Monthly Archives: September 2014

Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Three: Tyzu

We now arrive at the third chapter of my science fantasy epic, Rage of the Old Gods. In the coming weeks, I will be posting the entire book for free on this blog. If you missed the last chapter, go check it out now.

This chapter sees Leha reach the jungle world of Tyzu, but it doesn’t take long for her to once again find herself in mortal peril, and even if she comes out of alive, she will never be the same.

Cover art for "Rage of the Old Gods, the First Book of the World Spectrum" by Tyler F.M. Edwards———————

Chapter three: Tyzu

It was no less strange the second time. Instead of feeling drained, this time, her every cell resonated with new energy.

Her feet hit ground, and again, her knees went out from under her. This time, she slammed into the earth with incredible speed.

She groaned.

She pushed herself up, and found herself several inches above the ground. She fell again.

Another groan. Traveling to other worlds was proving more painful than she had expected.

Carefully, she picked herself up and looked around her.

She was in a forest, but it was like no forest she had ever seen. Trees taller than Heart’s highest buildings shaded the forest floor with huge, broad leaves. The wide spaces between trees were choked with bushes, shrubs, odd grasses, and vines. The air hummed with the sounds of buzzing insects and the caws of alien birds. The air was hot, hotter than anything she had felt before, and humid.

She shed her winter gear quickly – more quickly than would have been possible on Sy’om or Barria.

Once she had her gear stowed in her pack, she took a cautious step forward. Her foot moved so fast that it nearly blurred. She almost lost her balance. On top of that, the carpet of vegetation tangled her feet. She thought she could see it growing and tightening on her. She wondered if she was seeing things.

Overhead, two birds shot by like a pair of crossbow bolts.

Leha sighed. This was all far more difficult than she had envisioned.

She gathered her wits and pressed on. It was a while before she found a method of travel that did not result in her making trips to the forest floor. She learned it was easiest to jump and try to land on top of the underbrush; she steadied herself with her staff when the need arose. On this world a small hop could carry her several feet. It was almost fun.

She still fell, on occasion.

She took in her surroundings, searching for anything that might prove useful against the Tors. Unlike Sy’om, Tyzu teemed with life. She caught glimpses of arboreal mammals, brightly plumed birds, lizards and other reptiles, insects that would have given her nightmares had she still been a child, and things she couldn’t identify. Most of the creatures made noises, forming a constant blanket of sounds.

The weather was strange. Once, she saw a storm front form a few miles away. It fired several dozen bolts of lightning and dissipated within a few minutes. Later, a gust of wind came out of nowhere and smashed her into the hard bark of a tree.

She picked herself up. She thought that she would have an excellent collection of bruises come morning, but then she realized that her previous bumps no longer hurt. She checked, and they had completely healed. I guess this high energy thing has its advantages.

She got moving again, bouncing across the green carpet with almost comical speed.

Something snarled.

Looking behind, she saw a dark blur hurtling towards her. She leapt, and a creature that was somewhere between a large cat, a bulldog, and a human slammed into the ground where she had been standing.

She dropped into a defensive crouch and raised her staff. Her heart jammed itself into her throat.

It pounced at her. She flung her staff at it, but she missed, so she drew her sword and attacked with it instead, slashing its shoulder and hurling it against the tree she had hit moments earlier.

Its back hit the tree with a loud thwack, but in the blink of an eye, its arms rotated backwards and grabbed the trunk. It leered and launched itself at her, moving its arms back to a more normal position.

Leha jumped backwards with all her strength. She soared across the forest floor, the beast leaping after her.

She rebounded off a tree and hit the underbrush hard. She rolled, her frightened breaths coming fast. Her adversary leapt after her, landing so close she could smell its carrion-like stink. It blurred forward, snapping its jaws.

Leha took another flying leap backward. The creature followed. She swung her sword wildly in the hopes of frightening the creature.

She was tensing her legs for another jump, when two bolts of sharpened wood pierced her adversary in midair.

It fell to the ground, dead.

A man-shaped blur appeared at the carcass, retrieved the crude spears, leapt, and landed a few feet from her.

This new being was human in shape, but decidedly alien. Its leathery, hairless skin had a deep orangish tan, its fingers and toes ended in long dark claws, and its pupils were a deep blue. It wore a loincloth and appeared to be male. It had stowed the spears in a satchel on its back, and its hands were empty, but she assumed the claws were weapons enough. It stared down at her intensely. It stood more than a foot taller than her.

It took a step forward and barked several syllables. It might have been a language.

Leha raised her sword and tried to control her labored breathing. “Stay back.”

It took a step forward. It spoke strange words and gestured with its hands.

“Stay back!” she warned. She raised her sword, hoping she looked more dangerous than she felt.

The alien appeared taken aback. It said more things she could not understand.

Leha’s heart pounded, and sweat rolled down her back.

The creature stepped forward. Leha squeaked and slashed the air. The alien shook its head.

Before she could stop it, the creature wrapped its wiry arms around her waist and leapt into the canopy. She tried to fight it as it jumped from tree to tree, but it had taken her sword. Her fists and teeth made no impact on its hard skin.

She began to scream.

* * *

By the time they arrived at the alien’s destination, her throat was raw, and her fighting had subsided into numb terror.

They had come to a village consisting of a ring of small wood huts built onto the tops of trees. A wide platform of woven vines and plants filled the gap between huts. The platform had clearly been built, but it was also alive. Leha had never heard of anything like it.

Her captor placed her in the middle of the platform. A crowd of bronze-skinned aliens, young and old, male and female, gathered around her, talking and whispering amongst themselves. All were bony, hairless, and wiry, like the one that had captured her, and all wore nothing but loincloths. One of them took her pack and sword for the others to examine. She did not try to stop it.

A bent, wrinkled crone knelt next to her and spoke. Leha whimpered and shivered under her gaze.

The old woman listened as the others chattered. After some minutes, during which Leha had time to contemplate all the horrible things they might do to her, had passed, the crone issued an order, and a pair of males grabbed Leha by the arms and led her to one of the huts. They ushered her inside and closed the door behind her.

The hut was stained with an earthy-smelling resin and furnished with a stool, a sleeping pallet, and a basin of water. A glassless window supplied light. It was too small to wriggle through.

Leha tested the door latch, checking the lock. To her surprise, it creaked open at her touch. She peaked her head out, only to be pushed back inside by a clawed hand.

She didn’t try again.

She flopped down on the pallet. The fabric was coarse, but it was no worse than the blankets she had used on Sy’om. She combed her hair with her fingers. Her scalp felt hot and sweaty. She curled into a ball and drew her knees up to her chest. Despite the heat, she shivered.

She heard the aliens talking outside her door. “Should we fry her or boil her?” “Should we serve her with soup or a salad?” she imagined them saying.

* * *

By sundown, her throat had healed, and her stomach growled with hunger. Couldn’t they at least fatten me up before they kill me? She paced, her boots clacking on the wooden floor. Often, she narrowly avoided ramming into the stool or one of the walls. She still wasn’t used to how fast things were on Tyzu.

The day had not passed quickly. The long hours had been filled with a mix of boredom and fear. She had spent eternities staring at the walls and the ceiling. Every time she had heard one of the aliens come near the hut, she’d jumped.

She swore under her breath.

There must have been evening-blossoming flowers nearby. A rich, fruity scent was drifting through her open window. It made her stomach stir with hunger. At least things had cooled since the sun started setting, she told herself. The thought provided little comfort. The heat and humidity remained stifling.

Her door opened, and she wheeled around. A male alien stepped towards her. She prepared to defend herself. She wished she had a weapon, but her knife had been in her pack.

The creature stopped in front of her. Before she could twitch a muscle, his arm shot out, and he dug his claws into her left arm.

Hot pain pierced her arm. She cried out.

The alien withdrew its hand and left the hut, looking apologetic.

She crumpled to the floor. Her muscles felt like they were turning to jelly. It was all she could do to crawl onto the rough pallet. She stared at the dark ceiling as the room began to spin. Her heart raged inside her chest, sending her blood roaring through her veins. Her head ached, and her stomach churned. Her limbs felt like they were on fire.

Panting, she looked at her arm. Something yellow glistened in the wound. She wanted to cry.

The hut warped around her, and she thought she heard laughter. She rolled over and emptied what little was in her stomach.

* * *

She was ill all night. She tossed and sweated and cried out in pain. Fevered dreams and terrifying visions assaulted her. Sometimes, she felt jagged pains so severe that her back arched and her whole body spasmed. During one such episode, she bit her tongue with enough force to draw blood.

