This is the penultimate week of the Tenlyres serial. We’re in the middle of the climactic scenes. Enjoy!
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The final battle continues…
With or without faith, we humans walk through the night, looking for signs of dawn.
Ilsa and Blue looked at the Red Lector’s children around them on the lyre. She still could hardly believe they had arrived to fight beside them, rather than to kill them.
Ashnia regarded Ilsa and Blue coolly, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Siuku completed what healing she could on the prince of Chogrum’s ruined stump of an arm. He lay unconscious, surrounded by his guards.
Lemuel’s jaw hung open. He looked from Kaij to Yunn, to the frozen, headless body of the Gray Lector. The massive Uzan leader had not been able to reach the critical piece just severed by Kaij’s blade.
Ashnia grimaced between the strings at the battle raging beyond the lyre.
“The fight isn’t over,” said Blue.
Kaij lowered his sword and put a hand on Ashnia’s shoulder. She closed her eyes. “General Kanan is still alive.”
“Not for long.” Kaij’s lips drew back in a snarl. “He’ll pay for killing our father.” He looked down at the Gray Lector’s body. “Just like this one.”
Ashnia opened her eyes, facing the battlefield. “Not if I beat you to him, brother.”
Ilsa stared at the Ayochians. “You’re all here for revenge?”
Yunn turned toward her in the saddle. “Your cause didn’t sway us. If that’s your question?”
Siuku rose unsteadily from beside the unconscious prince. “Either way, we are on the same side for now.”
“Right.” Ilsa grunted. As much as she hated to admit the Ayochians had saved her life, she knew it was true.
Kaij glared at her. “For now.”
Blue eyed Ashnia. “Do you sense that?”
“Sense what?” asked Ilsa.
“Reach out,” said Blue. “Ashnia, this was the Gray Lector, but their god is still unbound. He is on his way here.”
Beside Ilsa, Lemuel found his words. “Asurdeva is a god. What does a god look like?”
Ilsa closed her eyes and breathed deep, focusing her spirit senses. The oppressive scale of the spirit she had first sensed moving from the center of the plateau while she had been in Chogrum, threatened to blanket the entire lyre and all the armies around it. Heavy. Choking. She opened her eyes with a gasp for air.
Lemuel touched her arm. “Are you alright?”
“Blue is right,” she said. “Asurdeva is here.”
Siuku glowered across the lyre. “He is not the only one.”
First stood beside Black Powder on the other side of the strings. The two mercenaries both held their bonded pistols. Ilsa’s eyes narrowed and she stared at them. A cackling sound echoed over the battlefield as if the lyre itself was laughing. Ilsa covered one ear with her free hand. The other still held a song pistol with two bullets left loaded.
A shadow drifted overhead. A slim shape plunged downward and landed on Black Powder’s side of the lyre. Tirica Chollush, her eyes wide open and gleaming, stared at Ilsa, a sardonic grin on her face. When she spoke, the tone and inflection were completely unlike Lemuel’s sister. “It’s good to be home. I always liked the east best.”
“She’s betrayed you,” said Kaij. His sword withdrew into the bond on his hand. He raised a pistol in the other.
“Wait,” Ilsa shouted.
Lemuel rushed toward Kaij.
Kaij shot Tirica twice in the chest. Her frame buckled with each impact. Ilsa stared, never doubting the two bullet’s deadly accuracy.
A low rumble shook the lyre from within.
“Good aim, child,” said Tirica in the same odd and amused tone. Her face was hidden by the veil of her hair. The bullets fell onto the lyre’s base, rattling against eternal stone. “But it will take more than that to harm this vessel.”
“I am Asurdeva, children. You may have stopped my Uzan, for now, but that matters not. You cannot destroy my vessel.”
“What do you want?” Ilsa locked eyes with Tirica as the girl raised her head.
The gaze of Asurdeva was as cold and lethal as Yunn’s ice.
“You will understand, Ilsa. Because you are the work of my greatest disciple.”
