Monthly Archives: March 2015

Rage of the Old Gods: Chapter Thirteen: Broken

We now come to lucky chapter thirteen 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 four begins with the survivors of the human race at their lowest. They are barely holding off the constant assaults of the Old Gods, and all hope seems lost. But a chance discovery in the primordial forest beyond the Gormorra Range could change everything.

———————

Part four: Realm of the Gods

Three months later,

east of the Gormorra Mountains…

Chapter thirteen: Broken

“Leha!”

She opened her eyes and blinked. It took a moment to remember where she was and who was knocking at her door.

“Leha.”

Lahune.

She sat up and groaned, rubbing her eyes. Golden light poured in through the shaded window to fill her tiny room within the Clan hall – she had been offered the large room that had once belonged to Brodar and his wife, but she had given it to a family of Karkarans.

She forced herself out of the sheets, put on her tattered tunic and stained pants, and opened the blinds, telling Lahune to wait a moment.

She blinked again as the light of day struck her eyes. The sun had risen high in the sky, and peopled scurried about their business in the camp. She’d slept in.

She sighed. “Come in,” she said, questing about for her comb.

The door opened, and Lahune stepped in, his dark robes rustling. “Good morning,” he said.

“Is it still morning?” She looked through her clothes chest, then, finding nothing, began to rifle through drawers and hidden compartments in the walls and floor in the search for her comb.

The corners of Lahune’s lips turned up. “Barely.”

Leha closed her eyes and tried to remember where she had last seen the comb. Before the war, Drogin had often commented on the lack of order in her home. Sometimes, he’d helped her to reorganize things if they became too chaotic. The thought made her frown.

Lahune sat down on a stool, unfolded a small table from its housing in the wall, and set down his sack of writing supplies. “Stay up late?” he asked, laying out the quills and ink he had constructed from whatever came to hand.

Abandoning her quest, she flopped onto the bed and leaned against the wall. She felt the warm sunshine touch the crown of her head. “Something like that.” She closed her eyes and reshaped her claws into thin prongs without sharp edges. She ran them through her hair in lieu of a comb. “Couldn’t sleep.” She glanced at the angle of the sun. “Not at night, anyway.”

He chuckled at her joke, but she saw concern in his eyes.

He pulled a small flask from his pouch and tossed it to her.

She pulled her claws from her hair and caught it.

“Ulu,” he explained.

“Thanks.” She took a long draught of the thick fluid. The sweetness helped to chase away her fatigue.

She wiped her mouth and returned her claws to their usual shape. “Where did we leave off yesterday?”

He pulled a sheet of reindeer skin from the sack and laid it upon the table. “The journey north. We had just finished recounting the battle two weeks before your arrival at Marlhem.”

“Right.” She gulped her ulu.

Over the past month, Leha had taken to chronicling the events of the past year. She wanted to preserve a record of the war for future generations – assuming there were any – and it helped to pass the time between battles. Her handwriting had never been her strongest asset, so Lahune had volunteered to work as her scribe. One of the things his order had done before the war had been copying and preserving books and manuscripts. They believed in the importance of safeguarding human history and culture.

Lahune would write down her dictations in Urannan, and then, as materials permitted, he would make copies in Eastenholder, Piran, and Tor. Paper was hard to come by, so they used whatever came to hand: skins, the backs of maps, the inside covers of books. On occasion, they had even used thin blocks of wood. It made for a motley collection. They numbered the passages to save confusion.

Leha finished the ulu and rubbed her right eye with her knuckles. “Could we skip this today? I’m not feeling my best.” Technically, Lahune could work on his own – Benefactor had allowed him to live her memories of this time – but they had both agreed that the record should be provided by someone who had lived it, someone in a position of authority.

He gave her a brief smile. “Of course.” He started to repack his things.

She stood. “Close the door on the way out,” she said, stepping into the hallway.

She exited the hall and stepped onto the soft, moist grass of the meadow where they had made their camp. She strode through the rows of tents and crude dwellings, hearing the conversations of her people as she passed by. She considered seeking out some breakfast, but the reindeer jerky and old cheese that had become their staple held little appeal.

The crystalline sky held no evidence of the rain of the past weeks, and the late spring air was warm, but the beauty of the day seemed empty and fragile, as if it was but a thin façade draped over the world.

Some of those she passed greeted her or made way so that she could pass, but their eyes held none of the deference they had shown before. They no longer viewed her as their salvation, she knew.

Beneath the surface, past whatever expressions they chose to wear, she sensed that her people had lost hope. They moved with slumped shoulders and listless gaits; they gazed upon the world with hollow eyes. They seemed to have been broken on some deep level. It didn’t matter whom she looked upon – Tors, Karkarans, Lost Ones, ice creatures – she saw the same things. She passed a few open spaces while on her walk, and in some she saw groups of young children play and laugh, but even their joy seemed brittle and weak.

The Automatons’ assaults on Sy’om and Tyzu had brought humanity to the brink of defeat. After the machines had finished ravaging the ice creature and Lost One settlements – and the wizards of each had learned to send back the weapons when they arrived – they had begun launching their attacks at random in the hopes of ruining food and water sources and causing environmental disasters. Wide sections of both worlds had been reduced to ash. The mere thought of the burning fields that had once been Tyzu’s jungles was enough to bring tears to Leha’s eyes.

The shipments of food and supplies from Tyzu had grown few and far between, and some of the Lost Ones and ice creatures had been forced to return home to aid with the recovery.

The attacks no longer came frequently, though they hadn’t stopped completely. Tyzu had begun to recover, but even there, it would likely take years.

She reached the edge of the meadow – and the camp – and started into the forest of tall evergreens that stretched for unknown miles in every direction. Here, the sunlight dimmed, and the air smelled of pine and spruce. The shed needles of countless trees and countless years provided a carpet for her feet.

This was uncharted territory. Leha knew of no one in all of history who had made the journey to the eastern side of the Gormorra Range. The crossing had been arduous, and they had lost many people to the elements along the way. They had crossed some of the roughest terrain in the world during some of the worst weather in the world, and they had barely survived.

But as hard as the journey had been for them, it would be harder for the Automatons. The machines could not adapt to harsh conditions as easily as humans. This was as safe a place as they could hope to find.

