Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Two: Sy’om

We now come to the second chapter of my science fantasy epic, Rage of the Old Gods. In the coming weeks, I will be posting the entire book for free on this blog. If you missed the last chapter, get caught up now!

In this chapter, Leha arrives on the icy alien world of Sy’om, and quickly comes to regret her recklessness.

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

Chapter Two: Sy’om

Her plan was simple. Whatever had eliminated the jumping points had to be subtle, or someone would have been able to understand it. If it was subtle, it probably couldn’t act quickly. Any major battle involved wizards and Automatons draining power and disrupting the natural flow of energy. A battlefield was likely to be full of jumping points – jumping points that were formed too quickly to be immediately dispelled.

She formed her notes into a hasty proposal and headed to the Military Forum, a large building housing the leadership of the Eastenholder army, in the hopes of arranging a presentation with Lord Heggarn, the commander of Eastenhold’s military.

The Forum was abuzz, with soldiers and messengers darting through its polished stone halls in a flurry of activity. Anxious voices echoed off the high ceilings, and the entire place had the feel of barely controlled chaos. After years of peace, no one had expected an invasion on this scale.

Unsure of where to go, she settled on approaching the one desk in the atrium whose attendant didn’t look as panicked as someone trying to put out a fire.

“Yes?” the clerk asked, scribbling notes on a stack of papers.

She put on a look she hoped seemed confident and determined. “I’m here to submit a plan to Lord Heggarn. I believe I may have found a way to turn back to the Tor invasion.”

Seeing her lack of military uniform, he blinked.

“It’s very urgent,” Leha said.

The clerk looked dubious, but he must have seen some of the determination she felt. He put down what he was doing and went to deliver a message.

The minutes spent waiting dragged on, and Leha could only watch the chaos unfold around her. She reflected on the dire situation her nation found itself in, feeling the weight of dread press down on her ever harder. She’d met many members of the Three Gates garrison through Drogin, and soldiers had always struck her as a supremely calm and confident bunch. But the men and women of the Military Forum reminded her of nothing so much as chickens who’d just discovered a fox in their pen.

More time passed, and still the clerk did not return. She began speaking to other clerks and officials, trying first polite inquires and then, as time wore and her worries over Drogin’s fate grew, impatient demands.

After nearly an hour had passed, yet another clerk approached her and told her she would be heard. Butterflies in her stomach, she followed him down a hall and through an unmarked door, which he immediately closed behind her.

She found herself in a small, unadorned office lit by only one tiny window on the far wall. The place smelled of paper and ink. A thin, pale young man – obviously not Lord Heggarn – sat behind the desk, worrying himself over a massive stack of papers. Her shoulders sagged in disappointment.

Seeing her enter, the man reluctantly put down his forms and beckoned her closer. “I understand you’ve a plan to help us deal with the Tors?” he said, sounding disinterested. A tag on his desk read “Lome” – she assumed this was his name.

Leha cleared her throat, her body tense. She’d never been nervous or shy with people, but the trials of recent weeks had taken a toll on her, and a lot rode on the next few moments.

“Yes.” She handed him her notes. “I believe I have found a way to circumvent the seal placed upon Barria at the end of the Liberation. If we can reach the other worlds, we can draw upon their power to defeat the Tors, just as our ancestors did when fighting the Old Gods.”

One of Lome’s eyebrows shot up. As he read over her notes, the other slowly crept up to join it. Leha fidgeted.

After an obviously cursory examination, he put down her notes. “Are you demented?” he asked.

She frowned. Her face burned, and her fists clenched.

“The greatest minds of the world have worked for centuries to break the seal, and you think you, some random refugee from the provinces, have finally cracked it?” Lome continued.

“I’ve done my research. My theories are based on the best knowledge culled from the past seven thousand years of knowledge,” she said, trying and failing to keep the indignation out of her voice.

Lome started to say something, but she cut him off. “If this succeeds, it can save Eastenhold. What have we got to lose by trying?”

