Monthly Archives: April 2015

Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Fifteen: The Council of War

We’ve now reached chapter fifteen 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 You can only run for so long. New resources and opportunities have revealed themselves, and Leha hatches a desperate scheme to take the fight to the enemy for the first time since the war began.

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Chapter fifteen: The Council of War

The other leaders arrived, one by one: Drogin, Doga, Eranna, Natoma, Yarnig, and, representing the Northern Clans, Brodar and Fargra, a stout woman with a long red braid and the title of chieftain of the Yaja clan. Breena explained her discovery and then took her place on a cushion near the other Clanspeople.

Leha stepped into the center of the room. She looked over the people around the room. Some sat, and some stood, but all had their eyes on her. She took a breath, inhaling the scents of wood and hide that dominated the chamber, and calmed herself. She knew her plan was sound.

“We’re going to attack a ziggurat,” she announced.

Doga, Eranna, and Drogin seemed to think they hadn’t heard her properly; Natoma raised her eyebrows; through the connection with his mind, she sensed Benefactor’s jaw loll open; Yarnig gaped.

“A ziggurat? Are you serious?” Fargra said from near the door to the hall’s main passageway, speaking Tor. Benefactor would translate for any who didn’t understand all the languages spoken within the meeting.

“I thought you said we couldn’t hold static positions!” Yarnig said, sitting on a cushion to Leha’s left. He used Eastenholder.

Drogin fixed her with a concerned stare. He crouched to her right, his forehead still shining with sweat.

Leha raised her hands in a placating gesture. The warm afternoon sun glinted off her claws and her hair. “Hear me out.” She turned to Yarnig. “You’re right; we can’t hold it. But we can destroy it. We can rob the machines of one of their main bases of support.”

She again swept the room with her gaze, hoping she appeared strong and confident. “This technique of Breena’s is the key. She can spy out a good target, find its weak points, and show us exactly where to jump our forces in. If we go from Tyzu or Sy’om, the barrier won’t protect them. We’ll be able to cripple their defenses before they know we’re there.”

Eranna shook her head sadly. “We can’t do it. Our resources are too thin. We can barely hold the northern front.” She and Doga stood between Yarnig and the Clanspeople.

They both seemed worn and haggard. After their arrival, when Leha had greeted Doga, he had confided to her that, in addition to the other hardships on the northern front, it had proven difficult for certain elements of the Tors and the Clanspeople to work together. Their violent history had not been forgotten.

Leha fixed her eyes upon the Tor woman. “That’s exactly why we have to do this. With each passing day, the machines get stronger, and we get weaker. If we strike at their base of support, we might throw them off kilter and gain a respite.”

She stepped forward. “Things are not as hopeless as they seem. We have strengths now that we didn’t before. Drogin’s new weapons give us tactical options the Automatons don’t know about. Breena’s spell will allow us to plan our attack in detail. The ice creature wizards are becoming better trained every day.

“We can’t stay on the defensive forever. We have to take the fight to the machines, and we have to do it in a way they won’t expect.” She swallowed. She had confidence in the plan, but under the eyes of so many, its flaws, and hers, seemed to swell.

I agree, Benefactor said, sending images of violence against Automatons along with the message.

Eranna considered. “No, I don’t think it’s enough.” She sighed.

She and Doga glanced at each other, and some silent communication seemed pass between them. Doga nodded slightly, frowning regretfully.

Eranna’s eyes met Leha’s. “But it might be, if we had more fighters like you.”

Leha felt a chill in her chest.

Doga stepped forward, placed a hand on Eranna’s shoulder, and nodded once. “Yes. We can no longer rely on you alone. We require more with your powers, or I fear the enemy will claim us. You say you do not understand it, that it is too risky, but I – but we – believe the risk is necessary.”

Leha’s shoulders slumped. “No,” she said. “There will never be another like me.” She turned away and took a shuffling step back.

“I am sure we could find soldiers willing to risk the transformation,” Eranna said.

“There’s little risk to the transformation,” Leha said, turning back. “The Watcher told me that.”

Only Benefactor seemed unsurprised by her revelation.

She didn’t pause. “The risk is in allowing people to wield this level of power.”

The others did not seem to understand.

