Tenlyres Chapter 44 – The Spear

Tim here.

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

Check it out here!

Of Mooks and Monsters will return next Wednesday, so you can get your RPG fix with another session of Actual Play.

This Sunday will see the releases of the first episode of Alive After Reading, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Back to Tenlyres.

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa has suffered through the test of the Prince of Chogrum. She and her allies try to solidify a new alliance, while enemies wait in the shadows.

 

Fighting is not always the best option, especially in war.

Sometimes one must wait and listen, or even retreat to improve the odds when one returns to the fray.

 

Dawn’s light crept in under the slit of the door frame. Ilsa dressed in Chogrumian city clothes and concealed her ammunition belts under a skirt she wore over a pair of trousers. Yes, it looked silly, but she had seen people with the same sort of clothes the previous day. It would do well to hide the magazines. She kept the bullets loaded in one pistol. She felt confident she could produce the weapon easily, despite that complication.

Lemuel rose and went to the window. He pulled on his clothes, tucked a revolver into the waistband of his new black pants. She nodded to him.

“Let’s hope we won’t need these,” she said.

“Definitely,” he said. He pulled on his overcoat to hide the gun. “Let’s go make an alliance.”

 

 

They met Siuku and Blue along with Megalli at the suite upstairs. Ferdinand and Cass were on the roof, keeping an eye out for trouble in the skies over Chogrum.

So far, it seemed no battles had been fought on a large scale between the east and west. Not yet. Soon that would change if they did not do something.

The prince would meet them at the parliament building near the palace at the city’s center. Ilsa and the others took the tram to the north. Her pain had mostly faded. Only small hints remained.

She rode in silence. Even Blue seemed subdued, or maybe tense. She did not reach out with her mind and talk to Ilsa. They both knew the other was tense.

Her eyes watched the buildings passing outside. All of this should be protected, even if it was Chogrum. No, because it was Chogrum. It was so much like Dal where she had grown up, even with the many differences between the two cities. Ilsa swore to herself she would not let them destroy each other if she could help it.

The nomads too were hers to protect as long as she could. As long as she drew breath.

The tram turned away from the palace and toward the parliament building. The charged guiding wires over the track emitted a low crackle as one set disconnected and the next attached. Ilsa rubbed at her eyes to clear the last of the sleep dirt from them.

Blue looked across the tram at Ilsa. She wore her armor openly. “It’s been tough to sleep.”

“Today could be a moment of truth,” Ilsa said. “If we don’t succeed it may cost us the war.”

Blue leaned forward and folded her hands together. “It could cost the peace.”

“You’re right.” Ilsa frowned down the length of the tram.

Besides her and Blue, most of the others had come with them.

The young Okko and the veteran lightning catcher who had ridden into town with Ilsa, Siuku and Lemuel sat near the keeper. Lemuel was beside Ilsa. On his other side, Megalli fiddled with the spare buttons on her trousers.

Only Ferdinand and Cass were elsewhere. They had ridden out on separate striders to look for trouble ahead of the tram. Ilsa had barely had any time to talk to Cass since the mountains. They always seemed to be moving parallel to each other. At least they were going in the same direction.

The tram pulled to a stop at the station in front of the broad parliament building. Ilsa led the others down the steps and then up to the troupe of bonded palace guards fanned out on the ramp leading to parliament. The ramp was broader and less steep than the one to the palace. Her senses felt sharper. She could feel each of their bonds, two or more for each guard. Ilsa felt certain none of them were bonded to the spirit, and not just because her father’s technique was so rare. Somehow she could feel each of them had their shrine somewhere in Chogrum.

Ilsa suspected the guards were only here because of the prince’s presence, because groups of ordinary soldiers also patrolled the building, their radios sounding of static as two of them moved along the street nearby.

The leader of this group of palace guards, a big woman with a thickly scarred jaw, bowed to Siuku as the Keeper of Tenlyres walked toward them.

“Your Holiness of Tenlyres. Bless me, please.”

Siuku’s eyes narrowed. “You serve a different master, the Prince of Chogrum.”

“Indeed. But my family has often prayed at the Flowering Lyre. I have heard what you did in Atalem. You healed their wounds.”

Siuku’s eyes relaxed. “Then I bless you, servant of Chogrum. Proceed in the ways of the spirits.”

