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.
As an aside, this is one of my personal favourite chapters of the book.
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.
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?”
“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.
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!