We’ve now reached chapter fifteen 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.
Chapter fifteen: The Council of War
The other leaders arrived, one by one: Drogin, Doga, Eranna, Natoma, Yarnig, and, representing the Northern Clans, Brodar and Fargra, a stout woman with a long red braid and the title of chieftain of the Yaja clan. Breena explained her discovery and then took her place on a cushion near the other Clanspeople.
Leha stepped into the center of the room. She looked over the people around the room. Some sat, and some stood, but all had their eyes on her. She took a breath, inhaling the scents of wood and hide that dominated the chamber, and calmed herself. She knew her plan was sound.
“We’re going to attack a ziggurat,” she announced.
Doga, Eranna, and Drogin seemed to think they hadn’t heard her properly; Natoma raised her eyebrows; through the connection with his mind, she sensed Benefactor’s jaw loll open; Yarnig gaped.
“A ziggurat? Are you serious?” Fargra said from near the door to the hall’s main passageway, speaking Tor. Benefactor would translate for any who didn’t understand all the languages spoken within the meeting.
“I thought you said we couldn’t hold static positions!” Yarnig said, sitting on a cushion to Leha’s left. He used Eastenholder.
Drogin fixed her with a concerned stare. He crouched to her right, his forehead still shining with sweat.
Leha raised her hands in a placating gesture. The warm afternoon sun glinted off her claws and her hair. “Hear me out.” She turned to Yarnig. “You’re right; we can’t hold it. But we can destroy it. We can rob the machines of one of their main bases of support.”
She again swept the room with her gaze, hoping she appeared strong and confident. “This technique of Breena’s is the key. She can spy out a good target, find its weak points, and show us exactly where to jump our forces in. If we go from Tyzu or Sy’om, the barrier won’t protect them. We’ll be able to cripple their defenses before they know we’re there.”
Eranna shook her head sadly. “We can’t do it. Our resources are too thin. We can barely hold the northern front.” She and Doga stood between Yarnig and the Clanspeople.
They both seemed worn and haggard. After their arrival, when Leha had greeted Doga, he had confided to her that, in addition to the other hardships on the northern front, it had proven difficult for certain elements of the Tors and the Clanspeople to work together. Their violent history had not been forgotten.
Leha fixed her eyes upon the Tor woman. “That’s exactly why we have to do this. With each passing day, the machines get stronger, and we get weaker. If we strike at their base of support, we might throw them off kilter and gain a respite.”
She stepped forward. “Things are not as hopeless as they seem. We have strengths now that we didn’t before. Drogin’s new weapons give us tactical options the Automatons don’t know about. Breena’s spell will allow us to plan our attack in detail. The ice creature wizards are becoming better trained every day.
“We can’t stay on the defensive forever. We have to take the fight to the machines, and we have to do it in a way they won’t expect.” She swallowed. She had confidence in the plan, but under the eyes of so many, its flaws, and hers, seemed to swell.
I agree, Benefactor said, sending images of violence against Automatons along with the message.
Eranna considered. “No, I don’t think it’s enough.” She sighed.
She and Doga glanced at each other, and some silent communication seemed pass between them. Doga nodded slightly, frowning regretfully.
Eranna’s eyes met Leha’s. “But it might be, if we had more fighters like you.”
Leha felt a chill in her chest.
Doga stepped forward, placed a hand on Eranna’s shoulder, and nodded once. “Yes. We can no longer rely on you alone. We require more with your powers, or I fear the enemy will claim us. You say you do not understand it, that it is too risky, but I – but we – believe the risk is necessary.”
Leha’s shoulders slumped. “No,” she said. “There will never be another like me.” She turned away and took a shuffling step back.
“I am sure we could find soldiers willing to risk the transformation,” Eranna said.
“There’s little risk to the transformation,” Leha said, turning back. “The Watcher told me that.”
Only Benefactor seemed unsurprised by her revelation.
She didn’t pause. “The risk is in allowing people to wield this level of power.”
The others did not seem to understand.
