Review: Shadows of the Apt, “Seal of the Worm”

This is a murderously difficult book to review.

Cover art for "Shadows of the Apt, book ten: Seal of the Worm" by Adrian TchaikovskyAnd so we come to it at last. The tenth and final book of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s massive Shadows of the Apt series. After so many books, so many years, it felt like this series would be around forever.

There’s so much emotional baggage that comes with the weight of history behind this series, and that alone would make this a difficult book to review, but it’s such a mixed bag, too. It gets so much so wonderfully right, and so much so terribly wrong.

There will be spoilers ahead. Lots of them.

Seal of the Worm begins with the world in an incredibly bleak state. Credit where it’s due: Tchaikovsky had me completely at a loss as to how things could possibly be set right, which is something I haven’t felt towards a book since I was… eleven, probably.

The Wasp Empire stands triumphant. Collegium has been conquered, and only a handful of the world’s powers still oppose the black and gold. Their fall seems almost inevitable as the Wasp war machine continues onward without pause.

But there is far worse to come. Empress Seda, in her recklessness, has shattered the Seal of the Worm, that greatest and most terrible accomplishment of the Inapt powers of yore. The most feared race in the world’s history, the Centipede-kinden, are loose.

Cheerwell Maker and her companions have been cast into the lightless, horrific world of the Worm, and there they will discover that the Worm has only grown more terrible in its centuries of isolation.

A propaganda poster inspired by Adrian Tchaikovksy's "Shadows of the Apt"Even Seda, who was trained by Mosquito-kinden blood mages and managed to surpass them in both power and cruelty, quails in horror at the all-consuming hunger of the Worm. She has a plan to reforge the Seal and banish it from the world again, but it is almost as terrible as the evil which she hopes to vanquish.

For the most part, I’d say this is a brilliant book. It’s a thrill ride from beginning to end, it’s full of epic action and true terror the likes of which few fantasy novels, and likely even a fair few horror novels, have managed to evoke.

Once again, Tchaikovsky proves himself to be an utterly masterful world-builder. The realm of the Worm is as fascinating as it is horrifying, meticulous in its detail and unrelenting in its brutality. It is pure, undiluted nightmare fuel, and not since Mordor has a fantasy location inspired such utter dread.

Seal of the Worm also provides a welcome respite from the unending bleakness of the last several novels. While things start out hopeless, it doesn’t take long for the good guys to finally, after so long, start winning some victories, and it feels great.

In particular, Stenwold Maker’s return to Collegium is absolutely amazing.

Unfortunately, here Seal of the Worm also makes its first stumble. As great as it feels for Stenwold to retake Collegium, one does have to wonder why he didn’t simply bring the Sea-kinden to bear before now. If he had this ace up his sleeve all along, why did Collegium need to fall in the first place?

This is never explained, and one is ultimately left to conclude this is nothing but a transparent deus ex machina. It feels contrived, and it adds an unfortunate blotch to what is otherwise the highlight of the book and one of the highlights of the whole series.

A map of the world of "Shadows of the Apt"Still, even with that hiccup aside, the first ninety percent or so of the book is nothing but excellence, and this almost could have been Adrian Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.

Almost.

Endings are always the most important part of a story. They are the memory that the reader is left with, and they forever colour perceptions of the entire series. And as an ending, Seal of the Worm fails miserably.

The Worm is dealt with well. I have nothing bad to say about how that part of the story turned out. Beyond that, though, I have little to muster but disappointment.

Adrian Tchaikovsky has a terrible habit of killing all my favourite characters. First it was Tisamon, then Teornis. Countless other more minor but still endearing characters fell, replaced by less compelling new characters like the Antspider. The cast was slowly stripped of almost everyone that I cared about. Through it all, I maintained my interest in the series by repeating the mantra, “At least there’s still Tynisa. He better not kill Tynisa.”

Damn it all.

It’s not even a good death. Not even a properly tragic, heroic Mantis death. She’s just randomly shot dead by Seda. She died for nothing — it serves no purpose to the story whatsoever. It’s not as if Seda needed to be made any more unlikable.

If anyone out of this entire odyssey deserved to live happily ever after, it was Tynisa. She who was so young and full of life, she who never had a chance to truly live. Haunted by the ghosts of her father and the legacy of her birth, she deserved better.

Art of the Mantis-Kinden from Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Shadows of the Apt"Stenwold, too, does not live to see the end of the war he spent his life fighting. And just like Tynisa, his death is utterly random and pointless: sniped by an anonymous Wasp snapbowman in the streets of Myna.

Killing off the main protagonist of a very long series is a pretty tough pill for your readers to swallow, and doing it in such a meaningless way sure doesn’t help.

Seda, of course, also meets her inevitable and violent end. I am not disappointed that she died, because she’s the villain and that’s expected. But once again, it was an incredibly weak death and nowhere near what a character of her stature deserved.

I loved Seda. She was one of the greatest fantasy villains I’ve ever had the pleasure to read about, and I’ve read literally hundreds of fantasy novels, so I don’t give praise like that out lightly. She deserved a truly epic end.

She didn’t get one. We don’t even get to see her die. Just the aftermath. It’s the definition of underwhelming.

So on the small scale, at the character level, Seal of the Worm fails to provide a satisfying resolution. But on the larger scale, the situation doesn’t get any better.

In the early days of this series, I felt the Wasps were fairly weak villains. They failed to inspire much in the way of hate or fear, as good villains should. But gradually that turned around. Between Seda and a huge list of brutal victories by the Wasps, I came to truly loathe them and hope for their eventual defeat.

So I imagine my disappointment that the Wasps basically got off scot-free. The Lowlanders show up at the gates of Capitas long enough to put a scare in them, they implement some reforms so they’re not quite so evil, and that’s it.

Art of the Wasp-kinden from "Shadows of the Apt"I know it’s not reasonable to expect to see Capitas burned to the ground and Wasps slaughtered by the thousands. Aside from being ethically questionable, it doesn’t make sense for the characters or the themes of this series.

But surely justice should be served at some level. There wasn’t even an attempt at that.

