This week, in Of Mooks & Monsters, Tim and Rob discuss the creation of characters in RPGs. Enjoy!
This week, in Of Mooks & Monsters, Tim and Rob discuss the creation of characters in RPGs. Enjoy!
Episode 2 features a discussion of World Building, a favorite subject of both cohosts.
Ilsa and Blue ride north from the Central Lyre with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
Separated from the rest of their group during a sudden attack by the monstrous Uzan, Ilsa, Blue, and the Keeper, ride toward the mountain pass on the edge of the plateau.
The mountain pass came into sight a few kilometers ahead of Ilsa, Blue, and Siuku. Dew glistened on wiry clumps of mountain grass, pale blue glittering against struggling green. The rough terrain was difficult for already weary striders. Hailek seemed to be tiring as dawn crept over the mountains to the east.
They had ridden evasively during the night to avoid the Uzan, or they would have reached the pass sooner. Blue’s eyes were shot with blood, and Ilsa could only conclude her own looked similar. Granite slopes. Spiny trees. Dark birds that never called out. These things did not seem to care about the arrival of the Uzan so close to them.
Ilsa shivered as she thought of the monstrous beasts. The fact that she had killed one of them seemed completely unimportant. That one had barely managed a shot thanks to Blue’s control. Next time she might not be so lucky.
The world had grown darker since the journey began. Darker, and far, far stranger. Ilsa guided Hailek up a slope into the broadest portion of the pass to the Lake of Saints. Riding behind Blue, Siuku pointed. “Others,” she said in her monotone.
Ilsa’s tired eyes made out the shapes of horses and striders, clear against the gray mountains ahead. Her heart leaped into her throat as she searched for her friends. Lemuel, you have to be here, she thought, and Cass, I still owe you.
She found Tirica first. She sat upon a strider’s back with her long rifle propped against her shoulder. Cass rode behind her, red hair like a halo around her face.
Ilsa kept searching the group of Oshomi who had survived the siege and the Uzan attack. She finally spotted a dark coat with a high collar. Lemuel.
She pushed her heels into Hailek’s sides with more force than needed. The strider grunted and lurched the last few paces up the slope. He stumbled with a groan of protest but covered the rest of the distance. Hailek shuddered and sank to the ground just a few paces away from Lemuel, whose horse gave an anxious snort.
She slid down his side and her shoes landed on the stony ground. “Keeper,” she called. “Please help him, if you can.”
“You should have asked sooner, priestess.” Despite her words, Siuku climbed down from Blue’s strider and ran to the place on Hailek’s side where the Uzan had wounded him.
Ilsa leaned close and brushed the hair of Hailek’s neck gently. “It will be alright, my friend. Hathani keeps us all.”
She turned toward where Lemuel had sat on his animal and found him close before her. She smiled at him, but could not keep from sagging forward from exhaustion. His embrace caught her. His small hand moved down the back of her coat. “They all feared for you.”
“And you didn’t?”
“Only a little.” He squeezed her to him with both arms. “I trust you, Ilsa.”
She set her chin on his shoulder. “Thank you.” It had been years since anyone besides Blue and the Unification had invested that kind of confidence in her. “You helped me get here, you know.”
She flushed, glad he couldn’t see her face. “I wanted to see you that much.”
“And your mission.”
“Yes.” She spoke into his ear. “My mission didn’t have to bring me to this place.” Her grip on him released and she stepped back.
Blue rode to the rest of the party. “The Uzan won’t be far behind us. Do you know anywhere we can go?”
Siuku replaced her veil and straightened her back. “To the Lake of Saints,” she said. “It is not far from here, though the way is difficult for horses.”
“Vogmem control the Lake of Saints,” said Cass. “I heard that at Saint Banyeen’s just before I left.”
“It is a good thing we shared peace meat with them.” Siuku walked past Ilsa and Lemuel toward her riders. “We must hurry.” She raised her bow and one of the riderless horses trotted to her. She climbed up to ride bareback.
A groan came from behind Ilsa. She and Lemuel looked in Hailek’s direction. The great wooly strider climbed to his feet, steady once again. His wound was sealed, but the hair above it was still gone, and the skin was pallid where it had been sealed.
Ilsa offered Lemuel the rope. They climbed into the saddle and rode after the rest of the party.
As they went, Cass and Tirica gradually dropped back to ride beside them.
She glanced at the other priestess, who still wore her arm in a sling. Their eyes met.
“I’m glad you made it,” Cass said. “When that missile hit, I feared the worst.”
“I wouldn’t die while I owe you.” Ilsa grinned wearily, feeling the tug of Lemuel’s small hand holding onto her belt. “And you’re not the only one I owe a debt in this group.”
Cass nodded. “The gates of the mountains stand open to all,” she quoted from the oldest scripture. “But we who fight for Hathani must always remember the ways of gods do not rely on our success.”
“Not your words?” Ilsa said. “I’m surprised.”
“The ancients said it best.”
Ilsa looked down at Cass’s arm. “How did that happen?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
Ilsa nodded. “Alright.” When they had been students Cass would never have passed up an opportunity to talk. Things had changed.
The way through the mountains grew steeper within the hour. She could only imagine how brutal the slopes would be if one strayed from the pass. Certainly, a horse would not make it through, and a strider as tired as Hailek likely would do little better.
Around noon, they followed the path around a bend in the rocky side of the mountain. Glimmers of pale blue water scattered with shards of ice were Ilsa’s first sight of the Lake of Saints. The lake filled a vast crater situated between three white peaks.
The mountain north of the lake bowed over, like a doting mother inspecting her child’s cradle. Her appearance had earned her a name known well in Dal, Chogrum, and beyond. Nurse Mountain’s arms wrapped around the water’s edge.
Lemuel gasped as he looked down upon the lake. Ilsa admitted the awe of the sight to herself as well. The Lake of Saints was holy to every member of the three. Hathanian scripture did not emphasize physical structures, but even among her clergy, the place bore significant history. For this was where many hermits had lived to pen their scriptures, and from here prophets had often proceeded with their messages to the people.
Veins of pink granite, the same traces as on every edge of the plateau, ran through each mountain. Lightning transcribed on stone. Fresh, cold air surrounded the party as they began their descent toward the pale waters of the lake. Hailek’s labored breaths became harsh halfway down the slope. Ilsa patted his side.
“Just a little more, my friend.”
A rumble like stone upon stone made Ilsa turn toward the peak above her, but thankfully there was no sign of a rock slide. Ahead of them, Siuku raised her hand to halt the party. The cry of a bird echoed over the heights.
Three great birds glided by just above their level, a rider on each of their backs. The old skyrider circled back on the lead bird. “What brings you Oshomi to this place?”
“Banasi,” called Siuku. “We seek shelter with our friends?”
Banasi replied with a laugh. “Times are strange, but peace is also on my chieftain’s mind.” Her bird carried her higher before Siuku could reply.
Lemuel shook his head in wonder. Ilsa glanced at him.
He sighed. “If only Chogrum and Dal could put aside the past so quickly.”
She pressed her lips together tight and nodded. Unification would be ideal, but it was a matter of hope, and far from a simple one. She would fight for that hope as long as she was able.
Banasi’s bird circled lower. The old skyrider called out, “Follow this path to the lake, Keeper of Tenlyres. My band is already there.”
Siuku signaled the party to keep moving. Down the slope, the sound of stone and stone drew Ilsa’s attention again. A shaggy, gray and white goat climbed along the steep slope. On the animal’s back, sat a woman with yellow hair and a heavy coat almost the same color as her goat. Other goat-riders moved in along the slopes above the pass. They escorted the Oshomi, Ilsa, and her friends, down to the Lake of Saints.
The Vogmem encamped by the edge of the lake gave Ilsa and the Oshomi glares and nervous looks as they approached. So much for the peace meat, Ilsa thought. The people did not appear as trusting as their scouts suggested.
