Tenlyres Chapter 31 – Cold Rage

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Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa and her comrades are facing an approaching battle in the mountains.

            Her old mentor, Koor, as arrived, and wishes to interrogate one  of their prisoners, an Ayochian mind eater Blue met in the Temple of Colors.

            Danger lurks in the mind.

 

Ashnia Haram lay on a bedroll in a tent near the center of the Vogmem camp, separate from the other prisoners. She appeared to be unconscious, rolled onto her side, and did not stir when Ilsa, Blue, and Koor entered the tent. Cass stood at the foot of the bedroll, broken arm in a sling, and her good hand gripping her red staff of office.

Ilsa stopped short when she saw her. “Cass.”

Cass looked up in surprise as Ilsa and the others entered. “Ilsa,” she said. “What is it? Who is this?”

“This is Koor,” said Ilsa. “Morhoen’s highest priest of the Unification.”

Cass’ eyes narrowed. “What is he doing here?”

“Making plans, alliances.” Koor nodded toward Cass. “You are also a priestess of Hathani?”

“I am. I’m from Saint Banyeen’s Garden, like Ilsa.”

“I know who you are,” said Koor. “Perhaps one day you will accept the importance of Unification.”

Cass shrugged.

“She’s still asleep,” said Blue as she walked over to Ashnia. “Mostly fatigue, I would guess.” She sank to her knees beside the unconscious blond woman.

Koor nodded. “Luckily, we won’t need to wake her to begin our interrogation. There is much even Blue could not tell us about the Temple of Colors, not to mention our current situation caught between the forces of the Red Lector and the Uzan.”

He walked over to where Blue sat, then, supported with one hand on her shoulder, sat down on the mat beside her. “We will have to make sure the hermit does not interfere. Can you do that?”

“I’m not sure. If you help me, then maybe.”

“I’m not the magus I once was.” Koor looked at Ilsa. “But I have a sense Ilsa can assist us.”

Ilsa started with surprise. “What? I’m not magus.”

“Maybe not, but you have seen a vision, have you not?”

“When Ferdinand stabbed me, I saw my mother, but it was just a hallucination, I’m sure of it.”

“Indeed not. You have a connection to the spirit world, just like your mother.” He motioned her forward. “Please, take Blue’s hand. We will both need a connection with her to be of any use.”

“And what about me?” asked Cass. “I’ll be useless in this.”

“Far from it. It’s good you’re here,” said Koor. “Keep an eye on us for physical reactions. And be prepared to go for help. If none of us can take clear action things could become dangerous.”

“How dangerous can an interrogation be?” asked Cass.

“Dreadfully so,” said Koor, “When the Temple of Colors is involved.”

Ilsa sat down, legs folded, beside Blue. She reached for her friend’s hand. “We need to know what she knows.”

“I agree,” said Cass. “Good luck.”

Blue grasped Ilsa’s wrist, leaving her hand free. “Be ready to use your bonds,” she said.

Koor took Blue’s other hand. “Be not hasty, though. This is a rare opportunity.”

And a rare person, Blue thought into Ilsa’s mind.

Blue, Ilsa sent back. You still care for her?

“We have to do this,” Blue said aloud. “Let us begin.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes tight.

Together their minds melted into the world of thoughts.

Such a communal process is similar to the Temple itself, only smaller, Blue related to them mentally. The voice of the hermit reached Ilsa’s ears from outside in the following moment.

“You think to try me?” he used Ashnia’s voice, but the tone was absolutely that of the old man in the cave across the lake. “You are more foolish than I thought, Nameless.”

“It is not you I try, Hoon. You are only one obstacle to batter down.”

“I have studied in the temple for more decades than you have years as a mind eater.”

Ilsa turned her attention from the mind eaters’ conversation to the outer sensation of a world beyond their enclosed bubble of conflict. She could definitely sense other things out there, hazy, amorphous, but not threatening. She focused on the nearest one, the one she felt sure belonged to Ashnia’s mind.

Then the hermit was between her and the mind of the girl on the bedding. “Priestess.” Hoon’s mind yawned, wide leonine jaws, to bite at Ilsa. “You are full of surprises.” He smashed against her and sent her tumbling to the edge of the  bubble where she and Koor and Blue were situated.

Her sense of the outside dimmed. She focused on pushing back against the hermit. Koor’s mind did the same, along with Blue. A piercing scream and flash of rainbow light filled Ilsa’s senses.

Then, the hermit’s mind was gone from the edge of the bubble. She could not tell what had happened to him. But the resistance to her approaching Ashnia’s mind faded.

They turned their collective attention to Ashnia.

Blue broke through the outer barriers of the unconscious mind eater’s defenses in seconds.

Ilsa, Blue sent, be ready to leave us. Koor and I can take it from here.

But I can help, Ilsa replied.

You can help more on the outside. Someone has to listen for what she says, and I can tell Cass is going to have her hands full already.

I’m going. Ilsa pulled free of Blue’s hand and found herself in the tent once again.

She turned to Cass, who leaned on her staff, eyes on Ashnia. “Get ready to listen if she starts talking,” said Ilsa.

Ashnia rolled onto her back, pushing her hands, tied behind her back, against the bedroll. Ilsa got to her feet and felt her wrist where Blue had held it. The spot ached from how tight her friend had held on.

A guttural grunt escaped Ashnia’s lips. Another grotesque sound followed. None of the sounds belonged to any language Ilsa knew, on or off the plateau.

The string of grunts and growls continued. Ashnia writhed on the bedroll. She tossed her head this way and that.

A cold feeling crept through Ilsa’s heart. “What is she doing?

Cass dropped her staff so it thudded to the floor of the tent. “She’s speaking. It’s some kind of pre-ancient Yrian. I can’t tell what she’s saying, though.”

Ilsa snapped her fingers. “Lemuel. He probably could.”

“Go get him. I’ll keep watch,” said Cass.

“Right.” Ilsa turned and rushed out the flap of the tent. Her shoes thumped on the stone and earth. She made her way toward the lodge, where she had last seen Lemuel. At the edge of the main camp, she stopped and looked toward the water’s edge.

His shadow stretched over the water near the sky carriage’s side. She sprinted over to him. “Lemuel,” she said.

He turned toward her, hands folded, small inside of large. “Ilsa, what is it? Are the Ayochians attacking?”