“Think back to the end of the Liberation,” she said, her voice rising. “Humanity was a united race living in peace. It took less than a thousand years for that to fall apart.”

She took a deep breath. “We forgot our Gods, our creators, our enslavers. We forgot who they were, we forgot their nature, and then we resurrected them. We enhanced them and refined them until they had the power to destroy us, and then in one sweep, they crushed everything that we had created in the past seven millennia.” She felt her blood run hot and fast. “And now we face extinction. And if it comes, we will not have the Old Gods to blame. No, it will be because of our own arrogance, our own recklessness, our own greed and hate. We will have earned our fate.”

She made herself as tall as her meager stature would permit. “So no, I will not see another like me created. Not now. Perhaps not ever.”

A heavy silence hung over the chamber as her words ceased to ring off the walls.

Drogin stared at her with wide eyes. Eranna shifted her weight from foot to foot. To Leha’s right, Natoma leaned against the wall as she had from the beginning, her face expressionless.

Yarnig’s youthful voice broke the silence. “For what it’s worth, I agree with you, Leha,” he said.

She glanced at him and offered a hint of a smile.

The Clanspeople conferred in hushed Clanstongue. Because they weren’t addressing the main gathering, Benefactor did not translate their words. “We agree as well,” Brodar said.

“Leha…” Drogin said.

She swiveled her head to look upon her brother.

He searched for the right words. “We need you. Your abilities are essential.” He seemed to be trying very hard to not sound combative. “If there were others like you, we’d have an edge on the machines. We can’t afford to ignore a possible advantage.”

“What if something were to befall you?” Eranna added.

Leha focused on her brother, ignoring Eranna. She sighed. “I know. But I can’t do it, Drogin. You have to understand that. Please.” She spoke softly, her face beseeching.

Drogin paused for what felt like a very long time. “Okay,” he said, speaking equally softly. “I understand.”

She favored him with a brief smile.

She sensed Benefactor consider. I… agree, Leha, he said.

Leha returned her attention to Doga and Eranna. They hesitated, fidgeting, and shared another long glance. “We seem to be in the minority,” Eranna said quietly. Leha took it as a sign of submission.

Natoma nodded once.

Leha emptied her lungs in a long, slow sigh of relief.

“So we’re back to the ziggurat,” Brodar said, crossing his arms.

“Yes,” Leha said.

“I think we can do it,” Breena said. “We have new advantages, and if we do not take the offensive now, when will we?”

Yarnig shrugged. “I am not knowledgeable in the ways of war. My opinion matters little.”

Natoma stared at the ceiling as if it might yield the answer. “We are running out of food. More people die in every battle. Why not take a chance?”

Leha nodded. “Exactly.”

We should bring death to the machines, Benefactor’s mental voice snarled.

Brodar and Fargra conversed in a few brief bursts of Clanstongue. Fargra took a breath and addressed Leha. “You make a convincing case. We are willing to go along with your plan, if only to take some of the pressure off the north.” She sounded less than enthusiastic.

Leha turned to Eranna and Doga, meeting the Lost One’s eyes.

Doga dropped his eyes. “The fighters of the Liberation did not free our race without taking risks.”

Leha looked around the room. “Are we agreed? We will attack a ziggurat?”

Natoma, Yarnig, Doga, and the Clanspeople agreed. Benefactor ducked his head. Drogin and Eranna offered no argument.

Leha’s shoulders relaxed. “Now, how many can we field for the attack?”

Eranna pursed her lips. “It depends on how many we wish to leave to defend the north. It’s a long frontier to cover. We’d probably need a minimum of twenty thousand to keep it safe.

“Fifteen thousand at best.”

“I doubt they’ll be expecting our attack,” Leha said. “Their defenses shouldn’t be too strong. That should be enough.” She turned to Drogin. “Expand the production of the new weapons. I’d like to see at least two or three thousand equipped with them when we launch the assault, and I want them ready within the next three months, if it’s possible.”

Drogin leaned his head back, thinking, then brought it back to view his sister. “It’ll be hard. We won’t be able to keep making them custom for every soldier.”

“Do what you have to,” she told him. “Maybe some of the permanent Clan villages can help,” she added, her eyes darting to Fargra.

The Clanswoman shrugged.

