Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Twenty-one: Bridged by Fire and Ice

We come now to the twenty-first 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 The Gods march on humanity’s last bastion beyond the Gormorra Range. The land itself bars their way, but they are ready to unleash the full power that saw them viewed as divine. They will not, cannot, be stopped.


Chapter twenty-one: Bridged by Fire and Ice

The machines’ retreat and the celebration to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Heart provided a welcome respite for Leha and her army. For a few days, they had been able to forget about the perils of war. But with the dawning of the next day, they knew that time had ended. They knew that the Automatons could come at any moment, and the air of the camp was thick with tension.

Sentries patrolled the edge of the camp, watching the marshlands to the west and waiting for some sign of their enemy. Leha joined them in their vigil, and hour followed hour as she scanned for the first sign of danger.

Just before noon, it came.

“Look!” a watchman to her left said.

She looked where he pointed. West and slightly south of the camp, she saw a bright, flickering light.

“What is that?” she said softly.

Word had already begun to spread. She heard her soldiers scurrying for their weapons and conversing in quick bursts. People with handheld bells sounded the alarm.

Leha squinted and enhanced her eyes to better see the light over the marshlands. Even with her vision enhanced, she had trouble deciphering its nature. It looked to be some sort of magic, and it seemed to be moving closer, but she could tell nothing beyond that.

She glanced at her assembling people, returning her eyes to their normal state. “I’m going to run out and see what I can see.” She gestured to a Tor battle wizard. “With me.”

She summoned Tyzu’s energy, feeling it course through her body, and darted out onto the plain, the wizard following close behind. A cold feeling settled into the pit of her stomach. Where the Automatons were concerned, unknown things were rarely good things.

The salty air whipped past her as she flew across the plain. Her hair streamed out behind her, and her feet kicked up rocks and loose soil. The ground began to slope downward and grow damp. She came to a stop. The battle wizard did the same a moment later.

Returning to Barria’s energy level, she again enhanced her vision and scanned the horizon, and the wizard extended his staff. The energy hovered over the distant western marsh, swirling and sparking and crackling. Beneath it, she could barely glimpse the dark forms of the Automatons.

“Can you sense anything?” she asked.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him shake his head. “They’re drawing a lot of power, but they don’t seem to be using it for anything.”

Leha frowned.

The machines grew closer, and the green-white light on the horizon grew brighter. She began to see details of the individual machines; they moved in a long, thin column across the moors.

She arched an eyebrow. They shouldn’t have been able to walk across the marshes. They should have sunk and become mired.

“How exactly are they drawing power?” she asked.

“As far as I can tell, they’re just pulling it up from the ground and releasing it into the air,” the wizard said.

Something clicked in her mind. “They’re freezing the marshes and rivers by pulling out all the energy. It gives them a path to walk.”

The wizard’s jaw hung slack, but he did not disagree.

Leha stared, awestruck, at the Automaton column. This was power. This was the might of the Old Gods in all its glory.

She funneled Tyzuan energy into as much of the machine army and its surroundings as she could, hoping to overload them. The cloud of energy above them blazed brighter, sending tendrils of crackling light across the sky, and the silver at their wrists burned like stars. But nothing else happened.

Leha swore under her breath. By now, nearly all of the machines were Wizard-Automatons. Many hands make light work.

She returned her eyesight to normal. “Let’s get back to the army,” she said to the wizard.

She channeled Tyzu’s power, and they set off towards the main human force. She continued to flood the Automatons with Tyzuan energy. If nothing else, it would slow them by forcing them to channel more energy, and there was always they chance that one of them might loose control and be overloaded.

* * *

The human army prepared for battle, as they had so many times before. Crossbows were loaded, javelins were readied, armor was donned, and swords were drawn. Leha and the other leaders ordered their people into a long crescent formation that would net the machines as they emerged from the marshes. Parties of Clanspeople were scattered around the area; they would catch any Automatons that broke through the formation or tried to avoid it. Barrian, Lost One, and ice creature wizards scattered through the ranks and readied their magic for use in battle. The mental link spread like webbing through the minds of the army.