A small group, commanded by Brodar, had stayed in the mountains to ward against any assaults the Automatons might send. So far, they had done nothing but watch and wait.

Most of the fighting took place far away, at what had once been the northern edge of Tor Som. The chieftains of the Althing, convinced by Brodar’s reports, had agreed to join the war, and the forces of the Northern Clans, together with what remained of the armies of the other nations, held the line against the seemingly endless Automaton offensives. For now, at least.

Leha had considered stationing herself on the front, but some had said that it would put her at too much risk, and she had not argued. She went there by jumping points to lend her aid whenever the machines launched a major attack, but she returned as soon the fighting ended.

These days, more and more people spoke of the need for her to create others like her, others who could channel the powers of the other worlds and modify their bodies at will.

But she would not. She had decided. As long as she lived, she would never allow the creation of another person like her. It was too much power for one person to wield.

As she walked between the evergreens, she tried to enjoy the beauty of the day, but her mind inevitably turned to darker things. She thought of the night before, when she had visited Benefactor. For the last three months, she had struggled to help him overcome the grief he felt at the destruction of his home colony.

She’d had little success. She didn’t know what to do. She had lost much in the past year, but none of it could compare to what he had suffered. Nearly everyone he had ever cared about had been killed, and he had seen their deaths through their own eyes. She couldn’t – didn’t want to – imagine what that felt like.

She tried to be there for him, tried to get his mind on other things. She could only hope that he would one day recover.

She shook her head to clear it. You’re here to relax, she told herself.

She heard a soft babbling of water, and she came to the banks of the River Sheen, a dark ribbon flowing through the trees. She sat down on a damp rock at the shore and placed one of her bare feet in the current. The water was frigid – its source lay deep in the mountains – but to her calloused feet, it felt pleasantly cool.

She stayed there, taking what pleasure she could from the sun and nature.

She enhanced her eyes and swept her gaze around the landscape.

To the west, she saw the towering peaks of the Gormorra Mountains. With her enhanced vision, she could make out the details of all the peaks and valleys. She saw where the river emerged from the peaks and spilled into the forest. Somewhere in those mountains, groups of Eastenholders still survived, she knew. Her people had been joined by some of the survivors of the Battle of Heart during their journey across the range, but others remained among the peaks.

She thought of Abra, the librarian from Heart. After the battle, she had searched the ruins of the library and asked all she met if they had seen him, but she had never learned his fate. She knew what it had likely been, but she had always hoped the old man had made it into the mountains and survived, somehow.

To the east, a round mount, little more than a tall hill, rose over the woods. It stood alone in the forest, its flanks dark with trees. Its name was Yeldar.

She noticed something. On its side, her enhanced eyes saw a small patch barren of trees, and within it, a patch of darkness like a cave or a doorway.

She leaned forward. A sensible voice in her mind told her to go back to the camp and return with allies. She nearly did. But she didn’t think she would encounter anything dangerous in this place. She ignored the voice.

Summoning Tyzu’s power, she came to her feet, screwed up her legs, and leapt across the river, landing neatly on the opposite bank. Hardly missing a beat, she took off into the forest, ducking under branches and swerving around trunks. She glided over the ground, seeming to barely touch it, darting through trees still damp from recent rains.

She reached the foot of Yeldar and ascended the slopes. Her claws dug into the mulch for purchase on the steep incline. She grabbed onto the trees as she passed and used them to push off and gain extra thrust.

She arrived at the place she had seen from the river, a patch clear of trees on the mountain’s western flank. Only grass and a few wildflowers grew. A few steps of white stone led up to a doorway leading into a dark space within the mountain. The steps didn’t appear to be newly made, but they showed no sign of weathering or age.

She felt a chill.

She let Tyzu’s energy fade, and she stepped forward, moving onto the steps and towards the door. The sensible voice spoke again, but she squashed it down. She entered the doorway.

The passage was cool and dark, and her breathing echoed oddly. It went straight for a few paces, and then it descended into the darkness. She adapted her eyes to be better able to see. She wished for one of the Clans’ magical lanterns. The passage was stone at first, but then it shifted to something smoother and less cold. It felt like polished wood.

The stairs ended. She could see that she was in a chamber of some kind, but little light reached this depth, and she had trouble judging its size or shape. From the feel of it, the floor seemed to be constructed of interlocking pieces of wood. She also encountered parts that felt to be made of metal.

An idea occurred to her, and she reached into her pocket to retrieve the small flint and metal device she used to light her cooking fires. She summoned Sy’om’s power and worked the device’s switch, producing a few tiny sparks. With the lower energy, the sparks hung in the air for a few extra moments, and their feeble light proved enough for her modified eyes. She could see.

The chamber was not much larger than her shop in Three Gates had been. It was constructed almost entirely of dark, polished wood, occasionally laced with bands of dark metal. Here and there, accents of gold added color.

The architecture was unlike anything she had ever seen. Its rounded edges and flowing style spoke of the natural world, but its interlocking wood and metal spoke of machinery and industry. Six columns, slanted outward, supported the arched ceiling. At the far end, she saw what appeared to be a large metal globe set within a jungle of gears and machinery.

It all gleamed like something newly made, but the place exuded age. Leha drank it in.

The light went out and left her in the darkness.

For a moment, she wondered if Old Gods had built this place. But she knew they hadn’t. They had never made anything so elegant, so beautiful.

Reluctantly, she turned away. The others needed to see this place. It needed to be studied. She emerged into the light, summoned Tyzu’s power, and sped for the camp.

* * *

All around him, the camp seemed dead. As Yarnig trudged through the muddy paths between the tents, his eyes passed over blank faces and empty stares, the expressions of those who had lost everything. The people moved lethargically, seeming more mechanical than the Automatons who had destroyed their lives. A few of the Tors offered him perfunctory greetings or small bows, but most of his people did not acknowledge his passing – they knew he was not the true leader of his people.

Yarnig could well understand the hopelessness that pervaded the encampment. He, too, had lost nearly everything that mattered to him: his home, his hunting trips in the country, even his artwork.

