Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Sixteen: The Ziggurat

We’ve come to chapter sixteen 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 time to run and hide is over. At long last, Leha and the champions of humanity have taken the fight to their enemy. The battle for Tallatzan Ziggurat is joined.

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Chapter sixteen: The Ziggurat

For a moment, things were quiet.

Leha and her squad emerged from the disorientation of the journey at the summit of the Automaton watchtower. Ahead, standing with its back to them, was the Wizard-Automaton lookout. She had a moment to register soot-stained skies above, and the fact that it was much hotter here than it had been beyond the mountains, and then the Wizard-Automaton turned to face them.

She called forth the powers of the other worlds, speeding her people and slowing the machine, doing the same for the other groups that even now flashed into being all across the machine city.

The Automaton raised its fists, summoning its magic. Half of Leha’s squad stayed behind and let loose with crossbow bolts and burning globes of magic. Leha led the other half forward, and they drew swords, axes, and narviks, the edges of their weapons blazing. She reached out to Drogin via the mental link, and her blade shot from the metal band on her arm, its heat rippling across the skin of her hand. She grinned.

She and her people reached the feet of the Wizard-Automaton and set to work on its legs, slashing and hacking and cutting. Leha jammed her blade into the gap between two large plates of lead and cut upward. The metal burned and gave off acrid smoke as she carved a hole equal to herself in height. She withdrew her blade, sending it back into its sheath, adapted her fingers to cope with extreme heat, and inserted them in the gap. She grunted, the metal groaned, and the hole widened enough for her to put her arm through it. Her blade reemerged, hissing like a serpent, and she struck at the supports within the Wizard-Automaton’s leg.

In seconds, the machine’s lower legs had been reduced to little more than shredded slag. They began to collapse.

Back! she ordered over the link.

The human fighters scurried back from the teetering machine.

Leha did an about-face and fixed her gaze on the Automaton. She sent a request to the wizards: shove it over the edge.

One of the Clanspeople raised their staff, and a disc of energy slammed into the machine’s chest. The magic shattered on the lead plating, but the force of its impact sent the Wizard-Automaton toppling, and it fell over the southern edge of the tower. Leha allowed it to return to Barria’s energy level, and she heard it tear itself apart as it smashed against the side of the tower during its descent.

At her command, Drogin sent her blade back into its housing, and she led her squad to the southern edge of the watchtower. From here, she could see the entire ziggurat. She took a moment to survey their surroundings.

The first thing to strike her was the sheer scale of it. It was easily equal to most human cities in size. The top of the watchtower could have held at least half a dozen buildings the size of her shop in Three Gates, and it took up only a small part of the city. The tower had the shape of a narrow, flat-topped pyramid, and it was dizzyingly tall. A long, gentle ramp connected it to the vast mezzanine area below.

The ziggurat was built of a brownish substance that bore resemblances to both stone and packed earth. The air smelled of smoke and chemicals, and hazy clouds obscured the sun.

To the west, several gargantuan machines sprawled over the lumps and rough edges of the unfinished platform. Their bulging, incoherent shapes seemed almost organic, and their bizarre limbs moved slowly across the surface of the ziggurat; she assumed they were building the ziggurat up somehow. Other large machines dug earth out of pits to the north and funneled it to the construction machines via huge conveyor belts.

The land all around the Automaton city had been torn up and scorched until little or no plant life remained. Out in the barren fields, Leha caught sight of a number of large, slow-moving shapes. She took those to be resource gatherers.

All across the surfaces of the ziggurat, chaos reigned. The booming steps of running Automatons, the shouts of human fighters, and the crackle of magic echoed upward. The human and ice creature fighters had taken the Automatons by surprise, and the machines scurried about in confusion, falling to the assaults of the humans and their allies. Leha didn’t know if machines could feel fear, but they were pulling off a good imitation of it.

She smiled fiercely.

She led her squad down the ramp at a jog. A Wizard-Automaton hurled a bolt of energy at them as they went, but the Clan wizards deflected it, and a group of humans and ice creatures on the platform engaged the Automaton, preventing it from making a second attack.

Once past the halfway point of the ramp, Leha ordered every available wizard in her force to strike at the barrier machine inside the tower. If things turned bad, they would need to have a means of retreat.

Bolts, discs, globes, and spears of green-white energy arced upward and crashed into the crown of the tower, sending chunks of burning debris to rain down on those below. Leha did her best to control the speed of each chunk so that they would strike the machines but not her people.

The cacophony of light and sound continued to break down the watchtower until pieces of melted metal, the remnants of the barrier machine, joined the hail of broken boulders.

Her squad reached the bottom of the ramp. A pair of machine-built Wizard-Automatons charged them, shaking the floor of the mezzanine with their strides, and lashed out with their magic. Leha brought them down to Sy’om’s energy level, weakening their magic and slowing their advance. The Clan wizards deflected the magical assaults.

Leha screwed up her legs and leapt forward. The wind rushing over her leather-armored body, she somersaulting through the air and landed on the chest of the right-hand machine. She dug her claws in and climbed to the top of its neck, where, with a thought, she activated her blade. She cut along the edges of the machine’s chin, leaving only a thin strip of unburned metal to hold it in place. Then, she shoved the heat-acclimatized fingers of her left hand into the gap, yanked the panel off and threw it to the ground, and stabbed her blade up and into the latticework of its mind.

Leha jumped, carried high into the air by Tyzuan energy, as she brought the Automaton back to Barrian energy level. It toppled to the floor of the ziggurat with a great crash.

The other Wizard-Automaton and her squad were still locked in combat. The Clan wizards had managed to hold off the machine’s magic, but they hadn’t made any headway. A few of the other soldiers had done some damage, but as Leha descended, she felt three of her people die in a blaze of the Automaton’s magic. Their losses opened up yawning gaps in the mental link, and she gasped. She barely regained her composure in time to summon Sy’om’s energy and slow her descent.

She landed on the back of the second machine, at the base of its neck. Using her enhanced balance and reflexes to perch on two large back plates, she tore into its neck plating with her blade and her claws, ripping chunks free until a large hole had opened up. She coughed at the smoke created by her attacks.

The machine’s neck collapsed, and the head toppled backward. Leha did a back flip and glided to a location several feet from the machine. She returned its energy to normal, and the head clanged against whatever material the ziggurat had been built of. The body followed a moment later.

Leha landed neatly and waited for her squad mates to catch up. Ash and dust from the ruined watchtower stained the sky, and dozens of other columns of smoke rose from all across Tallatzan Ziggurat. Flashes of magic illuminated the blanket of soot from below, providing a surreal backdrop for the battle.

As her squad approached, Leha searched surrounding chaos with her eyes, looking for their next target.

* * *

Natoma had said to start moving as soon as they arrived. So Yarnig did.

The moment they emerged from the space between worlds, he leapt forward, dropped to the ground, and rolled. He came to a stop beside a low rise of something brown and stone-like, and he activated his sword’s magic.

A variety of stationary machines, people, dust clouds, and rises like the one that sheltered him obscured his view, but he heard the sounds of battle all around him: screaming humans, burning magic, booming mechanical footsteps. Natoma, wearing her shining plate armor; Erik, bearing the lead shield of a battle wizard; and a number of others from their squad joined him. Natoma peeked over the little rise, and Yarnig followed suit.

