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.

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 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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Tenlyres Chapter 36 – Gray Smoke

Hello, everyone, Tim here.

I am working on edits for Tenlyres before I set up the preorder for the complete edition. Keep your eyes peeled. This will be done soon.

Yesterday I celebrated a pretty phenomenal birthday. I think there are more RPGs in my future too. So yeah, it’s been a very good week.

You know how you can make any day better?

At the top of the sidebar of my website there is an email list sign-up form. You can also sign up at this link. Short of buying my books this is the best way to support the serial and show you want it to continue.

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 II and read the rest of the released story right away!

Previous Chapter

 

The battle of Howling Pass is over.

            Ilsa and the nomads have escaped to count the cost.

Smoke rose from the funeral pyres built of tower and steppe-grass.

There were far too many, especially considering the number of fallen nomads left behind in the pass.

Hiragen and a limping Ganara had laid Akirette at what was now the center of the blaze, with her people all around them. Megalli had yet to wake again since the end of the battle, though she still breathed.

So much had been left behind, from Hailek to Ilsa’s red staff, to her instinct for mercy.

The fires blazed higher. Ilsa watched from a distance, standing beside Lemuel and his sister, tears in her eyes. She could not help but remember how Akirette had sworn not to die in the cave, that night not long ago. Yet, she had raced into action to save the leader of a different tribe.

Megalli had only survived because of Akirette’s charge, and come to that, Ilsa and Lemuel owed her their lives as well. Those facts only made watching the smoke rise more difficult.

Ilsa choked out a sob and leaned against Lemuel where they stood.

And the greater tragedy yet lay ahead. With the death of the Red Lector, a war for Ayoch on the steppe had become inevitable. It did not matter how he died. The other four lectors of Ayoch, and the Queen’s army with them would be on their way. They would wage war against the people of the steppe, and the demons of the old gods.

The war would begin, and the people of the mountains and steppe would be caught in it. More Uzan would arise because Ilsa had been weak. Because she had failed.

She sagged where she stood, completely exhausted after kilometers of riding west from the pass, across the plateau. The mountains had taken a lot from her, including her faithful strider. She shivered in the breeze that came with the sinking sun. Blue contacted her mentally.

You killed one of them. I know you did this time.

Maybe marring the name on their forehead really worked, Ilsa thought back, brow furrowed. “We can’t be sure yet,” she said out loud.

Lemuel glanced at her, tears behind his glasses. “What do you mean?”

“I was talking to Blue.”

“She’s close,” said Tirica. “I see her.”

Lemuel frowned.

Her friend made her way to them through the gloom and shadows cast by the flames. The mind eater’s face looked as tired as Ilsa felt. “The Red Lector isn’t after the Keeper anymore, I suppose.” She sighed. “But his wife won’t give up the chase as long as we have her daughter.”

“Ashnia made it?” said Ilsa.

“After her mental scream she passed out,” said Blue. “I’m just glad she didn’t get hit in the melee.” She indicated her own dented and scratched body-armor.

“You’re glad?” Tirica wrinkled her nose. “She’s really dangerous.”

“Yeah, but isn’t everyone?” Blue shrugged. “There was a time all I remembered was how I loved her. Now I wish I didn’t.”

Tirica looked into the fire and nodded. “I guess that makes sense. Because of who she is.”

Blue turned to Ilsa. “Cass and Ferdinand are talking.”

“Where?” asked Ilsa. “And hey, you shouldn’t spy on everyone.”

“I’m keeping my mind open for now.” Blue pointed down by the fire where two shadows stood with their arms around each other. Ferdinand’s overgrown mop of dark hair pressed into Cass’ red one.

Ilsa raised her eyebrows at Blue. “What are they talking about?”

“I thought I shouldn’t spy?”

“You have an open mind right now.”

“You can guess.” Blue gave a small snort of laughter. “Each other.”

Ilsa glanced at Lemuel. “Who’d have thought?”

“What, my old enemy and your old friend?” Lemuel shrugged his shoulders. “I guess there’s never a good time, and they both know that well enough.”

The fires burned higher, and the shadows deepened. In the morning they would need to keep riding and send out messengers to gather more Oshomi. Ilsa would do her best to tell what happened in those letters. But for the night, the pyres held back a little bit of the cold, and a little bit of the darkness.

