Invisibles 12

Hey everyone, Tim here. This is a little late in the day, but I am back with a new chapter!

Here is just a quick reminder I have two new books out.

The Mangrove Suite

Soul Art

Now back to the story.

Invisibles

Within the circle that protected Kalfar there was one city that commanded true respect and awe, the world over.

Sarsa, the seat of the Lord Executive, ruler of Kalfar. Glorious city, stern line of defense against beings from beyond. This was the richest and proudest of all cities in the near-eastern alliance.

Sarsa, city of countless exiles.

Sarsa should have drawn attention for all kinds of reasons, but there was a side of the city not often discussed on record.

Sarsa, the shadow city, where the desperate and the skillful plied their illegal trades. Darkness under street lamps. Poison in the minds of the high officials. Ice in the veins of the guilty.

That is the Sarsa to be watched.

And that is the Sarsa waiting to be seen.

 

12

Ceth and his band of Watertakers marched down the street just before sunrise. Percival watched the dozen or so korda advance on the boathouse. The burning signal Kelebek had lit on a pole in the darkened street in front of the boathouse cast their shadows out behind them.

Martin stood beneath the burning signal, a pile of rags Rethe assured were especially irritating to korda. He wore full armor, covered in mud-turned-clay dredged from under the dock and held in place by his geomantic abilities. The damp surface of his armor glistened in the flickering firelight.

The gang of korda drew closer, clubs and pistols carried openly.

Martin called to them, “Want a rematch, Ceth?”

“You should never have strong-armed us. We own the Fog.” Ceth grimaced at the crew from behind his breathing mask. “And now you and your thugs are going to find out what that means. Rethe, show yourself! I know you’re here.” He brandished a pistol in one hand, a short blade clutched in the other.

Percival tensed for the Watertakers to rush forward, to make a break past Martin to where he and Alina and Kelebek stood. A high-pitched whistle came from the boathouse behind them. Rethe straightened herself to a standing position behind the barrels on the raised porch of the building.

“You want to see me?” she raised an ornate pistol, one of the old artisan match-grade smokeless weapons she collected and winked. “You got it, Ceth.” She pulled the trigger.

At this range, she could not have hit Ceth, but the bullet burst into the air, propelled with smokeless powder it made satisfying bang as it left the chamber. A clattering sound followed that sound as the bullet ricocheted off a distant roofing tile. Rethe lowered the pistol.

“Are you crazy?” Ceth stalked forward. “You’re going to bring the Red Guards into this.”

Rethe smiled. “That was the idea.”

“We’ll kill you. Never, never bring the guards down on me!” Ceth trained the barrel of his pistol on Rethe. “You first, human-consorting whore!”

Martin’s small stone-headed hammer went overhand, left his fingers and flew straight, guided by his geomantic influence. The impact would be strong enough to break bones. The hammer’s head struck Ceth in the wrist. His pistol snapped from his hand before he could fire. His hand swung on the end of a shattered wrist.

“No way to talk to a lady,” said Martin.

The Watertakers roared in fury, but none louder than Ceth. They charged as a mob.

Percival supposed the guards would arrive in minutes at most, just as dawn broke. Kelebek backed up at the stairway toward where Rethe stood on the boathouse porch. She, Alina, and Percival each produced a pistol lent to them by Rethe, a collector if ever there had been one.

Martin breathed evenly as the first trio of Watertakers raced toward him. He held a mace in each hand. The one in his right was made of solid steel from handle to head, a single piece with the gnashing jaws of a hound sculpted on the front. The other had a metal handle, but the head was formed of solid granite. Both weapons felt light as feathers in his hands, thanks to his powers taking their weight, but he knew each one was heavy enough to stop a blade and break a limb if the swordsman parried.

The Watertakers’ blows met air or armor. He crushed one leg with each blow and then backed away from the third attacker. For his part, the last of the three chargers left standing looked at his moaning comrades in shock, hesitant to follow Martin any further.

Another gang member rushed past him, trying to circle around Martin’s side. Kelebek shot him in the belly. The korda man went down with a wild yell. His weapons skittered across the paving stones and landed at Martin’s feet. He backed up toward the boathouse. Then, Ceth and two more Watertakers barreled into him from the opposite side.

