Tenlyres – Final Chapters

Hello, everyone!

This is the final installment of Tenlyres here on the site.

It has been a long journey. Thanks to everyone who followed the story.

These last two chapters go together, so here they are on the same day, in the same post.

I couldn’t be more grateful for this experience, and though Tenlyres is over, I will continue to serialize stories here, on Fridays. This story is over. Other stories must begin. However, for the near future look at a few short tales as I work on the next long-form serial.

Thanks for reading.

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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!

 

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Buy Tenlyres: Complete and read the rest of the story right away!

Previous Chapter

 

The battle is over. The time has come to count the cost.

 

53: Voices

 

When the voice of one is silent, the knowledge of all suffers.

When one voice drowns out all others, that is even worse.

 

The last of Asurdeva’s light faded from around the base of the Flowering Lyre. Ilsa gripped Blue’s arm and muttered a prayer to Hathani as she opened her eyes.

Silence reigned over the steppe.

Uzan stood frozen. Mercenaries and Ayochian traitors looked down at the weapons they had abandoned, surrounded by Vogmem and Chogrumian troops.

The battle was over. The voices of the guns faded.

Ilsa looked at the failing body of Black Powder. His breathing came and went fast and shallow where he lay with his back to the lyre’s northern arm. His brands had gone dark, and blood dripped from his jaw line.

Siuku finished sealing Ilsa’s wounded shoulder. She reached for her forehead and closed the cuts above her brow. Ilsa bowed into the keeper’s hand. “Thank you, keeper.”

“You fought for all of us. I wish we could have helped you.”

“You did. If you had not gone after Asurdeva—Tirica—He wouldn’t have given me the chance.”

Siuku frowned at Black Powder’s fallen form. “He was exceptionally quick. And uniquely dangerous.”

“Was.” Ilsa took in the damage her bullets had done to Black Powder. Six bleeding wounds formed a spiral on his chest. He might still be alive, but not for long. He had never done anything but evil to her, but still, tears began to creep into her eyes.

Blue got to her feet beside Ilsa. She helped up Siuku, then offered Ilsa her hand.

“You’ve taken more than enough hits for me,” she said. “Let me help you.”

Ilsa clasped her friend’s hand and pulled herself up into a standing position. She looked back down at Black Powder. “I almost can’t believe it. We won.”

“Almost?” Blue’s expression cracked into a grin as she fought laughter. “I can’t believe it at all.”

“The alliance between Chogrum and the nomads was strong,” said Siuku. “But the Uzan would have beaten us without your song, Ilsa.”

“Not really mine. Credit to the ancients.” Ilsa looked down at Tirica’s unconscious form. “Is she—?”

“She is alive.” Siuku rubbed her red eyes. Were those tears there?. “I can hear her heartbeat.”

“What about Asurdeva?” asked Ilsa.

“Suppressed, but not gone.” Blue sighed. “I don’t know if what the keeper and I did will last.”

Lemuel rushed to the set of strings, then turned sideways and eased through. He crouched next to Tirica. “She’s alright.”

Ilsa sank down beside him. She put a hand on his shoulder. “Thanks to Blue and the keeper.”

Ashnia picked her way between the strings after him. “She could be. But as long as that god lives within her, she is in danger.”

Tirica’s eyelids fluttered open. She looked up at Lemuel and Ilsa. When she saw them tears began to flow. “I—I’m so sorry. Ilsa, I can’t—” She sobbed. “I can’t ask you to forgive me.”

“No need to ask,” said Ilsa.

“Black Powder?”

“He’s dying.” Ilsa reached for her eyes but decided the tears there deserved to stay. “I shot him.”

“How could you beat him? Cass didn’t stand a chance.”

Ilsa’s tears flowed. “Cass—Tirica—Is she—?”

“She’s alive. He wanted to torture her.” Tirica looked at Black Powder’s fallen form. “I guess he won’t get the chance.”

“Not now,” said Blue.

“Never again.” Ilsa looked at her father’s body as the breathing slowed, then stilled.

Tirica followed her gaze. “You beat him. How?”

“He cared too much about that monster in you.” Ilsa shook her head. “That gave me an opening.”

“Rest,” said Lemuel to Tirica. “You’re alive. You’re free. That’s enough.”

Tirica nodded to Ilsa.

She rose and took in the scene on the other side of the Lyre. The prince still lay unconscious, his severed arm stretched on bloody stone. His bodyguards hovered around him. A few of them had been wounded as well. Kaij and Yunn stood side by side, glaring at the Chogrumians nearby.

