About Tyler F.M. Edwards

Freelance writer, fantasy novelist, and nerd of the highest order.

MMOs Have Group Content All Wrong

One of those unwritten rules of MMO design seems to be that group content should always be the most challenging content, and that the most challenging content should always be group content. There’s even a progression where the larger the group, the harder the content becomes, with raids inevitably being the toughest challenge there is. To that, I have just one question:

Why?

My panda hunter doing Scarlet Monastary in World of WarcraftThat’s not a question I can recall ever seeing asked, let alone answered. It only occurred to me recently, and thinking about it, I’m not sure I can find any compelling reason why group content and the hardest content must be one and the same. But I can think of a lot of reasons why they shouldn’t be.

The wrong priorities:

Since I seem to be interrogating my readers today, let me ask you another question: What is the purpose of group content in an MMO?

I’d wager most people would answer something along the lines of supporting the multiplayer aspect of the game. Group content encourages people to work together, and supports socialization. That’s a good thing in a social genre like MMOs.

I don’t think many people would answer that question with, “To provide the hardest challenges.”

But yet, that seems to be the overriding priority for MMO developers. Not to provide opportunities for socializing, but to make players sweat as they struggle with content of the highest difficulty.

Not only does making group content and hard content synonymous not aid socialization, it actively harms it.

My Hell Raised group in The Secret WorldFor one thing, difficult content immediately excludes players who lack the skills to complete it. You might say that they don’t deserve to complete it if their skills aren’t up to snuff, and arguably, you’re right, but that’s exactly my point: It divides players based on skill level, when the whole point of group content is to bring people together.

One of the reasons I tend to prefer soloing in MMOs is because I don’t enjoy putting social stress on top of content-induced stress. I’m perfectly okay with a challenge — I think the time I’ve spent in StarCraft II and The Secret World proves that — but when you also add that to the stress of potentially letting your friends down, or being let down by your friends, it’s just too much.

When people in a group are of differing skill levels — which is pretty much always going to the case to some extent — it invariable starts to feel awkward. Perhaps a friend is under-performing, causing wipes. You’re forced to choose between hurting their feelings or hobbling your own progression. If someone is far more skilled than their friends, they will inevitably become frustrated and may have to abandon their in-game social circle entirely. Or maybe you’re the weak link. Even if your friends are understanding, you still may feel ashamed for holding them back.

None of these situations are fun.

It’s also worth noting that playing as a group is innately more challenging than doing solo content, all other things being equal. Even putting aside issues of logistics and getting everyone to actually show up — which I do not consider to be true difficulty — it is a fact that the more moving parts there are, the more that can go wrong. The more people there are in your group, the more it becomes inevitable that at least one person will screw up. So why does group content need to be innately more challenging even on top of that?

Group content isn’t even a good measuring stick for skill because of the potential for being carried. There are people in WoW right now who are buying full gold challenge mode runs for massive amounts of gold. They’re earning rewards meant for the most skilled without displaying any skill at all.

Battling Amber-Shaper Un'sok in the Heart of Fear raidThe only rationale I can think of for why difficulty and group size should be equated is that developers wanted to encourage people to group by putting all the best rewards behind it, but felt that they then had to crank up the difficulty, because it doesn’t feel right to give the best rewards for easy content. But if that’s the case, it’s a pretty tortured logic.

Group content is for socializing:

Currently, most if not all MMOs put their effort into finding new and creative ways to make group content challenging. What they should instead be doing is finding new and creative ways to make group content a welcoming environment for groups of all sizes and skill levels.

Even Guild Wars 2, a game with incredibly laid-back and inclusive design philosophies, decided its only organized group content, dungeons, should be intensely difficult and require rigid party sizes.

I would much prefer it if group content was designed with the idea of being relatively low stress. I would rather see the greatest challenges come in the form of solo content, so each player is judged solely on their own merits, while group content is made for relaxing with friends.

Developers should instead put their effort into scaling technology that can accommodate any and all group sizes and other such tools to ensure everyone has a place. Group content should be a social feature first and foremost, not something that exists purely to test one’s skills and determine who the most uber-leet gamers are.

Battling karka on the Lost Shores in Guild Wars 2That’s not to say that group content can’t or shouldn’t ever be challenging. Indeed, I think a variety of difficulties to suit all skill levels — including the best of the best — is one of the things that would promote socialization.

But it shouldn’t be the overriding goal for group content, to the exclusion of all else.

The Secret World does a better job on this front than most games, though it’s still far from where it should be. The primary source of group content, nightmare dungeons, are brutally hard, and the lack of any decent tools for finding groups rather hobbles the game’s socialization potential.

But it has plenty of challenging solo content, so it’s not a stark divide between easy soloing and hard group content, and scenarios are a step in the right direction. They feature numerous difficulty settings and group sizes to suit the needs of most anyone, and interestingly, group sizes are not actually enforced on most difficulty settings. This means you can do a group scenario with less than five players, or do a solo scenario with all your friends.

In scenarios, it also tends to be true that doing them solo is more difficult than doing them as a group. This has been decried by many for being a departure from the norm, but if you ask me, it’s a welcome concession to what should be common sense.

I’m told that City of Heroes had a very flexible stance on grouping that put socialization first, but since I never played that game, I cannot comment on it further.