It had been weeks since he had been able to draw or paint anything. With the war on, no one had the time or the resources to waste on making things like paper or canvas. A simple lack of supplies had put an end to his artwork. His sketchbook had lasted him for a while; during their flight from the cities, he had feverishly produced sketches of his country home and the remains of Retgard and Kerhem, trying to preserve what he could of them. Afterward, his drawings had documented their journey through the mountains and their arrival in this wilderness. But then he had run out of pages.

For a time, he’d had nothing to occupy his days. Erik was often busy performing magical tasks, so he rarely had time to spend with Yarnig, and Eranna did all the real work of ruling the Tors – what remained of them.

But now, he had something to give purpose to his days.

He strode past the last tents and into a small, unoccupied pocket of the meadow, the warm sunlight dusting his hair with gold, the dewy grass moistening his beaten leather boots.

Ahead, Natoma stood, waiting for him. The sun shone off her hair to give her an ethereal quality. She saw him and waved. He smiled and rested one hand on his sword pommel, waving back at her. A warm breeze ruffled his curly hair, and he breathed deeply, enjoying the scents of the nearby forest.

Two weeks ago, Yarnig had been wandering the camp in an attempt to kill time, and he had encountered Natoma. They had fallen into conversation, and she had offered to teach him swordsmanship.

He wasn’t sure why she had done it. Perhaps she had taken pity on him. Perhaps she had been bored. After Marlhem, the people had been less willing to put their leaders on the front lines – not that he was a leader, Yarnig thought – and they both had plenty of idle time.

Whatever her reasons, he felt grateful that she had made the offer. He had started the lessons as merely a means of distracting himself, but he had begun to genuinely enjoy them. His fingers longed to wrap themselves around a pen or a pencil again, but if they could not do that, they would settle for a sword.

He reached Natoma, and they greeted each other.

“We’ll continue working on the postures today,” she explained. “You should get some more practice in before we try sparring again.”

Yarnig nodded, smiling ruefully. Their first attempt at sparring had only led to her besting him repeatedly; afterward, she had apologizing for pushing him too quickly.

Natoma began to stretch, moving with catlike grace. Yarnig followed suit, though he could not be so elegant. Her first lesson to him had been the importance of stretching before practice to loosen his muscles.

When they finished their stretches, they drew their swords. Yarnig had been given a long, single-edged sword of Urannan design. It was an unusual weapon for a Tor, but Natoma was his teacher, and it was what she knew. They started into a series of Urannan sword postures intended to teach him the proper ways to cut, stab, block, and slash. Natoma led the way, demonstrating each move with flawless elegance, and Yarnig did his best to imitate her. He didn’t think he would ever be able to do it as effortlessly as she did.

Often, Natoma would correct his technique, patiently offering advice on how to change his sword grip or the way he held his weight. He soon lost himself in the gentle rhythm of the postures. He found there was a certain artistry to swordplay, and he admired the way the blade flowed through the different positions.

After spending some time on the exercises, she called a break. She pulled two flasks of water from a pack on the ground and handed one to Yarnig.

After their break, they moved on to a more complicated set of exercises designed to increase dexterity and hand strength. Yarnig practiced swinging his sword with three fingers or less and several other odd activities. He fumbled frequently, but Natoma told him he was doing better than most people with his level of experience.

“You have good coordination in your hands,” she said. “It’s probably the result of your training as an artist.”

He nodded. “Maybe I get it from my mother,” he said, practicing a blocking motion with only three fingers.

Natoma gave him a questioning look.

“She was a fencer,” he explained. “In her day, she was considered to be one of the best in Tor Som.”

“Perhaps you take after her, then,” Natoma said, smiling.

Yarnig returned her smile shyly.

After another twenty minutes, Natoma called an end to the session, they said their goodbyes, and Yarnig started back for his room in the Clan hall.

It would be several days before his next lesson. He had nothing worthwhile to fill that time, but for now, at least, his life did not seem so empty.

* * *

First, Leha contacted Benefactor. He agreed to summon the others, but he opted not to come himself; he would observe through their eyes.

His normal curiosity seemed muted. Her heart ached for what he had suffered through. Part of her felt it had been her fault, but his people had knowingly chosen to join the war and accept the risks.

When she returned to the campsite, the others had assembled. Yarnig and Natoma had just come from their sword practice, and sweat bathed their faces. Leha hadn’t yet become accustomed to seeing Yarnig carrying a sword. The hardship of the last few months, as well as the lessons, had added a little bulk to his thin frame, but he still seemed boyish and frail. Everyone had grown thinner and more weather-beaten during the journey over the mountains, but in Natoma’s case, the weathering made her look flushed and healthy, and the loss of weight made her seem fitter.

Erik had been training, too, when the call came in, but he had been learning the Clan ways of magic, and the strain on him was not as apparent.

Drogin arrived late, looking even more haggard than normal. He mumbled something about how he had been working, and he gave Leha only a tiny nod of greeting.

He completed their party. Doga, Eranna, and the master of Yarnig’s guard were in the north, leading the fight against the Automatons, so they could not come.

Leha gave a sparse explanation of what she had found, insisting that they had to see it for themselves, and led them into the moist forest, summoning Tyzu’s power to speed their passage. The others were not as agile as her, and they were forced to find a ford to cross the icy river.

After a half-hour of jogging, running, and climbing – Yarnig huffed and puffed for the entire trip, but he did not complain – they arrived at the doorway in the mountain.

“What is it?” Yarnig asked, peering at the dark opening.

“That’s what we’re here to find out,” Leha replied.

She led them into the cool darkness. Drogin lit his wand, and Erik did the same to his staff, sending a harsh, green-white light throughout the chamber. The wood and metal gleamed as if newly polished. Drogin muttered something; the others just stared.

With greater illumination, Leha could pick out more details of the chamber’s bizarre construction. She could never have imagined something like it.

“What is this place?” Erik said.

“I have no idea,” Leha said quietly. A hint of a smile touched her lips. She felt she should be nervous, concerned, but she wasn’t.

Drogin scurried about the room, observing its workmanship and design. He seemed more alive than he had in months. “It doesn’t appear to have been made by the machines, but it’s not any human design I know of.”

Natoma squatted and ran her fingers over a subtle design of gold inlaid into the floor.

