Monthly Archives: November 2014

Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Seven: North

We have now come to the seventh 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 "Rage of the Old Gods, the First Book of the World Spectrum" by Tyler F.M. EdwardsIn this chapter, Yarnig presses into the frozen north and at last makes contact with the Northern Clans, a wild people separated from the rest of humanity since shortly after the Liberation. The Clanspeople are ancient enemies of Yarnig’s nation, but he finds they are not at all what he expected.

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Chapter seven: North

Snow. It seemed like the entire world was snow.

Yarnig and his people had been traversing the tundra for just over two days now, but it felt like they had been here forever. Yarnig could hardly remember what warmth was. Their universe had been reduced to wind, cold, and endless whiteness. White snow, white sky, white ice. White, white, white.

Erik held his staff forward, sensing the Clan magic and leading them slowly onward. The wizard believed they were getting closer, but he hadn’t been able to say how far away their goal was.

The wind did odd things with the snow, sculpting into abstract patterns, undulating waves, and endless hills and valleys. In places, much of it had been blown away, leaving the earth covered in but a thin sheet. In others, it had drifted so deep that the horses had to wade through it like a river. To Yarnig’s regret, they encountered more of the latter than the former.

Over time, he found that this land was not as lifeless as it seemed. Buried beneath the snow, he found various types of bushes, tall grass, and scrub. At night, they heard the eerie howls of wolves, and during the day, they would sometimes catch sight of vague shapes, herds, in the distance.

Harsh as it was, the land was alive.

The cold had begun to take its toll. The day before, one of the horses had died, and its rider now followed along on snowshoes. Taldin reported that frostbite had struck some of the men, and Yarnig felt himself become more exhausted by the minute. He had heard rumors that, when Leha had gone to Sy’om, she had nearly frozen to death. He was beginning to understand what that must have been like.

In his life in the royal court, Yarnig had learned to read people. Those beneath him, other than Erik and Taldin, didn’t generally speak to him, but he could see their fear in the way they carried themselves. He worried for them.

The previous night, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. The wind had picked up, and it had begun to snow. Based on what he had read of this land, Yarnig believed this to be a minor storm at best by the standards of the region, but there were southern regions of Tor Som that would have labeled it a blizzard. He had trouble seeing as far as the supply sleds they dragged behind them, and it was difficult to hear anything over the wind’s incessant roar.

He shivered in his cloak.

He thought he heard Erik say something. “What?” he shouted.

Erik pulled closer and shouted, “I think we’re getting close.”

The emperor grunted and looked ahead. Erik had been saying that all day. They continued forward, moving deeper into the colorless void.

Taldin held up a hand. “Does anyone else hear that?” he shouted.

The others drew to a halt. Yarnig tilted his head, listening.

“I don’t hear anything,” one of the soldiers said.

Yarnig leaned forward. He thought he could hear a low rumble. After a few moments, it grew louder. Something out there, separate from the wind, was producing a deep, steady noise. It reminded him of a fast-running river.

The sound increased in volume. Its soon drowned out the wind and horses’ tired huffing.

A dark shape appeared a few feet in front of Yarnig: a reindeer. Another appeared, and then another, and another.

A vast herd of reindeer, three abreast and at least ten deep, thundered past Yarnig’s company. Each was harnessed and connected to its neighbors. They pulled behind them what appeared to be a massive wooden sled as wide and tall as a large house and as long as one of the city blocks in Retgard. Windows had been spaced evenly along its length, and it had a thatched roof.

A platform sat at the front of the sled, and several fur-bundled people huddled there, controlling the reindeer or gazing out at the Tors. Dozens of long, faintly glowing silver spars extended from its sides, and Yarnig realized that it was not a sled at all. Its flat, boat-like bottom glided a few feet above the snow.

He wondered if he might be hallucinating.

As the massive structure floated past, he noticed that a number of small, one-man dogsleds had begun to circle his party, and he felt fear worm its way into his heart. He swallowed.

The rumble had become even more deafening. The emperor glanced behind them and saw that another of the mobile structures had arrived. Moments later, a third appeared. The three structures ground to a halt, and the noise died out. The hovering structures formed a triangle, and the Tors found themselves penned in.

Dozens of Clanspeople leapt from the structures and surrounded Yarnig’s party. Each carried an arm-length iron hook resembling a crowbar. The way the Clanspeople held them showed that they were weapons.

As they took their positions, they shouted amongst each other in their native language. Clanstongue and the Tor language were closely related, but Yarnig couldn’t pick out enough words to glean what they were saying.

Yarnig heard his men’s swords hiss out of their sheaths.

A handful of figures stood by just beyond the circle of Clan warriors. These held staffs capped with hollow hexagons of silver. Yarnig assumed these were battle wizards.

He felt the fear within him grow. The bitter history between the Clans and the Tors flashed through his mind, and he hoped that he hadn’t just led his party to their deaths.

“Tors, surrender your weapons,” a Clanswoman warrior shouted, speaking Tor roughly.

Yarnig and Taldin’s eyes met. Yarnig nodded slightly. Taldin frowned but offered no argument. He instructed his men to hand over their swords. Many of the soldiers grimaced, and Erik gave up his staff with great reluctance. Yarnig too felt a moment of trepidation as he handed over his sword. He had had not been trained in combat, but the cold metal had been reassuring.

A man with flowing golden hair emerged from the crowd. His body movements were strong and quick, but his face was weathered, and his hair was streaked with gray, so it was difficult to determine his exact age. He wore neither hat nor hood, and he held a longer, more ornate version of the weapons wielded by the men around him. The iron of his weapon had been polished to a dull sheen, and it was equipped with a spiked hand guard near the center of its shaft.