They were clad in thick clothes and had mostly red or yellow hair. Most of them carried firearms ranging from rifles and shotguns to a variety of old-fashioned pistols. A few even wore piecemeal plates of armor sewn together with joins made from ballistic cloth.
Ilsa and the others rode to the lake shore within the camp. A cabin far larger than the tents of the rest of the camp stood nearby, and before it, two groups of armed Vogmem riders on their own large goats waited for them.
“Keeper of Tenlyres,” said a man from the center of the group closer to the lake in a slight accent that sounded close to Chogrumian, but definitely tinted with the hints of the Vogmem tribal language.
His beard was thick and red. He wore a black woolen coat and his goat had brindled fur of almost the same coloration. The man rode forward a few paces, stocky on the back of his animal. “I am Hiragan, chieftain of the northern pass. Welcome to the Lake of Saints.”
Siuku rode her saddle-less horse toward the man. Her veil hid any trepidation she might have, but Ilsa guessed some kind of worry had to be going on in the Keeper’s mind. Here they sat among the people who killed her parents.
“I have heard there are four chieftains of the Vogmem.” She motioned toward the camp. “Am I correct in guessing you are not the only one here?”
Hiragen grinned within his beard. He glanced at the other group of riders by the cabin.
“You guess well, Keeper.” A goat carried a woman forward. She was pale, though not albino like Siuku and her hair was blond. She wore a pair of pistols with old-fashioned revolving chambers on her belt. A black staff crossed the saddle behind her. A primrose flower was nestled in her hair.
The black staff and the primrose were both symbols of Vada, the same symbols Lord Palend had displayed back at his manor. Ilsa’s eyes narrowed as the woman smiled at Siuku. “Here we pray to the Three, but you are a welcome guest, Keeper.”
“So, you are Ganara,” said Siuku. “I’ve heard of your war with Chogrum.”
“Fortunate Chogrumians never meet me,” said Ganara with a smirk. “The unlucky ones do.”
Ilsa felt Lemuel stiffen in the saddle behind her. “I won’t let anyone hurt you,” she whispered to him.
He relaxed a little but remained tense. Ganara’s eyes fell upon Blue. “This one is not Oshomi.” She shifted her gaze to Tirica, then Ilsa and Lemuel. “I see you have some odd allies, Keeper.”
“No more odd for me to ride with them than with you.”
“Vogmem ride together.” Ganara raised an eyebrow. “And you need our help.”
“And I need the help of these city-dwellers as well.”
She glared from Ilsa to Siuku. “You’ve used them. Now you have us as allies. What use are these?”
“I do not abandon those who have fought by my side.” Siuku’s voice remained atonal, but the words still sent a chill through Ilsa.
Hiragen bellowed a laugh. “I believe you, Keeper of Tenlyres. Ganara, the others will be here soon, and I’m sure they won’t appreciate it if you or your people murder the Keeper’s friends. Even if they are city-dwellers.”
“I will wait for them. But we will have a verdict on these Chogrumians.” Ganara nodded to Hiragen. “For now, I will wait.”
“The other half of our Chieftains are on the far side of the lake,” said Hiragen. “They will return by nightfall. You and your riders have endured much, and you look it.”
“We would appreciate rest,” said Siuku.
“My thoughts exactly.” Hiragen motioned for two of his riders to lead the group into the camp. “Join us for now. My skyrider, Banasi, tells me you have dealt with many perils. The details can wait for when the other chieftains arrive.”
“Thank you.” Siuku nodded to the chieftains.
Ilsa and the Oshomi followed her into the Vogmem camp.
In this first episode of the podcast, Rob Ward and Tim Niederriter discuss RPG systems they have run and what they want to do for games in the future.
Ilsa and Blue ride north from the Central Lyre with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
A deal has been made with the Vogmem nomads to avoid war between the tribes.
But have Ilsa and her allies really escaped the conflict from the Central Lyre?
The more northerly they go, the more Ilsa worries.
The band of Oshomi continued northward. Ilsa rode close to Lemuel and Blue for the next few days, talking and sometimes even laughing with them. The steppe of Yr fell behind them, and the mountains towered up ahead.
The closer they got to the edge of the plateau, the further they would be from the monstrous Uzan. Ilsa always felt a stab of guilt as she considered the abominations she would have freed, had her father not beaten her to the action. She promised herself she would find a way to stop them, though even the Red Lector’s armored crawlers had apparently done very little.
They passed into a wide Lotok formation where cold geysers shot water from the ground. When they camped in a stable spot, Lemuel took the chance to dig a meter into the soil with Ilsa’s help. Once the plant pile that formed the basis of the underground Lotok was exposed, Lemuel jabbed the attachment spike of his reading tablet into the root to connect.
He rattled off a thread of information Ilsa did not understand. When she asked, he told her that the Vogmem appeared to be the only riders in the area. Finally, some good news, Ilsa thought. The next morning they rode on.
As the land became rougher and rockier she began to notice heavy hoof-prints in the grass and soil. Those hoof-prints looked to Ilsa like signs of the modified goats ridden by the Vogmem in place of the cat-like runners and high-legged striders of other regions.
Despite the Central Lyre falling farther into the distance behind them, she still feared what lay back there. The Uzan. The Red Lector. Black Powder.
On the fourth day since their escape from the siege, with the mountains just hours northward, a cloud of black smoke raced across the sky above them. The line sliced by with a horrible metallic scream, spreading the smell of propellant, but unlike any shot Ilsa had ever smelled before. She wrinkled her nose and frowned up at the trail.
“What was that?” asked one of the riders near Ilsa.
One of the others turned in her saddle and looked to the south. “It came from the Central Lyre,” she said in the language of the Filami.
Siuku, riding just a few meters ahead, turned toward the two Oshomi who had spoken, Ilsa, and the others. “It’s true. Spirits curse it, but it’s true.”
“How can you tell?” Tirica scowled at the black scar that continued to cut toward the mountains.
“The smoke is not ballistic propellant. It looks like fuel from a beast engine.” Siuku whipped her head around as the high-pitched scream echoed back to them from the mountains. The trail of black smoke curved.
Ilsa squinted, trying to make out the shape from which the dark cloud billowed. There’s no mistake, she thought. The smoke-spewing flying machine, still heavily obscured by the cloud, hurtled toward the Oshomi, Ilsa, and the others.
A flying machine. Ilsa had never seen anything quite like this noxious engine. She had flown in locusts, great airborne beasts modified by the city-dwellers to fly across impassable or dangerous land. Those could only land in water because of their aquatic origins. This abominable thing was different.
Locusts flew with slender white trails of lighter-than-air gas.
The machine belched smog from a small hole in the front and a roaring fire at the back.
Locusts ranged from the size of a strider to the huge transport beasts like the one which had last flown Ilsa into Ayoch before she returned to Dal, and they were shaped like manta rays. This black dart of churning iron-rust-colored metal rings looked nothing like an animal. It more resembled…
“It’s a bullet,” said Ilsa under her breath.
Lemuel glanced at her. “What?”
“It’s like a giant bullet.”
“Last time I checked, a bullet flies straight,” he said.
“Could be like an Ayochian extended round.” Blue stared at the bullet. “Just a lot bigger.”
Ilsa grunted. “It’s headed toward us. If it’s going to explode, we need to take shelter.” She turned to Siuku. “Keeper, we need to get to cover.”
Siuku’s pale pink eyes were wide. “What have we done?” she murmured, barely audible over the approaching roar of the monstrous flying machine.
Ilsa drove her legs into Hailek’s sides. “We have to split up. That thing could explode.”
The riders all looked at Siuku. The Keeper of Tenlyres snapped her eyes shut. “Go. Scatter and meet again at the pass north through the mountains.”
The Oshomi turned their steeds and raced off in small groups, like scattering spray from a shotgun. The smoking missile cast a dark smear against the blue and gray mountainsides not far away. But Siuku did not move. She stayed on her steed and stared at the approaching object.
