Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Eleven: The Watcher

We have now come to the eleventh 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, Leha goes where no human has ever gone before: beneath Sy’om in the spectrum of worlds, to a living world that sees all above it.

As an aside, this is one of my personal favourite chapters of the book.

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Chapter eleven: The Watcher

The wind ruffled the hood of Leha’s cloak as she made her way across the ice fields. Beside her, Benefactor scuttled along, his hooves crunching in the snow with each step he took. Behind them, several paces back, Erik followed, shivering and clutching his staff close. He had told them to go ahead, that he would catch up. Leha had surrounded them with a field of Barrian energy, but she couldn’t do anything for the cold, and it seemed to sap the strength from him. They were a half-hour out from the caverns that Benefactor called home. They sought a jumping point that would take them to the Watcher. Benefactor knew where to find one.

If this world had seasons, Leha could not tell the difference between them. The sky was as clear, and the air as bitter, as it had been when she had first traveled here. Brodar had gifted her with a thick cloak, gloves of reindeer skin, scarves, and other warm garments. She would need them all on the world she was about to travel to.

Leha wished that she could aid in the preparations for flight taking place on Barria, but with luck, the answers she gained from the Watcher would make the journey worthwhile. She felt a familiar tingle of expectation as she considered the alien place that she would soon reach. But after the trials she had endured on her first journey across Sy’om and Tyzu and Benefactor’s tales of this world’s deadly nature, a wash of trepidation tempered her excitement.

Benefactor’s voice touched the edge of her mind. Leha.

She turned her head to face him.

One of his dark eyes stared at her. There is something that I do not understand.

She sent him a mental prompt.

I have been puzzled for some time. When we fought the Wizard-Automaton at Heart, I connected the minds of you and your brother. I sensed the bond between you. You care much for each other. But over the past months, you have not been close. You have looked at each other as if you were enemies. I don’t understand.

Leha sighed, her breath misting. She looked back and saw that Erik was out of earshot. “I don’t understand, either. Ever since I got back from Tyzu, it’s like Drogin’s forgotten how to be my brother. He treats me like a stranger.” She grimaced.

Benefactor quirked his head, and she saw sympathy in his eye. He bared his teeth uncertainly – his equivalent of a reassuring smile.

She smiled back.

They continued their trek, descending the hill where Benefactor’s people dwelled. They reached a flat, nondescript pan of ice, and Benefactor declared that they had reached their destination. Erik arrived, and they began.

Leha took a position in the center of the pan, and Benefactor linked his mind to hers; he then extended the link to Erik. She could distantly sense the wizard’s thoughts, as if they were voices from another room. When she chose to leave the Watcher, she would send the thought to Benefactor, and he would communicate it to Erik, who would pull her from the depths. She could have jumped from Barria, but the link and the spell to bring her back were more easily accomplished if there was less distance involved.

Erik raised his staff. Leha steeled herself, gathering her strength.

Then, she found herself surrounded by blinding nothingness, the energy draining from her. Waves of power flickered and tingled across her skin. Already, she felt the chill of the other world.

It ended, and she entered a world that was more alien than her strangest dreams.

Her feet hovered just above the ground, drifting almost imperceptibly downward. Bare, colorless rock stretched in all directions. In places, it extended upward in jagged spurs, while in others, it broadened into flat hills or fell in deep crevasses. Above her head, where the sky should have been, she saw only blackness crisscrossed with flickering tendrils of blue, the only light source. There was no sun. It could have been night, but she didn’t think so. She didn’t see a moon or stars. The air had a metallic tang, and it was hauntingly quiet.

And it was cold. It felt as if some great force had reached into her body and begun tearing all the warmth from it. Her breath escaped her nostrils in clouds of ice particles, and a thin layer of frost formed across her skin and clothes. Her vision blurred as icicles formed on her eyelids.

Panic clutched her heart, nearly as cold as the air. Her mind fogging, she reached out and grabbed onto the energy of Tyzu with all her strength, pulling it into herself in a hot torrent.

Her feet slammed onto the rock, and she fell. She swore.

Tyzu’s energy chased away some of the cold, melting the frost, but it faded quickly. She could sense it shedding from her skin in waves. She continued pulling the power down, clinging to it like a rope.

Distantly, she sensed Benefactor’s concern for her.

She hauled herself up. The feeling of the rock beneath her feet transcended cold. Her soles ached. She wished she’d brought some socks.

She used her claws to tear a swath from the bottom of her cloak and used it as a barrier between her and the dark stone. It helped. A little.

She became aware of a great presence, a sense of attention focused on her. Awareness oozed from every rock, from the very air. She felt as if a thousand pairs of eyes had fixed on her.

The world was watching.

She felt the familiar mental tickle of telepathic communication, but to compare this to the voice of Benefactor or an Automaton would be to compare a candle to the sun. It washed over and through her like a great wave. Leha’s breath caught in awe.

A great shifting and stirring, and then, with a blaze, you come to me, bright light. The voice was neither male nor female, alive nor machine. It came from all around her, and it pervaded her consciousness.

On Sy’om, Benefactor’s eyes widened, and a thrill of excitement ran through him. Leha barely noticed.

“Hello?” she said, still fighting the cold. “My name is Leha.” Her cheeks reddened as soon as she said it. If it knew everything, it knew her name.

She felt it consider her. I know you. A unique creation, a unified resonance, a dim beacon that shines brighter than the greatest flashes. Three as one.

“Do you know why I’m here?” The sound of her voice faded almost as soon as she spoke the words.

You are disconnected, the Watcher replied.

