Ilsa and Blue have joined with the Keeper of Tenlyres, who it is their mission to protect.
Ilsa’s mercenary father, Black Powder, has appeared at the Central Lyre and played the notes to open the vaults.
Monsters unknown to humanity for millennia have just been freed.
The lyre trembled beneath Ilsa’s feet, sending waves that shook her legs and made her teeth buzz. She held the gun steady on Black Powder in spite of the rumbling from below. Her eyes flicked toward the opening of the Lyre.
“Siuku, tell everyone to ride!”
The Keeper of Tenlyres did not reply, but Ilsa heard her shout down the corridor to the riders below. Hooves joined the sound of the lyre as the horses below began to move.
Ilsa lurched toward her father, pistol still trained on him. “Tell your students to leave. Now.”
“Melinda seemed to have beaten you before,” said Black Powder. “I won’t let you shoot me.”
Ilsa sneered at her father. “But you won’t let her kill me.”
Black Powder shook his head. “We will see how your comrades fair against my apprentices.”
As he spoke, Lemuel and Blue emerged from the tunnel on the striders, with Tirica and Siuku riding close behind them. Melinda went for her pistol. Ilsa snarled and twisted at her hips. She shot the gun from Melinda’s grip before the crazed girl could pull the trigger. Melinda’s other pistol barked. The bullet hit Ilsa in the shoulder and blood roared from the wound.
Ilsa grunted with pain and fired again, but Melinda was on the run, evasive and chaotic. She fled to the far support of the lyre. Ilsa whirled to focus on Black Powder. She found him by her side. The pain in her shoulder burned, and she felt the paralytic toxin from Melinda’s bullet reaching tendrils into her muscles. Soon she would go from one gun hand to none, with the loss of her ability to shift her shoulder.
She glared at Black Powder, her fingers locked on the pistol grips. She shoved the barrel into her father’s chest. “Die.” She hissed with tears in her eyes.
His fist slammed into her stomach. She staggered and fell to her knees. Black Powder stood over her for an instant. “Tomorrow, daughter. For now, see how the end begins.” Then his shadow left her vision. Her ears rang with the lyre’s music, the vibrations from below, and the hoof beats all around.
Ilsa stood, digging the strength from within her aching stomach. She turned toward the cavern and saw neither Melinda nor Black Powder, nor the glints of sniper rifles. Gunshots and cries of horror echoed from the Ayochian camp in every direction, adding to the noise.
Lemuel guided Hailek to Ilsa’s side. She withdrew her pistol into her partially paralyzed arm. He helped her climb into the saddle. “Are you alright?” he asked.
“No. Not a damned bit.” Ilsa winced as her wounded shoulder brushed his arm. “Take me there.” She pointed with the barrel of her remaining pistol, still locked in her paralyzed grip, toward the tent where she had figured the prisoners were kept. “We need to hurry.”
Blue and Tirica caught up with them, and they rode for the Ayochian lines. Judging by the sounds of fear and violence, there had indeed been monsters hidden beneath the lyre. The Uzan, beasts that may have warred with the gods in ancient times, were free.
The pain and dizziness in Ilsa’s head only built as they neared the camp. No one fired at them, or the Oshomi who followed behind. Shadowy forms raced through the camp. Men and women fought the Uzan and died under the cacophonous roar of the lyre and their own weapons. Bodies in Ayochian blue and lectoral red uniforms littered the ground, torn apart by otherworldly strength.
Blue leaped down from her saddle and tore open the flap of the prison tent. Ilsa leaned against Lemuel. Her blood darkened and stained his outer coat. “Tirica,” she said. “Help get them out.”
Siuku caught up, along with her riders on their horses. All of them had made it this far from the lyre. She turned to her people. “Free your brothers and sisters,” she said through her veil. “I will bring their steeds.” She gave a whooping call. Captured Oshomi horses stampeded from an impromptu stockade where they had been imprisoned, and raced through the camp toward the prison tent.
Blue emerged from the tent, supporting Ferdinand. Tirica led Cass out next, and Ilsa saw her friend and the other prisoners had not been treated well. Cass’s red hair bore traces of dried blood mingled with the mud of the steppe. One of her arms hung limp, possibly dislocated or broken. Ilsa’s teeth ground together, pain and temper combined.
