders helped Ganara onto one of their horses along with her black staff. The Vogmem chieftain slumped in the saddle between two Oshomi, still unconscious. Ilsa and Blue exchanged glances.

“I’m losing my sense of Megalli,” Blue said softly.

Ilsa’s stomach turned.

War is terrible. War is always terrible, and Koor’s oracles were right that they would lose a leader.

To fight a battle is always to lose the peace, Ilsa thought, as tears ran down her cheeks.

The Keeper of Tenlyres turned to Ilsa. “Ride. We can still break through. His line is weak, no matter who he has killed.”

Ilsa and Lemuel climbed onto separate horses, behind different Oshomi riders. The Keeper of Tenlyres collected the survivors of Ganara’s column. She wheeled her forces, both Vogmem and Oshomi and pressed the attack on the broken side of the Ayochian line where Ilsa’s father had detonated the gun carriage.

Had he known it would explode? Could even he survive that blast? Ilsa doubted it, but she had no tears for him when so many others had died in this windy pass already. She rode through gaps of the enemy lines in the wake of Siuku’s fresh troops.

The Red Lector’s forces fell back to a rise in the center of the pass two or three kilometers back from where the Vogmem charge had begun. They could not stop the nomads fighting past them on either side.

For a few minutes of riding and fighting, Ilsa thought they could escape without much more resistance. Then, a roar went up from the column ahead of them. A typhoon of incredibly varied gunshots and the smell of ancient propellant, bleak on the wind, reached Ilsa. Huge semi-humanoid shapes waded into the fray, uncaring if they killed Ayochians or nomads.

With bursts of bullets and swinging hammer blows, they killed.

With furious blasts of shotguns grown from bloated bellies or yawning jaws they killed.

Screams and roars and cries of despair rang out from both sides.

The Uzan had arrived.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 32 – Metal Storm

Happy holidays, everyone, Tim here.

I hope you’re all enjoying the story, and I really appreciate everyone following along.

At the top of the sidebar of my website there is an email list sign-up form. You can also sign up at this link.

Sign up, and you will receive my new short story in the Tenlyres world, Mount Higatha, for free! This is a great way to show your support for the serial.

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

Buy Tenlyres II and read the rest of this story right away!

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.

            Following a difficult mental struggle to interrogate a captured mind eater, Ilsa prepares to fight the coming battle despite word of predictions that leaders will die in this fight.

 

The locust left as the sun rose, taking Koor’s sky carriage with it. He did not even bother saying goodbye to Ilsa, though Blue told her he had wished them all luck. Siuku had refused his offer to the last moment. Ilsa did not know if she could be glad for that, especially given the revelation of the Gray Lector from the previous night.

She and Lemuel stood near Blue and Tirica and Cass as they watched the locust leave its glittering trail in the cold air. The aquatic sky beast circled the lake once, then flew eastward, toward Morhoen and safety.

Not one of Koor’s war magi remained behind. Evidently, the Four could not agree to unify with the rest of the people of the steppe even now. Old grudges ran too deep, Ilsa could tell, and they were so different from the city-dwellers they would hate to make peace them.

From the western shore of the lake, banners and lights indicated Shayi Haram’s forces moving toward the camp. Ganara approached Ilsa and the others with the locust just leaving over the western peaks.

“We have to break one of the Ayochian forces if we are to escape. The Four have decided to leave this lodge until we can fight to reclaim it some other day.” As she spoke the Vogmem broke camp all around them. Ganara raised her voice and addressed the assembled warriors not helping to mobilize everything. “We are all nomads today, my people. We will ride with the Oshomi and wage war on Ayoch, and the Uzan on the plateau.

“Red Lectors. Gray Lectors. Queens. Generals. They are all the same to us. Animals we hunt.” Ganara raised her black staff over her head.

Her warriors cheered and clapped. Ilsa found herself joining them. Today, all of them were nomads. And today, all of them were warriors, even Lemuel. She glanced at him. He kept his revolver tucked into his waistband. He found her gaze, but his hands trembled.

She put her arm around his waist and rested one hand on his hip, by the weapon. “I won’t let you down, Lemuel.”

“I won’t let you go alone. Not this time, Ilsa.”

“You’ve saved me in battle before,” she said.

“Not as many times as you saved me.” He bowed his head. “Let’s get through this together.”

We have to try. But nothing is certain, Ilsa thought. She lifted his chin and pulled him close. They kissed fiercely, warmth against warmth in the cold light of dawn.

She pulled him onto Hailek’s back behind her. She loaded her machine gun, then her pistols, and her shotgun. She wore them all on the outside for the moment. She needed to be ready.

They rode back toward the windy gusts of the pass together. Blue and Tirica joined them, closely followed by the small cluster of Oshomi that surrounded Siuku.

The Keeper of Tenlyres nodded to Ilsa through the crowd of horse riders.

A flight of great Vogmem hawks with skyriders on their backs glided past overhead. Ilsa glimpsed the glint of steel, and the pennant on Megalli’s spear-point rising from one bird’s back.

Hiragen’s troops held the the pass. Akirette and Megalli had skyriders on the cliffs, ready to act as snipers before they took off to escape for themselves.

Cass waited by the mouth of the pass on a borrowed goat runner. She and Ferdinand, along with one of Ganara’s lieutenants were in charge of the prisoners, from the hulking form of Ozleji Sammhar to the slim form of Ashnia Haram, riding behind him.

This whole mass of humanity and beasts needed to break through the pass before the Uzan closed their trap on everyone. Two hundred indestructible monsters made for a deadly force on their own.

Indestructible. There must be a way to kill them, to cancel whatever magic preserved their lives despite fatal wounds. But for the moment, mortal humans  stood between them and their escape. She took a deep breath of crisp morning air. The time to run was coming, but they would have to fight through the Red Lector to have any chance of survival.

Blue and Tirica fell back from them as the column advanced. Both were better fighters at a distance.

Damn Koor’s oracles and seers. She would see Siuku through this battle. Ilsa guided Hailek into the pass with Ganara’s Vogmem vanguard.

Shots rang out from the cliff top as the cavalry split into two serried columns to use the large boulders and wreckage from the previous battle on either side of the pass for cover. Ilsa and Lemuel rode with Ganara and her troops on the eastern side of the pass, the one that would take them into the heart of the Ayochian forces. She spotted the immobilized gun carriage just behind the Ayochian line as men and striders raced this way and that. The few remaining armored vehicles were spread out among the troops, forming a barricade to hold the nomads back. With Shayi Haram’s force advancing on the Vogmem rear from west of the lake, the Red Lector hoped to trap the tribal forces in a pincer movement.

Ilsa leveled her machine gun at the enemy lines as they drew closer. Pounding of the feet and hooves of steeds thundered in her ears. Black Powder and his mercenary company shifted behind the front line to form up between the Vogmem advance where Ilsa rode, and the immobile gun carriage further back.

Evidently, her father knew they would break through the thin group of Ayochian regulars between them and the artillery. But did he really think his few hundred troops, however well-trained, would hold if the troops in front of them a routed?

No. He had to have another plan. A counter-attack? That would make sense. Given the deadliness of modern weapons in the hands of skilled and bonded soldiers, he could be planning to stop Ganara’s charge by picking off troops during the fight at the front line, then closing to push them back.

Ilsa gritted her teeth. Too late to change plans now.

Ganara whirled the black staff over her head, then thrust it’s point forward as she bellowed a battle cry. The Vogmem joined her. In the din of shouts and screams of pain, Ilsa thought she her Lemuel’s voice join them. She urged Hailek to accelerate with her heels. The lines closed with each other.

Bullets whined and shotgun blasts sprayed. Troops on both sides fell, but the Vogmem steeds proved as tough as ever at this range. They often continued forward when wounded, with few even making sounds of complaint and fewer still that were audible over the drumbeat of hooves.

The Ayochian troops began to retreat before Ganara’s charge could meet them. The Vogmem column raced towards Black Powder’s mercenaries.

The line of her father’s troops looked heavy, thick with the long shadows of ballistic pavises interlaced with the barrels of rifles ending in bayonets. They were prepared for a charge.

Ilsa urged Hailek forward. Her fearless strider followed her heel’s pressure as law. He accelerated. She took her shotgun in one hand, and her machine gun in the other. Recoil from the two combined could make her less accurate, compared to using one with a pistol, but she needed the options against the dug-in troops.

She and Lemuel reached the front of the column. Hailek jostled with the steeds of Ganara’s vanguard, close to the Vogmem chieftain herself.

She raised her voice and shouted to Ganara, “They’re ready.”

