Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Fourteen: The Changing of the Seasons

We have now come to chapter fourteen 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. EdwardsSpring has come to Barria, and there is change in the air. Leha senses great potential in the ruins beneath the mountain, and its discovery rekindles something thought lost: hope.


Chapter fourteen: The Changing of the Seasons

A crisp wind blew down from the Gormorra Range and ruffled the branches of the forest in great sighing gasps. Overheard, the stars burned without being impeded by clouds for the first time in weeks. The air smelled of snow and spruce.

The grass rustled under Leha’s feet as she ascended Yeldar’s slopes. Dim light marked the doorway within the mountain.

Once again, she had found herself unable to sleep. But this time, different feelings had haunted her. After explaining her theory to the others, she had spent most of the day organizing the study of their discovery and examining the crystal, watching it flicker and shift. Here was something far more ancient than the oldest records of humanity, far more ancient than the Machine King or the ziggurats of the Old Gods, she had thought.

When they had returned to camp, just before sundown, the thrill of discovery had remained with her, coursing through her veins and setting goosebumps on her skin, and sleep had seemed an impossible goal.

She moved into the passageway and descended into the gleaming depths. She needed to see more of it.

She reached the first chamber, and froze. Drogin stood there, a wand in one hand a notepad in the other, staring at her.

“Hello,” he finally said.

“Hello,” she said, hovering at the bottom of the stairs.

She moved into the chamber and past him, her shoulders stiff. Down here, the temperature and taste of the air seemed preternaturally neutral.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

She glanced over her shoulder at him and shrugged. “I wanted to see more of this place.”

He glanced down at his notes. “Yeah, me too,” he muttered.

She stepped to the stairs into the second chamber. “Do you want to help me look around?” she asked, peering down. “Maybe we can find more rooms.” Earlier, they had discovered two other rooms, though they hadn’t been able to decipher the purpose of either one.

He stared at her for a long moment. “No. I’ll continue what I’m doing.”

She rolled her eyes, and the claws on her toes scraped against the floor. Her mind went back to the time when the two of them had snuck into the Automatons yards as children. They had worked together to evade the security and overcome obstacles. She remembered him reaching down from the fence to pull her up. She had been too short to climb.

Then she remembered the past few months, and the way he had treated her.

Something inside her gave way.

She spun to face him. She resisted the urge to clench her fists; her claws would go through her palms. “What’s the matter with you?”

He looked at her. “What?”

She stalked towards him. “You heard me. For the last nine months, all you’ve done is ignore me and avoid me. You’ve hidden yourself wherever you can, and if I try to talk to you, you shove me away. What’s the matter with you?”

He faced her and swallowed. “Uh…”

She stepped in close and tilted her chin up. Her breath came hard.

His eyes darted about, searching for an escape. He deflated and let out a long, slow sigh. “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Or maybe I did. I don’t know.” He hung his head.

She glared at him.

He pocketed his wand. “It’s just… since you came back, you’ve been different,” he said quietly.

“Why? Because I have claws? Because my eyes don’t look the same anymore?”

He gazed into her eyes and shook his head. “No. That took some getting used to, but no. You’re different. Something changed you – I don’t know what it was. You’re not the same person who left for Sy’om.”

She swore at him, her words reverberating off the arch of the ceiling. “I’m the same person I’ve always been!” Her face and her arms felt hot. Her heart boomed.

He shook his head again. “No, you’re not,” he said, speaking louder now. “The sister I knew wouldn’t have led the charge against the Automatons.”

“I am the sister you knew!”

He continued as if she hadn’t spoken, his tone maddeningly calm. “You were a good girl, Leha, but you weren’t the Hero of Heart.”

“So you’re ignoring me because I saved us?”

He frowned at her. “No!” He looked up and searched for the right words. “Do you know what you look like when you fight?” he asked in the same level tone as before. “You’re like an animal. You don’t fight Automatons; you savage them.”

“So what? They’re trying to destroy humanity!”

He frowned again. “No, you don’t understand.” He didn’t sound so calm now. “You’re different.” His face drooped. “I just miss you.”

“I’m right here!” she shouted, biting off each word. “I’m not different! Maybe you think I am, but I’m not.”