Leha went on to instruct Breena to search out a suitable ziggurat and to train other wizards in her technique so as to speed the process. The assembled leaders discussed a few other matters relating to the planned attack and their ongoing defense against the machines, before dispersing.

As they returned to their standard duties, Leha sought out Eranna in the Clan hall’s passageway.

“I want you to know that I understand how you feel. About creating others like me,” Leha said, looking up at the much taller woman.

Eranna nodded grimly. “Thank you.” Her eyes grew distant. “I cannot blame you for your feelings. I was at Three Gates, too. I can understand why you wouldn’t trust people with this level of power.”

Leha offered a clawed hand, and Eranna shook it. Afterward, Eranna turned away and departed down the passageway.

* * *

Weeks passed.

As soon as the meeting had closed, Leha had sent out their orders, and preparations for the assault on the ziggurat had begun. Every available hand went into service, either as a fighter or a laborer preparing weapons and supplies.

Day and night, the human camps beyond the Gormorra Range and north of what had been Tor Som marched to the beat of hammers and drilling feet. Salvagers and Clan miners worked themselves to exhaustion, extracting metal to use in weapons and armor.

Smoke from the forges hung eternally over the southern end of the eastern camp, and sections of the ancient forest were cut down to fuel the flames. None of Drogin’s new weapons went to the northern front; Leha wanted the element of surprise to be on their side when they struck at the ziggurat. Leha went over possible attack plans with Natoma, though for the first few weeks, they were largely theoretical.

Breena and her growing cadre of wizards turned spies spent their days combing the lands that had once belonged to humanity. They came to the conclusion that most of the Automaton’s empire was based in southeastern Pira and northwestern Uranna, around the Gulf of Jansia – the lands that had been the center of their power prior to the Liberation. They maintained a military force in Tor Som, and they occasionally patrolled or moved through Karkar, but Eastenhold had been abandoned.

Though most of the ziggurats were still under construction, the wizards reported that the machines had made incredibly rapid progress. By the second month of preparations, they had discovered five of the machine cities.

Not being magically talented, Leha couldn’t view the ziggurats – she had attempted linking with a wizard’s mind, via Benefactor, while they used the observation spell, but something about it disrupted the ice creature’s telepathy – but she asked Erik to describe them for her – her books had not provided much detail about the ancient ziggurats.

“They’re not as big as you’d think,” he said. “I mean, they’re enormous, the size of any human city, but each one must only be able to house a hundred or so machines, not counting smaller support Automatons. And I don’t think any of them are full.”

When she pressed for more details, he said, “There aren’t really any buildings. It’s all flat surfaces and big open areas. Some places are roofed, but nothing’s fully enclosed as far as I can tell.”

He leaned back, and his eyes unfocused. “The land around them has been ruined. They‘re clearing all the trees, and their machinery is putting out a lot of smoke and waste. There isn’t even much grass left, in some places.”

“What are they built of?” she asked. He gave a confusing description of something that was like stone or earth but not either one.

She asked a few more questions, but his answers tended to be vague and unsatisfactory. Over the next few weeks, she questioned other wizards and gained a few more details, but she decided that, to get the full effect, she would have to see them with her own eyes.

In the course of their investigations, Breena and her colleagues also discovered that the machines had began a campaign of grinding former human settlements into dust as they had done at Marlhem. The Automatons had already reduced dozens of cities and towns to nothing but flat fields of ash. It seemed that they wished to eliminate all signs of humanity from the world.

Leha and a number of others, mostly wizards, continued to investigate the ruins of the creator race outpost, but they gleaned little new information from it. Most of its contents and functions were completely beyond their understanding. Leha still felt that it had some key part to play before the end, though she knew not what. Many nights, she would descend to the still-aired depths, sometimes with Drogin, and attempt to glean something from the strange symbols and incomprehensible mechanisms that dotted the rooms under the mountain.

The Automaton assaults on the north persisted. Each time the ice creatures transmitted the warnings, Leha would put on her armor and join the fray. The humans fought off every strike, but the machines wore them down further with every battle and skirmish.

On occasion, they launched more of their overload weapons against Sy’om or Tyzu, but without the element of surprise, the level of damage they could do was not great.