Several small machines, mostly cranes and manipulator arms, dotted the rise. These were what Automaton technicians referred to as “dumb” machines – a term for any machine or device that lacked an artificial mind.

The rise turned twice to form three sides of a rectangle. A pit lay in the middle of it, and an Automaton lay within that. It had no hands, its chest lacked several plates of lead, and one of its legs had been partially disassembled. It was undergoing a refit.

Three smaller Automatons clustered around it. Once, when he had been a boy, his parents had taken him to the seaside so he could play on the beach. He had seen a small crab, and spent the better part of an hour studying it. It had fascinated him with its strangeness, its armored body, and its many limbs. These machines reminded him of it.

They were about his size, and their heads and chests were vaguely humanoid, but any resemblance to a person ended there. They had four legs ending in things that were neither feet nor claws; the last two legs arced up and backward before curving back the ground. They had three limbs protruding from their torso, and each limb terminated in a knot of manipulators, grippers, and tools both mechanical and magical. They had minimal lead plating.

From their design and positioning, Yarnig assumed that they had been performing the refit of the larger machine. These, then, were the new maintenance machines, the new workers. Humanity’s replacement.

Natoma vaulted over the rise and into the pit, her movements almost unnaturally graceful, and the other squad members followed. Yarnig struggled to pull himself onto the rise and turn himself to slide down the other side. He cursed his soft, highborn body.

He reached the floor of the pit, his heart pounding and his breathing hard. Some of the squad stayed at the top on Natoma’s orders, but the others attacked. One Worker-Automaton fell within seconds, and the others struggled to escape, their movements jerky and slow. The larger machine tried to lever itself up, but soldiers had already begun to tear at its exposed arm and leg cavities.

Yarnig leapt onto its chest and swung at the section not protected by lead. He tore deep gouges in the metal, watching it spark and burn.

Natoma sent him a gentle reminder, an image of a square hole in the machine’s chest. Yarnig swore under his breath. Stupid, he thought. He felt his cheeks warm. He took his blade and carved a wide hole in the Automaton’s chest, abandoning the random slashes he had used before.

The plate he had removed clattered into the now-open chest, and he leapt into the hole. He felt the heat of the scorched metal through his boots, but the air inside the machine was unnaturally cold. Crouching low, he searched the interior and found the silver wheel that gave the Automaton its power. He cut through its moorings. The machine ceased its thrashing.

He pulled himself out onto its chest. While he had been inside, the two remaining Worker-Automatons had been destroyed.

Guiding them via the mental link, Natoma led them up a ramp and out of the pit. Here, on the floor of the ziggurat, machines – intelligent and dumb, mobile and rooted – dotted the artificial landscape. Yarnig saw, through his eyes and the eyes of those with him, a number of similar repair/refit pits, a few metal frameworks designed to hold up an Automaton so the maintenance machines could work on its back, and a few things he couldn’t identify.

A Tor-built Automaton levered itself off of one of the holding frames and charged his squad. It lacked several lead plates, but it was otherwise intact. Natoma’s squad turned to face it. Yarnig raised his blade and tried to remember Natoma’s advice.

Halfway to its target, the machine slowed to a speed not naturally found on Barria. Yarnig’s shoulders relaxed slightly. It always impressed him that Leha could do that from the other side of a battlefield.

A booming spear of magic from Erik tore a hole in the Automaton’s chest. The machine fell backwards. Before it could reach the ground in its slowed state, a gray and white-furred ice creature wizard came to the fore of the ranks, raised its wand, and launched a small globe of magic into the hole created by Erik’s spell. The magic illuminated the Automaton’s chest from the inside for a moment. The light went out of the machine’s eyes, and it toppled.

Bright lights flared above the ziggurat to the west. A string of magical attacks pounded at the watchtower at the heart of the machine city, tearing it down in layers. The thunder of its destruction could be heard even from Yarnig’s position. The wizards in his own squad added their own strikes to the assault, until the tower had been reduced to a stub. The barrage ceased; the air had gone cool from the drawing of power.

Natoma led them forward, deeper into the ziggurat. As they went, they struck at machinery, supplies, and equipment with their swords, axes, and narviks. They would not leave anything behind for the Automatons to use. Yarnig’s blood pounded in his ears, and he struck savagely, tearing through anything in his way. His muscles sang with fear and exhilaration.

They came to a wide, open patch dotted with slanting passageways leading under the floor of the ziggurat. Yarnig saw a Worker-Automaton poke its head out from one of the holes. The passages led to housing areas for the Worker-Automatons, he guessed. According to the histories, humanity had lived their lives in similar tunnels before the Liberation.

Many of the soldiers, Yarnig included, made to invade the tunnels, but Natoma held up her hand. Wait, she sent.

Yarnig stepped back and awaited further instructions from his mentor and commander.

A sizzling bolt of magic leapt from a bank of smoke to the squad’s right, the direction Yarnig faced, and tore through the human soldiers, killing several instantly. Pain and fear lanced through Yarnig’s head, and his vision blurred momentarily. He struggled to keep to his feet.

As if on cue, dozens of Worker-Automatons poured from the tunnels and charged the squad with as much speed as their shambling gait would allow.

Erik and the other wizards leapt into action, blocking new attacks by the Wizard-Automaton behind the smoke and attempting to strike back. The other soldiers shouted and screamed as the workers tore into them, and even the mental link and Natoma’s eternal calm could not keep them fully organized.

Yarnig swung his sword blindly, cleaving through the mechanical limbs that sought to beat and tear at his body. He picked up several minor wounds from the arms and tools of the Worker-Automatons, though he forgot what had specifically caused each within moments.

The battle between the wizards and the Wizard-Automaton raged on, their spells thundering across the field of battle. The machine stayed within the concealing bands of smoke that covered much of this section of the ziggurat, and the humans and ice creature had trouble targeting it.

A spell from Erik and bolt from the Automaton met halfway, and both exploded into a dozen jagged shards of energy that tore through everything in their path. One impacted the center of the human troops, blowing a hole in their ranks and leaving more disconcerting gaps in the mental link.

Distracted, Yarnig dropped his guard and nearly had his head caved in by a hammer-like attachment on a Worker-Automaton’s arm.

He dodged and resumed a defensive stance, but he remained distracted. He saw, via the link, that a half dozen machines had charged through the gap in the squad. They attacked Natoma and her guards with single-minded ferocity, their strength and determination making up for their weak armor and clumsy movements.

A Worker-Automaton slammed Natoma in the chest, and she went down. Yarnig’s heart leapt into his throat, and his mind leapt through the link, joining with hers so fully that he saw the world through her eyes.

Normally, he enjoyed the opportunity to touch her mind; she had a way of living in the present that granted great peace and clarity. But now, it was a nightmare. Time seemed to slow down as the Worker-Automaton raised one of its arms, swiveled a nub of silver to the bottom surface, and activated a small but bright flame of magic, the kind used to cut metal.

Yarnig watched helplessly as the machine struck downward. Natoma rolled, but she was not fast enough to avoid the cutting flame. It struck her right side, tore through her breastplate, and Yarnig felt a blinding pain tear through her abdomen.

His stomach churned.

