After a pause for the holidays, we come now to the eighth chapter of Rage of the Old Gods, the first book of my epic science fantasy trilogy the World Spectrum. In the coming weeks, I will be posting the entire book for free on this blog. If you’re just joining us, you can get caught up with the previous chapters now.
Outside the walls of her home, the sound of a city in panic roared like a distant wind. Alarm bells rang, men and women shouted, and the streets echoed with the sound of running feet.
Inside, Leha sat on the thing she generously called a bed and inspected her armor. The suit of leather had been made specially for her short frame, and it was designed to not impair her flexibility or weigh her down. It covered her body from the neck down, excluding her hands and most of her feet. Over that, she wore her fur cloak.
Outside, a squad of soldiers charged by, shouting.
Leha held forth her hands. Her claws were still in their shortened, nocturnal state, and she regrew them. A makeshift window made from a chunk of broken glass allowed the morning sun to glint off their inky surfaces.
She stood and took a deep breath. Clearing her mind, she opened the door to her home and stepped into the turmoil of the streets.
All around, soldiers ran to take their positions, civilians ran for cover, and everyone shouted. A pair of Lost Ones from the Water’s Edge clan tore past her, followed by a shambling, white-furred member of Benefactor’s people.
Their time had run out. The Automatons had arrived.
Leha summoned the energy of Tyzu and took off for the south wall at a breathtaking speed. It had snowed in the night, and her feet kicked up puffs of white powder as she ran. Her legs became a blur beneath her; her hair blew out behind her; and her cloak cracked and fluttered. She darted through the chaos of people and buildings. Her enhanced reflexes and Tyzu’s wild energy allowed her to move through it with ease. Everyone around her seemed to be going in slow-motion.
It was still early, and the sky to the east glowed pink and orange. To the west, the clouds that had produced the night’s snow hovered still, and a few flakes still drifted onto the city.
Reaching the south wall, she found a stair and leapt. As she soared upward, she closed her eyes and felt the crisp air wash over her. In this weightlessness, it was easy to imagine she was flying, wings carrying her through the early morning air. At the last moment, she opened her eyes and let Sy’om’s placid energy flood over her. She landed softly on the upper stairs.
She climbed the remaining steps and took her position on the battlements.
Yeldar, Doga, and Natoma were already there, gazing out at the plain below. She joined them, her feet crunching in the thin coating of snow on the walls. Cool gusts of wind washed over them in a steady rhythm.
To the south, a line of dark shapes darkened the horizon.
The Automatons. The Old Gods.
A faint rumbling echoed towards them. Leha felt dread creep into her gut.
“Are the skirmishers ready?” she asked.
“Nearly,” Eranna said, stepping onto the battlement.
“They’d best hurry up,” Leha said.
As the dark shapes of the machines crept closer, the walls bustled with activity. Men and women of many nations and two worlds took up positions along the parapet, holding their crossbows and javelins at the ready. Thanks to Natoma’s people, many of the crossbows were loaded with anti-Automaton bolts – more than Leha had seen in some time. Still, many others made do without.
To Leha’s right, atop a tower, the sun glinted off of Drogin’s new feedback weapon, a large, silver-plated horseshoe connected to a complicated system of gears, pulleys, and blocks of lead.
Outside the walls, fighters scurried about the fortified Quadramaton ruin. Two former Automaton technicians loaded the trebuchet atop its back with a small cask of acid, and soldiers armed with crossbows scurried into place all over the outwork.
Farther out, squads of skirmishers moved forward, preparing to harry the enemy’s advance. Among them were what little remained of the cavalry of the human nations. For reasons Leha didn’t fully understand, the Automatons had given special attention towards destroying cavalry and any domestic horses. Seeing the handful of mounted squads dart across the plains, Leha thought it possible that the machines feared their speed. Horses were almost as fast as Automatons in a straight line, and they were more maneuverable.