“Keeper.” Ilsa rode to her side.
“What have we done?” Siuku repeated. “The Uzan are behind this.” Tears ran from her eyes and vanished behind her veil. “And we freed them.”
“We can set it right. But we can only do that if survive.”
“Hathanian words. A platitude, priestess.”
“If you’re dead, you aren’t any use to your people.” Ilsa grimaced.
Blue rode up on Siuku’s other side. “Keeper, I don’t know what you are, but you can heal people. Don’t throw yourself away.”
“Yes, and you can do even more.” Ilsa reached out and touched Siuku’s arm. “Come with us to Morhoen, to Koor’s Temple. We can work from there.”
Siuku turned her teary eyes to Ilsa. “You are convincing, priestess. I will ride with you to fight another day.”
They turned their steeds, and like the others left the path of the missile. Its cloud and scream closed with then. Only when they reached the point where they should pass the horrifying machine almost a kilometer away from its massive shadow, Ilsa realized her gamble would not work. The machine banked toward the three of them and then angled to dive toward the ground.
The machine closed the lateral distance. Ilsa drew her pistols and loaded them with full magazines. She glared at the approaching missile even as she tried to guide Hailek to evade the impact. The shroud of smoke fell over Ilsa, Blue, and Siuku, even at full gallop. The scream of turning rings on the machine’s side became piercing. The sound felt as if it cut clear through Ilsa’s mind to her soul.
The missile outraced them and then plunged the final few meters down into the earth, tearing apart the steppe between them and the mountains. Ilsa winced at the scream and roar and shower of earth, plants, and icy water that erupted from the impact. The ground below Hailek rippled. Then, like a geyser in reverse, the ground fell away beneath her and her steed. Ilsa fell with a shout of warning she could barely even hear.
Ilsa tumbled from the saddle but managed to land on her feet. Her boots splashed into the freezing, ankle-deep water of a broken Lotok well. Large root systems that made up the plains-dwelling plant piles in this area were visible amid the earth and debris from the impact. Jagged crevasses ran through the plains where the well had ruptured.
Her spine ached. She grunted and straightened her back, still holding both pistols. She and Hailek had fallen around six meters, but there wasn’t enough room for Hailek to muster the momentum to jump out of the hole, even if the surface was safe. For his part, the wooly strider lowered his hairy head and sniffed at Ilsa’s dirty face. She patted him. “We’ll get out of here. I’ll find a way.”
Her ears still rang from the massive sound of the impact and her own words sounded far away. She climbed up the line to Hailek’s back and stood on the saddle to look over the edge of the hole. She peered out carefully, balancing with her hand against the dirt of one nearby wall.
The ground was cracked and broken in every direction. What had been an area of fragile ground formed by a Lotok’s series of wells, geysers, and piles just moments ago, had become a morass of leaky ponds and open rifts in the earth. Smoke billowed from the impact crater ahead of them.
Ilsa shivered as water sank through her boots and into her socks.
She could not see Siuku, Blue, or either of their steeds, but she knew she had to find them. Her eyes darted this way and that. At last, she sat down in Hailek’s saddle. With a groan, she realized with pain that something in her back must be bruised. She scowled, and turned Hailek to head toward the chasm in the walls that looked just big enough to let him through to the next nearby well which had also broken open by the impact.
The narrow gap made for a tight squeeze. Ilsa turned side-saddle and pulled up her legs to give Hailek passage. Water and roots dripped around her, gnarled roots formed a canopy over her head, turning the skinny space dark. She emerged into the next open well and found the horse Siuku had been riding, lying broken and twisted in the water.
The poor animal was dead, neck bent the wrong way. The saddlebags were gone. Siuku must be looking for a way out of the collapse. The well stretched out longer than the one where Ilsa had fallen. The steppe she could see on the far end looked stable enough for a strider.
She switched her legs to sit astride her steed and then urged Hailek with pressure to the flanks. He leaped onto the surface of the plain, a plain crumbling for kilometers around. The ground shifted, but remained in place enough for him to walk forward a few more steps.
Ilsa rocked back in the saddle. Her aching back flared in protest, but she held herself upright. She gritted her teeth and scanned the way to the mountains. The missile fired from the Central Lyre still smoked. Its nose was buried halfway in the earth up ahead, but otherwise, the huge metallic chunk looked the same as when it had been airborne.
Shapes either black as night or pale as paper, moved around the monolithic piece of ammunition. Each of those shapes, while vaguely humanoid, was clearly too large to be a normal human. Each was well over three meters tall, Ilsa judged, and their necks were far shorter. Patterns crisscrossed their skin, dark on the light-skinned creatures and light on the dark-skinned ones, though they were difficult to see well through the wisps of smoke.
One of the dark Uzan raised a bulky, four-fingered hand and pointed at Ilsa. Two others looked at the first, then turned toward Ilsa with grunts and growls.
She scanned the opened wells of the Lotok around her, desperately searching for Siuku and Blue in the watery bogs. She did not find them. I’m not going to leave without them, she thought. They were both her mission and her friends.
The two Uzan marched toward Ilsa, now just twenty meters away. Ilsa checked her pistols. Both still clean and dry enough to fire, despite the fall through dirt and water. She leveled them at the two demonic monsters as the Uzan started to pick their way across the surface of the broken Lotok toward her.
A foreign thought flickered into her head.
I’m with the keeper. We’re a few meters North of you, in the pit.
Blue’s mind-eater communication was unmistakable.
Ilsa did her best to push one thought to the fore of her nervous mind.
Can you sense the Uzan?
Two of them, coming at you. I feel them, Blue sent back.
As the Uzan closed to ten meters from Ilsa, they each began to walk with an unstable, awkward gait. Gun-barrels emerged from their etched chests as if they pushing out of a liquid instead of flesh. The lead one also produced the barrel of a gun from the palm of each hand. Though no weapons appeared fully-formed, Ilsa guessed the monsters would not need to have the guns completely free to use them.
She grimaced and took aim, unsure of what bullets would do to the monsters.
Blue, if you’re going to take one of them over, now would be a good time.
No answer. All Ilsa’s thoughts were her own for the next minute. The lead Uzan raised the barrel of the guns in its palms. Guns roared just as real as any other. Hailek lurched as a large round cut a bloody trail across his side. A shot any closer to his center of mass might have killed him.
Ilsa cringed low in the saddle and urged the strider sideways with her bodyweight. She peered over the saddle. Hailek’s blood began to flow from the wound. The lead Uzan took another step forward and prepared to fire again.
The second monster shot the first in the back with all the weapons that had emerged from its chest.
The fusillade ripped the lead Uzan’s back to pieces and the monster sagged to its knees. Ilsa stared, surprised, and relieved. The creature’s arms reached up and seized the sides of its head. A struggle passed through the yellow eyes of the Uzan.
Blue was trying to make the monster kill itself, but the creature fought back, a strength most humans who weren’t magi did not possess without extreme training. Slowly, the creature pulled its fingers free from the sides of its head. Ilsa did not give it the chance to recover and shoot.
She pumped one of her pistols into the creature’s head. The first bullet struck the forehead and left just a dent and a trickle of blood. The second disappeared through the eye of the monster. The Uzan staggered and then tumbled into one of the open Lotok wells.
At least they’re not immortal. I can kill them, she thought.
Ilsa urged Hailek forward. Blue’s open voice called to her from the largest well yet. She sat on her strider’s back, Siuku on the saddle behind her. Both looked wet and dirty from the fall into the Lotok.
Blue kicked her heels into the strider’s side and the creature crouched. Her steed carried her and Siuku out of the well with a high leap.
“Which way?” Ilsa asked.
“To the pass,” Blue called. “We’ll be safe at the Lake of Saints.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m a magus. I’ll explain the details later.” Their striders sprang over the pitted steppe. More Uzan began to clamber out of the larger crater where their huge bullet had crashed. Weapons began to emerge, but Ilsa and Blue’s striders were swift. They circled around the fallen shell. As they rode, Ilsa saw Blue’s face looked gray with strain. Her eyes were rolled this way and that as she battled the minds of each different Uzan.