He shook his head and handed her notes back. “We don’t have time for flights of fancy like this. We’ve got a war to fight.”

Leha felt caught between breaking down in tears and throttling him. His casual dismissal stung even worse than his earlier vehemence.

Snatching the notes out of his hands, she stormed out of his office, slamming the door behind her.

* * *

Leha refused to take no as an answer. Her plan had too much potential, and Eastenhold was in too much danger. She signed onto Lord Heggarn’s force as a medic. In the chaos that had followed Broad Field’s fall, no one checked whether she knew anything about medicine – she didn’t.

Motivated by fear, the people under Lord Heggarn’s command mustered every able-bodied fighter and every serviceable Automaton from around Heart in record time. Less than two full days after they’d heard of Broad Field’s fall, they were on the road. And Leha, wearing the red armband of a medic, traveled with them. She brought with her every item she had saved from her home in Three Gates, as well as the notes she had built up while researching.

She slept little during the journey, and she had trouble concentrating on the world around her. A knot of emotions festered within her mind, pulling her away from the present. Her concern for Drogin stabbed at her like a thorn in her boot. She did her best to ignore it, but it always returned, sooner or later.

Whenever she thought of the battle to come, apprehension flooded through her, causing her to break out in cold sweats. It was one thing to read about them in books, quite another to experience them firsthand. She didn’t plan to be on the front lines – she expected the pockets of low energy around the battle wizards would suffice to get her to Sy’om – but that did not much reassure her.

The excitement and anticipation of visiting an alien world added to her emotional confusion. She was going to do something no one had done in seven millennia.

On top of all that, being on the road again brought back bad memories of the flight from Three Gates. She had not felt such a confusing mix of emotions since her teen years.

The weather provided small comfort. A cold front had come in, bringing with it gloomy, gray clouds and relief from the heat of the past several weeks.

The civilian survivors of Broad Field arrived at their camp just before dawn on the second day out. They were given food, water, and a small amount of medical care before being sent on to Heart. They left behind stories of war, destruction, and bloody atrocities. Leha tried to block them from her thoughts, but they rang through her mind, all the same.

She wondered what madness had seized the Tors. The conflicts between them and Eastenhold had sparked much hatred on both sides, but she hadn’t thought them capable of something like this.

Not long after Broad Field’s survivors left, the column set out again. Another hard day of travel followed.

Early the next morning – as a light, cool rain began to fall – they met up with the last of Broad Field’s defenders – much sooner than they had expected to. The Blue River was still at least a day away.

The defense at the bridge had fallen.

The two forces mingled. Leha left her wagon and maneuvered through the press of unpacking soldiers, officers barking orders, and clanking Automatons to reach the center of camp.

If Drogin was still alive, he would be here somewhere. Her heart lodged itself in her throat as she searched the campfires and the mess tents and made inquiries. She avoided looking in the infirmary tents – she did not want to think about that possibility.

She was slogging through a path turned to mud by rain and the passing of feet, approaching what appeared to be an Automaton repair area and shivering in her wet coat, when she saw a familiar, if slightly singed, head of sandy brown hair.

“Drogin!” she called, waving.

Her brother looked up, his jaw dropped, and he ran over to her. “What – ”

Leha cut off his question when she threw her arms around him in a strangling hug. “You’re alive!”

He disentangled himself from her. “What are you doing here?”

She looked around. “Is there some place we can talk?”

Drogin led her into a tent filled with gears, pieces of silver and crystal, mechanical fingers, and other small Automaton parts. He leaned on a table, and she sat on a crate across from him.

Before he could say anything, Leha asked, “Are you all right? What was it like at Broad Field?”

A haunted expression crossed his face. “I’m okay.”

“What was it like?” she repeated, leaning forward slightly.

