Alive After Reading Episode 6 – J Daniel Sawyer

This week, Alive After Reading returns with another interview!

J. Daniel Sawyer is an author and podcaster and all-around fascinating individual. Check out his books here, or find his podcasts, blog, and other things here.

Thanks for listening. Share and enjoy!

Tenlyres Chapter 49 – Scarred

Tim here everybody.

The story is back!

Tenlyres: The Complete Serial Edition is out! For five dollars, get the complete story. Buying my ebooks is the best way to support the free content on this blog and help it continue.

At the top of the sidebar on my website there is an email list sign-up form. You can also sign up at this link. Signing up is also a great way to support the serial and show you want to keep seeing it.

Sign up for the mailing list at either location, and you will receive my new short story in the Tenlyres world, Mount Higatha, as well as a copy of Tenlyres II, for free!

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

Buy Tenlyres: Complete and read the rest of the story right away!

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa has been wounded badly, and returns to the camp by the village of Atalem.

 

 

 

 

 Each of us owes our lives to someone else, parents, friends, saviors of all kinds.

That does not mean we should not do what we can to protect ourselves.

 

 

The world spun and then stabilized. Ilsa heard voices fading away, accompanied by the pure and consistent agony of her wounds. Grazed head, burnt hand, torn side, wounded leg… they were all still there. Somehow she had survived. Again, she survived.

She lay on a cot in a tent, a large pale-colored one from the Chogrumian military, rather than the small homes of the Oshomi. She looked up at the ceiling. Her groan of pain joined the sounds of other wounded that filled the space.

The triage tent dimmed with the passing hours. Some screams silenced. New cries began.

Ilsa found a discarded rifle on the floor beside her cot. She lurched to stand up. She had to find Lemuel and tell him what had happened. She had to, though the feeling in her stomach that built when she thought of telling him about Tirica’s choice made her hesitate.

Eventually, she found a crutch to lean on and then left the rifle behind. She limped toward the exit of the tent. Her wounds were all wrapped to stop the blood flow, but her head still felt light. She hated waking up in a hospital alone. It had happened too often lately.

She made her way through the camp north of Atalem. Despite her lightheadedness, she reached out for Blue’s spirit. “Find me,” she murmured. “Please.”

She staggered past a dozen tents and was halfway to the trenches the Chogrumians had dug out for shelter from the bombardment before Blue and Lemuel found her.

Her eyes filled with tears when she saw them in the fading daylight. “You two,” she said. “You made it”

Lemuel threw himself over the side of his horse and ran to her. “Ilsa?” His voice broke. “Is that really you? I heard… Cass and Ferdinand told me you were dead.”

She looked at him and nodded. “I used a blast seal to escape the fall. Took a Chogrumian carrier back here, but I don’t know the rest.”

“I don’t care how it happened.” He threw his arms around her. They pressed themselves to each other, warm, and alive, despite everything.

Her crutch fell to the ground. She held onto Lemuel instead.

Blue’s gentle pressure in her mind made her look at her friend over Lemuel’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” asked Blue.

“Too much, Blue,” she said. “I’ll tell you everything. Both of you need to know. I just need to sit down first.”

She staggered along with them, Lemuel supporting her. He helped her onto his horse and then led it while she rode. She thought of her own horse. She hoped the animal had made it to safety.

At least Ferdinand and Cass had survived.

Blue told her through mental communication that the Uzan had fallen back from Atalem, but most of the village now lay in ruins, and the cost in lives to the Chogrumians and the Oshomi had been high.

“They’ll come back, you know,” said Ilsa softly. “First was out there today. And Black Powder won’t give up.”

“Neither will the Gray Lector or Asurdeva, I suspect,” said Lemuel. “We have to hold on.” He sighed. “I hope Tirica is alright.”

“She’s alive,” said Ilsa in a dry croak of a voice. “I—I saw her today.”

“You saw her? Where?”

“When the blast seal transported me out of the launcher I ended up at a medical center for the mercenaries. She was there.”

Lemuel turned to stare back at her where she sat on the horse, eyes wide. “You saw her?”

“Yeah.” Ilsa felt an urge to cry, but she channeled it into a single deep breath. “Lemuel, I don’t know how to say this—She—She has a weapon bonded to her spirit.”

“What? Why would they do that?”

“She agreed to fight for them.” Ilsa touched her side. “She shot me. Here.”

Lemuel dropped the reins he been using to lead the horse. He bent down to reach for them, but his big hand shook too much to pick them up.

He shook his head. “It can’t be—She wouldn’t.”

Ilsa lifted her wounded leg despite the pain that shot through her as she did. She climbed down and then supported herself on the horse’s side. Lemuel stared at her.

Blue’s mind withdrew. She brought her strider to a stop behind Ilsa and Lemuel. Yet, she said nothing.

Lemuel’s lips trembled. “I can’t believe it.”

“I don’t like it anymore than you do,” said Ilsa. “They forced her into it after First’s attack in Chogrum failed.”