Caught in a dust storm during the Hotel scenario in The Secret WorldWorld of Warcraft has had an odd and inconsistent history on the matter. These days, it does offer a lot of easy group content that is good for socializing without stress, but it still tends to obey the logic that the larger the group, the harder things should be, and Blizzard has been systematically stripping any significant rewards from most everything but organized raiding so us casual scrubs never forget that we’re not real players.

For whatever reason, MMO developers have decided that if you want a challenge, you must group, and if you want to group, you must be ready for a challenge. I am left baffled as to why this is, as it seems to only hurt the social connections that should be the focus of group content, but it’s not a policy we’re likely to see changing any time soon.

I’m afraid I shall be left with my confusion and disappointment over the matter for a long time to come.

Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Three: Tyzu

We now arrive at the third chapter of my science fantasy epic, Rage of the Old Gods. In the coming weeks, I will be posting the entire book for free on this blog. If you missed the last chapter, go check it out now.

This chapter sees Leha reach the jungle world of Tyzu, but it doesn’t take long for her to once again find herself in mortal peril, and even if she comes out of alive, she will never be the same.

Cover art for "Rage of the Old Gods, the First Book of the World Spectrum" by Tyler F.M. Edwards———————

Chapter three: Tyzu

It was no less strange the second time. Instead of feeling drained, this time, her every cell resonated with new energy.

Her feet hit ground, and again, her knees went out from under her. This time, she slammed into the earth with incredible speed.

She groaned.

She pushed herself up, and found herself several inches above the ground. She fell again.

Another groan. Traveling to other worlds was proving more painful than she had expected.

Carefully, she picked herself up and looked around her.

She was in a forest, but it was like no forest she had ever seen. Trees taller than Heart’s highest buildings shaded the forest floor with huge, broad leaves. The wide spaces between trees were choked with bushes, shrubs, odd grasses, and vines. The air hummed with the sounds of buzzing insects and the caws of alien birds. The air was hot, hotter than anything she had felt before, and humid.

She shed her winter gear quickly – more quickly than would have been possible on Sy’om or Barria.

Once she had her gear stowed in her pack, she took a cautious step forward. Her foot moved so fast that it nearly blurred. She almost lost her balance. On top of that, the carpet of vegetation tangled her feet. She thought she could see it growing and tightening on her. She wondered if she was seeing things.

Overhead, two birds shot by like a pair of crossbow bolts.

Leha sighed. This was all far more difficult than she had envisioned.

She gathered her wits and pressed on. It was a while before she found a method of travel that did not result in her making trips to the forest floor. She learned it was easiest to jump and try to land on top of the underbrush; she steadied herself with her staff when the need arose. On this world a small hop could carry her several feet. It was almost fun.

She still fell, on occasion.

She took in her surroundings, searching for anything that might prove useful against the Tors. Unlike Sy’om, Tyzu teemed with life. She caught glimpses of arboreal mammals, brightly plumed birds, lizards and other reptiles, insects that would have given her nightmares had she still been a child, and things she couldn’t identify. Most of the creatures made noises, forming a constant blanket of sounds.

The weather was strange. Once, she saw a storm front form a few miles away. It fired several dozen bolts of lightning and dissipated within a few minutes. Later, a gust of wind came out of nowhere and smashed her into the hard bark of a tree.

She picked herself up. She thought that she would have an excellent collection of bruises come morning, but then she realized that her previous bumps no longer hurt. She checked, and they had completely healed. I guess this high energy thing has its advantages.

She got moving again, bouncing across the green carpet with almost comical speed.

Something snarled.

Looking behind, she saw a dark blur hurtling towards her. She leapt, and a creature that was somewhere between a large cat, a bulldog, and a human slammed into the ground where she had been standing.

She dropped into a defensive crouch and raised her staff. Her heart jammed itself into her throat.

It pounced at her. She flung her staff at it, but she missed, so she drew her sword and attacked with it instead, slashing its shoulder and hurling it against the tree she had hit moments earlier.

Its back hit the tree with a loud thwack, but in the blink of an eye, its arms rotated backwards and grabbed the trunk. It leered and launched itself at her, moving its arms back to a more normal position.

Leha jumped backwards with all her strength. She soared across the forest floor, the beast leaping after her.

She rebounded off a tree and hit the underbrush hard. She rolled, her frightened breaths coming fast. Her adversary leapt after her, landing so close she could smell its carrion-like stink. It blurred forward, snapping its jaws.

Leha took another flying leap backward. The creature followed. She swung her sword wildly in the hopes of frightening the creature.

She was tensing her legs for another jump, when two bolts of sharpened wood pierced her adversary in midair.

It fell to the ground, dead.

A man-shaped blur appeared at the carcass, retrieved the crude spears, leapt, and landed a few feet from her.

This new being was human in shape, but decidedly alien. Its leathery, hairless skin had a deep orangish tan, its fingers and toes ended in long dark claws, and its pupils were a deep blue. It wore a loincloth and appeared to be male. It had stowed the spears in a satchel on its back, and its hands were empty, but she assumed the claws were weapons enough. It stared down at her intensely. It stood more than a foot taller than her.

It took a step forward and barked several syllables. It might have been a language.

Leha raised her sword and tried to control her labored breathing. “Stay back.”

It took a step forward. It spoke strange words and gestured with its hands.

“Stay back!” she warned. She raised her sword, hoping she looked more dangerous than she felt.

The alien appeared taken aback. It said more things she could not understand.

Leha’s heart pounded, and sweat rolled down her back.

The creature stepped forward. Leha squeaked and slashed the air. The alien shook its head.