“Not ready enough.” She held her staff before her, dragging bullets and shot to form a halo around her as Black Powder’s mercenaries began to open up. The black staff held the projectiles just a moment each, before bouncing them back the way they had come. Most of the reflected shots impacted on the steel shields in the front rank, but a  few mercenaries yelled in pain and went down.

Ilsa scanned the ranks, looking for her father. She spied him by the artillery, his hands empty. So confident. She gritted her teeth. Arrogant as ever.

Ilsa took shots when she saw them. A wounded shield bearer collapsed, and she killed the mercenary behind him with a blast of her shotgun. She hugged close to Hailek’s long-maned neck, felt his hair whip against her face in the wind. Her blood pulsed as she aimed, and shot, and killed.

The Vogmem column hit the mercenary line. There, the resistance intensified. Mercenaries with lances and axes fought hand to hand with Ganara’s warriors in close quarters. But they could not hold out long as more Vogmem poured into the fray.

Ilsa’s guns blazed. Her machine gun ran out of bullets, and she replaced it with a pistol from her hip. Lemuel took the fully-automatic gun and started to reload it. She felled another with the last loaded shotgun shell and he took that as well.

A pistol in each hand, she slew foe after foe. All around her Vogmem began to drop, lacking the protection of Ganara’s staff at such close quarters. Step by bloody step, Black Powder’s troops retreated to the bulk of the immobile gun carriage.

Ilsa reached Ganara in the midst of a lull as warriors surged around them in pursuit. “We have momentum,” said Ganara. “Keep moving.”

Ilsa’s bruised chest ached. “Something is wrong. Black Powder wouldn’t just throw away so many troops.”

Ganara scowled at her. “Time is already low. Press forward.”

Ilsa could not disagree with that. The Uzan could be only minutes way by now. She wheeled Hailek to continue the attack.

Behind her, Lemuel cursed under his breath as he fought to reload the shotgun. “This mechanism is impossible.”

She kept her eyes on the enemy. On the loading platform of the gun carriage, stood Black Powder, Henry Vel, her father. One sleeve was pulled back and marked with the long red line of a fresh brand from wrist to elbow-joint. He was trying to bond to a new weapon. But why now, in the thick of battle?

“Leave the gun, and hold onto me.” Ilsa pushed her heels into Hailek’s sides and the strider bounded forward.

Lemuel fumbled with the shotgun but put his small arm around Ilsa’s waist. Hailek carried them to rejoin the front of the Vogmem column, with Ganara not far behind them.

At the head of the column, the fighting continued, just a short ten meters from the gun carriage where Black Powder stood. Ilsa shot down another pair of mercenaries and closed.

“Jump, Hailek.”

The strider obeyed, leaping over the front line of mercenaries fighting on the ground. Ilsa killed another of them in mid-air. A small shadow darted between her and the gun carriage.

Hailek’s head bucked back. Blood spurted from his jaw, then his right leg gave out as he landed. Ilsa shouted, surprised. Her strider stumbled forward, half-dragging the limp right leg, then collapsed onto the stones.

Hailek’s blood flowed down his weeping yellow mane in thick rivers. Ilsa leaned close to the strider’s head as he struggled, still trying to stand, despite his uncooperative legs. She felt tears in her eyes. “Rest,” she said. “Hathani keep you, my friend.”

Lemuel grabbed her shoulder with his big hand. “Ilsa.” He pulled her sideways from the saddle. She grunted as they hit the ground  a meter blow. A hail of bullets raked across the saddle where they had been sitting and cut the saddlebags to pieces, sending splinters of Ilsa’s red staff flying.

She leaped to her feet and ran past Hailek’s ragged, bloody body. Before her stood Melinda. Her father’s psychotic apprentice leered at Ilsa. “There you are.” She giggled. “Sorry about your strider, but Black Powder must not be interrupted.”

Even with the battle raging, Ilsa could swear she heard Hailek scraping on the stone, still trying to move. Always trying.

Ilsa’s narrowed gaze met Melinda’s gleaming eyes. “All gods damn you.”

“Dull curse. He deserves better than you for a daughter.” Melinda’s pistols both aimed at Ilsa, and with Lemuel somewhere behind her, Ilsa did not dare dodge.

Instead, she took aim with both guns.

Melinda’s breath misted before her. No more words. A flame kindled atop the gun carriage at her back. Black Powder stood just behind the fire and reached for the artillery gun with his branded arm.

Melinda ducked toward Hailek and opened up on Ilsa. Their bullets could have crossed in flight. A rush of pain flooded Ilsa’s right elbow, followed by the creeping numbness of Melinda’s poisoned bullet.

But her fingers still worked. She twisted her wrist, one eye closed in concentration. Her finger hit the trigger as Melinda’s foot touched stone. Ilsa’s bullet went through the girl’s chest, just below the collarbone.

For a moment Melinda stood, halfway paralyzed. Ilsa’s stomach churned. “Sorry,” she murmured.

Blood bubbled between Melinda’s lips. Her knees buckled. She slid sideways to the stony ground beside Hailek. Ilsa held her left pistol aimed at Melinda until the guns fell from the girls’ limp fingers.

Lemuel caught up with Ilsa. He looked at where Hailek and Melinda lay still. His eyes went wide and he turned to Ilsa. “Dead?”

“Both of them,” she said. “I’m sure.”

She turned toward the gun carriage. Suddenly the mercenaries seemed very far away. But the flame on the gun carriage still burned. Black Powder’s shadow danced against the wall of the pass. His hand gripped the dull steel base of the artillery gun as the fire crept toward the munitions piled by the gun’s autoloader.

Over the sound of Vogmem hoof-beats catching up to them, Ilsa heard her father’s voice say, “Bond to me, dear weapon.” And the long brand on his arm burned red.

Ilsa remembered the way the ritual fires flared when father had bonded her guns to her as a child. The flames ignited a collection of shells on the front of the carriage.

Too late to run away.

Shelter. Need shelter. Ilsa shoved Lemuel toward Hailek’s sagging bulk with her shoulder. She pressed herself close to him and dragged him down to the ground behind Hailek’s body.

The explosion of the gun carriage rocked the entire pass.

#

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Share and enjoy!

Of Mooks and Monsters takes a break for the holidays

Happy holidays, everybody!

Just here with a brief announcement that the podcast, “Of Mooks and Monsters” is taking a break until January. Hope you all travel safely and stay warm through winter months (Or endure whatever weather our part of the world dishes out in its place).

Take it easy everyone, and have a happy new year.

Happy Holidays (And a Sale)

Dear readers, we are approaching the end of 2016, as I’m sure you are all away.

I haven’t had a lot of time to blog lately. I have been writing a lot of fiction and preparing a lot of outlines for more fiction.

The work is going well. The words are flowing.

In related news, there is currently a kindle countdown sale going on for my book, “Hunter and Seed,” the sequel of which should be out in March. Follow the link below to get the ebook for 99 cents American.

Amazon

The price will rise in a few days, but as long as you get in before the 22nd, you can get it at a reduced price.

Thanks for reading. Happy holidays.

Tenlyres Chapter 31 – Cold Rage

Hello, everyone, Tim here.

I hope you’re all enjoying the story, and I really appreciate everyone following along.

In case you weren’t aware, at the top of the sidebar of my website there is an email list sign-up form. You can also sign up at this link.

Sign up, and you will receive my new short story in the Tenlyres world, Mount Higatha, for free!

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

Buy Tenlyres II and read the rest of this story right away!

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa and her comrades are facing an approaching battle in the mountains.

            Her old mentor, Koor, as arrived, and wishes to interrogate one  of their prisoners, an Ayochian mind eater Blue met in the Temple of Colors.

            Danger lurks in the mind.

 

Ashnia Haram lay on a bedroll in a tent near the center of the Vogmem camp, separate from the other prisoners. She appeared to be unconscious, rolled onto her side, and did not stir when Ilsa, Blue, and Koor entered the tent. Cass stood at the foot of the bedroll, broken arm in a sling, and her good hand gripping her red staff of office.

Ilsa stopped short when she saw her. “Cass.”

Cass looked up in surprise as Ilsa and the others entered. “Ilsa,” she said. “What is it? Who is this?”

“This is Koor,” said Ilsa. “Morhoen’s highest priest of the Unification.”

Cass’ eyes narrowed. “What is he doing here?”

“Making plans, alliances.” Koor nodded toward Cass. “You are also a priestess of Hathani?”

“I am. I’m from Saint Banyeen’s Garden, like Ilsa.”

“I know who you are,” said Koor. “Perhaps one day you will accept the importance of Unification.”

Cass shrugged.

“She’s still asleep,” said Blue as she walked over to Ashnia. “Mostly fatigue, I would guess.” She sank to her knees beside the unconscious blond woman.