“Thank you, your holiness.” The guard leader turned to her squad as the rest of Ilsa’s group caught up with her and Siuku. “Allow them to pass. The keeper and the prince have words for parliament today.”

They climbed the ramp, past the first group of palace guards. Then past another set at the top. They passed through burnished doors painted with murals depicting Chogrum’s founding a thousand years prior. Ilsa fought the urge to marvel at the sights of the grand building. Dal has structures like this too, she reminded herself, though she had rarely seen them up close.

Okko did not resist the same urge. He craned his neck. “This is the biggest tent ever,” he said in the Oshomi language.

The older lightning catcher gave a disapproving click of her tongue and tapped the top of his head with her hand. “Keep your guard,” she said in the same language Okko had used.

He laughed at her. “There is an army around us.”

“An army, but not our army,” said the veteran lightning catcher. “Stay alert.”

“I’ll keep my eyes peeled.” He went on gaping as they entered a columned passage forty meters broad, the public corridor into the parliament hall. It was lined with more palace guards, but fewer than there had been outside. Wall mounts held bioelectric lights.

Someone snapped a photograph of them, the flash dazzling even in this bright hallway. Ilsa looked in for the source of the flash and found a cluster of news teams. Most had large pile cameras for video. As she turned to them, though, another series of bright flashes made her blink.

“The press is allowed in?” she murmured.

“Parliament exists for the people,” said Lemuel from beside her. “And the Keeper of Tenlyres has never visited the city in all of its thousand years.”

“You would know about that.” She smiled at him.

He flushed.

They reached another set of double doors, smaller and less colorful than the ones outside, but not by much. These, two large men, in uniforms not belonging either to the ordinary soldiery or the palace guards, hauled the gate open as Ilsa and the others drew near. Each of the big men wore a large battle ax on a baldric tied around the back of their deep green and gilded uniforms. Neither was a weapon bond.

She glanced at Lemuel.

“Parliamentary Lictors,” he said to answer Ilsa’s questioning look. “They are mostly ceremonial, have been since powder became more common.”

“Why the axes?”

“Chogrum’s founders are said to have lived for a time in the forest east of the plateau. Tradition holds that woodsmen served as representatives of the commoners in those days.”

They passed the lictors with their axes and entered the hall of Chogrum’s parliament. Ilsa looked out at a huge room set in muted tones, except for the rings of red tiles among the gray of the floor at the center of the ranks of desks.

“One hundred and twenty members. And nearly all of them should be in attendance because the prince is here.”

Ilsa nodded as she took in Lemuel’s words. Part of her did not like that she felt the power in this room. As if politics could accomplish everything it claimed.

On the other hand, democracy could be beautiful in the right circumstances. Ordinary people deserved more power than they had in Ayoch and many of the Morhoenese monarchies.

A pair of green-clad lictors led them down to the floor below the desks. “You will stand before the prince, in the sight of the people,” said one. “As foreign representatives, you may not sit during the proceedings.”

Lemuel sighed. “Never thought I’d have to hear that, personally.”

Megalli bounced on the heels of her shoes. “You keep foreigners off guard. I like it. I may have to do something like this once I return home.”

The lictors looked at her with solemn expressions.

Blue directed an unrestrained smile in Ilsa’s direction. “At least someone is going to benefit from our sore legs.”

Ilsa nodded. “How long do parliamentary proceedings last?”

“Hours, usually. For something like this, at least three or four. And it could be a lot longer than that,” said Lemuel.

Ilsa patted his shoulder. “Lean on me if you need to. I can handle it.”

“Four hours?” said Megalli. “That’s a lot of the day. How do these people have time for it?”

“The members of parliament are mostly ordinary citizens like me and Blue, but they receive compensation for their civic duty.” Lemuel glanced at Megalli. “Money means more in the city than in the mountains.”

Siuku turned to them. “These may be ordinary people, as you put it. But they represent our chance of an alliance.”

Megalli nodded, a little of her exuberance suppressed. She straightened her back a little. “I can be dignified too.” She pressed her lips into a line. “Just watch.”

Okko covered his mouth with his hand. His suppressed laughter still sounded too loud.