Ilsa kept her pistols drawn and aimed at different Uzan. At least she could kill them if they got within range, but after the first two, they appeared warier. They stayed back. She hated the lack of a rifle. If her friend could not keep them from opening up with their weapons, she would be vastly outgunned by the hurricane of fire even one of the monsters would unleash.
“Keep it up,” she called, hoping to sound reassuring. “We’re almost there.”
Blue replied with only a grunt. Her eyes twitched involuntarily as they raced away from the fallen pod and toward the mountains. Ilsa counted every second, expecting a salvo of bullets in the back. But it did not come.
She took a cloth from her saddlebag beside her red staff of office and pressed it to the bleeding wound on Hailek’s side. “We’ll get through this,” she said to the strider. “We’ll get through.”
Blood spotted the makeshift bandage and leaked onto Ilsa’s hands. She pressed it tighter.
Two striders raced toward the pass in the mountains just a few kilometers ahead.
Ilsa and Blue ride north from the Central Lyre with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
They have escaped Black Powder, the Red Lector, and the demonic Uzan, for now, but hunger could become a deadly foe as well.
The morning after the escape from the siege, Ilsa woke to the sounds of Oshomi talking and planning. Her stomach growled as she stood up from where she had lain against Hailek’s wooly bulk. Lemuel still slept on the other side of the animal, shrunken arm tucked to his black-clad side. His face was peaceful with the faint hint of a smile on his lips. Ilsa turned and found Blue walking toward her.
“You rest well?” her friend asked.
“I suppose I did.” Ilsa glanced in Lemuel’s direction.
Blue clapped her on the shoulder, making her turn, and then leaned in close. “He’s a little odd, but seems that you like him.”
Ilsa’s cheeks flushed. “Maybe—Blue, that’s not the point. We have to try to stay alive here.”
With a grin, Blue turned toward the rising sun. “I’m just glad to see the sun again. Turns out being underground for most of a week was terrible for me.”
“Turns out.” Ilsa followed Blue’s gaze toward the center of the camp. Siuku and half-dozen other riders were mounting their horses. She waved Blue and Ilsa over to her.
“Will either of you join us? We hunt, or we go hungry today. We break camp and ride north, or we may be caught by pursuers.”
Ilsa and Blue exchanged glances.
“I’ve never hunted before,” said Blue. “I can help break camp.” She raised her eyebrows and glanced at Ilsa.
“I have hunted before,” said Ilsa. “I’ll go with you, at the least I can act as a guard.”
Siuku nodded. “I might have known you would. You should rouse your strider.”
“Alright.” Ilsa did not want to wake Lemuel, but she saw no other way. She returned to Hailek’s side, then walked around to the far side and knelt down beside Lemuel. Her hand pressed to the shoulder of his good arm. She held it there for a moment, enjoying the feel of his warm muscle and firm bone through his coat. Then, she shook him gently.
His eyes opened and he glanced at her hand on his shoulder. She withdrew her arm quickly, maybe too quickly. She smiled at him. “Sorry, Lemuel. I need Hailek.”
He looked around, blearily. “What? Is it morning?”
“Yeah,” she said. “The Keeper says we need to go hunting.”
Lemuel sat up, then got to his feet. He folded his shrunken hand into his larger one. He looked over Ilsa’s shoulder as Blue’s footsteps approached swishing over the short steppe grass. He nodded to Blue.
“You’re with us non-hunters, breaking camp, Lem,” said Blue. “Keeper says we need to keep riding.”
“Terrific.” Lemuel’s good hand felt down his back. He grimaced. “I never liked riding as a kid. I don’t really know how I ended up so far from civilization.”
Ilsa smirked. “Too late now. We’re stuck out here.”
“No lie, that.” Blue turned toward the rest of the camp.
Ilsa followed her friend’s gaze. Tirica and Cass were talking by the remains of the campfire. Siuku and her hunters looked ready to ride, all mounted and checking bows or guns. Talking to Cass would have to wait, for which Ilsa was glad. She wasn’t eager to find out how Cass’s arm had been broken in captivity. She would learn soon enough, she decided.
“Hailek,” said Ilsa. “Up.”
The strider got to his feet. His long hair blustered in a stiff gust of wind. If a storm blew up, hunting might become difficult. Weather on the steppe could change fast.
She climbed up to Hailek’s back and then swung her legs across the saddle. She rode to join the other hunters.
“Do you have a rifle?” asked Siuku.
Ilsa shook her head. “What are we hunting?”
“The beasts of the air are my prey. You’ll ride with me, priestess.”
“Then I won’t need a rifle.”
They rode out of the makeshift camp and headed north. Far away, the points of the mountains on the edge of the plateau were visible as small misty spikes making the horizon jagged. The sounds of birds calling in the spring air pierced the wind that cloaked other sounds on the plain.
Ilsa produced her shotgun and loaded it. She urged Hailek forward, but slower than he could run. They kept pace with the horses of Siuku and the others.
Siuku’s pale red eyes looked toward the north, never turning to search for prey. Ilsa and the other Oshomi scanned the steppe in every direction. Even so, Siuku was the first to find large enough animals for food.
A rush of wings and feathers came from ahead of them, a nest stirred up in a clump of tall grasses as the riders approached. Siuku drew back an arrow and fired. One of the birds cried in dismay and fell. The shot must have been difficult with a bow, but Siuku made no comment but slowed her steed as they closed with the fallen animal.
Ilsa took aim with her shotgun. Her weapon roared and the spray of shot brought down another bird in flight. The other hunters continued the pursuit, shouting and shooting. Ilsa and Siuku collected the birds they had killed in their wake. Both had been clean kills.
The hunt went on, moving northward all day. As evening approached and the horses grew tired, they angled their path to rejoin the rest of the band. They collected a few prey animals, but without food for the entire day, Ilsa was hungry by the time Siuku called a halt to the hunt. The party rode toward the new campsite where cook fires were just beginning to spark.
Then, Ilsa saw another winged shape, circling the camp. It was no prey animal. A hawk larger than a horse circled the camp. A humanoid figure rode on the great hawk’s back between the wings, bundled in warm clothes and with a scarf streaming from her neck. She carried a bow and arrow, and a long lance hung at her side.
Ilsa pointed. “Who is that?”
A murmur ran through the hunting party.
Siuku pushed her steed ahead. “A skyrider of the Vogmem tribes. Blasphemers, they shape their steeds as city-dwellers do.”
“The Vogmem are nomads. How do they engineer a bird big enough to fly?”
“I do not know. But this one has spotted us. We may be in danger.”
Ilsa grunted. She supposed a day without a threat would have been too much to ask. She said a small prayer to Hathani in her head, not one written in the books, but one she could have put into words herself.
Please do not test us unless you must.
Keep us, Hathani.
The Vogmem skyrider circled lower as Ilsa and Siuku reached the camp. She withdrew her shotgun into the weapon bond and produced one of her pistols. Lemuel and Blue left the ring of Oshomi around the campfires and ran toward the hunting party. Lemuel waved his good arm and pointed around the fire with his small one.
Blue dropped a thought into Ilsa’s mind. The woman on that hawk is some kind of magus. I don’t think I can keep her from getting away to tell her people about us.
I’ll handle this, Ilsa thought for Blue’s benefit. She hated the idea of being helpless again like her father had made her back at the Central Lyre. She grimaced. “Faster, Hailek.” The strider complied, now well-used to obeying her voice. He hurtled around Lemuel and through the camp. Ilsa turned in her saddle and loaded the pistol with a half-full magazine, just in case.
If this was a scout, she would not need to start with a full magazine. And with enough luck, this situation would not come to violence. She kept the safety on and stuffed the pistol into the waistband of her coat. An odd thought struck her as she did.
