Ilsa and Blue have joined with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
The Keeper has demonstrated knowledge of the Lyres and a mystical ability to heal wounds.
However, the forces of the Ayoch have surrounded them, and trapped them beneath the Central Lyre, along with a surviving force of Oshomi nomads. The siege is nearly over.
Escape is now or never.
Ilsa and Lemuel climbed the tunnel until they reached the place near the top, where Blue crouched, peering over the rise at the steppe outside. Blue looked over her armored shoulder at them. “I don’t know what they’re waiting around for. They second army got here the same day as the Red Lector himself.”
She recalled the conversation she had overheard in the plant pile when Ferdinand had shown up at Palend’s manor. “Some of them work for the Gray Lector, and whoever that is, he isn’t allied with the Red Lector.”
“Lectors this, Lectors that,” said the flat voice of Siuku, the Keeper of Tenlyres, from behind Ilsa. “What cares do we have for the names they give themselves.”
Blue raised her eyebrows at Ilsa. The question on Blue’s face did not require mental powers to convey.
Ilsa nodded to the Keeper. “It could inform our strategy.”
“Divide and conquer, children,” said Blue with relish.
Siuku’s cold red gaze moved to Blue’s face, her expression unreadable behind her veil. “None of us are children.”
“It’s an expression of simplicity.” Lemuel frowned past Blue at the lines of Ayochian tents, now encircling the lyre. He looked up at the gleaming metal strings of the lyre. “Keeper, do you know which strings open which passages in the lyre?”
“Yes. But if we open more surface passages we will only have to guard them as well.”
“What about passages that go deeper into the lyre?” asked Ilsa.
“Few Keepers have ever gone below the highest chamber.”
“But it is possible, right?”
“Yes, priestess. It is possible, but it is dangerous.”
“Dangerous? Why?” She frowned. The possible dangers below could not be worse than the armies surrounding them already.
Siuku closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. “Our people tell stories of creatures trapped beneath the lyres, imprisoned there just after the beginning by the ancient spirits.”
“Wait,” said Ilsa. “The First Book of Hathani talks about something similar before the departure of the gods.”
“Perhaps your city writers are not all wrong. We call them Uzan, among our people, evil beasts that warred with the first of our people, when the spirits walked among us.”
“Suppose they’re down there. How could they survive underground for thousands of years?” Blue asked.
“Such creatures are not mortal in the stories,” said Siuku.
“But they might just be a myth,” said Lemuel.
“I don’t know about myth, but all living things die eventually,” said Ilsa.
“How optimistic.” Blue grimaced. “Got any other ideas to cheer me up?”
Ilsa shrugged. “We could wait underground until they starve us out. Then we would just lose everything while we smell our own filth.”
Blue’s red-rimmed eyes blinked. “Is that a joke?”
“I mean, we have to do something.” Ilsa turned to Siuku and Lemuel. “Right?”
“Agreed.” Siuku’s brow furrowed. “In fact. If we open all the passages, we might be able to use that confusion to escape when the Uzan emerge.”
“If they emerge,” said Lemuel.
“Scholar, do not doubt my words. They are below us, not far below now.” Siuku turned to the three Oshomi who had been keeping watch with Blue. “Go and prepare everyone to ride.”
“But the Uzan—,” said one of the men.
Ilsa shook her head. “They may be able to live forever, but I’ve never met any monster that couldn’t be killed.” She produced the pistol from one of her bonds. “Send up our steeds when it’s time to move,” she said.
The man bowed to Siuku. She nodded to them in reply. He and the other two Oshomi followed the passage down into the chamber below.
Ilsa did not like the implication of opening the lyre, but what other choice did they have? She peered over the slope of the passage, searching the Ayochian line for where they might keep their prisoners. Cass and Ferdinand and the Oshomi the Red Lector had captured were hopefully still alive. Either way, Ilsa has a debt to repay all of them, especially her fellow priestess.
She found a tent a few back from the line, directly across from the place where the far arch of the lyre connected to the base of the platform. Her eyes narrowed as she squinted, but she couldn’t pick out any sign of her friends.
Blue put a hand on her shoulder. “They’re there,” she said. “How did you know?”
Her friend whistled. “Let’s hope that luck holds.”
Hoofbeats and thumps of feet on stone announced the arrival of Siuku’s horse, Hailek, and Blue’s strider. Tirica Chollush rode in Blue’s saddle. She had recovered well after Siuku had sealed her wound, though days without sunlight had left her paler than before.
Ilsa turned to face the strings. “Everyone, get ready to ride. I’m about to open the gates.”
Ilsa drew her second pistol and loaded it, then crept up from the passage, staying low. The light of midday sun glimmered on the strings and felt warm on her skin. Winter might be truly over, Ilsa thought as she looked back and forth, scanning the Ayochian camp for signs of anyone watching. She saw none. She pressed her back against the wall beside the passage and aimed down her pistol’s barrel at the strings.
“Hit every string, and the lyre should open,” said Siuku from the passage.
Ilsa grunted and trained the pistol on the string farthest from her. The reflection of a scope glinted in the camp beyond the black stone of the lyre. She threw herself to one side, pistol free of her trigger guard. A bullet whined off the wall where she had just been crouched, high-velocity long distance round with Morhoenese propellant judging by the sound and smell.
“What the hell was that?” said Lemuel.
“Someone’s been waiting to take a shot,” said Ilsa without looking back. She stepped into the silhouette of the lyre’s arch, hoping the sniper wouldn’t have friends already lining up a shot in the blind spot. A low chuckle came from behind her and to the right. Ilsa whirled, one gun forward, the other still pointed at the strings.