Leha crept to the metal globe within the rear wall. She noticed a shallow groove in its upper right quarter. She gently placed the fingers of her right hand into it. Things that may have been letters flashed brilliant sapphire across the globe’s surface.

With a whirring and a rumbling, the room came to life.

The tangle of machinery that had made up the rear wall flew backwards and disappeared into darkness. Light without source blossomed through the chamber. Leha stepped back, her heart pounding. Behind her, Drogin and Erik raised their magical tools in defensive postures, and Yarnig and Natoma’s swords hissed from their scabbards.

Leha’s stomach lurched as the floor descended by two feet. At the same time, the ceiling raised itself higher, and the columns telescoped to maintain their link between the two. Extra stairs unfolded from nowhere to reconnect the now lower chamber to the stairway leading up to the mountain slope.

Out in the dark space beyond where the back wall had once been, sections of wood and metal, some of which appeared to have once been part of the wall, emerged from the shadows and began linking together. They found their places and connected into the whole with mind-boggling efficiency, and they had soon formed themselves into a second, larger chamber. The new chamber was roughly square and a few feet lower than the first. Three square sections of interlocking metal and wood plates – Leha thought they might be doors – dotted the walls.

Light washed through the new room while two curved segments locked into place to connect the walls and ceilings of the two chambers. A stairway folded out from underneath the floor of the first room to bridge the gap between the two. It seemed as if they had always been so joined.

The noise and motion ceased.

It had only taken a few seconds.

Leha found she could breath again. Benefactor’s presence in her mind had previously been slight, but now she felt his full attention on them. Yarnig lowered his sword. His hands shook slightly.

“What did you do?” Drogin demanded.

Leha shook her head. “I just touched it,” she said, too distracted to be annoyed with her brother.

Natoma sheathed her sword and went to gaze into the new chamber. The others joined her. After a few moments to collect her wits, Leha carefully made her way down the stairs. Natoma and Drogin followed, Drogin moving cautiously, Natoma confidently. Yarnig and Erik brought up the rear. Unlike in the tunnel above, the air here was dry and neither warm nor cool.

Erik and Drogin swept their silver rods before them. Drogin shook his head.

“What is it?” Natoma asked him.

“The mechanisms, the light, are powered by magic, but not magic like anything I’ve encountered.”

Leha stepped into the center of the chamber and gazed up. The sphere now resided in the center of the gently domed ceiling. “No. I wouldn’t think it would be.”

They wandered about the chamber, speaking in hushed tones. Erik and Drogin held out their implements of magic and tasted the place’s energy. Natoma studied the patterns of the floor. She tapped it with her foot, producing a hollow sound that suggested empty space lay beneath it. Leha paced the edges of the room and ran her claws across the walls as if they could whisper their secrets to her. She felt that she stood on the verge of something important. Yarnig stood in the center of the room, taking it all in silently, and Benefactor observed from the edges of their thoughts.

Leha came to one of the things she thought to be doors. On the wall next to it, she noticed a small panel of metal a groove identical to the one on the sphere.

“Look at this,” she called.

The others gathered around her. She pointed to the panel and explained.

“Don’t touch it. There’s no telling what this one might do,” Drogin warned, though he sounded uncertain.

“The last one wasn’t dangerous,” Erik said, leaning over his shoulder.

“Do we want to take the risk?” Yarnig said.

Leha held her fingers above the panel. “Natoma?”

The Urannan considered. “I believe the risk is acceptable.”

Leha nodded once. She touched the panel, and blue lettering flared across it. Everyone moved back a step.

The panels of the doorway retracted into the walls, ceiling, and floor to reveal a small, square room of a similar make to the previous two. Within the far wall of the room, behind a dome of faceted glass, stood a small column of blue crystal. They crept inside.

Drogin pointed his wand at the crystal, and Erik did the same with his staff. They looked at each other and shook their heads.

“What is it?” Leha asked softly.

“I don’t know,” Drogin said in the same tone.

Leha strode toward the crystal and knelt in front of it. A thin gold framework like an upended tripod held it within its alcove. A faint glow emanated from it.

A brass hinge at the top held the glass dome in place. Leha reached to open it.

“Leha,” Drogin said, using his most commanding “big brother” voice.

She ignored him, and she ignored the sensible voice in her head. She lifted the cover and pulled out the crystal.

The room went dark, and the lights in the previous chamber dimmed. Several of the others started, reaching for their weapons. But when nothing else happened, they relaxed.

Leha stared into the crystal in her hands. It had a triangular cross-section, and it fluctuated between feeling warm and cool. Its blue glow bathed her face and glinted on her claws. Different shades of blue in various levels of brightness swirled and flickered within its depths, as if it was filled with liquid and someone stirred it.

Words from months past appeared in Leha’s mind. They were… nebulous. A cloud of uncertain radiance.

In the azure twilight, a smile spread across her face. “I know who built this place.”

———————

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!

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Rage of the Old Gods free chapters

Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Twelve: Tears of a Hero

We have now come to the twelfth 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. EdwardsAs the third section draws to a close, humanity flees into the wilderness, but Leha is about to learn that the wrath of the Old Gods is not so easily evaded.

———————

Chapter Twelve: Tears of a Hero

Thirteen days after setting out from Kerhem, with the sun hidden behind a dim and snowy sky, the westbound group of refugees entered the Mannall Range. The plan had been for them to enter the mountains late on the previous day, but it had taken longer than expected to gather the survivors on their journey across Tor Som. They had traveled late into the night, but they had not been able to reach their destination. Eranna had been acutely aware of every moment they’d spent out in the open, where the Automatons could strike.

Part of their work had been done for them months before. After the Automaton revolt, most people had gathered together for safety in the ruined cities. It had saved them having to scour every bit of the countryside for stragglers. In all, their numbers had reached just under eleven thousand people, most of them from Yotgard.

Automaton scouts had been spotted more than once during the trip, following alongside the human column or lurking on the horizon. They had made no attempt to attack, but Eranna felt certain they were planning something.