“Think back to the end of the Liberation,” she said, her voice rising. “Humanity was a united race living in peace. It took less than a thousand years for that to fall apart.”
She took a deep breath. “We forgot our Gods, our creators, our enslavers. We forgot who they were, we forgot their nature, and then we resurrected them. We enhanced them and refined them until they had the power to destroy us, and then in one sweep, they crushed everything that we had created in the past seven millennia.” She felt her blood run hot and fast. “And now we face extinction. And if it comes, we will not have the Old Gods to blame. No, it will be because of our own arrogance, our own recklessness, our own greed and hate. We will have earned our fate.”
She made herself as tall as her meager stature would permit. “So no, I will not see another like me created. Not now. Perhaps not ever.”
A heavy silence hung over the chamber as her words ceased to ring off the walls.
Drogin stared at her with wide eyes. Eranna shifted her weight from foot to foot. To Leha’s right, Natoma leaned against the wall as she had from the beginning, her face expressionless.
Yarnig’s youthful voice broke the silence. “For what it’s worth, I agree with you, Leha,” he said.
She glanced at him and offered a hint of a smile.
The Clanspeople conferred in hushed Clanstongue. Because they weren’t addressing the main gathering, Benefactor did not translate their words. “We agree as well,” Brodar said.
“Leha…” Drogin said.
She swiveled her head to look upon her brother.
He searched for the right words. “We need you. Your abilities are essential.” He seemed to be trying very hard to not sound combative. “If there were others like you, we’d have an edge on the machines. We can’t afford to ignore a possible advantage.”
“What if something were to befall you?” Eranna added.
Leha focused on her brother, ignoring Eranna. She sighed. “I know. But I can’t do it, Drogin. You have to understand that. Please.” She spoke softly, her face beseeching.
Drogin paused for what felt like a very long time. “Okay,” he said, speaking equally softly. “I understand.”
She favored him with a brief smile.
She sensed Benefactor consider. I… agree, Leha, he said.
Leha returned her attention to Doga and Eranna. They hesitated, fidgeting, and shared another long glance. “We seem to be in the minority,” Eranna said quietly. Leha took it as a sign of submission.
Natoma nodded once.
Leha emptied her lungs in a long, slow sigh of relief.
“So we’re back to the ziggurat,” Brodar said, crossing his arms.
“Yes,” Leha said.
“I think we can do it,” Breena said. “We have new advantages, and if we do not take the offensive now, when will we?”
Yarnig shrugged. “I am not knowledgeable in the ways of war. My opinion matters little.”
Natoma stared at the ceiling as if it might yield the answer. “We are running out of food. More people die in every battle. Why not take a chance?”
Leha nodded. “Exactly.”
We should bring death to the machines, Benefactor’s mental voice snarled.
Brodar and Fargra conversed in a few brief bursts of Clanstongue. Fargra took a breath and addressed Leha. “You make a convincing case. We are willing to go along with your plan, if only to take some of the pressure off the north.” She sounded less than enthusiastic.
Leha turned to Eranna and Doga, meeting the Lost One’s eyes.
Doga dropped his eyes. “The fighters of the Liberation did not free our race without taking risks.”
Leha looked around the room. “Are we agreed? We will attack a ziggurat?”
Natoma, Yarnig, Doga, and the Clanspeople agreed. Benefactor ducked his head. Drogin and Eranna offered no argument.
Leha’s shoulders relaxed. “Now, how many can we field for the attack?”
Eranna pursed her lips. “It depends on how many we wish to leave to defend the north. It’s a long frontier to cover. We’d probably need a minimum of twenty thousand to keep it safe.
“Fifteen thousand at best.”
“I doubt they’ll be expecting our attack,” Leha said. “Their defenses shouldn’t be too strong. That should be enough.” She turned to Drogin. “Expand the production of the new weapons. I’d like to see at least two or three thousand equipped with them when we launch the assault, and I want them ready within the next three months, if it’s possible.”