“She’s alive,” said Blue. “Get me close enough to her and I can stop her. We aren’t dealing with true belief. Once she’s free of them, she won’t keep fighting us.”

Lemuel nodded, but tears began to leak from his eyes.

Ilsa let go of the horse and staggered toward him. A jagged flare of pain shot through her calf and she stumbled. She fell forward but caught herself on Lemuel’s shoulder. He sank down slowly, and they sat on the trampled steppe grass.

His face close to hers, he sniffed, trying to fight his tears. She pressed her forehead to his.

“This doesn’t change anything,” she said, halfway to tears herself. “We will get her back, even if we have to fight her to do it.”

“She isn’t free,” said Blue.

“Right.” Ilsa brushed the tears from Lemuel’s cheeks. “We won’t give up.”

Lemuel’s small arm wrapped around Ilsa’s back. His little hand patted down her spine. “Thank you, Ilsa.” He breathed in deep. “And Blue. Thank you, both.” His big hand found Ilsa’s cheek and cupped her face. “I studied and studied, but I never could say I would trust anyone outside my family with my life before I met you two.”

“Lemuel.” Ilsa pulled him to her, one hand around the back of his head, the other around his waist. “You’ve got us. We won’t abandon Tirica.”

His little hand touched the freshly-dressed wound on her side. She let out a gasp of pain. He withdrew his fingers. “I’m sorry. She did this to you.”

“It’s not as bad as my leg. And she didn’t hit me there.”

“You’ve fought so long. I know you wish you could stop.”

“I won’t stop fighting until my father is defeated. Until the Uzan are beaten, none of us can stop.”

“Until peace is in sight,” said Blue.

“How can we see peace from the battlefield?” said Ilsa. “That’s what I worry about.”

“You’re both warriors. It’s what you do.”

“We have a cause.” Ilsa sighed. “I just don’t know if that’s enough.”

“It has to be,” said Blue.

“We have to hope it is because we don’t fight for a nation, we fight for the people, to protect them and save as many as we can.” Ilsa looked into Lemuel’s eyes. “And we’ll protect your sister too.”

“What if she doesn’t give you a choice?”

“I’ll die before I kill her.” Ilsa blinked back tears and hoped her brave words were true, though she doubted them. She gritted her teeth. “I swear—”

“Don’t. You can’t sacrifice yourself.” Lemuel’s hand moved down her face to her shoulder. “I would never ask you to do that.”

Ilsa held on to him in silence for a long moment, aching, pained. “Thank you. I’ll do everything I can to be worth your trust.”

“You already have,” he said.

The sound of hooves, four or five horses, and half a dozen goat runners, drew close through the camp.

“Priestess,” said Siuku as she and a group of other Oshomi leaders caught up with them. “You should have stayed in triage.” Behind her veil her eyes were tired. “You were seriously wounded.”

“I know,” said Ilsa. “I just couldn’t lie there.”

“Let me heal you.” Siuku climbed down from her horse. She approached Ilsa and Lemuel.

Ilsa’s eyes met his, and then they disentangled themselves. Behind Siuku, Ilsa saw Ganara, the Vogmem chieftain, and priestess of Vada who had wielded the True Blackwood staff at the battle of Howling Pass. The blond woman gave a curt nod to Ilsa.

Siuku knelt down beside Ilsa. Lemuel got to his feet nearby. The Keeper of Tenlyres unfastened the seal on her veil. Without the veil, she looked even more exhausted.

How many people has she saved today? Ilsa wondered. How many former enemies owe her their lives? This is how we can unify the people, by healing instead of killing.

The pain from her calf faded. Siuku sealed the cut in Ilsa’s head. Then, the keeper touched her side where Tirica had shot her. The pain there vanished with a touch of a weary hand.

Siuku replaced her veil. “You will have a few scars,” she said. “And I can’t help your hand.”

“Thank you,” said Ilsa. “I’ve been through the worst wounds of my life from the mountains to now, and I wouldn’t be alive without you.”

Siuku’s voice came out less monotone than usual. “I saw you in my visions, Ilsa Barrett. Since we first met you have become important to me.”

Ilsa bowed to the keeper. “I will protect you as long as I am able.”

“Let us both pray that you remain able.”

Siuku stood, and offered a hand to help Ilsa to her feet. She turned to Blue. “Has the prince of Chogrum arrived?”

“His force is setting up in the northern part of the camp,” said Blue. “They should be almost done by now.”

“The prince is here?” Ilsa asked.

“Scouts have sighted more of Black Powder’s forces approaching our position,” said Blue. “We don’t know the exact numbers, but from here we will defend Chogrum from both men and monsters.”

“What about Ayoch and Dal?” said Ilsa. “Their armies are still moving east.”

“Indeed.” Ganara tossed her head. “Allies or not, we can catch the Uzan and their human friends between our forces and theirs if we hold here.”

Ilsa nodded. “That could work. We can still win.”

Lemuel glanced at her with reddened eyes. His unspoken question was obvious.

She folded her hands together. “And we’ll get Tirica out of there before it’s over.”