He grunted as the wind rushed from his lungs and he tumbled over backward in spite of his armor’s massive weight. He realized as he fell that one of the korda must be a hydromancer, a common ability among their people though rare among humans, and his armor was still damp with mist and water from the mud he had dredged for extra protection. He hurled the stone hammer at the first Watertaker to leap at him, where he lay on the pavement.

The hammer caught the korda in the chest and hurled him to the ground. Martin scrambled to get up, but his movements felt sluggish, resisted by the powers of the hydromancer. Alina and Percival fired their pistols, but with only one shot each, Martin doubted they would stop Ceth and the others.

“He’s not going to make it,” said Alina. She stuffed the pistol back into its holster. Her other hand found the knife tucked into the sheath on the other side. She rushed toward where Martin lay just as Ceth reached the fallen man.

The korda raised his sword. Alina felt impossibly slow, too far away to stop him.

Percival’s imp snatched at the grip of Ceth’s sword. He swung his other hand at the creature to ward it off. Percival knew he would pay for this in the contract if the imp was hurt at all. The creature spun through the air, smarting from Ceth’s blow. The exchange happened in seconds, but it gave Alina time.

She lunged forward, under Ceth’s swinging arms. Her dagger found flesh. Ceth hacked a cough and looked down at the blade emerging from his chest. Alina released the handle of the knife, and the leader of the Watertakers tumbled backward into the street.

“Time to go,” Kelebek said.

Martin got to his feet.

Three squads of Red Guards emerged from the alleyways opposite the boathouse. They advanced on the fighting criminals holding single-shot rifles, barrels bristling with bayonets. Alina stared at the blood on her hands but backed toward the boathouse, as the plan had been. Martin grabbed her shoulder and turned her. They ran for the boat, though Alina’s whole body felt numb.

Up the porch, through the doors to the dock. They reached Rethe’s waiting houseboat with a pair of Red Guard’s close behind. But Saint waited on the boat, concealed by a heavy sheet. His huge oars dug into the water with more than human strength. Alina staggered to a stop on the deck. Saint dragged his oars and pulled them out into the harbor, the whole crew on board.

The sun broke through the clouds over the water, making the blood on Alina’s borrowed clothes and pale skin look dark.

She had not meant to kill him. She started to cry.

 

 #

This story concludes next week! See you then.

Tenlyres Chapter 45 – First

Tim here.

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Previous Chapter

 

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

 

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

 

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

Catch First.

Find Tirica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Slow her down,” First said.

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

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

“It’s me, Ilsa.”

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

They rolled onto the rooftop.

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

Ilsa’s eyes widened.

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

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

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

“Don’t do it!”

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

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

Tirica, gone into the air, just like that.

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

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

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

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

“You can’t be serious.”

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

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

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

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

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

Then, First pulled the detonator cord on her vest.

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

 

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

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

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

“Ilsa, you’re hurt.”

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

“You’re still alive.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Ilsa, do you trust me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Warn Dal about what?”

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

 

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

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

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

She arrived, tired and aching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know?”

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

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

“I guess we succeeded then.”

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

Ilsa frowned. “What do you mean?”

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

“Yunn.”

“Maybe. Either way, she’s gone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 34 – Black Powder

Hello, everyone, Tim here.

Happy new year!

Tenlyres is back today after last week’s year-ending cliffhanger.

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

 

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Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.

            The battle to escape Howling Pass and the mountains intensifies.

            And Ilsa’s ruthless father is still leading on the other side.

 

The Uzan marched up the pass, too few in number to block it entirely, but each individually powerful enough to slay a dozen men and women in seconds. They bristled with weapons that belched impossibly bitter smoke.

And they surged toward the rise in the center where the Red Lector’s forces still held ground. Cannon fire from the Uzan wrecked the remaining armored vehicles behind the Ayochian troops.

Ilsa looked for the Red Lector and found him quickly, at the heart of his troops on the sliver of high ground, beside the fat commander, Boraij Kanan, and to Ilsa’s surprise and horror, the tall shape of Black Powder.

Her father looked no worse for the explosion he had triggered at the gun carriage, except for having shed his outer coat. He held a bonded pistol in each hand, but for the moment did not appear concerned with the battle, or the Uzan.

Aloof as ever, even in the face of the demons he had set free.

