Tenlyres Chapter 52 – Asurdeva

This is the penultimate week of the Tenlyres serial. We’re in the middle of the climactic scenes. Enjoy!

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Previous Chapter

The final battle continues…

With or without faith, we humans walk through the night, looking for signs of dawn.

 

Ilsa and Blue looked at the Red Lector’s children around them on the lyre. She still could hardly believe they had arrived to fight beside them, rather than to kill them.

Ashnia regarded Ilsa and Blue coolly, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Siuku completed what healing she could on the prince of Chogrum’s ruined stump of an arm. He lay unconscious, surrounded by his guards.

Lemuel’s jaw hung open. He looked from Kaij to Yunn, to the frozen, headless body of the Gray Lector. The massive Uzan leader had not been able to reach the critical piece just severed by Kaij’s blade.

Ashnia grimaced between the strings at the battle raging beyond the lyre.

“The fight isn’t over,” said Blue.

Kaij lowered his sword and put a hand on Ashnia’s shoulder. She closed her eyes. “General Kanan is still alive.”

“Not for long.” Kaij’s lips drew back in a snarl. “He’ll pay for killing our father.” He looked down at the Gray Lector’s body. “Just like this one.”

Ashnia opened her eyes, facing the battlefield. “Not if I beat you to him, brother.”

Ilsa stared at the Ayochians. “You’re all here for revenge?”

Yunn turned toward her in the saddle. “Your cause didn’t sway us. If that’s your question?”

Siuku rose unsteadily from beside the unconscious prince. “Either way, we are on the same side for now.”

“Right.” Ilsa grunted. As much as she hated to admit the Ayochians had saved her life, she knew it was true.

Kaij glared at her. “For now.”

Blue eyed Ashnia. “Do you sense that?”

“Sense what?” asked Ilsa.

“Reach out,” said Blue. “Ashnia, this was the Gray Lector, but their god is still unbound. He is on his way here.”

Beside Ilsa, Lemuel found his words. “Asurdeva is a god. What does a god look like?”

Ilsa closed her eyes and breathed deep, focusing her spirit senses. The oppressive scale of the spirit she had first sensed moving from the center of the plateau while she had been in Chogrum, threatened to blanket the entire lyre and all the armies around it. Heavy. Choking. She opened her eyes with a gasp for air.

Lemuel touched her arm. “Are you alright?”

“Blue is right,” she said. “Asurdeva is here.”

Siuku glowered across the lyre. “He is not the only one.”

First stood beside Black Powder on the other side of the strings. The two mercenaries both held their bonded pistols. Ilsa’s eyes narrowed and she stared at them. A cackling sound echoed over the battlefield as if the lyre itself was laughing. Ilsa covered one ear with her free hand. The other still held a song pistol with two bullets left loaded.

A shadow drifted overhead. A slim shape plunged downward and landed on Black Powder’s side of the lyre. Tirica Chollush, her eyes wide open and gleaming, stared at Ilsa, a sardonic grin on her face. When she spoke, the tone and inflection were completely unlike Lemuel’s sister. “It’s good to be home. I always liked the east best.”

“She’s betrayed you,” said Kaij. His sword withdrew into the bond on his hand. He raised a pistol in the other.

“Wait,” Ilsa shouted.

Lemuel rushed toward Kaij.

Too late.

Kaij shot Tirica twice in the chest. Her frame buckled with each impact. Ilsa stared, never doubting the two bullet’s deadly accuracy.

A low rumble shook the lyre from within.

“Good aim, child,” said Tirica in the same odd and amused tone. Her face was hidden by the veil of her hair. The bullets fell onto the lyre’s base, rattling against eternal stone. “But it will take more than that to harm this vessel.”

“You mean—”

“I am Asurdeva, children. You may have stopped my Uzan, for now, but that matters not. You cannot destroy my vessel.”

“What do you want?” Ilsa locked eyes with Tirica as the girl raised her head.

The gaze of Asurdeva was as cold and lethal as Yunn’s ice.

“You will understand, Ilsa. Because you are the work of my greatest disciple.”

First smirked and trained her pistol on Siuku.

Black Powder bowed his head and sank to one knee. “You do me too much honor, master.”

“All glory is mine. But I will share it with my chosen ones. Those marked with my seal upon their souls.”

The brand on Ilsa’s hand burned with sudden pain. It hurt as if the scar was still fresh from the fire.

Her fingers tightened. She glared at Tirica and her father. Last winter she had not believed her mother could see spirits, but now she had to contend with a god just as new to her. With the revelation of the spirits, though, she might have a way to fight back. She had to resist.

“Don’t be afraid, Ilsa,” said Asurdeva. “This is the moment where you’re precious Unification becomes reality. The ripples of my disciples, empowered by your father, will reach out from within. And the bonded will conquer this world at my will.”

First sneered, but made no sound.

Black Powder returned to his feet. “Ilsa, do not fight now. The song you played did more than seal the Uzan, it empowered our bonds. We will complete the work of Asurdeva together.”

She clenched her teeth. “I thought you didn’t believe in Unification?”

“I don’t. Not as can be achieved by mortals.” Her father’s gaze locked with hers. “The war we are about to begin is the triumph all of history has been leading toward since the Three delayed it all those millennia ago.”

Ilsa’s brands glowed with inner light. She dropped the song pistol in her hand and conjured her own guns. The most vital of her instincts were silent, leaving only thoughts to run through her head. Total control of her own body. Total awareness of every heartbeat, every breath, every step as she walked toward Asurdeva and her father.

The others stood, frozen. Kaij screamed from behind her, but the sound seemed far away.

“No lesser bonds will join us. Only the chosen,” said Asurdeva.

Ilsa slipped between the strings of the lyre and approached the place where Tirica stood under Asurdeva’s control.

First’s branded hands glowed with inner light.

Her father reached for her, sleeve falling back to reveal an arm marked by countless brands from palm to elbow. Every one of them glowed in a pattern that signified a spirit bond.

“Don’t fight us, Ilsa,” he said.

She glared into Tirica’s eyes. “Snap out of it,” she said through her teeth. “Tirica, you didn’t agree to this. I know you didn’t.”

“The vessel need not be willing,” said Asurdeva. “All I require is a bond to the spirit to take control.”

Ilsa’s heart pounded.

She raised her pistol and pressed it to Tirica’s forehead.

“That isn’t loaded,” said the god.

“Like it would matter if it was,” said First with a snort. “Give up, kid.”

“A bullet cannot harm the god of weapons. And that,” said Asurdeva, “Is what I am.” She reached for Ilsa and caressed her cheek with her unbonded hand.

Tirica had only one bonded weapon. What would happen if that brand was disrupted? Ilsa’s thoughts ran with the rest of her awareness, ever onward, ever closer to chaos.

Blue’s mental touch plucked the thought gently from Ilsa’s stream of consciousness

Tirica’s hand pressed to her cheek. “You must know the moments when not to fight, child.” Her lips parted in a lurid smile. “Now is the ultimate moment.”

This is the moment.

This is the moment.

The moment to act.

Ilsa lowered her pistol and reached up and gripped Tirica’s wrist. She closed her eyes. “You may be right,” she said. “Please. Show me mercy, Asurdeva.” She tried to fight but her own voice sounded reverent. Unwilling, but obedient.

Asurdeva brushed the hair from Ilsa’s brow with her fingertips. Her other hand rose to cup Ilsa’s face.

“Child, what kind of god would I be if I could not forgive a convert?” Tirica’s forehead pressed to Ilsa’s. Her hands raised over her head, arms spread wide and open.

Ilsa opened her eyes and met Tirica’s, now lit by the glow of the weapon bond from Tirica’s hand.

An arrow flew in silence until it hit the center of the brand with a bloody, painful-sounding, thunk. The light on the brand flickered and went out. Tirica lowered her arms and howled in pain, clutching at her mangled hand.

On the other side of the lyre’s strings, Siuku lowered her bow with deliberate slowness. And the spell of Asurdeva’s will broke as surely as the bond had been broken by the wound torn in Tirica’s hand.

“How dare you, infidel?” roared Asurdeva in Tirica’s voice. “You think you can trap me in this body?”

Siuku and Blue exchanged glances.

“Which one of us are you talking about?” asked Blue.

“If you will not unify in my war, you will perish before me!”

Tirica’s unwounded fist crashed into Ilsa’s stomach with such force, Ilsa’s feet left the stone of the lyre. She flew backward and rebounded from unyielding strings with a cry of pain. A series of shocks ran along her spine.

“Black Powder,” said Asurdeva. “Destroy these mortals.”

Her father raised both hands, a pistol in each fist. “As you command, master.”

Ilsa rolled onto her side and loaded her pistol with a magazine from her belt.

Black Powder and First took aim and began to fire over her head. Screams cries, and return fire answered them.

Ilsa got to her knees and took aim. First saw Ilsa targeting Black Powder and whirled to shoot her. Ilsa threw herself forward and rolled, trading misses with First.

She found her feet behind Tirica and right of her father who’s guns continued to speak. Ilsa and First faced each other down, just a meter away from each other. Pistols found the aim.

“You really are hopeless,” said First.

Ilsa grunted and they each took their shots.

Ilsa shuddered with the sound of the guns so close to her on either side.

First fell to her knees, then collapsed onto the base.

No pain. There was no pain.

“It doesn’t hurt, does it?” First looked up at Ilsa’s from at her feet. “Why doesn’t it hurt?” The woman’s eyes rolled back into her head. Blood ran from the hole in her chest. Ilsa turned to focus on her father.

He raised his eyebrows.

“Looks like she missed,” he said. “First may have been my first apprentice, but she was still just an apprentice.”

Tirica marched across the center of the lyre toward the others behind Ilsa. She could not tell if any of them had been killed by her father’s shots. Her senses narrowed and she focused only on Black Powder.

Then, Tirica reached the strings and plucked them in tune, using the strength granted by the power of Asurdeva.

Reality trembled.

Ilsa and her father still faced each other, just a few meters apart. The battlefield, the flowering ground around the lyre had vanished from view. They stood, surrounded in pure light.

Their weapons were still in their hands.

Father and daughter moved toward their triggers at once.

Ilsa faced Black Powder. Father. She hesitated at the last instant. So did he. Their fingers hovered by the triggers.

He said, “I’ll take no pleasure in killing you, daughter.”

