Tenlyres Chapter 48 – Distant Shadows

Tim here everybody.

The story is back! Not much else to say this week.

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

 

In the battle, Ilsa suddenly finds herself transported beyond the fray.

 

 

 

There could be any number of gods, far more gods than those we know and worship.

 

Where was she?

Ilsa lashed out. She kicked the red-haired man twice, first in the groin, then in the chest. He rolled off of her and onto the floor of some sort of armored personnel carrier. Ilsa’s nostrils burned, and her palm was even hotter with pain where she had grabbed the blast seal. She gritted her teeth and sat up.

She looked at the groaning red-headed mercenary. His blast-sealed coat and explosive vest were gone, but otherwise, he seemed the same. She drew a pistol from her agonized right hand. He scrambled onto his knees.

She finished loading and killed him with a bullet to the heart that knocked him on his back. She pressed her back against the hot metal of the wall behind her and panted for breath. Part of her was surprised to still be alive, despite what she had learned about blast-seal transportation.

She checked her palm, and found light burn marks where she had grabbed the seal, but nothing as extreme as the brand, and nothing to disrupt her weapon bond. She grimaced and got to her feet within the unmoving vehicle.

Wherever they were, no one had come running at the sound of her gunshot.

Ilsa found a hatch in the roof at the front of the personnel carrier, behind the vacant driver’s seat. She climbed up the ladder, bearing the pain in her hand, and from the near miss that still had blood trickling down her forehead.

The hatch opened with a circular wheel-lock. She turned the wheel slowly, then opened the hatch. It went up with a creak of rust. Ilsa peered out the top of the vehicle and saw dark shapes on the horizon under the sun that looked to be in about the same position as the area she had left.

The vehicle she stood in was definitely Ayochian and bore the defaced symbols of the Red Lector, and the Queen of Ayoch. Painted over those symbols were long gray lines.

There were four other vehicles just like the one Ilsa had arrived in. All looked worse for wear on the steppe grass around her. Black Powder had built a retreat point with tanks and personnel carriers. Ilsa shook her head and looked east.

The dark shapes on the horizon looked like the Uzan artillery and judging by the position of the sun, and the train of vehicles stretching toward the steel-black flowers, she was a ride of an hour or two from Atalem and the battle.

Smoke billowed high from somewhere in the line of artillery. Hopefully, the others could destroy the war machines. They would have to do it without her, given how far away she had been transported.

She clenched her fist, then winced and opened it again at the pain. The burnt skin had opened up in a few places while she had climbed, and blood ran to her wrist. She wiped her bloody brow with the back of her other hand, and then pulled herself onto the top of the vehicle as quietly as she could manage.

South of her, she spotted another cluster of the same sort of vehicles a few kilometers away.

Her ears were still ringing. She could scarcely tell if there were sounds nearby or not. She climbed back inside and bandaged her head with a strip of antiseptic cloth from the vehicle’s medical kit. She wished she could wrap her hand, but could not manage it without inhibiting the summoning of her bonded weapons.

As her hearing recovered little by little, she lurched back up the ladder. More smoke billowed on the horizon, both at the Uzan artillery, as well as in the village and north of Atalem. She could not tell who was winning from this distance.

She heard groans and screams, followed by a few soothing whispers in response from somewhere nearby. She thought it sounded too clear to be from one of the other vehicles.

Ilsa crouched atop the personnel carrier and listened, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from.

She turned and spotted a shape limping across the grass, dripping blood from a shattered arm. The remains of a blast-seal vest hung about his shoulders. Not far from the cluster of stopped vehicles was a group of wounded mercenaries with medics moving between them. They did not appear to have noticed Ilsa.

She crept to the end of the vehicle opposite the medics and lowered herself over the side. Then, she dropped down onto the grass. A glance around each corner told her no one was watching. She took the left side because her right hand was wounded, and she could better handle the shooting cross-ways. She kept her left pistol ready and made her way toward the medics and wounded.

The same voice as before drifted to her. It was far too familiar. She pressed her back to the side of the carrier and glanced toward the groaning sprawled forms. A few unwounded people moved among them. There were only two medics, Ilsa noticed. The third and final member of the group stood with her back to the wounded, watching the distant artillery.

She turned as Ilsa started moving toward them again.

“Tirica?” Ilsa said, unable to stop her curious voice.

She was far enough away, and around twenty wounded mercenaries made some sound between them. Ilsa cringed back against the side of the vehicle. Neither Tirica or the medics appeared to notice her.

But there was no mistake. She had found Tirica.

She dropped into a low crouch and then made her way to the corner of the vehicle closest to the medics. She kept her gaze on them all the while. Tirica walked among the wounded.