Yarnig took this to be their leader.

“Name yourselves!” the Clan leader shouted. His voice was strong and clear, and he had very little accent.

Yarnig cleared his throat and faced the Clansman. At the last moment, he threw back his hood. “I am Yarnig Tor Lannis, emperor of Tor Som. I have come to parlay with your people.” He hoped he sounded strong and confident.

The broad-shouldered Clansman didn’t seem to know how to react. He simply stared at Yarnig.

After a moment, Yarnig said, “May I inquire as to who you are?”

The Clan leader found his voice. “My name is Brodar. This is the village of the Marg clan. I am its chieftain.”

Yarnig’s court training kicked in. He made a half-bow – a signal of respect between equals. “It is an honor.”

Brodar grimaced. “What is your scheme, Tor? Our people have been at war from the time of our meeting. You will never be welcome here.”

Despite the cold, Yarnig began to sweat. “I come without guile. I speak truth when I say that I seek friendship with your people.”

A gust of wind whipped through the gaps in the hovering buildings, and snow stuck in Yarnig’s hair.

“I request to be allowed into your home so that we may discuss this in a more comfortable setting,” Yarnig said.

Brodar gestured with his weapon half-heartedly, seeming more annoyed than threatening. “Why should we discuss it at all? You have nothing to offer me. Leave now, Tor, and I will not harm you.” He turned and made his way back through the crowd.

“Wait!” Yarnig called. He searched for the right words. “Our people were not always enemies! Thousands of years ago, our ancestors fought together against the Old Gods. I seek to renew that alliance.”

Brodar paused. He turned around and walked back through the crowd, his feet crunching in the snow. “Is this truly what you seek? Do you give me your word?”

Yarnig bowed his head solemnly, hope blossoming in his chest. “I give you my word.”

Brodar hesitated, then nodded curtly. “Though I have no reason to trust the word of a Tor, I will give you a chance. Select two of your people. You may meet with me.” He began to walk away.

“What about the rest of my party?” Yarnig asked, shouting over the wind.

“We will give them shelter. They will not be harmed unless they give us cause,” Brodar answered over his shoulder.

Yarnig selected Erik and Taldin to accompany him. Taldin threw him a questioning look. Yarnig responded by nodding.

The three dismounted, submitted themselves to be searched, and were led into one of the massive floating buildings.

* * *

Yarnig hadn’t been sure what to expect from the Northern Clans, but it hadn’t been roads, and it hadn’t been anything like the Marg village.

Erik chattered in hushed tones about the floating halls. He wondered if the hovering effect was created by constant effort on the part of the Clan wizards or if they used some mechanism for channeling energy without human intervention. Yarnig hardly listened. He thought about the level of logistical efficiency a mobile village would require. It boggled the mind.

A Clansman led them into one of the halls and down a narrow passageway that ran the length of the structure. In here, the air was pleasantly warm, and everything was made of wood. Doors had been spaced evenly along the length of the hallway, but none were open. Yarnig caught hints of voices beyond some of them. The hollow sound his feet made on the floor planks led him to believe that an open space lay beneath. Magical, smokeless lanterns lit the hallway.

He had a thousand questions about how the village operated, but he decided it would be better to keep silent.

The hallway ended in a broad chamber near the back of the structure. The room held no furniture, but a number of tapestries, hunting trophies, and weapons adorned the walls. A pair of doors stood at either end of the far wall, and a large tapestry depicting a man flanked by reindeer hung between them. Yarnig thought the man resembled Brodar.

Near the center of the room, between two columns, Brodar sat upon a cushion upholstered with reindeer hide. Just behind and to either side of him, an elderly man and woman sat upon identical cushions. Three more of the cushions had been arranged in a similar pattern before the chieftain.

The Clan guide departed, his footsteps echoing up the corridor, and Yarnig’s group came forward to sit on the cushions. Yarnig took the center one, finding it surprisingly comfortable. He loosened his cloak. It felt good to be out of the wind.

“Welcome to my home,” the chieftain said, though there was nothing welcoming in his tone.

Yarnig took a deep breath and met Brodar’s steely stare. “Allow me to introduce my companions. This is Taldin, the captain of my guard, and Erik, my battle wizard.”

Taldin bowed, and Erik followed suit.

Brodar gestured to the man beside him. “This is my father, Tergor.” The old man bowed his white-haired head. He looked as if he had once been a man as imposing as his son. “And this is my mother, Eskwel,” he said, gesturing to his left. Eskwel was stocky, and her iron gray hair was bound in two braids.

“Your parents?” Erik said.

Yarnig fixed him with a disapproving glare.

“Who better to advise me?” Brodar said.

“I apologize for my man, chieftain,” Yarnig said. “He meant no disrespect.”

Brodar shrugged it off.

A servant appeared, bearing a tray with six ceramic cups upon it. The servant passed out the cups to the two leaders and their companions and departed without a word.

Yarnig held up his cup. It felt warm and contained a thick, off-white liquid. “What is this?” he asked politely.

“Ulu. The milk and blood of reindeer, mixed with honey,” Brodar said. He took a deep draft from his cup.

Yarnig took a hesitant sip, and his men did the same a moment later. The ulu tasted sweet, and it helped to chase away the cold he had suffered through for the past few days. He didn’t think that Brodar would try to poison him. Everything he had read about the Northern Clans led him to believe that, if the chieftain wanted to kill him, he would simply gut him with one of those metal hooks.

