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Ilsa recovers from her wounds. The final battle draws near.
Some songs simply need to be played.
The evening after Cass’s defeat, Ilsa wandered the camp, unable to rest. She knew she would need to play the song on the Flowering Lyre once the sun rose again. She could only pray so much.
As the darkness began to close in and grow colder, Ilsa made her way back toward the tent she shared with Lemuel. He was sitting on the grass beside the tent when she arrived, under the light of a dim lamp. As she approached through the gloom, he offered a bottle of something strong to Ferdinand who sat beside him.
The two men had been enemies in the spring, but as summer began to wane they shared a drink. At least a few good things had come from this damned conflict. Ilsa hesitated in the darkness, unseen by the two men, listening to their muffled words.
“It’s not easy,” said Lemuel. “This is war, I guess.”
Ferdinand sighed. “I can still hope she’s alive. She was better than I d-deserved.” He took a swig from the bottle.
“Maybe it seems that way,” said Lemuel, “But I doubt she’d agree.”
“Am I the only one drinking here?” Ferdinand pushed the bottle at Lemuel. “Your sister is on the other side.”
“I’ll deal with that tomorrow.” But Lemuel still took the bottle, and he still drank.
“You do that. You can’t count on Ilsa forever.”
“I know.” Lemuel shook his head. “It’s strange. I used to rely on my sister. Now she could be ready to shoot me for all I know.”
Ilsa squeezed her eye shut in the dark, then opened them again. She took a deep breath and stepped out of the shadows into the illumination of the lamp that hung in front of the tent. Lemuel and Ferdinand looked up at her in surprised unison.
“You’re pretty quiet,” said Ferdinand.
“I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Have a seat.” Ferdinand patted the ground. “We’re drinking to our troubles.”
“I heard.” Ilsa sat down beside Lemuel. He offered her the bottle. She drank and let the bitter taste to relieve a different kind of bitterness. “We’ll stop them, you know. And we’ll save as many people as we can.” She turned to Lemuel. “Even Tirica.” Her gazed continued to Ferdinand. “You know Cass is tough. If. If she’s still alive, we’ll find her.”
“I trust you.” No hint of a stutter corrupted his voice.
She handed him the bottle.
He raised the drink to his lips. “Tomorrow,” he said. And drank.
“Tomorrow,” said Lemuel.
“Tomorrow,” Ilsa murmured. She leaned against Lemuel. Their arms found the way around each other. “Tomorrow.”
Ilsa stood on the Flowering Lyre’s raised base as the sun rose the next morning. Siuku, Blue, and the prince of Chogrum were with her, while their troops took up positions encircling the stone base of the huge structure. Ilsa held the grips of the song pistols tighter than she had ever gripped a firearm.
The forces of Black Powder and Asurdeva spread out before her. Somehow, they looked more numerous than ever.
How could her father have amassed so many soldiers that were fanatics to the cause of the old god?
He wanted a perfect war, a war that would never end.
On her left, Lemuel stood, back to the wider support of the lyre. He held a book of notes in his hands and read from it in a low murmur.
She wanted to reassure him that they would win the day, but she did not know if she could. Even after she had started writing again, she could not muster the courage to speak in this moment. She would never be a real preacher like Cass. But she could try to save her first friend.
Black Powder had reacted quickly to losing the song pistols, but the Chogrumians and their allies had moved to occupy the lyre even as Cass had ridden to challenge Black Powder. They would fight, and they had a chance, at last, to defeat the army before them.
Uzan lumbered forward, weapons emerging from them. Ilsa closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She knew she could play the lyre, but there was no room for error. If the song was not perfect only some, or perhaps none of the Uzan would be sealed.
She clenched her jaw. “For Cass,” she murmured. For Akirette, and Hailek, and all the other beings who died for them to have a chance in this battle.
The prince caught her eye. “I will conduct with the staff,” he said. “Shoot at the string I indicate.”
“Right. The plan.” Ilsa nodded to him.
The Uzan surged forward. Their massive leader, the Gray Lector, took the lead. He was obviously the only one who had been awake these past millennia because of his deeply weathered and pitted skin.
Their weapons boomed and roared, distant and brutal. Nomads and Chogrumians alike answered with fire of their own. Ilsa turned to the prince. “As soon as you’re ready,” she said.
The air was hot and stank of all kinds of propellant.
The prince furrowed his brow and pointed the end of the red staff at the center of the lyre. Ilsa hit the string, and it vibrated with a sound almost like a gong.
