We now come to the sixth chapter of Rage of the Old Gods, the first book of my epic science fantasy trilogy the World Spectrum. In the coming weeks, I will be posting the entire book for free on this blog. If you’re just joining us, you can get caught up with the previous chapters now.
In this chapter, Yarnig presses north to make contact with the enigmatic Northern Clans, while the defenders of Marlhem find themselves sleepless in anticipation of the coming battle.
Chapter six: No Sleep in the City
Yarnig had not expected roads.
After gathering a small escort and some supplies, the emperor had traveled north, seeking the Northern Clans, the only nation on Barria with the knowledge of how to successfully fight Automatons without using machines of their own.
Three days ago, Yarnig’s party had left the northern reaches of Tor territory and entered a forest of tall, snowy evergreens. The trees were widely spaced, and little grew between them; there wasn’t much that could survive, this far north. They had traveled through the woods for more than a day, their horses picking their way through the trees and the deep snow. Then, they had reached the road.
The Clan road didn’t resemble the roads of Tor Som. It had not been paved, and it was incredibly wide. Two Automatons could have easily walked abreast upon it. When they had first come upon it, Yarnig had ordered Taldin, his master of the guard, and his men to examine it. After digging through a foot of snow, they had determined that the road had been built by clearing the land, stamping it until it was hard, and then salting it to prevent plants from taking root in it. Taldin had said that likely meant that the roads weren’t used on a regular basis.
This all displayed a level of ingenuity and knowledge on the part of the Clans that was far beyond what Yarnig’s books gave them credit for. He found himself wondering if their technology had improved in the seventy years since the last major conflict with Tor Som, or if his people had underestimated them from the start.
When he had suggested this mission, nearly a week ago, Taldin had tried to talk him out of it. “They hate Tors; they’ll kill us on sight!” he’d said. “It’s suicide.”
Yarnig had shoved aside his guard’s objections. Sometimes, you have to take a chance, he’d reasoned.
Eventually, the old guard had relented, and he, Yarnig, a small escort of soldiers, and Erik, a battle wizard assigned to Yarnig’s protection, had set off.
Now, they pulled themselves through the drifts on the Clan roads, huddling in their thick cloaks, dragging sleds full of supplies behind them. No tracks marred the road’s white blanket save for those made by the occasional lynx or wolf pack. The snow hissed against itself with every gust of wind, and the dense drifts deadened the horses’ labored breaths.
Each night, as they camped, Yarnig would pull a sketchpad from his pack and huddle by the fire, drawing what he could before his hands became too cold to work. Due to the time constraints, he produced sketches of stark simplicity, but he decided it was a style that suited the bleak yet beautiful lands they traveled through.
At night, the wind howled through the branches like an angry beast.
Yarnig had never been so cold for so long. As a member of one of the royal families, he had never been forced to live with hardship. He had been left to his own devices and pleasures. This journey resembled nothing in his body of experience, and he found himself paying acute attention to every pain and discomfort. He had expected to be cold, to be tired, yes, but there were a thousand other tiny aches and irritants he had not imagined. Saddle sores, constant hunger, stiff joints, an itchy beard he could not find time to shave…
Still, part of him welcomed it. He was living. Truly living. He no longer wasted his days with useless hobbies while his people died. He had a purpose in life other than to breed an heir who would one day breed an heir who would one day rule Tor Som, or to act as a figurehead while others shouldered the responsibilities of keeping his nation running.
It took another two days for them to leave the forest. They entered a vast arctic plain upon which little grew. This was the land of the Northern Clans. The books Yarnig had brought said that, while some clans had constructed permanent villages, most of them were nomads, living off of their herds and whatever they could hunt.
They soon lost sight of the trees. With white clouds above and white snow below, they seemed to have entered an empty void. The snow was so deep the horses could barely move through it.
Yarnig reined in his steed and surveyed the empty wastes. His horse desperately gasped for air, steam rising from its nostrils. The emperor felt ice form on his nose hairs.
Taldin nudged his horse, urging it forward to halt alongside Yarnig. A mountain of furs and coats concealed the old soldier’s thin form and gray hair and moustache. “Any particular direction you wish to take, sire?”
“Erik!” Yarnig called, yelling to be heard over the howling wind.
Erik pushed his horse forward. A tuft of gold hair poked out from his hood, and his silver-plated staff glinted dully.