Leha, now dressed in her leather armor and equipped with the blade Drogin had made for her, took her position in the front ranks at the center of the crescent. There, she waited.

A bank of dark clouds had begun to roll in from the north. It dimmed the sky and brought the scent of rain, but for now, the sun continued to shine.

Out over the marshes, the Automatons’ column had come close enough to be seen clearly by all in the human army. The energy above them roared and twisted like some insane storm, and the air around it shimmered with heat. The ground froze beneath their feet, forming frost that twinkled in the light of the energy above. Between the fire and the ice walked the Automatons.

A few ranks in, she could see the three-pronged crown of the Automaton Lord. The sight made Leha shudder. The air reverberated with the distant thunder of their footfalls.

She was reminded of the meeting she had called in Elder Sheen’s home, several months ago. She remembered saying that they could never hope to hold a fixed position against the superior might of the Automatons. She hoped she had been wrong. If they lost the eastern camp, she didn’t know where they would find another safe hiding spot.

The Automatons reached the last river before the edge of the marshlands and began to freeze it. As their efforts cut off the flow of water, the river began to flood its banks, and this water, too, was frozen, creating a great fan of sparkling ice that spread across the marshlands.

Soon, the Automatons would arrive on the plain. Leha and the other leaders ordered the battle wizards to attack, and a spray of magical strikes, enhanced by Tyzu’s power, burst from the ranks to hurl themselves at the machines.

Some of the swirling energy above the Automaton army twisted down into a curtain that wrapped around the front ranks and deflected the human spells. Leha brought the Automatons at the fore of the army down to Sy’om’s level of energy – it would make it easier for them to freeze the marshes, but it would also weaken their ability to protect themselves with magic. She was pleased to see that the sudden change caused one of the machines to lose its footing. It fell sideways, its bulk pushing it through the shield, and it landed in a pile of unfrozen muck. It twisted feebly in an attempt to rise.

The battle wizards reacted quickly, blasting the fallen machine with so much fury that even its lead armor failed to protect it.

The Automatons struck back, sending their own bursts of energy at the human army. The battle wizards did their best to block and scatter the assaults, but one finger of magic slipped through and slammed into the southern half of the crescent. Dirt, ash, and body parts flew into the sky, and a wave of hot air washed over the army, bringing it with it the smell of charred flesh. Some of the soldiers near where the spell had struck screamed. Their fellows in the link tried to calm them.

The battle between the machines and the wizards continued to rage. The roar and hiss of great magics boomed across the plain, and lights burst through the sky as spells and counter spells smashed into each other. The shield around the Automatons rippled and flashed as the battle wizards hammered at it. More strikes slipped through the defenses of the humans and their allies to carve holes from the ranks of Leha’s army and scar the plain.

Slowly, the machines moved closer to the edge of the marshes.

Leha frowned as she surveyed the situation. We should try the feedback spell, she thought.

She conferred with the other leaders, and they reluctantly agreed. Since the destruction of Drogin’s machine at Marlhem, they had rarely made use of the spell. It had always been unreliable, and the Automaton Lord’s ability to withstand it had done nothing to increase their confidence in it. But now, it seemed they had little choice.

Three battle wizards were given the order. They took control of spells sent by the Automatons and bent them back to their creators. Three loops of blinding energy took shape over the plains, emitting a high-pitched whine that set Leha’s teeth on edge. She poured Tyzu’s power into the machines while funneling the energy of Sy’om into the battle wizards.

The loops burned brightly, but the machines withstood it. Leha’s heart beat faster.

Two of the battle wizards began to scream, and their bodies burst into green-white flame. Their feedback loops failed, and the backlash ripped through the ranks of Leha’s army, killing all those who had been near the wizards.

Leha had not been connected to their minds directly, but she could feel the horror of those who had. She shook her head and struggled to maintain calm.

She reached out to the remaining wizard’s mind. Stop! she cried psychically.

