Rage of the Old Gods, Epilogue: The Next Journey

Well, this is it. The end at last. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story so far, and if you’re just joining us, you can get caught up with the previous chapters now.

Cover art for With the war over, the time has come to pick up the shattered pieces of civilization. The next journey is at hand.

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Epilogue: The Next Journey

The ceremony began.

The crowd hushed as Yarnig approached from their left. In the distance, the rush of the river could be heard. Yarnig’s boots crunched on the blackened gravel beneath his feet, all the remains that the machines had left behind after Retgard’s abandonment.

He felt oddly relaxed. All he had to do was speak well, and that was the one aspect of leadership he was skilled at. He wore the finest clothes he had been able to find, and a circlet of gold – a replica of the one that had been lost with the death of Empress Lorganna – sat upon his head.

He came to stand before the center of the crowd, beside a kneeling figure in polished chain mail and fine furs. The crowd spread up the side of the valley, arranged so that they all had a view of the ceremony. Leha, Drogin, Doga, Benefactor, and Natoma stood in the front row, smiling.

Yarnig faced the assembly. “First, there came the Tor Sinnis, the Tor Makers, who led our people away from oppression and founded this nation. Then came the Tor Vargis, the Tor Liberators, who freed our people from the rulership of the Northern Clans. And finally, the Tor Lannis, the Tor Defenders, who broke the power of Jansia and made Tor Som one of the great nations of the world.”

He lowered his voice, dropping his eyes mournfully. “Then, when the Automatons rebelled, our nation was shattered, and our leaders were wiped out. Only I, the last scion of the Tor Lannis, survive, and I have never been prepared for the burdens of leadership.”

He brought his gaze up to face the crowd, slowly raising his voice. “I cannot lead our people into the future.” Solemnly, he reached up and removed the circlet from his head. “Perhaps the day will come when my line shall again lead, but it is not today. I hereby abdicate the throne of Tor Som.”

He turned to the kneeling form at his left. “But there is another with the strength and the wisdom to bring our nation into the future. Today, we begin a new dynasty,” he said, his voice echoing through the mild autumn air. He reached down and placed the circlet upon the pale hair of the kneeling figure. “I crown Eranna Tor Kellis, the Tor Savior, empress of all Tor Som!”

The crowd erupted into jubilation.

Leha clapped and cheered.

“Hail Eranna!” Doga shouted, his deep voice booming, and many in the throng echoed his words.

Eranna came to her feet, holding up a polished spear. “Thank you. I promise that I will do all I can to ensure that our nation recovers from the horrors of the past year. Tor Som will rise again, my friends.”

The people cheered louder.

Yarnig applauded his successor, feeling a burden lift from his shoulders.

* * *

The celebration lasted throughout the day and into the evening. The sun disappeared behind the rim of the valley, and the stars came out above, and still they celebrated.

The celebration was not just for Tors. The coronation of Empress Eranna constituted the first step towards rebuilding the lives that people had before the rebellion of the Automatons. This brought them all closer to reclaiming what they had lost. Thus, Tors, Eastenholders, Karkarans, Urannans, Clanspeople, and even a number of Lost Ones and ice creatures all joined in the merriment.

For Leha, circulating through the gathering and sipping her ulu and brandy, it seemed a magical night. It was a chance to relinquish the burdens of leadership and simply enjoy herself, something she had not done in a very, very long time. The air was cool without being cold, and the stars were bright. If the night had been crafted to be pleasant, she didn’t think it could have been better.

There was little food to be had, but that didn’t matter to the revelers. The chance to enjoy each other’s company, and to do so without fear, was worth more to them than a thousand banquets.

The festivities also brought the chance to enjoy something else that had been all too rare over the past year: music. During the struggle with the Automatons, there had been little time for music, and even in the few moments of peace, no one had felt much like playing, or listening. But now things were different. Now, they had both the time and a reason to enjoy themselves.

Most of the musicians and instruments of the other nations had been lost in the war, so the music came courtesy of the Clanspeople. Their music, played primarily with large drums and horns, was loud and booming while still being harmonious and melodic. Smaller wind instruments provided subtle undertones to the songs.