A skinny black girl with frizzy hair stood beside the passage, her back to the stone and a pistol in one hand, aimed at Ilsa. She put her index to her lips, a shushing gesture.
“They call themselves the Brothers of the Black Desert,” said the girl in a Chogrumian accent. “Master Black Powder likes them.”
Ilsa scowled as she heard her father’s pseudonym among the mercenary companies. “Black Powder?”
The girl smirked. “Ozleji said you seemed not to like your father. Truth is, I really don’t care.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Melinda. I’m Black Powder’s best apprentice yet. He’s never seen anyone shoot like me.” She twitched her wrist. A trigger clicked just as Ilsa started to move, but she couldn’t predict the direction of Melinda’s shot. The bullet hit the pistol Ilsa had aimed at Melinda in its back, just above Ilsa’s wrist and tore the weapon from her grip. The pistol skittered away across the lyre.
Ilsa snarled and swung the other pistol to fire at the girl. She’s a mercenary, obviously employed by Ayoch, like Ozleji Sammhar had been. Before Ilsa could fire a second bullet from Melinda’s pistol hit her in the back of the hand. She grunted in pain, but the gun’s barrel moved to within inches of Melinda’s young face. Where she meant to pull the trigger she could not find the strength in the needed fingers, and they remained stiff.
“Shit,” said Ilsa.
“Muscular toxins in the round. Paralyzes a local area around the bullet.” Melinda smiled, her pistol pressed into Ilsa’s chest. “I told him I was better than you.”
“You mean, my father?”
“Who else, silly?” The girl smiled at Ilsa, teeth bright and white. “I knew you would come out eventually and I’d get my chance to prove it.” Melinda cackled with laughter and lowered her pistol from Ilsa’s heart. She backed away onto the open side of the lyre. “Come on now, Ilsa, be good and follow me. I promise the boys won’t shoot you before I do.”
The pain in Ilsa’s wounded hand ran through her nerves like fire. She was used to bullets and blades, but the toxins hurt worse than that. Her mind pulsed with pain. She pressed her hand to the wall near the passage with a gasp. She normally did not keep her guns loaded because the bullets could detonate when summoned improperly through a bond. But in one hundred heartbeats Ilsa would have her chance to try it if this girl didn’t shoot her first.
“Ilsa, what’s going on out there?” asked Lemuel asked from the passage. “Blue says she can’t sense anyone else.”
“There’s a weapon bond out here. Stay where you are.”
“Don’t try reaching into your spirit, Ilsa,” said Melinda. “I won’t let you pull out another gun.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you won’t.” Ilsa gritted her teeth and stalked toward Melinda, still leaning on the wall with her open hand.
Less than fifty heartbeats to go.
Melinda laughed and waved Ilsa out into the open. She glimpsed a second scope in the light of day. She looked to be dead, even if she beat this girl. Forty heartbeats to go. Ilsa shuddered on her feet.
“My father trained you too, is that it?”
“I’m no liar. I’m the best he’s ever trained.”
“I haven’t met a lot of his other students.” Ilsa mustered up the strength to force her grimaced into a smile. She faced Melinda. Twenty heartbeats. “He barely talked about the others when he trained me.”
“Well, he’ll be here soon. Not sure if he’ll be happy to find you dead. But I have a feeling he’ll forgive me.”
“You’re a bit of work.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Melinda’s lip curled.
Both of Melinda’s pistols aimed at Ilsa. Four. Ilsa rolled her eyes. Three. “I’m not your rival.”
Two heartbeats left.
Melinda’s fingers inched toward the trigger. “Time to go, Ilsa.”
One heartbeat left.
Ilsa clenched her open hand.
She focused on the image of the pistol just as it had been, a firearm with a loaded magazine full of Dalite 5.6 millimeter rounds. Every detail, every piece of information about her ammunition swam in her head. Yes, she had never done this, but no, it was not impossible. She felt the pistol in her hand, stable, whole.
She let the strength leave her legs and gravity carried her to the stone of the lyre, even as she swung her arm up to fire. Melinda’s pistols roared and the bullets flew over Ilsa’s head. A gun cracked in the distance and a bullet ricocheted off the side of the lyre’s arch a few meter’s away from Ilsa and Melinda.
Her own bullet cut into Melinda’s shoulder. Melinda staggered to one side. “Better than I thought,” she said.
From Ilsa rolled to one side and fired again. The bullet slashed across Melinda’s long gray sleeve, cutting the cloth without drawing blood as the girl darted the other way.
Ilsa glared and staggered up to her feet. Melinda turned as if to keep shooting but then hesitated. Ilsa lurched toward her. Another sniper round cut the air, which made Ilsa step to one side to avoid it. The bullet missed. She didn’t think the snipers were aiming at her anymore. A loud note resounded in the air. Melinda and Ilsa stood, breathing hard, guns extended toward each other.
The sound of the lyre drifted beautifully through the air. Melinda stepped back from Ilsa.
“Black Powder—Master!” She called.
Ilsa turned toward the strings. A man in a black coat stood between the strings, points a long-barreled pistol with a cylindrical silencer around its barrel in each direction. Each time he fired, the bullets rang another note. Henry Vel, Black Powder, played every note on the Central Lyre. He raised his head and smiled at Ilsa through his carefully trimmed beard.
“Thank you for the assistance in finding how to play the lyre,” he said. “It’s good to see you, daughter.”
Ilsa glared at him, eyes burning. She raised her pistol to aim at her father. He had this coming, as he had for a long time. He holstered his twin black pistols in slings designed for their silencers.
Her eyes ran with tears of rage. “I should kill you.”
“If you want, give it a try,” he said. “But the lyre is about to open.”
The ground trembled beneath her and Ilsa realized his words were true.