No one saw any sign of the Automaton Lord, but Leha thought that its efforts on the frontlines would probably be unnecessary if things continued as they had. Soon, the humans would run out of food and starve.

Spring progressed into summer, and the weather grew hotter. Here, beyond the Gormorra Range, where cool breezes blew down from the mountains, it never got as hot as it had in Eastenhold during the summer. Still, for Leha and the other Eastenholders, the warmth brought back unhappy memories of the times a year past, when the Tors had brought their army to bear against them, and city after city had fallen. Sometimes, hot, smoky gusts would blow up from the direction of the forges, and the memories would become more vivid, tightening the muscles in Leha’s throat and shoulders.

Now, the Eastenholders and the Tors were united in a common cause. When she thought about it, Leha realized how bizarre it was. In the back of her mind, she still did not know how to feel toward her former enemies. She had found it in her heart to forgive those like Eranna, those who had felt misgivings at the time or who had been simply following orders.

But others had chosen, without reservation, to bring suffering to her nation; some had even enjoyed it. Most of the latter had refused to join Leha’s army, but there were many who had walked the gray area between doubting their mission of destruction and willfully embracing it.

Leha had never decided how she felt about them. Like most other Tors and Eastenholders, she had accepted her former enemies as necessary allies, having come to understand them through the mental link of the ice creatures, being glad that they were at least human, and not machine.

She had not thought about things so deeply in many months, but the turning of the seasons had sent her mind to places it had not been since before Marlhem. She could come to no better conclusions now than she had before. From what she had learned during the telepathic links, most of the people who had destroyed her home were no different from anyone else. But that, in and of itself, was disturbing.

She would welcome autumn when it came.

* * *

In a little clearing just outside the camp, surrounded by fragrant evergreens and standing on moist grass, Yarnig swung his sword at imaginary enemies, grunting and sweating with exertion. The attacks, blocks, and feints he practiced would be of little use against an Automaton, Natoma had told him, but she said they would help him build up his strength and reflexes. All that mattered to him now was that they gave him something to do.

He swung his blade, slicing the tops off several blades of tall grass. His artist’s eyes took note of the way the light glinted off his sword, the way the drops of dew sparkled like stars before falling to the earth.

He sighed, taking a brief pause before beginning his next exercises. He took a moment to examine his blade the way that Natoma had shown him, running his fingers over the edge, looking for nicks or chips. Lately, Natoma’s time had been occupied with the preparations for the attack, and she had not had time to give him lessons. He’d continued to practice on his own, and he had also begun to drill with the Clanspeople in some of their techniques, but somehow, things didn’t feel the same without Natoma.

When he had been training with her, it had given him respite from the pointlessness of his life, but now those helpless feelings had returned. He spent most of his time plagued by boredom, cursing his own impotence. He regretted his failure to save Marlhem, and he regretted that he had no skills to offer his people.

Part of him wondered if his time with Natoma seemed better simply because of the natural pleasure of spending time with a beautiful woman – he admitted that likely played a part – but he didn’t think that accounted for all of the emptiness he felt. He hadn’t felt any more useful when she had been teaching him, but his lack of value hadn’t bothered him so much during his time with her.

He shook his head to clear it and returned to his drills. He cut the air in savage strikes, taking his frustrations out on his invisible targets. He gave himself to shouts and battle cries, engaging in a display of savagery that would have shocked his fellow nobles and royals had they still been alive. His cries echoed through the trees, but no one in the camp heard them. He was too far.

When he had exhausted himself, he sank to his knees, gasping for breath. Sweat ran down his face. The moist earth soaked and stained his once-fine burgundy pants, but he didn’t notice.

He would be joining the attack on the ziggurat. He had asked Natoma to allow it, and she had reluctantly agreed. He would serve in her squad; Natoma had given him some lessons on strategy and tactics, but no one pretended he was ready to command. He would be a soldier, a fighter for humanity.

Taldin wouldn’t have approved, but he was in the north. His knowledge and experience could do more good there than here. There were more important things to protect than a figurehead emperor.

Yarnig had seen the horrors of war, but when the time to strike came, he would welcome it. He would welcome the chance to take action, something he hadn’t done since he had journeyed north and contacted the Marg clan.