“You are. Maybe you don’t realize it, but you are,” he said forcefully.

A growl escaped her throat. She shoved him.

Drogin stumbled backward. His head hit one of the columns with a resounding crack, and he slumped the floor. One of her claws had torn his shirt.

She gasped and covered her face with her hands. She rushed to his side. He groaned and clutched his head with one hand.

“Oh, Drogin, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to – I – I – I…”

He opened his eyes and looked at her fearfully. “I think I’m okay,” he said. He seemed to shrink, and he didn’t stand back up.

She moaned. “I didn’t mean to do it. I was just so angry and…” She ran her fingers through her hair. “I’m sorry.”

He rubbed his head and grimaced.

She didn’t want to stand still, but she couldn’t look away from him. “I don’t know. Maybe I did change. I nearly froze to death. My body was changed in ways I don’t understand.”

A hint of anger seeped back into her voice. “But I’m still me. The real Leha isn’t locked in some Lost One dungeon. Maybe I came back different, but I did come back.”

Her eyes smoldered.

He gazed up at her. She couldn’t read his expression. Her anger sputtered and died, and her hands relaxed. She went to the edge of the chamber and sat upon the top step leading down to the second level. She sighed, cupping her face with one hand.

Drogin remained where he was for a moment, and then, he took a deep breath, shook his head, and stood. He walked to where his sister sat and placed himself next to her.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

* * *

They sat in silence, together, for what felt like a long time.

“Do you really think the creator race built this place?” Drogin asked.

Leha looked at him. “I don’t know who else could have. Even if a band of Old Gods or humans came out this far and never told anyone, do you think they could have made this?” She indicated the shining, mechanical harmony around them. She spoke softly; she felt drained and battered.

Drogin glanced about. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”

Leha’s gaze became distant. “There’s something about this place. It can do something to help us. I know it.”

Drogin nodded.

After another pause, he turned to her. “Do you want to know why I came here?”

She looked at him quizzically.

“I wanted to reward myself.” A hint of a smile touched his features. They didn’t seem so haggard now. “I was going to tell you tomorrow, but I’ve made a breakthrough.”

He stood up. “Come. I’ll show you.”

She followed him, and he led her out of the mountain and into the night. The same wind still blew, cool and moist, refreshing her and chasing away her fatigue. She inhaled the smells of new grass and fresh shoots, and as if for the first time, she noticed the signs of life returning after winter, of the changing of the seasons.

Her brother led her down through the forest, lighting their way with his wand. All the times she had spent with her brother before the war flowed through Leha’s mind, and for the first time in months, they brought her no pain. She didn’t know for certain, but it felt like something between them had changed. And if she was wrong, then she would enjoy this one night, she promised herself.

They entered the camp and headed south towards Drogin’s tent. The usual melancholy hung over the dark, ragged encampment, but tonight, Leha sensed something else in the air. A sense of potential. Perhaps it was her imagination.

Drogin’s makeshift home lay just past the southern perimeter of the main camp. It had been made by stitching together two tents, bolstered by various other textiles, to create a low, two-chambered fabric structure. Worktables, bits of scrap metal, and various other signs of his work littered the surrounding woods. Since they had abandoned the cities, they’d lacked the infrastructure to construct large devices, like the feedback weapon used at Marlhem, but Drogin had continued his work on new weapons and techniques to use against the machines. Thus far, he had achieved little in his pursuits.

He brought her into the outer chamber, his workroom. He flipped on a Clan-made lantern and stepped to the wall on her right. “I started this as a hobby – I wanted to see if it could be done,” he said, rummaging behind a wooden chest. “I was inspired by the Clan lanterns. This functions the same way: a linear system channeling energy to serve a purpose.”

She nodded, pretending to understand what he’d said. Outside, an owl hooted.

He came back, carrying something long and thin. As he approached, she saw that he held a sword. He handed it to her, and she held it awkwardly in both hands. She shrunk her claws so she would be able to grip it better.

Their father had taught her something about swords, and the events of the past year had only increased her knowledge. At first glance, this sword seemed ordinary, but she discovered some minor oddities. Its hilt and handle were stouter than normal, and the edges of its blade were made of silver.