A moment later, a narvik punched through the machine’s eye and shattered its mind, but the damage had been done.

Returning to his own mind, Yarnig forgot the machine before him and bolted towards Natoma’s position. He shoved everyone and everything out of his path, pumping his legs until they burned. He pushed his way through two Eastenholders and reached his commander’s side.

Natoma lay on the ground behind a thin wall created by a pack of Clansmen fighting the Worker-Automatons. A deep gash had been cut in her armor, and underneath, a broad swathe of skin and flesh had been charred black and dark red. Her face was sweaty and slick, and her expression was pained.

Yarnig stared at her a moment, his mouthing hanging open. Ever since he had met her, she had done every task she had set her mind to, be it leading troops into battle or eating a meal, with almost superhuman grace and confidence. She had seemed somehow more than human. To see her now, on her back, a grotesque chunk burnt from her abdomen, seemed impossibly wrong.

Yarnig’s fists tightened. “Healer! We need a healer here. Now!” he screamed, forgetting the link.

She looked at him. For the first time, he saw fear in her tea-colored eyes. “It’s bad,” she said, her voice surprisingly steady under the circumstances.

A series of quick explosions shook the floor of the ziggurat, and the wizards ceased their exchanges with the Wizard-Automaton. Having destroyed the last of the Worker-Automatons a few moments earlier, the fighters clustered around their fallen leader, a few staying on the outside of the squad to keep watch.

A Tor soldier emerged from the press and knelt next to Natoma. He placed his crossbow to one side and began examining her wound. A healer’s pouch hung at his belt.

Yarnig sensed the healer’s distress as he looked over the burn. She likely wouldn’t survive, the healer, Darsen, thought. His hands flying, he pulled several jars from his pouch and began to apply ointments and creams to the wound. Natoma’s brow furrowed, and she closed her eyes against the pain.

Yarnig felt Darsen’s voice in his mind. Get her mind on something else.

Yarnig dropped his sword and took one of her metal-plated handos in his. He strengthened his connection to her; he felt the jagged pain that ripped through Natoma’s body every time Darsen touched her. It’s all right. I’m here, he sent. He pulled a memory from his mind, and shared it with Natoma.

They were in the forest near his family’s country home, hunting with Yarnig’s father. Yarnig was fifteen, and his father had abdicated the throne to Lorganna Tor Vargis a few months ago. This was one of the first times he been able to hunt with his father without more than a dozen guards accompanying them. Taldin and one other tailed them by a few dozen feet, but their presence was hardly noticeable.

The scent of pine and spruce filled the air, and a balmy summer breeze wafted through the evergreen branches that hung overhead. Golden sunlight pierced the canopy in broad bands and illuminated patches of bright undergrowth and wildflowers.

Here, the pain seemed more distant, less overwhelming.

It’s beautiful, Natoma thought.

Yarnig’s father stopped, put his hands on his hips, and turned to face Yarnig. “I’ve lost the trail,” he declared. He didn’t seem in the least bothered by the fact. He was about the same height as Yarnig, but his shoulders were broader. His hair and beard were gray, and his face was lined. His eyes were the same sapphire as Yarnig’s.

His father planted himself on a fallen log, drew two flasks from his jacket, and tossed one to Yarnig. Yarnig sat on a stone and caught the flask. He unscrewed the lid and took a long draught from it. The water within had been sweetened with honey and rosewater.

In the memory, Yarnig leaned back and closed his eyes, enjoying the weather and the company of his father. On the floor of the ziggurat, he sensed Natoma relax.

A hand on his shoulder pulled him, and Natoma, out of the memory. Darsen’s lean face hovered a few inches from Yarnig’s. “I’m finished.” The healer gestured to Natoma. Her wound had been bandaged and poulticed.

Darsen glanced at the ice creature wizard. “Pull her out of the link. She’s in no condition to command.” He walked away, gesturing for Yarnig to follow.

Yarnig picked up his sword, sheathed it, and followed Darsen, sparing a glance back at Natoma. She smiled at him weakly. A pair of soldiers propped up her head and gave her a drink of water.

Darsen sent a request to the ice creature, and he and Yarnig were dropped from the link.

The battle continued to rage across the ziggurat, but the area immediately surrounding their squad was quiet, for the moment. Those at the edges of the group kept watch pensively.

Darsen came to a halt and faced Yarnig. “You need to take over the squad.”

Cold seeped into Yarnig’s chest. “Me?”

Darsen nodded. “You’re the emperor; you’re the logical choice.”

Yarnig glanced around to make sure no one would hear. “I don’t know anything about command,” he hissed.

Darsen sighed. “Lad, I know you never expected to be emperor; I know you’re young. But this squad needs a leader, and if people see that you, the emperor of Tor Som, can’t even take over a squad when the commander falls, they’re going to talk. They might talk anyway.” He stepped closer. “I’m trying to help you.

“I’m not asking you to take over the entire eastern force; someone else can handle that. But this squad needs a leader.”

A gust of acrid, chemical-laced smoke sent Yarnig into a fit of coughing. When his lungs stopped burning, he straightened, wiping sweat from his brow, and said, “Why can’t Natoma lead? The wound didn’t affect her mind.”

As he asked it, a new mental presence restored the link between him and Darsen. Leha’s mind entered the new link. What’s going on? Why did you pull Natoma out of the connection? she sent.

Darsen addressed both of them. Natoma isn’t going to make it.

Yarnig felt as if he’d been punched in the gut. “There must be something you can do!”

Leha’s wordless response echoed Yarnig’s reaction.

Darsen shook his head sadly. I’ve seen wounds like that before. The burn will have gone through to her organs. With proper care, she might live for a few more days, but if we move her – and we’ll have to – she won’t see sunset.

In spite of the heat and fires, Yarnig felt cold. He shook his head. He refused to accept this. There has to be something you can try. We can’t let her die.

We need her, Leha added, a note of urgency creeping into her voice. Through the link, Yarnig saw how much Leha had relied on Natoma for advice on tactics and strategy, how much she had relied on her as a friend.

A Clanswoman soldier ran up to them. “We’ve spotted an Automaton heading for us.”

Looking at Yarnig, Darsen gestured to the Clanswoman with his head.

Yarnig’s heart fluttered, and he felt himself sweat. He cleared his throat. “Take… thirty people and go out and meet it. Hold it off while we treat Natoma. Bring a wizard.”

The soldier nodded and departed. Yarnig cursed himself for appearing unsure. Their squad split, and within a few moments, the sounds of a conflict rumbled from the direction of those that had gone to fight the machine.

Yarnig hugged himself. “Isn’t there something you haven’t tried? Anything?”

Darsen hung his head and sighed. A Healing wizard might be able to save her, but I don’t think we have one in the attack force.

Yarnig queried Leha.

Regret tinged her psychic voice. I think the Automatons killed them all in the revolt.

A loud, metallic crashing reverberated from the direction of the other half of the squad. Yarnig flinched.

He ran his fingers over the top of his head, feeling the smooth metal of his skullcap. Couldn’t one of our wizards try Healing her? Isn’t it worth a try?

Darsen fixed him with a stern, though sympathetic, stare. It would do more harm than good, lad. Healing is a very difficult magical art. Few can do it.

