Tenlyres Chapter 21

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue ride north from the Central Lyre with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
A deal has been made with the Vogmem nomads to avoid war between the tribes.
But have Ilsa and her allies really escaped the conflict from the Central Lyre?
The more northerly they go, the more Ilsa worries.

Previous Chapter

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Tenlyres II - Ch21 Beast Engines

The band of Oshomi continued northward. Ilsa rode close to Lemuel and Blue for the next few days, talking and sometimes even laughing with them. The steppe of Yr fell behind them, and the mountains towered up ahead.
The closer they got to the edge of the plateau, the further they would be from the monstrous Uzan. Ilsa always felt a stab of guilt as she considered the abominations she would have freed, had her father not beaten her to the action. She promised herself she would find a way to stop them, though even the Red Lector’s armored crawlers had apparently done very little.
They passed into a wide Lotok formation where cold geysers shot water from the ground. When they camped in a stable spot, Lemuel took the chance to dig a meter into the soil with Ilsa’s help. Once the plant pile that formed the basis of the underground Lotok was exposed, Lemuel jabbed the attachment spike of his reading tablet into the root to connect.
He rattled off a thread of information Ilsa did not understand. When she asked, he told her that the Vogmem appeared to be the only riders in the area. Finally, some good news, Ilsa thought. The next morning they rode on.
As the land became rougher and rockier she began to notice heavy hoof-prints in the grass and soil. Those hoof-prints looked to Ilsa like signs of the modified goats ridden by the Vogmem in place of the cat-like runners and high-legged striders of other regions.
Despite the Central Lyre falling farther into the distance behind them, she still feared what lay back there. The Uzan. The Red Lector. Black Powder.
On the fourth day since their escape from the siege, with the mountains just hours northward, a cloud of black smoke raced across the sky above them. The line sliced by with a horrible metallic scream, spreading the smell of propellant, but unlike any shot Ilsa had ever smelled before. She wrinkled her nose and frowned up at the trail.
“What was that?” asked one of the riders near Ilsa.
One of the others turned in her saddle and looked to the south. “It came from the Central Lyre,” she said in the language of the Filami.
Siuku, riding just a few meters ahead, turned toward the two Oshomi who had spoken, Ilsa, and the others. “It’s true. Spirits curse it, but it’s true.”
“How can you tell?” Tirica scowled at the black scar that continued to cut toward the mountains.
“The smoke is not ballistic propellant. It looks like fuel from a beast engine.” Siuku whipped her head around as the high-pitched scream echoed back to them from the mountains. The trail of black smoke curved.
Ilsa squinted, trying to make out the shape from which the dark cloud billowed. There’s no mistake, she thought. The smoke-spewing flying machine, still heavily obscured by the cloud, hurtled toward the Oshomi, Ilsa, and the others.
A flying machine. Ilsa had never seen anything quite like this noxious engine. She had flown in locusts, great airborne beasts modified by the city-dwellers to fly across impassable or dangerous land. Those could only land in water because of their aquatic origins. This abominable thing was different.
Locusts flew with slender white trails of lighter-than-air gas.
The machine belched smog from a small hole in the front and a roaring fire at the back.
Locusts ranged from the size of a strider to the huge transport beasts like the one which had last flown Ilsa into Ayoch before she returned to Dal, and they were shaped like manta rays. This black dart of churning iron-rust-colored metal rings looked nothing like an animal. It more resembled…
“It’s a bullet,” said Ilsa under her breath.
Lemuel glanced at her. “What?”
“It’s like a giant bullet.”
“Last time I checked, a bullet flies straight,” he said.
“Could be like an Ayochian extended round.” Blue stared at the bullet. “Just a lot bigger.”
Ilsa grunted. “It’s headed toward us. If it’s going to explode, we need to take shelter.” She turned to Siuku. “Keeper, we need to get to cover.”
Siuku’s pale pink eyes were wide. “What have we done?” she murmured, barely audible over the approaching roar of the monstrous flying machine.
Ilsa drove her legs into Hailek’s sides. “We have to split up. That thing could explode.”
The riders all looked at Siuku. The Keeper of Tenlyres snapped her eyes shut. “Go. Scatter and meet again at the pass north through the mountains.”
The Oshomi turned their steeds and raced off in small groups, like scattering spray from a shotgun. The smoking missile cast a dark smear against the blue and gray mountainsides not far away. But Siuku did not move. She stayed on her steed and stared at the approaching object.
“Keeper.” Ilsa rode to her side.
“What have we done?” Siuku repeated. “The Uzan are behind this.” Tears ran from her eyes and vanished behind her veil. “And we freed them.”
“We can set it right. But we can only do that if survive.”
“Hathanian words. A platitude, priestess.”
“If you’re dead, you aren’t any use to your people.” Ilsa grimaced.
Blue rode up on Siuku’s other side. “Keeper, I don’t know what you are, but you can heal people. Don’t throw yourself away.”
“Yes, and you can do even more.” Ilsa reached out and touched Siuku’s arm. “Come with us to Morhoen, to Koor’s Temple. We can work from there.”
Siuku turned her teary eyes to Ilsa. “You are convincing, priestess. I will ride with you to fight another day.”
They turned their steeds, and like the others left the path of the missile. Its cloud and scream closed with then. Only when they reached the point where they should pass the horrifying machine almost a kilometer away from its massive shadow, Ilsa realized her gamble would not work. The machine banked toward the three of them and then angled to dive toward the ground.
The machine closed the lateral distance. Ilsa drew her pistols and loaded them with full magazines. She glared at the approaching missile even as she tried to guide Hailek to evade the impact. The shroud of smoke fell over Ilsa, Blue, and Siuku, even at full gallop. The scream of turning rings on the machine’s side became piercing. The sound felt as if it cut clear through Ilsa’s mind to her soul.
The missile outraced them and then plunged the final few meters down into the earth, tearing apart the steppe between them and the mountains. Ilsa winced at the scream and roar and shower of earth, plants, and icy water that erupted from the impact. The ground below Hailek rippled. Then, like a geyser in reverse, the ground fell away beneath her and her steed. Ilsa fell with a shout of warning she could barely even hear.