Koor nodded. “Luckily, we won’t need to wake her to begin our interrogation. There is much even Blue could not tell us about the Temple of Colors, not to mention our current situation caught between the forces of the Red Lector and the Uzan.”

He walked over to where Blue sat, then, supported with one hand on her shoulder, sat down on the mat beside her. “We will have to make sure the hermit does not interfere. Can you do that?”

“I’m not sure. If you help me, then maybe.”

“I’m not the magus I once was.” Koor looked at Ilsa. “But I have a sense Ilsa can assist us.”

Ilsa started with surprise. “What? I’m not magus.”

“Maybe not, but you have seen a vision, have you not?”

“When Ferdinand stabbed me, I saw my mother, but it was just a hallucination, I’m sure of it.”

“Indeed not. You have a connection to the spirit world, just like your mother.” He motioned her forward. “Please, take Blue’s hand. We will both need a connection with her to be of any use.”

“And what about me?” asked Cass. “I’ll be useless in this.”

“Far from it. It’s good you’re here,” said Koor. “Keep an eye on us for physical reactions. And be prepared to go for help. If none of us can take clear action things could become dangerous.”

“How dangerous can an interrogation be?” asked Cass.

“Dreadfully so,” said Koor, “When the Temple of Colors is involved.”

Ilsa sat down, legs folded, beside Blue. She reached for her friend’s hand. “We need to know what she knows.”

“I agree,” said Cass. “Good luck.”

Blue grasped Ilsa’s wrist, leaving her hand free. “Be ready to use your bonds,” she said.

Koor took Blue’s other hand. “Be not hasty, though. This is a rare opportunity.”

And a rare person, Blue thought into Ilsa’s mind.

Blue, Ilsa sent back. You still care for her?

“We have to do this,” Blue said aloud. “Let us begin.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes tight.

Together their minds melted into the world of thoughts.

Such a communal process is similar to the Temple itself, only smaller, Blue related to them mentally. The voice of the hermit reached Ilsa’s ears from outside in the following moment.

“You think to try me?” he used Ashnia’s voice, but the tone was absolutely that of the old man in the cave across the lake. “You are more foolish than I thought, Nameless.”

“It is not you I try, Hoon. You are only one obstacle to batter down.”

“I have studied in the temple for more decades than you have years as a mind eater.”

Ilsa turned her attention from the mind eaters’ conversation to the outer sensation of a world beyond their enclosed bubble of conflict. She could definitely sense other things out there, hazy, amorphous, but not threatening. She focused on the nearest one, the one she felt sure belonged to Ashnia’s mind.

Then the hermit was between her and the mind of the girl on the bedding. “Priestess.” Hoon’s mind yawned, wide leonine jaws, to bite at Ilsa. “You are full of surprises.” He smashed against her and sent her tumbling to the edge of the  bubble where she and Koor and Blue were situated.

Her sense of the outside dimmed. She focused on pushing back against the hermit. Koor’s mind did the same, along with Blue. A piercing scream and flash of rainbow light filled Ilsa’s senses.

Then, the hermit’s mind was gone from the edge of the bubble. She could not tell what had happened to him. But the resistance to her approaching Ashnia’s mind faded.

They turned their collective attention to Ashnia.

Blue broke through the outer barriers of the unconscious mind eater’s defenses in seconds.

Ilsa, Blue sent, be ready to leave us. Koor and I can take it from here.

But I can help, Ilsa replied.

You can help more on the outside. Someone has to listen for what she says, and I can tell Cass is going to have her hands full already.

I’m going. Ilsa pulled free of Blue’s hand and found herself in the tent once again.

She turned to Cass, who leaned on her staff, eyes on Ashnia. “Get ready to listen if she starts talking,” said Ilsa.

Ashnia rolled onto her back, pushing her hands, tied behind her back, against the bedroll. Ilsa got to her feet and felt her wrist where Blue had held it. The spot ached from how tight her friend had held on.

A guttural grunt escaped Ashnia’s lips. Another grotesque sound followed. None of the sounds belonged to any language Ilsa knew, on or off the plateau.

The string of grunts and growls continued. Ashnia writhed on the bedroll. She tossed her head this way and that.

A cold feeling crept through Ilsa’s heart. “What is she doing?

Cass dropped her staff so it thudded to the floor of the tent. “She’s speaking. It’s some kind of pre-ancient Yrian. I can’t tell what she’s saying, though.”

Ilsa snapped her fingers. “Lemuel. He probably could.”

“Go get him. I’ll keep watch,” said Cass.

“Right.” Ilsa turned and rushed out the flap of the tent. Her shoes thumped on the stone and earth. She made her way toward the lodge, where she had last seen Lemuel. At the edge of the main camp, she stopped and looked toward the water’s edge.

His shadow stretched over the water near the sky carriage’s side. She sprinted over to him. “Lemuel,” she said.

He turned toward her, hands folded, small inside of large. “Ilsa, what is it? Are the Ayochians attacking?”

“No. But follow me, we need your help.” She explained as quickly as she could about Koor’s interrogation of Ashnia. “She’s speaking in some old language. Neither Cass or I can understand her.”

“Is it a harsh tongue?” He asked as they made their way back toward the tent where she had left Blue and the others.

“Yes.”

As they approached, a terrible, inhuman, howl of fury erupted from within the canvas coverings. “It sounds that way,” Lemuel added in shock.

Ilsa pulled the flap aside. Lemuel stared through the opening for a second. He gulped back obvious fear, then went through it. Ilsa followed him, cautious at the sound of the scream.

Cass had moved around Ashnia’s bedroll to stand opposite Blue and  Koor. She looked down at Ashnia, who writhed below her, screaming, growling, and swinging her body with restrained wrath.

Good thing her arms and legs are all bound. She could be really dangerous otherwise.

Ilsa dropped down beside Blue, where she had sat to commune when they had begun their attack on Ashnia’s mind.

Blue’s face was gray, and tears gleamed on her cheeks. Ashnia roared in a voice like a lion. Lemuel stared at her from behind Blue and Ilsa.

“She is talking,” he said. “The language of the gods. I’ve only seen it written before now, but that’s got to be it.”

Ilsa grimaced. “What is she saying?”

“It could be one of a few things, but given context…”

“Now!” said Cass. “Spit it out, scholar.”

“She’s talking about the Gray Lector,” said Lemuel. “She’s saying he leads the Uzan.”

“He’s with them? Those monsters?” Shock ran through Ilsa. Even Black Powder would not dare go to war beside the Uzan personally. “Why wouldn’t they just kill him?”

“He’s one of them. Or she’s saying he’s part of them. I guess it’s clear.”

Ilsa scowled. “He’s an Uzan?”

“The Gray Lector could be anyone, right?” said Cass. “And he has waged war in Ayoch for almost twenty years.”

“This is his motive,” said Lemuel with a frown as he translated the grunts and roars from Ashnia’s lips. “He’s a missionary, a demon who serves the gods.”

“The gods?” Ilas asked. “Hathani? Another of the Three? Vada? Jath?”

“It’s tricky. I don’t think so.” Lemuel bit his lip. “I’ve got to keep up. Asur-Asurdeva is one of the old gods of the steppe, referred to in Lyre lore.”

“That helps,” said Ilsa. “He’s fighting for this old god?”

“He thinks so. The Uzan he leads are on the same side. They all serve this being.”

“Why war in Ayoch?”

Lemuel’s brow furrowed at the next screams from Ashnia. “The crown. The royalty of Ayoch, they ruled them. They controlled the Uzan once, a long time ago.”

“Holy shit,” said Cass. “If they could do that now, they could rule the world.”

Ilsa nodded. “Imagine what they did back then.”

“They conquered the continent,” said Lemuel. “Maybe the whole world. The Gray Lector wants all of that for himself and his god.”

“Asurdeva,” said Ilsa. “Asurdeva.”

Ashnia’s back arched. The bonds on her wrists split with an audible crack and snap. Her hands lashed free and then scrambled for her feet.

Ilsa dove for the Ayochian mind eater’s legs. She wrestled to keep Ashnia from untying the bindings on her ankles. Ashnia’s muscles must be pumped with adrenaline because she seemed stronger than Ilsa had ever felt someone of her size before that moment. All the while, Ashnia barked and growled in the language of the ancients.

Cass cringed back and produced a pistol from a bond. She started to load the weapon.

Lemuel glanced at her. “What are you doing?”

“We have to be ready if she breaks free completely.”

Ilsa fought for one of Ashnia’s arms. The other one snaked out and wrapped around Ilsa’s neck. She gave up her struggle to keep Ashnia from freeing her legs and sought to keep the girl from choking the life out of her with her adrenaline-fueled strength. Spots of darkness danced in her vision.