Great hawks called to each other as they flew overhead. Ilsa looked up. Skyriders.

She brought her gaze down to level with Blue. “How did you destroy the artillery?”

Blues shrugged. “The raiders delayed them long enough for Chogrum’s weapons to find the range. After that, their crews started to run. Even Uzan won’t survive a hit from the big guns. Just too bad they got most of their weapons out of there when they went.”

Ilsa frowned. “How many were destroyed?”

“Two. They still have at least three left.”

“If we move fast enough, they can’t hit us,” said Ganara. “My warriors will deal with them next time.”

“We should meet with the prince,” Siuku said to Ganara. “We have plans to make, and you can tell him what you just said.”

“I’ve never seen so many soldiers in one place,” Ganara said. “Chogrum has a mighty army.”

“Ilsa,” the keeper said. “Will you, your scholar, and Blue accompany us? There is much to discuss for the coming battle.”

Ilsa glanced at Lemuel. He nodded to her.

“As you wish,” said Ilsa. And they set off toward the prince’s part of the allied camp.

#

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Of Mooks and Monsters Episode 40 – Pro Wrestling Actual Play Pt3

Today, we return to Body Slams in Dixie.

Rob Ward runs this game. Tim Niederriter plays as the Canadian Python, the most unpleasant wrestler in the federation.

This is an ongoing story. Listen to part 1 and part 2 first for maximum enjoyment.

Alive After Reading Episode 5 – John Walker

Ths week on Alive After Reading, Tim talks with author John Walker.

Urban fantasy, detectives, and magic are all up for grabs in this conversation.

Share and enjoy!

Thanks for listening.

Buy John’s books on Amazon!

Buy Tim’s books on Amazon!

Tenlyres Chapter 48 – Distant Shadows

Tim here everybody.

The story is back! Not much else to say this week.

Tenlyres: The Complete Serial Edition is out! For five dollars, get the complete story. Buying my ebooks is the best way to support the free content on this blog and help it continue.

At the top of the sidebar on my website there is an email list sign-up form. You can also sign up at this link. Signing up is also a great way to support the serial and show you want to keep seeing it.

Sign up for the mailing list at either location, and you will receive my new short story in the Tenlyres world, Mount Higatha, as well as a copy of Tenlyres II, for free!

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

Buy Tenlyres: Complete and read the rest of the story right away!

Previous Chapter

 

In the battle, Ilsa suddenly finds herself transported beyond the fray.

 

There could be any number of gods, far more gods than those we know and worship.

 

Where was she?

Ilsa lashed out. She kicked the red-haired man twice, first in the groin, then in the chest. He rolled off of her and onto the floor of some sort of armored personnel carrier. Ilsa’s nostrils burned, and her palm was even hotter with pain where she had grabbed the blast seal. She gritted her teeth and sat up.

She looked at the groaning red-headed mercenary. His blast-sealed coat and explosive vest were gone, but otherwise, he seemed the same. She drew a pistol from her agonized right hand. He scrambled onto his knees.

She finished loading and killed him with a bullet to the heart that knocked him on his back. She pressed her back against the hot metal of the wall behind her and panted for breath. Part of her was surprised to still be alive, despite what she had learned about blast-seal transportation.

She checked her palm, and found light burn marks where she had grabbed the seal, but nothing as extreme as the brand, and nothing to disrupt her weapon bond. She grimaced and got to her feet within the unmoving vehicle.

Wherever they were, no one had come running at the sound of her gunshot.

Ilsa found a hatch in the roof at the front of the personnel carrier, behind the vacant driver’s seat. She climbed up the ladder, bearing the pain in her hand, and from the near miss that still had blood trickling down her forehead.

The hatch opened with a circular wheel-lock. She turned the wheel slowly, then opened the hatch. It went up with a creak of rust. Ilsa peered out the top of the vehicle and saw dark shapes on the horizon under the sun that looked to be in about the same position as the area she had left.

The vehicle she stood in was definitely Ayochian and bore the defaced symbols of the Red Lector, and the Queen of Ayoch. Painted over those symbols were long gray lines.

There were four other vehicles just like the one Ilsa had arrived in. All looked worse for wear on the steppe grass around her. Black Powder had built a retreat point with tanks and personnel carriers. Ilsa shook her head and looked east.

The dark shapes on the horizon looked like the Uzan artillery and judging by the position of the sun, and the train of vehicles stretching toward the steel-black flowers, she was a ride of an hour or two from Atalem and the battle.

Smoke billowed high from somewhere in the line of artillery. Hopefully, the others could destroy the war machines. They would have to do it without her, given how far away she had been transported.

She clenched her fist, then winced and opened it again at the pain. The burnt skin had opened up in a few places while she had climbed, and blood ran to her wrist. She wiped her bloody brow with the back of her other hand, and then pulled herself onto the top of the vehicle as quietly as she could manage.

South of her, she spotted another cluster of the same sort of vehicles a few kilometers away.