After he swallowed, he remembered how wrong his books had been about so many other aspects of the Clans.

Brodar put aside his drink. “Allow me to be clear, Tor. I allow you here because I am curious. I treat you with respect and hospitality because I pride myself on being an honorable and decent man. If you give me reason to, I will immediately end my display of kindness. If you attempt to harm me or any of my people, none of your group will leave this place alive.”

Yarnig swallowed. “Understood.”

“Now, tell me why you have come here, Leader of Tors.”

Yarnig resisted the urge to clear his throat again, remembering how his father had admonished him for that habit. “In the lands south of here, the Automatons have risen up against their masters. They seek – ”

Brodar held up a hand. “I am aware of this. My people are isolated, but we are not completely cut off from the outside world.”

Yarnig maintained his composure by sheer strength of will. Pushing down his embarrassment, he searched for the right thing to say.

He took a deep breath. “Do you also know that they are the Old Gods reborn?”

Brodar’s eyebrows raised. “What?”

His parents’ eyes widened, and Tergor whispered a quick stream of words in his ear. Apparently, his parents understood Yarnig’s language.

“It is difficult to believe, I know,” Yarnig said, trying to keep his pulse slow. “I didn’t believe it myself at first. Allow me to explain.”

“Please, do,” Brodar said icily.

Yarnig hoped the chieftain’s doubt would not be their downfall. He took a gulp of ulu. The sweet brew helped to calm him, and if it was poisoned, he was probably already doomed. “In the south, our armies are led by an Eastenholder woman. Her name is Leha. Six months ago, she discovered a weakness in the Old Gods’ seal, and she traveled to the other worlds. Her adventures were too many for me to describe quickly, but what is important is that, when she went to Tyzu, she was forced to do battle with an Old God. It had been trapped on that world when the seal was put in place. When she reached its lair, she discovered that it was an Automaton.”

Yarnig couldn’t read Brodar’s expression. He continued. “We cannot say for sure, but we believe that Wizard Vorren, rather than inventing the Automatons, discovered the decayed wreck of an Old God and, not knowing what it was, reverse-engineered it, then claimed it as his own creation. It is believed that the machines have been biding their time for thousands of years, waiting for the moment when they would be strong enough to overthrow us and return to power.”

The chieftain seemed to still be listening.

Yarnig pressed on. “My own nation is partly to blame for this. The Tor Vargis, another royal family, ordered the creation of a new model of Automaton. These could wield magic as well as any battle wizard – better, in fact. They then used the new machines to invade Eastenhold. The devastation of their war, and the new powers they granted the Automatons, were most likely the cause of the machines’ revolt. It is perhaps the darkest chapter in my people’s history.”

Brodar sat in silence, working his jaw back and forth. His parents whispered into his ears.

“I do not know whether I believe you or not. History tells me not to trust you, but, as my mother pointed out, if you wanted to deceive me, you would have created a far more believable lie.”

Yarnig sipped his ulu. It left a faint metallic aftertaste. “I assure you, I speak the truth.”

“He does, chieftain,” Erik added.

Yarnig shot his friend another glare. Taldin rolled his eyes.

A strong blast of wind rattled the windows.

“There is something I don’t understand,” Brodar said.

“Yes?” Yarnig said, putting on a mask of helpfulness.

Brodar placed his elbows on his knees and leaned forward. “You said that your armies are led by an Eastenholder woman. I know of the history between your two nations. It is nearly as bloody as the conflicts between our peoples. Why would you entrust your safety to her?”

“Leha is a remarkable woman. The Automatons rose up while our army attacked Heart, the Eastenholder capitol. The Battle of Heart became one of the most devastating conflicts since the Liberation.

“Leha came into that chaos from Tyzu, having been greatly changed by the people there, the Lost Ones. She took charge of the defense and united the warring armies of Tor Som and Eastenhold. In less than a day, she brought humanity to victory.

“Afterward, she went north, to Tor Som, and gathered together all she encountered into a great host. It is not the forces of Tor Som, but the forces of humanity that she commands. Even the armies of Sy’om and Tyzu flock to her call to arms.”

This wasn’t entirely true. Many had refused to join her army. Some of the people she had encountered on her journey had chosen to stay where they were; others had chosen flight over fighting. Many Tors had been unable to accept the leadership of an Eastenholder and fled into the wilderness.

Brodar frowned in thought. “What you say is almost beyond belief, but if this is an attempt at deception, it is a poor one. And the fact that you risked yourself by coming here speaks to your sincerity.”

He shook his head. “I do not wish to believe you, Tor. But I cannot see the gain in trying to trick my people when your own face extinction. And some among the Clans have already wondered what the machines will do once they have wiped you southerners from existence. Some say we should face the problem proactively…”

Yarnig leaned forward hopefully.

“I must consult with my people,” Brodar said. He said something to Eskwel in Clanstongue, and she produced two thin metal rods from a pocket. She struck them together, producing a high, clear note. Yarnig heard footsteps in the hall behind them.

“You will wait outside.”

Yarnig worried that Brodar meant outside the hall, but instead, he, Erik, and Taldin were brought to a small room elsewhere in the hall. They waited there for almost an hour, Erik chattering nervously, before Brodar called them back.

Yarnig had the impression others had joined Brodar’s council, but by the time his group returned, it was just Brodar, Eskwel, and Tergor again.

“If I agree to help you, what would you have me do?” Brodar said when Yarnig’s group had taken their seats.