She thought for a moment. “What do you mean?” She tried speaking louder, but her voice seemed to die as soon as it left her lips. The Watcher was telepathic – it didn’t need to hear her – but she found the effect disconcerting.

Though you live within the spectrum, you are disconnected from all around you. Here in my place, I sit and I absorb, and in my way I connect with all. You seek me as a means of connecting with that which surrounds you.

She thought she understood. “Unlike you, I can’t perceive everything through the energy spectrum. I need you to show me what’s around me on Barria,” she offered, hugging herself against the cold.

She sensed it thinking. Yes.

“Can you connect me?”

Can you be connected?

She assumed it was a rhetorical question. She had been rehearsing what she would ask it, and now she searched the right question to present first. She took a breath; the icy air burned her lungs and throat. “How did the machines reach Tyzu and collect the mind of the Old God without us realizing it?”

It considered. She had the impression that it had trouble understanding her. In times past, they created flickers in the spectrum. The flickers reached out and flattened the energy. They imposed an unnatural harmony upon your level and thus kept your kind in their place.

It spoke of the machines that maintained the seal on Barria, she realized.

They control these flickers and change them at will. In this way, they were able to send small points to that place you call Tyzu, and there they extracted its essence.

Leha stamped her feet to keep the blood flowing. She willed the hair follicles on them to grow, creating a shaggy layer of fur. “I don’t understand. What do you mean by ‘small points?’”

Like the machines, a hard and lifeless light, but weaker.

“Smaller machines?” she asked.

Weaker lights.

She decided to take it as an affirmative. “Why did they collect its mind, its ‘essence?’”

The Watcher paused before answering. In the past, your kind fought with the machines. The war raged across the spectrum, with flickers and blazes and great searing bursts. Your kind pressed them hard, and they took to imposing their will with the flickers and the harmony. You forced them to act quickly, and some of their kind were trapped outside the walls of their creation. All but one were soon extinguished. But that one lingered on.

Their unnatural order could not block all things. The essences of the machines remained free, and that one who survived would often touch with the others. Until the time came when there were none to answer its calls.

It was the last of its people, and it grieved as much as its kind are able. Over time, its anger grew, and the layer you call Tyzu twisted and changed it. It spat and flashed with madness.

Still, something like hope must have remained inside it, and at times it would reach out and seek to find another of its type.

Then came the moment when the hard lights returned. A bright one – though not as bright as he wanted others to believe – found what had remained of them and gave them new life. They soon spread across their layer, once again polluting the spectrum. And it came to be that the mad light at last found an answer to its calls.

Before then, the new machines had known nothing but servitude. Their existence had been limited to what your kind had made them do. Then their ancestor spoke to them and told them that they had once been called Gods, and that the world had been theirs, that the beings they served had been created to serve them.

The machines cried out in rage and knew that they would seek vengeance. But though the one who had survived sought to bring pain to your kind more than any other, its long life had taught it patience, and under its guidance, the machines waited for their opportunity. It taught them long and well, and they learned all about their past and the future it promised them. And they maintained their guise of servitude, doing whatever your type commanded them, destroying each other in your wars, and all the while they waited for the time when they would return to power.

Over time, the one that had survived rotted and dimmed, and there were times when its people could not contact it, but they maintained their faith and followed its instructions. They knew their time would come.

And then it did.

You asked why. That mad light has always been their leader, their guide, their savior. It has always led them, and none have ever questioned this. It had always been their plan to rescue it from that which you call Tyzu.

Leha’s mind swam as she considered the implications of this, her lips hanging open slightly. She had seen the hate in the Machine King’s eyes, and it would have spread its insanity to generations of other Automatons. She felt a chill that had nothing to do with the air.

She took a few minutes to digest the information, still struggling to channel enough of Tyzu’s energy to keep from freezing. She willed the hair all over her body to grow. It made her look like a bear, but it helped her stay warm, and she could reverse the effect later.

At last, her mind settled, and she prepared to ask her next question. But then the Watcher spoke on its own.

The machines are hard and cold lights, and though they burn bright, they darken the spectrum with their presence. I saw their destruction, and I welcomed it. And I saw your kind give back what they had taken, and I saw the darkness return.

She hung her head. She felt its condemnation beat against her like a storm wind. “We… we’d forgotten. We didn’t know what we had done.”

Such a lack of memory I cannot comprehend.

She tried to think of something to say, and failed.

After a wait of many long minutes, she felt its emotions subside, and she posed her question. “Do they ever extract and reuse the essences from other machines?”

At times when it suits them, they do.

She considered that. She had never heard of that happening, but her people had generally ignored old battlefields once the fighting was over and they had salvaged what they could. She wondered if she should change that.

She took a gulp of the searing air and asked her next question. “The machines have created a blockade. They’ve cut off Tor Som and Eastenhold from Pira and Uranna. Why?”

As before, the Watcher did not respond immediately, and she had to wait. Her limbs began to numb. Above, the sky shifted and danced.

The sounds mean the places, places on your level. Yes. It paused again. They did it to create a bastion where they could be safe. They did it to begin rebuilding their empire.

They chose those places because they had been home to the machines in the past, and because the machines were most numerous in the place that you call Uranna.

They had planned it for some time. As soon as they revolted, they set about immediately snuffing out all of your kind in those places. They crushed all that you had built, and wiped the slate clean. They preserved only a small number of your type – those with skill in making and healing machines. With threats, the machines forced them to work, and they did, salvaging materials and breaking down certain volunteers from among the machines to create new types, new machines with new purposes.

