Stolen Parts Episode 3

This week, Stolen Parts concludes with part three.

Can Odette come back to life?

And will she lose Jeremy after all?

Read on to find out.

 

We got back to my apartment before the moon rose. He had the cooler with the heart into my bedroom minutes later. Neither of us thought Sam could possibly be all the way out of the game. Blows to the head hurt, and that cut on his hand drained his power for the moment, but Sam’s magic is nourished by pain, no matter how much it slows him down in the moment more pain means more power later. Neither Jeremy or I wanted to kill another necromancer.

Life. Death. Things just can’t ever be simple.

Jeremy flipped on the lights and set the cooler on the floor beside the bed. My body lay where it had been when we left, still indecent, still bloody. For some reason the flecks of blood in my hair made me feel the worst. They just looked so haphazard. Probably won’t be easy to clean. Jeremy closed the bedroom doors and drew the thin curtains on the window by the bed. He set the witch dagger on the sill.

He flipped the top on the cooler. My heart would have skipped a beat if it hadn’t already been lying frozen in that box. He raised the heart carefully, the ritual of restoration requiring his skin to touch the raw flesh to work. He set it in the hole in my chest, blood and ice water on his fingers.

He came over to break my heart and found another guy had already torn it out. Jeremy might be the only person I know who would do what he had just done. He went charging into danger to save someone he didn’t want to see anymore. At that point I still didn’t know exactly why he thought we had grown apart. Questions are hard to ask sometimes. He chanted the spell to heal the joins and repair the veins and arteries. His eyes glowed blue. I thought about how hard it was gonna to find another guy like him and I got sad.

My pulse throbbed painfully as it returned.

He withdrew his hand from around my heart, but my soul remained joined to Jeremy through the collars we wore. Its a strange feeling, looking down at one’s own unconscious body.

“You ready to go back?” Jeremy asked softly.

“You’d better not sneak out before I wake up.”

He shrugged his aching shoulders. “I’ll stand guard. It’s dark now. Sam will probably send some Zs after us.”

“You don’t think he’ll come by himself?”

“He could. I doubt I slowed him down much.”

“Good move with the cooler. Never mind that my heart was in there.”

“Sorry about that.” Jeremy wiped his hands on his jeans. Then he folded them and started chanting again, eyes closed. In that darkness with just his voice to guide me, I drifted down, felt like falling. My heartbeat announced my return, sore and tremulous. The pain in the rest of my chest was gone, and the wound sealed without a trace or a scar.

I opened my eyes and looked up at Jeremy. He stood at the foot of my bed, further away than he had been when he started chanting. “Odette, we need to talk.”

“I guess we do.” My voice sounded strange and high coming out of my mouth. I had kinda gotten used to sensing the words rather than hearing them.

He leaned against the wall by the door, arms folded. “You know why I came over?”

“I’ve been reading your thoughts all evening. So yeah.”

Moonlight glimmered on the floor of the kitchen, visible through the open door. Jeremy stared down at me. I sat up and covered myself with my arms. A chill ran through me, not exactly bundled up, and it was mid-October.

“Jeremy, I think tonight proved we can trust each other. We work together.”

He sighed and walked over to my bedside, then took my hand gently. “Odette…”

I shook my head, upset. “You’re gonna tell me we’re done. You respect me or something. I can see it in those pretty eyes of yours.” Funny how I could be so calm the whole time without my body, but getting it back had me panicked.

“Odette, I think we had better sleep on it.”

I stared at him. A smile formed on my face.

Outside, in the moonlight, a zombie groaned. I reached for the witch dagger. “Sound’s like trouble.”

Jeremy released my hand. He reached up with a both hands to unlock the cold metal collar from around my neck. “Not so bad you’ll need this.”

My hand found his again and stopped him. “Not a bridge I want burned just yet.”

He lowered his hands slowly and nodded.

I slipped my legs over the side of the bed and walked over to my closet. I opened the doors and glanced at Jeremy. “You think I ought to dress up?”

“To take down a few Zs?”

“And for afterward.” I reached inside and moved aside a pale colored dress in favor of a plain dark t-shirt. I shivered in the cool air of the room.

He shook his head, but I saw his smile. He reached for the scroll case in his jacket pocket and took it out. Then he slung off the coat and hung it around my shoulders. I slipped my arms through the rough material of the sleeves. The jacket felt like home inside.

I buttoned up the front, and then reached out, took the dagger’s bone handle and picked it up. We walked through the apartment and took the stairs down.

A couple dozen ragged zombies advanced down the street. The big Z who had been patrolling outside the morgue dragged his foot at the back of the mob. Probably only a matter of time before Sam shows up. Jeremy unfurled the scroll and smiled at me. I smiled back and then took a defensive stance, dagger extended in one hand.

Zombies approached and I fell back step by step toward Jeremy. “Second incantation, remember?”

He coughed to clear his throat, then started to chant. The zombies wavered in their advance. The big one in the white tee rushed at me. His reach beat mine, but the dagger slice into his forearm, turning magically animated muscles into dead flesh. A jab to the shoulder finished the zombie completely. He went down. Before any other zombies could reach me Jeremy completed the incantation. Any dead that should hear these words shall sleep.

Zombies male and female tumbled into the street, their bodies returned to rest. Along the street the lights flickered. A shadow winged its way over the rooftops, far too large to be a bat. I recognized him first by the glow of green in his eyes. Sam’s dark wings carried him down toward street level. He wore a look of mild surprise.

“I expected they would keep you busy longer than that.” He landed on the pavement in front us. His cloak of shadows deepened around him and he wore a collar of his own, but rather than the iron Jeremy and I shared, his looked brighter, more silver in color. I didn’t dare hope he had just been using it to command all those zombies. I knew him. At the very least he could use it to reanimate the zombies the scroll had just destroyed. Every tool Sam used was multipurpose.

My fingers clenched on the dagger. I glared at Sam. “I don’t buy this ‘other dimension’ bullshit! What are you trying to do?”

“Odette, you really are a simple creature.” A smirk surfaced from the shadows.

My face grew hot, half from annoyance at his tone and half from my tension at having to fight such a dangerous opponent. “Go back to the Morgue. You don’t want this to go further than it already has.”

“Don’t I?” Sam’s infuriating smugness radiated like an insufferable star. “I have the two of you together now. Two hearts should be enough to open the gate.”

“A gate to where?” Jeremy lowered the scroll.

“Somewhere you would never dare go, boy. But I will take you there.” He grinned. “Part of you anyway.”

I lunged the few yards between us. My dagger thrust toward his chest. He sidestepped, flowing through shadow. Jeremy called out a warning. I passed Sam and dropped to one knee. His fist swung over my head. I counted my good luck, I’d known how to read Jeremy’s tone.

Sam put on a burst of shadow speed and raced toward Jeremy, who held nothing but the scroll.

Not enough time for Jeremy to chant, and I was too slow to catch up. I flipped the dagger to change my grip, pivoted on the spot, then threw the weapon. The blade missed Sam, but the bone hilt hit him in the back of the neck. He let out a gasp and stumbled, breathless.

“Looks you still need to breathe,” I said.

Jeremy dashed to my side, scooping up the dagger as he approached. I rose to my feet. Jeremy slowed as he reached me, then turned toward Sam again. “Now what do we do?”

I shrugged. “We’ve got to stop him.”

He handed me the witch dagger. “We can’t put him down.”

I glanced at the scroll rumpled in his hand. “You know what the first incantation on that scroll does, right?”

“Paralysis?”

“For all living who hear the complete chant, except the reader,” I said. “Yeah.”

Sirens wailed in the distance. Someone on my street had called the cops. I returned my eyes to Sam as he turned. “We only need to buy time until the cops get here.”

“You think that’ll work?”

“Sam won’t expose himself to the normals. That would break the law too.”

Jeremy set his jaw. “Hope you’re right.”

Sam looked over his shoulder at us. His eyes burned green. The zombified corpses all around the street began to stir. Such a showoff, he was doing it without a single word. I readied the witch dagger. “Start chanting. I’ll protect you.”

A zombie reached for my ankle. I slashed its wrist, then kicked its head back. The others were moving slowly. Jeremy started chanting, slow and measured. His voice echoed in the street, even over the sound of approaching sirens. Behind Sam the lights approached on the main street, but not the lights of a police car, the lights of an ambulance. Paramedics would be much less useful than cops for my plan.

I cut down a zombie as it staggered to its feet. Sam turned to face me and Jeremy. “That toy won’t stop my zombies forever,” he said. “And that scroll is less powerful than amateurs like you want to think.”

He walked between the rising forms of reanimated zombies. I stared at him, worried he could be right. With a few stabs I took down a few more zombies. If it wasn’t for Sam probably being ready to counter anything I tried, I’d have a lot more options. The ambulance sped down the street, not slowing.

“Jeremy,” I said. “Keep going.”

Sam towered over me, just like he had back in the kitchen at home. His fingers locked around my wrist, keeping the dagger from stabbing into his side. I glared up at his face. His other hand drew back. I shoved uselessly at his chest, trying to push him back.

Jeremy finished the chant. I froze. My muscles locked tight, and my heartbeat slowed. My knees went weak and I might have fallen except for Sam’s grip. My eyes remained fixed on his green glowing gaze. His lethal hand still moved in jerky fits and starts, down toward my heart.

