Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Six: No Sleep in the City

We now come to the sixth chapter of Rage of the Old Gods, the first book of my epic science fantasy trilogy the World Spectrum. In the coming weeks, I will be posting the entire book for free on this blog. If you’re just joining us, you can get caught up with the previous chapters now.

Cover art for "Rage of the Old Gods, the First Book of the World Spectrum" by Tyler F.M. EdwardsIn this chapter, Yarnig presses north to make contact with the enigmatic Northern Clans, while the defenders of Marlhem find themselves sleepless in anticipation of the coming battle.

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Chapter six: No Sleep in the City

Yarnig had not expected roads.

After gathering a small escort and some supplies, the emperor had traveled north, seeking the Northern Clans, the only nation on Barria with the knowledge of how to successfully fight Automatons without using machines of their own.

Three days ago, Yarnig’s party had left the northern reaches of Tor territory and entered a forest of tall, snowy evergreens. The trees were widely spaced, and little grew between them; there wasn’t much that could survive, this far north. They had traveled through the woods for more than a day, their horses picking their way through the trees and the deep snow. Then, they had reached the road.

The Clan road didn’t resemble the roads of Tor Som. It had not been paved, and it was incredibly wide. Two Automatons could have easily walked abreast upon it. When they had first come upon it, Yarnig had ordered Taldin, his master of the guard, and his men to examine it. After digging through a foot of snow, they had determined that the road had been built by clearing the land, stamping it until it was hard, and then salting it to prevent plants from taking root in it. Taldin had said that likely meant that the roads weren’t used on a regular basis.

This all displayed a level of ingenuity and knowledge on the part of the Clans that was far beyond what Yarnig’s books gave them credit for. He found himself wondering if their technology had improved in the seventy years since the last major conflict with Tor Som, or if his people had underestimated them from the start.

When he had suggested this mission, nearly a week ago, Taldin had tried to talk him out of it. “They hate Tors; they’ll kill us on sight!” he’d said. “It’s suicide.”

Yarnig had shoved aside his guard’s objections. Sometimes, you have to take a chance, he’d reasoned.

Eventually, the old guard had relented, and he, Yarnig, a small escort of soldiers, and Erik, a battle wizard assigned to Yarnig’s protection, had set off.

Now, they pulled themselves through the drifts on the Clan roads, huddling in their thick cloaks, dragging sleds full of supplies behind them. No tracks marred the road’s white blanket save for those made by the occasional lynx or wolf pack. The snow hissed against itself with every gust of wind, and the dense drifts deadened the horses’ labored breaths.

Each night, as they camped, Yarnig would pull a sketchpad from his pack and huddle by the fire, drawing what he could before his hands became too cold to work. Due to the time constraints, he produced sketches of stark simplicity, but he decided it was a style that suited the bleak yet beautiful lands they traveled through.

At night, the wind howled through the branches like an angry beast.

Yarnig had never been so cold for so long. As a member of one of the royal families, he had never been forced to live with hardship. He had been left to his own devices and pleasures. This journey resembled nothing in his body of experience, and he found himself paying acute attention to every pain and discomfort. He had expected to be cold, to be tired, yes, but there were a thousand other tiny aches and irritants he had not imagined. Saddle sores, constant hunger, stiff joints, an itchy beard he could not find time to shave…

Still, part of him welcomed it. He was living. Truly living. He no longer wasted his days with useless hobbies while his people died. He had a purpose in life other than to breed an heir who would one day breed an heir who would one day rule Tor Som, or to act as a figurehead while others shouldered the responsibilities of keeping his nation running.

It took another two days for them to leave the forest. They entered a vast arctic plain upon which little grew. This was the land of the Northern Clans. The books Yarnig had brought said that, while some clans had constructed permanent villages, most of them were nomads, living off of their herds and whatever they could hunt.

They soon lost sight of the trees. With white clouds above and white snow below, they seemed to have entered an empty void. The snow was so deep the horses could barely move through it.

Yarnig reined in his steed and surveyed the empty wastes. His horse desperately gasped for air, steam rising from its nostrils. The emperor felt ice form on his nose hairs.

Taldin nudged his horse, urging it forward to halt alongside Yarnig. A mountain of furs and coats concealed the old soldier’s thin form and gray hair and moustache. “Any particular direction you wish to take, sire?”

“Erik!” Yarnig called, yelling to be heard over the howling wind.

Erik pushed his horse forward. A tuft of gold hair poked out from his hood, and his silver-plated staff glinted dully.

During the preparations to invade Eastenhold, Erik had made the mistake of questioning the war and had been assigned to Yarnig’s personal protection. With the Tor Vargis dead, there was no longer any need for him to baby-sit the emperor, but Yarnig had taken a liking to the young wizard. They shared the same sensibilities on many things – from music to politics.

“Can you detect if anyone out here is using magic?” Yarnig asked.

“I can try.”

Erik raised his staff and closed his eyes. For a moment, the only sounds came from the wind and blowing snow.

The wizard opened his eyes. “I sense something. I can’t tell what it is, but it’s coming from that direction – ” he pointed north and west “ – and it isn’t natural.”

Yarnig nodded. “Good enough. Let’s go.”

He shook the reins, and his horse dragged itself forward. His party followed, and they set off across the frozen fields.

* * *

Somewhere, a hammer rang.