Sometimes, she would black out; these were her favorite times. Her rare moments of lucidity were just another nightmare, as it was then that she felt the most pain. During those times, she had time to contemplate the death she felt sure was coming. She regretted ever leaving Barria. She wished Drogin was there with her. All the fear, sorrow, and pain of the past weeks came out in sobs both loud and silent.

A few hours before dawn – as fire invaded her every vein, and her insides tried to strangle themselves – she was finally given the peace of lasting unconsciousness.

* * *

When she awoke, it was morning. Sunlight slid in through her window, painting the room in shades of yellow and golden brown. The scent of leaves and the calls of birds floated through the air.

She no longer felt sick, though she was tired and parched.

As slowly as was possible on Tyzu, she sat up and checked her left arm. Her tunic arm was torn and bloodstained, but the wound had scabbed over and looked to be healing well.

She lifted her arm to run her fingers through her matted hair, and nearly screamed at what she beheld as her hand passed in front of her face.

Each of her fingers ended in a jagged, inch-long black claw. A drop of yellow liquid beaded on the end of one of them.

They’re turning me into one of them! she thought, remembering children’s stories of monsters that turned their victims into copies of themselves.

The sight of the yellow venom, the same venom they had injected into her, on her claws made her empty stomach heave. She shut her eyes. I’m a monster!

She wished she could tear the venom from her body. She feared she would become a predator, seeking victims to change into yet more monsters.

When she opened her eyes, the venom was gone, and her claws were dry. She checked every one in amazement. None of them had any venom. She wondered if it had been a lingering hallucination from her illness.

Having claws was disturbing, but it was not so bad as having claws that dripped with malignant poison.

She started to head for the basin of water, but then she looked down. Five claws had punctured the toes of each of her boots. She sagged, feeling her sense of horror return. She wondered if she would ever be able to remove the claws. She wondered if anyone would accept her as human, or if they would see her as a monster. She wondered if she would ever get back to Barria to find out.

She tried removing her boots to get a look at the claws, but she could not disentangle the two. Using the claws on her fingers, she tore her boots and socks to shreds.

The claws on her toes were shorter than those on her hands, but no less sharp.

She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. Her aching throat reminded her that she was still human enough to need water. Avoiding the pool of vomit, she crawled to the basin and drank deeply from the clear, cool water.

When her thirst had been quenched, and the water had stilled, she looked at her reflection. Her hair was dirty and tangled, and there were dark circles under eyes. She felt relieved that her complexion was still pink, and not the orange-brown of the creatures that had kidnapped her, but then she realized that her pupils had turned blue.

She sighed forlornly. What am I?

She crawled back to the pallet and lay down, consumed by numb horror and a sense of revulsion at what had been done to her.

* * *

She did not know how long she lay there. It felt like hours, though the sun hardly moved, so it could not have been very long.

Eventually, the heat in the hut became too much, the walls too close, the stink of her vomit too overpowering, and she was seized by an overpowering urge to flee.

She sat up, wiped sweat from her brow, and stared at her claws. She had weapons now. Her eyes darted to the door. The need to run built up inside of her until it could no longer be contained.

She crept towards the door, planning to tear apart anyone, or anything, that stopped her from leaving. She opened the door, filled with a primal fury she had never felt before.

There was no guard. She looked around the sunny platform, blinking in confusion. All of the aliens had gathered at the center of the platform and were eating various types of fruit. They looked at her with curiosity and a touch of something like concern.

One of them said something to her. She must have grown accustomed to the speed at which things moved on Tyzu, because she could clearly make out the words now, even if she didn’t understand them.

Something had been odd about these aliens since she’d been captured, and now she realized what it was: nothing in their demeanor indicated aggression. Their monstrous appearances had distracted her, but the one who’d captured her had done nothing to harm her, despite her violent attempts at escape, and their inspections of her had spoken more of concern and curiosity than maliciousness.

Now, their gazes held what appeared to be kindness. And something else, something almost beseeching.

In spite of what they had done to her, she felt her aggression bleed away.

She held up a clawed hand. “What did you do to me?”

Several of the aliens conversed amongst themselves. One spoke to her and gestured for her to approach. He held up a bowl of fruit.

Realizing how hungry she was, Leha crept towards the aliens. The living ropes of the platform cut into her feet, and she wished she had stronger calluses. She sat cross-legged at the edge of the ring of aliens and received the bowl of fruits. She tore one open with her claws and feasted on the juicy inner flesh.

Many of the aliens were talking to each other. She felt sure she was the topic of conversation.

Pausing eating, she looked down and saw that her feet had developed thick calluses. What in the world?

One of the aliens, the warrior that had captured her, spoke to her, and she understood one of the words. Barria. Something clicked in her mind and she understood what he’d said. “Are you from Barria?”

She stared at him and nodded slowly. This set off a ferment among the aliens; they buzzed with excitement.

One of them asked her, “Has the seal been broken? Are the Gods defeated?” Somehow, she understood them perfectly now.

She spoke, and the words she said were of the language of Tyzu, not Eastenhold. “The Old Gods have been dead for millennia. The seal remains, but I have found a way to circumvent it.” More questions appeared to be forthcoming, but she held up her hands for silence, sweet juice dripping from her claws. “Now, I want some answers. Who are you? What did you do to me – ” she indicated one of her blue pupils “ – and why?” A trace of anger crept back into her voice.

The old crone, the one Leha had seen before, put down her bowl and spoke in a raspy voice. “We are the Watching Eye clan. I am Elder Sheen; I am the leader. Our people, the people of Tyzu, are known as the Lost Ones. We came to this world to find new ways of battling the Gods and to create a bastion of humanity on this world.”

Leha leaned forward, her eyes wide. “You’re human?”

Elder Sheen examined one of her clawed, leathery hands and chuckled. “Yes, we are human. Tyzu has changed our bodies, but our hearts are as our ancestors’.”

Leha blushed, realizing she’d been rude.

Sheen regained her sober expression. “As for what we did to you, I am sorry for any discomfort we caused. When Doga found you, he recognized you for what you are: a woman of Barria. It had been so long since we had heard from our homeland that he could not bear to leave you, but you fought him and feared us. We had to find a way to get through to you.” Her eyes shone with an ancient, primordial longing. Leha tried to understand the sense of loss, of loneliness, that must have haunted the Lost Ones for thousands of years.

“Tyzu has wrought many changes in us. One is our claws. They are poisoned; any creature we strike will not live for long. Another is the ability to control our own bodies – albeit in a limited way.”

Leha’s expression showed she did not understand. Elder Sheen held forth a hand, and her face tightened in concentration. After a minute of waiting, Leha saw that the elder’s claws had grown slightly. She nodded in understanding.

Leha no longer felt so uneasy – her old curiosity had been riled.

Elder Sheen continued. “We realized that we could combine these two things. It took several hours, but Sosk was able to change his venom into something that will change, not kill. We thought that if there was something of us in you, you would gain an understanding of us.” She leaned back. “And you have.”

“Can it be reversed?” Leha asked quietly.

“No,” Elder Sheen replied.

Leha bent her head. Her throat tightened.

As much as she did not want to be changed in this way, she could not bring herself to hold it against the Lost Ones – not after seeing the way Sheen’s eyes misted when she spoke of Barria. They had been separated from the rest of humanity for seven thousand years; in their place, Leha probably would have done the same thing.

“I am sorry. Perhaps we did not consider the consequences of our actions,” Elder Sheen said.

Leha held her head in her hands. “I understand,” she said, her voice slurring.

Sheen waited until Leha had composed herself before speaking again. “Tell us of Barria. What has happened since the Gods sealed it? Why did you come here? How did you come here?”

Leha sniffed, took a bite of fruit, and told them of the end of the Liberation. She gave a brief lesson on Barria’s history since then, and then launched into her own tale. She didn’t go into as much detail as she had on Sy’om, but it still took a long time to finish.

Elder Sheen worked her jaw back and forth, then said, “So you came here to find weapons with which to fight these Tors.”

Leha nodded.

Lost One children offered bowls of water for people to rinse their hands. Leha took the opportunity to clean the fruit juice from her fingers. The water was cool, and it helped to refresh her after the last night’s ordeal.

She looked at Elder Sheen. “Do you know of anything that I could use?”

Sheen shook her head. “The reason the powers of the other worlds were effective during the ‘Liberation’, as you call it, was that the Gods could not easily adapt. Humans are far more able to change.”