Her ears were still ringing. She could scarcely tell if there were sounds nearby or not. She climbed back inside and bandaged her head with a strip of antiseptic cloth from the vehicle’s medical kit. She wished she could wrap her hand, but could not manage it without inhibiting the summoning of her bonded weapons.

As her hearing recovered little by little, she lurched back up the ladder. More smoke billowed on the horizon, both at the Uzan artillery, as well as in the village and north of Atalem. She could not tell who was winning from this distance.

She heard groans and screams, followed by a few soothing whispers in response from somewhere nearby. She thought it sounded too clear to be from one of the other vehicles.

Ilsa crouched atop the personnel carrier and listened, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from.

She turned and spotted a shape limping across the grass, dripping blood from a shattered arm. The remains of a blast-seal vest hung about his shoulders. Not far from the cluster of stopped vehicles was a group of wounded mercenaries with medics moving between them. They did not appear to have noticed Ilsa.

She crept to the end of the vehicle opposite the medics and lowered herself over the side. Then, she dropped down onto the grass. A glance around each corner told her no one was watching. She took the left side because her right hand was wounded, and she could better handle the shooting cross-ways. She kept her left pistol ready and made her way toward the medics and wounded.

The same voice as before drifted to her. It was far too familiar. She pressed her back to the side of the carrier and glanced toward the groaning sprawled forms. A few unwounded people moved among them. There were only two medics, Ilsa noticed. The third and final member of the group stood with her back to the wounded, watching the distant artillery.

She turned as Ilsa started moving toward them again.

“Tirica?” Ilsa said, unable to stop her curious voice.

She was far enough away, and around twenty wounded mercenaries made some sound between them. Ilsa cringed back against the side of the vehicle. Neither Tirica or the medics appeared to notice her.

But there was no mistake. She had found Tirica.

She dropped into a low crouch and then made her way to the corner of the vehicle closest to the medics. She kept her gaze on them all the while. Tirica walked among the wounded.

She wore a uniform jacket of the same sort the Red Lector’s troops had used, unbuttoned completely down the front. Beneath that, her clothes were pale gray. She carried no weapons, but her hands weren’t tied either.

The wounded looked mostly to be in too bad of shape to fight, and the medics were using hypodermic injectors to administer some kind of anesthetic. Many of the wounded were unconscious.

Ilsa scowled and stepped out from the vehicle’s shadow, pistol in hand. She trained the gun on one of the medics and advanced.

The other medic spotted her first and pointed with a finger, calling a warning. The one she had under the gun turned toward her and then dropped his syringe in surprise.

“Who are you?” he asked. “How did you get here?”

Ilsa held up her burned hand toward them. “Don’t move, and I won’t kill you.”

Tirica turned toward her. “Ilsa? How?”

“You know a red-haired mercenary guy?” Ilsa said. “He brought me with him.”

Both medics stared at Ilsa, eyes wide. “We are unarmed and unbonded,” said one of them. “Please, don’t shoot.”

Ilsa glanced between them, but her sense of spirits told her more than one of the mercenaries on the ground had bonds. That was no surprise. What was off made Ilsa’s brow furrow.

Tirica carried a bonded rifle in her spirit.

“Tirica,” she said. “What happened to you?”

“First left me here,” said Tirica, “She told me to stay put when she went to fight.”

“Right…” Ilsa’s gaze met Tirica’s. “And what about your rifle?”

“They took it away when they caught me. I wish I had it now.”

A lie. She had the weapon to call to hand. Ilsa smelled a hint of ammunition on her.

“Don’t insult me. You aren’t a prisoner anymore, are you?”

Tirica’s eyes narrowed. “How could you tell?”

“Black Powder wouldn’t have bonded your weapon to you if you were.”

Tirica growled a warning to the medics. She raised her hand and the rifle appeared in her grip. Its broken scope had been removed, but there was no mistaking it as the same weapon Ilsa had seen Tirica with all the way back at the Western Lyre.

Ilsa aimed at a spot near Tirica as the girl finished loading.

“Why did you let him do this to you?”

“Why did you?”

“I was a child.”

“And I didn’t have a choice. They… hurt me.”

“Tirica, don’t shoot. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Like you didn’t want to hurt Melinda?”

Tears threatened Ilsa’s eyes. “I gave her as many chances as I could.”

“So you killed her because you had to?”

“Yes, I killed her…” Ilsa choked back a sob. “I had no choice.”

“You always have a choice. After we left Chogrum, I made a choice.” Tirica’s eyes narrowed as her finger found the trigger of her rifle. “I won’t be helpless anymore.” Tirica took her shot.

Ilsa darted away laterally as Tirica’s gun roared.

The bullet grazed her side. It ripped through, spilling blood and spreading pain. She gasped, barely able to believe Tirica had shot her.

She turned, blood dripping from her side, just in time to see a wounded mercenary scramble up with a pistol. She killed the man with a single shot.

Others screamed, or writhed in their own private pain and fear. The medics raced for weapons. Ilsa faced Tirica.

“Let me help you.”