How about war crimes trials for the Wasp generals? How about any acknowledgement whatsoever of the tens of thousands of innocents they slaughtered, of the countless lives they ruined, of the cultures they crushed?

Nope.

The one good thing I can say about the resolution of the Wasps’ arc is that it feels very appropriate that it was ultimately the ideals of Collegium that defeated them more than their weapons. But that still could have been done without letting their entire corrupt civilization off the hook for all their crimes.

Unfortunately, in light of this utterly disappointing ending, I am forced to reexamine my views of the entire Shadows of the Apt saga to date, and knowing there’s no payoff at the end does not improve those views.

The first four books were good, and I have nothing bad to say about them, but it is now clear the series trended downward after Salute the Dark. The Scarab Path was all right, if a bit odd, but The Sea Watch was in retrospect pretty much a complete waste of time. It was a strange and random tangent that added nothing to the story but a much delayed and largely illogical deus ex machina.

Art for "Shadows of the Apt, book four: Salute the Dark" by Adrian TchaikovskyHeirs of the Blade bucked the trend and was probably the best installment of the series.

But The Air War, War Master’s Gate, and Seal of the Worm were nothing but a bleak, grinding slog to nowhere. They were brilliantly written in almost every way, but they failed to be an enjoyable source of entertainment, and that is the truest and most important goal of any novel.

I am really, truly saddened to be saying those words, because I do think Adrian Tchaikovsky is a fantastic writer in many ways, and there is so much good in Shadows of the Apt. But I can no longer ignore the truth: This series went off the rails and never got back on.

Overall rating for Seal of the Worm: 5/10 A brilliant piece of art, and a complete failure as entertainment. The two cancel each other out, and all that’s left is mediocrity and a profound sense of disappointment.

Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter One: The Invasion

The time has come!

Over the coming weeks and months, I will be posting the entirety of Rage of the Old Gods, the first book of my World Spectrum series of science fantasy epics, completely free. Today, we begin with the first chapter, depicting the invasion of Eastenhold and Leha’s desperate quest to save her nation.

Cover art for "Rage of the Old Gods, the First Book of the World Spectrum" by Tyler F.M. Edwards———————

Part one: Transformation

Chapter one: The invasion

The human leaders had been herded together in the plains north of what is now Crossroads. Pursued by their enemies and low on supplies, they fled west until they arrived at the hills beneath Mount Keonum in what is now eastern Pira. There they dug in, and two days later, the Old God army arrived.

Humanity and the Old Gods battled across the field for three days and three nights. The armies tore the earth and churned it to bloody muck. Ash and smoke blackened the skies. Both sides suffered devastating losses. Skirmishes were fought upon the bodies of the fallen.

Then, at the dawn of the fourth day of combat, the great General Phanto led his troops in a daring strike at the center of the Old Gods’ lines. Drawing power from the chaotic world of Tyzu, the human wizards smashed through the Old Gods’ ranks and killed several of their leaders.

The Old Gods were forced to retreat, and it became one of the humanity’s greatest victories.

Following their defeat at Phanto’s hands, the Old Gods regrouped at Hensor Ziggurat and began one of their final and most ambitious projects: sealing Barria away from the rest of the spectrum.

* * *

Leha closed the book – a history book about the Liberation, the war in which humanity had overthrown their creators, the Old Gods – and put it with the others on the shelf behind the counter. As with most of her books, she had read it more times than she could count. The very scent and feel of it reminded her of the dreams of her childhood.

She allowed her fingers to play across the aged spines of the other books upon the shelf, over a dozen volumes of history and adventure tales. Her parents had begun getting them for her when she was little, and as she had grown, she had purchased more at every opportunity. She had even more on the second floor of the building that was both her place of business and her home. Her books were her most prized possessions.

She selected another book and leafed through it, reading bits here and there, before reluctantly putting it back and turning her attention to the rest of the shop.

She dusted the counter, brushed imaginary crumbs from her clothes, and tried to make herself busy to stave off boredom. The heat of the early summer morning concentrated in the broad room that she used for her shop, making her feel more impatient.

It had been three weeks since she had last made a sale. She had always known that selling antique and exotic items was a risky business. Her brother, Drogin, and the more sensible part of her own mind had argued against it. But she had ignored both, choosing the path that allowed her to satisfy her interest in exotic places and times.

Still, she’d never expected dry spells such as this. Normally, she could at least count on heartsick youths buying her Karkaran “love charms.”

She stepped out from behind the counter and surveyed her inventory with admiration. There was the Piran lute she had spent weeks restoring to its original beauty. There were the intricate carvings she had managed to charm off an up and coming Urannan wizard-artisan. A trio of battered rings a merchant had been selling for scrap, but which she had recognized as relics from the Jansian Empire.

These items and her other finds were not as impressive as the artifacts sold by the larger auction houses, but they were still valuable and interesting in their own right.

She went to the windows, her boots clapping on the wooden floor, and considered changing her displays. She knew, without undue pride, that she was an excellent saleswoman who could convince almost anyone to buy almost anything. Perhaps she just needed to change her displays to get more customers in. She removed a fine Urannan mirror and used it to perform a quick inspection of her appearance. Her brown hair, the color of damp soil, was cut in a shoulder length bob, framing a broad and open face that made her seem younger than her twenty-two years. Her eyes, a lighter shade of brown than her hair, were wide and innocent-seeming.

She put down the mirror and started to make other adjustments.

Then, she heard the ringing of bells – the city’s alarm. Outside, people began to scream.

* * *

An hour earlier, Drogin made his way across the city, a strange feeling of foreboding twisting his gut. He’d been called to help with a situation at the city’s north gate, an extremely rare occurrence. Despite technically being a member of the city guard, he rarely bothered himself with the actual specifics of guarding the city.

He was an Automaton technician – the city’s chief Automaton technician, he thought with a hint of pride. His duties lay in the Automaton yards, with his machines and his tools. He had been taught to fight, but he was more craftsman than soldier.

He made his way through the colorful chaos of morning in Three Gates, surrounded by smells of exotic food and the sound of foreign tongues. Three Gates sat at the edge of Eastenhold, near the borders of Tor Som and Karkar. The city was a melting pot, and he saw almost as many foreigners – finely dressed Pirans, pale-skinned Urannans, Karkarans of mixed blood – as he did his fellow Eastenholders, people of modest stature with earth-toned hair and eyes.

