Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Twenty: The Anniversary

We have now reached the twentieth 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.

Cover art for

A year has passed since the victory that made Leha the Hero of Heart. It is an opportunity for the remaining champions of humanity to reflect on how far they’ve come, and how far they still have to go — a last respite before the final clash.

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Chapter twenty: The Anniversary

Breena had been right. In this place, the sun did not set.

As the normal time of dusk had grown closer, Leha had watched the sun’s progress as it drew closer to the horizon. It eventually lowered itself enough to plunge the camp into a dim twilight and paint the sky in a mixture of pinks, oranges, and violets, but it never fully sunk, and night never came.

One hour after when the sun should have set, she prepared for dinner. She asked Drogin and Natoma to join her, and the three of them gathered around a campfire outside Leha’s tent, roasting a piece of reindeer meat that would barely be enough to feed them. The wind blowing off the sea grew colder, but Leha’s tent stood in its way, and they were protected from the brunt of it.

As the meat cooked, Eranna came by, and they invited her to join them. She left briefly to find more food, but she soon returned with a wedge of reindeer cheese and took her place by the fire.

They discussed the eerie nature of the unsetting sun and the strangeness of this land as the fire crackled and the wind ruffled the tent canvas.

Just as Leha was about to serve the meat, Lahune emerged from the twilight, the wind stirring his dark robes. He wore a backpack. Doga followed a few paces behind him.

“Hello,” the priest said in his smooth voice, stopping before their little fire.

Doga stopped beside him and nodded to Leha and her group. He greeted Leha and Drogin in Eastenholder, and he greeted Eranna in Tor.

Eranna favored him with one of her rare smiles. It transformed her normally joyless face. “Ko nadl,” she said.

He smiled back. He turned to Natoma and greeted her in Eastenholder, adding, “I am sorry. My Urannan is not good.”

She smiled at him.

Leha wondered why Lahune had come. He normally avoided places where battle was likely to occur. “Would you two care to join us?” she said. The scent of the cooking meat taunted her hungry stomach.

“Yes, thank you,” Lahune said.

He and Doga sat in the gap between Eranna and Natoma.

Leha surveyed their meager provisions. “I’m afraid we don’t have much food for you.”

Lahune smiled. “That’s all right. I brought my own.” He removed his pack and looked Leha in the eye. “Do you know what today is?”

She furrowed her brow. “No.”

“Today is the one year anniversary of your triumph at the Battle of Heart.”

Leha raised her eyebrows. It didn’t seem to her like it could have been an entire year.

“We’ve come to celebrate it,” Doga added.

Leha thought that this seemed like an odd time to celebrate. The Automatons were bearing down on them, and there was still a good chance that the war would not end in victory for humanity. But after a moment’s thought, she decided that those were good arguments in favor of it. She shared glances with her companions, and their expressions mirrored her own feelings.

Her face blossomed into a smile. “Thank you. That’s an excellent idea,” she said. She nodded towards his sack. “What’ve you brought?”

Lahune opened the pack and began removing items. “Nuts, jenjin fruit, cheese, smoked reindeer meat, and a jug of ulu and whiskey.”

“And…” Doga said. He reached into a sack hanging from his belt and removed a small loaf of fresh bread, a rare delicacy these days.

A murmur of appreciation met Doga’s offering.

They shared out the food. Not everyone received the same things, but everyone had enough. For her share, Leha took a small piece of the meat they had cooked over the fire; a piece of cheese, which she melted over the meat; a jenjin, a plum-sized Tyzuan fruit that looked like a purple tomato and tasted like a grape; a handful of nuts; and a slice of bread. In addition to the food, they each received a cup of ulu and whiskey. The drink was strong and burned Leha’s throat, but it was also pleasantly sweet – she suspected extra honey had been added along with the whiskey – and she enjoyed it.

The meal was simple, but it was far better than anything they had eaten in weeks, and they relished it.

Once her hunger had subsided somewhat, Leha had the thought that others deserved to celebrate this anniversary. She reached out with her mind, found the nearest ice creature, and had it broadcast her order that the army was to have double rations tonight. It would tax their food supplies, but the boost to morale would be worth it.

As they ate, the six of them talked. They talked of the Battle of Heart, of their lives before the war, and of other things. Drogin and Eranna spoke about their meeting in the battle and how they had both agreed to put aside their differences in the interest of survival. Doga told stories of his life before Leha had come to his village. He showed a scar on his left wrist that he had earned in a battle between some Watching Eye warriors and a pair of Stassai. Natoma mostly listened. Lahune talked about his life as a priest prior to the war, seeming not to notice the odd looks given to him by Drogin and Eranna. Leha had heard that the people of Uranna were more tolerant of his order than other nations, but she supposed he must still be used to being an outcast. Leha briefly talked about her life before the war, giving special detail to the diversity of Three Gates and the exotic goods and people that had flowed through the city. She stopped when she noticed that she was making Eranna uncomfortable.

In spite of the bittersweet nature of the anniversary, smiles and laughs were plentiful among many of their conversations. But as the sunlit night wore on, Leha found herself withdrawing from the discussions.

Since she had awoken after the machines’ retreat, she had seen and experienced many arguments in favor of the goodness of the human race. At times, she had wondered if her quest to “fix” them, to ensure continued unity, was necessary. Throughout her army, from the recruits she had never met to the friends gathered around the fire with her, she saw what humanity should be, a unified people working towards a common goal.

But the warriors of the Liberation had embodied the same ideal. After the defeat of the Old Gods, humanity had been a single society, a society without war or hate. And within a few centuries, it had all fallen apart.

She didn’t want that to happen again.

What was to stop it? Why had it happened the first time? The questions plagued Leha’s mind. It was all far more than she had ever had to consider. She wondered if such ponderings were beyond her.

Eventually, the gathering wound down, and the pounding of waves replaced the sound of voices. One by one, they returned to their tents and sought their bedrolls. When Eranna excused herself, Leha asked to walk her back to her tent, acting on impulse.

“I’m not very tired,” she explained honestly. “It’s the way the sun doesn’t set, I think.”

Eranna agreed to let her come. They strolled through the twilit camp, the moist wind whipping Leha’s hair and tossing Eranna’s braid. It was late, and nearly everyone – other than those assigned to watch – had gone to bed, but a few were still awake, talking or celebrating the anniversary.

Leha ran her fingers through her hair. She tried to think of the right words.

“Eranna, do you ever think about after the war?”

Eranna looked surprised. “Not very much. I’ll be happy if I’m alive to see it.”