Ilsa tumbled from the saddle but managed to land on her feet. Her boots splashed into the freezing, ankle-deep water of a broken Lotok well. Large root systems that made up the plains-dwelling plant piles in this area were visible amid the earth and debris from the impact. Jagged crevasses ran through the plains where the well had ruptured.
Her spine ached. She grunted and straightened her back, still holding both pistols. She and Hailek had fallen around six meters, but there wasn’t enough room for Hailek to muster the momentum to jump out of the hole, even if the surface was safe. For his part, the wooly strider lowered his hairy head and sniffed at Ilsa’s dirty face. She patted him. “We’ll get out of here. I’ll find a way.”
Her ears still rang from the massive sound of the impact and her own words sounded far away. She climbed up the line to Hailek’s back and stood on the saddle to look over the edge of the hole. She peered out carefully, balancing with her hand against the dirt of one nearby wall.
The ground was cracked and broken in every direction. What had been an area of fragile ground formed by a Lotok’s series of wells, geysers, and piles just moments ago, had become a morass of leaky ponds and open rifts in the earth. Smoke billowed from the impact crater ahead of them.
Ilsa shivered as water sank through her boots and into her socks.
She could not see Siuku, Blue, or either of their steeds, but she knew she had to find them. Her eyes darted this way and that. At last, she sat down in Hailek’s saddle. With a groan, she realized with pain that something in her back must be bruised. She scowled, and turned Hailek to head toward the chasm in the walls that looked just big enough to let him through to the next nearby well which had also broken open by the impact.
The narrow gap made for a tight squeeze. Ilsa turned side-saddle and pulled up her legs to give Hailek passage. Water and roots dripped around her, gnarled roots formed a canopy over her head, turning the skinny space dark. She emerged into the next open well and found the horse Siuku had been riding, lying broken and twisted in the water.
The poor animal was dead, neck bent the wrong way. The saddlebags were gone. Siuku must be looking for a way out of the collapse. The well stretched out longer than the one where Ilsa had fallen. The steppe she could see on the far end looked stable enough for a strider.
She switched her legs to sit astride her steed and then urged Hailek with pressure to the flanks. He leaped onto the surface of the plain, a plain crumbling for kilometers around. The ground shifted, but remained in place enough for him to walk forward a few more steps.
Ilsa rocked back in the saddle. Her aching back flared in protest, but she held herself upright. She gritted her teeth and scanned the way to the mountains. The missile fired from the Central Lyre still smoked. Its nose was buried halfway in the earth up ahead, but otherwise, the huge metallic chunk looked the same as when it had been airborne.
Shapes either black as night or pale as paper, moved around the monolithic piece of ammunition. Each of those shapes, while vaguely humanoid, was clearly too large to be a normal human. Each was well over three meters tall, Ilsa judged, and their necks were far shorter. Patterns crisscrossed their skin, dark on the light-skinned creatures and light on the dark-skinned ones, though they were difficult to see well through the wisps of smoke.
Uzan.
One of the dark Uzan raised a bulky, four-fingered hand and pointed at Ilsa. Two others looked at the first, then turned toward Ilsa with grunts and growls.
She scanned the opened wells of the Lotok around her, desperately searching for Siuku and Blue in the watery bogs. She did not find them. I’m not going to leave without them, she thought. They were both her mission and her friends.
The two Uzan marched toward Ilsa, now just twenty meters away. Ilsa checked her pistols. Both still clean and dry enough to fire, despite the fall through dirt and water. She leveled them at the two demonic monsters as the Uzan started to pick their way across the surface of the broken Lotok toward her.
A foreign thought flickered into her head.
