Monthly Archives: January 2015

Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Nine: Lost Threads

We now come to chapter nine 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. EdwardsThe first chapter of the book’s third section sees Leha and her followers still reeling from their defeat at Marlhem. Leha decides that a radical change in tactics is necessary, a change that could cost humanity all it has left.

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Part three: Knowledge of the Ancients

Three days later,

Tyzu…

Chapter nine: Lost Threads

The aroma of the Lost One resins, reminiscent of pine and earth, met Leha’s nose as she opened the box and peered at its contents. Books. Her books.

She ran her fingers along the spines, feeling the worn leather and fabric of their covers. When she had left here more than six months ago, she had been in too much of a hurry to collect the books she had carried with her since Three Gates’s fall, and the Watching Eye clan had built this chest to protect them from Tyzu’s harsh climate and high energy molds. She wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it had been an honor for defeating the Old God. Perhaps they had wanted to preserve some memory of her, the first Barrian their people had encountered in nearly seven millennia, fearing that she would not be able to break the barrier and return.

She picked up one, an old leather-bound tome with yellowed pages. Faded letters on the cover spelled out Heroes of the Liberation. This had always been one of her favorites. She placed her nose against the pages and inhaled the distinctive, faintly spicy scent of a worn book.

She opened the book to a random page and read from a tale about Noria, a comrade of the great General Phanto. The Old God Magaran had pursued her into the mountains – Leha realized that the name must have been given to it by the humans; the Automatons, the Old Gods, were telepaths; they had no use for names. Noria had evaded the machine in the canyons and valleys, and months later, she had emerged to lead an attack on Magaran’s ziggurat. That attack had done severe damage to the Old God’s defenses, allowing the wizard Barzad to overthrow Magaran and destroy his ziggurat.

Leha’s father had bought this book for her when she had been five. She could still remember his deep, strong voice spinning the tales as he read them to her each night. She had made him read it over to her more times than she could count, and as soon as she learned to read herself, she had begun staying up late to lose herself in its pages. She could almost recite it by heart.

She closed the book and, sighing, placed it back in the box. It was easy to forget the hardships experienced by the people in these books and focus on the fantastic places they traveled to and the wonderful things they accomplished. But it wasn’t so easy in real life.

She shut the box and left the hut she had been sharing with Eranna and Natoma. Stepping onto the lush platform of the Watching Eye clan village, she squinted in the blazing Tyzuan sunlight. Around the village, banks and tendrils of mist drifted through the forest with eerie speed, seeming to have an intelligence of their own. Here and there along the horizon, storms flickered with dozens of lightning strikes. It was the hota, a season of mist and unpredictable storms. Tyzu’s equivalent of winter, she supposed.

A rumble of thunder drew her attention to a dark storm front north of the village. She frowned. Just to the east of the storm lay the cave where she had first fought the machine that was now the Automaton Lord. One her first actions after the retreat from Marlhem had been to travel to that cave. The Old God’s ruins had still been there, but the head had been carefully dismantled, and the silver and quartz lattice of its mind removed.

Leha shook her head. She didn’t know how the Automatons could have infiltrated this world. How could machines the size of buildings move through the forest undetected? And why had they bothered? She had never heard of them salvaging the minds of their other fallen.

She shook her head and began walking forward, the living ropes of the platform creaking under her calloused feet. In the world’s high energy environment, her legs had healed swiftly after the battle. She wiped a hand across her sweaty forehead. Walking through the humid air of the hota felt almost like swimming. Even the hardened skin of the Lost Ones glistened with sweat. She did her best to make her body adapt to the heat.

As she moved across the platform, she passed Natoma sitting in the shade of one of the great trees that framed the village. The Urannan had shed her plate armor, and she wore the simple, dark clothes common in her homeland. Somehow, the sweat plastering her face, rather than lessening her natural beauty, highlighted it. Leha smiled at her.

On her other side, Drogin sat in the center of the platform, making small talk with Eranna and trying not to stare at the Lost Ones. Leha ignored him.

She came to the northern edge of the platform, a place fraught with memories. She screwed up her legs and leapt off the edge. For a brief moment, the wind washed over her, cooling and exhilarating. She closed her eyes and reveled in the moment.

Then, her eyes still closed, she reached out and thudded into the trunk of a massive tree, her claws digging into the bark. She scuttled down the trunk, moving quickly in the world’s high energy environment.

On the forest floor, she picked her way through the dense, dripping tangle of the undergrowth and came to a small glade relatively free of plants. As with many other Lost One villages, much of the forest around the Watching Eye settlement had been given over to the refugees from Marlhem while they waited to find new homes on Barria – most people couldn’t adapt to Tyzu’s alien energy level – but this place had been reserved for a special purpose.

The watery sunlight drifted through the broad leaves above and painted the little hollow in pale green. The omnipresent perfume of flowers drifted on the air, and quick bursts of birdsong and the constant hum of insects buzzed in her ears. The mossy earth felt like a damp carpet beneath her feet.