Ilsa prayed their sacrifice would not be in vain.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 35 – Hidden in Death

Hello, everyone, Tim here.
Tenlyres has been finished in rough draft, but this serial has a long way to go from here.
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Previous Chapter

Ilsa fights at the heart of the battle to escape Howling Pass.
The Red Lector’s traitorous general, Boraij Kana and Ilsa’s own father stand in her way. Along with a horde of Uzan.
The lives of Ilsa’s friends are at stake.

She shot Kanan first, and the bullet made him stagger. Then his knees buckled. One shot left, she turned toward her father. The troops all around were crying out in dismay, maybe at the fall of their general, or maybe at the closing ground between them and the nomad’s resurgent attack.

In a few seconds, it was obvious Kanan’s troops were too occupied with Akirette and Siuku’s attack to shoot at Ilsa. She glared at her father over the body of the Red Lector, and the fallen forms of Kanan and Megalli.

Black Powder closed the dead Lector’s eyes and then straightened to his full height. His dark gaze glimmered with something that could have been a hint of an emotion in any other human. But not in her father.

His guns hung in his hands, both nearly fully loaded.

“Haven’t we done this before?” he said. “You with a wounded arm. Me, always surprising you?”

“Melinda is dead. I had no choice.”

“You killed her. There are always so many eager to learn from me.” Black Powder’s fingers remained off the triggers. “And hers is far from the only life you’ve taken today.”

Ilsa’s stomach turned. “You too.”

He nodded. “Did you like the trick with the exploding artillery carriage? I’m glad you made it through the blast.”

“I still don’t know how you survived it.” Ilsa’s heartbeat seemed loud, too loud with the battle going on behind her. She could not help but notice the Uzan behind her father had stopped shooting. They marched toward the battle, side by side with Black Powder’s remaining mercenaries.

“It ruined my coat,” said Black Powder. “But that couldn’t be helped, I suppose.”

She glared at him, partially to cover her fear for Megalli’s fading breaths. She did not want him to know she was concerned for the Vogmem chieftain. If he cared enough, he could kill the woman on the ground in an instant.

The chill air grew colder. Ilsa’s bruised chest felt almost like the lance had never been removed from the wound.

Kanan snarled as he scrambled for his fallen pistol. “You bitch, I’ll kill you.”

“I’m talking to my daughter,” said Black Powder. “Stay out of it, Boraij.”

Kanan’s face went white. “She shot me.” Spittle flew from his lips. “Kill her. Vel, you must.”

“Do not tell me about ‘musts,’ Boraij. I answer only to the Gray Lector. No human stands above me.”

“That’s not like you,” said Ilsa. “To answer to anyone.”

Her mother floated near her in her minds-eye. “You’re right. He’s always been ferociously independent.”

Black Powder’s eyes twinkled. “I could nearly say the same for you. Except you’ve always had one master even as a mercenary in the east.”

“What do you know about me?”

“Unification will never occur under the power of humanity. The dreams of your clergy are hopeless.”

“You may be right.” Despair clutched like a cold hand at Ilsa’s heart even as she said those words.

Nothingness would be better than her father’s view of the world being true.

“Daughter, you know I am.” Black Powder smiled, actually smiled within the heart of a bloody battle. “Now, put down that gun. I can’t offer you more than your life, but it is more than the priesthood with its flowers and feathers ever could.”

“What are you saying?”

“Abandon your mission here. Go live your life the way you want. I won’t stop you.” He motioned with one pistol over his shoulder at the liner of Uzan a mere twenty meters behind him. “Neither will my allies. You like men, don’t you? Have some fun. Make friends. Enjoy your existence for a change. Ilsa, your mother and I only differed on the details of what we wanted for you. We both care, in our own ways.”

Ilsa’s mind raced at the ridiculous offer that hung in the air between them.

Blue.

Ferdinand.

Siuku.

Lemuel.

The Four, even Akirette, and Ganara.

And Cass.

“I have made friends,” said Ilsa in a near-murmur. “And you won’t let us all go, even if you’d spare me.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You chased us all here.”

“Goji Haram commanded this army to pursue the Keeper of Tenlyres.” Black Powder looked down at the dead Lector. “I’m here for what is in this pass.” He motioned toward the wall of the mountain off to the side where he had detonated the gun carriage.

