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.

#

Thanks for reading. Sign up for my mailing list to show your support for Tenlyres. The form is at the top of the sidebar on timniederriter.com. Or, click the mailing list link here.

Share and enjoy!

Tenlyres Chapter 41 – Failing Light

Tim here.

The last week has been fun, though a little slow as far writing goes. Hope you are all doing well.

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

 

Having lost one of her closest companions to capture, Ilsa rides toward Chogrum with the Keeper of Tenlyres and a small party. Their mission is to form an alliance with the rulers of the city.

Often, taking even the lowest action is better than taking no action.

 

The next morning, Ilsa rode east out of Atalem with Siuku, Lemuel, and two of Siuku’s lightning catchers. One of them, Okko, had been with the band in the mountains. He was young and beamed with a kind of familiar happiness near constantly since they returned to the steppe.

Ilsa rode ahead of Lemuel and Siuku with the lightning catchers, their long two-pronged lances fully charged since they had encountered a wild animal pile two weeks ago. She kept her eyes alert and sniffed the breeze for any hint of propellant. Okko raised his eyebrows, which only slightly disrupted his infectious smile.

“You expect trouble.”

“After yesterday, we need to be careful.”

“Agreed,” said the other lightning catcher, a wild-haired woman with dark eyes.

Okko shrugged and his smile returned. “You women are too cautious. The steppe belongs to us Oshomi.”

The other Oshomi grunted. “We have competition now.”

Ilsa nodded. “Things keep changing. We don’t know how fast Ayoch is moving east.”

She squinted into the distance. A cloud began to bloom in pale colors ranging from gray to blue, over the steppe northeast of them. She recognized the excess illusions produced by war magi manifesting physical abilities.

“That could be trouble,” she said, pointing at the cloud.

“It must be at least twenty kilometers away,” said Okko.

“Could be an army,” said Ilsa. “And if it is, they will have scouts and sensors to look for us.”

Lemuel and Siuku caught up with them.

“What is that?” asked the keeper. “Magic?”

“Looks like it,” said Ilsa. “It could be an army.”

“And we can’t tell whose army,” said Lemuel.

“No way Dal or Chogrum got ahead of us,” said Okko. “We Oshomi are the wind.”

“We had best be careful.” Siuku scowled behind her veil, brows bending inward. “Do not lose your head in the fresh air, Okko.”

The young lightning catcher flushed. “Keeper,” he said, and lowered his eyes. “I will.”

Lemuel frowned. “It’s still a ways out. We could get a little closer and we might be able to learn something about them if we do.”

“Right,” said Ilsa.

“It will not slow us down.” Siuku turned to the other lightning catcher. “Let us ride.”

As they continued to the northeast, the group stayed close together. Ilsa leaned toward Lemuel as they rode side by side.

“How long has it been since you’ve been to Chogrum?”

“We—Tirica and I—were there for the winter. Our family has a house in the city, but my father usually rents it out.”

“Could be useful to have a place to stay if we can’t find anywhere else easily.”

“Chogrum is a huge city. Even bigger than Dal. We shouldn’t have any trouble finding a place to stay. And as much as I hate to admit it, Ferdinand probably has more contacts there than I do, thanks to the kinds of ‘business’ he does in the city.”

“Selling artifacts?” said Ilsa.

“Yes,” said Lemuel. “I’ve had to track down items he’s sold before so I could study them. Tirica was always eager to push on his fences to find their wares.” He sighed.

“We’ll get her back,” said Ilsa. “Blue says once we meet her in Chogrum we might be able to work together to track Tirica’s mind.”

Lemuel’s eyebrows went up. “That’s a good idea. Hopefully, we can get there without an army catching us.” He craned his neck and looked north. “That cloud is getting bigger.”

“Yeah.” Ilsa turned to Siuku. “Looks like whoever is making that cloud isn’t moving.”

“We should adjust. We will go around them.”

The lightning catchers led them off to the south, and then the group arced east. They rode with speed. The hooves of their horses pounded over the steppe grass. Ilsa kept her eyes on the cloud of shifting colors as it went from bluish gray to nearly pink.

The ground began to slope downward the way it did toward the edge of the plateau, except for along a narrow outcrop. Okko rode to the edge of the drop-off and brought his horse to a stop. Ilsa and the others followed him. It would pay to get a view.

