Invisibles 7

Hey everyone, Tim here, just a quick reminder I have two new books out.

The Mangrove Suite

Soul Art

Now back to the story.

Invisibles

Within the circle that protected Kalfar there was one city that commanded true respect and awe, the world over.

Sarsa, the seat of the Lord Executive, ruler of Kalfar. Glorious city, stern line of defense against beings from beyond. This was the richest and proudest of all cities in the near-eastern alliance.

Sarsa, city of countless exiles.

Sarsa should have drawn attention for all kinds of reasons, but there was a side of the city not often discussed on record.

Sarsa, the shadow city, where the desperate and the skillful plied their illegal trades. Darkness under street lamps. Poison in the minds of the high officials. Ice in the veins of the guilty.

That is the Sarsa to be watched.

And that is the Sarsa waiting to be seen.

7

Kelebek crept down the alleyway, leaving Saint behind her on the street. He was too conspicuous to follow closely but fast enough to catch up with her if he sensed trouble ahead. She had built enough golems to trust in that fact.

Saint’s senses caught not only Kelebek’s movements but also the group on the street in front of the Watertakers’ hideout. Though they were almost a block away, he could hear them creeping toward the door. Saint hefted the massive scattergun he carried onto his clay shoulder. He hoped Alina would be more careful this time.

Alina and Percival lurked by the steps at the front of the building.

Martin stood back from Alina, armored hands clenched. He knew he could not afford to be reckless, but they were taking too long if Ceth meant to harm the woman he had just tugged inside seconds ago. These two were young, but compared to him they had ice in their veins. Once, Martin had been sworn to protect, as all members of the Hound Legion. Of the places he had been, only Sarsa seemed to strip away virtue so quickly.

He circled Alina to the foot of the steps. He marched up them.

Saint heard his footfalls and knew the plan was going awry. Martin was a skilled brawler, but he was also a good man. Sometimes Martin wished he had been more like Martin when alive. The rest of him figured that would have gotten him killed even faster. He followed Kelebek toward the back of the building, not worried about his heavy steps. Martin was making noise up front. The Watertakers would be busy by the time Saint arrived.

Percival whispered to Martin, “What are you doing?”

Martin ignored him and knocked on the front door of the building they planned to rob, a building full of korda gang members. The slat in the door opened with a click. “What do you want, legionnaire?”

He met the eyes looking out at him from the door with an even gaze. “I’m off duty. Not really a legionnaire right now.”

“Then get lost. You ought to know where you are, dog man.”

“I know exactly where I am, watertaker.”

“Ceth!” said the door guard.

Martin’s stone-gauntleted hands punched through the door. Fingers unwrapped an grabbed the man’s forearms. He pulled, so the korda hit the door between them. He groaned and fell to the floor. Martin pulled the door open.

Percival and Alina stared at him. Another pair of eyes glared in Martin’s direction from the far end of the hallway behind the door. They glared at him over a jeweled korda breathing mask. “Legionnaire,” said Ceth. “What are you doing here?”

Alina scrambled up the stairs, Percival at her back. She grabbed Martin’s shoulder just as he freed his hands from the broken door. “This is trouble.”

“I’m good at trouble.” Martin’s eyes did not leave Ceth’s. “Bring it on, korda.”

As Percival reached the second to the top step, just behind Alina and Martin, he spotted four more korda gangsters as they emerged from doors on either side of the hall, between Martin and Ceth.

“Time to go,” Percival said.

“No.” Martin stepped into the hallway. Percival may be practical, but in this situation pragmatism became cowardice. Martin was a trained soldier. He did not need to back down from a handful of men with knives, especially with Saint so close by. The korda would be lucky if they only met his fists.

He hefted a mallet in each hand, both of them small, but with stone heads. Martin’s skill in geomancy allowed him to make those heads hit harder than they had any right. He marched into the hallway. The first korda lunged at him. Martin broke his arm and kicked the knife behind him. He heard Alina pick it up. Two more of Ceth’s goons rushed Martin. He sent one into the wall and cracked the other’s knee.

Ceth backpedaled, trying to put distance between himself and Martin. Percival did not blame the gang leader. Too bad for us there are still ten more of them in there. No way will Martin have an easy time of it, and either way we’ll all have a new set of enemies in these parts. Percival grimaced as he saw Alina holding the knife dropped by the korda gingerly in one hand.

“No use,” he said, “If they get past Martin we had better run.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think so.” Alina did not like the idea of shedding blood, but she had seen enough of it to know that’s often how gangs worked. She followed Martin into the hallway, past the moaning and whimpering forms of fallen Watertakers.

Martin dropped the fourth goon. He smiled at Ceth, who was fumbling with a bag on his belt a few feet away.

“What’s the matter?” he said. “Attached to your limbs.”

Ceth grunted. He pulled a pistol, all brass in color, from the bag and aimed it at Martin’s head. “Don’t take a step further.”

Martin lowered his mallets to his sides. “Hey, good effort.”

“I won’t miss,” said Ceth. “You’re a dead hound now.”

Martin knew all too well what the pistol could do at that range, but he was now stuck in this hallway.

The door behind Ceth slammed open like a gunshot. Smoke poured out of it, gray and choking. Ceth whirled to look behind him. Martin’s mallet cracked down on his skull. Ceth staggered, then crumpled against the wall. Alina ran forward and pulled the gun from his hands. The smoke in the room beyond him resolved into the form of a woman, Rethe, the korda woman who had walked beside her on their way down the street.

Rethe regarded Martin with a smile visible through her breathing mask. “What do you know, a knight to the rescue,” she said. “Good timing.”

He frowned at her. She did not look like she had been in trouble, which meant she could have been playing them all along.

“Who are you?” Martin asked.

 

#

 

See you next week for the next installment!

Stolen Parts Episode 3

This week, Stolen Parts concludes with part three.

Can Odette come back to life?

And will she lose Jeremy after all?

Read on to find out.

 

We got back to my apartment before the moon rose. He had the cooler with the heart into my bedroom minutes later. Neither of us thought Sam could possibly be all the way out of the game. Blows to the head hurt, and that cut on his hand drained his power for the moment, but Sam’s magic is nourished by pain, no matter how much it slows him down in the moment more pain means more power later. Neither Jeremy or I wanted to kill another necromancer.

Life. Death. Things just can’t ever be simple.

Jeremy flipped on the lights and set the cooler on the floor beside the bed. My body lay where it had been when we left, still indecent, still bloody. For some reason the flecks of blood in my hair made me feel the worst. They just looked so haphazard. Probably won’t be easy to clean. Jeremy closed the bedroom doors and drew the thin curtains on the window by the bed. He set the witch dagger on the sill.

He flipped the top on the cooler. My heart would have skipped a beat if it hadn’t already been lying frozen in that box. He raised the heart carefully, the ritual of restoration requiring his skin to touch the raw flesh to work. He set it in the hole in my chest, blood and ice water on his fingers.

He came over to break my heart and found another guy had already torn it out. Jeremy might be the only person I know who would do what he had just done. He went charging into danger to save someone he didn’t want to see anymore. At that point I still didn’t know exactly why he thought we had grown apart. Questions are hard to ask sometimes. He chanted the spell to heal the joins and repair the veins and arteries. His eyes glowed blue. I thought about how hard it was gonna to find another guy like him and I got sad.

My pulse throbbed painfully as it returned.

He withdrew his hand from around my heart, but my soul remained joined to Jeremy through the collars we wore. Its a strange feeling, looking down at one’s own unconscious body.

“You ready to go back?” Jeremy asked softly.

“You’d better not sneak out before I wake up.”

He shrugged his aching shoulders. “I’ll stand guard. It’s dark now. Sam will probably send some Zs after us.”

“You don’t think he’ll come by himself?”

“He could. I doubt I slowed him down much.”

“Good move with the cooler. Never mind that my heart was in there.”

“Sorry about that.” Jeremy wiped his hands on his jeans. Then he folded them and started chanting again, eyes closed. In that darkness with just his voice to guide me, I drifted down, felt like falling. My heartbeat announced my return, sore and tremulous. The pain in the rest of my chest was gone, and the wound sealed without a trace or a scar.

I opened my eyes and looked up at Jeremy. He stood at the foot of my bed, further away than he had been when he started chanting. “Odette, we need to talk.”

“I guess we do.” My voice sounded strange and high coming out of my mouth. I had kinda gotten used to sensing the words rather than hearing them.

He leaned against the wall by the door, arms folded. “You know why I came over?”

“I’ve been reading your thoughts all evening. So yeah.”

Moonlight glimmered on the floor of the kitchen, visible through the open door. Jeremy stared down at me. I sat up and covered myself with my arms. A chill ran through me, not exactly bundled up, and it was mid-October.

“Jeremy, I think tonight proved we can trust each other. We work together.”

He sighed and walked over to my bedside, then took my hand gently. “Odette…”

I shook my head, upset. “You’re gonna tell me we’re done. You respect me or something. I can see it in those pretty eyes of yours.” Funny how I could be so calm the whole time without my body, but getting it back had me panicked.

“Odette, I think we had better sleep on it.”

I stared at him. A smile formed on my face.

Outside, in the moonlight, a zombie groaned. I reached for the witch dagger. “Sound’s like trouble.”

Jeremy released my hand. He reached up with a both hands to unlock the cold metal collar from around my neck. “Not so bad you’ll need this.”

My hand found his again and stopped him. “Not a bridge I want burned just yet.”

He lowered his hands slowly and nodded.

I slipped my legs over the side of the bed and walked over to my closet. I opened the doors and glanced at Jeremy. “You think I ought to dress up?”

“To take down a few Zs?”

“And for afterward.” I reached inside and moved aside a pale colored dress in favor of a plain dark t-shirt. I shivered in the cool air of the room.

He shook his head, but I saw his smile. He reached for the scroll case in his jacket pocket and took it out. Then he slung off the coat and hung it around my shoulders. I slipped my arms through the rough material of the sleeves. The jacket felt like home inside.