She leaned forward. “And I must tell you that, even if we did know a way to help you fight, I do not think that we would. We Lost Ones have fought with each other at times, but it is a shameful thing, and we do everything we can to avoid it. Human killing human is abhorrent; we will not be a party to it.”

Leha’s heart plummeted. “Then I came here, suffered through everything, for nothing?” She couldn’t keep the frustration from her voice.

Sheen’s wrinkled visage softened sympathetically. “It would appear so. I am sorry.”

Leha put her head back into her hands, scraping herself with a claw in the process. The Lost One crowd began to disperse as she tried to hold back tears. Some spoke of holding a belated celebration of victory over the Gods.

She decided she wanted to be alone. As she was about to stand up, she remembered the calluses on her feet.

Looking at Elder Sheen, she said, “One more question.”

Sheen, whose elderly joints had not allowed her to leave yet, turned to her. “Yes?”

“What is this?” She pointed to her feet. “One minute, I want calluses to protect my feet. The next, I have them.”

Sheen furrowed her brow perplexedly. “You must have inherited our ability to change ourselves, but you should not have been able to do it so quickly. It would take us the better part of an hour to do something like this. Strange.”

The elder’s confusion did nothing to make Leha feel better, but she thanked her, all the same.

She stood. With the ropes creaking under her, she crossed to the edge of the platform. Staring down, she listened to the sounds of the forest beasts and tried to decide what to do next.

* * *

She spent the rest of the day considering, rejecting, and then reconsidering her options. She could continue to explore Tyzu, perhaps contact other Lost One clans, but there was no reason to believe she would gain anything from that. She could return to Sy’om and explore it further, but she doubted she would find anything useful there. She came to the crushing conclusion that her mission had been a failure, and that she would have to return to Barria.

Assuming she could find a way back.

The Lost Ones left her alone, for the most part. They clearly wanted to spend time with her, but they seemed to realize she needed space. They expended their time in the everyday business of living – hunting, gathering, cleaning, making and repairing their simple tools, cooking, and so forth. The elderly and those without any pressing tasks tended to play a board game that used various animal bones as pieces. The children on Tyzu were much like the children everywhere. They ran, and laughed, and played. Leha had to wonder what was to stop them falling off the platform during some of their rowdier games. The young ones were inclined to gawk at her and ask her questions about Barria. She tolerated them but did not make any pretense of friendliness.

At one point, a short Lost One man approached her. She recognized him as Sosk. She shivered as she remembered the events of the previous night.

He stood two feet from her and rung his hands. “I want to tell you that I’m sorry for the pain we – I – have caused you,” he finally said. He seemed as if we was about to say something else, but he stayed silent.

Leha stared up at him. She couldn’t bring herself to hate him for what he had done, but the memory of his claws tearing into her arm was still fresh in her mind. She resisted the urge to look away. She didn’t have the energy to think about this now. “I understand,” she said, and she did look away.

Sosk waited for her to say more. When she didn’t, he left. Leha returned to her contemplation of the forest below and her dark thoughts.

In the middle of the afternoon, a storm blew in, seemingly out of nowhere. Leha and the Lost Ones were forced to take shelter in the huts while lightning raged and titanic winds ripped through the forest. It seemed to Leha as if the world was coming to an end. The Lost Ones informed her that such weather was common.

When the storm was over, they returned to what they had been doing beforehand. The lightning had set off several brushfires; some got close to the village before burning themselves out. The Lost Ones were not fazed by any of it.

At dinner, just after nightfall, Leha spoke to Sheen again. “Are there wizards among the Lost Ones?”

Sheen nodded. “Yes. I and several others provide magical services for the clan.” The elder chewed on a piece of meat.

The creature they were eating had looked something like a deer, but it tasted more like chicken. It smelled like bacon.

“We have no silver, though, so we are very limited,” Sheen added. Her odd-colored skin seemed to glow in the orange torchlight.

“Why don’t you have any silver?” Leha asked, spearing a piece of meat with a claw. She had to admit that they could be practical.

“The silver we brought with us, and the knowledge of how to make more, were lost in ages past.”

Leha accepted a mug of fruit juice from one of the Lost Ones and sipped the sweet beverage. “Could you manage the spell to take me back to Barria?”

“Our ancestors did their best to penetrate the seal and return to Barria. What makes you think you will do better?” Sheen rasped.

Leha shrugged. “What choice do I have? I don’t want to stay here.” She looked up, adding, “No offense.”

Sheen shook her head as a way of saying, “None taken,” and made a beckoning motion with her hand. “Describe the spell.”

Leha explained it, adding that they would need to draw a large amount of power to create a new jumping point, as the jumping points to Barria had been eliminated.

Elder Sheen shook her head sadly. “We cannot do it.”

“Why not?” Leha pleaded, running her fingers through her hair. The feeling of claws on her scalp was more than a little disturbing.

“Tyzu’s energies are chaotic. To channel that much power without silver would surely kill the casters.”

Leha hung her head and let out an exasperated sigh.

After several minutes like that, she lifted her head and said, “There must be something we can try. A spell. A place to look for the silver you lost.”

A Lost One warrior with a scar on her chin leaned forward. “There is one place where silver can be found.”

Heart pounding, Leha looked at her expectantly.

“That will not help her, Haj,” Elder Sheen said.

Leha leaned forward. “What is it?”

Sheen frowned and put down her food. She seemed hesitant to speak. “Not all of the Gods failed to adapt to Tyzu. One was able to survive, though it went mad. It took up residence in a cave north of here. Every few years it would emerge to pillage and cause havoc. Our clans could not defeat it. It may be dead now – it has not been seen since I was young – but we have not dared to check.”

Leha felt her blood chill at the knowledge that an Old God still lived. “What does this have to do with finding silver?” she asked.

“The Gods fused silver onto their bodies. It gave them great mastery over magic,” one of the Lost Ones said.

Leha shuddered. “If I was to try and take this Old God’s silver, would your clan help me?” she asked Sheen.

“No. It is too great a risk,” Sheen replied sternly.

Leha ate her food without tasting it. The world seemed to be closing in on her.

* * *

That night, she dreamed of Three Gates’s destruction, of fire and war and death, and of Drogin. She dreamed of the cold stares of Tor Automatons and of the screams of frightened women. She startled awake many times, sometimes waking the Lost One woman whose home she stayed in.

When dawn finally came, bringing with it a return of Tyzu’s intense heat, she felt more tired than she had before she had gone to sleep. She shared breakfast with the Lost Ones, saying little.

After she had eaten and drank, she returned to the hut she shared and sought out her belongings. She could not stay here while her nation burned, and she had just one hope of returning to Barria. She had to kill the Old God and tear the silver from its body.

She did not bother to consider how reckless her quest was – or how small her chances of survival were.

As she fastened her sword belt, a deep voice spoke behind her. “Leha.”

She spun around. It was Doga, the one who had taken her from the forest. “Yes?” she said.

“I wish to apologize for frightening you when we first met. It was not my intent.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” she said dismissively, hooking her knife onto the belt.

Doga paused before saying, “You are going after the God, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” she sighed, expecting him to try and talk her out of it.

Doga pulled himself to his full height. “I would help you.”

She looked up from rooting through her pack, a questioning expression upon her face.

“Our ancestors came here to fight the Gods. It seems my people have lost sight of our purpose here. Though I’m sure Elder Sheen believes she is doing what is best for us, I think she has allowed fear to lead her away from our duty.”

Leha stood. “Will you get in trouble for helping me?”

“Elder Sheen has not ordered us to help you, but she has not ordered us not to help you. I am free to make my own decisions.”

Leha stepped forward and placed a hand on his hard shoulder. “Thank you,” she said earnestly.

Doga bowed his head. “It is my honor.”

They stepped from the hut together.

“I must gather my weapons. I will meet you there,” he said, pointing to the closer edge of the platform.

She went and stood at the edge. She wondered if any of the other Lost Ones had noticed what she was doing. If so, they gave no sign of it.

As she wished that she had brought some armor with her from Barria, Doga returned. He had a satchel of three sharpened wood spears on his back, and a stone-bladed axe hung from his belt. “I am ready,” he said.

She looked down at the distant forest floor. The scent of new growth floated up from far below. “How do we get down?”

He glanced at her. “We don’t.” His body blurring, Doga leapt off the platform, flew more than two-dozen feet through the air, and landed neatly on the branch of a neighboring tree. He beckoned to her.

Fear clutched at Leha, but she reminded herself that things worked differently on Tyzu, and that this was no more dangerous than fighting an Old God would be. She took a deep breath, stepped backwards, took a running leap off the platform, and fell like a stone.