A wooly hand placed itself on Yarnig’s shoulder, causing him to jump. He turned and saw their squad’s ice creature wizard, a gray and white-furred male. It takes great skill to accomplish high-level magics such as that. It requires a mind of great subtlety: an “eye for detail,” as you humans call it.

The ice creature continued to stare at him for several seconds. The alien quirked his head oddly. Yarnig felt Leha recede from the link briefly to focus on the battle.

It takes a mind like yours, the alien said after a moment.

The attention of Yarnig, Leha, and Darsen focused on him.

“What do you mean?” Yarnig said quietly.

You have a good mind for magic, Yarnig Tor Lannis. You notice details; you notice the little things that others ignore.

A lump had formed in Yarnig’s throat. He threw his hands into the air. “But I’m not a wizard!”

He sensed Leha think. No. But maybe you could be.

What are you talking about? he sent to her.

My brother made me a weapon before this attack. I can’t operate it while I’m fighting, so he does it from a distance. Through the telepathic connection, he can sense what I need, and immediately do it. Maybe you could do the same thing – link with a wizard and guide their power with your mind.

Yarnig deliberated over the possibility, his mind racing. He resisted the urge to fidget. This is crazy, he thought to himself, though it went out over the link. He flexed his fingers.

Darsen shrugged. It’s not like we have any better idea. There’s nothing to lose.

A series of explosions to the south stirred the air.

Yarnig took a breath to calm himself. What other choice do we have? “We will try it,” he said, trying to imitate the way his father had given orders.

I’ll take over command of the eastern force while you’re working, Leha said.

Yarnig acknowledged her. He sensed her detail a few squads to make sure that the section of the platform they had already secured, the section containing their squad, was protected, and then she disappeared from the link.

He, Darsen, and the ice creature walked back to where Natoma lay.

I have experienced descriptions of magical Healing in the minds of human wizards, the ice creature said. You will need to visualize the damaged tissue and attempt to blend it together and regrow it to its natural way of being. You must use a soft touch. Magic is a very dangerous force. Mistakes will hurt her.

Yarnig nodded numbly.

Whom do you wish to assist you? the alien asked.

“Erik. I want to work with Erik,” he choked. His entire body was drenched with nervous sweat, and his hands shook slightly.

The ice creature ducked his head.

They reached their fallen commander. Yarnig considered not telling her what they were about to do, but then he knelt beside her and said, “We’re going to attempt to Heal you magically. It’s risky, but if it works, you’ll be able to command us again.”

Her sweaty, taut face took on a hint of nervousness, but she nodded. Yarnig wondered if she was being brave for her own benefit, or for his. Or if she was simply brave.

Having overheard, a few of the surrounding soldiers muttered and exchanged quizzical or worried looks.

Erik arrived. Judging from his pale face and stiff shoulders, he had been told what was expected of him. The blonde Tor knelt beside Yarnig, dropping his shield to grip his staff with both hands. The ice creature wizard stood behind them and linked them together, drawing them so close that Yarnig could see through Erik’s eyes and vice versa. Darsen stayed in the connection, hovering at the edge of Yarnig’s awareness, ready to give any needed knowledge of anatomy or medicine.

Erik produced a piece of quartz from one pocket. Silver wire wrapped it in a glistening skeleton. Through their telepathic tie, Yarnig learned that it was a device he had been using to spy through the barrier, something that enhanced mental powers. He placed it over Natoma, and with a thought from him, she slipped into unconsciousness.

If anything goes wrong, she won’t have to feel it, Erik thought. Yarnig suppressed a shudder. The thought of her death, the thought of himself being connected to it, made his insides twist.

He took a deep breath, and they began.

Erik held his quartz and staff just above Natoma’s body and reached into the wound with his thoughts. After a few moments, an image of burnt tissue and boiled blood vessels formed in his and Yarnig’s minds.

Erik summoned his magic, and Yarnig felt the warmth pulse through his friend’s staff, the way the energy flowed through him, the way it surrounded them all. Yarnig extended his hands over the wound, trying to keep his breathing under control. Through Erik, he drew a tiny amount of power and focused on a small patch of charred flesh. Darsen sent him an image of what it would look like when healthy, and Yarnig pretended he was painting, adding new colors to the injury and altering it with tiny, soft strokes of his brush.

The damaged tissue brightened and softened slightly.

Yarnig drew in another deep breath. He tried going further, pulling in more power and making broader strokes with his brush of energy. The flesh pulsed and expanded, beginning to push at the tissue that surrounded it.

Slow down! Darsen warned.

Yarnig stopped, then quickly turned the magic into a smoothing motion to bring the Healed flesh back to a normal size. It shrunk, and the tissue around it took on some of its more natural, pinkish coloration.

Yarnig exhaled.

He began again, seeping magic into the injury, reshaping muscle and sinew, breathing new life into damaged organs. He lost track of time as his mind swam along blood vessels and through cracked skin. He painted health and well-being through Natoma’s body, the wound his canvas, the magic his tools.

Darsen’s voice stayed at the edge of his mind, offering advice and information. Sweat rolled down Yarnig’s forehead. He felt Erik tire, and his knees ached under his weight, but he ignored all discomforts. All that mattered was the Healing, all that mattered was Natoma.

At last, Darsen’s voice said, Stop, lad. You’ve done enough.

Brought back to reality by the healer’s voice, Yarnig studied his work in his mind’s eye, realizing how engrossed he had become. He still saw imperfections – places where he could do more, little flaws he could fix – but he knew when it was time to stop. He knew when to let a work of art be.

He opened his eyes, blinking in the soot-stained sunlight. His feet had gone to sleep, and he shifted to allow the blood to flow again. Pins and needles danced on his lower legs. The ice creature permitted the mental link to fade away. Erik slumped and supported himself with his staff, breathing heavily. At some point, the group sent out to fight the Automaton had returned.

Darsen came forward cautiously and lifted the wrapping on Natoma’s wound. The scent of medicines and bitter herbs wafted through the air. Beneath the bandages, all that remained of the injury was a slight discoloration of the skin.

Yarnig let out a breath, closed his eyes, and rocked backward in relief. Soldiers around him cheered and broke into applause. Someone clapped him on the back, and they all offered their congratulations.

He opened his eyes. Erik leaned forward, raised his crystal, and removed the spell of sleep. Natoma stirred, and her eyes fluttered open.

Yarnig bent over her. “It worked,” he said, beginning to grin. “You’re Healed.”

She worked her body from side to side and probed at the wound with one hand. A familiar expression of serenity emerged on her face, and she favored him with a brief smile. His heart fluttered.

She came to her feet, moving gingerly. She retrieved her sword, surveyed the fighters in her squad, and said, “Let’s get back into the fight,” raising her blade above her head.

The soldiers of the squad cheered, and the ice creatures of the eastern force reestablished the mental link. Yarnig came to his feet and raised his sword with the others, feeling his exhaustion melt away. As they charged for the front lines, the energy of another world granting them incredible speed, Yarnig’s face broke into a wide grin, and he felt warm joy flood through him in a way it had not in a long, long time.

* * *

The Automatons were cornered.

