Tenlyres Chapter 42 – Chogrum

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Previous Chapter

 

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

And when life ends, let it end with peace.

No matter how much one must struggle to survive.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So did you,” said Ilsa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cass gave a snort of laughter.

“We needed the top room,” said Blue.

“Why? For a lookout?” Ilsa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ilsa bowed her head.

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

“Where?”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

They had only just slipped through the net.

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

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

Neither First nor Tirica was in his camp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She gasped for air.

“So close.”

Blue slumped where she sat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Indeed,” said Siuku.

Blue frowned. “Did you see your attacker?”

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

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

“Would they interfere in the war?”

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

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

“None of us will,” said Blue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

After breakfast, the group split up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lemuel,” she said, “Wait.”

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

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

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

So much for keeping things quiet.

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

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

Her eyes followed the glint of Kaij’s blade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes narrowed with the pain.

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

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

Chogrumian soldiers closed in on them.

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

“Drop the weapons. Hands in the air.”

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

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

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

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 22

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue ride north from the Central Lyre with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
Separated from the rest of their group during a sudden attack by the monstrous Uzan, Ilsa, Blue, and the Keeper, ride toward the mountain pass on the edge of the plateau.

Previous Chapter

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The mountain pass came into sight a few kilometers ahead of Ilsa, Blue, and Siuku. Dew glistened on wiry clumps of mountain grass, pale blue glittering against struggling green. The rough terrain was difficult for already weary striders. Hailek seemed to be tiring as dawn crept over the mountains to the east.

They had ridden evasively during the night to avoid the Uzan, or they would have reached the pass sooner. Blue’s eyes were shot with blood, and Ilsa could only conclude her own looked similar. Granite slopes. Spiny trees. Dark birds that never called out. These things did not seem to care about the arrival of the Uzan so close to them.

Ilsa shivered as she thought of the monstrous beasts. The fact that she had killed one of them seemed completely unimportant. That one had barely managed a shot thanks to Blue’s control. Next time she might not be so lucky.

The world had grown darker since the journey began. Darker, and far, far stranger. Ilsa guided Hailek up a slope into the broadest portion of the pass to the Lake of Saints. Riding behind Blue, Siuku pointed. “Others,” she said in her monotone.

Ilsa’s tired eyes made out the shapes of horses and striders, clear against the gray mountains ahead. Her heart leaped into her throat as she searched for her friends. Lemuel, you have to be here, she thought, and Cass, I still owe you.

She found Tirica first. She sat upon a strider’s back with her long rifle propped against her shoulder. Cass rode behind her, red hair like a halo around her face.

Ilsa kept searching the group of Oshomi who had survived the siege and the Uzan attack. She finally spotted a dark coat with a high collar. Lemuel.

She pushed her heels into Hailek’s sides with more force than needed. The strider grunted and lurched the last few paces up the slope. He stumbled with a groan of protest but covered the rest of the distance. Hailek shuddered and sank to the ground just a few paces away from Lemuel, whose horse gave an anxious snort.

She slid down his side and her shoes landed on the stony ground. “Keeper,” she called. “Please help him, if you can.”

“You should have asked sooner, priestess.” Despite her words, Siuku climbed down from Blue’s strider and ran to the place on Hailek’s side where the Uzan had wounded him.

Ilsa leaned close and brushed the hair of Hailek’s neck gently. “It will be alright, my friend. Hathani keeps us all.”

She turned toward where Lemuel had sat on his animal and found him close before her. She smiled at him, but could not keep from sagging forward from exhaustion. His embrace caught her. His small hand moved down the back of her coat. “They all feared for you.”

“And you didn’t?”

“Only a little.” He squeezed her to him with both arms. “I trust you, Ilsa.”

She set her chin on his shoulder. “Thank you.” It had been years since anyone besides Blue and the Unification had invested that kind of confidence in her. “You helped me get here, you know.”

“How?”

She flushed, glad he couldn’t see her face. “I wanted to see you that much.”

“And your mission.”

“Yes.” She spoke into his ear. “My mission didn’t have to bring me to this place.” Her grip on him released and she stepped back.

Blue rode to the rest of the party. “The Uzan won’t be far behind us. Do you know anywhere we can go?”

Siuku replaced her veil and straightened her back. “To the Lake of Saints,” she said. “It is not far from here, though the way is difficult for horses.”

“Vogmem control the Lake of Saints,” said Cass. “I heard that at Saint Banyeen’s just before I left.”

“It is a good thing we shared peace meat with them.” Siuku walked past Ilsa and Lemuel toward her riders. “We must hurry.” She raised her bow and one of the riderless horses trotted to her. She climbed up to ride bareback.

A groan came from behind Ilsa. She and Lemuel looked in Hailek’s direction. The great wooly strider climbed to his feet, steady once again. His wound was sealed, but the hair above it was still gone, and the skin was pallid where it had been sealed.

Ilsa offered Lemuel the rope. They climbed into the saddle and rode after the rest of the party.

As they went, Cass and Tirica gradually dropped back to ride beside them.

She glanced at the other priestess, who still wore her arm in a sling. Their eyes met.

“I’m glad you made it,” Cass said. “When that missile hit, I feared the worst.”

“I wouldn’t die while I owe you.” Ilsa grinned wearily, feeling the tug of Lemuel’s small hand holding onto her belt. “And you’re not the only one I owe a debt in this group.”

Cass nodded. “The gates of the mountains stand open to all,” she quoted from the oldest scripture. “But we who fight for Hathani must always remember the ways of gods do not rely on our success.”

“Not your words?” Ilsa said. “I’m surprised.”

“The ancients said it best.”

Ilsa looked down at Cass’s arm. “How did that happen?”

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

Ilsa nodded. “Alright.” When they had been students Cass would never have passed up an opportunity to talk. Things had changed.

The way through the mountains grew steeper within the hour. She could only imagine how brutal the slopes would be if one strayed from the pass. Certainly, a horse would not make it through, and a strider as tired as Hailek likely would do little better.

Around noon, they followed the path around a bend in the rocky side of the mountain. Glimmers of pale blue water scattered with shards of ice were Ilsa’s first sight of the Lake of Saints. The lake filled a vast crater situated between three white peaks.

The mountain north of the lake bowed over, like a doting mother inspecting her child’s cradle. Her appearance had earned her a name known well in Dal, Chogrum, and beyond. Nurse Mountain’s arms wrapped around the water’s edge.

Lemuel gasped as he looked down upon the lake. Ilsa admitted the awe of the sight to herself as well. The Lake of Saints was holy to every member of the three. Hathanian scripture did not emphasize physical structures, but even among her clergy, the place bore significant history. For this was where many hermits had lived to pen their scriptures, and from here prophets had often proceeded with their messages to the people.

Veins of pink granite, the same traces as on every edge of the plateau, ran through each mountain. Lightning transcribed on stone. Fresh, cold air surrounded the party as they began their descent toward the pale waters of the lake. Hailek’s labored breaths became harsh halfway down the slope. Ilsa patted his side.

“Just a little more, my friend.”

A rumble like stone upon stone made Ilsa turn toward the peak above her, but thankfully there was no sign of a rock slide. Ahead of them, Siuku raised her hand to halt the party. The cry of a bird echoed over the heights.

Three great birds glided by just above their level, a rider on each of their backs. The old skyrider circled back on the lead bird. “What brings you Oshomi to this place?”

“Banasi,” called Siuku. “We seek shelter with our friends?”

Banasi replied with a laugh. “Times are strange, but peace is also on my chieftain’s mind.” Her bird carried her higher before Siuku could reply.

Lemuel shook his head in wonder. Ilsa glanced at him.

He sighed. “If only Chogrum and Dal could put aside the past so quickly.”

She pressed her lips together tight and nodded. Unification would be ideal, but it was a matter of hope, and far from a simple one. She would fight for that hope as long as she was able.

Banasi’s bird circled lower. The old skyrider called out, “Follow this path to the lake, Keeper of Tenlyres. My band is already there.”

Siuku signaled the party to keep moving. Down the slope, the sound of stone and stone drew Ilsa’s attention again. A shaggy, gray and white goat climbed along the steep slope. On the animal’s back, sat a woman with yellow hair and a heavy coat almost the same color as her goat. Other goat-riders moved in along the slopes above the pass. They escorted the Oshomi, Ilsa, and her friends, down to the Lake of Saints.

The Vogmem encamped by the edge of the lake gave Ilsa and the Oshomi glares and nervous looks as they approached. So much for the peace meat, Ilsa thought. The people did not appear as trusting as their scouts suggested.

They were clad in thick clothes and had mostly red or yellow hair. Most of them carried firearms ranging from rifles and shotguns to a variety of old-fashioned pistols. A few even wore piecemeal plates of armor sewn together with joins made from ballistic cloth.

Ilsa and the others rode to the lake shore within the camp. A cabin far larger than the tents of the rest of the camp stood nearby, and before it, two groups of armed Vogmem riders on their own large goats waited for them.

“Keeper of Tenlyres,” said a man from the center of the group closer to the lake in a slight accent that sounded close to Chogrumian, but definitely tinted with the hints of the Vogmem tribal language.