I buttoned up the front, and then reached out, took the dagger’s bone handle and picked it up. We walked through the apartment and took the stairs down.

A couple dozen ragged zombies advanced down the street. The big Z who had been patrolling outside the morgue dragged his foot at the back of the mob. Probably only a matter of time before Sam shows up. Jeremy unfurled the scroll and smiled at me. I smiled back and then took a defensive stance, dagger extended in one hand.

Zombies approached and I fell back step by step toward Jeremy. “Second incantation, remember?”

He coughed to clear his throat, then started to chant. The zombies wavered in their advance. The big one in the white tee rushed at me. His reach beat mine, but the dagger slice into his forearm, turning magically animated muscles into dead flesh. A jab to the shoulder finished the zombie completely. He went down. Before any other zombies could reach me Jeremy completed the incantation. Any dead that should hear these words shall sleep.

Zombies male and female tumbled into the street, their bodies returned to rest. Along the street the lights flickered. A shadow winged its way over the rooftops, far too large to be a bat. I recognized him first by the glow of green in his eyes. Sam’s dark wings carried him down toward street level. He wore a look of mild surprise.

“I expected they would keep you busy longer than that.” He landed on the pavement in front us. His cloak of shadows deepened around him and he wore a collar of his own, but rather than the iron Jeremy and I shared, his looked brighter, more silver in color. I didn’t dare hope he had just been using it to command all those zombies. I knew him. At the very least he could use it to reanimate the zombies the scroll had just destroyed. Every tool Sam used was multipurpose.

My fingers clenched on the dagger. I glared at Sam. “I don’t buy this ‘other dimension’ bullshit! What are you trying to do?”

“Odette, you really are a simple creature.” A smirk surfaced from the shadows.

My face grew hot, half from annoyance at his tone and half from my tension at having to fight such a dangerous opponent. “Go back to the Morgue. You don’t want this to go further than it already has.”

“Don’t I?” Sam’s infuriating smugness radiated like an insufferable star. “I have the two of you together now. Two hearts should be enough to open the gate.”

“A gate to where?” Jeremy lowered the scroll.

“Somewhere you would never dare go, boy. But I will take you there.” He grinned. “Part of you anyway.”

I lunged the few yards between us. My dagger thrust toward his chest. He sidestepped, flowing through shadow. Jeremy called out a warning. I passed Sam and dropped to one knee. His fist swung over my head. I counted my good luck, I’d known how to read Jeremy’s tone.

Sam put on a burst of shadow speed and raced toward Jeremy, who held nothing but the scroll.

Not enough time for Jeremy to chant, and I was too slow to catch up. I flipped the dagger to change my grip, pivoted on the spot, then threw the weapon. The blade missed Sam, but the bone hilt hit him in the back of the neck. He let out a gasp and stumbled, breathless.

“Looks you still need to breathe,” I said.

Jeremy dashed to my side, scooping up the dagger as he approached. I rose to my feet. Jeremy slowed as he reached me, then turned toward Sam again. “Now what do we do?”

I shrugged. “We’ve got to stop him.”

He handed me the witch dagger. “We can’t put him down.”

I glanced at the scroll rumpled in his hand. “You know what the first incantation on that scroll does, right?”

“Paralysis?”

“For all living who hear the complete chant, except the reader,” I said. “Yeah.”

Sirens wailed in the distance. Someone on my street had called the cops. I returned my eyes to Sam as he turned. “We only need to buy time until the cops get here.”

“You think that’ll work?”

“Sam won’t expose himself to the normals. That would break the law too.”

Jeremy set his jaw. “Hope you’re right.”

Sam looked over his shoulder at us. His eyes burned green. The zombified corpses all around the street began to stir. Such a showoff, he was doing it without a single word. I readied the witch dagger. “Start chanting. I’ll protect you.”

A zombie reached for my ankle. I slashed its wrist, then kicked its head back. The others were moving slowly. Jeremy started chanting, slow and measured. His voice echoed in the street, even over the sound of approaching sirens. Behind Sam the lights approached on the main street, but not the lights of a police car, the lights of an ambulance. Paramedics would be much less useful than cops for my plan.

I cut down a zombie as it staggered to its feet. Sam turned to face me and Jeremy. “That toy won’t stop my zombies forever,” he said. “And that scroll is less powerful than amateurs like you want to think.”

He walked between the rising forms of reanimated zombies. I stared at him, worried he could be right. With a few stabs I took down a few more zombies. If it wasn’t for Sam probably being ready to counter anything I tried, I’d have a lot more options. The ambulance sped down the street, not slowing.

“Jeremy,” I said. “Keep going.”

Sam towered over me, just like he had back in the kitchen at home. His fingers locked around my wrist, keeping the dagger from stabbing into his side. I glared up at his face. His other hand drew back. I shoved uselessly at his chest, trying to push him back.

Jeremy finished the chant. I froze. My muscles locked tight, and my heartbeat slowed. My knees went weak and I might have fallen except for Sam’s grip. My eyes remained fixed on his green glowing gaze. His lethal hand still moved in jerky fits and starts, down toward my heart.

“Odette!” Jeremy shouted and dove into Sam from the side where I held the dagger. His momentum hit my hand and Sam’s with a crack. Despite the paralysis both hands slammed into Sam’s side. The blade of the dagger vanished between his ribs. I gasped with pain from my wrist. Sam fell.

Jeremy tugged me out of his grip. The witch dagger came with me, coated with Sam’s dark blood. He stared up at the sky with an empty gaze. The green glow faded as I looked down at him. My heartbeat began to accelerate back to normal as Jeremy led me through the moaning, mindless handful of zombies toward my apartment building. “We can’t stay here,” I said. “He’s dead, Jeremy.”

A far off look formed in his eye as we passed the front yard and headed into the parking lot that wrapped around the back of the building and led onto an adjacent street. Jeremy turned to me as I regained the ability to walk on my own.

“Looks like we’re going on the run,” he said.

The two of us walked away from the flashing lights of the ambulance. I nodded.

We just killed another necromancer. That won’t stay hidden for long. I looked up at his face. “Guess you’re stuck with me.”

His arm wrapped around my shoulders.

Funny how life can seem so simple sometimes.

 

#

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Stolen Parts Episode 2

This week the Stolen Parts serial continues with part two.

Odette and Jeremy have a lot of unresolved business between each other.

But missing pieces take priority.

Read on for part two.

 

Jeremy parked the car midway along a block adjacent to the morgue where Sam managed the night shift. It’s a bad part of town, but Jeremy and I were all too familiar with it. The sky turned purple in the west. Autumn air breezed around him, playing with his short curls in a way I never did. I tended to be more focused on his skin.

He took the big automatic pistol from the trunk of the car and slung the holster around his shoulder.

“Isn’t that a bit conspicuous?”

“Sam probably knows I’m on my way already.” Jeremy closed the trunk and followed the sidewalk to the corner. There was no one around to pay any attention to the gun he wore openly. His jacket swished around his shoulders with every step. I remembered right then how I fell for him at first. Sexy walk? Check. Mysterious? Check. Confident? Well he puts on a good show. 

“Are you trying to distract me?” he said under his breath.

He crossed the street and turned to the morgue’s side entrance, the one we necromancers go through. That used to let Sam know we were there to buy. Jeremy marched up to the door, looked both ways to check for goons, and then stopped stock still. So far, so good, I thought. A shuffle of feet sounded deafening even with a car horn going off on the highway a few blocks beyond the morgue.

Jeremy reached for the pistol slung over his shoulder. He’s never been what I’d call a ‘good shot’, but the big guns keep living people from causing him any trouble. Both hands on the gun, he whirled and pressed his back to the wall beside the door to the morgue. A big zombie dragged one leg on the sidewalk as he approached Jeremy. The zombie wore a white tee and jeans, and his eyes glowed with green haze. This one belonged to Sam for sure, poison powered by pain; green was the color of his magic. Necromancers can have all sorts of different talents and Sam got charged up by pain he felt. Yet, somehow I used to think he was a sensitive guy. The big Z shuffled closer.

“Ready for the show to start?” I asked Jeremy.

“You know what…” Jeremy’s heart thumped in his chest. “Not yet.”

One hand flew to the door handle. He pulled the door open and darted around it. Sam’s zombie was just a few yards away, but Jeremy kept cool. He ducked into the morgue and looked both ways.

There was one silhouette moving against flicker of a fading light from a window at the end of the hallway. I couldn’t tell by the slow shift of its movements if it was a living assistant, a zombie, or something worse. Jeremy backed away from it one step and pressed his shoulder against the door. The big Z hit the other side, but the door held. The Z rebounded.

“Nows our chance!” I said. “Get going.”

Jeremy broke into a run. Feet pounded on tiled floor. He raced toward the shape at the end of the hall. The shape turned toward him, slow, dead, a zombie woman wearing a dirty nurse’s smock. He stumbled to a stop a few feet from the undead and leveled the pistol at her. He pulled the trigger before she could take a single step.

He isn’t much of a shooter, but at less than five feet and with both hands bracing the gun, he couldn’t have a better shot on a Z. Jeremy’s gun roared. The head burst and the zombie fell to the floor. The sound of the gunshot echoed, probably through the whole morgue.

“We gotta get to the freezers,” Jeremy said. His ears rang and I barely made out his words.

Can you still hear?

Not very well, he thought in my direction as he turned to the door.

He looked up from the remains of the zombie he’d just shot, then kept going down the hallway. Behind us, the door burst open from the big zombie’s hammering blows. Jeremy didn’t look back, so I didn’t see if the big Z was following us. Sharing Jeremy’s head gave me crazy nerves. I had no idea how anxious he could get.

Jeremy moved down a side corridor. This one led toward the freezer rooms at the center of the building where they kept cadavers on ice. He lowered the pistol and drew the witch dagger out of his belt loop. Witch daggers are the inverse end of blessed instruments or other magical tools. One cut will cancel all the spells on a person or object.

“You ought to be careful with that.” If it nicked his collar I’d have my one way ticket to the next world punched.