“Thanks for the help,” Ilsa said to them. “I guess we’re even after all the times you tried to kill us.”

“I’ll tell our mother you said that,” said Kaij. “After we take General Kanan’s head.”

As more allied troops arrived from the battlefield, many of them leading prisoners of war, it became obvious Boraij Kanan was not among them. Megalli’s hawk touched down on the far side of the strings from the prince. She dismounted and reported that she had seen him disappear in an explosion.

“A blast seal,” said Ilsa. “He’s still alive.”

“We’ll find him,” said Kaij. “And he will pay.” He turned to Ashnia, who now stood, pensive, beside Blue. “Are you coming with us, little sister?”

Ashnia’s gaze moved to Blue, then to Tirica. “There’s something else I need to do.”

“Something we have to do,” said Ilsa’s friend.

Ilsa looked at her, surprised. “Blue?”

Blue caught Tirica’s eye as Lemuel helped the girl to her feet. “If anyone knows a way to exorcise Asurdeva, it would be the Temple of Colors.”

Ashnia nodded.

Blue sighed and then turned to Ilsa. “We’ll need to go east of Yr to find the temple’s heart.”

Ilsa approached Blue. “I need to head back to Dal. My mother isn’t insane. She needs to be released.”

“So, I guess this is goodbye,” said Blue. “For now.”

“Take care of yourself, Blue.” She wiped the tears from her eyes. “I couldn’t have asked for a better partner on this mission.”

“Neither could I.” Blue clapped a hand on Ilsa’s shoulder. She looked ready to cry herself.

Ilsa pulled her into an embrace. “Go on,” she said.

“Maybe this way I can find out who I was, who I am.”

“I can tell you who you are.” Ilsa tightened her arms around Blue, then released her. “You’re my friend.”

“Always will be. Memory or no memory.” Blue sniffed back tears. “I’ll see you later, Ilsa.”

Ilsa released her and nodded. They had a lot to do to clean up this battlefield, and there was still peace to negotiate between Chogrum and Dal. But the monsters were silent. For now, that had to be enough.

Siuku touched Ilsa’s arm, then withdrew a short distance. “You have been able protectors, the two of you. It is not easy to say goodbye.”

Ilsa sniffed. “What do you mean?”

“This alliance must spread. Chogrum and Ayoch will have peace if I can speak to their leaders at once.”

Ilsa smiled. “It’s been an honor, keeper.”

“The west is calling,” said Siuku. “Go, help your mother.”

“Thank you.”

“We worked together to bring us to this point. Now, let me see to the peace.” The keeper’s expression softened. “Tomorrow is ours to shape, whether we stand in one place or not.”

New tears beaded in Ilsa’s eyes.

 

One week later Ilsa prepared to ride west with Cass. The red-haired priestess had recovered enough with Siuku’s healing to sit in the saddle. Ferdinand and his white strider waited for them and their borrowed Chogrumian runners on the edge of the camp.

The sun was just rising at their back. Ilsa guided her runner between a row of tents. Her mind wandered to Lemuel. She had not had the heart to ask him to come with them. His sister needed him more than Ilsa did.

She had left a letter in their tent for him. Hopefully he would understand. Her mother had been a prisoner for too long. Now she could go free, and there were things she could teach Ilsa about the spirits.

She glanced at Cass as they rode toward Ferdinand.

“Are you alright?” Cass asked.

“Save the concern for yourself,” said Ilsa. “When we found you we weren’t sure you’d live.”

“Looks like Hathani gave us both a second chance.” Cass leaned forward in the saddle. Her bandages and slings made her look almost like a box kite as they flapped in the wind.

Ilsa sighed. “Maybe that’s why I feel like I’m starting over.”

“Because of Lemuel?”

“Yeah. Him and Blue. It will be strange, not being around them.”

“I’ll give you that.”

Cass’s eyes moved to the scroll case on Ilsa’s saddle. “You’ve been writing. Do you think you’ll start preaching?”

“You know I’m not a great speaker.”

“Hey, if you’re starting over you can learn.”

“What would I even say?”

“What do I say?”

“Before I rode out of Dal you told me to be red.”

“Seems to me you followed that advice.”

They closed with Ferdinand.

“Good morning, priestesses,” he said.

Cass touched her lips with one hand and blew him a kiss.

Ilsa smiled. “We’re ready to ride.”

“Not yet,” said Ferdinand. “We’re missing someone.”