“No. But follow me, we need your help.” She explained as quickly as she could about Koor’s interrogation of Ashnia. “She’s speaking in some old language. Neither Cass or I can understand her.”

“Is it a harsh tongue?” He asked as they made their way back toward the tent where she had left Blue and the others.

“Yes.”

As they approached, a terrible, inhuman, howl of fury erupted from within the canvas coverings. “It sounds that way,” Lemuel added in shock.

Ilsa pulled the flap aside. Lemuel stared through the opening for a second. He gulped back obvious fear, then went through it. Ilsa followed him, cautious at the sound of the scream.

Cass had moved around Ashnia’s bedroll to stand opposite Blue and  Koor. She looked down at Ashnia, who writhed below her, screaming, growling, and swinging her body with restrained wrath.

Good thing her arms and legs are all bound. She could be really dangerous otherwise.

Ilsa dropped down beside Blue, where she had sat to commune when they had begun their attack on Ashnia’s mind.

Blue’s face was gray, and tears gleamed on her cheeks. Ashnia roared in a voice like a lion. Lemuel stared at her from behind Blue and Ilsa.

“She is talking,” he said. “The language of the gods. I’ve only seen it written before now, but that’s got to be it.”

Ilsa grimaced. “What is she saying?”

“It could be one of a few things, but given context…”

“Now!” said Cass. “Spit it out, scholar.”

“She’s talking about the Gray Lector,” said Lemuel. “She’s saying he leads the Uzan.”

“He’s with them? Those monsters?” Shock ran through Ilsa. Even Black Powder would not dare go to war beside the Uzan personally. “Why wouldn’t they just kill him?”

“He’s one of them. Or she’s saying he’s part of them. I guess it’s clear.”

Ilsa scowled. “He’s an Uzan?”

“The Gray Lector could be anyone, right?” said Cass. “And he has waged war in Ayoch for almost twenty years.”

“This is his motive,” said Lemuel with a frown as he translated the grunts and roars from Ashnia’s lips. “He’s a missionary, a demon who serves the gods.”

“The gods?” Ilas asked. “Hathani? Another of the Three? Vada? Jath?”

“It’s tricky. I don’t think so.” Lemuel bit his lip. “I’ve got to keep up. Asur-Asurdeva is one of the old gods of the steppe, referred to in Lyre lore.”

“That helps,” said Ilsa. “He’s fighting for this old god?”

“He thinks so. The Uzan he leads are on the same side. They all serve this being.”

“Why war in Ayoch?”

Lemuel’s brow furrowed at the next screams from Ashnia. “The crown. The royalty of Ayoch, they ruled them. They controlled the Uzan once, a long time ago.”

“Holy shit,” said Cass. “If they could do that now, they could rule the world.”

Ilsa nodded. “Imagine what they did back then.”

“They conquered the continent,” said Lemuel. “Maybe the whole world. The Gray Lector wants all of that for himself and his god.”

“Asurdeva,” said Ilsa. “Asurdeva.”

Ashnia’s back arched. The bonds on her wrists split with an audible crack and snap. Her hands lashed free and then scrambled for her feet.

Ilsa dove for the Ayochian mind eater’s legs. She wrestled to keep Ashnia from untying the bindings on her ankles. Ashnia’s muscles must be pumped with adrenaline because she seemed stronger than Ilsa had ever felt someone of her size before that moment. All the while, Ashnia barked and growled in the language of the ancients.

Cass cringed back and produced a pistol from a bond. She started to load the weapon.

Lemuel glanced at her. “What are you doing?”

“We have to be ready if she breaks free completely.”

Ilsa fought for one of Ashnia’s arms. The other one snaked out and wrapped around Ilsa’s neck. She gave up her struggle to keep Ashnia from freeing her legs and sought to keep the girl from choking the life out of her with her adrenaline-fueled strength. Spots of darkness danced in her vision.

Automatic chaos, a deliberate incitement of a violent reaction, Blue said into Ilsa’s mind. Hang on, we’ve almost disabled her attack responses.

Ilsa grunted, unable to focus on anything except prying the arm from her throat. She managed to keep her ability to breathe but lost the battle to understand anything else. Still locked within Ashnia’s arm, she slammed herself down on the Ayochian’s belly. The blow forced air from Ashnia’s lungs and weakened her hold enough Ilsa could slither free of her grasp.

She lay on her back beside the mats. Cold ground sent tendrils clawing up through her flesh. She snarled and forced herself upright. Ashnia’s limbs went still.

Blue’s eyes remained closed, but she spoke between ragged breaths. “I—We-have what we need.” She sagged in on herself. “And she won’t fight back for now.”

Koor opened his eyes. Unlike Blue, he seemed completely, infuriatingly, composed. “It seems she knew a great deal.”

Ilsa looked in his direction. Lemuel stood off to one side. “She didn’t say that much,” he murmured.

“No, but her secrets are now in my mind,” said Koor. He got to his feet slowly. When he left Blue’s side, she spilled slowly onto the mat beside Ashnia. “Thank you, Blue.”

Blue nodded, eyes open, but said nothing.

“I am leaving this camp at dawn,” said Koor to Ilsa. “Make it clear to the Guardian of Tenlyres that she can still join me if she wishes.”

Ilsa glowered up at the man, pain still fresh in her mind and body. “I’ll tell her.” But she knew Siuku would not change her mind.

“Good.” Koor turned to Lemuel. “Thank you for your assistance, Mister Chollush. You are a skilled interpreter.”

“I did my best.” Lemuel crouched down beside Ilsa. “Are you alright?” He offered her his hand. She took it and pulled herself to her feet. “I’m not hurt as bad as Blue. Come on, let’s get her out of here.”

They helped Blue up, though she had to lean on Ilsa every step of the way back to her own tent. The cold of the night sent them all to their own places, except for Lemuel, by the time she spotted Hailek outside her tent. He appeared to be in good shape despite all the shooting earlier that day and the day prior.

“Good strider,” said Lemuel. “He found his way back.”

“He’s pretty smart.” Ilsa smiled wearily. “Like someone else, I could name.” She pressed against his side. “Thank you, for being where I need you.”

“I don’t know where else I would go.”

“But you know enough not to run away.” Her hand felt down his back to his belt. “Thanks.”