Whatever had disturbed the watch commander enough to call for Drogin hadn’t reached the ears of the citizenry, and the city was as cheerful as ever. He hoped that was a good sign. He had joined the watch to practice the unique blend of sorcery and technology that was required to build and maintain Automatons, and he had little interest in battle or conflict.

Still, he found himself fingering his wand, a hexagonal shaft of pure silver holstered at his belt. He lacked the talent to be considered a true wizard, but his magic was strong enough that his wand would be his weapon of choice if he ever found himself in a dangerous situation.

He made it to the edge of the city and began scaling the wall, sweating as his leather armor absorbed the hot summer sun. He rarely wore his armor, and he wasn’t used to it.

He crested the wall and made his way down to a knot of yammering soldiers upon the north gate. The gray stone walls were tall, broad, and thick – built to withstand assaults by Automatons.

He spotted Watch Commander Yeldar at the center of the disturbed soldiers. Yeldar, an older man, had a weathered and sun-browned face. He wore leather armor and an iron skullcap, and a long sword hung from his belt.

Drogin cleared his throat to get the watch commander’s attention, saluting. “Reporting as ordered, sir. What do you need?”

Yeldar turned to him. “The caravans from the northern farms didn’t make it this morning. Didn’t think much of it, but then someone noticed that.” His voice had a rough, gravelly quality. He pointed up the north road, and Drogin noticed a cloud on the horizon. It looked like dust – or maybe smoke – and seemed too large to have come from a farm caravan.

Drogin shivered.

“We’re worried it might be a Tor raiding party,” Yeldar said.

Drogin’s brow furrowed. “They haven’t attacked us in years. You think they’d pull something now?” Despite his words, the thought worried him, absurd though it seemed after so many years of peace.

Yeldar shrugged. “Our job is to watch, so we’ll check it out. Send an Automaton.”

Drogin nodded and pulled out his control amulet, a small piece of quartz attached to a silver chain, from a pouch at his belt. The device allowed him to command any of the Automatons assigned to Three Gates. He ordered one of the city’s machines to report to the north gate.

He let the breeze ruffle his sandy brown hair as he waited for the Automaton to come from its holding yard.

It would turn out to be an unusually large caravan or, at worst, a fire on one of the outlying farms, Drogin told himself. The Tors had long coveted Eastenhold’s fertile farms and rich silver mines, but they hadn’t launched a major assault in decades, and in recent years, they had rarely even bothered to send raiding parties. Most people believed that wars with Tor Som were a thing of the past – Drogin doubted even Yeldar truly believed an attack was coming.

Booming footsteps heralded the Automaton’s arrival.

Drogin turned around, gave the machine a quick visual inspection – from its glowing blue eyes, down its lead-plated and roughly humanoid body, to its massive feet – and gave it the order to investigate the cloud on the horizon. He didn’t need to be more specific; the machines’ artificial minds allowed for a rudimentary intelligence that could respond to orders.

The Automaton stooped to fit through the gate – it was too tall to go through upright – and set off down the north road at a clanking jog.

Drogin held up the quartz and used it to follow the Automaton’s progress through its own eyes. It traveled up the dusty road and through the farmlands that lay on the border between Tor Som and Eastenhold.

These farms had been the source of much of the conflict between the two nations. Both laid claim to the rich land. Weapons and bones, the remnants of countless battles, were buried beneath the idyllic scenery.

As the Automaton progressed northward, the dust cloud grew wider and taller, until it began to block out a wide swath of the sky. Drogin’s heart beat like a drum. It’s got to be a caravan. A very, very large caravan. But he had never seen traders kick up that much dust.

He slowed the Automaton to a walk. From this close, the cloud was enormous. He ran a hand through his hair, an anxious habit, and he felt his blood chill.

The Automaton crested a hill and tilted its head down, revealing to him a wide section of flatland. Drogin caught his breath.

Below, an army spread across the plain.

At the fore of the host, dozens of Automatons – including many Quadramatons, four-legged Automatons with engines of war mounted to their backs – led the way, the boom of their footsteps and the clank of their joints reverberating in the mechanical ears of Drogin’s machine. Thousands of foot soldiers, crossbowmen, battle wizards, and cavalry followed behind them. Further squads of cavalry rode out to either side of the force, and to the rear, nearly lost in the dust, he could see hints of a vast baggage train.

Leading the army were four Automatons of a design unlike anything he had seen before. They were tall – standing head and shoulders above the other, already unusually tall, Tor Automatons, they would have dwarfed any Eastenholder machine – and had winking bands of silver imbedded in their wrists. Each of their steps echoed with such force it seemed as if Drogin felt it himself instead of filtered through the cold mind of his Automaton. The mere sight of them sent shivers down his spine.

Drogin stumbled backwards from the parapet, severing the link with the Automaton in his terror.

“What is it?” Yeldar asked, offering Drogin an arm for support.

It took a moment before Drogin could calm his breathing enough to speak. “The Tors. The Tors are invading.”

Yeldar’s eyebrows rose for a moment; then his jaw set, and he placed a hand on his sword hilt. “How many?”

Drogin felt sweat roll down his back as he fought to breath normally. “Thousands. Maybe tens of thousands. Automatons, Quadramatons, wizards, everything.”

Yeldar’s worn features lost some of their color. He swayed on his feet for a moment. Then, he turned his back to Drogin and began marching away. “Let’s get moving.” He started shouting orders to the soldiers along the walls.

* * *

Leha ran into the street and looked about. A wave of frightened people ran towards her from the west, spreading anarchy and confusion.

A portly man with tangled brown hair stamped by her, and she called out to him. “What’s going on?”

“An invasion,” he shouted at her, not stopping.

She glanced around in confusion, and she saw Drogin run towards her.

“Leha!” Her brother stopped just in front of her, winded and looking like he’d awoken from a nightmare.

She grabbed his arms. “What’s going on?”

He jerked his arms free of her grip. “The Tors are invading. Yeldar has ordered the evacuation of the city.”