Yarnig reassembled his calm mask. “During the Liberation, all of humanity fought together. If we are to defeat the machines again, we must do so as a race united.” He straightened. “I would have you commit as many fighting bodies and as much of your resources as you can spare to the war effort. I would have you aid me in convincing your entire nation to help fight the Automaton threat.”

Brodar said nothing. His face showed that he was considering what Yarnig had said. The only sound was the howling wind outside.

“Do you know that, if you want to enlist the help of all the Clans, your request will have to be approved by the Althing?” the chieftain said, breaking his silence.

“The Althing?” Yarnig said.

“The annual meeting of the Clans. The chieftains meet then to vote on issues that affect our nation as a whole.”

“When is the next Althing?” Yarnig asked.

“The Althing is traditionally held midway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. But because this is a matter of such grave importance, I can call an emergency one much sooner. It would still take at least a month for the Clans to assemble.”

Yarnig’s heart fell. “What about you? Can we count on the aid of the Marg clan?”

Brodar set his jaw. “I have not reached a decision. I must think. One of my people will show you to where your companions are staying. You will be given food and shelter until I reach my decision,” Brodar said.

Eskwel again struck the metal rods together again, and Yarnig heard servants approach.

Yarnig stood, trying to hope for the best. At the very least, it didn’t look as if the Clanspeople would try to harm him or his group.

That was a good sign.

* * *

While the machines built new warriors and upgraded themselves into ever more deadly forms, the people in Marlhem made their own preparations for battle.

All across the city, day in and day out, smiths and craftspeople churned out weapons, their fires smoking and their hammers ringing against their anvils. Requests were sent to other cities for the wood to make crossbows and spear shafts. Armor was produced from metal, leather, and whatever else was available. The neighboring cities of Kerhem and Yotgard shipped in whatever reinforcements they could, but there was always the chance that the Automatons would attack them instead of Marlhem, and Leha and the other leaders didn’t want to risk putting all their eggs in one basket.

The remains of destroyed Automatons were stripped down for their metals, and the ruins of the city were scavenged for whatever could be found within them. Leha and her people had fought many victories over the Automatons, but none had been easy, and all had been costly. A simple lack of resources threatened them nearly as much as the Automatons did.

The more experienced soldiers combed the city for new recruits, arming and training whomever they could find. Each morning, Leha heard their shouts and marching songs drift from the drilling fields.

When the Lost One clans had sent their armies to Barria, they had also dispatched a number of wizards. Lost One wizards had never been trained to use silver, but their Barrian counterparts had equipped them with staffs and wands, and they worked continuously to master new spells and abilities.

The entire city thrummed with activity. Everyone had a role to play. Leha sometimes wondered how things could be so organized. Back in Three Gates, she had only had to run her own shop, and she had been merely competent, at best, at that. Just the thought of the responsibility of readying an entire city to defend against an army of Automatons made her mind reel.

The odd thing was, though she was the one in charge of things, she had very little to do in the work of preparing. She worked on the broader plans, but Eranna, Natoma, and the others handled all the details. It seemed unfair that she received all the credit for work done by other people. It made her wonder if the heroes in her histories deserved all of the credit they received.

Every day and night, the threat of attack hung over the city. The machines could arrive at any moment, and the knowledge of this brooded in the back of everyone’s minds. While they weren’t known for agility, Automatons could move very fast in a straight line, and once the scouts spotted them, there would be only minutes to prepare.

A few days after the arrival of the Urannans, an abandoned building had collapsed. Hearing the echoes of its crumbling, a number of people had thought the Automatons were attacking, and they’d caused a panic. Men, women, and children had run through the streets, screaming. Some had tried to flee the city. Two-dozen new recruits had lost their nerve and tried to desert. The chaos had continued for half an hour before Leha, with Natoma’s help, became organized enough to get Benefactor’s people to broadcast the knowledge that there was no cause for concern.

Not a good sign.

Their tactical situation was no cause for joy, either. The walls of the city had been punctured at numerous points, and nothing they could plug them with would provide any resistance to an Automaton. The intact portions of wall would barely slow them.

Leha had gathered well over twenty thousand fighters from Heart, South Tower, Karkar, Tor Som, and Tyzu over the past six months, but many of those had been wounded or killed in the journey north and in various battles with the Automatons, and many others had been sent to reinforce the neighboring cities or perform other tasks, so the number available to defend Marlhem was closer to ten thousand. On top of that, the majority of them were suffering from fatigue or low morale, and others were green troops with little training and less experience.

They were miles away from the nearest occupied settlement, and the plains offered no hiding places. If the machines breached the defenses, it would quickly become a slaughter in the streets. There was nowhere for people to run. Leha would have liked to evacuate the majority of the civilians to Tyzu or one of the neighboring cities, but most people didn’t want to abandon their homes.

Drogin continued his work on new weapons to use against the machines, but even if they worked, it would take a long time to produce large quantities of them, and Leha didn’t think they’d make the difference.

As always, it all came down to Leha and her abilities. She could command powers that no one else could, and that the machines could not adapt to. It was all on her, a shopkeeper from Three Gates with no military training beyond an armload of history books and adventure novels.

However, this time, they did have one other advantage: Natoma. In the two weeks since her arrival, she had proven herself to be a capable leader with an impressive understanding of tactics, logistics, and command. Up until now, their main sources of military knowledge had been Eranna, who had little command experience; Doga, who was accustomed to fighting nothing better organized than marauding bands of Stassai; and Yeldar, who was unused to working on a large scale. It hadn’t taken long for the Urannan captain to improve everything from their food rationing to their command structure.