During the preparations to invade Eastenhold, Erik had made the mistake of questioning the war and had been assigned to Yarnig’s personal protection. With the Tor Vargis dead, there was no longer any need for him to baby-sit the emperor, but Yarnig had taken a liking to the young wizard. They shared the same sensibilities on many things – from music to politics.
“Can you detect if anyone out here is using magic?” Yarnig asked.
“I can try.”
Erik raised his staff and closed his eyes. For a moment, the only sounds came from the wind and blowing snow.
The wizard opened his eyes. “I sense something. I can’t tell what it is, but it’s coming from that direction – ” he pointed north and west “ – and it isn’t natural.”
Yarnig nodded. “Good enough. Let’s go.”
He shook the reins, and his horse dragged itself forward. His party followed, and they set off across the frozen fields.
* * *
Somewhere, a hammer rang.
Cold gusts of wind blew over the wall, and Leha hid her hands in the pockets of her cloak. She looked south across the plain. A crescent moon painted the snowy fields silver, and the stars winked at her from above. She looked, knowing that due south, beyond her sight, the Automatons were readying. This plain ran deep into Karkar; the Automatons had built their camp at its edge, and when they came, this was the direction they would come from.
Thinking of that, Leha’s thoughts returned to the ringing hammer. If she strained her senses, she could hear others throughout the city. The forges would be working hard for the next few weeks, preparing for the Automaton attack.
Assuming they had weeks.
Following the meeting with the Urannans, Leha and the other leaders had begun working on their defense plans. Natoma’s experience had proved useful, particularly in matters of supplies and logistics, but as yet, their strategy did not differ greatly from the strategies they’d used since the Battle of Heart. As usual, the plan hinged on Leha. Without her control over the energies of the other worlds, they would be lost.
A piece of ice crunched behind her, and she jumped, clutching the battlement for support.
“Sorry,” Eranna said in her throaty but lyrical accent.
Leha turned to face her, peeling her hand off the chilled stone.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the Tor said. She had removed her armor, but she wore her uniform under her cloak, and her short sword still hung from her belt. A fur hat covered her head.
“Hello, Eranna,” Leha said quietly.
Eranna came forward, folded her arms on the battlement, and laid her head atop them, gazing out at the plain. “Can’t sleep?”
Leha folded her arms into her sleeves, turned south, and observed the constellations. The Feast had just risen above the horizon. “I needed to think. Besides, my hut isn’t exactly inviting in cold like this.”
“You could always take my place at the barracks,” Eranna said. In the starlight, her hair glowed like white gold.
Leha shook her head as a breeze ruffled her hair. “No. You can keep it.” For the first few weeks after her arrival in Marlhem, Leha had lived in an abandoned house, one of the few still intact, but one day, she had been walking down the street and seen a woman and child living in a shelter made in the ruins of a tool shed. She had given the woman her home, and ever since, she had been unable to accept any accommodation better than what most of the population made do with.
They sat in silence for a time, feeling the ebb and flow of the winds.
Eranna’s eyes searched across the heavens, and she said, “I used to love looking at the stars. When I was little, I’d wander out at night and stay up to watch them. Some nights, in winter, the – ” she searched for the words “ – northern lights would light up the whole sky. It was beautiful.”
Leha leaned forward. “We were too far south for the northern lights.” She smirked. “I tended to spend my nights doing things that made my parents worry. I’d steal food from the bakeries or sneak into parts of the city where children aren’t generally allowed.”
They talked for a long time before making their way back to their respective homes. Leha welcomed the distraction, but part of her couldn’t forget what lay to the south.
She didn’t know how her people had survived this long. Sometimes, she thought it had been simple luck. Nor did she have a clear idea of how they would weather the coming assault.
She hoped that Natoma’s knowledge would help them to put up a defense. She hoped she was the leader her people thought her to be.
She hoped this wouldn’t be the time that their luck ran out.
* * *
Drogin rolled over in his bed, willing sleep to come.
Sleep wasn’t cooperative. He sat up, sighing, and felt a chill as the sheets fell from his bare chest. His mind was too chaotic for sleep.