Leha danced for what felt like hours. She danced with Drogin and with Lahune, and she and Doga taught each other the dances of their respective worlds. Once, near the end of the night, she even danced with Yarnig.

Afterward, she thanked the young Tor for saving her life after the battle with the Automaton Lord. He smiled, seeming to enjoy the compliment. She watched him go, thinking of how much he had changed since she had first met him. He had a purpose now, she saw. He was not just a lost boy anymore.

Those at the celebration spoke much about the future. The trials of the past months had necessitated the loss of many social inhibitions, and there was no separation between high and low-ranking individuals at the celebration, so Leha was privy to all the discussions.

The Tors mostly talked of rebuilding their nation. They wistfully described the beauty that their cities had once had, and they speculated on how things would change with the reconstruction. They talked of resuming their lives, of again farming and doing business.

The Karkarans also planned to rebuild their nation. Some had already headed south to begin the work.

The Eastenholders seemed divided. Many were eager to return home and rebuild what the Tors and Automatons had destroyed, but others believed that it would be better to move forward and find a new homeland. So much of the world was now unclaimed.

Many Eastenholders believed that they needed to reform their government, to elect a new magistrate. All agreed that, in such a contest, Leha would be chosen in a heartbeat. She tried to steer them away from that idea. She had no intention of accepting new responsibilities. Besides, she reasoned, she knew little of law or governance.

The Clanspeople had lost the least to the Automatons, and they did not have much recovering to do. Their lives would change little. However, there would be one major change for them. To Leha’s delight, they had negotiated an agreement with the Tors that would not only see them open trade but also allow the Clanspeople to make use of the northern reaches of Tor territory, land that had belonged to the Clans before the Tors had claimed it as their own.

Members of all nations talked of going south, to Uranna. Most of the country’s once vast population had been killed, and a host of people were eager to resettle the clement, fertile land.

Lahune said that he planned to stay wherever populations were high. Recent events had rendered people more open to his order’s teachings, and he planned to make the most of it.

Most of the Lost Ones and ice creatures would be returning to their worlds to aid in rebuilding what the machines had destroyed – many had already done so – but others, especially among the Lost Ones, had become enamored with Barria and would be staying. Some hadn’t decided.

Late in the festivities, Leha took Doga aside and asked what his plans were.

“I’ll be staying here for the moment,” he said. “I plan to help Eranna rebuild her country. I learned much about logistics and organization while we fought on the northern front. I should be able to help.”

Leha nodded.

“After that, I am not sure. I miss Tyzu, but I want to see more of Barria. I want to see it without the pall of war obscuring my vision.” He breathed in the cool air and gazed up at the stars. “For seven thousand years, every Lost One has dreamed of visiting Barria. I’m not eager to leave.”

She nodded again, trying to imagine what it had been like to be cut off from humanity’s homeworld.

He peered down at her. “What about you? What are your plans for the future?”

“Natoma and I are planning to head south,” she said, her voice slightly slurred by the brandy. “There are survivors in Pira, Karkar, and Uranna, and they need to know the war is over. They need to know that there are other humans out there who can help them. We’ll take a small group and find everyone we can.”

“Many people scattered when the machines rebelled. It may take years to find them all,” he said.

She agreed. “We won’t be able to search everywhere, but we’ll do what we can. Benefactor wanted to come, so we’ll be able to use his telepathy to look for nearby minds.”

“When will you leave?”

She shrugged. “In a week or two. There are a few loose ends that need tying up first.”

He wished her good luck with her journey, and she thanked him.

He asked if she wanted to dance again, but she refused, citing her tiredness and the effects of the brandy.

Sometime after midnight, with parts of the celebration still going, Leha found her way to her to tent and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

* * *

The cool air whipped past Yarnig’s face as he rode up the lane, his horse’s hooves pounding on the unpaved dirt. The road had been neglected for the better part of a year, and leaves and detritus covered it, but it had not yet become impassable.

Trees lined both sides of the road, their branches occasionally arching overhead to provide shade. This far north, the leaves had already begun to change, and the bright sun reflected off reds, yellows, and oranges as well as the green of the leaves that had not yet begun their metamorphosis. The scent of fallen leaves filled his nostrils as he rode.