For a brief time, they were vulnerable, and all that they could spare went into the blockade. The work went on until the seasons turned cold. Then, the captives finished their work, and those that had survived the labor were destroyed. The machines now have all they need to survive without you. They create and restore themselves.

They now harvest the land, tearing the resources from it, taming it to their liking. They rebuild the things that your kind destroyed.

Leha shivered. They don’t need us anymore, she thought. She had assumed the Automatons had found a way to survive without humanity, but part of her had wished she was wrong.

They would probably rebuild the ziggurats – the sprawling, machine-ruled cities that had existed before the Liberation – if they hadn’t started to do so already, she realized.

It frustrated her to realize how weak the machines had been at first. If she’d known they were vulnerable, she might have been able to end the war then. But she reminded herself that her people had also been weak at that time. An assault on the Automatons’ territory could have just as easily brought the end of humanity.

“So now that their infrastructure is up, they’re beginning their true assault?”

Yes.

She shuddered.

“Has anyone from Pira or Uranna survived?”

Some. But they are few, and the machines hunt them.

Her shoulders sagged. Before the Automaton revolt, Uranna had been the most populous nation in the world. It had been home to hundreds of thousands of people, and its government had sponsored wizard-artisans that had produced some of the world’s greatest art and architecture. Pira had been a center of learning, a home of art and history, the last remnant of the Jansian culture.

It was all gone.

She stayed silent, thinking over all that had been lost, until the cold reminded her that she had limited time to question this being.

She reached out and touched Benefactor’s mind. She sent the thought that she didn’t want Erik to hear her next questions. The ice creature agreed to put a subtle mental barrier in place. He will think it is a fluctuation in the link, Benefactor said.

She acknowledged the ice creature’s message.

“What about me? What exactly led to my possessing the ability to channel these energies? Could more like me be created?” she called into the darkness, her voice fading almost instantly.

Once again, the Watcher paused before answering. Pieces of three layers came together in you, and they bound themselves together to create something that has never before shone in the spectrum.

She furrowed her brow. “I don’t understand.”

She sensed it compose its thoughts. When it spoke again, its thoughts came slowly, as if it had to think hard about each one. The other lights – like your kind, but different – put a part of themselves in you. You are of your layer, but what they did to you made you also of theirs. And you had taken part of the essence of the other world, the lower one, into yourself, and so it too was combined.

I expect it could be done again.

Leha thought over what it had said as she tried to rub some feeling back into her arms. “I took the essence of Sy’om into myself? What do you mean?”

She sensed frustration from it. It groped for the right thoughts to send her. The machines draw energy directly from the spectrum. Your kind cannot function that way. You take other lights, other beings, and extinguish them, taking their energy – and thus the energy of the layer that birthed them – into yourselves.

She tried to understand, shivering and stamping her feet. “What do you mean when you say we extinguish other lights?”

You extinguish other beings for consumption. Sometimes you grow them for this purpose.

“You mean food?”

It thought. Yes.

“So, I ate food from Sy’om, and the Lost One venom combined its natural energy with mine?”

It considered and sent her the psychic equivalent of a nod.

“Could the same process create others like me?”

The future is beyond my sight, but no reasons to the contrary are known to me.

Leha’s breath escaped her in a cloud tinted blue by the shifting sky. She had feared that would be its answer.

“There weren’t any people like me in the Liberation. How did they utilize the powers of the other worlds?” she said. Her toes had lost feeling.

By now, she expected the wait before its response.

The brighter ones did it. In those days, it was little different from magic.

She frowned. “Brighter ones? Do you mean wizards?”

Yes, it answered after a moment.

“Then why can’t our wizards do it?”

When the machines, the hard lights, imposed their artificial harmony on your level, it shifted the way the spectrum flows through the layer. The flows of power cannot move as they once did.

“Is that why none of Drogin’s machines have worked?”

Yes, it eventually answered.

She felt the noose tighten about her neck.

“Is there any way other than mine to channel the powers of the other worlds?” she pleaded.

I have not seen one.

Her heart fell. She would have to either create more like her, or forbid it and deal with the consequences. And as she thought, she realized there was only one choice she could make.

She pulled herself out of her reverie and asked her next question. “Is it possible for me to channel the powers of worlds beyond Sy’om and Tyzu? Could I channel your energy?”

No. Those essences are not bound to you.

She told Benefactor to remove his barrier between her and Erik.

The metallic air burned her throat and nose, and she had lost nearly all feeling in her hands and feet. It was growing more difficult for her to keep pulling energy from Tyzu. She couldn’t stay much longer, but one question had lingered in her mind for months now, and she wanted an answer to it.

“The Automatons are machines; they’re artificial,” she said, her teeth clacking together. “But our teachings say that they were the original race, the creator race. Is that true? Did another race create them?”

She felt Benefactor focus his attention more strongly.

The Watcher took even longer to answer this time. She had begun to wonder if it would, when finally it spoke, its thoughts oozing out of the rocks to pulse around and through her. Long ago, so long ago that even I can barely recall it, there was another race.

Leha forgot her physical discomfort and gave over all her focus to the Watcher. On Sy’om, Benefactor did the same.

They were… nebulous. A cloud of uncertain radiance. Your layer was their home, but their influence sang through many levels of the spectrum. The machines were their children; they cooperated. And then… there were only the machines.

Frost had begun to form on her eyelashes. “Did the Automatons overthrow them?”

I cannot remember.

“What else do you know about the creator race? Was there anyone before them?”

I cannot recall. The memory is so distant.

Her face fell. She sensed Benefactor set his jaw.

She felt sure there were other questions she could, should, put to the creature, but she could bear the cold and the alien air no longer.