Leha nodded and mumbled an agreement. After a moment, she tried again. “I think about it a lot. A lot has changed since before the Automatons turned on us, hasn’t it? Before the war, you and I were enemies.

“Sometimes I wonder if the changes will last.”

“I don’t think our friendship will end with the war.”

“No, of course not. That’s not what I meant.” She paused and took a deep breath. The air smelled of campfires and the ocean. “But before the war, we were all separate nations. Some of them were enemies. Sometimes I wonder if everyone will be willing to forget that when the machines are gone. I wonder if we’ll continue to be one people, or if we’ll just fall apart.”

Eranna peered at her. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”

Leha pressed on. “We’ve banded together because it’s the only way we’ll survive, but what happens when our survival isn’t threatened anymore?”

They’d reached a quiet part of the camp, and Eranna stopped and faced her. “What are you getting at?”

Leha tilted her head up to look her in the eye. “We, the human race, have proven ourselves capable of great things. We defeated the Old Gods once, and there’s a chance we might do it again. We can be good and tolerant. But if you look at our history, we have so often given ourselves to our worst traits. It’s nearly destroyed us. I want to know if it will happen again.”

Eranna stayed silent for a long time. She started walking towards her tent again, and Leha followed.

“I don’t know,” Eranna said at last. “You’re right. I saw what happened at Three Gates – and Broad Field, and Heart – better than you did. I know what we can be at our worst.” She let out a breath slowly. “I don’t know why, though. I don’t know why the Tor Vargis ordered the destruction of your nation, and I don’t know how they convinced my people that such slaughter was a good thing.” She shook her head. “Maybe it’s just part of how the Old Gods made us. Maybe we’re just made to fall apart.”

Leha shook her head. “I don’t think I can believe that.” I don’t want to believe that.

They reached the Tor soldier’s tent and stopped at the entrance.

“This reminds me of a conversation I had with Doga a few months ago,” Eranna said, facing Leha.

“Really?”

Eranna folded her arms. “Yes. He mentioned some teaching from Lahune’s cult, and we started talking about the fact that the Old Gods designed us. Doga was saying that it didn’t matter, that we had evolved beyond what they made us to be.”

Leha nodded. “What do you think?”

Eranna let out a breath. “I don’t want to believe that we’re somehow programmed to be at each other’s throats. I don’t think I would want to live in a world where that was true. But the fact is that we were created by machines, and we are what they made us.” She glanced off to the side as if listening to a voice. “But then, we’re also what we’ve made ourselves.” She turned back to Leha. “I’m not sure what to think.”

A moment of silence, broken by the drone of waves and wind, followed.

“What’s the point of all this, Leha? Why all the questions?”

Leha lowered her head. “I don’t know. I don’t want things to return to the way they were. But I don’t know what I can do to stop it.”

“I’m not sure there is anything you can do. I’m not sure there’s anything anyone can do.” Eranna grimaced and shrugged.

Leha tilted her face up and smiled weakly. “Well, thanks.”

They bade each other goodnight, and Leha returned to her tent, walking through the quiet twilight.

* * *

When she reached her tent, she was surprised to discover Lahune was still there. He and Natoma had been there when she’d left, but she had thought they would have gone by the time she returned. He sat by the edge of the fire remnants. The few remaining embers gave off a weak heat and an aroma of wood smoke.

He greeted her.

She sat down across from him. “What’re you still doing up?”

“Natoma suggested I talk to you. You were distracted during the meal; Natoma believed it had to do with your mission to keep our people together after the war.”

Leha’s eyes widened. “She told you about that?”

Lahune nodded. “After you and Eranna left, yes.”

“How’d she know that was what was distracting me?” she asked.

Lahune shrugged. “She knew it had been on your mind, and you left to talk to a Tor soldier who helped to destroy your homeland, a soldier who is now your friend. I think the only surprising thing is that it took you this long to talk to Eranna about this.”

Leha netted her fingers together and stared at her claws. She gave a little chuckle. “Natoma is very observant, isn’t she?”

“Yes, she is.”

Leha looked up. “I suppose it was inevitable that I would talk to you about this eventually. You are the priest of humanity.”

Lahune said nothing. She paused to think, and he waited, a patient expression on his face.

“This is so complicated,” she said finally. “Eranna is a good example. She’s a good person; I know that. But she helped to destroy my country. This would be difficult enough if humanity could simply be divided into ‘good people’ and ‘bad people,’ but it can’t. Bad people do good things. Good people do bad things – they can even do it for good reasons; or they can do it unknowingly or through ignorance.”

She rubbed her left temple. “And then there are the truly bad people. The evil people. The people who knowingly do harm. What about them? What makes them go bad? Can they be made good?” She shook her head. “It’s all too complicated.”

She looked Lahune in the eye. “How do you deal with it? Your order is about celebrating humanity; but what about the darker aspects of it?”

Lahune took a deep breath. “I do what little I can. Much of Aya’s teachings have to do with how we should conduct our lives, and I try to follow what they proscribe. I share her teachings with those who will listen. But there’s not much one person can do. I try to content myself with what little difference I can make.”

“Do you ever think about where our darker traits come from?”

“Sometimes, but I don’t like to. I prefer cultivating the positive to worrying over the negative.”

Leha nodded. She huddled close to the remains of the fire. The warmth took away the chill of the night wind.

“I think that pretty much everyone tries to be a good person, though, and it doesn’t seem to have done much good,” she said. “Wars were still fought; murders were still committed.”

“That doesn’t mean the effort is useless. Plans are not always successful overnight. It may take a long, long time for humanity to reach its full potential, but I think it can.”

Leha nodded again. She stared into the orange embers for what felt like a long time, mulling over his words. Some of his points were good, she thought. She started to see why he held his philosophies. Accurate or not, they were comforting.

“There’s one thing I’ve never understood,” she said, looking back at him.

“Yes?”

“Why did Aya choose to name her followers after the priests? The priesthood of the Old Gods helped to oppress and enslave their fellow humans just so they could have a more comfortable life for themselves. The Old Gods’ religion kept us ignorant and afraid for who knows how long. Why would she choose to associate her followers with that?”

Lahune paused to think. “We are not named after them. Aya was a child when the Liberation began, and she did not fight in the war, but she did remember what life was like under the tyranny of the Old Gods. Their priests and priestesses represented the worst that humanity has to offer. They embraced the worst parts of themselves, and they made it their work to limit the potential of those around them.

“Our order was founded to be the antithesis of them. It is our purpose to build up the best parts of ourselves, and to work to ensure that the human race reaches its full potential. Aya intended us to heal the damage done by the priests – and their masters – but we are not meant to replace them. Do you understand?”

