We have now reached the first chapter of the fifth and final section 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.
Humanity and the Gods have thrown everything they have into battle. There can be no turning back, and now only one outcome is possible: extinction. All that remains is to determine which race shall be extinguished.
The downward spiral has begun.
Part five: Race to Extinction
Fifty-four hours later,
the Clan forests…
Chapter eighteen: Downward Spiral
From a hastily erected tent in an anonymous copse of evergreens, Leha led her people. Leaning over a map table, she studied the ever-changing pattern of tokens representing machine and human forces with eyes aching from exhaustion. She couldn’t remember the last time she had slept.
Cool rain drummed on the canvas roof and dripped onto her back from weak points in the ragged fabric.
Leha’s head pounded with the voices of the soldiers linked to her. She had not shut down the telepathic link since her forces’ arrival in the north. She tried to keep the link as sparse as possible – she had given over most of the ground level command responsibility to others – but she was still needed to channel the energies of Sy’om and Tyzu to the dozens of skirmishes being fought for miles around.
It had been like this for days now – she could no longer remember how many. The attack by the Automaton Lord and its army had plunged the entire northern front into chaos. Thousands of humans had died in the assault, but hundreds of Automatons had also fallen. The machines had come with great numbers and great strength, but they had spread themselves thin, attacking all parts of the human line simultaneously. When Leha had brought in her reinforcements, the Automaton army had been caught in the middle and shattered by the pressure.
To further weaken them, Leha had sent raiding parties to strike at the ziggurats, the camps from which they had run their campaign against the north, and any other machine settlements the wizards could find through Breena’s barrier spell. Her forces were too weak to pull off something as daring as the attack on Tallatzan, but they could keep the Automatons off balance.
Now, both sides had no choice but to fight. Both stood on the brink of defeat, and neither could abandon the battle without opening themselves up to destruction. If Leha’s army pulled back, the lands of the Northern Clans would be left unguarded. If the Automatons retreated, Leha would gain the opportunity to launch a counterstrike into Tor Som. And so they were locked together, each faction racing to destroy the other before it was too late.
Leha blinked, realizing she had begun to nod off. She pointed drunkenly to a pebble on the map. The stone represented a squad of Clanspeople. “Have we heard anything from them?” she asked. “They should have arrived at the ambush point by now.”
Drogin thought for a moment, standing across the table from her. He shook his head. “Nothing.” He frowned. “They’re more than an hour late.”
Leha grimaced and removed the pebble from the board. If the Clanspeople had not reported in that amount of time, they likely wouldn’t be heard from again. Many detachments had simply vanished over the past few days.
A deep boom shook the earth, and green-white light briefly shone through the walls of the tent, silhouetting the trees against the canvas. A nearby squad had just destroyed a Wizard-Automaton, the last of a group of Automatons. Leha removed a tarnished coin from the map and gratefully disconnected from the soldiers of the squad.
The tent’s flap moved aside, and Doga strode in from the dank night, water dripping off his bony face. “The crystal has moved. We’re setting up for the next ambush,” the Lost One said, brushing water from his cloak.
Leha nodded numbly and moved a small scrap of blue fabric from one part of the map to the other. After her success with the Machine King, her people had begun to regularly move the crystal via jumping points from one section of the front to the other. Once activated, it would draw the nearby machines, and her people would be able to ambush them – the thought of humanity having access to the knowledge of the creator race seemed to greatly unnerve the machines. Leha felt sure that they would cease to fall for the trick at some point. But so far, they had yet to catch on.
She ran a hand through her matted hair and swayed on her feet. Her eyes stung.
Doga glanced at Drogin, crossed to her side of the table, and leaned in close. “Let me take over for an hour or two. I can handle things. You need your rest.”
She shook her head. “I need to channel the energies. You can’t do that.”
“I can still take over the command. It would be easier on you.”
She frowned. “It wouldn’t make a difference.”
Doga gave her a concerned look and stepped back. He folded his arms and blinked bloodshot eyes. He needed rest as much as she did.
Leha loosened the collar of her armor. The stale stink of her unwashed body wafted into her nose. She felt another squad of soldiers vanish from the link, and she removed a piece from the map.
A flash of magic burst somewhere close by. Leha jumped and moved into a low, defensive crouch.
Doga looked between her and the source of the flash. He held up a hand. “It’s all right. We’re just bringing in more supplies.”
Leha relaxed. She returned to her position at the table, flushing slightly.
Squinting, she refocused on the map. One of her squads had shifted position; she moved its marker accordingly.
She rolled her shoulders, hoping to release some tension from the muscles. Her body ached with fatigue, her head throbbed, and pain stabbed through her left knee with every shift of her weight. She glanced down at her left hand. Only a small discoloration remained to mark the place where she had been burned. She still had trouble believing that Yarnig had been the one to Heal it. Her knee had been injured afterward; she regretted that she had not had the chance to see him and get it fixed.