His beard was thick and red. He wore a black woolen coat and his goat had brindled fur of almost the same coloration. The man rode forward a few paces, stocky on the back of his animal. “I am Hiragan, chieftain of the northern pass. Welcome to the Lake of Saints.”

Siuku rode her saddle-less horse toward the man. Her veil hid any trepidation she might have, but Ilsa guessed some kind of worry had to be going on in the Keeper’s mind. Here they sat among the people who killed her parents.

“I have heard there are four chieftains of the Vogmem.” She motioned toward the camp. “Am I correct in guessing you are not the only one here?”

Hiragen grinned within his beard. He glanced at the other group of riders by the cabin.

“You guess well, Keeper.” A goat carried a woman forward. She was pale, though not albino like Siuku and her hair was blond. She wore a pair of pistols with old-fashioned revolving chambers on her belt. A black staff crossed the saddle behind her. A primrose flower was nestled in her hair.

The black staff and the primrose were both symbols of Vada, the same symbols Lord Palend had displayed back at his manor. Ilsa’s eyes narrowed as the woman smiled at Siuku. “Here we pray to the Three, but you are a welcome guest, Keeper.”

“So, you are Ganara,” said Siuku. “I’ve heard of your war with Chogrum.”

“Fortunate Chogrumians never meet me,” said Ganara with a smirk. “The unlucky ones do.”

Ilsa felt Lemuel stiffen in the saddle behind her. “I won’t let anyone hurt you,” she whispered to him.

He relaxed a little but remained tense. Ganara’s eyes fell upon Blue. “This one is not Oshomi.” She shifted her gaze to Tirica, then Ilsa and Lemuel. “I see you have some odd allies, Keeper.”

“No more odd for me to ride with them than with you.”

“Vogmem ride together.” Ganara raised an eyebrow. “And you need our help.”

“And I need the help of these city-dwellers as well.”

She glared from Ilsa to Siuku. “You’ve used them. Now you have us as allies. What use are these?”

“I do not abandon those who have fought by my side.” Siuku’s voice remained atonal, but the words still sent a chill through Ilsa.

Hiragen bellowed a laugh. “I believe you, Keeper of Tenlyres. Ganara, the others will be here soon, and I’m sure they won’t appreciate it if you or your people murder the Keeper’s friends. Even if they are city-dwellers.”

“I will wait for them. But we will have a verdict on these Chogrumians.” Ganara nodded to Hiragen. “For now, I will wait.”

“The other half of our Chieftains are on the far side of the lake,” said Hiragen. “They will return by nightfall. You and your riders have endured much, and you look it.”

“We would appreciate rest,” said Siuku.

“My thoughts exactly.” Hiragen motioned for two of his riders to lead the group into the camp. “Join us for now. My skyrider, Banasi, tells me you have dealt with many perils. The details can wait for when the other chieftains arrive.”

“Thank you.” Siuku nodded to the chieftains.

Ilsa and the Oshomi followed her into the Vogmem camp.

Tenlyres Chapter 16

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue have traveled across the plateau of Yr and found the Keeper of Tenlyres.
They and their allies have fought their way through the lines of the Red Lector, but allies have been left behind.
This is the final chapter of Part 1 of Tenlyres, but the story is far from over. Part 2 begins here on May 20th.

Previous Chapter

The strider’s wooly hair blew in the cold breeze, a breeze that carried the smells of blood and powder to Ilsa’s nose. Streaks of pink granite radiated from the edges of the Central Lyre’s base, and she followed one of them to the ramp that led to the inverted arch of the lyre.

Behind her in the saddle, Lemuel cradled his sister’s head in his shrunken hand. His other hand was pressed to her bloodstained side.

“How is she?” Ilsa asked.

“Her wound is serious.” Lemuel sagged forward so his forehead touched Ilsa’s shoulder. He spoke into her ear. “We need shelter, as soon as we can get inside.”

Her face flushed from the heat of battle and from having his hands pressed to her heart. She nodded, then turned toward the Keeper of Tenlyres. The veiled Oshomi woman sat in her horse’s saddle at the center of some thirty riders who had managed to break through the line.

The Keeper’s red eyes scanned her remaining comrades, then locked on Ilsa’s gaze, still fresh from her tears. Cass had been there for her this time. The Keeper said nothing for a long moment, then turned toward Blue.

“Mind eater,” she said in the steppe’s common language. “Let me join you.”

Ahead of Ilsa, Blue guided her strider to the strings that hung from the stone arch of the lyre overhead. Blue’s shoulder slumped with weariness, but she did not appear hurt beyond her fatigue. Ilsa rode to a stop beside Blue, under the arch. “If the Lyre really is hollow, how do we get inside?”

“The lyre will show us the way,” said the Keeper in her flat voice. “Have patience.”

Ilsa looked over her shoulder, past Lemuel and Tirica, at the lines of the Red Lector where the sounds of gunfire were beginning to diminish. Her eyes narrowed. She prayed Cass would survive, and Ferdinand too.

“Do not fear, priestess. I told my people to surrender once we broke through.” The Keeper craned her neck and looked up a the crosspiece where the lyre’s strings looped around rings of black stone. “Your friends will be safe, and soon we will free them.”

“Confidence,” said Blue. “I like that.”

“Keeper,” said Lemuel with sweat on his brow, “My sister is hurt.”

“I have eyes, scholar.” The Keeper said the words with her usual lack of inflection. “I will see to her once we are inside.” She reached out gingerly and touched a metallic string of the lyre. The string did not move, stiff and tough as the unbreakable stones around them. “Priestess.” The Keeper’s gaze moved to the submachine gun in Ilsa’s hand. “Your weapon.”

Ilsa frowned at the strings of the lyre. She reached out with the barrel of her gun and carefully flicked the fire mode selector to semi. The weapon’s barrel brushed a static metal string on either side, the two closest together on the lyre and pointed northward, away from the battle.

“Good,” said the Keeper. “Now hold it steady and fire. Once.”

Ilsa squeezed the trigger. Her tired arm shuddered with the recoil, but not so much she couldn’t hold the weapon steady. The bullet sailed away and the strings vibrated, to form a single low note. The note rumbled on as the sound of the gunshot faded from Ilsa’s ears. Her eyes flicked from one end of the lyre’s arch to the other.

All strings stilled, but the note of the two she had played with her gunshot lingered, echoed, thundered in the air. Ilsa’s heartbeat quickened. Behind her, Lemuel cried out in surprise. She looked back. He pointed toward one side of the lyre’s arch with his shrunken hand, jaw slack. The stone shifted, melted, reformed into a passage large enough for a strider to pass. The passage led downward.

“Now.” The Keeper’s voice contained no emotion. The riders guided their steeds through the tunnel in the stone. Ilsa and Blue followed the Keeper in last. The solitary note she had played on the strings faded completely from the air as they entered the passage.

And downward they rode on a spiraling slope of black stone. Yet within the tunnel, there was light. Veins of pale pink crystal glowed with weak illumination that cast the shadows of riders and horses along the walls. The air in the tunnel was warm. Weariness descended on Ilsa as they rode out into a vast cavern a few moments after they began their descent.

The ceiling ran with the same pink crystalline lights as the walls of the passage. Still, shadows stretched at the sides of the huge chamber.

The Keeper’s voice echoed from ahead of them. “We rest here.”

With care, Ilsa helped Lemuel carry Tirica down the climbing line from the saddle to the floor of the cavern. She was about to climb down herself when Hailek gave a grunt of exhaustion and settled onto his haunches. Ilsa slid down his back. The strider laid down his head.

Ilsa patted his side. “Rest, my friend,” she murmured.

Blue’s strider lay down beside Hailek. Blue dismounted. She walked over to Ilsa and Lemuel and Tirica. She looked back toward the tunnel they had come through. It gave no sign of sealing behind them.

“Someone needs to guard our exit,” Blue said.

Ilsa nodded to Blue.

Her friend put a hand on her shoulder. “I’ll do it.” Her eyes moved to Tirica’s pale face and Lemuel hunched over her. “Help them.” Blue turned to a few nearby Oshomi. “Hey, that door isn’t going to guard itself.”

The Oshomi exchanged glances, then dismounted, and followed Blue back up the passage.

“Stay safe,” said Ilsa, “Blue.”

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Blue sent back mentally. Ilsa halfway smiled at that.

The Keeper of Tenlyres walked over to Ilsa, moving slowly on foot. Her horse followed a short distance behind her, apparently just as eager to serve with the wound across its back as without. Ilsa looked at the Keeper’s red eyes, then motioned to Tirica.

“I’ll do what I can.” The Keeper unfastened a tie that held up her veil. When Ilsa saw the face the thin cloth had been hiding, she gasped. The Keeper’s features were Oshomi, clearly, but also strangely Dalite. She bore the kind of fine features Ilsa always associated with her mother.

Mother’s words returned to her from before she started this ride. “Beast daughter,” she whispered.

The Keeper’s red eyes met Ilsa’s, equally surprised. “Siuku has that meaning in my language. How did you know my name?”