Seven of them remained, clustering together just below the point where the south platform met the mezzanine. The human army surrounded them, inching closer, tightening their noose. Leha marched down the ramp to the southern platform, followed by Drogin, the Healed Natoma, and more than a dozen Barrian, Lost One, and ice creature battle wizards.

The battle had roared for nearly two hours, and the sun had climbed high in the polluted sky. Leha had leapt and glided and fought and raged. Human, alien, and machine had died, and blood had stained the ziggurat. Magic had burnt and blazed, and it had sent hot and cold winds rushing chaotically through the machine city. One by one, the Automatons had fallen to the assaults of the humans and their allies, and now, it was about to end.

Leha stared down one of the machines, a tall Wizard-Automaton – she believed it to be the commander of the ziggurat. “Send a message to your leader, Automaton,” she called. “Tell it what happened here. Tell it humanity isn’t giving up.”

The Wizard-Automaton glared at her with cold blue eyes. We created your race, human. We will destroy it. A note of something like fear hid within its telepathic voice.

The Wizard-Automaton hurled a bolt of magic at her and her companions, and it bounced off a thick, shimmering shield created by the battle wizards at her sides. A piece of the shield broke off and condensed into a bubble around her body, and she leapt for the Automaton.

The human soldiers pounced on the remaining machines, smothering them in superior numbers as Leha weakened them with Sy’om’s energy.

Clanspeople hurled their ropes and hauled them off their feet; Lost Ones threw javelins and attacked with silver-edged axes; battle wizards struck with blades and spears of pure, burning power.

She touched down on the Wizard-Automaton’s shoulder, and her blade shot from its housing. The machine’s chest had been fitted with a thick metal plate to protect its neck, but Leha squirmed behind it, her shield fading as she ceased to need it. She dug into its neck with blade and claws, ignoring the reeking smoke she produced. The Automaton ignored her completely and used its last moments to blast at the other humans with all the magic it could muster. Efficient, she thought grimly.

Once a wide gap had been opened, she crawled inside, wormed her way into its chest, and burned through the silver wheel’s housing with her claws. The Automaton began to fall.

She braced herself, returned the machine to a Barrian energy level, and felt the Automaton’s chassis shake as it crashed to the ground. The noise hurt her ears.

She crawled out of the Automaton’s cold innards and onto its chest, breathing heavily, and surveyed the battlefield. Smoke still blew across the surfaces of the ziggurat, but magic no longer crackled through the air, and the boom of mechanical footfalls no longer sounded.

She wiped sweat from her brow. A single thought appeared in her mind, and it spread through the mental link like a wildfire.

Victory.

In some places, people began to shout and cheer. Some laughed, and others just smiled to themselves. Leha commanded her venom glands to shut down, and she instructed the ice creatures to dissolve the link. She closed her eyes and savored the moment.

After several seconds, she opened them again, stood, and once again surveyed her people. She began to walk, moving north. She gestured for those she passed to follow her, and soon her army followed in her wake, up to the mezzanine and then to the base of the watchtower. Only those too wounded to move and their caretakers stayed behind.

She came to the base of the watchtower and ascended the ramp, the others gathering on the floor of the ziggurat, a tired smile playing across her youthful features.

In all her adventure books, the heroes had always made grand speeches after big victories. Leha thought she’d read enough of them to make a passable attempt at her own. Her people deserved to hear the importance of what they’d done.

She came to a point halfway up what remained of the ramp – the size of the thing still astounded her – turned about, and reached inside herself, commanding her lungs and vocal chords to grow and strengthen. A warm wind stirred her earth-toned hair.

“My people,” she began, her voice ringing like a bell across the ruins of the machine city. “Barrians, Lost Ones, creatures of Sy’om. It has been a long journey to get to this day. We have fought long and hard, and we have lost much.” Too dry, she thought, suddenly feeling uncertain. “But today, the scales have shifted in another direction. Today, it is the Automatons, the Old Gods, who have felt our wrath. Today, Tallatzan Ziggurat belongs to us!”

She extended her right arm, flipped the switch in its polished sheath, and her blade burst forth to gleam in the grimy sunlight. Someone, probably Drogin, sent a burst of magical sparks flying from its tip. The army below cheered; some clapped, others banged their weapons and their shields or stamped their feet, and a few ice creatures raised their heads and bleated.

Leha drew a slow breath, feeling the voices of the crowd wash over her. A warm feeling of pride and triumph spread through her, and she resumed her speech with gusto. “Be proud of what you have done. This victory, our victory, brings new hope to our cause. It shows the machines that we are not weak, that we will not fall easily. It shows them that they are not safe.”

She raised her shining blade above her head. “This is a bright moment for our races. And you are the ones who made it!” she shouted, her words echoing off the remains of the ramp behind her. “It is your sweat and toil, your blood and pain, and the sacrifice of the fallen that has made this day what it is. Celebrate your achievement, victors of Tallatzan!”

The crowd erupted into joyous anarchy. Soldiers cheered and shouted and danced. The ziggurat seemed to quiver with the force of their jubilation.

Leha lowered her arm and let her last words resonate across the ziggurat, wondering if they had been too over the top, but grinning all the same.

She descended the ramp to look for Drogin. The word continued to ring through her mind like the sweet notes of a well-tuned instrument: victory.

———————

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Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Fifteen: The Council of War

We’ve now reached chapter fifteen 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 You can only run for so long. New resources and opportunities have revealed themselves, and Leha hatches a desperate scheme to take the fight to the enemy for the first time since the war began.

———————

Chapter fifteen: The Council of War

The other leaders arrived, one by one: Drogin, Doga, Eranna, Natoma, Yarnig, and, representing the Northern Clans, Brodar and Fargra, a stout woman with a long red braid and the title of chieftain of the Yaja clan. Breena explained her discovery and then took her place on a cushion near the other Clanspeople.

Leha stepped into the center of the room. She looked over the people around the room. Some sat, and some stood, but all had their eyes on her. She took a breath, inhaling the scents of wood and hide that dominated the chamber, and calmed herself. She knew her plan was sound.

“We’re going to attack a ziggurat,” she announced.

Doga, Eranna, and Drogin seemed to think they hadn’t heard her properly; Natoma raised her eyebrows; through the connection with his mind, she sensed Benefactor’s jaw loll open; Yarnig gaped.

“A ziggurat? Are you serious?” Fargra said from near the door to the hall’s main passageway, speaking Tor. Benefactor would translate for any who didn’t understand all the languages spoken within the meeting.

“I thought you said we couldn’t hold static positions!” Yarnig said, sitting on a cushion to Leha’s left. He used Eastenholder.

Drogin fixed her with a concerned stare. He crouched to her right, his forehead still shining with sweat.

Leha raised her hands in a placating gesture. The warm afternoon sun glinted off her claws and her hair. “Hear me out.” She turned to Yarnig. “You’re right; we can’t hold it. But we can destroy it. We can rob the machines of one of their main bases of support.”

She again swept the room with her gaze, hoping she appeared strong and confident. “This technique of Breena’s is the key. She can spy out a good target, find its weak points, and show us exactly where to jump our forces in. If we go from Tyzu or Sy’om, the barrier won’t protect them. We’ll be able to cripple their defenses before they know we’re there.”

Eranna shook her head sadly. “We can’t do it. Our resources are too thin. We can barely hold the northern front.” She and Doga stood between Yarnig and the Clanspeople.