Cold gusts of wind blew over the wall, and Leha hid her hands in the pockets of her cloak. She looked south across the plain. A crescent moon painted the snowy fields silver, and the stars winked at her from above. She looked, knowing that due south, beyond her sight, the Automatons were readying. This plain ran deep into Karkar; the Automatons had built their camp at its edge, and when they came, this was the direction they would come from.

Thinking of that, Leha’s thoughts returned to the ringing hammer. If she strained her senses, she could hear others throughout the city. The forges would be working hard for the next few weeks, preparing for the Automaton attack.

Assuming they had weeks.

Following the meeting with the Urannans, Leha and the other leaders had begun working on their defense plans. Natoma’s experience had proved useful, particularly in matters of supplies and logistics, but as yet, their strategy did not differ greatly from the strategies they’d used since the Battle of Heart. As usual, the plan hinged on Leha. Without her control over the energies of the other worlds, they would be lost.

A piece of ice crunched behind her, and she jumped, clutching the battlement for support.

“Sorry,” Eranna said in her throaty but lyrical accent.

Leha turned to face her, peeling her hand off the chilled stone.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the Tor said. She had removed her armor, but she wore her uniform under her cloak, and her short sword still hung from her belt. A fur hat covered her head.

“Hello, Eranna,” Leha said quietly.

Eranna came forward, folded her arms on the battlement, and laid her head atop them, gazing out at the plain. “Can’t sleep?”

Leha folded her arms into her sleeves, turned south, and observed the constellations. The Feast had just risen above the horizon. “I needed to think. Besides, my hut isn’t exactly inviting in cold like this.”

“You could always take my place at the barracks,” Eranna said. In the starlight, her hair glowed like white gold.

Leha shook her head as a breeze ruffled her hair. “No. You can keep it.” For the first few weeks after her arrival in Marlhem, Leha had lived in an abandoned house, one of the few still intact, but one day, she had been walking down the street and seen a woman and child living in a shelter made in the ruins of a tool shed. She had given the woman her home, and ever since, she had been unable to accept any accommodation better than what most of the population made do with.

They sat in silence for a time, feeling the ebb and flow of the winds.

Eranna’s eyes searched across the heavens, and she said, “I used to love looking at the stars. When I was little, I’d wander out at night and stay up to watch them. Some nights, in winter, the – ” she searched for the words “ – northern lights would light up the whole sky. It was beautiful.”

Leha leaned forward. “We were too far south for the northern lights.” She smirked. “I tended to spend my nights doing things that made my parents worry. I’d steal food from the bakeries or sneak into parts of the city where children aren’t generally allowed.”

They talked for a long time before making their way back to their respective homes. Leha welcomed the distraction, but part of her couldn’t forget what lay to the south.

She didn’t know how her people had survived this long. Sometimes, she thought it had been simple luck. Nor did she have a clear idea of how they would weather the coming assault.

She hoped that Natoma’s knowledge would help them to put up a defense. She hoped she was the leader her people thought her to be.

She hoped this wouldn’t be the time that their luck ran out.

* * *

Drogin rolled over in his bed, willing sleep to come.

Sleep wasn’t cooperative. He sat up, sighing, and felt a chill as the sheets fell from his bare chest. His mind was too chaotic for sleep.

He swung his legs out of bed and dressed hurriedly. His hand found the hexagonal shaft of his wand, and he willed it to light, illuminating his tiny bedroom and its ramshackle roof. His home had once been part of an armory. The Automatons had flattened much of it, but an office on one end had survived intact – save for the roof – and Drogin had converted it into his home; his bedroom had once been a closet for files and records. The ruins outside were now filled with half-finished prototypes and gizmos. He had been put in charge of designing new weapons to fight the Automatons, but so far, he hadn’t had much success.

Guided by the eerie light of his wand, he made his way to the room he used as study, living room, kitchen, and dining room.

He thought back to his old days in Eastenhold, when he had been an Automaton technician. Things had been simpler then, easier. He had maintained his machines, and he had kept watch over the borders. Simple. He missed those days.

He knelt before his tiny stove and added a few branches of wood, stoking the flames until they began to warm the room. The pungent wafts of smoke helped to clear his head of its fatigue.

He crossed the clutter, coming to sit at his drawing table. As he passed, a draft blew in through one of the many gaps in the roof. He shivered.

As he sat down, he held out his wand. A spark leapt from its tip and lit a candle; its light was not so unnerving as the wand’s green-white glow. He considered the chaotic pile of papers atop the table. Most of them were concerned with two machines he had been designing.

One had been designed to do what Leha did: channel the powers of the other worlds. Drogin had been working on it for months. The energies of Sy’om and Tyzu – and the Automatons’ inability to adapt to them – had formed the foundation for every victory they had won since the Battle of Heart.

But only Leha could channel them. Even with the seal broken throughout much of Tor Som and the surrounding lands, no wizard had been able to channel the powers of the other worlds the way Leha did. They had been forced to conclude that the fighters of the Liberation had used some kind of machine.

Thus far, none of the machines he had designed had done anything. He didn’t have the faintest idea how his sister did what she did, and on the rare occasions when she agreed to be examined, no one had been able to find any clues.