She also proved to be a good influence on the cadets. Her calm, confident demeanor helped to put them at ease, and she had the leadership experience to drill them into shape.

People all across the city came to defer to her leadership, and she became nearly as prominent a figure as Leha.

Leha, too, found herself admiring Natoma. Unlike herself, she knew how to lead and how to cope with situations like the one they now faced.

Every day, Natoma would go down to the old market square – a place that had been built upon a jumping point to Tyzu and was now used as Marlhem’s link to that world – choose an out of the way spot, and spend a half-hour practicing a series of exercises to improve her swordsmanship. She would stand among the crates of fruit and the comings and goings of Lost Ones, her armor gleaming dully in the shadows of the buildings around her, her single-edged sword shining like light incarnate as it caught the sun, and glide through the forms and postures.

Sometimes, she would attract an audience. The Lost Ones in particular seemed impressed with her skill. Whenever she had the chance, Leha would come to observe. Natoma moved with a natural grace and agility that seemed almost superhuman. She could be as slow and languid as a cat one moment, and then flash into a blindingly quick strike the next. Every little twitch seemed planned and coordinated. If her hair became disheveled while she exercised, it somehow seemed intentional and artistic. Even her sweat seemed carefully coordinated to bead and shine so that it would enhance her image of elegant strength. And it all seemed to be effortless.

Leha could move like that too, easily. But her abilities had come from the mutations the Lost Ones had given her. She had willed her muscles into a state of near perfection over just a few days, and she had done so with little effort. Natoma’s grace came from hard work and years of training. She had earned it.

Natoma didn’t talk about her time in Uranna much, and when she did, she mostly spoke about her early years there. On the rare occasions when she discussed the nation’s fall, Leha again got the impression that this was a pain from years ago, a pain that Natoma had managed to put behind her. The grief in her eyes seemed distant somehow.

Natoma’s Eastenholder improved rabidly, and the need for Lahune’s translation evaporated. She still couldn’t speak the Tor language, but most people in the city had learned fluent Eastenholder by having the understanding fed into their minds by Benefactor’s people, and she was able to get by.

Once he stopped acting as translator, Leha saw little of Lahune. Drogin had told her of his vocation as priest – his knowledge of languages apparently stemmed from his order’s belief that spoken language, as something uniquely human, was something to be celebrated. She’d never been able to decide what she thought about the cult of Aya, but he seemed harmless, so she decided not to worry. Sometimes, she saw him conversing with Doga. The Urannan and the Lost One seemed to have discovered some common ground.

Sixteen days after the arrival of the Urannans, Natoma and Leha leaned against a building in the market square. It had been a quiet morning, and Leha had stayed after watching Natoma’s exercises.

They stood in the shade created by a three-story building and a stack of crates. People buzzed through the square near them, but none of them noticed the two women. Nearby, a flock of pigeons murmured to each other. The morning was cool, but the sun helped to warm the air.

They discussed the Automatons, going over various scenarios for the impending attack and the defense of the city. They had said it all before, but they said it again. Going over the practicalities helped Leha to forget the odds they faced.

Eventually, they ran out of things to repeat, and the conversation died off.

Leha gazed into the bright sky and tried to work up the energy to return to work.

“May I ask you something?” Natoma said. Her voice still carried an accent.

Leha turned her head to face her. “Go ahead.”

Natoma searched for the words. “I don’t understand why you are the only person who can channel the powers of the other worlds. What I mean is: why haven’t more people been given your abilities? My understanding of the memories you showed me is that you and the Lost Ones are all capable of transforming others the way you were transformed. It seems that it would be much easier for you, and everyone else, if there were many with your abilities.”

Leha became acutely aware of the claws on her feet digging into the snow, of the inch long spikes extending from her fingers, and of her deep blue pupils. She broke into a sweat despite the cold, but there was nothing of accusation in Natoma’s serene, porcelain-skinned face. Leha took a breath and decided to be honest.

“What I tell Drogin is that it’s too risky to the subjects. And that’s true; the ability to control our bodies, and the chemicals they produce, is very much an intuitive thing. There’s no guarantee anyone would be able to exactly replicate the toxin that transformed me. And there are any number of factors that could have played in a role in what happened to me. We don’t know.”

She stared at the ground. “But there’s more. These new abilities have given me a great deal of power. You’re a skilled fighter, but I could spill your blood on the stones before your sword grazed my cloak. I’ve fought Wizard-Automatons and lived. I don’t know if I trust anyone else with that kind of power. I’m not sure I trust myself with that kind of power, but it’s too late for that. What if I created another like me, and they betrayed us and sided with the Automatons? What would brawls, and fights, and wars be like if people’s very bodies are weapons?”

She shook her head. “There’s too much uncertainty.”

People fluttered through the square.

“I understand,” Natoma said.

Leha looked at her, and smiled.

———————

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!

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Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Six: No Sleep in the City

We now come to the sixth 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 "Rage of the Old Gods, the First Book of the World Spectrum" by Tyler F.M. EdwardsIn this chapter, Yarnig presses north to make contact with the enigmatic Northern Clans, while the defenders of Marlhem find themselves sleepless in anticipation of the coming battle.

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Chapter six: No Sleep in the City

Yarnig had not expected roads.

After gathering a small escort and some supplies, the emperor had traveled north, seeking the Northern Clans, the only nation on Barria with the knowledge of how to successfully fight Automatons without using machines of their own.