To her right, Doga, dressed in his people’s traditional loincloth, huddled over a pair of green shapes at the foot of a small – by Tyzuan standards – tree. They had been Lost Ones once: Meru of the Tall Tree clan and Roja of the Water’s Edge clan.

They had been wounded in the battle at Marlhem, and shortly after their return to Tyzu, they had succumbed to their injuries. They had been brought to this glade, and during a small ceremony restricted to Lost Ones and presided over by Elder Sheen, their bodies had been seeded with a special kind of dense moss native to this world. In the high energy, the seeds had taken root almost immediately, and now the bodies had been transformed into green statues of the Lost One warriors who had given their lives in the war against the Automatons. In a few days, the moss would completely consume the bodies and crumble into nothing.

Doga looked up. His eyes acknowledged her, but he said nothing. Leha felt a lump build in her throat.

She turned to her left. There, beneath the dense canopy, lay another body, one whose features had already begun to grow indistinct as the moss went through its lifecycle. She went to its side and knelt beside it, ignoring the wetness that soaked through her pants. As she leaned closer, a shiver of recognition passed through her. This was Sosk, the Lost One who had used his venom to change her.

She held a hand to her mouth and stifled a sob.

When Leha had broken the seal on Barria, the Watching Eye clan warriors had drawn lots to decide who would remain on their homeworld. Sosk had been one of the few to stay. Leha had hardly seen him since the day he had transformed her, but she had always remembered the look that had been in his eyes after he had injected her. She hadn’t understood it at the time, but she knew now how conflicted he must have felt. She had planned to talk to him about that one day, to reassure him that she bore no malice for what he had done. But she had never found the time.

Leha ran a hand down his bristly, dark green cheek, feeling a tear run down hers.

Doga knelt beside her and placed a hard-skinned arm around her shoulders.

“How did he die?” she whispered.

“A week ago, he took part in a hunt,” Doga said, his voice dead. “The Stassai attacked. Under normal circumstances, the hunting party might have been able to fight them off, but most of our warriors were on Barria, and the beasts hit them hard. It was all the others could do to bring Sosk’s body back to the village.”

Leha sniffed, and her strength gave out. She began to cry openly, and Doga held her as her small frame was racked by sobs. A few warm drops fell onto her head while she wept, but she couldn’t say whether they were tears of the Lost One or mere drips from a branch above them.

When her tears subsided, she pulled away from Doga, sniffing. He rubbed her back and withdrew his arm. The Lost One reached out and placed a hand on the green mass that had been his comrade’s chest. He muttered something.

“What?” she asked.

“Lost threads.”

She stared questioningly.

Doga took a breath. “‘Within the tapestry of humanity, each person is a thread. They live their lives and spin their tales through the whole, but eventually, all must die, all threads must be cut. Others may try to follow their paths, but those lost threads can never be replaced,’” he quoted.

They sat in silence for a moment.

“That’s from Lahune’s cult, isn’t it?”

“Yes. He’s been teaching me about his beliefs. They’re… intriguing,” he said, his face stony.

Leha said nothing. She took one last look at Sosk’s body, stood, and started to walk away, rubbing her tired eyes with her knuckles, being careful not to injure herself with her claws. She hadn’t had much time for rest over the past few days.

“I need to think,” she said.

Doga let her go.

* * *

She did think. All through the day, she thought. She brooded in her hut and thought. She read her books of the Liberation and thought. She walked through the chaotic, overcrowded refugee camps around the village and thought. She gazed out from the edge of the village platform and thought.

Her mind mulled over the events of the past six months. She remembered the war in Eastenhold, those last few days before the machines had rebelled. She reflected on her confrontations with the Automaton Lord. She recalled her time in Marlhem and meeting Natoma.

There were too many questions. Why had the machines retrieved the mind of the Old God? Why had they made it their leader? How had they even known its body was here? Why were they so determined to cut off Uranna and Pira from the other lands? Why had all the attempts to channel the powers of the other worlds by anyone or anything other than Leha failed?

And there was the most important question of all. Why had her people failed in their defense of Marlhem?

Late in the day, as the sun set, Leha paced near the eastern edge of the platform. At times, her movement became so frantic that the netting shook beneath her feet. Drogin glanced at her with concern, but she didn’t notice him.

A fog had come in, and the world had become a dim realm of white emptiness and ghostly shapes. The air remained hot and humid, but the lack of sunlight kept it from being too overpowering.

Leha stopped. She flexed her fingers, and moved into the center of the platform.

One by one, she went to Eranna, Natoma, Doga, Drogin, and Yeldar and summoned them to the home of Elder Sheen, who had offered it as a meeting place and gladly gave it up now.

The elder’s home sprawled across the branches of a tree at the western edge of the platform. It was larger than any other building in the village, with a thick main section and two wings branching out to either side of it.