“You couldn’t before.” Tirica pulled back the slide on her rifle, ejecting the spent shell casing. She aimed at Ilsa. “I’m done counting on you.”

“I swore to your brother I’d save you.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Tears ran down Tirica’s cheeks. “Time to go.”

The medics and more of the walking wounded drew weapons.

Ilsa started to fire, dodging and weaving.

She fell back toward the personnel carriers, killing mercenaries when she wasn’t avoiding return shots. She sheltered behind one metal hull, her burnt hand clamped to her wounded side.

One of the medics lurched around the corner. She swept his legs with hers. He fell, and his gun went off. The bullet roared and shot across Ilsa’s calf. Pain exploded through her leg and she lurched to one side.

Her weapon spoke. The medic pitched backward in a heap. Her pant-leg began to soak up blood. She looked to the side of the personnel carrier, frantic.

There, she spotted the collapsible ladder leading up to the top. Her hand snaked out and she pulled the ladder out. Then, she began to climb, unable to ignore the pain in her leg. At least the leg made her bleeding hand easier to forget.

She threw herself onto the top of the vehicle. Tirica’s bullet whined off the roof beside her.

She really will kill me if I let her, Ilsa thought.

She crawled to the hatch on the front end of the carrier and twisted the wheel to open it. The hatch popped and Ilsa swung her legs over the side to drop down.

Her boots landed on the floor of the carrier. She managed to stay moving, despite the blood flowing into one of them. She glanced back and found the door sealed. Ilsa slid into the seat behind the wheel.

She started the machine by pulling out the drive rod. The bioelectric engine sparked. She hit the pedal and the machine began to trundle forward. Dark spots swam before Ilsa’s eyes and her head felt light. Bullets pinged off the carrier’s hull but did little damage to the armored vehicle.

She crushed the pedal and leaned on her wounded leg. She headed toward Atalem as fast as she could, jamming the pedal with her machine gun’s stock, so she could go back to bandage her leg. She barely made it to the emergency kit at all. It’s place stood empty, taken by some desperate soldier no doubt.

Ilsa sank to the floor of the vehicle, knowing the time she had with her machine gun moving the vehicle forward would be measured in seconds if she did not take its place.

She tore a strip of cloth from the hole torn at her side. At least the wound there was shallow. She made a bandage for her leg and lurched back to the front to keep driving.

She pushed forward toward Atalem until her head grew too light. Then she climbed down under the wheel. This way she hoped to keep pressing the pedal even if she fell unconscious. If she was lucky the Chogrumian forces would not simply destroy the vehicle without looking inside it first.

Her mind wandered. Lemuel’s spirit seemed close. So close. She prayed he had survived the battle so far. And she rode the vehicle into the shadows.

 

#

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Of Mooks and Monsters Episode 39 – Ending Campaigns

Of Mooks and Monsters returns!

This week, Rob and Tim discuss when and how to end campaigns and tell stories about good endings, bad endings, and all sorts of in-between stuff.

Thanks for listening!

You can follow Rob on Twitter @StageHat.

Want to employ a skilled actor? Check out Rob’s business page here.

Follow Tim on Twitter @TNiederriter.

Buy Tim’s books at Amazon.com to help support the show.

Keep sharing, and keep enjoying!

 

Alive After Reading Episode 4 – KJ Howe

Despite some computer troubles, Alive After Reading is back!

This week, Tim interviews thriller author, KJ Howe about her book The Freedom Broker.

An intriguing book, and an interesting conversation.

Thanks for listening.

Buy the Freedom Broker by KJ Howe on Amazon, or at a bookstore near you.

Buy Tim’s books on Amazon.com.

Tenlyres Chapter 47 – Memory Flowers

Tim here everybody.

Despite some computer troubles that delayed the latest episode of Alive After Reading, I’m back again with the latest episode of Tenlyres.

Tenlyres: The Complete Serial Edition is out! For five dollars, get the complete story. Buying my ebooks is the best way to support the free content on this blog and help it continue.

At the top of the sidebar on my website there is an email list sign-up form. You can also sign up at this link. Signing up is also a great way to support the serial and show you want to keep seeing it.

Sign up for the mailing list at either location, and you will receive my new short story in the Tenlyres world, Mount Higatha, as well as a copy of Tenlyres II, for free!

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

Buy Tenlyres: Complete and read the rest of the story right away!

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa and her allies have returned to the village of Atalem as terrible enemies approach from the west. Battle is close.

 

 

What we remember from the past is our guide and our anchor.

 

As dawn broke, the fury of battle drew closer to the village. Filami were not warriors, but Oshomi and Chogrumian forces surrounded them, to protect them from oncoming Uzan and the warriors from Black Powder’s assembled mercenary companies.

Ilsa prepared her weapons, fully loaded. She found her horse and whispered in the animal’s ear. “I’m sorry for the risk I took yesterday. I’ll do my best to protect you from now on.” And for everyone else on my side, human and animal, the same promise stands.