Several questions occurred to her at once. All that came out was a strangled gasp.

Before she could try again, Drogin said, “Get packed. We have to get moving.”

She felt a shaking in the earth, and a low rumble, like distant thunder, touched the air. As word of the invasion spread, the panic intensified. All around her, people ran and cried and tripped over each other.

“Aren’t we going to mount a defense?” she said. “What about the Automatons? Shouldn’t you be commanding them?”

Drogin looked over his shoulder. A dust cloud had appeared in the northwestern sky. “I sent them to delay the enemy.” He turned back to her. “We can’t win, Leha. I’ve seen the Tor army. It’s like something out of the Liberation.” His eyes unfocused. “I have to go.”

He started jogging in the direction of his home. “Get packed!” he shouted over his shoulder.

Leha’s heart raced. She glanced at the dust cloud, clenched her fists, and charged into her shop and up to the heat of the second floor.

She grabbed a backpack and filled it with clothes, some tools and utensils, a few fistfuls of food, and a skin of water.

As she returned to the ground floor, her eyes came across her books. Her gut clenched. They were her most prized possessions – they’d been her guide and her joy since childhood. She couldn’t take them all, but she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them behind.

Knowing it was foolish and not caring, she started removing them from the shelf, struggling to decide which ones she could bear to leave behind and agonizing over every decision.

A loud clap of thunder sounded from outside, shaking the foundations of her home. She flinched. Forcing herself to come to a decision, she stuffed fifteen of her books into her bag, already second-guessing her choices. She made for the outer door, but turned back and retrieved another book, a collection of short stories, and added it to her pack, wrinkling the cover in her haste. It was small, she reasoned.

She added money and a few of the smaller and more valuable items from her shop to her already heavy bag. Lastly, she strapped an antique sword to her belt and grabbed a Karkaran walking stick of fine, pale wood.

Her heart hammering in her chest, she burst back into the street. She realized she’d forgotten about her books on the second floor. She cursed, but she didn’t go back for them.

The rumble of the approaching army had grown stronger. Frightened citizens pounded up and down the cobblestone streets.

Drogin shoved his way through the panicked crowds and returned to her side. He carried a pack significantly smaller than her own. “Ready?” he asked.

She nodded.

He ran to her door, pulled out his wand, and traced a series of symbols on her door. A trail of light, like the tail of a comet, followed his wand tip.

“What are you doing?” she asked, yelling to be heard over the tumult that surrounded them.

“Setting wards. The first Tor to try and loot your shop is going to get a nasty surprise.” He finished. “Let’s go.”

They ran through the bedlam that Three Gates had become. They passed refugees with their entire lives strapped to their back, guardsmen trying to direct traffic, battle wizards placing wards and sorcerous traps, and even a few looters – Leha turned away from them in disgust.

She wondered why Drogin had not been assigned to help keep order, but she realized the answer was all around her. Order had been the first thing to flee the city, and one Automaton technician with only basic guard training wouldn’t have made any difference.

The sounds of a battle could be heard from the north – tearing metal, hollow booms, the searing crackle of magic. Drogin’s Automatons had engaged the enemy.

By the time they stepped out of the east gate and onto the Vein – the highway running from Three Gates to Eastenhold’s capitol, Heart – the battle had gone silent.

The Vein was choked with people. Yeldar’s men tried to keep the refugees organized and maintain a defensive formation against attacks by the Tors.

The crowds were hot and tight, and Leha, short even for an Eastenholder woman, was jostled and squeezed in the press. She couldn’t see over the surrounding people, and she didn’t know where she was going. Her breathes came quick and shallow, and she shoved the people around her to keep from being crushed. Drogin did what he could to keep them from being separated, calling his rank to the swarm and using his larger stature to help clear a path for his sister.

After they had gone some distance out of the city – it felt like miles to Leha, but she knew it wasn’t nearly so far – a terrible crash shook the earth and tore through the shouts and cries of the evacuees. She glanced behind her. Something was hurling pieces of Three Gates’s northwest wall into the sky.

She placed a hand on her sword hilt and tried to remember the lessons on swordsmanship her father had given her.

The cacophony of the city’s destruction rose in intensity until it was not just heard but felt deep in their bones. Underneath the larger sounds – buildings being torn apart, the tramp of mechanized feet – were subtler sounds, such as the smolder of fires and the sizzle of magic. The refugees increased their speed, threatening to crush the slow and weak. The air above Three Gates filled with dust and smoke.

“Can you show me what’s happening back there?” Leha shouted to her brother, struggling not to lose him in the teeming mass of humanity.

Drogin shook his head. “I don’t know the spell.” His expression asked, “Why would you want to see it?”

The earth trembled, and a massive projectile shot into the dust-streaked sky. It appeared to be a large piece of the Three Gates’s city hall. It seemed to hang motionless in the air, and then Leha realized that was because it was headed in their direction.

Drogin saw it, too. “Get down!” he hollered in a voice usually reserved for the Automaton yards.

Screams echoed through the stream of refugees as Drogin threw an arm around Leha and pulled her to the ground, protecting her with his body.

There was a crash so loud it seemed to come from all directions at once. Shrieks of pain and terror echoed from back toward the city.

Leha pushed herself free of Drogin’s overzealous attempts to protect her and looked back. The chunk of the city hall had smashed into the eastern gate, destroying it and causing the wall to collapse outward. Many of the refugees just exiting the city had been crushed to death or else badly hurt, but even worse, the gate was no longer passable. Those still in the city would have to go back toward the Tors in order to escape.

“Keep moving! Keep moving!” Watch Commander Yeldar barked, riding by on a sturdy warhorse. “We’ve got to put as much distance between us and the Tors as we can!”

The press began to shamble forward again as Yeldar dispatched a small number of soldiers to try to aid those caught in the eastern gate’s destruction.

Her heart aching for those trapped within the city, Leha focused her attention ahead. Those behind and beside her struggled to move forward – pummeling her with fists, elbows, and knees – and she kept to her feet by sheer strength of will. Leha tried to shut the sounds of the destruction of her home, the only home she had ever known, out of her mind, staying close to Drogin for safety.