Automatic chaos, a deliberate incitement of a violent reaction, Blue said into Ilsa’s mind. Hang on, we’ve almost disabled her attack responses.

Ilsa grunted, unable to focus on anything except prying the arm from her throat. She managed to keep her ability to breathe but lost the battle to understand anything else. Still locked within Ashnia’s arm, she slammed herself down on the Ayochian’s belly. The blow forced air from Ashnia’s lungs and weakened her hold enough Ilsa could slither free of her grasp.

She lay on her back beside the mats. Cold ground sent tendrils clawing up through her flesh. She snarled and forced herself upright. Ashnia’s limbs went still.

Blue’s eyes remained closed, but she spoke between ragged breaths. “I—We-have what we need.” She sagged in on herself. “And she won’t fight back for now.”

Koor opened his eyes. Unlike Blue, he seemed completely, infuriatingly, composed. “It seems she knew a great deal.”

Ilsa looked in his direction. Lemuel stood off to one side. “She didn’t say that much,” he murmured.

“No, but her secrets are now in my mind,” said Koor. He got to his feet slowly. When he left Blue’s side, she spilled slowly onto the mat beside Ashnia. “Thank you, Blue.”

Blue nodded, eyes open, but said nothing.

“I am leaving this camp at dawn,” said Koor to Ilsa. “Make it clear to the Guardian of Tenlyres that she can still join me if she wishes.”

Ilsa glowered up at the man, pain still fresh in her mind and body. “I’ll tell her.” But she knew Siuku would not change her mind.

“Good.” Koor turned to Lemuel. “Thank you for your assistance, Mister Chollush. You are a skilled interpreter.”

“I did my best.” Lemuel crouched down beside Ilsa. “Are you alright?” He offered her his hand. She took it and pulled herself to her feet. “I’m not hurt as bad as Blue. Come on, let’s get her out of here.”

They helped Blue up, though she had to lean on Ilsa every step of the way back to her own tent. The cold of the night sent them all to their own places, except for Lemuel, by the time she spotted Hailek outside her tent. He appeared to be in good shape despite all the shooting earlier that day and the day prior.

“Good strider,” said Lemuel. “He found his way back.”

“He’s pretty smart.” Ilsa smiled wearily. “Like someone else, I could name.” She pressed against his side. “Thank you, for being where I need you.”

“I don’t know where else I would go.”

“But you know enough not to run away.” Her hand felt down his back to his belt. “Thanks.”

“You’re tired.”

“We’re both tired. Aren’t we?”

He put his chin into her overgrown hair. “You don’t mean–”

“What do  you think I could mean?”

“I almost think you want me to sleep with you.”

“I do. Just sleep tonight. Have to be ready.”

“For the morning.” He sighed against her. “It’s alright. I know.”

They slipped into the tent, and lay down on Ilsa’s bedding, fully clothed. She had not realized how tired she was until he wrapped his arms around her. Then she slept immediately.

#

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Guest Post: Heisenberg Compensators

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Today I have a guest post for you, from an amazing writer I’ve been following for a few months. He has a style I can only dream of, and his crazy ideas are the sort I aspire to as well. If you ever wondered about genre, this is the guy to see. Everyone, Zig Zag Claybourne!

Heisenberg Compensators

“Tell me about the Before-Time, DiJonn,” says the waif.

“It was a time of repetitive wonders…” says the old man, eyes focusing on days he’ll never get back. “When only starship captains were allowed emotional arcs, and fans knew precisely at all times what they were buying…”

Low blow? Not too low. Let’s talk genre. Sci fi. Horror. Fantasy. Literary. Comedy. Erotic. What’d we leave out? (Tractor porn is not a genre. Ignore what Skeeter says.) Genre sets up expectations. From sci fi, we don’t expect deeply emotional romance. From horror, we get blindsided by the inclusion of robots (although we already live in a ghost world thanks to AI and “smart” tech). Fantasy? Get that socio-political layering out of my elven shire! We want what we want, and publishing has made sure we get that. Up till now.

Just this year I’ve read a book that features religion, damnation, time travel, horror, and a fair bit of comedy, not as incidentals but as the very fabric of the book; another where a witch and a technogeek have an on-again, off-again relationship that threatens to destroy the world; I wrote one myself (shameless frikking plug) merging science fiction, adventure, literary, satire and fantasy. It’s been described as “Buckaroo Banzai by way of James Baldwin and Blade”, and in my neck of the woods you mention any one of those three, you have my attention.

I freaking adore genre blending.

Frankenstein: gothic horror environmental philosophical treatise. The Bible: horror, sci fi, poetry, adventure, love story. Lucian of Greece’s True History: travel writing, sci fi, satire straight from the second century. Hell, even Peanuts counts as YA Dystopia (a world where even children need psychological counseling on a regular basis, and happiness is sought but never achieved). Creators have been dipping their chocolate into peanut butter since words became the rage. The blending of genre speaks not only to the sophistication of the world but of the reader herself. The Greek myths were huge soap operas against a backdrop of testosterone and estrogen of unimaginable levels. The African Orishas are sci fi, horror, fantasy, and romance all at the same time. There is no story that is a single thing unless we force it to be so. Unfortunately there’ve been lots of forced marriages in publishing. The world may never know how many writers have felt compelled to funnel what could have been grand ideas into narrow loveless couplings. Imagine The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy being pitched today.  It’d either be an indie effort or it’d be pared down to being a buddy comedy with a quick, easy payout. Which is sadness.

The argument against blending says readers will be confused, and an author can’t build a following off of confused readers. Let me throw some names out to Google at your discretion: Sam Delany, CSE Cooney, Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Frank Herbert, Julian May, Terry Pratchett. You can build audience by being intriguing, by being daring, and respecting that a reader’s sense of adventure knows no bounds. One of the best novellas I’ve read in years came out via Tor.com in 2015: Kelly Robson’s Waters of Versailles. It’s fantasy, it’s historical, it’s farce, it’s as much about class structures as Les Miz and it’s deeply emotional. I love it. Kelly is one of the best practitioners out there of blending not only genre but realism, and guess what? You’ll be seeing her name for years. We forget that before there was “genre” there was simply good story.

In the beginning was the word, remember? And the word was good?

Are we seeing an upsurge in people wanting their consumables to do more than comfort them? I think we are. There’s enough familiarity in innumerable aspects of life that people can enjoy the challenge of a many-flavored mental meal, and with indie artists experiencing a boom of reach and availability (check out the indie lighthouse-site Narazu.com) the walls of genre aren’t merely crumbling, suckers are vaporizing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have markers. But it’s also good to know that at any moment of your choosing you can screw the map and go off-road. I titled this little blog “Heisenberg Compensators.” Why? If you’re into Star Trek you know that’s a McGuffin they created for their transporter technology to overcome the principle that the position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory. In theory we’re not supposed to be able to bounce about on a quantum level and have all kinds of resulting fun.

I give the human brain credit though. We take disparate bits, beam them into our imaginations, and reassemble them as paranormal detectives, mermaid orphans, mystic adventurers, or starship captains quite literally in love with their ships (hello AI-virtual reality world!). Genre-blending is not only fun to write and read, it leaves both the author and audience (wait for it) energized.

Surprised, even. Pleasantly.

Who doesn’t love that?

BIO STUFF

Zig Zag Claybourne (also known as Clarence Young) wishes he’d grown up with the powers of either Gary Mitchell or Charlie X but without the Kirk confrontations. (And anybody not getting that Star Trek reference gets their sci fi cred docked 3 points.) The author of The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan, Neon Lights, Historical Inaccuracies, By All Our Violent Guides, and In the Quiet Spaces (the last two under C.E. Young), he believes a writer can be like an actor, inhabiting a delightful variety of roles and genres, but his heart belongs to science fiction.

His fiction and essays have appeared in Vex Mosaic, Alt History 101, The Wayne Review, Flashshot, Reverie Journal, Stupefying Stories, The City (a cyberfunk anthology), UnCommon Origins, Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine, and Rococoa (sword & soul/steamfunk anthology).

When not writing (or fiddling on Facebook) he loves promoting great art and posing the Great Questions, such as whether or not anybody will ever be funkier than Prince.

Find him on the web at www.WriteonRighton.com

Tenlyres Chapter 30 – Locust

Hello, everyone, Tim here.
I hope you’re all enjoying the story, and I really appreciate everyone following along.
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Previous Chapter

Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
Following a bloody battle in the pass leading south, Ilsa sees a flying creature descending onto the Lake of Saints.
This creature is called a locust, and is used for air travel. But who is controlling it?

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Koor’s locust descended onto the glittering icy surface of the Lake of Saints. Ilsa’s eyes were ready to ache with hope at the sight as the massive manta-shaped locust slid off its restraints and into the cold water with hardly a sound, and left the long, boat-like sky carriage bobbing in the water.