A few stones poked up at the rough edge of the cliff. Ilsa reined in her horse beside Okko, with Lemuel just behind her. She peered out over the plains below them.

Stands of tower grass dotted the ground below, stretching off here and there into the distance. This close to the edge of the plateau, there were not a lot of lotok formations, and the air was clear of any geysers of ground water. She scanned the ground as a disturbing combination of smells reached her on the headwind.

Blood and propellant were all too familiar together in Ilsa’s nose.

Okko pointed. “Looks like someone’s been fighting down there.”

Ilsa sniffed the air. “Smells like pretty recently too.”

“Keeper, we should look into it,” said the older lightning catcher.

“Indeed,” said Siuku. “Be cautious. Enemies could still be nearby.”

They rode back along the outcrop, then down the slope to circle around the small cliff of black granite. After they circled, they headed eastward, toward the increasingly clear smells of blood and battle.

Ilsa spotted the first dead Chogrumian runner while it was still almost two-hundred meters away. She frowned as more slain animals and humans drew into view. Her nose told her they had not been dead long. Flies buzzed over the remains.

Ilsa slowed her horse, then dismounted and started closer on foot.

The Chogrumian by the first runner lay dead on his side, blood stained on the grass around him. He had been shot more than once. Ilsa thought of the pain he must have felt in his final moments. She scowled.

She looked for signs of who had killed the group of scouts that spread out along the ground over the next fifty meters. They were all Chogrumian. None of their opposition had been left behind.

She felt her teeth grind as she walked amid the remains of the carnage. The Chogrumians, definitely scouts, had been hit fast. Most of them had not discharged their weapons.

Slaughtered with their long-clawed runners. Chogrumian runners were different than most Ayochian or Vogmem runners in that they could walk on their claws with good speed, and remain nearly silent as they moved.

A few of the eighteen Chogrumians had definitely shot back at their attackers. A group of four scouts had died in a circle of their runners, the animals sheltering them at the expense of their own lives. Ilsa crouched in the center of the bodies, one hand over her mouth and nose to hold back the smell. It did nothing for the sound of concentrated clusters of flies.

These troops had fired off a few shots each. But their ammunition had been left in the weapons and magazines where the scouts had dropped them. Whoever had killed them used weapons different enough to not bother collecting their gear after they had wiped them out.

And there, in the center of the last stand of these men and women she had not known, she found a single piece of metal in the midst of the bodies and fallen gear. It was a shell-casing, but different from all the others. She could tell because it was etched with mystic symbols along one side, the side where the bullet would have shot free. The casing belonged to a magus round.

Ilsa’s blood ran cold. Not as cold as the hearts of these dead soldiers had been, she suspected. She looked around and saw that none of the soldiers in the last stand had wounds that should have killed them, not on the outside, anyway.

Just the same, they were dead, their hearts stopped.

As the Oshomi picked through the remains, collecting weapons and bits of gear that had not been ruined in the fight or by the day of animals and insects feeding on the scene.

Ice in the heart. Yunn Haram.

The Ayochian scouts had attacked these men. The sons of the Red Lector had fought on this battlefield. Ilsa turned and saw Okko staring at her where she stood amid the four soldiers who Yunn Haram had killed with his magic.

His smiles from before were gone, and his eyes were wide.

“It could have been the Red Lector’s scouts,” said Ilsa. “They may have survived the battle in the mountains.”

Okko stared at her. “I had hoped we’d seen the last of them.”

“Me too.” Lemuel walked to Okko’s side. “We have no luck.”

Okko nodded, expression looking numb. He had seen battles, like the one in Howling Pass, Ilsa knew, but he must never have seen a massacre like this before. The horror of merciless killing filled the air like a ghost, like the ever-present smell of death, or the clouds of flies that sometimes moved as if they were one being.

She left the circle of runners where those four had fought. She breathed a little more easily once clear of them, but still, she scarcely had a way to tell if Yunn had killed them, or if another ice magus had been here. She looked down at the shell casing in the palm of her hand.

“Lemuel, can you give me a second opinion on this?”

He took a step toward her and leaned in to look down at her hand. “Magus script, from the look of it.”

“Do you think its Ayochian in origin?”

“There isn’t much there, but what there is, looks that way.”

Ilsa gulped. “That pretty much confirms it. For me, at least.”

