Tenlyres Chapter 52 – Asurdeva

This is the penultimate week of the Tenlyres serial. We’re in the middle of the climactic scenes. Enjoy!

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Previous Chapter

The final battle continues…

With or without faith, we humans walk through the night, looking for signs of dawn.

 

Ilsa and Blue looked at the Red Lector’s children around them on the lyre. She still could hardly believe they had arrived to fight beside them, rather than to kill them.

Ashnia regarded Ilsa and Blue coolly, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Siuku completed what healing she could on the prince of Chogrum’s ruined stump of an arm. He lay unconscious, surrounded by his guards.

Lemuel’s jaw hung open. He looked from Kaij to Yunn, to the frozen, headless body of the Gray Lector. The massive Uzan leader had not been able to reach the critical piece just severed by Kaij’s blade.

Ashnia grimaced between the strings at the battle raging beyond the lyre.

“The fight isn’t over,” said Blue.

Kaij lowered his sword and put a hand on Ashnia’s shoulder. She closed her eyes. “General Kanan is still alive.”

“Not for long.” Kaij’s lips drew back in a snarl. “He’ll pay for killing our father.” He looked down at the Gray Lector’s body. “Just like this one.”

Ashnia opened her eyes, facing the battlefield. “Not if I beat you to him, brother.”

Ilsa stared at the Ayochians. “You’re all here for revenge?”

Yunn turned toward her in the saddle. “Your cause didn’t sway us. If that’s your question?”

Siuku rose unsteadily from beside the unconscious prince. “Either way, we are on the same side for now.”

“Right.” Ilsa grunted. As much as she hated to admit the Ayochians had saved her life, she knew it was true.

Kaij glared at her. “For now.”

Blue eyed Ashnia. “Do you sense that?”

“Sense what?” asked Ilsa.

“Reach out,” said Blue. “Ashnia, this was the Gray Lector, but their god is still unbound. He is on his way here.”

Beside Ilsa, Lemuel found his words. “Asurdeva is a god. What does a god look like?”

Ilsa closed her eyes and breathed deep, focusing her spirit senses. The oppressive scale of the spirit she had first sensed moving from the center of the plateau while she had been in Chogrum, threatened to blanket the entire lyre and all the armies around it. Heavy. Choking. She opened her eyes with a gasp for air.

Lemuel touched her arm. “Are you alright?”

“Blue is right,” she said. “Asurdeva is here.”

Siuku glowered across the lyre. “He is not the only one.”

First stood beside Black Powder on the other side of the strings. The two mercenaries both held their bonded pistols. Ilsa’s eyes narrowed and she stared at them. A cackling sound echoed over the battlefield as if the lyre itself was laughing. Ilsa covered one ear with her free hand. The other still held a song pistol with two bullets left loaded.

A shadow drifted overhead. A slim shape plunged downward and landed on Black Powder’s side of the lyre. Tirica Chollush, her eyes wide open and gleaming, stared at Ilsa, a sardonic grin on her face. When she spoke, the tone and inflection were completely unlike Lemuel’s sister. “It’s good to be home. I always liked the east best.”

“She’s betrayed you,” said Kaij. His sword withdrew into the bond on his hand. He raised a pistol in the other.

“Wait,” Ilsa shouted.

Lemuel rushed toward Kaij.

Too late.

Kaij shot Tirica twice in the chest. Her frame buckled with each impact. Ilsa stared, never doubting the two bullet’s deadly accuracy.

A low rumble shook the lyre from within.

“Good aim, child,” said Tirica in the same odd and amused tone. Her face was hidden by the veil of her hair. The bullets fell onto the lyre’s base, rattling against eternal stone. “But it will take more than that to harm this vessel.”

“You mean—”

“I am Asurdeva, children. You may have stopped my Uzan, for now, but that matters not. You cannot destroy my vessel.”

“What do you want?” Ilsa locked eyes with Tirica as the girl raised her head.

The gaze of Asurdeva was as cold and lethal as Yunn’s ice.

“You will understand, Ilsa. Because you are the work of my greatest disciple.”

First smirked and trained her pistol on Siuku.

Black Powder bowed his head and sank to one knee. “You do me too much honor, master.”

“All glory is mine. But I will share it with my chosen ones. Those marked with my seal upon their souls.”

The brand on Ilsa’s hand burned with sudden pain. It hurt as if the scar was still fresh from the fire.

Her fingers tightened. She glared at Tirica and her father. Last winter she had not believed her mother could see spirits, but now she had to contend with a god just as new to her. With the revelation of the spirits, though, she might have a way to fight back. She had to resist.

“Don’t be afraid, Ilsa,” said Asurdeva. “This is the moment where you’re precious Unification becomes reality. The ripples of my disciples, empowered by your father, will reach out from within. And the bonded will conquer this world at my will.”

First sneered, but made no sound.

Black Powder returned to his feet. “Ilsa, do not fight now. The song you played did more than seal the Uzan, it empowered our bonds. We will complete the work of Asurdeva together.”

She clenched her teeth. “I thought you didn’t believe in Unification?”

“I don’t. Not as can be achieved by mortals.” Her father’s gaze locked with hers. “The war we are about to begin is the triumph all of history has been leading toward since the Three delayed it all those millennia ago.”

Ilsa’s brands glowed with inner light. She dropped the song pistol in her hand and conjured her own guns. The most vital of her instincts were silent, leaving only thoughts to run through her head. Total control of her own body. Total awareness of every heartbeat, every breath, every step as she walked toward Asurdeva and her father.

The others stood, frozen. Kaij screamed from behind her, but the sound seemed far away.

“No lesser bonds will join us. Only the chosen,” said Asurdeva.

Ilsa slipped between the strings of the lyre and approached the place where Tirica stood under Asurdeva’s control.

First’s branded hands glowed with inner light.

Her father reached for her, sleeve falling back to reveal an arm marked by countless brands from palm to elbow. Every one of them glowed in a pattern that signified a spirit bond.

“Don’t fight us, Ilsa,” he said.

She glared into Tirica’s eyes. “Snap out of it,” she said through her teeth. “Tirica, you didn’t agree to this. I know you didn’t.”

“The vessel need not be willing,” said Asurdeva. “All I require is a bond to the spirit to take control.”

Ilsa’s heart pounded.

She raised her pistol and pressed it to Tirica’s forehead.

“That isn’t loaded,” said the god.

“Like it would matter if it was,” said First with a snort. “Give up, kid.”

“A bullet cannot harm the god of weapons. And that,” said Asurdeva, “Is what I am.” She reached for Ilsa and caressed her cheek with her unbonded hand.

Tirica had only one bonded weapon. What would happen if that brand was disrupted? Ilsa’s thoughts ran with the rest of her awareness, ever onward, ever closer to chaos.

Blue’s mental touch plucked the thought gently from Ilsa’s stream of consciousness

Tirica’s hand pressed to her cheek. “You must know the moments when not to fight, child.” Her lips parted in a lurid smile. “Now is the ultimate moment.”

This is the moment.

This is the moment.

The moment to act.

Ilsa lowered her pistol and reached up and gripped Tirica’s wrist. She closed her eyes. “You may be right,” she said. “Please. Show me mercy, Asurdeva.” She tried to fight but her own voice sounded reverent. Unwilling, but obedient.

Asurdeva brushed the hair from Ilsa’s brow with her fingertips. Her other hand rose to cup Ilsa’s face.

“Child, what kind of god would I be if I could not forgive a convert?” Tirica’s forehead pressed to Ilsa’s. Her hands raised over her head, arms spread wide and open.

Ilsa opened her eyes and met Tirica’s, now lit by the glow of the weapon bond from Tirica’s hand.

An arrow flew in silence until it hit the center of the brand with a bloody, painful-sounding, thunk. The light on the brand flickered and went out. Tirica lowered her arms and howled in pain, clutching at her mangled hand.

On the other side of the lyre’s strings, Siuku lowered her bow with deliberate slowness. And the spell of Asurdeva’s will broke as surely as the bond had been broken by the wound torn in Tirica’s hand.

“How dare you, infidel?” roared Asurdeva in Tirica’s voice. “You think you can trap me in this body?”

Siuku and Blue exchanged glances.

“Which one of us are you talking about?” asked Blue.

“If you will not unify in my war, you will perish before me!”

Tirica’s unwounded fist crashed into Ilsa’s stomach with such force, Ilsa’s feet left the stone of the lyre. She flew backward and rebounded from unyielding strings with a cry of pain. A series of shocks ran along her spine.

“Black Powder,” said Asurdeva. “Destroy these mortals.”