She glared down the barrel of her weapon. Words had always been useless with him. “Even if you kill me, you won’t win. You’re alone in this.”

He shook his head. “Wrong, Ilsa. Asurdeva’s song is everything.”

The notes reverberated within the walls of light that surrounded the lyre. Ilsa gritted her teeth and kept her gun trained on her father. “Why serve this thing? This god doesn’t care about you.”

“And the Three care about you? Ilsa, they abandoned the world. They are worth nothing to humanity.”

“Do your monsters care? They kill without a second of hesitation.”

Her father smirked. “I chose this path, Ilsa. I led you to it, but I can’t save you. You have to do that yourself.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?” Ilsa’s finger trembled outside the trigger guard. “Your god is using that innocent girl—That girl you tortured, as his slave.”

“A vessel of the divine. Such an honor is more than she could have ever hoped for in her past life.”

“If she was one of your fanatics, you would be right. She is not one of yours.”

“The subject must desire power, or the divine could not manifest.”

“Don’t tell me she gave up her mind by choice.”

“Gave up? No, the process is one of bonding with Asurdeva. Something you will never experience thanks to the Keeper of Tenlyres. Her, I will relish destroying.”

“I won’t give you that chance.”

“Then stop me. If you can.”

She shot first. The bullet deflected off the stock of a shotgun Black Powder drew from his sleeve. The shot made no sound compared to the song Asurdeva continued to play. Ilsa aimed for the knee. The same shotgun’s barrel stopped that shot.

“You’re slow.”

She grunted and twisted her wrist to shoot him in the shoulder. He darted back and the bullet flew into the light at the lyre’s edge. She swung her other hand out and conjured her machine gun. He danced backward and loaded the shotgun with deft hands.

She shot at one hand, but the gun’s whirling steel stock deflected that one too. He dove to one side and sprayed shot at Ilsa. She ducked, but still tasted blood as a trio of pellets sliced across her temple. Red droplets swam in front of her vision, but the pain that went with it simply had to be ignored.

Ilsa slammed the magazine into her machine gun. She circled her father, moving away from the lyre’s strings and the source of the oppressive song. Tirica—Asurdeva—plucked the strings of the lyre with apparent ease. No human hand could manage that much strength. She stood at the center of the lyre, the arrow that had broken the seal on her hand discarded behind her.

“Do not ignore me.” Black Powder’s next blast opened a cluster of small wounds in Ilsa’s shoulder.

She jerked backward but kept her grip on her machine gun. She sent a burst in his direction. Four shots. Two in the air. One on the shotgun. One on his other arm. Blood flew from his sleeve.

On the other side of the strings, Blue and Siuku crawled toward Tirica, keeping their heads down.

She had to make sure Black Powder did not make time for them, even if it meant giving him better chances to hit her. Ilsa aimed high, then low, then targeted his center of mass with the third shot. He avoided every bullet but had to dodge back and duck low.

Siuku crouched across the strings from Tirica and reached out to touch the girl’s leg between the vibrating metallic strands. Blue held the keeper’s other hand. They were going to attempt a mental attack. Ilsa had to give them time to drive out Asurdeva, if they could even come close to fighting the spirit of a god.

She and her father traded shots, both evasive. Ilsa’s wounded shoulder and bleeding forehead began to dog her movements. She darted to one side and he emptied the last shotgun blast into thin air.

Her machine gun spent its last shot in a futile effort. She tossed it away and drew her second pistol. On the run, she loaded the weapon.

The song surrounded her. The light intensified to blinding white. Standing, his silhouette dark against the walls of brightness, Black Powder faced her, a pistol in each hand. He was breathing hard, showing his age.

I have a chance, she thought. If I can exhaust him I can win. She kept evading, shooting.

Asurdeva howled with rage behind Ilsa’s back. The song began to slow.

“No!” Black Powder’s lips drew back in a snarl. “He must not be stopped.”

Ilsa grimaced at him. “If two humans can stop your god, how powerful can he be?”

“Damn you, step aside,” Black Powder’s voice came out as a whisper. He raised both pistols and stalked forward, firing.

One of the bullets blasted through Ilsa’s already wounded shoulder. Lances of pain jabbed down from the earlier spots of damage and toward her chest. The other bullet went over her head.

Ilsa staggered toward him a step and returned fire. Her shot rent the collar of his coat and went out the back. Blood flecked his face and chin. He stumbled for a moment, eyes wild, then charged at Ilsa. His weapons blazed.

But he moved slower now.

She lost one gun to a pair of impacts on its barrel. She dodged to one side, pain flaring in her shoulder and chest. Hot blood ran into her eyes. One of his gun barrel’s snaked out and painfully connected with her jaw. She fell backward and hit the strings beside Tirica. Her world spun as she emptied the pistol into Black Powder, point blank.

Asurdeva’s scream ended. Tirica sank to the ground beside Ilsa. A heavy thump and gasp of escaping breath told her Black Powder had fallen, though she could not focus on anything but the window of sky visible through the center of the walls of light. She sagged down, pain coursing through her.

Siuku and Blue knelt down beside her. Soothing hands began to heal Ilsa’s wounds.

“You’re alive,” said Blue.

“So are you,” Ilsa murmured, still dizzy.

The echoes of the song began to fade. And the walls of light fractured into motes of chaos. She closed her eyes against the glare.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 50 – Heights of Fear

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Previous Chapter

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Ilsa glanced at Siuku. The keeper stepped forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Black Powder has them,” said Ilsa.

Siuku nodded. “That is true.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chieftain grunted, then fell silent.

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

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

“Insult them,” she said.

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

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

“Explain,” said Siuku.

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

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

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

“No,” said Lemuel. “No, Ilsa.”

“Lemuel, I know I can beat him.”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll do it,” said Cass Kalteri.

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

“Cass,” Ilsa said. “Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ilsa felt her eyes narrow.

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

“No me!”

Then a few broke into gales of laughter.

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

First.

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

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

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

Ilsa glanced at Blue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready?”

“I am.”

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

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

“O-one.”

Cass shifted her feet, both hands free.

“Two.”

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

“Three.”

Black Powder spat onto the grass between them.

“Four.”

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

“Five.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cass staggered and fell.

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

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

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

Ilsa prayed the song pistols were worth it.

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

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

 

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 48 – Distant Shadows

Tim here everybody.

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

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

 

In the battle, Ilsa suddenly finds herself transported beyond the fray.

 

There could be any number of gods, far more gods than those we know and worship.

 

Where was she?

Ilsa lashed out. She kicked the red-haired man twice, first in the groin, then in the chest. He rolled off of her and onto the floor of some sort of armored personnel carrier. Ilsa’s nostrils burned, and her palm was even hotter with pain where she had grabbed the blast seal. She gritted her teeth and sat up.

She looked at the groaning red-headed mercenary. His blast-sealed coat and explosive vest were gone, but otherwise, he seemed the same. She drew a pistol from her agonized right hand. He scrambled onto his knees.

She finished loading and killed him with a bullet to the heart that knocked him on his back. She pressed her back against the hot metal of the wall behind her and panted for breath. Part of her was surprised to still be alive, despite what she had learned about blast-seal transportation.

She checked her palm, and found light burn marks where she had grabbed the seal, but nothing as extreme as the brand, and nothing to disrupt her weapon bond. She grimaced and got to her feet within the unmoving vehicle.

Wherever they were, no one had come running at the sound of her gunshot.

Ilsa found a hatch in the roof at the front of the personnel carrier, behind the vacant driver’s seat. She climbed up the ladder, bearing the pain in her hand, and from the near miss that still had blood trickling down her forehead.

The hatch opened with a circular wheel-lock. She turned the wheel slowly, then opened the hatch. It went up with a creak of rust. Ilsa peered out the top of the vehicle and saw dark shapes on the horizon under the sun that looked to be in about the same position as the area she had left.

The vehicle she stood in was definitely Ayochian and bore the defaced symbols of the Red Lector, and the Queen of Ayoch. Painted over those symbols were long gray lines.

There were four other vehicles just like the one Ilsa had arrived in. All looked worse for wear on the steppe grass around her. Black Powder had built a retreat point with tanks and personnel carriers. Ilsa shook her head and looked east.

The dark shapes on the horizon looked like the Uzan artillery and judging by the position of the sun, and the train of vehicles stretching toward the steel-black flowers, she was a ride of an hour or two from Atalem and the battle.

Smoke billowed high from somewhere in the line of artillery. Hopefully, the others could destroy the war machines. They would have to do it without her, given how far away she had been transported.

She clenched her fist, then winced and opened it again at the pain. The burnt skin had opened up in a few places while she had climbed, and blood ran to her wrist. She wiped her bloody brow with the back of her other hand, and then pulled herself onto the top of the vehicle as quietly as she could manage.

South of her, she spotted another cluster of the same sort of vehicles a few kilometers away.

Her ears were still ringing. She could scarcely tell if there were sounds nearby or not. She climbed back inside and bandaged her head with a strip of antiseptic cloth from the vehicle’s medical kit. She wished she could wrap her hand, but could not manage it without inhibiting the summoning of her bonded weapons.

As her hearing recovered little by little, she lurched back up the ladder. More smoke billowed on the horizon, both at the Uzan artillery, as well as in the village and north of Atalem. She could not tell who was winning from this distance.

She heard groans and screams, followed by a few soothing whispers in response from somewhere nearby. She thought it sounded too clear to be from one of the other vehicles.

Ilsa crouched atop the personnel carrier and listened, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from.

She turned and spotted a shape limping across the grass, dripping blood from a shattered arm. The remains of a blast-seal vest hung about his shoulders. Not far from the cluster of stopped vehicles was a group of wounded mercenaries with medics moving between them. They did not appear to have noticed Ilsa.

She crept to the end of the vehicle opposite the medics and lowered herself over the side. Then, she dropped down onto the grass. A glance around each corner told her no one was watching. She took the left side because her right hand was wounded, and she could better handle the shooting cross-ways. She kept her left pistol ready and made her way toward the medics and wounded.

The same voice as before drifted to her. It was far too familiar. She pressed her back to the side of the carrier and glanced toward the groaning sprawled forms. A few unwounded people moved among them. There were only two medics, Ilsa noticed. The third and final member of the group stood with her back to the wounded, watching the distant artillery.