She shrieked.

Doga shot downward, caught her in midair, and landed on the trunk of another tree, sinking his claws into the wood.

She hugged the tree, trying to calm her breathing.

“I’m sorry. It is so easy for us that I thought…” he said.

She looked at him with frightened eyes. “I can’t travel like this.”

“It would take too long to walk there. You must change yourself, make your muscles stronger.”

She sighed. Closing her eyes, she concentrated on becoming strong, agile, and fast. Her limbs tingled, and she could feel her muscles growing. Her body became leaner, tighter, harder.

She opened her eyes. “Okay, let’s try it again,” she said in a strangled voice.

Doga jumped away. Upon landing, he turned and called, “I will catch you if you fall.”

Leha took another deep breath, and leapt.

She shot toward the tree, barely having time to reach out with her claws before banging into the trunk. Her claws found purchase, and she clambered up onto a branch just below Doga’s.

“Much better,” he said. A hint of a smile touched his angular features.

She nodded dumbly.

Doga said, “Again,” and took another blurring vault. She followed him, this time with more grace.

“I think I’m getting the hang of this!” she called to him. He nodded and jumped again.

They continued traveling in that manner for the next half-hour. Doga led the way, with Leha following. She grew to enjoy this mode of travel. It was almost like flying. The wind would rush across her body with each jump, exhilarating her – it was almost enough to make her forget the trials of the last few weeks.

She took the opportunity to observe many of the strange plants and animals that called Tyzu home. Doga told her that the forest was home to numerous kinds of vicious predators – including Stassai like the one he had rescued her from – but they did not encounter any of them.

As they neared their destination, a storm appeared – there was rarely any warning of storms on Tyzu. They were drenched in the blink of an eye. Lightning flared, but much of it went through the clouds and not down; Doga assured her that they were in little danger. Nonetheless, they avoided the taller trees.

They reached the base of a cliff, and Doga pointed down. A large cave, like a yawning mouth, pierced the cliff side. They skittered down the trees and approached.

The cold, pounding rain had damaged Leha’s mood, and the knowledge that what she was about to do was likely suicide killed the last of her good feelings. She shivered and set her mouth into a grim line

She drew her sword, and found that her claws prevented her from having a good grip.

She threw it away in disgust. Doga watched it clang against the rocks. He seemed confused but said nothing.

He drew a spear, and they entered the cave.

The rock was cool and wet under Leha’s bare feet. The ground was strewn with gravel and boulders. Some had sharp edges she could feel through her calluses. She willed them thicker. A small stream ran down the middle of the tunnel, filling the air with a faint trickling to accompany the cacophony of the storm outside.

Leha tried to concentrate on making her body as strong and tough as possible. The fearful drumming of her heart and the rush of adrenaline through her veins made it hard to think straight.

“If it is asleep, we may be able to ambush it,” Doga whispered, startling her. His face was set into a mask of determination. “It cannot control the magic on Tyzu, so it will have to fight us with its bare hands.”

That’s a great comfort, she thought sarcastically.

They turned a slight corner, and she saw a piece of tarnished silver reflecting the dim light. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but when she did, she gasped.

There, lying on the cavern floor, its metal body covered in dirt and rust, was their quarry.

It was an Automaton.

Leha’s first thought was that it was one of the Tor Wizard-Automatons, but she realized that its design did not match. It wasn’t any make she recognized.

Seeing her distress, Doga asked, “What is it?”

She started walking out of the cave, gesturing for him to follow. They stopped just inside the cavern mouth and she turned to face him. “It’s an Automaton!” she said.

“What is an Automaton?” he asked, looking perplexed.

“A machine. We use them on Barria for combat and heavy labor.”

Doga quirked his head. “The Gods do your bidding?”

“No, we – I,” she stammered. She flopped onto a damp boulder. “Wrath of the Old Gods,” she said, invoking the greatest of all swears.

Truth dawning on her, the blood drained from her face. The Old Gods had been living among humanity for centuries, and now, the Tors had finally restored them to their original level of power.

Eastenhold was not the only nation in peril. All of Barria was in danger.

“Leha, what are you talking about?” Doga asked.

She clutched the boulder she sat upon to stop her hands shaking. Her claws dug little furrows in the stone. “Hundreds of years ago, a wizard named Vorren invented a new type of magical war machine called an Automaton. It changed the face of the world. His nation, Jansia, became supremely powerful; my own country was founded by refugees fleeing the Jansian machines.

“Except he didn’t invent them. He must have found the wrecks of some of the Old Gods and rebuilt them, not realizing what they were. And every generation has been making the Automatons bigger and more powerful ever since.”

It now seemed unforgivably foolish, and her face burned with the shame of thousands of years of recklessness practiced by the people of her world. “It was thousands of years after the Liberation. No one remembered what the Old Gods had been. ‘Titans of strength and terror’ was all we ever knew of them.” She dropped her gaze. “We… forgot.”

As she spoke, his face tightened. His brow furrowed, his eyes widened, and his lip quivered in anger. “How could you have forgotten the Old Gods, after all they did to us?”

She looked up at him forlornly.

Her heart beat even faster now. She needed to get home and warn her people. She had to warn everyone.

A creaking of metal echoed from deeper in the cave. Doga’s head snapped around. “It’s awake.”

He ran back into the cave, spear at the ready, and she followed.

The Automaton had come to its feet. Even as massive as the cave was, the machine couldn’t stand straight without hitting the ceiling. It struck at them with both hands. They dodged in opposite directions moments before its fists smashed into the cave floor, sending dust and rocks flying.

Doga threw his first spear. It broke against the Automaton’s armor. The Automaton struck back; he dodged and threw the second. This one broke through the machine’s corroded chest, but it did not slow the ancient God.

While Doga kept it distracted, Leha circled behind it, trying to think of a way to bring it down. Her brother had taught her much about the inner workings of Automatons. If this one was like the modern models, it would have a disc of pure silver within its chest, drawing power to keep the machine operating. Tear out the disc, and this is over.

Doga hurled his last spear. It clanged off the Automaton’s head without effect. He drew his axe and struck the thing’s hand, tearing a deep gouge in the corroded metal. The Automaton swung its other hand in a wide arc. Doga avoided it – like Leha when she had first arrived, it was unsteady in its movements – but the blow shattered the cavern wall.

A piece of rubble hit Doga’s head with a meaty smack. He collapsed.

Leha’s heart skipped a beat and she cursed herself for hesitating. “Damn you!” she cried.

The Automaton turned to face her, its joints squealing and its feet crushing rocks. It fixed her with a baleful, blue stare. A voice, inhuman and cold, spoke in her mind. Rebellious whelp.

It raised its fist to crush her.

Still blaming herself for not helping Doga, she didn’t dive out of the way until it was almost too late. The floor where she had stood was pulverized. Bits of broken stone stung her skin.

She swung with her claws, snapping off one of the machine’s fingers. It backhanded her, smacking her against the cavern wall. Pain blossomed in her back. It attacked again, going for the killing blow. It was too fast; she couldn’t avoid it. If she had been on Barria, she might have had time to react, but here, she didn’t.

The Automaton slowed, allowing her to escape.

Confused, she bounded into the rear of the cavern, away from its clutches. The Automaton pursued her, but it was now moving at the speed it would on Barria, and she could evade it easily.

What happened? She thought back to the moment just before it had slowed. She had been thinking that if it had slowed to the pace of things on Barria, she would have been able to escape. And it had.

She decided to do an experiment. She concentrated on lessening the energy around it, on making it move as it would on Sy’om.

The Automaton slowed down to a crawl.

Leha felt a surge of vindictive pleasure. A smile split her face.

Still moving with the speed of Tyzu, she leapt onto one of its outstretched arms and ran up its unnaturally cold skin, arriving at its neck. She grabbed one of the rusted steel plates on the front of its throat and pulled with all her strength. Her muscles burned with the effort, but with a great screeching of metal, the plate tore off. She began pulling at the plate below it. In its current condition, there was little the Automaton could do to stop her. The second plate was even more corroded and came off easily. It crashed onto the stone floor.

The third plate took more effort. She had to brace herself on the machine’s reinforced collar and engage what felt like every muscle in her body to pry it loose. She gritted her teeth against the pain it caused her. Finally, with a great screaming of metal, it came free. She had to put her momentum into a spin to keep from falling off the machine’s chest.