The lights above them dimmed. Then, a plain door, almost invisible when closed, opened in the center of the wall of the low part of the room where they stood. Two palace guards processed in, hands folded. After them came two lictors, and then the prince of Chogrum, flanked by two more lictors. He wore a white robe and carried the True Red staff. His feet were bare.

All six guards bowed their heads and stepped off to the sides of the room. The prince stepped into one of the two circles formed by red tiles and motioned for Siuku to stand in another near him. The members of parliament took their desks.

The prince tapped his staff on the floor twice.

From behind Ilsa, two bells chimed.

“Session begins,” whispered Lemuel.

They stood as the prince introduced the Keeper of Tenlyres to parliament. They stood as the heads of parliament responded to the prince. They stood for an hour as Siuku made her case to the people and bureaucracy of Chogrum.

Ilsa noticed that, though there were one hundred twenty desks, each one sat both a representative and a government bureaucrat to assist them. In the gaps between different representatives standing to speak and then sitting back down again, others conferred quietly with the bureaucrats beside them. The system struck her as sensible, with advisers for representatives whose jobs were not normally political.

Ilsa could not follow it all. She had been a mercenary and priestess for half her life. Her field of action was not here.

In the second hour, her legs began to feel stiffer and stiffer, though she did her best to shift them to keep from cramping. When the session ended, at last, it had been four hours, and she fairly lurched back up the steps to leave the room. This time, the prince walked with them. He moved slowly with the true staff of Hathani in his hand.

They descended the ramp outside the building. A plain black car waited on the street by the tram station, surrounded by a squad of palace guards. Ilsa wondered how dangerous the city would actually be for the prince, though she did not doubt the guard were necessary.

News-people took photographs and videos. Others shouted out questions, which the prince and Siuku ignored. Okko laughed and called out words Ilsa didn’t know in Oshomi, including one he repeated every time the cameras flashed.

“Bakasta. Bakasta.”

Ilsa glanced at Lemuel.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not an expert on Oshomi language.”

Megalli smirked at them over her shoulder. “It sounds rude.”

“It is,” said the dour lightning catcher walking close to Siuku. “You’re better off not knowing. Shut up, boy.” She tapped Okko on the back of the head.

“Bakasta,” he said and then gave a snort of laughter.

The older lightning catcher rolled her eyes, an expression of exasperation that existed across cultures. As they reached the car at the bottom of the ramp, Ilsa’s small smile morphed into a frown. There were weapon bonds on the sidewalk, and not all of them were members of the palace guard.

“Wait,” she said. “Somethings wrong.”

Lemuel glanced at her, as the prince reached his car, closely followed by a cluster of news people, held back by the presence of just a few guards. One of the news-people, an older woman with stringy white hair, looked strangely familiar.

Ilsa’s eyes went wide as realization struck her. The woman might be different above the brows, but other than the wig and the camera in her hand there could be no mistake. Black Powder’s first apprentice snapped a photograph of the prince.

Ilsa clenched her hand, preparing to draw her loaded pistol. She leaped from the last meter of the ramp toward the car. Her pistol appeared in her hand as she landed beside the prince. The guards began to produce weapons. Ilsa shouted in warning as First started to move a pistol produced in the hand not holding a camera.

For a second no shots were fired. Ilsa faced First down.

“What is the meaning of this?” bellowed the prince.

“This woman is one of Black Powder’s apprentices.” Ilsa kept her eyes on First.

The woman swung her weapon hand. She fired twice, and two of the guards holding back the news-people fell. Ilsa’s retaliatory shot hit First in the other hand, smashing through the camera.

Her father’s apprentice flinched backward.

People screamed. More shots went off, exchanged between the prince’s guards and more of her father’s hidden weapon bonds. The enemies emerged from their cover all down the sidewalk in front of the parliament building.

Ilsa put herself between First and the prince. She fired another shot. Then a third.

First ducked around the front of the car and evaded both bullets. Ilsa cursed almost as much as Okko as the bullets ricocheted off the pavement.

One of them hit a genuine newsman. He fell to one knee, his leg ripped in and out by the bullet. The man clenched his teeth and shouted in pain, but as he did he pointed behind Ilsa.

Ferdinand Thoss rode his white-furred great strider down the thoroughfare, towering over the low-built cars and even the tram. He thrust his long spear into one of the mercenaries who had just dropped a palace guard.