Before she could stop it, the creature wrapped its wiry arms around her waist and leapt into the canopy. She tried to fight it as it jumped from tree to tree, but it had taken her sword. Her fists and teeth made no impact on its hard skin.

She began to scream.

* * *

By the time they arrived at the alien’s destination, her throat was raw, and her fighting had subsided into numb terror.

They had come to a village consisting of a ring of small wood huts built onto the tops of trees. A wide platform of woven vines and plants filled the gap between huts. The platform had clearly been built, but it was also alive. Leha had never heard of anything like it.

Her captor placed her in the middle of the platform. A crowd of bronze-skinned aliens, young and old, male and female, gathered around her, talking and whispering amongst themselves. All were bony, hairless, and wiry, like the one that had captured her, and all wore nothing but loincloths. One of them took her pack and sword for the others to examine. She did not try to stop it.

A bent, wrinkled crone knelt next to her and spoke. Leha whimpered and shivered under her gaze.

The old woman listened as the others chattered. After some minutes, during which Leha had time to contemplate all the horrible things they might do to her, had passed, the crone issued an order, and a pair of males grabbed Leha by the arms and led her to one of the huts. They ushered her inside and closed the door behind her.

The hut was stained with an earthy-smelling resin and furnished with a stool, a sleeping pallet, and a basin of water. A glassless window supplied light. It was too small to wriggle through.

Leha tested the door latch, checking the lock. To her surprise, it creaked open at her touch. She peaked her head out, only to be pushed back inside by a clawed hand.

She didn’t try again.

She flopped down on the pallet. The fabric was coarse, but it was no worse than the blankets she had used on Sy’om. She combed her hair with her fingers. Her scalp felt hot and sweaty. She curled into a ball and drew her knees up to her chest. Despite the heat, she shivered.

She heard the aliens talking outside her door. “Should we fry her or boil her?” “Should we serve her with soup or a salad?” she imagined them saying.

* * *

By sundown, her throat had healed, and her stomach growled with hunger. Couldn’t they at least fatten me up before they kill me? She paced, her boots clacking on the wooden floor. Often, she narrowly avoided ramming into the stool or one of the walls. She still wasn’t used to how fast things were on Tyzu.

The day had not passed quickly. The long hours had been filled with a mix of boredom and fear. She had spent eternities staring at the walls and the ceiling. Every time she had heard one of the aliens come near the hut, she’d jumped.

She swore under her breath.

There must have been evening-blossoming flowers nearby. A rich, fruity scent was drifting through her open window. It made her stomach stir with hunger. At least things had cooled since the sun started setting, she told herself. The thought provided little comfort. The heat and humidity remained stifling.

Her door opened, and she wheeled around. A male alien stepped towards her. She prepared to defend herself. She wished she had a weapon, but her knife had been in her pack.

The creature stopped in front of her. Before she could twitch a muscle, his arm shot out, and he dug his claws into her left arm.

Hot pain pierced her arm. She cried out.

The alien withdrew its hand and left the hut, looking apologetic.

She crumpled to the floor. Her muscles felt like they were turning to jelly. It was all she could do to crawl onto the rough pallet. She stared at the dark ceiling as the room began to spin. Her heart raged inside her chest, sending her blood roaring through her veins. Her head ached, and her stomach churned. Her limbs felt like they were on fire.

Panting, she looked at her arm. Something yellow glistened in the wound. She wanted to cry.

The hut warped around her, and she thought she heard laughter. She rolled over and emptied what little was in her stomach.

* * *

She was ill all night. She tossed and sweated and cried out in pain. Fevered dreams and terrifying visions assaulted her. Sometimes, she felt jagged pains so severe that her back arched and her whole body spasmed. During one such episode, she bit her tongue with enough force to draw blood.

Sometimes, she would black out; these were her favorite times. Her rare moments of lucidity were just another nightmare, as it was then that she felt the most pain. During those times, she had time to contemplate the death she felt sure was coming. She regretted ever leaving Barria. She wished Drogin was there with her. All the fear, sorrow, and pain of the past weeks came out in sobs both loud and silent.

A few hours before dawn – as fire invaded her every vein, and her insides tried to strangle themselves – she was finally given the peace of lasting unconsciousness.

* * *

When she awoke, it was morning. Sunlight slid in through her window, painting the room in shades of yellow and golden brown. The scent of leaves and the calls of birds floated through the air.

She no longer felt sick, though she was tired and parched.

As slowly as was possible on Tyzu, she sat up and checked her left arm. Her tunic arm was torn and bloodstained, but the wound had scabbed over and looked to be healing well.

She lifted her arm to run her fingers through her matted hair, and nearly screamed at what she beheld as her hand passed in front of her face.

Each of her fingers ended in a jagged, inch-long black claw. A drop of yellow liquid beaded on the end of one of them.

They’re turning me into one of them! she thought, remembering children’s stories of monsters that turned their victims into copies of themselves.

The sight of the yellow venom, the same venom they had injected into her, on her claws made her empty stomach heave. She shut her eyes. I’m a monster!

She wished she could tear the venom from her body. She feared she would become a predator, seeking victims to change into yet more monsters.

When she opened her eyes, the venom was gone, and her claws were dry. She checked every one in amazement. None of them had any venom. She wondered if it had been a lingering hallucination from her illness.

Having claws was disturbing, but it was not so bad as having claws that dripped with malignant poison.