Leha ran a finger along the blade. “It isn’t sharp.”

Drogin grinned at her in the dim light. “It doesn’t need to be.” He retrieved the sword from her, pushed back the tent flap, and went outside. “Let me show you.”

He directed her to a table underneath the fragrant boughs of a pine tree. Four triangles of wood had been grafted to its surface to create a crude holder. He selected a square of scrap metal from a nearby pile and stood it within the holder.

Making sure she could see what he did, Drogin held up the sword and turned what she had thought to be a decorative knob on the pommel. Its silver edging flared to life, shining bright enough to illuminate Drogin’s face and make Leha blink for a few seconds. The blade emitted a faint hum. He raised the sword and struck downward with two clean, angled cuts. With each hit of the blade, the metal square would spark and hiss, and with the completion of the second slash, a section of the square came free and fell to the table, its edges smoldering. The sword had cut through the iron.

Leha stepped closer and gaped at what her brother had done. He turned back the knob, and the sword’s light went out. In the sudden darkness, the burnt pieces of metal glowed like glyphs of fire.

She looked to the dim shape that was her brother. “This will pierce an Automaton’s skin?”

He nodded. “The test piece is from a Tor machine’s leg. The silver will burn right through. It won’t work on lead, of course, but we can attack the seams.”

“And you don’t need to be a wizard to use it?”

She thought she saw him grin. “No. Anyone who can use a sword can use one of these.”

She glanced back at the cooling metal and returned her eyes to her brother. “Can I try it?”

“Sure.” He handed it to her with only a hint of the hesitation that had marked their interactions for so many months.

She took the hilt in both hands, stood in front of the table, settled her stance, and activated the blade. The magic turned on with a flash, and its harsh light bathed the glade. She felt its heat wash over her hands – intense, but not painful.

She raised the blade to deliver a cutting blow, but she changed her mind at the last instant, and she pushed forward with a stab. The blade glided through the test piece as if it was mere leather and not metal. Where the blade touched the metal, it sparked and crackled.

She withdrew the sword and held it before her face, being careful not to bring it too close. She admired her brother’s handiwork.

With a flick of the knob, the light died. With her powers to slow the machines and a little planning, these devices could be powerful weapons against the machines. Many competent soldiers had found themselves fighting out of their element when the Automatons had rebelled and swords had become useless – close combat weapons had been used successfully at Heart, but the Automatons had been unprepared and scattered throughout the city. They had been forced to use crossbows or javelins, or find some other way to be useful. By making close combat weapons useful again, Drogin may have given them a bevy of potential new tactics.

“Could you adapt this technology for other weapons – axes, narviks, javelins?” she asked.

“Narviks and axes, yes. Modifying ranged weapons this way would make them too heavy to be practical.”

“How quickly could you make enough to equip a force – say, a thousand people?”

He thought for a moment. “The mechanics are fairly simple, though they can be hard to install,” he said, muttering to himself. “We’d need proper facilities…” He shrugged. “It depends on how much resources and people you want to commit, and how much metal the Clan villages can supply us with.”

“Assume you get decent supplies. I’ll commit everything I can.”

“Five weeks, maybe.”

Leha felt a smile coming on. “We’ll start tomorrow.” She gave back the sword. “You might want to go to bed. Things could be busy, come morning.”

“Yeah,” he said after a pause.

She began to walk back to the camp, waving goodbye at her brother, though she wasn’t sure he could see it.

Night birds called in the distance, and the dewy grass rustled beneath her feet. There was something in the air. For what felt like the first time in years, she thought about the future without fear.

* * *

That night, for the first time in months, Leha slept long and well.

* * *

The following morning, work began on Drogin’s new weapons. Leha called in every available craftsman, technician, and wizard to help. She sent messengers north to request supplies from the Northern Clans – the handful of permanent Clan villages were now the only source, aside from scavenging, of metals and certain other essentials.

Leha, Natoma, Eranna, and Doga worked together to select a thousand men and women who would receive the new weapons. Each would have their weapon designed for their specialty: former Tor foot soldiers would be given short swords; Eastenholders would receive the double-edged long swords they preferred; Natoma, who had been among the chosen, had handed over her single-edged sword to be reforged.