“Who?” asked Ilsa.

“Lemuel didn’t tell you? That figures.”

Ilsa’s eyes widened. “Are you—? You’re kidding me.”

“Not in the least. But it looks like the bookworm slept in.” Ferdinand grinned at Ilsa. “You know, I like being the bearer of good news.”

Feet pounded on the steppe grass behind them.

“There he is now,” said Ferdinand.

Ilsa turned in the saddle. Lemuel rode toward them on a runner of his own. He held onto the saddle with his big hand, and waved with the little one. “Wait for me.”

“About time,” said Ferdinand as Lemuel caught up. “Looks like Ilsa tried to ditch you.”

Ilsa’s face grew hot. “What? I—”

“We didn’t talk about it,” said Lemuel sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I was just… nervous. Ilsa—”

“Didn’t you want to go with Tirica?”

“Ashnia told me the Temple doesn’t keep written records. Tirica told me she could handle herself. And Blue…”

“Blue?”

“She told me not to let you leave without me.”

Ferdinand whistled. “You cut that last one pretty close.”

“Oh be quiet, grave robber.”

Ilsa giggled. “That’s plenty.” She reached for Lemuel’s small hand and took it. “Let’s ride.”

 * * *

 

54: Recoil

 

A firearm pushes back when fired, but for humans the only direction is forward.

Do not take all your lessons from weapons of war.

 

Dear High Priestess Uopemm,

When last you saw me, you condemned me for my father’s deeds. It once seemed true that I could never forgive you. Since then, things have changed. I send this letter with Cass because I know I am not welcome at Saint Banyeen’s. Please, be kinder to her than you were to me. She did a great service for me, and for all the nations of the plateau in dueling Black Powder. I will let her tell you the rest.

No doubt you have heard of the peace negotiations between Chogrum and Ayoch. Let us both pray that hope is realized. That is out of both our hands now, but I wish the Keeper of Tenlyres the greatest fortune in executing her plan.

I am writing to tell you that your payments to the hospital will no longer be required. My mother is to be discharged. I will see to that myself. High Priestess, I have learned as much from my travels as I ever did from you. Both you and they have been great teachers, both harsh in your own ways.

Regardless, I forgive you.

Goodbye,

Ilsa Barrett

 

 

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 52 – Asurdeva

This is the penultimate week of the Tenlyres serial. We’re in the middle of the climactic scenes. Enjoy!

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.

 

 

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Buy Tenlyres: Complete and read the rest of the story right away!

Previous Chapter

 

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.

Too late.

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.”

“You mean—”

“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.

Reality trembled.

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.

“You’re slow.”

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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Tenlyres Chapter 51 – Dirge

The first few chapters of Tenlyres and the first quarter of Hunter and Seed are available on instafreebie until the end of the month. Go check those out, as they’re a great way to show support for the blog.

Tenlyres: The Complete Serial Edition is still 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.

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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 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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Tenlyres Chapter 50 – Heights of Fear

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 returned to the allied war camp with terrible news. But the war continues.

 

 

There are created enough people to face any challenge, whether natural or supernatural.

 

The prince’s command tent was far smaller than Ilsa had expected but still dwarfed the camp structures around it.

Ilsa and Lemuel made their way inside through a double-wide front entrance, following the keeper, Ganara, and the other leaders. Blue brought up the rear.

Inside the tent, Siuku took to one side with her chieftains at her back. The Vogmem, including Ganara, stood opposite the Oshomi. Forming a triangle with them, the prince of Chogrum in his robes and holding the True Red staff of Hathani, spread his arms, flanked by generals and guards.

“Everyone,” he said. “The Keeper of Tenlyres has proposed a plan to stop this war before the monsters can strike back at us.”

Ilsa glanced at Siuku. The keeper stepped forward.

“My predecessors and I have studied the lyres for as long as our history remembers. The Uzan are not sealed fully within them, but are bound by the song when it is played.”

“They were freed by song,” said Lemuel. “It is likely they can be imprisoned again by it.”

“More like certain,” said Ganara. “But we need to know the song to play.” She tossed her hair back. “We don’t exactly have notes to read.”

The Prince motioned toward Ganara. “I believe I have your answer.” He held out the red staff. “This is the true staff of Hathani. With the notes Mister Chollush has made, it can assist in guiding someone to understand the notes properly, as long as the one who wields it can communicate to the one who plays.”

“Are you certain?” asked Ganara. “I have wielded the black staff and I never noticed such a power.”