Her father raised both hands, a pistol in each fist. “As you command, master.”

Ilsa rolled onto her side and loaded her pistol with a magazine from her belt.

Black Powder and First took aim and began to fire over her head. Screams cries, and return fire answered them.

Ilsa got to her knees and took aim. First saw Ilsa targeting Black Powder and whirled to shoot her. Ilsa threw herself forward and rolled, trading misses with First.

She found her feet behind Tirica and right of her father who’s guns continued to speak. Ilsa and First faced each other down, just a meter away from each other. Pistols found the aim.

“You really are hopeless,” said First.

Ilsa grunted and they each took their shots.

Ilsa shuddered with the sound of the guns so close to her on either side.

First fell to her knees, then collapsed onto the base.

No pain. There was no pain.

“It doesn’t hurt, does it?” First looked up at Ilsa’s from at her feet. “Why doesn’t it hurt?” The woman’s eyes rolled back into her head. Blood ran from the hole in her chest. Ilsa turned to focus on her father.

He raised his eyebrows.

“Looks like she missed,” he said. “First may have been my first apprentice, but she was still just an apprentice.”

Tirica marched across the center of the lyre toward the others behind Ilsa. She could not tell if any of them had been killed by her father’s shots. Her senses narrowed and she focused only on Black Powder.

Then, Tirica reached the strings and plucked them in tune, using the strength granted by the power of Asurdeva.

Reality trembled.

Ilsa and her father still faced each other, just a few meters apart. The battlefield, the flowering ground around the lyre had vanished from view. They stood, surrounded in pure light.

Their weapons were still in their hands.

Father and daughter moved toward their triggers at once.

Ilsa faced Black Powder. Father. She hesitated at the last instant. So did he. Their fingers hovered by the triggers.

He said, “I’ll take no pleasure in killing you, daughter.”

She glared down the barrel of her weapon. Words had always been useless with him. “Even if you kill me, you won’t win. You’re alone in this.”

He shook his head. “Wrong, Ilsa. Asurdeva’s song is everything.”

The notes reverberated within the walls of light that surrounded the lyre. Ilsa gritted her teeth and kept her gun trained on her father. “Why serve this thing? This god doesn’t care about you.”

“And the Three care about you? Ilsa, they abandoned the world. They are worth nothing to humanity.”

“Do your monsters care? They kill without a second of hesitation.”

Her father smirked. “I chose this path, Ilsa. I led you to it, but I can’t save you. You have to do that yourself.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?” Ilsa’s finger trembled outside the trigger guard. “Your god is using that innocent girl—That girl you tortured, as his slave.”

“A vessel of the divine. Such an honor is more than she could have ever hoped for in her past life.”

“If she was one of your fanatics, you would be right. She is not one of yours.”

“The subject must desire power, or the divine could not manifest.”

“Don’t tell me she gave up her mind by choice.”

“Gave up? No, the process is one of bonding with Asurdeva. Something you will never experience thanks to the Keeper of Tenlyres. Her, I will relish destroying.”

“I won’t give you that chance.”

“Then stop me. If you can.”

She shot first. The bullet deflected off the stock of a shotgun Black Powder drew from his sleeve. The shot made no sound compared to the song Asurdeva continued to play. Ilsa aimed for the knee. The same shotgun’s barrel stopped that shot.

“You’re slow.”

She grunted and twisted her wrist to shoot him in the shoulder. He darted back and the bullet flew into the light at the lyre’s edge. She swung her other hand out and conjured her machine gun. He danced backward and loaded the shotgun with deft hands.

She shot at one hand, but the gun’s whirling steel stock deflected that one too. He dove to one side and sprayed shot at Ilsa. She ducked, but still tasted blood as a trio of pellets sliced across her temple. Red droplets swam in front of her vision, but the pain that went with it simply had to be ignored.

Ilsa slammed the magazine into her machine gun. She circled her father, moving away from the lyre’s strings and the source of the oppressive song. Tirica—Asurdeva—plucked the strings of the lyre with apparent ease. No human hand could manage that much strength. She stood at the center of the lyre, the arrow that had broken the seal on her hand discarded behind her.

“Do not ignore me.” Black Powder’s next blast opened a cluster of small wounds in Ilsa’s shoulder.

She jerked backward but kept her grip on her machine gun. She sent a burst in his direction. Four shots. Two in the air. One on the shotgun. One on his other arm. Blood flew from his sleeve.

On the other side of the strings, Blue and Siuku crawled toward Tirica, keeping their heads down.

She had to make sure Black Powder did not make time for them, even if it meant giving him better chances to hit her. Ilsa aimed high, then low, then targeted his center of mass with the third shot. He avoided every bullet but had to dodge back and duck low.

Siuku crouched across the strings from Tirica and reached out to touch the girl’s leg between the vibrating metallic strands. Blue held the keeper’s other hand. They were going to attempt a mental attack. Ilsa had to give them time to drive out Asurdeva, if they could even come close to fighting the spirit of a god.

She and her father traded shots, both evasive. Ilsa’s wounded shoulder and bleeding forehead began to dog her movements. She darted to one side and he emptied the last shotgun blast into thin air.

Her machine gun spent its last shot in a futile effort. She tossed it away and drew her second pistol. On the run, she loaded the weapon.

The song surrounded her. The light intensified to blinding white. Standing, his silhouette dark against the walls of brightness, Black Powder faced her, a pistol in each hand. He was breathing hard, showing his age.

I have a chance, she thought. If I can exhaust him I can win. She kept evading, shooting.

Asurdeva howled with rage behind Ilsa’s back. The song began to slow.

“No!” Black Powder’s lips drew back in a snarl. “He must not be stopped.”

Ilsa grimaced at him. “If two humans can stop your god, how powerful can he be?”

“Damn you, step aside,” Black Powder’s voice came out as a whisper. He raised both pistols and stalked forward, firing.

One of the bullets blasted through Ilsa’s already wounded shoulder. Lances of pain jabbed down from the earlier spots of damage and toward her chest. The other bullet went over her head.

Ilsa staggered toward him a step and returned fire. Her shot rent the collar of his coat and went out the back. Blood flecked his face and chin. He stumbled for a moment, eyes wild, then charged at Ilsa. His weapons blazed.

But he moved slower now.

She lost one gun to a pair of impacts on its barrel. She dodged to one side, pain flaring in her shoulder and chest. Hot blood ran into her eyes. One of his gun barrel’s snaked out and painfully connected with her jaw. She fell backward and hit the strings beside Tirica. Her world spun as she emptied the pistol into Black Powder, point blank.

Asurdeva’s scream ended. Tirica sank to the ground beside Ilsa. A heavy thump and gasp of escaping breath told her Black Powder had fallen, though she could not focus on anything but the window of sky visible through the center of the walls of light. She sagged down, pain coursing through her.

Siuku and Blue knelt down beside her. Soothing hands began to heal Ilsa’s wounds.

“You’re alive,” said Blue.

“So are you,” Ilsa murmured, still dizzy.

The echoes of the song began to fade. And the walls of light fractured into motes of chaos. She closed her eyes against the glare.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 51 – Dirge

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

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Previous Chapter

 

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

 

Some songs simply need to be played.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re pretty quiet,” said Ferdinand.

“I didn’t want to interrupt.”

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

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

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

She handed him the bottle.

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

“Tomorrow,” said Lemuel.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chaos of the battle seemed far away.

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

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

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

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

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

A heavy thud echoed from the distance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blue sent to Ilsa. “Tirica is moving.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Uzan had been sealed.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 49 – Scarred

Tim here everybody.

The story is back!

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa has been wounded badly, and returns to the camp by the village of Atalem.

 

 

 

 

 Each of us owes our lives to someone else, parents, friends, saviors of all kinds.

That does not mean we should not do what we can to protect ourselves.

 

 

The world spun and then stabilized. Ilsa heard voices fading away, accompanied by the pure and consistent agony of her wounds. Grazed head, burnt hand, torn side, wounded leg… they were all still there. Somehow she had survived. Again, she survived.

She lay on a cot in a tent, a large pale-colored one from the Chogrumian military, rather than the small homes of the Oshomi. She looked up at the ceiling. Her groan of pain joined the sounds of other wounded that filled the space.

The triage tent dimmed with the passing hours. Some screams silenced. New cries began.

Ilsa found a discarded rifle on the floor beside her cot. She lurched to stand up. She had to find Lemuel and tell him what had happened. She had to, though the feeling in her stomach that built when she thought of telling him about Tirica’s choice made her hesitate.