Where the stones had shifted and pockmarks scarred the wall, shape stood outlined in the stone.

The shape of a lyre made of darker stone, with pale strings of metal stretching from top to bottom.

Ilsa’s eyes widened.

“Another one?”

“Not just any of them either,” said Black Powder. “This marks the entryway to the realm of Asurdeva, hidden in death.”

“The god of the Uzan.”

“Eldest of his kind, daughter.”

“You would really let us all go?”

“I have a different army to fight now. The Red Lector’s widow has troops at your back.”

Two Uzan stomped forward to Black Powder’s side. He nodded to them, then pointed at the outline of the Lyre in the cliff side. “There it is my friends.”

The gun-demons grunted words Ilsa did not understand. Black Powder frowned. “No need to kill the goat and horse riders. They are fleeing already.” He smirked at Ilsa. “See, daughter? Your friends are free to go.”

Ilsa knelt down beside Megalli keeping her gun trained on Black Powder. “I don’t trust you.”

“Probably wise,” he said.

Akirette’s vanguard broke through Kanan’s troops behind her with a thunder of hooves. The eye of the storm became charged with violence once again.

Kanan scrambled away from Ilsa toward the line of Uzan. Blue’s strider stopped beside Ilsa and Megalli. A saddle-line slapped against Ilsa’s shoulder.

Lemuel helped her lift Megalli, until Blue could get the chieftain onto her saddle.

Then, others arrived all at once, Akirette, Siuku, Cass. And the two Uzan beside Black Powder opened fire.

Bodies fell from saddles. Blood misted in the air and the battle was fresh. Black Powder threw up his arm to stop the Uzan and pushed one of them back with a shout of “Cease-fire!” that shocked Ilsa with the sound of urgency in her father’s voice. She climbed onto the back of the horse that carried Lemuel. Her pistol flew into her hand once more.

The only Uzan left firing rounded toward her, guns leveled at Lemuel. A perverse, hideous grin stretched across the monster’s broad gray face, spreading the name of its god across its brows.

Ilsa’s last bullet hit the creature in the face. She shouted toward Siuku as she dropped the gun. “Get everyone out of here. We have to go, as fast as we can.”

The Keeper of Tenlyres heard, and guided her horse back from the fray, calling to her riders.

The Nomads began to slip past the Uzan and headed west out of the  pass, but the Uzan Ilsa had shot propped itself up on its back, the bullet wound yawning between nose and eye. Guns emerged like flowers from its palm and fingers. It aimed at Lemuel and Ilsa.

She pulled the revolver from the back of his pants, thumbed the hammer back on the unfamiliar single-action. The Uzan opened up on them.

Suddenly, Akirette was between them, spinning Ganara’s black staff to catch the stream of bullets unleashed by the lethal demon. She looked back at Ilsa and Lemuel. “Ride,” she said. “Get away.”

Black Powder stared at the Vogmem chieftain in shock. The Uzan kept shooting, but Akirette deflected or caught all the rounds headed toward her. Her teeth gritted in concentration and effort.

“Not easy,” she said.

Ilsa and Lemuel pulled away from the battle. The Uzan turned toward them. Ilsa picked a shot around Akirette and the staff. She took careful aim at the name of the old god.

Her bullet streaked across the name of Asurdeva, scarring the word with a line of blood.

The Uzan went limp and stopped shooting. The monster seemed to shrink as it died, withering and becoming thin where it has been beefy and bloated.

Akirette lowered the staff, breathing hard, and turned her goat to follow Ilsa and the rest of the retreating nomads.

Black Powder shot her in the heart. One squeeze of the trigger. She dropped the black staff and it clattered to the ground. Black Powder stalked toward the fallen length of Blackwood. He withdrew one pistol and picked up Vada’s staff.

Akirette hugged her goat’s neck with both arms and the runner continued after the rest of the nomads, carrying the mortally wounded Chieftain with it.

Ilsa screamed in fury and pulled back the hammer to fire again. Her father nodded to her, then turned his back as the Oshomi horse carried her and Lemuel away from the bloody battlefield and back to the plateau of Yr.

Tears ran from Ilsa’s eyes, but she knew somehow she had survived the day.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 34 – Black Powder

Hello, everyone, Tim here.

Happy new year!