It would have been much simpler, Drogin thought, to create more people like Leha – she and her Lost One friends could produce enough venom for an army of people like her. But when he had confronted her about it, she had flatly refused. She’d said they still didn’t fully understand what had happened to her and that it was too risky.

As he thought about his sister, he sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. Her journeys in Sy’om and Tyzu had changed her somehow. She wasn’t the girl he remembered from before the war.

Drogin grimaced. Focus. He shoved his sister from his thoughts. The sound of ruffling papers filled the room as he searched for a particular sketch.

The other machine occupying his papers was a device intended to recreate the magical feedback loop first performed by he and Leha. Over the past months, it had proven itself to be an effective weapon against the increasingly common Wizard-Automatons, but it was extremely risky for the people who performed it. Many people had lost their lives to it. It hadn’t taken long for Drogin to begin his work on a machine that could do it without risk.

Unlike his other project, he had made good progress on this device. He expected he would be able to fulfill Eranna’s request to have it ready for use before the next attack.

The difficulty lay in ensuring that its Automaton targets would not be able to take control of it, and in creating the mechanisms that would allow it to operate without a ludicrous amount of human intervention or a machine mind. It was no longer wise to trust a machine that could think for itself.

Drogin hovered over the designs, tapping his pencil against a corner of paper, trying to come up with new solutions to the problems, but nothing came to him.

After several minutes, he admitted to himself that his mind was too occupied for him to concentrate. He knew he couldn’t sleep, so he pocketed his wand, put on his coat, blew out the candle, and stepped outside.

The chill night air helped to wake him, and he took a deep breath. He picked his way through the twisted heaps of metal and half-built prototypes that littered the area around his home and made his way to one of the main streets, walking in long, quick strides that helped to keep him warm.

Few people were out this late, and those that were hurried by, huddling in their thick clothes, their footsteps echoing eerily through the night.

Marlhem was a grim place by daylight, but at night, it took on a surreal, haunted quality. It had not been a pretty city when it was intact, its residents had told him, and now the machines had reduced it to a maze of broken ruins, shantytowns, and silent streets. Here and there, fires and lanterns glowed forlornly, fighting back the darkness that threatened to swallow them on all sides.

In the distance, he heard a hammer ring.

“Good evening.”

Drogin jumped slightly, startled by the unexpected voice. He turned about and saw a cloaked figure standing in the doorway of what had once been a tavern.

The figure stepped onto the street and came forward. Within the man’s dark hood, Drogin caught sight of the skull-like face of a Lost One. Recognizing him, Drogin felt the adrenaline of his surprise fade, replaced by annoyance. He wanted to be alone.

“It seems I am not the only one unable to sleep,” Doga said.

Drogin reached to comb his hair with a gloved hand but thought better of it. “It seems.” He resumed his walking.

Doga matched his stride. “Thinking about the battle?”

“What battle?”

They passed into an abandoned section and were thrown into darkness. The temperature couldn’t have been different, but it felt much colder here.

“The impending Automaton attack,” the black shape that was Doga said.

“Oh. No. I just couldn’t sleep.” He kicked a stone. It seemed to skitter and clatter for an unnaturally long amount of time.

“Does it not bother you?” the shadowy Lost One said.

Drogin shrugged. “Sure it does. It and twenty other things.”

They left the abandoned stretch and turned down a lantern-lit street of relatively intact buildings. In a nearby alley, a pair of Tors huddled over a fire. Judging by the smell, they were burning garbage.

“I cannot think of anything but the machines’ coming,” Doga said. He continued talking. His voice echoed with an odd kind of nervous excitement.

Drogin hardly listened. He noticed Doga’s hands; they were gloved, but the gloves’ fingers had been pierced to allow his claws to stick out. They looked much like the claws his sister now bore.

Drogin’s hood concealed his grimace.

“Awake late, are we?” a voice called out.

Lahune stepped forward from the shadow of a building, his smooth voice carrying in the still night. They came to a stop.

“It would seem,” Doga responded companionably.

“Would you mind if I walked with you?” the Urannan said.

“Not at all,” Doga responded.

Drogin sighed quietly.

The three of them began walking, passing the ruined warehouse district. Even at this hour, the bathes were operating. Many people sent their clothes here to be cleaned; that work was generally done at night. The air smelled faintly of soap.

“So, what’s keeping you up?” Drogin asked Lahune.

He shrugged. He still wore those black robes. Something about them teased at Drogin’s memory. “I’m always like this when I come someplace new. It’s the excitement of seeing new things and meeting new people.”

Drogin gestured to the skeleton of a shop. “This is exciting?”

The Urannan smiled. “The teachings of Aya say that ‘each new place contains within it a selection of humanity’s great diversity, like a bouquet of flowers; if the varying colors, textures, and teachings of the world were ever combined, we would have perfection.’”

Drogin looked at the new man with new eyes, remembering where he had seen those robes. They were the robes of a priest, a follower of Aya. When he had been nine, a group of Urannan priests had passed through Three Gates. They’d been leading a bunch of dirty mules through the streets, pretending to ignore the scornful gazes that had followed them. Leha, seven at the time, had been interested in their exotic clothes, and he’d had to stop her from following them.

They turned down another dimly lit street. A harsh wind blew in their faces.

“You’re a priest,” Drogin said flatly.

“A priest?” Doga growled.

“My order has nothing to do with those who once served the Old Gods,” Lahune said quickly.