The Automaton’s hands were almost close enough to yank her free, but she had created a wide enough hole in its neck for her to dive into its chill interior. She crawled down into the mass of gears and support struts that was the inside of its chest. Standing on a lateral beam, she clutched the faintly glowing silver disc that provided the machine’s power. Unlike its surroundings, which had been chilled by its drawing power to fuel the machine, it was warm. She shrank her claws to get a better grip, braced herself, and pulled, pitting her newfound strength against the steel of its moorings.

The inside of the machine was in better condition than the outside, and the silver was bolted in tightly. No ordinary human could have done it. But Leha was no longer an ordinary human.

Her body rose to the challenge, growing and enhancing its musculature beyond what she would have thought possible. Her arms became hard cords equal to any metal.

When she thought she could not stand the pain any longer, the disc broke from its moorings. She nearly fell into the gears in its hips, but caught herself in time.

The machine shuddered and dropped. Leha held on tightly, but it still moved with the energy of Sy’om, and the landing was soft.

Silver disc in hand, she wriggled out of the machine and ran across the dank cave to check on Doga. His head was bloodied, and her throat tightened as she approached. Then, she heard a groan, and he lifted his head.

“Did we win?” he asked groggily.

Kneeling before him, she held up the silver and grinned.

He smiled weakly. “How?”

Her grin faded. “I don’t know.” She looked at the fallen hulk of the Automaton. “It was about to kill me, and I thought that, if I was on Barria, I would have time to escape, and then it slowed down, like it was on Barria. Then I tried to make it as slow as it would have been if it was on Sy’om, and it worked.” She added, “I don’t understand it.”

Doga looked at her oddly, propping himself up on one elbow. “Maybe it has something to do with how we changed you. Maybe it made you a wizard.”

“Maybe,” she admitted. “But, on my world, the Automatons are shielded with lead so magic won’t work on them.”

Doga frowned. “This one was too. All the Gods were,” he said, glancing down at the floor.

She furrowed her brow. “Maybe the lead lost its efficacy over time.”

Doga hauled himself to a sitting position. He looked a little pale. “It’s possible. There is one way to see if you are a wizard: try to cast a spell.”

Leha wasn’t sure if trying to cast a spell on a high energy world, without training, was a good idea, but her curiosity got the better of her. She pointed at a nearby rock, closed her eyes, and tried to send a bolt of magic at it.

Nothing happened.

She tried changing her body, making herself into a wizard. Her face screwed in concentration.

Nothing happened.

She opened her eyes. “I’m not a wizard.”

Doga shook his head. “It is a mystery.”

Remembering the urgency of the situation, Leha said, “I need to get back to Barria and warn my people. Can you travel?”

He nodded. “Just give me a few moments.”

She nodded and stood. She stepped across the cavern to examine the dead Old God. She had spent so much time imagining them; it was nothing like what she had expected.

Running her hands across a rapidly warming metal foot, she wondered how she had defeated it. She picked up a stone and threw it. Halfway through its arc, she willed it to Sy’om’s energy level. It slowed greatly. With a thought, she sped it back up to Tyzu speed, and it clattered to the floor.

She shook her head. I don’t understand.

She performed several tests of her abilities before Doga signaled he was ready to go. She found that she could change the energy level of any object, even herself, to that found on Tyzu, Barria, or Sy’om.

She continued to ponder it as they left they cave and returned to the Watching Eye Clan village.

———————

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Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Two: Sy’om

We now come to the second chapter of my science fantasy epic, Rage of the Old Gods. In the coming weeks, I will be posting the entire book for free on this blog. If you missed the last chapter, get caught up now!

In this chapter, Leha arrives on the icy alien world of Sy’om, and quickly comes to regret her recklessness.

Cover art for "Rage of the Old Gods, the First Book of the World Spectrum" by Tyler F.M. Edwards———————

Chapter Two: Sy’om

Her plan was simple. Whatever had eliminated the jumping points had to be subtle, or someone would have been able to understand it. If it was subtle, it probably couldn’t act quickly. Any major battle involved wizards and Automatons draining power and disrupting the natural flow of energy. A battlefield was likely to be full of jumping points – jumping points that were formed too quickly to be immediately dispelled.

She formed her notes into a hasty proposal and headed to the Military Forum, a large building housing the leadership of the Eastenholder army, in the hopes of arranging a presentation with Lord Heggarn, the commander of Eastenhold’s military.

The Forum was abuzz, with soldiers and messengers darting through its polished stone halls in a flurry of activity. Anxious voices echoed off the high ceilings, and the entire place had the feel of barely controlled chaos. After years of peace, no one had expected an invasion on this scale.

Unsure of where to go, she settled on approaching the one desk in the atrium whose attendant didn’t look as panicked as someone trying to put out a fire.

“Yes?” the clerk asked, scribbling notes on a stack of papers.

She put on a look she hoped seemed confident and determined. “I’m here to submit a plan to Lord Heggarn. I believe I may have found a way to turn back to the Tor invasion.”

Seeing her lack of military uniform, he blinked.

“It’s very urgent,” Leha said.

The clerk looked dubious, but he must have seen some of the determination she felt. He put down what he was doing and went to deliver a message.

The minutes spent waiting dragged on, and Leha could only watch the chaos unfold around her. She reflected on the dire situation her nation found itself in, feeling the weight of dread press down on her ever harder. She’d met many members of the Three Gates garrison through Drogin, and soldiers had always struck her as a supremely calm and confident bunch. But the men and women of the Military Forum reminded her of nothing so much as chickens who’d just discovered a fox in their pen.

More time passed, and still the clerk did not return. She began speaking to other clerks and officials, trying first polite inquires and then, as time wore and her worries over Drogin’s fate grew, impatient demands.

After nearly an hour had passed, yet another clerk approached her and told her she would be heard. Butterflies in her stomach, she followed him down a hall and through an unmarked door, which he immediately closed behind her.

She found herself in a small, unadorned office lit by only one tiny window on the far wall. The place smelled of paper and ink. A thin, pale young man – obviously not Lord Heggarn – sat behind the desk, worrying himself over a massive stack of papers. Her shoulders sagged in disappointment.

Seeing her enter, the man reluctantly put down his forms and beckoned her closer. “I understand you’ve a plan to help us deal with the Tors?” he said, sounding disinterested. A tag on his desk read “Lome” – she assumed this was his name.

Leha cleared her throat, her body tense. She’d never been nervous or shy with people, but the trials of recent weeks had taken a toll on her, and a lot rode on the next few moments.

“Yes.” She handed him her notes. “I believe I have found a way to circumvent the seal placed upon Barria at the end of the Liberation. If we can reach the other worlds, we can draw upon their power to defeat the Tors, just as our ancestors did when fighting the Old Gods.”

One of Lome’s eyebrows shot up. As he read over her notes, the other slowly crept up to join it. Leha fidgeted.

After an obviously cursory examination, he put down her notes. “Are you demented?” he asked.

She frowned. Her face burned, and her fists clenched.

“The greatest minds of the world have worked for centuries to break the seal, and you think you, some random refugee from the provinces, have finally cracked it?” Lome continued.

“I’ve done my research. My theories are based on the best knowledge culled from the past seven thousand years of knowledge,” she said, trying and failing to keep the indignation out of her voice.

Lome started to say something, but she cut him off. “If this succeeds, it can save Eastenhold. What have we got to lose by trying?”

He shook his head and handed her notes back. “We don’t have time for flights of fancy like this. We’ve got a war to fight.”

Leha felt caught between breaking down in tears and throttling him. His casual dismissal stung even worse than his earlier vehemence.

Snatching the notes out of his hands, she stormed out of his office, slamming the door behind her.

* * *

Leha refused to take no as an answer. Her plan had too much potential, and Eastenhold was in too much danger. She signed onto Lord Heggarn’s force as a medic. In the chaos that had followed Broad Field’s fall, no one checked whether she knew anything about medicine – she didn’t.

Motivated by fear, the people under Lord Heggarn’s command mustered every able-bodied fighter and every serviceable Automaton from around Heart in record time. Less than two full days after they’d heard of Broad Field’s fall, they were on the road. And Leha, wearing the red armband of a medic, traveled with them. She brought with her every item she had saved from her home in Three Gates, as well as the notes she had built up while researching.

She slept little during the journey, and she had trouble concentrating on the world around her. A knot of emotions festered within her mind, pulling her away from the present. Her concern for Drogin stabbed at her like a thorn in her boot. She did her best to ignore it, but it always returned, sooner or later.

Whenever she thought of the battle to come, apprehension flooded through her, causing her to break out in cold sweats. It was one thing to read about them in books, quite another to experience them firsthand. She didn’t plan to be on the front lines – she expected the pockets of low energy around the battle wizards would suffice to get her to Sy’om – but that did not much reassure her.