The night progressed, and the battle continued to shift back and forth, the markers representing machine and human forces scurrying across the map. Lives were swallowed up by conflict or vanished without a trace. Detachments of machines were crushed in ambushes or overwhelmed by mobs empowered by Tyzuan energy. At times, Leha heard screams from distant battles or saw the night lit by bursts of magic. People came and went from the tent, though she barely noticed. What little focus she had left was devoted entirely to the battle.
Hour followed bloody hour, as it had for days, and as she grew ever closer to collapse, one thought managed to arise outside of the attention she focused on guiding her people, pounding through her head with each new wave of pain: this couldn’t go on forever.
* * *
The Automaton Lord stood upon the plains, its massive shadow carving a hole in the moonlight. Faintly, it heard the wind wash over its armor and whistle through its joints.
It had outrun the rain an hour ago, but it could still feel the dampness sloshing in its body. It was reminded of the time it had spent on Tyzu. It remembered the centuries it had spent in that dank cave, the feeling of decay that had invaded every part of its body as that world had slowly destroyed it.
Soon, the rain and the elements would begin to take their toll on its body. It needed maintenance and repairs, but it did not have time. Even now, it heard the voices of its people as they battled with the armies of humanity. Things had not gone as the Machine King had desired. It had believed its people could crush the humans while their leaders celebrated the destruction of the ziggurat.
It had been wrong.
The Automatons had inflicted great harm, but they had lost as much as they had gained. And now the humans destroyed more of them at every moment.
It flexed its fingers almost imperceptibly. When it had been created, the humans had been a young race. They had seemed so harmless. Perhaps those memories had caused it to underestimate the humans. They had been able to drive it away from the battle. They even claimed to have unlocked the secrets of the First Ones. The Automaton Lord thought that may have been a lie or an exaggeration on the part of the human girl, but it couldn’t take that chance. The humans had proven themselves very powerful; with the knowledge of the creator race at their disposal, a human victory could become a real possibility.
The war had to end now, before humanity could make further gains, before they could bring the weapons of the First Ones to bear.
The Automaton Lord mulled its options. It had quit the battle out of a need to survive, but as it had fled north, it had realized that its position here granted it many new options. It thought for a long moment. It felt the currents of magic flow through it, fueling it and giving it its life. And as it felt those currents rise and fade in rhythm, an idea came to it.
It was a dangerous idea, a risky one, one that it never would have considered before. The Automatons could lose much, perhaps everything, if it failed. But as the humans sometimes said, “desperate times call for desperate measures.” It considered for another few seconds, and decided. The potential rewards outweighed the risks. Humanity had to be put down now.
It reached out with its artificial mind and gave the orders to its people.
* * *
Yarnig sat against the rough trunk of a pine, pulling his cloak about himself and leaning against Erik for warmth, as rain dripped down onto his drenched and mud-stained clothing. Next to them, a Clan lantern had been planted in the mulch and provided a faint, otherworldly light. The sounds of rain and booted feet walking in mud moved through the forest.
Farther up the hill, a flash of green-white light blinked to life and died – the crystal was on its way to the next ambush site.
Yarnig, Erik, and the rest of their squad sat on the lower slopes of a round, steep hill rising in the forest. A long ago landslide had carved a notch out of its southern side, and Natoma had arranged her people in a crescent around it. When the Automatons came, drawn by the crystal’s burst of energy, they would be caught in the gap. One of the few weaknesses of Automatons was their difficulty with steep slopes and similarly rough terrain. If all went according to plan, they would be defeated easily.
Yarnig leaned his head against the trunk and closed his eyes, feeling cold water drip onto his face. He had been fighting almost without pause since the battle at Tallatzan. He hadn’t slept in nearly a day, and his body welcomed the chance to rest. His blistered feet ached within his filthy boots. He could have Healed them, but Erik had little strength left, and he needed it for the coming battle.
Since the discovery of his talents, Yarnig had spent much of his time intimately linked with Erik’s mind. He had never kept secrets from Erik, and he did not mind sharing his thoughts with the wizard, but he was grateful for moments like this, when he could enjoy the privacy of his mind.
Images of the past few days blinked through his mind: burning Automatons, dying soldiers, smoke-shrouded trees, the destruction of Tallatzan Ziggurat, wounds disappearing beneath his ministrations. In spite of all his exhaustion and all the violence of the past hours, a smile touched his face. In those hours, he had been useful. He had Healed the injured. He had destroyed machines with his mind. No longer was he a mere figurehead leader. When people looked at him now, he saw respect in their eyes.
“Won’t be long now,” Erik said.
Yarnig leaned his head forward and blinked, trying to fight back sleep. “Huh?”