She turned as Ilsa started moving toward them again.

“Tirica?” Ilsa said, unable to stop her curious voice.

She was far enough away, and around twenty wounded mercenaries made some sound between them. Ilsa cringed back against the side of the vehicle. Neither Tirica or the medics appeared to notice her.

But there was no mistake. She had found Tirica.

She dropped into a low crouch and then made her way to the corner of the vehicle closest to the medics. She kept her gaze on them all the while. Tirica walked among the wounded.

She wore a uniform jacket of the same sort the Red Lector’s troops had used, unbuttoned completely down the front. Beneath that, her clothes were pale gray. She carried no weapons, but her hands weren’t tied either.

The wounded looked mostly to be in too bad of shape to fight, and the medics were using hypodermic injectors to administer some kind of anesthetic. Many of the wounded were unconscious.

Ilsa scowled and stepped out from the vehicle’s shadow, pistol in hand. She trained the gun on one of the medics and advanced.

The other medic spotted her first and pointed with a finger, calling a warning. The one she had under the gun turned toward her and then dropped his syringe in surprise.

“Who are you?” he asked. “How did you get here?”

Ilsa held up her burned hand toward them. “Don’t move, and I won’t kill you.”

Tirica turned toward her. “Ilsa? How?”

“You know a red-haired mercenary guy?” Ilsa said. “He brought me with him.”

Both medics stared at Ilsa, eyes wide. “We are unarmed and unbonded,” said one of them. “Please, don’t shoot.”

Ilsa glanced between them, but her sense of spirits told her more than one of the mercenaries on the ground had bonds. That was no surprise. What was off made Ilsa’s brow furrow.

Tirica carried a bonded rifle in her spirit.

“Tirica,” she said. “What happened to you?”

“First left me here,” said Tirica, “She told me to stay put when she went to fight.”

“Right…” Ilsa’s gaze met Tirica’s. “And what about your rifle?”

“They took it away when they caught me. I wish I had it now.”

A lie. She had the weapon to call to hand. Ilsa smelled a hint of ammunition on her.

“Don’t insult me. You aren’t a prisoner anymore, are you?”

Tirica’s eyes narrowed. “How could you tell?”

“Black Powder wouldn’t have bonded your weapon to you if you were.”

Tirica growled a warning to the medics. She raised her hand and the rifle appeared in her grip. Its broken scope had been removed, but there was no mistaking it as the same weapon Ilsa had seen Tirica with all the way back at the Western Lyre.

Ilsa aimed at a spot near Tirica as the girl finished loading.

“Why did you let him do this to you?”

“Why did you?”

“I was a child.”

“And I didn’t have a choice. They… hurt me.”

“Tirica, don’t shoot. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Like you didn’t want to hurt Melinda?”

Tears threatened Ilsa’s eyes. “I gave her as many chances as I could.”

“So you killed her because you had to?”

“Yes, I killed her…” Ilsa choked back a sob. “I had no choice.”

“You always have a choice. After we left Chogrum, I made a choice.” Tirica’s eyes narrowed as her finger found the trigger of her rifle. “I won’t be helpless anymore.” Tirica took her shot.

Ilsa darted away laterally as Tirica’s gun roared.

The bullet grazed her side. It ripped through, spilling blood and spreading pain. She gasped, barely able to believe Tirica had shot her.

She turned, blood dripping from her side, just in time to see a wounded mercenary scramble up with a pistol. She killed the man with a single shot.

Others screamed, or writhed in their own private pain and fear. The medics raced for weapons. Ilsa faced Tirica.

“Let me help you.”

“You couldn’t before.” Tirica pulled back the slide on her rifle, ejecting the spent shell casing. She aimed at Ilsa. “I’m done counting on you.”

“I swore to your brother I’d save you.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Tears ran down Tirica’s cheeks. “Time to go.”

The medics and more of the walking wounded drew weapons.

Ilsa started to fire, dodging and weaving.

She fell back toward the personnel carriers, killing mercenaries when she wasn’t avoiding return shots. She sheltered behind one metal hull, her burnt hand clamped to her wounded side.

One of the medics lurched around the corner. She swept his legs with hers. He fell, and his gun went off. The bullet roared and shot across Ilsa’s calf. Pain exploded through her leg and she lurched to one side.

Her weapon spoke. The medic pitched backward in a heap. Her pant-leg began to soak up blood. She looked to the side of the personnel carrier, frantic.

There, she spotted the collapsible ladder leading up to the top. Her hand snaked out and she pulled the ladder out. Then, she began to climb, unable to ignore the pain in her leg. At least the leg made her bleeding hand easier to forget.

She threw herself onto the top of the vehicle. Tirica’s bullet whined off the roof beside her.

She really will kill me if I let her, Ilsa thought.

She crawled to the hatch on the front end of the carrier and twisted the wheel to open it. The hatch popped and Ilsa swung her legs over the side to drop down.

Her boots landed on the floor of the carrier. She managed to stay moving, despite the blood flowing into one of them. She glanced back and found the door sealed. Ilsa slid into the seat behind the wheel.

She started the machine by pulling out the drive rod. The bioelectric engine sparked. She hit the pedal and the machine began to trundle forward. Dark spots swam before Ilsa’s eyes and her head felt light. Bullets pinged off the carrier’s hull but did little damage to the armored vehicle.

She crushed the pedal and leaned on her wounded leg. She headed toward Atalem as fast as she could, jamming the pedal with her machine gun’s stock, so she could go back to bandage her leg. She barely made it to the emergency kit at all. It’s place stood empty, taken by some desperate soldier no doubt.

Ilsa sank to the floor of the vehicle, knowing the time she had with her machine gun moving the vehicle forward would be measured in seconds if she did not take its place.

She tore a strip of cloth from the hole torn at her side. At least the wound there was shallow. She made a bandage for her leg and lurched back to the front to keep driving.

She pushed forward toward Atalem until her head grew too light. Then she climbed down under the wheel. This way she hoped to keep pressing the pedal even if she fell unconscious. If she was lucky the Chogrumian forces would not simply destroy the vehicle without looking inside it first.

Her mind wandered. Lemuel’s spirit seemed close. So close. She prayed he had survived the battle so far. And she rode the vehicle into the shadows.

 

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 47 – Memory Flowers

Tim here everybody.

Despite some computer troubles that delayed the latest episode of Alive After Reading, I’m back again with the latest episode of Tenlyres.

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa and her allies have returned to the village of Atalem as terrible enemies approach from the west. Battle is close.

 

 

What we remember from the past is our guide and our anchor.

 

As dawn broke, the fury of battle drew closer to the village. Filami were not warriors, but Oshomi and Chogrumian forces surrounded them, to protect them from oncoming Uzan and the warriors from Black Powder’s assembled mercenary companies.

Ilsa prepared her weapons, fully loaded. She found her horse and whispered in the animal’s ear. “I’m sorry for the risk I took yesterday. I’ll do my best to protect you from now on.” And for everyone else on my side, human and animal, the same promise stands.

She glowered into the rising sun, and for a moment remembered the way the same light had filtered through the curtains in her mother’s room at the hospital. She remembered how she envied the way her mother looked like the other Dalites. Ilsa’s more severe features seemed better suited to this battle.

A natural environment for her would be a hell to anyone else. This was her element, the heat of the fray. But if all that was true, then why was she afraid? For the first time since Tirica had been captured, she could not answer that question easily. She was not worried only for herself and her friends, but also for people she did not know.

Complexity could slow her down. Being slow could get her killed today. That must not happen.

She could not allow herself to fight like she had nothing to lose. She knew she had so much to lose now. And to save those people and the feelings they shared with her, she would take what she had to take from the enemy.

Her skills would not fail her unless she let them. And she would not let them, she prayed. She waged the mental fight to stay alive through the day’s approaching struggle.

Ilsa looked north, trying to see past the pieces of Chogrumian artillery on crawling gun carriages that had arrived the previous night. She was trying to see the shelter the Filami villagers had built with the help of the allies troops. Lemuel was there with them to protect him from the battle.

If the buildings in the village survived a single bombardment from the massive Uzan weapons, Ilsa would be surprised. She offered a short prayer of thanks to Hathani for the forethought that had led the villagers to abandon their homes so they could save their lives. A few allied warriors were still stationed within Atalem, but mostly the place had become a ghost town.

Ilsa’s fears built in her, as she turned her horse to join a unit of steppe nomads and volunteer militia riders from Chogrum. She caught up with Cass in the lead of the fifty mounted fighters.

“How do you feel?” the other priestess asked.

Ilsa glanced at Cass. “Today is gonna be redder than your hair. And we’re in the thick of it.”

“You’re worried?”

Ilsa nodded. “It almost feels good to admit it.”

Ferdinand rode alongside them on his white strider. He held a javelin in each hand. “The generals say we’re to head east, to outflank their big guns.”

“Good plan,” said Cass. “Destroy the artillery.”

“Like we did in the pass.”

Ferdinand looked toward the few towering, oddly broad-peaked silhouettes of the Uzan artillery set up around the Flowering Lyre. “Those are a bit bigger than the guns Ayoch brought to the mountains.”

“You think those could be the same guns they used to chase us to the pass?” asked Cass.

“Let’s hope they are. Then they might not have anything bigger waiting in the wings.”

The troops with them wheeled toward the southeast and rode out. Ilsa checked her weapons and remembered how her father had trained her to use them.

 

She had hated him then, though not as much as she came to hate him later. Her father took her out to the steppe to bond her to the weapons she would carry in her spirit for the rest of her life. There, he began to teach her to shoot in synchronization with them. The burns were still fresh on her hands when she first summoned her pistols. She learned. Though she had never held a gun before, the bonds helped the skills come naturally to her.

“Always aim for the heart,” he told her after she began to hit the targets. “That’s the surest way to stop an enemy.” He touched a finger to a place just over his, then guided her hand to the same spot on herself.

“And that will kill them.” She rubbed her eyes with one hand. They were red and irritated because she had been crying on the ride from the city.

“Yes,” he said. “But don’t think of it that way. The spirit is immortal, Ilsa. But it connects to the body here.” He touched his heart again. “Don’t be afraid to sever that connection if you have reason to shoot.”

She nodded, then rubbed at her eyes again. “What if I don’t want to kill them?”

“Then don’t pull the trigger.”