In a few places along their route, horses, pack mules, or carts had been found to share the burden of carrying the goods they’d brought with them, and the Clan hall had some storage space to spare, but the majority of their food and supplies traveled on the backs of the of the people, and there was precious little to go around. Now that they’d entered the mountains, the carts and animals were finding it increasingly difficult to move, and they often had to be left behind. The Clanspeople assured Eranna that they would be able to get by on the reindeer herds and the game in the mountains, but she didn’t see how they would survive in this place.

While taking a rest upon a cold stone, she looked over the tired, stinking remnants of her people. She shook her head faintly. Less than a year ago, Tor Som had been prospering, the economy booming. She remembered the sweeping speeches and bold promises of Empress Lorganna. The empress’s dreams of conquest had brought them to this.

Eranna stood up and forced her tired legs onward.

They continued moving for the next two days, and the mountains took their toll. Farther west, the Mannall Range rose into great peaks, but here, the mountains were more like tall and steep hills. Twisting valleys crisscrossed the range, punctuating the rocky humps and rounded peaks. To Eranna, it seemed completely random – as if the land had been put together by some mad sculptor. A mixture of scrub, evergreen trees, and meadows of deep snowdrifts filled the various valleys and passes.

The land was rough, and the going was hard. Where they weren’t crossing frozen streams whose ice seemed ready to break at any moment, they were hacking their way through dense forests. Where they weren’t wading through drifts or stumbling over boulder fields, they were climbing steep inclines or picking their way down treacherous slopes.

She comforted herself with the knowledge that the Automatons would find the terrain even more difficult than the humans did.

They couldn’t hope to mask all signs of their passing, but the Clanspeople did their best to confuse the trail. They laid false trails, muddled the true path, and did everything they could to confuse any who would follow.

She still hadn’t become accustomed to thinking of the Northern Clans as allies. As a child, she had heard stories of their many wars with her nation. She and her friends had gone running through the forests near Retgard, seeking out imaginary Clanspeople to fight. Centuries ago, the Tor Vargis family had been granted royal status for freeing Tor Som of Clan oppression.

Among the members of the Marg clan, feelings seemed to be mixed. Some regarded the Tors with suspicion or wariness, but others seemed unfazed. Eranna had tried to strike up a relationship with some of them. The Tor language was new to most of them, but it and Clanstongue weren’t much different, and she’d pulled off a few conversations. She found them largely polite, but not many did more than acknowledge her. As one Clanswoman had put it, the history of their two nations would not be forgotten overnight.

The Clanspeople did all agree on one thing. Whatever their feelings on the people of Tor Som, the Old Gods were the ancestral enemy of all humanity, and they would do what it took to defeat them.

Eranna gave thanks for that.

Late on the fifteenth day out from Kerhem, Doga and the Clanspeople declared that they could afford to take a few days’ rest, and as the sun disappeared behind the peaks to the west, robbing the air of what little warmth it had, they set up camp. They left the wide valley they had been traveling up and turned into a cul-de-sac formed by the hills. It took an abrupt turn to the southeast just past its mouth, making much of it invisible to the outside.

The floating hall came to a rest at the foot of a hill with broad slopes studded with rocks and trees, and they pitched their camp around it, building tents and fires in the fields and on the slopes. The reindeer were unhitched and left to graze on what food they could find, and the hall was allowed to cease hovering and settle into the snow.

On a lower part of the hill, before a clump of spruces, Eranna stood and surveyed her people in the cold twilight, flexing her left arm. Tyzu had healed the broken bone, but it remained stiff, and it ached on occasion. A few pitiful fires lit the encampment, their smoke mingling with the aroma of spruce and pine.

A cloaked figure approached from her left. She caught sight of a gaunt, orange-skinned face within the hood. Doga.

“Ovah,” he said.

She raised her eyebrows and turned to face him, pulling her cloak tighter. In the Tor language, ovah meant hello. “Ovah,” she said. She spoke slowly to correct his pronunciation. She quirked a pale eyebrow. “You speak Tor now?” she said, switching to Eastenholder.

The edges of his mouth tilted up. “I am trying to learn. Spoken language is something uniquely human, and it shows our diversity like nothing else,” he replied in Eastenholder.

She glanced at him oddly.

“It’s one of Aya’s teachings. Lahune leant me his book of her philosophies before we left.”

Eranna searched her memory for the name Aya. “Ah,” she said. “The priestess.”

He nodded sheepishly. “I don’t understand why she chose to call her followers priests. Their beliefs could not be more different from those preached by the Old Gods’ ancient tools.”

“It’s certainly an odd choice,” Eranna said, turning back to the camp.

A child’s cries echoed from below.

“How much have you learned?” she asked in Tor.

He blinked. “Speak slower, please,” he said, using Eastenholder.

She repeated it more slowly.

He stepped forward to watch over the camp with her. Between the darkness and his dusky skin, she could not tell for sure, but she had the feeling he blushed. “Not much,” he said in Eastenholder.

They watched the people of the encampment scurry about the business of setting up tents, latrines, and other necessities.

“How do you say hello in the Lost One language?” Eranna asked.

He turned his face to hers. “We say kitzi, hail, or ko nadl, good wishes.”

Overhead, the stars began to appear. The moon was new, and the only illumination came from the fires and lanterns below. A mountain wind whispered through the trees around them.

“We speak because the Old Gods wanted us to be less able to organize than them. Their telepathy would always be superior. Language was created as a hobble for us,” she said.

Doga stared into the black sky. “Does that matter? The Old Gods designed everything that we are. Every aspect of humanity was created according to their plans. And yet we are not merely their tools. We overthrew them and became the rulers of this world, and over the millennia, we have grown and diversified in ways that they could not have imagined.”

He held up his clawed hands. “Am I what they envisioned when they created us to be their living tools? No. I’m something else. Humanity is something else. And that is reflected in every aspect of our lives. In the way we act, live, and speak.”

She stared at him, unable to respond.

He considered her out of the corner of his eye, a smile slowly spreading across his bony features.

After a long moment of silence, Doga moved to make his way down the hill. “My dinner is waiting,” he said. “Good night.”

“Ulu and reindeer cheese. Hoorah.”

The Lost One chuckled.

Eranna returned her gaze to the camp, flexing her stiff arm. The temperature was falling; she’d return to her warm cabin in the Clan hall soon.

