Tenlyres Chapter 37 – Across the Divide

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Previous Chapter

Some time after the battle of Howling Pass, Ilsa and a small group of allies ride east toward Chogrum.

If we are to ride for any reason, let us ride as one people.

 

Ilsa rode the dappled gray steppe horse into the Filami village. Over the past month, she had become used to the animal, though it was completely unlike any strider or runner. In a way, that seemed fitting for a ride to Chogrum, a city where she had never been before. Everything became strange at once.

The village was tiny, as were most of the Filami settlements on the plateau of Yr. And like the rest, it was located in an area rich with underground plant piles. Atalem, however, had a dire distinguishing feature. It was the closest settlement of any kind to the Eastern Lyre, the place where Uzan slept closest to Chogrum.

If an attack was going to surprise the Prince of Chogrum, it would come from the lyre south of Atalem. The maps of the Oshomi called it the Flowering Lyre. The nomad warriors who rode with Ilsa assured her she would understand why they did once she saw it.

For the first time in years, she rode without Blue close by. Her friend was with a group of nomads further north, but also on their way eastward. They would reach Heaven’s Lyre, located just a little further west than Ilsa was now, and make certain the Gray Lector and Black Powder did not try to raise another demonic army from it.

Even so, her friend felt close.

Ilsa touched the egg-shaped locket that contained a bit of plant pile and hung from a string around her neck. It had once belonged to Ashnia Haram, but Blue had repurposed it to amplify Ilsa’s sense of spirits, at least as it applied to humans.

She had been skeptical at first but learned that if she focused a little, Ilsa could send a short message to Blue over seemingly any distance. Useful, in keeping their two groups in contact with each other while not sending out radio signals or messengers.

Her horse snorted as they passed a bale of Filami winter root. The hottest part of summer was approaching, but evidently, the people of Atalem still had some of their winter crops left over. Winter root could grow deep within piles and be extracted without damaging the rest of the organism if one knew where to dig.

Ilsa supposed the Filami here had mastered that sort of knowledge long ago. She pulled on the reins to slow her horse. That had taken some adjustment, as opposed to a whisper or flex of posture which would have sufficed to control a strider.

Siuku, the Keeper of Tenlyres, caught up with Ilsa, riding bareback with no reins, and brought her horse to a stop in the center of Atalem’s main street. Villagers emerged from some of the nearby houses with caution. Some even held firearms, though none had the weapons readied.

Ilsa understood their caution. Oshomi like Siuku and the rest of the band riding with Ilsa sometimes raided the Filami villages near them for goods and supplies. Still, she doubted it would come to violence here, and if it did, Ilsa could quickly disarm the Filami without killing them. She doubted any of them had weapon bonds, and she was confident she could out-shoot unbonded marksmen.

Siuku called out to the villagers in the steppe’s trade language. “Do not fear. We are not raiders.”

A murmur ran through the Filami. A few of them came closer to the keeper.

Siuku continued, “I am the Keeper of Tenlyres, and I seek to protect all of Yr from the awakening of Asurdeva.”

More murmurs. One of the Filami elders waved his arm at Siuku. She turned toward him. “What is it?” Her voice lost much of its grandeur. When she lowered the volume it went back to its usual monotone.

“You are Oshomi. When have the Oshomi protected anything?”

“I speak for all Oshomi now, not those of the past. In the coming days, we must all act as one if we are to survive.”

The Filami exchanged glances as more Oshomi from Ilsa’s group rode into the village, and along with them, Lemuel and Tirica Chollush. The scholar Ilsa loved, and his sister made their way toward her on their own horses, having also traded their striders to keep better pace on this ride east. She glanced in their direction.

Lemuel gave her a nod, more confident in their relationship after their time in the mountains. Ilsa felt the same way about things. They had held together under pressure without collapsing inward. She turned and rode to the keeper’s side.

Ilsa raised both her branded hands. “She speaks the truth. I am a priestess of the Unification. I am not Oshomi, and you can trust the keeper’s words.”

Another elder shook her head. “I have heard the Keeper of Tenlyres rides the lands in the center of the steppe. Peaceful or not, why should we believe you are who you say?”

Siuku bowed her veiled head. “I would not ask you to trust me on faith alone. Have you anyone with cuts or wounds among you?”

The second elder’s lined faced pinched into a frown. “The young occasionally cut themselves on the digging blades. What are you suggesting?”

“Bring me anyone with an open wound, and I will heal them.”

After a few minutes of jostling and whispers and then some talk among the elders, a young man with a bandaged forearm walked forward.

Siuku climbed down from her horse and unfastened one side of her veil. She carefully opened up the bandage with deft hands. Then, she touched the exposed wound in front of the crowd of Filami. Light flickered beneath her fingers.