She started to head for the basin of water, but then she looked down. Five claws had punctured the toes of each of her boots. She sagged, feeling her sense of horror return. She wondered if she would ever be able to remove the claws. She wondered if anyone would accept her as human, or if they would see her as a monster. She wondered if she would ever get back to Barria to find out.

She tried removing her boots to get a look at the claws, but she could not disentangle the two. Using the claws on her fingers, she tore her boots and socks to shreds.

The claws on her toes were shorter than those on her hands, but no less sharp.

She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. Her aching throat reminded her that she was still human enough to need water. Avoiding the pool of vomit, she crawled to the basin and drank deeply from the clear, cool water.

When her thirst had been quenched, and the water had stilled, she looked at her reflection. Her hair was dirty and tangled, and there were dark circles under eyes. She felt relieved that her complexion was still pink, and not the orange-brown of the creatures that had kidnapped her, but then she realized that her pupils had turned blue.

She sighed forlornly. What am I?

She crawled back to the pallet and lay down, consumed by numb horror and a sense of revulsion at what had been done to her.

* * *

She did not know how long she lay there. It felt like hours, though the sun hardly moved, so it could not have been very long.

Eventually, the heat in the hut became too much, the walls too close, the stink of her vomit too overpowering, and she was seized by an overpowering urge to flee.

She sat up, wiped sweat from her brow, and stared at her claws. She had weapons now. Her eyes darted to the door. The need to run built up inside of her until it could no longer be contained.

She crept towards the door, planning to tear apart anyone, or anything, that stopped her from leaving. She opened the door, filled with a primal fury she had never felt before.

There was no guard. She looked around the sunny platform, blinking in confusion. All of the aliens had gathered at the center of the platform and were eating various types of fruit. They looked at her with curiosity and a touch of something like concern.

One of them said something to her. She must have grown accustomed to the speed at which things moved on Tyzu, because she could clearly make out the words now, even if she didn’t understand them.

Something had been odd about these aliens since she’d been captured, and now she realized what it was: nothing in their demeanor indicated aggression. Their monstrous appearances had distracted her, but the one who’d captured her had done nothing to harm her, despite her violent attempts at escape, and their inspections of her had spoken more of concern and curiosity than maliciousness.

Now, their gazes held what appeared to be kindness. And something else, something almost beseeching.

In spite of what they had done to her, she felt her aggression bleed away.

She held up a clawed hand. “What did you do to me?”

Several of the aliens conversed amongst themselves. One spoke to her and gestured for her to approach. He held up a bowl of fruit.

Realizing how hungry she was, Leha crept towards the aliens. The living ropes of the platform cut into her feet, and she wished she had stronger calluses. She sat cross-legged at the edge of the ring of aliens and received the bowl of fruits. She tore one open with her claws and feasted on the juicy inner flesh.

Many of the aliens were talking to each other. She felt sure she was the topic of conversation.

Pausing eating, she looked down and saw that her feet had developed thick calluses. What in the world?

One of the aliens, the warrior that had captured her, spoke to her, and she understood one of the words. Barria. Something clicked in her mind and she understood what he’d said. “Are you from Barria?”

She stared at him and nodded slowly. This set off a ferment among the aliens; they buzzed with excitement.

One of them asked her, “Has the seal been broken? Are the Gods defeated?” Somehow, she understood them perfectly now.

She spoke, and the words she said were of the language of Tyzu, not Eastenhold. “The Old Gods have been dead for millennia. The seal remains, but I have found a way to circumvent it.” More questions appeared to be forthcoming, but she held up her hands for silence, sweet juice dripping from her claws. “Now, I want some answers. Who are you? What did you do to me – ” she indicated one of her blue pupils “ – and why?” A trace of anger crept back into her voice.

The old crone, the one Leha had seen before, put down her bowl and spoke in a raspy voice. “We are the Watching Eye clan. I am Elder Sheen; I am the leader. Our people, the people of Tyzu, are known as the Lost Ones. We came to this world to find new ways of battling the Gods and to create a bastion of humanity on this world.”

Leha leaned forward, her eyes wide. “You’re human?”

Elder Sheen examined one of her clawed, leathery hands and chuckled. “Yes, we are human. Tyzu has changed our bodies, but our hearts are as our ancestors’.”

Leha blushed, realizing she’d been rude.

Sheen regained her sober expression. “As for what we did to you, I am sorry for any discomfort we caused. When Doga found you, he recognized you for what you are: a woman of Barria. It had been so long since we had heard from our homeland that he could not bear to leave you, but you fought him and feared us. We had to find a way to get through to you.” Her eyes shone with an ancient, primordial longing. Leha tried to understand the sense of loss, of loneliness, that must have haunted the Lost Ones for thousands of years.

“Tyzu has wrought many changes in us. One is our claws. They are poisoned; any creature we strike will not live for long. Another is the ability to control our own bodies – albeit in a limited way.”

Leha’s expression showed she did not understand. Elder Sheen held forth a hand, and her face tightened in concentration. After a minute of waiting, Leha saw that the elder’s claws had grown slightly. She nodded in understanding.

Leha no longer felt so uneasy – her old curiosity had been riled.

Elder Sheen continued. “We realized that we could combine these two things. It took several hours, but Sosk was able to change his venom into something that will change, not kill. We thought that if there was something of us in you, you would gain an understanding of us.” She leaned back. “And you have.”

“Can it be reversed?” Leha asked quietly.

“No,” Elder Sheen replied.

Leha bent her head. Her throat tightened.