“You never carried it to a lyre,” said Siuku. “I believe the prince is right. There is one other difficulty, however.”

“What is that?” asked the prince, a frown forming on his lips.

“We will need the song pistols to play the notes perfectly.”

“And Black Powder has them,” said Ilsa.

Siuku nodded. “That is true.”

“Then we must retrieve them,” said the Prince.

“He leads Asurdeva’s army now,” said Ganara. “How can any of us get to him?” Her eyes moved toward Ilsa. “Unless…”

“He knows I’m not his ally, though I am his daughter.” Ilsa grunted. “But there may be another way.” She glanced at Blue. “Can you tell where Black Powder is now?”

Blue shook her braids. “Unlikely. He has Uzan sense magi scattered around his camp, so I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

“This is foolish,” said one of the Oshomi chieftains. “We can raid the Uzan, kill Black Powder. He is only a man.”

“Just a man. But the most dangerous man on all the plateau,” said Siuku. “To pursue him into the heart of his camp would be suicide.”

The chieftain grunted, then fell silent.

Ganara growled, “I hate to agree with that, but it is true.”

Ilsa narrowed her eyes, brows bent in thought. Father always rode with mercenaries before. And mercenaries had no laws, no exploitable customs, only their own pride mattered to her father’s company. Pride could make one do foolish things.

“Insult them,” she said.

“What?” The prince raised his eyebrows. “Priestess, elaborate.”

“We challenge their pride. Most mercenaries don’t care about honor, but Black Powder’s troops aren’t just mercenaries. They’re his disciples.”

“Explain,” said Siuku.

“The bonds Black Powder teaches them to use, bonds to the spirit, are the source of their pride. We can insult that pride to draw him out. They’ll want to prove their master’s ability can match anyone else.”

“A cult of skill,” said the prince. “I begin to understand. But their abilities are great. If Black Powder accepts this challenge, then who can we send to duel? My guards have weapon bonds, but I’ve heard of his skill. Any of them would lay down their lives for us, but none would survive long enough to even distract him.”

Ilsa took a deep breath. “I’ll fight him.”

“No,” said Lemuel. “No, Ilsa.”

“Lemuel, I know I can beat him.”

He shook his head. “That doesn’t matter. He bonded those weapons to you.”

A sinking feeling in Ilsa’s stomach told her he was right. Her father and his troops would not care if she fought. She might as well be one of them.

“You’re right. I can’t insult them the way we need to.”

A figure detached herself from the wall of the tent on the far side of the Oshomi leaders.

“I’ll do it,” said Cass Kalteri.

Ilsa started, then stared at her oldest friend, her fellow priestess, the one who had betrayed her to the high priestess, and who had still ridden out to help her.

“Cass,” Ilsa said. “Are you sure?”

“I’d put my skills to the test against anyone, Ilsa. And Black Powder is Saint Banyeen’s greatest rival.” The red-haired priestess bowed to the prince of Chogrum. “If you’ll accept my offer, I can challenge him at dawn.”

The prince glanced at his generals. Murmurs ran through the leaders, city-dwellers, and nomads.

Siuku nodded. “I trust your courage, priestess.”

Ilsa’s throat felt tight. Her own life, she would gladly risk against her father. She could not let Cass sacrifice herself, though it could give them a path to victory. She clenched her unburnt fist and looked at her friends around her.

“It could work,” she said. “But Cass—He’ll kill you.”

“Or maybe I’ll kill him. We’ll see,” she said. “In the meantime, someone can find the song pistols. Once we have those we can beat the Uzan all at once.”

“It’s true,” said the prince. He bowed his head toward Cass. “To you, Priestess Kalteri.”

Ganara turned to Ilsa. “That camp won’t be easy to infiltrate, but I have a feeling you and your mind eater will be able to make it in.”

“Agreed,” said Ilsa. Sick to her stomach, she added, “We have to make this worth it.” Her eyes met Cass’s. “Good luck, my friend.”

Cass nodded to Ilsa. “Let’s hope he takes the bait.”

“He will,” she said. That’s what I’m afraid of now.

Lemuel silently reached for Ilsa’s hand. She let him hold her tight.

 

The next morning the sun was just rising when Cass rode toward the camp of Asurdeva with the prince’s guards, under a flag of parley. Ilsa watched them from a distance, sheltering in the ruins of Atalem with Ferdinand. The rest of the raiders who had survived the battle at the Uzan artillery were with them.