Ilsa’s half-numb and paralyzed right arm twitched. She kept her eyes on her father and the Red Lector who stood so near him. She clenched her teeth just to keep from yelling at them to stop hiding and fight. But her father had survived the explosion he had caused. He seemed as invincible as the Uzan, but there had to be a way to finally end him.

The Red Lector brandished his sword and waved it at a pike with a broken end held by one of his few remaining Lectoral Protectors. Ilsa squinted through smoke and dust as the red-armored protector hoisted his weapon higher. Megalli’s body hung from the weapon, tied by the wrists. Cuts and gashes ran through her clothes, dripping with blood. Ilsa’s stomach turned at the sight of the small woman being displayed as a gory trophy.

A shout of dismay ran through the Vogmem near Ilsa, and none was louder than the oldest of the Four, Akirette. Tears in her eyes, the old woman raised a rifle in one fist and held the reins of her goat runner in the other.

“Warriors to me!” she shouted. “Show them our answer to this insult.”

Ilsa pointed Akirette out to the Oshomi rider guiding the horse on which she rode. “Follow her. The Uzan are too close.”

The Oshomi, a scar-faced woman with tangled black hair, grunted and turned the horse toward Akirette. Nearby, Lemuel spoke to the rider of his horse in a voice Ilsa could not hear. But then he pointed at Siuku, who rode opposite Ilsa.

He must be thinking the Keeper could still save Megalli. For all Ilsa knew he could be right, but the danger of closing with the Red Lector would be terrible, even if all the nomads attacked at once.

Ilsa caught Lemuel’s eye and then shook her head.

Then, the horse beneath Ilsa accelerated after Akirette. The Vogmem charged.

Ilsa’s mother’s voice reached her mind through the ghostly world. “You may be wrong, Ilsa. She could still be saved.”

“She’s still alive?” Ilsa murmured.

Mother’s eyes opened. “Don’t let her hang there any longer.”

“I won’t.” Ilsa checked the pistol she held in her functioning hand. She grimaced as she thought of the difficulty of reloading the weapon, and the fact that her other hand could not clench to summon its bonds. Only two guns left loaded in her bonds.

The horse thundered beneath her, a far rougher ride than a strider like poor, loyal Hailek. She clamped her legs around the saddle and held on tight.

Akirette’s warriors closed with the enemy, opening fire on Ayochians and Uzan alike. Bullets rebounded from stone more than they found their marks, but members of every force fell in the exchange with screams and cries of pain, or in the case of Uzan, with eerie silence.

Ilsa looked for Blue in the charging force. She found her friend riding her strider close to Lemuel and Tirica. Blue sent her a message mentally.

The Keeper has our flank, Ilsa. Be careful, there’s something odd going on among the Uzan.

Ilsa scowled. “Something other than them being undying monsters?”

Blue did not answer that question.

The horse carried Ilsa into the heart of the battle ahead of Lemuel and the others. She shot and killed the nearest Ayochian, but dread built in her stomach as the Uzan continued to advance. And she and the nomads kept charging right at them.

Time to find out if defacing the name of their god would break the magic that kept them from dying.

She caught up with Akirette just as the Red Lector’s troops surged forward with him and his protectors at their center. Black Powder and General Kanan followed with their personal troops around them. Mercenaries and mechanized infantry formed a line behind the Red Lector’s household troops.

Ilsa spotted the protector carrying the pike where Megalli hung by her wrists. She shot the man twice at close range, once in each arm. Her small rounds did not break his armor but made him turn toward her with a wavering half-step. She found the gap just above his collar and mortally wounded him with a third bullet.

He sank to his knees. Ilsa leaped from the saddle of the Oshomi horse. She landed beside the dead protector and found Megalli laying, bloody and unconscious on the edge of the fray. The Red Lector howled in rage and rushed toward her with two more protectors flanking him.

Black Powder advanced nearby, leading his mercenaries away from the Ayochian rearguard where the Uzan continued the slaughter.

Oshomi flooded around Ilsa and Megalli. Hooves stamped the ground. Bullets and arrows flew. But there was no sign of Siuku, and Megalli did not have long judging by the amount of blood she had already lost.

The Oshomi horses reversed as the Red Lector’s close-quarters troops advanced. Ilsa crouched beside Megalli’s bloody body and leveled her pistol at the leader of the Ayochian forces. She would fight here alone if she had to, just like in the cave, just like always.