“My mother has hallucinations—Visions. She sees a horse with a human face. Your face.”

“And she calls this spirit her beast daughter.”

“Yes.”

The Keeper knelt down beside Tirica. Her strange face fell into shadow and she spread her hands over the wound in the girl’s side.

Lemuel hovered over his sister, still crouched low. “Can you help her?”

“She is hurt deep. It will take time to heal.” The Keeper pressed her hands to the bloody wound and closed her eyes. She said nothing, did not appear to move, but light began to pour from her hands. Tirica shuddered and groaned. Lemuel hunched toward her. She opened her eyes at the same time as the Keeper.

“Lemuel,” she said. “Where am I?”

“Safe,” he said. “We made it.”

Tirica looked down at her wound. The Keeper’s hands remained pressed to the bloody coat.

“Tired,” Tirica said. She settled her head back on the stone and closed her eyes.

“Rest,” said the Keeper. “You will recover.” She took her hands from Tirica’s side and then stood up.

Ilsa frowned at her. “How did you do that?”

“The spirits of this place are not mysterious to me. That is what it means to be the Keeper of Tenlyres.”

“Siuku,” Ilsa said, “That’s your name.”

“Yes.” The Keeper faced Ilsa. She spread her arms and then wrapped them around Ilsa in a firm embrace. “Thank you for your help, priestess.”

“My mission isn’t over.”

“I know.”

“We will fight together again, Ilsa Barrett.”

“I want to know the truth. Why can my mother see your face?”

“Some things are mysterious, even to me.” The Keeper’s horse snorted behind her. “For now, we must survive.”

Ilsa put her arms around the Keeper and hugged her back. “Thank you. I’m sorry about the chief.”

“Duruko was a warrior. The spirits will guide him to his rest.” Yet there were tears in the Keeper’s eyes when she withdrew from their embrace. “Be kind to my people.” She walked away from Ilsa, toward the Oshomi who had made it from the camp to the lyre.

Lemuel straightened his back and turned to Ilsa. He said nothing but held his small hand in his ordinary hand. There were tears in his eyes too.

She walked to his side. “We must be the first city-dwellers to stand in a place like this in a long time.”

He looked at her with an exhausted but genuine smile. “It’s shame we probably won’t get out of it.”

“Don’t worry about that.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Right now, we have the present.”

“You sound like your friend.”

Ilsa frowned. “Blue talks a lot.”

“And she’s right a lot too.” Lemuel touched her hand. He sank down beside his sister.

Ilsa sat down beside him. “You think so?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“And you know what?” Ilsa shook her head. “I may agree with you.”

Tenlyres Chapter 15

 

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

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me,” Lemuel murmured in her ear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.” Ilsa heard herself say. “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Cass.”

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

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

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

Tenlyres Chapter 14

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden to the center of the plateau.
They have met with the Keeper of Tenlyres among the Oshomi nomads, the woman who it is their mission to protect.
However, the forces of the Red Lector have closed the distance.
The jaws of their trap bite down in the form of artillery from the mechanized force while riders try to cut off the way to the Central Lyre.
The day will be bloody.

Previous Chapter

Hooves and claws galloped and bounded over steppe-grass. Oshomi nomads on horseback surrounded Ilsa and Lemuel. The naturally-bred animals easily kept pace with Ilsa’s strider. The Keeper of Tenlyres rode just ahead of them, her horse leaping over the plains moving north. Ahead of them, in the distance, the curved stone of the Central Lyre rose from the plateau’s surface, strings glinting in the morning sun. The sound of artillery thundered in the opposite direction.

A slender red and blue line snaked toward the lyre from the west, the force of the Red Lector on their light striders and runners. The troops raced to block Ilsa and the Oshomi’s path to the center of the plateau. Ilsa doubted that they would be safe, even if they got to the lyre, but she had now choice now except to trust the Keeper’s word.

The strangely pale, red-eyed Oshomi woman with the bow slung across her back, leaned over her steed’s neck as if to whisper in the horse’s ear. Any sound she made was lost to Ilsa. The smell of Ayochian auto-launch propellant was overwhelming on the breeze.

Blue and the rest of the travelers capture by the scarred Oshomi chief with Ilsa and Lemuel, caught up with them. Blue rode the same great strider that had carried her from Dal alongside Ilsa. She shot a glance at Ilsa as she moved alongside, with Cass Kalteri just behind her on a runner.

“Ilsa, aren’t we going the wrong way?”

“The Keeper says we’ll be safe at the Central Lyre.”

Blue grimaced. “Did she say why?”

“Not precisely. But she seemed confident.” Ilsa heard the note of doubt in her own voice. She grunted. “Can’t exactly go back, now.”

“Point made. All days be damned.” Blue guided her strider closer to Ilsa and squinted into the distance. “Looks like going forward isn’t gonna be easy either.”

“The path is red,” said Cass. “Be red to walk it.”

Ilsa turned at the other priestess. “Shit, Cass. Now is not the time for your words.”

“And yet, there may not be another time.” Cass pressed her palms together and then pulled them apart. A submachine gun appeared from one bonded palm. She loaded the weapon with a magazine from her belt.

Ilsa nodded. “It is time for that.” She produced a pistol and loaded it. Then produced her shotgun and loaded that. The Red Lector’s lines continued to crawl across the land before them. They reached past the Central Lyre and began to curve to encircle the massive monument.

Lemuel’s small right hand fell onto her shoulder. He leaned forward, chest to her back. “How are we to pass them?” he whispered.

She stiffened her spine. “Hold on tight. We’ll break through.”

“And what if one of us is shot?”

“Then don’t let go.”

She squeezed her legs together around Hailek’s midsection. The strider quickened his already stern pace. He made no complaint, but Ilsa knew he had reached his fastest, and would tire quickly at this speed.

Blue fell behind by a few meters, but Cass on her runner kept pace with Ilsa and Lemuel on her runner. The cat-like steed’s sides’ heaved with exhausted breaths. Cass kept her eyes ahead and checked the slide on her machine gun.

“They’re going to be ready for us.”

“Ready for a fight.” Ilsa grimaced at the small army a kilometer ahead of them. “Not ready for us.”

Cass did not answer. They moved ahead in the Oshomi formation and caught up with the veiled Keeper on her galloping mare. Ilsa glanced at the Oshomi woman. The Keeper unslung the bow and then tugged three steel-tipped arrows from the quiver attached to her saddle, ignoring the smaller quiver hanging from a sling across her shoulders.

“Keeper,” said Ilsa, “Are your people ready to charge?”

The Keeper’s flat voice answered. “Duruko will lead the formation.”

A gunshot cracked the air from behind Ilsa, loud, nuanced by a whistle of air, Chogrumian long-rifle, Tirica Chollush’s weapon. One of the soldiers in the Red Lector’s army pitched off his light strider. The Oshomi closed the distance. Six hundred meters. Five hundred. Four hundred. Three hundred meters from the Ayochian line. Two hundred meters from the red and the blue. The Oshomi got to within one hundred meters.

In the fore of the riders, Duruko shouted the order to charge in the language of the Oshomi. Lightning lances and rifles rose from the formation, mixed with mundane swords and spears, traditional bows and arrows, and a few smaller firearms loaded with Dalite and projectiles. The Oshomi raced toward the lines and their weapons began to speak like thunder.

The Red Lector’s troops returned fire.

Riders fell. Screams echoed in the morning air. The smell of blood and propellant mingled in Ilsa’s nose.

She looked down the barrel of her pistol, searching for the Red Lector himself, as Hailek carried her and Lemuel over the ground. Cass’s weapon spoke in a careful ballistic chant. Two soldiers fell from their saddles.

The Keeper’s arrows flashed through the air, silent against the sound of gunfire. Her arm moved in rapid draw and release. Draw. Release. More soldiers fell, with shafts in their chests.

Ilsa spotted the Red Lector’s command party a few meters behind the line, directly in front of the Central Lyre. His scouts, with his sons, Kaij the weapon-bond and Yunn the ice magus, rode with them. Their rifles and blades remained silent and still, but Ilsa had no doubt they would be ready when the Oshomi broke through the line.

Short and heavy General Boraij Kanan carried a long-barreled revolver. The red-armored Lectoral Protectors clustered on their striders, a fortress that surrounded the Red Lector himself. Goji Haram carried no weapon, but at his right hand rode Ozleji Sammhar, the fang-masked Ayochian weapon-bond, disciple of Ilsa’s father. A chill ran down Ilsa’s spine at the sight of the towering bodyguard. Of all the Ayochian soldiers she feared him the most.

“No time for that,” Blue’s voice said into Ilsa’s mind.

“No time for what?” Ilsa sent back.

“You’re the scariest killer on this field. Use it.”

Ilsa could swear she heard laughter in Blue’s message. She grunted in annoyance. The situation was no joke.

Ozleji Sammhar clenched both hands into fists. The huge pistol Ilsa had seen before appeared in one, and an ornate shotgun appeared in the other. He propped the pistol against his armored hip and loaded the shotgun. Guns roared and men and women screamed in every direction.