“Odette!” Jeremy shouted and dove into Sam from the side where I held the dagger. His momentum hit my hand and Sam’s with a crack. Despite the paralysis both hands slammed into Sam’s side. The blade of the dagger vanished between his ribs. I gasped with pain from my wrist. Sam fell.

Jeremy tugged me out of his grip. The witch dagger came with me, coated with Sam’s dark blood. He stared up at the sky with an empty gaze. The green glow faded as I looked down at him. My heartbeat began to accelerate back to normal as Jeremy led me through the moaning, mindless handful of zombies toward my apartment building. “We can’t stay here,” I said. “He’s dead, Jeremy.”

A far off look formed in his eye as we passed the front yard and headed into the parking lot that wrapped around the back of the building and led onto an adjacent street. Jeremy turned to me as I regained the ability to walk on my own.

“Looks like we’re going on the run,” he said.

The two of us walked away from the flashing lights of the ambulance. I nodded.

We just killed another necromancer. That won’t stay hidden for long. I looked up at his face. “Guess you’re stuck with me.”

His arm wrapped around my shoulders.

Funny how life can seem so simple sometimes.

 

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 45 – First

Tim here.

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

Check it out here!

This Sunday sees the releases of the next episode of Alive After Reading, so prepare your brain for more writerly madness.

Back to Tenlyres.

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Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa pursues her father’s first apprentice from a bloody melee outside the government center of Chogrum.

 

A chance at reconciliation is not too much to ask from the gods.

 

First limped down an alleyway, trailing blood from the wounds Ilsa’s bullets had left in her hand and leg. Damn it, though, she kept moving. Ilsa glimpsed her father’s wounded apprentice just as she flashed around the corner ahead of her.

Catch First.

Find Tirica.

She dragged herself forward and reloaded her pistols with the magazines she had kept under her torn skirt. These city clothes were less durable than the sort she had worn on the steppe. Far less.

She rounded the corner, both pistols readied. First crawled onto the rooftop to her right. A rusted, iron tube for vines hung down a meter from the edge, just over the dented roof of a small car.

Ilsa doggedly pulled herself up and onto the hood of the vehicle. The pain in her leg might as well be nothing after the trial Hathani’s staff had put her through in the dark passage.

She stuffed both her pistols into the waistband of her pants.

She threw herself at the crook of plastic tubing that reached the top of the building. One ankle flared with pain but she got a grip on the tube. Her fingers dug into a layer of rust.

With a surge of adrenaline, she forced her arms to boost her upward. She reached for the edge of the roof above her. Her outstretched fingers passed over it then came down and grabbed hold. She pulled herself over the top.

Panting with pain and exertion, she crouched there and looked around the flat roof of the squat building. First looked back at her with a grimace from the far side of the building. A figure in a hooded jacket threw down a crude bridge from the rooftop across the next alleyway ahead of First. First did not hesitate.

Neither did Ilsa. She drew her pistols and stormed after the woman. Her legs were battered, but First was already dragging one appendage. Ilsa fired the moment she found the range.

The bullet clipped First’s shoulder. The bullet ripped the press badge from the woman’s disguise. A splash of blood hit the rooftop in front of her, but she did not slow for a second.

“Slow her down,” First said.

The other figure faced Ilsa across the bridge as Ilsa raced across it. Her footsteps thudded on the scrap metal and boards tied together by hasty hands.

Then she was on the other side. She took aim at the mercenary in her path. “Out of my way.”

“It’s me, Ilsa.”

The hood fell back. Tirica’s dark hair and pale face appeared. Ilsa twisted her hand to aim away as she continued forward. Her finger fell from the trigger. Instead, she spread her arms wide and wrapped Tirica in a hug that bowled the girl over backward.

They rolled onto the rooftop.

“Ilsa, get away,” said Tirica. “She’s got me wired to go.”

Ilsa’s eyes widened.

She pulled open the front of Tirica’s jacket. Rows of powder explosives with their natural smell were wrapped around Tirica’s chest, and neck.

“Pitiful. You fell for it,” wheezed First as she backed away from them across the rooftop. She held a small but unmistakable detonator in one hand and a pistol in the other.

Tirica shoved Ilsa in the chest. Ilsa’s legs bunched together, then she kicked out. With strength of desperation she shoved Tirica in the chest. The girl rolled to the edge of the roof. Ilsa sprang up, trying to get as far as she could in the second before the bombs detonated.

“Don’t do it!”

First panted for breath. “Too late.” She dropped the detonator to the rooftop. The blast from behind Ilsa ripped through the roof. She tripped forward toward First.

“Damn you!” Ilsa swung the barrel of her pistol into First’s face. The weapon cracked against bone. Tears streaked Ilsa’s face.

Tirica, gone into the air, just like that.

She swung blow after blow into First, until the woman sagged to the rooftop.

First grinned up at her with flecks of blood on her puffy face. “I guess you’re angry.” Her eyes were cold. “Totally meant to do that, but you know the best part? You don’t. Or you wouldn’t be beating me. You’d just finish me off.”

Ilsa stepped back from the woman’s battered form. She looked down at her, tears running from her eyes. “What do you mean, you twisted bitch?”

“She’s not dead. It’s just an old trick.” First lay on her back, looking up at Ilsa, head on the cracked plaster that covered the rooftop.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Your father never told you about blast seals, did he? Turns out—” She coughed and blood trickled down from her broken nose. Then a laugh broke from her, real audible mirth.

Ilsa stared, trembling, at the bloody mess laughing at her.

“—You can summon a human from anywhere to anywhere using the same technique as bonds. You just need a lot more bang!” She pulled open her own coat, revealing a vest of explosives like the one Tirica had been wearing.

Ilsa scowled at her, eyes cloudy. “Why are you telling me this?”

“He told you to quit fighting. You didn’t. He won’t spare you again if you meet him on the steppe. Bye now.”

Then, First pulled the detonator cord on her vest.

The explosion was larger, and the building, already damaged by the first explosion, collapsed in on itself. Ilsa fell into agonizing darkness.

 

Spirits with human faces and horse’s bodies crowded around where Ilsa lay. They looked just like her mother had always described them, horse up through the mane, then the eyes followed by features of people Ilsa knew.

They spoke to her, told her things she couldn’t understand in voices that sounded like musical instruments ranging from drums to silver to wind.

She saw her mother among the horses, fully humanoid, in her gown. “Mother,” she said. “Hello, again.”

“Ilsa, you’re hurt.”

“Must be pretty bad this time.” Ilsa grunted. “I can’t even tell where I am now. I was in Chogrum.”

“You’re still alive.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Ilsa, do you trust me?”

“Now that I’ve seen what you see, yeah.”

“You know I’m not crazy. I can go free if you help me, Ilsa.”

“Yeah… It wasn’t right to leave you in that place. I’ll get you out of there. Just let me… Just let me…”

“I trust you, Ilsa. But right now, you have to wake up.”

“Wake up,” Ilsa said. “Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say. I have to tell Lemuel. His sister survived.” She reached out her mind and found she could feel the entire plateau. She smiled as best she could through the pain that began to eat at the edge of her senses. Tirica was out there, within a few days travel of Chogrum. So were Black Powder and First.

There was also something larger, a spirit but unlike the ones she saw as horses with human faces. At once it seemed more powerful, far stronger, but also more brittle. Her mind pulsed as she regarded the being through building pain.

“Asurdeva.” As she said it, she knew she was right. The ancient god of the Uzan seethed and turned in her direction. She looked to her mother. “Yeah, I need to go. Need to warn the others. And you need to warn Dal if anyone will listen.”

“Warn Dal about what?”

“The army is moving east. It should be ready to fight a god.”

 

She woke with a sweaty brow, and pain. Aches ran through her whole body. A soft pillow supported her head. She was alone, and that worried her. But she hurt too much to get up.

For the next few days, she saw only a few nurses who came in with food and changes of underclothes. She found her legs worked, and she had no need for breathing tubes or other devices. One arm had apparently been dislocated at some point, and she was bruised all over. Considering the shape the building she had been on was in, she could have been a lot less fortunate.

And Tirica was still alive. On the third day, she felt well enough to leave the hospital. One nurse gave her a map of the city, a cane, and the coins she had with her when she had been found. Ilsa took the tram back southward to the hotel where Siuku had been staying with Blue, Lemuel, and the others.

She arrived, tired and aching.

Blue met her on the ground floor. “Ilsa.”

“Why didn’t you visit me?” she asked, sounding petulant, even to herself. “I’m lucky to be alive.”

“We knew where you were, but if we let on, we were worried the mercenaries would try to kill you.”

“Oh.” Ilsa blinked. “That makes sense.”

“Lemuel fought us on it. I insisted. Sorry.”

“No, you were right.” Ilsa flushed. “I need to tell him, his sister is alive, but she isn’t in the city anymore.”

“How do you know?”

“First told me. And I sensed her while I was out.”

“Alright. It’s going to take some getting used to, you just knowing things when you wake up.” Blue frowned. “We need to get ready. Chogrum is moving, and the prince wants us to ride with the army.”

“I guess we succeeded then.”