They gathered in the main chamber of the home, a room long and wide by Lost One standards. Pads for seating lined the walls, and a low, crude table sat in the center. In past visits, Leha had seen the floor covered with fragrant blossoms and leaves, but no one had had the time to collect them recently. Between the fog and the setting of the sun, little light made its way through the windows, and they considered each other in an otherworldly twilight. Occasional whispers of wind against the walls added a further eeriness.

Leha settled herself on a pad at the head of the room, a place normally reserved for Elder Sheen. The damp had seeped into it, rendering it moist and faintly spongy. She reached out with her mind, and she felt Benefactor’s presence settle on the room. The ice creature and his people had returned to Sy’om at the earliest opportunity; they found Tyzu’s heat and high energy extremely uncomfortable. To her left, Eranna, her injured arm in a sling, and Drogin took their seats, and Doga and Natoma settled on the right. Yeldar leaned against the wall by the door and stayed as quiet as a statue.

Leha drew a deep breath. “I’ve gathered you all here to discuss our situation.” She straightened her back. “Marlhem has been lost, our army is in disarray, and the only reason the Automatons haven’t pressed the attack is that they’re too busy with grinding every last bit of Marlhem into dust.” Every report from Barria had stated that the machines had devoted themselves to removing any trace of the city from the plain.

Eranna, Doga, and Drogin shifted uncomfortably. Only Natoma and Yeldar could meet her gaze.

Leha took another breath and summoned the courage for what she had to say next. “We’ve been doing things wrong since the war started. From day one, our strategy has been fundamentally flawed.”

Now they all stared at her. She sensed Benefactor quirk his head and widen his eyes slightly. Even Yeldar’s eyes widened by a tiny margin.

Leha looked each of them in the eye. Outside, rain began to tap on the roof. “We’ve been trying to fight this like any other war. We’ve held to our territory, we’ve cowered in our cities, and we’ve tried to hold them off. But we can’t. The Automatons are stronger than us. They always have been, and they always will be.

“You’ve all learned about the Liberation,” she said, trying to keep her speech slow enough for the Barrians to understand. “For much of that war, Phanto and his people never fought to defend fixed fortifications or cities. It wasn’t until the eighth year, when the Old Gods had begun to lose their grip on the world, that they even attempted to capture and hold an Old God ziggurat. And they never tried to defend their own human cities. Human cities didn’t exist then. Our race’s first true city wasn’t founded until fall of thirteenth Year of Liberty, nearly nine months after the Old Gods were defeated.”

Leha lowered her voice to a more conversational level, realizing how strident it had become. “I should have known better. The people from Heart who fled into the mountains had the right idea. We failed our responsibilities when we tried to find a permanent base. But that’s over. The question is: what do we do now? How can we defeat the machines?”

She lowered her shoulders and leaned forward slightly. Outside, the high energy rain hammered down. By the standards of Tyzu, it was a light rain, but on Barria, it would have been a downpour.

After a moment, Yeldar said, “You’re right. What we’ve done is wrong. We need a new direction.”

“You think we need to go into the wilderness?” Eranna said, leaning against the wall.

Leha nodded. “Yes. We need to be mobile. The machines invented cities. We won’t beat them at their own game.”

“My people can help with that,” Doga said. “We may not be familiar with Barria, but we know how to survive in the wilderness, and even with the snow and cold, Barria is not so harsh as Tyzu.”

“Not everyone is going to be willing to leave their homes,” Drogin said. “They may be a problem.”

Leha’s shoulders tensed at her brother’s voice. For a moment, she regretted the need to include him in the meeting. “We’ll find a way to convince them. We have to.”

Natoma spoke up. “I agree. We can’t stand and fight the machines.”

Leha bowed her head in thanks. She glanced at Eranna. The Tor soldier nodded slightly.

“But the question becomes: what do we do now? How can we fight them?” Natoma said, speaking in a strong, clear voice. Her accent continued to diminish at a rapid pace.

Leha deflated. “I don’t know.” She toyed with a frayed edge of her tunic. “I wish I knew some other way to fight them. I wish I knew what they were planning. I wish I knew a lot of things.”

She sensed Benefactor tilt his head. She could feel his thoughts buzzing just out of her reach. She didn’t know why. Sometimes she still didn’t understand him.

The group sat in silence. The only sound came from the rain.

“If we head into the mountains, we might be able to set up some ambushes. Maybe rolling a few boulders onto the machines would slow them down,” Eranna offered.

Shrugs and half-hearted answers greeted her suggestions.

Natoma straightened. “There are wizards among Benefactor’s people, are there not?”

Leha peered at the Urannan’s dimly lit face. “Yes,” she said.

“We’ve been giving silver and training to the Lost One wizards; couldn’t we do the same with them?”