He let out a breath and rubbed his face with one hand. “Bad,” he said. “Seemed like all of Tor Som turned out for this war. They covered the plain. Once the walls came down, they swamped the whole city. But that wasn’t what did us in. We had fortifications. We had supplies. We could have held out against their soldiers for weeks.” He put his hands in his pockets and stared at his feet. “They’ve built new Automatons. They’re huge, and strong, and near indestructible.” He looked her in the eye. “They’re wizards, Leha.”

She stood up. “Wizards? How is that possible?” She knew little of magic, but she had always been told machines lacked the physical and mental complexity to control magic on a large scale.

He started to pace. “I don’t know.” He stopped and looked at her. “They’re the equals of any battle wizards I’ve ever seen. They tore through the walls and our people like fire through dry thatch.”

Leha wrapped an arm around his shoulders, hugging him to her.

“Now, what are you doing here?” he asked, after a moment.

Leha stepped back from him, cleared her throat, and said, “I can do it. I can get to Sy’om. But I need a battlefield to do it.”

Drogin raised his eyebrows; Leha noticed one had been partially singed off.

She spent the next five minutes explaining everything she had learned in her research, and her plan to get to Sy’om.

When she finished, he said, “Little Sister, please, I beg you not to do this. You’re going to get yourself killed.”

Of all the possible responses, this was not one she had prepared for.

She took a step forward. “I know what I’m doing. If the spell goes wrong, the worst that could happen is nothing.”

“And what about the hazards of battle? What if you’re struck by a crossbow bolt or a spell?”

“I’ll be at the back of the lines. Trust me; I don’t want to be in the thick of it anymore than you want me to.”

He gestured feebly. Part of her was touched by his concern. “There must be someone better suited for this,” he argued.

“Who would trust my theories? I tried talking to Heggarn’s people. They thought I was an idiot.”

“Even if you do make it through, how will you get back? You don’t know if you’ll be able to find a jumping point, and if you do, you can’t cast the spell yourself.”

Leha set her jaw and met his eyes. “I’ll find a way. I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”

Drogin shifted uncomfortably and looked at the ground.

Leha continued, “Eastenhold needs an advantage, or we’re not going to win this war.” She quoted Wizard Vorren, the famed Jansian inventor of Automatons, adding, “There is no gain without risk.”

A long moment passed without either of them speaking.

Almost inaudibly, Drogin chuckled. “I’m not going to be able to talk you out of this one, am I?”

“No.”

He took a deep breath and looked up. “Okay.”

* * *

I must be crazy, Drogin thought as he directed the Automatons under his command.

She’d done it to him again – convinced him to help her in some wild, foolish scheme. She’d always been good at persuading people, and he was especially vulnerable. As children, she’d gotten him into trouble on countless occasions. Only this time, it was a lot more dangerous than stealing sweets from the bakery or sneaking into the Automaton yards.

He heard a crash and a tearing of metal to his right. Breaking the link with his Automatons, he saw that an enemy Quadramaton had hit one of the other Eastenholder machines with a boulder. He reestablished the link.

The Tor army was advancing on them, spreading across the land like a red wave, their uniforms looking like dried blood in the dim light. They had arrived a few hours after Leha’s group, and the Eastenholders had barely had time to prepare themselves to meet the assault.

Lord Heggarn had chosen a traditional formation: rows of Automatons front and center, backed-up by small squads of infantry, with the cavalry, Quadramatons, and the majority of the crossbowmen out to the sides in two angled wings, where they could harry the enemy’s flanks. Battle wizards were concentrated at the back but present throughout.

The Tors had chosen a less traditional, rectangular formation. The Automatons remained at the fore, but the cavalry were kept behind them, in front of the infantry, and the crossbowmen, Quadramatons, and battle wizards were kept on the sides of the front lines.

Drogin stood with a group of battle wizards and several other Automaton technicians at the rear of the lines. Crossbowmen – carrying both anti-infantry bolts, capped with metal bodkins, and anti-Automaton bolts, capped with vials of corrosive chemicals designed to shatter on impact – guarded them.