Siuku joined them, along with the other lightning catcher. She bowed her head. “This is an evil place. Say a prayer for them, but we must ride on.”

“I understand,” said Ilsa. She opened her scroll case. Her words for the dead and dying ran down the middle portion of the thick paper.

“Be at peace,” she intoned. “Your names may go unknown to us, but you will not be forgotten. Life must end. But life does not have to end in horror…”

#

Thanks for reading. Sign up for my mailing list to show your support for Tenlyres. The form is at the top of the sidebar on timniederriter.com. Or, click the mailing list link here.

Share and enjoy!

 

 

Tenlyres Chapter 19

Previously…

Ilsa and Blue have joined with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
Ilsa’s mercenary father, Black Powder, has appeared at the Central Lyre and played the notes to open the vaults.
Monsters unknown to humanity for millennia have just been freed.

Previous Chapter

Tenlyres II - Chapter 19 lq - Hollow Weapons

The lyre trembled beneath Ilsa’s feet, sending waves that shook her legs and made her teeth buzz. She held the gun steady on Black Powder in spite of the rumbling from below. Her eyes flicked toward the opening of the Lyre.

“Siuku, tell everyone to ride!”

The Keeper of Tenlyres did not reply, but Ilsa heard her shout down the corridor to the riders below. Hooves joined the sound of the lyre as the horses below began to move.

Ilsa lurched toward her father, pistol still trained on him. “Tell your students to leave. Now.”

“Melinda seemed to have beaten you before,” said Black Powder. “I won’t let you shoot me.”

Ilsa sneered at her father. “But you won’t let her kill me.”

Black Powder shook his head. “We will see how your comrades fair against my apprentices.”

As he spoke, Lemuel and Blue emerged from the tunnel on the striders, with Tirica and Siuku riding close behind them. Melinda went for her pistol. Ilsa snarled and twisted at her hips. She shot the gun from Melinda’s grip before the crazed girl could pull the trigger. Melinda’s other pistol barked. The bullet hit Ilsa in the shoulder and blood roared from the wound.

Ilsa grunted with pain and fired again, but Melinda was on the run, evasive and chaotic. She fled to the far support of the lyre. Ilsa whirled to focus on Black Powder. She found him by her side. The pain in her shoulder burned, and she felt the paralytic toxin from Melinda’s bullet reaching tendrils into her muscles. Soon she would go from one gun hand to none, with the loss of her ability to shift her shoulder.

She glared at Black Powder, her fingers locked on the pistol grips. She shoved the barrel into her father’s chest. “Die.” She hissed with tears in her eyes.

His fist slammed into her stomach. She staggered and fell to her knees. Black Powder stood over her for an instant. “Tomorrow, daughter. For now, see how the end begins.” Then his shadow left her vision. Her ears rang with the lyre’s music, the vibrations from below, and the hoof beats all around.

Ilsa stood, digging the strength from within her aching stomach. She turned toward the cavern and saw neither Melinda nor Black Powder, nor the glints of sniper rifles. Gunshots and cries of horror echoed from the Ayochian camp in every direction, adding to the noise.

Lemuel guided Hailek to Ilsa’s side. She withdrew her pistol into her partially paralyzed arm. He helped her climb into the saddle. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“No. Not a damned bit.” Ilsa winced as her wounded shoulder brushed his arm. “Take me there.” She pointed with the barrel of her remaining pistol, still locked in her paralyzed grip, toward the tent where she had figured the prisoners were kept. “We need to hurry.”

Blue and Tirica caught up with them, and they rode for the Ayochian lines. Judging by the sounds of fear and violence, there had indeed been monsters hidden beneath the lyre. The Uzan, beasts that may have warred with the gods in ancient times, were free.

The pain and dizziness in Ilsa’s head only built as they neared the camp. No one fired at them, or the Oshomi who followed behind. Shadowy forms raced through the camp. Men and women fought the Uzan and died under the cacophonous roar of the lyre and their own weapons. Bodies in Ayochian blue and lectoral red uniforms littered the ground, torn apart by otherworldly strength.

Blue leaped down from her saddle and tore open the flap of the prison tent. Ilsa leaned against Lemuel. Her blood darkened and stained his outer coat. “Tirica,” she said. “Help get them out.”