She wore a uniform jacket of the same sort the Red Lector’s troops had used, unbuttoned completely down the front. Beneath that, her clothes were pale gray. She carried no weapons, but her hands weren’t tied either.

The wounded looked mostly to be in too bad of shape to fight, and the medics were using hypodermic injectors to administer some kind of anesthetic. Many of the wounded were unconscious.

Ilsa scowled and stepped out from the vehicle’s shadow, pistol in hand. She trained the gun on one of the medics and advanced.

The other medic spotted her first and pointed with a finger, calling a warning. The one she had under the gun turned toward her and then dropped his syringe in surprise.

“Who are you?” he asked. “How did you get here?”

Ilsa held up her burned hand toward them. “Don’t move, and I won’t kill you.”

Tirica turned toward her. “Ilsa? How?”

“You know a red-haired mercenary guy?” Ilsa said. “He brought me with him.”

Both medics stared at Ilsa, eyes wide. “We are unarmed and unbonded,” said one of them. “Please, don’t shoot.”

Ilsa glanced between them, but her sense of spirits told her more than one of the mercenaries on the ground had bonds. That was no surprise. What was off made Ilsa’s brow furrow.

Tirica carried a bonded rifle in her spirit.

“Tirica,” she said. “What happened to you?”

“First left me here,” said Tirica, “She told me to stay put when she went to fight.”

“Right…” Ilsa’s gaze met Tirica’s. “And what about your rifle?”

“They took it away when they caught me. I wish I had it now.”

A lie. She had the weapon to call to hand. Ilsa smelled a hint of ammunition on her.

“Don’t insult me. You aren’t a prisoner anymore, are you?”

Tirica’s eyes narrowed. “How could you tell?”

“Black Powder wouldn’t have bonded your weapon to you if you were.”

Tirica growled a warning to the medics. She raised her hand and the rifle appeared in her grip. Its broken scope had been removed, but there was no mistaking it as the same weapon Ilsa had seen Tirica with all the way back at the Western Lyre.

Ilsa aimed at a spot near Tirica as the girl finished loading.

“Why did you let him do this to you?”

“Why did you?”

“I was a child.”

“And I didn’t have a choice. They… hurt me.”

“Tirica, don’t shoot. I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Like you didn’t want to hurt Melinda?”

Tears threatened Ilsa’s eyes. “I gave her as many chances as I could.”

“So you killed her because you had to?”

“Yes, I killed her…” Ilsa choked back a sob. “I had no choice.”

“You always have a choice. After we left Chogrum, I made a choice.” Tirica’s eyes narrowed as her finger found the trigger of her rifle. “I won’t be helpless anymore.” Tirica took her shot.

Ilsa darted away laterally as Tirica’s gun roared.

The bullet grazed her side. It ripped through, spilling blood and spreading pain. She gasped, barely able to believe Tirica had shot her.

She turned, blood dripping from her side, just in time to see a wounded mercenary scramble up with a pistol. She killed the man with a single shot.

Others screamed, or writhed in their own private pain and fear. The medics raced for weapons. Ilsa faced Tirica.

“Let me help you.”

“You couldn’t before.” Tirica pulled back the slide on her rifle, ejecting the spent shell casing. She aimed at Ilsa. “I’m done counting on you.”

“I swore to your brother I’d save you.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Tears ran down Tirica’s cheeks. “Time to go.”

The medics and more of the walking wounded drew weapons.

Ilsa started to fire, dodging and weaving.

She fell back toward the personnel carriers, killing mercenaries when she wasn’t avoiding return shots. She sheltered behind one metal hull, her burnt hand clamped to her wounded side.

One of the medics lurched around the corner. She swept his legs with hers. He fell, and his gun went off. The bullet roared and shot across Ilsa’s calf. Pain exploded through her leg and she lurched to one side.

Her weapon spoke. The medic pitched backward in a heap. Her pant-leg began to soak up blood. She looked to the side of the personnel carrier, frantic.

There, she spotted the collapsible ladder leading up to the top. Her hand snaked out and she pulled the ladder out. Then, she began to climb, unable to ignore the pain in her leg. At least the leg made her bleeding hand easier to forget.

She threw herself onto the top of the vehicle. Tirica’s bullet whined off the roof beside her.

She really will kill me if I let her, Ilsa thought.

She crawled to the hatch on the front end of the carrier and twisted the wheel to open it. The hatch popped and Ilsa swung her legs over the side to drop down.

Her boots landed on the floor of the carrier. She managed to stay moving, despite the blood flowing into one of them. She glanced back and found the door sealed. Ilsa slid into the seat behind the wheel.