Black Powder had been wearing gun belts back at the Central Lyre. Why use those when he was a weapon bond? She shook herself mentally and resolved to figure an answer out later. That encounter had far raised more questions than it answered.
The skyrider skimmed over the camp, hooting and, Ilsa realized, laughing, at the Oshomi below. She shouted in the Filami steppe-language, “What are you doing so far North, Oshomi?”
“Our business is not yours,” called Siuku. “Now come down here before we shoot you down.”
The hawk circled overhead, just past Ilsa. Once it turned to face the camp, it dropped the last five meters straight down beside Hailek.
The skyrider was a tiny woman with wavy black hair and a lined face. She smirked at Ilsa as she turned her strider toward the landed hawk. “You won’t catch me,” said the skyrider. “I can be airborne again in an instant.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Ilsa said. “Who are you?”
“I’m a scout for my band. We live near the pass that leads to the Lake of Saints. And you, city-dweller, who are you?”
The others rode over toward them, but everyone kept a safe distance from the hawk and its rider. Siuku glared at the older woman on the hawk. “You,” she said. “Are Vogmem.” Her usually monotone voice trembled with obvious rage. “You will be lucky if I don’t kill you just for that.”
“Oshomi like to be scary. But you’re not just any Oshomi.” The skyrider whistled. “You are the Keeper of Tenlyres, aren’t you?”
“I am. And your people killed my parents.”
“What has passed is gone.” The skyrider shrugged. “Our peoples have never been friends, girl.”
The Oshomi murmured and a few of them cursed more loudly in their own language. A few made rude hand gestures. Siuku held up a hand to hush them.
Ilsa turned toward the Keeper. “She wanted to know who I am. I haven’t told her, but we don’t need to hurt her either.”
“You understand nothing about the steppe, priestess.” Siuku’s eyes remained fixed on the skyrider. “But I will admit, now is not the time for grudges.”
“What do you mean?” The skyrider smirked. “Just a moment ago you were talking about killing me for being Vogmem. Not that you could.”
“Flight is useful,” said Siuku as the chill breeze whipped through her hair and moved her veil. “But there are things even birds cannot escape.” Her tone had returned to the usual flat level. Ilsa wondered how the Keeper managed to hide her anger so quickly when it had been so evident before. “The Uzan are freed from the Central Lyre.”
“Uzan? Demons?” said the skyrider. “These are stories for the old to tell the children. I’ve told some myself, on occasion. But they are not real.”
“No matter what you believe, it’s true. They clash a day and a half’s ride south of here,” said Siuku. “And honesty is all I have to show besides the lives of my people since our escape.”
“Not quite,” said the skyrider. “Cook me some peace meat and let me go. I’ll fly and tell my chief you don’t want war.”
Ilsa frowned. Peace meat was only barely familiar to her, but the sharing of a prey animal sometimes represented a truce for the tribes of the steppe. She hoped that was true.
Siuku nodded to one of her hunters. “Prepare the peace meat from my kill. We do not want war with the Vogmem this day.”
The skyrider laughed. “My name is Banasi. Nice to meet you, Keeper of Tenlyres.”
The meat cooked, it’s smell distinct and savory to Ilsa’s nose. She had smelled too much powder lately, and not enough good scents. Ilsa sat down with Tirica, Lemuel, Cass, and Blue by the fire.
“I’m glad we didn’t have to see another war start today,” said Tirica softly as she leaned back beside her brother.
“If we had any alcohol left, I would drink to that.” Blue chuckled. “Too bad, right?”
Cass gave a small smile and a nod toward the Chogrumian mind eater. “It’s true.”
Lemuel glanced from Blue to Ilsa. “It’s good to be alive. Even in a muddy, bloody place like this.”
“What is with you Chollush’s and your quotes tonight?” Ilsa said. “You could have been clerics of Hathani.” Her eyes met with Lemuel’s and she couldn’t help slight flush of warmth in her face. He stood up from the pile of saddle-bags they sat on a short distance from the fires.
“Ilsa, can I ask you something?”
“The answer isn’t what you want,” said Cass softly, her smile gone.
Ilsa frowned at the other priestess. She stood up and took Lemuel by the good arm, then led him away from the fire. Behind her, the others exchanged looks and a few words Ilsa could not discern. She and Lemuel stopped several meters away. She leaned toward him close.
He started and said, “Ilsa—I’m sorry, I didn’t know your order was—”
She stopped his lips with hers. His strong hand fell to her hip. Warmth moved through her, from his fingers, from his lips, from his chest. He touched as well as he talked. She broke from their kiss. “That’s not what Cass meant.” She shook her head. “It’s just me, Lemuel.”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t—I’m not good with relationships. Cass knows because when I was at Saint Banyeen’s there was this boy. And I hurt him, inside.”
“I’m not a little boy.” Lemuel’s voice was gentle. “Don’t worry about me.”
She put her hand on his small hand and clasped his shrunken wrist. “I’m bound to worry, but I trust you too.”
He smiled, tentatively. “Alright. I suppose we had better get back. Eat so we don’t starve.”
“Sounds like an idea,” said Ilsa. They walked back to the fire. Her hand still held his wrist.
Ilsa and Blue have joined with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
Ilsa’s mercenary father, Black Powder, has appeared at the Central Lyre and played the notes to open the vaults.
Monsters unknown to humanity for millennia have just been freed.
The lyre trembled beneath Ilsa’s feet, sending waves that shook her legs and made her teeth buzz. She held the gun steady on Black Powder in spite of the rumbling from below. Her eyes flicked toward the opening of the Lyre.
“Siuku, tell everyone to ride!”
The Keeper of Tenlyres did not reply, but Ilsa heard her shout down the corridor to the riders below. Hooves joined the sound of the lyre as the horses below began to move.
Ilsa lurched toward her father, pistol still trained on him. “Tell your students to leave. Now.”
“Melinda seemed to have beaten you before,” said Black Powder. “I won’t let you shoot me.”
Ilsa sneered at her father. “But you won’t let her kill me.”
Black Powder shook his head. “We will see how your comrades fair against my apprentices.”
As he spoke, Lemuel and Blue emerged from the tunnel on the striders, with Tirica and Siuku riding close behind them. Melinda went for her pistol. Ilsa snarled and twisted at her hips. She shot the gun from Melinda’s grip before the crazed girl could pull the trigger. Melinda’s other pistol barked. The bullet hit Ilsa in the shoulder and blood roared from the wound.
Ilsa grunted with pain and fired again, but Melinda was on the run, evasive and chaotic. She fled to the far support of the lyre. Ilsa whirled to focus on Black Powder. She found him by her side. The pain in her shoulder burned, and she felt the paralytic toxin from Melinda’s bullet reaching tendrils into her muscles. Soon she would go from one gun hand to none, with the loss of her ability to shift her shoulder.
She glared at Black Powder, her fingers locked on the pistol grips. She shoved the barrel into her father’s chest. “Die.” She hissed with tears in her eyes.
His fist slammed into her stomach. She staggered and fell to her knees. Black Powder stood over her for an instant. “Tomorrow, daughter. For now, see how the end begins.” Then his shadow left her vision. Her ears rang with the lyre’s music, the vibrations from below, and the hoof beats all around.
Ilsa stood, digging the strength from within her aching stomach. She turned toward the cavern and saw neither Melinda nor Black Powder, nor the glints of sniper rifles. Gunshots and cries of horror echoed from the Ayochian camp in every direction, adding to the noise.
Lemuel guided Hailek to Ilsa’s side. She withdrew her pistol into her partially paralyzed arm. He helped her climb into the saddle. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“No. Not a damned bit.” Ilsa winced as her wounded shoulder brushed his arm. “Take me there.” She pointed with the barrel of her remaining pistol, still locked in her paralyzed grip, toward the tent where she had figured the prisoners were kept. “We need to hurry.”