Eventually, she found a crutch to lean on and then left the rifle behind. She limped toward the exit of the tent. Her wounds were all wrapped to stop the blood flow, but her head still felt light. She hated waking up in a hospital alone. It had happened too often lately.

She made her way through the camp north of Atalem. Despite her lightheadedness, she reached out for Blue’s spirit. “Find me,” she murmured. “Please.”

She staggered past a dozen tents and was halfway to the trenches the Chogrumians had dug out for shelter from the bombardment before Blue and Lemuel found her.

Her eyes filled with tears when she saw them in the fading daylight. “You two,” she said. “You made it”

Lemuel threw himself over the side of his horse and ran to her. “Ilsa?” His voice broke. “Is that really you? I heard… Cass and Ferdinand told me you were dead.”

She looked at him and nodded. “I used a blast seal to escape the fall. Took a Chogrumian carrier back here, but I don’t know the rest.”

“I don’t care how it happened.” He threw his arms around her. They pressed themselves to each other, warm, and alive, despite everything.

Her crutch fell to the ground. She held onto Lemuel instead.

Blue’s gentle pressure in her mind made her look at her friend over Lemuel’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” asked Blue.

“Too much, Blue,” she said. “I’ll tell you everything. Both of you need to know. I just need to sit down first.”

She staggered along with them, Lemuel supporting her. He helped her onto his horse and then led it while she rode. She thought of her own horse. She hoped the animal had made it to safety.

At least Ferdinand and Cass had survived.

Blue told her through mental communication that the Uzan had fallen back from Atalem, but most of the village now lay in ruins, and the cost in lives to the Chogrumians and the Oshomi had been high.

“They’ll come back, you know,” said Ilsa softly. “First was out there today. And Black Powder won’t give up.”

“Neither will the Gray Lector or Asurdeva, I suspect,” said Lemuel. “We have to hold on.” He sighed. “I hope Tirica is alright.”

“She’s alive,” said Ilsa in a dry croak of a voice. “I—I saw her today.”

“You saw her? Where?”

“When the blast seal transported me out of the launcher I ended up at a medical center for the mercenaries. She was there.”

Lemuel turned to stare back at her where she sat on the horse, eyes wide. “You saw her?”

“Yeah.” Ilsa felt an urge to cry, but she channeled it into a single deep breath. “Lemuel, I don’t know how to say this—She—She has a weapon bonded to her spirit.”

“What? Why would they do that?”

“She agreed to fight for them.” Ilsa touched her side. “She shot me. Here.”

Lemuel dropped the reins he been using to lead the horse. He bent down to reach for them, but his big hand shook too much to pick them up.

He shook his head. “It can’t be—She wouldn’t.”

Ilsa lifted her wounded leg despite the pain that shot through her as she did. She climbed down and then supported herself on the horse’s side. Lemuel stared at her.

Blue’s mind withdrew. She brought her strider to a stop behind Ilsa and Lemuel. Yet, she said nothing.

Lemuel’s lips trembled. “I can’t believe it.”

“I don’t like it anymore than you do,” said Ilsa. “They forced her into it after First’s attack in Chogrum failed.”

“She’s alive,” said Blue. “Get me close enough to her and I can stop her. We aren’t dealing with true belief. Once she’s free of them, she won’t keep fighting us.”

Lemuel nodded, but tears began to leak from his eyes.

Ilsa let go of the horse and staggered toward him. A jagged flare of pain shot through her calf and she stumbled. She fell forward but caught herself on Lemuel’s shoulder. He sank down slowly, and they sat on the trampled steppe grass.

His face close to hers, he sniffed, trying to fight his tears. She pressed her forehead to his.

“This doesn’t change anything,” she said, halfway to tears herself. “We will get her back, even if we have to fight her to do it.”

“She isn’t free,” said Blue.

“Right.” Ilsa brushed the tears from Lemuel’s cheeks. “We won’t give up.”

Lemuel’s small arm wrapped around Ilsa’s back. His little hand patted down her spine. “Thank you, Ilsa.” He breathed in deep. “And Blue. Thank you, both.” His big hand found Ilsa’s cheek and cupped her face. “I studied and studied, but I never could say I would trust anyone outside my family with my life before I met you two.”

“Lemuel.” Ilsa pulled him to her, one hand around the back of his head, the other around his waist. “You’ve got us. We won’t abandon Tirica.”

His little hand touched the freshly-dressed wound on her side. She let out a gasp of pain. He withdrew his fingers. “I’m sorry. She did this to you.”

“It’s not as bad as my leg. And she didn’t hit me there.”

“You’ve fought so long. I know you wish you could stop.”

“I won’t stop fighting until my father is defeated. Until the Uzan are beaten, none of us can stop.”

“Until peace is in sight,” said Blue.

“How can we see peace from the battlefield?” said Ilsa. “That’s what I worry about.”

“You’re both warriors. It’s what you do.”

“We have a cause.” Ilsa sighed. “I just don’t know if that’s enough.”

“It has to be,” said Blue.

“We have to hope it is because we don’t fight for a nation, we fight for the people, to protect them and save as many as we can.” Ilsa looked into Lemuel’s eyes. “And we’ll protect your sister too.”

“What if she doesn’t give you a choice?”

“I’ll die before I kill her.” Ilsa blinked back tears and hoped her brave words were true, though she doubted them. She gritted her teeth. “I swear—”

“Don’t. You can’t sacrifice yourself.” Lemuel’s hand moved down her face to her shoulder. “I would never ask you to do that.”

Ilsa held on to him in silence for a long moment, aching, pained. “Thank you. I’ll do everything I can to be worth your trust.”

“You already have,” he said.

The sound of hooves, four or five horses, and half a dozen goat runners, drew close through the camp.

“Priestess,” said Siuku as she and a group of other Oshomi leaders caught up with them. “You should have stayed in triage.” Behind her veil her eyes were tired. “You were seriously wounded.”

“I know,” said Ilsa. “I just couldn’t lie there.”

“Let me heal you.” Siuku climbed down from her horse. She approached Ilsa and Lemuel.

Ilsa’s eyes met his, and then they disentangled themselves. Behind Siuku, Ilsa saw Ganara, the Vogmem chieftain, and priestess of Vada who had wielded the True Blackwood staff at the battle of Howling Pass. The blond woman gave a curt nod to Ilsa.

Siuku knelt down beside Ilsa. Lemuel got to his feet nearby. The Keeper of Tenlyres unfastened the seal on her veil. Without the veil, she looked even more exhausted.

How many people has she saved today? Ilsa wondered. How many former enemies owe her their lives? This is how we can unify the people, by healing instead of killing.

The pain from her calf faded. Siuku sealed the cut in Ilsa’s head. Then, the keeper touched her side where Tirica had shot her. The pain there vanished with a touch of a weary hand.

Siuku replaced her veil. “You will have a few scars,” she said. “And I can’t help your hand.”

“Thank you,” said Ilsa. “I’ve been through the worst wounds of my life from the mountains to now, and I wouldn’t be alive without you.”

Siuku’s voice came out less monotone than usual. “I saw you in my visions, Ilsa Barrett. Since we first met you have become important to me.”

Ilsa bowed to the keeper. “I will protect you as long as I am able.”

“Let us both pray that you remain able.”

Siuku stood, and offered a hand to help Ilsa to her feet. She turned to Blue. “Has the prince of Chogrum arrived?”

“His force is setting up in the northern part of the camp,” said Blue. “They should be almost done by now.”

“The prince is here?” Ilsa asked.

“Scouts have sighted more of Black Powder’s forces approaching our position,” said Blue. “We don’t know the exact numbers, but from here we will defend Chogrum from both men and monsters.”

“What about Ayoch and Dal?” said Ilsa. “Their armies are still moving east.”

“Indeed.” Ganara tossed her head. “Allies or not, we can catch the Uzan and their human friends between our forces and theirs if we hold here.”

Ilsa nodded. “That could work. We can still win.”

Lemuel glanced at her with reddened eyes. His unspoken question was obvious.

She folded her hands together. “And we’ll get Tirica out of there before it’s over.”

Great hawks called to each other as they flew overhead. Ilsa looked up. Skyriders.

She brought her gaze down to level with Blue. “How did you destroy the artillery?”

Blues shrugged. “The raiders delayed them long enough for Chogrum’s weapons to find the range. After that, their crews started to run. Even Uzan won’t survive a hit from the big guns. Just too bad they got most of their weapons out of there when they went.”

Ilsa frowned. “How many were destroyed?”

“Two. They still have at least three left.”

“If we move fast enough, they can’t hit us,” said Ganara. “My warriors will deal with them next time.”