* * *

The Tor army did not capture Three Gates. They did not conquer it. They annihilated it. They cracked open the walls like eggshells, and burned the buildings to the ground. Leha would never forget it.

Nor would she forget the terrifying flight from the city, the families trampled in the streets, or the elderly and infirm being left to die. She would not forget the choking stink of sweat, smoke, and fear, and she would not forget the weeping and sorrow that had surrounded her.

She and the other refugees spent the first few hours in terror of being attacked by Tors, but their enemy was too busy burning Three Gates, and by the time the city was nothing but ruins, they were too far down the road to be caught by the Tors’ main army. Leha began to relax, just a little.

But then, two hours past noon, shouts echoed from the west. A mounted soldier rode by, crying, “Enemy riders! Make ready!”

Panic spread through the refugees like fire through a dry field, and screams rent the air. Some of the people Leha saw looked ready to bolt, and she feared the entire pack would scatter in terror.

Yeldar rode up and down the column, shouting instructions and badgering people into order through sheer force of will. “Crossbowmen and battle wizards to the outside!” she heard him order.

Together with his lieutenants, he managed to form a ragged perimeter around the column. He gave the order to hold position, and the column stopped, making it easier for the perimeter to hold together. With trained soldiers surrounding them, the refugees’ panic lessened, and an anxious hush settled over the mob.

Drogin chewed his lip, then drew his wand and said to her, “Stay here. I’m going to help.” He began shoving his way through the press, yelling his rank to get people to clear his path.

Leha hesitated for a half second before following. The sensible part of her told her she should stay, but she wasn’t about to sit around and wait while her brother risked his life.

Drogin emerged from the larger crowd and joined the thin line of soldiers surrounding it, Leha pausing a few paces behind. In the commotion, he didn’t notice her. The line was mostly made up of stern-faced men and women armed with crossbows. Interspersed among them were a few battle wizards armed with huge, lead-plated shields and staves of silver.

Free from the throng, Leha could now glimpse their assailants, several dozen light cavalry with red painted shields and satchels of javelins. They had come up on the side of the column from the west so as to strike its broad sides, where it was most vulnerable. Leha assumed the Tors had sent a similar detachment of riders to assault the other side of the column.

As she watched, the Tors turned and charged them, their javelins glinting in the sun.

Yeldar’s rough voice echoed from farther up the column. “Wizards, bring ‘em down!”

The battle wizards raised their staves, and the air chilled as they drained it of power. Bolts of power like green-white lightning tore across the fields to either side of the column. A few found their marks, and Leha winced as those riders and their steeds were reduced to so much charred meat. Thankfully, they were still too far for her to get a good glimpse of the grisly details.

The Tors were capable riders, though, and many of them evaded the wizards’ attacks. The magic set fire to the sun-baked grass, and the advancing riders became obscured by smoke. A tense moment of waiting followed, in which the riders’ charge could be heard but not seen. A drop of sweat slid down Leha’s back.

The Tor cavalry burst from the obscuring smoke.

“Fire!” Yeldar shouted.

The air filled with the twang of crossbow fire. At the same time, many of the Tors loosed their javelins. Soldiers fell on both sides, crying out in pain. The heat again drained from the air as the wizards let loose another volley, cutting through the Tor numbers.

Drogin scanned the field of battle, firing off much smaller bolts of energy with his wand. The Tor shields deflected most of them. His magic was minor enough that they didn’t even need lead plating. He cursed to himself all the while.

A rider burst from a nearby wall of smoke, making straight for Leha’s brother. Drogin turned his wand on the new adversary, but the Tor’s shield shrugged off the blows.

“Hit his horse!” Leha screamed.

Drogin shifted his aim lower and fired a bolt straight into the chest of oncoming animal. The beast screamed and collapsed, hurling its rider forward. Drogin fired another bolt as the rider tumbled through the air, striking the Tor in the chest. The man was dead before he hit the ground.

Drogin turned to her, wide-eyed. “Get back!” he yelled, gesturing wildly for her to stay within the relative safety of the crowd.

Leha retreated a few paces but continued to watch the skirmish unfold. Her brother returned his focus to the enemy.

The Tors continued to harry them for the next half hour, emerging from the smoke to strike at wherever the refugees were weakest, but it soon became clear they didn’t have the strength to inflict serious harm. They had been sent to slow the Eastenholder retreat, not stop it entirely. They eventually backed off once their losses became too heavy.

“They just wanted to make us fear them,” Leha said to her brother after he’d finished scolding her for her recklessness. “The rest of their army will have plenty of time to finish us off later.”

Drogin put on a face that was probably meant to be encouraging. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He eventually just sighed, running his fingers through his hair.

Yeldar allowed the column just fifteen minutes to rest and tend to its wounded, and then they were on the move again.

The watch commander pushed them hard. It was well after dusk when the survivors of Three Gates – close to a quarter of the population, including the mayor, had not made it out of the city or been lost in the pandemonium – pitched their camp. Nightfall brought some relief from the heat, but it brought no relief from fear. When Leha looked into the shadows, she saw the spears of the Tors and the metal fists of Automatons.

Leha felt that she should search the camp for her friends to see if they’d survived, but she was too tired, and she feared what she would find – or fail to find. Many of them had lived in the northwest quarter of the city.

After a sparse dinner where sharing and rationing were enforced by armed guards, Yeldar announced his plans.

“We will go east, to Broad Field. I’ve already sent a rider there to warn them of our arrival and raise the alarm. Assuming the Tors are heading east, Broad Field will be the logical place to stop them. Once there, you – ” he gestured at the civilians “ – will have the choice to either stay at the city or continue with me to the capitol, where I will make my report to Lord Heggarn.” He stepped off the crate he had been standing on and disappeared into the camp.

Drogin laid out the makeshift sleeping rolls he and Leha had been given by a fleeing weaver. “What do you think you’ll do? Stay in Broad Field or go on to Heart?” he said.

Leha sighed and stared into their feeble campfire. She didn’t want to think. She was too tired. “I suppose I’ll go to the capitol. I don’t want to be near the battle.”