“You’re tired.”

“We’re both tired. Aren’t we?”

He put his chin into her overgrown hair. “You don’t mean–”

“What do  you think I could mean?”

“I almost think you want me to sleep with you.”

“I do. Just sleep tonight. Have to be ready.”

“For the morning.” He sighed against her. “It’s alright. I know.”

They slipped into the tent, and lay down on Ilsa’s bedding, fully clothed. She had not realized how tired she was until he wrapped his arms around her. Then she slept immediately.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 30 – Locust

Hello, everyone, Tim here.
I hope you’re all enjoying the story, and I really appreciate everyone following along.
In case you weren’t aware, at the top of the sidebar of my website there is an email list sign-up form.
Sign up, and you will receive my new short story in the Tenlyres world, Mount Higatha, for free!

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

Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
Following a bloody battle in the pass leading south, Ilsa sees a flying creature descending onto the Lake of Saints.
This creature is called a locust, and is used for air travel. But who is controlling it?

tenlyres-ii-chapters-30-mq

Koor’s locust descended onto the glittering icy surface of the Lake of Saints. Ilsa’s eyes were ready to ache with hope at the sight as the massive manta-shaped locust slid off its restraints and into the cold water with hardly a sound, and left the long, boat-like sky carriage bobbing in the water.

Lemuel’s eyes widened and he stepped backward. “Could they be Ayochian?”

“Not with that name written on the carriage,” said Ilsa. “They’re on our side.” Part of her sighed with relief, another part of her only feared more. Surely Koor would not have been foolish enough to come to the mountains personally.

Many nations, including Ayoch, craved the chance to destroy any leaders behind the Unification.

The Red Lector’s artillery may have been destroyed, but the camp was hardly safe.

Ilsa waved her arms in the air in an attempt to draw the attention of someone in the sky carriage. She called and waved until a pair of propeller engines on the back of the carriage spun into life. The floating vessel approached the rocky shore where she and Lemuel and Siuku stood.

Blue ran to Ilsa’s side. Her skin looked gray, and her eyes shot with blood. “I can’t believe it! What is Koor doing here?”

“My bet, he’s trying to help us,” said Ilsa.

“How did he know?” Blue frowned for a moment, then shook her braids. “Wait a minute. I should know better than to ask that question.”

“Probably,” said Ilsa, gaze still locked on the sky carriage. “Koor has his ways.”

The front walkway of the sky carriage lowered so its end touched the stones less than a meter in from the water. A stiff, cold wind blew from the pass in the opposite direction. Tents shuddered and flags whipped. Water splashed onto the walkway.

From within, a cluster of people emerged, about two dozen in all, but difficult to see because of the shadows of sunset cast over Nurse Mountain’s long western arm.

Ilsa straightened her back. Blue folded her hands. Lemuel glanced at Ilsa as the people from the carriage made their ways over the walkway toward the shore where they stood. She put a hand on his back.

“It’s alright. Koor is the one who sent me and Blue to find the Keeper.”

Blue looked down at her hands “He’ll only try his best to help us. That’s got to be why he’s here.”

Lemuel nodded, still looking stunned. Ilsa pressed her hand to his back in what she hoped was a reassuring way. She squinted to see the face of the heavily clad man in the lead of the group and recognized the craggy features of Koor, Morhoen’s highest priest in the Unification. She bowed her head to her mentor.

He nodded to her and Blue. “Be at peace, you two.” His eyes twinkled like dark glints of steel. “From what I have heard, it seems I was right to send you to find the Guardian of Tenlyres.” His gaze moved to Lemuel and Tirica. “Who are you?”

“Lemuel Chollush. My sister and I encountered Ilsa and Blue on the steppe and joined them in looking for the Keeper.”

Koor smiled, aglow with inner warmth, despite his hardened eyes. “I take it you have also heard then, about the Gray Lector?”

Ilsa’s eyes widened. There was that term again, the renegade priest of Ayoch.

“I have indeed heard things,” said Lemuel. “I’m not sure what they mean.”

Blue glanced in his direction, confusion evident in her bloody eyes. She turned to Koor. “Is the Gray Lector near here?” she asked.

Koor shook his head and stepped off the walkway onto the shore. He motioned for his companions to follow him. “As far as I can tell, the Gray Lector is making his play, but you may know more about that than I. Someone freed the demons of the Central Lyre, and I have heard rumors you witnessed that event.”

“The Uzan,” said Ilsa. “Black Powder released them. He played the lyre with those odd pistols.”

“Odd? How?” Koor’s gray eyebrows rose.

“They were integrally silenced. Wooden grips. Looked really old.”

“This is disturbing. Black Powder has the song guns, and that means he only needs the True Blackwood staff if he wants what I think he wants.” Koor turned to Ilsa. “I will tell you what I’ve learned since your departure, and perhaps you can confirm my suspicion.”

“What suspicion?” Ilsa asked.

“Your father, Henry Vel, Black Powder, may be the Gray Lector.”

Ilsa’s stomach lurched. The bruise by her heart throbbed. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Let us get out of this wind,” said Koor. “We must gather The Four, along with the Guardian. They must hear what I have to say.” His gaze fell on Siuku. “If you agree, Guardian?”

Siuku nodded. “You make sense, Koor of Morhoen.”

The wind numbed Ilsa’s every fiber almost as though an ice magus was trying to freeze her heart again. Her brows knit together as she met Koor’s questioning eyes with hers.

“We’ll talk, but I don’t see how its possible my father could be the Gray Lector.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Koor. “Or things will only become more complicated.” He marched after Siuku toward the lodge, with Ilsa, Blue, Lemuel, and the rest of Koor’s party in his wake.

 

Inside the lodge, Ilsa found three of the Vogmem’s four leaders. Only Megalli was absent, probably out scouting over the cliffs on hawk-back. Ganara, Akirette, and Hiragen gathered around the central fire and Koor introduced himself to each of them.

Ilsa felt only half-present during the minimal formalities. She only knew Koor suspected her father, always a bastard and a pain in her life, of being one of the masterminds behind a rebellion in Ayoch. The Gray Lector? How could that be? And why?

Black Powder was a killer, a mercenary, and a terrible father, but he had once told Ilsa he would never ride with someone he called an enemy. And the Red Lector was the Gray Lector’s deadliest foe. Yet, he had released the Uzan. What more proof did she need?