Blue and Tirica caught up with them, and they rode for the Ayochian lines. Judging by the sounds of fear and violence, there had indeed been monsters hidden beneath the lyre. The Uzan, beasts that may have warred with the gods in ancient times, were free.
The pain and dizziness in Ilsa’s head only built as they neared the camp. No one fired at them, or the Oshomi who followed behind. Shadowy forms raced through the camp. Men and women fought the Uzan and died under the cacophonous roar of the lyre and their own weapons. Bodies in Ayochian blue and lectoral red uniforms littered the ground, torn apart by otherworldly strength.
Blue leaped down from her saddle and tore open the flap of the prison tent. Ilsa leaned against Lemuel. Her blood darkened and stained his outer coat. “Tirica,” she said. “Help get them out.”
Siuku caught up, along with her riders on their horses. All of them had made it this far from the lyre. She turned to her people. “Free your brothers and sisters,” she said through her veil. “I will bring their steeds.” She gave a whooping call. Captured Oshomi horses stampeded from an impromptu stockade where they had been imprisoned, and raced through the camp toward the prison tent.
Blue emerged from the tent, supporting Ferdinand. Tirica led Cass out next, and Ilsa saw her friend and the other prisoners had not been treated well. Cass’s red hair bore traces of dried blood mingled with the mud of the steppe. One of her arms hung limp, possibly dislocated or broken. Ilsa’s teeth ground together, pain and temper combined.
Horses found their riders. Tirica helped Cass onto her steed. Ferdinand looked up at Ilsa, a grin on his weary face. His white strider appeared with the other captured steeds. The man nodded to Ilsa then jumped onto his steed’s back. He scurried up the side and turned to ride from the camp. Before he spurred the strider, he looked over his shoulder.
“Thanks for the save, that’s two I owe you now.” Then he rode through the camp, his lance appearing in one hand.
“You’ll pay me back eventually,” Ilsa shouted.
“We should go,” said Lemuel.
“Right,” Ilsa breathed in sharply. The smell of blood both new and old assailed her, along with the traces of propellants. The powder was mostly Ayochian, but another sort mixed into the ballistic smoke.
The smell of a powder Ilsa did not recognize.
The Oshomi urged their steeds through, breaking out of the Red Lector’s ragged camp. The treaded transport vehicles and artillery pieces the rearguard of the Ayochian forces had brought with them sat mostly abandoned on the outside of the camp. A few turrets started moving as Ilsa and Lemuel rode toward them with the others.
One of the turrets swung toward Ilsa, and she had no way to stop it, both hands useless for fighting, arms wrapped around Lemuel’s waist to hold on. She grimaced at her uselessness.
She spoke to her steed, “Hailek, jump!”
He did not balk. He sprang. His heavy foot stamped onto the top of the turret, denting the metal with his weight, then he landed on the other side. The turret gunner did not get a chance to reorient the weapon. A barrage of heavy shots slammed through the side of the vehicle. Ilsa looked back as the last of the Oshomi fled the camp. A single pale beast stood beside the burning transport, it’s hulking frame outlined in fire as the munitions inside the vehicle ignited with a sound like fireworks.
The Uzan roared from a mouth that opened in both directions. It had to be at least four meters tall, and its milky skin was coated in a sheen of liquid that could have been gray oil. While its general shape was humanoid, it’s shoulders and chest shifted back, the flesh peeling away, to reveal the smoking muzzles of an array of unmistakable weapon-barrels.
Ilsa’s eyes widened, but the beast ignored her and the others as they fled. The Uzan turned back to the camp and its weapons opened up again in a chaotic fusillade of squeals and cracks. Ilsa kept looking back even as Hailek carried her further northward from the Central Lyre.
That night, kilometers away, they made camp despite the distant fires of the Ayochian camp. Perhaps a fifty Oshomi of the band sworn to Siuku’s defense had made it away from the Central Lyre. While they cooked what little remained of their food, the Keeper removed her veil and healed the wounds Ilsa had received that day. The sealed without scars and the pain was replaced by the tingling of what reconstructed nerves.
“How do you do that?” Ilsa asked.
“I am gifted by the spirits,” said Siuku. “I do not know how.” She replaced her veil, wearily. “It is a tiring process. That is certain.”
Ilsa looked across the fire to where Cass sat with her arm in a sling, broken, it turned out. Tirica brought the red-haired priestess the last bit of bread she had saved and the two of them started talking.
“What about Cass’s arm?”
“I can only heal recent wounds. The older they are, the more real they become.”
“Huh,” Ilsa said. “That’s important to know.”
“Priestess, I did not hear everything at the lyre. Who was that man?”
“Black Powder is what the other mercenaries call him.” Ilsa sighed. “My mother called him Henry. He’s my father.”
“He knew how to play the lyre.”
“Yes, and I still don’t understand how he knew what to do.” Ilsa frowned down at her hand and flexed her fingers. “That apprentice of his, Melinda. She’s dangerous.”
“I’m sure you would think so.”
“If you run into her, be careful,” said Ilsa. “She didn’t seem hesitant to kill.”
“Also a predictable response,” said Siuku in the same flat tone as usual.
“What do you expect? I’m not going to surprise you all the time.”
“I suppose not. Perhaps this means I’m getting to know you, priestess.”
“What about the Uzan?” asked Ilsa. “Do you know what they’ll do?”
“I do not. They are an ancient species, far older than I can say. But the spirits may aid us against them.”
“Against them?” Ilsa frowned. “There is going to be a war on this plateau. My mission is still to protect you.”
“And yet, I will not leave with these monsters roaming free.”
“You’re not making this easy.”
Siuku stood up. “Nothing is ever easy for those who help others. Good night, priestess. Tomorrow we will hunt. It is a good thing winter has passed.”
Ilsa watched the Keeper walk through the rough, mostly open-air camp. Her stomach rumbled, the only pain remaining to her. Still, she would have to be ready. She slept little that night.
Ilsa and Blue have joined with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
The Keeper has demonstrated knowledge of the Lyres and a mystical ability to heal wounds.
However, the forces of the Ayoch have surrounded them, and trapped them beneath the Central Lyre, along with a surviving force of Oshomi nomads. The siege is nearly over.
Escape is now or never.
Ilsa and Lemuel climbed the tunnel until they reached the place near the top, where Blue crouched, peering over the rise at the steppe outside. Blue looked over her armored shoulder at them. “I don’t know what they’re waiting around for. They second army got here the same day as the Red Lector himself.”
She recalled the conversation she had overheard in the plant pile when Ferdinand had shown up at Palend’s manor. “Some of them work for the Gray Lector, and whoever that is, he isn’t allied with the Red Lector.”
“Lectors this, Lectors that,” said the flat voice of Siuku, the Keeper of Tenlyres, from behind Ilsa. “What cares do we have for the names they give themselves.”
Blue raised her eyebrows at Ilsa. The question on Blue’s face did not require mental powers to convey.
Ilsa nodded to the Keeper. “It could inform our strategy.”
“Divide and conquer, children,” said Blue with relish.
Siuku’s cold red gaze moved to Blue’s face, her expression unreadable behind her veil. “None of us are children.”
“It’s an expression of simplicity.” Lemuel frowned past Blue at the lines of Ayochian tents, now encircling the lyre. He looked up at the gleaming metal strings of the lyre. “Keeper, do you know which strings open which passages in the lyre?”
“Yes. But if we open more surface passages we will only have to guard them as well.”
“What about passages that go deeper into the lyre?” asked Ilsa.
“Few Keepers have ever gone below the highest chamber.”
“But it is possible, right?”
“Yes, priestess. It is possible, but it is dangerous.”
“Dangerous? Why?” She frowned. The possible dangers below could not be worse than the armies surrounding them already.
Siuku closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. “Our people tell stories of creatures trapped beneath the lyres, imprisoned there just after the beginning by the ancient spirits.”
“Wait,” said Ilsa. “The First Book of Hathani talks about something similar before the departure of the gods.”