Leha blinked. She’d been so used to thinking of the ice creatures and their wizards as creatures unsuitable for combat that it had never occurred to her to use their wizards. She broke into a grin. “We could. Benefactor? What would you make of that?”

He took a moment to respond. He seemed distracted. Ah. Yes. That is a good idea. I will consult my people about it, he broadcast through the room.

“Thank you,” Leha said to Natoma.

Eranna and Yeldar praised the Urannan, Drogin nodded curtly, and Doga squeezed her shoulder affectionately.

Benefactor’s presence suddenly loomed in Leha’s mind. Leha, he sent.

She stared into an empty point of space. “Benefactor?”

From the looks on the others’ faces, he hadn’t sent the message to them. “Benefactor, include the others. It’s impolite to speak to me and leave them out.”

Yes. I apologize, he sent to the group.

“What is it?” she asked.

I may know a way to help us. There is a creature that may be able to answer your questions.

She didn’t need to communicate her question for him to sense it.

The ice creature composed his thoughts. There is a world beneath mine. It is dark, and cold, and inhospitable. It has little energy. Most of my people who have traveled there have died before they could return, and no one has gone there in a very long time. Nearly all our memories of it come from one. They are so old that they may not be worthy of trust, but in them, I have felt that she was a magic-user. I felt that she had a stone that could make her stronger. It may have been silver. If the memories are true, she spent nearly a day there, and learned of the place.

That world has no life that we would recognize. But in the memories, I recall an intelligence there. The world itself is an entity. It lives on the energy that trickles down from the higher worlds. And in the process, it learns all that happens above it. It watches.

In the memories, the female who traveled to it believed that it would know everything.

More than one person around the room gaped.

“It knows everything?” Drogin said.

Leha sensed the alien shake his head in what she knew to be the equivalent of a shrug. That is what she believed.

“Why didn’t your wizard study it more?” Leha asked.

She stayed too long and nearly died in the low energy. Afterward, she had no interest in returning, the ice creature said.

“If that world is so dangerous, how are we supposed to contact this creature?” Eranna said.

Leha’s eyes refocused. “My abilities might allow me to survive it.”

She felt Benefactor duck his head. Yes.

She thought for a moment. “I’ll go. My powers can protect me, and if I’m alone, no one else will be at risk. We need answers.”

“You can’t go alone,” Drogin chimed in, leaning forward. “You won’t have any way to get back. You need a wizard for that.”

Leha bit her lip in thought, trying to put aside her frustration with her brother and focus on the task at hand. “Could you build some kind of machine? Something to take me back?”

He paused. “Possibly. But it would take several weeks to design and build it, and there’s no way of knowing if it will work on that world.”

She sighed.

“There might be some kind of a spell do it, though,” Drogin said. “Perhaps someone on the other end could keep a connection with you and pull you out.” He scratched his face. “There might be a way to do it. I’d need to talk to a more powerful wizard.”

Leha nodded. “I’ll leave for a jumping point as soon as you can sort it out.”

“And how long would you be planning to spend on this other world?” Yeldar’s voice growled from the darkness.

She looked in the direction of the vague shape that was the former watch commander. “I don’t know.” She glanced into space. “Benefactor? How long do you think it would take?”

He shook his head. I cannot say. It would depend on what you ask and how well you are able to understand it. It is very alien. The memories show that it can be difficult to understand.

Her eyes returned to the old soldier. “Why do you ask?”

“Your abilities are the only thing keeping us alive when we fight the machines. If you’re going to be gone for a long time, it could cause problems.”

She frowned. She sensed what had been left unsaid. He didn’t think they could continue with just one person able to channel the powers of Sy’om and Tyzu. She became acutely aware of the gazes of the others. Drogin looked upon her with something like suspicion, while Doga and Eranna seemed more confused. Yeldar’s face was concealed in the shadows, but she knew his eyes would be as hard as ever. Only Natoma and Benefactor seemed to understand.

She shifted uncomfortably. She had a sudden urge to stand up, to turn away, to walk away. “I doubt I’ll be gone long. You’ll be okay without me,” she said quietly.

“Have you had any luck with your devices yet?” she said, turning to Drogin.

He looked as if he had just swallowed something distasteful. “No. No matter what I try, none of the machines will channel the powers.”

Leha’s face fell.

After a moment, she collected herself. “That’s enough for today. We’ll meet again in the morning, work out the details.”

The others murmured their ascent and goodbyes, and the meeting drifted apart. Benefactor withdrew from Leha’s mind. As he left, she sensed his tiredness. It was much harder for him to communicate over different worlds.

Leha bolted through the rain and took shelter in the hut she shared with the other two women. She stayed there for the rest of the evening, reading and making small talk with Eranna and Natoma. The energy that had possessed her when she’d called the gathering had dissipated, and she wanted to focus on simpler things.

She tried not to think about what Yeldar had brought up, but the question lingered at the edge of her psyche, never quite leaving. She knew that she would need to come up with a decision soon.