Her attention shifted to a snowy meadow just beyond the encampment. There, a group of Clanspeople drilled and taught their Automaton fighting techniques to Tors, Eastenholders, and Karkarans by lantern light. A few shouts in Clanstongue drifted through the thin air and made their way to Eranna’s ears, and she thought that Doga perhaps had a point.

* * *

Sometime after midnight, a pounding at her door woke Eranna.

“Eranna!” Yeldar growled.

She peeled open her eyes and blinked to chase away sleep. A sliver of green-white light came in from under her door, but the room was otherwise dark. She heard the sounds of running and feet and excited voices from the corridor, and shouts worked their way in from outside the structure.

She propped herself up on an elbow. “What is it?”

“The machines found us.”

Eranna swore loudly. “I’ll be out in a minute,” she called, flipping on a lantern and springing from her couch/bed. Still half-asleep, she dressed, put on her worn mail hauberk, and slung a sack of javelins over her shoulder. Then, she dragged out her shield, a large oval of wood painted with a red circle, and affixed it to her injured arm. It made her healing bone ache, but she would need it.

She opened the door and joined Yeldar in the hallway. The old Eastenholder’s clothes were rumpled, and he hadn’t yet put on his armor, but he carried a crossbow in one hand, and a quiver of bolts hung on his back. His face was as grim as ever.

“What’s the situation?” she asked.

Clanspeople buzzed around them, running to deliver messages and shouting instructions and questions.

“Lookouts spotted a force of Automatons making its way down the valley. They’ll be here in minutes. Our people are mobilizing to defend. The civilians are being moved onto the slopes, and crossbowmen are occupying the hall. It’ll be our last line of defense. One of the ice creatures is trying to contact Leha.”

Eranna nodded. “Where’s Doga?”

“Overseeing the civvies. He’ll join the lines soon.”

Eranna thanked him. “Get yourself ready. I’ll see you out there.” She exited the hall and hopped into the snow, the shield weighing heavily on her arm.

Chaos clutched the camp, but it was an organized chaos. Over the past few months, the people had grown accustomed to fleeing. The soldiers maintained control over the situation, giving instructions and directing the noncombatants. The language barrier proved troublesome in places, and those that had mastered multiple tongues found themselves in high demand.

Eranna felt a tickle at the edge of her mind, an ice creature, and her thoughts began to connect themselves with those of the people around her. The encampment quieted as vocal commands became unnecessary.

The night air was bitterly cold, and a biting wind blew down from the peaks to slice through Eranna’s woolen uniform. Tents rippled and flapped, and snow blew across the ground. The sky was clear, but without the moon, the night was dark as pitch, and she could see little beyond the lights of the camp. A touch of wood smoke clung to the air.

She reached the edge of the campsite, where the soldiers gathered to face the assault. They had tried to move into a defensive formation, but Eranna and the other leaders hadn’t settled on how the Clanspeople and the others would work together, and the two groups had come together in a crude jumble.

She sent her thoughts out into the mental link that had now connected the entire camp. She gave orders for the Clan squads to form into a shallow crescent, staying widely spaced, and for the others to form a deeper, denser arc behind them.

The fighters flowed into their formation without a word being spoken. The Clanspeople crouched in the snow, tense and ready; the battle wizards took their positions at the back of the lines, lighting their staffs to provide light to the soldiers; the others nocked their crossbows and readied their javelins.

Eranna surveyed the mouth of the valley. She couldn’t see anything in the blackness, but if she strained her ears, she thought she heard the creak and clank of walking Automatons.

“We need more light,” she said to herself. She reached out with her thoughts and contacted a Clan battle wizard. She sent what she wanted, and a globe of bright magic blossomed into life farther up the valley.

Beneath, bathed in its harsh glow, several dozen Automatons – large and small, short and tall, human-made and machine-built – marched on the human lines.

Eranna drew a javelin.

The telepathic link expanded, and Eranna sensed a familiar voice in her thoughts. Leha.

Is there are a jumping point near you? the Eastenholder sent.

Eranna gave the instruction for the Clan wizard to check. The wizard raised her staff, closed her eyes for a moment, and sent that there was a jumping point to Sy’om upon the hill where Eranna and Doga had conversed.

We can send you reinforcements, if you need them, Leha said.

Eranna surveyed the machines. It didn’t appear to be an exceptionally large force. I think we can handle this, but I’ll contact you if necessary, she replied.

Leha sent a psychic acknowledgement. Remember, if the worst happens, you can evacuate to our position.

Leha’s presence faded to the edge of Eranna’s awareness.

Eranna settled in to await the Automatons’ attack, running through various battle plans and scenarios in her mind.

* * *

When the Clanspeople charged, Eranna noticed the barrier machine. It squatted at the rear of the machine force – three swirling, silver-plated horizontal rings attached to a shaft crowned with an eyeless, metallic head. It had been mounted to a huge, eight-legged cart. Two Wizard-Automatons guarded it.

Eranna’s brow furrowed. The barrier machine would do the Automatons no good. Even if it had time to eliminate the jumping point at the rear of the valley, the battle would create new ones faster than it would be able to stop them.

She sensed the Clan wizard who had helped her earlier, Breena, touch her mind. Worry tinged the wizard’s thoughts as she projected them into Eranna’s mind. The jumping point is already beginning to fade, Breena explained. It may be powerful enough to maintain the barrier throughout the battle.

Eranna’s throat tightened. Humanity knew about the barrier; the machines no longer needed to be subtle, she realized. Her knuckles tightened around her javelin.

They were trapped.

Eranna gritted her teeth and tried to push away her fear. She couldn’t allow herself to panic; her people needed her to be confident. It wasn’t a large force, and they had the Clanspeople to help them, she reassured herself. If worse came to worse, Leha could probably still send reinforcements. She shook off her worries and put all her energy into the mental link, working with Doga and Yeldar to guide the people under their command.

The Clan soldiers rushed through the snow, letting loose with wild whoops and battle cries. Leha had infused them with the energy of Tyzu, and they raced through the snow so fast that they left a white cloud in their wake. They engaged the forward and outlying Automatons. First, their rope-bearers would topple them, and then the others would rush in with their narviks and begin to dissemble the machines with shocking efficiency. The screech of torn metal echoed through the mountains.