He could have made this trip by jumping point, but he relished the opportunity to ride through these woods again. Every smell and sight brought back pleasant memories of his youth.

As he looked about him, he saw no signs of Automaton-inflicted damage. He took some hope from that. The nearby town of Timbrocken, where he had jumped in, had been flattened. But the machines had not had time to completely scour the world of human influence, and there had been reports of isolated homes or settlements surviving.

Ahead, the road forked. He took the right fork, grinning as he tore around the bend.

Yarnig had planned to come here for months. The notion had been at the back of his mind since Leha had ordered the settlements abandoned, and once the war had ended, he had promised himself that he would make the journey.

Healing wounded and helping with the recovery had kept him busy for days after the battle at the camp, and then the journey back to Tor Som had kept him distracted for several more weeks. Now, he had started to help in the reconstruction of Retgard, but Eranna had allowed him time for this personal journey.

He spotted a pair of gates ahead, and his heart skipped a beat. They appeared intact.

He brought his horse to a halt and dismounted. He stepped forward. The gates were made of iron and spanned the distance between two pillars of stone. They were remarkably simple for something owned by a royal family and bore little adornment. They were a bit rustier and more weather-beaten than he remembered, but they were otherwise undamaged. Lines of tall evergreens, planted many years ago by servants of his ancestors, extended from either side of the gates, delineating the edge of the lands owned by the Tor Lannis family.

Beyond the gates, Yarnig could see the roof of his country home.

Behind him, Yarnig’s companion reined in her horse and dismounted, streaks of blue touching her hair as the sun glinted off it.

“Is this it?” Natoma asked, hitching their horses to a tree.

He nodded. “Yes.”

He produced a key from his pocket and unlocked the gates. They swung open with a whine, and Yarnig and Natoma stepped into the courtyard.

The country home stood ahead of them. Like the gates, it was very simple by royal standards. This place had been built as a place to retreat from the burdens of court, and its builders had not wanted a reminder of their rank and responsibilities. It was a large dwelling, but it was far from a palace. The months of abandonment had left it in need of some maintenance, but it seemed largely undamaged.

To their left, a building that had once housed servants stood in a similar state of disrepair. To their right, the wind whistled through an abandoned stable.

Out beyond the country home and a few small outbuildings, the vast forest stretched into the distance, the trees sighing to each other.

They moved forward, taking in the sights.

“This is where you grew up?” Natoma said.

“Yes,” he said, striding across the leaf-covered stones of the courtyard. “We spent most of our time in the palace in Retgard, but this is where all the good things happened.”

She breathed deeply. “It’s beautiful.”

He glanced about, smiling wistfully. “Yes, it is.”

He went to the front of the home, opened the door, and went inside. He moved through the rooms, inspecting them to see how they had weathered the past months. Natoma entered a few moments after him, following a path slightly different from his through the house. The air smelled of dust and mold, and he noticed signs of mice and other vermin, but no severe damage had been done to the place.

“It isn’t too bad,” he called to Natoma from a guest bedroom. “A few weeks work should be enough to restore it.

She strolled into the doorway behind him. “Do you plan on coming back here permanently?” she asked.

He turned to face her. “I don’t know.” He went to the room’s window and looked out. “I love it here, but it will be very isolated until the countryside is repopulated, and I’m needed in Retgard.” He considered. “I suppose that’s where I’ll stay for now. But I want to come back here one day. Soon, hopefully.”

They resumed their exploration of the home. Yarnig lost himself in memories of the past.

Sometime later, he found himself in one of the sitting rooms, the one in which he had first thought of traveling north to contact the Clans. He went to the far wall and found the map that he had stared at all those months ago. He wiped a thin layer of dust from it and considered the blank stretch that represented Clan territory.

He heard Natoma come in. “Who is this?” she asked.

He turned around. She stood before a sketch of a woman with pale, flowing hair and noble, elegant features. Yarnig’s servants had brought much of his artwork with them when the place had been abandoned, but this one had been left behind.

“My mother,” he said, coming to stand next to her.

Natoma glanced at him. “I can see the resemblance.”