She started the machine by pulling out the drive rod. The bioelectric engine sparked. She hit the pedal and the machine began to trundle forward. Dark spots swam before Ilsa’s eyes and her head felt light. Bullets pinged off the carrier’s hull but did little damage to the armored vehicle.

She crushed the pedal and leaned on her wounded leg. She headed toward Atalem as fast as she could, jamming the pedal with her machine gun’s stock, so she could go back to bandage her leg. She barely made it to the emergency kit at all. It’s place stood empty, taken by some desperate soldier no doubt.

Ilsa sank to the floor of the vehicle, knowing the time she had with her machine gun moving the vehicle forward would be measured in seconds if she did not take its place.

She tore a strip of cloth from the hole torn at her side. At least the wound there was shallow. She made a bandage for her leg and lurched back to the front to keep driving.

She pushed forward toward Atalem until her head grew too light. Then she climbed down under the wheel. This way she hoped to keep pressing the pedal even if she fell unconscious. If she was lucky the Chogrumian forces would not simply destroy the vehicle without looking inside it first.

Her mind wandered. Lemuel’s spirit seemed close. So close. She prayed he had survived the battle so far. And she rode the vehicle into the shadows.

#

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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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Another Stage

I feel as though a long time has passed since I last posted here. In reality, it has been just over a week. However, I know several important things have changed in these past eight days.

First off, I finished a novel I had been working on for over a year.

That alone is an awesome experience, especially given the burst of enthusiasm I found I could put into the story in this final stretch of sixteen-thousand words or so.

The writing of that books’ ending was possible because for the past 10 days, except for this most recent Sunday, I sat down for a couple hours each day and worked. It is bizarre how easy things feel when one can rely on oneself to do the work. For the first time in quite a while, I experienced the sense that my work is important, but also not out of reach.

Aside from the writing?

I’m preparing more episodes of both the podcasts I run. Alive After Reading is still young, but I can tell starting it was a good idea. It’s a fun show and has put me in touch with more writers I always wanted to talk to about themselves and their craft.

That said, the writing is the most important part of the feeling I have right now. The feeling that I have advanced in some way, become a different creature, maybe even a better one.

Why? I’m not entirely certain how much this accounts for, but I definitely feel good about doing the work. I also think I’m more open than in the past, especially on the internet. Some of you blog readers may think I’ve often been pretty open in these posts. I think that’s true. However, lately, my connections to other people through this medium seem stronger because I reach out to them more frequently and more casually.

I enjoy it. And I don’t feel guilty for spending time on social media as long as I have my work in hand. So, this is my progress. It may not sound dramatic in cause. The result, however, feels completely distinct to me.

I hope you too may feel this way more than once in your life, if not as much as possible.

Now, I have work to do.

Thanks for reading.

Tenlyres Chapter 45 – First

Tim here.

The giveaway for my novel, Rem’s Dream is still active until March 31st.

Check it out here!

This Sunday sees the releases of the next episode of Alive After Reading, so prepare your brain for more writerly madness.

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 pursues her father’s first apprentice from a bloody melee outside the government center of Chogrum.

 

 

A chance at reconciliation is not too much to ask from the gods.

 

First limped down an alleyway, trailing blood from the wounds Ilsa’s bullets had left in her hand and leg. Damn it, though, she kept moving. Ilsa glimpsed her father’s wounded apprentice just as she flashed around the corner ahead of her.

Catch First.

Find Tirica.

She dragged herself forward and reloaded her pistols with the magazines she had kept under her torn skirt. These city clothes were less durable than the sort she had worn on the steppe. Far less.

She rounded the corner, both pistols readied. First crawled onto the rooftop to her right. A rusted, iron tube for vines hung down a meter from the edge, just over the dented roof of a small car.

Ilsa doggedly pulled herself up and onto the hood of the vehicle. The pain in her leg might as well be nothing after the trial Hathani’s staff had put her through in the dark passage.

She stuffed both her pistols into the waistband of her pants.

She threw herself at the crook of plastic tubing that reached the top of the building. One ankle flared with pain but she got a grip on the tube. Her fingers dug into a layer of rust.

With a surge of adrenaline, she forced her arms to boost her upward. She reached for the edge of the roof above her. Her outstretched fingers passed over it then came down and grabbed hold. She pulled herself over the top.

Panting with pain and exertion, she crouched there and looked around the flat roof of the squat building. First looked back at her with a grimace from the far side of the building. A figure in a hooded jacket threw down a crude bridge from the rooftop across the next alleyway ahead of First. First did not hesitate.

Neither did Ilsa. She drew her pistols and stormed after the woman. Her legs were battered, but First was already dragging one appendage. Ilsa fired the moment she found the range.

The bullet clipped First’s shoulder. The bullet ripped the press badge from the woman’s disguise. A splash of blood hit the rooftop in front of her, but she did not slow for a second.