Drogin leaned towards the Lost One. “A few years after the Liberation, a philosopher named Aya began preaching that humanity was a sacred and wondrous creation. She founded an order dedicated to worshipping our race and venerating its achievements.” He spoke in the tone of a parent describing their child’s imaginary friend.

Lahune raised a hand. “That’s not strictly true,” he said politely. “We do not worship humanity. ‘Worship’ implies we believe that humans have some form of divinity. We are no more divine than the Old Gods were. Contrary to popular belief, we are not a religion, and we do not seek to replace the belief in the Old Gods. We remember the damage that religion did to our people.”

They passed through an abandoned area where the road had not been cleared, and their feet crunched in the moonlit snow. Drogin was slowly leading them back towards his home.

Lahune continued. “The purpose of my order is to embrace and celebrate the qualities that make humanity the beautiful and diverse thing it is. The Old Gods created us to be their slaves, but we have far exceeded being simple workers. We have art, and music, and language. We have ethics and laws. And we still have not reached our full potential. That is the purpose of my order, the heart of Aya’s teachings: to work towards achieving our race’s full potential.”

Doga didn’t seem to know how to react.

“I’d be happy to tell you more,” Lahune said. “I can read some of Aya’s teachings to you. Perhaps you could tell me about the Lost Ones; I’d like to hear about your world and your people.”

“Perhaps,” Doga said, working his jaw back and forth.

They were near the street where Drogin lived, so he decided it was time to make his escape. He excused himself and hurried home, where he collapsed into bed, and his mind continued to run in circles.

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Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Five: The Urannans

We have now reached the fifth 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 "Rage of the Old Gods, the First Book of the World Spectrum" by Tyler F.M. EdwardsWe now begin the second section. Six months have passed since the rise of the Old Gods, and the survivors have retreated to ruined Tor Som. Former enemies have become allies, but humanity is a shadow of what it once was. Now, a band of refugees approaches from the south, bringing news of a new threat.

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Part two: The Defense of Marlhem

Six months later,

Tor Som…

Chapter five: The Urannans

A gust of wind lashed at the hut, rattling its crude, wooden roof.

Leha opened her eyes. Realizing morning had come, she sighed inwardly. She sat up on her pallet and ran her fingers through her hair. She had shrunken her claws to small nubs. One night, soon after she’d gotten them, she had rolled onto her hand in her sleep and cut her stomach badly.

The air was chill, and she shivered. It was already colder than what she had been used to in Three Gates, and the Tors told her that the coldest part of the year was yet to come. She dressed quickly.

Wrapping herself in her cloak – the same one that Benefactor’s people had gifted her with six months before – she exited her hut, a lean-to of wood and canvas built against the side of an abandoned shop, and marched down the street. Her bare feet crunched in the thin snow. She had adapted them to the weather, and she hardly felt the cold. She hadn’t been so successful with the rest of her body. All her attempts to make herself immune to cold had resulted in her entire body sprouting fur, or her metabolism increasing to the point where she moved as if she was in Tyzu’s high energy and ate like she had fasted for a month. She preferred the cold.

The few people she passed stared at her and muttered to each other. Some even backed out of her way in a sign of deference.

She flexed her claws. No matter how hard she tried, she could not make them into normal nails, and she could not make the people think of her as anything other than the Hero of Heart, the person who had made it possible for humans to fight the Automatons.

She passed a pair of Lost One warriors. One of them, Haj, a member of the Watching Eye clan, nodded at her. Leha smiled back.

The Watching Eye clan had born witness to her transformation. Sometimes, she thought that they were the only ones who saw her as a person.

When Leha had been little, she had dreamed of being a great hero of the Liberation. She had pictured herself riding into battle alongside Phanto and the other heroes. Now, in a sense, she had gotten her wish. Ever since her victory at Heart, the people had looked to her for guidance. The same natural charisma that had made her a good saleswoman led the survivors of humanity to put their trust in her, and she now led the charge against the reborn Old Gods.

It was ironic, she thought. Her parents and her brother had constantly criticized her inability to commit to anything or anyone. She bored easily, and the only thing that had kept her from abandoning her old antique shop had been the constant stream of new artifacts for her to discover. Commitment and responsibility had always been things she’d avoided like plague.

Now, she had the crushing responsibility of saving the human race. There was too much at stake for her to give in to her natural instinct to flee. And in truth, there were few other options. The machines had been thorough in annihilating humanity’s leadership.

She remembered her father’s advice to be careful what one wished for.

She took a left and walked onto a street of ruined warehouses. This city was called Marlhem. Before the Automatons had risen against their masters, it had been a center for Tor Som’s military. The Tor army had used it as a staging area during the invasion of Eastenhold.

The Automatons – the Old Gods; she never knew what to call them – had destroyed much of it in the early days of their revolt. Later, Leha had come here with the survivors of the Battle of Heart – those who had not fled into the Gormorra Mountains – and the Tor, Karkaran, and Eastenholder refugees they had encountered along the way. They had made their home in the remains of the city, and from here, they had contacted the rest of Tor Som, forging a bastion of resistance against the machines

Half of one of the warehouses had been left relatively intact, and it had been converted into a rudimentary bathing area. A wall had been built across the open side to keep the wind out, and the space had been partitioned into separate bath stalls. Some of the Tors had felt that bathes were a waste of resources, but Yeldar had reminded them that cleanliness helped to stave off disease. “We don’t need fever to do the Automatons’ work for them,” he’d said.