He nodded.

“Have you decided whether you’ll be coming yet?” she said after a moment. She referred to Leha’s mission to the south.

He sighed. “I don’t think that I can. They need my abilities in Retgard.”

She turned to face him, nodding understandingly.

“But you’ll be jumping back for supplies regularly, right? We should still be able to see each other,” he added.

She smiled warmly. “Yes, we will.” She kissed him.

He returned her smile.

She collected the portrait of his mother, and they left the home together, hand in hand.

* * *

They arrived in a flash of green-white light, briefly illuminating the ruins of Three Gates.

Leha, Drogin, and Eranna stood in what had once been a square. The homes and shops that had surrounded it were now nothing more than charred rubble and broken foundations. The sun shone almost as brightly as it had on the day of the city’s death, and a light wind ruffled their clothes. The air was silent, and their breathing sounded loud.

They began to move, picking their way through the rubble, saying little. They soon split up, each going to confront the past in their own way.

It had been Leha’s idea to come. The idea of traveling here to put the past to rest had been in her mind for weeks now. One night, she had suggested it to the other two, and they had taken to the idea.

None of them had set foot in the city since its fall. They had passed by it on their journey to Tor Som after the Battle of Heart, but the Tor army had already looted it of useful supplies, so there had been no reason to enter it. At the time, Leha had wanted to avoid the ruins and the memories they brought up. She suspected the others had felt the same way.

As she made her way down the rubble-strewn streets, Leha realized she hardly recognized anything. Almost nothing was left standing, and little of the remains were identifiable as what they had been.

She supposed it was surprising that this much remained. The Automatons had ground the cities of the other nations into nothing but dust and pebbles, but they had been far less thorough with the Eastenholder settlements. They hadn’t had time in the early days of the war, she guessed, and her people had abandoned the country, so the machines had probably decided the scouring of Eastenhold could wait. She didn’t doubt that they would have done it eventually.

Here and there, she spotted pieces of white bone. She shuddered.

She hoped she had done enough. She hoped nothing like this would ever happen again.

At last, she came to something too familiar not to recognize: a rectangular foundation filled with enough rubble to indicate that the building had had a second floor. Her shop. Her home.

She stepped through what remained of the doorway. Numbly, without thinking about what she was doing, she began to sift through the rubble. The sound of stone against stone echoed eerily in the quietness of the ruins.

She moved a large chunk of brick, and something glinted. She reached down and retrieved the object. It was the Urannan mirror she had removed from the window on the day of the attack. Its glass had been cracked, and its frame was scuffed, but it was in surprisingly good condition otherwise.

She studied her reflection.

She didn’t look as she had on the day of the attack. Her face remained youthful, but her eyes, with their deep blue pupils, lacked the sparkle they had once held, and her longer hair made her look older.

She noticed a small scar beneath her right eye. She ran a finger along it, trying to remember how she’d gotten it. She couldn’t.

She sighed and set down the mirror. With one hand, she collected her hair at the base of her neck. She sent a small amount of acid trickling down one claw of her other hand, and in one quick motion, she burned through her hair, leaving it shoulder length.

She retrieved the mirror. Her hair now formed a frame around her face, barely reaching her shoulders, as it had before the war. She put on a smile, and in the reflection, she almost looked like she once had.

She continued to rummage through the ruins, but she found little. Her books had been consumed by fire, and most of her artifacts and trinkets had been smashed.

In the end, she left it all behind.

As she made her way back, she encountered Eranna. The Tor’s eyes widened slightly when she noticed Leha’s hair.

Eranna asked a few questions about what she had been doing, and Leha briefly described the return to her shop. They fell silent for several long moments.

“I used to have dreams about this,” Eranna said, gesturing at the shells of buildings.

Leha glanced at her questioningly.

“I dreamed about the battle,” she explained. “In my mind, it melded with the battle in the Mannall Range, and sometimes with other battles as well. Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw the fire, the blood.” Her eyes stared at something Leha couldn’t see.

“Do you still have them?” Leha asked.

Eranna shook her head slightly. “They’ve been getting less frequent since we won the battle at the camp. I haven’t had one in a few weeks. I’m hoping that they’re gone for good.” She managed a smile.