Maybe that was her destiny, no matter how many friends she knew. She fought alone.

The Red Lector stood just behind his protectors, and the two red-armored men loomed over Ilsa. Goji Haram’s lip curled. His saber’s edge gleamed red. “You’re too late to save her, priestess. But you can die at her side.”

Black Powder’s familiar voice burst like a shell over the sounds of carnage that surrounded Ilsa, Megalli, and the man’s guards. “It’s time.”

Two shots cut the air, louder than the rest. Snipers. The Lectoral Protectors in front of the Red Lector staggered. One of them looked up at the cliff side where the deadly shots had originated. Ilsa smelled their blood, mingled with the same, almost-sweet, scent of paralyzing ballistic venom as Melinda’s bullets. The bodyguards crumpled between her and the Red Lector.

“Damn you all.” The Red Lector thrust his saber at Ilsa.

She shot him twice. The first bullet smashed his fingers and made the sword tumble from his grip. The second clipped his back knee, so when he tried to step forward, he fell to the ground in front of Ilsa. Pain wracked his lined features.

She looked at him from her crouch. A sick confusion built in her stomach. Who had shot those bodyguards?

“You’re father’s men,” said mother in Ilsa’s mind.

Black Powder and Boraij Kanan marched forward through the battle. Neither of them fired a shot, but the Vogmem retreated before them. Even the sounds of the Uzan and their roaring guns faded away.

Mother’s voice returned to Ilsa. “Your father… This isn’t like him.”

“He wouldn’t betray his commander to save me,” Ilsa said. “I know that much.”

She kept her pistol extended before her. Just two bullets remained in the magazine. And one in the chamber.

Black Powder looked down at the fallen, struggling, bleeding shape of the Red Lector.

“Goji Haram,” said Boraij Kanan in a voice too fierce for his heavy frame. “Sinner against the Gray.”

The Red Lector gave up reaching for his saber and rolled onto his back to face Kanan and Black Powder. In the same motion, he went for the pistol on his hip. “Kanan, you’d dare betray me?”

Before Ilsa’s eyes, Black Powder shot the Red Lector through the palm. Haram recoiled and clutched at his shattered extremity.

“You-Vel, how dare you betray your Lector!” Haram spoke through gritted teeth. “You will hang for this, mercenary scum.”

“Make no mistake, Goji,” said Black Powder, stone-faced, “Half of me is Ayochian, but another half comes from Chogrum and the east. You are not holy.”

“Only the divine monarchs of Ayoch are holy!”

Kanan stepped onto the Red Lector’s wounded leg. Haram gasped with pain but surprised Ilsa by maintaining a defiant expression. Kanan sneered at Haram. “We belong to a different master. The Gray Lector is with us now, Goji Haram!” He raised his pistol over his head, a light of ecstasy gleamed in his eyes. “I bowed for you, scraped for you, killed for you. But now, you will die by my hand.” He lowered the pistol to his heaving side. “My loyalty has always been to the Gray Lector.” He raised the barrel of the pistol.

“I won’t beg for my life,” Haram said, “But please shut up.”

Behind Kanan’s back, Black Powder nodded.

“No, I will not listen to you.” The traitorous general pressed his heel into the bullet wound Ilsa’s shot had left in the Red Lector’s knee. “I want you to feel the humiliation I felt for all these months of serving under you.”

On the ground less than a meter from Ilsa, Megalli groaned softly. Her eyelids fluttered and looked at the Red Lector, fallen nearby. Her hands were still chained to the broken pike, and she looked weak, closer to death than ever. Ilsa snarled. Three shots. She still had three shots. And three enemies stood between her and saving Megalli.

She lurched to one side and fired at Kanan. Black Powder’s hands moved in a flurry. The bright flare of a scatter shell flashed from one pistol. Ilsa’s ears rang with the sound of the shot and shell.

The bright shards of Black Powder’s scattershot intersected spread across her bullet’s trajectory. And there its line ended. He had picked her bullet from the air. Ilsa’s teeth ground together. Her father continued to demonstrate his impossible, infuriating skills.

Her father’s lip curled. “Give us a moment, daughter.”