The shouts of fighters and commanders rippled through the morning air, and the sun glinted off of javelin tips, chain mail, and the staffs of battle wizards. While Leha’s army made ready, the machines drew nearer. Leha enhanced her eyes, and she began to pick out details.
Automatons of every shape and design marched on the city: round-edged Eastenholder Automatons; human-like Urannan Automatons armed with gigantic swords, maces, and axes; tall, blocky Tor Automatons; beast-headed Karkaran machines with taloned hands; one of the original Tor Wizard-Automatons; towering Piran machines wielding staffs of iron; Quadramatons modified to function without their human crews; a pair of multi-legged, insect-like Urannan Sextamatons; and machine-built Wizard-Automatons constructed after the war began.
Many of the human-built Automatons had been modified with better armor or equipment or been upgraded into Wizard-Automatons. Some wore tall metal plates on their chests to protect their vulnerable necks.
Benefactor scuttled up the stairs, moving sideways, and stepped forward onto the battlement, his hooves clacking. We are ready, Leha. The wind ruffled his gray fur.
Leha closed her eyes and reached out with her mind, linking with the alien’s bright, curious mind. Through him, she linked to a network of other ice creatures, and then with the other commanders: Natoma, with her serene and ordered mind; Doga, with his fearful awe of the Old Gods; Eranna, stalwart and prepared; Yeldar, with his stony strength; even Drogin, with his dark and bitter thoughts. Leha felt tempted to peak deeper into those thoughts, to learn the source of his coldness, but she resisted.
Beyond them, her awareness extended farther, encompassing the skirmishers on the plain. She saw the plain through their eyes; she felt the earth shake beneath their feet.
She, along with the other leaders, sent them to face the machines, orchestrating their movements in a dance of raids and retreats.
For the next hour – as the sun rose in the sky, and the snow blew away to the west – the skirmishers slowed the Automatons’ advance. They were too few and too weak to do real harm, but they let fly with their bolts and their spears, damaging and crippling the odd machine. The battlefield was too wide for Leha to control the energy levels throughout it all, but she did what she could. When her men attacked, she flooded them with Tyzu’s power and thus gave their missiles the power to pierce the machines’ armor – at least some of the time. When an Automaton would try to pursue them, she would bring it down to Sy’om’s level of energy.
Wizard-Automatons presented the greatest threat to the fighters on the plain. Battle wizards were too precious a commodity to waste, and most of them had stayed in Marlhem. The skirmishers had little defense against magic, save flight. With the help of the mental link, most of them managed to stay safe. But some did not, and by the time the order came to withdraw to the city, burning scars covered the fields, and the stink of burnt flesh wafted on the winter air.
The Automatons spread out into a crescent moon formation and moved to encircle the city. Leha’s people did what they could to stop them, but they could not hope to halt their advance. By two hours before noon, the Automatons had Marlhem fenced in.
A pause came in the fighting, and Benefactor’s people dissolved the link. Leha looked about. A dark ring of machines surrounded them in all directions. She cursed and agonized silently. While this tactic had not been entirely unexpected, she’d hoped they would be able to concentrate their forces on the south wall. If they had to defend all sides of the city, they would be spread dangerously thin.
Natoma began parceling out their soldiers.
* * *
The thunder of iron hands breaking into stone. The thunder of burning magical strikes smashing against wizard-summoned shields. The thunder of mechanical footfalls smashing into the earth. The thunder of collapsing towers and shattering parapets. It deafened Leha’s ears and rattled her bones.
An hour and a half before noon, the Automatons had attacked. With typical machine brutality, they had charged, leaving naught but their leader, the Machine King, in reserve. All around the walls of Marlhem, they tore into the walls and slaughtered the defenders. The screams of dying men and women provided a grim undertone to the louder cracks and smashes.
The sky above was clear, but the air in the city was choked with smoke, ash, and dust.