She chewed her lower lip. “Yes, I think I do.”

Lahune smiled. “Good.” His smile broadened. “I must admit, I sometimes think Aya should have picked a more convenient name for us.”

She chuckled.

She leaned back and yawned. Even with the sun still up, she was getting tired. “I think I should be going to bed. Thank you. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

Lahune stood and bowed to her. “It is my honor. If you ever wish to talk again, or if you would like to know more about Aya’s philosophies, I’ll be happy to help.”

“Thank you. I might.”

“When you have the time, perhaps we can return to our recordings.”

She smiled. “I’d like that.”

He said goodnight and departed, and Leha went into her tent. She undressed and crawled into her bedroll, where the sounds of the wind and the ocean soon calmed her busy mind. Within minutes, she was asleep.

* * *

The morning after the celebration, Drogin set out for the other end of the camp. The weather was identical to that of the day before: sunny, clear, and with a cool, salty wind blowing off the ocean. Drogin wondered if it was always windy here.

As he strode through the rows of tents, his stomach knotted in apprehension of what he planned to do. What’s the worst that could happen? he asked himself in an attempt to calm down.

He entered the section of the camp that housed most of the Lost Ones, his wand slapping against his thigh. He’d known he would have to do this since his breakfast with Leha and Doga following the Automaton’s retreat, but it had taken him this long to build up the courage to do it.

When Leha had returned from Tyzu, she had changed in ways he’d found shocking, and, he realized now, he had placed some of the blame for that on the shoulders of the Lost Ones. He had treated them with hostility and suspicion. Over time, he had become more accustomed to them, and when he had patched things up with Leha, he had forgotten his prejudice.

But that morning, he had been reminded of his earlier belligerence. Doga had avoided conversation or eye contact with him; what interaction he’d had with Drogin had been tense and cautious. Now that he thought about it, Doga had been acting that way for some time now.

Drogin knew that he would have to make amends with the Lost One.

He found Doga preparing his breakfast in front of his tent. Drogin smelled cooking meat and warm ulu.

Drogin gathered his courage and went to stand before Doga’s fire. “Hello.”

Doga looked up. “Hello.” He seemed surprised.

Drogin ran his fingers through his hair. He sighed. “I need to talk to you about something.”

Doga stared at him. He wore a neutral expression.

Before he could stop himself, Drogin glanced at Doga’s jagged claws. He forced himself to meet Doga’s gaze. “I’ve come to apologize.”

If Doga had possessed eyebrows, Drogin suspected they would have shot up.

Drogin continued, sweating. “In the past, I’ve treated you poorly. When Leha came back from Tyzu, I couldn’t accept how she’d changed, and I blamed your people. All I knew was that my sister had disappeared, that you’d done something to her, and that she was different. I treated you, and all the other Lost Ones, poorly, and I did so without good cause.

“That was wrong, and I’m sorry.”

Doga considered him silently for a few moments.

The Lost One stood, stepped forward, and clapped a hand onto Drogin’s shoulder. Drogin felt pleased that he didn’t flinch.

“Thank you,” Doga said. “That took courage, and honor, and I respect you for saying it.” He smiled.

Drogin managed a shaky smile.

Doga released his shoulder. “Consider yourself forgiven.”

“Thank you,” Drogin muttered.

Doga stepped back. “Would you like to join me for breakfast?”

“I’ve eaten,” Drogin said. “But thank you,” he added quickly.

Doga nodded and sat back down. Drogin excused himself, and the Lost One waved goodbye. Once Drogin was out of sight, he breathed a sigh of relief.

* * *

Yarnig watched the fire, seeing the wood crack and burn. Suspended over the flames, an iron kettle swayed slightly in the breeze from the ocean. Last night, he, Erik, and the soldiers from the nearby tents had pooled their rations to make a simple but tasty stew. They had eaten it, among other things, as part of the impromptu celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Heart. Some of the stew had been left over, and once it boiled, they would have it for breakfast. He could already smell the stew’s earthy aroma.

A gust of wind ruffled his shirt. His tent lay at the northern edge of the camp, and its canvas could not fully shield them from the incessant wind.

For the first time in days, he felt relatively calm. The celebration had allowed him to put Natoma out of his mind. Thoughts of her still played at the edges of his consciousness, but they were not overwhelming.

The soup boiled, and he served it out. As he ate, he talked with Erik and the other soldiers. Those he fought with were finally beginning to grow used to his company – Yarnig believed Erik may have helped with that; under the right circumstances, his manner could put people at ease. Whatever their feelings had been about Yarnig’s role as emperor or his magical abilities, they seemed to be getting past them.

As he finished the last few bites of stew, he heard footsteps approach. He barely noticed until a smooth female voice said, “Yarnig?”

He almost dropped his bowl, but recovered quickly. Natoma.

He forced himself to appear calm, and turned to face her. “Hello,” he said.

She stood over him, her armor and hair shining in the bright sun. “It’s been a few days since we were last able to work on your swordsmanship. Would now be a good time?”

Yarnig cleared his throat. “Uh, yes,” he answered, not really thinking about what he was saying.

She nodded once, smiling politely. She gestured for him to get his sword, and he headed for his tent. He felt pleased that he did not stumble or do anything else foolish, and he experienced a rare moment of gratitude for the years of strict protocol he had endured in the courts. It helped him keep his composure.

Erik, on the other hand, wore an expression of sympathetic terror. The other soldiers looked at him oddly.

Yarnig strode from the tent, strapping on his sword belt, and Natoma led him past his tent, out of the camp, and onto the fields. Yarnig’s heart pounded, and he sweated. His mind felt fuzzy. Part of him wondered how he would manage to practice his swordsmanship in his current state.

She led him to a shallow depression in the ground where the winds were slightly weaker. She turned to face him. “I’m sorry; I didn’t ask you here so we could work on your fighting abilities,” she said.

“No?”

She shook her head. “We need to discuss your feelings for me, and I didn’t think that you would want your comrades to know the true reason behind our meeting.”

She said it so matter-of-factly that, for a moment, he didn’t realize what she’d said. When he did, he briefly had trouble breathing. “Discuss my feelings?” he said weakly.

“Yes,” she said, a patient expression upon her flawless face.

“You know?”

“Yes.”

He wondered if he was dreaming – this seemed too surreal. With great effort, he made himself speak. “So, what did you want to discuss?”

Nothing in her body language suggested any of the confusing emotions he felt. She seemed calm. “First, I think it’s important that we both acknowledge that we’re aware of how you feel. I don’t believe any good comes from keeping things like this hidden away. This way, we can deal with things in a mature way.”