“It’s true. I almost think it’s a trap, the way they attacked the prince so close to the first battle. It’s like they meant for Chogrum to bring more forces against them. It worked for someone, one way or the other.”

Ilsa frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Someone got Ashnia away from the suite while we were out.”

“Yunn.”

“Maybe. Either way, she’s gone.”

“Damn,” said Ilsa. “We should watch out then.”

Blue nodded, then sighed. “We have to get moving, no time to worry about her now.” She touched Ilsa’s shoulder gently. “I’m glad you’re back.”

“Me too,” said Ilsa. “We’ll find her again, Blue. I know she’s important to you.”

“Dangerous too,” said Blue. “If her brother freed her, at least she’s safe.”

Ilsa nodded. She did not know what else she could say. Ashnia was a powerful mind eater and a dangerous enemy. Still, Blue cared for her.

But the war was here, and it was guiding them west.

 

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Tenlyres Chapter 43 – True Red

Tim here.

The giveaway for my novel, Rem’s Dream is still active.

Check it out here!

I survived the daylight savings time transition, though some other madness this week really nagged at productivity. But all is well that ends well, as they say.

I am preparing a new podcast to run parallel to the Of Mooks and Monsters show. This new one is more focused on fiction. Exciting times lie ahead.

 

Back to Tenlyres.

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa and her allies have reached Chogrum, but some old enemies, the brothers Haram, have arrived as well. After a skirmish in the street, Chogrumian sodiers take Ilsa and a few others in for questioning.

Electricity. Genetic shaping. Magi.

The gods, whichever you believe in, left their powers to humanity. It is up to us to know when to wield them.

 

The Chogrumian soldiers at the security center gave Ilsa more than a few curious glances as they processed her. Show us your hands. Take off your shoes. Are those all weapon bonds?

“Not all of them. Some are just scars.”

She tried not to give them a reason to be upset with her. After all, she had not fired even when Kaij pressed her. Being a weapon bond was not illegal in Chogrum any more than it was in Dal. Still, she was Dalite, even if she could fit into a crowd in Chogrum better than most.

She decided it would be best to stay silent and let Lemuel talk them out of this one.

An officer turned from talking to Lemuel. The officer approached Ilsa. “What were you doing so close to the palace?” he asked.

“My friends and I were looking for someone.”

“Someone? Who?”

“My friend’s sister,” she motioned to Lemuel with her head because her hands were still cuffed. “He could tell you more.”

“His sister, huh.” The officer took a note on a piece of paper.

Then his eyes glazed over with the control of a mind eater. Ilsa noticed Blue’s spirit. His expression returned to normal.

Blue made him signal to the others. “Let’s go. The prince wants to see them.”

“The prince?” someone asked. “Why?”

“By the gods, I don’t know,” said Blue’s officer. “But it has to be right now. Bring them all.”

Blue had chosen her target well. The other soldiers obeyed.

 

Ilsa and Lemuel were marched out of the lock-up and led side by side with Kaij to the five hundred meter-long black ramp leading to the gates of the palace. Behind them, the Chogrumian soldiers herded Okko. The young Oshomi kept looking over his shoulder. Ilsa hoped his worries of being shot in the back were groundless. She doubted that even with Blue in control of the lead officer in front of them.

The palace loomed over them as they started to climb the ramp. Walls of black and red stone were topped by high crenelations. Even on the hot summer day, this place was warm within the city. Waves of heat rose from black courtyards on either side of the ramp.

As they climbed, Ilsa wondered how Blue planned to get them out of here if they failed to convince the prince to ally with the nomads. He may not be as absolute a ruler as he once had been. Before the parliament was installed. Even still, all Chogrumians still answered to their prince in the end.

They arrived at the gates high atop the ramp. There, a squad of palace guards in black and gold stepped forward and stopped the officer ahead of Ilsa.

“Who goes there?” The leader of the guards looked around the officer at Ilsa and Lemuel. His eyes lingered on Ilsa.

“The prince made clear to me his desire to meet them.”

“Who are they?”

“A priestess of Hathani, a scholar, and an envoy from the Keeper of Tenlyres.”

“And the fourth one?”

The officer looked over his shoulder at Kaij. Blue must have been thinking fast because Ilsa saw the man’s face pinch for a moment with surprise. She had to be nearby to keep her control over this officer so absolute, but she must not have realized Kaij was still with them.

“A noble prisoner from Ayoch.”

Kaij’s eyes flashed. His cuffs rattled on his wrists. “Let me go and I can have you all spared.”

The leader of the palace guard squad sneered. “Impudent, even when captured.”

“Don’t take him lightly,” said Ilsa. “He and his brother killed an entire patrol south of the city.”

The guard leader’s eyes narrowed. “I see. I will send an extra detail to ensure the prince’s protection.”

“A good idea,” said Blue’s officer. “Now, they are cuffed because of suspicions we had of them fighting.”

“Understood,” said the guard leader. “Leave them to us.”

Blue’s officer bowed to the palace guards, and then he and the security soldiers with him descended the ramp back to the low gates of the palace. Ilsa wondered if they would make it back on the tram before they realized what had happened to them. Would there be enough time to convince the highest leader of Chogrum before they returned?

She could only hope.

Her gaze returned to the leader of the palace guards.

“You’re almost pretty for a priestess,” he said.

She shrugged her shoulders the best she could with cuffed hands. “It’s not often I’ve been called pretty. Please, take us to the prince.”

The other palace guards behind their squad leader exchanged glances. A heavy one grinned. None of them spoke. The leader grunted. He had the squad take each of them inside one by one, starting with Kaij, and followed immediately by Ilsa.

Lemuel and Okko were brought in last.

The guards escorted them to a narrow passageway going deeper into the palace. The walls within were sheer. With no light fixtures along its length, the only flicker of color was at the far end of the passage, a warm yellow glow.

“Enter,” said the guard leader to Kaij. “Any of you who are impure will be tested.”

“Impure?” said Ilsa.

“The bonded and the magi use powers beyond the understanding of mortals. If you have those gifts, prepare for hardship.” With that, he fell silent. The squad formed into two lines, one on either side of the prisoners.

Kaij growled. “They’re lying to you. These people are not what they seem.”

“Are you?” asked the guard leader. “We could kill you where you stand if you are. Someone like you. The prince would not punish us.”

Kaij’s lip twitched. He turned to face down the passage. With a deep breath, he stepped into the darkness. His footsteps faded away until they sounded like a kilometer away, even with the reverberations in the small space.

“You’re next, priestess.”

Ilsa nodded. She braced herself for the test, jaw set, and started into the darkened hallway. Almost immediately, she lost her sense of the world outside. Her hearing seemed muted, except for the sounds of her own footsteps.

Her brands began to ache as the light at the far end of the passage grew larger. She could not tell where Kaij was, or whether he had left the passage yet or not. Her brands began to tingle with pain.

Then, the pain burned her from within.

Heat could scarcely even serve to describe it.

Agony only began the march to the indescribable gates of suffering which Ilsa began to push open. She groaned. One foot moved. Then, the other.

She forced herself forward, pushing further into the passage.

Every step hurt more than the last. She grimaced, her face sore with the reflected pain from her brands. She felt like screaming, but she would not give them the satisfaction. She sagged in on herself. She had emerged into the yellow light on the other side.

Kaij sat on his knees a few meters away. Tears streaked his face. Ilsa realized she was crying too. Who wouldn’t, given the pain both of them had just experienced?

“What. What was that?” she managed to say. She sank to her knees on the floor, looking up at a vast basalt throne. Before the throne stood a slim, dark figure in a white robe. The prince of Chogrum carried a red staff, the True Red staff of Hathani, Ilsa felt sure in a wild moment. He carried it with him.

Ilsa fell forward. Her hands, still aching with remembered pain, pressed on the cool tiles of the floor, cuffs still around the wrists. And she held herself up, just a little. She had made it into the throne room. Going any further might not be possible, but she had made it inside.

Lemuel and Okko emerged from the passage behind her. Both of them rushed over. Lemuel crouched down by her side.

“Ilsa. What happened?”

“It hurt. Not a test. More like torture,” she murmured.

Okko looked from Kaij to the prince. Ilsa followed his gaze with wavering eyes. There were guards around the room, but all of them were dressed differently from the ones outside.

These wore all black. And Ilsa suddenly knew they were weapon bonds. All of the guards in the throne room were weapon bonds, and there were at least twenty.

“Stand, strangers. If you can,” said a firm, high voice.

Ilsa struggled, and pushed, and got to her feet. Nearby, Kaij somehow managed to find it in himself to do the same.

The prince of Chogrum smiled.

He had a small black beard, with a few hints of gray. Tall and thin, he wore no crown or jewels, only the white robe, and the red staff. The light in this room came from a skylight in the center of the domed ceiling.

“You have experienced the trial of Hathani, newcomers.” The prince motioned to his guards to stand back. Then, he marched down the steps from his vast throne. One end of the red staff clicked on the tile. “I take it you know what this is.” He indicated the staff in his hand with three elegant fingers.

“The true staff of Hathani,”  said Ilsa, her legs wobbling.

“Yes,” said the prince. “My guards tell me you are a priestess of the goddess. Is that true?”

“It is.”

“Where is your staff of office?”

Ilsa gritted her teeth. “It was broken in the mountains of the northwest. I was fighting against Ayoch.”