Lemuel’s eyes widened and he stepped backward. “Could they be Ayochian?”

“Not with that name written on the carriage,” said Ilsa. “They’re on our side.” Part of her sighed with relief, another part of her only feared more. Surely Koor would not have been foolish enough to come to the mountains personally.

Many nations, including Ayoch, craved the chance to destroy any leaders behind the Unification.

The Red Lector’s artillery may have been destroyed, but the camp was hardly safe.

Ilsa waved her arms in the air in an attempt to draw the attention of someone in the sky carriage. She called and waved until a pair of propeller engines on the back of the carriage spun into life. The floating vessel approached the rocky shore where she and Lemuel and Siuku stood.

Blue ran to Ilsa’s side. Her skin looked gray, and her eyes shot with blood. “I can’t believe it! What is Koor doing here?”

“My bet, he’s trying to help us,” said Ilsa.

“How did he know?” Blue frowned for a moment, then shook her braids. “Wait a minute. I should know better than to ask that question.”

“Probably,” said Ilsa, gaze still locked on the sky carriage. “Koor has his ways.”

The front walkway of the sky carriage lowered so its end touched the stones less than a meter in from the water. A stiff, cold wind blew from the pass in the opposite direction. Tents shuddered and flags whipped. Water splashed onto the walkway.

From within, a cluster of people emerged, about two dozen in all, but difficult to see because of the shadows of sunset cast over Nurse Mountain’s long western arm.

Ilsa straightened her back. Blue folded her hands. Lemuel glanced at Ilsa as the people from the carriage made their ways over the walkway toward the shore where they stood. She put a hand on his back.

“It’s alright. Koor is the one who sent me and Blue to find the Keeper.”

Blue looked down at her hands “He’ll only try his best to help us. That’s got to be why he’s here.”

Lemuel nodded, still looking stunned. Ilsa pressed her hand to his back in what she hoped was a reassuring way. She squinted to see the face of the heavily clad man in the lead of the group and recognized the craggy features of Koor, Morhoen’s highest priest in the Unification. She bowed her head to her mentor.

He nodded to her and Blue. “Be at peace, you two.” His eyes twinkled like dark glints of steel. “From what I have heard, it seems I was right to send you to find the Guardian of Tenlyres.” His gaze moved to Lemuel and Tirica. “Who are you?”

“Lemuel Chollush. My sister and I encountered Ilsa and Blue on the steppe and joined them in looking for the Keeper.”

Koor smiled, aglow with inner warmth, despite his hardened eyes. “I take it you have also heard then, about the Gray Lector?”

Ilsa’s eyes widened. There was that term again, the renegade priest of Ayoch.

“I have indeed heard things,” said Lemuel. “I’m not sure what they mean.”

Blue glanced in his direction, confusion evident in her bloody eyes. She turned to Koor. “Is the Gray Lector near here?” she asked.

Koor shook his head and stepped off the walkway onto the shore. He motioned for his companions to follow him. “As far as I can tell, the Gray Lector is making his play, but you may know more about that than I. Someone freed the demons of the Central Lyre, and I have heard rumors you witnessed that event.”

“The Uzan,” said Ilsa. “Black Powder released them. He played the lyre with those odd pistols.”

“Odd? How?” Koor’s gray eyebrows rose.

“They were integrally silenced. Wooden grips. Looked really old.”

“This is disturbing. Black Powder has the song guns, and that means he only needs the True Blackwood staff if he wants what I think he wants.” Koor turned to Ilsa. “I will tell you what I’ve learned since your departure, and perhaps you can confirm my suspicion.”

“What suspicion?” Ilsa asked.

“Your father, Henry Vel, Black Powder, may be the Gray Lector.”

Ilsa’s stomach lurched. The bruise by her heart throbbed. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Let us get out of this wind,” said Koor. “We must gather The Four, along with the Guardian. They must hear what I have to say.” His gaze fell on Siuku. “If you agree, Guardian?”

Siuku nodded. “You make sense, Koor of Morhoen.”

The wind numbed Ilsa’s every fiber almost as though an ice magus was trying to freeze her heart again. Her brows knit together as she met Koor’s questioning eyes with hers.

“We’ll talk, but I don’t see how its possible my father could be the Gray Lector.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Koor. “Or things will only become more complicated.” He marched after Siuku toward the lodge, with Ilsa, Blue, Lemuel, and the rest of Koor’s party in his wake.

 

Inside the lodge, Ilsa found three of the Vogmem’s four leaders. Only Megalli was absent, probably out scouting over the cliffs on hawk-back. Ganara, Akirette, and Hiragen gathered around the central fire and Koor introduced himself to each of them.

Ilsa felt only half-present during the minimal formalities. She only knew Koor suspected her father, always a bastard and a pain in her life, of being one of the masterminds behind a rebellion in Ayoch. The Gray Lector? How could that be? And why?

Black Powder was a killer, a mercenary, and a terrible father, but he had once told Ilsa he would never ride with someone he called an enemy. And the Red Lector was the Gray Lector’s deadliest foe. Yet, he had released the Uzan. What more proof did she need?

She watched a few prisoners as Koor’s troops hustled them out of the lodge before the meeting could begin in earnest. Ashnia Haram was not among them. Once the last of the prisoners left, Siuku joined the other leaders inside.

Blue stepped back from the group and closed her already bloodshot eyes. Ilsa knew what she was doing, covering the group from spying by the hermit. They could not trust the mind eater who lived on the other side of the lake not to have some way to observe what went on in the lodge.

At last, Blue nodded to Ilsa. Ilsa turned to Koor. “We’re safe. No one else is listening.”

Koor faced the Vogmem Chieftains and the Keeper of Tenlyres and then bowed to them. “The coming battle means more than even you know,” he said. “The Queen of Ayoch has sent the armies of the other four Lectors to the Plateau of Yr. Her military is committed to capturing every piece of Tenlyres.”

Fear clutched at Ilsa’s heart along with the prospect of the full onset of war between Ayoch and Dal on one side, and Chogrum and it’s Morhoenese allies on the other. She had not seen such a war in her lifetime, and things would be even worse with the renewed freedom of the Uzan.

“Are you certain?” asked Hiragen. “We have to be if we are to commit.”

Ilsa frowned at the cautious chieftain. “The Red Lector and his wife are already waging war. The Queen of Ayoch wants Tenlyres. She will not give Chogrum a way out unless she sees strong opposition.”

“You want us to ally with Chogrum?” Ganara glowered at Ilsa and Koor. “You are a fool, Ilsa Barrett. As are you, Koor.”

Ilsa felt Lemuel’s back stiffen at her side.

Akirette hissed an intake of breath. “Damn it, but we must be careful. If we do not act, that could spell our doom.”

Ilsa nodded to the oldest of the Vogmem chieftains.

“What about him?” Ganara turned toward Lemuel. “You are Chogrumian, as is the lancer who nearly killed the priestess beside you. What can you say for your city?”

“Not much different from Dal. But we all value knowledge.” His eyes fell unsteadily on the black staff, the staff of Vada herself, which Ganara held in one hand with its butt on the floor.”That staff. What is it, really?”

“Vada’s staff, of course.” Ganara shook her head. “I would be training my daughter to wield it today, had she not been killed by raiders from your city, Chogrumian.”

A flicker of pain and cold raced from Ilsa’s bruise to the top of her spine. She clenched her jaw. She could understand how Ganara would hate the Chogrumians after that.

“I’ve lost family to Chogrum as well,” she said. “My uncles and grandparents all died in the last war.”

“And yet you stand beside that man, so close. I can tell your feelings.” Ganara’s eyebrows became an angry formation like birds flying south for the winter. “Don’t deceive us because you deceive yourself, priestess.”

“Nonsense,” said Koor. “Ilsa’s feelings are not the matter here. Chogrum and Morhoen can help the Vogmem and the Oshomi.”

Ganara’s lips drew back into a snarl. Her gaze fixed on Koor’s calm face. “You are right,” she said. “But I’ve never been one to pray for Unification. And I do not know you.”

“You are right to be cautious. But don’t take umbrage.” Koor raised his gray eyebrows. “This is the greatest challenge for humanity, finding peace.” His voice stayed even. “Ganara, we will stand as each other’s allies from this day forward. You need only agree for your people to unify when the time comes.”

“Now you seem to be asking for a great deal more.” Ganara’s eyes darkened. She spat into the fire pit. Her saliva sizzled amid the flames.

Akirette nodded to Ganara. “She’s angry. But she is also right. We do not know you. Besides that, what do you bring to this battlefield? A dozen soldiers at most.”