He swung his legs out of bed and dressed hurriedly. His hand found the hexagonal shaft of his wand, and he willed it to light, illuminating his tiny bedroom and its ramshackle roof. His home had once been part of an armory. The Automatons had flattened much of it, but an office on one end had survived intact – save for the roof – and Drogin had converted it into his home; his bedroom had once been a closet for files and records. The ruins outside were now filled with half-finished prototypes and gizmos. He had been put in charge of designing new weapons to fight the Automatons, but so far, he hadn’t had much success.
Guided by the eerie light of his wand, he made his way to the room he used as study, living room, kitchen, and dining room.
He thought back to his old days in Eastenhold, when he had been an Automaton technician. Things had been simpler then, easier. He had maintained his machines, and he had kept watch over the borders. Simple. He missed those days.
He knelt before his tiny stove and added a few branches of wood, stoking the flames until they began to warm the room. The pungent wafts of smoke helped to clear his head of its fatigue.
He crossed the clutter, coming to sit at his drawing table. As he passed, a draft blew in through one of the many gaps in the roof. He shivered.
As he sat down, he held out his wand. A spark leapt from its tip and lit a candle; its light was not so unnerving as the wand’s green-white glow. He considered the chaotic pile of papers atop the table. Most of them were concerned with two machines he had been designing.
One had been designed to do what Leha did: channel the powers of the other worlds. Drogin had been working on it for months. The energies of Sy’om and Tyzu – and the Automatons’ inability to adapt to them – had formed the foundation for every victory they had won since the Battle of Heart.
But only Leha could channel them. Even with the seal broken throughout much of Tor Som and the surrounding lands, no wizard had been able to channel the powers of the other worlds the way Leha did. They had been forced to conclude that the fighters of the Liberation had used some kind of machine.
Thus far, none of the machines he had designed had done anything. He didn’t have the faintest idea how his sister did what she did, and on the rare occasions when she agreed to be examined, no one had been able to find any clues.
It would have been much simpler, Drogin thought, to create more people like Leha – she and her Lost One friends could produce enough venom for an army of people like her. But when he had confronted her about it, she had flatly refused. She’d said they still didn’t fully understand what had happened to her and that it was too risky.
As he thought about his sister, he sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. Her journeys in Sy’om and Tyzu had changed her somehow. She wasn’t the girl he remembered from before the war.
Drogin grimaced. Focus. He shoved his sister from his thoughts. The sound of ruffling papers filled the room as he searched for a particular sketch.
The other machine occupying his papers was a device intended to recreate the magical feedback loop first performed by he and Leha. Over the past months, it had proven itself to be an effective weapon against the increasingly common Wizard-Automatons, but it was extremely risky for the people who performed it. Many people had lost their lives to it. It hadn’t taken long for Drogin to begin his work on a machine that could do it without risk.
Unlike his other project, he had made good progress on this device. He expected he would be able to fulfill Eranna’s request to have it ready for use before the next attack.
The difficulty lay in ensuring that its Automaton targets would not be able to take control of it, and in creating the mechanisms that would allow it to operate without a ludicrous amount of human intervention or a machine mind. It was no longer wise to trust a machine that could think for itself.
Drogin hovered over the designs, tapping his pencil against a corner of paper, trying to come up with new solutions to the problems, but nothing came to him.
After several minutes, he admitted to himself that his mind was too occupied for him to concentrate. He knew he couldn’t sleep, so he pocketed his wand, put on his coat, blew out the candle, and stepped outside.
The chill night air helped to wake him, and he took a deep breath. He picked his way through the twisted heaps of metal and half-built prototypes that littered the area around his home and made his way to one of the main streets, walking in long, quick strides that helped to keep him warm.
Few people were out this late, and those that were hurried by, huddling in their thick clothes, their footsteps echoing eerily through the night.
Marlhem was a grim place by daylight, but at night, it took on a surreal, haunted quality. It had not been a pretty city when it was intact, its residents had told him, and now the machines had reduced it to a maze of broken ruins, shantytowns, and silent streets. Here and there, fires and lanterns glowed forlornly, fighting back the darkness that threatened to swallow them on all sides.
In the distance, he heard a hammer ring.
Drogin jumped slightly, startled by the unexpected voice. He turned about and saw a cloaked figure standing in the doorway of what had once been a tavern.
The figure stepped onto the street and came forward. Within the man’s dark hood, Drogin caught sight of the skull-like face of a Lost One. Recognizing him, Drogin felt the adrenaline of his surprise fade, replaced by annoyance. He wanted to be alone.