He shuddered as he saw, through the eyes of one of his Automatons, the Tors’ Wizard-Automatons. Occasionally, they would fire bolts of scintillating magic from the silver bands at their wrists, sending sparks splashing off the Eastenholder Automatons’ magic resistant lead armor.

Horns blew across the rain-soaked battlefield, and cries of “Charge!” went up all around him. A great crashing and tearing of metal erupted where the two forces met. His machines were slammed between two sides of mechanized combatants, causing him to tremble in sympathy. Behind him, he sensed Leha flinch at the noise.

The battle wizards near them raised their hexagonal, silver-plated staffs and sent bolts of green-white magic soaring overhead to strike at the Tor lines. The Tor Wizard-Automatons erected a shield and blocked them. The air gained the chill that followed the drawing of power.

Leha touched his arm lightly.

He shook his head. “Not yet.”

He spent the next several minutes directing his Automatons via his control amulet, waiting for the energy around him to drain. It was difficult to split his attention, and he knew disaster could result if he did not focus on the battle. If Eastenhold lost here, it would never recover.

Finally, he felt the energy drop to a low enough level. Still controlling the Automatons, he nodded to Leha and pulled his wand from his belt. His mind went over what he’d read in Leha’s notes about the spell. He dared not make a mistake.

In a feat of mental gymnastics that sent pain lancing through his head, he activated the jumping point while still commanding his machines.

The spell produced a brief flash – it went unnoticed in chaos of war – and his sister was gone.

A wave of guilt, doubt, and second thoughts assaulted him. He stared at the empty spot where his little sister had stood, a lump forming in his throat, and wondered if he’d just made the greatest mistake of his life.

He shook his head. He had to focus on the battle.

* * *

It felt strange. Leha knew that light surrounded her, but she couldn’t see. She felt as if she was being sucked through a thin tube and having the energy drained from her limbs at the same time. Everything tingled.

Her feet hit ground, and her knees gave out.

Her first thought was an intense thrill at successfully arriving on another world. As a child, she had frequently fantasized about making such a journey. Now she had. A broad grin lit up her face.

Her second thought was that the ground seemed to be coming towards her in slow-motion. She had arrived, and fallen, several seconds ago, but she was still several inches above the snow. It was almost as strange as the trip from Barria had been. Looking up – it took much longer for her to move her head than it should have – she saw that the snowflakes drifting down from the clear, blue sky were moving with an incredible lack of speed.

Her third thought, which became more intense when her knees finally impacted the deep snow, was that it was cold here. Very cold. Her breath misted in the air, and frost had started to form on her wet cloak.

She’d known that Sy’om was a cold place and had done her best to buy cold weather clothing before leaving, but it had been summer in Eastenhold, and it hadn’t been easy to find.

She grabbed her pack, pulled it open, and extracted a pair of woolen mitts, a scarf, and a hat. It would have taken seconds on Barria, but here, it took minutes. By the time she finished, she was chilled to the bone.

It seemed as if time itself had slowed, but she knew that wasn’t the case. The old texts had described the low energy that made everything slower and weaker. Time passed at the same rate, but everything on this alien world functioned sluggishly. That her thoughts were not slowed confirmed this.

Laboriously, she stood up, brushed the snow from legs, and looked around. She stood on top of a tall hill surrounded by a world of radiant white. Snowfields and glaciers stretched out in all directions – except for behind her and to her right, where steep hills of black stone speared up from the ice.

Leha surveyed the spectacular vista, momentarily forgetting how cold she was.

At first glance, Sy’om appeared lifeless, but she noticed the presence of what appeared to be a bird of prey in the distance, as well as strange mossy plants clinging to some of the few exposed rock faces near her.

The reflected light became too much. She had to cast her eyes downward.

She again became aware of the intense, piercing cold. She began to shiver – an extremely odd sensation in slow-motion. She pulled her cloak tight around her, but it was wet and made her feel colder.