Don’t pull the trigger.

Don’t pull the trigger.

Don’t—

 

The cavalry around Ilsa wheeled to face west. Mostly they rode horses like her, but a few were on runners. They accelerated toward the Uzan guns as the huge weapons fired their first volley. Shells whistled over the village on their way toward the Chogrumian forces beyond.

The Chogrumian general had anticipated being outgunned. His artillery answered with air-bursting shells that sent shrapnel scything through the airborne Uzan weapons. The order to fire appeared to have been well-timed. All but one of the Uzan shells burst high above the Chogrumian troops, saving the artillery from most of the damage they would have done.

One shell struck the ground full force. Ilsa could tell by how the ground trembled, even kilometers away. She did not want to imagine how much damage just one of the shells had done to the Chogrumian battery’s ability to counter-fire.

“We have to get in there,” she said. “Who knows how many of those shots the big guns can take.”

“Not many,” muttered Cass.

Ferdinand nodded, his face grim. He urged his strider into the lead of the cavalry. Cass followed him, and Ilsa was not far behind.

For once, Cass had fewer words than Ilsa. Even back at Saint Banyeen’s Garden, all those years ago, that had rarely happened.

 

High Priestess Julia Uopemm had taught Ilsa and Cass’s class the art of composing sermons herself. She walked along the rows of students in the silent reflection between lectures. The class always took place early in the morning, and when the the weather allowed, outside in Saint Banyeen’s hidden garden. When a student dozed in the light of the rising sun the High Priestess’s wooden staff would lash out and snap them on the shoulder. These strikes kept everyone attentive, though they were not the only source of sound that day.

Someone had started a fight on the street nearest the south side of Saint Banyeen’s, and Ilsa heard screams and shouts of rage in the early morning air. She sat near Cass, trying to focus on the words in her head, the words of the sermon she was composing. It was based on the lesson read at the start of class by the gray light of dawn.

Ilsa did not dare listen for any clue of the cause of the fighting, or for a hint of its resolution. That’s how it had always been back then. She had listened to her own voice more than the outside world. Not until she was expelled from Saint Banyeen’s did she look at the world and see things as others did, as fact and substance rather than a distant world of stark shadow.

Father’s wickedness.

Mother’s madness.

Ilsa’s pain.

The high priestess’s staff touched her shoulder, but not with the force of a blow, not even one of admonition. “Open your eyes, child. You will see the truth.”

 

Ilsa kept her eyes open as the horses and runners thundered into a charge against the massive Uzan artillery. As they rode closer to the weapon stationed furthest westward, Ilsa felt tense with fear. Each war machine was easily eight stories high, and at least forty meters across at the launcher. At the top, broad shields like flower petals fanned out from the weapon’s center.

Simultaneously she felt the urge to stare. Uzan patrolled the ground around it, but with them were mercenaries and the troops from Ayoch who had betrayed the Red Lector to his death in Howling Pass. Ilsa’s guns felt heavy in her hands, though she only held her pistols.

She shouted to the others, “Mar the name of the Uzan, then kill them.”

The reminder was answered with shouts of agreement. All these riders knew it already.

Cass and Ferdinand caught up with her, weapons readied. A few of the Oshomi alongside them produced lightning lances. Within twenty meters, a roll of thunder from the Uzan guns hiding the sound of their charge, Ilsa and the others opened fire. Lightning and bullets. Arrows and shot.

The thin line of defenders around the gun fell away, returning fire. A few of the mercenaries in the forward troops burst with grenade blasts when wounded.

Ferdinand swept to the southwest, circling the gun on his white strider. His lance impaled an Uzan through the name of Asurdeva on its skull. The abomination went limp. Cass covered the Chogrumian adventurer. She killed any human or monster who took aim at him.

Ilsa rode her steed to the east, looking up at the massive central chamber of the war-machine, like the hollow stem of a black-blooming flower. The guards fell back to the weapon’s massive base, where huge treads were fenced in by countless insect-like legs, each as tall as a horse, even with their points dug into the ground.

More Uzan emerged from the gaps between the legs.

They doubled the strength of the defenders in an instant. A bolt of lightning jagged from an Oshomi lance into a group of Uzan, leaping between them and then up into the weapon carriage itself. Ilsa drew close and shot the stunned monsters. Two shots each, far easier when they were not shooting back. She wounded others that aimed at her friends, but she knew she could not protect everyone.

Riders fell around her. She cringed close to her horse’s saddle. Most of the mercenaries lay dead or had activated blast seals in their clothes and vanished. Those humans that remained ran along the walkways that ringed the war machine’s launching mechanism. Ilsa rode toward them.

She would not allow them to take another shot.

Words from Koor flashed into her mind, words she remembered all too well. “You have more to lose than you think.”

He had been right, after all, at least about that. Ilsa thought of Lemuel, of Blue, of all her friends. She gritted her teeth and charged toward the heart of the ominous weapon.

She wounded an Uzan targeting her as she drew closer, but missed the name of the god on his head. He stumbled backward, drunkenly, blood leaking from the wound in his temple.

Ilsa glared up at the war machine’s belly, seeking for a way to stop the next shell from being loaded.

She grunted with pain as a bullet grazed her shoulder. She immediately found the spirit of the man who had shot her.

He had red hair and a stocky build. He also wore a coat with a blast seal as an emblem on his back. The mercenary stood atop one of the walkways halfway up the launching chamber.

She shot at him with a pistol but at such range and angle she miscalculated. The bullet struck a railing. Her horse carried her under him. That would make the next shot easier if it could get through the interlocking mesh of the walkway.

Ferdinand shouted a warning. Two Uzan surged toward Ilsa from either side. She jumped to a standing position in the saddle. “Retreat,” she said to the animal, then jumped onto the top of the artillery’s nearest tread.

The Uzan’s bullets ripped through the air around her. A few ricocheted off the walkway. That gave her a clue as to the metal’s toughness.

She whirled and shot one Uzan lethally, through the center of the name of Asurdeva. Another took Ferdinand’s javelin through the back and spun around. Just in time for Cass’s machine gun to destroy the monster’s whole head, the name of its god and all.

The remaining Uzan retreated toward cover. Ilsa glanced up at the walkway. The redheaded mercenary was gone, as sure as Ilsa’s horse fled back the way they had charged. She had not been sure the animal would understand her. She was glad to see it had.

She scrambled over the guards that topped the legs and treads until she found the bottom of a low walkway. It sloped upward. Ferdinand and Cass caught up behind her.

“We need to find a way to stop this thing,” said Ilsa.

“Before it fires again,” said Cass. “I know.”

Ferdinand glanced to their side where another shell slammed into the chamber sideways. “Sh-shit, w-we’d better hurry.”

His stutter told Ilsa how seriously he took the massive weapon. She nodded, and then turned and raced up the walkway. A heavy clunk echoed from within the firing chamber as she ran.

She prayed she would be fast enough, even as she scanned for enemies on the walkways. Most had descended to fight on the ground. She saw no Uzan until she reached the top of the flower-like launcher’s black petals.

A volley of bullets and shot sliced through the air and would have killed her had she not thrown herself flat. One pellet sliced across her head. Blood dripped down her brow, and a few hairs cut loose drifted onto the metal floor in front of her.

Ignoring the pain, she climbed to her knees. She retaliated with both weapons and killed the Uzan. Two shots from each pistol ripped through the monster’s head and chest. Ferdinand and Cass caught up with her as she got to her feet.

“You’re hit,” said Cass.

“Never mind me. Find whoever is about to pull the trigger on this thing.”

Ferdinand looked around the top of the launcher, with its six curving metal shields radiating from the ten-meter wide firing chamber. Ilsa spotted a group of mercenaries and Uzan climbing up the other side. A roar ignited below, and the shell screamed upward.

In a split second, Ilsa seized her machine gun grip. “Get down,” she shouted, but her words were drowned out as the shell began rose.

The smell of ancient propellant filled her nose as the shell cleared the launcher’s flower.

It looked similar to the transportation shell that had landed on the plains and broken the ground open while they had been riding toward the mountains.

That meant it had fuel to change direction. Somewhere inside that metallic shell, was something extremely volatile. And it smelled that way.

She breathed deep, seeking for nuances of different intensity. Then, she closed her eyes and sought for spirit. She aimed, eyes open. She glimpsed the bulge of a fuel tank under a small wing as the shell rocketed upward. Forty meters away. She gripped the machine gun in both hands and fired one shot.

Fifty meters up, the shell’s propellant ignited in the tank. A massive explosion rocked the launcher. Debris spiraled and scythed and lashed the war machine below. Ilsa pitched onto the metal surface of the shield beneath her. More than half-deafened in that moment, she rolled onto her back and looked up at the blazing ruins, spinning east over the steppe, trailing black smoke.

Cass crawled to her side. “You alright?”

Ilsa put a hand to her ringing ear. The wound in her scalp burned.

“Let’s make sure I don’t have to do that again.” Her own voice sounded distant.

Ferdinand pointed toward the Uzan and mercenaries on the far side of the launcher’s top. They were still recovering from the blast. Ilsa stood up and marched toward them. Her machine gun punched one Uzan off the side. He fell with inaudible fury on his lips.

She spun to face the mercenaries and found the red-haired man facing her, one hand on his mouth and a pistol in his grip. They traded shots unevenly, both missing while the launcher rocked beneath them with the impacts of falling wreckage.

He raced toward her, throwing away his empty pistol and pulling a knife with his other hand. He knocked away the barrel of her gun. They collided. She staggered over backward. His knife stabbed toward her neck, only for a shadow to snake out and grab the blade, stopping it like a black rope. Ferdinand tugged with his shadow spear, but the mercenary held onto his blade with a death grip.

Ilsa stared at the deadly edge of the weapon hovering over her. The man drove his knee into her groin and she winced. Despite the pain, she seized his wrist with both hands. He broke free of Ferdinand’s shadow. They rolled over and over toward the launcher’s chamber.

She twisted the knife from his grip. It rolled a few centimeters and dropped into the shaft.

He punched her across the jaw and knocked her head against the steely shield. Lights flashed across her vision.

Dazed, Ilsa drifted between awake and unconscious. He forced her toward the edge of the shaft. When he hit her again, her head swung back through empty air.

Eyes open, she kicked out, knocking his legs free. Front-heavy, they shook. Her whole back hung over the shaft.