Erik faced him. A few strands of blonde hair, stained with blood and dirt, hung down from under his helmet to shade his forehead. He had dark circles under his eyes. “The machines’ll be here soon.”
Yarnig nodded. He shivered in his dripping cloak. “How are you holding up?” he asked, after a moment.
Erik gave him a wry look. “Doesn’t the mind link tell you enough about that?”
“We’re in the middle of combat when we’re linked. There’s not much time to think about anything besides the next spell.”
Erik stirred the soil with his grime-covered silver staff. “I suppose.” He sighed. “I’m as good as I could be, I guess. This isn’t my idea of a party.” He planted his staff in the damp muck and said quietly, “I never expected my best achievements as a wizard would come from someone else casting the spells.”
Yarnig’s lips tightened, and he leaned forward slightly. “I’m sorry. I never – ”
Erik held up a hand. “No, don’t be sorry. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad you’ve found a way to contribute.” He glanced at the ground and looked up again. “It’s probably wrong of me to feel this way. I just – I need time to adjust, I guess.” He started to say something else, but he stopped himself.
He clapped Yarnig on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about me.”
Yarnig relaxed somewhat and patted Erik’s hand awkwardly.
Ahead of them, Natoma passed by, making a final check of her forces before the battle. Blood, dirt, and evergreen needles caked her normally immaculate armor, and rain dripped from her ponytail. Though he doubted she could see him well enough to notice, he smiled at her.
“You still don’t know how you feel, do you?” Erik said, amusement in his voice.
Something fluttered in Yarnig’s gut. “What?” he said, suddenly sweating for reasons he didn’t understand.
Erik had the grace to look guilty. “Well, you know, I’ve been in your head.” He shifted. “You’re in love with her – Natoma.”
Yarnig’s mouth went dry. A dozen thoughts bubbled up through his consciousness. Parts of his mind cried out in denial, saying that he had long ago ceased to be moved by pretty faces. She is just a friend, they said. Others thought that this could explain why he had so enjoyed spending time with her. He remembered the horror he had felt when she been wounded in the battle for Tallatzan.
He cleared his throat and prepared to speak, but stopped himself. As the chaos in his mind quieted, the reality became clear to him. It was true.
He wrung part of his cloak with his hands. He had thought himself self-aware. He had thought himself in control.
Erik shook his head. “I thought you would have figured it out by now.”
Yarnig tried to calm himself. “Have I been that obvious?”
Erik waved off the suggestion. “Don’t worry; I know how to read you.”
Yarnig shook his head, wishing it would clear.
A low rumbling filtered up from the south.
“They’re coming!” someone shouted.
Yarnig shut off the lantern and came to his feet, surprised his legs didn’t shake. He shuffled up the slick slope, Erik following. The mental link began to spread between the squad, and Erik and Yarnig’s minds meshed together until they felt all of each other’s aches and tiny injuries. They took a position near the head of the notch, and Yarnig tried to focus on the task at hand.
I’m sorry. I should’ve picked a better time, Erik thought.
Yarnig shook his head. It had to be said sooner or later, he replied.
The rumbling grew stronger, and lights flashed on the horizon as the machines tore and burned their way through the trees. Natoma’s squad scurried over the hill, taking their final positions around the notch. All lights were extinguished, and inky darkness covered everything. The Automatons drew closer.
Erik lowered his staff, and Yarnig planted his feet in the mud. The trees at the base of the hill were thrown aside, and the Automatons hurled themselves up the notch, a trio of Wizard-Automatons leading the way. At that moment, they slowed unnaturally, and Yarnig felt Tyzuan energy flood through his squad, enhancing the magic wielded by he and Erik.
The Wizard-Automatons attacked with spears of energy. Shields rose up to block some. One blazed toward Yarnig; he raised his hand, and imagined a net of energy between him and it. The spear of energy shattered and spread out, dissipating mere inches from his face. He felt the spell’s heat wash over him.
Yarnig pulled more energy through Erik, feeling the wizard’s exhaustion grow, and took the offensive. A thin serpent of energy snaked out from Erik’s staff and coiled behind the foremost Automaton to pierce the back of its knee joint. The magic burrowed and dug through the metal, eating through all but the lead, and with a screeching of torn machinery, the leg collapsed.
Leha flooded the Automaton and those flanking it with Tyzu’s power. The legless one slammed into those behind it, triggering an avalanche of tumbling Automatons that bent limbs, dented armor, and left a heap of machines at the bottom of the notch.
The human squad seized on the opportunity. Crossbow bolts and bright spells glided into the machines’ disorder, and Clanspeople leapt onto the fallen ones to attack with their narviks.
Some of the machines in the forward ranks managed to right themselves. Most were Wizard-Automatons, and they lashed out with a spray of magic. Yarnig, Erik, and the other wizards deflected their assaults.