She looked around again, shielding her eyes. If she couldn’t find a way to warm up soon, she would freeze. She could not see any shelter in the area, and there wasn’t enough of the moss to start a fire.

It occurred to her that she had absolutely no idea of where to begin looking for weapons to use against the Tors. She started to wonder if this trip had been the smartest thing to do. Countless lectures given by her parents on the dangers of being too curious sprang into her mind.

Fear and doubt crept over her, causing her to shiver further.

She pushed them down. I need to find shelter. She looked to the hills to her right. Where there are hills, there could be caves.

With the snow crunching beneath her, and a slow-motion breeze blowing over her, she set out across the icy fields of Sy’om.

* * *

Leha’s scarf had fallen away from her face, and the bitter air tore at her cheeks and lips, but she no longer had the strength to pull it back up. It took all of her energy, all of her will, simply to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

She didn’t know how long she had been walking. It had all faded into a blur of whiteness, fatigue, and cold. Always cold. She knew that the world’s weak sun had changed positions, but she was no longer sure how much of a change it had been. Her memories had grown blurry – she had trouble focusing her thoughts. The hills didn’t seem any closer, but she knew that couldn’t be right. Her cloak had frozen into a hardened cocoon, and it restricted her feeble, cold-addled movements. She had lost feeling in her fingers and toes, but perhaps that was a blessing. During her journey, she had cursed herself for her foolishness and alternated between anger at herself, anger at the Tors, and fear for her life. Now, she didn’t have the energy to feel much of anything. Except the cold.

She wished Drogin was with her. He was sensible. He was the elder by two years, and he’d always looked out for her. She regretted not listening to his warnings.

Her legs felt as if they were made of lead. Walking grew more difficult, until each step became a labor. And then, the next step did not come. She tried to move her right leg forward, but it didn’t, and she fell, drifting to rest in the deep snow.

She flung out her arms – watching them drift over herself, knocking snowflakes from their flight path – in an attempt to push herself to a sitting position, but she found that the strength had fled them. She settled deeper into the snow, and found that she didn’t feel so cold now.

She tucked her legs in closer. Now, she hardly felt cold at all. Something like warmth seeped into her limbs, and a grateful smile pulled at the corners of her blue lips. Her vision started to blur and flicker, but that didn’t matter; the cold was gone.

A part of her mind warned her that something was wrong, but she had trouble focusing on it, and as time went on, it faded away, leaving nothing but a vague sense of discontent.

She didn’t know how long she lay there. It might have been seconds or hours. After a time, she began to hear things – odd crunching and shuffling noises. An unknowable amount of time later, she saw things as well – bizarre, splay-legged creatures with shaggy fur. They wrapped clawed hands around her and carried her out of the powder.

Her mind remained sufficiently cognizant to think that what she was experiencing could not be real, but she saw no reason to fight it. She enjoyed the sensation of being carried.

She watched the snowflakes flutter by and used her last coherent thought to wonder how her mind had come up with such creative hallucinations.

* * *

Warmth. She had forgotten what it felt like. For several long minutes she did nothing but luxuriate in the absence of cold. Later, she learned to appreciate the softness of her bed, the way the mattress cradled her body.

Then, she woke up enough to realize that this wasn’t her bed in Three Gates. Everything that had happened in the past days came rushing back.

She groaned and opened her eyes.

She was in a room of bare stone – she could not tell whether it was natural or carved – lying on a pallet of some kind of animal fur, and covered by several blankets of a coarse, unknown plant fiber. Her cloak and winter accoutrements were gone, but she was otherwise fully clothed. Several crude, animal fat-based lamps provided light and a few wisps of smoke that smelled vaguely of bacon. She realized now that the room was fairly cool, but it was still far warmer than the snowfields had been.