She watched a few prisoners as Koor’s troops hustled them out of the lodge before the meeting could begin in earnest. Ashnia Haram was not among them. Once the last of the prisoners left, Siuku joined the other leaders inside.

Blue stepped back from the group and closed her already bloodshot eyes. Ilsa knew what she was doing, covering the group from spying by the hermit. They could not trust the mind eater who lived on the other side of the lake not to have some way to observe what went on in the lodge.

At last, Blue nodded to Ilsa. Ilsa turned to Koor. “We’re safe. No one else is listening.”

Koor faced the Vogmem Chieftains and the Keeper of Tenlyres and then bowed to them. “The coming battle means more than even you know,” he said. “The Queen of Ayoch has sent the armies of the other four Lectors to the Plateau of Yr. Her military is committed to capturing every piece of Tenlyres.”

Fear clutched at Ilsa’s heart along with the prospect of the full onset of war between Ayoch and Dal on one side, and Chogrum and it’s Morhoenese allies on the other. She had not seen such a war in her lifetime, and things would be even worse with the renewed freedom of the Uzan.

“Are you certain?” asked Hiragen. “We have to be if we are to commit.”

Ilsa frowned at the cautious chieftain. “The Red Lector and his wife are already waging war. The Queen of Ayoch wants Tenlyres. She will not give Chogrum a way out unless she sees strong opposition.”

“You want us to ally with Chogrum?” Ganara glowered at Ilsa and Koor. “You are a fool, Ilsa Barrett. As are you, Koor.”

Ilsa felt Lemuel’s back stiffen at her side.

Akirette hissed an intake of breath. “Damn it, but we must be careful. If we do not act, that could spell our doom.”

Ilsa nodded to the oldest of the Vogmem chieftains.

“What about him?” Ganara turned toward Lemuel. “You are Chogrumian, as is the lancer who nearly killed the priestess beside you. What can you say for your city?”

“Not much different from Dal. But we all value knowledge.” His eyes fell unsteadily on the black staff, the staff of Vada herself, which Ganara held in one hand with its butt on the floor.”That staff. What is it, really?”

“Vada’s staff, of course.” Ganara shook her head. “I would be training my daughter to wield it today, had she not been killed by raiders from your city, Chogrumian.”

A flicker of pain and cold raced from Ilsa’s bruise to the top of her spine. She clenched her jaw. She could understand how Ganara would hate the Chogrumians after that.

“I’ve lost family to Chogrum as well,” she said. “My uncles and grandparents all died in the last war.”

“And yet you stand beside that man, so close. I can tell your feelings.” Ganara’s eyebrows became an angry formation like birds flying south for the winter. “Don’t deceive us because you deceive yourself, priestess.”

“Nonsense,” said Koor. “Ilsa’s feelings are not the matter here. Chogrum and Morhoen can help the Vogmem and the Oshomi.”

Ganara’s lips drew back into a snarl. Her gaze fixed on Koor’s calm face. “You are right,” she said. “But I’ve never been one to pray for Unification. And I do not know you.”

“You are right to be cautious. But don’t take umbrage.” Koor raised his gray eyebrows. “This is the greatest challenge for humanity, finding peace.” His voice stayed even. “Ganara, we will stand as each other’s allies from this day forward. You need only agree for your people to unify when the time comes.”

“Now you seem to be asking for a great deal more.” Ganara’s eyes darkened. She spat into the fire pit. Her saliva sizzled amid the flames.

Akirette nodded to Ganara. “She’s angry. But she is also right. We do not know you. Besides that, what do you bring to this battlefield? A dozen soldiers at most.”

“All of them are war magi,” said Koor. “And each is a tested veteran. We do not lack for war in Morhoen.” His eyes looked sad, but everything else about Ilsa’s mentor remained completely calm.

Hiragen stroked his beard. “We could use your help tomorrow if we are to ensure our survival. What else can we offer you, Koor of Morhoen?”

“I’m afraid there is little else.” He turned to Siuku. “But regardless what you Chieftains of Vogmem decide, I would speak to my agents and the Guardian of Tenlyres alone.”

Ganara pointed at the door. “This is the Lodge of the Four. Talk outside if you want to discuss without us.”

“Very well,” said Koor. He bowed to the three Chieftains present, then turned to Siuku. “If you will, your holiness.”

Siuku’s atonal voice answered with a grunt. Dark bags hung beneath her eyes, and she looked older, even with the veil covering most of her face. Blue followed Koor and Siuku to the door.

Ilsa turned to Lemuel. “I hope I won’t be long.”

“So do I,” said Lemuel. “But say what you have to say.”

“I’ll do my best.” She clasped his hand for a brief moment, then released him. Ilsa followed others out of the lodge and into the chill of evening.

 

They walked to the edge of the camp, still near the lodge. Blue prepared her defenses around them, to keep the hermit from overhearing. Then, Blue nodded to Koor.

“I am honored to stand in your presence, holiness,” said Koor. “But the situation is grave.”

Ilsa put a hand to her bruised chest, which still pulsed with pain. She did not like the soothing tone Koor used. It was meant to convince without persuading, the sort of voice one used to distract from the words one said.

Her mentor continued. “We sighted at least two-hundred Uzan approaching from the South, and they are not all without talent. Some are silencers, or sense magi, capable of concealing their kin from our mortal senses while they move. Thus, there could be far more on their way.”

Ilsa’s brows knit together. “How far south?”

“They will enter the pass tomorrow, before noon if they continue.”

Siuku folded her arms. “What is your point?”

“I have my Locust, and there is room in the carriage for you and your tribesmen.” Koor gazed evenly at the Keeper of Tenlyres. “Your holiness, we have set out to take you from this place. It is the only sensible thing to do.”

Ilsa scowled. Hot rage mixed with tingling shock at Koor’s cold plan to abandon the Vogmem formed an alliance within her.

Siuku’s tired eyes narrowed. “You want me to flee? My people are at truce with the Vogmem for the first time in ten generations. I will not be the one to break this fortunate peace.” Her voice might have stayed flat, but she spoke haltingly, a sign of exhaustion and, Ilsa guessed, temper. “I have healed their wounded as if they were my own. They have bled for me, just like the priestess beside you, Koor, just like the mind eater at your back.”