The wizard broke off the spell, but the backlash still wounded him and several soldiers.

Leha felt the worries of the other leaders echo her own. Natoma, the most composed among them, did her best to radiate calm.

Leha refocused her attention on the machine army, hoping to find something positive. The battle continued much as it had. One spell managed to worm its way through the Automaton shield – Yarnig was behind it, she learned via the link – and cripple one machine. It toppled to the ground and was destroyed by further spells, but dozens more Automatons remained in the column.

The first of the machines reached the edge of the marshes, the shield dissolved, and they fanned out. Some were damaged by the attacks of the battle wizards, but most managed to defend themselves. Leha and the other leaders moved their army forward, bringing the prongs of the crescent in to flank the machines. The Automatons became too scattered for Leha to keep them all at one energy level, so she switched to channeling the powers of the other worlds as her people had need of them.

Those in the center of the crescent charged to meet the machines. Leha led them, running ahead of all others, her body gliding through the air. Even before she reached the first Automaton, she knew that things were not going well.

Her forces were too few. Too many had been lost in previous battles. They did not have the advantage of surprise, as they had at Tallatzan. The Automatons were not spread too thin, as they had been in the battles of the past days. Her people could not take advantage of the terrain. They had no forests to hide in, no high ground to take – at best, they might be able to drive some of the machines into the marshes. They had nothing to rely on but strength of arms, and in that contest, the Automatons had the advantage.

She tried to think positive thoughts. Her doubt would be poison in the mental link.

Her feet left the ground, and she landed on the cool chest of an Automaton. She dug in her claws and leapt a second time, landing on its featureless face. It attacked her with its magic, but a battle wizard summoned a shell of protective energy around her.

Her blade shot from its sheath, and she plunged it through the glass pane of one the machine’s balefully glowing eyes. The light went out.

The Automaton’s legs began to crumple, and slowed by the energy of Sy’om, it glided backward in slow-motion. Leha climbed onto the crown of its head. There, she screwed up her legs and jumped, flying over the plains to land on the left shoulder of another machine. She fluttered about its neck, sped by Tyzu’s energy as she weakened the machine with Sy’om’s, and attacked the supports of its neck. Stinging smoke and sparks flew as she worked.

The neck crumpled, and the head fell, the metal of the last few connections screaming. Her blade retracted.

She turned around, searching for her next target, and she saw the dark, towering form of the Automaton Lord charge for her. As she made to summon Sy’om’s energy and weaken it, it raised its fist and launched a bolt of energy at her.

Fear stabbed through her heart.

The battle wizards connected to her dropped what they were doing and pooled their energy to create a shield around her. The shield met the Machine King’s attack with a clap like thunder and a blast of heat.

The concussion sent her flying backward over the plains. She plummeted towards the ground. Just before she landed, she brought herself down to Sy’om’s energy level. She thudded into the rocky soil.

She pushed herself up with her hands. She would have bad bruises, but she had suffered no worse injuries.

She heard a clanking of metal behind her. She rolled onto her back and saw a lead-plated fist hurl itself toward her. She rolled to the right, and the Automaton’s fist slammed into the earth where she had been a moment before. She activated her blade and swung at the fist, severing its thumb in a spray of hot flame.

It raised its other hand. The silver at its wrist sparkled with magic. She made to dodge.

A length of rope spread between two silver globes passed into her vision and wrapped itself around the Automaton’s neck. The Clan rope pushed it backwards, and it crashed into the ground.

A squad of whooping Clanspeople charged in and attacked the machine with their narviks. Leha felt a rush of gratitude. Distracted by her own problems and other groups within the link, she had not been paying attention to this detachment. She poured Sy’om’s energy into the Automaton, and it was soon dispatched. The Clanspeople moved on.

She crawled up onto the chest of a ruined Automaton, feeling its unnaturally cold skin beneath the soles of her feet. She took in the battle raging around her, her vision enhanced by the knowledge granted to her through the telepathic link.