Ilsa called to the prince, “Stay close to me. We have to get back inside.”

A high caliber shot rang out from across the street and another of the guards fell. The prince ducked his head but raised his staff. “That looks to be a risky proposition at the moment, priestess.”

Caught on the end of Ferdinand’s spear, the weapon bond struggled with something under his bloodstained summer jacket. Ilsa smelled powder. A bomb.

“Ferdinand, drop him!” she called over her shoulder.

He did not hesitate but withdrew the spear into its bond. The wounded mercenary vanished in an explosive roar that sent shreds of his jacket flying through the air. Ilsa winced from the blast, surprised at the lack of blood with such a concentrated detonation.

First darted around to the street-side of the car, firing a pistol at the guards on the steps. The other mercenaries appeared to have fallen or retreated.

Ilsa scowled as she stepped around the prince. “Stay here, sir.”

“I am not eager to fight,” said the prince, hunkering down behind one of the car’s rear wheels. “Finish this attacker.”

With what pleasure there can be, Ilsa thought. “I will.” She snaked around the back of the car, moving to flank First.

The older woman shot another guard on the steps. She broke from behind the car just as a rusted van barreled down the street toward them.

Ferdinand, his strider now on the sidewalk, jumped down and joined the prince, Lemuel, and the rest of Siuku’s group near the car and the dazed members of the press.

One of them actually kept taking pictures. Apparently cooler-headed than the rest. Or crazier.

First reached the other side of the street and the van screeched to a halt between her and the guards on the parliament building ramp. Ilsa glanced at Ferdinand’s strider. The creature’s eyes glinted and swung his long body, sending one of the mounting lines flying to Ilsa. She grabbed the line and scurried up.

The strider swung back and she leaped off the line onto the top of the van. Her stomach roiled, and then shock ran through her legs. She took aim at First, who had just finished crossing the street.

Ilsa’s bullet hit her father’s sadistic apprentice in the leg and sent her staggering.

Beneath her, Ilsa could hear firearms being loaded. She gritted her teeth. More mercenaries, but she could tell where they were by sensing their bonded weapons. She fired the remaining rounds in her pistol through the thin metal roof of the van. She killed the occupants, all except one.

That one kicked out the windscreen and climbed out. He wore the same kind of hooded jacket of light material as the man who had blown himself up. And he leveled a shotgun at her.

Cass’s bullet hit him from behind. The red-haired priestess rode in from the end of the street opposite the way Ferdinand had come. He stumbled on the hood of the van, then pulled the cord of the explosive vest he wore beneath his coat. The blast burned through the van. Ilsa leaped from the roof.

She rolled onto the pavement two meters down, limbs and spine aching. Her arms had shielded her head from the worsts of the fall. She scrambled to her feet and went after First at a fast limp. One leg burned with pain from scrapes through the leg of torn pants. Her vision narrowed with intent.

Stop First from escaping. Find Tirica.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 42 – Chogrum

Tim here.

This week I began a giveaway for my novel, Rem’s Dream.

Check it out here!

In other news, I have been writing on the edge of consistency. Plans are in motion. Plots are moving… Oh, and Daylight savings time approaches. Hope you’re all well.

Back to Tenlyres.

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa and her team ride east to try to form an alliance with the city of Chogrum against the monstrous forces raised by Black Powder. Now they approach the city…

And when life ends, let it end with peace.

No matter how much one must struggle to survive.

 

Chogrum appeared the next day, and the five of them rode right toward it, along the eastern cliffs of the plateau. The horses kept a good pace, but it still took them until late afternoon to make it to the city. At the outskirts, Ilsa began to become nervous their steeds would make them suspicious, but Lemuel assured her horses were not unknown in Chogrum like they were in Dal.

Not for the first time, she missed Hailek. The strider would have given her a higher vantage point to observe the street around them. Siuku and the other Oshomi took in the sights of the city with awe.

The people around them regarded the five weary, bloody, worn riders with curious, sometimes nervous, gazes in return.

In Chogrum, the people varied even more in appearance than Dalites. They ranged from the dark skin of the southern continental peoples to Morhoenese, to pale skin like could be found in Dal or Ayoch. Some could have belonged to the Filami or even the nomad peoples.