I’m with the keeper. We’re a few meters North of you, in the pit.
Blue’s mind-eater communication was unmistakable.
Ilsa did her best to push one thought to the fore of her nervous mind.
Can you sense the Uzan?
Two of them, coming at you. I feel them, Blue sent back.
As the Uzan closed to ten meters from Ilsa, they each began to walk with an unstable, awkward gait. Gun-barrels emerged from their etched chests as if they pushing out of a liquid instead of flesh. The lead one also produced the barrel of a gun from the palm of each hand. Though no weapons appeared fully-formed, Ilsa guessed the monsters would not need to have the guns completely free to use them.
She grimaced and took aim, unsure of what bullets would do to the monsters.
Blue, if you’re going to take one of them over, now would be a good time.
No answer. All Ilsa’s thoughts were her own for the next minute. The lead Uzan raised the barrel of the guns in its palms. Guns roared just as real as any other. Hailek lurched as a large round cut a bloody trail across his side. A shot any closer to his center of mass might have killed him.
Ilsa cringed low in the saddle and urged the strider sideways with her bodyweight. She peered over the saddle. Hailek’s blood began to flow from the wound. The lead Uzan took another step forward and prepared to fire again.
The second monster shot the first in the back with all the weapons that had emerged from its chest.
The fusillade ripped the lead Uzan’s back to pieces and the monster sagged to its knees. Ilsa stared, surprised, and relieved. The creature’s arms reached up and seized the sides of its head. A struggle passed through the yellow eyes of the Uzan.
Blue was trying to make the monster kill itself, but the creature fought back, a strength most humans who weren’t magi did not possess without extreme training. Slowly, the creature pulled its fingers free from the sides of its head. Ilsa did not give it the chance to recover and shoot.
She pumped one of her pistols into the creature’s head. The first bullet struck the forehead and left just a dent and a trickle of blood. The second disappeared through the eye of the monster. The Uzan staggered and then tumbled into one of the open Lotok wells.
At least they’re not immortal. I can kill them, she thought.
Ilsa urged Hailek forward. Blue’s open voice called to her from the largest well yet. She sat on her strider’s back, Siuku on the saddle behind her. Both looked wet and dirty from the fall into the Lotok.
Blue kicked her heels into the strider’s side and the creature crouched. Her steed carried her and Siuku out of the well with a high leap.
“Which way?” Ilsa asked.
“To the pass,” Blue called. “We’ll be safe at the Lake of Saints.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m a magus. I’ll explain the details later.” Their striders sprang over the pitted steppe. More Uzan began to clamber out of the larger crater where their huge bullet had crashed. Weapons began to emerge, but Ilsa and Blue’s striders were swift. They circled around the fallen shell. As they rode, Ilsa saw Blue’s face looked gray with strain. Her eyes were rolled this way and that as she battled the minds of each different Uzan.
Ilsa kept her pistols drawn and aimed at different Uzan. At least she could kill them if they got within range, but after the first two, they appeared warier. They stayed back. She hated the lack of a rifle. If her friend could not keep them from opening up with their weapons, she would be vastly outgunned by the hurricane of fire even one of the monsters would unleash.
“Keep it up,” she called, hoping to sound reassuring. “We’re almost there.”
Blue replied with only a grunt. Her eyes twitched involuntarily as they raced away from the fallen pod and toward the mountains. Ilsa counted every second, expecting a salvo of bullets in the back. But it did not come.
She took a cloth from her saddlebag beside her red staff of office and pressed it to the bleeding wound on Hailek’s side. “We’ll get through this,” she said to the strider. “We’ll get through.”
Blood spotted the makeshift bandage and leaked onto Ilsa’s hands. She pressed it tighter.
Two striders raced toward the pass in the mountains just a few kilometers ahead.