A section of forest was cleared to create an area for the manufacture of the new weapons. After a week, the crude forges began to burn, and sounds of work made their way through the camp. Five weeks, Drogin had said. Leha settled in to wait.

These thousand would be the first. Time and resources permitting, there would be more.

The work brought new activity to the camp, but it changed little. The same melancholy hung over everything. The food remained scarce and crude, the rations becoming smaller with each passing day. The battles to the north had ebbed, but everyone knew that wouldn’t last. For the average person, nothing had changed.

But for Leha, things were different. Something had changed. Something was coming. She knew it. She had known it from the moment she had entered the creator race outpost. She couldn’t explain it; she couldn’t account for it. But she knew it to be true. Some of the folk in the camp speculated that the production of the new weapons was a prelude to something important. It was; Leha had simply yet to learn what it was a prelude to.

Externally, her life remained much the same. But internally, she felt hope. All day, every day, anticipation thrummed through her. She slept better, she worked on her writings with Lahune, and she waited for what she knew was coming.

Over the next few days, she spent her free time – what little she had – studying the crystal she had recovered from within the mountain. She sat and watched its pulses and swirls, its shimmers and its flickers. She felt it pulse between warm and cold, and she pondered the beings that had made it.

Drogin and the other wizards had determined it contained strong energy, but they could offer no further information as to its nature. She considered bringing it to the Watcher and asking if it knew anything of the crystal’s nature, but she doubted it would be of any help, and the hardship of the journey did not seem worthwhile.

Sometimes, Benefactor examined it with her. It fascinated him, and the sessions helped to bring some measure of life back to him.

One day, while enjoying a rare period of peace in her room, Leha took up the crystal, lay back on her bed, and began to study it, as she had many times before.

She lost all track of time, staring into its nebulous depths. She stopped hearing the rain tap against her window; she stopped feeling the dampness in the air; she stopped feeling her bed sheets beneath her. The crystal occupied all her attention.

It began to glow brighter.

She started and nearly dropped the crystal. After a moment spent calming herself, she reexamined it, and discovered that it had returned to normal. She furrowed her brow and wondered if she had imagined it.

She brought the crystal up to her eyes again and focused on it once more, pouring all her attention onto it. After a minute, it brightened again. Leha slackened her concentration, and it dimmed. She repeated the process.

Someone banged on her door.

“Who is it?” she called absently.

“Leha, it’s me. Open up.” Drogin.

Reluctantly, she lowered the crystal to her side and sat up. “It’s not locked.”

Drogin pushed open the door and stomped in, water dripping from his hair and clothing – rain seemed far more common in this part of the world than in Eastenhold or Tor Som. “What are you doing in here?” he demanded.

She frowned. “I’ve been looking at the crystal.” She held it up. “I think I just made a discovery.”

Drogin interrupted her. “Whatever it is you’re doing, you need to stop.”

Her frown deepened. “Why?”

“I can sense it. The other wizards can too. If we can feel it, there’s a good chance the machines can too.”

Her irritation drained away along with the blood in her face. “I – I – ” She sighed. “I’m sorry; I wasn’t thinking.” She put the crystal on her windowsill and backed away from it cautiously, returning to her bed.

Drogin’s expression softened. “That’s all right. It was very faint. I doubt anyone outside of the camp could have sensed it.” He hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward. “What did you learn?”

Leha toyed with her sheets and shrugged. “Not much, really.” She glanced at the crystal. “If I concentrate on it strongly, it starts to glow brighter. That’s it.”

Drogin made a perplexed noise.

He moved for the door. “I should get back to the forges.”

She nodded.

Halfway through the door, he turned back. “Sorry.”

She gave a half smile. “So am I.” Her lips turned into a full smile. “Get back to work.”

He smiled back, and left.

Leha lay back and inspected the ceiling. She sighed and looked back on the crystal. The lights within it flickered and danced, taunting her. She resisted the urge to try to learn more from it, looking away. She did not know what would happen if the machines detected the energy of their creators, and she didn’t want to find out.