Siuku caught up, along with her riders on their horses. All of them had made it this far from the lyre. She turned to her people. “Free your brothers and sisters,” she said through her veil. “I will bring their steeds.” She gave a whooping call.  Captured Oshomi horses stampeded from an impromptu stockade where they had been imprisoned, and raced through the camp toward the prison tent.

Blue emerged from the tent, supporting Ferdinand. Tirica led Cass out next, and Ilsa saw her friend and the other prisoners had not been treated well. Cass’s red hair bore traces of dried blood mingled with the mud of the steppe. One of her arms hung limp, possibly dislocated or broken. Ilsa’s teeth ground together, pain and temper combined.

Horses found their riders. Tirica helped Cass onto her steed. Ferdinand looked up at Ilsa, a grin on his weary face. His white strider appeared with the other captured steeds. The man nodded to Ilsa then jumped onto his steed’s back. He scurried up the side and turned to ride from the camp. Before he spurred the strider, he looked over his shoulder.

“Thanks for the save, that’s two I owe you now.” Then he rode through the camp, his lance appearing in one hand.

“You’ll pay me back eventually,” Ilsa shouted.

“We should go,” said Lemuel.

“Right,” Ilsa breathed in sharply. The smell of blood both new and old assailed her, along with the traces of propellants. The powder was mostly Ayochian, but another sort mixed into the ballistic smoke.

The smell of a powder Ilsa did not recognize.

The Oshomi urged their steeds through, breaking out of the Red Lector’s ragged camp. The treaded transport vehicles and artillery pieces the rearguard of the Ayochian forces had brought with them sat mostly abandoned on the outside of the camp. A few turrets started moving as Ilsa and Lemuel rode toward them with the others.

One of the turrets swung toward Ilsa, and she had no way to stop it, both hands useless for fighting, arms wrapped around Lemuel’s waist to hold on. She grimaced at her uselessness.

She spoke to her steed, “Hailek, jump!”

He did not balk. He sprang. His heavy foot stamped onto the top of the turret, denting the metal with his weight, then he landed on the other side. The turret gunner did not get a chance to reorient the weapon. A barrage of heavy shots slammed through the side of the vehicle. Ilsa looked back as the last of the Oshomi fled the camp. A single pale beast stood beside the burning transport, it’s hulking frame outlined in fire as the munitions inside the vehicle ignited with a sound like fireworks.

The Uzan roared from a mouth that opened in both directions. It had to be at least four meters tall, and its milky skin was coated in a sheen of liquid that could have been gray oil. While its general shape was humanoid, it’s shoulders and chest shifted back, the flesh peeling away, to reveal the smoking muzzles of an array of unmistakable weapon-barrels.

Ilsa’s eyes widened, but the beast ignored her and the others as they fled. The Uzan turned back to the camp and its weapons opened up again in a chaotic fusillade of squeals and cracks. Ilsa kept looking back even as Hailek carried her further northward from the Central Lyre.

 

That night, kilometers away, they made camp despite the distant fires of the Ayochian camp. Perhaps a fifty Oshomi of the band sworn to Siuku’s defense had made it away from the Central Lyre. While they cooked what little remained of their food, the Keeper removed her veil and healed the wounds Ilsa had received that day. The sealed without scars and the pain was replaced by the tingling of what reconstructed nerves.

“How do you do that?” Ilsa asked.

“I am gifted by the spirits,” said Siuku. “I do not know how.” She replaced her veil, wearily. “It is a tiring process. That is certain.”

Ilsa looked across the fire to where Cass sat with her arm in a sling, broken, it turned out. Tirica brought the red-haired priestess the last bit of bread she had saved and the two of them started talking.

“What about Cass’s arm?”

“I can only heal recent wounds. The older they are, the more real they become.”

“Huh,” Ilsa said. “That’s important to know.”

“Priestess, I did not hear everything at the lyre. Who was that man?”

“Black Powder is what the other mercenaries call him.” Ilsa sighed. “My mother called him Henry. He’s my father.”

“He knew how to play the lyre.”

“Yes, and I still don’t understand how he knew what to do.” Ilsa frowned down at her hand and flexed her fingers. “That apprentice of his, Melinda. She’s dangerous.”

“I’m sure you would think so.”

“If you run into her, be careful,” said Ilsa. “She didn’t seem hesitant to kill.”

“Also a predictable response,” said Siuku in the same flat tone as usual.