The buildings on the outskirts were less different from each other than the people Ilsa saw. Almost all of them were two-stories with vines and creepers turning green in the summer sun crawling along their sides. Some of those vines attached to plant piles where the pavement parted, bulging at the edges where the roots pushed up from below concrete. Almost every one of the gray structures was topped by a glowing screen. Letters in Yrian common that scrolled across each one.

To her surprise, Ilsa noticed uniformed soldiers patrolled the rooftops on the main thoroughfare that led toward the city’s center. Yet, no one stopped the obviously armed Oshomi riding down the street. Maybe they figured five riders made little difference against the numbers of troops in the neighborhood. They were probably right.

Trash filled containers in alleyways, but the smells were muted compared to the massacre, still fresh in her mind.

Eventually, they moved into a less dilapidated part of the city, a few kilometers from the edge. There, Ilsa began to feel the presence of Blue nearby.

Feel may not have been the right way to think about it. She understood Blue’s mind was extended, and it brushed against her spirit senses at the edge of awareness. She took the lead and followed that sense.

They made their way to a hotel, five times the height of the buildings around it, where they reined in the horses and then, led them to the stable next door. The stable was built for larger animals, and Ilsa spotted the dark-colored strider Blue had brought from Dal in a stall next to Ferdinand’s white one. Part of her heart surged with new confidence because of the knowledge her friends had made it to Chogrum safely.

She followed the others out of the stable. They had paid with coins collected from troops at the massacre site.

Ilsa felt sick at the thought of the slaughter. They checked into the hotel with the same tragic currency as collateral. The group had enough for a week in two rooms. Plenty of time. Thanks to their scavenging and the little money given to them by the Vogmem tribals when they separated a month ago.

They went up to the rooms. How odd they must look, walking down the halls of even a small hotel. The Keeper of Tenlyres and her warriors. And Ilsa and Lemuel, who probably did not look much different from the Oshomi, after two months as nomads.

Ilsa and Lemuel took one room. The Oshomi took the other.

While Lemuel took the first shower, she reached out with her mind and looked for Blue.

At first, the vast number of people in the city around her was overwhelming, chaotic, shifting, difficult to comprehend. She touched the locket, focused on it. Blue’s connection to the locket brought her back, guided her around the hotel, and quickly brought her to the suite just above hers and Lemuel’s room.

Her friend was at the center of a group of familiar spirits in the suite. Ilsa hopped up from the edge of the bed where she had been sitting. She went out into the hall, taking her room key with her. She headed upstairs and knocked on Blue’s door.

Audible motion came from within. After a moment, the door opened inward.

The room on the other side was far larger than the room Ilsa and Lemuel had been in downstairs on the ninth floor. Blue stared at her from the center, by a crescent-shaped couch. She still wore the same set of body armor she always did, and her hair hung back in thick braids. Her eyes widened when she saw Ilsa.

“Get in here,” she said in a thick voice, almost slurring her words. Ilsa hurried into the room. Blue wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “You made it!”

“So did you,” said Ilsa.

Someone chuckled off to her left. Ferdinand Thoss shook his head as she looked in his direction. “I thought you never missed, priestess?”

“You thought wrong.” Ilsa felt tears in her eyes. She half-wished his joke was true.

At the window, where she had been looking over the city, Cass turned toward Ilsa. “Hathani, you’re crying, Ilsa.”

“I know.” She wiped her eyes. “I’m just—I’m just glad you all made it.” She looked around the lavish room with three bedrooms connected to it by adjoining doors. “Looks like you sprang for some nice rooms.”

“I had some cash saved from the last time I was here,” said Blue.

“I’ve never stayed anywhere this nice.” Ferdinand whistled, “But then, I never knew how to save money.”

Cass gave a snort of laughter.

“We needed the top room,” said Blue.

“Why? For a lookout?” Ilsa asked.

One of the bedroom doors opened. Ilsa stepped back in surprise at the sight of the lithe form of Megalli standing in the doorway. She wore Chogrumian city clothes, including a pair of white trousers and a small-brimmed hat.

The chieftain of the Vogmem skyriders grinned at Ilsa. “For my people to land on, priestess.”

Ilsa could not help the smile that crept onto her face. After days of riding with worry about Tirica, and witnessing the sight of the massacre on the way to the city, Ilsa had needed some good news.

“You’re awake! Blue didn’t tell me you had joined her group.”