Despite her efforts to stop them, her eyes flicked back to the windowsill. There were things to be learned from that crystal, she thought. She wished she knew how to uncover them. As irrational as she knew it was, she still felt that the power of the crystal would prove valuable. The feeling of importance she had felt under the mountain had never really faded away.

She forced her eyes away from the crystal.

* * *

Mainly, Breena remembered the cold.

She had been raised on the bitter tundra of the Northern Clans. Her people said that the winter was in their blood, but even her limits had been tested after the battle in the Mannall Range.

After the handful of survivors had taken to the peaks, the machines had been unable to pursue, but the environment had brought dangers of its own. The weather had been their constant enemy. Each night, they had huddled around to take advantage of what little heat their fires and magic provided, hoping the cold would not take their digits or their lives as they slept. Once, they had been caught in a blizzard. They had cobbled together a few crude shelters in a thick copse of trees beneath a cliff and done their best to shield themselves as the blowing snow had blinded their eyes and torn at their skin.

After six days in the wilderness, and the loss of more people to the wilds, they had reached the edge of the barrier machine’s influence and been able to jump to Tyzu and, from there, to the Gormorra Range.

The lone ice creature that had survived the battle had kept in touch with the other leaders, and the group under Eranna and Doga had known of the horrors visited upon the other worlds, but the stories had not prepared Breena for what she had seen from the Watching Eye village. The settlement itself had been spared, but the jungle around it had been ruined. Wide sections of it had been flattened completely, and the rest had been little more than smoldering trunks and a few still-living plants dying from the ash that coated them. The air had reeked of smoke and death, and the sky had been an unnatural black.

For days beforehand, Doga had worried about the fate of his home. Before arriving at Kerhem, Breena had never seen a Lost One, and what little experience of them she had gained since then had led her to the conclusion that they were a people of great stoicism and emotional strength. But when the news of Elder Sheen’s death had reached them, she had thought he would weep.

When he had returned to his village, he had.

Once Doga had composed himself, they had gathered around him upon the platform. A debate – carried out in mind-bogglingly fast bursts of the Lost One language – had ensued. One old man had taken pity on Breena and translated for her.

The clan had asked Doga to become the new elder, and he had refused.

“I am only thirty-five,” he’d said. “I am not yet worthy of the title.”

The others had argued that he had proven himself a capable leader in the war against the Automatons. Doga had said that his duties on Barria would prevent him from giving his full attention to the clan. Eventually, the others had acquiesced, and they had chosen an aged warrior named Kotl as the new elder.

Soon afterward, Breena, Doga, Eranna, and the other survivors had returned to Barria, but Breena had not stayed there long.

A few months ago, Breena had known nothing but the life of a Clanswoman wizard. Her existence had centered on simple tasks like keeping the halls floating. She had known little but reindeer, snow, and cold.

Then the Tor emperor had come, and she had been chosen to make the journey south. Within her first few weeks in Tor Som, she had seen and experienced countless things that she never had before. She had traveled through the evergreens separating the lands of the Tors and the Clanspeople and the dense forests around Retgard, wildernesses vastly different from the frozen plains she had called home. She had seen cities, things that had seemed mythical and unimaginable to a girl raised among the Clans. She had walked the boulevards of Retgard and seen the spires of Kerhem. She had been exposed to the alien magics practiced by the southern peoples. She had seen strange tools, weapons, and clothes. She had heard new languages and new philosophies.

Not long after, she had done battle with the Automatons, the Old Gods of legend, and seen and experienced yet more things she had hardly imagined – dark, frightening things. She had visited the mythical world of Tyzu, walked in energy so high she had almost flown off the ground with each step, eaten the alien foods of the Lost Ones, and caught a glimpse of the wonders the jungles had held before the machines had burned them.

After all that, a mere trek eastward, even one into lands never before seen by humans, hadn’t held much appeal for her.

On top of that, after the events in the Mannall Range, she had seen enough of mountains to last her a lifetime.