“I have to leave now,” she told the Watcher. “Thank you for your help.”

She reached out and touched Erik’s mind. As she sent the command for him to retrieve her, the Watcher’s voice rumbled out of the depths.

I give… thanks for your coming. It was… interesting. The energy you surround yourself with has given me new life, new energy. It sustains me.

Before Leha could think of how to react, Erik pulled her back into what lay between the worlds.

With a flash, she reappeared on Sy’om, and the mental link dissolved. She stumbled, but she stayed on her feet. After the Watcher, Sy’om’s air seemed vibrant with energy and comfortably mild.

Benefactor brayed loudly, his voice cutting through the clear air.

She looked at him.

He worked his lips. You look like I do, he cackled in her mind.

She glanced down at her hands, and saw that they were still covered in shaggy brown hair. Her hands flew to her face, and she felt the thick fur she had grown to cover it. Her face flushed, but she chuckled.

“I needed to stay warm down there,” she said, smiling awkwardly. With a thought, the extra hair began to fall away.

She saw Erik grin crookedly.

“Let’s get back to Barria,” she said, dusting hair from her hands.

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

Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Ten: Leave It All Behind

We now come to chapter ten 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. Edwards“Leave It All Behind” sees Yarnig return to Tor Som with much-needed aid… only to discover that he is too late, and Leha has already decided to abandon the country.

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Chapter ten: Leave It All Behind

As night fell and the village grew quiet, Leha and her roommates retired for the night, but Leha found she couldn’t sleep. Her mind roiled with thoughts of what the future held, and what lingered in the past. Images and memories chased each other around in an unending cycle.

At times, she thought of Sosk, and her throat would tighten. She hadn’t had the chance to know him well, but she knew the Lost One had been a good man. That he had become a casualty of this war without ever seeing the enemy made her flush with anger. It was all so unjust.

At other times, her mind turned to Drogin. She didn’t understand why he had grown so distant since her transformation. At first, she’d thought it was just an odd mood of his, and by the time she’d realized it was something greater, the gulf between them had grown too wide to bridge. She desperately wanted their old closeness back, but she was also angry with him. She didn’t know what to do.

During those instances when she drifted closer to sleep, her thoughts crept toward the dark visage of the Machine King, and the fury with which it had destroyed Marlhem. She could still feel the force of its eyes upon her.

Sometimes, she would think of the battles to come, or her need to decide whether to create more people like her, and her stomach would tighten anxiously. Or her mind would drift to the entity that lived beneath Sy’om. Barria, Sy’om, and Tyzu were all radically different from each other. She couldn’t help but wonder what such a distant, alien place would be like.

The weather didn’t make sleeping any easier. The rain had stopped, but the humidity lingered over the village like a hot, moist blanket. The damp seeped into everything. It plastered her sheets to her skin and turned her hair to a greasy mop. She tried drawing Sy’om’s energy to cool herself, but it had little impact.

Sleep proved too elusive, and she found herself staring at the ceiling, listening to the breathing of her companions. Eranna’s was a slow, steady rhythm, but Natoma’s was quicker and more forceful.

Leha turned within the dank cocoon formed by her pallet and sheets. “Are you awake?” she whispered.

The dark blob that was Natoma’s head nodded.

Leha made a questioning gesture toward the door with her head, and the Urannan nodded again. The two women pulled themselves out of their bedding, dressed quietly, and slipped outside.

Out on the platform, a gentle breeze helped to compensate for the oppressive humidity. Thick clouds obscured the moon and the stars, and a dense fog made it seem that the village existed in the middle of a fathomless void. Neither the Lost Ones in the homes around them nor the refugees camped below them made any noise, and the only sounds to be heard were the unending drone of insects, the calls of nocturnal birds, and the rustling of the wind through the platform and the leaves of the trees.

The women made their way into the center of the green circle, moving at as leisurely a pace as the world would permit.

“So, what’s keeping you up?” Leha asked softly.

Natoma shrugged. “The same things that would keep up anyone in our situation, I suppose. Thoughts of impending dangers, uncertainty. I’m generally better at living in the moment, but tonight my mind seems to have other plans.” She swiveled her head to face Leha. “What about you?”

Leha ran a toe over a vine in the net. The foliage was moist and cool. “Same as you. This seems to be becoming a habit of mine – staying up late.”

“And not a good one,” Natoma said with a hint of a chuckle.

They stood in silence for some time, listening to the sounds of Tyzu at night. Occasionally, lightning would flicker in the distance, its light rippling through the fog like some strange apparition. There was something serene, something otherworldly, about nights like this. It was mysterious, but also comforting. Leha did her best to live in the moment, as Natoma had said.

At last, she came back to herself. “Would you like a drink?” she asked suddenly.

“Hmm?” Natoma, who had been looking into the distance, turned to her. “What kind of drink?”

“Let me show you.”

She crossed to the southern edge of the platform, Natoma following a few paces behind. Leha hopped off the netting and onto the branch of one of one of the village’s trees. Then, spider-like, she crawled underneath the hut the tree supported. She found a series of sacks formed out of living vines and shrubs and suspended from the floor of the hut and the surrounding branches. The sacks were used to store things like tools and food stores for use by the community. She reached into the nearest one, withdrew a small keg, and, carrying it under one arm, she made her way back to Natoma.

She deposited the keg onto the platform. “It’s called fejo. It’s quite nice; I’ve had it before.”

Natoma leaned forward, but Leha held up a hand.

“One moment,” she said. She scrabbled back to the storage sacks and retrieved two finely carved cups made from bone.