Tenlyres Chapter 5

Chapter Index

Previous Chapter

Doubtless Manor

 

In days long gone, when The Three of Yr walked the world, the plateau was lush with life. White roses, primrose, and even the bird of paradise flowers abounded. When The Three returned to their hidden places most of Yr withered out of longing for their presence. So wrote the First Speaker for Hathani in one of the books Ilsa had studied at Saint Banyeen’s Garden, years ago.

In the present, the fourth month waned and winter’s chill was fading into the muddy hope of springtime, Ilsa guided her weary strider, Hailek she had decided to call the beast, around a broken patch of ground where a plant pile from a Lotok formation had broken the surface. The dark green mound of memory cells climbed up through a crack in the soil. She was grateful to see any green. Over the past days of restless, riding there had been nothing to see except the occasional stand of tower grass. Only that morning had they reached this miles-wide swath of Lotok.

A few yards away, a gout of cold water and mist erupted from the earth and startled Blue’s nearby strider. The normally unflappable creature bucked backward out of the spray. Blue held onto the reins and fought for stability, a common Morhoen curse on her lips. “Tomorrow break you!”

Ilsa kept her eyes on the ground, looking for other points where cold geysers might erupt. The green on the surface of the plateau might have faded when the Three deities disappeared, but the plant piles beneath the surface remained thick in some places. Nourished through symbiotic connection to the plains-grass above, the piles could well out-last human civilization. They had survived the fall of many nations in the past.

Blue steered her mount away from the geyser. Her coat and her strider’s hair dripped with icy spray, water forced to he surface by the plant piles shifting below the ground. She turned in her saddle and glanced at Ilsa. “Any sign of the fort around here?”

“We rode straight. Fort Sardul should be less than half a day from here.”

“If we actually rode straight.” Blue frowned at the empty horizon, then shook her head. “I don’t see it. That’s for sure.”

Blue might be gifted with an invincible immune system, but Ilsa knew her friend’s long-term patience was far more limited.

“I’ve never been to the fort.” Ilsa scanned the distant plains. No one could build directly over a Lotok formation, but Ilsa was certain Fort Sardul must be near. The map certainly supported the fort’s location. She squinted through wafting mists from the occasional geyser eruption. Her eyes caught on a glint of glass.

Glass in the window of a house—What Ilsa had thought a formation of gray granite that rose from the ground on its own appeared to be part of some hidden settlement. She studied the area around the window as she fished out her binoculars from the saddle bag behind her back. She raised the lenses to her eyes. A crude, five-meter-high wall of thick granite circled the carved house a hundred or so meters out from its sides.