Tenlyres is back today after last week’s year-ending cliffhanger.

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

 

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Previous Chapter

 

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

            The battle to escape Howling Pass and the mountains intensifies.

            And Ilsa’s ruthless father is still leading on the other side.

 

The Uzan marched up the pass, too few in number to block it entirely, but each individually powerful enough to slay a dozen men and women in seconds. They bristled with weapons that belched impossibly bitter smoke.

And they surged toward the rise in the center where the Red Lector’s forces still held ground. Cannon fire from the Uzan wrecked the remaining armored vehicles behind the Ayochian troops.

Ilsa looked for the Red Lector and found him quickly, at the heart of his troops on the sliver of high ground, beside the fat commander, Boraij Kanan, and to Ilsa’s surprise and horror, the tall shape of Black Powder.

Her father looked no worse for the explosion he had triggered at the gun carriage, except for having shed his outer coat. He held a bonded pistol in each hand, but for the moment did not appear concerned with the battle, or the Uzan.

Aloof as ever, even in the face of the demons he had set free.

Ilsa’s half-numb and paralyzed right arm twitched. She kept her eyes on her father and the Red Lector who stood so near him. She clenched her teeth just to keep from yelling at them to stop hiding and fight. But her father had survived the explosion he had caused. He seemed as invincible as the Uzan, but there had to be a way to finally end him.

The Red Lector brandished his sword and waved it at a pike with a broken end held by one of his few remaining Lectoral Protectors. Ilsa squinted through smoke and dust as the red-armored protector hoisted his weapon higher. Megalli’s body hung from the weapon, tied by the wrists. Cuts and gashes ran through her clothes, dripping with blood. Ilsa’s stomach turned at the sight of the small woman being displayed as a gory trophy.

A shout of dismay ran through the Vogmem near Ilsa, and none was louder than the oldest of the Four, Akirette. Tears in her eyes, the old woman raised a rifle in one fist and held the reins of her goat runner in the other.

“Warriors to me!” she shouted. “Show them our answer to this insult.”

Ilsa pointed Akirette out to the Oshomi rider guiding the horse on which she rode. “Follow her. The Uzan are too close.”

The Oshomi, a scar-faced woman with tangled black hair, grunted and turned the horse toward Akirette. Nearby, Lemuel spoke to the rider of his horse in a voice Ilsa could not hear. But then he pointed at Siuku, who rode opposite Ilsa.

He must be thinking the Keeper could still save Megalli. For all Ilsa knew he could be right, but the danger of closing with the Red Lector would be terrible, even if all the nomads attacked at once.

Ilsa caught Lemuel’s eye and then shook her head.

Then, the horse beneath Ilsa accelerated after Akirette. The Vogmem charged.

Ilsa’s mother’s voice reached her mind through the ghostly world. “You may be wrong, Ilsa. She could still be saved.”

“She’s still alive?” Ilsa murmured.

Mother’s eyes opened. “Don’t let her hang there any longer.”

“I won’t.” Ilsa checked the pistol she held in her functioning hand. She grimaced as she thought of the difficulty of reloading the weapon, and the fact that her other hand could not clench to summon its bonds. Only two guns left loaded in her bonds.

The horse thundered beneath her, a far rougher ride than a strider like poor, loyal Hailek. She clamped her legs around the saddle and held on tight.

Akirette’s warriors closed with the enemy, opening fire on Ayochians and Uzan alike. Bullets rebounded from stone more than they found their marks, but members of every force fell in the exchange with screams and cries of pain, or in the case of Uzan, with eerie silence.

Ilsa looked for Blue in the charging force. She found her friend riding her strider close to Lemuel and Tirica. Blue sent her a message mentally.

The Keeper has our flank, Ilsa. Be careful, there’s something odd going on among the Uzan.

Ilsa scowled. “Something other than them being undying monsters?”

Blue did not answer that question.

The horse carried Ilsa into the heart of the battle ahead of Lemuel and the others. She shot and killed the nearest Ayochian, but dread built in her stomach as the Uzan continued to advance. And she and the nomads kept charging right at them.

Time to find out if defacing the name of their god would break the magic that kept them from dying.

She caught up with Akirette just as the Red Lector’s troops surged forward with him and his protectors at their center. Black Powder and General Kanan followed with their personal troops around them. Mercenaries and mechanized infantry formed a line behind the Red Lector’s household troops.