Drogin leaned his head back, thinking, then brought it back to view his sister. “It’ll be hard. We won’t be able to keep making them custom for every soldier.”
“Do what you have to,” she told him. “Maybe some of the permanent Clan villages can help,” she added, her eyes darting to Fargra.
The Clanswoman shrugged.
Leha went on to instruct Breena to search out a suitable ziggurat and to train other wizards in her technique so as to speed the process. The assembled leaders discussed a few other matters relating to the planned attack and their ongoing defense against the machines, before dispersing.
As they returned to their standard duties, Leha sought out Eranna in the Clan hall’s passageway.
“I want you to know that I understand how you feel. About creating others like me,” Leha said, looking up at the much taller woman.
Eranna nodded grimly. “Thank you.” Her eyes grew distant. “I cannot blame you for your feelings. I was at Three Gates, too. I can understand why you wouldn’t trust people with this level of power.”
Leha offered a clawed hand, and Eranna shook it. Afterward, Eranna turned away and departed down the passageway.
* * *
As soon as the meeting had closed, Leha had sent out their orders, and preparations for the assault on the ziggurat had begun. Every available hand went into service, either as a fighter or a laborer preparing weapons and supplies.
Day and night, the human camps beyond the Gormorra Range and north of what had been Tor Som marched to the beat of hammers and drilling feet. Salvagers and Clan miners worked themselves to exhaustion, extracting metal to use in weapons and armor.
Smoke from the forges hung eternally over the southern end of the eastern camp, and sections of the ancient forest were cut down to fuel the flames. None of Drogin’s new weapons went to the northern front; Leha wanted the element of surprise to be on their side when they struck at the ziggurat. Leha went over possible attack plans with Natoma, though for the first few weeks, they were largely theoretical.
Breena and her growing cadre of wizards turned spies spent their days combing the lands that had once belonged to humanity. They came to the conclusion that most of the Automaton’s empire was based in southeastern Pira and northwestern Uranna, around the Gulf of Jansia – the lands that had been the center of their power prior to the Liberation. They maintained a military force in Tor Som, and they occasionally patrolled or moved through Karkar, but Eastenhold had been abandoned.
Though most of the ziggurats were still under construction, the wizards reported that the machines had made incredibly rapid progress. By the second month of preparations, they had discovered five of the machine cities.
Not being magically talented, Leha couldn’t view the ziggurats – she had attempted linking with a wizard’s mind, via Benefactor, while they used the observation spell, but something about it disrupted the ice creature’s telepathy – but she asked Erik to describe them for her – her books had not provided much detail about the ancient ziggurats.
“They’re not as big as you’d think,” he said. “I mean, they’re enormous, the size of any human city, but each one must only be able to house a hundred or so machines, not counting smaller support Automatons. And I don’t think any of them are full.”
When she pressed for more details, he said, “There aren’t really any buildings. It’s all flat surfaces and big open areas. Some places are roofed, but nothing’s fully enclosed as far as I can tell.”
He leaned back, and his eyes unfocused. “The land around them has been ruined. They‘re clearing all the trees, and their machinery is putting out a lot of smoke and waste. There isn’t even much grass left, in some places.”
“What are they built of?” she asked. He gave a confusing description of something that was like stone or earth but not either one.
She asked a few more questions, but his answers tended to be vague and unsatisfactory. Over the next few weeks, she questioned other wizards and gained a few more details, but she decided that, to get the full effect, she would have to see them with her own eyes.
In the course of their investigations, Breena and her colleagues also discovered that the machines had began a campaign of grinding former human settlements into dust as they had done at Marlhem. The Automatons had already reduced dozens of cities and towns to nothing but flat fields of ash. It seemed that they wished to eliminate all signs of humanity from the world.
Leha and a number of others, mostly wizards, continued to investigate the ruins of the creator race outpost, but they gleaned little new information from it. Most of its contents and functions were completely beyond their understanding. Leha still felt that it had some key part to play before the end, though she knew not what. Many nights, she would descend to the still-aired depths, sometimes with Drogin, and attempt to glean something from the strange symbols and incomprehensible mechanisms that dotted the rooms under the mountain.