“Slow her down,” First said.

The other figure faced Ilsa across the bridge as Ilsa raced across it. Her footsteps thudded on the scrap metal and boards tied together by hasty hands.

Then she was on the other side. She took aim at the mercenary in her path. “Out of my way.”

“It’s me, Ilsa.”

The hood fell back. Tirica’s dark hair and pale face appeared. Ilsa twisted her hand to aim away as she continued forward. Her finger fell from the trigger. Instead, she spread her arms wide and wrapped Tirica in a hug that bowled the girl over backward.

They rolled onto the rooftop.

“Ilsa, get away,” said Tirica. “She’s got me wired to go.”

Ilsa’s eyes widened.

She pulled open the front of Tirica’s jacket. Rows of powder explosives with their natural smell were wrapped around Tirica’s chest, and neck.

“Pitiful. You fell for it,” wheezed First as she backed away from them across the rooftop. She held a small but unmistakable detonator in one hand and a pistol in the other.

Tirica shoved Ilsa in the chest. Ilsa’s legs bunched together, then she kicked out. With strength of desperation she shoved Tirica in the chest. The girl rolled to the edge of the roof. Ilsa sprang up, trying to get as far as she could in the second before the bombs detonated.

“Don’t do it!”

First panted for breath. “Too late.” She dropped the detonator to the rooftop. The blast from behind Ilsa ripped through the roof. She tripped forward toward First.

“Damn you!” Ilsa swung the barrel of her pistol into First’s face. The weapon cracked against bone. Tears streaked Ilsa’s face.

Tirica, gone into the air, just like that.

She swung blow after blow into First, until the woman sagged to the rooftop.

First grinned up at her with flecks of blood on her puffy face. “I guess you’re angry.” Her eyes were cold. “Totally meant to do that, but you know the best part? You don’t. Or you wouldn’t be beating me. You’d just finish me off.”

Ilsa stepped back from the woman’s battered form. She looked down at her, tears running from her eyes. “What do you mean, you twisted bitch?”

“She’s not dead. It’s just an old trick.” First lay on her back, looking up at Ilsa, head on the cracked plaster that covered the rooftop.

“You can’t be serious.”

“Your father never told you about blast seals, did he? Turns out—” She coughed and blood trickled down from her broken nose. Then a laugh broke from her, real audible mirth.

Ilsa stared, trembling, at the bloody mess laughing at her.

“—You can summon a human from anywhere to anywhere using the same technique as bonds. You just need a lot more bang!” She pulled open her own coat, revealing a vest of explosives like the one Tirica had been wearing.

Ilsa scowled at her, eyes cloudy. “Why are you telling me this?”

“He told you to quit fighting. You didn’t. He won’t spare you again if you meet him on the steppe. Bye now.”

Then, First pulled the detonator cord on her vest.

The explosion was larger, and the building, already damaged by the first explosion, collapsed in on itself. Ilsa fell into agonizing darkness.

 

Spirits with human faces and horse’s bodies crowded around where Ilsa lay. They looked just like her mother had always described them, horse up through the mane, then the eyes followed by features of people Ilsa knew.

They spoke to her, told her things she couldn’t understand in voices that sounded like musical instruments ranging from drums to silver to wind.

She saw her mother among the horses, fully humanoid, in her gown. “Mother,” she said. “Hello, again.”

“Ilsa, you’re hurt.”

“Must be pretty bad this time.” Ilsa grunted. “I can’t even tell where I am now. I was in Chogrum.”

“You’re still alive.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Ilsa, do you trust me?”

“Now that I’ve seen what you see, yeah.”

“You know I’m not crazy. I can go free if you help me, Ilsa.”

“Yeah… It wasn’t right to leave you in that place. I’ll get you out of there. Just let me… Just let me…”

“I trust you, Ilsa. But right now, you have to wake up.”

“Wake up,” Ilsa said. “Yeah, that’s what I was trying to say. I have to tell Lemuel. His sister survived.” She reached out her mind and found she could feel the entire plateau. She smiled as best she could through the pain that began to eat at the edge of her senses. Tirica was out there, within a few days travel of Chogrum. So were Black Powder and First.

There was also something larger, a spirit but unlike the ones she saw as horses with human faces. At once it seemed more powerful, far stronger, but also more brittle. Her mind pulsed as she regarded the being through building pain.

“Asurdeva.” As she said it, she knew she was right. The ancient god of the Uzan seethed and turned in her direction. She looked to her mother. “Yeah, I need to go. Need to warn the others. And you need to warn Dal if anyone will listen.”

“Warn Dal about what?”

“The army is moving east. It should be ready to fight a god.”