Leha stood one of the bathing cubicles, huddling in silence, as the attendants heated water for her. In here, the air smelled of soap and wood smoke. When they were done, she pulled the curtains shut around her, disrobed quickly, and lowered herself into a makeshift tub made from an Automaton’s head. She found soap and a washcloth – luxuries reserved for the likes of her – on what had once been the machine’s chin.

The cold rabidly sucked the heat from the water, and she worked quickly, scrubbing soap into her hair and splashing water over her skin. The harsh soap stung her eyes.

After finishing, she scrubbed herself dry with a coarse towel, dressed, and headed back into the cold. She headed for the inn she, Doga, Eranna, and the other leaders had been using as a command center.

* * *

Yarnig Tor Lannis, emperor of all Tor Som, gazed into the glass of brandy he held with his left hand, breathing in its heady aroma. Most of his people were living off of stores and whatever they could scavenge for themselves. They lived in ruined houses and makeshift tents. And here he was, sitting in his chair, drinking his fine brandy in his warm, intact country home. It felt so wrong. He let out a breath, set down the brandy, and ruffled his brown curls.

He left the chair and began to pace. His feet made little sound on the carpeted floor.

Six months. For six months he had sat in this plush playhouse, doing nothing. He was supposed to be the leader of his people, and he didn’t even run his household – his majordomo handled those responsibilities. He shook his head.

The fire crackled.

Six months. Six months ago, the Automatons had risen up against their masters – though he wondered if humanity had ever truly held power over them – and unleashed destruction on the entire world. In a single stroke, the machines had virtually wiped out Tor Som’s capitol, Retgard, killing two of Tor Som’s royal families, the Tor Sinnis and the Tor Vargis, along with thousands of their people.

Yarnig grimaced as he thought of the Tor Vargis. If they had not built the Wizard-Automatons, none of this would have happened. If they had not dreamed of war and power, Yarnig would not be in the position he was in now.

Yarnig’s father had been emperor. After he had retired, the Tor Lannis should not have held power again for another two generations. No one had bothered to teach Yarnig the intricacies of ruling a nation, of war and strategy. And so, when the mantle of rulership had fallen on his shoulders, he had been forced to give over his power to underlings. It had been painfully clear that the best thing he could do for his country was nothing.

For the first few weeks, chaos had completely consumed the nation. Eventually, some of the remaining military officers and government officials had restored a semblance of order, but it had not been until the arrival of Leha and her army that true leadership had come to Tor Som. Yarnig had not been able to do anything but watch.

He paused his pacing and downed the brandy, feeling it warm him from the inside out.

He stirred the fire, causing the embers to crackle and spit, and resumed his motion. He strolled along the walls of the parlor, looking over the artwork – his artwork – that adorned the walls. This was what he was comfortable with – the paintbrush and the pencil.

He came to a drawing that was not his, a map of the known world, and stopped. He traced a line on the glass with one finger. The line extended from the Mannall Mountains; cut a diagonal through Karkar, separating the northeastern half from the southwestern; and ended at the Southern Spur of the Gormorra Range. No news had come from behind that line – not from lower Karkar, nor Pira, nor Uranna – in six months. None who had tried to pass it had returned. Some rumors said that everything beyond it had been destroyed, and that the Automatons had gained dominion in those regions. If that was the case, Yarnig didn’t know how those on this side of the line could hope to prevail.

He had only met Leha a handful of times. She had projected an air of confidence, and he’d seen that her charisma had inspired those around her, but he knew how to read people, and he’d seen the doubt, the uncertainty, that hid behind the face she showed to the world. He hoped she was up to the task of defending what was left of humanity. The trust and the expectations of his people now rested on her and her powers.

He found his gaze moving upward. It came to rest on the wild lands north of Tor Som, and as his fingers brushed the glass above the blankness representing that untamed wilderness, an idea came to him, something that presented hope of aiding humanity’s cause.

For a moment, he hesitated. If he did this, he would be taking a tremendous risk. His life would be in danger. But, if he failed, he would do so while attempting to do something worthwhile. So many have died already. I doubt my death would make any difference.

He made up his mind, and in spite of all the peril, he smiled. This was something he could do. This was something that would help.

He made for the door, taking long strides that ate up the distance across the carpet. He opened the door and turned to the guard. “Summon Taldin.”

* * *

Doga found her first. He came jogging towards her on the street, his bare feet kicking up snow. He wore the red tunic and maroon pants of a Tor soldier, a mail hauberk, and a fur-lined helm. He carried a spear in one hand.

“Leha!” he called.

She stopped. “What is it?” Her pulse quickened. She reflexively began to regrow her claws.

Doga stood before her, and a smile split his leathery face. “The sentries have spotted a group coming from the south – humans,” he said, speaking Eastenholder with an accent.

Leha’s eyes widened. They had not encountered anyone from the south in months. She gestured for him to take the lead.

They hastened down the streets, their misted breaths coming quick. People called out questions as they passed. Leha found the time to shout that the city was not under attack.

They scaled the intact portion of the southern wall. Marlhem had been built in a roughly hexagonal shape; the south and north walls formed the midsection of the hexagon and were connected by two asymmetrical points. The walls had been built thick and high to withstand attacks by Automatons, but nearly every section had been fractured somewhere along its length. The south wall had only one gap, but it took up most of the eastern half.