She started to wonder where she was and how she had gotten there, but then she heard what sounded like hoof beats coming towards her. A creature entered her room. It was one of the beings she had thought to be a hallucination, and it was the strangest thing she had ever seen.

Its torso and arms appeared human, save for the claws and the gray fur, but the rest of it was not at all familiar. It had four goat-like legs terminating in cloven hooves. Each faced a different outward direction, giving it a shambling gait. Its head was ovoid with dark, liquid eyes on either side.

Leha felt nervousness creep through her, displacing her natural curiosity.

The alien stopped two feet from her bed and looked at her crookedly.

Leha felt a tickling in her mind. The tickling became images and feelings, then words.

You are awake.

Leha was still weak from her near-death and did not know how to react to this alien speaking into her mind.

He – somehow, she knew it was male – bared black teeth and said, Are you hungry?

Leha hesitated before nodding. “Yes.” Things were still in slow-motion, and her voice sounded strange.

The alien ducked his head in what she assumed was a nod.

She stared into one of his black eyes for a moment, trying to decide whether she should be afraid. “Why am I here?”

Because I brought you here.

“Why did you bring me here?”

You were dying. You do not look like food or danger. There was no reason not to save you and many reasons to. You are strange; I am curious. You were dying; I took pity. He quirked his head.

Leha sat up and leaned against the chill rock wall; it took many long seconds. “Who are you?”

I am kind and curious. I took pity on you. I saved you. His voice was getting clearer in her mind. Who are you?

“I am Leha.”

What is ‘Leha’? He seemed to find her as alien as she found him.

“I am Leha.”

What is ‘Leha’?

“It is my name.”

The alien took an awkward step forward. What is ‘name’?

She thought. “A name is a word or a sound we use for identification.”

Ah. You speak. Of course, he sent. He stared at the floor for some reason.

Leha took the moment to watch a lamp flicker. On this world, the flame’s movement was slow, graceful, beautiful. Perhaps she was simply too tired to feel fear, but she had the feeling that the alien was not a threat to her.

Without turning, she knew the alien was looking at her again.

Who are ‘we’? he asked.

She faced him. “Humans.”

Ah! I thought you were human. I have – he sent a sensation of feeling, hearing, and experiencing – stories of humans. He wavered on his feet, slightly.

She had the feeling he was greatly enjoying learning about her. She didn’t know whether to feel kinship at his curiosity or anger at being treated like a scholar’s experiment.

The alien continued. Of all the races we know, humans are the only ones who speak, even on your own world.

Leha stared at him, dumbfounded. “There are other races on Barria? Races who don’t speak?”

He took another step forward. The Rock Gods link minds as we do.

Leha furrowed her brow. “Rock Gods? Do you mean the Old Gods?”

He sent her an affirmative.

“The Old Gods were telepathic?” None of the old tales had mentioned that.

Another affirmative. Speech is slow. If we spoke, nothing would ever get done.

Considering the snail’s pace Sy’om moved at, she could believe him.

He moved his head so that the other eye faced her. Did you defeat them?

Leha changed position so that she sat cross-legged. “The Old Gods? Yes. We are free now.”

He wrinkled what she thought was his nose. That is good. Some of them came here before they sealed your world. They were dangerous. We had to destroy them. Rock is not adaptable; they could not adapt to Sy’om. He bared his teeth and worked his lips in something akin to laughter.

Leha wondered why he associated the Old Gods with rock. She was beginning to enjoy “talking” to this creature.

She heard hooves on stone. A second creature, this one with whitish fur, arrived and placed two dishes in front of her. One contained some meat, barely cooked, and the other held a lukewarm concoction somewhere between tea and soup.

Food, the first alien said as the other left. Neither creature reacted to the other in any way.

Leha tasted her food. It wasn’t the most appetizing cuisine she had encountered, but she felt starved. She decided it would do.

The alien settled into something resembling a kneeling position. He seemed content to watch her eat.