They both seemed worn and haggard. After their arrival, when Leha had greeted Doga, he had confided to her that, in addition to the other hardships on the northern front, it had proven difficult for certain elements of the Tors and the Clanspeople to work together. Their violent history had not been forgotten.

Leha fixed her eyes upon the Tor woman. “That’s exactly why we have to do this. With each passing day, the machines get stronger, and we get weaker. If we strike at their base of support, we might throw them off kilter and gain a respite.”

She stepped forward. “Things are not as hopeless as they seem. We have strengths now that we didn’t before. Drogin’s new weapons give us tactical options the Automatons don’t know about. Breena’s spell will allow us to plan our attack in detail. The ice creature wizards are becoming better trained every day.

“We can’t stay on the defensive forever. We have to take the fight to the machines, and we have to do it in a way they won’t expect.” She swallowed. She had confidence in the plan, but under the eyes of so many, its flaws, and hers, seemed to swell.

I agree, Benefactor said, sending images of violence against Automatons along with the message.

Eranna considered. “No, I don’t think it’s enough.” She sighed.

She and Doga glanced at each other, and some silent communication seemed pass between them. Doga nodded slightly, frowning regretfully.

Eranna’s eyes met Leha’s. “But it might be, if we had more fighters like you.”

Leha felt a chill in her chest.

Doga stepped forward, placed a hand on Eranna’s shoulder, and nodded once. “Yes. We can no longer rely on you alone. We require more with your powers, or I fear the enemy will claim us. You say you do not understand it, that it is too risky, but I – but we – believe the risk is necessary.”

Leha’s shoulders slumped. “No,” she said. “There will never be another like me.” She turned away and took a shuffling step back.

“I am sure we could find soldiers willing to risk the transformation,” Eranna said.

“There’s little risk to the transformation,” Leha said, turning back. “The Watcher told me that.”

Only Benefactor seemed unsurprised by her revelation.

She didn’t pause. “The risk is in allowing people to wield this level of power.”

The others did not seem to understand.

“Think back to the end of the Liberation,” she said, her voice rising. “Humanity was a united race living in peace. It took less than a thousand years for that to fall apart.”

She took a deep breath. “We forgot our Gods, our creators, our enslavers. We forgot who they were, we forgot their nature, and then we resurrected them. We enhanced them and refined them until they had the power to destroy us, and then in one sweep, they crushed everything that we had created in the past seven millennia.” She felt her blood run hot and fast. “And now we face extinction. And if it comes, we will not have the Old Gods to blame. No, it will be because of our own arrogance, our own recklessness, our own greed and hate. We will have earned our fate.”

She made herself as tall as her meager stature would permit. “So no, I will not see another like me created. Not now. Perhaps not ever.”

A heavy silence hung over the chamber as her words ceased to ring off the walls.

Drogin stared at her with wide eyes. Eranna shifted her weight from foot to foot. To Leha’s right, Natoma leaned against the wall as she had from the beginning, her face expressionless.

Yarnig’s youthful voice broke the silence. “For what it’s worth, I agree with you, Leha,” he said.

She glanced at him and offered a hint of a smile.

The Clanspeople conferred in hushed Clanstongue. Because they weren’t addressing the main gathering, Benefactor did not translate their words. “We agree as well,” Brodar said.

“Leha…” Drogin said.

She swiveled her head to look upon her brother.

He searched for the right words. “We need you. Your abilities are essential.” He seemed to be trying very hard to not sound combative. “If there were others like you, we’d have an edge on the machines. We can’t afford to ignore a possible advantage.”

“What if something were to befall you?” Eranna added.

Leha focused on her brother, ignoring Eranna. She sighed. “I know. But I can’t do it, Drogin. You have to understand that. Please.” She spoke softly, her face beseeching.

Drogin paused for what felt like a very long time. “Okay,” he said, speaking equally softly. “I understand.”

She favored him with a brief smile.

She sensed Benefactor consider. I… agree, Leha, he said.

Leha returned her attention to Doga and Eranna. They hesitated, fidgeting, and shared another long glance. “We seem to be in the minority,” Eranna said quietly. Leha took it as a sign of submission.

Natoma nodded once.

Leha emptied her lungs in a long, slow sigh of relief.

“So we’re back to the ziggurat,” Brodar said, crossing his arms.

“Yes,” Leha said.

“I think we can do it,” Breena said. “We have new advantages, and if we do not take the offensive now, when will we?”

Yarnig shrugged. “I am not knowledgeable in the ways of war. My opinion matters little.”

Natoma stared at the ceiling as if it might yield the answer. “We are running out of food. More people die in every battle. Why not take a chance?”

Leha nodded. “Exactly.”

We should bring death to the machines, Benefactor’s mental voice snarled.

Brodar and Fargra conversed in a few brief bursts of Clanstongue. Fargra took a breath and addressed Leha. “You make a convincing case. We are willing to go along with your plan, if only to take some of the pressure off the north.” She sounded less than enthusiastic.

Leha turned to Eranna and Doga, meeting the Lost One’s eyes.

Doga dropped his eyes. “The fighters of the Liberation did not free our race without taking risks.”

Leha looked around the room. “Are we agreed? We will attack a ziggurat?”

Natoma, Yarnig, Doga, and the Clanspeople agreed. Benefactor ducked his head. Drogin and Eranna offered no argument.

Leha’s shoulders relaxed. “Now, how many can we field for the attack?”

Eranna pursed her lips. “It depends on how many we wish to leave to defend the north. It’s a long frontier to cover. We’d probably need a minimum of twenty thousand to keep it safe.

“Fifteen thousand at best.”

“I doubt they’ll be expecting our attack,” Leha said. “Their defenses shouldn’t be too strong. That should be enough.” She turned to Drogin. “Expand the production of the new weapons. I’d like to see at least two or three thousand equipped with them when we launch the assault, and I want them ready within the next three months, if it’s possible.”

Drogin leaned his head back, thinking, then brought it back to view his sister. “It’ll be hard. We won’t be able to keep making them custom for every soldier.”

“Do what you have to,” she told him. “Maybe some of the permanent Clan villages can help,” she added, her eyes darting to Fargra.

The Clanswoman shrugged.

Leha went on to instruct Breena to search out a suitable ziggurat and to train other wizards in her technique so as to speed the process. The assembled leaders discussed a few other matters relating to the planned attack and their ongoing defense against the machines, before dispersing.

As they returned to their standard duties, Leha sought out Eranna in the Clan hall’s passageway.

“I want you to know that I understand how you feel. About creating others like me,” Leha said, looking up at the much taller woman.

Eranna nodded grimly. “Thank you.” Her eyes grew distant. “I cannot blame you for your feelings. I was at Three Gates, too. I can understand why you wouldn’t trust people with this level of power.”

Leha offered a clawed hand, and Eranna shook it. Afterward, Eranna turned away and departed down the passageway.

* * *

Weeks passed.

As soon as the meeting had closed, Leha had sent out their orders, and preparations for the assault on the ziggurat had begun. Every available hand went into service, either as a fighter or a laborer preparing weapons and supplies.

Day and night, the human camps beyond the Gormorra Range and north of what had been Tor Som marched to the beat of hammers and drilling feet. Salvagers and Clan miners worked themselves to exhaustion, extracting metal to use in weapons and armor.