Up here, the wind was even more biting. She pulled her cloak tighter, giving thanks for the craftsmanship of Benefactor’s people.

She found Drogin there, staring out across the plain and huddling within his coat. Her brother seemed to have aged a year for every month since the Battle of Heart. His face was bleached and wan, and wrinkles creased the skin around his eyes.

“Hello, Drogin,” she said coolly.

He grunted a greeting.

Since her return from the other worlds, she had noticed Drogin had grown cold and awkward around her. She didn’t understand the reason for it, and she had, in turn, grown increasingly hostile with him. It had driven a wedge between them, and for the first time in their lives, they were not close. Leha wasn’t sure how to cope with it.

Next to Drogin, her pale braid stirring in the wind, was Eranna. After proving herself in the Battle of Heart – and the death of nearly every Tor leader, military or otherwise – Eranna had become the de facto ruler of Tor Som. She had helped Leha to integrate after her arrival in Tor Som, and she had aided in setting up the defenses that shielded her nation from the Automatons. She had a natural mind for tactics, and Leha had come to rely upon her. She wore armor and clothing similar to Doga’s.

Eranna pointed. “There.”

Leha leaned on the parapet, feeling the harsh chill of the stone, and gazed out on the vast, snowy plain that surrounded the city. Several tiny figures were making their way north across the plain. Concentrating, she enhanced her eyes and was able to pick out more detail. There appeared to be about two-dozen of them. They brought with them three sleds pulled by two mules and a horse. And they were definitely human.

Leha breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back, blinking to clear the snow blindness from her eyes. She allowed her vision to return to its normal state.

She turned to Doga. “Gather a group of Lost Ones, the fastest runners. We’ll go out to meet them.”

He nodded and left. Since helping to defeat the Automaton on Tyzu, Doga had become something of a celebrity among his people. His friendship with Leha had heightened his notoriety, and now, even the elders deferred to him in most situations. Thankfully, he had so far proven himself able to handle the responsibility.

She glanced farther down the line. “Eranna, get some food and medicine ready. They might be hurt, and they’ll probably be hungry.”

The Tor warrior hurried off, and Leha made her way down the wall’s steps, shaking her head. She felt like a fraud when she gave orders.

She left Drogin on the walls. He had not moved since her arrival.

* * *

Within a few minutes, Leha stood at the gap in the south wall. Doga – as well as soldiers from the Watching Eye, Swift Hand, and Tall Tree clans – had gathered with her. She channeled the power of Tyzu, and they flew forward with supernatural speed, passing an outwork constructed from the ruined hulk of a Quadramaton.

She and her companions kicked up clouds of white powder as they raced across the snowy plain. The wind tore at her face, knocking her hood aside and sending her brown hair whipping wildly. The cold burned her cheeks, but it also exhilarated her. It was easy to believe she was flying as her feet glided over the ground below. She felt as if she was once again leaping through the trees on Tyzu.

She drank in the clean, crisp air, heard the wind roar in ears, and for the first time that day, she felt happy. Her face broke into a wide grin.

As she drew closer, she began to pick out details of the people ahead, who had stopped to wait for her. They were a variety of ages. The youngest appeared to be in their late teens, and the oldest seemed to be in their forties or fifties. Some were armed and carried weapons, while others had empty hands. Some of the armed ones seemed to be trained soldiers, but others were clearly civilians. All had rounded faces, pale skin, and black hair that glinted blue as the light touched it. Urannans, Leha thought. Her heart fluttered. If they had made it past the Automaton blockade, they could have valuable information.

She reached out with her mind, contacting Benefactor in case they did not speak Eastenholder or Tor.

I am ready, Leha, the ice creature said, his tranquil voice resonating in her mind.

She came to a stop, the snow creaking underneath her feet. Doga took up a position next to her, and the other Lost Ones formed a loose crescent behind them.

The Urannans crept forward. Their gazes swept over the alien visages of the Lost Ones. Their gaze also took in Leha, her blue pupils, and her bare, clawed feet.

Two figures stepped forward. One, a tall man, had an oval face and short hair. He wore dark robes and carried a crossbow over his back. The other, a woman, had a lithe, athletic frame and wore her hair in what Leha recognized as a traditional Urannan style – the front short and loose, the back long and kept in a ponytail. The hilt of a sword poked out from her cloak.

The woman spoke something to the man in the Urannan tongue, and he nodded.

The man clasped his hands in front of him and spoke in a polite tone. “Are you Leha?” His smooth voice held no trace of accent.

Leha nodded. “I am.”

The man bowed. “It is an honor to meet with the Hero of Heart.”

Leha blushed.

The man gestured to himself. “My name is Lahune.” He waved at the woman. “And this is Natoma. She understands Eastenholder, but she cannot speak it well.”

Leha bowed awkwardly. “Greetings.” She paused. “Uh, this is Doga of the Watching Eye clan. He is a Lost One,” she said, indicating her companion.

Doga nodded.

Natoma arched a graceful eyebrow. “Tyzu?”

The Lost One warrior smiled and bowed. “Yes. I am honored to meet you, my cousin.”

Natoma began speaking, and Lahune translated. “‘Then it is true; you have broken the Old Gods’ seal.’”