“Who are you?” she asked, chewing something that tasted like venison. She meant his race as a whole, and she guessed he would be able to pick that up through whatever mind link he used.

She guessed correctly. We are as you see us. We are as we have always been. We hunt upon the glaciers, and we farm the rock moss. We live in the caverns of the hills. We are gentle. We are unified.

She knew with absolute certainty that he spoke the truth.

He swiveled his head to the right. Why did you come here? How did you come here? We thought your world was sealed.

Leha swallowed a large piece of some tough, bitter vegetable. She took a deep breath and told him her story, including a brief history of the conflict between Tor Som and Eastenhold. She also explained a bit about her own life prior to the war.

Occasionally, he asked questions. It took a few minutes to explain Automatons, seeing as he did not know what machines or metal were – his people had only experienced the latter in its raw state, and they did not distinguish it from stone. By the end of her monologue, she had eaten her fill and felt sleepy.

Her alien companion stayed silent for several minutes. Then, he looked her in the eye. Humans fight each other? Kill each other?

She nodded, a little sadly.

Why?

Leha had to think about that one. She stared into the lamps – it helped her think. “Many reasons, I suppose. Greed, anger, justice, vengeance. Some old stories say that we were given these things by the Old Gods to prevent us from uniting against them, though I don’t know if I believe that. It certainly didn’t work. We were united during the Liberation.

“My country and Tor Som have fought for centuries, provided ample reasons to hate each other. The hate in Tor Som must have boiled over. They must have decided that the world would be better without us.” Her voice thickened as she remembered the destruction wrought on her homeland.

The alien leaned forward and widened his eyes at her. Would it?

“What?”

Would the world be better without you?

Leha swore under her breath. She swallowed, then looked at him and said, “I don’t know. Eastenhold is, by most measures, a good country. We have fair rulers and plentiful food, but, like anywhere else, we have problems. We have thieves, and rapists, and murderers. I can’t see the right in our destruction, but what do I know? This is a question for wiser folk than I.”

The alien seemed satisfied by this. She could sense him preparing more questions, but she held up a hand to stop him, regretting the amount of time it took.

“I’m tired. I need to rest.”

The alien stood up as abruptly as his world would allow. Of course. Thank you for speaking to me. He collected her bowls and left.

Leha had just enough energy to remove her boots and fling them aside before her body lost all its strength. She lay back and wrapped the blankets about herself.

Though she was exhausted, it took her a long time to sleep. Her encounter with the alien had given her a lot to think about, and not all of it was pleasant.

* * *

Leha’s recovery was slow. Everything took longer on Sy’om, including, it seemed, healing. She stayed bedridden for a week, but it felt to her like longer.

She often spoke with the alien who had saved her, the one she had come to think of as Benefactor. Their conversations helped the days pass. She told him about humanity, and he taught her about his people. She learned about how they hunted the small creatures that lived on the glaciers, how they farmed the few usable plants, and how they passed their days in the dim caverns.

After the first week, she had recovered enough to take short walks around the caves, where she learned more about the ice creatures. Considering the harshness of their environment, they were surprisingly plentiful. Several hundred lived in this colony, and there was another just over a day’s walk away. Their technology was very crude, yet it sustained a comfortable life.

Leha was also surprised to discover that some of the creatures were wizards – though they were not as powerful as their Barrian counterparts. They had no silver and little energy to work with, so they were limited to the simplest of spells; most of their effort went into cooking food and keeping the caverns warm. She learned that, when Benefactor had found her, it had been their magic that had saved her from freezing to death.

Despite the thrill of discovery, Leha grew restless. She had not seen or heard of anything on Sy’om that would help her fight the Tors. She asked Benefactor and some of the other ice creatures whether they knew of anything, but they were of little help. Their ancient memories showed that something about the essence of their world had proven harmful to the Old Gods, but beyond that, they knew nothing. Rock is not adaptable. They could not adapt, Benefactor often said.