She looked him in the eye. “Do you have anything you want to say?”

Several things popped into Yarnig’s mind, but they all sounded foolish. “No,” he said. “I think you have probably figured everything out for yourself.”

“Very well,” she said, her voice still perfectly serene. “Then, I should tell you how I feel. I assume you would prefer honesty?”

His heart beat even faster. “Yes,” he said, though he wasn’t sure he did.

She studied him for a moment. When she did speak, a tiny hint of uncertainty had crept into her voice. “I don’t know how I feel.”

She started to pace a little – her first sign of discomfort. “If not for the mental link, I’d never spare you a second thought.

“I’m not ignorant of the way men react to me. I know that I’m considered beautiful. On top of that, my father was a man of great wealth, and I quickly rose to a position of power within the military. Suitors began approaching me before I had even passed puberty, and the bombardment did not relent until the revolt of the machines.” She let out a small sigh.

“I’ve long since lost interest in men who are simply handsome, rich, or powerful. Even the title of emperor fails to impress me.”

Yarnig’s stomach twisted painfully, but at the same time, he felt an echo of familiarity in her words. He, too, had spent his youth surrounded by potential lovers, only to discover they were interested in him only as a political bargaining chip. Simple beauty no longer mattered so much to him.

Natoma stopped her pacing, hands clenched. “But I’ve seen into your mind, and your heart. I know there’s something inside you that all those other suitors lacked, and I find I can’t simply write you off.”

Hope – achingly strong and bright – blossomed in Yarnig’s chest.

She shook her head. “I don’t what I feel, but what I do know is that we are at war, and neither of us can afford to be distracted. It would be impossible to completely ignore the situation between us, but I think it would be best to focus on more important matters. If and when the machines are defeated, we can come to some better resolution.”

He stuck his slick hands in his pockets and mulled over her words. It was not the acceptance he had hoped for, but it was not the rejection he had feared. His stomach knotted with disappointment, but hope for the future warmed him.

The rational part of his mind saw the logic of postponing things until the war ended – though part of him hated the idea. After what felt like a very long time, he said, “I understand.”

She smiled warmly, causing his heart to flutter. “Good. I’m glad. Do you still wish to serve in my squad, or would it be too hard for you?”

“I know something about keeping focus. I’ll stay in the squad, if it’s all right with you.”

“I have no objection.” She came to stand in front of him. She reached out with one hand and squeezed his left shoulder, giving a dazzling smile. “Until the end of the war.”

He returned her smile and patted her hand with his. “Until the end of the war.”

She released his shoulder and headed back for the camp, her armor clanking.

Yarnig stayed where he was for what felt like a long while. He worked on repairing his outward calm. He could afford to take his time – the people back at the camp thought he was having sword lessons; they wouldn’t expect a speedy return.

———————

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Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Nineteen: The Pause

We come now to the nineteenth 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.

Cover art for A calm has settled over the world of Barria, giving Leha and her allies time to recover — and time to confront their doubts and their demons. But the calm precedes the storm, and the question lingers over all: Why have the Gods vanished?

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Chapter nineteen: The Pause

When she awoke, it was still dark.

She raised herself on one elbow groggily. Someone had left a water skin and some rations beside her. Her mouth stung with thirst, so she downed most of the water. When she finished, she wiped her mouth and proceeded to fall back to sleep.

* * *

When she next awoke, the sun was up, its light seeping through the fabric of the tent.

She felt much better, though still somewhat sleepy. Her mouth felt dry again, and her stomach growled with hunger. She turned to the supplies beside her and finished the water. Looking into the ration pack, she found reindeer jerky and a thin slice of hard cheese. She wrinkled her nose. Better than nothing, I suppose.

At that moment, a small gust of wind brought the smell of cooking meat – bacon, she thought – to her nose. Her stomach churned hungrily, and her mouth watered. She abandoned the sack of rations, sprang out of the bedroll, and found her clothes. She held her tunic before her face and considered it disapprovingly. It was stained with sweat, and it carried a powerful stink. She decided she had no choice and dressed, trying to ignore the smell.

She shoved aside the tent flap, and the sun greeted her from low in the eastern sky. She blinked at the brightness and began to step towards the source of the cooking smell, using her nose to guide her. She regrew her claws.

Her knee continued to sting every time she put her foot down, but it did not hurt as much as before. She funneled Tyzuan energy into it to make it heal faster – having high energy in just one section of her knee made walking awkward.

From the look of it, it was just after dawn. That meant she could have only been asleep for a few hours. She felt too rested for that to make sense. Maybe I went to sleep earlier in the night than I thought I did. Her mind hadn’t been at its clearest the night before.

A camp had sprung up around her while she had been sleeping. Tents, cook pits, and all the other hallmarks of a military encampment had appeared to dot the land around her. Various skirmishes with the machines had left many trees toppled or broken, so no land had needed to be cleared. A few trees still pierced the spaces between the tents, and she saw unmolested sections of evergreens rising at the edges of the encampment.

The rain had vanished, and the forest seemed lush and refreshed. A cool wind blew out of the north, rustling over tents and through branches.

She came upon Drogin in an open area between several tents. He sat upon a rock with his back to her, and he had his eyes on her quarry: the leg of an animal roasting over a smoky campfire. It was from a keldi, a Tyzuan animal that looked like a deer. She had first tasted keldi meat the night after her transformation at the hands of Sosk.

“Good morning,” she said.

He turned. “You’re awake.”

She approached the fire. Before she could ask, Drogin said, “Join me?” gesturing to the keldi leg.

She nodded hungrily. “Thank you.”

Drogin pulled over a stool, and she sat down.

She glanced at the sun. “How long was I asleep?”

“A little over a day.”

Her eyes widened. “A day?”

He grinned widely. “Yes. Some people wanted to wake you, but we haven’t had any trouble, so I thought we should let you sleep.” He sobered. “The battle took a lot out of you.”

She nodded. “Me and everyone else.”

She shook her head. “A day.” For a moment, she wondered if Drogin was playing a joke on her, but her brother had never been the sort to do that. If she had slept for a day, it explained her hunger.

Drogin gazed into the embers. “I’ve heard of wizards sleeping for days at a time after working great spells. Maybe what you do takes a similar toll.”

“Maybe,” Leha said distractedly, watching a drop of fat sizzle into the fire pit.

Drogin poked at the meat with a finger. He reached into a pile of small sacks at his side and produced two wooden platters. He covered each with two slices of Tyzuan fruit and a large slab of meat, and he gave one to Leha.

She tore into the food with fervor, savoring every morsel. The meat singed her mouth, but she hardly noticed. The meat had a strong, smoky flavor, and the fruit’s sweetness provided a pleasant counterpoint.