“They only caught up with us yesterday,” said Blue. “Ten skyriders and Megalli.”

“The greatest of the skyriders, that is,” said Megalli with a grin. “Since the keeper healed me, I made a decision for my people. We may never convince the others, especially not Ganara. Still, my people can do what is necessary to fight the Uzan, even allying with Chogrum.” She bounced up and down. “I’m the only one to enter the city so far. The first Vogmem chieftain in over a century.”

“You led the way.” Ilsa nodded. “I’m glad to see you.”

“Me too,” said Megalli. Her faced grew serious. “I did not expect to survive my wounds when I fell in the pass. I remember thinking: This is death. It felt so simple. I wonder if Akirette felt the same?”

Ilsa bowed her head.

Blue put a hand on Ilsa’s shoulder. “Ashnia’s here too, still suppressed of course.”

“Where?”

Blue motioned to the bedroom. “In there. She has been sleeping a lot.”

Ilsa nodded. “I had better get back downstairs. Lemuel was in the shower, and I don’t want him to worry about where I’ve gone. He has enough to worry about.”

“Go,” said Blue. “Keep the man reassured. We’ll look for Tirica tonight.”

Ilsa left the suite and made her way back to the room below.

 

Ilsa sat cross-legged on the floor of the room she shared with Lemuel. Her eyes were closed and she breathed deep and calm. Her arms crossed in front of her. She held Blue’s hand with one of hers, and Siuku’s hand with the other. Their minds joined, and they sought for Tirica’s mind located who-knew-how-many kilometers away across the steppe.

Human spirits were few and far between once they passed beyond the armies of Chogrum and Morhoen arrayed between the city and its western foes. Feeling as though she was flying on a hawk over a ghostly world, Ilsa realized the way she and the others had ridden into Chogrum was now being closed by Chogrumian troops. Those troops moved through the night.

They had only just slipped through the net.

She turned her consciousness westward extended by Blue and Siuku’s powers. As the weakest of the three, she served the team by leading the way, the rider to their combined psychic steed.

It took hours of searching westward, before she saw the first hint of Tirica’s presence. A group of mercenaries just on the other side of the horizon from the view of Chogrum’s westernmost army contained Black Powder himself. She recognized her father’s spirit as sure as her mother’s as if he was standing right before her, giant against the land. He knew where Tirica was, she could feel, but did not have the power to dig deeper.

Neither First nor Tirica was in his camp.

Blue’s grip on Ilsa’s hand tightened in the physical world. “She’s not that far away.”

“Closer? I combed the steppe. She isn’t anywhere near us out there.”

“She could be in the city,” said Siuku. “I can barely distinguish individual minds with so many around us.”

Ilsa’s brows bent. “I don’t have your abilities, but I grew up in a city. Let me try.”

She reeled in the extension of her conscious mind, pulling back to the city. Chogrum was a seething soup of different thoughts, hatred and fear, love and joy, all swathed in a heavy layer of nervousness from the approaching conflict. Somehow, it made sense to her.

People were pressed so close to each other, they formed chains of spirit between them. The nomads were tight-knit on the plateau. But Ilsa could see the same sort of bonds among the different communities of Chogrum. She cut through that mental jungle like a machete and cleared her way to the bright beacon formed by the object of her search.

Tirica was close. Once she brought herself into the city, she could sense the girl’s presence clearly.

However small the star, it still provided a little light. Ilsa dug deeper into the center of Chogrum, chasing that light.

“She’s in the city. Somewhere near the middle. I can’t tell exactly.”

“Careful, Ilsa. The Temple of Colors has a strong presence in Chogrum.”

“Blue.” Ilsa’s spirit reached for the tiny source of starlight within the veils and chains made by the city’s people. “I’m almost there.”

Siuku spoke. “I sense aggression, a powerful temper.”

Blue’s hand tugged on Ilsa’s. The fingers in her grip ached. “She’s right. The temple has found us.”

Ilsa pulled back the last veil from Tirica’s spirit. A blinding light filled her vision. Then, like she had been kicked by a strider, pain bloomed in her chest. She released Blue’s grip and fell onto her back on the hotel room floor. Her eyes flew open. The pain in the back of her head from the impact with the floor could not match the agony in her chest.

She gasped for air.