“I know what I’m doing.” He kept his voice low as he approached the doors of the freezer room. “Where are all the Zs?”

“Out walking,” said a calm voice from behind. Sam.

Jeremy whirled. The blade of his dagger rose to point between the eyes of a pale-faced man in a black coat too long for this weather. Sam didn’t have a collar around his neck and he didn’t need it to control his Zs like the rest of us did. Shadows crept all around him despite the bright electric lights overhead, moving like slender limbs. I still haven’t met another necromancer as powerful as Sam.

But even then, I knew a couple who are more canny. Me, and Jeremy.

“Honey, if you shoot him now we may have a chance,” I said.

This has got to be a trick, Jeremy answered silently. His ears still rang with the gunshot from earlier. Damn things are so inelegant.

Jeremy backed away from Sam, and toward the freezer room doors. Sam stood with his arms folded, solemn smile on his face. “I’m sorry I got Odette’s first,” he said. “I know you two had a relationship of sorts. But she was mine first and just couldn’t resist. She practically asked me to tear it out of her.  But you know that. You were there.”

I did no such thing. Didn’t have time to say much before, and its hard to speak with ice cold finger literally wrapped around your heart. Sam got under my skin, but all I could do was watch. In the silence following his words watched Sam’s face, pale and devilishly handsome and wreathed in shadow. One corner of his lip curled.

The gun in Jeremy’s hand spoke, but he should have known better than to shoot it one-handed. The recoil slammed his shoulder back and the bullet went wide then punched a hole in the wall The gun made its explosive sound. Jeremy’s arm flared with pain from wrist to shoulder.

Sam’s smile vanished, replaced by a vicious grin. In a burst of shadows that flowed from him in all directions, he rushed forward and slammed into Jeremy, bowling him off his feet. Jeremy’s a strong guy. Sam’s got inches on him, but more importantly, Sam must have been invoking some sort of greater power. Jeremy sailed through the double doors to the freezer room, flinging them open in the process.

He hit the first empty gurney in the room and knocked it over. Jeremy’s back and shoulders screamed. His gun skidded away across the floor to one side of the room and came to rest by a black boot. He kept his grip on the witch dagger, and the scroll case pressed into his side. He lurched forward as he sat up. Zombies lined the walls. The scroll could be good here. It could take out all these Zs in a second.

Sam started to advance on him as the doors swung shut. He moved like a big cat, lethal and beautiful.

“Odette, he wants my heart too.” Jeremy grunted with pain and climbed to his feet. His head spun from the sudden elevation.

He could barely stand. I’m no ace at astral projection, and I’m a beginner at possession, but I know the basics.

“Hon, I’m taking over.”

I didn’t wait for permission. Jeremy’s eyes glowed my color, red, under my influence. Already being in his head, I tweaked his flares of pain with a gentle touch as they hit me. I felt them. I took them for myself. Could have screamed, but no voice at the moment. It wasn’t full on possession, but it would do for the moment to freshen him up. Zombies closed in around Jeremy. With a couple of quick thrusts of the witch dagger he disenchanted all of them.

Undead turned to regular dead. They fell.

He stood, looking around, confused by the sudden clarity. “Thanks.”

“Not done yet.” I nudged on his motor cortex. His legs carried him around the gurneys that formed a circle in the center of the room. Something dug at the back of my mind just as the cold started to make Jeremy’s skin turn to goosebumps. We’re close.

My heart was in the room. A girl can always tell.

Sam threw the doors open. He had sure taken his sweet time getting to the room. Now that he was inside, things could get a lot tougher. Jeremy turned to face Sam. The poison master towered over him.

“I think my hearts behind us,” I said.

Good to know, he replied without a sound. His breath misted before him. “Sam, I don’t know what you’re doing. But I don’t care.”

“What do you think I’m doing?” Sam stopped beside the gurney Jeremy had knocked over when Sam hit him. “I’m cleaning up the neighborhood.”

“You’re breaking the law. Killing other necromancers. Keeping hearts on ice.”

That’s my Jeremy, always got justice on his mind. “Hon, buying time won’t work without a plan.”

Think one up, then! He sure got demanding all of a sudden.

I stared through Jeremy’s eye at Sam as Jeremy back into the center of the circle of gurneys. The four remaining Zombies couldn’t easily get him in there because of the obstacle posed by the carts. Too dumb to push them out of the way, what with the wheels and all. They simply waited, eyes glowing green with Sam’s command.

A little orange sports cooler sat in the center of the circle. I could practically feel my heart in side, even with it frozen in ice.

“That’s it,” I said. “Jeremy, my heart is in that cooler.”

“You sure?” he muttered.

“Baby, it’s my own heart.

Sam’s lip curled. Jeremy knelt, and picked up the cooler. It was light on his muscles. Good because his shooting arm still throbbed with pain.

“Talking to someone?” Sam asked. “Funny. I don’t hear any voices on the wind. But judging by your eyes earlier you have a passenger.”

“Funny,” Jeremy smirked. “But I’m just a mess in your neighborhood. So I don’t think I’ll share.”

“So. Odette isn’t gone yet.” Sam’s face darkened. “I hoped her death would be quick.”

Jeremy glared at Sam, heart hammering, pulse pounding. “You bastard. What’s your game?”

“I thought you didn’t care?” Sam motioned with one hand. His zombies closed in on either side of Jeremy and started pulling at the gurneys, trying to knock them over.

Jeremy don’t let him get to you.”

He scowled. Intense dark eyes fixed on Sam’s green ones. “Try me.”

“Cleaning up the town is just bonus.” Sam’s eyes glimmered as they locked with Jeremy’s. “The hearts of mages are where our power comes from. They can be used to gain access to realms beyond this one.”

And here I thought I was a girl caught in the middle of two guys. I’m actually kinda disappointed.

“That’s all?” Jeremy brandished the witch dagger. “You plan to buy a condo in some other reality?”

“You lack vision, boy.”

Jeremy smirked. “I just thought the same thing.”

“Enough!” Sam snarled and leapt over the gurney circle with a furious burst of shadow power. He flew down toward Jeremy. Sam’s boot connect with Jeremy’s wrist, keeping Jeremy from stabbing with the witch dagger. Jeremy kept his grip on the weapon. I always thought Jeremy had nice hands.

Jeremy staggered and swung the plastic bulk of the cooler high. I mentally flinched as the rounded corner connected with Sam’s head and knocked him back a few paces. A trickle of blood flowed from Sam’s temple. He sank to his knees. That only lasted for a second before he surged to his feet, the blood on the side of his head sizzling on his skin. Apparently he’s not as coldblooded as I thought.

“There’s no time,” Jeremy said.

He pushed through the gurneys, passed the Zs, and carried my heart down the hall as fast as his legs could carry him. Sam followed, gliding on shadowy wisps of wings.

His roar of fury echoed down the hall. That hit to the head must have pissed him off, pain magic or not. Jeremy flew past the body of the zombie he shot on the way in. He cornered into the hallway beyond. The door stood open up ahead. Jeremy bolted toward it. Sam sailed into his path, fast as a snake. Jeremy slashed out sideways with the witch dagger. Sam caught his wrist with both hands.

“Tut tut, improper form.” Sam drove a boot into Jeremy’s stomach.

The kick knocked Jeremy to the floor.

I took Jeremy’s pain again. The shock disoriented me, but even if it hadn’t I couldn’t return the breath Jeremy had just lost. He looked up at Sam, who stood over him. Orange streetlights glowed on the windows from outside. The cooler with my heart lay at Jeremy’s side.

You’ve got to get up. Sam knelt down before Jeremy. His hand drew back, mirroring the strike that had torn out my heart hours ago. Sam wore a cold smile. His hand stabbed toward Jeremy’s chest.

I focused on Jeremy’s hand that held the witch dagger. I pinched a tendon that moved his forearm. In that instant, I think I graduated to full possession.

Jeremy’s dagger flew into position. The blade sliced a tiny gash along the edge of Sam’s hand. Sam’s shadows evaporated from that arm and his palm slapped off Jeremy’s shirt, strength gone.

Sam leapt backward, still surrounded by shadow. He looked down at his hand, frustration rather than disbelief showed on his face. Jeremy stood unsteadily, cooler in one hand, dagger in the other. He raised the blade. “I don’t care which dimension you go to, but you can’t stay here.” He rushed toward Sam, ready to strike again.

Green eyes flashed within darkness. Sam vanished into shadow. Jeremy reacted fast. He lowered his shoulder and hit the door.

“Change of plans, Odette,” he said mentally.

Jeremy burst through the morgue door and out into the night.

 

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 51 – Dirge

The first few chapters of Tenlyres and the first quarter of Hunter and Seed are available on instafreebie until the end of the month. Go check those out, as they’re a great way to show support for the blog.

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.

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Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa recovers from her wounds. The final battle draws near.

 

Some songs simply need to be played.

 

The evening after Cass’s defeat, Ilsa wandered the camp, unable to rest. She knew she would need to play the song on the Flowering Lyre once the sun rose again. She could only pray so much.

As the darkness began to close in and grow colder, Ilsa made her way back toward the tent she shared with Lemuel. He was sitting on the grass beside the tent when she arrived, under the light of a dim lamp. As she approached through the gloom, he offered a bottle of something strong to Ferdinand who sat beside him.

The two men had been enemies in the spring, but as summer began to wane they shared a drink. At least a few good things had come from this damned conflict. Ilsa hesitated in the darkness, unseen by the two men, listening to their muffled words.

“It’s not easy,” said Lemuel. “This is war, I guess.”

Ferdinand sighed. “I can still hope she’s alive. She was better than I d-deserved.” He took a swig from the bottle.

“Maybe it seems that way,” said Lemuel, “But I doubt she’d agree.”

“Am I the only one drinking here?” Ferdinand pushed the bottle at Lemuel. “Your sister is on the other side.”

“I’ll deal with that tomorrow.” But Lemuel still took the bottle, and he still drank.

“You do that. You can’t count on Ilsa forever.”