She extended her arm and picked off a rider with a standard. One of the Red Lector’s banners tumbled to the steppe-grass and mud below. Ilsa turned int the saddle, tugging at Lemuel’s hand where he held her waist.

A pull of the trigger went first. A flare of the muzzle and the kick of the pistol followed. Another standard bearer fell, further down the line opposite the first one.

Clusters of Ayochian soldiers scrambled to retrieve the fallen flags. Where one group fought, an Ayochian lightning lance thundered with its deafening blast. Electricity leaped and shot and chained through the group, and they all fell.

The scarred Oshomi Chief, Duruko, shoved the lightning lance back at the rider from whom he had grabbed it. A rifle appeared in his hand, in the heart of a cluster of nomads near the fore of the charge. Blades cut down Ayochians. Bullets knocked Oshomi from their horses.

The sounds of battle could overwhelm the inexperienced. Somehow Ilsa found it all too familiar. She turned and shot. Aimed. Shot again. And again. Her pistol was down to the last loaded bullet, but she had yet to fire her machine gun. The Ayochian center wavered under the onslaught.

Claws extended, Cass’s runner leaped onto a light strider just ahead of Ilsa. The cat-steed pulled down both the soldier and the strider. Two more soldiers took aim at Cass as her runner bit and tore at the fallen pair.

Cass shot one with her pistol. The soldier fell. The other raised an assault rifle.

One bullet hit Cass’s runner in the shoulder. The cat-steed howled with pain as it pitched onto one side. The runner’s bulk crushed the bloodied form of the Ayochian soldier it had been intent on slaughtering just an instant before.

Another bullet slashed through Cass’s saddle and chipped a fragment from her staff. Red-painted wood flew skyward. Cass turned her submachine gun towards the soldier.

A third bullet hit Cass in the back of the hand that held her weapon. An eruption of blood sprayed across Cass’s chest up to her hood and her collar. She screamed and ducked her head. Her retaliating shot went wide.

Ilsa killed the soldier who had shot Cass with two rounds from her submachine gun. She then dropped two more with the same burst. Seven bullets spent. Twenty-one left in the magazine.

She rode to Cass’s runner as the cat struggled to stand despite its wounded shoulder.

“You’re hit.” Ilsa’s voice sounded almost as flat to her as the Keeper’s.

Cass grimaced but did not look at her hand. She swung her legs over one side of her saddle. Her unwounded hand pressed to the fur of the runner’s head. She leaned over the creature and spoke into one feline ear. “Hathani bless you and protect you. Greet no other gods on the pathway to paradise.”

Tirica caught up beside Ilsa on her strider. Her rifle was slung across her shoulder and she held a pistol. “Priestess, Kalteri. Are you alright?”

Cass’s brow furrowed. She turned to Tirica. “I could use a lift to the lyre.”

Tirica guided her steed closer and tossed down the line for Cass to climb up to the saddle. Cass freed the bag with her staff from the wounded runner’s saddle and slung it over one shoulder. She started to climb.

Blue reached Ilsa’s cluster. Her eyes were unfocused and her lips moved in a subvocal chant Ilsa could not hear over the sounds of the fight. Ayochian troops were in retreat from the center of their line.

Duruko’s forward group of riders strung out in a line across the broken portion of the Ayochian line where Ilsa and her group gathered. They whooped and yelled and drove the Red Lector’s troops back with guns and spears. Ilsa found the Keeper of Tenlyres riding just behind that line, a lone rider on a bloody battlefield.

Ferdinand’s white strider appeared on the other side from Tirica. The adventurer’s face glowed with fevered excitement. He held a javelin in one hand, and his basket-hilted lance in the other. His eyes continued to move as he searched for enemies. “This, I will have to write home about.”

“Don’t speak so soon,” said Ilsa.

Cass reached the saddle of Tirica’s strider. She fastened her bag to the saddle and then slung her leg over the strider’s back. She bandaged her bleeding hand with a white cloth from her saddlebag.

In the pocket formed by Duruko’s line of riders, Ilsa turned toward the Red Lector’s command party, now isolated just beyond them.

Goji Haram shouted orders, his face as white as his hair. His ten armored protectors remained clustered around him and General Kanan. The scouts, including the lector’s sons, had left his side. Surviving soldiers from the broken line had rallied with their leader. A few other adjutants and lesser clerics of the Ayochian religion looked around furtively from within the formation of soldiers that surrounded the Red Lector.

Ilsa scowled at the red armor, the blue cloth, the white face of the Red Lector, most warlike of the religious leaders of the monarchy. She thought of how she had felt, rendered powerless without her weapons when she had first met him. His condescension had been irritating, and his level of knowledge frightening. Her eyes moved to the Keeper of Tenlyres, now all too close to the Red Lector’s party. Goji Haram’s mission to capture the Keeper ran directly counter to Ilsa’s. She would not let him succeed.

She raised her submachine gun and looked through its iron sights. She aimed for the heart of the Red Lector, barely visible in a gap between his protectors. Ilsa squeezed the trigger.

Ozleji Sammhar lurched to one side and swung his hand cannon toward Ilsa. Two gunshots echoed from the quiet center of the battle lines. The lull broke into a staccato of more shots and shouts.

Ilsa’s shot struck Sammhar’s armored collar with the crack of metal on metal. He fell from his great strider and crashed to the ground a few meters below. His own shot went wide of Ilsa.

Tirica grunted with pain and then slumped forward in her saddle. Blood spattered from the black wound Sammhar’s bullet had torn in her side. Cass shouted a late warning and grabbed the young woman’s wounded side with one hand. Blood ran through fingers as she applied pressure. Lemuel released a strangled cry. His hand slipped from Ilsa’s waist.

The Red Lector’s other guards sprang forward toward Duruko’s Oshomi, where the Keeper of Tenlyres rode just behind the line.

Ilsa stared at Tirica and Cass. The stench of ballistic propellants was overpowering. Blue’s eyes snapped shut, then open again. Those eyes focused on Ilsa. “Move it,” she said. “I can’t make stall the scouts any longer.”

As if to illustrate Blue’s words, the Red Lector’s scouts hit Duruko’s thin line with a sudden fusillade. Shards of red ice flew from the bloody ground, stabbing into horses and riders alike. Ilsa snapped her attention from Tirica and Cass. She drove her heels into Hailek’s side and rode toward the Keeper of Tenlyres as the woman drew back her bowstring.

Blue’s strider matched Hailek’s pace on one side of Ilsa while Ferdinand charged on the other. As they approached the line of Oshomi, Kaij Haram led the scouts on their runners in charge from the other side. Great cats leaped and clawed at horses. Duruko’s rifle felled a burly man, but then the scouts were upon his group. He tossed away his rifle and drew a two-handed sword from a bond on his palm. Kaij rode straight for the Oshomi chief, a long-bladed sword emerged from his own bonded palm. Steel rang against steel.

An arrow dropped another scout. Ilsa and Blue caught up with the Keeper as she lowered her bow. Only a few arrows remained in either of her quivers. “Keeper,” said Ilsa. “We have to get through before they close the gap.”

The albino woman looked back at the direction they had charged. Horses and striders, Ayochians and Oshomi, lay scattered in their wake. Some Oshomi had broken through the line and made it to the black stone base of the Central Lyre, but the Red Lector’s bodyguards were fanning out to block any more nomads from reaching the monument. The Keeper took a deep breath that pulled in her veil around her mouth.

“You are right, Priestess. We must go. Now.”

Ilsa looked over her shoulder. Cass had gotten control of Tirica’s strider while holding the wounded woman against her chest. Tirica’s eyes were closed, but Ilsa could see her breath in the chill created by the ice magus’s powers. The two of them moved forward slowly, but they kept moving. Ilsa’s gaze fixed on the glittering strings of the Central Lyre. She urged her steed forward.

Tenlyres Chapter 13

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden toward the central lyre, in search of a means to prevent the brewing war.
Now, captured by a group of Oshomi nomads, Ilsa is closer than ever to the Keeper of Tenlyres.
She and her friends have convinced the Oshomi Chief to take them to the Keeper.

Previous Chapter

 

The tent of the Keeper of Tenlyres was the largest in Duruko’s camp. Ilsa stood just inside the entryway, Lemuel at her side. The tent was without light, except for a single small and halfway-covered lightning lamp standing on a pole pounded into the ground in the center of the circular enclosure. On the opposite side of the lamp from Ilsa and Lemuel and Duruko sat a woman on a meditation pad, legs folded into a lotus position.

Lamplight cast the woman’s shadow behind her but illuminated pale hair, unusual among the Oshomi. A gray veil covered her face below her eyes, and her eyes were closed. Ilsa felt the urge to step forward and bow to the woman because she knew she had to be the keeper, as no other Oshomi women wore veils.

“Keeper,” said Duruko, the scarred Oshomi chief, “My scouts captured a group of city-dwellers.”

“Where did you find them?” asked the woman in a flat tone, eyes still closed.

“West of here. Riding toward the Central Lyre. This man has studied the Lyres. You may be interested in his knowledge.”