Since the battle in the mountains, she had found her thoughts drifting to the power of the machines – and their ability to create the barrier in particular. To be able to affect the fundamental functions of the world in such a way was a feat of a magical engineering beyond anything she had ever thought possible. Many nights, she had lain awake, thinking about how such a thing could be possible, and how it could be defeated. She had listened to stories of Leha’s early attempts to breach it and learned everything she could about the barrier machines themselves. Nothing was perfect; every spell had a weakness. She had wondered if she could find the barrier’s.

When she had sought a way to avoid the journey east, the barrier had given her the answer. She had gone to Brodar and asked to be allowed to study it fulltime, and he had been convinced of the mission’s value. The next day, she had traveled to Tyzu.

Other wizards had already done research on the barrier from Barria, and she had performed some of her own investigations after the battle, but it had been little studied from the outside, and Leha and Elder Sheen had already succeeded in breaching it from the Tyzuan side.

She had taken up residence in the village of the Tall Tree clan, a place relatively unharmed by the Automaton attacks. And there she had remained for three months, extending her mind and senses to study the barrier created by the Old Gods all those millennia ago.

Each day, after breakfast, she would sit in the hut they had given her – it belonged to a warrior currently fighting to defend her homeland – kneel upon the floor – holding her staff in one hand and a piece of quartz wrapped in silver twine, a tool of her own invention that helped her extend her mind, in the other – and slip into the trance-like state that allowed her to study the barrier, often remaining there until someone came to remind her of lunch. Most afternoons, she did the same until dinner.

She didn’t know the current time. She had eaten lunch, but beyond that, she had no idea. Time was difficult to measure in this state of contemplation. Her mind drifted through the currents of magic that flowed over Barria, currents that had become as familiar to her as her own skin. In the directions she knew to be north and east, the currents flowed naturally, running over the landscape in rivers and streams, emptying from certain areas and pooling in others to create jumping points. But in the south and west, the barrier wiped the slate clean, creating a vast area of artificial uniformity.

She tapped and prodded at the barrier with her magic, but after three months, there were few things she had yet to try. The barrier repelled most of her probes, and those bursts of magic that did make it through were quickly dispersed by the ministrations of the barrier machines. She knew from Leha’s experience that she could punch through if she used enough force, but she had no way of knowing what she would find on the other side. Even if she did, no one she sent through would have any way of coming back.

She sighed and watched the machines wash away another spell.

An idea popped into her head, and her back straightened. She launched another spell. This time, the moment the machines began to wash it away, she gripped her crystal and focused on pouring all of her consciousness into the subtle barrier currents revealed to her by the spell’s death. She pressed her mind into it, frowning with exertion, and broke into the barrier itself.

She could see.

Far below her, a landscape of former farmland dotted by grassy fields and copses of trees spread out in all directions. To her right, she saw the burnt ruins of a town or city. To her left, she saw what appeared to be one of the Spurs of the Gormorra Range. She didn’t recognize the area, but the mountains appeared unfamiliar, so it was most likely the Southern Spur. That put her in southern Karkar or northern Uranna. Her mind felt constricted, as if she had placed it in a tight box.

She experimented with moving. It felt like trying to swim in a river of honey, but she found she could move forward, backward, or side-to-side. She couldn’t move her perspective much higher or lower, but if she focused on the ground, it became more distinct.

She pushed her way through the currents, heading right, the direction she believed to be west. She looked over the ruins of the town, finding no signs of life, and continued past a river and onto a large plain of what had once been grain farms. The land seemed empty and lonely without the people that had once tended it.

Ahead, she spotted two Wizard-Automatons making their way down an abandoned road. She approached cautiously, but they didn’t appear to be able to detect her presence. She hovered above them for a time, observing. She couldn’t guess their purpose. She wondered if they might be searching for human survivors.

She withdrew herself from the barrier. The feeling of pressure on her mind eased, and she felt herself relax. Blinking, she opened her eyes and set down her crystal. The silver wiring had left indents in her palm. She took a deep breath and wiped sweat from her brow – she doubted she would ever grow accustomed to the Tyzuan heat. She felt drained, and her stomach growled with hunger.

She laid her staff on the floor and took a moment to consider the implications of her discovery. This was something far superior to normal scrying. Those spells lost efficacy after a few thousand feet. This had a theoretically unlimited range. With this, they could spy on the heart of the Automaton’s realm.