“I know.” Lemuel shook his head. “It’s strange. I used to rely on my sister. Now she could be ready to shoot me for all I know.”

Ilsa squeezed her eye shut in the dark, then opened them again. She took a deep breath and stepped out of the shadows into the illumination of the lamp that hung in front of the tent. Lemuel and Ferdinand looked up at her in surprised unison.

“You’re pretty quiet,” said Ferdinand.

“I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“Have a seat.” Ferdinand patted the ground. “We’re drinking to our troubles.”

“I heard.” Ilsa sat down beside Lemuel. He offered her the bottle. She drank and let the bitter taste to relieve a different kind of bitterness. “We’ll stop them, you know. And we’ll save as many people as we can.” She turned to Lemuel. “Even Tirica.” Her gazed continued to Ferdinand. “You know Cass is tough. If. If she’s still alive, we’ll find her.”

“I trust you.” No hint of a stutter corrupted his voice.

She handed him the bottle.

He raised the drink to his lips. “Tomorrow,” he said. And drank.

“Tomorrow,” said Lemuel.

“Tomorrow,” Ilsa murmured. She leaned against Lemuel. Their arms found the way around each other. “Tomorrow.”

 

Ilsa stood on the Flowering Lyre’s raised base as the sun rose the next morning. Siuku, Blue, and the prince of Chogrum were with her, while their troops took up positions encircling the stone base of the huge structure. Ilsa held the grips of the song pistols tighter than she had ever gripped a firearm.

The forces of Black Powder and Asurdeva spread out before her. Somehow, they looked more numerous than ever.

How could her father have amassed so many soldiers that were fanatics to the cause of the old god?

He wanted a perfect war, a war that would never end.

On her left, Lemuel stood, back to the wider support of the lyre. He held a book of notes in his hands and read from it in a low murmur.

She wanted to reassure him that they would win the day, but she did not know if she could. Even after she had started writing again, she could not muster the courage to speak in this moment. She would never be a real preacher like Cass. But she could try to save her first friend.

Black Powder had reacted quickly to losing the song pistols, but the Chogrumians and their allies had moved to occupy the lyre even as Cass had ridden to challenge Black Powder. They would fight, and they had a chance, at last, to defeat the army before them.

Uzan lumbered forward, weapons emerging from them. Ilsa closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She knew she could play the lyre, but there was no room for error. If the song was not perfect only some, or perhaps none of the Uzan would be sealed.

She clenched her jaw. “For Cass,” she murmured. For Akirette, and Hailek, and all the other beings who died for them to have a chance in this battle.

The prince caught her eye. “I will conduct with the staff,” he said. “Shoot at the string I indicate.”

“Right. The plan.” Ilsa nodded to him.

The Uzan surged forward. Their massive leader, the Gray Lector, took the lead. He was obviously the only one who had been awake these past millennia because of his deeply weathered and pitted skin.

Their weapons boomed and roared, distant and brutal. Nomads and Chogrumians alike answered with fire of their own. Ilsa turned to the prince. “As soon as you’re ready,” she said.

The air was hot and stank of all kinds of propellant.

The prince furrowed his brow and pointed the end of the red staff at the center of the lyre. Ilsa hit the string, and it vibrated with a sound almost like a gong.

She followed the point of the staff and fired. Again. Again. The sounds of the strings were louder than those of the guns.

Each pistol held twelve shots initially. Down to eight each after a few seconds of firing. Standing near her, Lemuel prepared the extra magazines, ready to reload near-instantly.

The song rose over the battle, somber and slow, but also commanding. She fell into the rhythm and continued to shoot the indestructible strings.

One gun emptied. Lemuel clicked the magazine back into it. She took it from him and emptied the other before handing that to Lemuel.

The chaos of the battle seemed far away.

Here, Boraij Kanan’s troops advanced on the flank.

There, Ganara’s Vogmem skirted the battle to angle toward the command of the mercenaries.

And ever-present, the Uzan continued to advance, killing humans with few losses to themselves.

Ganara’s riders cut back and hit Kanan’s rear. Skyriders fell upon the Ayochian traitors from above.

A glint of steel glimmered in the sun from Black Powder’s command post. Ilsa hit the next string, but her teeth went on edge. Her father had just produced a weapon from his spirit. It seemed strange to her spirit, but she could not identify it.

A heavy thud echoed from the distance.

An artillery shell, aimed with deadly accuracy, few toward the top of the Flowering Lyre.

Black Powder had finally used the stolen bombard from Howling Pass.

Ilsa’s eyes watered. She shot the string, emptying the gun again. A wave of sound spread over the field, dampening the movements of the Uzan. Some of them stumbled in their paces.

And then, the artillery shell hit the front of the lyre, creating a deafening interruption to Ilsa’s song, and setting some of the flowers around the base ablaze.

Ilsa staggered as the lyre shook with the impact. Her ears rang. Lemuel fell to the ground. A scything shard of metal whipped between the strings and carved through the prince’s outstretched arm.

He clutched the stump and fell to his knees. His guards were beside him in seconds. The red staff rolled free of his severed grip.

Blue ran to Ilsa and Lemuel, while Siuku reached the prince.

“We need to finish the song,” said Blue.

“How?” Ilsa stared at the bloody staff on the ground.

“I’ll point, you shoot.” Blue stared across the field. “We can still win.”

A sniper’s bullet whined off the lyre. Ilsa traced the shot to Tirica’s rifle, set up atop the broken Uzan artillery a hundred meters from the lyre.

“Damn it,” Ilsa said. “But you’re right.”

Blue picked up the staff, eyes glazed as she read the thoughts from Lemuel and the wounded prince to pick each string. Ilsa continued to fire.

Kanan’s surviving troops fought past Ganara’s Vogmem and joined with the Uzan in the center.

Another of Tirica’s shots rang off the lyre’s unbreakable stone.

Lemuel cringed close to Ilsa, a magazine in each hand.

The Gray Lector leaped up and onto the lyre’s base. He roared and weapons emerged from his body.

Blue sent to Ilsa. “Tirica is moving.”

“Good.” Ilsa kept shooting out the song. Each blast of the pistol sent the strings vibrating. A funeral song rose from the lyre. And the Uzan slowed again. Even the ancient Gray Lector gave a lurch of disruption as he pushed forward.

Then he was on them. His hand snaked out to grab the end of Blue’s staff.

A greatsword cleaved through his palm. Kaij Haram kicked out and drove the Gray Lector back a step. Guns bristled from the weatherbeaten Uzan, ready to blaze away. A chill froze the humid air. Ice blocked the barrels of the weapons.

Yunn grunted and guided his runner into cover behind one of the lyre’s supports.

Blue thrust the staff at another string, calm enough despite the arrival of some unexpected allies.

The Gray Lector bellowed a cry in the forgotten language of the gods. He swung to pummel Kaij, but his fist slowed, hesitating impossibly. Ashnia’s powers pinned the Gray Lector in place for an instant. She stood beside Blue, eyes clouded nearly white with her mind eater powers.

The Red Lector’s children were here to claim their revenge.

Kaij did not hesitate. He cleaved through the Gray Lector’s neck. Blood met the air and spattered Ilsa’s face.

The scarred Uzan fell to his knees. Huge hands reached for his freshly severed head.

Ilsa’s song echoed over the battlefield, drowning out all other sounds.

All around the lyre, the Uzan froze in their places. Blue lowered the staff’s point. The echoes of the song began to fade, but the monsters remained completely still.

Ilsa jammed an empty song pistol into its holster. She wiped blood and sweat out of her eyes. The legion of walking weapons was silent.

The Uzan had been sealed.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 50 – Heights of Fear

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 returned to the allied war camp with terrible news. But the war continues.

There are created enough people to face any challenge, whether natural or supernatural.

 

The prince’s command tent was far smaller than Ilsa had expected but still dwarfed the camp structures around it.

Ilsa and Lemuel made their way inside through a double-wide front entrance, following the keeper, Ganara, and the other leaders. Blue brought up the rear.

Inside the tent, Siuku took to one side with her chieftains at her back. The Vogmem, including Ganara, stood opposite the Oshomi. Forming a triangle with them, the prince of Chogrum in his robes and holding the True Red staff of Hathani, spread his arms, flanked by generals and guards.

“Everyone,” he said. “The Keeper of Tenlyres has proposed a plan to stop this war before the monsters can strike back at us.”

Ilsa glanced at Siuku. The keeper stepped forward.

“My predecessors and I have studied the lyres for as long as our history remembers. The Uzan are not sealed fully within them, but are bound by the song when it is played.”

“They were freed by song,” said Lemuel. “It is likely they can be imprisoned again by it.”

“More like certain,” said Ganara. “But we need to know the song to play.” She tossed her hair back. “We don’t exactly have notes to read.”

The Prince motioned toward Ganara. “I believe I have your answer.” He held out the red staff. “This is the true staff of Hathani. With the notes Mister Chollush has made, it can assist in guiding someone to understand the notes properly, as long as the one who wields it can communicate to the one who plays.”

“Are you certain?” asked Ganara. “I have wielded the black staff and I never noticed such a power.”

“You never carried it to a lyre,” said Siuku. “I believe the prince is right. There is one other difficulty, however.”

“What is that?” asked the prince, a frown forming on his lips.

“We will need the song pistols to play the notes perfectly.”

“And Black Powder has them,” said Ilsa.

Siuku nodded. “That is true.”

“Then we must retrieve them,” said the Prince.

“He leads Asurdeva’s army now,” said Ganara. “How can any of us get to him?” Her eyes moved toward Ilsa. “Unless…”

“He knows I’m not his ally, though I am his daughter.” Ilsa grunted. “But there may be another way.” She glanced at Blue. “Can you tell where Black Powder is now?”

Blue shook her braids. “Unlikely. He has Uzan sense magi scattered around his camp, so I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

“This is foolish,” said one of the Oshomi chieftains. “We can raid the Uzan, kill Black Powder. He is only a man.”