———————

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 Eight: Wrath of the Old Gods

After a pause for the holidays, we come now to the eighth 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. EdwardsPart two comes to a close as the full fury of the Old Gods is unleashed upon the defenders of Marlhem.

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Outside the walls of her home, the sound of a city in panic roared like a distant wind. Alarm bells rang, men and women shouted, and the streets echoed with the sound of running feet.

Inside, Leha sat on the thing she generously called a bed and inspected her armor. The suit of leather had been made specially for her short frame, and it was designed to not impair her flexibility or weigh her down. It covered her body from the neck down, excluding her hands and most of her feet. Over that, she wore her fur cloak.

Outside, a squad of soldiers charged by, shouting.

Leha held forth her hands. Her claws were still in their shortened, nocturnal state, and she regrew them. A makeshift window made from a chunk of broken glass allowed the morning sun to glint off their inky surfaces.

She stood and took a deep breath. Clearing her mind, she opened the door to her home and stepped into the turmoil of the streets.

All around, soldiers ran to take their positions, civilians ran for cover, and everyone shouted. A pair of Lost Ones from the Water’s Edge clan tore past her, followed by a shambling, white-furred member of Benefactor’s people.

Their time had run out. The Automatons had arrived.

Leha summoned the energy of Tyzu and took off for the south wall at a breathtaking speed. It had snowed in the night, and her feet kicked up puffs of white powder as she ran. Her legs became a blur beneath her; her hair blew out behind her; and her cloak cracked and fluttered. She darted through the chaos of people and buildings. Her enhanced reflexes and Tyzu’s wild energy allowed her to move through it with ease. Everyone around her seemed to be going in slow-motion.

It was still early, and the sky to the east glowed pink and orange. To the west, the clouds that had produced the night’s snow hovered still, and a few flakes still drifted onto the city.

Reaching the south wall, she found a stair and leapt. As she soared upward, she closed her eyes and felt the crisp air wash over her. In this weightlessness, it was easy to imagine she was flying, wings carrying her through the early morning air. At the last moment, she opened her eyes and let Sy’om’s placid energy flood over her. She landed softly on the upper stairs.

She climbed the remaining steps and took her position on the battlements.

Yeldar, Doga, and Natoma were already there, gazing out at the plain below. She joined them, her feet crunching in the thin coating of snow on the walls. Cool gusts of wind washed over them in a steady rhythm.

To the south, a line of dark shapes darkened the horizon.

The Automatons. The Old Gods.

A faint rumbling echoed towards them. Leha felt dread creep into her gut.

“Are the skirmishers ready?” she asked.

“Nearly,” Eranna said, stepping onto the battlement.

“They’d best hurry up,” Leha said.

As the dark shapes of the machines crept closer, the walls bustled with activity. Men and women of many nations and two worlds took up positions along the parapet, holding their crossbows and javelins at the ready. Thanks to Natoma’s people, many of the crossbows were loaded with anti-Automaton bolts – more than Leha had seen in some time. Still, many others made do without.

To Leha’s right, atop a tower, the sun glinted off of Drogin’s new feedback weapon, a large, silver-plated horseshoe connected to a complicated system of gears, pulleys, and blocks of lead.

Outside the walls, fighters scurried about the fortified Quadramaton ruin. Two former Automaton technicians loaded the trebuchet atop its back with a small cask of acid, and soldiers armed with crossbows scurried into place all over the outwork.

Farther out, squads of skirmishers moved forward, preparing to harry the enemy’s advance. Among them were what little remained of the cavalry of the human nations. For reasons Leha didn’t fully understand, the Automatons had given special attention towards destroying cavalry and any domestic horses. Seeing the handful of mounted squads dart across the plains, Leha thought it possible that the machines feared their speed. Horses were almost as fast as Automatons in a straight line, and they were more maneuverable.

The shouts of fighters and commanders rippled through the morning air, and the sun glinted off of javelin tips, chain mail, and the staffs of battle wizards. While Leha’s army made ready, the machines drew nearer. Leha enhanced her eyes, and she began to pick out details.

Automatons of every shape and design marched on the city: round-edged Eastenholder Automatons; human-like Urannan Automatons armed with gigantic swords, maces, and axes; tall, blocky Tor Automatons; beast-headed Karkaran machines with taloned hands; one of the original Tor Wizard-Automatons; towering Piran machines wielding staffs of iron; Quadramatons modified to function without their human crews; a pair of multi-legged, insect-like Urannan Sextamatons; and machine-built Wizard-Automatons constructed after the war began.

Many of the human-built Automatons had been modified with better armor or equipment or been upgraded into Wizard-Automatons. Some wore tall metal plates on their chests to protect their vulnerable necks.

Benefactor scuttled up the stairs, moving sideways, and stepped forward onto the battlement, his hooves clacking. We are ready, Leha. The wind ruffled his gray fur.