 

She woke with a sweaty brow, and pain. Aches ran through her whole body. A soft pillow supported her head. She was alone, and that worried her. But she hurt too much to get up.

For the next few days, she saw only a few nurses who came in with food and changes of underclothes. She found her legs worked, and she had no need for breathing tubes or other devices. One arm had apparently been dislocated at some point, and she was bruised all over. Considering the shape the building she had been on was in, she could have been a lot less fortunate.

And Tirica was still alive. On the third day, she felt well enough to leave the hospital. One nurse gave her a map of the city, a cane, and the coins she had with her when she had been found. Ilsa took the tram back southward to the hotel where Siuku had been staying with Blue, Lemuel, and the others.

She arrived, tired and aching.

Blue met her on the ground floor. “Ilsa.”

“Why didn’t you visit me?” she asked, sounding petulant, even to herself. “I’m lucky to be alive.”

“We knew where you were, but if we let on, we were worried the mercenaries would try to kill you.”

“Oh.” Ilsa blinked. “That makes sense.”

“Lemuel fought us on it. I insisted. Sorry.”

“No, you were right.” Ilsa flushed. “I need to tell him, his sister is alive, but she isn’t in the city anymore.”

“How do you know?”

“First told me. And I sensed her while I was out.”

“Alright. It’s going to take some getting used to, you just knowing things when you wake up.” Blue frowned. “We need to get ready. Chogrum is moving, and the prince wants us to ride with the army.”

“I guess we succeeded then.”

“It’s true. I almost think it’s a trap, the way they attacked the prince so close to the first battle. It’s like they meant for Chogrum to bring more forces against them. It worked for someone, one way or the other.”

Ilsa frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Someone got Ashnia away from the suite while we were out.”

“Yunn.”

“Maybe. Either way, she’s gone.”

“Damn,” said Ilsa. “We should watch out then.”

Blue nodded, then sighed. “We have to get moving, no time to worry about her now.” She touched Ilsa’s shoulder gently. “I’m glad you’re back.”

“Me too,” said Ilsa. “We’ll find her again, Blue. I know she’s important to you.”

“Dangerous too,” said Blue. “If her brother freed her, at least she’s safe.”

Ilsa nodded. She did not know what else she could say. Ashnia was a powerful mind eater and a dangerous enemy. Still, Blue cared for her.

But the war was here, and it was guiding them west.

 

#

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Giveaway News

Hey everybody, just checking in with a little update this Monday afternoon.

I’ve really been hitting the writing over the last couple of days. It’s been awesome. Hopefully, it will prove sustainable over the long-term as I’m doing around 3000 words per day without pushing too hard.

So, as the title of this post suggests, there is some news on giveaways. Right now, Rem’s Dream is still free, but that will end on March 31st 2017. Here is the link to that if you are interested in the free book.

That won’t be the end of my giveaways. I’m planning a Maker Mythos giveaway in April. We’ll see which book I pick later. I have not decided between the first novel, Hunter and Seed, and the new prelude. I’m excited as book two of that series is almost done.

So, that’s it for me today. Hope you’re all well.

Thanks for reading.

Tenlyres Chapter 44 – The Spear

Tim here.

The giveaway for my novel, Rem’s Dream is still active until March 31st.

Check it out here!

Of Mooks and Monsters will return next Wednesday, so you can get your RPG fix with another session of Actual Play.

This Sunday will see the releases of the first episode of Alive After Reading, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

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 has suffered through the test of the Prince of Chogrum. She and her allies try to solidify a new alliance, while enemies wait in the shadows.

 

Fighting is not always the best option, especially in war.

Sometimes one must wait and listen, or even retreat to improve the odds when one returns to the fray.

 

Dawn’s light crept in under the slit of the door frame. Ilsa dressed in Chogrumian city clothes and concealed her ammunition belts under a skirt she wore over a pair of trousers. Yes, it looked silly, but she had seen people with the same sort of clothes the previous day. It would do well to hide the magazines. She kept the bullets loaded in one pistol. She felt confident she could produce the weapon easily, despite that complication.

Lemuel rose and went to the window. He pulled on his clothes, tucked a revolver into the waistband of his new black pants. She nodded to him.

“Let’s hope we won’t need these,” she said.

“Definitely,” he said. He pulled on his overcoat to hide the gun. “Let’s go make an alliance.”

 

 

They met Siuku and Blue along with Megalli at the suite upstairs. Ferdinand and Cass were on the roof, keeping an eye out for trouble in the skies over Chogrum.

So far, it seemed no battles had been fought on a large scale between the east and west. Not yet. Soon that would change if they did not do something.

The prince would meet them at the parliament building near the palace at the city’s center. Ilsa and the others took the tram to the north. Her pain had mostly faded. Only small hints remained.