An icy wind whipped across the plain. Leha shivered and drew her cloak tighter. “Yes. About a week after the battle in Heart, my brother and some of the wizards were able to discover a hidden machine maintaining the seal. We destroyed it, and several more since then.”

A smile tugged at the edges of Natoma’s lips, and she said something.

Lahune smiled as well. “She is impressed. As am I.”

Leha blushed again. “Thank you.”

Another gust of wind blew over the field, peppering their faces with particles of snow. Several of the Urannans shivered.

“‘We should continue this conversation someplace warmer,’” Lahune said, translating for Natoma.

Leha nodded. “An excellent idea.”

She and Lost Ones set off at a slow jog, and the Urannans followed, chattering amongst themselves excitedly.

* * *

Leha had realized two things about their guests. One, there was something familiar about Lahune’s garb, and two, Natoma was beautiful; Leha had noticed several men staring at her as they had entered the city.

Leha, Doga, Eranna, Natoma, and Lahune had gathered in a room on the upper floor of their inn/command center. Benefactor, as a representative of his people, joined the meeting through his link with her mind. Leha wanted to keep the first meeting small.

Leha and Doga sat on the bed, Natoma and Lahune had been placed in a pair of chairs near the small fireplace, and Eranna leaned against the wall near the door, alongside the bed and opposite the Urannans. A fire crackled to itself and left the room comfortably hot.

A servant arrived, bringing water and bowls of Tyzuan fruit to Leha and the two Urannans. Once the sweet, yellow fruit had been eaten, they got down to business.

Natoma leaned forward, wiping her sticky hands on a handkerchief, and told her tale, Lahune translating. “‘Before the war, I was the captain of the guard for the province of Nettoh. It was my duty to protect the border with Karkar. Then came the day when our Automatons turned on us.

“‘At first, I believed that someone had stolen their control amulets and was using them against us. I didn’t learn the truth until days later. ’”

She leaned back. “‘I don’t know how I survived that day. The machines tore my barracks to shreds, and they slaughtered my lieutenants and the other soldiers stationed there. Many times, I came within inches of being killed.’”

Natoma’s voice remained perfectly calm as she spoke, and only by looking deep into the woman’s eyes, a reddish brown that reminded one of a warm cup of tea, could Leha detect evidence of the pain of what had happened to her. It was as if it had happened years ago, not months.

“‘I fled Nettoh’s capitol and headed into the wilderness. As time went on, I met with other survivors and learned the extent of the Automaton’s rebellion. We hid as best we could, running from hiding place to hiding place for months.

“‘The Automatons were ruthless with Uranna. They reduced every settlement to ash and broken rock. Every pocket of resistance was annihilated. Eventually, we decided to flee to the north. That was three months ago.

“‘Once we reached Karkar, we learned of the machines’ blockade. I realized that the Automatons must have a reason for keeping us out of the north, and I thought that, if we could run the blockade, we might find a way to resist them or throw off their plans.’”

Natoma took a breath and a drink of water. “‘It took us another month to make it across the Automatons’ lines. Their patrols are frequent and seemingly random; every time we tried to cross, we were nearly caught. But eventually, we made it.’”

She pulled off her cloak, not needing it in the warm confines of the room, revealing glistening plate armor – a rare luxury in a world where, until recently, metal had been reserved for the production of Automatons. “‘As we made our way north, we began to hear odd rumors from the few people we met. I was not sure whether to believe them – I still don’t know whether I believe all of them – though I can see that at least some of them are true.’” She fixed Leha with an appraising gaze.

“‘They said that the Automatons are the Old Gods reincarnated. They said that an Eastenholder woman had broken through the seal on Barria and had united the peoples of three worlds to stand against the machine threat.’”

Leha realized that the last sentence had been spoken without a hint of disbelief. She smiled slightly to herself.

Eranna opened her mouth to ask a question, but Natoma held up a hand.

“Wait. There is more,” the Urannan said, speaking for herself for the first time. She glanced at Lahune, and he resumed his smooth-voiced translation. “‘As we passed through Karkar, we came upon a camp of the Automatons. They had occupied a wide area outside of Crossroads. We couldn’t risk getting close, but we could see that they were preparing an attack force. We saw them upgrading themselves and building more fighters.’”

Leha leaned forward, feeling chilled again. “How were they doing this? Enslaved humans?” For months, Drogin had been trying to decipher how the Automatons maintained themselves. Before the war, they had required frequent repairs and maintenance from human technicians.

Natoma shook her head. “We couldn’t see,” she said, speaking Eastenholder with a thick accent. She switched back to her native language. “‘We caught sight of something else as well. Have you encountered any of the Wizard-Automatons? The new, giant models?’”

Leha, Doga, and Eranna nodded, grimacing. Eranna shifted uncomfortably.

“‘We spotted an Automaton that seems to be their leader. We saw it patrol their camp, seemingly giving orders. It is like the Wizard-Automatons, but greater. It stands head and shoulders above all the other machines. I’ve never seen anything like it.’” She paused. “‘I believe they’re coming here. I believe they plan to lay siege to this city and crush their main source of resistance.’” As before, Natoma stayed calm, but Leha thought she could detect a hint of worry in her voice.

