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Tenlyres has been finished in rough draft, but this serial has a long way to go from here.
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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.
The Four, even Akirette, and Ganara.
“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.
“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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