As much as she did not want to be changed in this way, she could not bring herself to hold it against the Lost Ones – not after seeing the way Sheen’s eyes misted when she spoke of Barria. They had been separated from the rest of humanity for seven thousand years; in their place, Leha probably would have done the same thing.

“I am sorry. Perhaps we did not consider the consequences of our actions,” Elder Sheen said.

Leha held her head in her hands. “I understand,” she said, her voice slurring.

Sheen waited until Leha had composed herself before speaking again. “Tell us of Barria. What has happened since the Gods sealed it? Why did you come here? How did you come here?”

Leha sniffed, took a bite of fruit, and told them of the end of the Liberation. She gave a brief lesson on Barria’s history since then, and then launched into her own tale. She didn’t go into as much detail as she had on Sy’om, but it still took a long time to finish.

Elder Sheen worked her jaw back and forth, then said, “So you came here to find weapons with which to fight these Tors.”

Leha nodded.

Lost One children offered bowls of water for people to rinse their hands. Leha took the opportunity to clean the fruit juice from her fingers. The water was cool, and it helped to refresh her after the last night’s ordeal.

She looked at Elder Sheen. “Do you know of anything that I could use?”

Sheen shook her head. “The reason the powers of the other worlds were effective during the ‘Liberation’, as you call it, was that the Gods could not easily adapt. Humans are far more able to change.”

She leaned forward. “And I must tell you that, even if we did know a way to help you fight, I do not think that we would. We Lost Ones have fought with each other at times, but it is a shameful thing, and we do everything we can to avoid it. Human killing human is abhorrent; we will not be a party to it.”

Leha’s heart plummeted. “Then I came here, suffered through everything, for nothing?” She couldn’t keep the frustration from her voice.

Sheen’s wrinkled visage softened sympathetically. “It would appear so. I am sorry.”

Leha put her head back into her hands, scraping herself with a claw in the process. The Lost One crowd began to disperse as she tried to hold back tears. Some spoke of holding a belated celebration of victory over the Gods.

She decided she wanted to be alone. As she was about to stand up, she remembered the calluses on her feet.

Looking at Elder Sheen, she said, “One more question.”

Sheen, whose elderly joints had not allowed her to leave yet, turned to her. “Yes?”

“What is this?” She pointed to her feet. “One minute, I want calluses to protect my feet. The next, I have them.”

Sheen furrowed her brow perplexedly. “You must have inherited our ability to change ourselves, but you should not have been able to do it so quickly. It would take us the better part of an hour to do something like this. Strange.”

The elder’s confusion did nothing to make Leha feel better, but she thanked her, all the same.

She stood. With the ropes creaking under her, she crossed to the edge of the platform. Staring down, she listened to the sounds of the forest beasts and tried to decide what to do next.

* * *

She spent the rest of the day considering, rejecting, and then reconsidering her options. She could continue to explore Tyzu, perhaps contact other Lost One clans, but there was no reason to believe she would gain anything from that. She could return to Sy’om and explore it further, but she doubted she would find anything useful there. She came to the crushing conclusion that her mission had been a failure, and that she would have to return to Barria.

Assuming she could find a way back.

The Lost Ones left her alone, for the most part. They clearly wanted to spend time with her, but they seemed to realize she needed space. They expended their time in the everyday business of living – hunting, gathering, cleaning, making and repairing their simple tools, cooking, and so forth. The elderly and those without any pressing tasks tended to play a board game that used various animal bones as pieces. The children on Tyzu were much like the children everywhere. They ran, and laughed, and played. Leha had to wonder what was to stop them falling off the platform during some of their rowdier games. The young ones were inclined to gawk at her and ask her questions about Barria. She tolerated them but did not make any pretense of friendliness.

At one point, a short Lost One man approached her. She recognized him as Sosk. She shivered as she remembered the events of the previous night.

He stood two feet from her and rung his hands. “I want to tell you that I’m sorry for the pain we – I – have caused you,” he finally said. He seemed as if we was about to say something else, but he stayed silent.

Leha stared up at him. She couldn’t bring herself to hate him for what he had done, but the memory of his claws tearing into her arm was still fresh in her mind. She resisted the urge to look away. She didn’t have the energy to think about this now. “I understand,” she said, and she did look away.

Sosk waited for her to say more. When she didn’t, he left. Leha returned to her contemplation of the forest below and her dark thoughts.

In the middle of the afternoon, a storm blew in, seemingly out of nowhere. Leha and the Lost Ones were forced to take shelter in the huts while lightning raged and titanic winds ripped through the forest. It seemed to Leha as if the world was coming to an end. The Lost Ones informed her that such weather was common.

When the storm was over, they returned to what they had been doing beforehand. The lightning had set off several brushfires; some got close to the village before burning themselves out. The Lost Ones were not fazed by any of it.

At dinner, just after nightfall, Leha spoke to Sheen again. “Are there wizards among the Lost Ones?”

Sheen nodded. “Yes. I and several others provide magical services for the clan.” The elder chewed on a piece of meat.

The creature they were eating had looked something like a deer, but it tasted more like chicken. It smelled like bacon.

“We have no silver, though, so we are very limited,” Sheen added. Her odd-colored skin seemed to glow in the orange torchlight.

“Why don’t you have any silver?” Leha asked, spearing a piece of meat with a claw. She had to admit that they could be practical.

“The silver we brought with us, and the knowledge of how to make more, were lost in ages past.”

Leha accepted a mug of fruit juice from one of the Lost Ones and sipped the sweet beverage. “Could you manage the spell to take me back to Barria?”