She grabbed at his shoulder and tore at one ripped sleeve with her fingers. The bomb vest under his coat clicked as he pulled its release. Ilsa hugged him tight, dragging him into the shaft with her. Her hand pressed to the back of the blast seal on his jacket as it got hot.

Ilsa’s memories rushed through her. She did not want to die.

They fell downward into a blaze of ignition.

 

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 46 – Echo

Tim here everybody.

I hope you’re all doing well. I’ve written a lot of new words over the past two weeks. Alive After Reading, my new podcast, has gotten a good reception so far. Things are going well for me.

I even finished the first draft of the second Maker Mythos book, the sequel to Hunter and Seed. Can’t wait to share that with you, but editing must commence first.

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 barely survived her encounter with First, but an alliance between Chogrum and the nomad peoples has been formed. Ilsa rides westward with a combined army. What lies ahead of her? War.



When enemies put aside their differences, Hathani is there.

When friends become enemies, Hathani is there.

But there also are human beings in all our varieties.

 

They rode out of Chogrum with a column of troops the next day. Once the column met Megalli’s Vogmem warriors, Ilsa, Siuku, and the others took a branching path toward the village of Atalem. They were accompanied by a detachment of Chogrumian troops.

Through the next night, and the following day, a summer storm swept in from the north. Ilsa and Lemuel huddled together as rain and wind battered the camp.

Even when they could move again, the rain continued to fall in showers until they reached the Filami village by the Flowering Lyre.

The Oshomi there came out to meet Siuku. She told them of their successful alliance, and they rode into the tiny town.

Then, in the light rain, Ilsa, Blue, and Lemuel broke from the rest and made their way back southward, to the lyre where First had captured Tirica originally.

Shielding her eyes against the falling droplets, Ilsa peered at the instrument. She felt the urge to cry just looking at the place among the flowers. Even with Chogrum on their side, could they really defeat the old god? Asurdeva was awake, and right by Tirica’s side.

“Hathani help us,” she breathed.

Blue glanced at her. “Something has you worried, and it isn’t this little bit of rain.”

She nodded. “What does it mean that the Uzan have their own god? I mean, what does it say about the world?”

Lemuel guided his horse out ahead of them. “What does it mean that the staves of the Three are real? It means there is more to the world than science and electricity and powder.”

“More than magi,” said Blue.

Ilsa closed her eyes and felt the rain on her skin, cool against her remaining bruises. “If Asurdeva is god of the Uzan, why does my father serve him? He always swore never to serve a single master. He laughs in the face of Unification. And he can do things no one else can.”

She told them again about how First had escaped through the explosive seals.

“No matter how dangerous he is, that doesn’t make him right,” said Lemuel. “I’m not a priest, but I have my own morals.”

“Before this mission, I didn’t believe the gods were literally real.” Blue sighed. “In spite of my time in the Temple of Colors. Or maybe because of it.”

Ilsa looked at her friend. She took a deep breath, felt the pain swell near her heart, a wound that she would always remember, the one Ferdinand had dealt her while under Ashnia’s control in the mountains.

Her hands tensed on the reins. Now, Tirica was the one in the clutches of an enemy. She waited in meditation, feeling pain from new thoughts and old memories. She released her breath and loosened her grip on the reins of her horse.

“We’ve all changed.” Ilsa held up one palm and caught a few raindrops. “I hate to admit it, Blue, but I was wrong about the mission when we left Morhoen.”

“We both were.”

“I’m not sure. I thought I was looking for something that would give my life meaning, to justify the things I’ve done. I was looking for the wrong thing.”

“Why do you say that?” asked Lemuel.

She sighed. The void sensation in her chest contracted with her exhalation. “I thought I could justify killing other humans if it made the world a better place if it served the Unification or the Three. I still believe in Unification. But killing… I don’t know if I can go on doing it.”

Blue looked down at her hands, cupped over her strider’s saddle. She said nothing, betrayed no thoughts of her own. Her silence worried Ilsa. Blue usually had some kind of answer.

“I killed Melinda, at Howling Pass,” Ilsa said.

Lemuel frowned. “She would have killed us both if you hadn’t.”

“She wasn’t any older than your sister, Lemuel.”

“She was insane. Tirica has nothing in common with her.”

“They were both like me. We all carry guns, use weapons. I wonder. Why do we bother, when the only use of them is to destroy people? Maybe it would be better to step back from violence altogether.”

Blue snorted. “Tell that to Black Powder. Or the Gray Lector. Hell, even the prince of Chogrum. Every nation uses weapons, and as long as they exist, we’ll need to fight against them.”

“I understand, Blue. But I don’t have to enjoy killing.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

“I tell myself I don’t.”

“What brought this on?” asked Blue. “Now is not the time for pacifism, Ilsa. The Uzan will kill us. your father will kill us. The Ayochians will kill us if we don’t fight back.”

“I learned from you, Blue. Passionate belief is better than rigid dedication to a cause.”

Blue looked down at Ilsa from her saddle. “A good lesson. I didn’t realize I was teaching it.” She shook her head. “But passion does not mean you have to enjoy killing. Do what you have to do for the sake of justice, and enjoy what you can.”

Ilsa’s eyes narrowed, but she could think of no argument for her friend.

Lemuel pointed at the lyre standing among the flowers ahead of them in the rain. “I hate to interrupt, but there is someone up there.”

Ilsa looked toward the lyre, eyes still narrowed, and saw he was right. She produced her pistols. “Lemuel, stay back.”

The forms moving on the lyre belonged to Uzan and weapon bonded mercenaries from Black Powder’s unit. Ilsa’s sense of their spirits infused her with awareness of each set of weapons they carried. She loaded her pistols and rode closer to the lyre through the falling rain.

“Blue, can you suppress them?”

“I can do more than that,” her friend answered. “I’m ready.”

On the lyre, humans and monsters turned toward Ilsa, Blue, and Lemuel. All along the stone base of the instrument, the soldiers of Black Powder produced weapons.

She did not sense her father. That did not put her at ease. None of the mercenaries or Uzan opened fire, though she spotted a few rifles in their midst.

They have the range, so why aren’t they shooting?

“Blue, are you stopping them?”

“I would be if they wanted to shoot you.”

“What is it with these guys? It’s like they’re not willing to kill me. First was different. She shot me.” And tried to blow me up.

Ilsa knew she should retreat, call out to the others to fall back to Atalem. Still, she pushed her horse toward the Flowering Lyre. Drops of rain felt like nails in the wind.

“Ilsa, don’t get too close. I can’t stop them all at once,” Blue said into her mind.

“I know,” she said under her breath. “But I have to see.”

She guided her steed around the lyre’s southern side. Her fear, the sort that built in her gut even at a gallop was confirmed. A dark line of Uzan strung out in the distance, interspersed with the tall shadows of striders and the silhouettes of even larger things that looked a little like the electric crawlers used by Ayoch, but with far larger weapons protruding from their backs. Those shadows dwarfed striders, Uzan, and human forms and towered like Dal or Chogrum’s skyscrapers. She counted five of the machines, rolling slowly over the land.

“Damn it,” she said. “They’ve got war machines.”

“Ilsa, get out of there!” said Blue, her mental voice carrying the sensation of strain. “I won’t be able to keep them from shooting at you.”

Ilsa pulled her horse’s reins to turn the animal. She raced to cover the range on her way back toward Blue and Lemuel, who were themselves pulling back. Well, Blue was. Lemuel waved her on, even as the enemies at Ilsa’s back finally went for weapons.

Ilsa made a face. She grunted and kicked her horse to drive the animal faster. It whinnied in annoyance, frustration, maybe fear. She crouched down in the saddle.

The mercenaries started taking pot shots. The Uzan lumbered toward her, climbing down from the lyre. Soft sounds of fear came from Ilsa’s steed. She drove the horse toward Lemuel and the hint of some kind of safety. The horse carried her clear of the Uzan’s range. She waved at Lemuel to move.

He turned his horse and headed toward Atalem, not needing a second urging. Ilsa went after him, angry at her own headstrong desire to see the other side of the lyre. She would not make that mistake again, not with his life on the line. She owed him better than that, and maybe even owed herself more too.

She gritted her teeth and sighed unevenly.

Enemies drove them northward.

Ilsa paced the command tent, uneasy with memories thick in her mind.

“Mercenaries have often talked about the perfect war,” her father had told her. “And I want to give it to them.”

That had been years ago, but Ilsa still remembered, still hated the man for his arrogance, his evil thought.

“A perfect war?”

“A war that never ends. Ideal for my kind.”

And over the years his kind had become her kind. Though she fought for the opposite cause, she had still fought, and killed, for others just like he did.

The hell he had brought to her when he had bonded her spirit to the guns only got deeper. Over the years, she had stopped thinking of herself as a priestess most of the time. Only when she met Koor did that sense of herself begin to return. But even he would not fight for what he believed in on the field. In some ways, that made him better than her. But it did not make her hate him less for his abandoning them in the mountains.

She stopped pacing and sat down in the large command tent of the Chogrumian general preparing the defense of Atalem. His role was one of many terms the prince and the parliament had agreed to when they formed their alliance with the Keeper of Tenlyres.

They had plans to make. They had ways to go. To prepare the village’s southern and western sides as a shield to break the tide of the Uzan and mercenaries.

They would come. And they would fight. That much, Ilsa could be certain about.

Would they put any kind of effort into sparing the defenseless? Not likely. Would Black Powder, the Gray Lector, or their lieutenants be there? Perhaps. The Uzan could set up their war machines and begin the battle from a distance. And unlike at Howling Pass, Ilsa doubted they could break through to destroy the massive weapons before they found the range.

The casualties could be tremendous, but here she sat, listening to the general and his sub-commanders trying to plan around the earth-shattering weapons of the ancient demons.

Yes, this would be a deadly battle. Ilsa could hardly expect to feel ready for it.

Siuku arrived with Blue. They began to make suggestions to the Chogrumian officers, but Ilsa could scarcely follow them. She had to be ready to die, but for once her life seemed important. For Tirica. For Lemuel. She had to survive to make sure they did too.

As night fell, she returned to her tent, exhausted, afraid for what tomorrow would bring. She resolved not to give up her life in vain.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 39 – Guns of Summer

Tim here.