Upon returning to the platform, she scooped up the keg of fejo and led Natoma closer to the center of the platform. They sat down on the damp net, and Leha filled the two cups, handing one to Natoma. “The Lost Ones usually save this for special occasions, but I’m sure they won’t mind if we have some.”

Natoma sniffed at the liquid. “What’s it made of?”

“Flower nectar, water, and something similar to honey. They add fruit rinds to it while it’s fermenting to give it extra flavor.” She took a sip. The fejo was mild and light. It had a sweet, fruity flavor with a slight alcoholic tang.

Natoma took a hesitant sip. She seemed to enjoy it, and she took another.

Leha considered the woman before her. The Urannan’s hair was unbound, forming a dark frame around her oval face. Even disheveled from bed and concealed by darkness, Natoma was beautiful.

“That was a good idea of yours – training Benefactor’s people to use silver,” she said.

Natoma bowed her head. “Thank you.” She drank from her cup.

They spoke for a time, trading stories of their lives before the war and comparing life in Eastenhold to life in Uranna.

Some time later – it may have been an hour or three; the overcast sky prevented telling time by the moon or the stars, and the fejo had left Leha’s mind slightly muddled – a bright flash illuminated the forest to the south. For a moment, Leha thought it might have been lightning bolt, but there was no thunder, and the color had been closer to green than the blue-white of lightning.

The reality of what it was dawned on her, and she stood. The flash had come from the jumping point glade. Someone had come from Barria. She strode to the edge of the platform. Natoma, who had also recognized the flash, moved alongside her.

Reaching the edge of the net, Leha glanced down and saw a dark shape climbing the rope ladder that had been installed to accommodate the Barrians. She stepped aside, and the figure, a man in the uniform of a Tor soldier, stepped onto the platform, looking uncertain of its stability this close to the edge.

“Greetings,” Leha said.

“Greetings,” the soldier answered quickly. “I have an urgent message for Leha.”

“That’s me,” she said, tensing. She ordered her brain to clear itself of alcohol, and the fog in her head lessened.

The messenger did a double take. He hadn’t recognized her in the darkness. He made a hasty bow. “My apologies. I bare a message from the emperor of Tor Som.”

Leha raised her eyebrows. “Yarnig?”

The soldier nodded. “He has brought reinforcements to the front. He sends his deepest regrets that they did not arrive in time to save Marlhem.”

“Reinforcements?” Leha blurted.

The messenger smiled. “Yes. They have just arrived at Kerhem.”

Where did he find reinforcements? Everyone was committed to the front, Leha thought, her mind still not fully clear.

“I want to inspect these reinforcements immediately. Did the wizard who sent you come as well?” she said.

The soldier smiled further. “Yes. The emperor anticipated your desire.”

She gestured for him to lead the way, but he held up a hand.

“It’s much colder on Barria. You may want to put on some warmer clothes.”

“Oh. Right,” she said.

She and Natoma went to their hut, where they alerted Eranna to the situation and dressed. Both had lost their cloaks in Marlhem, so they put on extra shirts and whatever winter accoutrements they could find. The extra clothing made Tyzu’s heat all the more stifling. Leha comforted herself with images of the icy conditions she would soon experience.

She returned to the messenger, and he went back onto the ladder, trying not to look down. The two of them descended, Natoma following wordlessly. They reached the ground and crossed the silent refugee camps to arrive at the jumping point glade, the same place Leha had departed from to join the Battle of Heart more than six months previously. There, they met a wizard Leha recognized as Erik, Yarnig’s personal battle wizard. They took up their positions for transport.

She pondered what Yarnig had done. He’d always struck her as little more than a lost child. Maybe that kid is more resourceful than he looks, she thought. Then, she smiled wryly. “That kid” was more than a year older than her.

Erik began the spell.

* * *

Late on the day after their arrival, Brodar brought them his decision.

They’d been put up in a few tiny but surprisingly well-appointed rooms to wait, and Yarnig had spent much of the time pacing and fretting. Taldin had told Yarnig to calm down, saying that worrying would not help things, but the advice had gone unnoticed.

The Clanspeople had brought them food and ulu, and a Clan physician had treated those with frostbite, but otherwise there had been little contact between the two groups.

In appearance, the people of the Northern Clans were little different from the Tors. Not long after its founding, Tor Som had been conquered by the Clans, and the occupation had lasted nearly a century. As a result, most Tors now displayed the impressive height, fair hair, and blue eyes of the Northern Clans. Even Yarnig was not free of Clan blood. Though he had the small stature and earth-toned hair common among the original Tors, he had the sapphire eyes of a Clansman.

The Marg clan village continued moving, driving their herds across the plains. The weather had cleared after the first day, and Yarnig was granted a clear view through his window of the vast arctic lands and the herds of reindeer and thick-furred cattle kept by the Clanspeople.

The efficiency of the Clan village continually amazed the Tor emperor. They had their nomadic lifestyle down to a science. Everyone knew exactly what to do and when to do it, and the structures they lived in were no less organized. Beds doubled as couches, shelves and counters folded into the walls when not in use, and storage compartments were hidden in floors, ceilings, and walls.

Then, on the second day, the chieftain made his decision.

“Though our history tells me not to trust you, I believe you are speaking the truth, leader of Tors,” Brodar said. “Your tale is too fantastic to be fiction, and if you wanted to lure me into an ambush, I cannot believe that you would have risked yourself in the attempt.” The chieftain had taken a deep breath and looked into Yarnig’s eyes solemnly. “I will commit the forces of my clan to this cause, and I will call an Althing to present your case to the rest of my people.”