“We should meet with the prince,” Siuku said to Ganara. “We have plans to make, and you can tell him what you just said.”

“I’ve never seen so many soldiers in one place,” Ganara said. “Chogrum has a mighty army.”

“Ilsa,” the keeper said. “Will you, your scholar, and Blue accompany us? There is much to discuss for the coming battle.”

Ilsa glanced at Lemuel. He nodded to her.

“As you wish,” said Ilsa. And they set off toward the prince’s part of the allied camp.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 47 – Memory Flowers

Tim here everybody.

Despite some computer troubles that delayed the latest episode of Alive After Reading, I’m back again with the latest episode of Tenlyres.

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

 

Ilsa and her allies have returned to the village of Atalem as terrible enemies approach from the west. Battle is close.

 

 

What we remember from the past is our guide and our anchor.

 

As dawn broke, the fury of battle drew closer to the village. Filami were not warriors, but Oshomi and Chogrumian forces surrounded them, to protect them from oncoming Uzan and the warriors from Black Powder’s assembled mercenary companies.

Ilsa prepared her weapons, fully loaded. She found her horse and whispered in the animal’s ear. “I’m sorry for the risk I took yesterday. I’ll do my best to protect you from now on.” And for everyone else on my side, human and animal, the same promise stands.

She glowered into the rising sun, and for a moment remembered the way the same light had filtered through the curtains in her mother’s room at the hospital. She remembered how she envied the way her mother looked like the other Dalites. Ilsa’s more severe features seemed better suited to this battle.

A natural environment for her would be a hell to anyone else. This was her element, the heat of the fray. But if all that was true, then why was she afraid? For the first time since Tirica had been captured, she could not answer that question easily. She was not worried only for herself and her friends, but also for people she did not know.

Complexity could slow her down. Being slow could get her killed today. That must not happen.

She could not allow herself to fight like she had nothing to lose. She knew she had so much to lose now. And to save those people and the feelings they shared with her, she would take what she had to take from the enemy.

Her skills would not fail her unless she let them. And she would not let them, she prayed. She waged the mental fight to stay alive through the day’s approaching struggle.

Ilsa looked north, trying to see past the pieces of Chogrumian artillery on crawling gun carriages that had arrived the previous night. She was trying to see the shelter the Filami villagers had built with the help of the allies troops. Lemuel was there with them to protect him from the battle.

If the buildings in the village survived a single bombardment from the massive Uzan weapons, Ilsa would be surprised. She offered a short prayer of thanks to Hathani for the forethought that had led the villagers to abandon their homes so they could save their lives. A few allied warriors were still stationed within Atalem, but mostly the place had become a ghost town.

Ilsa’s fears built in her, as she turned her horse to join a unit of steppe nomads and volunteer militia riders from Chogrum. She caught up with Cass in the lead of the fifty mounted fighters.

“How do you feel?” the other priestess asked.

Ilsa glanced at Cass. “Today is gonna be redder than your hair. And we’re in the thick of it.”

“You’re worried?”

Ilsa nodded. “It almost feels good to admit it.”

Ferdinand rode alongside them on his white strider. He held a javelin in each hand. “The generals say we’re to head east, to outflank their big guns.”

“Good plan,” said Cass. “Destroy the artillery.”

“Like we did in the pass.”

Ferdinand looked toward the few towering, oddly broad-peaked silhouettes of the Uzan artillery set up around the Flowering Lyre. “Those are a bit bigger than the guns Ayoch brought to the mountains.”

“You think those could be the same guns they used to chase us to the pass?” asked Cass.

“Let’s hope they are. Then they might not have anything bigger waiting in the wings.”

The troops with them wheeled toward the southeast and rode out. Ilsa checked her weapons and remembered how her father had trained her to use them.

 

She had hated him then, though not as much as she came to hate him later. Her father took her out to the steppe to bond her to the weapons she would carry in her spirit for the rest of her life. There, he began to teach her to shoot in synchronization with them. The burns were still fresh on her hands when she first summoned her pistols. She learned. Though she had never held a gun before, the bonds helped the skills come naturally to her.

“Always aim for the heart,” he told her after she began to hit the targets. “That’s the surest way to stop an enemy.” He touched a finger to a place just over his, then guided her hand to the same spot on herself.

“And that will kill them.” She rubbed her eyes with one hand. They were red and irritated because she had been crying on the ride from the city.

“Yes,” he said. “But don’t think of it that way. The spirit is immortal, Ilsa. But it connects to the body here.” He touched his heart again. “Don’t be afraid to sever that connection if you have reason to shoot.”

She nodded, then rubbed at her eyes again. “What if I don’t want to kill them?”

“Then don’t pull the trigger.”

Don’t pull the trigger.

Don’t pull the trigger.

Don’t—

 

The cavalry around Ilsa wheeled to face west. Mostly they rode horses like her, but a few were on runners. They accelerated toward the Uzan guns as the huge weapons fired their first volley. Shells whistled over the village on their way toward the Chogrumian forces beyond.

The Chogrumian general had anticipated being outgunned. His artillery answered with air-bursting shells that sent shrapnel scything through the airborne Uzan weapons. The order to fire appeared to have been well-timed. All but one of the Uzan shells burst high above the Chogrumian troops, saving the artillery from most of the damage they would have done.

One shell struck the ground full force. Ilsa could tell by how the ground trembled, even kilometers away. She did not want to imagine how much damage just one of the shells had done to the Chogrumian battery’s ability to counter-fire.

“We have to get in there,” she said. “Who knows how many of those shots the big guns can take.”

“Not many,” muttered Cass.

Ferdinand nodded, his face grim. He urged his strider into the lead of the cavalry. Cass followed him, and Ilsa was not far behind.

For once, Cass had fewer words than Ilsa. Even back at Saint Banyeen’s Garden, all those years ago, that had rarely happened.

 

High Priestess Julia Uopemm had taught Ilsa and Cass’s class the art of composing sermons herself. She walked along the rows of students in the silent reflection between lectures. The class always took place early in the morning, and when the the weather allowed, outside in Saint Banyeen’s hidden garden. When a student dozed in the light of the rising sun the High Priestess’s wooden staff would lash out and snap them on the shoulder. These strikes kept everyone attentive, though they were not the only source of sound that day.

Someone had started a fight on the street nearest the south side of Saint Banyeen’s, and Ilsa heard screams and shouts of rage in the early morning air. She sat near Cass, trying to focus on the words in her head, the words of the sermon she was composing. It was based on the lesson read at the start of class by the gray light of dawn.

Ilsa did not dare listen for any clue of the cause of the fighting, or for a hint of its resolution. That’s how it had always been back then. She had listened to her own voice more than the outside world. Not until she was expelled from Saint Banyeen’s did she look at the world and see things as others did, as fact and substance rather than a distant world of stark shadow.

Father’s wickedness.

Mother’s madness.

Ilsa’s pain.

The high priestess’s staff touched her shoulder, but not with the force of a blow, not even one of admonition. “Open your eyes, child. You will see the truth.”

 

Ilsa kept her eyes open as the horses and runners thundered into a charge against the massive Uzan artillery. As they rode closer to the weapon stationed furthest westward, Ilsa felt tense with fear. Each war machine was easily eight stories high, and at least forty meters across at the launcher. At the top, broad shields like flower petals fanned out from the weapon’s center.

Simultaneously she felt the urge to stare. Uzan patrolled the ground around it, but with them were mercenaries and the troops from Ayoch who had betrayed the Red Lector to his death in Howling Pass. Ilsa’s guns felt heavy in her hands, though she only held her pistols.

She shouted to the others, “Mar the name of the Uzan, then kill them.”

The reminder was answered with shouts of agreement. All these riders knew it already.

Cass and Ferdinand caught up with her, weapons readied. A few of the Oshomi alongside them produced lightning lances. Within twenty meters, a roll of thunder from the Uzan guns hiding the sound of their charge, Ilsa and the others opened fire. Lightning and bullets. Arrows and shot.

The thin line of defenders around the gun fell away, returning fire. A few of the mercenaries in the forward troops burst with grenade blasts when wounded.

Ferdinand swept to the southwest, circling the gun on his white strider. His lance impaled an Uzan through the name of Asurdeva on its skull. The abomination went limp. Cass covered the Chogrumian adventurer. She killed any human or monster who took aim at him.

Ilsa rode her steed to the east, looking up at the massive central chamber of the war-machine, like the hollow stem of a black-blooming flower. The guards fell back to the weapon’s massive base, where huge treads were fenced in by countless insect-like legs, each as tall as a horse, even with their points dug into the ground.

More Uzan emerged from the gaps between the legs.