“Just a man. But the most dangerous man on all the plateau,” said Siuku. “To pursue him into the heart of his camp would be suicide.”

The chieftain grunted, then fell silent.

Ganara growled, “I hate to agree with that, but it is true.”

Ilsa narrowed her eyes, brows bent in thought. Father always rode with mercenaries before. And mercenaries had no laws, no exploitable customs, only their own pride mattered to her father’s company. Pride could make one do foolish things.

“Insult them,” she said.

“What?” The prince raised his eyebrows. “Priestess, elaborate.”

“We challenge their pride. Most mercenaries don’t care about honor, but Black Powder’s troops aren’t just mercenaries. They’re his disciples.”

“Explain,” said Siuku.

“The bonds Black Powder teaches them to use, bonds to the spirit, are the source of their pride. We can insult that pride to draw him out. They’ll want to prove their master’s ability can match anyone else.”

“A cult of skill,” said the prince. “I begin to understand. But their abilities are great. If Black Powder accepts this challenge, then who can we send to duel? My guards have weapon bonds, but I’ve heard of his skill. Any of them would lay down their lives for us, but none would survive long enough to even distract him.”

Ilsa took a deep breath. “I’ll fight him.”

“No,” said Lemuel. “No, Ilsa.”

“Lemuel, I know I can beat him.”

He shook his head. “That doesn’t matter. He bonded those weapons to you.”

A sinking feeling in Ilsa’s stomach told her he was right. Her father and his troops would not care if she fought. She might as well be one of them.

“You’re right. I can’t insult them the way we need to.”

A figure detached herself from the wall of the tent on the far side of the Oshomi leaders.

“I’ll do it,” said Cass Kalteri.

Ilsa started, then stared at her oldest friend, her fellow priestess, the one who had betrayed her to the high priestess, and who had still ridden out to help her.

“Cass,” Ilsa said. “Are you sure?”

“I’d put my skills to the test against anyone, Ilsa. And Black Powder is Saint Banyeen’s greatest rival.” The red-haired priestess bowed to the prince of Chogrum. “If you’ll accept my offer, I can challenge him at dawn.”

The prince glanced at his generals. Murmurs ran through the leaders, city-dwellers, and nomads.

Siuku nodded. “I trust your courage, priestess.”

Ilsa’s throat felt tight. Her own life, she would gladly risk against her father. She could not let Cass sacrifice herself, though it could give them a path to victory. She clenched her unburnt fist and looked at her friends around her.

“It could work,” she said. “But Cass—He’ll kill you.”

“Or maybe I’ll kill him. We’ll see,” she said. “In the meantime, someone can find the song pistols. Once we have those we can beat the Uzan all at once.”

“It’s true,” said the prince. He bowed his head toward Cass. “To you, Priestess Kalteri.”

Ganara turned to Ilsa. “That camp won’t be easy to infiltrate, but I have a feeling you and your mind eater will be able to make it in.”

“Agreed,” said Ilsa. Sick to her stomach, she added, “We have to make this worth it.” Her eyes met Cass’s. “Good luck, my friend.”

Cass nodded to Ilsa. “Let’s hope he takes the bait.”

“He will,” she said. That’s what I’m afraid of now.

Lemuel silently reached for Ilsa’s hand. She let him hold her tight.

 

The next morning the sun was just rising when Cass rode toward the camp of Asurdeva with the prince’s guards, under a flag of parley. Ilsa watched them from a distance, sheltering in the ruins of Atalem with Ferdinand. The rest of the raiders who had survived the battle at the Uzan artillery were with them.

The black shapes of wrecked war machines still stood to the south of them. Ferdinand breathed a curse.

“Damn this p-plan,” he said. “I-if he a-accepts, sh-she is n-no m-match for him.”

“I wish I could go instead,” said Ilsa.

He sighed. “Y-you would p-protect h-her if you c-could. B-but I w-would h-hate i-it either way.”

Ilsa blinked in the bright light of the sun shining from the east. “We have to believe. In her. She does.”

“I b-believe in her,” Ferdinand said. “I j-just wish I could help.” Ilsa glanced back through the ruined village to where Ferdinand’s steed sat hidden from the view of Black Powder’s camp by the few walls still standing. “You are helping. Blue’s strider is enough to carry both of us in, but most mercenaries ride their own striders. Thanks for letting me borrow yours.”

“Vortimer will get you in and out,” said Ferdinand “Don’t let him show you too much attitude.”

The fact that he didn’t stutter made his confidence in the strider clear to Ilsa.

She left Ferdinand and moved to where Blue and the two striders stood. She had to put Cass’s challenge out of her mind. What she was about to do could be just as dangerous.

Blue gave her a nod, and sent a sense of meditative calm, that almost masked the tension beneath it. They rode out of Atalem and headed south past the ruined hulks of abandoned Uzan artillery.

Once Vortimer carried Ilsa out of sight of the mercenary lines, she threw on a heavy coat, too hot for summer. It had a hood to conceal her face. Blue put on a helmet that went with her ballistic armor and pulled down the face mask. They turned toward the mercenary camp. Ilsa bent down to urge Vortimer forward. She made a face when the strider snorted at her.

She pulled back, wrinkled her nose, but the white strider accelerated anyway. They needed to hurry. Black Powder would have to accept Cass’s challenge immediately or risk losing face. His pride would not allow that.

She marked the time by the sun in the sky. They reached the outer sentries of the mercenary camp. Blue muddied their minds, allowing the two of them to ride into the camp.

They carried no visible weapons, but anyone with a sense of weapons could tell Ilsa was bonded.

She brought Vortimer to a stop among the tents of the camp. A pair of Uzan marched past them. Huge feet left heavy prints in the already worn down steppe-grass of the camp.

Ilsa dismounted and led Vortimer after the Uzan. Blue did the same with her strider. As they walked Ilsa made sure to follow the other mercenaries going toward the center of the line closest to Atalem.

Blue’s eyes lingered on the gray-skinned Uzan. Ilsa tried to ignore the monstrous creatures and their warped, evil-feeling spirits.

They reached the front just as Black Powder stepped forward from the lines to address Cass. She sat on a runner’s back. Cass had always preferred the lighter, faster creatures. A chill ran through Ilsa as Black Powder’s long coat swished over the grasses.

“You are bold to challenge me, but why should I accept on the eve of my victory?”

Cass drew herself up. “Tomorrow will be a red day,” she said, “Don’t pretend to be yellow now.”

Black Powder snorted. “You have something of a tongue, priestess. You Hathanians are all talk, and your bonds are no match for mine.”

Cass smirked. “Yet you’re hesitant to fight me.”

“Don’t throw your life away. Ride back. Leave this line. Killing you would only give me a moment of satisfaction anyway.”

He turned to First who stood just behind him. Ilsa squinted out from under her hood. She saw the song pistols, twin integrally silenced weapons, hanging on her father’s belt. Her teeth ground together. So close but so far.

“You carry many weapons,” said Cass. “But do you trust the ones you are bonded to by your spirit?”

“Of course I do.” Black Powder folded his arms. “But if you will not take no for an answer, we will duel.”

“Not such a coward after all,” said Cass.

“Funny, I was thinking the same of you. Don’t think I don’t know you—The one who betrayed my daughter all those years ago. Thanks for that, as it stands.”

Blue put a hand on Ilsa’s shoulder, holding her back even as Ilsa tensed with anger and let go of Vortimer’s mounting line. She glanced at Blue. “It’s alright. I won’t lose my temper,” she whispered.

The mercenaries around Black Powder laughed and murmured. A man shouted, “Run away, Hathanian. Or come to me instead, pretty thing.”

Ilsa felt her eyes narrow.

Other men took up the cry. “Come to me.”

“No me!”

Then a few broke into gales of laughter.

Black Powder held up a hand to silence his troops. The sounds of the crowd died in seconds. Ilsa and Blue slipped through the crowd, creeping closer to Black Powder and First.

First.

Ilsa could see now that her father’s first apprentice was leaning on a cane, and still looked battered after the beating Ilsa had given her on the rooftop in Chogrum.

Ilsa’s face made a snarl, expression hidden by her hood.

Black Powder unfastened his gun belt with the song pistols. He handed the whole set to First. The woman took the weapons in reverent hands.

Ilsa glanced at Blue.

“Just let them start,” said her friend in her mind. “We need the distraction.”

First walked away from Black Powder as Cass climbed down from her runner. They faced each other before the mercenaries.

Cass frowned. “How can I trust your troops not to interfere when we’re so close to them?”

Black Powder shrugged. “First, get the others back. Wouldn’t do for stray bullets to hit them.”

The whole mass of troops and the few Uzan at the front with them fell back from the duelists. Cass checked the magazine of ammunition for her pistols where it hung on her belt.

First stood at the front of the mercenary onlookers, but the group now gave Cass and her runner twenty meters or more in berth. Ilsa and Blue were right behind First when Black Powder said,

“Ready?”

“I am.”

“Then draw on five. Count for me, Tirica.”

Tirica’s voice came from somewhere else in the crowd, wavering slightly with each number.

“O-one.”

Cass shifted her feet, both hands free.

“Two.”

Ilsa brought herself to a space just beside First, a little back and to the right.

“Three.”

Black Powder spat onto the grass between them.

“Four.”

Blue sent to Ilsa. She said she would try to slow Black Powder down. Ilsa tensed.

“Five.”

They drew and loaded in split seconds. But Black Powder was faster. Only ten meters from Cass, in broad daylight, he would have killed her with his first shot if she had not thrown herself backward as she finished loading her pistol.

His gun barked and ripped a stream of red through Cass’s shoulder. She gritted her teeth and retaliated. Her bullet tore through his coat. Ilsa and First both stared as her father prepared another shot.

“Ilsa, I’ve got the others suppressed,” Blue sent to her, “Now is our chance.”

She conjured a pistol in her burnt, clenched hand. And she swung overhand. The gun barrel connected with First’s head. First cried out and fell, but the sound was lost in the crack of the next gunshot.