She rode in silence. Even Blue seemed subdued, or maybe tense. She did not reach out with her mind and talk to Ilsa. They both knew the other was tense.

Her eyes watched the buildings passing outside. All of this should be protected, even if it was Chogrum. No, because it was Chogrum. It was so much like Dal where she had grown up, even with the many differences between the two cities. Ilsa swore to herself she would not let them destroy each other if she could help it.

The nomads too were hers to protect as long as she could. As long as she drew breath.

The tram turned away from the palace and toward the parliament building. The charged guiding wires over the track emitted a low crackle as one set disconnected and the next attached. Ilsa rubbed at her eyes to clear the last of the sleep dirt from them.

Blue looked across the tram at Ilsa. She wore her armor openly. “It’s been tough to sleep.”

“Today could be a moment of truth,” Ilsa said. “If we don’t succeed it may cost us the war.”

Blue leaned forward and folded her hands together. “It could cost the peace.”

“You’re right.” Ilsa frowned down the length of the tram.

Besides her and Blue, most of the others had come with them.

The young Okko and the veteran lightning catcher who had ridden into town with Ilsa, Siuku and Lemuel sat near the keeper. Lemuel was beside Ilsa. On his other side, Megalli fiddled with the spare buttons on her trousers.

Only Ferdinand and Cass were elsewhere. They had ridden out on separate striders to look for trouble ahead of the tram. Ilsa had barely had any time to talk to Cass since the mountains. They always seemed to be moving parallel to each other. At least they were going in the same direction.

The tram pulled to a stop at the station in front of the broad parliament building. Ilsa led the others down the steps and then up to the troupe of bonded palace guards fanned out on the ramp leading to parliament. The ramp was broader and less steep than the one to the palace. Her senses felt sharper. She could feel each of their bonds, two or more for each guard. Ilsa felt certain none of them were bonded to the spirit, and not just because her father’s technique was so rare. Somehow she could feel each of them had their shrine somewhere in Chogrum.

Ilsa suspected the guards were only here because of the prince’s presence, because groups of ordinary soldiers also patrolled the building, their radios sounding of static as two of them moved along the street nearby.

The leader of this group of palace guards, a big woman with a thickly scarred jaw, bowed to Siuku as the Keeper of Tenlyres walked toward them.

“Your Holiness of Tenlyres. Bless me, please.”

Siuku’s eyes narrowed. “You serve a different master, the Prince of Chogrum.”

“Indeed. But my family has often prayed at the Flowering Lyre. I have heard what you did in Atalem. You healed their wounds.”

Siuku’s eyes relaxed. “Then I bless you, servant of Chogrum. Proceed in the ways of the spirits.”

“Thank you, your holiness.” The guard leader turned to her squad as the rest of Ilsa’s group caught up with her and Siuku. “Allow them to pass. The keeper and the prince have words for parliament today.”

They climbed the ramp, past the first group of palace guards. Then past another set at the top. They passed through burnished doors painted with murals depicting Chogrum’s founding a thousand years prior. Ilsa fought the urge to marvel at the sights of the grand building. Dal has structures like this too, she reminded herself, though she had rarely seen them up close.

Okko did not resist the same urge. He craned his neck. “This is the biggest tent ever,” he said in the Oshomi language.

The older lightning catcher gave a disapproving click of her tongue and tapped the top of his head with her hand. “Keep your guard,” she said in the same language Okko had used.

He laughed at her. “There is an army around us.”

“An army, but not our army,” said the veteran lightning catcher. “Stay alert.”

“I’ll keep my eyes peeled.” He went on gaping as they entered a columned passage forty meters broad, the public corridor into the parliament hall. It was lined with more palace guards, but fewer than there had been outside. Wall mounts held bioelectric lights.

Someone snapped a photograph of them, the flash dazzling even in this bright hallway. Ilsa looked in for the source of the flash and found a cluster of news teams. Most had large pile cameras for video. As she turned to them, though, another series of bright flashes made her blink.

“The press is allowed in?” she murmured.

“Parliament exists for the people,” said Lemuel from beside her. “And the Keeper of Tenlyres has never visited the city in all of its thousand years.”

“You would know about that.” She smiled at him.

He flushed.

They reached another set of double doors, smaller and less colorful than the ones outside, but not by much. These, two large men, in uniforms not belonging either to the ordinary soldiery or the palace guards, hauled the gate open as Ilsa and the others drew near. Each of the big men wore a large battle ax on a baldric tied around the back of their deep green and gilded uniforms. Neither was a weapon bond.

She glanced at Lemuel.

“Parliamentary Lictors,” he said to answer Ilsa’s questioning look. “They are mostly ceremonial, have been since powder became more common.”