The black shapes of wrecked war machines still stood to the south of them. Ferdinand breathed a curse.

“Damn this p-plan,” he said. “I-if he a-accepts, sh-she is n-no m-match for him.”

“I wish I could go instead,” said Ilsa.

He sighed. “Y-you would p-protect h-her if you c-could. B-but I w-would h-hate i-it either way.”

Ilsa blinked in the bright light of the sun shining from the east. “We have to believe. In her. She does.”

“I b-believe in her,” Ferdinand said. “I j-just wish I could help.” Ilsa glanced back through the ruined village to where Ferdinand’s steed sat hidden from the view of Black Powder’s camp by the few walls still standing. “You are helping. Blue’s strider is enough to carry both of us in, but most mercenaries ride their own striders. Thanks for letting me borrow yours.”

“Vortimer will get you in and out,” said Ferdinand “Don’t let him show you too much attitude.”

The fact that he didn’t stutter made his confidence in the strider clear to Ilsa.

She left Ferdinand and moved to where Blue and the two striders stood. She had to put Cass’s challenge out of her mind. What she was about to do could be just as dangerous.

Blue gave her a nod, and sent a sense of meditative calm, that almost masked the tension beneath it. They rode out of Atalem and headed south past the ruined hulks of abandoned Uzan artillery.

Once Vortimer carried Ilsa out of sight of the mercenary lines, she threw on a heavy coat, too hot for summer. It had a hood to conceal her face. Blue put on a helmet that went with her ballistic armor and pulled down the face mask. They turned toward the mercenary camp. Ilsa bent down to urge Vortimer forward. She made a face when the strider snorted at her.

She pulled back, wrinkled her nose, but the white strider accelerated anyway. They needed to hurry. Black Powder would have to accept Cass’s challenge immediately or risk losing face. His pride would not allow that.

She marked the time by the sun in the sky. They reached the outer sentries of the mercenary camp. Blue muddied their minds, allowing the two of them to ride into the camp.

They carried no visible weapons, but anyone with a sense of weapons could tell Ilsa was bonded.

She brought Vortimer to a stop among the tents of the camp. A pair of Uzan marched past them. Huge feet left heavy prints in the already worn down steppe-grass of the camp.

Ilsa dismounted and led Vortimer after the Uzan. Blue did the same with her strider. As they walked Ilsa made sure to follow the other mercenaries going toward the center of the line closest to Atalem.

Blue’s eyes lingered on the gray-skinned Uzan. Ilsa tried to ignore the monstrous creatures and their warped, evil-feeling spirits.

They reached the front just as Black Powder stepped forward from the lines to address Cass. She sat on a runner’s back. Cass had always preferred the lighter, faster creatures. A chill ran through Ilsa as Black Powder’s long coat swished over the grasses.

“You are bold to challenge me, but why should I accept on the eve of my victory?”

Cass drew herself up. “Tomorrow will be a red day,” she said, “Don’t pretend to be yellow now.”

Black Powder snorted. “You have something of a tongue, priestess. You Hathanians are all talk, and your bonds are no match for mine.”

Cass smirked. “Yet you’re hesitant to fight me.”

“Don’t throw your life away. Ride back. Leave this line. Killing you would only give me a moment of satisfaction anyway.”

He turned to First who stood just behind him. Ilsa squinted out from under her hood. She saw the song pistols, twin integrally silenced weapons, hanging on her father’s belt. Her teeth ground together. So close but so far.

“You carry many weapons,” said Cass. “But do you trust the ones you are bonded to by your spirit?”

“Of course I do.” Black Powder folded his arms. “But if you will not take no for an answer, we will duel.”

“Not such a coward after all,” said Cass.

“Funny, I was thinking the same of you. Don’t think I don’t know you—The one who betrayed my daughter all those years ago. Thanks for that, as it stands.”

Blue put a hand on Ilsa’s shoulder, holding her back even as Ilsa tensed with anger and let go of Vortimer’s mounting line. She glanced at Blue. “It’s alright. I won’t lose my temper,” she whispered.

The mercenaries around Black Powder laughed and murmured. A man shouted, “Run away, Hathanian. Or come to me instead, pretty thing.”

Ilsa felt her eyes narrow.

Other men took up the cry. “Come to me.”

“No me!”

Then a few broke into gales of laughter.

Black Powder held up a hand to silence his troops. The sounds of the crowd died in seconds. Ilsa and Blue slipped through the crowd, creeping closer to Black Powder and First.