The Wizard-Automatons struck out with bolts and daggers of hot energy, but the human battle wizards intercepted their assaults. Eranna didn’t understand much about magic, but she’d learned that the magic of the Northern Clans was somehow different from that practiced by the other nations. Their knowledge had grown in different directions, and they brought unusual spells to bear. Where the others used shields of lead or magic to ward off hostile magic, the Clan wizards sent out focused beams of magic that scattered and refracted the enemy assaults in all directions, sending them crackling harmlessly through the air.

The drawing of power brought a further iciness to the rear lines.

When the Automatons encroached on the Clanspeople, the northerners fled back and to the sides, waiting to single out their next targets, and the soldiers of the other nations, empowered by Leha, unleashed a barrage of javelins and bolts that punctured the metal skin of the machines. Eranna’s javelin struck the chest of a Piran Automaton, shattering its outer coating of lead. Breena took the opportunity and hurled a hot disc of magic at the exposed space. The magic bored through the Automaton’s torso, and it crumpled to the ground.

Yeldar fired one of their last anti-Automaton rounds and struck a Karkaran machine in an already damaged knee. The next time it placed weight on that leg, the knee came apart, and the Automaton toppled.

Eranna tossed her third javelin, chipping the armor of an Automaton’s elbow, and allowed herself the hint of a smile. Maybe they wouldn’t need the jumping point.

* * *

The ice creature opened its eyes and took his hands away from the rock. The two other wizards who had been helping him to channel heat into the walls of their colony noticed and sent probing thoughts into his mind. He’d sensed something, he told them. It had felt like something passing through a jumping point.

The other two quirked their heads at each other. Their minds admitted that they had probably been too engrossed in their work to notice. He began to scuttle towards the exit of their cave, making for a tunnel that would take him to the entrance to the colony. He encouraged the others to follow. A small pause in their work would make no difference, he sent.

They followed behind him, their hooves echoing in the tunnels.

He found himself wishing that the one the humans called Benefactor had returned. Benefactor was a fascinating mind, and he had kept the colony interesting for many years. He sent out his thoughts to see who had arrived, but found nothing. He set his dark teeth and nearly stopped moving. The others quirked their heads, and the three hastened their strides.

As they came near the entrance, an odd whining sound met their ears. It grew louder until they reached the opening and saw its source. Out on the glacier, not far from the entrance to their colony, a column of metal sparked with magic. It had a thick, tall trunk of something he believed was called iron by the humans, and it was topped by a glowing spur and two curving horns – both made of silver. A thick ribbon of magical energy arced between the horns. The entire thing was much larger than him or either of his companions.

The eyes of the three darted over the thing, trying to understand it.

He raised his right hand. One of the fingers bore a circle of silver, a gift from the humans, and he used it to focus his magical senses as he sent them to probe the thing. The moment he did, the force of the energy nearly knocked his mind away. The most powerful magic he had ever worked had been spells to cook meat until it steamed and charred. The power this thing employed was beyond his wildest dreams.

Cautiously, he probed it further, seeking to divine its purpose.

The keening noise increased, as did the power it channeled, and the truth dawned on him. He broadcast a warning with his mind, and extended his hand to try and stop the device.

But he never got the chance.

* * *

The Stassa crouched in the branches, peering through the mist at the Lost One village. Stinking saliva dripped from the edges of its dark muzzle as it surveyed the orange-skinned morsels upon the platform.

Below, a river, choked with water from the recent rains, roared through the jungle. The Stassa had in the past been able to fish drowned creatures from floods such as this, but what it really wanted was one of the creatures from the village across its waters.

It couldn’t attack; there were too many of them. But sooner or later, some of them would leave to look for food, and then it would have a chance. Their numbers had decreased in recent times, and the parties they sent out were less able to defend themselves.

It settled in to wait, laying itself down on a branch.

A bright flash of light from the opposite bank illuminated the forest. The Stassa jumped up, startled. Where the flash had been, a small lump with shining horns could now be seen on the forest floor. It flickered and glowed with strange light, and a high-pitched whine could now be heard over the rush of the water.

The creature stifled the growl it felt building in its throat. It didn’t know what this thing was, but it didn’t like it.

The Lost Ones had noticed the strange thing. They grouped at the edge of their platform, shouting and pointing excitedly. The Stassa hunkered deeper into the branches.

The new arrival’s screaming reached a peak, and a light brighter than the sun tore through the forest, blinding the Stassa. A wave of hot air knocked the creature from its tree, singeing its fur and scalding its skin.

The Stassa barked. It reached out for a vine with its double-jointed arms, but the vine snapped, and it kept falling. It tried to sink its claws into the trunk of a tree it passed, and the bark shattered. But this time its flight slowed, and when it thumped into the layer of brush that coated the ground, it avoided serious injury.

The Stassa grunted in pain and righted itself. Behind it, a column of red flames and black smoke rose through the canopy like some terrible tree. Flaming pieces of trees and Lost One homes plummeted through the canopy all around it. The scent of burning flesh blew on the wind.

It knew that burnt meat could be very tasty, but it didn’t like the fires, so it slunk away into the trees, hoping it would find a meal elsewhere.

* * *

The Automaton Lord stood, quiet and still, and watched the silver-plated, concentric rings of the observatory swirl around each other, glinting in the sun. The rings came to a stop, fixing on a point nothing but it could see. The Automaton Lord linked its mind with that of the observatory, gathered its findings, and relayed them to a Wizard-Automaton at a nearby jumping point to Tyzu. The Wizard-Automaton sent another of the weapons through.

In a few moments, another village of Lost Ones would die.

The Machine King could picture it well: the burning trees, the cries of fear, the scattered birds and clouds of ash. In times past, it had raided the Lost Ones and sometimes inflicted great damage, but always it had been limited by energy of that world, and in the later years, its body had become too damaged, too rotten.

It considered its new body, subtly flexing its joints. No squeals of rust, no roughness in the motion. It had been healed. Its new body was a masterwork, a tribute to the power of those who had once been called Gods.

It thought of its people, of its resurrection at their hands, and it felt something like gratitude.