“So close.”

Blue slumped where she sat.

Lemuel rushed to Ilsa’s side. “You alright? What hurts?”

“My heart.” Ilsa pressed a hand to her chest. “Maybe it’s the old wound Ferdinand gave me.”

Siuku got to her feet. “Focal pain. That wound awakened Ilsa’s spirit senses, but it also serves as her weak point.”

Blue nodded and took a deep breath. “Mental attacks can have physical consequences. The temple knows how to strike both ways.”

Ilsa looked up at Lemuel, her own breathing ragged. He clasped her hand. “It’s alright. She’s close. We can try to find her another way.”

Ilsa nodded. Her chest throbbed. “Good idea.”

He helped her sit up. She pressed a hand to the back of her head. “I got overconfident, didn’t I?”

“It happens to many with new abilities,” said Blue. “The temple doesn’t need someone with your potential to train into a mind eater. But you could have been a strong one if you studied with them early.”

Ilsa looked at her friend as pain wracked her from sternum to skull. “I’m glad I didn’t. This power hurts.”

Blue unfolded her legs and got to her feet. “It gets easier, but mental attacks always hurt. No one is invulnerable.”

“Indeed,” said Siuku.

Blue frowned. “Did you see your attacker?”

“No. I just saw light.” Ilsa sighed. “I wish I had more to tell you.”

“Sounds like you saw enough. Brightness is a calling card of a few temple members. We can guess they are operating separately from Black Powder and his people, I would say.”

“Would they interfere in the war?”

“I can’t say for sure. My gut says they don’t care who rules.” Blue shook her head. “The temple is crazy that way.”

Ilsa turned toward Lemuel. “I won’t give up on Tirica.”

“None of us will,” said Blue.

Siuku bowed her head. “It is getting late. The sun set long ago. We should rest.”

“Yeah.” Ilsa got to her feet with Lemuel’s help. The others left their room.

Ilsa stretched her arms, cleaner than she had been since Dal, following her shower that afternoon. She was a little hungry, but as she looked at Lemuel, she forgot about it.

He looked at her with bright eyes. “Thanks, for looking for Tirica. I wish I could have helped.”

“You can get started on helping more tomorrow,” said Ilsa. “After all, this is your city.”

She sat down beside him on the broad bed and smiled wearily as the pain began to fade away.

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Lemuel with a smile. “Not many people even think I’m still alive, probably.”

“You’ve still got family here, don’t you?”

“A few,” said Lemuel. “But right now, I’m not worried about most of them.” He took a deep breath. “Say, do you remember how we met?”

“In Dal, where that idiot was shouting about Chogrum outside a stable.”

He nodded and adjusted his glasses. “It was after that, at Doubtless Manor, the last time I had a shower. But at that I point, I still didn’t know who you were. Not really.”

“Now you do,” she said, one hand on his.

He put his small hand to her cheek. Warmth came from within. “I’m thankful I met you. All the time.”

She drew herself closer to him and they kissed in the heat of their embrace. Ilsa guided him back onto the bed.

 

The next morning, the group ate breakfast together in the hotel restaurant. Ilsa almost could not believe the taste of city food could be so good after months of travel rations on the steppe. Megalli told stories about her best hunts, and how the meat had been afterward.

After breakfast, the group split up.

Some went to search the city, while other remained to plan a way to get an audience with the prince. Megalli, Lemuel, and Okko went with Ilsa to scout the house owned by Lemuel’s parents close to the city center for Tirica.

As they moved deeper into Chogrum’s urban jungle, the buildings became higher until they reached for the sky in the center-most districts around the arched rooftops of the prince’s palace, with the lower-built government buildings spread out all around.

Snatches of song drifted over the market street from a speaker system as the group made its way north toward the palace. They were already close to the city center. Ilsa wondered how close First would have gotten to the palace without raising suspicion if she had Tirica with her as a prisoner.

Slavery was outlawed all across the plateau, which would make it easier for people to see Tirica was being led around captive. Most likely, First had hidden the girl wherever she was staying. She could not have arrived in Chogrum too long before Ilsa and her group.

The recorded music fluted in the air. Birds rustled their wings on the rooftop. Ilsa smelled fresh fruit and cured meat rather than powder and blood. Everything seemed warm and safe, compared to the steppe, even in spite of the undercurrent of nervous tension that ran everywhere through the city.