“What do you expect? I’m not going to surprise you all the time.”

“I suppose not. Perhaps this means I’m getting to know you, priestess.”

“What about the Uzan?” asked Ilsa. “Do you know what they’ll do?”

“I do not. They are an ancient species, far older than I can say. But the spirits may aid us against them.”

“Against them?” Ilsa frowned. “There is going to be a war on this plateau. My mission is still to protect you.”

“And yet, I will not leave with these monsters roaming free.”

“You’re not making this easy.”

Siuku stood up. “Nothing is ever easy for those who help others. Good night, priestess. Tomorrow we will hunt. It is a good thing winter has passed.”

Ilsa watched the Keeper walk through the rough, mostly open-air camp. Her stomach rumbled, the only pain remaining to her. Still, she would have to be ready. She slept little that night.

Tenlyres Chapter 15

 

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

Previous Chapter

Buy on Amazon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me,” Lemuel murmured in her ear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.” Ilsa heard herself say. “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Cass.”

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

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

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

Tenlyres Chapter 11

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue’s mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres has brought them into conflict with Ayochian forces.
During a bloody encounter with a group of scouts serving the mysterious Gray Lector, Ilsa discovers her former friend, and fellow priestess of Hathani traveled east with them. She still does not know if she can trust Cass, but know she and Blue need all the help they can get.

Previous Chapter

Cass led the group of runners from the Ayochian scouts from the back of her own steed as night began to fall across the plateau. Ilsa watched her and the great cats at the corner of her vision. She could not help the feeling of disgust with herself for killing their former riders. Yet she had only mortally wounded one of six runners in the process.

Spots of blood still clung to the sleeve of her coat. The moon began to rise in the eastern sky, opposite the setting sun. Orange light cast long shadows from the party so they stretched out before them with black emptiness. The shadow shows one side of every spirit, the side that cannot help but do harm.

Ilsa remembered her father with a flicker of annoyance. He bore a rifle across his shoulder, the butt resting in his palm. His shadow stretched across the low grass of the plain. His black and marble-furred strider stood parallel to him, facing a sunset in another time and another place.

She could practically feel the rough grass beneath her young toes, practically smell the powder from her father’s shots. To say one thing for him, he had not killed anything they did not need to survive, but at the time, she had not appreciated that fact. His imposition to take her from the edge of the plateau and further onto the steppe had left her mother in tears.

Mother had, even before her visions began to intrude, lacked the strength to stop father from taking Ilsa with him. He had told her he wanted to help her, not harm her. In the end, that had been a lie.

Later, with powder smell in her nose and the echoes of shots still ringing in her ears, father had built a fire. He had burned the weapons he would bond to her one by one, and he had branded each of her hands twice. Ilsa had not been able to resist, and it had cost her a place at Saint Banyeen’s despite her best attempts to hide the truth.

The bonds were of his style, connected to the spirit, with weapons contained by eternal fire rather than the traditional shrines used by most of Hathani’s clergy. And they showed the evidence of her father’s corruption, which would see Ilsa expelled from the garden, years later.

By the time she had joined the garden, however, Father had been gone for another four years. And she had not seen him since. The fault for her expulsion fell not fully on the monstrous shadow the sun cast from him the day he had bonded her to her weapons. No, the fault fell on Cass Kalteri and the High Priestess.

In the present moment, Ilsa turned from Cass and squeezed her eyes shut. She could only barely recall the events without tears.

Blue’s voice reached her. “So, she is the one who betrayed you.”

She looked at her friend’s concerned face. “You don’t need to be a mind eater to know that.”

“Absolutely true.” Blue guided her strider alongside Hailek. “Can you tell me if she’s really on our side?”

“I can’t.” Ilsa scowled. “But she’s been caring for my mother back in Dal. I don’t know if that means much.”

Blue frowned. “If I had enough family to know, I’d tell you.”

She nodded. “Blue. You never talk about your family.”

“Because far as I know I don’t have one anymore.” Blue smirked. “Sometimes it’s convenient, but usually, it isn’t.” She looked behind her to where Lemuel and Tirica rode behind Cass and the runners.

Ilsa followed her friend’s glance. Tirica still carried her rifle openly but had relaxed her grip over the hours so it now hung from the sling around her shoulder, unattended at that moment. They had not seen any sign of other outriders from either side. But they would have to ride all night to catch up with the Red Lector’s forces before the Ayochians reached the Central Lyre.