For now, her army held the Automatons at bay at the edge of the marshes, but they wouldn’t continue to do so for long. Already, the machines were close to breaking through the crescent. Once they did that, they would be able to flank the human forces or attack them from behind.

The only thing that had kept the Automatons from overwhelming them before now was the fact that more than half of the machines were still trapped on the narrow corridor across the wetlands. In their rush to join the battle, a few Automatons had lost their footing and become trapped in the mire.

Though slowed by Sy’om’s energy and squads of human soldiers, the Automaton Lord bore down on her, crushing everyone in its path. From where she stood, she could hear the screams of its victims.

With every passing moment, she saw the Automatons make more gains and felt more minds vanish from the link. At that moment, she knew the battle could not be won.

As soon as it arose, she fought to crush the thought, but it was too late. The knowledge spread through the army like wildfire, killing hopes and bringing doubt into the hearts of the soldiers. The other leaders were forced to admit their agreement with her, and the despair strengthened. Doga alone still held hope, and his shrunk quickly in the face of the others’ feelings.

Leha felt the heartbreak and disappointment pound at her like a wave. Her throat constricted, and she felt ready to weep. I’m sorry, she thought. I failed you.

The demoralized forces of humanity began to dissolve. The best efforts of Leha, Natoma, and the others failed to make them stand their ground. The Automatons pressed the advantage.

Leha’s heart ached. She wanted to fall to her knees and cry, to give herself to the drowning wash of hopelessness. But she fought against the sorrow and fear and forced her mind through the link, commanding her people to begin an orderly retreat. By strength of will, she turned her people from their mad flight and pushed them back into order. The other leaders added their efforts, and her army pulled together to fight off the attacks of the Automatons as they moved back to the tents of their camp.

The Automatons pursued them at first, nipping at the heels of Leha’s army and picking off stragglers, but then they fell back. They waited at the edge of the marshes for the rest of the machines to complete the crossing.

The clouds from the north had moved in closer, and now they blocked out the sun, bringing shadow to the barren plains. The wind picked up, whipping at the retreating soldiers with cold, damp gusts.

The army made it to the camp, and under the direction of their leaders, they began to dismantle it, leaving behind anything that they could. Leha and the others removed themselves from the link so they could discuss their next course of action. Leha sent her mind south, to the camp on the shores of the River Sheen, and contacted Benefactor. She sent him the knowledge of what had happened.

She sensed him set his jaw and felt a wash of anger at the machines from him. I am sorry, Leha. You did everything you could.

She sent him a wordless message of gratitude.

He connected his and her minds with those of Natoma, Doga, Eranna, and Drogin.

What do we do now? Leha asked without delay. She stood amidst a knot of hurried soldiers breaking the camp, giving what direction was needed with her voice and hands.

They quickly decided to abandon the plain, opting to make for the camp to the south. They also decided to leave behind a force to slow the Automatons advance and keep a watch over the machines. Doga and Eranna volunteered to lead the rearguard.

Leha nodded. Good. Drogin, Natoma, and I will head back to the south and start making further plans. She looked over her shoulder. The Automatons had nearly finished crossing the marshes. We don’t have time right now.

Benefactor broke off the link, and they each went about their next tasks. Leha collected a few things from her tent – the rest would be packed by someone else – and headed for the nearest jumping point to Tyzu. There, at the northeastern corner of the camp, she met Drogin, Natoma, and a handful of other people who would be making the journey to the camp.

Breena, one of those people, raised her staff. But just before she cast the spell to make the jump, she faltered.

Leha frowned. “What is it?”

“There’s no jumping point,” Breena answered, a note of worry in her voice.

Drogin pulled his wand from its sheath. “She’s right,” he said. “It’s gone.”

A gust of wind whipped Leha’s hair, but it was not the source of the cold that settled in her stomach. “They must have brought a barrier machine.”

Breena again raised her staff.

“What are you doing?” Leha asked.