Lemuel plowed ahead of Ilsa through the crowds, using his larger arm to push past people. His black clothes and height made him stand out among the people flowing around him. She followed in his wake, with Okko behind her. Megalli kept pace close to Ilsa’s side.

The four of them were almost to the place, Ilsa realized, where she had sensed Tirica’s spirit the previous night. She held out one arm to stop Okko and then closed her eyes. Tirica’s spirit had gone.

“She’s not here.” Ilsa frowned. She pushed past a few people to catch up to Lemuel. Megalli and Okko followed her.

“What’s wrong, priestess?” asked the Vogmem chieftain.

“Tirica’s gone. First must have moved her.”

Megalli nodded. “Isn’t it odd for someone to want to be called that? First?”

“It is strange, in every culture.” Ilsa took a deep breath and caught a whiff of propellant, and not Chogrumian propellant. This had the auto-launch scent found in ammunition from Ayoch. No shots had been fired so far, but someone in this crowd had a foreign weapon.

“Lemuel,” she said, “Wait.”

He turned just in time for Ilsa to glimpse the towering, hooded form of Kaij Haram over his shoulder, among the Chogrumians. Her eyes went wide. She shoved Lemuel by the chest. He stumbled backward, nearly tripping over himself.

Kaij lunged through the crowd. The huge cavalry sword he had bonded to him slashed out from his palm and toward Ilsa. She produced one of her pistols by instinct and ducked. Her hands worked automatically. She slammed the magazine into the pistol.

A chill fell over the marketplace. Kaij faced her in a gap formed by Lemuel’s stumbling. People drew back from him with cries of warning.

So much for keeping things quiet.

He glared at her over his blade. “Where is Ashnia, priestess? I know you know.”

This close, her gun gave her little, if any, advantage. She had to fight carefully. Yunn must be here too. Someone’s powers were already lowering the temperature on the street. Ilsa’s bet was on Kaij’s twin.

Her eyes followed the glint of Kaij’s blade.

“My sister, priestess. Tell me, or this time you won’t survive.”

Ilsa glared at the big Ayochian. “I can’t tell you.”

He gritted his teeth and swung his blade. The motion was swift. But she had guessed it was coming. Ilsa darted backward and out of reach.

Okko, his lightning lances left in the stable, cried out, a harsh, blood-curdling battle cry as he circled around Ilsa to rush at Kaij from the side.

He slipped on traces of ice as they formed on the surface of the street beneath his feet. Okko fell, dropping a small electric dart he must have concealed somewhere when he left the hotel.

Kaij pursued Ilsa as she fell backward. Her pistol was loaded, but she could not take him down without risking hitting a civilian with a miss or ricochet.

A horn echoed over the street. Ilsa kept her focus on Kaij. Megalli had vanished into the crowd.

Chogrumian soldiers emerged from alleyways ahead and behind Ilsa and Kaij.

He cut at her once, twice, three times. Each time, she fell back further to avoid the cut. The fourth strike caught up with her.

She got the butt of her pistol in the way and deflected the tip of the blade so it slashed along her forearm, opening the clothes and a shallow gash beneath.

Her eyes narrowed with the pain.

Kaij pressed forward. A shadowy shoe, small and in the Chogrumian style snaked out from the crowd. The foot hooked around Kaij’s ankle. He fell forward and caught himself on one knee. Megalli vanished into the crowd again.

Ilsa pointed the pistol at Kaij’s temple. He looked up at her. Hatred seethed in his eyes.

Chogrumian soldiers closed in on them.

Ilsa counted a dozen she could see, but she did not dare turn and give Kaij a chance to attack again.

“Drop the weapons. Hands in the air.”

Ilsa let her pistol fall to the ground at her feet, fully loaded. She raised her hands and met the sergeant’s gaze. A pair of hands grabbed her arms. Another soldier forced her to the ground. She heard radios crackle as the soldiers sent word of the situation to their commanders.

Two more soldiers grabbed Okko, and another pair went for Kaij. As they led Ilsa away, Lemuel followed behind them, but not held by the soldiers. He nodded to her as they passed each other on the way to the nearby security center.

A prisoner in Chogrum. Ilsa could have imagined the day going better.

#

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