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.

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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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