Drogin dominated her thoughts. As much as she tried, she could not banish images of terrible battles and rampaging Automatons from her mind. Sometimes, thoughts of her brother would keep her up at night. If he died, she would have no one left. Her parents were dead, and she had no other siblings. She had to find a way to help him.

Sy’om held no powers she could use. That left one option: Tyzu.

* * *

Leha leaned back against the cool stone wall. She had just finished explaining the concepts of money, economics, and business to Benefactor – it had taken over an hour. He bared his teeth at her.

She sat on a bench carved into the side of one of the communal caverns, toying with her sword and watching the lamplight play off its blade. Benefactor had wanted to study it.

She had bought the sword from a trader who’d claimed it to be a relic of the Jansian Empire, though it obviously wasn’t. Thankfully for her, his pricing had been as incompetent as his appraisals, and she had purchased it for a fairly low price. Its length and double edge suggested it was Eastenholder, but the design of the hilt was Piran, and a thin tracery of silver, a Urannan trait, covered the guard and pommel. It was Karkaran, she’d decided. That nation was a melting pot of the surrounding cultures. It had probably belonged to an officer.

She had always liked the sword. There were finer blades to be had, she knew, but it had a sense of history to it, and it managed to be elegant while still being practical.

Leha sighed. She had not enjoyed the conversation with Benefactor as much as she normally did. Her concerns about her brother had kept butting into her mind.

The cavern echoed with the bleating of alien children playing a game similar to tag – albeit much slower.

Leha felt the etchings in her sword’s hilt and saw that her companion seemed to be out of questions, for the moment. “Is it possible to get to Tyzu from Sy’om?” she asked. She couldn’t get used to communicating with her mind.

The alien quirked his head. What is Tyzu?

“The world above Barria in the world spectrum.”

He ducked his head. Ah. Yes. The Rock Gods did not seal us. But I doubt any hold the memory of the spell to travel.

Leha leaned on her sword. “I hold the memory.”

Ah. Then it can be done. His head pivoted so that his left eye faced her. It glowed like a ruby in the lamplight. You wish to leave? he asked. She thought she detected sadness in his mental voice.

She shifted on the hard bench. “Yes. I need to find a way to help my brother, and I need to get back to Barria.”

Barria is a place we cannot take you.

“I know. Take me to Tyzu. I will make my own way from there.” Her cheeks warmed. It didn’t feel right to ask him this after all his people had done to help her.

The alien leaned closer. When do you wish to leave?

She laid her sword on the bench. “When can you send me?”

He stared at the ceiling for a moment, then looked back at her. Our wizards are tired today. Tomorrow morning.

“I’ll leave tomorrow, then.”

He took a step forward and looked at her pleadingly. Would you stay with me until you leave?

Leha smiled broadly. “I would be delighted. Just be sure to leave me time to sleep.”

He bared his teeth and ducked his head.

* * *

The next day, Leha, Benefactor, two alien wizards, and several curious ice creatures left the caverns. The weather was much as it had been when she arrived – clear and cold.

The distance to the jumping point was not far. On Barria it would have been less than an hour’s walk. On Sy’om, it took two hours. The steep hill they had to climb and the deep snow made the journey no easier. Leha discovered that, although they were awkward on flat surfaces, the aliens were adept at moving in conditions such as these. It explained the steep angles of some of their tunnels.

Leha was better protected from the cold this time. The aliens had made her a thick, warm cloak from the furs of local animals. She had thanked them profusely for it.

When they reached the top of the hill, the aliens formed a ring, and Leha stepped into the middle.

She addressed the crowd. “Thank you for all you’ve done.”

Benefactor bared his black teeth. Thank you for being so strange. She took it as a compliment.

The rest of the aliens sent her the feeling that she had been no burden to them.

Are you ready? one of the wizards, a white-furred female, asked.

Leha tightened her grip on her walking stick. “Yes.”

The wizards ducked their heads and began the spell.

———————

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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.