Three days ago, Yarnig’s party had left the northern reaches of Tor territory and entered a forest of tall, snowy evergreens. The trees were widely spaced, and little grew between them; there wasn’t much that could survive, this far north. They had traveled through the woods for more than a day, their horses picking their way through the trees and the deep snow. Then, they had reached the road.

The Clan road didn’t resemble the roads of Tor Som. It had not been paved, and it was incredibly wide. Two Automatons could have easily walked abreast upon it. When they had first come upon it, Yarnig had ordered Taldin, his master of the guard, and his men to examine it. After digging through a foot of snow, they had determined that the road had been built by clearing the land, stamping it until it was hard, and then salting it to prevent plants from taking root in it. Taldin had said that likely meant that the roads weren’t used on a regular basis.

This all displayed a level of ingenuity and knowledge on the part of the Clans that was far beyond what Yarnig’s books gave them credit for. He found himself wondering if their technology had improved in the seventy years since the last major conflict with Tor Som, or if his people had underestimated them from the start.

When he had suggested this mission, nearly a week ago, Taldin had tried to talk him out of it. “They hate Tors; they’ll kill us on sight!” he’d said. “It’s suicide.”

Yarnig had shoved aside his guard’s objections. Sometimes, you have to take a chance, he’d reasoned.

Eventually, the old guard had relented, and he, Yarnig, a small escort of soldiers, and Erik, a battle wizard assigned to Yarnig’s protection, had set off.

Now, they pulled themselves through the drifts on the Clan roads, huddling in their thick cloaks, dragging sleds full of supplies behind them. No tracks marred the road’s white blanket save for those made by the occasional lynx or wolf pack. The snow hissed against itself with every gust of wind, and the dense drifts deadened the horses’ labored breaths.

Each night, as they camped, Yarnig would pull a sketchpad from his pack and huddle by the fire, drawing what he could before his hands became too cold to work. Due to the time constraints, he produced sketches of stark simplicity, but he decided it was a style that suited the bleak yet beautiful lands they traveled through.

At night, the wind howled through the branches like an angry beast.

Yarnig had never been so cold for so long. As a member of one of the royal families, he had never been forced to live with hardship. He had been left to his own devices and pleasures. This journey resembled nothing in his body of experience, and he found himself paying acute attention to every pain and discomfort. He had expected to be cold, to be tired, yes, but there were a thousand other tiny aches and irritants he had not imagined. Saddle sores, constant hunger, stiff joints, an itchy beard he could not find time to shave…

Still, part of him welcomed it. He was living. Truly living. He no longer wasted his days with useless hobbies while his people died. He had a purpose in life other than to breed an heir who would one day breed an heir who would one day rule Tor Som, or to act as a figurehead while others shouldered the responsibilities of keeping his nation running.

It took another two days for them to leave the forest. They entered a vast arctic plain upon which little grew. This was the land of the Northern Clans. The books Yarnig had brought said that, while some clans had constructed permanent villages, most of them were nomads, living off of their herds and whatever they could hunt.

They soon lost sight of the trees. With white clouds above and white snow below, they seemed to have entered an empty void. The snow was so deep the horses could barely move through it.

Yarnig reined in his steed and surveyed the empty wastes. His horse desperately gasped for air, steam rising from its nostrils. The emperor felt ice form on his nose hairs.

Taldin nudged his horse, urging it forward to halt alongside Yarnig. A mountain of furs and coats concealed the old soldier’s thin form and gray hair and moustache. “Any particular direction you wish to take, sire?”

“Erik!” Yarnig called, yelling to be heard over the howling wind.

Erik pushed his horse forward. A tuft of gold hair poked out from his hood, and his silver-plated staff glinted dully.

During the preparations to invade Eastenhold, Erik had made the mistake of questioning the war and had been assigned to Yarnig’s personal protection. With the Tor Vargis dead, there was no longer any need for him to baby-sit the emperor, but Yarnig had taken a liking to the young wizard. They shared the same sensibilities on many things – from music to politics.

“Can you detect if anyone out here is using magic?” Yarnig asked.

“I can try.”

Erik raised his staff and closed his eyes. For a moment, the only sounds came from the wind and blowing snow.

The wizard opened his eyes. “I sense something. I can’t tell what it is, but it’s coming from that direction – ” he pointed north and west “ – and it isn’t natural.”

Yarnig nodded. “Good enough. Let’s go.”

He shook the reins, and his horse dragged itself forward. His party followed, and they set off across the frozen fields.

* * *

Somewhere, a hammer rang.

Cold gusts of wind blew over the wall, and Leha hid her hands in the pockets of her cloak. She looked south across the plain. A crescent moon painted the snowy fields silver, and the stars winked at her from above. She looked, knowing that due south, beyond her sight, the Automatons were readying. This plain ran deep into Karkar; the Automatons had built their camp at its edge, and when they came, this was the direction they would come from.

Thinking of that, Leha’s thoughts returned to the ringing hammer. If she strained her senses, she could hear others throughout the city. The forges would be working hard for the next few weeks, preparing for the Automaton attack.

Assuming they had weeks.

Following the meeting with the Urannans, Leha and the other leaders had begun working on their defense plans. Natoma’s experience had proved useful, particularly in matters of supplies and logistics, but as yet, their strategy did not differ greatly from the strategies they’d used since the Battle of Heart. As usual, the plan hinged on Leha. Without her control over the energies of the other worlds, they would be lost.

A piece of ice crunched behind her, and she jumped, clutching the battlement for support.

“Sorry,” Eranna said in her throaty but lyrical accent.