“All of them are war magi,” said Koor. “And each is a tested veteran. We do not lack for war in Morhoen.” His eyes looked sad, but everything else about Ilsa’s mentor remained completely calm.

Hiragen stroked his beard. “We could use your help tomorrow if we are to ensure our survival. What else can we offer you, Koor of Morhoen?”

“I’m afraid there is little else.” He turned to Siuku. “But regardless what you Chieftains of Vogmem decide, I would speak to my agents and the Guardian of Tenlyres alone.”

Ganara pointed at the door. “This is the Lodge of the Four. Talk outside if you want to discuss without us.”

“Very well,” said Koor. He bowed to the three Chieftains present, then turned to Siuku. “If you will, your holiness.”

Siuku’s atonal voice answered with a grunt. Dark bags hung beneath her eyes, and she looked older, even with the veil covering most of her face. Blue followed Koor and Siuku to the door.

Ilsa turned to Lemuel. “I hope I won’t be long.”

“So do I,” said Lemuel. “But say what you have to say.”

“I’ll do my best.” She clasped his hand for a brief moment, then released him. Ilsa followed others out of the lodge and into the chill of evening.

 

They walked to the edge of the camp, still near the lodge. Blue prepared her defenses around them, to keep the hermit from overhearing. Then, Blue nodded to Koor.

“I am honored to stand in your presence, holiness,” said Koor. “But the situation is grave.”

Ilsa put a hand to her bruised chest, which still pulsed with pain. She did not like the soothing tone Koor used. It was meant to convince without persuading, the sort of voice one used to distract from the words one said.

Her mentor continued. “We sighted at least two-hundred Uzan approaching from the South, and they are not all without talent. Some are silencers, or sense magi, capable of concealing their kin from our mortal senses while they move. Thus, there could be far more on their way.”

Ilsa’s brows knit together. “How far south?”

“They will enter the pass tomorrow, before noon if they continue.”

Siuku folded her arms. “What is your point?”

“I have my Locust, and there is room in the carriage for you and your tribesmen.” Koor gazed evenly at the Keeper of Tenlyres. “Your holiness, we have set out to take you from this place. It is the only sensible thing to do.”

Ilsa scowled. Hot rage mixed with tingling shock at Koor’s cold plan to abandon the Vogmem formed an alliance within her.

Siuku’s tired eyes narrowed. “You want me to flee? My people are at truce with the Vogmem for the first time in ten generations. I will not be the one to break this fortunate peace.” Her voice might have stayed flat, but she spoke haltingly, a sign of exhaustion and, Ilsa guessed, temper. “I have healed their wounded as if they were my own. They have bled for me, just like the priestess beside you, Koor, just like the mind eater at your back.”

“I know I ask for a difficult thing.”

“Such an act would make me unworthy of the power and the visions my predecessors passed down to me.”

Koor folded his hands. “But if you die–”

“Then I die!” Siuku’s voice cracked, but the monotone was gone, replaced by tempestuous passion. “Like my band on the plains. Like my friend Duruko. I will die if I must, but I will not give up this chance to end a conflict I thought would outlive me as surely as it claimed my parents’ lives. I am not a pawn on a board. I am a human, maybe an extraordinary human, but I will make my own decision. You cannot convince me otherwise.” She swayed on her feet.

Ilsa stepped forward and reached for Siuku to steady her. “Keeper.”

Siuku accepted Ilsa’s help and leaned on her. She glared at Koor. “You cannot decide who survives, priest of Morhoen.”

“Evidently not.” Koor’s eyes darkened. “But I will not throw my life away for this lost cause. Neither should you.”

“Lost cause?” Siuku shook her head. “Have you seen the future?”

“No, but my oracles have advised me.”

“Your oracles are charlatans. The spirits have shown me countless visions, but every one of those becomes real in its own way.”

“Have you foreseen the death of rulers tomorrow?” Koor’s knuckles turned as white as his hair, his hands clenched together. “My oracles see death for crowns. The readers of cards and bones, the seers, and the water casters all predict such events. If I can prevent your death, I will.”

“Then stay. Fight at our side.” Siuku glowered at Koor.

He said nothing.

She closed her red, weary eyes. “You would trade the lives of others for mine. But you will not risk your own?”

“Unification needs leaders. I will not throw away my movement.”

“Or your power.”

Koor’s hands unlocked from each other. “Ilsa. Blue.”

“Yes?” said Blue, eyes still glazed with mental distance.

“Will you continue to protect the Guardian? Or would you return to Morhoen with me?”

Ilsa grunted. “I will stand with the Keeper.”

Blue’s eyes gleamed as she released her mental defenses. “As will I,” she said.

“So be it.” Koor nodded to them. “I will leave with the Locust tomorrow before dawn, but there is one other matter to attend to while I am here.” He turned to Blue. “The Temple of Colors. I understand you have an agent to interrogate.”

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 29 – Howling Pass

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Previous Chapter

Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
Negotiations between the forces have been interrupted by the Uzan, and Ilsa was badly wounded in the retreat.
Seeing visions of her mother, she rests through the night trying to recover for the next battle.

tenlyres-ii-chapters-29-mq 

She woke to the distant thunder of artillery launching a payload, an aching bruise over her heart, and a whiff of noxious Ayochian propellant in the mountain air. The smell of propellant had become familiar by now, but the metallic tinge and the thick, bile-rising twist of some vague fruitiness combined with the distant sound to tell Ilsa the Ayochians were opening fire. She could not tell from where the shots were launching, but the ground beneath her remained mercifully still, and the explosions muted by distance.

Lemuel shifted and his arm slid off her waist. “What is that sound?” he asked.

She grunted and sat up. “The Red Lector’s artillery is finding the range. It probably isn’t easy here in the mountains.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, then forced them open with obvious effort. Then he reached for his outer coat, folded near the bedroll, and retrieved a pocket watch. He squinted at its hands in the gloom. “It’s been fourteen hours. I can’t believe it.”

“That means it’s morning,” she said.

“Four-thirty.” He groaned. “Don’t the Ayochians ever sleep?”

“They’ll attack at dawn. But who knows when their shells will find the camp.” Ilsa’s gaze found her large saddlebags, evidence that her strider had returned with them. Even her red staff of office looked dull in the shadows.

She walked around Lemuel as he stretched his arms. She stopped by the saddlebags, crouched down beside them. With careful hands, she collected ammunition for each of her weapons and set them beside the bags.

Lemuel got to his feet behind her.

She glanced back at him. “Do you have something to defend yourself?” she asked.

“Other than you?” He smiled gently at her. “Not really.”

Thrilling warmth bloomed in Ilsa’s chest but mingled with the pain of the purple bruise where Ferdinand had stabbed her. That pain pulsed outward as she straightened up. She barely shuddered, but he noticed and his smile faded a little.

Lemuel had put on his black overcoat but left the front unbuttoned. He folded her into a soft embrace against his chest.

“Hey,” she said. “What’s this about?”

“You looked like you could use some warmth.”

“True.” She sighed, head against his shoulder. “But we ought to find you a pistol or something.” The artillery launched another volley. This time the shells landed closer.

She heard Vogmem voices from outside the tent calling to each other indistinctly, evidence the bombardment had been noticed by the mountain tribals.

Ilsa looked up at Lemuel and frowned. “I’m going to go find out what’s going on. We need a plan to stop those shells or this camp will be a deathtrap in a few minutes.”

He tensed noticeably, then relaxed his arms from around her. “I’ll go with you. I need to find Tirica at least.”

She stepped back and started to pick up the ammunition she could take with her. “And a pistol. I don’t want to leave you without some way to protect yourself.”

“I don’t like it, but sure,” he said, “If you think I may need it.”

“I’ll pray to Hathani you don’t.”

“Thanks. You know, I’m a terrible shot.”

Ilsa knew that would not bother Lemuel normally, but with fighting so close his life could depend on that. She hated the thought but knew it was true. Truth holds no regard for prayer.

She pushed a magazine of pistol ammunition into the carrier at her hip, beside two others, with an identical set on the other side. Her shotgun shells and machine gun magazines hung from her belt, one set of each per side, enough to load both weapons twice.

They left the tent, and Ilsa led the way through the chill morning air toward the lodge, from the chimney of which, a single strand of pale smoke rose, shifting in the breeze.

They were halfway there when Ganara and Blue caught up with them on their steeds. Blue rode her strider out in front of Ilsa and Lemuel. She met Ilsa’s gaze. “You’re up. Good.”

Ganara snorted and tossed her hair. “The Ayochians in the southern pass have artillery set up.”

“I noticed,” said Ilsa. “They’re testing the range.”

The Vogmem chieftain glowered at them. “My warriors and I will ride to stop them. They cannot be allowed to desecrate the holy lake.”