“Our ancestors did their best to penetrate the seal and return to Barria. What makes you think you will do better?” Sheen rasped.

Leha shrugged. “What choice do I have? I don’t want to stay here.” She looked up, adding, “No offense.”

Sheen shook her head as a way of saying, “None taken,” and made a beckoning motion with her hand. “Describe the spell.”

Leha explained it, adding that they would need to draw a large amount of power to create a new jumping point, as the jumping points to Barria had been eliminated.

Elder Sheen shook her head sadly. “We cannot do it.”

“Why not?” Leha pleaded, running her fingers through her hair. The feeling of claws on her scalp was more than a little disturbing.

“Tyzu’s energies are chaotic. To channel that much power without silver would surely kill the casters.”

Leha hung her head and let out an exasperated sigh.

After several minutes like that, she lifted her head and said, “There must be something we can try. A spell. A place to look for the silver you lost.”

A Lost One warrior with a scar on her chin leaned forward. “There is one place where silver can be found.”

Heart pounding, Leha looked at her expectantly.

“That will not help her, Haj,” Elder Sheen said.

Leha leaned forward. “What is it?”

Sheen frowned and put down her food. She seemed hesitant to speak. “Not all of the Gods failed to adapt to Tyzu. One was able to survive, though it went mad. It took up residence in a cave north of here. Every few years it would emerge to pillage and cause havoc. Our clans could not defeat it. It may be dead now – it has not been seen since I was young – but we have not dared to check.”

Leha felt her blood chill at the knowledge that an Old God still lived. “What does this have to do with finding silver?” she asked.

“The Gods fused silver onto their bodies. It gave them great mastery over magic,” one of the Lost Ones said.

Leha shuddered. “If I was to try and take this Old God’s silver, would your clan help me?” she asked Sheen.

“No. It is too great a risk,” Sheen replied sternly.

Leha ate her food without tasting it. The world seemed to be closing in on her.

* * *

That night, she dreamed of Three Gates’s destruction, of fire and war and death, and of Drogin. She dreamed of the cold stares of Tor Automatons and of the screams of frightened women. She startled awake many times, sometimes waking the Lost One woman whose home she stayed in.

When dawn finally came, bringing with it a return of Tyzu’s intense heat, she felt more tired than she had before she had gone to sleep. She shared breakfast with the Lost Ones, saying little.

After she had eaten and drank, she returned to the hut she shared and sought out her belongings. She could not stay here while her nation burned, and she had just one hope of returning to Barria. She had to kill the Old God and tear the silver from its body.

She did not bother to consider how reckless her quest was – or how small her chances of survival were.

As she fastened her sword belt, a deep voice spoke behind her. “Leha.”

She spun around. It was Doga, the one who had taken her from the forest. “Yes?” she said.

“I wish to apologize for frightening you when we first met. It was not my intent.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said dismissively, hooking her knife onto the belt.

Doga paused before saying, “You are going after the God, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” she sighed, expecting him to try and talk her out of it.

Doga pulled himself to his full height. “I would help you.”

She looked up from rooting through her pack, a questioning expression upon her face.

“Our ancestors came here to fight the Gods. It seems my people have lost sight of our purpose here. Though I’m sure Elder Sheen believes she is doing what is best for us, I think she has allowed fear to lead her away from our duty.”

Leha stood. “Will you get in trouble for helping me?”

“Elder Sheen has not ordered us to help you, but she has not ordered us not to help you. I am free to make my own decisions.”

Leha stepped forward and placed a hand on his hard shoulder. “Thank you,” she said earnestly.

Doga bowed his head. “It is my honor.”

They stepped from the hut together.

“I must gather my weapons. I will meet you there,” he said, pointing to the closer edge of the platform.

She went and stood at the edge. She wondered if any of the other Lost Ones had noticed what she was doing. If so, they gave no sign of it.

As she wished that she had brought some armor with her from Barria, Doga returned. He had a satchel of three sharpened wood spears on his back, and a stone-bladed axe hung from his belt. “I am ready,” he said.

She looked down at the distant forest floor. The scent of new growth floated up from far below. “How do we get down?”

He glanced at her. “We don’t.” His body blurring, Doga leapt off the platform, flew more than two-dozen feet through the air, and landed neatly on the branch of a neighboring tree. He beckoned to her.

Fear clutched at Leha, but she reminded herself that things worked differently on Tyzu, and that this was no more dangerous than fighting an Old God would be. She took a deep breath, stepped backwards, took a running leap off the platform, and fell like a stone.

She shrieked.

Doga shot downward, caught her in midair, and landed on the trunk of another tree, sinking his claws into the wood.

She hugged the tree, trying to calm her breathing.

“I’m sorry. It is so easy for us that I thought…” he said.

She looked at him with frightened eyes. “I can’t travel like this.”

“It would take too long to walk there. You must change yourself, make your muscles stronger.”

She sighed. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on becoming strong, agile, and fast. Her limbs tingled, and she could feel her muscles growing. Her body became leaner, tighter, harder.

She opened her eyes. “Okay, let’s try it again,” she said in a strangled voice.

Doga jumped away. Upon landing, he turned and called, “I will catch you if you fall.”

Leha took another deep breath, and leapt.

She shot toward the tree, barely having time to reach out with her claws before banging into the trunk. Her claws found purchase, and she clambered up onto a branch just below Doga’s.