“I know I ask for a difficult thing.”

“Such an act would make me unworthy of the power and the visions my predecessors passed down to me.”

Koor folded his hands. “But if you die–”

“Then I die!” Siuku’s voice cracked, but the monotone was gone, replaced by tempestuous passion. “Like my band on the plains. Like my friend Duruko. I will die if I must, but I will not give up this chance to end a conflict I thought would outlive me as surely as it claimed my parents’ lives. I am not a pawn on a board. I am a human, maybe an extraordinary human, but I will make my own decision. You cannot convince me otherwise.” She swayed on her feet.

Ilsa stepped forward and reached for Siuku to steady her. “Keeper.”

Siuku accepted Ilsa’s help and leaned on her. She glared at Koor. “You cannot decide who survives, priest of Morhoen.”

“Evidently not.” Koor’s eyes darkened. “But I will not throw my life away for this lost cause. Neither should you.”

“Lost cause?” Siuku shook her head. “Have you seen the future?”

“No, but my oracles have advised me.”

“Your oracles are charlatans. The spirits have shown me countless visions, but every one of those becomes real in its own way.”

“Have you foreseen the death of rulers tomorrow?” Koor’s knuckles turned as white as his hair, his hands clenched together. “My oracles see death for crowns. The readers of cards and bones, the seers, and the water casters all predict such events. If I can prevent your death, I will.”

“Then stay. Fight at our side.” Siuku glowered at Koor.

He said nothing.

She closed her red, weary eyes. “You would trade the lives of others for mine. But you will not risk your own?”

“Unification needs leaders. I will not throw away my movement.”

“Or your power.”

Koor’s hands unlocked from each other. “Ilsa. Blue.”

“Yes?” said Blue, eyes still glazed with mental distance.

“Will you continue to protect the Guardian? Or would you return to Morhoen with me?”

Ilsa grunted. “I will stand with the Keeper.”

Blue’s eyes gleamed as she released her mental defenses. “As will I,” she said.

“So be it.” Koor nodded to them. “I will leave with the Locust tomorrow before dawn, but there is one other matter to attend to while I am here.” He turned to Blue. “The Temple of Colors. I understand you have an agent to interrogate.”

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 29 – Howling Pass

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Previous Chapter

Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
Negotiations between the forces have been interrupted by the Uzan, and Ilsa was badly wounded in the retreat.
Seeing visions of her mother, she rests through the night trying to recover for the next battle.

tenlyres-ii-chapters-29-mq 

She woke to the distant thunder of artillery launching a payload, an aching bruise over her heart, and a whiff of noxious Ayochian propellant in the mountain air. The smell of propellant had become familiar by now, but the metallic tinge and the thick, bile-rising twist of some vague fruitiness combined with the distant sound to tell Ilsa the Ayochians were opening fire. She could not tell from where the shots were launching, but the ground beneath her remained mercifully still, and the explosions muted by distance.

Lemuel shifted and his arm slid off her waist. “What is that sound?” he asked.

She grunted and sat up. “The Red Lector’s artillery is finding the range. It probably isn’t easy here in the mountains.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, then forced them open with obvious effort. Then he reached for his outer coat, folded near the bedroll, and retrieved a pocket watch. He squinted at its hands in the gloom. “It’s been fourteen hours. I can’t believe it.”

“That means it’s morning,” she said.

“Four-thirty.” He groaned. “Don’t the Ayochians ever sleep?”

“They’ll attack at dawn. But who knows when their shells will find the camp.” Ilsa’s gaze found her large saddlebags, evidence that her strider had returned with them. Even her red staff of office looked dull in the shadows.

She walked around Lemuel as he stretched his arms. She stopped by the saddlebags, crouched down beside them. With careful hands, she collected ammunition for each of her weapons and set them beside the bags.

Lemuel got to his feet behind her.

She glanced back at him. “Do you have something to defend yourself?” she asked.

“Other than you?” He smiled gently at her. “Not really.”

Thrilling warmth bloomed in Ilsa’s chest but mingled with the pain of the purple bruise where Ferdinand had stabbed her. That pain pulsed outward as she straightened up. She barely shuddered, but he noticed and his smile faded a little.

Lemuel had put on his black overcoat but left the front unbuttoned. He folded her into a soft embrace against his chest.

“Hey,” she said. “What’s this about?”

“You looked like you could use some warmth.”

“True.” She sighed, head against his shoulder. “But we ought to find you a pistol or something.” The artillery launched another volley. This time the shells landed closer.

She heard Vogmem voices from outside the tent calling to each other indistinctly, evidence the bombardment had been noticed by the mountain tribals.

Ilsa looked up at Lemuel and frowned. “I’m going to go find out what’s going on. We need a plan to stop those shells or this camp will be a deathtrap in a few minutes.”

He tensed noticeably, then relaxed his arms from around her. “I’ll go with you. I need to find Tirica at least.”

She stepped back and started to pick up the ammunition she could take with her. “And a pistol. I don’t want to leave you without some way to protect yourself.”

“I don’t like it, but sure,” he said, “If you think I may need it.”

“I’ll pray to Hathani you don’t.”

“Thanks. You know, I’m a terrible shot.”

Ilsa knew that would not bother Lemuel normally, but with fighting so close his life could depend on that. She hated the thought but knew it was true. Truth holds no regard for prayer.

She pushed a magazine of pistol ammunition into the carrier at her hip, beside two others, with an identical set on the other side. Her shotgun shells and machine gun magazines hung from her belt, one set of each per side, enough to load both weapons twice.

They left the tent, and Ilsa led the way through the chill morning air toward the lodge, from the chimney of which, a single strand of pale smoke rose, shifting in the breeze.

They were halfway there when Ganara and Blue caught up with them on their steeds. Blue rode her strider out in front of Ilsa and Lemuel. She met Ilsa’s gaze. “You’re up. Good.”

Ganara snorted and tossed her hair. “The Ayochians in the southern pass have artillery set up.”

“I noticed,” said Ilsa. “They’re testing the range.”

The Vogmem chieftain glowered at them. “My warriors and I will ride to stop them. They cannot be allowed to desecrate the holy lake.”

Ilsa rubbed her temples. The pain in her head from earlier had mercifully subsided while she slept. “I’ll go with you.”