Once she had eaten most of her meal, and her hunger had abated somewhat, she said, “Where’d you get the food?”

Drogin swallowed a piece of fruit, licking yellow juice from his lips. “The Tall Tree clan had a little extra food, and they decided we needed it more than they did. Most of it went to the camp to the east, but I couldn’t resist commandeering a little for myself and the other commanders.”

“What happened while I was asleep?” she asked, flushing a bit. A day. She sliced off a piece of meat with a claw and popped it into her mouth.

Drogin put aside the remnants of his breakfast and wiped his hands on the grass. “Not much. We sent out scouts to try and find where the Automatons went, and Breena and a few other wizards are looking for them in the areas under the barrier, but we haven’t found them. They’re not in the camps south of here, they’re not in any of the ziggurats we know of, and we haven’t found them anywhere in the immediate area. We did find the trail of the Machine King – it went north somewhere. Eranna managed to find a few horses, and we sent a mounted party to find it.

“Most of our energy has gone into recuperating and reestablishing our defenses along the front. We lost a lot of people over the last few days – we still don’t know exactly how many – but we’re doing our best to put things back together.”

He took a breath, his shoulders rising and then falling. “For now, we seem to have been given a reprieve.”

“And it is a welcome one,” a deep voice from Leha’s left said.

She turned and saw Doga approach. He wore his usual Tor military uniform, but his armor and weapons were nowhere to be seen. He squatted beside Leha and eyed the keldi leg.

After a moment, he sheepishly asked Drogin for a plate.

“Oh, of course,” Drogin said. He rummaged through the sacks, produced another platter, and served out a piece of meat and two more slices of fruit. With a hint of timidity, he handed it to the Lost One.

Doga dug into his food.

Leha mulled over Drogin’s news in her mind. She finished the last bites of her meal, cleaned her hands on the grass, and stared at her claws, flexing her fingers. The fire popped.

“You do realize that the Automatons have likely just concocted some new plan to destroy us, that we’re probably in as much danger as ever?” she said to her companions.

Drogin’s face darkened, and he glanced at his feet. Doga swallowed his food and stared forward starkly. Silence hung over them for a moment.

“Yes, I know. I try not to think about it,” Drogin said.

Leha glanced at Doga.

The Lost One continued to stare ahead in silence; then, he tore off a piece of meat and held it up with a claw. “It is probable that the machines have simply found some new tactic to try; we probably will be in peril again soon.” He studied the meat on his claw. “But for the moment, there is nothing we can do but wait to learn more. Whether or not it was their intention, the Automatons have given us a break, and we should make the most out of it.” He ate the meat.

Leha smiled. “You’re right.”

They stayed by the fire for what felt like a long time, chatting and trading stories. Leha noticed a certain tension between Doga and her brother, and they rarely spoke to each other, but both were eager to talk to her. The time passed slowly as the sun climbed higher into the sky and the fire burned down to nothing. The workings of the camp continued around them, but they hardly noticed.

Leha found herself thinking back to her conversation with Natoma after the battle at Tallatzan, of her ruminations on humanity’s darker and more dangerous aspects, and the thought came to her that she could think of no better arguments in favor of humanity’s inner goodness than the two people on either side of her. It gave her some comfort.

* * *

Eranna had left sleep behind, but the images of blood and fire that had burned in her dreams stayed with her, throbbing in her mind like a wound. She dressed quickly, putting on her worn uniform, the uniform of a ruined nation. She bound her pale hair in a long and complex braid with a series of swift, efficient motions.

She glanced to the chest containing her weapons and armor, hesitated for a moment, and slipped into her padded red undercoat and mail hauberk. She strapped her short sword to her belt and took her spear, a relatively light weapon that could double as a javelin, in her right hand. She had lost her shield in the recent fighting, and she hadn’t found a replacement yet. Lastly, she placed a metal skullcap on her head.

She strode into the bright sunlight of the summer morning and out of the shadows of her tent, hoping to leave the violent images of the dream along with them. She paid special attention to every detail of the camp, forcing her mind to focus on the way the grass swayed in the northerly breeze, the way the sun reflected off the tents and the evergreen needles, and the mingled smells of camp life and the forest that permeated the air.

But no matter how much she focused on being in the moment, the memories of her dream continued to rise up out of her consciousness. The central threads of the dream had already begun to fade away, but the darker and stronger images remained with her, taunting her.

The dreams had begun after the battle in the Mannall Mountains. They did not come every night – they sometimes disappeared for weeks – but they never failed to return. Sometimes they were of the battle in the Mannall Range; other times, they took place in the battle at Three Gates. Sometimes, they shifted between the two or combined them. Always, they were a maelstrom of gore, smoke, and death. Always, the machines, the machines that her people had brought to ascendancy, presided over the slaughter. Always, she could not stop it.

She suppressed a shudder.

As she moved through the camp, she heard people say that Leha had finally awoken. Eranna felt a faint trickle of relief and considered meeting with her, but she didn’t see a point. Plenty of other people could bring her up to date. Eranna continued with her original plan: seeking out one of her lieutenants.

She found one, a tall Tor man named Karn, at the northern edge of camp. He was conversing with two other soldiers. From the words that reached Eranna’s ears, she guessed that they were discussing logistical matters.

As she approached, the meeting broke up, and Karn turned to face her. Beyond his name, she knew little about him. He had not had any prominence in humanity’s army until recently. She knew that he had been a farmer before the war, and that he had taken up arms around the time Leha had occupied Marlhem. He had displayed talent in combat and decision-making, and had thus come to her attention.

He nodded respectfully to her and spoke a greeting.

She returned his greetings. “Have the scouting parties found anything yet?”

He shook his head, the motion ruffling his short blonde hair. “Just more of the same.”

She nodded absently. “I want to join one of them.”

Karn furrowed his brow. “Why?”

“I need something to do.”

His jaw tightened. “I understand.” He paused. “We can send you by jumping point. Do you want to go south or north?”

“North. I’ll join the people looking for the Automaton Lord.”

He nodded again and went to find a wizard. A few minutes later, he returned, and the wizard linked with the scouting party via an ice creature, learned the target location, and led them to the nearest jumping point.

After a flash of light, a brief walk across a once-burnt field of shrubs and saplings on Tyzu, and another flash, they arrived on a vast, windy plain of tall grass. The wind was cold for summer, but Eranna was a Tor, so she was accustomed to much lower temperatures, and her clothing was thick.