Cass’s knee burst and blood ran down her leg. She wobbled, somehow staying upright. Her shot clipped Black Powder’s sleeve and drew blood.

He shot her gun arm and the bullet blew through the other side. The pistol flew from her fingers.

Cass staggered and fell.

Ilsa had the song pistols without looking at them. She fought back through the crowd of pacified mercenaries, eyes on Blue and the striders not far behind them. She heard a shout from behind her, but not another shot. Ilsa gritted her teeth as they fled.

Back at the camp. Ilsa heard the rest of what had happened.

Ferdinand had ridden out to find Cass, but Black Powder had driven him back. Even if she still lived after those wounds, Ilsa’s first friend was now a prisoner of the enemy.

Ilsa prayed the song pistols were worth it.

They could end the battle, even if they might not be able to save Cass.

But if they hurried, Ilsa had hopes they could do both. Still, as she rode, tears threatened her eyes.

 

#

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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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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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Tenlyres Chapter 45 – First

Tim here.

The giveaway for my novel, Rem’s Dream is still active until March 31st.

Check it out here!

This Sunday sees the releases of the next episode of Alive After Reading, so prepare your brain for more writerly madness.

Back to 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 pursues her father’s first apprentice from a bloody melee outside the government center of Chogrum.

 

A chance at reconciliation is not too much to ask from the gods.

 

First limped down an alleyway, trailing blood from the wounds Ilsa’s bullets had left in her hand and leg. Damn it, though, she kept moving. Ilsa glimpsed her father’s wounded apprentice just as she flashed around the corner ahead of her.

Catch First.

Find Tirica.

She dragged herself forward and reloaded her pistols with the magazines she had kept under her torn skirt. These city clothes were less durable than the sort she had worn on the steppe. Far less.

She rounded the corner, both pistols readied. First crawled onto the rooftop to her right. A rusted, iron tube for vines hung down a meter from the edge, just over the dented roof of a small car.

Ilsa doggedly pulled herself up and onto the hood of the vehicle. The pain in her leg might as well be nothing after the trial Hathani’s staff had put her through in the dark passage.

She stuffed both her pistols into the waistband of her pants.

She threw herself at the crook of plastic tubing that reached the top of the building. One ankle flared with pain but she got a grip on the tube. Her fingers dug into a layer of rust.

With a surge of adrenaline, she forced her arms to boost her upward. She reached for the edge of the roof above her. Her outstretched fingers passed over it then came down and grabbed hold. She pulled herself over the top.

Panting with pain and exertion, she crouched there and looked around the flat roof of the squat building. First looked back at her with a grimace from the far side of the building. A figure in a hooded jacket threw down a crude bridge from the rooftop across the next alleyway ahead of First. First did not hesitate.

Neither did Ilsa. She drew her pistols and stormed after the woman. Her legs were battered, but First was already dragging one appendage. Ilsa fired the moment she found the range.

The bullet clipped First’s shoulder. The bullet ripped the press badge from the woman’s disguise. A splash of blood hit the rooftop in front of her, but she did not slow for a second.

“Slow her down,” First said.

The other figure faced Ilsa across the bridge as Ilsa raced across it. Her footsteps thudded on the scrap metal and boards tied together by hasty hands.

Then she was on the other side. She took aim at the mercenary in her path. “Out of my way.”

“It’s me, Ilsa.”

The hood fell back. Tirica’s dark hair and pale face appeared. Ilsa twisted her hand to aim away as she continued forward. Her finger fell from the trigger. Instead, she spread her arms wide and wrapped Tirica in a hug that bowled the girl over backward.

They rolled onto the rooftop.

“Ilsa, get away,” said Tirica. “She’s got me wired to go.”

Ilsa’s eyes widened.

She pulled open the front of Tirica’s jacket. Rows of powder explosives with their natural smell were wrapped around Tirica’s chest, and neck.

“Pitiful. You fell for it,” wheezed First as she backed away from them across the rooftop. She held a small but unmistakable detonator in one hand and a pistol in the other.

Tirica shoved Ilsa in the chest. Ilsa’s legs bunched together, then she kicked out. With strength of desperation she shoved Tirica in the chest. The girl rolled to the edge of the roof. Ilsa sprang up, trying to get as far as she could in the second before the bombs detonated.

“Don’t do it!”

First panted for breath. “Too late.” She dropped the detonator to the rooftop. The blast from behind Ilsa ripped through the roof. She tripped forward toward First.

“Damn you!” Ilsa swung the barrel of her pistol into First’s face. The weapon cracked against bone. Tears streaked Ilsa’s face.

Tirica, gone into the air, just like that.

She swung blow after blow into First, until the woman sagged to the rooftop.

First grinned up at her with flecks of blood on her puffy face. “I guess you’re angry.” Her eyes were cold. “Totally meant to do that, but you know the best part? You don’t. Or you wouldn’t be beating me. You’d just finish me off.”

Ilsa stepped back from the woman’s battered form. She looked down at her, tears running from her eyes. “What do you mean, you twisted bitch?”

“She’s not dead. It’s just an old trick.” First lay on her back, looking up at Ilsa, head on the cracked plaster that covered the rooftop.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Your father never told you about blast seals, did he? Turns out—” She coughed and blood trickled down from her broken nose. Then a laugh broke from her, real audible mirth.

Ilsa stared, trembling, at the bloody mess laughing at her.

“—You can summon a human from anywhere to anywhere using the same technique as bonds. You just need a lot more bang!” She pulled open her own coat, revealing a vest of explosives like the one Tirica had been wearing.

Ilsa scowled at her, eyes cloudy. “Why are you telling me this?”

“He told you to quit fighting. You didn’t. He won’t spare you again if you meet him on the steppe. Bye now.”

Then, First pulled the detonator cord on her vest.

The explosion was larger, and the building, already damaged by the first explosion, collapsed in on itself. Ilsa fell into agonizing darkness.

 

Spirits with human faces and horse’s bodies crowded around where Ilsa lay. They looked just like her mother had always described them, horse up through the mane, then the eyes followed by features of people Ilsa knew.

They spoke to her, told her things she couldn’t understand in voices that sounded like musical instruments ranging from drums to silver to wind.

She saw her mother among the horses, fully humanoid, in her gown. “Mother,” she said. “Hello, again.”

“Ilsa, you’re hurt.”

“Must be pretty bad this time.” Ilsa grunted. “I can’t even tell where I am now. I was in Chogrum.”

“You’re still alive.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Ilsa, do you trust me?”

“Now that I’ve seen what you see, yeah.”

“You know I’m not crazy. I can go free if you help me, Ilsa.”

“Yeah… It wasn’t right to leave you in that place. I’ll get you out of there. Just let me… Just let me…”

“I trust you, Ilsa. But right now, you have to wake up.”

“Wake up,” Ilsa said. “Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say. I have to tell Lemuel. His sister survived.” She reached out her mind and found she could feel the entire plateau. She smiled as best she could through the pain that began to eat at the edge of her senses. Tirica was out there, within a few days travel of Chogrum. So were Black Powder and First.

There was also something larger, a spirit but unlike the ones she saw as horses with human faces. At once it seemed more powerful, far stronger, but also more brittle. Her mind pulsed as she regarded the being through building pain.

“Asurdeva.” As she said it, she knew she was right. The ancient god of the Uzan seethed and turned in her direction. She looked to her mother. “Yeah, I need to go. Need to warn the others. And you need to warn Dal if anyone will listen.”

“Warn Dal about what?”

“The army is moving east. It should be ready to fight a god.”

 

She woke with a sweaty brow, and pain. Aches ran through her whole body. A soft pillow supported her head. She was alone, and that worried her. But she hurt too much to get up.

For the next few days, she saw only a few nurses who came in with food and changes of underclothes. She found her legs worked, and she had no need for breathing tubes or other devices. One arm had apparently been dislocated at some point, and she was bruised all over. Considering the shape the building she had been on was in, she could have been a lot less fortunate.

And Tirica was still alive. On the third day, she felt well enough to leave the hospital. One nurse gave her a map of the city, a cane, and the coins she had with her when she had been found. Ilsa took the tram back southward to the hotel where Siuku had been staying with Blue, Lemuel, and the others.

She arrived, tired and aching.

Blue met her on the ground floor. “Ilsa.”

“Why didn’t you visit me?” she asked, sounding petulant, even to herself. “I’m lucky to be alive.”

“We knew where you were, but if we let on, we were worried the mercenaries would try to kill you.”

“Oh.” Ilsa blinked. “That makes sense.”

“Lemuel fought us on it. I insisted. Sorry.”

“No, you were right.” Ilsa flushed. “I need to tell him, his sister is alive, but she isn’t in the city anymore.”

“How do you know?”

“First told me. And I sensed her while I was out.”

“Alright. It’s going to take some getting used to, you just knowing things when you wake up.” Blue frowned. “We need to get ready. Chogrum is moving, and the prince wants us to ride with the army.”

“I guess we succeeded then.”

“It’s true. I almost think it’s a trap, the way they attacked the prince so close to the first battle. It’s like they meant for Chogrum to bring more forces against them. It worked for someone, one way or the other.”

Ilsa frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Someone got Ashnia away from the suite while we were out.”

“Yunn.”

“Maybe. Either way, she’s gone.”

“Damn,” said Ilsa. “We should watch out then.”

Blue nodded, then sighed. “We have to get moving, no time to worry about her now.” She touched Ilsa’s shoulder gently. “I’m glad you’re back.”

“Me too,” said Ilsa. “We’ll find her again, Blue. I know she’s important to you.”

“Dangerous too,” said Blue. “If her brother freed her, at least she’s safe.”

Ilsa nodded. She did not know what else she could say. Ashnia was a powerful mind eater and a dangerous enemy. Still, Blue cared for her.

But the war was here, and it was guiding them west.

 

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 39 – Guns of Summer

Tim here.

I haven’t been kicking back and relaxing despite completing the full version of Tenlyres last month. New stories are on the way.

But for now, back to 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, Lemuel, and Tirica go to scout the nearest Lyre to Chogrum. They are looking for Uzan, but have the Uzan found them?