Ilsa rubbed her temples. The pain in her head from earlier had mercifully subsided while she slept. “I’ll go with you.”

“Oh, we will need everyone. The Red Lector may not have as many soldiers as the Summer Devil, but they will be ready for us.” Ganara shook her head. Her goatlike runner stamped a foot on the stones by the lake shore. “I suppose it’s time for me to wield Vada’s staff.”

Ilsa’s eyes widened. “Vada’s staff?”

“Yes, priestess. My order has been entrusted with the True Blackwood since the beginning. The Keeper says she thinks it may have helped to seal Uzan before.”

“Hopefully we won’t have to deal with them today.” Ilsa turned to Blue. “Throw me a line.”

Lemuel put a hand on her shoulder. “Please, be careful.”

“I’ll do what I can. Get to the lodge. It should be the safest place in the camp if we stop the artillery.”

He nodded. “I trust you.”

“Trust us all.” Ilsa leaned in and kissed him quickly. He pulled her close for a long moment. The clouds of their breath mingled in the air around them.

Blue tossed a length of knotted rope from her saddle. Ilsa scaled it to the strider’s back and then glanced at Lemuel, trying to think of the right words to reassure him, but they were not there. Then, Blue urged her steed away from the lodge and toward the pass.

A bright burst of an explosion sent a plume of snow flying from the side of the nearest mountain. The fact that Ilsa could see it made her certain the artillery would find the camp in another volley or if they were unlucky, two at most.

Ganara rallied a force of her warriors on their steeds, and several hundred riders headed for the pass, bristling with lances and guns. She looked for Siuku in the press.

“The Keeper and a few others are back in the lodge with Akirette. Someone needs to keep an eye on the prisoners.”

“Ashnia Haram,” said Ilsa.

“Ferdinand too.” Blue glanced at Ilsa, grim-faced. “We can’t tell if she or the hermit could take control of him again. A mind enslaved that long stays vulnerable.”

Ilsa nodded to her friend. A flight of Megalli’s hawk riders passed overhead, at least twenty or thirty in number. Their wings rustling seemed very loud to Ilsa’s ears.

Some of Ganara’s riders broke off and began to climb one of the mountains. All those riders carried long-barreled rifles, and Ilsa glimpsed Tirica riding with them on a borrowed runner of her own.

She asked Blue, “Where’s Cass? Have you seen her?”

“She’s back at the lodge. Seems she’s joined our mission, Ilsa.”

Ilsa’s heart ached with pain more than physical at the thought of what Cass risked to join them on the plateau. She swore she would do everything she could to see them all return home alive.

“Good,” she said. “Good she’s seeing the light.”

Blue turned to face forward as they approached the gap where they would turn to enter the pass. Wind whipped through the gaps in rocks. Snow swirled in rivulets from the mountains above.

“Get me close to the guns,” Ilsa said. “I think I can stop them if I just get near enough.”

“How?”

“I know my way around propellant,” she said. “Don’t worry about that.”

“I’ll watch your back once we get there.”

They rounded the curve of the mountain. Below them, several hundred meters away, Ayochian troops with their lanterns surrounded two heavy gun carriages.

Each carriage was a large, wide-treaded, ground crawler powered by electricity, and with an enormous cannon longer than the machine itself set on the back. Only one other piece appeared to have survived the battle with the Uzan at the Central Lyre, but it was further back, still out of range of the camp. Ilsa offered silent thanks to Hathani for that.

She drew her machine gun from the bond in one hand. At least three hundred soldiers surrounded those two cannons, and who knew how many more were stationed in the rocks, or further back in the pass.

Ganara’s riders fanned out, no two runners within three or four meters of each other. Ilsa and Blue rode near the front, beside Ganara herself. The blond chieftain raised her black staff to stop their advance and held it there. Her riders obeyed with only a small murmur of sound.

Then, the Vogmem sharpshooters on the mountainside  began to open fire. Several lanterns swayed and then fell with the soldiers and steeds that carried them.

Ilsa squinted at the gun carriages as the weapon crews scurried to load them with massive shells. A pit formed in her stomach as she thought of what one of the foul-smelling projectiles would do if it struck the lodge. Cass. Siuku. Lemuel. She felt like screaming at Ganara to order the attack, even as Ayochian snipers began to answer the Vogmem on the cliffs from the rocks across the pass.

Before Ilsa could cry out, with unbearable slowness, Ganara’s staff descended. The Vogmem riders charged.

Blue urged her shaggy strider forward. Ilsa loaded her machine gun and her pistol. The magazines clicked into place with satisfying clarity. They rode down into the pass with Ganara and her warriors.

Sharpshooters continued to trade fire in the gray chill just before dawn. Then, as rays of light began to creep over the mountains to the east, Ilsa spotted a glint of red lacquer, looking almost like rust on the armor of the Lectoral Protectors near the Ayochian guns.

The Red Lector himself led this force, or his guards would not be here. Ilsa gritted her teeth. If she captured the man, she could put an end to this battle, and maybe even save most of the bloodshed. She made her decision.

The Ayochian sharpshooters remained occupied with the troops on the cliffs, but the soldiers among the boulders near the gun carriages began to take shots at the approaching riders.

Ilsa looked this way and that, trying to spot the Red Lector, as the Vogmem swept downward in serried ranks. They closed into the range of small-arms, just twenty meters from the bulk of the Ayochian troops, and began to shoot.

She spotted a smoke-gray banner in among the troops near the Lectoral Protectors. She recognized it as belonging to her father’s mercenary company. Could he be close as well? If so, attacking the guns would not be easy.

Ilsa could not help but recall the hints, the whispers of the Gray Lector she had heard, the ineffable opponent of the Queen of Ayoch and her five loyal lectors. A renegade priest, not so different from Ilsa, herself. But she did not know what the Gray Lector believed if he believed in anything.

At ten meters and still closing, Ganara spun her staff in her hand. Ilsa traced flashes of light as Ayochian bullets changed trajectory to pull toward the black staff’s head. Ganara’s runner leaped into a cluster of  Ayochian soldiers ahead of her troops. She raised the staff over her head and the bullets attracted to it shot outward. Soldiers screamed and fell. Then, the Vogmem, Ilsa, and Blue, pelted into even closer quarters.

Ilsa twisted in the saddle and began to pick off soldiers left and right. She shot down one of the riflemen aiming at the cliffs. She killed a woman struggling with a jammed light machine gun. She killed. Not for honor. Not for glory. No killing could be worthy of those words.

Screams and roars and gunshots, the chaos of battle, surrounded Ilsa and Blue. Ganara and her riders cut toward the heavy guns, leaving broken bodies and bloody rock in their wake. The Ayochians must have dismounted to make their way up the pass, and their lack of steeds cost them in speed of reaction.

Blue brought her strider around, close behind Ganara. Enemy soldiers turned on their comrades, while others wavered in their aim or hesitated just long enough for Ilsa to kill them. Blue’s powers were devastating in the press of battle, her eyes glazed and unseeing as she devoured the thoughts of her foes.

The Lectoral Protectors interposed themselves before Ganara’s charge. Ilsa spotted a familiar fanged helm in the midst of red armor. The giant frame of Ozleji Sammhar, who she had hoped lay dead on the steppe by the Central Lyre, led a ragged group of survivors from one side to counter charge in Ganara’s flank.

The Vogmem charge faltered. Sprays of blood and fumes of burnt propellant mingled with clouds of smoke to fill the air. Ilsa clenched her teeth and prayed as Sammhar’s bonded weapons felled rider after rider. In one hand he held his gilded hand cannon, and in the other, a shotgun larger than most men could use in two, with an ax-blade on the underside of its barrel.

Ilsa’s unease when she first met the man burned the flame of battle in her stomach at the sight of the Sammhar’s bloody return to the field. He closed with her and Blue. Ilsa scrambled to reload her machine gun, feeling slow as an unlit fuse. She slammed the magazine into place and heard the click of the lock.

She retrieved her pistol from her waistband. She held two weapons again.

“Blue, stop those guns,” she said. “I’ll hold this attack.”

For once Blue only answered with a nod. Her eyes remained dull. Ilsa slid off the strider’s back. Her weapons spoke, and soldiers around Sammhar fell. The red-armored man’s gaze turned toward her. His eyes gleamed in his helm.

Blue and a few riders skirted Sammhar’s troops and reached Ganara’s vanguard before the flankers cut off the path of advance. Ilsa’s hands moved automatically. Ayochian troops retreated from Sammhar, but Ilsa’s bullets seemed unable to breach his armor.

He stood alone before her. His shotgun boomed and a Vogmem at her side pitched backward. She darted in the opposite direction. Her guns were both half-empty.