The air in the center of the silver hexagon that crowned Breena’s staff shimmered. An image appeared in the empty space. It depicted the marshes from a bird’s eye perspective. At the rear of the Automaton column, a Urannan Sextamaton shambled forward. It looked weathered and beaten, and it seemed to have been the recipient of some hasty repairs. Atop its back, where its siege weapon should have been, a barrier machine had been fused to its armor. The rings of the barrier machine spun faster than Leha had ever seen before, and they glowed with a faint light.

Breena lowered her staff, dispelling the image.

Those in Leha’s group muttered to each other.

“Why is it glowing?” Breena said. “I have seen barrier machines before, but they do not run like that.”

The eyes of Leha and the others turned to Drogin.

Her brother didn’t answer immediately. He furrowed his brow in thought. “If I were to guess, I would say that they are attempting to increase the range it can cover. Depending on how much they’ve been able to enhance its abilities, they may be able to stop us from fleeing the camp to the south while they’re still many miles away from it.”

Leha’s shoulders slumped. “It would explain why they’re willing to take the risk of launching this assault.”

Natoma nodded.

A significant portion of the camp had now been cleared out, and the humans and ice creatures of the army had begun to head south. Leha empowered them with Tyzuan energy to speed their passage. From where she stood, Leha couldn’t see the machines, but she knew their army would be fully assembled soon.

Leha sighed. “We can still make it to Tyzu. We’ll just have to make a new jumping point.”

Breena shook her head. “No, we can’t. For the battle in the Mannall Range, they adjusted their machine to destroy all jumping points immediately.”

Leha swore.

“That might not be the case here,” Drogin chimed in. “If they’re pushing that machine as hard as I think they are, I doubt they’d add to its burden by forcing it to disperse jumping points quickly.” He frowned. “It’s not like we’ll be able to evacuate the eastern camp by makeshift jumping points.”

Breena looked to Leha.

“Try it,” she said.

Breena raised her staff. Drogin and the other wizards in their party added their own abilities, screwing up their faces in concentration. Leha summoned the energy of Tyzu to ease their efforts.

Green-white light enveloped them, and they entered the space between worlds.

* * *

Late that night, Leha leaned against one of the columns in the meeting chamber of the Clan hall. She closed her eyes, wishing she could sleep. Things had been hectic since their return to the camp below the mountains. They had performed the unpleasant duty of informing the camp’s residents that they were no longer safe, and they had begun organizing the evacuation. Even now, people were being herded to the jumping points and sent to safe havens on Sy’om or Tyzu.

The efforts were hampered by the damage inflicted on those worlds by the attacks of the previous winter. Many places that might have offered refuge before had been destroyed. Finding places to send people slowed things down significantly.

The news of the Automatons’ approach had nearly sent the entire camp into panic, and only the fact that such things had happened before, coupled with great effort on the part of Leha and her comrades, had kept a semblance of order in place.

On top of that, Leha had been occupied with aiding the forces still in the north. They had been unable to fight on the plain, so she had fueled them with Tyzuan energy for hours as they ran for rougher terrain, where they at least had a chance of slowing the machines. Once they’d reached the edges of the forests that seemed to cover nearly all the land beyond the Gormorra Range, they had finally been able to set up a resistance. At the same time, she had had to use her abilities to aid those groups trying to jump back to the southern camp. The effort of sending so many people had exhausted the wizards, and hundreds of people had been forced to stay with the rearguard.

The rearguard and the machines had skirmished off and on throughout the day and night, and Leha had given her abilities to aid that as well. She had considered rejoining the fight in person, but as Natoma had reminded her, she needed to conserve her strength for later battles. She would almost certainly have to defend the camp.

For now, the rearguard had moved ahead of the machine army and taken the chance to rest. Rather than being connected to the entire army, as she had been during the battles, her mind was connected to only Eranna, Doga, and Benefactor, who maintained the link. Through the Lost One and the Tor, Leha could see the orange light that illuminated the dark northern sky and smell the smoke that pervaded the forests. The Automatons were burning their way through the trees.