It all looked derelict, and was built too close to the Lotok for comfort, given the gradual creeping movement of the underground formation. Ilsa frowned at the thought. She had never heard of a primitive homestead like one so from Dal whether abandoned or not. Any families with holdings on the plateau would be wealthy enough to build something better.

She pointed with her free hand, toward the glint of glass.

“Looks like someone used to live over there.”

Blue squinted at the point. “If you say so. Just looks like a pile of rocks to me.”

“Well, it’s not in good repair,” said Ilsa. “So it can’t be the fort.” She lowered the binoculars.

“Think we should check it out?” asked Blue.

“Better to be on the safe side.” Ilsa guided her strider toward the ruined homestead. She wished she had been able to find more information on the central region of Yr, but the plateau seemed very nearly to devour information. The Oshomi people and their herds of genuine horses were the most famous element beyond the Tenlyres themselves, but near the forts people could settle in relative safety, or so Ilsa had heard. She and Blue rode toward the ruins.

 

The walls looked sheerer up close, and far from ruined. What had appeared crude now looked as architected as any structure Ilsa had seen in Dal or Morhoi. She peered over the wall, standing on her Strider’s saddle, and glimpsed a finely crafted manor house that had looked like ruined stone from the distance.

Blue pressed a gloved hand to the polished surface of the wall. Lines from dripping water streaked the dark surface. “Seems a lot different up close.”

“Yeah.” Ilsa frowned. “Too different.” She looked along the curve of the wall. A gate was situated in the structure, high enough for a great strider to pass under it, and with slender watchtowers on either side. Ilsa guided her steed toward the gate.

She stopped before a pair of black-sealed iron doors with rust marks in places where the coat had peeled away. Ilsa looked up at the tower window above. “Hey!” she called. “Anyone there?”

Blue rode to her. “What are you doing?”

“It definitely doesn’t look abandoned.” Ilsa kept her eyes on the window. A shadowy face appeared in the frame, looking down at Ilsa. She raised her arm and waved up at the person keeping watch.

The face and in the window turned and said something Ilsa couldn’t hear through the glass. Ilsa saw the mouth move, but could not determine much else through the misted glass pane.

Blue glanced at her. “I hope they’re on our side.”

Ilsa shrugged. “It’s not like we’re criminals. Lots of Dalites on the plains support unification.”

Both of the heavy doors clanked open. Ilsa rode into the gateway and then stopped, seeing three figures standing just a few meters inside. The one in the center was a man in a warm but well-tailored Dalite coat, with dark hair and pale skin. The other two were only vaguely humanoid, but distinctly not human.

Glittering glass camera eyes peered out from beneath the guard of metallic domed helmets. Long steel arms hung at their sides. Even longer legs of the same material carried each of the sentries forward toward the gate. A glint of a blade was visible along each of their forearms, and Ilsa spotted gun barrels on the opposite side of each limb. The man raised a hand and the mechanical sentries halted.

“I am Raheb Suel, the chief guard. What business do you have with Lord Palend?”

Ilsa frowned at the sentries. “Lord Palend? Since when does a Lord of Dal live in Tenlyres?”

Raheb shook his head, face grim. A handgun flashed from his sleeve into his hand. “You women owe me an answer, not the reverse.”

“Look,” said Blue, “We don’t want any trouble.”

The man’s eyes widened. “You’re from Chogrum.”

“Shit.” Blue raised her hands. “We’re not here to fight.”

Raheb moved fast. He raised his pistol and took the safety off in the same motion. He aimed at Blue. Ilsa seized the small bag of ammunition and then leaped from her strider, a warning shout on her lips. Blue’s steed leaped forward without any audible command, vaulting one of the metal guardians. A shot rang out, but not from Raheb.

Blue’s armored shoulder took an impact of a rifle round. From the clang and whine of the shot, Ilsa guessed the armor had just saved Blue’s life. The force of the shot knocked her friend backward over her saddlebags. She fell from the strider onto the grass inside the courtyard walls. With a groan, Blue struggled to stand up.