“Perhaps your city writers are not all wrong. We call them Uzan, among our people, evil beasts that warred with the first of our people, when the spirits walked among us.”
“Suppose they’re down there. How could they survive underground for thousands of years?” Blue asked.
“Such creatures are not mortal in the stories,” said Siuku.
“But they might just be a myth,” said Lemuel.
“I don’t know about myth, but all living things die eventually,” said Ilsa.
“How optimistic.” Blue grimaced. “Got any other ideas to cheer me up?”
Ilsa shrugged. “We could wait underground until they starve us out. Then we would just lose everything while we smell our own filth.”
Blue’s red-rimmed eyes blinked. “Is that a joke?”
“I mean, we have to do something.” Ilsa turned to Siuku and Lemuel. “Right?”
“Agreed.” Siuku’s brow furrowed. “In fact. If we open all the passages, we might be able to use that confusion to escape when the Uzan emerge.”
“If they emerge,” said Lemuel.
“Scholar, do not doubt my words. They are below us, not far below now.” Siuku turned to the three Oshomi who had been keeping watch with Blue. “Go and prepare everyone to ride.”
“But the Uzan—,” said one of the men.
Ilsa shook her head. “They may be able to live forever, but I’ve never met any monster that couldn’t be killed.” She produced the pistol from one of her bonds. “Send up our steeds when it’s time to move,” she said.
The man bowed to Siuku. She nodded to them in reply. He and the other two Oshomi followed the passage down into the chamber below.
Ilsa did not like the implication of opening the lyre, but what other choice did they have? She peered over the slope of the passage, searching the Ayochian line for where they might keep their prisoners. Cass and Ferdinand and the Oshomi the Red Lector had captured were hopefully still alive. Either way, Ilsa has a debt to repay all of them, especially her fellow priestess.
She found a tent a few back from the line, directly across from the place where the far arch of the lyre connected to the base of the platform. Her eyes narrowed as she squinted, but she couldn’t pick out any sign of her friends.
Blue put a hand on her shoulder. “They’re there,” she said. “How did you know?”
Her friend whistled. “Let’s hope that luck holds.”
Hoofbeats and thumps of feet on stone announced the arrival of Siuku’s horse, Hailek, and Blue’s strider. Tirica Chollush rode in Blue’s saddle. She had recovered well after Siuku had sealed her wound, though days without sunlight had left her paler than before.
Ilsa turned to face the strings. “Everyone, get ready to ride. I’m about to open the gates.”
Ilsa drew her second pistol and loaded it, then crept up from the passage, staying low. The light of midday sun glimmered on the strings and felt warm on her skin. Winter might be truly over, Ilsa thought as she looked back and forth, scanning the Ayochian camp for signs of anyone watching. She saw none. She pressed her back against the wall beside the passage and aimed down her pistol’s barrel at the strings.
“Hit every string, and the lyre should open,” said Siuku from the passage.
Ilsa grunted and trained the pistol on the string farthest from her. The reflection of a scope glinted in the camp beyond the black stone of the lyre. She threw herself to one side, pistol free of her trigger guard. A bullet whined off the wall where she had just been crouched, high-velocity long distance round with Morhoenese propellant judging by the sound and smell.
“What the hell was that?” said Lemuel.
“Someone’s been waiting to take a shot,” said Ilsa without looking back. She stepped into the silhouette of the lyre’s arch, hoping the sniper wouldn’t have friends already lining up a shot in the blind spot. A low chuckle came from behind her and to the right. Ilsa whirled, one gun forward, the other still pointed at the strings.
A skinny black girl with frizzy hair stood beside the passage, her back to the stone and a pistol in one hand, aimed at Ilsa. She put her index to her lips, a shushing gesture.
“They call themselves the Brothers of the Black Desert,” said the girl in a Chogrumian accent. “Master Black Powder likes them.”
Ilsa scowled as she heard her father’s pseudonym among the mercenary companies. “Black Powder?”
The girl smirked. “Ozleji said you seemed not to like your father. Truth is, I really don’t care.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Melinda. I’m Black Powder’s best apprentice yet. He’s never seen anyone shoot like me.” She twitched her wrist. A trigger clicked just as Ilsa started to move, but she couldn’t predict the direction of Melinda’s shot. The bullet hit the pistol Ilsa had aimed at Melinda in its back, just above Ilsa’s wrist and tore the weapon from her grip. The pistol skittered away across the lyre.
Ilsa snarled and swung the other pistol to fire at the girl. She’s a mercenary, obviously employed by Ayoch, like Ozleji Sammhar had been. Before Ilsa could fire a second bullet from Melinda’s pistol hit her in the back of the hand. She grunted in pain, but the gun’s barrel moved to within inches of Melinda’s young face. Where she meant to pull the trigger she could not find the strength in the needed fingers, and they remained stiff.
“Shit,” said Ilsa.
“Muscular toxins in the round. Paralyzes a local area around the bullet.” Melinda smiled, her pistol pressed into Ilsa’s chest. “I told him I was better than you.”
“You mean, my father?”
“Who else, silly?” The girl smiled at Ilsa, teeth bright and white. “I knew you would come out eventually and I’d get my chance to prove it.” Melinda cackled with laughter and lowered her pistol from Ilsa’s heart. She backed away onto the open side of the lyre. “Come on now, Ilsa, be good and follow me. I promise the boys won’t shoot you before I do.”
The pain in Ilsa’s wounded hand ran through her nerves like fire. She was used to bullets and blades, but the toxins hurt worse than that. Her mind pulsed with pain. She pressed her hand to the wall near the passage with a gasp. She normally did not keep her guns loaded because the bullets could detonate when summoned improperly through a bond. But in one hundred heartbeats Ilsa would have her chance to try it if this girl didn’t shoot her first.
“Ilsa, what’s going on out there?” asked Lemuel asked from the passage. “Blue says she can’t sense anyone else.”
“There’s a weapon bond out here. Stay where you are.”
“Don’t try reaching into your spirit, Ilsa,” said Melinda. “I won’t let you pull out another gun.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you won’t.” Ilsa gritted her teeth and stalked toward Melinda, still leaning on the wall with her open hand.
Less than fifty heartbeats to go.
Melinda laughed and waved Ilsa out into the open. She glimpsed a second scope in the light of day. She looked to be dead, even if she beat this girl. Forty heartbeats to go. Ilsa shuddered on her feet.
“My father trained you too, is that it?”
“I’m no liar. I’m the best he’s ever trained.”
“I haven’t met a lot of his other students.” Ilsa mustered up the strength to force her grimaced into a smile. She faced Melinda. Twenty heartbeats. “He barely talked about the others when he trained me.”
“Well, he’ll be here soon. Not sure if he’ll be happy to find you dead. But I have a feeling he’ll forgive me.”
“You’re a bit of work.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Melinda’s lip curled.
Both of Melinda’s pistols aimed at Ilsa. Four. Ilsa rolled her eyes. Three. “I’m not your rival.”
Two heartbeats left.
Melinda’s fingers inched toward the trigger. “Time to go, Ilsa.”
One heartbeat left.
Ilsa clenched her open hand.
She focused on the image of the pistol just as it had been, a firearm with a loaded magazine full of Dalite 5.6 millimeter rounds. Every detail, every piece of information about her ammunition swam in her head. Yes, she had never done this, but no, it was not impossible. She felt the pistol in her hand, stable, whole.
She let the strength leave her legs and gravity carried her to the stone of the lyre, even as she swung her arm up to fire. Melinda’s pistols roared and the bullets flew over Ilsa’s head. A gun cracked in the distance and a bullet ricocheted off the side of the lyre’s arch a few meter’s away from Ilsa and Melinda.
Her own bullet cut into Melinda’s shoulder. Melinda staggered to one side. “Better than I thought,” she said.