Tirica nodded to Ilsa, finally silent. Her face had been pale when Ilsa had caught back up after killing the scouts. She sighed. Tirica had shot two of them herself, but what kind of woman her age had seen that kind of bloodshed before?

Lemuel patted his strider’s neck with his good hand but did not look in her direction. If Tirica had been shocked by the sight of Ilsa’s actions, Lemuel could well have been horrified depending how much he had witnessed.

She did not blame him if that was the case.

She took a deep breath and turned back to Blue. “We’ll see what happens.”

“We always do, I suppose.” Blue dropped her pace and fell back on her strider.

Cass caught up with Ilsa, lower to the ground while riding on her runner’s back than any of the others on their tall striders. She turned to Ilsa. “I’ve never seen anything like that, back there.”

Ilsa’s lip twitched. “Anything like what?”

“Like how you fight.” Cass frowned. “There was a time I never thought I’d see you shoot again.”

Ilsa faced rising moon up ahead and grimaced in the diminishing orange blaze from behind her. The only times before that quickly diminishing day when she remembered shooting around Cass were nearly eight years gone, and the vast majority of them had been simple targets.

She shook her head. “I don’t like to fight.”

“That’s odd, coming from a mercenary.”

Ilsa put laid her palm on the red staff that crossed her saddlebags. “I fight for Hathani and the Unification and for that I will do things I don’t like.”

Cass frowned. “Dal is in chaos just thinking about a fight with Chogrum. You think you can stop a war?”

“I can do my duty and hope for the best.” She sighed. “I trust my leaders.”

“Who are these mysterious leaders. I’ve only heard of Koor, the priest out in Morhoen.”

“Koor is the one I’ve met when I joined as a full member.”

“Koor can’t be the only one, though. Is he?”

“I’ve spoken to others. Mostly they don’t make themselves known to outsiders.”

“So you’re not going to tell me?” Cass frowned. “Not very friendly of you.”

Ilsa shrugged. “I didn’t kill you. That doesn’t mean we’re friends.”

“But we were.”

“Too long ago.” She scowled into the distance as the sun sank away behind them.

Hailek snorted. His woolly muzzle released a stream of condensation. Ilsa shivered. The sunset brought with it a drop in temperature.

The silver moon cast only slight shadows. Twilit steppe grass raced beneath them. They passed out of the region dotted with tower grasses and continued the ride east.

Every few minutes, Ilsa released a breath into her cupped hands. The wind picked up, blowing dust and rivulets of snow. Ilsa wondered how many kilometers they were from the Central Lyre. The Keeper of Tenlyres would likely still be near the timeless landmark. Oshomi tradition dictated the keeper stay close to that place for some mysterious reason. Ilsa had studied them, but she knew little of what to make of their strange religion, focused as it was on animals and plants left unmodified by human hands.

They rode expertly bred, but not otherwise engineered, horses. They trained horses, dogs, and birds without the aid of the signals used in civilized cultures to condition animals. In some ways they were intentionally primitive, but Ilsa had the feeling what they adopted from the settled societies was more pragmatic.

Striders might be virtually tireless compared to horses, and runners could out pace any normal animals, but the advantage of each was slight over a horse in many circumstances, and the Oshomi tradition revered the horse first. Ilsa frowned as she recalled her mother’s vision, the one she had told Ilsa about when they had last seen each other. Body of a horse, face of a nomad woman, and a voice like Ilsa’s. The human mind could play tricks on itself, and those tricks could often be less than funny.

Mother’s mind was no exception.

Ilsa urged Hailek forward, pushing the strider toward the silver beacon of moonlight on the horizon. Beneath the moon, a shadowy shape flickered in gray and white, riding ahead of Ilsa and Blue and the others. She frowned at the distant rider, but there was no mistaking he tall shadow belonged to a strider with a human on its back.

Who would be out here, riding by night on a white strider? Ferdinand Thoss rode a white strider. Ferdinand Thoss had been moving east. Ilsa fished in her saddlebag for her binoculars. She retrieved the double lenses with cold fingers and then peered through them as Hailek continued forward at his steady, disciplined pace.