First smirked and trained her pistol on Siuku.
Black Powder bowed his head and sank to one knee. “You do me too much honor, master.”
“All glory is mine. But I will share it with my chosen ones. Those marked with my seal upon their souls.”
The brand on Ilsa’s hand burned with sudden pain. It hurt as if the scar was still fresh from the fire.
Her fingers tightened. She glared at Tirica and her father. Last winter she had not believed her mother could see spirits, but now she had to contend with a god just as new to her. With the revelation of the spirits, though, she might have a way to fight back. She had to resist.
“Don’t be afraid, Ilsa,” said Asurdeva. “This is the moment where you’re precious Unification becomes reality. The ripples of my disciples, empowered by your father, will reach out from within. And the bonded will conquer this world at my will.”
First sneered, but made no sound.
Black Powder returned to his feet. “Ilsa, do not fight now. The song you played did more than seal the Uzan, it empowered our bonds. We will complete the work of Asurdeva together.”
She clenched her teeth. “I thought you didn’t believe in Unification?”
“I don’t. Not as can be achieved by mortals.” Her father’s gaze locked with hers. “The war we are about to begin is the triumph all of history has been leading toward since the Three delayed it all those millennia ago.”
Ilsa’s brands glowed with inner light. She dropped the song pistol in her hand and conjured her own guns. The most vital of her instincts were silent, leaving only thoughts to run through her head. Total control of her own body. Total awareness of every heartbeat, every breath, every step as she walked toward Asurdeva and her father.
The others stood, frozen. Kaij screamed from behind her, but the sound seemed far away.
“No lesser bonds will join us. Only the chosen,” said Asurdeva.
Ilsa slipped between the strings of the lyre and approached the place where Tirica stood under Asurdeva’s control.
First’s branded hands glowed with inner light.
Her father reached for her, sleeve falling back to reveal an arm marked by countless brands from palm to elbow. Every one of them glowed in a pattern that signified a spirit bond.
“Don’t fight us, Ilsa,” he said.
She glared into Tirica’s eyes. “Snap out of it,” she said through her teeth. “Tirica, you didn’t agree to this. I know you didn’t.”
“The vessel need not be willing,” said Asurdeva. “All I require is a bond to the spirit to take control.”
Ilsa’s heart pounded.
She raised her pistol and pressed it to Tirica’s forehead.
“That isn’t loaded,” said the god.
“Like it would matter if it was,” said First with a snort. “Give up, kid.”
“A bullet cannot harm the god of weapons. And that,” said Asurdeva, “Is what I am.” She reached for Ilsa and caressed her cheek with her unbonded hand.
Tirica had only one bonded weapon. What would happen if that brand was disrupted? Ilsa’s thoughts ran with the rest of her awareness, ever onward, ever closer to chaos.
Blue’s mental touch plucked the thought gently from Ilsa’s stream of consciousness
Tirica’s hand pressed to her cheek. “You must know the moments when not to fight, child.” Her lips parted in a lurid smile. “Now is the ultimate moment.”
This is the moment.
This is the moment.
The moment to act.
Ilsa lowered her pistol and reached up and gripped Tirica’s wrist. She closed her eyes. “You may be right,” she said. “Please. Show me mercy, Asurdeva.” She tried to fight but her own voice sounded reverent. Unwilling, but obedient.
Asurdeva brushed the hair from Ilsa’s brow with her fingertips. Her other hand rose to cup Ilsa’s face.
“Child, what kind of god would I be if I could not forgive a convert?” Tirica’s forehead pressed to Ilsa’s. Her hands raised over her head, arms spread wide and open.
Ilsa opened her eyes and met Tirica’s, now lit by the glow of the weapon bond from Tirica’s hand.
An arrow flew in silence until it hit the center of the brand with a bloody, painful-sounding, thunk. The light on the brand flickered and went out. Tirica lowered her arms and howled in pain, clutching at her mangled hand.