“Indeed?” The prince’s gaze moved to Kaij. “So, this could be one of your enemies from there?”

“He is,” said Ilsa. “All four of us were there at Howling Pass. We three—” She indicated herself, Lemuel, and Okko. “—Fought alongside the nomads, the Vogmem at the Lake of Saints.”

“My spies tell me the Red Lector died there. Is that true, priestess of Hathani?”

“It is, prince of Chogrum.” She straightened as the pain from the trail began to subside. “But we did not kill him.”

“Then who did?”

Kaij glared at Ilsa, teeth clenched. “He was betrayed. By his general. And by Black Powder.”

“Black Powder. The mercenary bonder is known to us. For killing my enemy, perhaps I should thank him.”

Kaij’s eyes boiled. He said nothing.

“He is still on the steppe.” Ilsa lowered her eyes from their lock on the prince. “He is on his way east.”

“You are well-informed priestess. Something tells me you know Black Powder. How?”

“He is my father,” she said through her teeth.

The prince raised one eyebrow. “Interesting. You have earned my curiosity. I will listen to what you have to say.”

Ilsa explained the mission to the prince of Chogrum. Lemuel helped when the pain from the trial flared up again, as it did in waves. The prince listened with quiet attention. At last, he nodded to her.

“I believe what you say. Priestess, you fight for the Unification. But I have never felt pressured by them, not from Koor in Morhoen, or Embrana the Islander. I trust you also are not trying to pressure me, Ilsa Barrett.”

“I would not presume,” she said. “I came to Chogrum with the Keeper of Tenlyres. She seeks to ally with you and your people to protect the plateau.”

He nodded. “I will speak with her. Tomorrow. At parliament.” He motioned to Kaij. “Guards, take this one to the cells. We will send him for interrogation as soon as we can.”

He turned to Ilsa and the others. “You used deception to enter this place, but after that told only the truth. You intrigue me, priestess. The guards will show you the way out.”

Ilsa nodded. She almost lost her footing to a wave of nausea and had to steady herself on Lemuel’s arm. The guards led them to a side passage, and then out of the palace. There, they ordered a tram that took the group back to the hotel. She could only sit, eyes closed, and pray for the pain to fade away.

 

Back at the hotel, Ilsa collapsed onto the bed. When she woke, Lemuel was talking to someone in the doorway of their room. Ilsa sat up, feeling less pain than she had when she had returned from the palace, and looked toward the hallway where the muted voices were coming from.

“I’m awake,” she said in their direction. “You can talk in here.”

Blue and Lemuel walked into the hotel room. The sky was dark outside the curtains. Ilsa sat up.

“Whoa,” said Blue. “Take it easy. Whatever that trial did to you, it was rough.”

“Can’t afford to stay down.” She groaned. Lemuel winced. “The keeper needs to meet with the prince.”

“We know. Lemuel and Okko told us.”

Ilsa rubbed her temples. “What about Megalli. Where is she?”

“She’s back in the suite. Got here before you did.”

“Tell her thanks. She tripped Kaij back there. If she hadn’t we might not be having this conversation.”

Kaij. He had tracked them all the way to Chogrum. And his brother, Yunn, was still out there.

Ilsa shook her head. “I think the Ayochians could try something.”

“We’ll be ready for them if they do,” said Blue. “But we could use your help if you recover in time.”

“I’ll be ready,” said Ilsa. She clenched her jaw. She had to make sure everything went right if only to justify the pain she was suffering through in that moment.

Her eyelids closed. “I will be ready.”

She felt Lemuel’s hand on her shoulder. “Come on, you can’t do anything more tonight.”

But later that night, when he was asleep, she climbed out of bed and limped painfully to the writing desk in the room. By moonlight, she wrote another set of words for the day. Words of endurance. Words she believed were true.

Lemuel woke as she climbed back into bed. “What’s going on?”

“I felt a little better,” she lied. “Had to get some words recorded.”

He stroked her chin, and then reached back to touch her earlobe. “You are amazing.”

She put a hand on his lips. “Shhh. It’s late.”

“Very late.”

They pulled each other close and slept.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 40 – The Mission

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Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa has been wounded by the mysterious First, who also captured Tirica. Ilsa and Lemuel retreat to the village nearby.

When humans stand united, we can face any challenge and succeed.

 

Once a warrior had dug out the bullet, Siuku healed the wound in Ilsa’s stomach with a few careful presses of her hand. A bruise remained, painful and black, an artifact of the internal damage caused by the shot. Ilsa gave Siuku a grateful nod as the keeper replaced her veil. It hid her face except for her weary red eyes.

The keeper left the small room where Ilsa lay and went out to the parlor.

They were in a house in Atalem, with probably four hours until dusk. The Oshomi were making camp south of the village. Siuku had gathered forty riders from the bands they had encountered on their way east. Almost all of them were planning to stay near Atalem. From the village, it was only three days’ ride to Chogrum on horseback.

Ilsa groaned as she thought over the plan, lying on her back on a bed in the low-ceilinged Filami house built from packed Earth and tower grass. One of the few companions who would have gone all the way to Chogrum had just disappeared. She swore she would do everything she could to find Tirica.

She did not want to think of what her father’s apprentices would do to the girl if Ilsa took too long. Target practice looked optimistic, the way she saw it. Tirica had survived so much, and she had come so far. Ilsa would not let Black Powder just snap his fingers and have her killed.

She swung her legs off the bed. Voices came from the parlor, one obviously Siuku because of the monotone. The other belonged to Lemuel.

“I won’t just let them take my sister.”

“You cannot save her alone.”

“You think Ilsa won’t agree with me?”

“She may. But I suspect she will see things my way. We have a mission to ally with Chogrum.”

“My sister has saved me more times than I can count, keeper.”

“I am sorry about your sister. Truly. Right now we must do the greatest good we can.”

Ilsa made her way to the doorway of the parlor. She ducked her head to step out of the windowless bedroom. The parlor was almost as shadowy as the room she had just left. Only one small window let in sunlight. The door to the street out front was closed. Good. The villagers did not need to hear this argument.

“They could kill her,” said Lemuel softly, just as Ilsa stepped into the room.

Both Lemuel and Siuku’s eyes moved to look in her direction.

Siuku said, “That woman could have killed her already if she wanted. It would have been easier.”

Lemuel’s gaze remained on Ilsa. “Please, Ilsa.”

A cold pain mixed with the churn of her stomach to make her feel sick. “Lemuel. I hate to say it, but the keeper could be right.”

“Or she could be wrong,” said Lemuel.

Ilsa touched the egg-like locket hanging around her neck. “I can contact Blue, ask her to scout for Tirica’s mind.”

“We must move on,” said Siuku. “The Prince of Chogrum holds Hathani’s True Red staff. If it’s powers are anything like the True Blackwood, we will gain more than an army once Chogrum is our ally.”

“I don’t like it,” said Ilsa, eyes downcast. “But it’s true.”

“We can save your sister while we save the rest of Yr. Trust me, Lemuel.” Siuku managed to soften her voice just a little with the last word.

Lemuel sighed and shook his head. “I understand the stakes. Promise me you’ll help me find her once we have Chogrum on our side.”

“I promise,” said Ilsa.

“As do I.” Siuku bowed to Lemuel. “We leave at dawn. Let us give this family their home back.”

They left the house and went out into the street.

Lemuel turned to Ilsa. “Are you alright? It looked pretty bad.”

“It doesn’t hurt as much as Ferdinand’s lance, but its close.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry. You were hurt, and all I could worry about was my sister.”

“She’s in more danger than I am. Thanks to Siuku healing me.”

Lemuel nodded. “You put yourself in so much danger for your mission.”

“The mission is important. That doesn’t mean it is all I care about.” She put her arm around him. “We’ll find her. Believe me.”

“I believe you more than the keeper. She seems so cold most of the time.”

“She can seem that way, but I can tell she cares.” Ilsa looked after Siuku. The keeper made her way over to a group of villagers and warriors. “It was her idea to offer protection to the Filami, and her compassion doesn’t end with them.”

Lemuel nodded. “She even managed to make peace with the people who killed her family. I might not be able to do that.”

Ilsa nodded. She had done what they were talking about, but she didn’t want to say so. Her mother had done the same. Chogrum had taken a lot from Ilsa’s family, and her father, though only partially Chogrumian, threatened to keep doing so.

 

A few paces beyond the last house to the east in Atalem, Ilsa reached out with her spirit. She strained to connect to Blue, over two hundred kilometers to the north. She had never reached so far with conscious intent, even to her mind eater friend.

She focused on Blue’s mind, her gregarious manner, her enthusiasm combined with her discipline.

Her friend met her mind to mind.

“Ilsa, you seem upset. What’s wrong?”

“One of my father’s apprentices captured Tirica.”

“How? When?”

“She out-shot me, I guess. It was just this afternoon, less than two hours ago.”

“Did you get her name?”

“She told me to call her ‘First.’ Said I had met her before. I don’t remember her.”

“That’s not too helpful.”

“She got away. Blue, can you help me find her?”

“I doubt it. I can only connect to you at this distance because of that temple locket. But once we both get to Chogrum, maybe.”

“How far out are you?”

“Just two days ride.”