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

But for now, back to Tenlyres.

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

 

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

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

Even in defeat, strive to help others.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good plan,” said Ilsa. “Tirica—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the others?” Ilsa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tirica grimaced up at the gun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?”

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

“You. You were one of his apprentices.”

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

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

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

Tirica squeezed her eyes shut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 35 – Hidden in Death

Hello, everyone, Tim here.
Tenlyres has been finished in rough draft, but this serial has a long way to go from here.
At the top of the sidebar of my website there is an email list sign-up form. You can also sign up at this link. Short of buying my books this is the best way to support the serial and show you want it to continue.
Sign up for the mailing list at either location, and you will receive my new short story in the Tenlyres world, Mount Higatha, as well as a copy of Tenlyres II, for free!

Download Tenlyres I for free!
Buy Tenlyres II and read the rest of this story right away!
Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Melinda is dead. I had no choice.”

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

Ilsa’s stomach turned. “You too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you know about me?”

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

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

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

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

“What are you saying?”

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

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

Blue.

Ferdinand.

Siuku.

Lemuel.

The Four, even Akirette, and Ganara.

And Cass.

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

“What makes you think that?”

“You chased us all here.”

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

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

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

Ilsa’s eyes widened.

“Another one?”

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

“The god of the Uzan.”

“Eldest of his kind, daughter.”

“You would really let us all go?”

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

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

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

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

“Probably wise,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not easy,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 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 28 – Etched Edge

Author’s Notes
This chapter took a long time for me to get my head around, but now the story is back from hiatus. Thank you for your patience, and look for more Author’s Notes about the story in later chapter releases.

Previously…
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.
Ilsa and Blue have the Ayochian mind eater captive, but can they escape?

Previous Chapter
Download Tenlyres I for free at your favorite online retailer

tenlyres-ii-chapter-28-etched-edge-mq

Hooves and strider feet pounded on the rocky mountainside.

“How did they sneak up on us?” Blue asked as they crested the ridge.

“We don’t know much about Uzan,” Ilsa said. “But I wouldn’t have guessed they could be so stealthy either.”

A clip of feet on the rocks and tufts of grass behind them made Ilsa look back. She spotted Ferdinand on his white strider, fast in pursuit. His hands were empty, and his feet swung into the sides of the creature to force it faster up the slope. His eyes were focused in a cloudy, fearsome, way that made obvious the fact of Ashnia’s continued control. Ilsa grunted in frustration.

The Ayochian woman seemed to be hovering somewhere between consciousness and a daze, slung across the saddle between Ilsa and Blue, but still, her control of Ferdinand remained.

“How is she doing this?” Ilsa asked Blue. “Shouldn’t her powers have broken?”

“The Temple has a way of extending the powers of their members.” Blue’s brow furrowed, eyes with the distant look she always wore when using her powers. “Usually they need some way to connect to anyone who uses their abilities.”

“How would they connect right now?”

“A plant pile with an interface device.”

Ilsa looked down at Ashnia, struggling against the saddle before her, pinned down by her knees and Blue’s back. As the strider carried them down the path from the ridge, Ilsa frowned. “Where would she keep a plant pile?”

“It only has to be a small piece of one. Sometimes they manage to grow them small enough to fit on a piece of jewelry, like a brooch or a pendant.”

Ilsa’s eyes caught a flicker of pendulous motion just below Ashnia’s face. A locket, the kind made to be hollow, previously tucked into her coat swung at the end of a silver chain and bounced back and forth with the strider’s gallop.

“Or a necklace?” Ilsa said.

She felt Blue’s touch in her mind. Her friend went stiff in the saddle for a second.

“Ilsa, grab that locket. It could weaken her powers.”

Ilsa leaned sideways on the back of the saddle, easing the pressure of her knees on Ashnia’s back as she did. The stunned mind eater’s eyes flicked in her direction, but Ilsa experienced no mental attack as her hand darted toward the locket at the end of the chain. Her outstretched fingertips brushed the edge of the metallic necklace, nearly able to grip the egg-shaped jewelry. She felt a rough fuzz like moss on the outside of the shell. No doubt, this was the object the Temple was using to assist Ashnia.

Ilsa stretched her arm, still leaning over the side to get the locket, hanging away from her as they went downhill. Ashnia’s eyes met hers, but the woman said nothing. The locket swung back toward Ilsa as Blue slowed her steed for an instant.

Ashnia’s eyes narrowed. She swung her forehead into Ilsa’s nose. The impact sent a blunt pain from her nose to the back of her skull. An explosion of pale spots flashed across Ilsa’s vision. She reeled backward and her legs lost their grip on the saddle. Ashnia shoved her whole body into Ilsa and they tumbled off the strider’s back.

Ilsa hit the hard-packed earth of the mountain. Her head thumped against soil. In a haze of pain, she pushed Ashnia off of her chest and scrambled backward to dodge the step of Ferdinand’s great strider.

The Chogrumian adventurer thundered down the slope about twenty meters behind Blue and her strider but then wheeled his mount toward where Ashnia and Ilsa lay battered and struggling to stand up.

She scowled and did not bother feeling her nose, from which dripped a trickle of blood. I am not giving up. I am getting out of here alive.

Further away on the slope of Nurse Mountain’s shoulder ahead of Blue, Siuku, Ganara and the rest of the survivors from the parley had reached the larger Vogmem force, a line of riders on heavy goats stretched across the slope silhouetted against the pale waters of the Lake of Saints below.

Ilsa faced Ferdinand. Her nose and skull throbbed. The man drew a javelin from one of his feet. He readied it in one hand, while his short-bladed lance with its basket guard emerged from the bond on the other. Ilsa stretched out her arms and her pistols appeared between clenched fingers.

This time, she might not be able to spare him. This time she might not be able to survive his attack. This time she had to give it her all. She loaded her pistols as best she could, keeping her eyes on Ferdinand. Ashnia rolled onto her front, gasping for breath. A stone had opened a cut by one ear, and blood trickled into her hair on that side. She put her hands to the ground to push herself to her feet.

Ilsa reached her and kicked her in the stomach.

Ashnia twisted to one side with a cry of pain. She scowled up at Ilsa, eyes focusing. Ilsa aimed one pistol at Ashnia, and the other at Ferdinand to keep him wary. “Call him off. Or you die.”

Ashnia gritted her teeth. “Damn it. You’re a Dalite. Why are you fighting us?”

Thunderous hoof-beats and crunching steps announced the approach of Uzan even as warriors rode up the slope, led by Ganara. Siuku hung back. Good, Ilsa thought, glad the Keeper was keeping herself out of direct danger for the moment.

Ilsa brought her focus back to Ashnia and Ferdinand. The controlled Chogrumian adventurer rode straight for them, a second javelin in his hand.

The Uzan sounded close, and again Ilsa wondered how they had moved so silently through the grove to spring their ambush. They certainly made plenty of noise now.

Blue sent a thought into her  mind. I’ve got the hermit on defense. I’ll have Ferdinand free in–Give me a minute.

Blue’s presence vanished before Ilsa could send back. Don’t have a minute. Ferdinand’s white strider carried him within ten meters. He hurled his javelin.

A jolt of raw fury mixed with Ilsa’s adrenaline. She ducked forward, in a fractured moment, stepping onto Ashnia’s chest in the process. A gasp of air left the mind eater’s lungs. Ilsa’s hands steadied to aim her pistols at Ferdinand as his javelin flew over her shoulder.

She fired twice from each weapon. One of the bullets took Ferdinand in the shoulder and made him drop the long lance he carried. His basket-hilted lance appeared in his other hand.

Five meters. Four. Three.

Ilsa took aim.

Ferdinand stabbed down at her. She tried to reel herself backward, but fingers wrapped around her feet. Ashnia locked her in place. The blade of the lance stabbed toward Ilsa’s chest. She dropped her guns and brought her hands toward the blade.

A pin-prick of pain erupted into a screaming burst of unequaled agony as the weapon carved a wound just below her collar centimeters from her heart. Ilsa’s pistols fell into the dirt. She held her hands tight on the rounded sides of the lance blade.

She took the weapon with her as she fell backward. Ashnia released her feet and let her tumble to the cold ground. Her head hit a rock with a crack that made her see lights, her mother’s face from her childhood, the moment she had realized Blue was a mind eater, and the image of Cass on the day they had both been initiated by the high priestess.

The lance rose over her like a flagpole planted in her chest, radiating pain from where blood welled up through her tunic and coat.

One arm felt cold and far away. She clenched the other, nearly blind with pain, and nauseous from her fall. She felt the grip of her machine gun form as she relaxed her grip just enough. The brand burned. She turned her aching head to one side. Two Uzan approached. Both already had bullet-holes visible in their heads, and she recognized them from her encounter with the huge shell back on the plains.

Damn them. Some things cannot die. She coughed, and found her spit mercifully free of blood. How deep did this lance go? She knew she was going into shock. Her legs jittered, uncooperative. The life of a mercenary often ended this way. Her mother’s face swam into view again.

“I can’t,” she said.

Luca Barrett appeared like Ilsa had last seen her, pale and alone in her room in the hospital, for her own safety. The same room where Ilsa had told her she would return.

“Mother, I can’t.”

“Ilsa, where are you?”

“I’m in the mountains. Mother, I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again. But I’m glad I can see you now.”

With a soft groan, she let her machine gun settle to the rocky ground at her side, still pointed toward the Uzan.

“Ilsa…” her mother said, “…Is this really you?”

“Yes. No. Damn it, I think so.”

“I can hear you. I can’t see you.”

“I’m north of Yr, in the mountains. By The Three, I think I’m dying.”

You aren’t going to die, another voice said in her mind. Ilsa.

“Who are you?” Ilsa said in a dry, husky voice that sounded far away.

Ilsa, it’s Blue. I’ve got them. Ferdinand and Ashnia. I stopped them.

“Good.”

The Uzan, Ilsa. Please, I’ve got them stopped. You just need to pull the trigger.

So Ilsa did. She squeezed the trigger of that distant arm. Recoil made the gun jump up when fired one-handed, but she compensated with the weight of her body rolling to one side. Even touching her body brought pain, but the bulky, hazy shapes of the two Uzan fell from her shots. Somehow she had found a way to aim at them without knowing it. They continued to pull themselves forward on their arms and hands, dragging their mutilated legs.