On the other side of the lyre’s strings, Siuku lowered her bow with deliberate slowness. And the spell of Asurdeva’s will broke as surely as the bond had been broken by the wound torn in Tirica’s hand.
“How dare you, infidel?” roared Asurdeva in Tirica’s voice. “You think you can trap me in this body?”
Siuku and Blue exchanged glances.
“Which one of us are you talking about?” asked Blue.
“If you will not unify in my war, you will perish before me!”
Tirica’s unwounded fist crashed into Ilsa’s stomach with such force, Ilsa’s feet left the stone of the lyre. She flew backward and rebounded from unyielding strings with a cry of pain. A series of shocks ran along her spine.
“Black Powder,” said Asurdeva. “Destroy these mortals.”
Her father raised both hands, a pistol in each fist. “As you command, master.”
Ilsa rolled onto her side and loaded her pistol with a magazine from her belt.
Black Powder and First took aim and began to fire over her head. Screams cries, and return fire answered them.
Ilsa got to her knees and took aim. First saw Ilsa targeting Black Powder and whirled to shoot her. Ilsa threw herself forward and rolled, trading misses with First.
She found her feet behind Tirica and right of her father who’s guns continued to speak. Ilsa and First faced each other down, just a meter away from each other. Pistols found the aim.
“You really are hopeless,” said First.
Ilsa grunted and they each took their shots.
Ilsa shuddered with the sound of the guns so close to her on either side.
First fell to her knees, then collapsed onto the base.
No pain. There was no pain.
“It doesn’t hurt, does it?” First looked up at Ilsa’s from at her feet. “Why doesn’t it hurt?” The woman’s eyes rolled back into her head. Blood ran from the hole in her chest. Ilsa turned to focus on her father.
He raised his eyebrows.
“Looks like she missed,” he said. “First may have been my first apprentice, but she was still just an apprentice.”
Tirica marched across the center of the lyre toward the others behind Ilsa. She could not tell if any of them had been killed by her father’s shots. Her senses narrowed and she focused only on Black Powder.
Then, Tirica reached the strings and plucked them in tune, using the strength granted by the power of Asurdeva.
Ilsa and her father still faced each other, just a few meters apart. The battlefield, the flowering ground around the lyre had vanished from view. They stood, surrounded in pure light.
Their weapons were still in their hands.
Father and daughter moved toward their triggers at once.
Ilsa faced Black Powder. Father. She hesitated at the last instant. So did he. Their fingers hovered by the triggers.
He said, “I’ll take no pleasure in killing you, daughter.”
She glared down the barrel of her weapon. Words had always been useless with him. “Even if you kill me, you won’t win. You’re alone in this.”
He shook his head. “Wrong, Ilsa. Asurdeva’s song is everything.”
The notes reverberated within the walls of light that surrounded the lyre. Ilsa gritted her teeth and kept her gun trained on her father. “Why serve this thing? This god doesn’t care about you.”
“And the Three care about you? Ilsa, they abandoned the world. They are worth nothing to humanity.”
“Do your monsters care? They kill without a second of hesitation.”
Her father smirked. “I chose this path, Ilsa. I led you to it, but I can’t save you. You have to do that yourself.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing all this time?” Ilsa’s finger trembled outside the trigger guard. “Your god is using that innocent girl—That girl you tortured, as his slave.”
“A vessel of the divine. Such an honor is more than she could have ever hoped for in her past life.”
“If she was one of your fanatics, you would be right. She is not one of yours.”
“The subject must desire power, or the divine could not manifest.”
“Don’t tell me she gave up her mind by choice.”
“Gave up? No, the process is one of bonding with Asurdeva. Something you will never experience thanks to the Keeper of Tenlyres. Her, I will relish destroying.”
“I won’t give you that chance.”
“Then stop me. If you can.”
She shot first. The bullet deflected off the stock of a shotgun Black Powder drew from his sleeve. The shot made no sound compared to the song Asurdeva continued to play. Ilsa aimed for the knee. The same shotgun’s barrel stopped that shot.