“You’ll probably get there first. Oh, the Flowering Lyre is still sealed.”

“That’s good news,” said Blue. “So far, it looks like the Gray Lector has only managed to gather a couple thousand Uzan from the middle lyres.”

“Only… Well, two less, as of today,” Ilsa said.

“You killed more of them?”

“When First attacked. I shot one, and Tirica killed the other. She actually got the first one.” Ilsa’s mind darkened. “I’m worried about her, Blue.”

“We can’t help her right now. You’ve always been good at focusing, Ilsa. Use it.”

“Right. How are things going with Ashnia?”

“I’ve got her suppressed.” Blue’s mental presence rippled with frustration. “She can’t break out, but I wish I could talk to her. She’s so close, and I keep remembering more about my time in the temple.”

“Anything from before that?”

“Not yet, Ilsa. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that far back.”

“Good luck with her, Blue.”

“You too. How’s Lemuel holding up?”

“He’s worried about Tirica. I don’t blame him. But there was one other thing…”

“What is it?”

“First told Tirica she was a good shot. That’s true. I guess it’s not impossible Black Powder, my father, may want to recruit her.”

“They’ll be in for a surprise if they think they can control her,” said Blue. “She’s as stubborn as Ashnia. And that’s on our side.”

“I don’t know. Black Powder offers things to gunfighters they can’t get without him, the deepest form of weapon bond.”

“Bonded to the spirit. I wonder why it seems like no one else can figure that out.”

“I wish I knew.”

“Hold it together, Ilsa. Oh, I think we’re losing connection.”

“Stay safe.”

“You too.”

Their mind drifted apart. Ilsa opened her eyes on the edge of the village. When they met up in Chogrum, she would have a prayer to find Tirica again. But her mission remained, to prevent the war from consuming Yr. She may not have much respect for her mentor, Koor, any longer, but her goals had not changed. She would fight for a greater peace, as paradoxical as that seemed.

#

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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.

Tenlyres Chapter 25

Previously…
Ilsa must protect the Keeper of Tenlyres from the forces of Ayoch.
Enemies are everywhere in the shadow of Nurse Mountain.

Previous Chapter

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Tenlyres II - Chapter 25 Powder and Ice lq

Tirica leaned on Ilsa as they made their way past the hairy bulk of a resting strider on the way into the hermit’s expansive cave. Ilsa frowned into the shadows ahead of them. “Where are the other steeds?”

“The Keeper sent them away to find food.” Tirica grimaced. “She said she would call them when they were needed. We sure could use them now.”

“I’m not so sure.” Ilsa looked over her shoulder at the still-darker night outside the cave. The lantern lights of the Red Lector’s troops bloomed among the boulders down the slope. “They’re going to have us surrounded soon.”

Tirica shuddered. “Damn it. My arm is going numb.” She flexed her fingers, but they only opened halfway.

“Must have been Melinda’s shots. She uses poison in her bullets.”

The girl nodded as they reached a bend in the passage. “Set me down here. I’ll watch our backs.”

“Lemuel told me to protect you. And I plan to do that.”

She barked a harsh laugh. “I’m used to protecting him. Let me do this.”

Ilsa looked at Tirica’s face. Sweat ran along her brow and her cheeks were pale. She shook her head. “You’re already hit. We need to get you to Siuku.”

“The Keeper?”

“She can heal you.”

“Seems like that’s half of what she does.” Tirica groaned, and then lurched away from Ilsa. She stumbled and nearly fell, extended her arm and braced herself on the wall. “They’ll trap us in here if we both go. And I can’t walk alone.”

Ilsa thought about protesting, then nodded. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t do anything risky.”

“Thanks.” Tirica sat down, back to the wall, and unlimbered her rifle. She looked down the telescopic sight and watched the opening of the passage behind them. “Now go. The others should be straight down this passage.”

“Right.”

She left Tirica by the bend and proceeded along the smooth-worn stone floor of the chill cave. Warm orange lamplight grew as she continued, but the gentle tinge of color it gave the walls did little to ease her mind. Hopefully Blue and the others were on their way already. Megalli, and whatever small group of skyriders she could gather at this hour, simply would not be a match for the scouts alone.

Ilsa did not like being trapped. She might have studied at Saint Banyeen’s. She might have once longed for the chance to return to that place. Still, she would not want to be stuck in any kind of cage. And tactically this situation was terrible. At least twenty scouts outside.

Kaij. Yunn. And Ferdinand possessed and turned against her.

They were all deadly opponents. She wished she had taken the chance to finish Melinda, despite the cold feeling the idea of killing someone so young started to form in her stomach. As it was, Melinda could definitely be after them as well. Ilsa emerged from the passage with worry filling her mind.

Siuku, Cass, and two of Siuku’s riders stood on one side of the lampstand in the center of the small, roughly circular chamber. On the other side, a small man in what appeared to be his early sixties sat upon a thick mat, probably stuffed with goat wool. He wore Vogmem-style hide clothing, had Morhoenese features, white hair, and his eyes were closed tight. Pale lips moved as he chanted in a voice so low Ilsa could not make out any hint of his language. The hermit did not react as Ilsa entered.

A wizened Vogmem woman, who looked even older than the man on the mat, detached herself from the wall beside the mat. Deep lines crossed her face. She reached for a small revolver at her waist, even as Siuku and the others turned toward Ilsa.

Ilsa raised her hands. “It’s alright,” she said. “I’m here with the Keeper.”

Siuku nodded to the woman. “She speaks truth, Akirette.”

Shadows deepened in Akirette’s face. “Where is the other one? What about the shots we heard?”

“Tirica was hit. She’s okay, and watching the entrance, but there are a lot of Ayochians outside.” Ilsa turned to Siuku. “Can you go help her?”

“From the sound of things we are outnumbered.” Siuku’s eyes moved toward the hermit and Akirette over her veil. “I will return in a moment.” She turned to the rider on her left, a young man. “Okko. Bring your lance and follow me.”

He picked up a short lightning lance from where it was propped against the wall behind him. “I only have one shot of lightning left, Keeper.”

“Then we will make the most of it.” Siuku turned to the other rider, a scarred woman, older than the young lightning catcher. “Takudu, stay here and protect the hermit.”

“As you wish, Keeper. Though I would prefer to accompany you.”

Ilsa nodded to the Oshomi woman. “Stay. I’ll protect the Keeper for you.”

The hermit’s eyes snapped open and fixed on Ilsa’s face. “No. Ilsa Barrett. Stay where you are.” His voice came out as series of wheezed breaths, and though his eyes focused on Ilsa, their green irises wobbled as if not fully focused.

A chill crept through Ilsa as she met his wavering gaze. “How do you know my name?”

“I know you. You are a friend to Nameless.”

“You mean Blue.”

“She still calls herself Blue? She earned that privilege, but abandoned it when she fled the temple.”

Ilsa started toward him. “You. You’re a mind eater.”

The hermit’s pale lips parted in a grimace of pain. “I am indeed.”

Akirette’s eyes flicked down toward the hermit. She scowled. “I don’t believe it.”

“You should know better by now, child,” the hermit said without looking at the Vogmem chieftain. “After all our discussions, I never told you before because I thought you would not understand.”

“I’m no magus.” Akirette’s brows furrowed. “But I am the eldest of my people yet living.”

“Indeed.” The hermit’s eyes remained on Ilsa. “But next to a thousand years of study you still have much to learn.”

Ilsa glared at the man before her. “That doesn’t explain how you lived so long.”

“Ten years in the Temple of Colors are as one year in this world. But while we commune within, we are suspended outside of time.” The hermit grinned with dirty teeth. “I am confident you will believe me, Ilsa. After all, you trust Nameless.”

“We have no time for this,” said Siuku. “Hermit, we have a battle to fight.”

“Bring me Nameless,” said the hermit. “Give her to the temple, and I will help you survive this night.”

Ilsa grunted. “We can’t give you Blue. She has to decide for herself.”

Akirette’s lined, shadowy scowl moved so her eyes locked with Ilsa’s. “How many are there?”

“At least twenty. All Ayochian veterans.”

“We will need help to survive long enough for help to arrive,” said Akirette.

Ilsa glared at her. “They’re close by now.”

A gunshot echoed down the passage, the familiar sound of Tirica’s long rifle.

“The Ayochians are closer.” Akirette’s eyes narrowed. “Negotiate for your friend if we live through this.”

Siuku nodded to Ilsa. “I agree with the Vogmem. Much as I hate to say it.”

“Blue fought for you. For us.”

The hermit smirked. “She will continue to fight for you. But right now, I am here and she is not.”

Another shot from Tirica’s rifle sounded. Staccato fire from the Ayochian scouts answered this time. Ilsa gritted her teeth. She turned to Cass. “What about you?”

Cass inhaled a deep breath. “Hathani keep me. I don’t want to die here.”

“We won’t have to, either way. At least fifty Vogmem riders are on their way around the lake.”

“Give up Nameless. I will guarantee all of our safety.”

“Do you even have that much power?” Ilsa felt the urge to cry, as she had before she last saw her mother back in Dal. She fought back that urge.

“One thousand years of study are at my command. I will bend these foes to my will. Just say the words.”

Ilsa turned her back on him. She clenched her fist at her side. Her other hand found her pistol. “I will not give up my friend.”