Ilsa spotted the protector carrying the pike where Megalli hung by her wrists. She shot the man twice at close range, once in each arm. Her small rounds did not break his armor but made him turn toward her with a wavering half-step. She found the gap just above his collar and mortally wounded him with a third bullet.

He sank to his knees. Ilsa leaped from the saddle of the Oshomi horse. She landed beside the dead protector and found Megalli laying, bloody and unconscious on the edge of the fray. The Red Lector howled in rage and rushed toward her with two more protectors flanking him.

Black Powder advanced nearby, leading his mercenaries away from the Ayochian rearguard where the Uzan continued the slaughter.

Oshomi flooded around Ilsa and Megalli. Hooves stamped the ground. Bullets and arrows flew. But there was no sign of Siuku, and Megalli did not have long judging by the amount of blood she had already lost.

The Oshomi horses reversed as the Red Lector’s close-quarters troops advanced. Ilsa crouched beside Megalli’s bloody body and leveled her pistol at the leader of the Ayochian forces. She would fight here alone if she had to, just like in the cave, just like always.

Maybe that was her destiny, no matter how many friends she knew. She fought alone.

The Red Lector stood just behind his protectors, and the two red-armored men loomed over Ilsa. Goji Haram’s lip curled. His saber’s edge gleamed red. “You’re too late to save her, priestess. But you can die at her side.”

Black Powder’s familiar voice burst like a shell over the sounds of carnage that surrounded Ilsa, Megalli, and the man’s guards. “It’s time.”

Two shots cut the air, louder than the rest. Snipers. The Lectoral Protectors in front of the Red Lector staggered. One of them looked up at the cliff side where the deadly shots had originated. Ilsa smelled their blood, mingled with the same, almost-sweet, scent of paralyzing ballistic venom as Melinda’s bullets. The bodyguards crumpled between her and the Red Lector.

“Damn you all.” The Red Lector thrust his saber at Ilsa.

She shot him twice. The first bullet smashed his fingers and made the sword tumble from his grip. The second clipped his back knee, so when he tried to step forward, he fell to the ground in front of Ilsa. Pain wracked his lined features.

She looked at him from her crouch. A sick confusion built in her stomach. Who had shot those bodyguards?

“You’re father’s men,” said mother in Ilsa’s mind.

Black Powder and Boraij Kanan marched forward through the battle. Neither of them fired a shot, but the Vogmem retreated before them. Even the sounds of the Uzan and their roaring guns faded away.

Mother’s voice returned to Ilsa. “Your father… This isn’t like him.”

“He wouldn’t betray his commander to save me,” Ilsa said. “I know that much.”

She kept her pistol extended before her. Just two bullets remained in the magazine. And one in the chamber.

Black Powder looked down at the fallen, struggling, bleeding shape of the Red Lector.

“Goji Haram,” said Boraij Kanan in a voice too fierce for his heavy frame. “Sinner against the Gray.”

The Red Lector gave up reaching for his saber and rolled onto his back to face Kanan and Black Powder. In the same motion, he went for the pistol on his hip. “Kanan, you’d dare betray me?”

Before Ilsa’s eyes, Black Powder shot the Red Lector through the palm. Haram recoiled and clutched at his shattered extremity.

“You-Vel, how dare you betray your Lector!” Haram spoke through gritted teeth. “You will hang for this, mercenary scum.”

“Make no mistake, Goji,” said Black Powder, stone-faced, “Half of me is Ayochian, but another half comes from Chogrum and the east. You are not holy.”

“Only the divine monarchs of Ayoch are holy!”

Kanan stepped onto the Red Lector’s wounded leg. Haram gasped with pain but surprised Ilsa by maintaining a defiant expression. Kanan sneered at Haram. “We belong to a different master. The Gray Lector is with us now, Goji Haram!” He raised his pistol over his head, a light of ecstasy gleamed in his eyes. “I bowed for you, scraped for you, killed for you. But now, you will die by my hand.” He lowered the pistol to his heaving side. “My loyalty has always been to the Gray Lector.” He raised the barrel of the pistol.

“I won’t beg for my life,” Haram said, “But please shut up.”

Behind Kanan’s back, Black Powder nodded.