She glowered into the rising sun, and for a moment remembered the way the same light had filtered through the curtains in her mother’s room at the hospital. She remembered how she envied the way her mother looked like the other Dalites. Ilsa’s more severe features seemed better suited to this battle.

A natural environment for her would be a hell to anyone else. This was her element, the heat of the fray. But if all that was true, then why was she afraid? For the first time since Tirica had been captured, she could not answer that question easily. She was not worried only for herself and her friends, but also for people she did not know.

Complexity could slow her down. Being slow could get her killed today. That must not happen.

She could not allow herself to fight like she had nothing to lose. She knew she had so much to lose now. And to save those people and the feelings they shared with her, she would take what she had to take from the enemy.

Her skills would not fail her unless she let them. And she would not let them, she prayed. She waged the mental fight to stay alive through the day’s approaching struggle.

Ilsa looked north, trying to see past the pieces of Chogrumian artillery on crawling gun carriages that had arrived the previous night. She was trying to see the shelter the Filami villagers had built with the help of the allies troops. Lemuel was there with them to protect him from the battle.

If the buildings in the village survived a single bombardment from the massive Uzan weapons, Ilsa would be surprised. She offered a short prayer of thanks to Hathani for the forethought that had led the villagers to abandon their homes so they could save their lives. A few allied warriors were still stationed within Atalem, but mostly the place had become a ghost town.

Ilsa’s fears built in her, as she turned her horse to join a unit of steppe nomads and volunteer militia riders from Chogrum. She caught up with Cass in the lead of the fifty mounted fighters.

“How do you feel?” the other priestess asked.

Ilsa glanced at Cass. “Today is gonna be redder than your hair. And we’re in the thick of it.”

“You’re worried?”

Ilsa nodded. “It almost feels good to admit it.”

Ferdinand rode alongside them on his white strider. He held a javelin in each hand. “The generals say we’re to head east, to outflank their big guns.”

“Good plan,” said Cass. “Destroy the artillery.”

“Like we did in the pass.”

Ferdinand looked toward the few towering, oddly broad-peaked silhouettes of the Uzan artillery set up around the Flowering Lyre. “Those are a bit bigger than the guns Ayoch brought to the mountains.”

“You think those could be the same guns they used to chase us to the pass?” asked Cass.

“Let’s hope they are. Then they might not have anything bigger waiting in the wings.”

The troops with them wheeled toward the southeast and rode out. Ilsa checked her weapons and remembered how her father had trained her to use them.

 

She had hated him then, though not as much as she came to hate him later. Her father took her out to the steppe to bond her to the weapons she would carry in her spirit for the rest of her life. There, he began to teach her to shoot in synchronization with them. The burns were still fresh on her hands when she first summoned her pistols. She learned. Though she had never held a gun before, the bonds helped the skills come naturally to her.

“Always aim for the heart,” he told her after she began to hit the targets. “That’s the surest way to stop an enemy.” He touched a finger to a place just over his, then guided her hand to the same spot on herself.

“And that will kill them.” She rubbed her eyes with one hand. They were red and irritated because she had been crying on the ride from the city.

“Yes,” he said. “But don’t think of it that way. The spirit is immortal, Ilsa. But it connects to the body here.” He touched his heart again. “Don’t be afraid to sever that connection if you have reason to shoot.”

She nodded, then rubbed at her eyes again. “What if I don’t want to kill them?”

“Then don’t pull the trigger.”

Don’t pull the trigger.

Don’t pull the trigger.

Don’t—

 

The cavalry around Ilsa wheeled to face west. Mostly they rode horses like her, but a few were on runners. They accelerated toward the Uzan guns as the huge weapons fired their first volley. Shells whistled over the village on their way toward the Chogrumian forces beyond.

The Chogrumian general had anticipated being outgunned. His artillery answered with air-bursting shells that sent shrapnel scything through the airborne Uzan weapons. The order to fire appeared to have been well-timed. All but one of the Uzan shells burst high above the Chogrumian troops, saving the artillery from most of the damage they would have done.

One shell struck the ground full force. Ilsa could tell by how the ground trembled, even kilometers away. She did not want to imagine how much damage just one of the shells had done to the Chogrumian battery’s ability to counter-fire.

“We have to get in there,” she said. “Who knows how many of those shots the big guns can take.”

“Not many,” muttered Cass.

Ferdinand nodded, his face grim. He urged his strider into the lead of the cavalry. Cass followed him, and Ilsa was not far behind.

For once, Cass had fewer words than Ilsa. Even back at Saint Banyeen’s Garden, all those years ago, that had rarely happened.

 

High Priestess Julia Uopemm had taught Ilsa and Cass’s class the art of composing sermons herself. She walked along the rows of students in the silent reflection between lectures. The class always took place early in the morning, and when the the weather allowed, outside in Saint Banyeen’s hidden garden. When a student dozed in the light of the rising sun the High Priestess’s wooden staff would lash out and snap them on the shoulder. These strikes kept everyone attentive, though they were not the only source of sound that day.