Kanan turned toward her, his pistol leveled. “You are next, priestess.” He swung the gun to point at the wounded Lector on the ground. “I think I hear your sons and your wife on their way,” he said. “But they will be too late.” He looked around lazily. “Give my regards to the ‘divine’ monarchs of Ayoch. Your gods are dead, Haram.”

“Kill me or not. My family will punish you.”

Kanan laughed and turned toward Black Powder. “Do you believe this man, Vel? I cannot take his threats seriously. Never could, really.”

Black Powder rolled his eyes, then focused on the Red Lector. His pistol-barrel twitched, almost imperceptibly toward the man on the ground. He squeezed the trigger.

A shock ran through Goji Haram’s body. He snapped to one side, then went limp on the ground. The wound from Black Powder’s bullet went straight through his heart, spreading blood across the stones of Howling Pass.

Ilsa stared at the fallen Lector for an instant, then surged toward Megalli, keeping her pistol trained on Haram. The fat general whirled toward her, gun in hand.

He could not normally have beaten her to the shot, but she felt slow from fatigue as well as the poison spreading from the wound in her arm. He trained the pistol on her and shouted. “Vel, you had no right to take his life from me. For that, your daughter dies.”

A simmering heat at the back of Ilsa’s awareness broke through to her conscious mind. With it, a terrible shriek echoed in her mind, and she somehow knew, in the minds of every human and animal in the pass. Unmistakable rage combined with incoherent grief in Ashnia Haram’s psychic outburst. Kanan flinched to one side. His eyes crossed and he dropped his pistol so it skittered to the ground.

The entire battle roared with the mental fury of all Ashnia’s mind eater abilities bent to one single emotion. Anger. Warriors stopped fighting, stood paralyzed. Even the Uzan froze in their paces.

Ilsa’s mind burned with the sensation. Tears ran down her cheeks as Ashnia’s rage melded with sorrow. Uncontrollable, unwarranted grief made her cold, bruised heart feel ready to burst. She fell onto her side and lost her grip on her pistol.

The shriek of temper was everything for an immortal stretch of seconds. Then, the furious mental scream subsided as quickly as it had arisen. Ilsa looked around, disoriented.

Uzan guns roared anew, killing more Ayochians and nomads alike.

Kanan regained his footing and turned to his right. There, Black Powder walked to the body of the Red Lector.

“You were a fool,” he said. “But an enemy must be respected.”

“Vel, you bastard,” Kanan’s eyes fell to Red Lector’s body. “You had no right. He was mine to kill.”

“We are in battle,” Black Powder said. “Kill, then gloat, if you must.”

Kanan’s troops pushed forward around the two men, Ilsa, and Megalli. Ilsa gripped her pistol, but kept her head down, hoping they would think her still disabled by Ashnia’s explosive anger. They had killed the mind eater’s father, but Ilsa could hardly relate to that level of devotion to a parent.

Kanan raised his eyes and glared at Black Powder. The sound of hooves and claws approached, but Ilsa smelled Ayochian powder like a cloud approaching with them.

General Shayi Haram’s troops were about to reach the battle.

Ilsa’s mind shifted halfway to despair.

Then, mother’s voice spoke in her ear. “You can still live through this.” In a stern voice, she said, “Ilsa, stand up.”

And Ilsa listened.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 32 – Metal Storm

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Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.

            Following a difficult mental struggle to interrogate a captured mind eater, Ilsa prepares to fight the coming battle despite word of predictions that leaders will die in this fight.

 

The locust left as the sun rose, taking Koor’s sky carriage with it. He did not even bother saying goodbye to Ilsa, though Blue told her he had wished them all luck. Siuku had refused his offer to the last moment. Ilsa did not know if she could be glad for that, especially given the revelation of the Gray Lector from the previous night.

She and Lemuel stood near Blue and Tirica and Cass as they watched the locust leave its glittering trail in the cold air. The aquatic sky beast circled the lake once, then flew eastward, toward Morhoen and safety.

Not one of Koor’s war magi remained behind. Evidently, the Four could not agree to unify with the rest of the people of the steppe even now. Old grudges ran too deep, Ilsa could tell, and they were so different from the city-dwellers they would hate to make peace them.

From the western shore of the lake, banners and lights indicated Shayi Haram’s forces moving toward the camp. Ganara approached Ilsa and the others with the locust just leaving over the western peaks.