Leha’s mind thrummed as she coordinated with the other commanders scattered along the walls – it would be too much to link with every soldier – and did her best to funnel the right energies to the right areas. She had trouble concentrating on her own situation as she also lived the battle through the eyes of Natoma, Drogin, Doga, Eranna, Yeldar, and Benefactor.
To her right, a Karkaran Automaton tore chunks from the wall below the battlement, separating her from the tower where Drogin operated his new weapon. People screamed as the walkway collapsed beneath them. Anti-Automaton bolts had melted much of its boar-like face, giving it an even more nightmarish cast.
To her left, the gap in the south wall had been widened, and a force of human soldiers and battle wizards, connected by one of Benefactor’s people, fought desperately to fend off a pair of sword-wielding Urannan Automatons and two Tor machines.
A Wizard-Automaton, a machine-built one reminiscent of the Old God she had fought on Tyzu, emerged from the smoke. It raised its arm, and a bolt of magic burst forth. A pair of battle wizards on the walls erected a flickering shield, but the finger of energy twisted toward the tower, toward Drogin’s weapon. A high-pitched whine pierced the air, and a second beam of energy extended from Drogin’s machine to the Automaton. Leha quickly flooded the machine with Tyzu’s power, and the magic flared brighter.
The two beams whipped by each other in an oval of light that seared the eyes and raised the hair on the back of Leha’s neck. The Automaton erupted in green-white fire, and it crumpled into a heap of burning metal.
Leha wished they’d built more than one of those weapons.
A great screaming of metal drew her attention, and she saw a Piran Automaton topple the ruined Quadramaton with its staff, its defenders shouting and fighting. Its fall shook the walls and kicked up dust and snow.
The machine threw itself at the walls and raised it staff to strike. Leha felt Tyzu’s power rush through her; she grabbed a javelin from a fallen soldier, and leapt. She glided through the air like a fish through water – she had shed her cloak when the fighting began – and drove the javelin into the thin armor at the base of its neck.
Slowing the Automaton with Sy’om’s energy, she dug her the claws of her toes into its chest for purchase and commanded the venom glands in her fingers to produce acid. With a primal cry, she tore into the armor to either side of the javelin and gouged out a hole. She squinted against the acrid smoke her acid produced. Freed from the Automaton, her javelin plummeted, but she caught it hurled it at the Karkaran machine. Empowered by Tyzuan energy, the missile punched through the Automaton’s hand. Two of its fingers hung limply.
Leha wriggled inside the Piran machine’s frigid interior and wormed her way up its neck, tearing support bars free and sending them to clatter into its chest. The sound echoed uncannily in the dark innards of the machine.
As the neck began to collapse under the weight of the head, she reached a hand up into the space behind its eyes and attacked. Pieces of silver of quartz rained down on her as she destroyed the latticework of its mind.
The entire machine began to fall, and she scurried downwards. The collapse had shrunk the hole in its neck, but she kicked it wider and pulled herself out.
The moment she emerged into the hazy sunlight, the taloned hand of the Karkaran Automaton swung at her. She leapt.
Tyzu’s power carried her high into the air, the wind lashing at her. Up here, above the smoke, she could see far and wide. She could see the fires in the northeast corner of the city, where the mental link told her that Doga’s forces had been forced to retreat into the streets. Below her, she saw the sapphire eyes of the Karkaran Automaton glare at her, and next to it, the Piran machine falling in slow-motion.
She poured Tyzu’s power into the Piran Automaton, and it plummeted with sudden speed. Its arm flew out and struck the Karkaran machine in the chest, sending it crashing to the ground.
The earth rushed up to meet her. She plunged through a bank of hot smoke and barely had time to summon Sy’om’s energy to slow her descent.
Her feet settled in the debris before the wall. To her right, the Karkaran machine twitched feebly. It seemed to have been crippled by the fall.