First.

Ilsa could see now that her father’s first apprentice was leaning on a cane, and still looked battered after the beating Ilsa had given her on the rooftop in Chogrum.

Ilsa’s face made a snarl, expression hidden by her hood.

Black Powder unfastened his gun belt with the song pistols. He handed the whole set to First. The woman took the weapons in reverent hands.

Ilsa glanced at Blue.

“Just let them start,” said her friend in her mind. “We need the distraction.”

First walked away from Black Powder as Cass climbed down from her runner. They faced each other before the mercenaries.

Cass frowned. “How can I trust your troops not to interfere when we’re so close to them?”

Black Powder shrugged. “First, get the others back. Wouldn’t do for stray bullets to hit them.”

The whole mass of troops and the few Uzan at the front with them fell back from the duelists. Cass checked the magazine of ammunition for her pistols where it hung on her belt.

First stood at the front of the mercenary onlookers, but the group now gave Cass and her runner twenty meters or more in berth. Ilsa and Blue were right behind First when Black Powder said,

“Ready?”

“I am.”

“Then draw on five. Count for me, Tirica.”

Tirica’s voice came from somewhere else in the crowd, wavering slightly with each number.

“O-one.”

Cass shifted her feet, both hands free.

“Two.”

Ilsa brought herself to a space just beside First, a little back and to the right.

“Three.”

Black Powder spat onto the grass between them.

“Four.”

Blue sent to Ilsa. She said she would try to slow Black Powder down. Ilsa tensed.

“Five.”

They drew and loaded in split seconds. But Black Powder was faster. Only ten meters from Cass, in broad daylight, he would have killed her with his first shot if she had not thrown herself backward as she finished loading her pistol.

His gun barked and ripped a stream of red through Cass’s shoulder. She gritted her teeth and retaliated. Her bullet tore through his coat. Ilsa and First both stared as her father prepared another shot.

“Ilsa, I’ve got the others suppressed,” Blue sent to her, “Now is our chance.”

She conjured a pistol in her burnt, clenched hand. And she swung overhand. The gun barrel connected with First’s head. First cried out and fell, but the sound was lost in the crack of the next gunshot.

Cass’s knee burst and blood ran down her leg. She wobbled, somehow staying upright. Her shot clipped Black Powder’s sleeve and drew blood.

He shot her gun arm and the bullet blew through the other side. The pistol flew from her fingers.

Cass staggered and fell.

Ilsa had the song pistols without looking at them. She fought back through the crowd of pacified mercenaries, eyes on Blue and the striders not far behind them. She heard a shout from behind her, but not another shot. Ilsa gritted her teeth as they fled.

Back at the camp. Ilsa heard the rest of what had happened.

Ferdinand had ridden out to find Cass, but Black Powder had driven him back. Even if she still lived after those wounds, Ilsa’s first friend was now a prisoner of the enemy.

Ilsa prayed the song pistols were worth it.

They could end the battle, even if they might not be able to save Cass.

But if they hurried, Ilsa had hopes they could do both. Still, as she rode, tears threatened her eyes.

#

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Tenlyres Chapter 49 – Scarred

Tim here everybody.

The story is back!

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 been wounded badly and returns to the camp near the village of Atalem.

 

 

Each of us owes our lives to someone else, parents, friends, saviors of all kinds.

That does not mean we should not do what we can to protect ourselves.

 

 

The world spun and then stabilized. Ilsa heard voices fading away, accompanied by the pure and consistent agony of her wounds. Grazed head, burnt hand, torn side, wounded leg… they were all still there. Somehow she had survived. Again, she survived.

She lay on a cot in a tent, a large pale-colored one from the Chogrumian military, rather than the small homes of the Oshomi. She looked up at the ceiling. Her groan of pain joined the sounds of other wounded that filled the space.

The triage tent dimmed with the passing hours. Some screams silenced. New cries began.

Ilsa found a discarded rifle on the floor beside her cot. She lurched to stand up. She had to find Lemuel and tell him what had happened. She had to, though the feeling in her stomach that built when she thought of telling him about Tirica’s choice made her hesitate.

Eventually, she found a crutch to lean on and then left the rifle behind. She limped toward the exit of the tent. Her wounds were all wrapped to stop the blood flow, but her head still felt light. She hated waking up in a hospital alone. It had happened too often lately.

She made her way through the camp north of Atalem. Despite her lightheadedness, she reached out for Blue’s spirit. “Find me,” she murmured. “Please.”