“We have to break one of the Ayochian forces if we are to escape. The Four have decided to leave this lodge until we can fight to reclaim it some other day.” As she spoke the Vogmem broke camp all around them. Ganara raised her voice and addressed the assembled warriors not helping to mobilize everything. “We are all nomads today, my people. We will ride with the Oshomi and wage war on Ayoch, and the Uzan on the plateau.

“Red Lectors. Gray Lectors. Queens. Generals. They are all the same to us. Animals we hunt.” Ganara raised her black staff over her head.

Her warriors cheered and clapped. Ilsa found herself joining them. Today, all of them were nomads. And today, all of them were warriors, even Lemuel. She glanced at him. He kept his revolver tucked into his waistband. He found her gaze, but his hands trembled.

She put her arm around his waist and rested one hand on his hip, by the weapon. “I won’t let you down, Lemuel.”

“I won’t let you go alone. Not this time, Ilsa.”

“You’ve saved me in battle before,” she said.

“Not as many times as you saved me.” He bowed his head. “Let’s get through this together.”

We have to try. But nothing is certain, Ilsa thought. She lifted his chin and pulled him close. They kissed fiercely, warmth against warmth in the cold light of dawn.

She pulled him onto Hailek’s back behind her. She loaded her machine gun, then her pistols, and her shotgun. She wore them all on the outside for the moment. She needed to be ready.

They rode back toward the windy gusts of the pass together. Blue and Tirica joined them, closely followed by the small cluster of Oshomi that surrounded Siuku.

The Keeper of Tenlyres nodded to Ilsa through the crowd of horse riders.

A flight of great Vogmem hawks with skyriders on their backs glided past overhead. Ilsa glimpsed the glint of steel, and the pennant on Megalli’s spear-point rising from one bird’s back.

Hiragen’s troops held the the pass. Akirette and Megalli had skyriders on the cliffs, ready to act as snipers before they took off to escape for themselves.

Cass waited by the mouth of the pass on a borrowed goat runner. She and Ferdinand, along with one of Ganara’s lieutenants were in charge of the prisoners, from the hulking form of Ozleji Sammhar to the slim form of Ashnia Haram, riding behind him.

This whole mass of humanity and beasts needed to break through the pass before the Uzan closed their trap on everyone. Two hundred indestructible monsters made for a deadly force on their own.

Indestructible. There must be a way to kill them, to cancel whatever magic preserved their lives despite fatal wounds. But for the moment, mortal humans  stood between them and their escape. She took a deep breath of crisp morning air. The time to run was coming, but they would have to fight through the Red Lector to have any chance of survival.

Blue and Tirica fell back from them as the column advanced. Both were better fighters at a distance.

Damn Koor’s oracles and seers. She would see Siuku through this battle. Ilsa guided Hailek into the pass with Ganara’s Vogmem vanguard.

Shots rang out from the cliff top as the cavalry split into two serried columns to use the large boulders and wreckage from the previous battle on either side of the pass for cover. Ilsa and Lemuel rode with Ganara and her troops on the eastern side of the pass, the one that would take them into the heart of the Ayochian forces. She spotted the immobilized gun carriage just behind the Ayochian line as men and striders raced this way and that. The few remaining armored vehicles were spread out among the troops, forming a barricade to hold the nomads back. With Shayi Haram’s force advancing on the Vogmem rear from west of the lake, the Red Lector hoped to trap the tribal forces in a pincer movement.

Ilsa leveled her machine gun at the enemy lines as they drew closer. Pounding of the feet and hooves of steeds thundered in her ears. Black Powder and his mercenary company shifted behind the front line to form up between the Vogmem advance where Ilsa rode, and the immobile gun carriage further back.

Evidently, her father knew they would break through the thin group of Ayochian regulars between them and the artillery. But did he really think his few hundred troops, however well-trained, would hold if the troops in front of them a routed?

No. He had to have another plan. A counter-attack? That would make sense. Given the deadliness of modern weapons in the hands of skilled and bonded soldiers, he could be planning to stop Ganara’s charge by picking off troops during the fight at the front line, then closing to push them back.

Ilsa gritted her teeth. Too late to change plans now.

Ganara whirled the black staff over her head, then thrust it’s point forward as she bellowed a battle cry. The Vogmem joined her. In the din of shouts and screams of pain, Ilsa thought she her Lemuel’s voice join them. She urged Hailek to accelerate with her heels. The lines closed with each other.