Leha squeezed her arm gently.

When they returned to the square they had jumped in at, they found Drogin waiting for them. He carried a small sack in one hand. He showed Leha its contents: a small bronze sculpture of General Phanto and a few other items from his home.

They took one last look at the ruins, and then Drogin raised his wand. Green-white light flashed around them.

* * *

Eight days later, early on a frosty autumn morning, Leha and the others who would make the journey south began the final preparations for departure.

The Clanspeople had constructed several hovering wagons specially for the journey. Having already been stocked with food and weaponry – there was always the risk of encountering Automatons that had evaded the hunting parties – the wagons were hitched with their teams of reindeer and brought to the edge of the valley that Retgard sat within.

A tingle of excitement ran through the air. Leha smiled often, looking forward to seeing more of the world, even in its ruined state, and Benefactor twitched eagerly, baring his dark teeth.

Leha felt a kind of cheer that she had not in a long time. Since her journey to Three Gates, the pain of the past had not seemed so strong.

A great crowd gathered to see them off, waving and calling out good wishes. They stayed at a respectful distance to allow the members of the party and those close to them to say their goodbyes privately.

Leha joked with Lahune about how their lives continued to interfere with their recording efforts. Then she and Drogin shared a long hug, saying their heartfelt goodbyes. Yarnig and Natoma stood close to each other and shared a few hushed words of farewell. Doga and Eranna went among the members of the party, wishing them good luck. The other members of the party bade farewell to their friends and family.

The time came for them to leave. Leha and the others boarded the wagons, still calling out final words of parting. The reindeer began to move, and the wagons set off down the road to the south, the sun shining brightly upon them.

The next journey had begun.

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If you’ve enjoyed Rage of the Old Gods, I encourage you to show your support by purchasing a copy for yourself or a friend. Smashwords ebooks are DRM free, so you can share them as you please.

Also, I currently have no plans to release any free chapters of the next two books beyond the free previews currently on Smashwords and Amazon. If you want to see the continuation of Leha’s adventure, I encourage you to check them out.

In Children of the Gods, our heroes must face the dark legacy of the Old Gods when a heretofore unknown offshoot of humanity lands on the shores of Pira. Leha must defend her people, but in so doing, she betrays everything she has fought for. Will humanity’s survival come at the cost of its soul?

And in Human Again, a haunted Leha must confront the cost of her gambles: an entire universe of worlds ruined by her mistakes. Can she withstand such horrors? Can the saviour of humanity save herself?

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Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Twenty-Five: The True Battle

We have now come at last to the twenty-fifth chapter of Rage of the Old Gods, the first book of my epic science fantasy trilogy the World Spectrum. In the coming weeks, I will be posting the entire book for free on this blog. If you’re just joining us, you can get caught up with the previous chapters now.

Cover art for The war is over, but the true battle has just begun.

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Chapter Twenty-five: The True Battle

Consciousness returned slowly. At first, she was aware of only brief snippets of unintelligible sounds or flashes of pain. Then, gradually, her mind ordered the sensations, and her thoughts churned to life.

She groaned and started to rise, but a hand pressed against her chest. “Don’t move,” Erik said.

Leha opened her eyes. Erik crouched over her, holding her down with one hand. In his other hand, his staff glowed faintly. Yarnig knelt next to him, his eyes closed, holding his hands over her charred belly. One hand held a piece of silver-wrapped quartz. Her body throbbed with pain, but it was not as intense as she would have expected. Odd sensations fluttered across her stomach as Yarnig mended the burns.

The sky was still dark, and the firelight had diminished; a Clan lantern to her left provided most of the illumination. The smell of smoke was still present, but it had lessened.

“You were very badly injured,” Erik explained. “Most of your body was burned in the battle, and you broke a bunch of bones in the fall. We need you to sit still while Yarnig Heals you.” She noticed that Yarnig mouthed some of the words as Erik spoke them.

Leha remembered the last few moments of the battle, and she realized that she must have been near death when Yarnig and Erik had started Healing her.

The thought reminded her of what had befallen Doga and Natoma before she’d blacked out.