Horses found their riders. Tirica helped Cass onto her steed. Ferdinand looked up at Ilsa, a grin on his weary face. His white strider appeared with the other captured steeds. The man nodded to Ilsa then jumped onto his steed’s back. He scurried up the side and turned to ride from the camp. Before he spurred the strider, he looked over his shoulder.
“Thanks for the save, that’s two I owe you now.” Then he rode through the camp, his lance appearing in one hand.
“You’ll pay me back eventually,” Ilsa shouted.
“We should go,” said Lemuel.
“Right,” Ilsa breathed in sharply. The smell of blood both new and old assailed her, along with the traces of propellants. The powder was mostly Ayochian, but another sort mixed into the ballistic smoke.
The smell of a powder Ilsa did not recognize.
The Oshomi urged their steeds through, breaking out of the Red Lector’s ragged camp. The treaded transport vehicles and artillery pieces the rearguard of the Ayochian forces had brought with them sat mostly abandoned on the outside of the camp. A few turrets started moving as Ilsa and Lemuel rode toward them with the others.
One of the turrets swung toward Ilsa, and she had no way to stop it, both hands useless for fighting, arms wrapped around Lemuel’s waist to hold on. She grimaced at her uselessness.
She spoke to her steed, “Hailek, jump!”
He did not balk. He sprang. His heavy foot stamped onto the top of the turret, denting the metal with his weight, then he landed on the other side. The turret gunner did not get a chance to reorient the weapon. A barrage of heavy shots slammed through the side of the vehicle. Ilsa looked back as the last of the Oshomi fled the camp. A single pale beast stood beside the burning transport, it’s hulking frame outlined in fire as the munitions inside the vehicle ignited with a sound like fireworks.
The Uzan roared from a mouth that opened in both directions. It had to be at least four meters tall, and its milky skin was coated in a sheen of liquid that could have been gray oil. While its general shape was humanoid, it’s shoulders and chest shifted back, the flesh peeling away, to reveal the smoking muzzles of an array of unmistakable weapon-barrels.
Ilsa’s eyes widened, but the beast ignored her and the others as they fled. The Uzan turned back to the camp and its weapons opened up again in a chaotic fusillade of squeals and cracks. Ilsa kept looking back even as Hailek carried her further northward from the Central Lyre.
That night, kilometers away, they made camp despite the distant fires of the Ayochian camp. Perhaps a fifty Oshomi of the band sworn to Siuku’s defense had made it away from the Central Lyre. While they cooked what little remained of their food, the Keeper removed her veil and healed the wounds Ilsa had received that day. The sealed without scars and the pain was replaced by the tingling of what reconstructed nerves.
“How do you do that?” Ilsa asked.
“I am gifted by the spirits,” said Siuku. “I do not know how.” She replaced her veil, wearily. “It is a tiring process. That is certain.”
Ilsa looked across the fire to where Cass sat with her arm in a sling, broken, it turned out. Tirica brought the red-haired priestess the last bit of bread she had saved and the two of them started talking.
“What about Cass’s arm?”
“I can only heal recent wounds. The older they are, the more real they become.”
“Huh,” Ilsa said. “That’s important to know.”
“Priestess, I did not hear everything at the lyre. Who was that man?”
“Black Powder is what the other mercenaries call him.” Ilsa sighed. “My mother called him Henry. He’s my father.”
“He knew how to play the lyre.”
“Yes, and I still don’t understand how he knew what to do.” Ilsa frowned down at her hand and flexed her fingers. “That apprentice of his, Melinda. She’s dangerous.”
“I’m sure you would think so.”
“If you run into her, be careful,” said Ilsa. “She didn’t seem hesitant to kill.”
“Also a predictable response,” said Siuku in the same flat tone as usual.
“What do you expect? I’m not going to surprise you all the time.”
“I suppose not. Perhaps this means I’m getting to know you, priestess.”
“What about the Uzan?” asked Ilsa. “Do you know what they’ll do?”
“I do not. They are an ancient species, far older than I can say. But the spirits may aid us against them.”
“Against them?” Ilsa frowned. “There is going to be a war on this plateau. My mission is still to protect you.”
“And yet, I will not leave with these monsters roaming free.”
“You’re not making this easy.”
Siuku stood up. “Nothing is ever easy for those who help others. Good night, priestess. Tomorrow we will hunt. It is a good thing winter has passed.”
Ilsa watched the Keeper walk through the rough, mostly open-air camp. Her stomach rumbled, the only pain remaining to her. Still, she would have to be ready. She slept little that night.