Someone had started a fight on the street nearest the south side of Saint Banyeen’s, and Ilsa heard screams and shouts of rage in the early morning air. She sat near Cass, trying to focus on the words in her head, the words of the sermon she was composing. It was based on the lesson read at the start of class by the gray light of dawn.

Ilsa did not dare listen for any clue of the cause of the fighting, or for a hint of its resolution. That’s how it had always been back then. She had listened to her own voice more than the outside world. Not until she was expelled from Saint Banyeen’s did she look at the world and see things as others did, as fact and substance rather than a distant world of stark shadow.

Father’s wickedness.

Mother’s madness.

Ilsa’s pain.

The high priestess’s staff touched her shoulder, but not with the force of a blow, not even one of admonition. “Open your eyes, child. You will see the truth.”

 

Ilsa kept her eyes open as the horses and runners thundered into a charge against the massive Uzan artillery. As they rode closer to the weapon stationed furthest westward, Ilsa felt tense with fear. Each war machine was easily eight stories high, and at least forty meters across at the launcher. At the top, broad shields like flower petals fanned out from the weapon’s center.

Simultaneously she felt the urge to stare. Uzan patrolled the ground around it, but with them were mercenaries and the troops from Ayoch who had betrayed the Red Lector to his death in Howling Pass. Ilsa’s guns felt heavy in her hands, though she only held her pistols.

She shouted to the others, “Mar the name of the Uzan, then kill them.”

The reminder was answered with shouts of agreement. All these riders knew it already.

Cass and Ferdinand caught up with her, weapons readied. A few of the Oshomi alongside them produced lightning lances. Within twenty meters, a roll of thunder from the Uzan guns hiding the sound of their charge, Ilsa and the others opened fire. Lightning and bullets. Arrows and shot.

The thin line of defenders around the gun fell away, returning fire. A few of the mercenaries in the forward troops burst with grenade blasts when wounded.

Ferdinand swept to the southwest, circling the gun on his white strider. His lance impaled an Uzan through the name of Asurdeva on its skull. The abomination went limp. Cass covered the Chogrumian adventurer. She killed any human or monster who took aim at him.

Ilsa rode her steed to the east, looking up at the massive central chamber of the war-machine, like the hollow stem of a black-blooming flower. The guards fell back to the weapon’s massive base, where huge treads were fenced in by countless insect-like legs, each as tall as a horse, even with their points dug into the ground.

More Uzan emerged from the gaps between the legs.

They doubled the strength of the defenders in an instant. A bolt of lightning jagged from an Oshomi lance into a group of Uzan, leaping between them and then up into the weapon carriage itself. Ilsa drew close and shot the stunned monsters. Two shots each, far easier when they were not shooting back. She wounded others that aimed at her friends, but she knew she could not protect everyone.

Riders fell around her. She cringed close to her horse’s saddle. Most of the mercenaries lay dead or had activated blast seals in their clothes and vanished. Those humans that remained ran along the walkways that ringed the war machine’s launching mechanism. Ilsa rode toward them.

She would not allow them to take another shot.

Words from Koor flashed into her mind, words she remembered all too well. “You have more to lose than you think.”

He had been right, after all, at least about that. Ilsa thought of Lemuel, of Blue, of all her friends. She gritted her teeth and charged toward the heart of the ominous weapon.

She wounded an Uzan targeting her as she drew closer, but missed the name of the god on his head. He stumbled backward, drunkenly, blood leaking from the wound in his temple.

Ilsa glared up at the war machine’s belly, seeking for a way to stop the next shell from being loaded.

She grunted with pain as a bullet grazed her shoulder. She immediately found the spirit of the man who had shot her.

He had red hair and a stocky build. He also wore a coat with a blast seal as an emblem on his back. The mercenary stood atop one of the walkways halfway up the launching chamber.

She shot at him with a pistol but at such range and angle she miscalculated. The bullet struck a railing. Her horse carried her under him. That would make the next shot easier if it could get through the interlocking mesh of the walkway.

Ferdinand shouted a warning. Two Uzan surged toward Ilsa from either side. She jumped to a standing position in the saddle. “Retreat,” she said to the animal, then jumped onto the top of the artillery’s nearest tread.

The Uzan’s bullets ripped through the air around her. A few ricocheted off the walkway. That gave her a clue as to the metal’s toughness.

She whirled and shot one Uzan lethally, through the center of the name of Asurdeva. Another took Ferdinand’s javelin through the back and spun around. Just in time for Cass’s machine gun to destroy the monster’s whole head, the name of its god and all.

The remaining Uzan retreated toward cover. Ilsa glanced up at the walkway. The redheaded mercenary was gone, as sure as Ilsa’s horse fled back the way they had charged. She had not been sure the animal would understand her. She was glad to see it had.

She scrambled over the guards that topped the legs and treads until she found the bottom of a low walkway. It sloped upward. Ferdinand and Cass caught up behind her.

“We need to find a way to stop this thing,” said Ilsa.

“Before it fires again,” said Cass. “I know.”