Leha turned to face her, peeling her hand off the chilled stone.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the Tor said. She had removed her armor, but she wore her uniform under her cloak, and her short sword still hung from her belt. A fur hat covered her head.

“Hello, Eranna,” Leha said quietly.

Eranna came forward, folded her arms on the battlement, and laid her head atop them, gazing out at the plain. “Can’t sleep?”

Leha folded her arms into her sleeves, turned south, and observed the constellations. The Feast had just risen above the horizon. “I needed to think. Besides, my hut isn’t exactly inviting in cold like this.”

“You could always take my place at the barracks,” Eranna said. In the starlight, her hair glowed like white gold.

Leha shook her head as a breeze ruffled her hair. “No. You can keep it.” For the first few weeks after her arrival in Marlhem, Leha had lived in an abandoned house, one of the few still intact, but one day, she had been walking down the street and seen a woman and child living in a shelter made in the ruins of a tool shed. She had given the woman her home, and ever since, she had been unable to accept any accommodation better than what most of the population made do with.

They sat in silence for a time, feeling the ebb and flow of the winds.

Eranna’s eyes searched across the heavens, and she said, “I used to love looking at the stars. When I was little, I’d wander out at night and stay up to watch them. Some nights, in winter, the – ” she searched for the words “ – northern lights would light up the whole sky. It was beautiful.”

Leha leaned forward. “We were too far south for the northern lights.” She smirked. “I tended to spend my nights doing things that made my parents worry. I’d steal food from the bakeries or sneak into parts of the city where children aren’t generally allowed.”

They talked for a long time before making their way back to their respective homes. Leha welcomed the distraction, but part of her couldn’t forget what lay to the south.

She didn’t know how her people had survived this long. Sometimes, she thought it had been simple luck. Nor did she have a clear idea of how they would weather the coming assault.

She hoped that Natoma’s knowledge would help them to put up a defense. She hoped she was the leader her people thought her to be.

She hoped this wouldn’t be the time that their luck ran out.

* * *

Drogin rolled over in his bed, willing sleep to come.

Sleep wasn’t cooperative. He sat up, sighing, and felt a chill as the sheets fell from his bare chest. His mind was too chaotic for sleep.

He swung his legs out of bed and dressed hurriedly. His hand found the hexagonal shaft of his wand, and he willed it to light, illuminating his tiny bedroom and its ramshackle roof. His home had once been part of an armory. The Automatons had flattened much of it, but an office on one end had survived intact – save for the roof – and Drogin had converted it into his home; his bedroom had once been a closet for files and records. The ruins outside were now filled with half-finished prototypes and gizmos. He had been put in charge of designing new weapons to fight the Automatons, but so far, he hadn’t had much success.

Guided by the eerie light of his wand, he made his way to the room he used as study, living room, kitchen, and dining room.

He thought back to his old days in Eastenhold, when he had been an Automaton technician. Things had been simpler then, easier. He had maintained his machines, and he had kept watch over the borders. Simple. He missed those days.

He knelt before his tiny stove and added a few branches of wood, stoking the flames until they began to warm the room. The pungent wafts of smoke helped to clear his head of its fatigue.

He crossed the clutter, coming to sit at his drawing table. As he passed, a draft blew in through one of the many gaps in the roof. He shivered.

As he sat down, he held out his wand. A spark leapt from its tip and lit a candle; its light was not so unnerving as the wand’s green-white glow. He considered the chaotic pile of papers atop the table. Most of them were concerned with two machines he had been designing.

One had been designed to do what Leha did: channel the powers of the other worlds. Drogin had been working on it for months. The energies of Sy’om and Tyzu – and the Automatons’ inability to adapt to them – had formed the foundation for every victory they had won since the Battle of Heart.

But only Leha could channel them. Even with the seal broken throughout much of Tor Som and the surrounding lands, no wizard had been able to channel the powers of the other worlds the way Leha did. They had been forced to conclude that the fighters of the Liberation had used some kind of machine.

Thus far, none of the machines he had designed had done anything. He didn’t have the faintest idea how his sister did what she did, and on the rare occasions when she agreed to be examined, no one had been able to find any clues.

It would have been much simpler, Drogin thought, to create more people like Leha – she and her Lost One friends could produce enough venom for an army of people like her. But when he had confronted her about it, she had flatly refused. She’d said they still didn’t fully understand what had happened to her and that it was too risky.

As he thought about his sister, he sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. Her journeys in Sy’om and Tyzu had changed her somehow. She wasn’t the girl he remembered from before the war.

Drogin grimaced. Focus. He shoved his sister from his thoughts. The sound of ruffling papers filled the room as he searched for a particular sketch.

The other machine occupying his papers was a device intended to recreate the magical feedback loop first performed by he and Leha. Over the past months, it had proven itself to be an effective weapon against the increasingly common Wizard-Automatons, but it was extremely risky for the people who performed it. Many people had lost their lives to it. It hadn’t taken long for Drogin to begin his work on a machine that could do it without risk.

Unlike his other project, he had made good progress on this device. He expected he would be able to fulfill Eranna’s request to have it ready for use before the next attack.

The difficulty lay in ensuring that its Automaton targets would not be able to take control of it, and in creating the mechanisms that would allow it to operate without a ludicrous amount of human intervention or a machine mind. It was no longer wise to trust a machine that could think for itself.

Drogin hovered over the designs, tapping his pencil against a corner of paper, trying to come up with new solutions to the problems, but nothing came to him.