“Then you will fight this battle without me.” The hermit’s eyes became unfocused, their intensity fading. His posture did not change, but Ilsa could tell his senses were gone from the world.

Akirette gave a high-pitched laugh. “Should have known. I always hated Dalites. And you clergy are the worst of them all.” She turned to Siuku. “Keeper, we must fight.”

“I know.” Siuku picked up her bow and her half-full quiver of arrows. “Fortune be with us.”

“Fortune favors the careful.” Akirette drew her revolver and checked its chambers. She glanced at Ilsa. “If I die here, I will haunt you, girl.”

“I look forward to it.” Ilsa stalked down the passage toward the insistent and growing sounds of gunfire.

She hated the sense of dread that built within her mind as she walked. Had she thrown away their chance at survival? She would not think on it. She unfolded her clenched hand and produced her shotgun as she did. The bond burned, almost as hot as the original branding. But pain meant nothing at that moment. She listened to Siuku and the lightning catcher’s footsteps behind her. Akirette stayed further back with Cass.

Ilsa told herself they would win, with or without the hermit’s help. She loaded the shotgun with the one set of shells she had brought with her for it and stayed close to the wall as she walked toward where Tirica sat by the bend in the passage.

Tirica pressed her back to the dark stone and started to reload, knees pulled in tight. One of the scouts ducked around the mouth of the cave and trained his gun on her. Ilsa raised her arm. She dropped the man with a shot from her pistol. She felt hollow as he fell back with a scream of pain. The smell of her powder burned in her nose.

Her first shot of the battle rang in the ear. Let it not also be the last, she hoped in a dark prayer. This is where the missions had always led her, to blood and pain.

She twisted at the hip. Her aim was true when she fired again. Another Ayochian soldier fell to the stony hillside. The sound of a rifle skittering down the slope scraped at Ilsa’s ears. She stopped beside Tirica, who finished reloading. Her eyes scanned for any signs of movement in the darkness.

“You holding up.”

“Trying.” Tirica sounded breathless.

Siuku crouched down beside Tirica, searching her shoulder for the holes Melinda’s bullets had torn in her clothes. She did not take long, once she found the traces of blood.

Okko, the young lightning catcher, caught up with Ilsa. He held his short-hafted lance like a rifle. He saw the fallen Ayochian on the slope and at the mouth of the cave. His off-hand fell to the butt of a pistol in his belt. “Tell me where you want me, priestess.”

“Follow me. How much lightning do you have?”

“Only one shot left, but a big shot.”

“Stay close.” Ilsa glanced at Siuku and Tirica. The Keeper of Tenlyres removed her veil with one hand. She pulled back the fabric from the hole where dark blood welled up.

Two bullets. One wound. Melinda shot with deadly precision. How could she have failed to kill Tirica with accuracy like that?

Ilsa took a breath and turned to face the lake, where moonlight gleamed on the water. She stepped forward, moving cautiously. She had to avoid being detected by Yunn or he could easily freeze her where she stood if his powers were still as strong as they had been back at the Central Lyre.

She held the shotgun in one hand, and her pistol in the other. She stalked toward the mouth of the cave. She heard Cass’s voice exclaim in concern when the other priestess reached Tirica and Siuku.

Ilsa swept the muzzle of the shotgun in an arc, silent for the moment, but ready to roar with lethal power at a moment’s notice. Okko’s footsteps were nearly silent, close behind her. Blood and propellant wafted in the fresh air. But mostly, she smelled the water of the lake with a hint of the moldering trading post below. The wind was soft and cold on her face. Good. Kaij and Melinda with their bonded senses would likely not be able to pinpoint her by smell, even once she started shooting.

She and Okko walked past Tirica’s strider. The animal might have a simple mind, but it was smart enough to have cringed against the wall of the cave to minimize its visibility to the outside. At the very mouth of the cave, Ilsa stopped in her paces. She spotted a flurry of movement around the boulder where she had fought Melinda.

The psychotic girl’s form was gone from the top of the stone. Kaij stood with a rifle in hand, aiming down the sights despite the sling on one arm. Ilsa ducked back, pushing Okko behind her with the arm that held her pistol. Kaij’s shot whined through the air, then cracked the rocky ceiling within the cave mouth. Traces of gray dust drifted down.

Judging by the large size of the bullet, and the small flickers of etched text visible on its sides were it had not vanished into the stone, this was a magus round. Ilsa’s mind conjured a dozen curses as Yunn’s power began to manifest in frosty tendrils creeping out from the crack where the bullet had embedded itself in the stone.

Okko stared. “What is that?”

“War magic,” said Ilsa. “Don’t let the frost touch you.”

Okko answered with a grunt as he retreated toward the bend where Tirica and Siuku were still in cover. Frost crept toward Tirica’s unflappable strider, moving down the wall of the cave in feathery patterns. The animal seemed completely unaware of the spreading danger.

Ilsa yelled at the strider. The animal raised its head and turned toward her. “Get outside,” said Ilsa. “Go.”

The strider lumbered to its feet and lurched out of the mouth of the cave. Ayochian bullets screamed and whined through the air. The strider must have been hit at least once because it roared in pain. Then the steed charged off into the night. It’s feet thudded on the slope.

The sound of gunshots faded. Ilsa backed away from the frost, which had reached the floor and filled the exit of the passage. Ice crystals began to build up. She grimaced at the growing bluish mirror that reflected the light from around the bend behind her.

She held the shotgun out in front of her. “Is this your plan, Yunn? To trap us in here?”

“Not at all, priestess,” Yunn replied from the darkness around the mouth of the cave. “I’d rather kill you, to be honest.”

Ilsa frowned. Something above her rattled. She glanced up at the ceiling just as a shard of ice dropped. She threw herself backward, but the ice cut along her sleeve and drew blood from one arm. Another icicle wobbled overhead. He had sent the ice further into the cave along the ceiling faster than she had hoped. Her shotgun blast shattered the icicle into a freezing spray.

She retreated further, showered in biting, clinging frost and pelted by ice.

Ilsa rounded the bend. “Get back, everyone.”

Siuku helped Tirica to her feet. Cass retreated along with Akirette, almost to the Hermit’s inner chamber.

Okko glanced around the corner, his breath mist in front of him. “They’re coming in.”

Ilsa could tell he was right from the sound of footsteps and reflections of lantern light glimmering on the icy walls. She stepped out, both guns raised. Kaij and Yunn stood behind four other Ayochian scouts.

“End of the road, priestess.” Yunn’s eyes were unfocused. He gritted his teeth with concentration and sent a wave of ice creeping around the bend beside Ilsa. The frost leaped to Tirica and Siuku.

Ilsa released a frustrated growl, words gone in her anger, and opened up with her shotgun and pistol. Arms shook with recoil and ears rang with the deafening din of fire. The scouts ducked to the walls and retaliated. Kaij pulled Yunn to one side, as their soldiers covered them.

She could not approach the wall, but kept moving forward. One bullet cut through her shoulder in an explosion of pain. Another rang off the barrel of her shotgun and made her aim with the weapon go wild. A third round whistled by her ear. A spray of shot perforated her leg just below the knee. Ilsa’s breath caught in her chest.

Pain burned through her middle, but she realized she had not been hit there. The pain was her own heart thumping. Another shot hit her side and she fell to one knee.

She turned the shotgun with one round left and pulled the trigger. A scout leveled a rifle at her. His shot would have hit her in the forehead had she not fallen flat as she retaliated.

The last of the four scouts between her and the Red Lector’s sons shuddered and slumped to the ground. Ilsa gasped in breathless pain as she aimed her pistol at Yunn. “Call off your brother, Kaij,” she said through gritted teeth. “Or I will.”

“Too late for your Chogrumian friend, I bet.” Yunn’s eyes refocused, and he looked nervous.

Kaij fired two shots from a borrowed pistol. Both hit Ilsa, one cut across her hip. The other ripped a gash in her stomach as she rolled over, trying to dodge. She grunted in pain and refocused to shoot. But the brothers Haram were gone from the cave.

Ilsa struggled to stand up but failed. She settled for pressing her hand to the blood wound across her abdomen. The cold and pain and dizziness from blood loss were intense. She lay on her back, wounds bleeding and looked around the bend to where the others had hidden.

Siuku and Tirica held each other tightly for warmth from Yunn’s frost. Tirica seemed barely conscious, but Siuku nodded to Ilsa over the girl’s shoulder, tears in her red eyes. Okko stood behind them, with a helpless expression on his face.

Her vision wavered. The sound of hoofbeats approached along the lake shore. But all she smelled was her own blood and powder, fresh and pungent. The cold closed in around her as Siuku helped Tirica to support herself on Okko, then turned toward Ilsa.

“You fought like a demon,” said Siuku, as she limped to Ilsa’s side and then sank to her level.

Ilsa gave a dull nod as Siuku unfastened the button that held up her veil. The world swam with agony. Ilsa drifted into blackness.

Tenlyres Chapter 23

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue ride north from the Central Lyre with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
They have reached the Lake of Saints and found potential allies among the Vogmem tribes on the northern edge of the plateau.
Four Chieftains command the Vogmem, and the Oshomi Ilsa and Blue ride with are no friends of any of them.
Can they unite two long-time enemies in time to resist the foes close behind them?