The figure on the strider’s back belonged to man in a heavy coat with the bulk of ballistic armor beneath. No mistake from the hair and build, though Ilsa could not see his face. The thief and grave robber, Ferdinand Thoss was riding ahead of them. The slight pain of the stitched cut on Ilsa’s leg reminded her of the sharpness of his bonded lance.

She lowered the binoculars and looked over her shoulder at the rest of her group. Cass and Blue rode ahead of the Chollushes, side by side. Ilsa had to wonder, if they had been talking, what had they said to each other. She frowned at the two of them.

“We’ve got company up ahead.”

“Friend or foe?” asked Cass.

“A bit of both.”

Blue raised her eyebrows. “You recognize them?”

“It’s just one rider. Ferdinand Thoss.”

Lemuel pushed his strider forward. He caught up alongside Blue. “Thoss is heading our way?”

“He’s riding the same direction we are,” said Ilsa. “I just saw him.”

Lemuel squinted into the distance. “You can see anything in this?”

Ilsa tilted her binoculars to indicate them to him. “It’s definitely him.”

“Who is he?” asked Cass.

“A thief and outlaw from Chogrum.” Lemuel scowled. “He steals from the living and the dead equally.”

Ilsa could not disagree with that. “He’s also a weapon bond. A lance and two javelins, at least.”

Blue nodded. “Could be dangerous.”

“I don’t think he’d be against us.” Ilsa recalled Ferdinand’s trade with her back at Palend’s Manor, information for his freedom. “He owes me.”

Cass glanced at Blue. “Do I want to know why?”

“He overspent his side of a trade of favors.” Ilsa put her binoculars back into a saddlebag. “Trust me.”

“I can trust you, if you can trust me.”

Ilsa grimaced, and then turned to face forward in the saddle. She urged Hailek forward, choosing to chase down Ferdinand rather than reply to Cass. She gripped his furry hide with her bare hands, letting his wool shelter her fingers from the cold. Hailek, ever reliable, found the strength to accelerate. His feet pounded over the plain.

Ferdinand’s strider must be slowing, for she began to catch up quickly. She closed the distance to less than a kilometer. He did not look back, evidently unaware of her approach.

Ilsa pressed her legs into Hailek’s side to urge him to quicken his pace, sacrificing ease of the ride for speed. He obeyed. With every spring of Hailek’s legs the moon bobbed. She caught up within fifty meters. Ferdinand turned and looked back at her.

When he spotted her, he tugged on the reins of his strider. The animal wheeled to face Ilsa and Hailek. Moonlight cast them in cold light. Reflections of the same light danced on the glassy patches of snow frozen to the ground.

She drew in Hailek’s reins until he stopped, just ten meters from Ferdinand and his white strider. His face split into a white grin beneath his dark hair. “Priestess. It’s good to see you again. Eager to speak to me, are you?”

The sounds of runners and striders approached from behind Ilsa. She kept her eyes on Ferdinand as she sat back in her saddle. She folded her arms, reins still in one hand, and wished she could wear gloves without rendering her bonds unusable.

“I suppose I was. We’re deep in Oshomi territory. What are you doing out here?”

“Still trying to get back to Chogrum.” He frowned and fished in the pocket of his coat until he retrieved a battered compass. He looked at the device as he shifted it in his bare hands. “Damn thing must be broken, I thought I was headed southeast.”

“You’d better turn that way, then.” She pointed to the south. “We’re getting pretty close to the Central Lyre.”

“Sh-Shit. Th-that’s n-not good.”

The others caught up, Cass first with her runners in tow, followed by Blue, then Lemuel and Tirica. Ferdinand raised his eyebrows. “Seems you’ve grown, priestess.” His gaze roved from Cass, to Blue, to Lemuel, and then came to rest on Tirica. “I see you’ve recruited some old friends.” He did not sound unhappy to see them, though, because he spoke without a stutter.

Tirica glared at him. “Where are you going, Thoss?”

Ferdinand raised his compass. “The wrong way, apparently.” He shook his head. “Look, I’m not up to anything unlawful. Just trying to get home.”

Tirica put one hand on her hip while the other moved toward the pistol on her belt. “I don’t believe you.”

“Believe it or not. It’s the truth.” Ferdinand raised both hands. “And to be honest, girl, I’m getting tired of you trying to pick a fight.”

She grimaced at him. “You seemed ready for one, last time I saw you.”

