Hello, everyone, Tim here.
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Tenlyres is back today after last week’s year-ending cliffhanger.
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Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
The battle to escape Howling Pass and the mountains intensifies.
And Ilsa’s ruthless father is still leading on the other side.
The Uzan marched up the pass, too few in number to block it entirely, but each individually powerful enough to slay a dozen men and women in seconds. They bristled with weapons that belched impossibly bitter smoke.
And they surged toward the rise in the center where the Red Lector’s forces still held ground. Cannon fire from the Uzan wrecked the remaining armored vehicles behind the Ayochian troops.
Ilsa looked for the Red Lector and found him quickly, at the heart of his troops on the sliver of high ground, beside the fat commander, Boraij Kanan, and to Ilsa’s surprise and horror, the tall shape of Black Powder.
Her father looked no worse for the explosion he had triggered at the gun carriage, except for having shed his outer coat. He held a bonded pistol in each hand, but for the moment did not appear concerned with the battle, or the Uzan.
Aloof as ever, even in the face of the demons he had set free.
Ilsa’s half-numb and paralyzed right arm twitched. She kept her eyes on her father and the Red Lector who stood so near him. She clenched her teeth just to keep from yelling at them to stop hiding and fight. But her father had survived the explosion he had caused. He seemed as invincible as the Uzan, but there had to be a way to finally end him.
The Red Lector brandished his sword and waved it at a pike with a broken end held by one of his few remaining Lectoral Protectors. Ilsa squinted through smoke and dust as the red-armored protector hoisted his weapon higher. Megalli’s body hung from the weapon, tied by the wrists. Cuts and gashes ran through her clothes, dripping with blood. Ilsa’s stomach turned at the sight of the small woman being displayed as a gory trophy.
A shout of dismay ran through the Vogmem near Ilsa, and none was louder than the oldest of the Four, Akirette. Tears in her eyes, the old woman raised a rifle in one fist and held the reins of her goat runner in the other.
“Warriors to me!” she shouted. “Show them our answer to this insult.”
Ilsa pointed Akirette out to the Oshomi rider guiding the horse on which she rode. “Follow her. The Uzan are too close.”
The Oshomi, a scar-faced woman with tangled black hair, grunted and turned the horse toward Akirette. Nearby, Lemuel spoke to the rider of his horse in a voice Ilsa could not hear. But then he pointed at Siuku, who rode opposite Ilsa.
He must be thinking the Keeper could still save Megalli. For all Ilsa knew he could be right, but the danger of closing with the Red Lector would be terrible, even if all the nomads attacked at once.
Ilsa caught Lemuel’s eye and then shook her head.
Then, the horse beneath Ilsa accelerated after Akirette. The Vogmem charged.
Ilsa’s mother’s voice reached her mind through the ghostly world. “You may be wrong, Ilsa. She could still be saved.”
“She’s still alive?” Ilsa murmured.
Mother’s eyes opened. “Don’t let her hang there any longer.”
“I won’t.” Ilsa checked the pistol she held in her functioning hand. She grimaced as she thought of the difficulty of reloading the weapon, and the fact that her other hand could not clench to summon its bonds. Only two guns left loaded in her bonds.
The horse thundered beneath her, a far rougher ride than a strider like poor, loyal Hailek. She clamped her legs around the saddle and held on tight.
Akirette’s warriors closed with the enemy, opening fire on Ayochians and Uzan alike. Bullets rebounded from stone more than they found their marks, but members of every force fell in the exchange with screams and cries of pain, or in the case of Uzan, with eerie silence.
Ilsa looked for Blue in the charging force. She found her friend riding her strider close to Lemuel and Tirica. Blue sent her a message mentally.
The Keeper has our flank, Ilsa. Be careful, there’s something odd going on among the Uzan.
Ilsa scowled. “Something other than them being undying monsters?”
Blue did not answer that question.
The horse carried Ilsa into the heart of the battle ahead of Lemuel and the others. She shot and killed the nearest Ayochian, but dread built in her stomach as the Uzan continued to advance. And she and the nomads kept charging right at them.
Time to find out if defacing the name of their god would break the magic that kept them from dying.
She caught up with Akirette just as the Red Lector’s troops surged forward with him and his protectors at their center. Black Powder and General Kanan followed with their personal troops around them. Mercenaries and mechanized infantry formed a line behind the Red Lector’s household troops.