Previous Chapter

Buy Tenlyres I on Amazon today!

Tenlyres II - Chapter 23 Blue Thunders lq

Sweet and strange-smelling smoke wafted through the meeting lodge by the Lake of Saints. Ilsa stopped just inside the doorway, behind Blue and Lemuel. She planted the base of her red staff on the floor and looked down the length of the room, searching for Siuku’s pale hair or white veil. She did not find her.

Blue turned to Ilsa. “She isn’t here.”

“You’re sure?”

Blue tapped the side of her head. “Yeah.”

She looked around the lodge and spotted the red-bearded Hiragen, and the gray-clad Ganara on the far side of the room among a cluster of other people. She grimaced as the blond Vogmem chieftain turned in her direction. Ganara motioned them closer.

“Then, she’s late,” Ilsa muttered. She started across the room toward the two chieftains. Blue and Lemuel walked with her. Tirica and Cass had stayed in the camp nearby to rest. She didn’t blame them for being tired, and she admired the calm it took not show anxiety at the possible decisions of the Vogmem’s four leaders.

Smoking pipes and a burning fireplace in the center of the lodge made the place warm and strange to smell, but could not mask the powder scents of weapons carried by the people within. Mostly the weapons smelled of archaic propellants, but she caught whiffs of Ayochian auto-launch and Dalite-made Calbuin Company ammunition.

Ilsa passed the fireplace with its cage-like iron guard. She, Lemuel, and Blue approached Ganara and Hiragen. She leaned her staff the wall nearby.

“Chogrumians,” said Ganara. “Where is the Keeper of Tenlyres?”

Lemuel glanced at Ilsa at the same moment as Blue.

She shrugged. “We don’t know. She should be here any time now.”

“A likely story. Where are you from? You don’t sound Chogrumian, priestess of Hathani.”

“You know…” Hiragen puffed on his pipe. “Ganara, I trust them.”

“You would, wouldn’t you? Anything to get under my skin.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” He sucked in the smoke from his pipe and smiled. Then he turned to Ilsa. “The others will be here soon. You should introduce yourselves to them, though I think they will be able to pick you out once they arrive. You are all clearly not Vogmem.”

“Megalli,” said a voice into Ilsa’s ear. She whirled, unable to hide her surprise and halfway to producing a pistol.

A slightly built woman with dark hair stood behind her. The woman stepped back, still on her tiptoes. She smirked at Ilsa, then twirled. Strings with beads on them shimmered at the hem of her waist-length coat. “That’s my name. I’m Chieftain Megalli of the eastern skyriders.”

“You?” Ilsa frowned. “You look like a kid.”

“And she acts like one too,” said Ganara.

“If you are done trying to insult me, Ganara, I have something to tell you,” said Megalli.

Hiragen’s eyes moved past Ilsa to focus on Megalli’s face. “Speak.”

“Akirette and the Keeper of Tenlyres are not coming to the lodge tonight.” Megalli shrugged her hands. “They are going to Nurse Mountain to meet with the hermit. They took the priestess with the broken arm and the Chogrumian girl with them.”

Blue raised her dark brows. “Why didn’t the Keeper tell us?”

“She seems to think you can negotiate with us better than she could. She may be right.”

“Megalli.” Ganara glared at the other chieftain. “Sit down.”

“I’d rather fly.”

“You aren’t on your hawk now. Sit.”

“Ganara, you are very intent on being annoyed. Why bother?”

“Not all of us can be as flighty as you.”

Ilsa glanced at Lemuel, hoping he could lend her some patience to handle the bickering of the Vogmem leaders. He did not take her cue, only shook his head and frowned. She leaned close to him and under her breath said, “Probably not wise to butt in?”

“Probably,” he murmured.

Despite the tension of the situation, he seemed distracted from the moment. Distraction could be dangerous, even in situations with far lower stakes. Ilsa’s eyes stayed on his face.

“What’s bothering you?” she asked.

“Tirica went to Nurse Mountain without telling me first.” His frowned deepened. “We traveled west together, but I guess she thinks we’re safe now.”

“Definitely not true.” Ilsa put a hand on his arm. “But don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”

He gave her a weak smile. “I know.” But his expression did not convey the same confidence.

Ganara and Megalli were glaring at each other, apparently at a loss for words to express their distaste over the argument. Then, Hiragen laughed and clapped them each on the shoulder. They rounded on him as one, both temper’s obvious.

He sat back and raised his hands. “Be calm. Akirette isn’t here, so we must represent the Four Tribes of Vogmem without her tonight.”

Ganara grunted, but then nodded.

Megalli shrugged. “Fine.”

Ilsa couldn’t help a slight smile. “I’m hardly able to speak for most of the Oshomi, but I know the Keeper wants an alliance. If she didn’t she wouldn’t be traveling with the fourth chieftain and without me and Blue.”

“As a priestess of Vada…” Ganara turned toward Ilsa and Blue and Lemuel. “I think peace would be best for now.”

“We stand together on this.” Megalli giggled. “Of course, I’d rather be airborne.”

Hiragen bowed his head to Ganara, then to Megalli. “I’ve wanted peace a long time. This will suit my people.”

“Sadly,” said Blue. “Peace with the Oshomi does not mean total peace.” She motioned to Ilsa. “If the Red Lector of Ayoch survived the Uzan he will be after the Keeper. That could lead him here.”

Ganara shook her head. Yellow hair shimmered. “If not the Red Lector, the Summer Devil.”

Ilsa frowned at the chieftains. “The Summer Devil?”

“There is an Ayochian General who returns when the thaw comes to the mountains. She brings troops almost every year.”

“I didn’t know Ayoch wanted the Lake of Saints.”

“Ayoch must want everything that is,” said Ganara.

Hiragen exhaled smoke and nodded.

“You’ve both fought her many times,” said Megalli. “If my people lived further west, I’m sure I would feel the same.”

Ilsa folded her arms. “This Summer Devil is a threat. And we have real devils on the plateau too.”

Hiragen’s expression turned grim. “The Uzan. Banasi isn’t the only scout who spotted them.”

“My lookouts on the peaks have only reported one great shell falling.” Megalli leaned toward Lemuel so her side brushed his shrunken arm. “I suppose that’s good news.”

“A great shell.” Ilsa thought back to the way the ground had shaken and burst apart when the huge bullet had impacted the Lotok formation. “We saw the effects of one on our way to the mountains.”

“They shatter the earth.” Ganara’s eyes closed. “I would not believe it, had I not seen it myself.”

“Yeah, that’s it exactly.” Blue turned to Lemuel, who was looking down at Megalli by his side. “Any idea where it came from?”

He backed carefully away from the slim Vogmem leader. “I’ve never read of such a thing. The records only go back so far.”

Ilsa’s brows bent. “Then we’re blind. They could have more, and they could show up anywhere. We can’t know.”

“Now you sound like me,” said Blue. “But they have to have some way to target those things and to launch them.”

“It definitely came from the Central Lyre,” said Ilsa. “They must have some sort of cannon there.”

“Could be.” Lemuel stroked the thin beard on his chin with his small hand. “But given the frequency of the Lyres, there is another possibility.”

Ilsa’s eyes met his, and he answered before she could ask her question.

“Think about this. The Uzan have been imprisoned beneath the Lyres since prehistory. At least three thousand years. I don’t think they’re immortal.”

“That’s an assumption we shouldn’t make.” Ganara’s eyes narrowed into slits. “These are the enemies of the gods, after all.”

Blue rolled her eyes. “No such thing as immortals. Ilsa killed two of them that I saw.”

Ganara glared at Blue. “What is an unbeliever doing with the Unification.”

“Fighting the good fight.”

“Indeed.”

“Go on, Lemuel,” said Ilsa.

He nodded. “Right. If the Uzan don’t have an immortal lifespan it is possible the Lyre did more than seal their bodies underground.”

“Some other kind of magic preserved them?” Hiragen shook his head. “Even magi can’t stop time.”

Ganara gave a snort of feigned laughter. “I don’t believe it either.”

“You said it yourself,” Megalli turned to Blue. “No such thing as immortals.”

Blue looked down at the floor. “I did say that.” She sighed. “But there are ways to avoid aging. I know that too.”

Ilsa raised her eyebrows at Blue. She had never heard Blue mention anything like this before, but then, her friend was much less talkative than usual when it came to past events. When the mind eater did not continue, Ilsa reached out and touched Blue’s arm. “What do you know?”

Blue raised her face, eyes unfocused but not completely lost to a magical trance. “There’s a place old mind eaters talk about. It’s called the Temple of Colors.” She looked pensive for a moment as if searching on a shelf for a tool she did not often have cause to use. “I didn’t think it was real until I went there myself.”

“I don’t understand,” said Ganara. “What does this temple have to do with the preservation of the Uzan?”

“I joined the Temple when I was sixteen.” Blue took a deep breath. “And I studied in the Temple for twenty years.”

“Impossible,” said Hiragen. “You’d have to be my age if you’d done that, and I can tell you aren’t yet near thirty.”

“Where is this temple?” asked Ganara. “Chogrum? Morhoen? I’ve never heard of such a place.”