They doubled the strength of the defenders in an instant. A bolt of lightning jagged from an Oshomi lance into a group of Uzan, leaping between them and then up into the weapon carriage itself. Ilsa drew close and shot the stunned monsters. Two shots each, far easier when they were not shooting back. She wounded others that aimed at her friends, but she knew she could not protect everyone.

Riders fell around her. She cringed close to her horse’s saddle. Most of the mercenaries lay dead or had activated blast seals in their clothes and vanished. Those humans that remained ran along the walkways that ringed the war machine’s launching mechanism. Ilsa rode toward them.

She would not allow them to take another shot.

Words from Koor flashed into her mind, words she remembered all too well. “You have more to lose than you think.”

He had been right, after all, at least about that. Ilsa thought of Lemuel, of Blue, of all her friends. She gritted her teeth and charged toward the heart of the ominous weapon.

She wounded an Uzan targeting her as she drew closer, but missed the name of the god on his head. He stumbled backward, drunkenly, blood leaking from the wound in his temple.

Ilsa glared up at the war machine’s belly, seeking for a way to stop the next shell from being loaded.

She grunted with pain as a bullet grazed her shoulder. She immediately found the spirit of the man who had shot her.

He had red hair and a stocky build. He also wore a coat with a blast seal as an emblem on his back. The mercenary stood atop one of the walkways halfway up the launching chamber.

She shot at him with a pistol but at such range and angle she miscalculated. The bullet struck a railing. Her horse carried her under him. That would make the next shot easier if it could get through the interlocking mesh of the walkway.

Ferdinand shouted a warning. Two Uzan surged toward Ilsa from either side. She jumped to a standing position in the saddle. “Retreat,” she said to the animal, then jumped onto the top of the artillery’s nearest tread.

The Uzan’s bullets ripped through the air around her. A few ricocheted off the walkway. That gave her a clue as to the metal’s toughness.

She whirled and shot one Uzan lethally, through the center of the name of Asurdeva. Another took Ferdinand’s javelin through the back and spun around. Just in time for Cass’s machine gun to destroy the monster’s whole head, the name of its god and all.

The remaining Uzan retreated toward cover. Ilsa glanced up at the walkway. The redheaded mercenary was gone, as sure as Ilsa’s horse fled back the way they had charged. She had not been sure the animal would understand her. She was glad to see it had.

She scrambled over the guards that topped the legs and treads until she found the bottom of a low walkway. It sloped upward. Ferdinand and Cass caught up behind her.

“We need to find a way to stop this thing,” said Ilsa.

“Before it fires again,” said Cass. “I know.”

Ferdinand glanced to their side where another shell slammed into the chamber sideways. “Sh-shit, w-we’d better hurry.”

His stutter told Ilsa how seriously he took the massive weapon. She nodded, and then turned and raced up the walkway. A heavy clunk echoed from within the firing chamber as she ran.

She prayed she would be fast enough, even as she scanned for enemies on the walkways. Most had descended to fight on the ground. She saw no Uzan until she reached the top of the flower-like launcher’s black petals.

A volley of bullets and shot sliced through the air and would have killed her had she not thrown herself flat. One pellet sliced across her head. Blood dripped down her brow, and a few hairs cut loose drifted onto the metal floor in front of her.

Ignoring the pain, she climbed to her knees. She retaliated with both weapons and killed the Uzan. Two shots from each pistol ripped through the monster’s head and chest. Ferdinand and Cass caught up with her as she got to her feet.

“You’re hit,” said Cass.

“Never mind me. Find whoever is about to pull the trigger on this thing.”

Ferdinand looked around the top of the launcher, with its six curving metal shields radiating from the ten-meter wide firing chamber. Ilsa spotted a group of mercenaries and Uzan climbing up the other side. A roar ignited below, and the shell screamed upward.

In a split second, Ilsa seized her machine gun grip. “Get down,” she shouted, but her words were drowned out as the shell began rose.

The smell of ancient propellant filled her nose as the shell cleared the launcher’s flower.

It looked similar to the transportation shell that had landed on the plains and broken the ground open while they had been riding toward the mountains.

That meant it had fuel to change direction. Somewhere inside that metallic shell, was something extremely volatile. And it smelled that way.

She breathed deep, seeking for nuances of different intensity. Then, she closed her eyes and sought for spirit. She aimed, eyes open. She glimpsed the bulge of a fuel tank under a small wing as the shell rocketed upward. Forty meters away. She gripped the machine gun in both hands and fired one shot.

Fifty meters up, the shell’s propellant ignited in the tank. A massive explosion rocked the launcher. Debris spiraled and scythed and lashed the war machine below. Ilsa pitched onto the metal surface of the shield beneath her. More than half-deafened in that moment, she rolled onto her back and looked up at the blazing ruins, spinning east over the steppe, trailing black smoke.

Cass crawled to her side. “You alright?”

Ilsa put a hand to her ringing ear. The wound in her scalp burned.

“Let’s make sure I don’t have to do that again.” Her own voice sounded distant.

Ferdinand pointed toward the Uzan and mercenaries on the far side of the launcher’s top. They were still recovering from the blast. Ilsa stood up and marched toward them. Her machine gun punched one Uzan off the side. He fell with inaudible fury on his lips.

She spun to face the mercenaries and found the red-haired man facing her, one hand on his mouth and a pistol in his grip. They traded shots unevenly, both missing while the launcher rocked beneath them with the impacts of falling wreckage.

He raced toward her, throwing away his empty pistol and pulling a knife with his other hand. He knocked away the barrel of her gun. They collided. She staggered over backward. His knife stabbed toward her neck, only for a shadow to snake out and grab the blade, stopping it like a black rope. Ferdinand tugged with his shadow spear, but the mercenary held onto his blade with a death grip.

Ilsa stared at the deadly edge of the weapon hovering over her. The man drove his knee into her groin and she winced. Despite the pain, she seized his wrist with both hands. He broke free of Ferdinand’s shadow. They rolled over and over toward the launcher’s chamber.

She twisted the knife from his grip. It rolled a few centimeters and dropped into the shaft.

He punched her across the jaw and knocked her head against the steely shield. Lights flashed across her vision.

Dazed, Ilsa drifted between awake and unconscious. He forced her toward the edge of the shaft. When he hit her again, her head swung back through empty air.

Eyes open, she kicked out, knocking his legs free. Front-heavy, they shook. Her whole back hung over the shaft.

She grabbed at his shoulder and tore at one ripped sleeve with her fingers. The bomb vest under his coat clicked as he pulled its release. Ilsa hugged him tight, dragging him into the shaft with her. Her hand pressed to the back of the blast seal on his jacket as it got hot.

Ilsa’s memories rushed through her. She did not want to die.

They fell downward into a blaze of ignition.

 

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 46 – Echo

Tim here everybody.

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

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

Back to Tenlyres.

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

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

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

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

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

Previous Chapter

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



When enemies put aside their differences, Hathani is there.

When friends become enemies, Hathani is there.

But there also are human beings in all our varieties.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hathani help us,” she breathed.

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

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

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

“More than magi,” said Blue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We both were.”

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

“Why do you say that?” asked Lemuel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you enjoy it?”

“I tell myself I don’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blue, can you suppress them?”

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

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

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

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

“Blue, are you stopping them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She gritted her teeth and sighed unevenly.

Enemies drove them northward.

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

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

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

“A perfect war?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 41 – Failing Light

Tim here.

The last week has been fun, though a little slow as far writing goes. Hope you are all doing well.

Now, back to Tenlyres.

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Previous Chapter

 

Having lost one of her closest companions to capture, Ilsa rides toward Chogrum with the Keeper of Tenlyres and a small party. Their mission is to form an alliance with the rulers of the city.

Often, taking even the lowest action is better than taking no action.

 

The next morning, Ilsa rode east out of Atalem with Siuku, Lemuel, and two of Siuku’s lightning catchers. One of them, Okko, had been with the band in the mountains. He was young and beamed with a kind of familiar happiness near constantly since they returned to the steppe.

Ilsa rode ahead of Lemuel and Siuku with the lightning catchers, their long two-pronged lances fully charged since they had encountered a wild animal pile two weeks ago. She kept her eyes alert and sniffed the breeze for any hint of propellant. Okko raised his eyebrows, which only slightly disrupted his infectious smile.

“You expect trouble.”

“After yesterday, we need to be careful.”

“Agreed,” said the other lightning catcher, a wild-haired woman with dark eyes.

Okko shrugged and his smile returned. “You women are too cautious. The steppe belongs to us Oshomi.”

The other Oshomi grunted. “We have competition now.”