“Why the axes?”

“Chogrum’s founders are said to have lived for a time in the forest east of the plateau. Tradition holds that woodsmen served as representatives of the commoners in those days.”

They passed the lictors with their axes and entered the hall of Chogrum’s parliament. Ilsa looked out at a huge room set in muted tones, except for the rings of red tiles among the gray of the floor at the center of the ranks of desks.

“One hundred and twenty members. And nearly all of them should be in attendance because the prince is here.”

Ilsa nodded as she took in Lemuel’s words. Part of her did not like that she felt the power in this room. As if politics could accomplish everything it claimed.

On the other hand, democracy could be beautiful in the right circumstances. Ordinary people deserved more power than they had in Ayoch and many of the Morhoenese monarchies.

A pair of green-clad lictors led them down to the floor below the desks. “You will stand before the prince, in the sight of the people,” said one. “As foreign representatives, you may not sit during the proceedings.”

Lemuel sighed. “Never thought I’d have to hear that, personally.”

Megalli bounced on the heels of her shoes. “You keep foreigners off guard. I like it. I may have to do something like this once I return home.”

The lictors looked at her with solemn expressions.

Blue directed an unrestrained smile in Ilsa’s direction. “At least someone is going to benefit from our sore legs.”

Ilsa nodded. “How long do parliamentary proceedings last?”

“Hours, usually. For something like this, at least three or four. And it could be a lot longer than that,” said Lemuel.

Ilsa patted his shoulder. “Lean on me if you need to. I can handle it.”

“Four hours?” said Megalli. “That’s a lot of the day. How do these people have time for it?”

“The members of parliament are mostly ordinary citizens like me and Blue, but they receive compensation for their civic duty.” Lemuel glanced at Megalli. “Money means more in the city than in the mountains.”

Siuku turned to them. “These may be ordinary people, as you put it. But they represent our chance of an alliance.”

Megalli nodded, a little of her exuberance suppressed. She straightened her back a little. “I can be dignified too.” She pressed her lips into a line. “Just watch.”

Okko covered his mouth with his hand. His suppressed laughter still sounded too loud.

The lights above them dimmed. Then, a plain door, almost invisible when closed, opened in the center of the wall of the low part of the room where they stood. Two palace guards processed in, hands folded. After them came two lictors, and then the prince of Chogrum, flanked by two more lictors. He wore a white robe and carried the True Red staff. His feet were bare.

All six guards bowed their heads and stepped off to the sides of the room. The prince stepped into one of the two circles formed by red tiles and motioned for Siuku to stand in another near him. The members of parliament took their desks.

The prince tapped his staff on the floor twice.

From behind Ilsa, two bells chimed.

“Session begins,” whispered Lemuel.

They stood as the prince introduced the Keeper of Tenlyres to parliament. They stood as the heads of parliament responded to the prince. They stood for an hour as Siuku made her case to the people and bureaucracy of Chogrum.

Ilsa noticed that, though there were one hundred twenty desks, each one sat both a representative and a government bureaucrat to assist them. In the gaps between different representatives standing to speak and then sitting back down again, others conferred quietly with the bureaucrats beside them. The system struck her as sensible, with advisers for representatives whose jobs were not normally political.

Ilsa could not follow it all. She had been a mercenary and priestess for half her life. Her field of action was not here.

In the second hour, her legs began to feel stiffer and stiffer, though she did her best to shift them to keep from cramping. When the session ended, at last, it had been four hours, and she fairly lurched back up the steps to leave the room. This time, the prince walked with them. He moved slowly with the true staff of Hathani in his hand.

They descended the ramp outside the building. A plain black car waited on the street by the tram station, surrounded by a squad of palace guards. Ilsa wondered how dangerous the city would actually be for the prince, though she did not doubt the guard were necessary.

News-people took photographs and videos. Others shouted out questions, which the prince and Siuku ignored. Okko laughed and called out words Ilsa didn’t know in Oshomi, including one he repeated every time the cameras flashed.

“Bakasta. Bakasta.”

Ilsa glanced at Lemuel.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not an expert on Oshomi language.”

Megalli smirked at them over her shoulder. “It sounds rude.”

“It is,” said the dour lightning catcher walking close to Siuku. “You’re better off not knowing. Shut up, boy.” She tapped Okko on the back of the head.

“Bakasta,” he said and then gave a snort of laughter.

The older lightning catcher rolled her eyes, an expression of exasperation that existed across cultures. As they reached the car at the bottom of the ramp, Ilsa’s small smile morphed into a frown. There were weapon bonds on the sidewalk, and not all of them were members of the palace guard.

“Wait,” she said. “Somethings wrong.”