“Let me make my point,” Blue said in a soft voice. “The Temple of Colors is not a place you can travel to physically. It is a mental place. Only a few trained mind eaters even know how to get there. I found the way when I was young. I spent twenty years studying, and when I returned for the final time it wasn’t after twenty years of our time, only two.”

“You expect us to believe this?” Ganara scowled. “Chogrumian liar.”

Blue shrugged. “It’s the truth, chieftain. The Temple of Colors is real. Most students aren’t as intense as I was. Mostly they don’t forget who they were before.”

Ilsa’s eyes widened. “Is that—?”

“That’s why I call myself Blue. I don’t remember my old name.”

“Fascinating,” said Lemuel, “Are you suggesting the Uzan could have some similar form of preservation?”

Blue nodded. “Their’s would have to be more extreme than the temple’s or they would still have to live for hundreds of years.”

Ganara gave a loud grunt. “Suppose they were preserved. That doesn’t explain how they fired the great shell, does it?”

“Actually, it just might.” Lemuel glanced at Blue. “If what you say is true, then it is possible not all the Uzan were sealed within the lyres themselves. The notes Black Powder played did more than unseal the Lyre’s lower levels,”

“He woke up the Uzan.” Ilsa nodded.

“Like a rooster on a farm,” said Lemuel with a grimace. “A really terrible rooster.”

“So the music of the lyre broke the spell,” said Ilsa, “Is is possible the weapons the Uzan used to fight against the gods were preserved too?”

“Beneath the ground.” Blue shrugged. “Anything is possible.”

Megalli twirled on her feet. “I think I believe all of this. But either way, the Uzan could well have another great shell.”

“It seems likely to me,” said Blue.

Ilsa snapped her fingers. “If it were me I wouldn’t fire my only magic bullet so soon.”

“Are you an Uzan?” asked Ganara.

Ilsa scowled at the blond Vogmem chieftain.

Ganara shifted back in her chair. “Then you should not assume you know what the Uzan will do.”

“We can predict them. They don’t seem very intelligent.” Ilsa put a palm to her forehead. “It’s the one who set them free that I don’t understand.”

“Black Powder,” said Lemuel.

“The mercenary leader?” Megalli grabbed Lemuel’s arm. “What does he have to do with this?”

“He’s the one who freed the Uzan,” said Ilsa.

Ganara scoffed at Megalli. “Keep up, skyrider.”

“Black Powder rides with the Red Lector’s army.” Ilsa hated to admit it, but her father would know how to avoid being killed by the Uzan or he never would have freed them. “He’s traveling with a number of his apprentices.” She rubbed the back of her hand where Melinda’s bullet had torn through it back at the Central Lyre. Siuku had healed the wound, but the memory of the pain remained. “But I don’t know what he wants.”

“If he rides with Ayoch he is the enemy,” said Ganara.

“Agreed.” Hiragen breathed out a cloud of smoke.

Ilsa wrinkled her nose at the smell. Whatever the Vogmem smoked, Hiragen had chosen something pungent and bitter, even compared to powder. She nodded to the chieftains. “We will help you fight the Lector and Uzan. In truth, we are all one people.”

“Humanity,” said Blue.

A loud crash from the far end of the lodge made Ilsa and Lemuel turn. The door swung back from where it had slammed. Her heart jumped. She smelled blood through the smoky scents of the room. The figure hunched in the doorway was awkward but unmistakable.

Ferdinand Thoss lurched forward into the lodge. His eyes gleamed through the haze and found Ilsa on the far side of the room. Tracks of dried blood ran from a cut beneath the disheveled black hair on his forehead. He wore his armor but carried no weapons openly. He walked into the room, ignoring everyone but her.

The Vogmem stared at him except for one big man who stepped into Ferdinand’s path. He held out his hand to stop the man before him. “Who are you?”

“I h-have f-friends h-here.” Ferdinand looked up at the big man. “S-stand aside.”

“You did not arrive with them, stuttering fool. I saw the whole group.”

“Stand aside.”

As he lost his stutter, Ilsa darted past the fireplace. She put a hand on the big Vogmem’s shoulder. “It’s true. He was with us, but we got separated back at the Central Lyre.”

“At the lyre? That’s a long way off.”

“Look, you simpleton.” Ferdinand glared at the man. “I did not ride for days and evade the Uzan just to be stopped by some idiot tribal.”

The Vogmem’s pale face turned red. He raised his arm to strike Ferdinand, shrugging off Ilsa’s hand. Ferdinand danced backward, still surprisingly quick despite his obvious exhaustion. The Vogmem’s blow found only air.

“I-Ilsa,” Ferdinand said. “Wh-where is the Keeper?”

“She’s—”

Blue clapped a hand over Ilsa’s mouth from behind. “Stop, don’t say anything.”

Ilsa struggled against her friend’s grip. She considered trying to bite one of Blue’s fingers. But then her friend released her.

“That’s not Ferdinand,” said Blue.

“What do you mean? It has to be him.”

“It’s his body. But I can tell he’s not calling the shots.”

Ferdinand’s weary face shifted from outrage to a sneer. “Perceptive, aren’t you, Nameless?”

He still sounded like Ferdinand. Ilsa tensed, ready to produce a pistol at a twitch of her hand.

The big Vogmem glanced at Ilsa, confusion on his face.

Ferdinand’s long spear flashed forth from his palm. The blade stabbed into the big man’s chest. Ilsa ducked sideways. The point of the slender spearhead emerged from the Vogmem’s back. Blood ran from his mouth. He fell with a grunt.

Ferdinand straightened his back and chuckled. The other Vogmem in the room erupted to their feet and went for their weapons.

Blue glowered at the man before them. “The Red Lector didn’t ride with any mind eaters. Who are you?”

Ferdinand backed toward the door. “I’m someone who knows you, Nameless.”

Ilsa lowered her hand to one side. She clenched her fingers into a fist but did not produce the pistol immediately. She needed to look for an opening.

Blue paced around the fallen Vogmem man, eyes on Ferdinand. “You’re with the Temple of Colors.”

The sneer stretched unnaturally. The point of the spear followed Blue. “Like you.”

“I left the temple.”

“If only you would return. We could forgive you.”

Blue continued circling further from Ilsa. The possessed Ferdinand’s spear point continued to move like the arrow of a compass. Ilsa’s heart sounded loud in her ears. Her fingers dug into her branded palm. The pistol waited, just a touch away.

Ferdinand tensed to thrust the spear at Blue. Ilsa drew and slammed a magazine into her pistol in one motion. Off went the safety. She aimed at Ferdinand but did not pull the trigger.

Ganara, Hiragen, and Megalli caught up. Megalli knelt down by the man Ferdinand had stabbed. Ganara held an old pistol in one hand and trained it on Ferdinand. Hiragen’s eyes unfocused, but there was no other sign of outward magic from him.

Blue glared at Ferdinand, who backed to the doorway. “You shouldn’t have come in here yourself.”

“This puppet is expendable,” said Ferdinand’s voice. “Unlike the other members of my team. Of course, I did not come alone.”

A gunshot roared through the windowless lodge. The barrel of Ganara’s revolver rose to join with the vapors the Vogmem had been breathing while relaxing. Ferdinand’s form hunched, head bowed, spear loose in his grip.

Ilsa frowned at him. Ganara took a step forward as she chambered another round. “That should have killed you,” she said.

“You Vogmem don’t have armor like we do in the west,” said Ferdinand. “Technology is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?”

She raised the gun to fire again. He stepped through the doorway and his spear vanished, letting the portal shut between him and Ganara.

Ilsa rushed to the doorway, pistol in hand. She heard footsteps retreating outside, despite the ringing of Ganara’s shot in her ears, and the din of shouts from the angry Vogmem who filled the lodge. Blue slammed into the door just ahead of Ilsa and threw it open. She charged out onto the rocky, starlit shore of the Lake of Saints. Ilsa followed her. The Vogmem camp was roused, but Ferdinand was gone.

“Blue, wait,” Ilsa said. “This is dangerous.” She conjured an image of snipers waiting on the mountain ridges high above them.

Blue stumbled to a halt on the shore by the lodge. Ilsa caught up with her friend and clapped a hand on her shoulder. There were tears in Blue’s eyes. “Ashnia,” she said in between two breaths. “A mind eater from the west. It makes sense. It has to be her.”

“Ashnia?” Ilsa repeated. “You know her.”

“When I met her in the Temple she was the Red Lector’s renegade daughter.”

“Looks like she found her way home.”

Blue looked over her shoulder at Ilsa. “Either way, she’s the enemy now. I won’t hesitate to drive her out, next chance I get.”

Ilsa listened to her heartbeat slow as she led Blue back toward the shelter of the lodge. I hope so, she thought.

“It’s alright, Blue. We’ll make it through this.”

“Is that all you worry about?” Blue grimaced. “Ilsa, I cared for that girl.”

Ilsa frowned up at the mountain pass. She squinted, trying to spot possible shooters, but found none overlooking the camp. Then she turned toward the lake. Nurse Mountain’s shadow darkened the waters. Blue leaned against Ilsa’s shoulder and looked in the same direction.

Her tears stopped.

Small lights bobbed along the far shore at the base of the famous mountain. The lights moved in a manner consistent with runners.

Ilsa’s breath felt like it would freeze in her lungs. “They’re going after the Keeper.”