Ilsa nodded. “Things keep changing. We don’t know how fast Ayoch is moving east.”

She squinted into the distance. A cloud began to bloom in pale colors ranging from gray to blue, over the steppe northeast of them. She recognized the excess illusions produced by war magi manifesting physical abilities.

“That could be trouble,” she said, pointing at the cloud.

“It must be at least twenty kilometers away,” said Okko.

“Could be an army,” said Ilsa. “And if it is, they will have scouts and sensors to look for us.”

Lemuel and Siuku caught up with them.

“What is that?” asked the keeper. “Magic?”

“Looks like it,” said Ilsa. “It could be an army.”

“And we can’t tell whose army,” said Lemuel.

“No way Dal or Chogrum got ahead of us,” said Okko. “We Oshomi are the wind.”

“We had best be careful.” Siuku scowled behind her veil, brows bending inward. “Do not lose your head in the fresh air, Okko.”

The young lightning catcher flushed. “Keeper,” he said, and lowered his eyes. “I will.”

Lemuel frowned. “It’s still a ways out. We could get a little closer and we might be able to learn something about them if we do.”

“Right,” said Ilsa.

“It will not slow us down.” Siuku turned to the other lightning catcher. “Let us ride.”

As they continued to the northeast, the group stayed close together. Ilsa leaned toward Lemuel as they rode side by side.

“How long has it been since you’ve been to Chogrum?”

“We—Tirica and I—were there for the winter. Our family has a house in the city, but my father usually rents it out.”

“Could be useful to have a place to stay if we can’t find anywhere else easily.”

“Chogrum is a huge city. Even bigger than Dal. We shouldn’t have any trouble finding a place to stay. And as much as I hate to admit it, Ferdinand probably has more contacts there than I do, thanks to the kinds of ‘business’ he does in the city.”

“Selling artifacts?” said Ilsa.

“Yes,” said Lemuel. “I’ve had to track down items he’s sold before so I could study them. Tirica was always eager to push on his fences to find their wares.” He sighed.

“We’ll get her back,” said Ilsa. “Blue says once we meet her in Chogrum we might be able to work together to track Tirica’s mind.”

Lemuel’s eyebrows went up. “That’s a good idea. Hopefully, we can get there without an army catching us.” He craned his neck and looked north. “That cloud is getting bigger.”

“Yeah.” Ilsa turned to Siuku. “Looks like whoever is making that cloud isn’t moving.”

“We should adjust. We will go around them.”

The lightning catchers led them off to the south, and then the group arced east. They rode with speed. The hooves of their horses pounded over the steppe grass. Ilsa kept her eyes on the cloud of shifting colors as it went from bluish gray to nearly pink.

The ground began to slope downward the way it did toward the edge of the plateau, except for along a narrow outcrop. Okko rode to the edge of the drop-off and brought his horse to a stop. Ilsa and the others followed him. It would pay to get a view.

A few stones poked up at the rough edge of the cliff. Ilsa reined in her horse beside Okko, with Lemuel just behind her. She peered out over the plains below them.

Stands of tower grass dotted the ground below, stretching off here and there into the distance. This close to the edge of the plateau, there were not a lot of lotok formations, and the air was clear of any geysers of ground water. She scanned the ground as a disturbing combination of smells reached her on the headwind.

Blood and propellant were all too familiar together in Ilsa’s nose.

Okko pointed. “Looks like someone’s been fighting down there.”

Ilsa sniffed the air. “Smells like pretty recently too.”

“Keeper, we should look into it,” said the older lightning catcher.

“Indeed,” said Siuku. “Be cautious. Enemies could still be nearby.”

They rode back along the outcrop, then down the slope to circle around the small cliff of black granite. After they circled, they headed eastward, toward the increasingly clear smells of blood and battle.

Ilsa spotted the first dead Chogrumian runner while it was still almost two-hundred meters away. She frowned as more slain animals and humans drew into view. Her nose told her they had not been dead long. Flies buzzed over the remains.

Ilsa slowed her horse, then dismounted and started closer on foot.

The Chogrumian by the first runner lay dead on his side, blood stained on the grass around him. He had been shot more than once. Ilsa thought of the pain he must have felt in his final moments. She scowled.

She looked for signs of who had killed the group of scouts that spread out along the ground over the next fifty meters. They were all Chogrumian. None of their opposition had been left behind.

She felt her teeth grind as she walked amid the remains of the carnage. The Chogrumians, definitely scouts, had been hit fast. Most of them had not discharged their weapons.

Slaughtered with their long-clawed runners. Chogrumian runners were different than most Ayochian or Vogmem runners in that they could walk on their claws with good speed, and remain nearly silent as they moved.

A few of the eighteen Chogrumians had definitely shot back at their attackers. A group of four scouts had died in a circle of their runners, the animals sheltering them at the expense of their own lives. Ilsa crouched in the center of the bodies, one hand over her mouth and nose to hold back the smell. It did nothing for the sound of concentrated clusters of flies.

These troops had fired off a few shots each. But their ammunition had been left in the weapons and magazines where the scouts had dropped them. Whoever had killed them used weapons different enough to not bother collecting their gear after they had wiped them out.

And there, in the center of the last stand of these men and women she had not known, she found a single piece of metal in the midst of the bodies and fallen gear. It was a shell-casing, but different from all the others. She could tell because it was etched with mystic symbols along one side, the side where the bullet would have shot free. The casing belonged to a magus round.

Ilsa’s blood ran cold. Not as cold as the hearts of these dead soldiers had been, she suspected. She looked around and saw that none of the soldiers in the last stand had wounds that should have killed them, not on the outside, anyway.

Just the same, they were dead, their hearts stopped.

As the Oshomi picked through the remains, collecting weapons and bits of gear that had not been ruined in the fight or by the day of animals and insects feeding on the scene.

Ice in the heart. Yunn Haram.

The Ayochian scouts had attacked these men. The sons of the Red Lector had fought on this battlefield. Ilsa turned and saw Okko staring at her where she stood amid the four soldiers who Yunn Haram had killed with his magic.

His smiles from before were gone, and his eyes were wide.

“It could have been the Red Lector’s scouts,” said Ilsa. “They may have survived the battle in the mountains.”

Okko stared at her. “I had hoped we’d seen the last of them.”

“Me too.” Lemuel walked to Okko’s side. “We have no luck.”

Okko nodded, expression looking numb. He had seen battles, like the one in Howling Pass, Ilsa knew, but he must never have seen a massacre like this before. The horror of merciless killing filled the air like a ghost, like the ever-present smell of death, or the clouds of flies that sometimes moved as if they were one being.

She left the circle of runners where those four had fought. She breathed a little more easily once clear of them, but still, she scarcely had a way to tell if Yunn had killed them, or if another ice magus had been here. She looked down at the shell casing in the palm of her hand.

“Lemuel, can you give me a second opinion on this?”

He took a step toward her and leaned in to look down at her hand. “Magus script, from the look of it.”

“Do you think its Ayochian in origin?”

“There isn’t much there, but what there is, looks that way.”

Ilsa gulped. “That pretty much confirms it. For me, at least.”

Siuku joined them, along with the other lightning catcher. She bowed her head. “This is an evil place. Say a prayer for them, but we must ride on.”

“I understand,” said Ilsa. She opened her scroll case. Her words for the dead and dying ran down the middle portion of the thick paper.

“Be at peace,” she intoned. “Your names may go unknown to us, but you will not be forgotten. Life must end. But life does not have to end in horror…”

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 35 – Hidden in Death

Hello, everyone, Tim here.
Tenlyres has been finished in rough draft, but this serial has a long way to go from here.
At the top of the sidebar of my website there is an email list sign-up form. You can also sign up at this link. Short of buying my books this is the best way to support the serial and show you want it to continue.
Sign up for the mailing list at either location, and you will receive my new short story in the Tenlyres world, Mount Higatha, as well as a copy of Tenlyres II, for free!

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Previous Chapter

Ilsa fights at the heart of the battle to escape Howling Pass.
The Red Lector’s traitorous general, Boraij Kana and Ilsa’s own father stand in her way. Along with a horde of Uzan.
The lives of Ilsa’s friends are at stake.

She shot Kanan first, and the bullet made him stagger. Then his knees buckled. One shot left, she turned toward her father. The troops all around were crying out in dismay, maybe at the fall of their general, or maybe at the closing ground between them and the nomad’s resurgent attack.

In a few seconds, it was obvious Kanan’s troops were too occupied with Akirette and Siuku’s attack to shoot at Ilsa. She glared at her father over the body of the Red Lector, and the fallen forms of Kanan and Megalli.