“Doga… Natoma,” she gasped.

“They’ll be fine,” Erik said quickly. “Doga won’t be back on his feet for a while, but he’ll live. Natoma just broke a leg and got a knock to her head. She’s organizing the camp through the link.”

Leha breathed a deep sigh of relief. She had feared the worst, especially for Doga.

She took a moment to calm her breathing. “What happened?” she asked, indicating the ruins around them with a sweep of her eyes.

“The Automatons are gone,” Erik said, removing his hand from her chest. He sounded tired. “I think the loss of their leader broke their spirit. When it happened, a bunch of them just ran off. A few others went on suicide runs. I heard one laid down and let itself be destroyed – I don’t think that’s true, though. There are still a few out in the wilderness, but no one thinks they’re a real threat.”

Leha nodded weakly and muttered her thanks to him.

Yarnig finished with her stomach and moved on to a badly burnt knee.

After a few minutes, Leha thought to ask, “Where’s Drogin?”

“He’s back from his mission,” Erik replied. “He’s leading a crew cleaning up the camp, I think.

“I’ll get him for you.”

Leha thanked him again and settled in to wait.

“Leha!” her brother called a few minutes later. She heard footsteps, and then Drogin’s smiling face appeared above her as he knelt next to her. He had a cut over one eye and some blisters on one hand, and his clothes were burnt in several places, but otherwise, he seemed well. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“I’m getting better,” she said. “What about you? How did the mission go?”

He smiled wider. “We did it. The ziggurats are gone.”

She returned his smile. She squeezed his forearm with one weak hand. “Good job.”

* * *

Soon after, the two Tors finished treating her more serious wounds, and she sent them away to find people more in need of their abilities. Drogin left to continue the cleanup effort. Leha planned to join him later.

She tracked down Doga and Natoma. The Lost One was still unconscious and undergoing treatment, but Natoma was well enough to talk. She congratulated Leha on her victory.

Then, Leha sought out Benefactor. She found him at the side of a tent, resting and drinking from a water skin. His crossbow sat at his side, and he still wore his armor.

He greeted her, but she began to praise him profusely for his hit to the Automaton Lord’s eye before he could do anything else.

“You saved me. You saved everyone!” she said more than once.

If he had possessed the physical capacity, she thought he would have blushed.

“How did you do that?” she eventually thought to ask. “That would have been a difficult shot for an experienced archer.”

He paused briefly, then he worked his lips furiously. You didn’t notice. I shot at the eye twenty-one times. I hit it once. His whole body shook with silent laughter.

Leha burst into laughter.

When their humor subsided, a sad look came into Benefactor’s eyes, and he glanced up. My family is avenged, he said.

Leha lost her smile. She sat in silence for a time, unsure of what to say.

She came forward and wrapped him a hug, burying her face in his shaggy fur. “Thank you. For everything,” she said, remembering everything he had done for her since her first journey to Sy’om.

He hesitated, surprised by the unfamiliar gesture, before returning her hug. He managed to hold her without touching any of her tender burns. He could read her thoughts; he knew the places to avoid.

They released each other, and Leha held him at arm’s length.

We did a good thing, he said. The Automatons were dark creatures. The universe is a better place without them.

She nodded, sending her agreement.

She thanked him one more time, and left.

She attempted to aid with the efforts to return order to the camp, but she found she was too tired and hurt to do much of anything. Drogin sent her to find her bedroll – after she made him promise to do the same – and within minutes, she had fallen asleep.

* * *

Early next morning, she forced herself awake, and went in search of Natoma, who would no doubt be at the head of the cleanup efforts. The walk gave her the opportunity to see the situation in the camp for herself.

The still-present pall of smoke stained the sunlight red, painting the ashen camp in a surreal tone. The air was warm, but the humidity of the past days had dissipated. Bodies still littered the ground in places, but she noted that many had been collected and moved off. None of the wrecked Automatons had been moved, and their dark forms dotted the camp. About half the tents still stood – most of them in the southeastern quarter. The others had been crushed, torn apart, or incinerated. Distantly, she heard the cries and moans of the wounded. Elsewhere, she could hear people shouting instructions, though the words eluded her. Otherwise, the camp was eerily quiet. She saw almost no one. She assumed that the people were occupied elsewhere.