“Oh, we will need everyone. The Red Lector may not have as many soldiers as the Summer Devil, but they will be ready for us.” Ganara shook her head. Her goatlike runner stamped a foot on the stones by the lake shore. “I suppose it’s time for me to wield Vada’s staff.”

Ilsa’s eyes widened. “Vada’s staff?”

“Yes, priestess. My order has been entrusted with the True Blackwood since the beginning. The Keeper says she thinks it may have helped to seal Uzan before.”

“Hopefully we won’t have to deal with them today.” Ilsa turned to Blue. “Throw me a line.”

Lemuel put a hand on her shoulder. “Please, be careful.”

“I’ll do what I can. Get to the lodge. It should be the safest place in the camp if we stop the artillery.”

He nodded. “I trust you.”

“Trust us all.” Ilsa leaned in and kissed him quickly. He pulled her close for a long moment. The clouds of their breath mingled in the air around them.

Blue tossed a length of knotted rope from her saddle. Ilsa scaled it to the strider’s back and then glanced at Lemuel, trying to think of the right words to reassure him, but they were not there. Then, Blue urged her steed away from the lodge and toward the pass.

A bright burst of an explosion sent a plume of snow flying from the side of the nearest mountain. The fact that Ilsa could see it made her certain the artillery would find the camp in another volley or if they were unlucky, two at most.

Ganara rallied a force of her warriors on their steeds, and several hundred riders headed for the pass, bristling with lances and guns. She looked for Siuku in the press.

“The Keeper and a few others are back in the lodge with Akirette. Someone needs to keep an eye on the prisoners.”

“Ashnia Haram,” said Ilsa.

“Ferdinand too.” Blue glanced at Ilsa, grim-faced. “We can’t tell if she or the hermit could take control of him again. A mind enslaved that long stays vulnerable.”

Ilsa nodded to her friend. A flight of Megalli’s hawk riders passed overhead, at least twenty or thirty in number. Their wings rustling seemed very loud to Ilsa’s ears.

Some of Ganara’s riders broke off and began to climb one of the mountains. All those riders carried long-barreled rifles, and Ilsa glimpsed Tirica riding with them on a borrowed runner of her own.

She asked Blue, “Where’s Cass? Have you seen her?”

“She’s back at the lodge. Seems she’s joined our mission, Ilsa.”

Ilsa’s heart ached with pain more than physical at the thought of what Cass risked to join them on the plateau. She swore she would do everything she could to see them all return home alive.

“Good,” she said. “Good she’s seeing the light.”

Blue turned to face forward as they approached the gap where they would turn to enter the pass. Wind whipped through the gaps in rocks. Snow swirled in rivulets from the mountains above.

“Get me close to the guns,” Ilsa said. “I think I can stop them if I just get near enough.”

“How?”

“I know my way around propellant,” she said. “Don’t worry about that.”

“I’ll watch your back once we get there.”

They rounded the curve of the mountain. Below them, several hundred meters away, Ayochian troops with their lanterns surrounded two heavy gun carriages.

Each carriage was a large, wide-treaded, ground crawler powered by electricity, and with an enormous cannon longer than the machine itself set on the back. Only one other piece appeared to have survived the battle with the Uzan at the Central Lyre, but it was further back, still out of range of the camp. Ilsa offered silent thanks to Hathani for that.

She drew her machine gun from the bond in one hand. At least three hundred soldiers surrounded those two cannons, and who knew how many more were stationed in the rocks, or further back in the pass.

Ganara’s riders fanned out, no two runners within three or four meters of each other. Ilsa and Blue rode near the front, beside Ganara herself. The blond chieftain raised her black staff to stop their advance and held it there. Her riders obeyed with only a small murmur of sound.

Then, the Vogmem sharpshooters on the mountainside  began to open fire. Several lanterns swayed and then fell with the soldiers and steeds that carried them.

Ilsa squinted at the gun carriages as the weapon crews scurried to load them with massive shells. A pit formed in her stomach as she thought of what one of the foul-smelling projectiles would do if it struck the lodge. Cass. Siuku. Lemuel. She felt like screaming at Ganara to order the attack, even as Ayochian snipers began to answer the Vogmem on the cliffs from the rocks across the pass.

Before Ilsa could cry out, with unbearable slowness, Ganara’s staff descended. The Vogmem riders charged.

Blue urged her shaggy strider forward. Ilsa loaded her machine gun and her pistol. The magazines clicked into place with satisfying clarity. They rode down into the pass with Ganara and her warriors.

Sharpshooters continued to trade fire in the gray chill just before dawn. Then, as rays of light began to creep over the mountains to the east, Ilsa spotted a glint of red lacquer, looking almost like rust on the armor of the Lectoral Protectors near the Ayochian guns.

The Red Lector himself led this force, or his guards would not be here. Ilsa gritted her teeth. If she captured the man, she could put an end to this battle, and maybe even save most of the bloodshed. She made her decision.

The Ayochian sharpshooters remained occupied with the troops on the cliffs, but the soldiers among the boulders near the gun carriages began to take shots at the approaching riders.

Ilsa looked this way and that, trying to spot the Red Lector, as the Vogmem swept downward in serried ranks. They closed into the range of small-arms, just twenty meters from the bulk of the Ayochian troops, and began to shoot.

She spotted a smoke-gray banner in among the troops near the Lectoral Protectors. She recognized it as belonging to her father’s mercenary company. Could he be close as well? If so, attacking the guns would not be easy.

Ilsa could not help but recall the hints, the whispers of the Gray Lector she had heard, the ineffable opponent of the Queen of Ayoch and her five loyal lectors. A renegade priest, not so different from Ilsa, herself. But she did not know what the Gray Lector believed if he believed in anything.

At ten meters and still closing, Ganara spun her staff in her hand. Ilsa traced flashes of light as Ayochian bullets changed trajectory to pull toward the black staff’s head. Ganara’s runner leaped into a cluster of  Ayochian soldiers ahead of her troops. She raised the staff over her head and the bullets attracted to it shot outward. Soldiers screamed and fell. Then, the Vogmem, Ilsa, and Blue, pelted into even closer quarters.

Ilsa twisted in the saddle and began to pick off soldiers left and right. She shot down one of the riflemen aiming at the cliffs. She killed a woman struggling with a jammed light machine gun. She killed. Not for honor. Not for glory. No killing could be worthy of those words.