She stood stiffly. She planned to find some food, and then she would make the journey to Barria to report her findings.

* * *

Leha made her way through the heat and the stinging smoke of the forges, passing technicians and laborers hammering at steel and pouring liquid metal into molds. She adapted her lungs to cope with the fumes, but it wasn’t entirely effective.

She found Drogin near the center of the manufactory. He was bent over a crude worktable, welding small pieces of metal with his wand. Sweat stained his shirt, and he wore goggles to protect his eyes.

She touched him on the shoulder, and he jumped.

He spun around and tore off his goggles. When he saw her, he relaxed. “Oh, it’s you.” He pulled in several deep breaths. “You startled me.”

“Sorry,” she said sheepishly. She held out a plump skin. “I thought you might like some water.”

“Thanks.” He grabbed it from her.

As he did so, his fingers brushed her claws. He did not flinch, she noticed with a slight smile.

Drogin took a long, deep draught from the skin, and then he splashed water over his face. He gasped in relief.

“I chilled it in the river,” she explained, speaking loudly to be heard over the ring of a nearby hammer.

“Thanks,” he said again.

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I would have brought you some food, but our supplies can’t really support snacks.”

He nodded.

They stood in awkward silence for a moment. Some of the surrounding laborers peered at them curiously.

Leha felt a familiar presence touch her mind, and her eyes lost focus.

Leha, Benefactor said, his mental voice still seeming dead.

Wordlessly, she asked him why he had contacted her.

Drogin leaned forward. “What is it?”

She held up a hand to her brother.

A Clan wizard has arrived from Tyzu. She wishes to speak with you, Benefactor said, sending an image of a red-haired woman sitting on a cushion in the meeting chamber of the Clan hall at the center of camp.

Leha thanked him, and his presence receded. She looked to her brother. “It’s nothing serious, but I need to go.”

He nodded. “Goodbye,” he said after a pause, sounding as if the words were alien to him.

She waved to him and strode out of the forges, glad to be gone from the heat and the fumes.

She crossed the camp and climbed into the hall, arriving at the tapestry-covered meeting chamber at the rear. The Clan wizard stood, putting down the mug of water she had been drinking, and greeted Leha respectfully, speaking accented Tor. She introduced herself as Breena. The woman was average height by the standards of the Clans, but that still made her extremely tall from the perspective of an Eastenholder. Her vivid red hair was gathered into a ponytail, and a handful of freckles dusted her cheeks. She looked to be in her late twenties. She wore a maroon woolen tunic whose sleeves appeared to have been cut off, and her staff lay on the floor nearby.

Leha returned her greetings and sat upon a cushion opposite the wizard’s. At Leha’s gesture, Breena regained her seat.

“What is it you wish to discuss?” Leha said.

Breena straightened her back. “I have spent the last three months on Tyzu, studying the barrier.” Leha detected a note of tension in her voice. Even among the Clans, the Hero of Heart carried a powerful reputation.

Leha nodded. She vaguely remembered hearing about the research mission. She signaled for Breena to continue.

“I’ve discovered a way to implant my consciousness within the barrier. It allows me to observe any place protected by it.

“As far as I can tell, the machines are completely unaware of my presence while I watch them.”

Leha blinked. Her mind churned to life, shuffling through the strategical possibilities that provided. “Anywhere under the barrier? And the Automatons can’t detect you?”

Breena nodded once, a smile spreading across her face.

“Can any wizard do this?”

Breena nodded again. “I see no reason why they couldn’t.”

Leha thought over the possibilities for another moment. Then, she reached out and clapped Breena on the shoulder. “Well done.” She leaned back. “If you like, I can see that you get extra rations for a few days.”

Breena mumbled her thanks.

Leha stood and began to pace.

“Would you like me to leave?” Breena asked.

“No, stay, please,” Leha said, thinking.

She reached out with her mind and sought Benefactor. I need you to summon the other leaders, she told him.

He sent her an acknowledgement.

Leha continued to pace in silence for a moment. Then, she glanced at Breena. “I have an idea.”


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