“Yeah, but its the middle of the night.” He jabbed the hand with the compass at the moon overhead. “Can you at least wait until morning. Pistols at dawn, maybe?”

“You’d lose that,” said Tirica. “I’ve never seen you even hold a gun.”

“I think you’d be surprised.” Ferdinand shifted his gaze to Lemuel and grinned. “Tell her to ease up, Lemuel.”

Lemuel clenched his reins in his gloved left hand. He looked to Ilsa. She met his gaze and then nodded to him. Lemuel took a deep breath. “Tirica, there’s been enough killing for one day.”

“I’ll leave him ‘til tomorrow, then.” Tirica shot a glare at Ferdinand. “Tomorrow, Thoss.”

“Tirica,” said Lemuel in a firm voice.

“No, brother. If we let him go we’ll just have to deal with him later, when we may not have the advantage. And I’m sick of taking orders from this priestess.” She turned her glare toward Ilsa. “This mission of hers doesn’t matter to me, and besides, she’s a Dalite. For all we know she’s been lying to us all along.”

Ilsa matched Tirica’s glare. Blood ran hot through her, threatening to ignite into outright rage. She unfolded her arms, breathing deep. She did not have time for anger. Still, one hand clenched, halfway to summoning one of her pistols. Lemuel was right though. Enough blood had been shed today.

Blue closed her eyes, but spoke firmly. “I think you’ve all said enough. Now listen to me.”

“Why should we?” Tirica rounded on Blue. “You’re a traitor to our city.”

“A city is not separate from the rest of the world.” Blue spoke softly. “All things connect to each other, and when they fight, they all suffer.”

“Unification bullshit,” Tirica said. “Give it a rest, mind eater.”

“I won’t.” Blue’s eyes opened a crack, but appeared unfocused. “Please, keep your voice down.”

“Blue?” said Ilsa, “What do you sense?”

Blue’s eyes closed again. “Horses.”

Ferdinand’s eyes flicked to Blue. “H-Horses?”

Blue’s eyelids pressed down tight. “And riders.”

“Oh no.” Lemuel’s face went pale. “Oshomi outriders?”

Ilsa looked around, searching the darkness for any sign of the riders. Her breath misted before her, maddeningly obscuring her vision. “How far.”

A flicker of blue-white electricity crackled to the northeast, behind Ferdinand. The whole group fell silent, listening for the riders Blue had detected. At first the sound of hooves seemed soft in comparison to their arguments, but then Ilsa smelled powder traces, old-fashioned, maybe even primitive. Burnt ozone stench reached her nose.

She scowled in the moonlight. Lightning without clouds. A bolt of electricity shot from the night, booming with instant thunder. The lightning bolt struck Ferdinand and his strider, then leaped in an arc to Ilsa and Hailek.

Searing pain exploded through her nerves. Her ears rang with the thunder and she shuddered in the saddle. She could not hear her own agonized scream.

Ferdinand slumped forward against his strider’s neck as the creature bucked and whined with pain. The bright scar of the lightning bolt upon Ilsa’s vision began to fade. Hailek shook. She held on with her one good hand as her strider released an involuntary whimper.

The thunder of the lightning bolt reverberated in the air. Ilsa’s head jerked to the left and she glimpsed Tirica and Lemuel circling behind her to meet up with Cass and Blue. Ilsa shuddered with another agonizing shock of electricity leaping through her muscles. She swung her head back in the deafness left by the thunder.

Moonlight illuminated a dozen Oshomi riders spreading to encircle her and the others. They looked gray in the moonlight. The one in the lead rode on a huge horse and carried the two-pronged lightning lance, now dark with its electricity expended. He rode up to Ilsa, big and old with a heavily scarred face. She blinked at the pain, but could not unlock her jaw to speak. More hoof beats drummed behind Ilsa’s back.

As her hearing returned she heard the big man speaking from the back of the horse front of her. His words were in the language of the Oshomi, but she caught most of their meaning. “They are not from the west.” He turned to another rider who caught up beside him. “For now, keep them alive. They could be useful.”

Then he yanked Hailek’s reins from Ilsa’s numb fingers and pulled the strider with him as he turned his steed toward the moon. Ilsa gritted her teeth as the Oshomi led her, and Ferdinand and the others, toward the Central Lyre. One way or another, she had to get there, but at that moment, it was all she could do just to stay in the saddle.