Leha closed her eyes and reached out with her mind, linking with the alien’s bright, curious mind. Through him, she linked to a network of other ice creatures, and then with the other commanders: Natoma, with her serene and ordered mind; Doga, with his fearful awe of the Old Gods; Eranna, stalwart and prepared; Yeldar, with his stony strength; even Drogin, with his dark and bitter thoughts. Leha felt tempted to peak deeper into those thoughts, to learn the source of his coldness, but she resisted.

Beyond them, her awareness extended farther, encompassing the skirmishers on the plain. She saw the plain through their eyes; she felt the earth shake beneath their feet.

She, along with the other leaders, sent them to face the machines, orchestrating their movements in a dance of raids and retreats.

For the next hour – as the sun rose in the sky, and the snow blew away to the west – the skirmishers slowed the Automatons’ advance. They were too few and too weak to do real harm, but they let fly with their bolts and their spears, damaging and crippling the odd machine. The battlefield was too wide for Leha to control the energy levels throughout it all, but she did what she could. When her men attacked, she flooded them with Tyzu’s power and thus gave their missiles the power to pierce the machines’ armor – at least some of the time. When an Automaton would try to pursue them, she would bring it down to Sy’om’s level of energy.

Wizard-Automatons presented the greatest threat to the fighters on the plain. Battle wizards were too precious a commodity to waste, and most of them had stayed in Marlhem. The skirmishers had little defense against magic, save flight. With the help of the mental link, most of them managed to stay safe. But some did not, and by the time the order came to withdraw to the city, burning scars covered the fields, and the stink of burnt flesh wafted on the winter air.

The Automatons spread out into a crescent moon formation and moved to encircle the city. Leha’s people did what they could to stop them, but they could not hope to halt their advance. By two hours before noon, the Automatons had Marlhem fenced in.

A pause came in the fighting, and Benefactor’s people dissolved the link. Leha looked about. A dark ring of machines surrounded them in all directions. She cursed and agonized silently. While this tactic had not been entirely unexpected, she’d hoped they would be able to concentrate their forces on the south wall. If they had to defend all sides of the city, they would be spread dangerously thin.

Natoma began parceling out their soldiers.

* * *

Thunder.

The thunder of iron hands breaking into stone. The thunder of burning magical strikes smashing against wizard-summoned shields. The thunder of mechanical footfalls smashing into the earth. The thunder of collapsing towers and shattering parapets. It deafened Leha’s ears and rattled her bones.

An hour and a half before noon, the Automatons had attacked. With typical machine brutality, they had charged, leaving naught but their leader, the Machine King, in reserve. All around the walls of Marlhem, they tore into the walls and slaughtered the defenders. The screams of dying men and women provided a grim undertone to the louder cracks and smashes.

The sky above was clear, but the air in the city was choked with smoke, ash, and dust.

Leha’s mind thrummed as she coordinated with the other commanders scattered along the walls – it would be too much to link with every soldier – and did her best to funnel the right energies to the right areas. She had trouble concentrating on her own situation as she also lived the battle through the eyes of Natoma, Drogin, Doga, Eranna, Yeldar, and Benefactor.

To her right, a Karkaran Automaton tore chunks from the wall below the battlement, separating her from the tower where Drogin operated his new weapon. People screamed as the walkway collapsed beneath them. Anti-Automaton bolts had melted much of its boar-like face, giving it an even more nightmarish cast.

To her left, the gap in the south wall had been widened, and a force of human soldiers and battle wizards, connected by one of Benefactor’s people, fought desperately to fend off a pair of sword-wielding Urannan Automatons and two Tor machines.

A Wizard-Automaton, a machine-built one reminiscent of the Old God she had fought on Tyzu, emerged from the smoke. It raised its arm, and a bolt of magic burst forth. A pair of battle wizards on the walls erected a flickering shield, but the finger of energy twisted toward the tower, toward Drogin’s weapon. A high-pitched whine pierced the air, and a second beam of energy extended from Drogin’s machine to the Automaton. Leha quickly flooded the machine with Tyzu’s power, and the magic flared brighter.

The two beams whipped by each other in an oval of light that seared the eyes and raised the hair on the back of Leha’s neck. The Automaton erupted in green-white fire, and it crumpled into a heap of burning metal.

Leha wished they’d built more than one of those weapons.

A great screaming of metal drew her attention, and she saw a Piran Automaton topple the ruined Quadramaton with its staff, its defenders shouting and fighting. Its fall shook the walls and kicked up dust and snow.

The machine threw itself at the walls and raised it staff to strike. Leha felt Tyzu’s power rush through her; she grabbed a javelin from a fallen soldier, and leapt. She glided through the air like a fish through water – she had shed her cloak when the fighting began – and drove the javelin into the thin armor at the base of its neck.