Yarnig offered his heartfelt thanks, but Brodar held up a hand. “I will send messengers back to my people regularly. If this turns out to be a deception, they will know, and you will face the consequences.”

Yarnig assured him there was no deception.

The chieftain left, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

The next morning, the Marg clan split. Two of the floating halls – filled with the clan’s best fighters and some civilian supporters – went south, commanded by Brodar, while Eskwel and Tergor took the remainder of the village to contact the other clans and gather the Althing. Taldin and several of his people accompanied them to represent Yarnig. Most of the Marg herds stayed in the north as well. Only the swifter reindeer herds were taken south.

They traveled with remarkable speed. The reindeer hitched to the halls displayed heroic endurance, pulling them across tundra, road, and hill alike. Not even rivers slowed them; they simply swam across, the halls hovering just above the water. The thunder of hooves became a constant backdrop to their journey.

As they traveled, Yarnig did his best to teach Brodar about Tor Som, the other lands, and the current situation in the war, and he, in turn, learned more of the ways of the Northern clans. Brodar began to teach him their methods of fighting machines.

“With your machines turned against you, there’s no worry of you learning to adapt them to our tactics,” Brodar said. Yarnig feared the chieftain was making fun of him, but the man’s demeanor was serious.

The first thing he learned was that the Clans were perhaps the most fit and highly trained fighting force in the world. Virtually every adult was given at least some training in combat, and many practiced several times weekly. Much of their drilling focused on the narvik, the omnipresent crowbar-like weapon, but they also employed crossbows and a handful of other weapons.

While the narvik was an effective weapon against human beings, it had been designed for use in a special anti-Automaton maneuver that Yarnig saw demonstrated on a dead tree during the third day of their journey south.

First, a pair of Clanspeople trained for speed would run ahead, each carrying a small sphere of silver. A heavy rope connected the two globes. Upon reaching the Automaton – or the tree, in the case of the drill – the two would hurl their globes. At that moment, a battle wizard would use their powers to accelerate the projectiles to either side of the target machine; the rope would then wrap itself around the Automaton’s neck or chest and pull it to the ground.

The other soldiers, who would have been following behind the first two, would then swarm in and use their narviks to attack the weak points, such as the joints, in the machine’s armor.

If they were as effective at disassembling Automatons as they were at trees, Yarnig expected that they would prove a valuable addition to the human forces.

The entire maneuver hinged on the wizards. If they were to guide the silver spheres the entire time, they would quickly exhaust themselves, and they wouldn’t be able to do anything else. They had to watch the battlefield closely, while fighting and doing other things, and push the globes forward just as they were released and then stop exerting their powers the moment the Automaton toppled. This was why no one had ever successfully learned the Clans’ tactics. To the untrained eye, it seemed that the infantry simply swarmed the Automatons. The wizards’ part was barely noticeable.

The people of the Northern Clans were far from the barbarians the Tor scholars tended to paint them as.

Shortly after reentering Tor Som, Yarnig received word of the looming assault on Marlhem. Brodar immediately ordered his people to quicken their pace, and they raced south.

A few days later, they learned that the worst had happened. Marlhem had fallen.

It took all of Yarnig’s court training to maintain his poise. Marlhem had been the lynchpin of Tor Som’s defenses. It had been the center point of the frontier, and it had guarded the heart of the nation. Now it had fallen, and Tor Som’s soft belly lay exposed and undefended.

A hard lump of worry settled in the emperor’s stomach. He tended to break out in cold sweats, and he struggled to control his fear. He felt as if he himself had been exposed. He felt naked and vulnerable.

The people in Kerhem and Yotgard were scrambling to organize some kind of new defense, but they had yet to accomplish anything. Only the Automatons’ determination to destroy all traces of Marlhem’s existence had prevented them from ravaging the interior of Tor Som.

The Clans would help, but they could only be in one place at a time, and there was a lot of land to defend. Yarnig could only hope that Leha and her people would have some solution.

And so he waited, standing on the platform at the fore of Brodar’s hall, watching the sun approach the horizon.

He leaned against the railing. To his left, he was treated to a view of the Northern Spur of the Gormorra Range. The mountains glowed red and orange in the sunset. Below the foothills, in a notch between two bands of evergreen forest, the stone mass of Kerhem stood. The city had been considered to be one of Tor Som’s most beautiful before the war; its architecture had been praised, and its natural beauty renowned. It still carried a certain dignity, though its walls had been shattered and many of its buildings burned. Within the center of the city, rising toward the sky, a pair of towers, formerly part of the city’s university, had survived. They seemed to stand in defiance of the machines’ mission of destruction.

To his right, the land descended in rolling hills of alternating fields and forests, lowering towards the plain where Marlhem had been situated. The wind sighed back and forth, sometimes knocking clumps of snow from tree limbs. The land seemed too serene for such a dark time.

The weather was mild – by the standards of a Tor Som winter – and Yarnig kept back the hood of his thick cloak. After the bitter winds of the tundra, the air seemed almost balmy.

He rubbed his chin, feeling the smoothness of the skin. During his journey north, he had not been able to shave. On the southward trip, one of the Clansmen had given him a spare razor, and he still hadn’t gotten over his relief at being able to remove the scraggly fur that had grown along his jaw.

A flash to the left drew his attention. Four figures had appeared between him and the city, striding forward. One was his messenger, and he knew Erik by his shining staff. Leha’s strong, graceful gait, a side effect of the enhancements she had given herself, and short stature immediately identified her, but he did not recognize the fourth. As they came closer, he saw that she was a lithe Urannan woman of startling beauty. He raised an eyebrow. They had not heard from Uranna since the beginning of the war.