Drogin nodded carefully. “You realize I will have to stay in Broad Field and help with the war effort.”

“What? Oh.” She groaned. I don’t want to think about this now. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.” When he didn’t respond, she took it as a sign of assent.

Leha lay back on her bedroll, feeling stones from the ground beneath it jab into her back. She tossed and turned for a few minutes, trying to settle her head, but the destruction of the city kept replaying itself in her head. She wished she could burn them from her mind, but she knew they would be with her until the end of her days.

A thought occurred to her, and her eyes flitted open. “Drogin?”

“Yes?” She wasn’t surprised that he, too, was still awake.

“What happened to the farms north of the city? I haven’t seen anyone from them.”

There was a long pause. “They were never warned. We couldn’t hope to reach all of them in time, and Yeldar hoped looting them might slow the Tors down a little.”

The ground still radiated the heat of the day, but Leha couldn’t remember ever feeling colder than she did at that moment.

* * *

As it turned out, the next day left little time for talk, as did the days that followed it. Each morning they would be awoken at dawn by either Yeldar’s men or the low rumble created by the pursuing Tor army. A mild panic would ensue, and within an hour, they would be back on the road, having rushed through breakfast and any necessary packing. They never had any opportunity for luxuries such as bathing or conversation.

Every day brought the same grueling march across hot roads. The clothes of the refugees became stained with sweat and coated with pale dust from the roads, and the caravan soon developed a pervasive stench. The dust and grit got into everything; Leha’s joints chafed, and her feet blistered.

Throughout the journey, they stayed upon the Vein. Eastenhold occupied the narrow space between the Northern and Southern Spurs of the massive Gormorra Mountain Range, and much of the country was made up of rough hills and jagged peaks. Most of its flatland was in a long strip that ran from the borders of Tor Som and Karkar to Heart, and the Vein traveled through this stretch, connecting three of the nation’s four major cities: Three Gates, Broad Field, and Heart. The peaks of the Gormorra Range rose up on either side of the roadway, slowly narrowing as they traveled east.

Occasionally, they would arrive at a small town. If the town had an inn, beds were given to Yeldar, his officers, and any civilians lucky enough to win a raffle. Leha never won any of the raffles, and Drogin didn’t feel right taking a bed when she had to sleep on the ground.

In the morning, the inhabitants of whatever town they had come across would join their ranks.

The Tor army didn’t attack them again, but the dust cloud always hung over the western horizon, reminding them of what would happen if they were too slow.

Leha had never been so exhausted.

The only times she took any solace were when she read. She did it whenever she had the time and wasn’t too tired to keep her eyes open – not that that was often. Sometimes, when she read tales of the Liberation, she wondered how General Phanto or any of the other heroes would have reacted in this situation. Then, she remembered that wars among humans had been unheard of in that era.

She cursed the Tors for starting this war.

* * *

After nine punishing days of travel, they arrived at Broad Field.

The city rose like a man-made mountain from the plain that was its namesake. Leha spotted Quadramatons and other engines of war arrayed along its thick, white walls, and patrols of humans and Automatons circled the area. The Vein ran strait through the city.

The refugees passed through a set of massive gates constructed from the local white stone, entering the shade and narrow streets of the city.

Leha swiveled her head and tried to see over the people around her, wanting to see this strange new place. Despite her love of the exotic, she had done little real traveling. Three Gates had provided so much to see, and she’d always had her books.

Yeldar and Drogin quickly fell into conversation with the city’s guard officers and officials, who had met them at the gate.

Leha had had an inn recommended to her by a fellow refugee, and she left for it as soon as the crowd at the gate subsided. She and Drogin had already agreed she would get rooms for both of them.

Leha strode through the streets of pale stone, taking in the new sights, sounds, and smells. Broad Field was the hub of Eastenhold’s military, and the signs of it were everywhere. Aside from the more obvious things – the fortifications; the squads of guardsmen marching through the streets, shouting drilling songs; the number of blacksmiths, armories, and Automaton workshops – there were subtler indications of its militaristic nature. Businesses offered discounts to soldiers; the wells and granaries were built larger to withstand sieges. Even among the simplest buildings, the architecture had a martial feel to it.

Like the walls, the homes and businesses were constructed of local white stone. The buildings here were taller and packed tighter than they had been in Three Gates, which made her feel oddly out of place, but at the moment, the only things she cared about were the shade streets provided and the fact that she would soon have access to a bed.

Her own bed had probably been used to fuel a Tor bonfire by now; she tried not to think about that.

The inn she had chosen was called the Horn and the Drum. The taproom was somewhat smoky and smelled of spilt ale, but it was well lit and relatively clean. The windows had been opened and a refreshing breeze blew through.

Several survivors from Three Gates had already arrived, and Leha had to wait her turn before renting rooms for her and her brother.

Once that was done, she sat down at one of the tables and ordered lunch. The food was simple but hearty, and far better than anything she had eaten on the road.

Later, she retired to her room. She tried to nap, but she found that her mind was too busy. She was filthy, but too tired to seek out a bathhouse. That left just one option.

She read. Tired of war and death, she chose one of her more cheerful adventure novels, a light-hearted romance. Her tired eyes blurred the words, and she could barely find the strength to keep the book upright, but she remembered most of it by heart. She needed only to glance over the words to stir the images she’d held in her mind ever since she had first read the book as a child.

When the innkeeper came to alert her dinner would soon be ready, he found her asleep, slumped over the book and wrinkling its pages with her face. She spent a good five minutes trying to straighten them before heading downstairs for her meal.

* * *

Leha was running her finger over the table, feeling a crack in the wood, when Drogin arrived. He seemed beaten and worn out, and he had not had a chance to bathe.

She waved him over, and he crossed the crowded and noisy inn to sit with her.

He took a deep breath, smelling the pig roasting on the fireplace. “Please, tell me they’re going to be serving that soon.”

“They said it would only be a few more minutes. How was your day?”

Drogin made a sound that was half snort and half sigh. “Bad. No one expected an attack like this. No one’s ready. Nothing’s prepared.” He put his head in his hands and said something about insanity.

They talked of inconsequential things until their food arrived, at which point conversation became undesirable and impractical.

