Tenlyres Chapter 51 – Dirge

The first few chapters of Tenlyres and the first quarter of Hunter and Seed are available on instafreebie until the end of the month. Go check those out, as they’re a great way to show support for the blog.

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.

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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!

 

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Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa recovers from her wounds. The final battle draws near.

 

Some songs simply need to be played.

 

The evening after Cass’s defeat, Ilsa wandered the camp, unable to rest. She knew she would need to play the song on the Flowering Lyre once the sun rose again. She could only pray so much.

As the darkness began to close in and grow colder, Ilsa made her way back toward the tent she shared with Lemuel. He was sitting on the grass beside the tent when she arrived, under the light of a dim lamp. As she approached through the gloom, he offered a bottle of something strong to Ferdinand who sat beside him.

The two men had been enemies in the spring, but as summer began to wane they shared a drink. At least a few good things had come from this damned conflict. Ilsa hesitated in the darkness, unseen by the two men, listening to their muffled words.

“It’s not easy,” said Lemuel. “This is war, I guess.”

Ferdinand sighed. “I can still hope she’s alive. She was better than I d-deserved.” He took a swig from the bottle.

“Maybe it seems that way,” said Lemuel, “But I doubt she’d agree.”

“Am I the only one drinking here?” Ferdinand pushed the bottle at Lemuel. “Your sister is on the other side.”

“I’ll deal with that tomorrow.” But Lemuel still took the bottle, and he still drank.

“You do that. You can’t count on Ilsa forever.”

“I know.” Lemuel shook his head. “It’s strange. I used to rely on my sister. Now she could be ready to shoot me for all I know.”

Ilsa squeezed her eye shut in the dark, then opened them again. She took a deep breath and stepped out of the shadows into the illumination of the lamp that hung in front of the tent. Lemuel and Ferdinand looked up at her in surprised unison.

“You’re pretty quiet,” said Ferdinand.

“I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“Have a seat.” Ferdinand patted the ground. “We’re drinking to our troubles.”

“I heard.” Ilsa sat down beside Lemuel. He offered her the bottle. She drank and let the bitter taste to relieve a different kind of bitterness. “We’ll stop them, you know. And we’ll save as many people as we can.” She turned to Lemuel. “Even Tirica.” Her gazed continued to Ferdinand. “You know Cass is tough. If. If she’s still alive, we’ll find her.”

“I trust you.” No hint of a stutter corrupted his voice.

She handed him the bottle.

He raised the drink to his lips. “Tomorrow,” he said. And drank.

“Tomorrow,” said Lemuel.

“Tomorrow,” Ilsa murmured. She leaned against Lemuel. Their arms found the way around each other. “Tomorrow.”

 

Ilsa stood on the Flowering Lyre’s raised base as the sun rose the next morning. Siuku, Blue, and the prince of Chogrum were with her, while their troops took up positions encircling the stone base of the huge structure. Ilsa held the grips of the song pistols tighter than she had ever gripped a firearm.

The forces of Black Powder and Asurdeva spread out before her. Somehow, they looked more numerous than ever.

How could her father have amassed so many soldiers that were fanatics to the cause of the old god?

He wanted a perfect war, a war that would never end.

On her left, Lemuel stood, back to the wider support of the lyre. He held a book of notes in his hands and read from it in a low murmur.

She wanted to reassure him that they would win the day, but she did not know if she could. Even after she had started writing again, she could not muster the courage to speak in this moment. She would never be a real preacher like Cass. But she could try to save her first friend.

Black Powder had reacted quickly to losing the song pistols, but the Chogrumians and their allies had moved to occupy the lyre even as Cass had ridden to challenge Black Powder. They would fight, and they had a chance, at last, to defeat the army before them.

Uzan lumbered forward, weapons emerging from them. Ilsa closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She knew she could play the lyre, but there was no room for error. If the song was not perfect only some, or perhaps none of the Uzan would be sealed.

She clenched her jaw. “For Cass,” she murmured. For Akirette, and Hailek, and all the other beings who died for them to have a chance in this battle.

The prince caught her eye. “I will conduct with the staff,” he said. “Shoot at the string I indicate.”

“Right. The plan.” Ilsa nodded to him.

The Uzan surged forward. Their massive leader, the Gray Lector, took the lead. He was obviously the only one who had been awake these past millennia because of his deeply weathered and pitted skin.

Their weapons boomed and roared, distant and brutal. Nomads and Chogrumians alike answered with fire of their own. Ilsa turned to the prince. “As soon as you’re ready,” she said.

The air was hot and stank of all kinds of propellant.

The prince furrowed his brow and pointed the end of the red staff at the center of the lyre. Ilsa hit the string, and it vibrated with a sound almost like a gong.

She followed the point of the staff and fired. Again. Again. The sounds of the strings were louder than those of the guns.

Each pistol held twelve shots initially. Down to eight each after a few seconds of firing. Standing near her, Lemuel prepared the extra magazines, ready to reload near-instantly.

The song rose over the battle, somber and slow, but also commanding. She fell into the rhythm and continued to shoot the indestructible strings.

One gun emptied. Lemuel clicked the magazine back into it. She took it from him and emptied the other before handing that to Lemuel.

The chaos of the battle seemed far away.

Here, Boraij Kanan’s troops advanced on the flank.

There, Ganara’s Vogmem skirted the battle to angle toward the command of the mercenaries.