Ilsa spotted the protector carrying the pike where Megalli hung by her wrists. She shot the man twice at close range, once in each arm. Her small rounds did not break his armor but made him turn toward her with a wavering half-step. She found the gap just above his collar and mortally wounded him with a third bullet.
He sank to his knees. Ilsa leaped from the saddle of the Oshomi horse. She landed beside the dead protector and found Megalli laying, bloody and unconscious on the edge of the fray. The Red Lector howled in rage and rushed toward her with two more protectors flanking him.
Black Powder advanced nearby, leading his mercenaries away from the Ayochian rearguard where the Uzan continued the slaughter.
Oshomi flooded around Ilsa and Megalli. Hooves stamped the ground. Bullets and arrows flew. But there was no sign of Siuku, and Megalli did not have long judging by the amount of blood she had already lost.
The Oshomi horses reversed as the Red Lector’s close-quarters troops advanced. Ilsa crouched beside Megalli’s bloody body and leveled her pistol at the leader of the Ayochian forces. She would fight here alone if she had to, just like in the cave, just like always.
Maybe that was her destiny, no matter how many friends she knew. She fought alone.
The Red Lector stood just behind his protectors, and the two red-armored men loomed over Ilsa. Goji Haram’s lip curled. His saber’s edge gleamed red. “You’re too late to save her, priestess. But you can die at her side.”
Black Powder’s familiar voice burst like a shell over the sounds of carnage that surrounded Ilsa, Megalli, and the man’s guards. “It’s time.”
Two shots cut the air, louder than the rest. Snipers. The Lectoral Protectors in front of the Red Lector staggered. One of them looked up at the cliff side where the deadly shots had originated. Ilsa smelled their blood, mingled with the same, almost-sweet, scent of paralyzing ballistic venom as Melinda’s bullets. The bodyguards crumpled between her and the Red Lector.
“Damn you all.” The Red Lector thrust his saber at Ilsa.
She shot him twice. The first bullet smashed his fingers and made the sword tumble from his grip. The second clipped his back knee, so when he tried to step forward, he fell to the ground in front of Ilsa. Pain wracked his lined features.
She looked at him from her crouch. A sick confusion built in her stomach. Who had shot those bodyguards?
“You’re father’s men,” said mother in Ilsa’s mind.
Black Powder and Boraij Kanan marched forward through the battle. Neither of them fired a shot, but the Vogmem retreated before them. Even the sounds of the Uzan and their roaring guns faded away.
Mother’s voice returned to Ilsa. “Your father… This isn’t like him.”
“He wouldn’t betray his commander to save me,” Ilsa said. “I know that much.”
She kept her pistol extended before her. Just two bullets remained in the magazine. And one in the chamber.
Black Powder looked down at the fallen, struggling, bleeding shape of the Red Lector.
“Goji Haram,” said Boraij Kanan in a voice too fierce for his heavy frame. “Sinner against the Gray.”
The Red Lector gave up reaching for his saber and rolled onto his back to face Kanan and Black Powder. In the same motion, he went for the pistol on his hip. “Kanan, you’d dare betray me?”
Before Ilsa’s eyes, Black Powder shot the Red Lector through the palm. Haram recoiled and clutched at his shattered extremity.
“You-Vel, how dare you betray your Lector!” Haram spoke through gritted teeth. “You will hang for this, mercenary scum.”
“Make no mistake, Goji,” said Black Powder, stone-faced, “Half of me is Ayochian, but another half comes from Chogrum and the east. You are not holy.”
“Only the divine monarchs of Ayoch are holy!”
Kanan stepped onto the Red Lector’s wounded leg. Haram gasped with pain but surprised Ilsa by maintaining a defiant expression. Kanan sneered at Haram. “We belong to a different master. The Gray Lector is with us now, Goji Haram!” He raised his pistol over his head, a light of ecstasy gleamed in his eyes. “I bowed for you, scraped for you, killed for you. But now, you will die by my hand.” He lowered the pistol to his heaving side. “My loyalty has always been to the Gray Lector.” He raised the barrel of the pistol.
“I won’t beg for my life,” Haram said, “But please shut up.”
Behind Kanan’s back, Black Powder nodded.