“Much better,” he said. A hint of a smile touched his angular features.

She nodded dumbly.

Doga said, “Again,” and took another blurring vault. She followed him, this time with more grace.

“I think I’m getting the hang of this!” she called to him. He nodded and jumped again.

They continued traveling in that manner for the next half-hour. Doga led the way, with Leha following. She grew to enjoy this mode of travel. It was almost like flying. The wind would rush across her body with each jump, exhilarating her – it was almost enough to make her forget the trials of the last few weeks.

She took the opportunity to observe many of the strange plants and animals that called Tyzu home. Doga told her that the forest was home to numerous kinds of vicious predators – including Stassai like the one he had rescued her from – but they did not encounter any of them.

As they neared their destination, a storm appeared – there was rarely any warning of storms on Tyzu. They were drenched in the blink of an eye. Lightning flared, but much of it went through the clouds and not down; Doga assured her that they were in little danger. Nonetheless, they avoided the taller trees.

They reached the base of a cliff, and Doga pointed down. A large cave, like a yawning mouth, pierced the cliff side. They skittered down the trees and approached.

The cold, pounding rain had damaged Leha’s mood, and the knowledge that what she was about to do was likely suicide killed the last of her good feelings. She shivered and set her mouth into a grim line

She drew her sword, and found that her claws prevented her from having a good grip.

She threw it away in disgust. Doga watched it clang against the rocks. He seemed confused but said nothing.

He drew a spear, and they entered the cave.

The rock was cool and wet under Leha’s bare feet. The ground was strewn with gravel and boulders. Some had sharp edges she could feel through her calluses. She willed them thicker. A small stream ran down the middle of the tunnel, filling the air with a faint trickling to accompany the cacophony of the storm outside.

Leha tried to concentrate on making her body as strong and tough as possible. The fearful drumming of her heart and the rush of adrenaline through her veins made it hard to think straight.

“If it is asleep, we may be able to ambush it,” Doga whispered, startling her. His face was set into a mask of determination. “It cannot control the magic on Tyzu, so it will have to fight us with its bare hands.”

That’s a great comfort, she thought sarcastically.

They turned a slight corner, and she saw a piece of tarnished silver reflecting the dim light. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but when she did, she gasped.

There, lying on the cavern floor, its metal body covered in dirt and rust, was their quarry.

It was an Automaton.

Leha’s first thought was that it was one of the Tor Wizard-Automatons, but she realized that its design did not match. It wasn’t any make she recognized.

Seeing her distress, Doga asked, “What is it?”

She started walking out of the cave, gesturing for him to follow. They stopped just inside the cavern mouth and she turned to face him. “It’s an Automaton!” she said.

“What is an Automaton?” he asked, looking perplexed.

“A machine. We use them on Barria for combat and heavy labor.”

Doga quirked his head. “The Gods do your bidding?”

“No, we – I,” she stammered. She flopped onto a damp boulder. “Wrath of the Old Gods,” she said, invoking the greatest of all swears.

Truth dawning on her, the blood drained from her face. The Old Gods had been living among humanity for centuries, and now, the Tors had finally restored them to their original level of power.

Eastenhold was not the only nation in peril. All of Barria was in danger.

“Leha, what are you talking about?” Doga asked.

She clutched the boulder she sat upon to stop her hands shaking. Her claws dug little furrows in the stone. “Hundreds of years ago, a wizard named Vorren invented a new type of magical war machine called an Automaton. It changed the face of the world. His nation, Jansia, became supremely powerful; my own country was founded by refugees fleeing the Jansian machines.

“Except he didn’t invent them. He must have found the wrecks of some of the Old Gods and rebuilt them, not realizing what they were. And every generation has been making the Automatons bigger and more powerful ever since.”

It now seemed unforgivably foolish, and her face burned with the shame of thousands of years of recklessness practiced by the people of her world. “It was thousands of years after the Liberation. No one remembered what the Old Gods had been. ‘Titans of strength and terror’ was all we ever knew of them.” She dropped her gaze. “We… forgot.”

As she spoke, his face tightened. His brow furrowed, his eyes widened, and his lip quivered in anger. “How could you have forgotten the Old Gods, after all they did to us?”

She looked up at him forlornly.

Her heart beat even faster now. She needed to get home and warn her people. She had to warn everyone.

A creaking of metal echoed from deeper in the cave. Doga’s head snapped around. “It’s awake.”

He ran back into the cave, spear at the ready, and she followed.

The Automaton had come to its feet. Even as massive as the cave was, the machine couldn’t stand straight without hitting the ceiling. It struck at them with both hands. They dodged in opposite directions moments before its fists smashed into the cave floor, sending dust and rocks flying.

Doga threw his first spear. It broke against the Automaton’s armor. The Automaton struck back; he dodged and threw the second. This one broke through the machine’s corroded chest, but it did not slow the ancient God.

While Doga kept it distracted, Leha circled behind it, trying to think of a way to bring it down. Her brother had taught her much about the inner workings of Automatons. If this one was like the modern models, it would have a disc of pure silver within its chest, drawing power to keep the machine operating. Tear out the disc, and this is over.

Doga hurled his last spear. It clanged off the Automaton’s head without effect. He drew his axe and struck the thing’s hand, tearing a deep gouge in the corroded metal. The Automaton swung its other hand in a wide arc. Doga avoided it – like Leha when she had first arrived, it was unsteady in its movements – but the blow shattered the cavern wall.

A piece of rubble hit Doga’s head with a meaty smack. He collapsed.