And ever-present, the Uzan continued to advance, killing humans with few losses to themselves.

Ganara’s riders cut back and hit Kanan’s rear. Skyriders fell upon the Ayochian traitors from above.

A glint of steel glimmered in the sun from Black Powder’s command post. Ilsa hit the next string, but her teeth went on edge. Her father had just produced a weapon from his spirit. It seemed strange to her spirit, but she could not identify it.

A heavy thud echoed from the distance.

An artillery shell, aimed with deadly accuracy, few toward the top of the Flowering Lyre.

Black Powder had finally used the stolen bombard from Howling Pass.

Ilsa’s eyes watered. She shot the string, emptying the gun again. A wave of sound spread over the field, dampening the movements of the Uzan. Some of them stumbled in their paces.

And then, the artillery shell hit the front of the lyre, creating a deafening interruption to Ilsa’s song, and setting some of the flowers around the base ablaze.

Ilsa staggered as the lyre shook with the impact. Her ears rang. Lemuel fell to the ground. A scything shard of metal whipped between the strings and carved through the prince’s outstretched arm.

He clutched the stump and fell to his knees. His guards were beside him in seconds. The red staff rolled free of his severed grip.

Blue ran to Ilsa and Lemuel, while Siuku reached the prince.

“We need to finish the song,” said Blue.

“How?” Ilsa stared at the bloody staff on the ground.

“I’ll point, you shoot.” Blue stared across the field. “We can still win.”

A sniper’s bullet whined off the lyre. Ilsa traced the shot to Tirica’s rifle, set up atop the broken Uzan artillery a hundred meters from the lyre.

“Damn it,” Ilsa said. “But you’re right.”

Blue picked up the staff, eyes glazed as she read the thoughts from Lemuel and the wounded prince to pick each string. Ilsa continued to fire.

Kanan’s surviving troops fought past Ganara’s Vogmem and joined with the Uzan in the center.

Another of Tirica’s shots rang off the lyre’s unbreakable stone.

Lemuel cringed close to Ilsa, a magazine in each hand.

The Gray Lector leaped up and onto the lyre’s base. He roared and weapons emerged from his body.

Blue sent to Ilsa. “Tirica is moving.”

“Good.” Ilsa kept shooting out the song. Each blast of the pistol sent the strings vibrating. A funeral song rose from the lyre. And the Uzan slowed again. Even the ancient Gray Lector gave a lurch of disruption as he pushed forward.

Then he was on them. His hand snaked out to grab the end of Blue’s staff.

A greatsword cleaved through his palm. Kaij Haram kicked out and drove the Gray Lector back a step. Guns bristled from the weatherbeaten Uzan, ready to blaze away. A chill froze the humid air. Ice blocked the barrels of the weapons.

Yunn grunted and guided his runner into cover behind one of the lyre’s supports.

Blue thrust the staff at another string, calm enough despite the arrival of some unexpected allies.

The Gray Lector bellowed a cry in the forgotten language of the gods. He swung to pummel Kaij, but his fist slowed, hesitating impossibly. Ashnia’s powers pinned the Gray Lector in place for an instant. She stood beside Blue, eyes clouded nearly white with her mind eater powers.

The Red Lector’s children were here to claim their revenge.

Kaij did not hesitate. He cleaved through the Gray Lector’s neck. Blood met the air and spattered Ilsa’s face.

The scarred Uzan fell to his knees. Huge hands reached for his freshly severed head.

Ilsa’s song echoed over the battlefield, drowning out all other sounds.

All around the lyre, the Uzan froze in their places. Blue lowered the staff’s point. The echoes of the song began to fade, but the monsters remained completely still.

Ilsa jammed an empty song pistol into its holster. She wiped blood and sweat out of her eyes. The legion of walking weapons was silent.

The Uzan had been sealed.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 46 – Echo

Tim here everybody.

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

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

Back to Tenlyres.

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

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



When enemies put aside their differences, Hathani is there.

When friends become enemies, Hathani is there.

But there also are human beings in all our varieties.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hathani help us,” she breathed.

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

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

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

“More than magi,” said Blue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We both were.”

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

“Why do you say that?” asked Lemuel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you enjoy it?”

“I tell myself I don’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blue, can you suppress them?”

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

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

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

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

“Blue, are you stopping them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She gritted her teeth and sighed unevenly.

Enemies drove them northward.

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

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

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

“A perfect war?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 39 – Guns of Summer

Tim here.

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

But for now, back to Tenlyres.

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

 

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

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

Even in defeat, strive to help others.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good plan,” said Ilsa. “Tirica—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the others?” Ilsa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tirica grimaced up at the gun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?”

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

“You. You were one of his apprentices.”

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

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

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

Tirica squeezed her eyes shut.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Tenlyres Chapter 21

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

Previous Chapter

Buy Tenlyres I on Amazon!

Tenlyres II - Ch21 Beast Engines

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

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

Tenlyres Chapter 19

Previously…

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

Previous Chapter

Tenlyres II - Chapter 19 lq - Hollow Weapons

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

“Siuku, tell everyone to ride!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We should go,” said Lemuel.

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

The smell of a powder Ilsa did not recognize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“How do you do that?” Ilsa asked.

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

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

“What about Cass’s arm?”

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

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

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

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

“He knew how to play the lyre.”

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

“I’m sure you would think so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not making this easy.”

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

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