“No, I will not listen to you.” The traitorous general pressed his heel into the bullet wound Ilsa’s shot had left in the Red Lector’s knee. “I want you to feel the humiliation I felt for all these months of serving under you.”
On the ground less than a meter from Ilsa, Megalli groaned softly. Her eyelids fluttered and looked at the Red Lector, fallen nearby. Her hands were still chained to the broken pike, and she looked weak, closer to death than ever. Ilsa snarled. Three shots. She still had three shots. And three enemies stood between her and saving Megalli.
She lurched to one side and fired at Kanan. Black Powder’s hands moved in a flurry. The bright flare of a scatter shell flashed from one pistol. Ilsa’s ears rang with the sound of the shot and shell.
The bright shards of Black Powder’s scattershot intersected spread across her bullet’s trajectory. And there its line ended. He had picked her bullet from the air. Ilsa’s teeth ground together. Her father continued to demonstrate his impossible, infuriating skills.
Her father’s lip curled. “Give us a moment, daughter.”
Kanan turned toward her, his pistol leveled. “You are next, priestess.” He swung the gun to point at the wounded Lector on the ground. “I think I hear your sons and your wife on their way,” he said. “But they will be too late.” He looked around lazily. “Give my regards to the ‘divine’ monarchs of Ayoch. Your gods are dead, Haram.”
“Kill me or not. My family will punish you.”
Kanan laughed and turned toward Black Powder. “Do you believe this man, Vel? I cannot take his threats seriously. Never could, really.”
Black Powder rolled his eyes, then focused on the Red Lector. His pistol-barrel twitched, almost imperceptibly toward the man on the ground. He squeezed the trigger.
A shock ran through Goji Haram’s body. He snapped to one side, then went limp on the ground. The wound from Black Powder’s bullet went straight through his heart, spreading blood across the stones of Howling Pass.
Ilsa stared at the fallen Lector for an instant, then surged toward Megalli, keeping her pistol trained on Haram. The fat general whirled toward her, gun in hand.
He could not normally have beaten her to the shot, but she felt slow from fatigue as well as the poison spreading from the wound in her arm. He trained the pistol on her and shouted. “Vel, you had no right to take his life from me. For that, your daughter dies.”
A simmering heat at the back of Ilsa’s awareness broke through to her conscious mind. With it, a terrible shriek echoed in her mind, and she somehow knew, in the minds of every human and animal in the pass. Unmistakable rage combined with incoherent grief in Ashnia Haram’s psychic outburst. Kanan flinched to one side. His eyes crossed and he dropped his pistol so it skittered to the ground.
The entire battle roared with the mental fury of all Ashnia’s mind eater abilities bent to one single emotion. Anger. Warriors stopped fighting, stood paralyzed. Even the Uzan froze in their paces.
Ilsa’s mind burned with the sensation. Tears ran down her cheeks as Ashnia’s rage melded with sorrow. Uncontrollable, unwarranted grief made her cold, bruised heart feel ready to burst. She fell onto her side and lost her grip on her pistol.
The shriek of temper was everything for an immortal stretch of seconds. Then, the furious mental scream subsided as quickly as it had arisen. Ilsa looked around, disoriented.
Uzan guns roared anew, killing more Ayochians and nomads alike.
Kanan regained his footing and turned to his right. There, Black Powder walked to the body of the Red Lector.
“You were a fool,” he said. “But an enemy must be respected.”
“Vel, you bastard,” Kanan’s eyes fell to Red Lector’s body. “You had no right. He was mine to kill.”
“We are in battle,” Black Powder said. “Kill, then gloat, if you must.”
Kanan’s troops pushed forward around the two men, Ilsa, and Megalli. Ilsa gripped her pistol, but kept her head down, hoping they would think her still disabled by Ashnia’s explosive anger. They had killed the mind eater’s father, but Ilsa could hardly relate to that level of devotion to a parent.
Kanan raised his eyes and glared at Black Powder. The sound of hooves and claws approached, but Ilsa smelled Ayochian powder like a cloud approaching with them.
General Shayi Haram’s troops were about to reach the battle.
Ilsa’s mind shifted halfway to despair.
Then, mother’s voice spoke in her ear. “You can still live through this.” In a stern voice, she said, “Ilsa, stand up.”
And Ilsa listened.
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