Smoke from the forges hung eternally over the southern end of the eastern camp, and sections of the ancient forest were cut down to fuel the flames. None of Drogin’s new weapons went to the northern front; Leha wanted the element of surprise to be on their side when they struck at the ziggurat. Leha went over possible attack plans with Natoma, though for the first few weeks, they were largely theoretical.

Breena and her growing cadre of wizards turned spies spent their days combing the lands that had once belonged to humanity. They came to the conclusion that most of the Automaton’s empire was based in southeastern Pira and northwestern Uranna, around the Gulf of Jansia – the lands that had been the center of their power prior to the Liberation. They maintained a military force in Tor Som, and they occasionally patrolled or moved through Karkar, but Eastenhold had been abandoned.

Though most of the ziggurats were still under construction, the wizards reported that the machines had made incredibly rapid progress. By the second month of preparations, they had discovered five of the machine cities.

Not being magically talented, Leha couldn’t view the ziggurats – she had attempted linking with a wizard’s mind, via Benefactor, while they used the observation spell, but something about it disrupted the ice creature’s telepathy – but she asked Erik to describe them for her – her books had not provided much detail about the ancient ziggurats.

“They’re not as big as you’d think,” he said. “I mean, they’re enormous, the size of any human city, but each one must only be able to house a hundred or so machines, not counting smaller support Automatons. And I don’t think any of them are full.”

When she pressed for more details, he said, “There aren’t really any buildings. It’s all flat surfaces and big open areas. Some places are roofed, but nothing’s fully enclosed as far as I can tell.”

He leaned back, and his eyes unfocused. “The land around them has been ruined. They‘re clearing all the trees, and their machinery is putting out a lot of smoke and waste. There isn’t even much grass left, in some places.”

“What are they built of?” she asked. He gave a confusing description of something that was like stone or earth but not either one.

She asked a few more questions, but his answers tended to be vague and unsatisfactory. Over the next few weeks, she questioned other wizards and gained a few more details, but she decided that, to get the full effect, she would have to see them with her own eyes.

In the course of their investigations, Breena and her colleagues also discovered that the machines had began a campaign of grinding former human settlements into dust as they had done at Marlhem. The Automatons had already reduced dozens of cities and towns to nothing but flat fields of ash. It seemed that they wished to eliminate all signs of humanity from the world.

Leha and a number of others, mostly wizards, continued to investigate the ruins of the creator race outpost, but they gleaned little new information from it. Most of its contents and functions were completely beyond their understanding. Leha still felt that it had some key part to play before the end, though she knew not what. Many nights, she would descend to the still-aired depths, sometimes with Drogin, and attempt to glean something from the strange symbols and incomprehensible mechanisms that dotted the rooms under the mountain.

The Automaton assaults on the north persisted. Each time the ice creatures transmitted the warnings, Leha would put on her armor and join the fray. The humans fought off every strike, but the machines wore them down further with every battle and skirmish.

On occasion, they launched more of their overload weapons against Sy’om or Tyzu, but without the element of surprise, the level of damage they could do was not great.

No one saw any sign of the Automaton Lord, but Leha thought that its efforts on the frontlines would probably be unnecessary if things continued as they had. Soon, the humans would run out of food and starve.

Spring progressed into summer, and the weather grew hotter. Here, beyond the Gormorra Range, where cool breezes blew down from the mountains, it never got as hot as it had in Eastenhold during the summer. Still, for Leha and the other Eastenholders, the warmth brought back unhappy memories of the times a year past, when the Tors had brought their army to bear against them, and city after city had fallen. Sometimes, hot, smoky gusts would blow up from the direction of the forges, and the memories would become more vivid, tightening the muscles in Leha’s throat and shoulders.

Now, the Eastenholders and the Tors were united in a common cause. When she thought about it, Leha realized how bizarre it was. In the back of her mind, she still did not know how to feel toward her former enemies. She had found it in her heart to forgive those like Eranna, those who had felt misgivings at the time or who had been simply following orders.

But others had chosen, without reservation, to bring suffering to her nation; some had even enjoyed it. Most of the latter had refused to join Leha’s army, but there were many who had walked the gray area between doubting their mission of destruction and willfully embracing it.

Leha had never decided how she felt about them. Like most other Tors and Eastenholders, she had accepted her former enemies as necessary allies, having come to understand them through the mental link of the ice creatures, being glad that they were at least human, and not machine.

She had not thought about things so deeply in many months, but the turning of the seasons had sent her mind to places it had not been since before Marlhem. She could come to no better conclusions now than she had before. From what she had learned during the telepathic links, most of the people who had destroyed her home were no different from anyone else. But that, in and of itself, was disturbing.

She would welcome autumn when it came.

* * *

In a little clearing just outside the camp, surrounded by fragrant evergreens and standing on moist grass, Yarnig swung his sword at imaginary enemies, grunting and sweating with exertion. The attacks, blocks, and feints he practiced would be of little use against an Automaton, Natoma had told him, but she said they would help him build up his strength and reflexes. All that mattered to him now was that they gave him something to do.

He swung his blade, slicing the tops off several blades of tall grass. His artist’s eyes took note of the way the light glinted off his sword, the way the drops of dew sparkled like stars before falling to the earth.

He sighed, taking a brief pause before beginning his next exercises. He took a moment to examine his blade the way that Natoma had shown him, running his fingers over the edge, looking for nicks or chips. Lately, Natoma’s time had been occupied with the preparations for the attack, and she had not had time to give him lessons. He’d continued to practice on his own, and he had also begun to drill with the Clanspeople in some of their techniques, but somehow, things didn’t feel the same without Natoma.

When he had been training with her, it had given him respite from the pointlessness of his life, but now those helpless feelings had returned. He spent most of his time plagued by boredom, cursing his own impotence. He regretted his failure to save Marlhem, and he regretted that he had no skills to offer his people.

Part of him wondered if his time with Natoma seemed better simply because of the natural pleasure of spending time with a beautiful woman – he admitted that likely played a part – but he didn’t think that accounted for all of the emptiness he felt. He hadn’t felt any more useful when she had been teaching him, but his lack of value hadn’t bothered him so much during his time with her.

He shook his head to clear it and returned to his drills. He cut the air in savage strikes, taking his frustrations out on his invisible targets. He gave himself to shouts and battle cries, engaging in a display of savagery that would have shocked his fellow nobles and royals had they still been alive. His cries echoed through the trees, but no one in the camp heard them. He was too far.

When he had exhausted himself, he sank to his knees, gasping for breath. Sweat ran down his face. The moist earth soaked and stained his once-fine burgundy pants, but he didn’t notice.

He would be joining the attack on the ziggurat. He had asked Natoma to allow it, and she had reluctantly agreed. He would serve in her squad; Natoma had given him some lessons on strategy and tactics, but no one pretended he was ready to command. He would be a soldier, a fighter for humanity.

Taldin wouldn’t have approved, but he was in the north. His knowledge and experience could do more good there than here. There were more important things to protect than a figurehead emperor.

Yarnig had seen the horrors of war, but when the time to strike came, he would welcome it. He would welcome the chance to take action, something he hadn’t done since he had journeyed north and contacted the Marg clan.