She leaned against the wall and took a moment to breathe, inhaling the polluted air. Her mind buzzed with information from the other fronts of the battle. Doga’s people were attempting to halt their retreat and make a stand against their mechanical pursuers. On Marlhem’s western flank, Natoma was near to being overrun, but she was doing her best to hold on while the civilians behind her fled to the center of the city. Eranna’s left arm had been broken, and the Automatons were gaining the advantage at her position.
Leha drew herself back to her own surroundings. Judging from the screams to her left, the Automatons were close to breaking through at the gap in the wall. She turned to go to the aid of her people, when a titanic thud shook the earth beneath her.
She spun to face the open plain as a nightmare emerged from the smoke. It towered above the wall as an adult would tower over a child. Plates of silver formed jagged, glittering bracelets around its wrists, and its dark surface seemed to feed on the sunlight. Atop its head, above its blazing eyes, three prongs of iron attacked the sky.
Leha fought her terror as she beheld the lord of all Automatons.
She had known it had come with the machine army. She’d caught glimpses of it throughout the day, prowling behind the Automaton lines. But it had not joined the battle proper.
Now it had.
The Machine King glanced down at her, and her soft, brown eyes met the hard, azure gaze of the Automaton.
Leha gasped. Somewhere, deep inside that cold engine of hate, she saw something terribly, impossibly familiar. “No,” she breathed.
Somehow, this was the same machine she had fought on Tyzu, six months ago.
Her shock broadcasted itself across the mental link. Doga stumbled and narrowly avoided being struck by a piece of a wall hurled by an Automaton. Benefactor bleated and jerked his lower jaw back and forth in fear. Natoma winced and nearly threw off her aim as she fired a crossbow.
The Automaton Lord’s gaze bored through Leha’s mind. As it had six months previously, a cold and inhuman voice entered her thoughts. I remember you. Contained in those words was a malice that froze her heart.
It raised its fist, and a burst of green-white energy leapt forth to destroy her. Leha held her arms in front of her face and screamed.
At the last moment, the magic changed course, flew up and over the wall, and met Drogin’s machine. A second bolt of energy leapt from the weapon and completed the circuit with the Automaton Lord.
Feeling a surge of hope, Leha flooded the machine with Tyzu’s power. The energy loop blazed brighter, and she felt a surge of vindictive pleasure. She braced her feet, forced her eyes to acclimatize to the glare, and waited for the inevitable explosion to come, smiling fiercely.
But it didn’t come. The magic hissed and blazed and burned, but the machine held its ground. Leha’s smile faded, and her heart beat faster. Something’s wrong.
She looked up and saw Drogin’s weapon crackle and spark. It’s not going to work. Her heart raced, and adrenaline sang through her veins. She dug her claws into the bricks of the wall and scurried up as fast as her limbs would take her. She reached for Tyzu and felt a hot rush of power envelope her. Her limbs blurred, and she moved faster than she ever had before. Everything around her – the advancing machines, the few remaining human soldiers, the clouds of dust and smoke – seemed to slow down and almost freeze. She pushed the mental link from her mind, and focused all her attention on reaching her brother.
She vaulted onto the battlement and leapt for Drogin’s tower. She tore through the air, the wind shouting at her, and landed hard against the side of the tower. She dug in with her claws and scrabbled onto the summit of the tower. Drogin’s machine burned before her, and soldiers ran and screamed as it disintegrated. A piece of semi-molten lead ejected itself from the machine and shot past her head as she dove for her brother. He didn’t seem to have noticed her; his face was frozen into a mask of disbelief. She wrapped her arms around his waist and jumped from the tower, never breaking stride.
The weapon exploded.
Its death roar reverberated in her ears, and a wave of hot air smashed into her from behind, hurling her forward. Hot gravel and ash pelted her back as she soared over the streets. The blast lit up the southwestern quarter of the city.
Burning rubble fell around Leha and her dazed brother as they plummeted downward. Leha tried to slow their descent with Sy’om’s power, but the weapon’s destruction had thrown the energy currents into disarray, and she only achieved a partial deceleration.