She grunted and twisted her wrist to shoot him in the shoulder. He darted back and the bullet flew into the light at the lyre’s edge. She swung her other hand out and conjured her machine gun. He danced backward and loaded the shotgun with deft hands.
She shot at one hand, but the gun’s whirling steel stock deflected that one too. He dove to one side and sprayed shot at Ilsa. She ducked, but still tasted blood as a trio of pellets sliced across her temple. Red droplets swam in front of her vision, but the pain that went with it simply had to be ignored.
Ilsa slammed the magazine into her machine gun. She circled her father, moving away from the lyre’s strings and the source of the oppressive song. Tirica—Asurdeva—plucked the strings of the lyre with apparent ease. No human hand could manage that much strength. She stood at the center of the lyre, the arrow that had broken the seal on her hand discarded behind her.
“Do not ignore me.” Black Powder’s next blast opened a cluster of small wounds in Ilsa’s shoulder.
She jerked backward but kept her grip on her machine gun. She sent a burst in his direction. Four shots. Two in the air. One on the shotgun. One on his other arm. Blood flew from his sleeve.
On the other side of the strings, Blue and Siuku crawled toward Tirica, keeping their heads down.
She had to make sure Black Powder did not make time for them, even if it meant giving him better chances to hit her. Ilsa aimed high, then low, then targeted his center of mass with the third shot. He avoided every bullet but had to dodge back and duck low.
Siuku crouched across the strings from Tirica and reached out to touch the girl’s leg between the vibrating metallic strands. Blue held the keeper’s other hand. They were going to attempt a mental attack. Ilsa had to give them time to drive out Asurdeva, if they could even come close to fighting the spirit of a god.
She and her father traded shots, both evasive. Ilsa’s wounded shoulder and bleeding forehead began to dog her movements. She darted to one side and he emptied the last shotgun blast into thin air.
Her machine gun spent its last shot in a futile effort. She tossed it away and drew her second pistol. On the run, she loaded the weapon.
The song surrounded her. The light intensified to blinding white. Standing, his silhouette dark against the walls of brightness, Black Powder faced her, a pistol in each hand. He was breathing hard, showing his age.
I have a chance, she thought. If I can exhaust him I can win. She kept evading, shooting.
Asurdeva howled with rage behind Ilsa’s back. The song began to slow.
“No!” Black Powder’s lips drew back in a snarl. “He must not be stopped.”
Ilsa grimaced at him. “If two humans can stop your god, how powerful can he be?”
“Damn you, step aside,” Black Powder’s voice came out as a whisper. He raised both pistols and stalked forward, firing.
One of the bullets blasted through Ilsa’s already wounded shoulder. Lances of pain jabbed down from the earlier spots of damage and toward her chest. The other bullet went over her head.
Ilsa staggered toward him a step and returned fire. Her shot rent the collar of his coat and went out the back. Blood flecked his face and chin. He stumbled for a moment, eyes wild, then charged at Ilsa. His weapons blazed.
But he moved slower now.
She lost one gun to a pair of impacts on its barrel. She dodged to one side, pain flaring in her shoulder and chest. Hot blood ran into her eyes. One of his gun barrel’s snaked out and painfully connected with her jaw. She fell backward and hit the strings beside Tirica. Her world spun as she emptied the pistol into Black Powder, point blank.
Asurdeva’s scream ended. Tirica sank to the ground beside Ilsa. A heavy thump and gasp of escaping breath told her Black Powder had fallen, though she could not focus on anything but the window of sky visible through the center of the walls of light. She sagged down, pain coursing through her.
Siuku and Blue knelt down beside her. Soothing hands began to heal Ilsa’s wounds.
“You’re alive,” said Blue.
“So are you,” Ilsa murmured, still dizzy.
The echoes of the song began to fade. And the walls of light fractured into motes of chaos. She closed her eyes against the glare.
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