Tenlyres Chapter 48 – Distant Shadows

Tim here everybody.

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

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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 34 – Black Powder

Hello, everyone, Tim here.

Happy new year!

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

 

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

            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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Tenlyres Chapter 32 – Metal Storm

Happy holidays, everyone, Tim here.

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jump, Hailek.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, she took aim with both guns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Both of them,” she said. “I’m sure.”

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

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

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

Too late to run away.

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

The explosion of the gun carriage rocked the entire pass.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 29 – Howling Pass

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Previous Chapter

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

tenlyres-ii-chapters-29-mq 

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

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

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

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

“That means it’s morning,” she said.

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

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

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

Lemuel got to his feet behind her.

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

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

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

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

“Hey,” she said. “What’s this about?”

“You looked like you could use some warmth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll pray to Hathani you don’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ilsa’s eyes widened. “Vada’s staff?”

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

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

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

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

He nodded. “I trust you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ashnia Haram,” said Ilsa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ganara nodded to her.

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

Ganara grunted. “One left.”

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

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

“Right,” said Ganara.

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

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

Blue raised her eyebrows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ilsa’s father was not alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tirica left them to get out of the cold wind.

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

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

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

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

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

“And you shouldn’t,” said Lemuel.

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

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

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

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

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

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 15

 

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue have found the Keeper of Tenlyres, but the forces of the Red Lector are right behind them.
With a group of Oshomi, they must fight toward the Central Lyre.
A fierce battle continues.

Previous Chapter

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The battle lines reeked of blood and powder. Where the Oshomi had charged, the line of the Red Lector had been shattered into pockets of survivors who still fought with fanatical zeal. The wings of the Red Lector’s forces swept toward the center.

Ilsa’s ears rang with the whine of Ayochian artillery bombarding the Keeper’s camp kilometers behind her. Just a hundred meters from the Central Lyre, only the Lector’s command party and scouts stood in her path. She reloaded her machine gun with a full magazine from her saddlebag.

A loud ring of metal on metal broke through the whines and crashes of distant artillery.

The Oshomi Chief, Duruko, parried another stroke from Kaij’s long blade. The scar-faced nomad leader pivoted in his saddle, greatsword in both hands, and slashed along the side of Kaij’s runner. The blade scored a bloody gash in the cat-like steed’s flank. The creature hissed and swiped at Duruko with a deadly claw.

Nearby Ilsa, the Keeper of Tenlyres shouted a warning, the first time Ilsa had heard her with any heat in her voice. Duruko swayed away from the claw, but it drew blood from his side and leg nonetheless. His horse whinnied and carried Duruko out of reach of Kaij and his lethal steed.

Close behind the Keeper, Blue’s eyes rolled in her head. Kaij, in the process of turning to pursue Duruko, took on a blank expression as Blue attacked his mind. Then confusion passed across his face. His focus returned. His nostrils flared.

Between two other scouts, Kaij’s brother, Yunn, chanted an incantation under his breath. Blue flinched though her eyes remained unfocused. “He’s countering me. And he’s good at it.”

The Keeper of Tenlyres turned her steed toward Kaij. She raised one of her few remaining arrows to her bowstring and drew the weapon taut. Kaij produced a pistol from one hand, his eyes once again sharp with focus. He trained the gun on the Keeper.

Ilsa’s machine gun rounds hit Kaij, one in the shoulder, and the other in the gun hand. Blood flew from both new wounds. He kept his grip on the pistol. His wounded hand shook but he pulled the trigger.

The bullet cut a bloody wound on the neck of the Keeper’s horse. The animal cried with pain and bucked. The Keeper’s arrow flew wide of the scout leader. More scouts and survivors from the Red Lector’s line troops ran toward Kaij. He dropped his bloody pistol from his wounded hand. In one hundred heartbeats the weapon would vanish as was the way of bonded weapons. Ilsa had a clear shot at the man.

She leveled her machine gun and knew she would not need a burst to kill him. A chill ran through her at the thought. The cold sensation flowed down her arm into her chest. She hated to kill. She hated that this man and she must be locked in a deadly confrontation. Her heartbeat slowed. The effects of adrenaline began to slacken.

The old wounds along her thigh and in her shoulder began to throb with pain, no longer dimmed by her fury in the fray. Her whole arm felt numb. Her finger fell from the trigger guard of her submachine gun.

“Ilsa!” Blue shouted at her. “It’s the ice magus.”

She looked down at her chilled arm. Frost clung to her sleeve and up to the shoulder, but she knew it went deeper. A man’s hand moved from her side to her arm. The sensation was of dull needles as Lemuel’s fingers pressed down on her arm, trying to massage feeling back into her nerves.

She grimaced. “Thanks, but that’s not the only place.” Her heartbeat thudded slow and loud.

“Cass,” Blue called to the red-haired priestess. “We need to take out the magus.”

Cass Kalteri replied with a grunt. She trained her gun on Yunn and pulled the trigger. Shards of ice formed from the blood of riders from both sides arose from the ground and caught each bullet as Cass fired. Shadows crept from fallen men and women, horses and striders, and climbed up the strider where Cass hung onto Tirica’s limp form with one arm and her weapon in the other.

Cass cursed. She kicked at the grasping shadows created by other Ayochian Magi. Her foul words reached Ilsa across the battlefield. Not very much like the young priestess Ilsa had met back at Saint Banyeen’s Garden all those years ago.