He sheathed his sword. Soon, he would give it over to Drogin to be reforged. He hauled himself to his feet and headed back toward camp. For now, the waiting continued.

* * *

Magic flickered across the field, crackling and blazing and shimmering. Leha watched as two sides, one of ice creatures and the other of humans, struck at each other with spells and summoned shields to protect themselves from the other’s attacks. It was a training drill. The intention was to improve the wizards’ combat skills, especially the ice creatures. A third, larger group of wizards, all more powerful and experienced, watched over it, using their abilities to block or negate any spell with the risk of actually harming one of the trainees.

Bright, warm light washed over the field, and Leha rolled up her sleeves to stay cool. This place had been forest a few weeks ago, but it had been cleared to fuel the forges. Stray flashes of magic burned what little plant life had been left behind. It reminded Leha of the stories she had heard about the lands claimed by the machines, but she comforted herself with the knowledge that what they had taken wasn’t a fraction of the vast forests that remained.

She heard someone come up behind her. She turned, and saw her brother. He greeted her.

She acknowledged his greeting, giving a quick smile. “Shouldn’t you be overseeing the weapons production?”

“I found someone to take over for the afternoon. There’s a project I’ve been working on – I finished it last night. I’d like you to see it.”

She quirked an eyebrow. “What’s the project?” she asked.

He smiled enigmatically. “Let me show you.”

Leha raised the other eyebrow and followed Drogin back to the main camp. He led her through the shabby tents and crude shelters, and they arrived at his home at the southern edge. It was near the forges, and the air smelled of smoke and hot metal. She heard the shouts of workers.

He took her into the workroom and retrieved a small, cloth-wrapped bundle from a table to her left. “I’ve been working on this for a few weeks now. Nights, mornings, whenever I had time.” He held it out to her.

“What is it?” she asked.

“A gift,” he said, smiling again.

After a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed the bundle. It felt heavy. She took it over to his worktable and unwrapped the cloth, revealing what appeared to be a thick piece of armor designed to cover a person’s forearm. One side was bisected into two hinged plates that looked to be able to latch together but were currently apart. The metal was smooth and shiny.

Leha stared at her brother, puzzled.

“It’s a weapon,” he explained. “Let me show you.”

He picked up the device and placed it upon her right forearm, fastening the plates to cover the inner side of the arm. It had a snug fit, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.

He guided her attention to the outer face, where a small dial was recessed into the metal. “It works the same way as the new swords, but I know you fight with your hands, so I made you a weapon that wouldn’t impede your climbing or be difficult for you to hold because of your claws,” he said. “Try turning the dial halfway, but be careful your hand is straight when you do it.”

She did as he instructed, delicately turning the dial with her claws, and a thin blade shot from a small hole in the forward edge of the outer plate. It rang like a tuning fork. She considered the blade. It had a double edge of silver, and it was about the length of her forearm.

“Now, try turning it the rest of the way,” he said, still grinning.

She flipped the dial to the other end of its housing, and the silver edges of the blade flashed to life, bringing light to the dim tent and humming faintly. She gave it a few experimental swings, being careful not to hit Drogin or anything else in the tent.

She held the blade up to her face, admiring its glow and the way it reflected off the plating on her forearm. “You made this all by yourself?”

He shrugged. “A blacksmith helped make some of the larger pieces.”

She smiled. “It’s beautiful.” Her smile shifted towards a frown. “But if I’m climbing on an Automaton, I won’t be able to work the dial.”

Drogin’s expression didn’t change. “You won’t have to.” He pulled his wand from his belt and flicked it. The dial swung back to its original position, and before Leha had a chance to register that the magic had deactivated, the blade retreated into its slot.

Drogin returned his wand to his belt. “Our minds will be linked during the battle, and I’ll be able to sense what you need as soon as you think it. I can do the spell from a distance – it’s very simple.”

She looked over the device for a few more seconds, feeling warmth spread through her chest.

She opened her arms and embraced her brother. “Thank you.”

They released each other and stood in silence for a moment.

“I’d ask if you wanted to have lunch with me, but I’ve already eaten,” Leha said apologetically.

Drogin nodded. “Would… would you like to take a walk in the forest, maybe?”

Leha thought. There were other things that she should be doing. But none of them needed to be done immediately. She smiled. “Sure.” She raised her right arm. “Just let me stow this in my room at the hall.” She turned to leave. “Meet me at the eastern edge of the camp in a few minutes.”

Drogin waved his goodbye, and she left for the hall, admiring her brother’s handiwork. In the bright sunlight, its polished surface shone like crystal.

* * *

In the middle of the fifth week of preparations, they chose their target. The wizards told Leha that the ziggurat was the largest and most complete of the Automaton cities. It had been built in Uranna, in the lower part of Nettoh, the province Natoma had been tasked with defending. Leha consulted with Natoma and gave it the name Tallatzan Ziggurat; in Urannan, tallatzan meant target.

Using a rare and precious piece of blank paper, Breena sketched Tallatzan’s layout for Leha and the other leaders. The Clanswoman described it as a series of raised platforms built of an unidentifiable, stone-like substance and connected to the ground and each other by a series of ramps.

The ziggurat was centered on a platform that stood twice as high as the others. The machines seemed to use it as a meeting area and a mezzanine. It was empty, save for a tall watchtower crewed by a Wizard-Automaton. The wizards believed a barrier machine had been sealed inside the tower, judging by the local magical currents.

Three other platforms branched out from it to the south, west, and east. Breena described the southern platform as a factory, where they constructed new Automatons, and the eastern one as kind of maintenance area, where smaller machines performed the chores necessary to keep an Automaton running. The western platform had not yet been completed.

After a few minutes of deliberation, they decided that Natoma would lead the forces jumping onto the eastern platform, Leha would command the force taking the center, and Elder Dentu of the Water’s Edge clan would lead the squads on the southern platform. Doga and Eranna would stay on the northern front and keep watch against any counterattacks. Drogin would go with Dentu, and Benefactor, despite his desire for vengeance, would remain at the eastern camp.

It took another five weeks for them to finish their preparations. Five weeks of toil and planning. Five weeks of worry and anticipation. Five weeks of lessening rations and continuing battles with the Automatons.

The day of the attack dawned, hot and clear, the late summer sun rising over the forests to the east and setting fire to the peaks of the Gormorra Range. The forges sat empty, and an eerie quiet pervaded the camp. People said little that they did not need to say as they scurried to their places. The thousands of fighters assembled in the deforested fields around the camp and marched to the jumping points, going to Sy’om and Tyzu, where the attack would be launched from.

In addition to the divisions between the three main forces, each force was divided into dozens of small squads, each with their own objective and location of arrival in the ziggurat. Leha’s squad consisted of fifty soldiers, mostly Tor and Eastenholder; a trio of Clan wizards; and an ice creature charged with maintaining the mental link. They jumped to an ash-coated glacier upon Sy’om and stood in the cold, waiting for Leha to give the order for the attack. She closed her eyes, feeling oddly calm, and waited for Dentu, Natoma, and the leaders of the squads under her command to signal their readiness via the mental link.

When they did, she opened her eyes and commanded her venom glands to begin producing acid. And the attack began.

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