Then Ilsa lost the thread of reality.

She sank into her vision of her mother, back in the hospital.

“I stopped them.”

“That’s good, Ilsa,” said her mother.

“I’m protecting my friends.”

“I thought you didn’t have friends?”

“I’ve been wrong about that before. I’ve always had them. Always.”

Blue’s real voice stabbed back into her like another lance.

“Ilsa, you have to come back.”

“Blue. I see my mother.”

“You’re hurt, but not that bad.”

“Well, I’m hallucinating, so I’d say it’s that bad.”

“The lance is out. Siuku is almost here.”

“Well, tell her I’m not gonna be all there. Sorry.”

“We’re safe for now. Ilsa, don’t do this to me.”

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t die.”

Mother said, “Go with your friends, Ilsa.”

“You can hear her?”

“She told you not to die.”

“Yeah, not much I can do about that.” Ilsa’s eyelids fluttered. A soft swish of sound. Siuku’s pale face and pinkish eyes looked down at her. Ilsa’s eyes opened wide. The lance lay on the ground to one side, a good half-meter of its blade speckled with her blood.

Before Ilsa’s eyes, the deadly length of steel with it’s edge etched in patterns like serpents twining together faded into the smoky haze of a bonded weapon returning to its master.

Siuku uttered a cry and pressed her white hands over Ilsa’s heart.

Fiery feeling ran fresh through Ilsa’s previously numb arm. Warmth and pain crept back through her body. She lurched toward Siuku.

“Mother.” She felt tears in her eyes. “I felt her.”

“Priestess, be still,” Siuku said in a breathless voice. “You were close to the edge. I don’t know if I could repair it all. It…” She sat back on her knees, eyes looking at the sun overhead. “It brought me there too.”

Blue caught Siuku about the shoulders before she could fall. With a dull sense of satisfaction, Ilsa noticed Blue held Ashnia’s locket in her other hand.

Ganara and her Vogmem warriors had formed a circle around the three of them, as well as Ashnia, and Ferdinand. They helped Ilsa and Siuku onto the backs of different steeds and then retreated down the rough rocks of the mountain’s shoulder.

She could not sit up but clutched her bloody coat together at her chest, hands pressed to her heart, which somehow kept on beating, despite the pain of a bruise forming so near it. Every beat reminded her she was alive, at least for now.

 

Ilsa limped away from the Vogmem rider who had helped her back to the main body of troops and then to the camp. She did not get far before a wave of dizziness ran through her and she sagged to the ground near the lodge where the Four of the Vogmem met.

A team of skyriders circled above the camp on their hawks. Ilsa sat, head bowed, eyes closed, breathing deeply. She heard rather than saw the Oshomi helping Siuku back to her tent, and Blue ordering a close guard to be kept on Ashnia.

Ilsa’s whole body smelled of her own blood, a smell that was growing far too familiar to her lately.

Lemuel and Tirica approached on soft feet, but their voices gave them away despite being hushed in tone. They drew near and Lemuel knelt down beside her, one hand on her arm. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“No, I don’t think I am.”

The memory of her mother from childhood mingled with the conversation she had just hallucinated. That woman was still in one piece, not yet ruined by father.

Ilsa sighed and looked at Lemuel’s face. “I don’t know what happened. I had a feeling like I was somewhere else.”

He put his small hand around her side. “I’ve heard that happens sometimes when someone is hurt.”

“I’ve heard of it. It never happened to me before, not even last night.” Ilsa grimaced down at her lap. “I’m still not sure if that’s even what it was. I saw–I saw my mother, Lemuel.”

“She’s still alive, isn’t she?”

“She is. I just. I don’t know why, but I could talk to her.” Ilsa shook her aching head. “I need to rest. Help me up.”

Together, Lemuel and his sister got her to her feet. She did not know how she managed it, but she made it to the tent and then lay down on her bedroll. Tirica left. Lemuel touched her arm. “I can stay if you want.”

She nodded faintly to him, then lay her head back on the thin pillow. “Stay.” Where her wound had been, a dark bruise showed through the hole in her layers of clothes. Just looking at it made her nauseous and the tent around her swam with odd shadows and colors. But she did not hear her mother. She shivered at the cold of the mountain beneath the bedroll. She rolled onto her side, facing away from Lemuel.

“Would you lay down,” she asked. “Please?”

He tentatively lowered himself down beside her. “Anything you need.” He eased himself against her back and wrapped his longer arm around her side. She reached for his hand and held it tighter than she meant, smooth in her scarred palm. His small hand brushed the back of her neck.

“Thanks,” she murmured.

And without another thought, she drifted to sleep.

 

Tenlyres Chapter 27

Previously…
Ilsa’s lethal battle at Nurse Mountain has driven the scouts back.
But the larger war is just beginning.
Recovering from the night battle, Ilsa has a plan to buy time against the Ayochians.
Negotiations.