Lemuel glanced at her, as the prince reached his car, closely followed by a cluster of news people, held back by the presence of just a few guards. One of the news-people, an older woman with stringy white hair, looked strangely familiar.

Ilsa’s eyes went wide as realization struck her. The woman might be different above the brows, but other than the wig and the camera in her hand there could be no mistake. Black Powder’s first apprentice snapped a photograph of the prince.

Ilsa clenched her hand, preparing to draw her loaded pistol. She leaped from the last meter of the ramp toward the car. Her pistol appeared in her hand as she landed beside the prince. The guards began to produce weapons. Ilsa shouted in warning as First started to move a pistol produced in the hand not holding a camera.

For a second no shots were fired. Ilsa faced First down.

“What is the meaning of this?” bellowed the prince.

“This woman is one of Black Powder’s apprentices.” Ilsa kept her eyes on First.

The woman swung her weapon hand. She fired twice, and two of the guards holding back the news-people fell. Ilsa’s retaliatory shot hit First in the other hand, smashing through the camera.

Her father’s apprentice flinched backward.

People screamed. More shots went off, exchanged between the prince’s guards and more of her father’s hidden weapon bonds. The enemies emerged from their cover all down the sidewalk in front of the parliament building.

Ilsa put herself between First and the prince. She fired another shot. Then a third.

First ducked around the front of the car and evaded both bullets. Ilsa cursed almost as much as Okko as the bullets ricocheted off the pavement.

One of them hit a genuine newsman. He fell to one knee, his leg ripped in and out by the bullet. The man clenched his teeth and shouted in pain, but as he did he pointed behind Ilsa.

Ferdinand Thoss rode his white-furred great strider down the thoroughfare, towering over the low-built cars and even the tram. He thrust his long spear into one of the mercenaries who had just dropped a palace guard.

Ilsa called to the prince, “Stay close to me. We have to get back inside.”

A high caliber shot rang out from across the street and another of the guards fell. The prince ducked his head but raised his staff. “That looks to be a risky proposition at the moment, priestess.”

Caught on the end of Ferdinand’s spear, the weapon bond struggled with something under his bloodstained summer jacket. Ilsa smelled powder. A bomb.

“Ferdinand, drop him!” she called over her shoulder.

He did not hesitate but withdrew the spear into its bond. The wounded mercenary vanished in an explosive roar that sent shreds of his jacket flying through the air. Ilsa winced from the blast, surprised at the lack of blood with such a concentrated detonation.

First darted around to the street-side of the car, firing a pistol at the guards on the steps. The other mercenaries appeared to have fallen or retreated.

Ilsa scowled as she stepped around the prince. “Stay here, sir.”

“I am not eager to fight,” said the prince, hunkering down behind one of the car’s rear wheels. “Finish this attacker.”

With what pleasure there can be, Ilsa thought. “I will.” She snaked around the back of the car, moving to flank First.

The older woman shot another guard on the steps. She broke from behind the car just as a rusted van barreled down the street toward them.

Ferdinand, his strider now on the sidewalk, jumped down and joined the prince, Lemuel, and the rest of Siuku’s group near the car and the dazed members of the press.

One of them actually kept taking pictures. Apparently cooler-headed than the rest. Or crazier.

First reached the other side of the street and the van screeched to a halt between her and the guards on the parliament building ramp. Ilsa glanced at Ferdinand’s strider. The creature’s eyes glinted and swung his long body, sending one of the mounting lines flying to Ilsa. She grabbed the line and scurried up.

The strider swung back and she leaped off the line onto the top of the van. Her stomach roiled, and then shock ran through her legs. She took aim at First, who had just finished crossing the street.

Ilsa’s bullet hit her father’s sadistic apprentice in the leg and sent her staggering.

Beneath her, Ilsa could hear firearms being loaded. She gritted her teeth. More mercenaries, but she could tell where they were by sensing their bonded weapons. She fired the remaining rounds in her pistol through the thin metal roof of the van. She killed the occupants, all except one.

That one kicked out the windscreen and climbed out. He wore the same kind of hooded jacket of light material as the man who had blown himself up. And he leveled a shotgun at her.

Cass’s bullet hit him from behind. The red-haired priestess rode in from the end of the street opposite the way Ferdinand had come. He stumbled on the hood of the van, then pulled the cord of the explosive vest he wore beneath his coat. The blast burned through the van. Ilsa leaped from the roof.

She rolled onto the pavement two meters down, limbs and spine aching. Her arms had shielded her head from the worsts of the fall. She scrambled to her feet and went after First at a fast limp. One leg burned with pain from scrapes through the leg of torn pants. Her vision narrowed with intent.

Stop First from escaping. Find Tirica.

#

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