Ilsa landed on the ground, her strider between herself and Blue. One of the sentries swung a rapidly-extended blade straight at her face. Ilsa dodged to one side. Air whistled past the strike. She clenched her right hand. A brand burned.

A pistol appeared in her grip. She loaded it in an instant, as she darted away from the sentry, following the curve of the wall away from Blue and the gate. One of the sentries followed her. The other rushed toward Blue. Both sets of forearm blades extended to the length of short swords.

“Suel, call this off!” Ilsa shouted. “We don’t mean any harm.” She smelled powder wafting from the manor house behind the well-dressed man. A glint of a scope’s reflection told her whoever had hit Blue was lining up another shot.

“I can’t. The master will not deal with Chogrumians.”

Raheb paced toward Ilsa. Blue found her feet. The sniper’s glinting scope angled toward Ilsa. The metal sentry swung a blade at Blue, but she was out of its way, moving out of its path away from Ilsa. Ilsa’s opponent lunged at her. She fired twice, smashing the eyepieces of the glass cameras in the helmet. The sentry continued forward.

Ilsa dodged to one side and the sentry plowed into the wall behind her, evidently not knowing to stop itself now that it was blinded. Blades clanged as they struck stone. Ilsa turned to face Raheb.

“I don’t want to hurt you, or anyone here.”

Raheb scowled. “You rode here with a Chogrumian.”

“We’re with the Unification. Both of us.”

“Even worse.” Raheb kept his pistol trained on her. The sniper would definitely have a shot lined up by now.

Ilsa ducked low and rushed at the man, then leaped to one side. He squeezed off a shot, well wide of her. The rifle cracked from the great house rooftop. A bullet seared across Ilsa’s shoulder, drawing blood. She winced in pain, but brought her gun to a stop under the man’s chin. He backpedaled in time to avoid a potential shot, but she used the moments of cover his retreat provided her to produce her other pistol and load it. The magazine clicked into place.

She aimed the newly summoned weapon at the clanking sentinel following Blue and fired twice. The machine’s head burst in two places and steam issued from the back of its dome. The sentry collapsed. Ilsa shot her friend a glance. “Blue, can you stop that sniper from here?”

Blue nodded to her, eyes closed. Ilsa kept her first pistol on Raheb. His hands shook as he fought to keep the gun aimed at Ilsa.

“Who are you?”

“Ilsa Barrett. Priestess of the Unification, and of Hathani.” The pain in her shoulder built, despite the damage from the wound not seeming serious otherwise. “Please, put down that gun.”

His wavering hand steadied. His eyes flicked toward Blue. “What is she doing?”

“Eating your sniper friend’s thoughts probably. Don’t count on someone else shooting me anytime soon.”

He gritted his teeth. “You bitch. How dare you!”

“Got her.” She turned to Raheb. “Sniper’s aimed at you now, man.”

His eyes widened. A clunk of wood on a paved path drew Ilsa to glance toward the main entrance of the house. The slow shape of a man leaning on a black staff of wood made his way toward them from the covered porch at the front.

“That’s enough,” called the old man. “Raheb, put away your gun. I believe these women are with the Unification.”

Raheb grimaced. “Lord Palend,” he lowered his pistol to his side and bowed to the old man. “Whatever you command is my call.”

Palend nodded to him and then turned toward Ilsa as he approached them. “Catch those striders of yours. Then, I want to talk to both of you.”

Ilsa glanced in the direction of Hailek and Blue’s strider, who had both run along the outer wall, away from the gunfire. She nodded toward the old man, grateful for his sanity. “As you wish.”

He glanced at Blue. “You too, miss. Release Jia as a show of good faith.”

Blue hesitated with an intake of breath. She glanced at Ilsa.

“Trust me,” said Palend. “She won’t shoot.”

Blue breathed out. “She is released.”

The scope’s reflection vanished from Ilsa’s sight. She unloaded her pistols and then withdrew them into their seals. Blue’s will had already reined in the two striders. Ilsa turned to Palend. “Let’s talk.”