Bullets whined and shotgun blasts sprayed. Troops on both sides fell, but the Vogmem steeds proved as tough as ever at this range. They often continued forward when wounded, with few even making sounds of complaint and fewer still that were audible over the drumbeat of hooves.

The Ayochian troops began to retreat before Ganara’s charge could meet them. The Vogmem column raced towards Black Powder’s mercenaries.

The line of her father’s troops looked heavy, thick with the long shadows of ballistic pavises interlaced with the barrels of rifles ending in bayonets. They were prepared for a charge.

Ilsa urged Hailek forward. Her fearless strider followed her heel’s pressure as law. He accelerated. She took her shotgun in one hand, and her machine gun in the other. Recoil from the two combined could make her less accurate, compared to using one with a pistol, but she needed the options against the dug-in troops.

She and Lemuel reached the front of the column. Hailek jostled with the steeds of Ganara’s vanguard, close to the Vogmem chieftain herself.

She raised her voice and shouted to Ganara, “They’re ready.”

“Not ready enough.” She held her staff before her, dragging bullets and shot to form a halo around her as Black Powder’s mercenaries began to open up. The black staff held the projectiles just a moment each, before bouncing them back the way they had come. Most of the reflected shots impacted on the steel shields in the front rank, but a  few mercenaries yelled in pain and went down.

Ilsa scanned the ranks, looking for her father. She spied him by the artillery, his hands empty. So confident. She gritted her teeth. Arrogant as ever.

Ilsa took shots when she saw them. A wounded shield bearer collapsed, and she killed the mercenary behind him with a blast of her shotgun. She hugged close to Hailek’s long-maned neck, felt his hair whip against her face in the wind. Her blood pulsed as she aimed, and shot, and killed.

The Vogmem column hit the mercenary line. There, the resistance intensified. Mercenaries with lances and axes fought hand to hand with Ganara’s warriors in close quarters. But they could not hold out long as more Vogmem poured into the fray.

Ilsa’s guns blazed. Her machine gun ran out of bullets, and she replaced it with a pistol from her hip. Lemuel took the fully-automatic gun and started to reload it. She felled another with the last loaded shotgun shell and he took that as well.

A pistol in each hand, she slew foe after foe. All around her Vogmem began to drop, lacking the protection of Ganara’s staff at such close quarters. Step by bloody step, Black Powder’s troops retreated to the bulk of the immobile gun carriage.

Ilsa reached Ganara in the midst of a lull as warriors surged around them in pursuit. “We have momentum,” said Ganara. “Keep moving.”

Ilsa’s bruised chest ached. “Something is wrong. Black Powder wouldn’t just throw away so many troops.”

Ganara scowled at her. “Time is already low. Press forward.”

Ilsa could not disagree with that. The Uzan could be only minutes way by now. She wheeled Hailek to continue the attack.

Behind her, Lemuel cursed under his breath as he fought to reload the shotgun. “This mechanism is impossible.”

She kept her eyes on the enemy. On the loading platform of the gun carriage, stood Black Powder, Henry Vel, her father. One sleeve was pulled back and marked with the long red line of a fresh brand from wrist to elbow-joint. He was trying to bond to a new weapon. But why now, in the thick of battle?

“Leave the gun, and hold onto me.” Ilsa pushed her heels into Hailek’s sides and the strider bounded forward.

Lemuel fumbled with the shotgun but put his small arm around Ilsa’s waist. Hailek carried them to rejoin the front of the Vogmem column, with Ganara not far behind them.

At the head of the column, the fighting continued, just a short ten meters from the gun carriage where Black Powder stood. Ilsa shot down another pair of mercenaries and closed.

“Jump, Hailek.”

The strider obeyed, leaping over the front line of mercenaries fighting on the ground. Ilsa killed another of them in mid-air. A small shadow darted between her and the gun carriage.

Hailek’s head bucked back. Blood spurted from his jaw, then his right leg gave out as he landed. Ilsa shouted, surprised. Her strider stumbled forward, half-dragging the limp right leg, then collapsed onto the stones.

Hailek’s blood flowed down his weeping yellow mane in thick rivers. Ilsa leaned close to the strider’s head as he struggled, still trying to stand, despite his uncooperative legs. She felt tears in her eyes. “Rest,” she said. “Hathani keep you, my friend.”

