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.
The 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.
Part three: Knowledge of the Ancients
Three days later,
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.
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.”
“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.
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