“Perhaps.” The woman’s eyes opened slowly. Her irises were pink but flecked with specks of darker color. Her red gaze fell upon Lemuel. “He is a cripple.” She spoke without inflection, stating a fact and nothing more. “That is interesting.”

Her red eyes moved to Ilsa. “Duruko. You did not mention you brought me a woman as well.”

“A priestess, Keeper.” Duruko bowed his head. “Forgive me, but she told me she is on a mission to protect you.”

“You do not trust her.”

“How could I? She was born in a city and rides a strider.”

“Trust her.”

Duruko’s head jerked up from his bow. “Keeper, she could be lying.”

The Keeper’s eyes remained on Ilsa’s face. Ilsa froze under the red gaze. Her breath caught as the woman studied her impassively. Their eyes met and Ilsa held the gaze of the Keeper for a silent minute. She felt no tendrils in her mind, only her heartbeat and breathing.

The Keeper’s gaze did not waver Ilsa. “She is not lying.”

Duruko nodded. “That is good news, Keeper.”

“You were right to bring her to me. There are others.”

“Indeed. Three more women, and one more man, with runners and striders as steeds.”

“You are a priestess.” The Keeper’s flat tone never changed.

“I—I am.” Ilsa found herself stammering like she never had, even as a girl in school or at Saint Banyeen’s Garden years ago. Had she not been in such awe at the Keeper’s strange presence and finally meeting the holiest nomad leader, she might have been annoyed at her own cracking voice.

“You belong to Hathani’s clergy, the white rose, the red staff.”

“Yes, Keeper.”

“There is another priestess with them, another white rose.”

“How did you know?” Ilsa asked.

“I saw a small hand pointing down a path between two white roses. And that path led toward the sunrise.”

Ilsa frowned. “Where did you see this? How?”

“I have dreamed it more than once. Always I have remembered it. But one cannot say a dream is true until it unfolds.” The Keeper looked to Lemuel. “Your arm is shrunken, yet you have knowledge of Tenlyres.”

“Yes.” Lemuel straightened his back but did not return the Keeper’s gaze. “Yes, I do.”

“Let me meet you with joy.” The Keeper’s eyes fixed on Lemuel’s arm. “Tell me what you know.”

“Every lyre is larger than it appears. They go deep into the earth.”

The Keeper nodded once. “Continue.”

“I have studied the resonant frequency of every lyre but the central one. Though they are all different, they all protect the lyres from erosion and other damage.”

“Curious. You know a great deal.”

“I have studied the lyres my whole life.”

“That is good. Chogrumians must not forget they were once a village of the Filami people.”

“The Filami?” Ilsa had never heard of a direct relationship between the plant pile farmers who dwelt in villages on the steppe and the people of Chogrum.

“Once the people of Chogrum lived among the lyres and knew of the maze. Memory is good.” The Keeper continued to look at Lemuel. “Do not confuse yourselves. The divide has grown deep.”

He nodded, but still kept his eyes averted from the Keeper. “I will remember that.”

“As you should.” The Keeper’s red-eyed gaze moved to Ilsa’s face. “Priestess, who do you really serve?”

“The Unification. We wish to see all the gods worshiped as one.”

“You who dwell in cities know nothing of gods. The blood of wounded horses. The heartbeat of the newborn foal. The wind in the ears of the rider. These things connect nomads to the lyres.”

Ilsa frowned, annoyed with the Keeper’s dismissal. “The blood of wounded humans and horses is much the same.” She closed her eyes and listened. Her ears had always been keen, but at that moment, the world seemed still except for the gentle thump of her pulse and the breath of herself and Lemuel. The lamplight flickered in the covered glass that contained it and made the inside of the tent seem darker in its momentary absence. “Our hearts beat the same. The wind reaches all of us.”

The Keeper studied Ilsa’s face in silence for seconds, a minute, two minutes. “That is your creed.”

“Yes.” Ilsa released a breath she only then realized she had been holding.

“Do not be confused. The Unification does not anger me.”

“Koor of Morhoen sent my friend and me to protect you.”

“You cannot protect yourselves. I have every Oshomi on the steppe in my service.”

Ilsa inhaled a long, slow breath. “Is this camp the center of your army? Can you call to your people and see them at your side?” She worried she was being too rude, but she plowed on, seeing her chance to make her case. “Have you seen the Red Lector? His forces must be near by now, and his riders outnumber this camp by five to one.”

The eyes of the Keeper narrowed, but the rest of her face remained hidden by her veil. She unfolded her legs from the lotus position and stood on the floor of the tent. The pale skin of her bare feet looked sallow in the dim yellow light of the lamp. “I have seen this army. He will need to ride faster to catch us on the plateau.”

“What about the Central Lyre? He will reach it any day now.”

“So he will. But it will do him little good unless he knows what this scholar knows. And that knowledge has never belonged to a city dweller before.” The Keeper’s gaze burned with ice. “You are a priestess, but you have never known the truth.”

“What truth?” Ilsa took a step forward toward the Keeper. “Please, tell me.”

Duruko grunted. One hand fell to his belt, moving toward a knife. The Keeper’s eyes flicked to the chief. “Peace, Duruko.”

He grunted again and folded his arms. “Take care, priestess. You walk on dangerous ground.”

“Is this ground more dangerous than a Lotok where the geyser erupt with the cold? I have seen the steppe. I have seen the Lyres and the nomads. And I have seen the Red Lector, his army, and his sons. Let us take you to safety where Ayoch cannot go.”

“You will need better words to convince me to abandon my people,” said the Keeper.

Ilsa lowered her voice. “There is another army on its way here from Ayoch.”

Duruko started. “What? Why did you not tell me before?”

“Information is powerful. I only learned this piece through a chance encounter.” Ilsa kept her eyes on the pale face of the Keeper, what little was visible over her veil. “This army belongs to someone called the Gray Lector, but its mission cannot be anything good, being this far across the plateau. We met forward scouts from them just yesterday. We killed them.”

Duruko scowled. “My scouts heard brief gunfire west of here. That was you?”

“Probably.” Ilsa clenched her hands in tension, not to summon any of her weapons. “The truth is, I do not know this army’s intent, but they have machines, vehicles, heavy weaponry, and who knows how many there are of them.”

Duruko’s scarred face furrowed. “Fear mongering.”

“Truth,” said Ilsa. “Days west of here, at Doubtless Manor, I intercepted a communication between them and Lord Palend.”

Lemuel glanced at her, unspoken questions in his wide and nervous eyes.

Ilsa bowed to the Keeper of Tenlyres. “My only concern is your safety, Keeper. If you will not leave your people, we will need to find shelter somewhere all of us can go.”

The Keeper’s eyes closed. “I believe you, priestess. Ride with us to the Central Lyre.”

“But that is where the enemy is going,” Lemuel said. “Surely, further east would—”

“The lyre is only a day’s ride from here. And it never refuses shelter to my family.” The Keeper of Tenlyres opened her eyes. “The spirits are with us.”

Ilsa bowed her head to the Keeper. “Thank you, Keeper.”

A gunshot split the air from outside the tent, unmistakable, loud, irrevocable, lethal. Ilsa smelled Ayochian auto-launch propellant. She raised her head. “It’s the Red Lector.”

Duruko grabbed Ilsa’s arm with weathered fingers. He whirled and dragged her from the tent. Bright daylight blinded her. Lemuel stumbled out of the tent after them.

“Tirica,” he shouted, “Where are you?”

His sister replied with a cry of alarm. “Get down,” she called from her crouch few dozen yards away, dismounted among the tents, horses, and striders. She carried her rifle with its telescopic sights. Cass, Blue, and Ferdinand were clustered nearby in similar posture, with their own weapons drawn. Oshomi nomads ran for weapons. A body lay beside a horse by the tent where Blue and the others crouched.

“It’s Ayoch,” said Blue, “But this isn’t the Red Lector.”

A high-pitched whine from high above made the bottom drop out of Ilsa’s stomach. In Morhoen artillery shells made a very similar sound. “Damn it.” The Gray Lector’s army had gotten into range. Ilsa pulled her arm from Duruko’s grip. “We need to ride now.”

“This camp is all warriors,” said Duruko, “We ride for the central lyre.”

The first shell overshot the camp and exploded on the far side.

“They haven’t found the range yet,” said Ilsa, “We have a chance to get away until they do.”

Duruko turned to each of the guards who stood outside the tent. “She is right.”

Then, he raised his voice and shouted in the Oshomi language, words Ilsa did not understand with a ululating sound. A pair of horses broke from a herd and galloped to his side. He sprang onto one’s back.

“Hailek,” called Ilsa.

Her silent weeping-haired strider answered her by trotting up from beside the tent. Ilsa turned to Cass and Blue. “We’re going with them,” she called to the others. As the others mounted as quickly as they could, Ilsa pulled down the mounting rope from Hailek’s saddle. “Climb up,” she said.

“What about you?”

“Right behind you, but first, we need the Keeper.”

He answered her with a nod of his head.