Previous Chapter
Buy Tenlyres I at your favorite online retailer

Tenlyres II - Chapter 26 White Feathers pt2 mq

When Siuku woke later that day, Megalli sent a skyrider under a flag of negotiation to General Haram. Once Ilsa and the others informed the Keeper of their plan, the camp mobilized quickly. Ilsa and Blue rode with Siuku, her two closest riders Takudu and Okko, and a party of Ganara’s Vogmem. Their group left the larger force, led by the other Vogmem chieftains and accompanied by Lemuel, Cass, and Tirica, and climbed the slopes on their steeds.
They crested the mountain’s arm and wheeled to the northwest, toward the glade of trees off the western shoulder of Nurse Mountain. They arrived at the appointed place in the late afternoon. The summer sun was still high in the sky as the month approached the solstice, but despite the bright day, the air was cold.
Down in the glade, nestled between the rocky slope of two mountains, Ilsa slowed Hailek’s pace with a tug on his reins. She did not like the scarcity of brush and bracken beneath the evergreens. Besides the trees themselves there was not a lot of cover in this place. And trees would not always stop a small fast bullet like those of the caliber she used in her pistols. She reminded herself they were not here to fight. They were here to talk.
She kept her hands closed as they rode into a clearing at the center of the glade. From the other side of the clearing between trees, the Ayochian party advanced. A dozen soldiers rode lighter steeds behind two women on great striders.
The older of the two women, Ilsa guessed, was General Shayi Haram. She wore a red cloak and a gray and blue uniform with a fine layer of gilded metal along the edge of her shoulders. Strangely, she wore a hood pulled over her gray hair so only one short strand was visible on either side of her face. She carried no visible weapons, but ammunition belts hung across her saddle, and she held the reins of her strider without gloves despite the chill in the air.
She must be a weapon bond, Ilsa thought. Judging by the varied calibers of bullets, she probably had multiple guns bonded to her. Ilsa had never heard much about Shayi Haram’s personal fighting skills but was still glad they were here to parley.
Blue stiffened as the younger woman brought her strider even with General Haram. She wore a heavy coat, with the hood pulled back. Yellow hair and the same color of eyes as her brothers, along with Blue’s reaction, made Ilsa certain this was Ashnia Haram, the young mind-eater Blue had met in the Temple of Colors. Elegant features and a confident bearing combined with what must be a brilliant talent as a magus to explain Blue’s attraction.
Ilsa’s friend sent a thought to her. She’s cute, but don’t let your guard down. She can be ruthless.
The rider closest behind Ashnia and Shayi reaffirmed Blue’s comments to Ilsa. Ferdinand Thoss rode his white shaggy strider with a dull expression on his face, still under Ashnia’s mental control. Ilsa wondered how long she could keep up that kind of power, but Ashnia gave no indication of effort as she and her mother approached the Vogmem and Siuku.
Ganara rode out in front, holding a black staff that marked her status as a priestess of Vada, along with Siuku in her white veil, feathered raiment, and steppe clothes. The Keeper of Tenlyres looked small on horseback next to the much larger striders and Ganara’s goat runner. Ilsa and Blue followed the two leaders toward Ashnia and Shayi.
“Chieftain Ganara,” called Shayi in a throaty voice. “And the Keeper of Tenlyres, I presume?”
“Indeed,” said Siuku in her usual monotone.
“Strange partners.” Shayi’s eyes glinted. “Last year when I arrived in this place, you were enemies.”
“Times change.” Ganara grimaced. “Sometimes we must choose one thing we hate over another.”
“So, you wish to choose this Oshomi over my queen’s friendship?”
Ganara’s hand was steady, the staff held before her. “Your queen in Ayoch does not offer friendship for my people, only death.”
Ilsa frowned. This negotiation would not go anywhere if Ganara kept talking. Her eyes flicked to Blue. “Can you do anything?” she asked in a low voice.
Blue shook her head. “Not with my powers. She is countering me.”
Apparently, Ashnia must have power to spare. She looked completely collected and serene despite managing her control of Ferdinand and blocking Blue’s power. Ganara scowled at Shayi. “I take it you want me to hand over the Keeper?”
“Have these Unificationists been in your ear, Ganara?” asked Shayi. “This is not like you.”
Ganara bristled. “Stranger that you would meet me in person. Coward, that you are.”
“I’m not afraid of you and that artifact in your hand. You may believe in three gods, but I believe in my queen and my troops.”
Siuku folded her arms. “And your husband, the Red Lector? Do you believe in him?”
“He was able enough to block your escape route through the pass southward. I’d say my faith is well-placed.” Shayi smiled. “You did well to evade him and my sons to get here, Keeper of Tenlyres. But the time has come to join Ayoch. All the blood you’ve shed will be forgiven.”
“I’m hardly confident in that,” said Siuku.
“We are at war with Chogrum and the rebel forces in our own land. I do not think the Queen desires the Oshomi as another enemy, and the same goes for the Vogmem.”
Ganara snorted. “I’ve had my whole life to learn not to trust Ayoch.”
“Then your life may not be much longer, chieftain. And I wonder if the other three will be so eager to die for this new alliance.”
Blue’s brow furrowed with concentration. “Someone’s coming,” she said under her breath.
Ilsa leaned toward her. “Who? Can you tell?”
“No,” said Blue. “Too much interference. The Hermit is against me too.”
“Is he definitely allied with Ayoch?”
“With Ashnia. The Temple of Colors fights for its own.”
“Damn.” Ilsa’s eyes moved this way and that, looking for signs of new arrivals behind Shayi’s forward party. She saw no one else in the frosted glade.
Ganara was glaring at Shayi. “I do not know why the others thought negotiating with you was worthwhile, Summer Devil. The name we gave you is fitting.”
“As I understand it, devils are an important part of your culture. Sounds as though your respect me.”
“As an enemy, perhaps.” Ganara’s lips drew back in a snarl. Ilsa was amazed at the woman’s constant temper. The Vogmem chieftain spat in the frost between her and Shayi.
Ashnia leaned toward her mother and said, “I take it that is the end of this parley?”
Behind the Ayochian mind eater, Ferdinand shifted in his saddle. Ilsa kept her eyes on the possessed adventurer, watching for signs that he would summon a weapon. A dull crunch of slow footsteps approached through the trees in the silence that followed Ashnia’s question.
Ilsa listened closely, but as the sound grew louder the deliberate noise made it obvious whoever walked in the woods was drawing near. She looked this way and that, searching for the source of the steps. Siuku did the same, along with her riders.
Shayi and Ganara’s eyes locked. Shayi’s smug smile slipped into a fierce glare. “Reinforcements, Ganara? Do you mean to betray our truce?”
“I would ask you the same thing.” Ganara grimaced. “But I take it you did not plan this either.”
“I have every advantage. There’s no need for me to divide you like this to strike.”
Ganara drew a pistol from her belt, but did not aim it at anyone. Shayi’s hands tensed on the reins of her great strider. Ilsa’s eyes narrowed as she glimpsed the scar on the back of Shayi’s hand, a weapon bond. Shayi’s words hung in the air as the footsteps crunched closer.
Two sets of feet from what Ilsa could tell. Still, no one from either advance party moved to leave the circle, for to move would be to risk setting off the violence bubbling like a cauldron beneath the surface.
Blue’s brows furrowed. She glanced at Ilsa. “They aren’t human,” she said in a low voice.
Ilsa’s eyes widened, and she smelled an unknown propellant she recalled from the steppe days ago. Uzan. “They’re here,” Ilsa murmured. She turned to Ganara and Siuku and raised her voice. “The creatures approaching are real devils,” she said, “There are Uzan in this forest.”
“What are you saying?” Shayi never took her eyes from Ganara, but let her reins fall from her hands. “I was told they would not approach the lake.”
“We know little about the Uzan,” said Ilsa. “And what we think we know could be wrong.”
Ganara trained her revolver on Shayi. “Ride away, and we will not shoot. Go.”
“Lower that weapon.” Shayi’s eyes narrowed at Ganara. “I will not turn my back only for you to make your words a lie.”
“I have honor, unlike you.”
Ilsa looked over her shoulder, frustration building as the footsteps crunched closer. She flexed her hand, ready to produce a pistol, but uncomfortable with the possibility the Uzan would have the first shot if the leaders kept bickering.
Siuku seemed to sense the same thing. She put a hand on Ganara’s arm. The Vogmem chieftain pulled away from the Keeper.
Siuku shook her head. “I hear at least four Uzan, but cannot tell where they are. We will not win if we fight each other.”
Ganara jerked her head toward Shayi, Ashnia, and Ferdinand. “I will not join one devil to fight another.”
The smell of propellant igniting, subtle to most but sharp to Ilsa, drifted to her on the wind. A bittersweet burn preceded the roar of not one but many guns.
Ilsa shouted a warning and waved her arm over her head. Too late.
The fusillade of bullets tore into steeds and riders on either side of the evergreen glade. Screams from both Ayochians and Vogmem echoed around Ilsa and the others in the center of the parley. Takudu and Okko’s horses sprang forward and caught up with the center, but the cries of goats and striders, men and women, howled through the glade, almost as loud as the thunder of Uzan guns.
Ganara locked eyes with Shayi. The Ayochian General clenched her left hand and conjured a pistol, medium caliber, larger than Ilsa’s pistols. She turned her strider. Ganara’s shot missed. Shayi did not retaliate, but loaded her weapon and scanned the glade behind her where her troops began to return fire against Uzan hidden in the trees. There had to be more than four of them, far more, surely.
Ilsa pressed her feet heels into Hailek’s sides. Ashnia squeezed her eyes shut.
Ganara screamed in pain and rage. The revolver trembled in her hand, then moved toward her temple. Blue grunted. Her face contorted with effort. Ganara dropped her pistol and it fell into the snow.
Ilsa rode toward the chieftain and the Keeper as the mind eaters battled for control. Behind her, she heard the Vogmem returning fire on the assailants she had yet to see.
Smokey scents, the crack of shots, and the biting cold, surrounded her. She rode Hailek between Shayi and Ganara just as the Red General leveled her pistol at the blond Vogmem leader. A pistol appeared in Ilsa’s hand, and she loaded it as she took aim. Shayi sensed her preparing a shot. The general’s arm extended toward Ilsa.
A 9mm round screamed from her pistol. Ilsa did not return the shot. A loud clank sounded behind Ilsa. Blue fell from her strider’s saddle, armored over her heart dented by the impact of Shayi’s shot.
Ashnia’s eyes snapped open and she looked to where Blue had fallen. Ilsa turned Hailek toward her fallen friend. Blue started to stand up, looking dazed but otherwise unhurt.
An arrow from Siuku’s bow buried itself in Shayi’s steed, just in front of the Red General’s extended gun hand. The great strider barely seemed to notice the wound.
Ganara broke free of Ashnia’s control just in time to deflect a spear thrust from Ferdinand with her black staff. She shouted over the sound of the battle, “Riders to me.” Her voice carried through the glade. Another Vogmem sounded a horn.
Ilsa hoped the noise would be enough to get them reinforcements from the larger force outside the glade.
She rode toward Blue, as her friend got to her feet.
A javelin bounced off Blue’s armor, and she staggered with a grunt. Ferdinand and Ashnia on their great striders closed with Ilsa and Blue.
Ashnia’s eyes fixed on Blue. “Nameless, surrender and I will show mercy.”
“I believe you.” Blue nodded to the Ayochian mind eater. “But you don’t speak for the whole Temple.”
Ilsa reached Blue’s side. Her friend’s strider circled behind Blue and bent down for her to climb up.
The roar of Uzan gunshots died away. Ganara and Siuku and the other Oshomi rode back toward the surviving Vogmem who seemed to have driven the Uzan back, despite their losses. Ilsa trained her pistol on Ashnia and squeezed the trigger. Ferdinand’s second javelin leaped from the sole of his foot, the leg extended behind it in a kicking motion. It struck Ilsa’s pistol and made her shot go wide. The gun flew from her hand.
She grunted and drew her machine gun from its brand. As she moved to load it, Ferdinand’s long spear swung around to point at Ilsa. Ilsa grimaced as he stabbed at her. She did not want to hurt him if she did not have to, but that qualification seemed more and more tenuous by the second.
She ducked the blade, but a blunt force hit her in the small of the back as the weapon snaked over her shoulder. He pulled the spear back and Ilsa fell from Hailek’s saddle.
She tumbled to the ground beside Hailek but managed to land on her feet with crunch of boots in frost and grass. “Move,” she called to the strider. “It’s too dangerous here.”
Hailek obeyed and ran toward the Keeper and the other riders on their side of the clearing.
Siuku shouted a warning and aimed her bow at Ferdinand. She drew back the string and arrow as one. His spear spun, and knocked the first arrow off course. The following shots kept him distracted.
Blue leaped onto her strider’s back and turned the steed toward Ashnia.
“Don’t fight me, Nameless,” said the Ayochian mind eater. “Don’t make me harm you.”
Blue frowned at her. “You still belong to the Temple, and to Ayoch.”
“This is not about Ayoch,” Ashnia’s eyes met Blue’s. “It is about us.”
Ilsa looked between the two as Ferdinand continued to duel with Siuku at a distance. If there was some way to disrupt Ashnia’s control over him, they could get away for sure. The Ayochians who had survived the Uzan onslaught had rallied together with their general and begun to advance into the clearing at the center of the glade. If those troops caught up, Ilsa had a gnawing feeling she and Blue would not escape.
She fired two shots from her machine gun into Ashnia’s speed. The creature bucked and groaned, but was too hardy to fall immediately from such damage. Ilsa hated to hurt the animal but saw her actions result as Ashnia cringed to the saddle, clutching the reins in both hands.
Ilsa fired one more shot, splitting the reins from the strider as the steed reared up.
Ashnia fell backward, holding the broken reins. She did not cry out and hit the ground with a thud that likely made speech impossible as it drove the air from her lungs.
Ilsa scrambled forward and snatched her pistol from where it had fallen. She reached Ashnia and leveled the weapon as the mind eater started to stand up. The barrel of the pistol pressed to Ashnia’s forehead. Her eyes went wide and she looked suddenly very young and afraid.
Ilsa’s finger moved toward the trigger.
Blue and Ashnia’s eyes locked over Ilsa’s shoulder. One of her friend’s thoughts flashed into Ilsa’s mind.
Don’t kill her. Please.
Ilsa’s mouth went dry. She lacked the time to send back. The Ayochians would be in range in seconds. She drew back the pistol, finger on the trigger. Ashnia closed her eyes. Ilsa slammed the butt of the gun against Ashnia’s skull. The mind eater staggered and her knees buckled. Ilsa caught one of Ashnia’s arms and pulled the stunned Ayochian with her toward Blue and her steed. Ilsa pulled her up to Blue’s saddle despite the protests of mind and muscle.
She slung Ashnia across the saddle between her and Blue. Her friend turned the strider and they retreated, the last to leave the glade following Ganara and Siuku and their troops. As they rode, Ilsa glanced back and spotted two pairs of Uzan, one on either side of the clearing, trudging after them, guns withdrawing into their bulky bodies.
She turned to Blue. “Faster.”
“Not an option,” said Blue. She grimaced back at Ashnia and Ilsa. Her eyes moved from the Ayochian who was struggling to move. Ilsa pinned the girl to the saddle with her knees. Blue looked up at Ilsa’s face. “Thank you.”
Ilsa grunted with the effort of keeping Ashnia pinned but nodded to Blue. She owed her friend enough not to question why Blue wanted to spare Ashnia. But she began to wonder exactly what lay between the two, as they rode up the slope into a freezing mountain wind, even as she kept her eyes on the Uzan marching behind them.