Black Powder closed the dead Lector’s eyes and then straightened to his full height. His dark gaze glimmered with something that could have been a hint of an emotion in any other human. But not in her father.

His guns hung in his hands, both nearly fully loaded.

“Haven’t we done this before?” he said. “You with a wounded arm. Me, always surprising you?”

“Melinda is dead. I had no choice.”

“You killed her. There are always so many eager to learn from me.” Black Powder’s fingers remained off the triggers. “And hers is far from the only life you’ve taken today.”

Ilsa’s stomach turned. “You too.”

He nodded. “Did you like the trick with the exploding artillery carriage? I’m glad you made it through the blast.”

“I still don’t know how you survived it.” Ilsa’s heartbeat seemed loud, too loud with the battle going on behind her. She could not help but notice the Uzan behind her father had stopped shooting. They marched toward the battle, side by side with Black Powder’s remaining mercenaries.

“It ruined my coat,” said Black Powder. “But that couldn’t be helped, I suppose.”

She glared at him, partially to cover her fear for Megalli’s fading breaths. She did not want him to know she was concerned for the Vogmem chieftain. If he cared enough, he could kill the woman on the ground in an instant.

The chill air grew colder. Ilsa’s bruised chest felt almost like the lance had never been removed from the wound.

Kanan snarled as he scrambled for his fallen pistol. “You bitch, I’ll kill you.”

“I’m talking to my daughter,” said Black Powder. “Stay out of it, Boraij.”

Kanan’s face went white. “She shot me.” Spittle flew from his lips. “Kill her. Vel, you must.”

“Do not tell me about ‘musts,’ Boraij. I answer only to the Gray Lector. No human stands above me.”

“That’s not like you,” said Ilsa. “To answer to anyone.”

Her mother floated near her in her minds-eye. “You’re right. He’s always been ferociously independent.”

Black Powder’s eyes twinkled. “I could nearly say the same for you. Except you’ve always had one master even as a mercenary in the east.”

“What do you know about me?”

“Unification will never occur under the power of humanity. The dreams of your clergy are hopeless.”

“You may be right.” Despair clutched like a cold hand at Ilsa’s heart even as she said those words.

Nothingness would be better than her father’s view of the world being true.

“Daughter, you know I am.” Black Powder smiled, actually smiled within the heart of a bloody battle. “Now, put down that gun. I can’t offer you more than your life, but it is more than the priesthood with its flowers and feathers ever could.”

“What are you saying?”

“Abandon your mission here. Go live your life the way you want. I won’t stop you.” He motioned with one pistol over his shoulder at the liner of Uzan a mere twenty meters behind him. “Neither will my allies. You like men, don’t you? Have some fun. Make friends. Enjoy your existence for a change. Ilsa, your mother and I only differed on the details of what we wanted for you. We both care, in our own ways.”

Ilsa’s mind raced at the ridiculous offer that hung in the air between them.

Blue.

Ferdinand.

Siuku.

Lemuel.

The Four, even Akirette, and Ganara.

And Cass.

“I have made friends,” said Ilsa in a near-murmur. “And you won’t let us all go, even if you’d spare me.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You chased us all here.”

“Goji Haram commanded this army to pursue the Keeper of Tenlyres.” Black Powder looked down at the dead Lector. “I’m here for what is in this pass.” He motioned toward the wall of the mountain off to the side where he had detonated the gun carriage.

Where the stones had shifted and pockmarks scarred the wall, shape stood outlined in the stone.

The shape of a lyre made of darker stone, with pale strings of metal stretching from top to bottom.

Ilsa’s eyes widened.

“Another one?”

“Not just any of them either,” said Black Powder. “This marks the entryway to the realm of Asurdeva, hidden in death.”

“The god of the Uzan.”

“Eldest of his kind, daughter.”

“You would really let us all go?”

“I have a different army to fight now. The Red Lector’s widow has troops at your back.”

Two Uzan stomped forward to Black Powder’s side. He nodded to them, then pointed at the outline of the Lyre in the cliff side. “There it is my friends.”

The gun-demons grunted words Ilsa did not understand. Black Powder frowned. “No need to kill the goat and horse riders. They are fleeing already.” He smirked at Ilsa. “See, daughter? Your friends are free to go.”

Ilsa knelt down beside Megalli keeping her gun trained on Black Powder. “I don’t trust you.”

“Probably wise,” he said.

Akirette’s vanguard broke through Kanan’s troops behind her with a thunder of hooves. The eye of the storm became charged with violence once again.

Kanan scrambled away from Ilsa toward the line of Uzan. Blue’s strider stopped beside Ilsa and Megalli. A saddle-line slapped against Ilsa’s shoulder.

Lemuel helped her lift Megalli, until Blue could get the chieftain onto her saddle.

Then, others arrived all at once, Akirette, Siuku, Cass. And the two Uzan beside Black Powder opened fire.

Bodies fell from saddles. Blood misted in the air and the battle was fresh. Black Powder threw up his arm to stop the Uzan and pushed one of them back with a shout of “Cease-fire!” that shocked Ilsa with the sound of urgency in her father’s voice. She climbed onto the back of the horse that carried Lemuel. Her pistol flew into her hand once more.

The only Uzan left firing rounded toward her, guns leveled at Lemuel. A perverse, hideous grin stretched across the monster’s broad gray face, spreading the name of its god across its brows.

Ilsa’s last bullet hit the creature in the face. She shouted toward Siuku as she dropped the gun. “Get everyone out of here. We have to go, as fast as we can.”

The Keeper of Tenlyres heard, and guided her horse back from the fray, calling to her riders.

The Nomads began to slip past the Uzan and headed west out of the  pass, but the Uzan Ilsa had shot propped itself up on its back, the bullet wound yawning between nose and eye. Guns emerged like flowers from its palm and fingers. It aimed at Lemuel and Ilsa.

She pulled the revolver from the back of his pants, thumbed the hammer back on the unfamiliar single-action. The Uzan opened up on them.

Suddenly, Akirette was between them, spinning Ganara’s black staff to catch the stream of bullets unleashed by the lethal demon. She looked back at Ilsa and Lemuel. “Ride,” she said. “Get away.”

Black Powder stared at the Vogmem chieftain in shock. The Uzan kept shooting, but Akirette deflected or caught all the rounds headed toward her. Her teeth gritted in concentration and effort.

“Not easy,” she said.

Ilsa and Lemuel pulled away from the battle. The Uzan turned toward them. Ilsa picked a shot around Akirette and the staff. She took careful aim at the name of the old god.

Her bullet streaked across the name of Asurdeva, scarring the word with a line of blood.

The Uzan went limp and stopped shooting. The monster seemed to shrink as it died, withering and becoming thin where it has been beefy and bloated.

Akirette lowered the staff, breathing hard, and turned her goat to follow Ilsa and the rest of the retreating nomads.

Black Powder shot her in the heart. One squeeze of the trigger. She dropped the black staff and it clattered to the ground. Black Powder stalked toward the fallen length of Blackwood. He withdrew one pistol and picked up Vada’s staff.

Akirette hugged her goat’s neck with both arms and the runner continued after the rest of the nomads, carrying the mortally wounded Chieftain with it.

Ilsa screamed in fury and pulled back the hammer to fire again. Her father nodded to her, then turned his back as the Oshomi horse carried her and Lemuel away from the bloody battlefield and back to the plateau of Yr.

Tears ran from Ilsa’s eyes, but she knew somehow she had survived the day.

#

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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.

In case you weren’t aware, at the top of the sidebar of my website there is an email list sign-up form. You can also sign up at this link.

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!

 

Download Tenlyres I for free!

Buy Tenlyres II and read the rest of this story right away!

Previous Chapter

 

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

            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 33 – Visions from Room 216

Hello, everyone, Tim here.

2016 is almost over!

I really appreciate all the visitors reading through the story and listenng to the podcasts. It’s been a good year for me online.

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Sign up, 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.

            In the midst of a bloody battle, a massive explosion rocks the mountain pass. Ilsa takes shelter.

Ilsa’s mother swam into view before her eyes.

“Ilsa,” she said, “I’m glad to see you.”

“Mother…” Ilsa gasped as she remembered the explosion. The world seemed far away, the pain, and the tears distant. Melinda had killed Hailek. She had forced Ilsa to kill her. “It’s all so terrible.”

“What’s terrible Ilsa?”

“War,” she said. “The battles I’ve been fighting. It’s all wrong. But I felt like I had the best reasons.”

“It’s war,” said her mother seemingly from far away. “And war is awful, no matter why someone fights.”