After several minutes, he admitted to himself that his mind was too occupied for him to concentrate. He knew he couldn’t sleep, so he pocketed his wand, put on his coat, blew out the candle, and stepped outside.

The chill night air helped to wake him, and he took a deep breath. He picked his way through the twisted heaps of metal and half-built prototypes that littered the area around his home and made his way to one of the main streets, walking in long, quick strides that helped to keep him warm.

Few people were out this late, and those that were hurried by, huddling in their thick clothes, their footsteps echoing eerily through the night.

Marlhem was a grim place by daylight, but at night, it took on a surreal, haunted quality. It had not been a pretty city when it was intact, its residents had told him, and now the machines had reduced it to a maze of broken ruins, shantytowns, and silent streets. Here and there, fires and lanterns glowed forlornly, fighting back the darkness that threatened to swallow them on all sides.

In the distance, he heard a hammer ring.

“Good evening.”

Drogin jumped slightly, startled by the unexpected voice. He turned about and saw a cloaked figure standing in the doorway of what had once been a tavern.

The figure stepped onto the street and came forward. Within the man’s dark hood, Drogin caught sight of the skull-like face of a Lost One. Recognizing him, Drogin felt the adrenaline of his surprise fade, replaced by annoyance. He wanted to be alone.

“It seems I am not the only one unable to sleep,” Doga said.

Drogin reached to comb his hair with a gloved hand but thought better of it. “It seems.” He resumed his walking.

Doga matched his stride. “Thinking about the battle?”

“What battle?”

They passed into an abandoned section and were thrown into darkness. The temperature couldn’t have been different, but it felt much colder here.

“The impending Automaton attack,” the black shape that was Doga said.

“Oh. No. I just couldn’t sleep.” He kicked a stone. It seemed to skitter and clatter for an unnaturally long amount of time.

“Does it not bother you?” the shadowy Lost One said.

Drogin shrugged. “Sure it does. It and twenty other things.”

They left the abandoned stretch and turned down a lantern-lit street of relatively intact buildings. In a nearby alley, a pair of Tors huddled over a fire. Judging by the smell, they were burning garbage.

“I cannot think of anything but the machines’ coming,” Doga said. He continued talking. His voice echoed with an odd kind of nervous excitement.

Drogin hardly listened. He noticed Doga’s hands; they were gloved, but the gloves’ fingers had been pierced to allow his claws to stick out. They looked much like the claws his sister now bore.

Drogin’s hood concealed his grimace.

“Awake late, are we?” a voice called out.

Lahune stepped forward from the shadow of a building, his smooth voice carrying in the still night. They came to a stop.

“It would seem,” Doga responded companionably.

“Would you mind if I walked with you?” the Urannan said.

“Not at all,” Doga responded.

Drogin sighed quietly.

The three of them began walking, passing the ruined warehouse district. Even at this hour, the bathes were operating. Many people sent their clothes here to be cleaned; that work was generally done at night. The air smelled faintly of soap.

“So, what’s keeping you up?” Drogin asked Lahune.

He shrugged. He still wore those black robes. Something about them teased at Drogin’s memory. “I’m always like this when I come someplace new. It’s the excitement of seeing new things and meeting new people.”

Drogin gestured to the skeleton of a shop. “This is exciting?”

The Urannan smiled. “The teachings of Aya say that ‘each new place contains within it a selection of humanity’s great diversity, like a bouquet of flowers; if the varying colors, textures, and teachings of the world were ever combined, we would have perfection.’”

Drogin looked at the new man with new eyes, remembering where he had seen those robes. They were the robes of a priest, a follower of Aya. When he had been nine, a group of Urannan priests had passed through Three Gates. They’d been leading a bunch of dirty mules through the streets, pretending to ignore the scornful gazes that had followed them. Leha, seven at the time, had been interested in their exotic clothes, and he’d had to stop her from following them.

They turned down another dimly lit street. A harsh wind blew in their faces.

“You’re a priest,” Drogin said flatly.

“A priest?” Doga growled.

“My order has nothing to do with those who once served the Old Gods,” Lahune said quickly.

Drogin leaned towards the Lost One. “A few years after the Liberation, a philosopher named Aya began preaching that humanity was a sacred and wondrous creation. She founded an order dedicated to worshipping our race and venerating its achievements.” He spoke in the tone of a parent describing their child’s imaginary friend.

Lahune raised a hand. “That’s not strictly true,” he said politely. “We do not worship humanity. ‘Worship’ implies we believe that humans have some form of divinity. We are no more divine than the Old Gods were. Contrary to popular belief, we are not a religion, and we do not seek to replace the belief in the Old Gods. We remember the damage that religion did to our people.”

They passed through an abandoned area where the road had not been cleared, and their feet crunched in the moonlit snow. Drogin was slowly leading them back towards his home.

Lahune continued. “The purpose of my order is to embrace and celebrate the qualities that make humanity the beautiful and diverse thing it is. The Old Gods created us to be their slaves, but we have far exceeded being simple workers. We have art, and music, and language. We have ethics and laws. And we still have not reached our full potential. That is the purpose of my order, the heart of Aya’s teachings: to work towards achieving our race’s full potential.”

Doga didn’t seem to know how to react.

“I’d be happy to tell you more,” Lahune said. “I can read some of Aya’s teachings to you. Perhaps you could tell me about the Lost Ones; I’d like to hear about your world and your people.”

“Perhaps,” Doga said, working his jaw back and forth.

They were near the street where Drogin lived, so he decided it was time to make his escape. He excused himself and hurried home, where he collapsed into bed, and his mind continued to run in circles.

———————

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