The young man’s eyes went wide and he stared at the smooth skin left behind from Siuku’s touch.

“It’s true,” he exclaimed. “The Keeper of Tenlyres can heal the wounded.”

Siuku held out her hands, fingers streaked with small traces of the young man’s blood. “I have been given this power by the spirits. Please, trust that I will not betray you.”

The villagers crowded closer, their fear abated. A miracle has a way of convincing, Ilsa thought.

She suspected Siuku’s abilities were more similar to the powers of a mind eater or other magus than the keeper herself did, but the evidence was light. For one thing, Siuku’s mind did not seem to cloud with the after effects, which was a difference between her and any type of magi but the ones referred to as mind eaters.

Her powers had physical influence. That meant if she was a magus she should be emanating traces of illusive fog as well when she used them. But that never happened either.

The Keeper of Tenlyres remained mysterious to Ilsa, even after being healed by her more than once.

Siuku healed more wounded villagers. The elders inspected each one and eventually motioned for the other Oshomi to dismount. After that, many of the villagers left to prepare a feast. Others stepped forward to help the Oshomi tend to their tired horses. The band of the keeper was welcomed to Atalem with food from the local stores of crops.

As the meal came to a close a few hours later, and most of the nomads and villagers had finished eating, Ilsa and Lemuel were sitting on a wooden bench facing south, where sunlight spilled down from a cloudless sky. Siuku was talking with the village elders at a table nearby, and Ilsa caught a familiar word one of the Filami said in a soft voice.

“…Demons…”

Ilsa rose from the bench and looked toward the table, sharpening her ears to better listen in.

“Uzan,” said Siuku. “They can be difficult to detect. But you say they moved about in the night?”

“Yes. South of here, by the field of flowers,” said the elder. “There are not many of them, but there need not be to threaten our village.”

“I understand,” said Siuku. “My people will investigate the place at once.”

“You are generous, Keeper of Tenlyres.”

A rumble of agreement came from the other elders.

“If we are to be friends, we must share what we have. And I have warriors.” Siuku bowed to the elders. When she raised her head, she did not look in Ilsa’s direction, but motioned her closer to the table with one hand, eerily aware of Ilsa’s location.

“Priestess,” said the keeper. “It seems our visit to the Flowering Lyre must be today.”

“It makes sense,” said Ilsa. “I can look into it right away.”

“I will send a few of my warriors with you.”

Lemuel and Tirica approached behind Ilsa. The Chogrumian siblings drew Ilsa and Siuku’s attention.

“With respect, your holiness,” said Lemuel, “But my sister and I have studied this lyre before. We should go as well.”

“A good idea,” said Siuku. “Go now if you can. I will send a group of warriors to join you once I have them readied.”

“Thank you, keeper.” Ilsa glanced at Lemuel and Tirica. “Are you sure? This could be dangerous.”

“You know how to kill Uzan.”

“That doesn’t make it easy. Or safe.”

He shrugged. “Nothing out here is safe. Chogrum will be sending troops to fight Ayoch and Dal any day now. And who knows how many Uzan there will be.”

“Fine.”

“You can’t get rid of us that easily,” said Tirica with a grin.

“I know.” A smile tugged at the corners of Ilsa’s lips. “We’ve been across half of Yr together.”

“Damn right,” said Tirica.

They went to retrieve their horses. Once mounted, they rode south toward the place where wild flowers bloomed from the plant piles. The easternmost artifact of Tenlyres.

#

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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.

Tenlyres Chapter 5

Chapter Index

Previous Chapter

Doubtless Manor

 

In days long gone, when The Three of Yr walked the world, the plateau was lush with life. White roses, primrose, and even the bird of paradise flowers abounded. When The Three returned to their hidden places most of Yr withered out of longing for their presence. So wrote the First Speaker for Hathani in one of the books Ilsa had studied at Saint Banyeen’s Garden, years ago.

In the present, the fourth month waned and winter’s chill was fading into the muddy hope of springtime, Ilsa guided her weary strider, Hailek she had decided to call the beast, around a broken patch of ground where a plant pile from a Lotok formation had broken the surface. The dark green mound of memory cells climbed up through a crack in the soil. She was grateful to see any green. Over the past days of restless, riding there had been nothing to see except the occasional stand of tower grass. Only that morning had they reached this miles-wide swath of Lotok.

A few yards away, a gout of cold water and mist erupted from the earth and startled Blue’s nearby strider. The normally unflappable creature bucked backward out of the spray. Blue held onto the reins and fought for stability, a common Morhoen curse on her lips. “Tomorrow break you!”