The Automaton assaults on the north persisted. Each time the ice creatures transmitted the warnings, Leha would put on her armor and join the fray. The humans fought off every strike, but the machines wore them down further with every battle and skirmish.
On occasion, they launched more of their overload weapons against Sy’om or Tyzu, but without the element of surprise, the level of damage they could do was not great.
No one saw any sign of the Automaton Lord, but Leha thought that its efforts on the frontlines would probably be unnecessary if things continued as they had. Soon, the humans would run out of food and starve.
Spring progressed into summer, and the weather grew hotter. Here, beyond the Gormorra Range, where cool breezes blew down from the mountains, it never got as hot as it had in Eastenhold during the summer. Still, for Leha and the other Eastenholders, the warmth brought back unhappy memories of the times a year past, when the Tors had brought their army to bear against them, and city after city had fallen. Sometimes, hot, smoky gusts would blow up from the direction of the forges, and the memories would become more vivid, tightening the muscles in Leha’s throat and shoulders.
Now, the Eastenholders and the Tors were united in a common cause. When she thought about it, Leha realized how bizarre it was. In the back of her mind, she still did not know how to feel toward her former enemies. She had found it in her heart to forgive those like Eranna, those who had felt misgivings at the time or who had been simply following orders.
But others had chosen, without reservation, to bring suffering to her nation; some had even enjoyed it. Most of the latter had refused to join Leha’s army, but there were many who had walked the gray area between doubting their mission of destruction and willfully embracing it.
Leha had never decided how she felt about them. Like most other Tors and Eastenholders, she had accepted her former enemies as necessary allies, having come to understand them through the mental link of the ice creatures, being glad that they were at least human, and not machine.
She had not thought about things so deeply in many months, but the turning of the seasons had sent her mind to places it had not been since before Marlhem. She could come to no better conclusions now than she had before. From what she had learned during the telepathic links, most of the people who had destroyed her home were no different from anyone else. But that, in and of itself, was disturbing.
She would welcome autumn when it came.
* * *
In a little clearing just outside the camp, surrounded by fragrant evergreens and standing on moist grass, Yarnig swung his sword at imaginary enemies, grunting and sweating with exertion. The attacks, blocks, and feints he practiced would be of little use against an Automaton, Natoma had told him, but she said they would help him build up his strength and reflexes. All that mattered to him now was that they gave him something to do.
He swung his blade, slicing the tops off several blades of tall grass. His artist’s eyes took note of the way the light glinted off his sword, the way the drops of dew sparkled like stars before falling to the earth.
He sighed, taking a brief pause before beginning his next exercises. He took a moment to examine his blade the way that Natoma had shown him, running his fingers over the edge, looking for nicks or chips. Lately, Natoma’s time had been occupied with the preparations for the attack, and she had not had time to give him lessons. He’d continued to practice on his own, and he had also begun to drill with the Clanspeople in some of their techniques, but somehow, things didn’t feel the same without Natoma.
When he had been training with her, it had given him respite from the pointlessness of his life, but now those helpless feelings had returned. He spent most of his time plagued by boredom, cursing his own impotence. He regretted his failure to save Marlhem, and he regretted that he had no skills to offer his people.
Part of him wondered if his time with Natoma seemed better simply because of the natural pleasure of spending time with a beautiful woman – he admitted that likely played a part – but he didn’t think that accounted for all of the emptiness he felt. He hadn’t felt any more useful when she had been teaching him, but his lack of value hadn’t bothered him so much during his time with her.
He shook his head to clear it and returned to his drills. He cut the air in savage strikes, taking his frustrations out on his invisible targets. He gave himself to shouts and battle cries, engaging in a display of savagery that would have shocked his fellow nobles and royals had they still been alive. His cries echoed through the trees, but no one in the camp heard them. He was too far.