When war wracks the land, armies band together, only to fall apart amid the fray.

Even in defeat, strive to help others.

 

Ilsa dashed up the lyre’s passage and ducked into open air. She kept her pistol ready as she turned toward Tirica. The Chogrumian girl continued to look through the scope of her rifle.

“Lemuel guessed right,” she said. “Two Uzan and a woman.”

Lemuel caught up with them, hand still on his revolver. He crouched and looked out over the field of flowers that stretched around the base of the lyre. “Where did you see them?”

“Just at the edge of the flowers,” said Tirica. “They sort-of appeared there. I took a few shots at one of the Uzan. Hit his god’s name with the first one, but missed the second. After that, they vanished.”

“Vanished?” said Lemuel. “Into thin air?”

“They must have a sense magus with them,” Ilsa said. “Koor mentioned some Uzan could conceal themselves and others back in the mountains.”

Tirica muttered an old-fashioned Chogrumian curse. “What are the odds that one of two has that ability?”

“Pretty likely,” said Ilsa. “If those two are meant to move around unseen.”

“So, how are we supposed to know where they are?” asked Tirica.

“Look for the depressions in the flowers?” said Ilsa.

“Even better. If we connect to the pile, we should be able to sense their ground pressure through it.” Lemuel took his hand off his revolver and pulled his interface screen from his pack.

“Good plan,” said Ilsa. “Tirica—”

“I’ll cover you two while you climb down,” said the girl.

Ilsa nodded to her, then drew her shotgun from its brand. She loaded the weapon and raised it. Then, she gave Lemuel a glance. He nodded back.

They hustled to the edge of the lyre’s base. She kept the shotgun ready as he climbed down, but saw no disturbances in the pattern of flowers beside where they had ridden up to the lyre.

Their Oshomi horses stamped the ground and snorted nervously as Lemuel dropped down. Ilsa was reminded of Hailek. Her poor loyal strider had always remained calm, right up until the end.

Horses, without the carefully engineered loyalty and genetically tweaked intelligence and confidence of a strider, could be spooked easily compared to such animals.

Ilsa kept scanning for Uzan but saw no sign of them or the woman who Tirica had seen accompanying the monsters. Her gaze locked on the path they had taken to the lyre’s base on horseback. Most of the trampled flowers had begun to shift again in the wind. Ilsa squinted and found a few small flowers, still plastered flat.

She smelled some kind of faint propellant on the wind. The scent was was subtle, but distinct enough to let her know that propellant did not belong to Tirica’s bullets.

An idea to test the wrongness of the flowers and the whiff of propellant combined to cut through her other thoughts.

She crouched low and dropped over the side of the lyre. She landed in the flowers there and leveled her shotgun at the spot she had found before.

Lemuel lowered himself to his hands and knees between her and the three horses. He inserted the needle of his tablet into a stem with as much care as his speed would allow.

Ilsa did not dare wait for him to make her certain of her guess. “Time to test a hypothesis,” she whispered.

She aimed her shotgun down the line of the path she and the others had ridden and pulled the trigger.

The spray of shot went airborne, then vanished from sight completely mid-flight. She scowled at the spot it had disappeared into a veil of illusion. The shape of an Uzan, taller than any man, with dark gray skin and the name of Asurdeva carved into its forehead, the arcane letters already marred by the slash of a bullet, appeared from the fading veil.

The Uzan bellowed in rage more than pain as shot speckled its chest and shoulder. A gun-barrel emerged from the monster’s open mouth and aimed at Ilsa. Blood ran from the Uzan’s wounds. Ilsa knew the creature was mortal for the moment.

Her shadow wavered among the flowers, but her body did not hesitate. She darted sideways and fired her pistol. The blast of the Uzan’s weapon rebounded from the lyre behind where she had been standing. Her bullet cut the jaw of the creature. Dark blood flecked the flowers.

Lemuel looked up in shock at the sounds of their shots. Ilsa ran toward him. The Uzan whirled to follow her. She skidded in the flowers, trying to change direction away from the horses.

More weapons emerged from the Uzan’s flesh. It could kill Ilsa, Lemuel, and all the horses in the next second if it fired.

Another shot interrupted the monster’s pivot. A hole burst through the Uzan’s forehead. Rather than completing a lethal sweep, the Uzan sagged sideways and collapsed in a heavy wheeling motion.

Ilsa kept her pistol braced and trained on the fallen demon, but Tirica shouted in triumph. “Hey, Ilsa, you’re not the only one to kill a monster now.”

“Don’t get overconfident,” said Lemuel as he fiddled with the interface. “We still need to find the other one and that woman.”

“Right,” said Ilsa. “Keep your eyes open.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing all this time? Got you both covered.”

The Uzan Tirica had dropped did not move. Really dead? It must be.

Lemuel finished reading the interface. “That was the only one on this side.”

“What about the others?” Ilsa asked.

“Looks like they could be circling around, right at the edge of the pile formation.”

“Damn.” Ilsa turned and scrambled up the side of the lyre’s base once again. She reached the top with her hands pressed to warm stone and shouted a warning at Tirica. “Check the back. They’re trying to flank us.”

Tirica uttered an inarticulate curse and whirled to look around the arm of the lyre, rifle in hand. A shot roared from nowhere and through the scope from lens to lens. Tirica flinched back, though she had not been hurt by the shot. A shadow fell across her. The second Uzan, the sense magus, materialized out of its illusions.

Chest still flat on the stone, Ilsa grabbed and fired her pistol at the Uzan. The first two bullets opened holes above and below the name of Asurdeva on the monster’s brow. It leered crazily, with iron-colored teeth and back-handed Tirica. She flew two meters and fell onto her front by the lyre’s strings.

A set of light footsteps approached around the other arm of the lyre. A woman in her mid-forties and wearing a scroll case on a belt without a firearm holster, but with two magazines of large pistol rounds stood over Tirica. She held a large caliber pistol with a smoking barrel in one hand.

Another weapon bond. Could she be one of Father’s apprentices?

The Uzan sense magus leveled an arm bristling with weapons at Tirica. The girl groaned and rolled onto her back. She looked alright, considering the force of the Uzan’s blow, but her nose was bleeding in two trickles that ran to her lips.

Ilsa did not give the Uzan another chance. Her shotgun roared and the name of Asuredeva shredded with dozens of pieces of shot. The weapon bucked in Ilsa’s hands and then settled against stone.

The woman who stood over Tirica smirked. The veins in her bare arms stood out as she aimed her pistol at the girl on the ground.

Tirica grimaced up at the gun.

“You’re a pretty good shot for someone unbonded,” said the woman.

Tirica coughed, sending blood from her nose into the air. “Sneaky,” she said.

Ilsa grunted. “Tirica, stay calm. I’ll get you out of there.”

“Sure you will.” The woman’s eyes flicked toward where Ilsa had risen to a crouch. “I heard you killed Melinda. Is that true, Ilsa?”

Ilsa’s stomached churned. “She gave me no choice.”

“What if I give you a choice, this time, my dear.”

“Who are you?”

“You don’t remember me? I suppose you wouldn’t. You were, what, ten last time we met?” She smiled. “Ah, those were the days. I was still getting over not wearing gloves in the cold.” she waggled the fingers of her free hand at Ilsa. They were all bare.

“You. You were one of his apprentices.”

“Not just one. I am the first. And I’m a little proud of that fact. You can just call me First because that’s who I am.”

Ilsa gritted her teeth. At this range, the shotgun could easily hit Tirica if she used it, but her pistol was down to the last few bullets loaded. “First,” she said. “You had a name when I met you before.”

“But you don’t remember it. That’s obvious.” First rolled her eyes and then looked down at Tirica. “Time to go, my talented young friend.” She aimed with her pistol. Like all of father’s students, she preferred to target the heart over the head.

Tirica squeezed her eyes shut.

Ilsa rolled onto her side to aim her pistol at First. The woman did not hesitate but immediately swung her weapon around. Without looking, she shot Ilsa in the abdomen. Searing pain burned through her, not the numbing of the paralytic venom used by Black Powder’s younger apprentices. The hot agony of a solid metal slug.

She fell onto her back but kept her pistol trained on First. She squeezed the trigger, but as she did her stomach spasmed and the shot went high. Her bullet deflected from the lyre’s arm behind First.

First shot the gun from Ilsa’s hand with her next bullet. “I think we’re done here, child. Shame I’ve been asked not to kill you. Yet.” She frowned down at where Ilsa writhed on the base of the lyre. “Your father isn’t happy about you killing Uzan.” She leaned toward Tirica. “You either.”

A cold wave of panic hit Ilsa she struggled to move the shotgun, fighting the pain of her wounds. First grabbed Tirica’s collar and tugged her up.

The Chogrumian girl spat drops of saliva and blood onto First’s face. The woman showed no sign of surprise, and she did not slow. She slammed Tirica’s skull against the lyre’s stone. With a dull thud, Tirica went limp.

First shrugged her head, but did not bother to wipe the blood and spit from her face. She slid one arm under Tirica and lifted the girl onto her shoulders.

Ilsa tried to turn the shotgun toward her. Her eyelids fluttered, close to blacking out from the shock, though not as bad as when Ferdinand’s lance had stabbed her. The bullet was still lodged in her, searing hot. Blood coated her shirt around the wound. She forced her eyes to open fully.

First and Tirica were gone. She groaned and sagged against the lyre’s base. No. Damn it. She had to get up, to go after them. Her legs responded, but she only barely got to her hands and knees, one hand on the grip of her shotgun.

Something thumped against the stone behind her. She looked at Lemuel. He crouched where had just climbed up the base. He met her desperate gaze with one of his own. “Are you alright? Where’s Tirica?”

“That woman took her,” Ilsa managed. “Not sure which way they went.” The world swam around her and her arms trembled.

Lemuel’s eyes found the dead Uzan not far away. He turned toward Ilsa. “She shot you.”

“Yeah. I don’t know how long I’ve got before I pass out.” She grunted. “Sorry.”

