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.
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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.”
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.
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.
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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