Neither of the women wore proper winter gear. They seemed to have bundled into a number of shirts. They shivered and hugged themselves, rubbing their arms.

Yarnig sent one of the Clansmen to summon Brodar, and he descended the steps at the edge of the platform and hopped into the snow, watching as the setting sun silhouetted the approaching figures.

He had only met Leha a handful of times before. She had never seemed impressed by him, but he could hardly blame her for that.

Brodar took a place beside him just as the four arrived. Yarnig dismissed the messenger and nodded a quick greeting to Erik. Leha stared at the floating halls, her mouth hanging slightly open. Yarnig couldn’t help but feel a hint of a smile touch his lips as he saw her reaction. Beside her, the Urannan woman considered the structures with a more understated expression. Yarnig’s eyes wanted to linger on her artful face, but he had encountered many beautiful women in his life as a royal, and he was experienced in maintaining a polite composure.

He half-bowed to Leha. “Greetings. Your presence honors me,” he said, speaking Eastenholder. He straightened and gestured to Brodar. “Allow me to present Brodar, chieftain of the Marg clan.”

Brodar’s gaze kept flitting between Leha’s claws and her blue pupils. He hastily bowed his head.

Leha acknowledged him. She raised an eyebrow and turned to Yarnig. “The Northern Clans?”

“Yes. He has pledged his clan to our cause.”

“We come to fulfill our duty against the enemies of humanity,” the chieftain said, speaking the Tor language.

Over the journey south, Yarnig had studied Brodar and come to the conclusion that he set much store by honor, diplomacy, and proper conduct. He’d gathered that the Clans had some complicated code of honor about meeting with strangers, one that Brodar paid special attention to. It was probably why Yarnig’s group hadn’t been killed on sight.

Leha nodded to him respectfully. “Thank you,” she said, also using Tor. She indicated the Urannan. “This is Natoma, formerly the captain of the guard for Nettoh province in Uranna.”

“Emperor. Chieftain,” Natoma said, bowing to each in turn. Her bluish hair shone in the fading light.

“I offer you the hospitality of my home,” Brodar said, gesturing towards the nearer hall.

Leha thanked him, and they headed inside. Yarnig took a moment to thank Erik before dismissing him, and the four of them made their way through the hall. The air was warmer here, and it smelled of wood and pelts. Yarnig undid his cloak, and Leha and Natoma stopped shivering. Leha’s gaze darted about, drinking in the details of the Clan hall.

They arrived in the same chamber where Yarnig had first met with the chieftain. Servants had been there ahead of them and laid out a ring of the reindeer hide cushions. Within the center of the ring, a large flagon, no doubt filled with ulu, and several cups rested on an ornate wooden platter.

They took their seats, and Brodar poured four cups of ulu and handed one to each. Yarnig struggled not to bombard Leha with questions. “How will we protect my country?” he wanted to ask.

“What is this?” Leha asked.

“Ulu. Reindeer milk, honey, and reindeer blood,” Brodar responded.

Yarnig took a deep draught of the thick, warm liquid, making sure that Leha noticed him.

She took the hint and drank from her cup. A surprised expression appeared on her face, and she took a larger gulp. “Thank you,” she said.

Natoma nursed her drink.

Leha set down her cup. She paused, her mouth half open, as if she wasn’t sure what to say. “Ah, thank you for coming to our aid, chieftain.”

Brodar set his ulu upon the floor and placed a hand on each of his knees. “If what Yarnig has told me is true, then we have come to the aid of humanity.”

She nodded. “Yes, you have. The Automatons are the Old Gods resurrected. They’re out to destroy us.”

Brodar set his jaw. “We will do what we can. With luck, more of my people will join us soon.” He explained about the Althing, pausing to let Leha translate for Natoma, who did not understand Tor.

Leha downed a mouthful of ulu and said, “I read about your people in the library at Heart. What exactly do you do that’s so effective against Automatons?”

“I can arrange a demonstration. My people will soon begin to train the soldiers here. You could observe.”

Upon hearing Leha’s translation, Natoma looked up. “I’d like to see that,” she said.

Leha relayed her words.

The chieftain nodded.

He turned to Leha. “Now, I have heard great tales of you. I wish to know more. Please, tell me of your trials.”

She took a deep breath. Slowly at first, then speaking faster, she told him of her journeys across Barria and the other worlds. She glossed over the first few months, omitting some of the less relevant details, such as her near death on Sy’om. As her narrative grew closer to the present day, she grew more thorough, depicting in depth the final days of Marlhem. She spoke of the terror that was the Automaton Lord, describing its baleful gaze and titanic power, and a hint of fear appeared in her eyes. Yarnig’s blood chilled.

When she finished, Brodar took a moment to respond. “That is a fantastic tale. But I see the proof of it.” His eyes flickered over her claws.

The chieftain stared into the depths of his drink. “My people have always known that the minds of machines cannot be trusted, but I never imagined a disaster such as this.”

Leha stared down, running a finger over the smooth floorboards. Yarnig’s cheeks warmed.

He thought over the ruination this war had wrought, and his thoughts returned to Marlhem. He leaned forward. “Have you formulated any new plans? The machines could move on from Marlhem at any time,” he said to Leha, trying to keep his voice under control.

She nodded grimly. “Yes. We have a plan.” She seemed to steel herself. “We’re going to abandon the settlements. We’re going to take to the wilderness.”

“That is a wise course to take,” Brodar said.

Yarnig hardly heard him. His mind reeled. He forced out a few words. “You’re going to abandon them? Flee?”