She found Natoma conversing with Eranna at the northwestern edge of the camp, and they brought her up to date. About a third of the able-bodied survivors had been sent to the River Sheen. A dam of ruined Automatons and other debris had been created by the destruction of the barrier machine, and if it was not dislodged soon, it was possible that the camp might be flooded. Another large group had been assigned to collect and bury the bodies before disease could spread. The area west of the camp had been turned into a vast graveyard. The Northern Clans, the Lost Ones, and the ice creatures had begun to send laborers, medics, and supplies to aid those in the camp.

The forest fire had moved on to the south and was in the process of burning itself out. It was expected to die within the day.

No one had sighted any Automatons since the end of the battle. Once they had the situation here under control, Eranna and Natoma planned to send out parties to hunt them.

When Leha had arrived, the other two women had been planning a census to determine their losses. Leha told them to go ahead. She knew their losses would turn out to be heavy, but she also knew it had been worth it.

She bade farewell to Eranna and Natoma and headed for the river, where she used her strength and her powers to aid those trying to clear the blockage.

Once she settled into the rhythm of work, her thoughts began to wander.

The war was over.

She let that thought move through her mind as she slowly adjusted to it. It seemed too sweet a thing to be true. After all the months of pain and toil and terror, the power of the Automatons had been broken. Those few machines that remained would never be able to adapt to life without the infrastructure of the ziggurats or the leadership of the Automaton Lord. Soon, humanity’s victory would be total.

Her mind turned to the future. Soon, people would be able to return to their lives – what was left of them. They would begin the process of rebuilding. The losses inflicted by the Automatons were beyond measure; it would likely take centuries for the human race to recover.

And that brought her to her own dilemma. With the defeat of the Automatons, her duties as the leader of humanity were almost complete. But not entirely. She had pledged herself to safeguarding the future, to ensuring the mistakes of the past were not repeated. She had spent long hours searching for a solution to humanity’s flaws, but she had yet to find one, hoping that she would in the future.

Now the future had come. The war was over, and her people would soon disperse to rebuild their nations or found new ones. What was to stop them from eventually returning to the old national divides, the old prejudices? She couldn’t stand the thought, after all they had suffered through, of the nations once again going at each other’s throats.

But what could she do to stop it? She couldn’t change human nature, and even if she could, she didn’t think it would be right. Her people could not be forced into peace.

She wondered if there was anything she could do that would have any real impact. Ultimately, people made their own decisions. She could only influence them, and even that power would fade over time. She could not preach her views to the generations that would be born after her death.

She doubted there was anything she could do that would guarantee a peaceful future for humanity.

But, she decided, she had to do what she could. She was a revered figure, the Hero of Heart, and she wielded more influence than anyone alive. If she spoke, people would listen.

She didn’t think she would be able to live with herself if she did not at least try to change things for the better. She would do her part – however small it may be in the long run.

She started to formulate a plan.

* * *

The gathering took place upon a churned and ash-covered but relatively clear field near the west edge of the camp. Several thousand attended – all those who were not too wounded or caught up in the recovery efforts to come – spreading out in a great fan of humanity. Those unable to see it in person would witness it through telepathic links to their comrades. None but Leha knew the true purpose of the gathering, but most believed she would speak about their victory. The people chattered to each other in anticipation.

The sun shone brightly in the hazy sky, warming those below it.

At the far edge of the gathering, Leha climbed atop the back of a ruined Automaton, the platform from which she would make her speech. The metal was cold, but it lacked the unnatural chill of a functioning machine.

She surveyed the crowd and took a deep breath, enhancing her voice and lungs so that she would be heard.

“The war is over,” she declared, her voice reverberating through the afternoon air.

A cheer went up from the crowd. Some clapped.

“The power of the Automatons has been broken. Their ziggurats are dust. Their leader has fallen,” she continued. “Humanity has once again triumphed over the Old Gods!”

They cheered even louder, their voices booming in joy. Leha let them enjoy the moment, smiling faintly.

When they quieted, she spoke again. “But the true battle is yet to come.”