Leha’s feet smacked into the snow, and pain shot through her legs. She cried out and tumbled, sending Drogin flying. Her brother’s wand clanged against a nearby wall, and he smacked into the snow with a grunt.
Leha clutched her legs and held back sobs. She didn’t seem to have broken anything, but she was in a great deal of pain.
Drogin came to his feet and stumbled over to his wand. Upon retrieving it, he turned around and gaped at the direction they’d come from. The pain in her legs had subsided somewhat, and Leha looked too. Her mouth hung open.
For millennia, “wrath of the Old Gods” had been a curse reserved for only the most dire of situations. Now, she knew why. Beyond the ruined townhouse they stood in the shadow of, through the pall of dark smoke, she saw that the tower had become nothing but a smoking crater in the walls. Bits of stone and mortar rained down still, and next to that ruin, the three-pronged crown of the Automaton Lord towered over the city streets. It had breached the walls, and now it tore through roofs and walls and soldiers as if they were nothing. Its magic flared, and new fires were birthed.
Leha felt Benefactor touch the edge of her thoughts. Leha, are you well?
A flash of magic tore through another building in the direction of the Machine King. We have to get out of here, she sent. Call everyone. We have to get to Tyzu.
She sensed him duck his head. Yes. I will do it.
Leha turned her eyes to her brother. “We need to get going. The city is lost; we’ve got to get to Tyzu.”
Drogin blinked. He seemed to come back to his senses. He nodded.
Gritting her teeth, she struggled against the pain and tried to stand. Without thinking, she extended an arm, inviting Drogin’s help.
He stared at her. “Do – do you need help?”
She clenched her jaw and glared at him. “No. I’m fine on my own.”
With great effort, she came to her feet and began to hobble toward the center of the city, toward the market and Tyzu. Every step sent sharp pains shooting up her legs, but the continuing cacophony of the Automaton Lord’s assault pressed her to hurry. She funneled Tyzu’s power into her legs, pushing them to move and heal faster.
Over time, they met up with soldiers, who formed a guard around them, and together their group fled through the streets, always just ahead of the wave of destruction that was the Automatons.
Leha’s mind turned back to that day, more than six months ago, when she had flown from Three Gates. The reek of smoke, the cries of the displaced, and the roar of battle were the same as they had been on that dark day.
But something was different. This time, no one was left behind. No one faced the terror alone. The ice creatures connected everyone into groups, and those groups functioned as one. If one of their number was wounded, the others would help them. The retreat’s chaos had an order.
In her mind, Leha saw Natoma carry Eranna’s wounded form on her back. She saw a crowd of Tor citizens work together to carry Benefactor; he would be too slow on his own. She saw Doga run all-out for the market, carrying a child with an injured head.
This time, no one would be left behind.
After what felt like an eternity of stumbling on her wounded legs, Leha made it to the market along with the rest of her group. Yeldar stood in the center, barking orders to the people that milled around him. Most of the city had already made the journey to Tyzu, and those that remained were being sent off in groups of dozens. Each time a group made the trip, a bright flash would illuminate the former market.
The Automatons approached. A ring of smoke, dust, and fire seemed to be closing in on the market.
Natoma, her face artfully dusted with ash, ran forward. “Nearly everyone is through. I ordered the wizards to alternate which Lost One village they send people to so things won’t become too crowded. I sent Doga and Eranna to the Watching Eye clan village; I assume that’s where you’ll want to be.”
Leha swayed on her aching legs, panting. “Thank you,” she gasped, wishing she could offer a better reward.
Natoma gestured to the cleared area around the jumping point. “Go. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Thank you,” Leha said again. She grabbed Drogin by the arm and dragged him towards the jumping point.
She, together with her brother and several others, took their positions. Natoma saluted her with one hand. The Urannan seemed unfazed by the ruination around her.
A battle wizard stepped forward. He raised his staff, Leha took a deep breath, and there was a flash.
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!