The excitement and anticipation of visiting an alien world added to her emotional confusion. She was going to do something no one had done in seven millennia.

On top of all that, being on the road again brought back bad memories of the flight from Three Gates. She had not felt such a confusing mix of emotions since her teen years.

The weather provided small comfort. A cold front had come in, bringing with it gloomy, gray clouds and relief from the heat of the past several weeks.

The civilian survivors of Broad Field arrived at their camp just before dawn on the second day out. They were given food, water, and a small amount of medical care before being sent on to Heart. They left behind stories of war, destruction, and bloody atrocities. Leha tried to block them from her thoughts, but they rang through her mind, all the same.

She wondered what madness had seized the Tors. The conflicts between them and Eastenhold had sparked much hatred on both sides, but she hadn’t thought them capable of something like this.

Not long after Broad Field’s survivors left, the column set out again. Another hard day of travel followed.

Early the next morning – as a light, cool rain began to fall – they met up with the last of Broad Field’s defenders – much sooner than they had expected to. The Blue River was still at least a day away.

The defense at the bridge had fallen.

The two forces mingled. Leha left her wagon and maneuvered through the press of unpacking soldiers, officers barking orders, and clanking Automatons to reach the center of camp.

If Drogin was still alive, he would be here somewhere. Her heart lodged itself in her throat as she searched the campfires and the mess tents and made inquiries. She avoided looking in the infirmary tents – she did not want to think about that possibility.

She was slogging through a path turned to mud by rain and the passing of feet, approaching what appeared to be an Automaton repair area and shivering in her wet coat, when she saw a familiar, if slightly singed, head of sandy brown hair.

“Drogin!” she called, waving.

Her brother looked up, his jaw dropped, and he ran over to her. “What – ”

Leha cut off his question when she threw her arms around him in a strangling hug. “You’re alive!”

He disentangled himself from her. “What are you doing here?”

She looked around. “Is there some place we can talk?”

Drogin led her into a tent filled with gears, pieces of silver and crystal, mechanical fingers, and other small Automaton parts. He leaned on a table, and she sat on a crate across from him.

Before he could say anything, Leha asked, “Are you all right? What was it like at Broad Field?”

A haunted expression crossed his face. “I’m okay.”

“What was it like?” she repeated, leaning forward slightly.

He let out a breath and rubbed his face with one hand. “Bad,” he said. “Seemed like all of Tor Som turned out for this war. They covered the plain. Once the walls came down, they swamped the whole city. But that wasn’t what did us in. We had fortifications. We had supplies. We could have held out against their soldiers for weeks.” He put his hands in his pockets and stared at his feet. “They’ve built new Automatons. They’re huge, and strong, and near indestructible.” He looked her in the eye. “They’re wizards, Leha.”

She stood up. “Wizards? How is that possible?” She knew little of magic, but she had always been told machines lacked the physical and mental complexity to control magic on a large scale.

He started to pace. “I don’t know.” He stopped and looked at her. “They’re the equals of any battle wizards I’ve ever seen. They tore through the walls and our people like fire through dry thatch.”

Leha wrapped an arm around his shoulders, hugging him to her.

“Now, what are you doing here?” he asked, after a moment.

Leha stepped back from him, cleared her throat, and said, “I can do it. I can get to Sy’om. But I need a battlefield to do it.”

Drogin raised his eyebrows; Leha noticed one had been partially singed off.

She spent the next five minutes explaining everything she had learned in her research, and her plan to get to Sy’om.

When she finished, he said, “Little Sister, please, I beg you not to do this. You’re going to get yourself killed.”

Of all the possible responses, this was not one she had prepared for.

She took a step forward. “I know what I’m doing. If the spell goes wrong, the worst that could happen is nothing.”

“And what about the hazards of battle? What if you’re struck by a crossbow bolt or a spell?”

“I’ll be at the back of the lines. Trust me; I don’t want to be in the thick of it anymore than you want me to.”

He gestured feebly. Part of her was touched by his concern. “There must be someone better suited for this,” he argued.

“Who would trust my theories? I tried talking to Heggarn’s people. They thought I was an idiot.”

“Even if you do make it through, how will you get back? You don’t know if you’ll be able to find a jumping point, and if you do, you can’t cast the spell yourself.”

Leha set her jaw and met his eyes. “I’ll find a way. I’m a big girl. I can take care of myself.”

Drogin shifted uncomfortably and looked at the ground.

Leha continued, “Eastenhold needs an advantage, or we’re not going to win this war.” She quoted Wizard Vorren, the famed Jansian inventor of Automatons, adding, “There is no gain without risk.”

A long moment passed without either of them speaking.

Almost inaudibly, Drogin chuckled. “I’m not going to be able to talk you out of this one, am I?”

“No.”

He took a deep breath and looked up. “Okay.”

* * *

I must be crazy, Drogin thought as he directed the Automatons under his command.

She’d done it to him again – convinced him to help her in some wild, foolish scheme. She’d always been good at persuading people, and he was especially vulnerable. As children, she’d gotten him into trouble on countless occasions. Only this time, it was a lot more dangerous than stealing sweets from the bakery or sneaking into the Automaton yards.

He heard a crash and a tearing of metal to his right. Breaking the link with his Automatons, he saw that an enemy Quadramaton had hit one of the other Eastenholder machines with a boulder. He reestablished the link.

The Tor army was advancing on them, spreading across the land like a red wave, their uniforms looking like dried blood in the dim light. They had arrived a few hours after Leha’s group, and the Eastenholders had barely had time to prepare themselves to meet the assault.

Lord Heggarn had chosen a traditional formation: rows of Automatons front and center, backed-up by small squads of infantry, with the cavalry, Quadramatons, and the majority of the crossbowmen out to the sides in two angled wings, where they could harry the enemy’s flanks. Battle wizards were concentrated at the back but present throughout.

The Tors had chosen a less traditional, rectangular formation. The Automatons remained at the fore, but the cavalry were kept behind them, in front of the infantry, and the crossbowmen, Quadramatons, and battle wizards were kept on the sides of the front lines.

Drogin stood with a group of battle wizards and several other Automaton technicians at the rear of the lines. Crossbowmen – carrying both anti-infantry bolts, capped with metal bodkins, and anti-Automaton bolts, capped with vials of corrosive chemicals designed to shatter on impact – guarded them.

He shuddered as he saw, through the eyes of one of his Automatons, the Tors’ Wizard-Automatons. Occasionally, they would fire bolts of scintillating magic from the silver bands at their wrists, sending sparks splashing off the Eastenholder Automatons’ magic resistant lead armor.

Horns blew across the rain-soaked battlefield, and cries of “Charge!” went up all around him. A great crashing and tearing of metal erupted where the two forces met. His machines were slammed between two sides of mechanized combatants, causing him to tremble in sympathy. Behind him, he sensed Leha flinch at the noise.

The battle wizards near them raised their hexagonal, silver-plated staffs and sent bolts of green-white magic soaring overhead to strike at the Tor lines. The Tor Wizard-Automatons erected a shield and blocked them. The air gained the chill that followed the drawing of power.

Leha touched his arm lightly.

He shook his head. “Not yet.”

He spent the next several minutes directing his Automatons via his control amulet, waiting for the energy around him to drain. It was difficult to split his attention, and he knew disaster could result if he did not focus on the battle. If Eastenhold lost here, it would never recover.

Finally, he felt the energy drop to a low enough level. Still controlling the Automatons, he nodded to Leha and pulled his wand from his belt. His mind went over what he’d read in Leha’s notes about the spell. He dared not make a mistake.

In a feat of mental gymnastics that sent pain lancing through his head, he activated the jumping point while still commanding his machines.

The spell produced a brief flash – it went unnoticed in chaos of war – and his sister was gone.

A wave of guilt, doubt, and second thoughts assaulted him. He stared at the empty spot where his little sister had stood, a lump forming in his throat, and wondered if he’d just made the greatest mistake of his life.

He shook his head. He had to focus on the battle.

* * *

It felt strange. Leha knew that light surrounded her, but she couldn’t see. She felt as if she was being sucked through a thin tube and having the energy drained from her limbs at the same time. Everything tingled.

Her feet hit ground, and her knees gave out.

Her first thought was an intense thrill at successfully arriving on another world. As a child, she had frequently fantasized about making such a journey. Now she had. A broad grin lit up her face.