It turned its attention back to the observatory. Its rings whirred back to life, this time searching for a target on Sy’om.

The Automaton Lord had to use its imagination more to picture the damage down to Sy’om. It imagined glaciers cut by streams of hot melt water. It imagined white snowfields turned black by raining ash.

The rings of the observatory fixed upon the next target, and the Machine King relayed the information.

* * *

A spike of pain and terror drove itself into Benefactor’s skull as the psychic death screams of his friends and family wailed out across the spectrum of worlds. His legs gave out, and he clutched his head. Fevered images of death and destruction burned their way through his consciousness, shutting out all else.

Pain radiated from him in waves. He screamed, and he heard those around him follow suit.

* * *

A flood of grief and pain flowed into the mental link, and all rational thought fled Eranna’s mind. Her world reduced to a cacophony of screams and fiery visions.

When the onslaught subsided, she found herself half-buried in snow. Distantly, she heard rumbling and what sounded like barking, and her blurred vision picked out bright flashes and flickers in the darkness. She couldn’t remember where she was.

She sat up, and her senses began to clear. The barks became shouts, and the flashes resolved into bolts of magic.

The Automatons. She remembered.

She pulled herself up as quickly as she could, realizing she was very cold.

From what she could see, every other soldier had collapsed as she had. The Automatons had bitten into their lines, and already at least half of the defenders were dead. The mental link had vanished, and those that still lived were scattered; some tried to fight, others fled, others had yet to recover. A Urannan machine had broken through and reached the camp, where it swung its sword and cleaved through earth and snow and tents with equal ease.

“Run!” Eranna screamed.

She fled for the hills to the north, hoping that others would follow.

All through the valley, people ran, cried, shouted, and fought. Reindeer ran and leapt in all directions, trampling any in their path. The Automatons had broken ranks, and they tore into the humans at will. Where the assaults of human and Automaton wizards struck the snow, it melted and burst into gouts of steam. The thick banks of mist only added to the confusion.

A Wizard-Automaton struck at the Clan hall with a blade of energy. The structure cracked open where it had been hit, and the thatch roof went up like a torch, filling the valley with orange light.

Eranna tripped over something, a body, and landed face first in the deep snow. The screams of the dying, the reek of blood, and the glow of fires filled her senses, and her mind was drawn back many months, to the destruction of Three Gates.

She remembered the rampant destruction, the pillaging and burning. She remembered the hooting and cheering of her people. She remembered the cries and sobs of the city’s residents.

She remembered telling herself that they were only Eastenholders.

Someone grabbed her arm. “Come on,” Breena said, her red hair falling about her face.

Eranna pulled her head from the snow and shook it free of the memories. Supporting herself on her javelin – her last; she didn’t know what had happened to the others – she pushed herself to her feet and took off in the direction of the hill. Breena followed at her side.

Eranna spotted Doga just ahead of them, pumping his thin limbs in powerful strides.

“Doga,” she called.

He glanced back at her, and she pointed for the hill that was their destination. He nodded.

They reached the base of the hills and began to climb the forested slopes. The deep snow and steep incline made the journey difficult. Eranna’s breaths came hard, and the frigid air burned her throat.

A handful of others had reached the slopes, but they were few. Most had not made it out of the valley. Eranna pushed the knowledge out of her mind. She had to focus on the task at hand.

She saw no sign of Yeldar. She pushed him out of her mind, too.

Three quarters of the way up the hill, she paused to rest, grasping an evergreen trunk for support. Her legs ached.

The Automatons didn’t seem to have noticed their exodus, but she couldn’t count on things staying that way. She pushed herself ahead, following in Breena’s footsteps.

* * *

It took Leha what felt like a long time to break free of the grief projected by Benefactor, and it took more time to end the madness that had struck him and the other ice creatures. Not all had been affected as badly as him; some had not lost their home colonies. But all had felt the psychic scream from Sy’om.

Once the telepathic discord had subsided, those in the Gormorra encampment had begun to learn the true extent of what had happened. At first, they knew only of the attacks on Sy’om. Then they received word of the destruction that had been visited upon Tyzu. The Lost Ones had been hit far harder than the ice creatures.

As the night progressed, Leha sat in a numb stupor as the names of clans who had lost their villages raced through the camp: Swift Hand, Flowered Home, Water’s Edge, Wind Foot, Black Pelt…

Leha had never seen Lost Ones weep before. But now they did.

A crowd assembled around the leaders as news of new horrors continued to rush in. When word of the destruction of the Water’s Edge village came in, a Lost One at the back of the throng, Haj, cried out and shouted promises to destroy the Automatons. Her mother had come from the Water’s Edge clan. Her cousins had lived there.

At the same time, news filtered in of what had transpired in the battle in the Mannall Range. From what the ice creatures could tell, nearly everyone in the westbound group had been killed, and the few survivors were spread through the harsh terrain of the mountains with little supplies. No one had found any sign of Yeldar. They were forced to presume he was dead.

As dawn broke over the peaks, bringing a relative warmth to the mountain air, a fresh piece of news penetrated Leha’s daze.

“Elder Sheen is dead.”

Leha raised her head. “What?” she said softly.

A Lost One – she didn’t know his name – turned to her. “The ice creatures just received word from the Watching Eye clan. Elder Sheen is dead.”

Leha’s throat constricted. “What happened?” Early reports had said that the Watching Eye had survived the attack unscathed; they had sent the weapon that had been meant for them to an uninhabited section of Barria.

The Lost One’s shoulders were slumped, and he had trouble meeting her gaze. “She was on the forest floor when the weapon arrived – she was the one who sent it back to Barria. But the weapon made the energy unstable, and the elder was wounded by the backlash of her spell. The healers had believed she would recover, but her heart gave out less than an hour ago.”

Leha buried her face in her hands. Her body shook and quivered. She wanted to destroy something, anything. It took a great deal to stop herself from tearing apart the earth beneath her feet. An anguished cry escaped her lips, and she gave herself over to deep sobs.

Natoma sat down on the same log as Leha and wrapped an arm around her. She hugged Leha to her chest, and Leha felt a single, hot tear strike the top of her head.

———————

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under News