“No, I will not listen to you.” The traitorous general pressed his heel into the bullet wound Ilsa’s shot had left in the Red Lector’s knee. “I want you to feel the humiliation I felt for all these months of serving under you.”

On the ground less than a meter from Ilsa, Megalli groaned softly. Her eyelids fluttered and looked at the Red Lector, fallen nearby. Her hands were still chained to the broken pike, and she looked weak, closer to death than ever. Ilsa snarled. Three shots. She still had three shots. And three enemies stood between her and saving Megalli.

She lurched to one side and fired at Kanan. Black Powder’s hands moved in a flurry. The bright flare of a scatter shell flashed from one pistol. Ilsa’s ears rang with the sound of the shot and shell.

The bright shards of Black Powder’s scattershot intersected spread across her bullet’s trajectory. And there its line ended. He had picked her bullet from the air. Ilsa’s teeth ground together. Her father continued to demonstrate his impossible, infuriating skills.

Her father’s lip curled. “Give us a moment, daughter.”

Kanan turned toward her, his pistol leveled. “You are next, priestess.” He swung the gun to point at the wounded Lector on the ground. “I think I hear your sons and your wife on their way,” he said. “But they will be too late.” He looked around lazily. “Give my regards to the ‘divine’ monarchs of Ayoch. Your gods are dead, Haram.”

“Kill me or not. My family will punish you.”

Kanan laughed and turned toward Black Powder. “Do you believe this man, Vel? I cannot take his threats seriously. Never could, really.”

Black Powder rolled his eyes, then focused on the Red Lector. His pistol-barrel twitched, almost imperceptibly toward the man on the ground. He squeezed the trigger.

A shock ran through Goji Haram’s body. He snapped to one side, then went limp on the ground. The wound from Black Powder’s bullet went straight through his heart, spreading blood across the stones of Howling Pass.

Ilsa stared at the fallen Lector for an instant, then surged toward Megalli, keeping her pistol trained on Haram. The fat general whirled toward her, gun in hand.

He could not normally have beaten her to the shot, but she felt slow from fatigue as well as the poison spreading from the wound in her arm. He trained the pistol on her and shouted. “Vel, you had no right to take his life from me. For that, your daughter dies.”

A simmering heat at the back of Ilsa’s awareness broke through to her conscious mind. With it, a terrible shriek echoed in her mind, and she somehow knew, in the minds of every human and animal in the pass. Unmistakable rage combined with incoherent grief in Ashnia Haram’s psychic outburst. Kanan flinched to one side. His eyes crossed and he dropped his pistol so it skittered to the ground.

The entire battle roared with the mental fury of all Ashnia’s mind eater abilities bent to one single emotion. Anger. Warriors stopped fighting, stood paralyzed. Even the Uzan froze in their paces.

Ilsa’s mind burned with the sensation. Tears ran down her cheeks as Ashnia’s rage melded with sorrow. Uncontrollable, unwarranted grief made her cold, bruised heart feel ready to burst. She fell onto her side and lost her grip on her pistol.

The shriek of temper was everything for an immortal stretch of seconds. Then, the furious mental scream subsided as quickly as it had arisen. Ilsa looked around, disoriented.

Uzan guns roared anew, killing more Ayochians and nomads alike.

Kanan regained his footing and turned to his right. There, Black Powder walked to the body of the Red Lector.

“You were a fool,” he said. “But an enemy must be respected.”

“Vel, you bastard,” Kanan’s eyes fell to Red Lector’s body. “You had no right. He was mine to kill.”

“We are in battle,” Black Powder said. “Kill, then gloat, if you must.”

Kanan’s troops pushed forward around the two men, Ilsa, and Megalli. Ilsa gripped her pistol, but kept her head down, hoping they would think her still disabled by Ashnia’s explosive anger. They had killed the mind eater’s father, but Ilsa could hardly relate to that level of devotion to a parent.

Kanan raised his eyes and glared at Black Powder. The sound of hooves and claws approached, but Ilsa smelled Ayochian powder like a cloud approaching with them.

General Shayi Haram’s troops were about to reach the battle.

Ilsa’s mind shifted halfway to despair.

Then, mother’s voice spoke in her ear. “You can still live through this.” In a stern voice, she said, “Ilsa, stand up.”

And Ilsa listened.

#

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