Ilsa kept her eyes on the ground, looking for other points where cold geysers might erupt. The green on the surface of the plateau might have faded when the Three deities disappeared, but the plant piles beneath the surface remained thick in some places. Nourished through symbiotic connection to the plains-grass above, the piles could well out-last human civilization. They had survived the fall of many nations in the past.

Blue steered her mount away from the geyser. Her coat and her strider’s hair dripped with icy spray, water forced to he surface by the plant piles shifting below the ground. She turned in her saddle and glanced at Ilsa. “Any sign of the fort around here?”

“We rode straight. Fort Sardul should be less than half a day from here.”

“If we actually rode straight.” Blue frowned at the empty horizon, then shook her head. “I don’t see it. That’s for sure.”

Blue might be gifted with an invincible immune system, but Ilsa knew her friend’s long-term patience was far more limited.

“I’ve never been to the fort.” Ilsa scanned the distant plains. No one could build directly over a Lotok formation, but Ilsa was certain Fort Sardul must be near. The map certainly supported the fort’s location. She squinted through wafting mists from the occasional geyser eruption. Her eyes caught on a glint of glass.

Glass in the window of a house—What Ilsa had thought a formation of gray granite that rose from the ground on its own appeared to be part of some hidden settlement. She studied the area around the window as she fished out her binoculars from the saddle bag behind her back. She raised the lenses to her eyes. A crude, five-meter-high wall of thick granite circled the carved house a hundred or so meters out from its sides.

It all looked derelict, and was built too close to the Lotok for comfort, given the gradual creeping movement of the underground formation. Ilsa frowned at the thought. She had never heard of a primitive homestead like one so from Dal whether abandoned or not. Any families with holdings on the plateau would be wealthy enough to build something better.

She pointed with her free hand, toward the glint of glass.

“Looks like someone used to live over there.”

Blue squinted at the point. “If you say so. Just looks like a pile of rocks to me.”

“Well, it’s not in good repair,” said Ilsa. “So it can’t be the fort.” She lowered the binoculars.

“Think we should check it out?” asked Blue.

“Better to be on the safe side.” Ilsa guided her strider toward the ruined homestead. She wished she had been able to find more information on the central region of Yr, but the plateau seemed very nearly to devour information. The Oshomi people and their herds of genuine horses were the most famous element beyond the Tenlyres themselves, but near the forts people could settle in relative safety, or so Ilsa had heard. She and Blue rode toward the ruins.

 

The walls looked sheerer up close, and far from ruined. What had appeared crude now looked as architected as any structure Ilsa had seen in Dal or Morhoi. She peered over the wall, standing on her Strider’s saddle, and glimpsed a finely crafted manor house that had looked like ruined stone from the distance.

Blue pressed a gloved hand to the polished surface of the wall. Lines from dripping water streaked the dark surface. “Seems a lot different up close.”

“Yeah.” Ilsa frowned. “Too different.” She looked along the curve of the wall. A gate was situated in the structure, high enough for a great strider to pass under it, and with slender watchtowers on either side. Ilsa guided her steed toward the gate.

She stopped before a pair of black-sealed iron doors with rust marks in places where the coat had peeled away. Ilsa looked up at the tower window above. “Hey!” she called. “Anyone there?”

Blue rode to her. “What are you doing?”

“It definitely doesn’t look abandoned.” Ilsa kept her eyes on the window. A shadowy face appeared in the frame, looking down at Ilsa. She raised her arm and waved up at the person keeping watch.

The face and in the window turned and said something Ilsa couldn’t hear through the glass. Ilsa saw the mouth move, but could not determine much else through the misted glass pane.

Blue glanced at her. “I hope they’re on our side.”

Ilsa shrugged. “It’s not like we’re criminals. Lots of Dalites on the plains support unification.”

Both of the heavy doors clanked open. Ilsa rode into the gateway and then stopped, seeing three figures standing just a few meters inside. The one in the center was a man in a warm but well-tailored Dalite coat, with dark hair and pale skin. The other two were only vaguely humanoid, but distinctly not human.

Glittering glass camera eyes peered out from beneath the guard of metallic domed helmets. Long steel arms hung at their sides. Even longer legs of the same material carried each of the sentries forward toward the gate. A glint of a blade was visible along each of their forearms, and Ilsa spotted gun barrels on the opposite side of each limb. The man raised a hand and the mechanical sentries halted.

“I am Raheb Suel, the chief guard. What business do you have with Lord Palend?”

Ilsa frowned at the sentries. “Lord Palend? Since when does a Lord of Dal live in Tenlyres?”

Raheb shook his head, face grim. A handgun flashed from his sleeve into his hand. “You women owe me an answer, not the reverse.”

“Look,” said Blue, “We don’t want any trouble.”

The man’s eyes widened. “You’re from Chogrum.”