Leha’s heart skipped a beat and she cursed herself for hesitating. “Damn you!” she cried.

The Automaton turned to face her, its joints squealing and its feet crushing rocks. It fixed her with a baleful, blue stare. A voice, inhuman and cold, spoke in her mind. Rebellious whelp.

It raised its fist to crush her.

Still blaming herself for not helping Doga, she didn’t dive out of the way until it was almost too late. The floor where she had stood was pulverized. Bits of broken stone stung her skin.

She swung with her claws, snapping off one of the machine’s fingers. It backhanded her, smacking her against the cavern wall. Pain blossomed in her back. It attacked again, going for the killing blow. It was too fast; she couldn’t avoid it. If she had been on Barria, she might have had time to react, but here, she didn’t.

The Automaton slowed, allowing her to escape.

Confused, she bounded into the rear of the cavern, away from its clutches. The Automaton pursued her, but it was now moving at the speed it would on Barria, and she could evade it easily.

What happened? She thought back to the moment just before it had slowed. She had been thinking that if it had slowed to the pace of things on Barria, she would have been able to escape. And it had.

She decided to do an experiment. She concentrated on lessening the energy around it, on making it move as it would on Sy’om.

The Automaton slowed down to a crawl.

Leha felt a surge of vindictive pleasure. A smile split her face.

Still moving with the speed of Tyzu, she leapt onto one of its outstretched arms and ran up its unnaturally cold skin, arriving at its neck. She grabbed one of the rusted steel plates on the front of its throat and pulled with all her strength. Her muscles burned with the effort, but with a great screeching of metal, the plate tore off. She began pulling at the plate below it. In its current condition, there was little the Automaton could do to stop her. The second plate was even more corroded and came off easily. It crashed onto the stone floor.

The third plate took more effort. She had to brace herself on the machine’s reinforced collar and engage what felt like every muscle in her body to pry it loose. She gritted her teeth against the pain it caused her. Finally, with a great screaming of metal, it came free. She had to put her momentum into a spin to keep from falling off the machine’s chest.

The Automaton’s hands were almost close enough to yank her free, but she had created a wide enough hole in its neck for her to dive into its chill interior. She crawled down into the mass of gears and support struts that was the inside of its chest. Standing on a lateral beam, she clutched the faintly glowing silver disc that provided the machine’s power. Unlike its surroundings, which had been chilled by its drawing power to fuel the machine, it was warm. She shrank her claws to get a better grip, braced herself, and pulled, pitting her newfound strength against the steel of its moorings.

The inside of the machine was in better condition than the outside, and the silver was bolted in tightly. No ordinary human could have done it. But Leha was no longer an ordinary human.

Her body rose to the challenge, growing and enhancing its musculature beyond what she would have thought possible. Her arms became hard cords equal to any metal.

When she thought she could not stand the pain any longer, the disc broke from its moorings. She nearly fell into the gears in its hips, but caught herself in time.

The machine shuddered and dropped. Leha held on tightly, but it still moved with the energy of Sy’om, and the landing was soft.

Silver disc in hand, she wriggled out of the machine and ran across the dank cave to check on Doga. His head was bloodied, and her throat tightened as she approached. Then, she heard a groan, and he lifted his head.

“Did we win?” he asked groggily.

Kneeling before him, she held up the silver and grinned.

He smiled weakly. “How?”

Her grin faded. “I don’t know.” She looked at the fallen hulk of the Automaton. “It was about to kill me, and I thought that, if I was on Barria, I would have time to escape, and then it slowed down, like it was on Barria. Then I tried to make it as slow as it would have been if it was on Sy’om, and it worked.” She added, “I don’t understand it.”

Doga looked at her oddly, propping himself up on one elbow. “Maybe it has something to do with how we changed you. Maybe it made you a wizard.”

“Maybe,” she admitted. “But, on my world, the Automatons are shielded with lead so magic won’t work on them.”

Doga frowned. “This one was too. All the Gods were,” he said, glancing down at the floor.

She furrowed her brow. “Maybe the lead lost its efficacy over time.”

Doga hauled himself to a sitting position. He looked a little pale. “It’s possible. There is one way to see if you are a wizard: try to cast a spell.”

Leha wasn’t sure if trying to cast a spell on a high energy world, without training, was a good idea, but her curiosity got the better of her. She pointed at a nearby rock, closed her eyes, and tried to send a bolt of magic at it.

Nothing happened.

She tried changing her body, making herself into a wizard. Her face screwed in concentration.

Nothing happened.

She opened her eyes. “I’m not a wizard.”

Doga shook his head. “It is a mystery.”

Remembering the urgency of the situation, Leha said, “I need to get back to Barria and warn my people. Can you travel?”

He nodded. “Just give me a few moments.”

She nodded and stood. She stepped across the cavern to examine the dead Old God. She had spent so much time imagining them; it was nothing like what she had expected.

Running her hands across a rapidly warming metal foot, she wondered how she had defeated it. She picked up a stone and threw it. Halfway through its arc, she willed it to Sy’om’s energy level. It slowed greatly. With a thought, she sped it back up to Tyzu speed, and it clattered to the floor.

She shook her head. I don’t understand.

She performed several tests of her abilities before Doga signaled he was ready to go. She found that she could change the energy level of any object, even herself, to that found on Tyzu, Barria, or Sy’om.

She continued to ponder it as they left they cave and returned to the Watching Eye Clan village.

———————

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