The scouting party, a group of armed men and women on horseback, was arrayed around her in a crescent. One of them, a man, came forward, greeted her quickly, and dismounted. He handed her the reins and joined the wizard. They disappeared in a burst of green-white energy.

Eranna swung up into the saddle and placed her feet in the stirrups. The horse grunted. She patted its neck reassuringly. “Lead me back to the trail,” she instructed the scouts.

The party turned and headed to the east, their horses parting the grass like ships parting the sea. Eranna propped her spear butt against the horse’s side and held it in the air, wishing she had thought to bring a less-burdensome weapon. Within a few minutes, they arrived at a seemingly endless trail of huge, shallow footprints pressed into the soil of the plains.

“They’re not very subtle, are they?” she said over the wind.

One of the soldiers shook his head with a trace of amusement.

They set off down the trail at a canter, the sound of pounding hooves mixing with the rush of the wind. The grass glowed emerald and gold in the bright sun, and the vast dome of the sky was a deep azure. The scent of leather saddles and reins mingled with the smell of the horses’ bodies and the perfume of the grass. Eranna’s braid blew out behind her, and the imagery of her dreams began to fade away, disappearing as the task of scouting filled her mind.

A half-hour into their ride, the Automaton Lord’s trail terminated in a massive stretch of crushed grass and trampled earth. Eranna yanked on the reins, and her horse thudded to a stop. The other scouts drew up on either side of her.

Eranna swore. The area bore the kind of flattening that could only come from a large group of Automatons. Numerous trails led off of the ruined field, going in multiple directions. The largest one headed straight north.

Eranna’s heart went cold. She exchanged grim glances with the other scouts. Their faces showed that they had come to the same conclusion as she had: they had found where the machines had gone after Sy’om.

She turned to the battle wizard on her left, one of two in the party. “Find the nearest jumping point. Warn the camp.”

He nodded and galloped away.

“Over there,” a brown-haired Karkaran woman said, pointing to the east.

Eranna turned and saw a dark smudge of smoke hovering over the horizon. She tightened her grip on her spear. “Are there any clans traveling through the area?”

A Clansman eased his horse forward. “No, but the village of the Urdi clan is near,” he said, speaking rough Tor. “Their settlement is permanent; they’re rye farmers.”

Eranna chewed her lip. Her eyes darted to an eastward path cut by mechanical feet. It led straight towards the smoke. “Come on,” she said, urging her horse forward.

“It could be cooking fires,” the Karkaran woman called to her.

“Maybe,” Eranna said. She spurred her horse into a gallop.

The other scouts spurred their mounts and followed her.

* * *

They thundered down the path, the only sounds coming from the thudding of hooves into the soil, the huffs of the horses, and the wind. Eranna’s mouth was set into a tight line, and she held her spear forward like a lance. She hoped they would find nothing but homes and rye fields, but as the path continued to take them toward the smoke, her expression grew more dour.

The land had slowly been sloping upward since the trampled field, and now they came to the crest of the rise. The plains spread out below them, and a patchwork quilt of farmer’s fields spread itself amid the tall grass. At the heart of the grain fields, a jagged dark stain brooded and smoldered.

They were too late. The Automatons had come and gone.

Eranna stared at the ruins for a moment, her shoulders tensed. “Let’s have a closer look,” she said quietly. She and the rest of her party started down the hill at a more sedate pace.

As they moved towards the ruined village, her thoughts grew dark again, and she couldn’t help but the think of the violence of her dream. They reached the edge of the grass and arrived at the first of the grain fields. The trail of the Automatons cut a swath through the rye stalks, but they found a broad dirt path and took it through the farmland.

In places, fires or mechanical footsteps had flattened the fields, but for long stretches along the road, the rye stood unmolested, swaying in the cool wind as if the machines had never come. It was eerie. Eranna had grown up in the rural areas near Retgard, and the fields reminded her of the home she had left behind.

As they grew closer to the village, the signs of destruction grew more apparent. The smoke hung above them in thin clouds, and the stink of ashes assaulted them with every breath. Shards of wood and pieces of homes littered the earth and carved holes in the grain fields.

The rye ended, and they entered what had been the Urdi clan village. What had once been a system of streets and squares was now just a blank stretch of dark ash and still-burning cinders. Only the entrances to cellars and a few broken foundations marked where houses had once stood.

Eranna dismounted and took a few cautious steps forward. She could feel the heat of the ground through her boots. “This couldn’t have happened very long ago,” she said.

* * *

One by one, Leha crossed out a trail of Clan villages across the map.

This was not the same map she had used during the recent battles; this was an old chart drawn upon a piece of reindeer skin and used by Clanspeople to teach their children. It depicted the entirety of the territory claimed by the Northern Clans. A meandering line of crossed out markers showed the path taken by the Automatons, and the swath of destruction they had left in their wake. They were heading north-northeast.

A messenger poked his head into the tent. “The scouts have returned from the Larnen clan village. It’s been destroyed.”

Leha sighed and dismissed the messenger.

“That one,” Breena said, pointing to a dot on the map. Leha couldn’t read the script on the map, so she had found Breena and brought her to translate. The wizard showed an admirable composure under the circumstances.

Leha picked up her quill – she had shrunken the claws on her right hand to allow her to write – dunked it in an inkwell, and made a cross over the dot representing the Larnen village. “What did they produce?” she asked tiredly, speaking Tor for Breena’s benefit. The pleasant conversation of the morning seemed a distant memory.

“They were silver miners,” Breena said sadly.

Drogin nodded, his arms crossed. “They provided a lot of the silver we used to make the new cutting weapons.”

Leha pursed her lips, set down the quill, and stepped back from the table. She glanced at her two companions, observing their grim expressions. The other leaders were occupied by various other tasks, but they linked to her through Benefactor, and she could feel their worries mirroring her own. Thus far, all of the villages destroyed had been permanent ones – save one nomadic one that had had the misfortune to cross the machines’ path. The stationary Clan settlements had been a vital source of supplies since the Althing had voted to join the war.

Breena stared at the map. “Why are they doing this?” she said quietly.

Leha furrowed her brow. “Isn’t it obvious? They want to cut off our supplies.” She felt a murmur of psychic agreement from the other leaders.

The Clanswoman shook her head. “No. Their path is taking them north – ” she traced a line across the map with her finger “ – away from many of our other settlements.” She indicated villages to the west and southeast. “If they wanted to cut off our lines of supply, they could have chosen a far more efficient route. They’re just destroying whatever they can without detouring much from their chosen path.”

Leha surveyed the map. The Automatons’ route would soon take them to the northern edge of the lands commonly occupied by the Clans. Despite the midday warmth, she had to suppress a shiver.