He crawled to her side. He brought his face close to hers. “Tirica’s still alive. We can go after her once you’re healed.”

She nodded unsteadily. He brushed her cheek with his fingers. “I can help you get to the horses. Come on.”

They moved to the edge of the stone, where he climbed down first. Ilsa slipped during her descent, but he steadied her with both hands, then helped her into the saddle. Blood stained her hands, saddle, and the bags hanging from it. She hunched forward in agony. They turned the horse back toward Atalem where Siuku could put and end to this pain.

 

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 38 – Flowering Lyre

Tim here.

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, Lemuel, and Tirica go to scout the nearest Lyre to Chogrum. They are looking for Uzan, but what will they find?

 

If we are to fight for any reason, let us face evil together.

 

Blooming flowers of every color surrounded the looming form of the Eastern Lyre. Ilsa realized what the Oshomi had told her was true, she understood why they always referred to it as “Flowering.” The plant piles close to the surface here made the name obvious by sending up their stalks for pollination.

She, Lemuel, and Tirica rode through the flowers. A shame their horses left hoof prints in the soil and disturbed the natural beauty. However, the flowers also made it easier to spot if anyone else had been poking around on a steed. Strider and runner prints would be effortless to spot in this field were steppe grass gave way to bright blossoms.

Like the other structures of Tenlyres Ilsa had seen, the easternmost was made of dark-colored stone, raised on a circular base, though this one lacked ramps. Metallic strings gleamed in the afternoon sun.

They left their horses beside the base. The animals could have leaped to reach the top, but they were already strained by the morning ride, and the stress would be unnecessary.

The three of them climbed the meter or so up onto the stone. She knew from what Lemuel had discovered about the lyres that, though the stone seemed still, they vibrated at a subtle frequency that made them impervious to the ravages of time. And they could morph to open up to allow access when the right notes were played on the lyre’s metal strings.

She led the way to the strings and looked up at the flat stone support stretching across the top of the lyre. Lemuel glanced at the broader of the two arms of the lyre, where a gate to the empty upper chamber could be opened. “Looks like part of it is still sealed.”

“Yeah,” said Ilsa. “Let’s keep it that way.”

If the lyre was opened entirely, as the central instrument had been, who could tell how many Uzan would be set free from its hidden chambers.

“I should study the piles around here,” said Lemuel. “See if they can tell us anything about the history.”

“I thought you two had been here before?” said Ilsa.

“We have. But I didn’t know what to look for back then.”

“I suppose it makes sense to check them before we play any notes.”

Tirica nodded. “Don’t want any surprises.”

“Right,” said Ilsa.

Lemuel and Ilsa walked to the edge of the raised base of the lyre. While the two of them climbed down to study the piles, Tirica took up a position by one of the lyre’s arms and began to scan the steppe around them through the scope of her rifle.

Ilsa was grateful to have someone watching, in case of nearby enemies. She was even more grateful she had not been forced to use her weapon bonds for a few weeks.

In that time she could feel the guns joined to her spirit silent, but ready as ever to spill blood and take life.

On the ground, among the flowers, Lemuel retrieved an interface tablet from his pack. He crouched down and jabbed the long needle that unfolded from one end of the screen into the stem of a flower.

The screen flickered into life, activated by the bioelectric battery within it. Information stored by natural plant piles could be difficult to decipher, but if one knew what to look for, one could uncover many things about the area in the vicinity of the pile.

Lemuel’s gaze moved over the stream of data points, mostly numbers with only a few words to label the units and title the columns. The interface translated the pile’s information into simple characters when connected.

“Looks like someone has been around here in the last ten hours. Three someones today,” he said. “One is average height, but low step pressure. Someone lightly built. The other two are a lot bigger.”

“How big?” Ilsa asked, leaning in to look at the screen, though its digits and characters made little sense to her.

“Well, they could be Uzan, but a human the size of someone like Ozleji Sammhar would be about as heavy.”

Ilsa’s blood ran cold for a moment at the thought of Sammhar, though she knew he remained a prisoner of the Vogmem nomads allied with Siuku. She had out-shot him more than once, but it did not ease her completely, as it shouldn’t for any of her father’s apprentices.

“I can’t see anything else out of the ordinary,” said Lemuel. “My guess is, even if there are Uzan around, they haven’t found the way to open up the lyre yet. It would be obvious if they had.”

“Definitely,” said Ilsa. “Is there anything else out here to see about?”

“I doubt it. If one of the piles has information the others don’t, then it would still be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

The two of them climbed back onto the base of the lyre. Tirica nodded to them. “The plains look clear to me,” she said.

“You ready to have a look inside?” Ilsa asked.

Lemuel folded his little hand into his big one. “It’s funny. Just this spring I couldn’t have imagined ever going inside a lyre. Now, I don’t know how much there is to learn down there.”

“Being trapped in one of them for a week could make anyone nervous,” Ilsa said.

“The smell of days of our own excrement. The threat of death outside.” Lemuel wrinkled his nose. “How could I forget?”

Ilsa took a deep breath and produced one of her pistols from her brand. She took her scroll case from her belt and handed it to Lemuel.

The paper inside carried the instructions to play the notes to open the top chamber of the lyre. Ilsa had written them down during their stay within the Central Lyre. Later, she had added notes on what she suspected other tunes might do after her father used the relic song pistols to open the entire instrument and free its Uzan. She had only had time to think in the evenings on their ride east after escaping the mountains.

Lemuel unrolled the scroll. “Okay, just a few strings to hit.” He related the information Ilsa half-remembered on her own.

She loaded her pistol and took a deep breath. A stray shot could bring out Uzan, but she would not miss. She took aim at the first string. “I’m ready.”

She pulled the trigger. Pivoted. Pulled the trigger again. The strings sounded more like heavy bells than an ordinary lyre, but as she played, the sound came out deep and distinct, even over the sound of Ilsa’s gunshots.

If I’m not going deaf from playing these yet, I will be soon, Ilsa thought. She completed the brief tune and lowered the pistol.

Tirica let her rifle hang in the sling around her shoulders and applauded, then jerked forward, startled by the lyre’s stone moving near her. Lemuel smirked as the wall beside Tirica opened up into a passage leading downward.

“It still amazes me the way this place works,” he said with a note of awe in his voice.

Ilsa nodded to him. They walked toward the passage, side by side. “Tirica,” said Ilsa. “Can you stay out here and keep watch?”

“Can do,” said the girl. “Someone here has to look out for trouble.” She walked a few paces away from the passage and sat down nearby. “Don’t you two distract each other down there.”

“Distract each other?” Lemuel flushed. “Sister, I don’t know—”

“I know what you two have been doing when we camp at night. And it isn’t all making notes and plans in your tent alone.”

Lemuel’s face grew redder than Ilsa had ever seen before. She stifled a laugh with her hand. Tirica did not bother hiding her own mirth.

“Sister, please,” said Lemuel. “It is not polite.”

“Brother, really?” Tirica seemed to choke on her laughter. “I’m happy for you. Besides, Ilsa doesn’t mind. That’s obvious.”

He waved his hands. “Ilsa has more experience with this sort of thing than I do.”

“That is not the sort of thing most men just admit, you know,” said Tirica.

Lemuel froze, suddenly silent, but still red.

“Your brother isn’t most men. He’s an uncommon genius.” Ilsa put a hand on Lemuel’s arm.

Everything from Lemuel’s ears to his chin flushed after that.

Tirica shook her head, then sat back against the lyre’s arm. She adjusted the scope while making a disgusted expression. “Alright, that was more than I needed to know.”

“Shouldn’t have pushed,” mumbled Lemuel. He started down the passage into the lyre. Ilsa followed him with a smile at Tirica as she walked past the girl.

Tirica pulled a disgusted face.

As they descended out of earshot of Tirica, Lemuel took a deep breath and turned to her. “An uncommon genius? Did you really mean that?”

“Of course I did. You figured out more about lyres than anyone since the ancients.”

He started to speak but stopped himself. They continued to follow the dark sloping passage, illuminated by glowing stone streaks along the walls on either side of the five-meter-broad passage.

They emerged into the empty chamber under the base of lyre visible on the surface. It appeared to be identical in structure and dimensions to the one in the Central Lyre.

“Not much to see here,” she said.

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Lemuel followed the glowing lines in the stone along one of the walls. “If the passage above can be opened with a song, there could be other chambers accessible from this one using different notes.”

“Siuku definitely seemed to think so.” Ilsa frowned. “She didn’t know any of those songs, though. just the one that opened the prisons of the Uzan, and the one that got us down here.”

“If we have time, we should experiment with different notes.” He furrowed his brow. “Something tells me there are other passages out from here.”

“Intuition? You?”

“I know, I usually prefer data. But sometimes one has to make a hypothesis and then test it to learn. In this case, the hypothesis of songs is that they can help us learn without also freeing more Uzan.”

“The hypothesis of songs,” said Ilsa. “Sounds pretty poetic.”

“That’s more your field than mine,” he said. “History, information, lyre lore, that’s my skill set. You’re the one with words. I’m glad you’re writing them down now.”

Ilsa followed him along the wall a few more paces then stopped. “I only do that when I think you’re asleep.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t used to do it at all.”

“Cass told me I should, back at the lake.”

“I think she’s right. You’re still a priestess of Hathani, even without your staff.”

“I’m starting to feel that way again,” Ilsa said. “Sometimes I wasn’t all that sure what I really believed.”

“Well.” He turned to face her. He took her free hand in his larger one. “We rely on each other to figure that out. At least, that’s how it seems to me.”

She pulled him close and they shared a kiss hot as summer in the cool chamber.

“I keep counting on you,” she said as they drew apart.

Two gunshots cracked the air. The sounds echoed down the passage to reverberate inside the chamber.

“Shit,” said Ilsa. “Unfriendly company.”

“That was Tirica’s rifle.” He reached for the revolver holstered at his belt.

She turned toward the entrance and raised her pistol. They ran for the surface.

#

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