A few feet from Leha, Drogin and Natoma sat on cushions, their stooped forms showing nearly as much fatigue as Leha’s. To their right, Benefactor crouched in a kind of four-legged kneel.

Leha opened her eyes. She didn’t feel as tired as she had during the battles for the northern front, but she longed for her bed.

“I think we can assume that we will have to defend this camp,” Natoma said, breaking the silence. “The Automatons wouldn’t have brought the barrier machine unless they thought it had a strong chance of doing its purpose. We won’t have any chance of creating enough jumping points for our people to escape, especially once the machine army arrives.” She folded her black-sleeved arms – she had shed her plate armor. “So the question we face is not if, but how.”

Leha nodded, grimacing. She felt echoes of agreement from Benefactor, Doga, and Eranna.

Drogin stared at his fingers. Leha didn’t need to link with his mind to know that he was thinking hard.

He raised his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “I’ve been thinking; our situation may not be as grim as it seems.”

Leha raised her eyebrows.

Drogin continued. “The Automatons have sent everything they have against us, yes. We’re in great danger, yes. But the machines are taking great risks to do this. They’ve cut themselves off from any source of maintenance. They’ve left their settlements virtually undefended. They’ve put everything into this. What does that tell us?”

Leha leaned forward, feeling a thin ray of hope grow within her. “They’re desperate.”

Drogin nodded, the suggestion of a smile beginning to appear on his face. “Yes. My guess is that they spread themselves too thin on the northern front, and they decided they had to abandon the fight. Our victories there and at Tallatzan have them worried, and they’re going to put everything they have into this attack. If we can defeat them here, it could win us the war.”

Leha considered his words. Hope warred with fear within her.

A dark thought passed through her mind and Eranna’s at virtually the same time – she had trouble telling who thought it first: if they lost, it would likely spell the end of the human race.

Reluctantly, she spoke the thought aloud.

A tense silence followed.

“I’m sorry, but we need to know the stakes,” she said as her companions frowned and grimaced. “We cannot abandon the people at this camp, and if we fall, then our race will be leaderless. Those that survive will be hunted down. Even if they escape to Tyzu or Sy’om, the machines will find some way to destroy them, no matter how long it takes.”

She leaned forward and spoke with a strong voice. “That’s why we have to do everything we can to defend this camp. We have to win.”

Doga sent her a wave of agreement. We can’t lose hope. We defeated the Old Gods once before; we can do so again.

Benefactor agreed. We will fight to our last breath, he said simply.

Leha relayed their sentiments.

Natoma nodded.

They turned the discussion to the specifics of their defenses. They estimated that they had about a week before the Automatons arrived. In that time, they would prepare the camp for defense as best they could. Much of the trees around the camp had already been felled to fuel the forges and campfires, but they would clear more to create on open field where they would be able to easily see and target the machines. Much of the wood would go to constructing trebuchets and other engines of war – they were too clumsy to be of much use in the kind of guerilla war they had been fighting for the last few months, but when mobility was not an issue, they were effective weapons against Automatons.

Leha and the others realized they had one advantage in the form of the River Sheen. It cut across the path the machines would take, and it was long enough that the Automatons wouldn’t be able to circumvent it without wasting a great deal of time. Water was damaging to the machines; they would likely have to freeze it before they could cross it. That gave Leha’s people an extra layer of protection. They considered clearing the trees from the northern riverbank, but they realized that they could not predict where the Automatons would try to cross.

The battle in the Mannall Range had shown that Automatons could quickly turn Clan halls into bonfires, so the hall in the camp would be dismantled. Some of its parts could be used in the construction of the war engines.

The discussion then shifted to the topic of reinforcements. They could not strip the Clan lands of their few remaining defenders, but they did opt to recall Brodar and his troops from the Gormorra Range. There was no longer any need for them to guard the passes. They would jump back while they still could.

My people could likely spare a few more warriors, Doga offered after they made the decision about Brodar. It may leave some villages vulnerable to Stassai and other predators, but it will be worth it if we are victorious.