“You’re right,” she said. She frowned. “What are they doing?”

A ripple of disquiet passed through the link.

Perhaps they wish to come at us from both the north and the south, Doga suggested.

Leha passed his message on to Drogin and Breena.

She sensed Natoma shake her head. Their forces in the south are too weak to attempt that.

Drogin’s brow creased. “They missed a village.”

“What?” Leha said.

He pointed to a dot to the west of what they had determined to be the Automatons’ path. The dots to the north and south had been crossed out. “The Fenheer clan. We were expecting them to come under attack soon. But they’ve already hit the Larnen village.” He indicated the dot to the immediate north.

Leha studied the map, shifting her weight forward and feeling a dull pain in her knee – it was nearly healed, but it still pained her if she moved the wrong way. “It’s a bit far off their path, but no farther than the Sannen village was.”

“So why did they spare the Fenheer?” Breena said.

Silence met her question.

After several moments, Eranna’s voice came through the link. The Fenheer village was the only one with a jumping point in the town. The nearest jumping points for all the other villages were at least a few minutes away. The Automatons must have figured that out. That would explain why none of the villages were able to evacuate or warn us, she said.

That and the fact that we never expected anything like this to happen, Leha added to herself regretfully.

You could not have foreseen this, Leha, Benefactor said.

Doga echoed his sentiments.

I know, she sent.

Leha explained Eranna’s theory to Breena and her brother.

Leha returned her attention to the map. “So they’re just destroying what they can while they make for whatever their real goal is.” She leaned on the table and thought for a moment. “What do you know about what’s up here?” she asked Breena, indicating the northeast corner of the map.

“There isn’t much to know. It is a harsh land with little life in it. During the winter months, it’s completely inhospitable. None of the clans bother to try and eke out a living there.” She paused. “Some of our people have explored the far north in the past. Eventually, the land reaches the ocean and ends.”

“What about to the east?” Leha said.

“The Gormorra Range continues almost until the edge of the land.”

Leha raised her eyebrows. “Almost?”

Breena nodded. “Eventually, the mountains fall into a spur of rugged hills. Soon after that, they disappear altogether. But a series of rivers sprouts from them and heads due north, to the ocean. The land around them is full of bogs and salt marshes; it’s virtually impassable in the summer, and nothing can survive there at any other time of year. No one of the Clans has ever tried to traverse the rivers, as far as I know.”

Leha considered. “I wonder if they’re trying to reach the camp east of the mountains,” she said.

Drogin shook his head. “I don’t think so. As hard as those marshes and rivers would be for humans to cross, it would be far harder for the machines. They’d sink into the mud, and the salt and water would cause corrosion.”

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the Automatons, Doga said.

Leha passed on the message. “I agree with Doga,” she said. “They’ve figured something out.”

“How would they even know about the eastern camp – or the break in the Gormorra Range, for that matter?” Breena said.

Leha shrugged. “It wouldn’t have been too hard to locate the camp. We didn’t try very hard to conceal our trail when we went there. They could have guessed its location by a process of elimination. They could have used some kind of spell. I don’t know how they could have learned about the gap – maybe the Machine King learned of it before the Liberation; the stories say that the Old Gods held great knowledge – but I’m sure that’s their goal.”

I agree. It is the only explanation for their journey north, Natoma said.

I also agree, Benefactor said.

She relayed their opinions, and after a few more minutes of discussion, the leaders agreed to act on her belief and set up a defense on the eastern side of the marshland.

“We’ll leave a small force here so they won’t be able to launch any assaults from the south,” Leha said. She looked up. “What’s the latest estimate on our losses since Tallatzan?”

At least eight or nine thousand people, Eranna sent sadly.

Leha’s heart fell. “Let’s hope we have enough forces to hold them off,” she said quietly.

The meeting broke up soon afterward. The link dissolved, and Breena left the tent. Drogin and Leha lingered behind.

Drogin stared into nothing. “I don’t understand why they would want to strike at the camp. We can evacuate it with the jumping points. Losing it would be a setback, but it wouldn’t be a decisive blow, and it wouldn’t justify the effort they’re going to.”

Leha looked up from folding the map. She paused to think. “You’re right; it doesn’t make sense.” She finished folding. “There must be something we’re not seeing.”

She and Drogin exchanged a glance. Drogin nodded once, looking worried.

* * *

Preparations for departure began immediately. Tents were taken down, supplies were packed, and assignments were made as to who would go where. Within an hour of Leha’s decision, the jumping points across the front were busy with activity. Leha felt a touch of pride as she watched her people bustle about their duties. They were people of many nations and many cultures, but today, they worked as one, darting about the camp and making ready for the journey. This was how she had imagined the armies of Phanto and the other heroes of the Liberation. This was how things should be.

Reaching their final destination initially proved a problem. One could not journey to a specific location via a jumping point unless one of the people being sent or the wizard casting the spell had a clear memory of the target location, and no one had ever set foot in the place where they now needed to be.

After some searching, one of Benefactor’s people managed to telepathically contact an elderly Clansman who had explored the far northeast in his youth. He provided the memory of the western edge of the marshland, and once a few wizards had arrived there, they used scrying spells to spy out the eastern edge.

Over the past months, the people under Leha’s command had grown accustomed to moving to new positions. They dismantled most of the camps and defenses along the northern front with practiced efficiency. By the end of that day, half of the forces that would be departing had already made the trip. By mid afternoon of the next day, the journey was complete.

* * *

The sound of crashing waves filled Leha’s ears as she stood at the shoreline, staring out at the endless waters of the ocean. A foot in front of her, the ground gave way to a brown beach of damp sand and dark rocks. Behind her, the land stretched away in a vast expanse of dark, rocky soil studded with the occasional patch of grass, scrub, or lichen, eventually rising up into the jagged hills that were the crown of the Gormorra Range. To her left, a series of rivers, their waters shining in the bright sun, twisted around and through each other like a knot of serpents before emptying into the blue waters of the ocean. The rivers stretched west beyond what the eye could see, and water stained the land around them. No trees could be seen in any direction – no plant taller than Leha’s hand could survive this place.

A cold wind blew off the ocean, carrying with it the scent of salt and a fine mist of chilled water.

She’d heard tales of the ocean. One of her favorite adventure books told of a hero visiting an enchanted land across the western ocean. Before her birth, her father had taken a journey to Pira, and he had described his first sight of the ocean to her. But none of that had prepared her for the sheer enormity of it. It stretched to the horizon in an unending blanket, eventually melding with the blue of the sky. It looked like the end of the world.