Her hand twitched from pain of the cold and from the complaints of nerves. Her strider carried her and Lemuel forward at a steady pace. Kaij closed with Duruko again. A hand pressed to Ilsa’s chest.

“Excuse me,” Lemuel murmured in her ear.

Ilsa grimaced at the pain in her heart and lungs, the same needles of numbness that stabbed at her arm. “That’s where I need help.”

She raised the machine gun with agonized slowness. Duruko and Kaij passed each other like jousters. Red gleamed on Kaij’s blade.

Duruko tumbled from the saddle. The greatsword fell from his fingers. The Keeper of Tenlyres launched one of her two remaining arrows at Kaij, a cry of rage in her formerly flat voice. The arrow struck the leader of the Red Lector’s scouts in his already-wounded arm. His blood streamed down the shaft.

Yunn brought his hands together, eyes locked on Ilsa. The cold around her heart intensified. She sighed out a breath of pure frost that hazed her vision. Lemuel’s small hand joined his good hand in pressing down on her chest, trying to spread heat through her. In one way, it worked, but he could not seem to go deep enough through her coat.

She sagged against his chest, her strength fading. The strider kept moving. Kaij turned toward her, pain warring with a maddening expression of joy on his face. How man heartbeat had it been since he lost his pistol? Less than a hundred, for certain. She still had time, if she could just move.

The Red Lector’s armored bodyguards advanced on the remaining Oshomi. The sound of bullets seemed distant. Scouts with their short blades and Oshomi with lances clashed at close quarters, but the scouts’ runners were larger and more dangerous than the Oshomi’s horses. They would lose.

“No.” Ilsa heard herself say. “No.”

Kaij rode toward her and Lemuel, sword in one hand, ignoring the bloody wounds on his other side.

A white strider barreled across her misted vision. Ferdinand Thoss, the bandit, and grave robber held a javelin in one hand, and a long spear with a black blade in the other. Shadows leaped from the spear’s black point and caught hold of Kaij’s sword arm. The tendrils of darkness wrapped the Ayochian man’s wrist and held him at bay. Ferdinand gave a wild yell and hurled his javelin at the ice wall formed between Yunn and Cass.

Ice splintered and broke. Cass squeezed the trigger. Yunn’s folded hands turned red with spattered blood. He looked down at his hands, clenched them together tight as he saw the bullet wound in his abdomen. An icy stab ran through Ilsa’s chest. Then the ice magus tumbled from his runner’s saddle.

Kaij roared in rage as his brother fell. A pistol appeared in his wounded hand. He pressed the weapon into his armpit and started to load it one-handed. More scouts surrounded Ferdinand. Cass yelled and charged toward them, closely followed by Blue on her strider.

Feeling began to return to Ilsa’s chest, and with the pain came a flush of pleasure. She willed the thoughts away. Her coat hung open and Lemuel’s hand were pressed to the center of the chest, large hand over shrunken hand. She nodded to him.

“Thank you.” Her gun hand twitched. She raised the weapon just as Kaij finished loading his pistol.

The magical shadows from Ferdinand’s long spear still held Kaij’s sword arm. Ilsa swung the barrel of the machine gun toward the scout leader. He shot Ferdinand’s strider in the side. The white steed made no sound but slowly slumped onto its hind legs. Ferdinand swung his legs over one side of the wounded strider and jumped down, holding his spear in both hands. The shadows connecting the end of the spear to Kaij’s arms tugged Kaij with him. And they both fell to the blood and grass of the steppe.

Kaij raised his pistol toward Ilsa. Her bullet hit his knee and he buckled, then fell to the ground. The sword and gun both fell from his hands. Blue and the Keeper of Tenlyres reached Ilsa’s side, with a few more of the Keeper’s riders close behind.

“We go forward,” said the Keeper in a steady voice. “For Duruko!” She squeezed her legs into her horse’s flanks. Ilsa and Blue followed the Keeper toward the thin line of the Red Lector’s guards. Where Duruko had fallen, Ferdinand stood, his basket-hilted lance in one hand and a javelin in the other. The scouts around him had retreated or fallen. A dozen wounded or unhorsed Oshomi gathered with him. Two of them stood over Duruko’s still body, rifles bitter with the smell of use.

Ferdinand nodded to Ilsa as she neared. “We’ll hold them here for now,” he called. “Then I’ll catch up with you.”

Cass rode back toward Ferdinand, cradling the wounded Tirica to her. The scouts had fallen or retreated behind her. “The way is open.” She pointed through the bloody gap she had made in the Ayochian line. “Go, now.” Ilsa, Blue, and the Oshomi turned their steeds toward the gap. Ilsa and Cass’s striders passed close by each other.

“Take her,” said Cass. She dragged Tirica’s leg over the side of the saddle. Together Ilsa and Lemuel lifted Tirica and set her between the two of them on Hailek’s saddle. Cass nodded to them. Blood coated her front, but none of it appeared to be hers. Ilsa hoped not too much of it belonged to Tirica.

She took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Cass.”

“Now we’re both red.” Cass’ eyes gleamed as she met Ilsa’s gaze. “Good luck.” She wheeled her strider toward the Red Lector’s command party. Ferdinand turned in the same direction.

The voice of Ilsa’s oldest friend spoke again. “Go with the Keeper. Help the girl.”

Ilsa nodded to Cass. Tears threatened her eyes. “Don’t lose yourself, Cass. I owe you one.” She urged Hailek toward the Central Lyre. The Keeper of Tenlyres rode with her. And they broke through the Ayochian Lines.