They may come if they wish to, Leha replied, feeling guilty for asking so much of the Lost Ones.

There were other topics to discuss, but they were all tired, so they decided to retire for the night. Leha felt confident that she would be awoken and required to lend her powers to the rearguard at least once.

* * *

Her confidence proved well-founded. Twice in the night, she was awoken to aid the rearguard. When she rose and began her day, she felt nearly as tired as she had before she had gone to sleep.

Before the sun even crested the horizon, preparations for defending the camp were already underway. Drogin and his people went to work constructing weapons and armor of every size and description. The trees around the camp crashed to the ground and were chopped into usable pieces. Brodar arrived and added his people to their forces. Natoma put many of the noncombatants to work building earthworks around the camp – they would not provide much real defense, but every advantage helped, and it gave the people something to do besides worry. Food and water were stockpiled. The sound of people at work provided a backdrop to life in the camp.

Skirmishes between the rearguard and the machines regularly interrupted Leha’s life. Eranna and Doga found they could barely stay ahead of the machines, let alone slow them down in any real way. Midway through the second day after the battle by the ocean, it became clear that the rearguard could do no good, and they focused their efforts on reaching the camp before the machines did. Leha did what she could to speed their journey.

Later that day, Breena approached Leha with an idea.

Leha had been overseeing the construction of the earthworks, giving encouragement to the increasingly frightened and agitated civilians. The day was hot, and she was sweaty. A fair amount of dirt had stuck itself to her clothes and her sticky skin. The air smelled of freshly churned soil.

“You’re familiar with wards, yes?” Breena said after offering her greetings.

Leha nodded, remembering the wards that had been placed in Three Gates to slow the Tor army.

“They are not much used by the Clanspeople, but over the past few months, I’ve learned they are a very common type of magic among the southern nations. Wards are generally not of use against Automatons because of their lead armor. We can’t directly do them harm with wards, but I think we might still be able to make use of them.”

Breena took a breath before continuing. “Wards are essentially spells that activate when someone stumbles into them – any spell can be used. We can’t use an offensive spell, but if we use a small shield spell, we can create a bubble of energy beneath the feet of any machine that steps on the ward. Their lead armor will be repelled by it, and they won’t be able to keep their balance.”

She shrugged. “It’s not much, but it might help.”

Leha nodded and gave a little smile. “It might. We’re going to need every advantage we can get. I’ll get the other wizards working on these wards.” She smiled wider. “Good work.”

Breena smiled back.

Later on, Leha had an idea of her own. She approached Drogin as he oversaw the dismantling of the Clan hall and broached the possibility of creating new feedback weapons, like the one they had used at Marlhem.

Drogin thought it over and came to the conclusion that they could be built. Between what they had salvaged from Automaton wrecks in recent weeks and the remnants of the Clan hall, they had unusually large stores of silver and other metals.

After a bit of discussion, Drogin also said that, with a few modifications to the design and some watchfulness on the part of the operators, they could probably prevent the Machine King from hijacking these like it had the first one, though he didn’t think he could build one strong enough to actually use against the Automatons’ leader. Leha thanked him.

Before she left, she complimented him on the speed at which his people had been able to produce weaponry for the battle – the first trebuchets were already nearing completion.

To that, he replied, “You can get a lot done if you don’t bother to sleep.”

That evening, as the sun began to fall behind the peaks of the Gormorra Range, and the air began to cool, the barrier fell into place. In the space of a few minutes, the jumping points vanished, and the evacuation ended. They had been able to evacuate more people than Leha had expected they would – including all of the children, the infirm, and the pregnant women – but a few thousand civilians remained.

For the barrier to already be affecting them, it had to cover an incredible amount of land. Drogin put it into perspective, saying, “If the machine was in Eastenhold, the barrier would probably cover the entire nation.”

Leha looked toward the north and tried not to shiver.


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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.

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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.


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.


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.


“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.


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?”


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.


Enjoying the story so far? The next chapter will be posted soon, but if you can’t wait, you also have the opportunity buy the full ebook now!