After some discussion, Drogin had determined this to be the place where the machines would likely try to make the crossing. Though the largest rivers fanned out as they approached the ocean, closer to the hills, many smaller rivers extended outward to feed into the marshes. As a result, this was the narrowest point of the marshland.

A few dozen feet behind her, the forces of humanity went about the work of setting up camp. Over the roar of the waves, she could hear voices and the sounds of work.

She heard footsteps. She turned and saw Breena walking towards the shoreline.

“Breena!” she called, waving the wizard over.

Breena hesitated and then moved to stand at Leha’s left. She bowed her head respectfully. “Greetings.” She faced outward, holding her posture rigid and keeping her staff erect.

Leha let out a breath. Some people still found her presence intimidating, it seemed. “Relax, please,” she said amiably.

Breena’s shoulders relaxed somewhat, and she gave an uncertain smile. “Quite a sight, isn’t it?” she said, indicating the ocean.

Leha nodded and looked out across the waves. “Yes. It’s magnificent.”

“Coming from you, I suppose that says a great deal,” Breena said after a moment.

“Yes, I suppose it does,” Leha said.

Glancing to the west, she noticed a large white arrow shape poking out from the ocean. She squinted at it and furrowed her brow. “What is that?” She pointed.

Breena looked. “An iceberg, a mountain of ice that floats on the water.”

Leha peered at her. “A floating mountain of ice?”

Breena nodded. A gust of wind ruffled a few loose strands of her fiery hair. “I’ve heard stories about them. They float down from the north. No one knows where they come from.”

Leha considered the bleak nothingness around her. “This is a strange land.”

After a brief pause, Breena said, “Did you know that, at this time of year, the sun never sets in this place?”

Leha stared at her for several seconds, waiting for the Clanswoman to burst into laughter. When she didn’t, Leha said, “Are you joking?

Breena shook her head, smiling slightly. “During the heart of the summer months, night never comes to this place.”

Leha blinked. “And I thought Tyzu was strange.”

Breena chuckled.

* * *

Yarnig walked across the barren landscape, feeling gravel and rocks crunch beneath his feet. An ocean wind washed over him, stirring his brown curls and tugging at his new woolen tunic. He had received the maroon tunic, and a similarly colored pair of pants, from a Clansman in exchange for some minor magical services. Most of his clothing had not been designed for long-term exposure to the elements, and the recent months had taken their toll on his once-fine wardrobe. He’d needed something new and more durable. These clothes were not as elegant or as rich as what he had worn for most of his life, but they were comfortable and practical.

He kicked a stone and watched it skitter across the dry soil. With no immediate need for his unique magical abilities, he had taken the opportunity to leave Erik and the camp behind and spend some time on his own. No one had objected to his departure. Up until a few months ago, he never would have been able to wander into the wilderness alone. It was a strange feeling.

Over the past days, he had rarely been away from Erik or other people for more than a minute or two. After the machines’ retreat, what little energy he and Erik had left had gone to Healing the wounded. There had hardly been time to sleep. There had been even less time to think.

Yarnig exhaled and took a deep breath of the cool air. During those few moments when he had been able to think, his conversation with Erik before the ambush had dominated his thoughts, but all he’d had the chance to do was obsess without reaching any conclusions. He frowned uncertainly.

Uncertainty. It was a feeling he was used to in regards to his duties as a ruler, or to his path in life, or to many other things. But he had not felt it in regards to anything more personal in a very long time. That had been a bastion of certainty. Early in his life, he had learned that there was little true love or friendship among the nobles and royals of Tor Som, and that those of lower classes would never see him as anything but a royal, a creature far above them. Erik was the only true friend he had ever had. It was a harsh reality, but it was one that he had long ago grown accustomed to, and the certainty of it had provided a kind of stability.

But now, things were different.

Natoma’s face appeared in his mind, as it had countless times over the past few days, and he found himself awash in emotions he had not felt since he had been a teenage boy – before he had learned that, while beautiful faces and shapely bodies were common among the Tor courts, kind hearts and honest tongues were not.

His mind buzzed with confusing thoughts and impulses. Part of him wondered why, after all this time, his feelings had been roused again. Part of him wanted to run to Natoma now and confess his love. Part of him wished that none of this had happened. The human race was at war. He had better things to worry about.

“Emperor!” a voice called out.

Startled out of his contemplation, Yarnig turned to his right. Taldin strode towards him, approaching from the camp. The old soldier still wore the gray uniform of a royal guard. Yarnig pushed back his feelings and put on an expression of polite welcome.

“Taldin! Good to see you again,” he said, smiling.

Taldin ate up the remaining distance between them with a few long strides. “Likewise, sire.” He bowed. Strands of white had begun to streak his iron gray hair.

Yarnig acknowledged his bow, falling back into the old role of emperor. “Walk with me?” He offered, gesturing with one hand.

“Thank you, sire.” The corners of Taldin’s lips tilted up by an almost imperceptible degree.

They set off together, picking their way across the rough terrain as the cool winds whipped at them. The air tasted of salt and dry soil. Despite his best efforts to keep them at bay, images of Natoma’s kind face, porcelain skin, and warm eyes continued to pop into his mind. He did his best to stay composed and put one foot in front of the other.

“How have you been?” Taldin asked.

It took him a moment to formulate an answer, though he didn’t think Taldin noticed. “Good.” He considered. “Good. The last few days have been hard; I’m tired; but I’m good.”

Taldin nodded once. “Good.”

The conversation stayed on trivial topics for several minutes. They discussed the odd land they’d found themselves in, the weather, and various other things.

Then, Taldin said, “I’ve heard about what you and Erik have been doing.”

They stopped walking and faced each other.

“I’ve heard you’ve Healed the mortally wounded and toppled Automatons with ease,” Taldin said.

“It’s true,” Yarnig said simply.

“I know.” He looked Yarnig up and down appraisingly. He gave a half smile. “I guess you won’t be needing my protection any more.”

Yarnig smiled. “I guess not.”

Taldin’s smile blossomed fully. “Just be careful out there.”

Yarnig suppressed a chuckle. He was reminded of all the times throughout his life that Taldin had told him to be careful. “I will.”

Taldin nodded, seeming satisfied.

They resumed their walk. They talked for a few more minutes, and then Taldin returned to the camp, the wind ruffling his gray hair. Yarnig watched him go. By rights, Taldin should have been able to retire by now. If he ever asked for it, Yarnig wouldn’t hesitate in allowing him to.

Yarnig shook his head. The war took its toll on everyone, even those who should have been able to rest.

He continued walking towards the ocean. As much as he tried to avoid it, his thoughts soon returned to Natoma. He sighed. He missed his certainty.

———————

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