The people fell silent, seeming confused.

She tried to calm her tense nerves. She didn’t find this as intimidating as she had her address before the battle, but she knew just how much rode on how they reacted to her next words.

“The true battle will lie in making sure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated. The true battle will be fought not just by us, but by our children, by all future generations.”

The people stayed quiet. She could not gauge their reaction, so she pressed on.

“The blame for this war cannot be placed upon the shoulders of the machines. Hate is their nature. We are the ones who resurrected them, the greatest enemies humanity has ever known. It was our distrust and our greed that led us to build armies of them, to refine them until they had the power to overthrow us. The destruction you see all around you is the result of human folly, human hatred. The blame for it rests upon our shoulders.

“We can’t allow something like this to ever happen again!”

She heard muttering among the crowd. She feared that they would be unwilling to accept any responsibility for the war.

“The greatest danger we now face comes from within ourselves. We can’t allow ourselves to again fall into fractured nations and factions. We are one race.

“The future of humanity will not be won on the battlefield. It will be won in our hearts and the hearts of our descendants. The darker aspects of ourselves – hate, ignorance, and selfishness – are our enemies now, and it will take all of our strength to hold them back.”

She paused, letting her words ring through the air. She still couldn’t read the mood of the crowd. She sweated.

“It won’t be easy. But if there is to be any hope – any hope – of a bright future, we can’t allow ourselves to forget the danger that they represent. If we fail, the future will suffer, and this – ” she gestured at the devastation that was the camp “ – will be the result.”

She paused, her heart pounding, and prepared to finish making her case.

She stared into the crowd, standing proudly. “The next great battle has come, and we must face it. Who will stand with me?”

For a brief moment, all was silent, and Leha’s heart stopped.

The thousands in the crowd spoke as one. “I will!” they cried, their voices shaking the Automaton beneath Leha’s feet.

The tension left Leha’s body, and she allowed herself the joy of the moment. The crowd clapped and cheered for her, the noise of it vibrating through her being. She surveyed the familiar faces in the throng. Unmitigated pride filled the faces of her brother and her friends.

Leha smiled and raised her hand in salute to the gathering, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. She smiled and laughed.

It was finally over. She had defeated her enemies, and she done her part to ensure a better future.

It was possible that the efforts of her people would ultimately fail, that the human race would once again fall into chaos. But now, she had hope. She had planted the seeds of peace, and she and those who believed in her would do everything in their power to make sure that they took root. Her words and her actions would be recorded in books and tales, and future generations would take inspiration from them. The ice creatures would be there to stand as a symbol of unity and serenity, and Lahune’s order would continue their efforts to bring humanity to its greatest potential.

There was hope.

———————

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!

As an aside, I find posting this chapter a fairly depressing experience, as this is a battle those of us in the real world seem to be losing badly as of late. We’re incredibly eager to turn on anyone who bears even the vaguest or most tangential resemblance to those who would do us harm, and one of the leading candidates for leader of the free world is a guy whose political philosophy seems to be that the problem with Nazi Germany was a lack of gold plating and scantily clad women.

One could also look back to GamerGate or its cousins in the Sad/Rabid Puppies camps. Or consider how many people are still displaying the Confederate flag with pride — even here in Canada, which is as depressing as it is confusing.

There’s a prevailing sentiment among “social justice warriors” (as the Internet is so eager to label us) that things like this are the last dying gasp of an outmoded way of thinking, but I fear this is an overconfidence that could cost our society badly.

And if you think you’re above this kind of hate and fear, you’re not. No one is. But if you can be aware of this, if you can make the effort to fight against the darker parts of yourself, if you can choose to be driven by hope and compassion rather than fear and self-interest, then you are part of the solution. The true battle isn’t something won through a single, final victory, but through constant struggle. For all of us.

Also, I do hope I’m not coming across as tooting my own horn here. I certainly don’t expect my silly little sci-fi novel to do much, if any, good in the long run, and I’m sure my rather ham-fisted attempt at a message has all kinds of criticisms that can be leveled against it. I just hope you see some value in the message, however inelegantly presented.

Next up is the epilogue, and then we’ve reached the end of the book.