From Ilsa rolled to one side and fired again. The bullet slashed across Melinda’s long gray sleeve, cutting the cloth without drawing blood as the girl darted the other way.
Ilsa glared and staggered up to her feet. Melinda turned as if to keep shooting but then hesitated. Ilsa lurched toward her. Another sniper round cut the air, which made Ilsa step to one side to avoid it. The bullet missed. She didn’t think the snipers were aiming at her anymore. A loud note resounded in the air. Melinda and Ilsa stood, breathing hard, guns extended toward each other.
The sound of the lyre drifted beautifully through the air. Melinda stepped back from Ilsa.
“Black Powder—Master!” She called.
Ilsa turned toward the strings. A man in a black coat stood between the strings, points a long-barreled pistol with a cylindrical silencer around its barrel in each direction. Each time he fired, the bullets rang another note. Henry Vel, Black Powder, played every note on the Central Lyre. He raised his head and smiled at Ilsa through his carefully trimmed beard.
“Thank you for the assistance in finding how to play the lyre,” he said. “It’s good to see you, daughter.”
Ilsa glared at him, eyes burning. She raised her pistol to aim at her father. He had this coming, as he had for a long time. He holstered his twin black pistols in slings designed for their silencers.
Her eyes ran with tears of rage. “I should kill you.”
“If you want, give it a try,” he said. “But the lyre is about to open.”
The ground trembled beneath her and Ilsa realized his words were true.
I have been swamped, and exhausted today. My apologies if any of you were looking forward to the next episode. I may be retooling the show soon. I am finding it difficult to podcast solo.
Anyway, Tenlyres Chapter 18 drops here tomorrow.
Have a good time until then.
Ilsa and Blue have joined with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
The Keeper has demonstrated knowledge of the Lyres and a mystical ability to heal wounds.
However, the forces of the Ayoch have surrounded them, and trapped them beneath the Central Lyre, along with a surviving force of Oshomi nomads and the scholar Lemuel Chollush and his sister, Tirica.
The Ayochians have captured other allies Ilsa and Blue met along their journey.
And now the Ayochians continue the siege of the Central Lyre.
A week in the darkened chamber and Ilsa grew tense. Yet, the Ayochians refused to storm the chamber beneath the lyre, and the Oshomi could not break out. At least the chamber had light, but what it lacked was any way out except for back up through the passage to the surface where the Red Lector camped.
Blue kept them from coming down the passage when she was awake, and the Oshomi could protect the entrance despite their tiny number because of the narrowness of the passage. Over the week, Ilsa had not been forced to shoot, even when on guard duty. Evidently the Red Lector could be patient.
She suspected that meant his sons had survived their wounds. The Red Lector struck her as the vengeful type, so she doubted he would be so passive if she had killed Kaij or Yunn.
The food the Oshomi had brought with them had begun to run out, even with disciplined rationing, though they had yet to eat any horses. Ilsa planted her hand against Hailek’s side. The wooly strider stood stable, but after today there would be no more food for him.
The siege approached an end.
Ilsa grimaced at the thought. She paced away from Hailek across the chamber toward the wall opposite the entrance. Lemuel caught up with her halfway there.
They had not said much to each other over the last week. Part of her did not like how much she wanted to talk to him, because this situation was deadly serious, and they still had friends under guard by the Red Lector’s troops. So far, Cass and Ferdinand and the Oshomi rearguard had not been executed, another sign the Red Lector did not have reason to feel vengeful.
Ilsa wondered if that meant the bodyguard, Ozleji Sammhar, might have lived through his wounds as well. That thought made her grit her teeth and wish the opposite. The man who had been trained by her father scared her too much. If the battle continued, she did not want to confront him again.
“Ilsa, are you alright?” asked Lemuel.
They had reached the wall of the chamber. She put her branded palms to the smooth stone, knowing the vibration of the Lyre ran through it all, but unable to feel the frequency.
“There has to be a way out.”
He nodded. “I keep thinking the same thing.”
She turned and raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re serious?”
“The structure of the Lyres is a lot larger than one is on the surface,” he said. “My studies indicate, at least under the Eastern and Western Lyres, there are tunnels going out in every direction from the Lyre itself.”
She frowned. “Looks like there aren’t any here, unfortunately.”
“That’s what’s maddening.” Lemuel slapped his shrunken fist into his other palm. “I don’t see why this place isn’t connected.”
Ilsa grunted, frustrated. “If we’re not connected, we’re not connected. What can we do?”
Lemuel frowned at the wall where Ilsa’s hands still rested. “That’s just it, though. I don’t know if we’re not connected. My theory is that there must be other tunnels from this chamber. When you played that note with your gunshot, it opened one tunnel, but that shot only vibrated two strings.”
Ilsa’s eyes widened as she considered the possibility, the hope Lemuel’s idea provided. “You think if we played more notes we could hope more tunnels?”
“I suspect that’s the case, yes.”
She pushed off the wall and straightened her back. “Only one problem. The strings are up there.” She jabbed her thumb toward the ceiling. “And so are the Red Lector’s guns.”
He shrugged. “They aren’t camped on the Lyre. Seems to me they have to sleep sometime.”
“There are enough of us to always keep watch, and there’s a lot more of them than there are of us.” Ilsa shook her head. “But this still seems like our best chance, and we’re almost out of food, so the sooner, the better.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the one passage open to the surface. A little orange light filtered down the tunnel from above, glaring in comparison to the dull glow from the luminous stones that illuminated the rest of the chamber. The sun was setting.
She frowned. “I’ll try tonight. Blue is on watch now, so she can help keep the pressure off once I go outside.” After weeks of riding across the plateau, being trapped in this bizarre chamber for a week had left Ilsa cramped and aching to move, and her only glimpses of the sky had been during watches. “Is your sister well enough to move?”
“She’s been ready for three days. It’s the Keeper who keeps saying she needs to rest.”
“I’ll bet Tirica loves that.” Ilsa’s voice dripped with irony.
“About as much as the Red Lector likes you now.” Lemuel gave an awkward chuckle.
“Right.” Ilsa started to walk back toward where the Oshomi had set up camp among their horses near the entrance of the chamber.
Lemuel followed at her side. “Are you angry with me?” he asked.
Ilsa halted, and turned to him. “Why would I be?”
“Well, I…” He sighed and lowered his eyes. “I’ve kept secrets about how much I knew. And then, turning the battle, I touched you.”
“Your secrets were things I wouldn’t even have asked you about. As for the battle, my heart would have frozen without you.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. You have to do a lot worse than saving my life for me to be angry with you.”
He raised his eyes and their gazes met. Her fingers tingled on the shoulder of his coat, feeling the warmth of his body beneath the cloth. Something sparkled in the corner of his eye. Tears? He put his small hand on her hand. “Thank you, Ilsa.”
“No, it’s not nothing.” He smiled and wiped tears away with his big hand. “Now look at me, blubbering.”
“Don’t worry. You’re not a soldier, but you rode through a battle. You’re not a priest but you found out more about the Lyres than any clergy member I ever met. You’ve done a lot of things you weren’t prepared for, so of course you’re hurting. It’s like you sprinted without stretching first.”
Lemuel’s shrunken fingers wrapped around her wrist, gentle, as if they had no strength at all. “I thought you didn’t want to talk to me.”
“Used to be, I didn’t talk as much as I wanted,” Ilsa said, and realized it was true. “Hathanian clergy is all about the words. Every priest and priestess has their own.”
“Like, Cass told you, to ‘be red,’ right?”
“Yes, that was from one of her sayings.”
He nodded. “You’re a priestess too. So why didn’t you want to talk?”
“I was banished from Saint Banyeen’s Garden, in Dal.” Ilsa sighed. “I used to think that meant I wasn’t worthy of having words of my own. Of course, that never stopped me from carrying a scroll.”
“If we get out of this, we’ll all have stories.”
Ilsa squeezed his shoulder gently. “Right.” She released her grip. “Let’s find a way out of here.”