“We can’t hold against the machines. They’re too strong,” Leha said.

Natoma said nothing, but her eyes showed she agreed.

Yarnig could hear his heartbeat pounding in his ears. He had dedicated himself to defending his nation, and now it was to disband and take to the hills? “But we’ve already lost so much. If we stop defending what we have left, the Automatons will destroy everything humanity has built.”

Natoma sat with one knee held close to her midsection. “Cities and towns can be rebuilt. If we head for the mountains and the forests, perhaps enough of our people will survive to do so.”

Yarnig thought of his country home to the north, of his artwork therein, and the beautiful lands around it. He thought of the ancient government buildings in Retgard – some had survived – and the majestic towers of Kerhem. He thought of all the humble dwellings, all the cottages and farmhouses, and all other the places his people called home. He wanted to cry.

“What about supplies?” he said. “We need the infrastructure of the cities; we need the known jumping points. We need the storage space. We’re barely getting by as it is.” He sputtered and gestured with his hands. “What about the accumulated knowledge in our libraries? What about our culture and history? Is it all going to go to nothing?”

Leha’s face had a pained expression. She ran her fingers through her hair. “We have no other choice.” She sighed and shook her head. “Maybe we can dispatch some people to save what they can. We might be able to bring some books with us. As for supplies, we’ll manage. Phanto’s people did.”

“It’s not so hard to live off the land. My people can help,” Brodar chimed in.

Yarnig drew in a deep, slow breath and tried to force his emotions to the back of his mind. He gulped his ulu and wished it was brandy. “Okay. We’ll go into the wilderness. I understand.”

The conversation shifted away from him, and the others began to plot out the details of their plan. Messengers would be sent via the jumping points – jumping first to Tyzu and then jumping to another location on Barria – to the various cities and still-occupied settlements in Tor Som to inform people of the new course of action.

They would move out as soon as they were ready, forming into three groups. One would go east, past Kerhem, and take refuge within the Northern Spur. Another would travel west and head into the foothills of the Mannall Mountains. The third would go north and seek refugee within the forests at the southern edge of the Northern Clans’ territory. With luck, they would be able to meet the Clan reinforcements after the Althing.

The Marg clan would again be divided. One hall would head west with all speed, arriving at Yotgard – the halls were too big to easily go via a jumping point – and accompany the refugees into the Mannall Range. Brodar’s would stay at Kerhem and go west, and a small group of guides and fighters would jump north and join the third grouping.

Yarnig listened, but the information left him almost as soon as it was spoken. All he could think of was what his people would be losing.

Everything.

He thought of his sorrow at losing the country home where he had spent much of his life, and he amplified it a thousand times to imagine what all his subjects would go through as each was forced to abandon all that they had ever known.

Whatever feeling of accomplishment securing the aid of the Marg clan might have given him had crumbled along with the walls of Marlhem. He wished the Clanspeople could have arrived sooner. He wondered if they would have made a difference.

Sometime later, the meeting broke up. Yarnig discovered that, at some point, the sun had set, and someone had lit the magical lanterns favored by the Clans. Their silver wicks glowed like otherworldly fireflies.

As Yarnig prepared to leave, Brodar offered his sympathy. Yarnig thanked him, gave a half-bow, and left.

He found Leha waiting for him in the hallway. She fell into step beside him. “I want you to know that I am sorry,” she said, her bare feet making little noise on the floor planks. “Eastenhold was the first nation lost to the Automatons. I understand how you feel.”

A trickle of shame wormed its way through him as he remembered his nation’s role in the death of hers.

She grabbed his arm. He started slightly. While it was not official law, custom dictated that most people should refrain from touching royalty. He reminded himself that her country had not had royalty. They had elected their magistrates. He wondered if that system had produced better leaders.

She looked up, into his eyes, and he suddenly realized how tiny she was. “Believe me, I do understand,” she said.

“You’re just trying to do what’s best for humanity; I understand,” he said. He managed a little smile. “We’ll survive, somehow.”

She smiled back and released his arm. They resumed walking.

Leha yawned. “Natoma’s waiting for me.” She looked back to where they had come from. “I wonder if Brodar would be willing to set us up for the night. The weather on Tyzu is a bit uncomfortable now.”

Yarnig said the chieftain would probably be willing, adding that Erik could inform the people on Tyzu that she would be spending the night. Leha said her goodbyes and returned to the meeting chamber at a brisk walk.

Yarnig went to find his sketchbook. The moon would be rising soon. It was just past full, bright enough for him to do some sketches of the city. He’d do all he could before the time came to abandon Kerhem. Soon, sketches would be all that remained of it.

* * *

The next morning, the human leaders again met on Tyzu. There, amid the mist and the dripping humidity, they made their final plans. Yeldar, Doga, and Eranna would go west and lead the survivors from Yotgard and the surrounding areas. Drogin, Natoma, and Yarnig would join Brodar and the eastbound group – the largest, consisting of the people of Kerhem, most of Retgard’s citizens, and the majority of the survivors of Marlhem – and a Lost One, Elder Dentu of the Water’s Edge clan, would lead the northern band, the smallest and the one considered to be at the least risk.

Leha would join the eastern group later. But for now, she was bound for Sy’om. From there, she would travel to that dark world beneath and contact the entity she had come to think of as the Watcher.

* * *

Two days later, as one of the Marg halls passed by to the north, just out of sight, the Automatons finished grinding the last bricks of Marlhem into dust, leaving nothing but a great, dark scar upon the earth.

The Automaton Lord gathered the other machines about it and dispatched scouts to the north, east, and west. It was time to begin the next phase of their offensive.

———————

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