She followed the point of the staff and fired. Again. Again. The sounds of the strings were louder than those of the guns.
Each pistol held twelve shots initially. Down to eight each after a few seconds of firing. Standing near her, Lemuel prepared the extra magazines, ready to reload near-instantly.
The song rose over the battle, somber and slow, but also commanding. She fell into the rhythm and continued to shoot the indestructible strings.
One gun emptied. Lemuel clicked the magazine back into it. She took it from him and emptied the other before handing that to Lemuel.
The chaos of the battle seemed far away.
Here, Boraij Kanan’s troops advanced on the flank.
There, Ganara’s Vogmem skirted the battle to angle toward the command of the mercenaries.
And ever-present, the Uzan continued to advance, killing humans with few losses to themselves.
Ganara’s riders cut back and hit Kanan’s rear. Skyriders fell upon the Ayochian traitors from above.
A glint of steel glimmered in the sun from Black Powder’s command post. Ilsa hit the next string, but her teeth went on edge. Her father had just produced a weapon from his spirit. It seemed strange to her spirit, but she could not identify it.
A heavy thud echoed from the distance.
An artillery shell, aimed with deadly accuracy, few toward the top of the Flowering Lyre.
Black Powder had finally used the stolen bombard from Howling Pass.
Ilsa’s eyes watered. She shot the string, emptying the gun again. A wave of sound spread over the field, dampening the movements of the Uzan. Some of them stumbled in their paces.
And then, the artillery shell hit the front of the lyre, creating a deafening interruption to Ilsa’s song, and setting some of the flowers around the base ablaze.
Ilsa staggered as the lyre shook with the impact. Her ears rang. Lemuel fell to the ground. A scything shard of metal whipped between the strings and carved through the prince’s outstretched arm.
He clutched the stump and fell to his knees. His guards were beside him in seconds. The red staff rolled free of his severed grip.
Blue ran to Ilsa and Lemuel, while Siuku reached the prince.
“We need to finish the song,” said Blue.
“How?” Ilsa stared at the bloody staff on the ground.
“I’ll point, you shoot.” Blue stared across the field. “We can still win.”
A sniper’s bullet whined off the lyre. Ilsa traced the shot to Tirica’s rifle, set up atop the broken Uzan artillery a hundred meters from the lyre.
“Damn it,” Ilsa said. “But you’re right.”
Blue picked up the staff, eyes glazed as she read the thoughts from Lemuel and the wounded prince to pick each string. Ilsa continued to fire.
Kanan’s surviving troops fought past Ganara’s Vogmem and joined with the Uzan in the center.
Another of Tirica’s shots rang off the lyre’s unbreakable stone.
Lemuel cringed close to Ilsa, a magazine in each hand.
The Gray Lector leaped up and onto the lyre’s base. He roared and weapons emerged from his body.
Blue sent to Ilsa. “Tirica is moving.”
“Good.” Ilsa kept shooting out the song. Each blast of the pistol sent the strings vibrating. A funeral song rose from the lyre. And the Uzan slowed again. Even the ancient Gray Lector gave a lurch of disruption as he pushed forward.
Then he was on them. His hand snaked out to grab the end of Blue’s staff.
A greatsword cleaved through his palm. Kaij Haram kicked out and drove the Gray Lector back a step. Guns bristled from the weatherbeaten Uzan, ready to blaze away. A chill froze the humid air. Ice blocked the barrels of the weapons.
Yunn grunted and guided his runner into cover behind one of the lyre’s supports.
Blue thrust the staff at another string, calm enough despite the arrival of some unexpected allies.
The Gray Lector bellowed a cry in the forgotten language of the gods. He swung to pummel Kaij, but his fist slowed, hesitating impossibly. Ashnia’s powers pinned the Gray Lector in place for an instant. She stood beside Blue, eyes clouded nearly white with her mind eater powers.
The Red Lector’s children were here to claim their revenge.
Kaij did not hesitate. He cleaved through the Gray Lector’s neck. Blood met the air and spattered Ilsa’s face.
The scarred Uzan fell to his knees. Huge hands reached for his freshly severed head.
Ilsa’s song echoed over the battlefield, drowning out all other sounds.
All around the lyre, the Uzan froze in their places. Blue lowered the staff’s point. The echoes of the song began to fade, but the monsters remained completely still.
Ilsa jammed an empty song pistol into its holster. She wiped blood and sweat out of her eyes. The legion of walking weapons was silent.
The Uzan had been sealed.
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