The second horse Duruko had called stamped the ground nearby. More bullets cracked the air. Oshomi fired back at the unseen foes. Another shell whined in the distance.

Lemuel started to climb up to Hailek’s saddle, awkward with his shrunken right arm, but without complaint.

Ilsa turned back to the tent. The Keeper of Tenlyres stood in the entryway, a cloak across her shoulders, veil over her face. She held a reflex bow in one hand, and a quiver of arrows in the other. While the battle made the camp thunder and blister and scream, she stood serene. Her red eyes moved to the nearby horse Duruko had called. “I am with you, priestess.” Her tone was flat as ever. She climbed into the saddle of the second horse. “We ride.”

Tenlyres Chapter 12

Previously…
Ilsa and Blue, and their allies have ridden toward the central lyre, only to be captured by the Oshomi nomads.
Even so, Ilsa knows the Keeper of Tenlyres is close. If she can survive, her mission is only beginning.

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa regained the sense of her hands and arms as the Oshomi led her and her captured companions to the east. In the dark, she smelled the powder of weapons, especially once the stench of burnt ozone faded and she regained her hearing after the defining lightning attack. For his part, Ferdinand seemed rattled, but otherwise relatively unhurt. Hailek, as usual, made no complaint. They rode to the east.

The sky had begun to brighten by the time they approached a small cluster of tents ringed by horses and dark-cloaked sentries, an Oshomi campsite. Ilsa hoped the Oshomi would give them some chance to explain themselves. For that, still being alive had to be a good sign, but nothing was certain. Only she and Ferdinand appeared to have been it the by the lightning but the Oshomi who had attacked from behind must have numerous, for she could not remember hearing so much as a shot from Tirica or Cass before they had surrendered.

The big and scarred Oshomi, who still carried the lightning lance he had blasted Ferdinand and Ilsa with, rode close to her side, one weathered hand clenched on Hailek’s reins. The man carried only a few long knives for additional weapons, but Ilsa’s roving eye spotted a strange scar on the back of the hand holding the reins, the kind of scar that looked deliberate. Brands were not the only way to make weapon bonds, scars and tattoos could be used as well. Likely he had a more flexible weapon, such as a rifle, bonded to that hand. Ilsa sniffed out the powder whiffs and detected a few from him. Probably a gun bond.

She sniffed again, seeking the location of the nomad’s ammunition. The scarred man glanced at her. “Smell something good?” he asked in Yrian, the language common both within and between the cities of Dal in Chogrum. His tone was amused, but his dark eyes looked harsh in the cold morning light.

“You’re a weapon bond,” she said in the same language, one many people, even off the plateau, would understand. “Guns, right?”

“Yes.” He motioned toward her with the lightning lance. “You are too.”

“Right,” she said. “Can you tell me where you’re taking us?”

“We are there, already.” The man snorted in a nasal laugh. “This is my war camp.” He motioned to the cluster of tents around them. “Here I will decide your fate.”

“So, you’re the leader here.”

“My name is Duruko. I am the chief of my tribe.”

“What is the name of your tribe?”

“You ask too many questions, woman.”

“You’ve given me answers so far.”

“Do not push me. I can make things worse for you.”

She assumed that meant he had not decided their fate yet. Good. “I’m a priestess of the Unification,” she said.

He poked his lightning lance at one end of the red staff that stuck out from her saddle. “That is a Hathanian symbol.”

“I was trained as a priestess of Hathani. But I serve the Unification.”

He snorted again. “You city-dwellers will say anything when you’re trying to save your lives. Cowards.”

Her face flushed with anger. She took a breath. “Call me a coward if you want—”

“I just did.”

“—I am here to help you.”

“Funny.” But this time, he didn’t snort or chuckle. “I saw you riding with the westerner. The red banner.”

“My friends and I were just trying to get closer to the Central Lyre.”

He looked at her and their eyes met.

“That’s where the Ayochians are going, chief.”

“Don’t make this about them. This is about you.”

Ilsa kept her eyes on his. “But you don’t trust them because you saw me riding with their column.”

“You can try to push me, but you people who live in cities will never know how to argue with an Oshomi.”

“I’m not trying to argue with you.” Ilsa looked toward the large tent at the center of the camp. “Look, I want to protect the Keeper.”

His brow creased for the first time. “Say something more. Prove it.”

“Koor of the East sent my friend and I find and protect the Keeper of Tenlyres because we think that could be a way to prevent war.”

“War is here already.” The man’s scarred face furrowed.

“It will be worse once Chogrum and Dal start to fight. The weapons the cities have now won’t care if you’re Filami or Oshomi. The people of the plateau will see worse slaughter than last time.”

“Last time, the Keeper did not need protection from the Unification.”

She frowned at him. He raised a hand to stop the party. Their gazes locked once again. “The Red Lector wants to capture the Keeper. I want to help you stop him.”

“If you are telling the truth, there would be no need to destroy you.” He set his jaw. His eyes appeared distant, dull with what might have been remembered grief. “But I have seen too many liars to trust any city dweller.”

Ilsa nodded. “If there is a way to prove our intentions, please, allow us the chance. My friend is a mind eater. Let her send the memory of Koor’s orders to you.”

“What good is a priest’s word? He does not know the plateau. He has never seen the tower grass or the Lotok geysers. He has not fought Vogmem or touched a lyre’s endless stone or unbreakable strings. And neither have any of you.”

An excited sound came from behind Ilsa. The leader of the Oshomi riders turned and glared past her at Lemuel. She followed the scarred man’s gaze to the scholar. “Speak,” said the Oshomi. “What brings you into this, cripple?”

Lemuel stared at the man, a mixture of outrage and fear mingling on his face. He swallowed visibly but did not look away from the scarred leader. “You seem to know the true value of the lyres, sir. In that case, I think I have something that may interest you.”

The leader’s scarred face split into a mirthless grin that twisted the scars on his cheeks into ragged, spiraling patterns. “What could you know that I do not?”

“I know why the lyres can’t be broken.” Lemuel grinned and slowly held up a scroll case. “If you like, I can share this with you.”

The Oshomi outriders that surrounded the group exchanged glances. The leader’s eyes moved from the scroll case to Lemuel’s shrunken arm. “You are a cripple. Had you been born among my people you would not have survived your first winter.”

“Yet here I am.” His gaze moved to the Oshomi leader with confidence. “Do you want me to tell you what I know, or not?”

Ilsa doubted Lemuel could know much about the Lyres. The mystery of their pristine material was millennia old. The Oshomi leader nodded to Lemuel. “Do this, and if it pleases me, I will show you to the Keeper.”

Ilsa’s eyes widened in surprise. She would not have guessed this Oshomi would care enough to ask.

Lemuel nodded to the leader. “Thank you, sir.”

“Talk.”

“Right. You see, most people who have studied the lyres study their physical properties to divine their purpose.” He glanced at Ilsa. His hands were trembling.

She hoped she kept the worry she felt from showing on her face. He had to be confident, or this would not work. “What is their purpose?”

He brightened a little. “I’m not entirely sure. But one thing is certain. I discovered last year, using a geometer that each lyre goes far further down into the earth than we ever theorized. What we see on the surface is less than a tenth of the full height of the structure.”

“How is that possible?” Ilsa frowned. “Moving that much material?”

“How is any of it possible?” Lemuel grinned at her, then turned to the Oshomi leader.

“Get to the point,” said the scarred man. “Why are the lyres unbreakable?”

“Yes, of course.” Lemuel rubbed his small hand into his larger, left hand. “Because of their size, I was able to use a resonator to measure their frequency. The lyres are never still. They vibrate at a subtle, frequency, inaudible to humans. To be honest I don’t fully understand the way it works. But the frequency is what keeps plants from growing on them, keeps wind and rain from eroding them and so on. The geometer also indicates that the lyres have large hollows somewhere beneath the surface.” He bowed to the Oshomi leader. “I suppose I could say more, but I’d rather your guarantee our lives before I continue. Sir.”

The scarred man grunted. “My name is Duruko, and I am the chief of this tribe. You, Chogrumian, have my attention.”

Lemuel raised his head. “Really?”

“My people and I may not live in cities or have fortresses, but we are not fools. Your findings will be of interest to the Keeper.” His face twitched into a smile. “You, cripple—Pick one of your comrades to accompany you to the keeper. The rest will be safe here.”

Lemuel glanced over his shoulder at Tirica. His sister nodded to him. Then Lemuel turned to Ilsa. “The priestess should go with us.”

Tirica gave an irritated grunt from behind them.

Duruko slipped his lightning lance into a loop on one side of his horse’s saddle. “Very well.” He turned to Ilsa. “Follow on foot, and do not attempt any treachery.”

“I understand.” She exchanged a nervous glance with Lemuel.

Duruko dropped from his horse onto the flattened steppe grass. Lemuel and Ilsa dismounted. She patted Hailek’s foreleg. The weeping strider pushed gently back against her touch. She turned, and followed Lemuel and Duruko toward a tent at the center of the camp.

Blue sent her a thought as she walked. “Don’t mess this up. I can’t help you if something goes wrong.”

Ilsa looked over her shoulder at Blue and nodded to her friend.