Slowing the Automaton with Sy’om’s energy, she dug her the claws of her toes into its chest for purchase and commanded the venom glands in her fingers to produce acid. With a primal cry, she tore into the armor to either side of the javelin and gouged out a hole. She squinted against the acrid smoke her acid produced. Freed from the Automaton, her javelin plummeted, but she caught it hurled it at the Karkaran machine. Empowered by Tyzuan energy, the missile punched through the Automaton’s hand. Two of its fingers hung limply.

Leha wriggled inside the Piran machine’s frigid interior and wormed her way up its neck, tearing support bars free and sending them to clatter into its chest. The sound echoed uncannily in the dark innards of the machine.

As the neck began to collapse under the weight of the head, she reached a hand up into the space behind its eyes and attacked. Pieces of silver of quartz rained down on her as she destroyed the latticework of its mind.

The entire machine began to fall, and she scurried downwards. The collapse had shrunk the hole in its neck, but she kicked it wider and pulled herself out.

The moment she emerged into the hazy sunlight, the taloned hand of the Karkaran Automaton swung at her. She leapt.

Tyzu’s power carried her high into the air, the wind lashing at her. Up here, above the smoke, she could see far and wide. She could see the fires in the northeast corner of the city, where the mental link told her that Doga’s forces had been forced to retreat into the streets. Below her, she saw the sapphire eyes of the Karkaran Automaton glare at her, and next to it, the Piran machine falling in slow-motion.

She poured Tyzu’s power into the Piran Automaton, and it plummeted with sudden speed. Its arm flew out and struck the Karkaran machine in the chest, sending it crashing to the ground.

The earth rushed up to meet her. She plunged through a bank of hot smoke and barely had time to summon Sy’om’s energy to slow her descent.

Her feet settled in the debris before the wall. To her right, the Karkaran machine twitched feebly. It seemed to have been crippled by the fall.

She leaned against the wall and took a moment to breathe, inhaling the polluted air. Her mind buzzed with information from the other fronts of the battle. Doga’s people were attempting to halt their retreat and make a stand against their mechanical pursuers. On Marlhem’s western flank, Natoma was near to being overrun, but she was doing her best to hold on while the civilians behind her fled to the center of the city. Eranna’s left arm had been broken, and the Automatons were gaining the advantage at her position.

Leha drew herself back to her own surroundings. Judging from the screams to her left, the Automatons were close to breaking through at the gap in the wall. She turned to go to the aid of her people, when a titanic thud shook the earth beneath her.

She spun to face the open plain as a nightmare emerged from the smoke. It towered above the wall as an adult would tower over a child. Plates of silver formed jagged, glittering bracelets around its wrists, and its dark surface seemed to feed on the sunlight. Atop its head, above its blazing eyes, three prongs of iron attacked the sky.

Leha fought her terror as she beheld the lord of all Automatons.

She had known it had come with the machine army. She’d caught glimpses of it throughout the day, prowling behind the Automaton lines. But it had not joined the battle proper.

Now it had.

The Machine King glanced down at her, and her soft, brown eyes met the hard, azure gaze of the Automaton.

Leha gasped. Somewhere, deep inside that cold engine of hate, she saw something terribly, impossibly familiar. “No,” she breathed.

Somehow, this was the same machine she had fought on Tyzu, six months ago.

Her shock broadcasted itself across the mental link. Doga stumbled and narrowly avoided being struck by a piece of a wall hurled by an Automaton. Benefactor bleated and jerked his lower jaw back and forth in fear. Natoma winced and nearly threw off her aim as she fired a crossbow.

The Automaton Lord’s gaze bored through Leha’s mind. As it had six months previously, a cold and inhuman voice entered her thoughts. I remember you. Contained in those words was a malice that froze her heart.

It raised its fist, and a burst of green-white energy leapt forth to destroy her. Leha held her arms in front of her face and screamed.

At the last moment, the magic changed course, flew up and over the wall, and met Drogin’s machine. A second bolt of energy leapt from the weapon and completed the circuit with the Automaton Lord.

Feeling a surge of hope, Leha flooded the machine with Tyzu’s power. The energy loop blazed brighter, and she felt a surge of vindictive pleasure. She braced her feet, forced her eyes to acclimatize to the glare, and waited for the inevitable explosion to come, smiling fiercely.

But it didn’t come. The magic hissed and blazed and burned, but the machine held its ground. Leha’s smile faded, and her heart beat faster. Something’s wrong.

She looked up and saw Drogin’s weapon crackle and spark. It’s not going to work. Her heart raced, and adrenaline sang through her veins. She dug her claws into the bricks of the wall and scurried up as fast as her limbs would take her. She reached for Tyzu and felt a hot rush of power envelope her. Her limbs blurred, and she moved faster than she ever had before. Everything around her – the advancing machines, the few remaining human soldiers, the clouds of dust and smoke – seemed to slow down and almost freeze. She pushed the mental link from her mind, and focused all her attention on reaching her brother.