She staggered past a dozen tents and was halfway to the trenches the Chogrumians had dug out for shelter from the bombardment before Blue and Lemuel found her.

Her eyes filled with tears when she saw them in the fading daylight. “You two,” she said. “You made it”

Lemuel threw himself over the side of his horse and ran to her. “Ilsa?” His voice broke. “Is that really you? I heard… Cass and Ferdinand told me you were dead.”

She looked at him and nodded. “I used a blast seal to escape the fall. Took a Chogrumian carrier back here, but I don’t know the rest.”

“I don’t care how it happened.” He threw his arms around her. They pressed themselves to each other, warm, and alive, despite everything.

Her crutch fell to the ground. She held onto Lemuel instead.

Blue’s gentle pressure in her mind made her look at her friend over Lemuel’s shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” asked Blue.

“Too much, Blue,” she said. “I’ll tell you everything. Both of you need to know. I just need to sit down first.”

She staggered along with them, Lemuel supporting her. He helped her onto his horse and then led it while she rode. She thought of her own horse. She hoped the animal had made it to safety.

At least Ferdinand and Cass had survived.

Blue told her through mental communication that the Uzan had fallen back from Atalem, but most of the village now lay in ruins, and the cost in lives to the Chogrumians and the Oshomi had been high.

“They’ll come back, you know,” said Ilsa softly. “First was out there today. And Black Powder won’t give up.”

“Neither will the Gray Lector or Asurdeva, I suspect,” said Lemuel. “We have to hold on.” He sighed. “I hope Tirica is alright.”

“She’s alive,” said Ilsa in a dry croak of a voice. “I—I saw her today.”

“You saw her? Where?”

“When the blast seal transported me out of the launcher I ended up at a medical center for the mercenaries. She was there.”

Lemuel turned to stare back at her where she sat on the horse, eyes wide. “You saw her?”

“Yeah.” Ilsa felt an urge to cry, but she channeled it into a single deep breath. “Lemuel, I don’t know how to say this—She—She has a weapon bonded to her spirit.”

“What? Why would they do that?”

“She agreed to fight for them.” Ilsa touched her side. “She shot me. Here.”

Lemuel dropped the reins he been using to lead the horse. He bent down to reach for them, but his big hand shook too much to pick them up.

He shook his head. “It can’t be—She wouldn’t.”

Ilsa lifted her wounded leg despite the pain that shot through her as she did. She climbed down and then supported herself on the horse’s side. Lemuel stared at her.

Blue’s mind withdrew. She brought her strider to a stop behind Ilsa and Lemuel. Yet, she said nothing.

Lemuel’s lips trembled. “I can’t believe it.”

“I don’t like it anymore than you do,” said Ilsa. “They forced her into it after First’s attack in Chogrum failed.”

“She’s alive,” said Blue. “Get me close enough to her and I can stop her. We aren’t dealing with true belief. Once she’s free of them, she won’t keep fighting us.”

Lemuel nodded, but tears began to leak from his eyes.

Ilsa let go of the horse and staggered toward him. A jagged flare of pain shot through her calf and she stumbled. She fell forward but caught herself on Lemuel’s shoulder. He sank down slowly, and they sat on the trampled steppe grass.

His face close to hers, he sniffed, trying to fight his tears. She pressed her forehead to his.

“This doesn’t change anything,” she said, halfway to tears herself. “We will get her back, even if we have to fight her to do it.”

“She isn’t free,” said Blue.

“Right.” Ilsa brushed the tears from Lemuel’s cheeks. “We won’t give up.”

Lemuel’s small arm wrapped around Ilsa’s back. His little hand patted down her spine. “Thank you, Ilsa.” He breathed in deep. “And Blue. Thank you, both.” His big hand found Ilsa’s cheek and cupped her face. “I studied and studied, but I never could say I would trust anyone outside my family with my life before I met you two.”

“Lemuel.” Ilsa pulled him to her, one hand around the back of his head, the other around his waist. “You’ve got us. We won’t abandon Tirica.”

His little hand touched the freshly-dressed wound on her side. She let out a gasp of pain. He withdrew his fingers. “I’m sorry. She did this to you.”

“It’s not as bad as my leg. And she didn’t hit me there.”

“You’ve fought so long. I know you wish you could stop.”

“I won’t stop fighting until my father is defeated. Until the Uzan are beaten, none of us can stop.”

“Until peace is in sight,” said Blue.