“Shit.” Blue raised her hands. “We’re not here to fight.”

Raheb moved fast. He raised his pistol and took the safety off in the same motion. He aimed at Blue. Ilsa seized the small bag of ammunition and then leaped from her strider, a warning shout on her lips. Blue’s steed leaped forward without any audible command, vaulting one of the metal guardians. A shot rang out, but not from Raheb.

Blue’s armored shoulder took an impact of a rifle round. From the clang and whine of the shot, Ilsa guessed the armor had just saved Blue’s life. The force of the shot knocked her friend backward over her saddlebags. She fell from the strider onto the grass inside the courtyard walls. With a groan, Blue struggled to stand up.

Ilsa landed on the ground, her strider between herself and Blue. One of the sentries swung a rapidly-extended blade straight at her face. Ilsa dodged to one side. Air whistled past the strike. She clenched her right hand. A brand burned.

A pistol appeared in her grip. She loaded it in an instant, as she darted away from the sentry, following the curve of the wall away from Blue and the gate. One of the sentries followed her. The other rushed toward Blue. Both sets of forearm blades extended to the length of short swords.

“Suel, call this off!” Ilsa shouted. “We don’t mean any harm.” She smelled powder wafting from the manor house behind the well-dressed man. A glint of a scope’s reflection told her whoever had hit Blue was lining up another shot.

“I can’t. The master will not deal with Chogrumians.”

Raheb paced toward Ilsa. Blue found her feet. The sniper’s glinting scope angled toward Ilsa. The metal sentry swung a blade at Blue, but she was out of its way, moving out of its path away from Ilsa. Ilsa’s opponent lunged at her. She fired twice, smashing the eyepieces of the glass cameras in the helmet. The sentry continued forward.

Ilsa dodged to one side and the sentry plowed into the wall behind her, evidently not knowing to stop itself now that it was blinded. Blades clanged as they struck stone. Ilsa turned to face Raheb.

“I don’t want to hurt you, or anyone here.”

Raheb scowled. “You rode here with a Chogrumian.”

“We’re with the Unification. Both of us.”

“Even worse.” Raheb kept his pistol trained on her. The sniper would definitely have a shot lined up by now.

Ilsa ducked low and rushed at the man, then leaped to one side. He squeezed off a shot, well wide of her. The rifle cracked from the great house rooftop. A bullet seared across Ilsa’s shoulder, drawing blood. She winced in pain, but brought her gun to a stop under the man’s chin. He backpedaled in time to avoid a potential shot, but she used the moments of cover his retreat provided her to produce her other pistol and load it. The magazine clicked into place.

She aimed the newly summoned weapon at the clanking sentinel following Blue and fired twice. The machine’s head burst in two places and steam issued from the back of its dome. The sentry collapsed. Ilsa shot her friend a glance. “Blue, can you stop that sniper from here?”

Blue nodded to her, eyes closed. Ilsa kept her first pistol on Raheb. His hands shook as he fought to keep the gun aimed at Ilsa.

“Who are you?”

“Ilsa Barrett. Priestess of the Unification, and of Hathani.” The pain in her shoulder built, despite the damage from the wound not seeming serious otherwise. “Please, put down that gun.”

His wavering hand steadied. His eyes flicked toward Blue. “What is she doing?”

“Eating your sniper friend’s thoughts probably. Don’t count on someone else shooting me anytime soon.”

He gritted his teeth. “You bitch. How dare you!”

“Got her.” She turned to Raheb. “Sniper’s aimed at you now, man.”

His eyes widened. A clunk of wood on a paved path drew Ilsa to glance toward the main entrance of the house. The slow shape of a man leaning on a black staff of wood made his way toward them from the covered porch at the front.

“That’s enough,” called the old man. “Raheb, put away your gun. I believe these women are with the Unification.”

Raheb grimaced. “Lord Palend,” he lowered his pistol to his side and bowed to the old man. “Whatever you command is my call.”

Palend nodded to him and then turned toward Ilsa as he approached them. “Catch those striders of yours. Then, I want to talk to both of you.”

Ilsa glanced in the direction of Hailek and Blue’s strider, who had both run along the outer wall, away from the gunfire. She nodded toward the old man, grateful for his sanity. “As you wish.”

He glanced at Blue. “You too, miss. Release Jia as a show of good faith.”

Blue hesitated with an intake of breath. She glanced at Ilsa.

“Trust me,” said Palend. “She won’t shoot.”

Blue breathed out. “She is released.”

The scope’s reflection vanished from Ilsa’s sight. She unloaded her pistols and then withdrew them into their seals. Blue’s will had already reined in the two striders. Ilsa turned to Palend. “Let’s talk.”