When he had exhausted himself, he sank to his knees, gasping for breath. Sweat ran down his face. The moist earth soaked and stained his once-fine burgundy pants, but he didn’t notice.
He would be joining the attack on the ziggurat. He had asked Natoma to allow it, and she had reluctantly agreed. He would serve in her squad; Natoma had given him some lessons on strategy and tactics, but no one pretended he was ready to command. He would be a soldier, a fighter for humanity.
Taldin wouldn’t have approved, but he was in the north. His knowledge and experience could do more good there than here. There were more important things to protect than a figurehead emperor.
Yarnig had seen the horrors of war, but when the time to strike came, he would welcome it. He would welcome the chance to take action, something he hadn’t done since he had journeyed north and contacted the Marg clan.
He sheathed his sword. Soon, he would give it over to Drogin to be reforged. He hauled himself to his feet and headed back toward camp. For now, the waiting continued.
* * *
Magic flickered across the field, crackling and blazing and shimmering. Leha watched as two sides, one of ice creatures and the other of humans, struck at each other with spells and summoned shields to protect themselves from the other’s attacks. It was a training drill. The intention was to improve the wizards’ combat skills, especially the ice creatures. A third, larger group of wizards, all more powerful and experienced, watched over it, using their abilities to block or negate any spell with the risk of actually harming one of the trainees.
Bright, warm light washed over the field, and Leha rolled up her sleeves to stay cool. This place had been forest a few weeks ago, but it had been cleared to fuel the forges. Stray flashes of magic burned what little plant life had been left behind. It reminded Leha of the stories she had heard about the lands claimed by the machines, but she comforted herself with the knowledge that what they had taken wasn’t a fraction of the vast forests that remained.
She heard someone come up behind her. She turned, and saw her brother. He greeted her.
She acknowledged his greeting, giving a quick smile. “Shouldn’t you be overseeing the weapons production?”
“I found someone to take over for the afternoon. There’s a project I’ve been working on – I finished it last night. I’d like you to see it.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “What’s the project?” she asked.
He smiled enigmatically. “Let me show you.”
Leha raised the other eyebrow and followed Drogin back to the main camp. He led her through the shabby tents and crude shelters, and they arrived at his home at the southern edge. It was near the forges, and the air smelled of smoke and hot metal. She heard the shouts of workers.
He took her into the workroom and retrieved a small, cloth-wrapped bundle from a table to her left. “I’ve been working on this for a few weeks now. Nights, mornings, whenever I had time.” He held it out to her.
“What is it?” she asked.
“A gift,” he said, smiling again.
After a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed the bundle. It felt heavy. She took it over to his worktable and unwrapped the cloth, revealing what appeared to be a thick piece of armor designed to cover a person’s forearm. One side was bisected into two hinged plates that looked to be able to latch together but were currently apart. The metal was smooth and shiny.
Leha stared at her brother, puzzled.
“It’s a weapon,” he explained. “Let me show you.”
He picked up the device and placed it upon her right forearm, fastening the plates to cover the inner side of the arm. It had a snug fit, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.
He guided her attention to the outer face, where a small dial was recessed into the metal. “It works the same way as the new swords, but I know you fight with your hands, so I made you a weapon that wouldn’t impede your climbing or be difficult for you to hold because of your claws,” he said. “Try turning the dial halfway, but be careful your hand is straight when you do it.”
She did as he instructed, delicately turning the dial with her claws, and a thin blade shot from a small hole in the forward edge of the outer plate. It rang like a tuning fork. She considered the blade. It had a double edge of silver, and it was about the length of her forearm.
“Now, try turning it the rest of the way,” he said, still grinning.
She flipped the dial to the other end of its housing, and the silver edges of the blade flashed to life, bringing light to the dim tent and humming faintly. She gave it a few experimental swings, being careful not to hit Drogin or anything else in the tent.
She held the blade up to her face, admiring its glow and the way it reflected off the plating on her forearm. “You made this all by yourself?”
He shrugged. “A blacksmith helped make some of the larger pieces.”