Leha and her companions did not share the same confidence. Doga, his face grim, had set his jaw; Eranna’s sapphire eyes glinted with fear; and Leha clutched the bed sheets in a fierce grip, her claws threatening to puncture the wool. Lahune, too, appeared frightened as he spoke of the Automaton leader.

A moment of silence followed.

“Now, please, I would like to hear your story,” Natoma said, speaking broken Eastenholder. She sat up and fixed Leha with a companionable gaze.

Leha took a deep breath. She began to compose her thoughts, when she had an idea. “Would you prefer if I showed you?”

Natoma tilted her head, looking confused.

Eranna crossed the room and added another log to the fire, causing it to crack and snap. Sparks and smoke drifted through the room, and the Tor returned to her previous position.

Leha released the bed sheets and placed her hands in her lap. The firelight highlighted her claws in brilliant crimson. “When I traveled to Sy’om, I met a race of creatures who communicated through a mental link. When I broke the seal, some of them came here to aid us in the war – they have no love for the Automatons. With their help, you could experience my memories as if you had lived them yourself.”

The Urannans glanced at each other. They conversed in hushed tones, speaking their native tongue.

They seemed to come to an agreement.

“We trust you,” Natoma said.

Leha reached out with her mind, and Benefactor answered. She sent him the impression of what she wanted him to do, and she sensed him bare his teeth in response.

“Do we need to do anything?” Lahune asked. For the first time Leha had seen, he seemed unsure of how to react.

“No,” Leha said, an expression of serenity settling over her features.

She felt her mind link with Benefactor’s, then Natoma’s and Lahune’s.

Benefactor did not create a sufficiently strong connection for Leha to sense the innermost thoughts of the two Urannans, but she could feel the stronger themes of their minds. Natoma’s mind carried the feeling of clarity and purpose, and from Lahune, she touched upon sensations of curiosity and trust.

A smile tugged at the edges of Leha’s lips. This, the telepathic union offered by Benefactor’s people, was what had allowed humanity to survive the last six months. This link had brought Tor and Eastenholder together. This had allowed the forces of the human race to fight together, as one, against the machines.

Leha gave herself over to the feeling of oneness and allowed Benefactor to reach into her memories.

She relived it all. Once again, she was fleeing Three Gates with the Tor army in pursuit, she was poring over tomes in the library at Heart, she was soaring through the space between worlds. She walked the icy caverns of Sy’om, and she darted through the steamy jungles of Tyzu. She followed Doga into the damp cave and battled with the ancient Automaton.

The memories flowed by. She ran through the ash-covered streets of Heart, passing bodies and rubble. She joined her mind with the fighters around her and drove the Automatons back.

Natoma and Lahune were there with her, watching as Drogin and the battle wizards discovered the Old God machine hidden in Cantodra’s Rock. She felt the cold metal in her hands as she tore the machine apart, breaking the seal on Barria.

They were with her as Elder Sheen’s promise was fulfilled, and the armies of the Lost One clans arrived to join the war on Barria. Leha felt her heart swell with gratitude, and she sensed those feelings mirrored in the minds of the Urannans.

They were with her as she again wept over the ruins of South Tower, the last Eastenholder city, and they were with her as she led her people north, to Tor Som.

At last, Benefactor receded from their minds, and the link dissolved. It had only taken a few minutes, but it felt longer.

The Urannans were silent a moment.

“We should begin plans to defend the city,” Eranna said softly.

The others nodded.

“We found an intact armory a few weeks ago. We have some acid for anti-Automaton bolts we can add to your stores,” Lahune said.

Eranna thanked him.

“I would like a few moments to collect my thoughts,” Natoma said.

Doga, Eranna, and Lahune filed out, but Leha lingered, reaching out to Benefactor again.

She took the chair Lahune had used, placed it before Natoma, and sat. “I want to see this new Automaton. Would you show me?”

Natoma appeared confused for a moment; then comprehension dawned. “Ah, you want to see my memory? Yes, I can show you.”

Leha gave a little smile. She sought Benefactor with her mind.

She found herself on a snowy hill overlooking a vast scar on the earth – the ruins of Crossroads, Karkar’s capitol. Next to her, she felt Natoma’s presence. The skies were overcast and ashen, and a cool wind blew across the hilltop.

Leha caught a whiff of smoke. She turned to her right, and gasped.

Just north of the ruined city, a massive camp sprawled across the plain. She saw the huge shapes of Automatons marching throughout it, and she felt the earth rumble beneath her feet. Smaller, indistinct forms could be seen scurrying about, and massive fires burned in at least four places.

Sounds drifted up from the camp: the thud of Automaton feet, the clang of metal, and the grind of machinery.

Near the center of the camp, towering above all else, was the lord of the Automatons – it could be nothing else. It stood far away from Leha’s hill, but she could still see it clearly. It most closely resembled the Old God she had fought on Tyzu – it would seem the Automatons had attempted to copy their old designs – but it was taller and larger. Silver glittered at its wrists, and three prongs of iron extended from its head like a crown. With every step it took, she heard a faint boom.

None of Leha’s books had mentioned the Old Gods having a king or single leader, but she was certain they had one now.

She withdrew from Natoma’s memories, suppressing a shiver, and Benefactor allowed the link to dissolve.

Natoma saw the fear in her eyes and nodded.

Without saying a word, they went downstairs to begin preparations for battle.

———————

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