Screams and roars and gunshots, the chaos of battle, surrounded Ilsa and Blue. Ganara and her riders cut toward the heavy guns, leaving broken bodies and bloody rock in their wake. The Ayochians must have dismounted to make their way up the pass, and their lack of steeds cost them in speed of reaction.

Blue brought her strider around, close behind Ganara. Enemy soldiers turned on their comrades, while others wavered in their aim or hesitated just long enough for Ilsa to kill them. Blue’s powers were devastating in the press of battle, her eyes glazed and unseeing as she devoured the thoughts of her foes.

The Lectoral Protectors interposed themselves before Ganara’s charge. Ilsa spotted a familiar fanged helm in the midst of red armor. The giant frame of Ozleji Sammhar, who she had hoped lay dead on the steppe by the Central Lyre, led a ragged group of survivors from one side to counter charge in Ganara’s flank.

The Vogmem charge faltered. Sprays of blood and fumes of burnt propellant mingled with clouds of smoke to fill the air. Ilsa clenched her teeth and prayed as Sammhar’s bonded weapons felled rider after rider. In one hand he held his gilded hand cannon, and in the other, a shotgun larger than most men could use in two, with an ax-blade on the underside of its barrel.

Ilsa’s unease when she first met the man burned the flame of battle in her stomach at the sight of the Sammhar’s bloody return to the field. He closed with her and Blue. Ilsa scrambled to reload her machine gun, feeling slow as an unlit fuse. She slammed the magazine into place and heard the click of the lock.

She retrieved her pistol from her waistband. She held two weapons again.

“Blue, stop those guns,” she said. “I’ll hold this attack.”

For once Blue only answered with a nod. Her eyes remained dull. Ilsa slid off the strider’s back. Her weapons spoke, and soldiers around Sammhar fell. The red-armored man’s gaze turned toward her. His eyes gleamed in his helm.

Blue and a few riders skirted Sammhar’s troops and reached Ganara’s vanguard before the flankers cut off the path of advance. Ilsa’s hands moved automatically. Ayochian troops retreated from Sammhar, but Ilsa’s bullets seemed unable to breach his armor.

He stood alone before her. His shotgun boomed and a Vogmem at her side pitched backward. She darted in the opposite direction. Her guns were both half-empty.

Five pistol rounds and fifteen machine gun rounds remained. Neither left much of a dent in Sammhar’s breastplate, though the red lacquer showed scoring from multiple impacts. With the grill of his mask down, she could not count on a shot to the head, and a heavy iron collar covered his throat, where she had hit him back on the plateau. Damn his luck. Not many survived a shot like that.

They faced each other in the clearing, the fray around them deafening, but the troops of both sides left them to each other. Ilsa found no time to look and see how Ganara and Blue were faring. Every chamber clack, every thump of cannon fire, every minute roar of ignition formed a wall around her. And within those walls, she focused on Ozleji Sammhar.

Their gazes locked across the gap in the lines. A chill ran through her, from temples to tail bone, and a terrible emptiness welled like the wound that had been where the painful bruise over her heart pulsed. She hated to face him, a student of her father’s training.

Black Powder trained warriors from every nation. A mercenary, he rode with anyone who could provide him coin. Sammhar was different, a devoted servant to the Red Lector. Somehow that only made him more terrifying.

Ilsa planted her feet and waited for the sound of the bombardment to echo through the pass. One gun spoke, but no other shot followed. Good, Ganara stopped one of them. Flurries of snow erupted from the ridge where the Vogmem sharpshooters had taken their place.

Ice and stone and limbs would be broken as well, but the shot had not hit the camp. They still had time. She offered a prayer to Hathani that Tirica had not been close to the blast, then devoted her full attention to the giant man marching toward her. Within five meters, he stopped. His voice rasped, far different than the confident sound it had been when she last heard it. “Ilsa Barrett, the time to prove who is greater is upon us.”

Another shiver ran through her as the sound of his maimed voice. “I don’t need to prove anything to you.”

He said nothing else but surged like a bear to one side. She circled opposite him. His finger rested on the trigger of his shotgun. She twitched her pistol, unable to pierce his bracers or palmless gauntlet, and aimed for the shotgun’s muzzle.

The weapon trained on her and his finger moved. Her bullet knocked the heavy weapon’s point away from her. A spray of shot  flashed past her side.

She darted to within a meter and sent a burst of machine gun rounds to stitch a path from his sternum to his throat. The heavy collar he wore caught otherwise fatal shots, and his helm deflected a ricochet.

He swung the ax-blade of his shotgun overhand at her. The blow fell but she skidded under it, then sprang out from under his stomping foot. Sweat ran down his pale face behind the grill of his helmet. She circled sideways, and he flailed out with his hand cannon, but could not turn his head toward her thanks to the collar around his neck. She took aim for a joint between his elbow and forearm. Her pistol cracked twice and his arm went limp, flopping against his side. Blood trickled from holes in his padded sleeve.

Sammhar turned toward her, eyes wide, but Ilsa was already gone. She sprinted after Blue and the others in the vanguard, leading the charge as the second wave of Vogmem riders surged forward, led by Hiragen. The Ayochian flanking force melted away before them. She did not see what happened to Sammhar, but his shotgun blast did not sound again in the fray.

Ilsa broke through, down to just five bullets loaded in her machine gun, and none in her pistol.

Carnage surrounded the gun carriages. The crews, Lectoral Protectors, and her father’s mercenary’s had made a stand before the weapons. Riders lay scattered all around. Smoke rose from the artillery carriage in the center, and the other’s crew had fallen to Ganara’s assault. Ilsa caught up with the Vogmem Chieftain and Blue as its side. Only the third gun, one still out of range of the camp, remained.

Ganara nodded to her.

“You made it,” Blue said with a weary grimace. “Only one left.”

Ganara grunted. “One left.”

Ilsa could have liked Ganara’s terseness were her eyes not always overflowing with lethal fury. But here in the fray, she was in her element. Ilsa turned toward the third gun, still rolling toward the position toward the others had fired. The Ayochians retreated toward it.

“If they set it up, they only need one of those to destroy the camp,” she said.

“Right,” said Ganara.