A half-hour later, Leha swirled a piece of bread through the dregs of gravy on her plate, forming words in her mind. She had an idea she wanted to discuss. A sensible voice in the back of her head screamed that it was foolish, but she had never listened to that voice before, and she wasn’t going to start now.

“You remember the stories of the Liberation, right?” she asked. It was a foolish question; he loved history as much as she did.

“Of course,” he replied before drinking from his mug of ale.

“Then you remember the tales about the other worlds, Sy’om and Tyzu, and how our ancestors used their powers to overthrow the Old Gods.”

He leaned forward. “What are you getting at, Leha?”

“If the powers of the other worlds can defeat the Old Gods, surely the Tors couldn’t stand up to them,” she said coyly.

A familiar note of skepticism crept into Drogin’s voice as he leaned back. “Wizards and scholars have tried for centuries to break the seal the Old Gods placed on Barria, and you think you can do it?”

They had been down this road many times, and Leha knew how to win him over. She put on her best “innocent little sister” face. “I know it’s not likely, but think of what it would mean for Eastenhold if we could access the other worlds and Tor Som couldn’t. Think of the exotic magics and weapons we could find!” Her face held the same excitement it had when they had snuck into the Automaton yards as children.

Something lit up in Drogin’s eyes – the same thing that had lit up when she had convinced him to sneak into the Automaton yards. She thought she had convinced him, but then the light disappeared, and his tone turned serious. “Even if there was a chance that we could break the seal, I don’t have the time to try. The city’s watch commander wants me to help build three Automatons from scratch before the Tors get here. I don’t have to tell you how hard that is.”

Her heart fell. She lowered her head. “I understand.” She looked him in the eye. “But I’m still going to look into it.”

He touched her hand. “Just don’t take any foolish risks, okay?” Leha wondered how many times he’d said that to her.

“I won’t.” She wondered how many times she’d told him that.

Leha chewed on her piece of bread. Drogin sipped his ale.

“Are you going to go to Heart with Yeldar?” he asked.

She bit her lower lip. “I can’t stay here. I’m not a soldier. I can’t face the Tors.”

He nodded. “Yeldar is planning to leave first thing tomorrow.”

“I’ll have the innkeeper wake me up.” She let out a low sigh.

When they had been little, she and Drogin had been inseparable. Even now that they had lived apart for several years, they always made time for each other. With her friends likely lost in the attack, he was perhaps the only person left she truly cared about. She didn’t want to leave him, especially with the Tor army bearing down on Broad Field.

They talked for a few more minutes before going to bed.

* * *

The next morning started early, and quickly turned into a frenzy of activity. She and Drogin only had time for a brief farewell, and she regretted it. They’d rarely been separated by more than a few minutes’ walk, and she didn’t know how to deal with this.

Just after the sun crested the city’s walls, Leha met Yeldar’s group at the east gate, and they set out. To ensure speed, the soldiers rode horses, and the refugees were loaded into covered wagons. The canvas covering helped keep out the summer heat, but the constant bouncing and the stink of the oxen pulling them soon had Leha wishing she was walking.

The journey quickly became monotonous, but she preferred it to the flight from Three Gates. Occasionally, she would try talking to the other survivors, but the conversation would inevitably bring up memories of the home they’d lost. She missed Drogin and often worried for his safety. She spent most of her time reading her books, especially those with information about the only other worlds humans could survive upon, Tyzu and Sy’om.

She could barely imagine places as bizarre as they were said to be. The thought of experiencing the frenetic chaos of Tyzu or the alien stillness of Sy’om excited her like nothing she could remember. She promised herself she would do everything she could to break the Old Gods’ seal.

She didn’t know how she would do it, or what she would do if she reached those worlds, but she knew she would find answers to those questions.

Late in their fifth day out of Broad Field, they arrived at Heart. As soon as she left the caravan, she visited the first bathhouse she could find.

* * *

Leha spent most of her first full day in Heart resting and growing accustomed to the bustle in the capitol. She stayed in a room at an inn called the Heart’s Pulse – she thought the name was a bit arrogant, but the food was decent, and the room was reasonably spacious.

She had feared that the refugees would be forced to stay in some squalid camp, but the Magisterial Council, Eastenhold’s rulers, had decreed the people of Heart open their doors to those fleeing the Tors. If the inns filled, the refugees stayed with those possessing large enough homes to accommodate visitors. When the homes filled, space would be made in schools, warehouses, or any other public structure with space.

For the most part, the citizens of Heart accepted the decree without complaint, and amidst the terrors of the invasion, Leha was comforted by the kindness of her fellow Eastenholders.

Heart had been built at the foot of the Gormorra Mountains, in the last bit of flat space before the Northern and Southern Spurs met and joined the main range, and Leha quickly took a liking to the cool mountain breezes that swept through the city. A circular artificial lake named for one of Eastenhold’s founders, Cantodra, occupied the center of the city; Leha marveled at the engineering it must have taken to create it. At the shore of the lake a massive rock named for the same historical figure towered over the surrounding buildings.

The sensible part of her mind told her that she should be looking for a source of employment and permanent lodging. She ignored it.

Once her eyelids stopped feeling like lead-filled sacks, and she had bathed enough times to thoroughly banish the stink of the road, she headed for Heart’s great library to search for any and all information on the other worlds and the seal that prevented anyone on Barria from accessing them.

Built of gray stone, the library was the largest in all Eastenhold, sprawling across the south edge of the one of the city’s main squares. It was Leha’s understanding that the only collections of knowledge in the world that surpassed it were old libraries in Pira and Uranna that had survived the fall of the Jansian Empire.

Inside, it had high, white ceilings above row upon row of bookshelves. The place was quiet and smelled of old paper, and Leha felt at home immediately. She went to the section on ancient history and spent a while scanning the titles. They each called to her, promising tales of heroism and tragedy, but she resisted the urge to lose herself in the pages of every one that caught her eye.

Unfortunately, none seemed to have any information on the seal beyond what she already knew: the Old Gods had implemented it as their last act of desperation, but it had not been enough to prevent their defeat. The details of the seal itself were a mystery.