“It seems I am not the only one unable to sleep,” Doga said.
Drogin reached to comb his hair with a gloved hand but thought better of it. “It seems.” He resumed his walking.
Doga matched his stride. “Thinking about the battle?”
They passed into an abandoned section and were thrown into darkness. The temperature couldn’t have been different, but it felt much colder here.
“The impending Automaton attack,” the black shape that was Doga said.
“Oh. No. I just couldn’t sleep.” He kicked a stone. It seemed to skitter and clatter for an unnaturally long amount of time.
“Does it not bother you?” the shadowy Lost One said.
Drogin shrugged. “Sure it does. It and twenty other things.”
They left the abandoned stretch and turned down a lantern-lit street of relatively intact buildings. In a nearby alley, a pair of Tors huddled over a fire. Judging by the smell, they were burning garbage.
“I cannot think of anything but the machines’ coming,” Doga said. He continued talking. His voice echoed with an odd kind of nervous excitement.
Drogin hardly listened. He noticed Doga’s hands; they were gloved, but the gloves’ fingers had been pierced to allow his claws to stick out. They looked much like the claws his sister now bore.
Drogin’s hood concealed his grimace.
“Awake late, are we?” a voice called out.
Lahune stepped forward from the shadow of a building, his smooth voice carrying in the still night. They came to a stop.
“It would seem,” Doga responded companionably.
“Would you mind if I walked with you?” the Urannan said.
“Not at all,” Doga responded.
Drogin sighed quietly.
The three of them began walking, passing the ruined warehouse district. Even at this hour, the bathes were operating. Many people sent their clothes here to be cleaned; that work was generally done at night. The air smelled faintly of soap.
“So, what’s keeping you up?” Drogin asked Lahune.
He shrugged. He still wore those black robes. Something about them teased at Drogin’s memory. “I’m always like this when I come someplace new. It’s the excitement of seeing new things and meeting new people.”
Drogin gestured to the skeleton of a shop. “This is exciting?”
The Urannan smiled. “The teachings of Aya say that ‘each new place contains within it a selection of humanity’s great diversity, like a bouquet of flowers; if the varying colors, textures, and teachings of the world were ever combined, we would have perfection.’”
Drogin looked at the new man with new eyes, remembering where he had seen those robes. They were the robes of a priest, a follower of Aya. When he had been nine, a group of Urannan priests had passed through Three Gates. They’d been leading a bunch of dirty mules through the streets, pretending to ignore the scornful gazes that had followed them. Leha, seven at the time, had been interested in their exotic clothes, and he’d had to stop her from following them.
They turned down another dimly lit street. A harsh wind blew in their faces.
“You’re a priest,” Drogin said flatly.
“A priest?” Doga growled.
“My order has nothing to do with those who once served the Old Gods,” Lahune said quickly.
Drogin leaned towards the Lost One. “A few years after the Liberation, a philosopher named Aya began preaching that humanity was a sacred and wondrous creation. She founded an order dedicated to worshipping our race and venerating its achievements.” He spoke in the tone of a parent describing their child’s imaginary friend.
Lahune raised a hand. “That’s not strictly true,” he said politely. “We do not worship humanity. ‘Worship’ implies we believe that humans have some form of divinity. We are no more divine than the Old Gods were. Contrary to popular belief, we are not a religion, and we do not seek to replace the belief in the Old Gods. We remember the damage that religion did to our people.”
They passed through an abandoned area where the road had not been cleared, and their feet crunched in the moonlit snow. Drogin was slowly leading them back towards his home.
Lahune continued. “The purpose of my order is to embrace and celebrate the qualities that make humanity the beautiful and diverse thing it is. The Old Gods created us to be their slaves, but we have far exceeded being simple workers. We have art, and music, and language. We have ethics and laws. And we still have not reached our full potential. That is the purpose of my order, the heart of Aya’s teachings: to work towards achieving our race’s full potential.”
Doga didn’t seem to know how to react.
“I’d be happy to tell you more,” Lahune said. “I can read some of Aya’s teachings to you. Perhaps you could tell me about the Lost Ones; I’d like to hear about your world and your people.”
“Perhaps,” Doga said, working his jaw back and forth.
They were near the street where Drogin lived, so he decided it was time to make his escape. He excused himself and hurried home, where he collapsed into bed, and his mind continued to run in circles.
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