Tenlyres Chapter 8

 

Recap
Ilsa and Blue are on a mission to rescue the Keeper of Tenlyres from the onset of war. And war is near.
After a skirmish with the Oshomi, Ilsa and Blue have returned to Palend Manor to recover their strength.
When they arrived at the manor, Ilsa discovered the thief, Ferdinand Thoss had broken in, and was siphoning money from Lord Palend’s account through a plant pile. Ferdinand and Ilsa find that Lord Palend has been in contact with the Red Lector’s general, Boraij Kanan as well as a mysterious figure known as the Gray Lector.
Ilsa has decided to lie to Lord Palend about her encounter with Ferdinand in order to secure shelter at the manor until Blue can recover from a mind eater attack.

Previous Chapter

A hundred Oshomi riders circled the scouts at a distance, and then charged towards the Red Lector’s column. Kaij shouted an order and the scouts turned their steeds to ride back toward the main column. Ilsa and Blue rode with them.

Her heartbeat accelerated as first shot cut the air, a single echoing clap from somewhere near the column. She could not tell who had opened up first, the Ayochians or the Oshomi. In the next moment, the resounding crack of the first shot was lost in the roars of the fusillade that followed.

Bolts of electricity shot from a few Oshomi, the ones who carried lances with straight metal prongs instead of angled points. Those lightning catchers rode ahead of the rest of the nomads. The sound of their weapons rumbled across the plain. Men and striders pitched to the ground from within the Red Lector’s formation.

Ilsa grimaced and clenched her branded right hand. She drew her submachine gun from within the bond. Her hands worked automatically and she loaded the forty round magazine under the weapon’s sleek barrel. All of this without Hailek breaking his stride.

The sound of gunfire and thunderclaps died away for an instant as the Oshomi skirted along the hastily forming lines of the Red Lector’s forces. Ilsa and Blue on their striders fell behind the accelerating runners of the scouts, but they made it to within a hundred meters from the head of the column before the shooting resumed.

Uniformed and armored Ayochian soldiers on light striders still taller than horses, returned fired on the Oshomi. They lacked the thundering lances wielded by Oshomi lightning catchers but made up for the absence of the terrifying weapons with sheer numbers and the discipline of their engineered steeds. The blue and red line wavered along its length, but at no point did it break.

In the lead of the scouts, the Red Lector’s sons outpaced even the others on runner-back. Ilsa watched Kaij level a rifle as he drew alongside the front his father’s troops. He slowed his steed and fired. An Oshomi lightning catcher who had been lining up a shot on the Red Lector’s command party fell from the saddle.

Yunn pressed his palms together and the ground rapidly iced over beneath the hooves of a group of galloping nomad horses. The animals whinnied in surprise, skidded, and several of them fell.

The other scouts began to catch up with Kaij and Yunn. They readied guns and slowed their runners. Another great shout went up from the Oshomi, and half the riders swept around in a ring to encircle the Red Lector’s command party at the front of the column. The Ayochian line behind the Red Lector’s group broke.

Ilsa turned in her saddle to follow the path of some dozen more Oshomi stringing themselves out to attack the scouts at the head of the column. She raised her submachine gun and traced the route of the lead rider, a big woman who almost casually fitted an arrow to her towering bow at full gallop. Ilsa flicked her weapon’s selector to semiautomatic, to improve her aim and not waste bullets.

She looked down the iron sights of the machine gun. The lead rider loosed an arrow toward Ilsa and her steed. Ilsa drove her heels into Hailek’s flanks. The strider lurched forward. He grunted as the arrow slashed across the back of his head and made blood flow into his mane from a cut behind his ear. Ilsa did now want to shoot, but she knew in that moment she would not have the choice for long.

Wind whistled in her ears, audible even over the sound of screams and shots and thunder. She squeezed the trigger. She smelled the powder ignite inside her weapon.

Speed of movement. Judged by sight.

Distance. Estimated with precision.

Cover. Nonexistent.

Only the shifting steppe winds could interfere. Half of Ilsa would not have been surprised if the Oshomi had the wind on her side.

Wind or no wind, the rider tumbled from her saddle. Ilsa trusted the aim her father had taught her those years ago when he had first branded her to bind her weapons to her spirit. The woman she had shot would not rise, thanks to the bullet in her heart.

“Hathani keep you,” murmured Ilsa. She turned Hailek toward Blue. The sound of the battle faded into the background as her friend met her gaze.

Blue nodded to her.

Ilsa shivered. She had taken another life. All too quick. Far too easy. She rode toward the Red Lector’s troops.

Blue’s eyes lost their focus as she devoured the courage of the Oshomi riders behind Ilsa. The string of riders that been trying to outflank the scouts broke and retreated from the battle. Ilsa watched them go, numb to the scene.

Ahead of her, she glimpsed Ozleji Sammhar, the Lectoral Protector trained by Ilsa’s father, brandish a massive hand cannon of a pistol in one fist as he hefted an ornate shotgun in the other. The fanged visor of his helm was down, hiding his face. The few Oshomi who had closed with the Lector’s command party lay broken and bloody on the ground before him, shredded by shot along with their horses.

Some Oshomi were still close by, but all of them were in retreat.

Blue turned to Ilsa. “I’d say this was the battle he talked about.”

“Yeah.” Ilsa lowered her machine gun to her side and flexed her free hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

Blue nodded. Then she flinched. A tremor ran through her whole frame. She swayed in the saddle.

“Blue?” Ilsa asked.

Blue grimaced. “There’s a mind eater here.” Sweat ran along her brow. “Whoever it is, is taking a swing at me. No problem. I can handle—” Her last word became a scream of pain. She shuddered and then slid sideways.

Ilsa reabsorbed her machine gun and urged Hailek sideways. She caught Blue before she could fall completely from her saddle. Her friend looked up at her face with dull eyes.

“Shit.” Ilsa’s grip on Blue’s shoulders tightened.

“That’s what I was gonna say.” Blue went limp, but her heartbeat remained audible.

Ilsa pulled her friend sideways onto Hailek’s saddle, then grabbed the reins of Blue’s strider. She glanced in the direction of the Red Lector, then down at her friend’s slack face. She turned the two striders back toward Palend’s Manor.

“Just a few kilometers,” she said to Blue. “I’ll get you some help.”

 

Ilsa supported Blue along the front of the saddle as the two of them rode through the gates of Palend’s Manor. Blue’s strider loped in behind them. Her friend looked up at the great house as they entered the yard. At first, Ilsa thought Blue was still unconscious because she had thrashed and shifted at different times on the ride back.

Then Blue said, “This place again?”

“Yeah.” Ilsa sighed. “At least, they aren’t shooting at us this time.” The stitched wound in her shoulder throbbed as a reminder of their last entrance to the building.

She halted Hailek and in the yard, a few meters from the front of the house. “Can you get down from here?” she asked Blue.

“Sure. Don’t worry about me.” Blue twisted her waist and then lurched into a sitting position. “Don’t worry.”

“Excuse me if I do.”

“No thanks. You gotta relax a little. Some Oshomi mind eater just dropped a bomb in my mind. I’ve done that to too many other people to whine now.”

Ilsa grunted and swung her legs over one side of the saddle. She dropped the line and descended it to the ground.

She looked around the yard and found no sign of any people or even the metal sentries that had greeted them last time. With Oshomi forces clashing with the Red Lector only a few kilometers to the east, Palend may have ordered most of his people inside, or they might be sheltering at Fort Sardul, not far away.

Blue groaned and started to climb down the line from Hailek’s back. Ilsa waited below, looking upward, ready to catch her friend if she slipped.

The wind whistled over the walls. Ilsa scanned the parapets from the inside. She finally spotted a shape, barely humanoid, on one wall, looking east. One of Palend’s plant-brained metal guards, she could tell from the silhouette. Everyone else seemed to be indoors if they were in the manor at all. But someone had opened the gates for them.

Ilsa frowned and glanced back toward the gatehouse. A man with long hair and ballistic armor stepped out from the gatehouse, all too familiar. Ferdinand Thoss, a man the Chollushes had called a dangerous bandit, looked down from the wall at Ilsa and Blue in the yard. Ilsa frowned up at him, one question circling in her mind.

What is he doing here?

Blue struggled to the bottom of the line. She slumped against Hailek’s leg. “Who is that?”

“The grave robber from the Western Lyre.” Ilsa shook her head. “Somethings wrong.”

“Definitely.” Blue grimaced and sank to the ground, still pressing against Hailek’s leg. The strider paid her no attention.

“Blue,” said Ilsa. “I’m gonna go talk to him.”

“Be careful. He has a weapon bond.” Blue grimaced. “And I’m not exactly up for stopping him.”

“I’ll see what he’s doing here. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.” She began to march back toward the wall. She considered producing one of her guns, but she had already taken one life today. Blood she had not even truly seen with her own eyes now spread across the steppe grass beside the Ninth Lyre. Ilsa stopped a few yards from the gatehouse.