She smiled. “It’s beautiful.” Her smile shifted towards a frown. “But if I’m climbing on an Automaton, I won’t be able to work the dial.”
Drogin’s expression didn’t change. “You won’t have to.” He pulled his wand from his belt and flicked it. The dial swung back to its original position, and before Leha had a chance to register that the magic had deactivated, the blade retreated into its slot.
Drogin returned his wand to his belt. “Our minds will be linked during the battle, and I’ll be able to sense what you need as soon as you think it. I can do the spell from a distance – it’s very simple.”
She looked over the device for a few more seconds, feeling warmth spread through her chest.
She opened her arms and embraced her brother. “Thank you.”
They released each other and stood in silence for a moment.
“I’d ask if you wanted to have lunch with me, but I’ve already eaten,” Leha said apologetically.
Drogin nodded. “Would… would you like to take a walk in the forest, maybe?”
Leha thought. There were other things that she should be doing. But none of them needed to be done immediately. She smiled. “Sure.” She raised her right arm. “Just let me stow this in my room at the hall.” She turned to leave. “Meet me at the eastern edge of the camp in a few minutes.”
Drogin waved his goodbye, and she left for the hall, admiring her brother’s handiwork. In the bright sunlight, its polished surface shone like crystal.
* * *
In the middle of the fifth week of preparations, they chose their target. The wizards told Leha that the ziggurat was the largest and most complete of the Automaton cities. It had been built in Uranna, in the lower part of Nettoh, the province Natoma had been tasked with defending. Leha consulted with Natoma and gave it the name Tallatzan Ziggurat; in Urannan, tallatzan meant target.
Using a rare and precious piece of blank paper, Breena sketched Tallatzan’s layout for Leha and the other leaders. The Clanswoman described it as a series of raised platforms built of an unidentifiable, stone-like substance and connected to the ground and each other by a series of ramps.
The ziggurat was centered on a platform that stood twice as high as the others. The machines seemed to use it as a meeting area and a mezzanine. It was empty, save for a tall watchtower crewed by a Wizard-Automaton. The wizards believed a barrier machine had been sealed inside the tower, judging by the local magical currents.
Three other platforms branched out from it to the south, west, and east. Breena described the southern platform as a factory, where they constructed new Automatons, and the eastern one as kind of maintenance area, where smaller machines performed the chores necessary to keep an Automaton running. The western platform had not yet been completed.
After a few minutes of deliberation, they decided that Natoma would lead the forces jumping onto the eastern platform, Leha would command the force taking the center, and Elder Dentu of the Water’s Edge clan would lead the squads on the southern platform. Doga and Eranna would stay on the northern front and keep watch against any counterattacks. Drogin would go with Dentu, and Benefactor, despite his desire for vengeance, would remain at the eastern camp.
It took another five weeks for them to finish their preparations. Five weeks of toil and planning. Five weeks of worry and anticipation. Five weeks of lessening rations and continuing battles with the Automatons.
The day of the attack dawned, hot and clear, the late summer sun rising over the forests to the east and setting fire to the peaks of the Gormorra Range. The forges sat empty, and an eerie quiet pervaded the camp. People said little that they did not need to say as they scurried to their places. The thousands of fighters assembled in the deforested fields around the camp and marched to the jumping points, going to Sy’om and Tyzu, where the attack would be launched from.
In addition to the divisions between the three main forces, each force was divided into dozens of small squads, each with their own objective and location of arrival in the ziggurat. Leha’s squad consisted of fifty soldiers, mostly Tor and Eastenholder; a trio of Clan wizards; and an ice creature charged with maintaining the mental link. They jumped to an ash-coated glacier upon Sy’om and stood in the cold, waiting for Leha to give the order for the attack. She closed her eyes, feeling oddly calm, and waited for Dentu, Natoma, and the leaders of the squads under her command to signal their readiness via the mental link.
When they did, she opened her eyes and commanded her venom glands to begin producing acid. And the attack began.
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