Ferdinand glanced to their side where another shell slammed into the chamber sideways. “Sh-shit, w-we’d better hurry.”

His stutter told Ilsa how seriously he took the massive weapon. She nodded, and then turned and raced up the walkway. A heavy clunk echoed from within the firing chamber as she ran.

She prayed she would be fast enough, even as she scanned for enemies on the walkways. Most had descended to fight on the ground. She saw no Uzan until she reached the top of the flower-like launcher’s black petals.

A volley of bullets and shot sliced through the air and would have killed her had she not thrown herself flat. One pellet sliced across her head. Blood dripped down her brow, and a few hairs cut loose drifted onto the metal floor in front of her.

Ignoring the pain, she climbed to her knees. She retaliated with both weapons and killed the Uzan. Two shots from each pistol ripped through the monster’s head and chest. Ferdinand and Cass caught up with her as she got to her feet.

“You’re hit,” said Cass.

“Never mind me. Find whoever is about to pull the trigger on this thing.”

Ferdinand looked around the top of the launcher, with its six curving metal shields radiating from the ten-meter wide firing chamber. Ilsa spotted a group of mercenaries and Uzan climbing up the other side. A roar ignited below, and the shell screamed upward.

In a split second, Ilsa seized her machine gun grip. “Get down,” she shouted, but her words were drowned out as the shell began rose.

The smell of ancient propellant filled her nose as the shell cleared the launcher’s flower.

It looked similar to the transportation shell that had landed on the plains and broken the ground open while they had been riding toward the mountains.

That meant it had fuel to change direction. Somewhere inside that metallic shell, was something extremely volatile. And it smelled that way.

She breathed deep, seeking for nuances of different intensity. Then, she closed her eyes and sought for spirit. She aimed, eyes open. She glimpsed the bulge of a fuel tank under a small wing as the shell rocketed upward. Forty meters away. She gripped the machine gun in both hands and fired one shot.

Fifty meters up, the shell’s propellant ignited in the tank. A massive explosion rocked the launcher. Debris spiraled and scythed and lashed the war machine below. Ilsa pitched onto the metal surface of the shield beneath her. More than half-deafened in that moment, she rolled onto her back and looked up at the blazing ruins, spinning east over the steppe, trailing black smoke.

Cass crawled to her side. “You alright?”

Ilsa put a hand to her ringing ear. The wound in her scalp burned.

“Let’s make sure I don’t have to do that again.” Her own voice sounded distant.

Ferdinand pointed toward the Uzan and mercenaries on the far side of the launcher’s top. They were still recovering from the blast. Ilsa stood up and marched toward them. Her machine gun punched one Uzan off the side. He fell with inaudible fury on his lips.

She spun to face the mercenaries and found the red-haired man facing her, one hand on his mouth and a pistol in his grip. They traded shots unevenly, both missing while the launcher rocked beneath them with the impacts of falling wreckage.

He raced toward her, throwing away his empty pistol and pulling a knife with his other hand. He knocked away the barrel of her gun. They collided. She staggered over backward. His knife stabbed toward her neck, only for a shadow to snake out and grab the blade, stopping it like a black rope. Ferdinand tugged with his shadow spear, but the mercenary held onto his blade with a death grip.

Ilsa stared at the deadly edge of the weapon hovering over her. The man drove his knee into her groin and she winced. Despite the pain, she seized his wrist with both hands. He broke free of Ferdinand’s shadow. They rolled over and over toward the launcher’s chamber.

She twisted the knife from his grip. It rolled a few centimeters and dropped into the shaft.

He punched her across the jaw and knocked her head against the steely shield. Lights flashed across her vision.

Dazed, Ilsa drifted between awake and unconscious. He forced her toward the edge of the shaft. When he hit her again, her head swung back through empty air.

Eyes open, she kicked out, knocking his legs free. Front-heavy, they shook. Her whole back hung over the shaft.

She grabbed at his shoulder and tore at one ripped sleeve with her fingers. The bomb vest under his coat clicked as he pulled its release. Ilsa hugged him tight, dragging him into the shaft with her. Her hand pressed to the back of the blast seal on his jacket as it got hot.

Ilsa’s memories rushed through her. She did not want to die.

They fell downward into a blaze of ignition.

 

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Of Mooks and Monsters Episode 38 – Missing Players

This week on Of Mooks and Monsters, Rob and Tim discuss what happens when a player misses a game session.

It’s a fun conversation, but keep an ear open for the sad trombone of failure!

Share and enjoy!

And thanks for listening.

Alive After Reading Episode 3 – Scott Roche

Alive After Reading is back… to life.

Better late than never. Computer troubles have been worked around to bring this episode to you, dear listeners.

Tim talks with author, podcaster, and man of many genres, Scott Roche, author the Ginnie Dare series, the Esho St. Clair stories, and many, many other works forthcoming. It’s an interesting conversation. Share and enjoy!

It’s a fun and interesting conversation. Share and enjoy!

Buy Scott’s books on Amazon.com

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Thanks for listening!