“You’re right. Of course, you are.” Ilsa’s heart felt ready to burst. “Is it strange? I’ve fought so many battles, but I never realized that before now.”

The world swam around her. The pass returned, cold, and painful, and filled with bitter smells. Lemuel lay beside her, his arm around her. They lay side by side within the curve of Hailek’s still bulk. Ilsa’s ears were ringing, yet she knew what her mother said next despite physical deafness from the explosion.

“It’s alright, Ilsa. Everyone keeps learning.”

“Mother,” she said and sat up. The bodies of mercenaries and Vogmem warriors were scattered across the stones before her. Further down the pass, she glimpsed the banners of the Red Lector, many of them torn and tattered from flying debris. Small fires burned in bodies and wreckage all around.

Lemuel groaned and looked at her. He said something, but she could not hear his words, and judging by the look on his face, neither could he. She shook her head and tapped one ear.

He nodded. She got up carefully, a pistol in her left hand, and her right locked tight from Melinda’s poison, the gun she had held in it dropped in the rush to find cover.

The girl’s body lay near Hailek’s head, completely still except for the spreading blood around her. Someone so young should have been given the chance to survive, Ilsa knew, but she had given Melinda every chance she could. Damn her, Ilsa thought with a flush of rage as she looked at Hailek. But there was no way left to punish her steed’s killer.

Lemuel stood up and put his hand on Ilsa’s shoulder. She noticed the revolver still tucked into his waistband. He had yet to fire a shot.

Good.

Hopefully, he would never have to feel what she experienced in the heat of the fray.

A gun held in an angry hand. She scanned the battlefield as her hearing began to return little by little. The other Vogmem group had survived the blast of the exploding artillery shells unscathed, but Ganara’s lead troops had been devastated. Blue had fallen behind in the charge, so Ilsa could hope she was safe. Most of the other riders and goat runners were in the same state as Ilsa and Lemuel or lay bloody and torn, unmoving.

She wandered back the way they had come, looking this way and that, Lemuel at her side, carrying her still-unloaded shotgun in his big hand. The machine gun had returned to Ilsa, and if she tried to summon it now she would have a full magazine of ammunition. So that would be simple enough to remember.

She stumbled between two runners and glimpsed a black staff beyond one of them, lying close to pale, out-stretched fingertips. Ilsa circled the fallen goat. Ganara lay beside her steed, her fingers slack where she had been reaching for the staff. Bloody lines and holes cut through her coat, and red speckled her face from chin to closed eyelids.

But her breath still misted in the air above her.

“Lemuel,” said Ilsa, in a voice that sounded far away. “We need to get her help.”

Ilsa sank down beside Ganara.

Lemuel stayed standing and looked this way and that, but no one else moved nearby. Ganara’s wounds looked serious, life-threatening judging by the amount of blood on the shards of shrapnel beyond her. They had to move quickly.

Ilsa pressed her good hand to the largest wound, a gash across Ganara’s shoulder and nearly down to her chest. She applied what pressure she could with her one hand to hold back the blood-flow, and her fingers quickly turned red and sticky.

“Ilsa?” But it wasn’t Lemuel who spoke. It was Ilsa’s mother, standing by her side in a ghostly white hospital dress.

“Mother,” Ilsa said. “She’s dying.”

“The spirits can heal her.”

“Siuku,” said Ilsa. “Of course. We need to find her.”

She reached out, searching for Blue’s spirit. Two bright beacons in the other column of Vogmem, far from the front line, appeared in her vision. Blue rode near Ashnia Haram. She must have gone to make sure the Ayochian mind eater did not escape.

“Blue,” Ilsa said. “Get Siuku. I need your help on the other side of the pass.”

Blue answered her with a confused flurry of thoughts. Of them, only one stood out intelligibly. “Ilsa, you’re alive!”

“I am,” she said. “But Ganara is dying. Get Siuku now.”

Lemuel put a hand on her shoulder. His voice sounded small after the blast. “Who are you talking to?”

“Blue. I contacted her.”

“You can do that?”

Beside Lemuel, Ilsa’s mother nodded, and made a small smile.

“Yeah,” said Ilsa. “I-I think I’m like my mother.”

“Your mother?”

“She was never crazy. She saw things other people couldn’t.”

Mother folded her arms and her smile grew. “Ilsa, I have to tell you something. Your demons can be killed. If you separate them from their god.”

“She’s talking to me now.” Ilsa turned to Lemuel. “We can kill the Uzan if we separate them from their god.”

“The old gods… Asurdeva.” Lemuel circled Ganara and knelt down to press his hands to a wound on her side opposite Ilsa. He grimaced and turned pale as his hands became bloody. “Every Uzan has a name on its brow,” he said. “I’ve seen it, and they’re written in the old language.”

“Their god’s name?” said Ilsa.

“It’s worth a shot,” he said. “Literally.” He turned his head, averting his eyes from Ganara’s wounded form.

Ilsa nodded to him, but tears formed in her eyes. She leaned her face to Ganara’s ear. “You can’t die,” she said softly. “We’re all nomads today, and nomads keep moving, no matter what happens.”

Ganara’s eyes twitched open. She gave Ilsa a sideways glance but said nothing before she closed her eyes again. But she went on breathing. She went on living.

Ilsa did not know how she and Lemuel held Ganara before she heard the steps of striders and the hoof-beats of horses. The Oshomi arrived, Siuku in the lead, and Blue riding beside Tirica Chollush, who carried her long rifle across her saddle.  A group of Vogmem leading the prisoners including Ashnia Haram, and Ozleji Sammhar, followed behind the steppe nomads.

Ilsa looked up at Siuku. “Quickly, Keeper, she needs your help.”

Siuku leaped from her horse’s back and then ran the final meters. She unfastened her veil as she reached Ganara’s side. Her hands moved and touched and healed.

Ganara remained still for a long time. One eye opened. “I never thought an Oshomi would save my life. But you, you’re paler than me…” she said. Then her eyes rolled back and closed. She slept.

A cheer went up from the Ayochian line. The Vogmem who had pressured them on the western side of the pass had been forced to a stalemate. A few of the hawks from Megalli’s skyriders lay on the field where they had fallen. In a moment of fear, Ilsa realized she could not see Megalli herself among the riders still circling over the battlefield.

The Red Lector and his few remaining protectors stood at the front of the Ayochian line where the Vogmem had lost their momentum. Haram himself waved a red-streaked saber in his hand and shouted loud. “Which of you Four barbarians shall fall next?”

Siuku’s riders helped Ganara onto one of their horses along with her black staff. The Vogmem chieftain slumped in the saddle between two Oshomi, still unconscious. Ilsa and Blue exchanged glances.

“I’m losing my sense of Megalli,” Blue said softly.

Ilsa’s stomach turned.

War is terrible. War is always terrible, and Koor’s oracles were right that they would lose a leader.

To fight a battle is always to lose the peace, Ilsa thought, as tears ran down her cheeks.

The Keeper of Tenlyres turned to Ilsa. “Ride. We can still break through. His line is weak, no matter who he has killed.”

Ilsa and Lemuel climbed onto separate horses, behind different Oshomi riders. The Keeper of Tenlyres collected the survivors of Ganara’s column. She wheeled her forces, both Vogmem and Oshomi and pressed the attack on the broken side of the Ayochian line where Ilsa’s father had detonated the gun carriage.

Had he known it would explode? Could even he survive that blast? Ilsa doubted it, but she had no tears for him when so many others had died in this windy pass already. She rode through gaps of the enemy lines in the wake of Siuku’s fresh troops.

The Red Lector’s forces fell back to a rise in the center of the pass two or three kilometers back from where the Vogmem charge had begun. They could not stop the nomads fighting past them on either side.

For a few minutes of riding and fighting, Ilsa thought they could escape without much more resistance. Then, a roar went up from the column ahead of them. A typhoon of incredibly varied gunshots and the smell of ancient propellant, bleak on the wind, reached Ilsa. Huge semi-humanoid shapes waded into the fray, uncaring if they killed Ayochians or nomads.

With bursts of bullets and swinging hammer blows, they killed.

With furious blasts of shotguns grown from bloated bellies or yawning jaws they killed.

Screams and roars and cries of despair rang out from both sides.

The Uzan had arrived.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 32 – Metal Storm

Happy holidays, everyone, Tim here.

I hope you’re all enjoying the story, and I really appreciate everyone following along.

At the top of the sidebar of my website there is an email list sign-up form. You can also sign up at this link.

Sign up, and you will receive my new short story in the Tenlyres world, Mount Higatha, for free! This is a great way to show your support for the serial.

 

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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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