Ilsa climbed up a cold metal ladder onto the back of the captured gun carriage. Blood ran along the metal rivets of the vehicles loading platform. She checked the chamber and found a shell in it, ready to fire.

She turned and called to the others. “It’s loaded. Get everyone away from the front.”

Blue raised her eyebrows.

Ilsa shook her head. “Don’t ask questions. I’ve got a plan.”

She withdrew her pistol and made her way around the gun carriage to the armored driver’s compartment. She offered a fast prayer that the driver had fled, then yanked the hatch on the top of the vehicle open.

Inside the cramped confines, she found her prayer answered. There was no one there. She took the controls, sparked the bio-electric battery, and then turned the machine with agonizing slowness, and a grinding of treads, to face toward the Ayochian’s other remaining artillery piece. She pushed the engine pedal and then climbed out of the compartment. The gun carriage rolled down the slope toward the troops that had brought it to the pass where the winds roared in the lull of the battle.

Twenty meters and grinding closer to the last gun, she raced around the back of the machine. The gun would take time to lower, but she could make sure this shell did some damage regardless. She rode the gun carriage toward the enemy line, crouched and sheltering behind the cannon that towered over her head.

At ten meters, she pulled the lever to fire the cannon. The round blasted with a deafening roar from the massive gun, which Ilsa realized too late, was not designed to fire while moving. The machine rocked backward and to the side, and the shell impacted the wall of the pass just a few dozen meters up and ahead of Ilsa. The sound blasted her senses. Rocks and ice chunks rained down from above. Screams and yells of warning reached Ilsa in muted tones.

She vaulted the gun carriage’s back railing and tumbled onto the cold rock of the pass below. The carriage flipped onto its side a second later, a boulder crashing down on the barrel of the main gun.

Ilsa ran back toward Ganara and Blue, still mostly unable to hear following the explosion. The Ayochian troops had formed up around the last gun carriage, the tracks of which ground into the fallen rocks left by Ilsa’s shot. But even there, they wavered.

Then, Black Powder stepped forward from their ranks. He carried one of his bonded pistols in each hand, and the two pistols with their integral silencers slung at his hips.

Ilsa’s father was not alone.

On his left, the Red Lector stepped forward, flanked by his remaining protectors. At his right, walked the frizzy-haired shape of Melinda. They stood before the lines. The Red Lector’s eyes found Ganara across the gap between the forces.

“This is your last chance to surrender, Vogmem. You can only delay the inevitable.”

Hiragen rode to Ganara’s side. He nodded to the other Chieftain. “We must have rocked them if they want to negotiate now. Well done.”

Ganara regarded the Red Lector with an icy gaze. Then, she spat into the pass between them.

She turned to the riders at her side.”Return to the camp. Tell the sharpshooters to keep watching the pass.”

Ilsa climbed back onto Blue’s strider and swung her legs across the saddle. She rode back to the camp with the rest of the survivors from the vanguard. Blood and wounds spotted and pockmarked many of the runners and humans. The pass was littered with bodies, and the wind whipped through abandoned weapons and whistled through holes in shattered armor.

Ilsa stopped beside the fallen form of the red giant, Ozleji Sammhar and found his breath still going in and out. But for once, he did not frighten her. It would be difficult for him to do that, given that he lay unconscious and beaten on the ground. The Vogmem collected him with a group of other Ayochian prisoners on the way back to the camp.

The battle of howling pass may have been brief, but the cost in flesh and blood was immediately obvious. Only as the sun set over the lake, and Ilsa watched with Lemuel and his sister, would Ilsa realize how much things had changed.

They had beaten back the Red Lector. The war had truly begun.

Tirica left them to get out of the cold wind.

Ilsa turned to Lemuel. “What do you think they’ll call this in the history books?”

“I wouldn’t know.” He shivered. She put her arm around his waist. Lemuel looked at her with raised eyebrows. “I didn’t need a weapon after all.”

“You haven’t fired it yet, but you may still have to. This is the beginning of the war, not the end of it.”

“Yeah. I suppose it depends. Back in Chogrum, we don’t really call the battles fought by Vogmem by names, especially when our troops aren’t involved.”

She frowned. So many things were forgotten by history. “I’ve fought in a few battles. I won’t forget any of them.”

“And you shouldn’t,” said Lemuel.

“I wish I could.” She shook her head. “That’s just now how things work.”

Siuku approached, walking along the lake shore from the lodge. “Priestess,” she said in her monotone. “I’m glad you are alright.”

“Thank you, Keeper.” She bowed to Siuku.

Then the dark manta-shape of a locust cut across the setting sun. Lemuel pointed at the locust as it circled down lower over the lake. A frown crossed his face. “What is that doing here?”

Ilsa scowled. “I have a feeling we’ll know soon.” The locust was large and carried a sky carriage. As it drew closer she read a name in the language of Morhoen, but simple enough to understand. “Koor.” A high priest of the Unification had come to the mountains.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 28 – Etched Edge

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

Previously…
Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
Negotiations between the forces have been interrupted by the Uzan.
Ilsa and Blue have the Ayochian mind eater captive, but can they escape?

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

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

Hooves and strider feet pounded on the rocky mountainside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How would they connect right now?”

“A plant pile with an interface device.”

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

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

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

“Or a necklace?” Ilsa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ilsa reached her and kicked her in the stomach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five meters. Four. Three.

Ilsa took aim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t,” she said.

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

“Mother, I can’t.”

“Ilsa, where are you?”

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

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

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

“Yes. No. Damn it, I think so.”

“I can hear you. I can’t see you.”

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

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

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

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

“Good.”

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

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

Then Ilsa lost the thread of reality.

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

“I stopped them.”

“That’s good, Ilsa,” said her mother.

“I’m protecting my friends.”

“I thought you didn’t have friends?”

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

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

“Ilsa, you have to come back.”

“Blue. I see my mother.”

“You’re hurt, but not that bad.”

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

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

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

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

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t die.”

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

“You can hear her?”

“She told you not to die.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“No, I don’t think I am.”

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

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

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

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

“She’s still alive, isn’t she?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” she murmured.

And without another thought, she drifted to sleep.

 

Tenlyres Chapter 27

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

Previous Chapter
Buy Tenlyres I at your favorite online retailer

Tenlyres II - Chapter 26 White Feathers pt2 mq

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