Abandoning her search, she found a desk behind which sat the chief librarian.

He was a thin, wispy old man with a long beard and stringy white hair. He looked so much like the wise old sages in her adventure novels that she almost burst out laughing at the site of him, but she resisted the impulse. A sign on the desk identified him as “Abra.”

“Excuse me,” she said.

He glanced up from the catalogue he’d been studying, gazing at her from beneath snowy eyebrows.

She cleared her throat. “I’m looking for records pertaining to the seal the Old Gods placed upon Barria at the end of the Liberation. The books in the ancient history section are a bit sketchy on the details; do you have any other books I could look at?”

“History student?” Abra asked in a voice that was surprisingly deep coming from such a fragile body.

“Uh, yes,” she said, smiling brightly.

“I suppose education marches on even during the war.” He stood up off his stool, leaning on a polished cane. “Come.”

She followed him, and to her annoyance, he led her back to the same section she’d just left.

Leaning down painfully, he pointed to a book on a lower shelf. “The scholar Themius of Pira gives us one of most detailed accounts here, in ‘The – ”

“‘ – Final Days of the Liberation,’” Leha finished. A copy was sitting in her pack back at the inn.

Abra blinked, straightening. “Hmm. Well, here we have ‘Tactics of the Old Gods,’ which describes all of the strategies used by our creators before their extinction.”

“I looked through its chapter on the seal. It was too vague.”

The librarian mumbled something to himself. “Well…”

He pointed out several more titles, but she was familiar with all of them.

He eventually gave up and turned to study her. She thought he was angry, but then a small smile appeared beneath his bushy whiskers. “Methinks you are a good student.”

He twirled his beard with one finger, and this time she didn’t bother to hide a little chuckle at his stereotypical mannerisms. “There are some other records we have – very old ones. They’re not available to the public… but perhaps I can make an exception.”

She favored him with her most dazzling smile.

He led her back to his desk and past it to a thick door. Producing a set of keys, he unlocked it and led her into a dimly lit vault. It was much the same as the rest of the library, but much smaller than the main chamber and more utilitarian in its design. The books were different as well – with worn spines and yellowed pages. Some of them looked positively ancient, and the dates on their spines supported that notion.

Leha goggled at the history laid before her.

Abra scanned the shelves, muttering to himself, and pulled out a massive old tome that exuded age. Carefully placing it on a small reading table, he said, “This is one of the most detailed studies of the seal we have. It’s a direct copy of a work by the Jansian magician Uriel – a disciple of Wizard Vorren himself. If it doesn’t have the information you need, I have some other manuscripts I can point you to.”

He handed her a pair of metal tweezers and instructed her on how to use them to handle the book without damaging it. She followed his instructions to the letter as she set about studying the decrepit volume.

And so she continued for the next several hours, hardly noticing the passage of time. At some point, Abra brought her a pot of tea. Some time later, she was surprised to discover she had drained it, thinking he had just brought it.

Eventually, the day came to a close, and Abra told her that she had to leave for the night, but he promised to let her back in the next day.

The following morning, she was there with the first rays of dawn.

She spent the next few days engrossed in her research. Many of the documents were written in archaic styles or languages, but she already had some knowledge of such subjects from her interest in history, and with Abra’s help, she adapted to them quickly.

The chief librarian helped her the whole way, pointing out volumes that would be of use, bringing her drinks and meals, and providing a sympathetic ear during her brief moments of rest. He told her that she reminded him of his daughter, who had moved to South Tower several years ago. She found she enjoyed the old man’s company; his quiet patience helped take the sting out of Drogin’s absence and trials of the past weeks. She wished she could spend more time to get to know him, but her research was paramount.

To her surprise, she discovered that the seal placed by the Old Gods was well understood. The worlds were arranged in an energy spectrum – Tyzu was higher in energy than Barria, and Sy’om was lower in energy. Travel between them had relied on “jumping points,” where natural currents had created pockets of unusually high or low energy. Once at a jumping point, a simple spell could transport someone to the corresponding world.

The Old Gods had disrupted the natural currents, eliminating jumping points. What was unknown was how the currents had been disrupted. Without knowing the cause, a solution could not be determined.

There were many theories. One was that the Old Gods had fundamentally changed the way the world operated so that there would be no jumping points. A popular one suggested that they had built a huge magical device, or many small ones, to regulate the currents of energy. No such devices had ever been found, however.

At times, when she grew frustrated with discussions of jumping points and magical currents, she would search for information on the Northern Clans, the only culture in history that had managed to defend against Automatons without building any of their own. But she found little information on their tactics, and she always returned to her plans to seek out the other worlds.

* * *

Leha was reading in the library, when she heard shouting. She had been going over her notes again, trying to think of ways to penetrate the Old Gods’ seal. She had thought of one possibility, but it was far too dangerous for her liking.

She stood up from the table and jogged to see what the commotion was. Stepping onto the library steps, she heard someone yelling, “Broad Field has fallen! Broad Field has fallen!”

Leha gasped. While researching, she had done her best to ignore the peril her country, and her brother, were in. With so many books to read, it had been easy. Now reality crashed onto her.

Drogin, she thought. No. No, he has to be alive. She repeated it to her self. He must be alive.

Once the shock had dulled, she realized that, now, virtually nothing stood between the Tor army and Heart.

A hand clapped onto her shoulder, making her jump. “Dark times are upon us,” Abra said in his rumbling voice.

Leha said nothing.

They descended the stairs and approached a group of chattering women.

“What’s happened?” Leha asked them.

A worried-looking woman with auburn hair spoke. “The Tors have destroyed Broad Field. They say the whole city is gone. The army is holding them at the bridge across the Blue River. Lord Heggarn is going to send everyone he can to reinforce them.”

“That’s assuming they can hold the bridge long enough for him to arrive,” another woman added.

Leha clenched her fists. She reminded herself that, as an Automaton technician, her brother would not be fighting on the front lines and had a better chance at survival than most soldiers.

Abra led her back to the library. “Come, child. Leave the worrying to the generals.”

Numbly, Leha fell in behind him.

The Tors were going to destroy all of Eastenhold. There was no more time for caution. She had to act.

———————

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