“How can we see peace from the battlefield?” said Ilsa. “That’s what I worry about.”

“You’re both warriors. It’s what you do.”

“We have a cause.” Ilsa sighed. “I just don’t know if that’s enough.”

“It has to be,” said Blue.

“We have to hope it is because we don’t fight for a nation, we fight for the people, to protect them and save as many as we can.” Ilsa looked into Lemuel’s eyes. “And we’ll protect your sister too.”

“What if she doesn’t give you a choice?”

“I’ll die before I kill her.” Ilsa blinked back tears and hoped her brave words were true, though she doubted them. She gritted her teeth. “I swear—”

“Don’t. You can’t sacrifice yourself.” Lemuel’s hand moved down her face to her shoulder. “I would never ask you to do that.”

Ilsa held on to him in silence for a long moment, aching, pained. “Thank you. I’ll do everything I can to be worth your trust.”

“You already have,” he said.

The sound of hooves, four or five horses, and half a dozen goat runners, drew close through the camp.

“Priestess,” said Siuku as she and a group of other Oshomi leaders caught up with them. “You should have stayed in triage.” Behind her veil her eyes were tired. “You were seriously wounded.”

“I know,” said Ilsa. “I just couldn’t lie there.”

“Let me heal you.” Siuku climbed down from her horse. She approached Ilsa and Lemuel.

Ilsa’s eyes met his, and then they disentangled themselves. Behind Siuku, Ilsa saw Ganara, the Vogmem chieftain, and priestess of Vada who had wielded the True Blackwood staff at the battle of Howling Pass. The blond woman gave a curt nod to Ilsa.

Siuku knelt down beside Ilsa. Lemuel got to his feet nearby. The Keeper of Tenlyres unfastened the seal on her veil. Without the veil, she looked even more exhausted.

How many people has she saved today? Ilsa wondered. How many former enemies owe her their lives? This is how we can unify the people, by healing instead of killing.

The pain from her calf faded. Siuku sealed the cut in Ilsa’s head. Then, the keeper touched her side where Tirica had shot her. The pain there vanished with a touch of a weary hand.

Siuku replaced her veil. “You will have a few scars,” she said. “And I can’t help your hand.”

“Thank you,” said Ilsa. “I’ve been through the worst wounds of my life from the mountains to now, and I wouldn’t be alive without you.”

Siuku’s voice came out less monotone than usual. “I saw you in my visions, Ilsa Barrett. Since we first met you have become important to me.”

Ilsa bowed to the keeper. “I will protect you as long as I am able.”

“Let us both pray that you remain able.”

Siuku stood, and offered a hand to help Ilsa to her feet. She turned to Blue. “Has the prince of Chogrum arrived?”

“His force is setting up in the northern part of the camp,” said Blue. “They should be almost done by now.”

“The prince is here?” Ilsa asked.

“Scouts have sighted more of Black Powder’s forces approaching our position,” said Blue. “We don’t know the exact numbers, but from here we will defend Chogrum from both men and monsters.”

“What about Ayoch and Dal?” said Ilsa. “Their armies are still moving east.”

“Indeed.” Ganara tossed her head. “Allies or not, we can catch the Uzan and their human friends between our forces and theirs if we hold here.”

Ilsa nodded. “That could work. We can still win.”

Lemuel glanced at her with reddened eyes. His unspoken question was obvious.

She folded her hands together. “And we’ll get Tirica out of there before it’s over.”

Great hawks called to each other as they flew overhead. Ilsa looked up. Skyriders.

She brought her gaze down to level with Blue. “How did you destroy the artillery?”

Blues shrugged. “The raiders delayed them long enough for Chogrum’s weapons to find the range. After that, their crews started to run. Even Uzan won’t survive a hit from the big guns. Just too bad they got most of their weapons out of there when they went.”

Ilsa frowned. “How many were destroyed?”

“Two. They still have at least three left.”

“If we move fast enough, they can’t hit us,” said Ganara. “My warriors will deal with them next time.”

“We should meet with the prince,” Siuku said to Ganara. “We have plans to make, and you can tell him what you just said.”

“I’ve never seen so many soldiers in one place,” Ganara said. “Chogrum has a mighty army.”

“Ilsa,” the keeper said. “Will you, your scholar, and Blue accompany us? There is much to discuss for the coming battle.”

Ilsa glanced at Lemuel. He nodded to her.

“As you wish,” said Ilsa. And they set off toward the prince’s part of the allied camp.

 

#

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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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