She looked up at the spot where Ferdinand stood. He met her eyes. “Priestess Barrett,” he called. “It’s good to see you again.” His gaze shifted to the garden on the south side of the manor house where black-trunked trees completely unnatural to the steppe stood, cultivated by Lord Palend and his servants.

Ilsa returned her eyes to Ferdinand’s face. “I hope I can say the same. What are you doing here?”

“I’m a guest of the old lord of this manor. Besides, I hoisted this gate for you and your mind eater, so shouldn’t you be grateful?” The corners of his lips turned upward in a small smile. “What ever happened to not looking a gift-horse in the mouth?”

Ilsa glanced at the gates, still standing open. Something was off about what Ferdinand said, and he was Chogrumian despite the traces of Morhoen ancestry she guessed he had in his past, judging from his unusual facial features.

“That a Chogrumian saying?”

“Nah,” said Ferdinand. “But when you grow up on a farm you get used to the concept.”

“A bad gift is a bad gift.” Ilsa grunted. “You still heading east?”

“That I am.” Ferdinand paced along the top of the wall. “Charming though you are, I have a feeling I should leave sometime today.”

“Oh? Could it be you aren’t as welcome here as you said before?”

“What an odd accusation. I assure you, priestess, I am in good stead with the lord of this manor.”

“Interesting. His servants didn’t want to trust Blue just because of her accent.”

“Interesting is right. Pr-priestess. Y-you have c-cut right to the h-heart of th-this.” His stutter grew obvious despite his apparent attempt to suppress it. Ilsa recalled the way he had muddled his speech back at the Western Lyre when upset.

She clenched her hand to produce a pistol, just in case. Once she opened her hand she would be armed, but she hesitated. Ferdinand stared at her for a moment. His eyes narrowed for an instant, then he bolted along the wall that encircled the manor, heading toward the garden.

Ilsa cursed. She opened her fingers and then locked the gun that appeared in her hand in a tight grip. She swiped a magazine from her belt and loaded the pistol, but did not thumb off the safety until she hit her stride. Her finger hovered outside the trigger guard as she ran.

Ferdinand did not look back. About ten meters from the garden he dropped into a low crouch, still moving at a high pace. A sound like a tree branch whipping against stone rang through the air. In Ferdinand’s next stride he leaped off the parapet, gripping a wooden javelin in each of his fists. He launched farther than would be possible for an ordinary human. He flew into the garden of gnarled black trees and vanished from Ilsa’s view even with the branches bare from winter.

Ilsa looked after him with a grimaced, but kept her pace up and ran toward the garden. Her heartbeat became loud to her as she reached the tree line on the outside of the dense copse at the center of the plot of cultivated soil.

She searched between the trees with her eyes, seeking any sign of Ferdinand. Evidently the large lance with the basket guard was not the only weapon he had bonded to him. At range her guns should have a significant advantage over his javelins though the small spears were designed to be thrown, so he would not be completely defenseless.

Best to be careful. If Ferdinand was sneaking around the manor, where were Palend and his servants? Had he hurt them?

Ilsa took a deep breath. It did little to slow her heart. Good, because I may need the adrenaline if he has any more tricks up his sleeve. She stalked to one black tree trunk and then pressed her back against it. The smells of fertilizer, moss, and fungus mingled in her nose.

Ferdinand’s soft footsteps crunched slowly over the stiff grass and traces of snow and moved toward the center of the copse of trees in the garden. Then his footsteps stopped. “W-well, th-this could be inconvenient. I’m gonna need new boots.”

Ilsa peered around the tree trunk. Ferdinand paced around one side of a plant pile where it emerged from the earth in a clearing at the center of the garden. The pile looked like a mound of dark green bulbs piled about a meter over the ground, but with small tendrils creeping out and upward, reaching toward the pale sun. Behind the pile, a fuzzy white mountain shifted.

The heavier sound of a strider rumbled to Ilsa’s ears as Ferdinand’s steed stood up from behind the pile, shocking white against the deep green bulbs and yellowish tendrils of the plant pile. Ferdinand reabsorbed his bonded javelins into his bare feet and then patted the strider’s side with an open palm.

Ilsa held her breath and watched him reach up and take a tablet from a saddlebag that hung down his strider’s white flank. He knelt down beside the pile and extended the connector pin from the tablet. He turned to look over his shoulder. Ilsa darted back behind the tree. She took the pistol she held in both hands and double-checked the safety. It was still locked. She thumbed it off but kept her finger off the trigger.

He might be quick to draw, but judging by his movements earlier, she was faster.

She stepped out from behind the tree trunk, barrel of the pistol down. “Ferdinand Thoss.” She walked forward with careful, deliberate steps. “What are you doing?”

Ferdinand looked up from his tablet with a start. He turned toward Ilsa with a grimace on his face. “I’m checking up on Lord Palend. Looks like he’s been busy networking.”

“Networking?”

“Yes, quite a bit of networking.” Ferdinand’s eyes moved to the gun in Ilsa’s grip. “I think you may interested in this.”

Ilsa scowled. “So you’ve hacked into his connection logs?”

“It’s not difficult to do if you know where to look.” Ferdinand bowed his head. “Ilsa, you may want to hear this.”

“Alright.” She took another step toward him. “What’s interesting?”

“Lord Palend contacted an animal pile on the plains west of here this morning. Turns out, that plant pile is registered to some Ayochian General called Boraij Kanan.”

“General Kanan.” Ilsa remembered the heavyset angry man in the Red Lector’s command tent the night before. She frowned. “But he’s already riding east with the Red Lector.” She walked to Ferdinand’s side and looked down at the tablet he crouched before.

He nodded. “The message is to his second in command, some captain whats-his-name. Who cares? The message was to be relayed to the General, according to the log.”

“What did he say?” Ilsa peered down at the screen.

“Not so fast.” Ferdinand quickly shifted to hide the screen from Ilsa with his back. “I want you to promise to let me go before I share.”

“That depends. Why were you here in the first place? Something tells me you didn’t come here to help me spy on the Red Lector’s general.”

Ferdinand took a deep breath. “Maybe Chollush was right about me being a thief. I’m here to skim some funds from Palend’s account before I head east. Dalite credit can be useful in Chogrum, you know.”

Ilsa frowned. “I believe you. If it’s just money, I can let you go.”

“Good.” Ferdinand smiled. “You’re very reasonable, especially for a priestess.”

“Don’t push your luck.”

“Alright. Alright.” He shifted so she could see the tablet.

She read the transcription of the digital message from the screen. Her lips began to murmur the words as her gaze moved down the screen.

“General Kanan should know that I have his back against the Red Lector. When the time comes I will see Haram beaten, one way or another. Tell him I’m happy with his performance last night, and I think I played my part for Haram to put more trust in him. I may not pay homage to your religion but you may trust my alliance with your Gray Lector. One last thing. Be careful should you choose to move too soon. An honor bound priestess of Hathani is traveling with Haram at the moment. I have a feeling she may interfere though I cannot fully predict her actions. Please inform the general. Respectfully yours, Lord Chakeb Palend.”

Ilsa scowled. “Lord Palend is working with the general? But he threatened to kill Palend last night.”

“The performance, perhaps?”

“Looks like it. The general must have been faking.”

“But he connected with someone who worked for a Gray Lector. Ayoch has five high-up Lectors, right? Each one named for a color?”

“Yeah.” Ilsa’s breath caught and she paused with realization. “But none of them are called Gray.”

“Yeah,” said Ferdinand. “Looks like they’re planning something against the Red one.” He yanked the pin from the plants, leaving a small hole in the bulb he had stabbed to access the memory of the pile. Without information to process, the tablet’s screen immediately went blank, showing the pattern of a leaf beneath the glass cover. He stuffed the device into his saddle bag and turned to Ilsa. “Time to go. Good luck.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“Thank you, priestess. Hope your friend is alright.”

Ilsa nodded. “Blue should be fine. But she’ll need a day or two of rest. I was hoping Palend would let us stay here.”

“Then you’ve got one more problem. Thanks to his sentry’s logs, Palend’s gonna notice I was here, even if you let me go.”

She frowned at him. “Do you have any ideas?”

He nodded to her. “If you look like you tried to stop me, he’ll definitely let you stay.”

“You’re right.” She clenched the grip of her pistol against her palm brand.

“We’ll look like we fought.” He extended one arm away from his steed. “That work for you?”

She frowned. Deceiving Palend would not have felt good just an hour ago, but he had deceived her and Blue, if only for an apparent personal vendetta against the Red Lector. She took a deep breath and then nodded to Ferdinand.

He smiled. “Good doing business with you.” He produced the steel lance in a flash. The edge of the blade sliced along her outer thigh.

Ilsa gasped with pain and thrust her arm out. She fired her pistol skyward. The gunshot roared and Ferdinand’s lanced slipped back into his bond. He leaped onto his steed and rode out of the garden and toward the gateway.

She looked down at her leg. Blood ran from the cut in her slashed pants, shallow, but painful. She swayed, dizzy, and then started to limp after Ferdinand. She would tell Blue the truth, and they would make plans on how best to talk with Lord Palend. She blinked at the pain and kept limping forward.