She vaulted onto the battlement and leapt for Drogin’s tower. She tore through the air, the wind shouting at her, and landed hard against the side of the tower. She dug in with her claws and scrabbled onto the summit of the tower. Drogin’s machine burned before her, and soldiers ran and screamed as it disintegrated. A piece of semi-molten lead ejected itself from the machine and shot past her head as she dove for her brother. He didn’t seem to have noticed her; his face was frozen into a mask of disbelief. She wrapped her arms around his waist and jumped from the tower, never breaking stride.

The weapon exploded.

Its death roar reverberated in her ears, and a wave of hot air smashed into her from behind, hurling her forward. Hot gravel and ash pelted her back as she soared over the streets. The blast lit up the southwestern quarter of the city.

Burning rubble fell around Leha and her dazed brother as they plummeted downward. Leha tried to slow their descent with Sy’om’s power, but the weapon’s destruction had thrown the energy currents into disarray, and she only achieved a partial deceleration.

Leha’s feet smacked into the snow, and pain shot through her legs. She cried out and tumbled, sending Drogin flying. Her brother’s wand clanged against a nearby wall, and he smacked into the snow with a grunt.

Leha clutched her legs and held back sobs. She didn’t seem to have broken anything, but she was in a great deal of pain.

Drogin came to his feet and stumbled over to his wand. Upon retrieving it, he turned around and gaped at the direction they’d come from. The pain in her legs had subsided somewhat, and Leha looked too. Her mouth hung open.

For millennia, “wrath of the Old Gods” had been a curse reserved for only the most dire of situations. Now, she knew why. Beyond the ruined townhouse they stood in the shadow of, through the pall of dark smoke, she saw that the tower had become nothing but a smoking crater in the walls. Bits of stone and mortar rained down still, and next to that ruin, the three-pronged crown of the Automaton Lord towered over the city streets. It had breached the walls, and now it tore through roofs and walls and soldiers as if they were nothing. Its magic flared, and new fires were birthed.

Leha felt Benefactor touch the edge of her thoughts. Leha, are you well?

A flash of magic tore through another building in the direction of the Machine King. We have to get out of here, she sent. Call everyone. We have to get to Tyzu.

She sensed him duck his head. Yes. I will do it.

Leha turned her eyes to her brother. “We need to get going. The city is lost; we’ve got to get to Tyzu.”

Drogin blinked. He seemed to come back to his senses. He nodded.

Gritting her teeth, she struggled against the pain and tried to stand. Without thinking, she extended an arm, inviting Drogin’s help.

He stared at her. “Do – do you need help?”

She clenched her jaw and glared at him. “No. I’m fine on my own.”

With great effort, she came to her feet and began to hobble toward the center of the city, toward the market and Tyzu. Every step sent sharp pains shooting up her legs, but the continuing cacophony of the Automaton Lord’s assault pressed her to hurry. She funneled Tyzu’s power into her legs, pushing them to move and heal faster.

Over time, they met up with soldiers, who formed a guard around them, and together their group fled through the streets, always just ahead of the wave of destruction that was the Automatons.

Leha’s mind turned back to that day, more than six months ago, when she had flown from Three Gates. The reek of smoke, the cries of the displaced, and the roar of battle were the same as they had been on that dark day.

But something was different. This time, no one was left behind. No one faced the terror alone. The ice creatures connected everyone into groups, and those groups functioned as one. If one of their number was wounded, the others would help them. The retreat’s chaos had an order.

In her mind, Leha saw Natoma carry Eranna’s wounded form on her back. She saw a crowd of Tor citizens work together to carry Benefactor; he would be too slow on his own. She saw Doga run all-out for the market, carrying a child with an injured head.

This time, no one would be left behind.

After what felt like an eternity of stumbling on her wounded legs, Leha made it to the market along with the rest of her group. Yeldar stood in the center, barking orders to the people that milled around him. Most of the city had already made the journey to Tyzu, and those that remained were being sent off in groups of dozens. Each time a group made the trip, a bright flash would illuminate the former market.

The Automatons approached. A ring of smoke, dust, and fire seemed to be closing in on the market.

Natoma, her face artfully dusted with ash, ran forward. “Nearly everyone is through. I ordered the wizards to alternate which Lost One village they send people to so things won’t become too crowded. I sent Doga and Eranna to the Watching Eye clan village; I assume that’s where you’ll want to be.”

Leha swayed on her aching legs, panting. “Thank you,” she gasped, wishing she could offer a better reward.

Natoma gestured to the cleared area around the jumping point. “Go. I’ll be right behind you.”

“Thank you,” Leha said again. She grabbed Drogin by the arm and dragged him towards the jumping point.

She, together with her brother and several others, took their positions. Natoma saluted her with one hand. The Urannan seemed unfazed by the ruination around her.

A battle wizard stepped forward. He raised his staff, Leha took a deep breath, and there was a flash.

———————

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