Lemuel grabbed her shoulder with his big hand. “Ilsa.” He pulled her sideways from the saddle. She grunted as they hit the ground  a meter blow. A hail of bullets raked across the saddle where they had been sitting and cut the saddlebags to pieces, sending splinters of Ilsa’s red staff flying.

She leaped to her feet and ran past Hailek’s ragged, bloody body. Before her stood Melinda. Her father’s psychotic apprentice leered at Ilsa. “There you are.” She giggled. “Sorry about your strider, but Black Powder must not be interrupted.”

Even with the battle raging, Ilsa could swear she heard Hailek scraping on the stone, still trying to move. Always trying.

Ilsa’s narrowed gaze met Melinda’s gleaming eyes. “All gods damn you.”

“Dull curse. He deserves better than you for a daughter.” Melinda’s pistols both aimed at Ilsa, and with Lemuel somewhere behind her, Ilsa did not dare dodge.

Instead, she took aim with both guns.

Melinda’s breath misted before her. No more words. A flame kindled atop the gun carriage at her back. Black Powder stood just behind the fire and reached for the artillery gun with his branded arm.

Melinda ducked toward Hailek and opened up on Ilsa. Their bullets could have crossed in flight. A rush of pain flooded Ilsa’s right elbow, followed by the creeping numbness of Melinda’s poisoned bullet.

But her fingers still worked. She twisted her wrist, one eye closed in concentration. Her finger hit the trigger as Melinda’s foot touched stone. Ilsa’s bullet went through the girl’s chest, just below the collarbone.

For a moment Melinda stood, halfway paralyzed. Ilsa’s stomach churned. “Sorry,” she murmured.

Blood bubbled between Melinda’s lips. Her knees buckled. She slid sideways to the stony ground beside Hailek. Ilsa held her left pistol aimed at Melinda until the guns fell from the girls’ limp fingers.

Lemuel caught up with Ilsa. He looked at where Hailek and Melinda lay still. His eyes went wide and he turned to Ilsa. “Dead?”

“Both of them,” she said. “I’m sure.”

She turned toward the gun carriage. Suddenly the mercenaries seemed very far away. But the flame on the gun carriage still burned. Black Powder’s shadow danced against the wall of the pass. His hand gripped the dull steel base of the artillery gun as the fire crept toward the munitions piled by the gun’s autoloader.

Over the sound of Vogmem hoof-beats catching up to them, Ilsa heard her father’s voice say, “Bond to me, dear weapon.” And the long brand on his arm burned red.

Ilsa remembered the way the ritual fires flared when father had bonded her guns to her as a child. The flames ignited a collection of shells on the front of the carriage.

Too late to run away.

Shelter. Need shelter. Ilsa shoved Lemuel toward Hailek’s sagging bulk with her shoulder. She pressed herself close to him and dragged him down to the ground behind Hailek’s body.

The explosion of the gun carriage rocked the entire pass.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 25

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

Previous Chapter

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Tenlyres II - Chapter 25 Powder and Ice lq

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Keeper?”

“She can heal you.”

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

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

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean Blue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At least twenty. All Ayochian veterans.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Blue fought for you. For us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You holding up.”

“Trying.” Tirica sounded breathless.

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

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

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

“Only one shot left, but a big shot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okko stared. “What is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tenlyres Chapter 19

Previously…

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

Previous Chapter

Tenlyres II - Chapter 19 lq - Hollow Weapons

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

“Siuku, tell everyone to ride!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We should go,” said Lemuel.

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

The smell of a powder Ilsa did not recognize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“How do you do that?” Ilsa asked.

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

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

“What about Cass’s arm?”

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

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

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

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

“He knew how to play the lyre.”

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

“I’m sure you would think so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not making this easy.”

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

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

Tenlyres Chapter 15

 

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

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excuse me,” Lemuel murmured in her ear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.” Ilsa heard herself say. “No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She took a deep breath.

“Thank you, Cass.”

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

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

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

Tenlyres Chapter 14

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

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue grimaced. “Did she say why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what if one of us is shot?”

“Then don’t let go.”

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

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

“They’re going to be ready for us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Red Lector’s troops returned fire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No time for what?” Ilsa sent back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t speak so soon,” said Ilsa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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