Her second thought was that the ground seemed to be coming towards her in slow-motion. She had arrived, and fallen, several seconds ago, but she was still several inches above the snow. It was almost as strange as the trip from Barria had been. Looking up – it took much longer for her to move her head than it should have – she saw that the snowflakes drifting down from the clear, blue sky were moving with an incredible lack of speed.

Her third thought, which became more intense when her knees finally impacted the deep snow, was that it was cold here. Very cold. Her breath misted in the air, and frost had started to form on her wet cloak.

She’d known that Sy’om was a cold place and had done her best to buy cold weather clothing before leaving, but it had been summer in Eastenhold, and it hadn’t been easy to find.

She grabbed her pack, pulled it open, and extracted a pair of woolen mitts, a scarf, and a hat. It would have taken seconds on Barria, but here, it took minutes. By the time she finished, she was chilled to the bone.

It seemed as if time itself had slowed, but she knew that wasn’t the case. The old texts had described the low energy that made everything slower and weaker. Time passed at the same rate, but everything on this alien world functioned sluggishly. That her thoughts were not slowed confirmed this.

Laboriously, she stood up, brushed the snow from legs, and looked around. She stood on top of a tall hill surrounded by a world of radiant white. Snowfields and glaciers stretched out in all directions – except for behind her and to her right, where steep hills of black stone speared up from the ice.

Leha surveyed the spectacular vista, momentarily forgetting how cold she was.

At first glance, Sy’om appeared lifeless, but she noticed the presence of what appeared to be a bird of prey in the distance, as well as strange mossy plants clinging to some of the few exposed rock faces near her.

The reflected light became too much. She had to cast her eyes downward.

She again became aware of the intense, piercing cold. She began to shiver – an extremely odd sensation in slow-motion. She pulled her cloak tight around her, but it was wet and made her feel colder.

She looked around again, shielding her eyes. If she couldn’t find a way to warm up soon, she would freeze. She could not see any shelter in the area, and there wasn’t enough of the moss to start a fire.

It occurred to her that she had absolutely no idea of where to begin looking for weapons to use against the Tors. She started to wonder if this trip had been the smartest thing to do. Countless lectures given by her parents on the dangers of being too curious sprang into her mind.

Fear and doubt crept over her, causing her to shiver further.

She pushed them down. I need to find shelter. She looked to the hills to her right. Where there are hills, there could be caves.

With the snow crunching beneath her, and a slow-motion breeze blowing over her, she set out across the icy fields of Sy’om.

* * *

Leha’s scarf had fallen away from her face, and the bitter air tore at her cheeks and lips, but she no longer had the strength to pull it back up. It took all of her energy, all of her will, simply to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

She didn’t know how long she had been walking. It had all faded into a blur of whiteness, fatigue, and cold. Always cold. She knew that the world’s weak sun had changed positions, but she was no longer sure how much of a change it had been. Her memories had grown blurry – she had trouble focusing her thoughts. The hills didn’t seem any closer, but she knew that couldn’t be right. Her cloak had frozen into a hardened cocoon, and it restricted her feeble, cold-addled movements. She had lost feeling in her fingers and toes, but perhaps that was a blessing. During her journey, she had cursed herself for her foolishness and alternated between anger at herself, anger at the Tors, and fear for her life. Now, she didn’t have the energy to feel much of anything. Except the cold.

She wished Drogin was with her. He was sensible. He was the elder by two years, and he’d always looked out for her. She regretted not listening to his warnings.

Her legs felt as if they were made of lead. Walking grew more difficult, until each step became a labor. And then, the next step did not come. She tried to move her right leg forward, but it didn’t, and she fell, drifting to rest in the deep snow.

She flung out her arms – watching them drift over herself, knocking snowflakes from their flight path – in an attempt to push herself to a sitting position, but she found that the strength had fled them. She settled deeper into the snow, and found that she didn’t feel so cold now.

She tucked her legs in closer. Now, she hardly felt cold at all. Something like warmth seeped into her limbs, and a grateful smile pulled at the corners of her blue lips. Her vision started to blur and flicker, but that didn’t matter; the cold was gone.

A part of her mind warned her that something was wrong, but she had trouble focusing on it, and as time went on, it faded away, leaving nothing but a vague sense of discontent.

She didn’t know how long she lay there. It might have been seconds or hours. After a time, she began to hear things – odd crunching and shuffling noises. An unknowable amount of time later, she saw things as well – bizarre, splay-legged creatures with shaggy fur. They wrapped clawed hands around her and carried her out of the powder.

Her mind remained sufficiently cognizant to think that what she was experiencing could not be real, but she saw no reason to fight it. She enjoyed the sensation of being carried.

She watched the snowflakes flutter by and used her last coherent thought to wonder how her mind had come up with such creative hallucinations.

* * *

Warmth. She had forgotten what it felt like. For several long minutes she did nothing but luxuriate in the absence of cold. Later, she learned to appreciate the softness of her bed, the way the mattress cradled her body.

Then, she woke up enough to realize that this wasn’t her bed in Three Gates. Everything that had happened in the past days came rushing back.

She groaned and opened her eyes.

She was in a room of bare stone – she could not tell whether it was natural or carved – lying on a pallet of some kind of animal fur, and covered by several blankets of a coarse, unknown plant fiber. Her cloak and winter accoutrements were gone, but she was otherwise fully clothed. Several crude, animal fat-based lamps provided light and a few wisps of smoke that smelled vaguely of bacon. She realized now that the room was fairly cool, but it was still far warmer than the snowfields had been.

She started to wonder where she was and how she had gotten there, but then she heard what sounded like hoof beats coming towards her. A creature entered her room. It was one of the beings she had thought to be a hallucination, and it was the strangest thing she had ever seen.

Its torso and arms appeared human, save for the claws and the gray fur, but the rest of it was not at all familiar. It had four goat-like legs terminating in cloven hooves. Each faced a different outward direction, giving it a shambling gait. Its head was ovoid with dark, liquid eyes on either side.

Leha felt nervousness creep through her, displacing her natural curiosity.

The alien stopped two feet from her bed and looked at her crookedly.

Leha felt a tickling in her mind. The tickling became images and feelings, then words.

You are awake.

Leha was still weak from her near-death and did not know how to react to this alien speaking into her mind.

He – somehow, she knew it was male – bared black teeth and said, Are you hungry?

Leha hesitated before nodding. “Yes.” Things were still in slow-motion, and her voice sounded strange.

The alien ducked his head in what she assumed was a nod.

She stared into one of his black eyes for a moment, trying to decide whether she should be afraid. “Why am I here?”

Because I brought you here.

“Why did you bring me here?”

You were dying. You do not look like food or danger. There was no reason not to save you and many reasons to. You are strange; I am curious. You were dying; I took pity. He quirked his head.

Leha sat up and leaned against the chill rock wall; it took many long seconds. “Who are you?”

I am kind and curious. I took pity on you. I saved you. His voice was getting clearer in her mind. Who are you?

“I am Leha.”

What is ‘Leha’? He seemed to find her as alien as she found him.

“I am Leha.”

What is ‘Leha’?

“It is my name.”

The alien took an awkward step forward. What is ‘name’?

She thought. “A name is a word or a sound we use for identification.”

Ah. You speak. Of course, he sent. He stared at the floor for some reason.

Leha took the moment to watch a lamp flicker. On this world, the flame’s movement was slow, graceful, beautiful. Perhaps she was simply too tired to feel fear, but she had the feeling that the alien was not a threat to her.

Without turning, she knew the alien was looking at her again.

Who are ‘we’? he asked.

She faced him. “Humans.”

Ah! I thought you were human. I have – he sent a sensation of feeling, hearing, and experiencing – stories of humans. He wavered on his feet, slightly.

She had the feeling he was greatly enjoying learning about her. She didn’t know whether to feel kinship at his curiosity or anger at being treated like a scholar’s experiment.

The alien continued. Of all the races we know, humans are the only ones who speak, even on your own world.

Leha stared at him, dumbfounded. “There are other races on Barria? Races who don’t speak?”

He took another step forward. The Rock Gods link minds as we do.

Leha furrowed her brow. “Rock Gods? Do you mean the Old Gods?”

He sent her an affirmative.

“The Old Gods were telepathic?” None of the old tales had mentioned that.

Another affirmative. Speech is slow. If we spoke, nothing would ever get done.

Considering the snail’s pace Sy’om moved at, she could believe him.

He moved his head so that the other eye faced her. Did you defeat them?

Leha changed position so that she sat cross-legged. “The Old Gods? Yes. We are free now.”