Five pistol rounds and fifteen machine gun rounds remained. Neither left much of a dent in Sammhar’s breastplate, though the red lacquer showed scoring from multiple impacts. With the grill of his mask down, she could not count on a shot to the head, and a heavy iron collar covered his throat, where she had hit him back on the plateau. Damn his luck. Not many survived a shot like that.

They faced each other in the clearing, the fray around them deafening, but the troops of both sides left them to each other. Ilsa found no time to look and see how Ganara and Blue were faring. Every chamber clack, every thump of cannon fire, every minute roar of ignition formed a wall around her. And within those walls, she focused on Ozleji Sammhar.

Their gazes locked across the gap in the lines. A chill ran through her, from temples to tail bone, and a terrible emptiness welled like the wound that had been where the painful bruise over her heart pulsed. She hated to face him, a student of her father’s training.

Black Powder trained warriors from every nation. A mercenary, he rode with anyone who could provide him coin. Sammhar was different, a devoted servant to the Red Lector. Somehow that only made him more terrifying.

Ilsa planted her feet and waited for the sound of the bombardment to echo through the pass. One gun spoke, but no other shot followed. Good, Ganara stopped one of them. Flurries of snow erupted from the ridge where the Vogmem sharpshooters had taken their place.

Ice and stone and limbs would be broken as well, but the shot had not hit the camp. They still had time. She offered a prayer to Hathani that Tirica had not been close to the blast, then devoted her full attention to the giant man marching toward her. Within five meters, he stopped. His voice rasped, far different than the confident sound it had been when she last heard it. “Ilsa Barrett, the time to prove who is greater is upon us.”

Another shiver ran through her as the sound of his maimed voice. “I don’t need to prove anything to you.”

He said nothing else but surged like a bear to one side. She circled opposite him. His finger rested on the trigger of his shotgun. She twitched her pistol, unable to pierce his bracers or palmless gauntlet, and aimed for the shotgun’s muzzle.

The weapon trained on her and his finger moved. Her bullet knocked the heavy weapon’s point away from her. A spray of shot  flashed past her side.

She darted to within a meter and sent a burst of machine gun rounds to stitch a path from his sternum to his throat. The heavy collar he wore caught otherwise fatal shots, and his helm deflected a ricochet.

He swung the ax-blade of his shotgun overhand at her. The blow fell but she skidded under it, then sprang out from under his stomping foot. Sweat ran down his pale face behind the grill of his helmet. She circled sideways, and he flailed out with his hand cannon, but could not turn his head toward her thanks to the collar around his neck. She took aim for a joint between his elbow and forearm. Her pistol cracked twice and his arm went limp, flopping against his side. Blood trickled from holes in his padded sleeve.

Sammhar turned toward her, eyes wide, but Ilsa was already gone. She sprinted after Blue and the others in the vanguard, leading the charge as the second wave of Vogmem riders surged forward, led by Hiragen. The Ayochian flanking force melted away before them. She did not see what happened to Sammhar, but his shotgun blast did not sound again in the fray.

Ilsa broke through, down to just five bullets loaded in her machine gun, and none in her pistol.

Carnage surrounded the gun carriages. The crews, Lectoral Protectors, and her father’s mercenary’s had made a stand before the weapons. Riders lay scattered all around. Smoke rose from the artillery carriage in the center, and the other’s crew had fallen to Ganara’s assault. Ilsa caught up with the Vogmem Chieftain and Blue as its side. Only the third gun, one still out of range of the camp, remained.

Ganara nodded to her.

“You made it,” Blue said with a weary grimace. “Only one left.”

Ganara grunted. “One left.”

Ilsa could have liked Ganara’s terseness were her eyes not always overflowing with lethal fury. But here in the fray, she was in her element. Ilsa turned toward the third gun, still rolling toward the position toward the others had fired. The Ayochians retreated toward it.

“If they set it up, they only need one of those to destroy the camp,” she said.

“Right,” said Ganara.

Ilsa climbed up a cold metal ladder onto the back of the captured gun carriage. Blood ran along the metal rivets of the vehicles loading platform. She checked the chamber and found a shell in it, ready to fire.

She turned and called to the others. “It’s loaded. Get everyone away from the front.”

Blue raised her eyebrows.

Ilsa shook her head. “Don’t ask questions. I’ve got a plan.”

She withdrew her pistol and made her way around the gun carriage to the armored driver’s compartment. She offered a fast prayer that the driver had fled, then yanked the hatch on the top of the vehicle open.

Inside the cramped confines, she found her prayer answered. There was no one there. She took the controls, sparked the bio-electric battery, and then turned the machine with agonizing slowness, and a grinding of treads, to face toward the Ayochian’s other remaining artillery piece. She pushed the engine pedal and then climbed out of the compartment. The gun carriage rolled down the slope toward the troops that had brought it to the pass where the winds roared in the lull of the battle.

Twenty meters and grinding closer to the last gun, she raced around the back of the machine. The gun would take time to lower, but she could make sure this shell did some damage regardless. She rode the gun carriage toward the enemy line, crouched and sheltering behind the cannon that towered over her head.

At ten meters, she pulled the lever to fire the cannon. The round blasted with a deafening roar from the massive gun, which Ilsa realized too late, was not designed to fire while moving. The machine rocked backward and to the side, and the shell impacted the wall of the pass just a few dozen meters up and ahead of Ilsa. The sound blasted her senses. Rocks and ice chunks rained down from above. Screams and yells of warning reached Ilsa in muted tones.

She vaulted the gun carriage’s back railing and tumbled onto the cold rock of the pass below. The carriage flipped onto its side a second later, a boulder crashing down on the barrel of the main gun.

Ilsa ran back toward Ganara and Blue, still mostly unable to hear following the explosion. The Ayochian troops had formed up around the last gun carriage, the tracks of which ground into the fallen rocks left by Ilsa’s shot. But even there, they wavered.

Then, Black Powder stepped forward from their ranks. He carried one of his bonded pistols in each hand, and the two pistols with their integral silencers slung at his hips.

Ilsa’s father was not alone.

On his left, the Red Lector stepped forward, flanked by his remaining protectors. At his right, walked the frizzy-haired shape of Melinda. They stood before the lines. The Red Lector’s eyes found Ganara across the gap between the forces.

“This is your last chance to surrender, Vogmem. You can only delay the inevitable.”

Hiragen rode to Ganara’s side. He nodded to the other Chieftain. “We must have rocked them if they want to negotiate now. Well done.”

Ganara regarded the Red Lector with an icy gaze. Then, she spat into the pass between them.

She turned to the riders at her side.”Return to the camp. Tell the sharpshooters to keep watching the pass.”

Ilsa climbed back onto Blue’s strider and swung her legs across the saddle. She rode back to the camp with the rest of the survivors from the vanguard. Blood and wounds spotted and pockmarked many of the runners and humans. The pass was littered with bodies, and the wind whipped through abandoned weapons and whistled through holes in shattered armor.

Ilsa stopped beside the fallen form of the red giant, Ozleji Sammhar and found his breath still going in and out. But for once, he did not frighten her. It would be difficult for him to do that, given that he lay unconscious and beaten on the ground. The Vogmem collected him with a group of other Ayochian prisoners on the way back to the camp.

The battle of howling pass may have been brief, but the cost in flesh and blood was immediately obvious. Only as the sun set over the lake, and Ilsa watched with Lemuel and his sister, would Ilsa realize how much things had changed.

They had beaten back the Red Lector. The war had truly begun.

Tirica left them to get out of the cold wind.

Ilsa turned to Lemuel. “What do you think they’ll call this in the history books?”

“I wouldn’t know.” He shivered. She put her arm around his waist. Lemuel looked at her with raised eyebrows. “I didn’t need a weapon after all.”

“You haven’t fired it yet, but you may still have to. This is the beginning of the war, not the end of it.”

“Yeah. I suppose it depends. Back in Chogrum, we don’t really call the battles fought by Vogmem by names, especially when our troops aren’t involved.”

She frowned. So many things were forgotten by history. “I’ve fought in a few battles. I won’t forget any of them.”

“And you shouldn’t,” said Lemuel.

“I wish I could.” She shook her head. “That’s just now how things work.”

Siuku approached, walking along the lake shore from the lodge. “Priestess,” she said in her monotone. “I’m glad you are alright.”

“Thank you, Keeper.” She bowed to Siuku.

Then the dark manta-shape of a locust cut across the setting sun. Lemuel pointed at the locust as it circled down lower over the lake. A frown crossed his face. “What is that doing here?”

Ilsa scowled. “I have a feeling we’ll know soon.” The locust was large and carried a sky carriage. As it drew closer she read a name in the language of Morhoen, but simple enough to understand. “Koor.” A high priest of the Unification had come to the mountains.

#

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