When the light dimmed, Yarnig saw the machines break off the attack. He and Erik stared in confusion. The Automatons spun about and went back the way they had come with as much speed as they could muster. One paused to tear the head off an Automaton too damaged to follow – an attempt to save the artificial mind, Yarnig realized – but then it joined the others. Natoma called off her soldiers, and the squad watched, perplexed, as their enemies ran for the south.
Through the link, Yarnig sensed Natoma confer with the other leaders. He could only hear her voice, but he had the impression the Automatons’ retreat was not limited to this section of the front.
His heart fluttered at the sound of her mental voice. He tried not to think about his feelings for her – Erik helped by thinking of the machines and other unrelated matters. He wondered if the link had already betrayed him, but she gave no indication of noticing anything. Perhaps she wasn’t paying attention to him; in the psychic connection, he was just one voice among many. Or perhaps she already knew.
He thought about probing deeper into her mind to learn the truth, but decided against it. He felt a note of approval from Erik.
Natoma broke off her conversation with the other leaders and sent her orders to the squad: they were to follow the Automatons from a safe distance and discover their destination and, if possible, their purpose in falling back.
And so they did. They followed the Automatons through their roadway of broken trees and burnt glades for hours, staying close enough to observe but not close enough to provoke the machines. Early on, Leha returned the machines to Barrian energy level, and Natoma’s squad struggled to keep up, pushing their already tired bodies to the limit. Occasionally, the Wizard-Automatons would fire spells at their pursuers, but the attacks seemed to be intended as warnings, and little damage was done.
Sometime past midnight, the rain stopped, but the forest remained damp and muddy, and Yarnig didn’t feel any drier. He thought back to nights spent in his country home. He remembered the warm fireplace and the fine whiskey, and he remembered leisurely drawing sketches on his couch. For the moment, he chose to forget the feeling of emptiness that had dogged him in those days.
Part of him wanted to turn his thoughts to Natoma, to try and find some way to deal with Erik’s revelation, but he told himself this was not the time. He gave thanks that the ice creatures were too tired to maintain the link during the chase. He enjoyed the opportunity to keep his thoughts to himself.
It occurred to him to wonder how many of his companions had sensed his feelings during the ambush. He flushed.
About two hours before dawn, as the sky began to clear, the Automatons reached their destination: a staging area in an Automaton-controlled section of the forest. A huge swathe of trees had been cleared, and a few broad paths – used in previous attacks – led off it. Yarnig and his group had dropped farther back from the machines once they had come out into the open, and the Automatons were dim shapes in the distance.
A bright flash lit the ruined field. More flashes followed it, winking in it and out of existence in quick succession. After a few seconds, Yarnig noticed that the Automatons’ numbers were decreasing. He sucked in a breath; they were using a jumping point.
He said as much to Erik. Erik nodded and extended his staff. “They’re going to Sy’om,” he said. He furrowed his brow and lowered the staff. “Why would they do that?”
Yarnig considered quickly. “They are probably doing the same thing we do. They’re using it to go somewhere else,” he said, speaking in hushed tones.
“If that’s their goal, why not use the jumping point on the hill?”
“They would have had to fight their way through us to use it,” Yarnig replied.
Erik nodded slowly, his youthful face illuminated by the bursts of light from the south.
“I wonder where they’re going,” Erik said.
* * *
“It doesn’t make sense,” Leha said, sweeping another fistful of markers off the map.
The reports continued to come in; all across the front, the Automatons were retreating and taking jumping points to Sy’om.
“Could they be launching an assault on the other worlds?” Doga asked. Leha knew him well enough to detect the note of apprehension in his voice.
She shook her head. “They’d never succeed. They’re too smart to try something like that.”
She continued to make adjustments to the map as more reports came in. Confusion momentarily replaced her exhaustion as the machines abandoned the battle. Eventually, every one of the tokens representing Automatons had been removed.
Leha conferred with the other leaders through a combination of speech and telepathy for several minutes. They debated pursuing the machines, but Sy’om was a big world, and they had no way of knowing where the Automatons had gone. Finally, she leaned back from the table and said, “For now, at least, they’ve left us alone. We should take the opportunity to regroup. We could all use the rest.”
No one argued.
Soon after, Leha gratefully dissolved the psychic link – feeling both the relief of the ice creatures that had maintained it and her own – and left the map tent. All around her, soldiers were beginning to set up camp, building tents and lighting cooking fires as the eastern horizon began to brighten. She found two Eastenholders who were more than eager to build a tent for her. Before long, they finished, and after undressing and shrinking her claws, she dragged herself into her sleeping roll, pitying those who would have to stay up and keep watch.
Despite the pain in her head and knee, she fell asleep almost instantly.
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