He wrinkled what she thought was his nose. That is good. Some of them came here before they sealed your world. They were dangerous. We had to destroy them. Rock is not adaptable; they could not adapt to Sy’om. He bared his teeth and worked his lips in something akin to laughter.

Leha wondered why he associated the Old Gods with rock. She was beginning to enjoy “talking” to this creature.

She heard hooves on stone. A second creature, this one with whitish fur, arrived and placed two dishes in front of her. One contained some meat, barely cooked, and the other held a lukewarm concoction somewhere between tea and soup.

Food, the first alien said as the other left. Neither creature reacted to the other in any way.

Leha tasted her food. It wasn’t the most appetizing cuisine she had encountered, but she felt starved. She decided it would do.

The alien settled into something resembling a kneeling position. He seemed content to watch her eat.

“Who are you?” she asked, chewing something that tasted like venison. She meant his race as a whole, and she guessed he would be able to pick that up through whatever mind link he used.

She guessed correctly. We are as you see us. We are as we have always been. We hunt upon the glaciers, and we farm the rock moss. We live in the caverns of the hills. We are gentle. We are unified.

She knew with absolute certainty that he spoke the truth.

He swiveled his head to the right. Why did you come here? How did you come here? We thought your world was sealed.

Leha swallowed a large piece of some tough, bitter vegetable. She took a deep breath and told him her story, including a brief history of the conflict between Tor Som and Eastenhold. She also explained a bit about her own life prior to the war.

Occasionally, he asked questions. It took a few minutes to explain Automatons, seeing as he did not know what machines or metal were – his people had only experienced the latter in its raw state, and they did not distinguish it from stone. By the end of her monologue, she had eaten her fill and felt sleepy.

Her alien companion stayed silent for several minutes. Then, he looked her in the eye. Humans fight each other? Kill each other?

She nodded, a little sadly.

Why?

Leha had to think about that one. She stared into the lamps – it helped her think. “Many reasons, I suppose. Greed, anger, justice, vengeance. Some old stories say that we were given these things by the Old Gods to prevent us from uniting against them, though I don’t know if I believe that. It certainly didn’t work. We were united during the Liberation.

“My country and Tor Som have fought for centuries, provided ample reasons to hate each other. The hate in Tor Som must have boiled over. They must have decided that the world would be better without us.” Her voice thickened as she remembered the destruction wrought on her homeland.

The alien leaned forward and widened his eyes at her. Would it?

“What?”

Would the world be better without you?

Leha swore under her breath. She swallowed, then looked at him and said, “I don’t know. Eastenhold is, by most measures, a good country. We have fair rulers and plentiful food, but, like anywhere else, we have problems. We have thieves, and rapists, and murderers. I can’t see the right in our destruction, but what do I know? This is a question for wiser folk than I.”

The alien seemed satisfied by this. She could sense him preparing more questions, but she held up a hand to stop him, regretting the amount of time it took.

“I’m tired. I need to rest.”

The alien stood up as abruptly as his world would allow. Of course. Thank you for speaking to me. He collected her bowls and left.

Leha had just enough energy to remove her boots and fling them aside before her body lost all its strength. She lay back and wrapped the blankets about herself.

Though she was exhausted, it took her a long time to sleep. Her encounter with the alien had given her a lot to think about, and not all of it was pleasant.

* * *

Leha’s recovery was slow. Everything took longer on Sy’om, including, it seemed, healing. She stayed bedridden for a week, but it felt to her like longer.

She often spoke with the alien who had saved her, the one she had come to think of as Benefactor. Their conversations helped the days pass. She told him about humanity, and he taught her about his people. She learned about how they hunted the small creatures that lived on the glaciers, how they farmed the few usable plants, and how they passed their days in the dim caverns.

After the first week, she had recovered enough to take short walks around the caves, where she learned more about the ice creatures. Considering the harshness of their environment, they were surprisingly plentiful. Several hundred lived in this colony, and there was another just over a day’s walk away. Their technology was very crude, yet it sustained a comfortable life.

Leha was also surprised to discover that some of the creatures were wizards – though they were not as powerful as their Barrian counterparts. They had no silver and little energy to work with, so they were limited to the simplest of spells; most of their effort went into cooking food and keeping the caverns warm. She learned that, when Benefactor had found her, it had been their magic that had saved her from freezing to death.

Despite the thrill of discovery, Leha grew restless. She had not seen or heard of anything on Sy’om that would help her fight the Tors. She asked Benefactor and some of the other ice creatures whether they knew of anything, but they were of little help. Their ancient memories showed that something about the essence of their world had proven harmful to the Old Gods, but beyond that, they knew nothing. Rock is not adaptable. They could not adapt, Benefactor often said.

Drogin dominated her thoughts. As much as she tried, she could not banish images of terrible battles and rampaging Automatons from her mind. Sometimes, thoughts of her brother would keep her up at night. If he died, she would have no one left. Her parents were dead, and she had no other siblings. She had to find a way to help him.

Sy’om held no powers she could use. That left one option: Tyzu.

* * *

Leha leaned back against the cool stone wall. She had just finished explaining the concepts of money, economics, and business to Benefactor – it had taken over an hour. He bared his teeth at her.

She sat on a bench carved into the side of one of the communal caverns, toying with her sword and watching the lamplight play off its blade. Benefactor had wanted to study it.

She had bought the sword from a trader who’d claimed it to be a relic of the Jansian Empire, though it obviously wasn’t. Thankfully for her, his pricing had been as incompetent as his appraisals, and she had purchased it for a fairly low price. Its length and double edge suggested it was Eastenholder, but the design of the hilt was Piran, and a thin tracery of silver, a Urannan trait, covered the guard and pommel. It was Karkaran, she’d decided. That nation was a melting pot of the surrounding cultures. It had probably belonged to an officer.

She had always liked the sword. There were finer blades to be had, she knew, but it had a sense of history to it, and it managed to be elegant while still being practical.

Leha sighed. She had not enjoyed the conversation with Benefactor as much as she normally did. Her concerns about her brother had kept butting into her mind.

The cavern echoed with the bleating of alien children playing a game similar to tag – albeit much slower.

Leha felt the etchings in her sword’s hilt and saw that her companion seemed to be out of questions, for the moment. “Is it possible to get to Tyzu from Sy’om?” she asked. She couldn’t get used to communicating with her mind.

The alien quirked his head. What is Tyzu?

“The world above Barria in the world spectrum.”

He ducked his head. Ah. Yes. The Rock Gods did not seal us. But I doubt any hold the memory of the spell to travel.

Leha leaned on her sword. “I hold the memory.”

Ah. Then it can be done. His head pivoted so that his left eye faced her. It glowed like a ruby in the lamplight. You wish to leave? he asked. She thought she detected sadness in his mental voice.

She shifted on the hard bench. “Yes. I need to find a way to help my brother, and I need to get back to Barria.”

Barria is a place we cannot take you.

“I know. Take me to Tyzu. I will make my own way from there.” Her cheeks warmed. It didn’t feel right to ask him this after all his people had done to help her.

The alien leaned closer. When do you wish to leave?

She laid her sword on the bench. “When can you send me?”

He stared at the ceiling for a moment, then looked back at her. Our wizards are tired today. Tomorrow morning.

“I’ll leave tomorrow, then.”

He took a step forward and looked at her pleadingly. Would you stay with me until you leave?

Leha smiled broadly. “I would be delighted. Just be sure to leave me time to sleep.”

He bared his teeth and ducked his head.

* * *

The next day, Leha, Benefactor, two alien wizards, and several curious ice creatures left the caverns. The weather was much as it had been when she arrived – clear and cold.

The distance to the jumping point was not far. On Barria it would have been less than an hour’s walk. On Sy’om, it took two hours. The steep hill they had to climb and the deep snow made the journey no easier. Leha discovered that, although they were awkward on flat surfaces, the aliens were adept at moving in conditions such as these. It explained the steep angles of some of their tunnels.

Leha was better protected from the cold this time. The aliens had made her a thick, warm cloak from the furs of local animals. She had thanked them profusely for it.

When they reached the top of the hill, the aliens formed a ring, and Leha stepped into the middle.

She addressed the crowd. “Thank you for all you’ve done.”

Benefactor bared his black teeth. Thank you for being so strange. She took it as a compliment.

The rest of the aliens sent her the feeling that she had been no burden to them.

Are you ready? one of the wizards, a white-furred female, asked.

Leha tightened her grip on her walking stick. “Yes.”

The wizards ducked their heads and began the spell.

———————

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