He sheathed his sword. Soon, he would give it over to Drogin to be reforged. He hauled himself to his feet and headed back toward camp. For now, the waiting continued.

* * *

Magic flickered across the field, crackling and blazing and shimmering. Leha watched as two sides, one of ice creatures and the other of humans, struck at each other with spells and summoned shields to protect themselves from the other’s attacks. It was a training drill. The intention was to improve the wizards’ combat skills, especially the ice creatures. A third, larger group of wizards, all more powerful and experienced, watched over it, using their abilities to block or negate any spell with the risk of actually harming one of the trainees.

Bright, warm light washed over the field, and Leha rolled up her sleeves to stay cool. This place had been forest a few weeks ago, but it had been cleared to fuel the forges. Stray flashes of magic burned what little plant life had been left behind. It reminded Leha of the stories she had heard about the lands claimed by the machines, but she comforted herself with the knowledge that what they had taken wasn’t a fraction of the vast forests that remained.

She heard someone come up behind her. She turned, and saw her brother. He greeted her.

She acknowledged his greeting, giving a quick smile. “Shouldn’t you be overseeing the weapons production?”

“I found someone to take over for the afternoon. There’s a project I’ve been working on – I finished it last night. I’d like you to see it.”

She quirked an eyebrow. “What’s the project?” she asked.

He smiled enigmatically. “Let me show you.”

Leha raised the other eyebrow and followed Drogin back to the main camp. He led her through the shabby tents and crude shelters, and they arrived at his home at the southern edge. It was near the forges, and the air smelled of smoke and hot metal. She heard the shouts of workers.

He took her into the workroom and retrieved a small, cloth-wrapped bundle from a table to her left. “I’ve been working on this for a few weeks now. Nights, mornings, whenever I had time.” He held it out to her.

“What is it?” she asked.

“A gift,” he said, smiling again.

After a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed the bundle. It felt heavy. She took it over to his worktable and unwrapped the cloth, revealing what appeared to be a thick piece of armor designed to cover a person’s forearm. One side was bisected into two hinged plates that looked to be able to latch together but were currently apart. The metal was smooth and shiny.

Leha stared at her brother, puzzled.

“It’s a weapon,” he explained. “Let me show you.”

He picked up the device and placed it upon her right forearm, fastening the plates to cover the inner side of the arm. It had a snug fit, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.

He guided her attention to the outer face, where a small dial was recessed into the metal. “It works the same way as the new swords, but I know you fight with your hands, so I made you a weapon that wouldn’t impede your climbing or be difficult for you to hold because of your claws,” he said. “Try turning the dial halfway, but be careful your hand is straight when you do it.”

She did as he instructed, delicately turning the dial with her claws, and a thin blade shot from a small hole in the forward edge of the outer plate. It rang like a tuning fork. She considered the blade. It had a double edge of silver, and it was about the length of her forearm.

“Now, try turning it the rest of the way,” he said, still grinning.

She flipped the dial to the other end of its housing, and the silver edges of the blade flashed to life, bringing light to the dim tent and humming faintly. She gave it a few experimental swings, being careful not to hit Drogin or anything else in the tent.

She held the blade up to her face, admiring its glow and the way it reflected off the plating on her forearm. “You made this all by yourself?”

He shrugged. “A blacksmith helped make some of the larger pieces.”

She smiled. “It’s beautiful.” Her smile shifted towards a frown. “But if I’m climbing on an Automaton, I won’t be able to work the dial.”

Drogin’s expression didn’t change. “You won’t have to.” He pulled his wand from his belt and flicked it. The dial swung back to its original position, and before Leha had a chance to register that the magic had deactivated, the blade retreated into its slot.

Drogin returned his wand to his belt. “Our minds will be linked during the battle, and I’ll be able to sense what you need as soon as you think it. I can do the spell from a distance – it’s very simple.”

She looked over the device for a few more seconds, feeling warmth spread through her chest.

She opened her arms and embraced her brother. “Thank you.”

They released each other and stood in silence for a moment.

“I’d ask if you wanted to have lunch with me, but I’ve already eaten,” Leha said apologetically.

Drogin nodded. “Would… would you like to take a walk in the forest, maybe?”

Leha thought. There were other things that she should be doing. But none of them needed to be done immediately. She smiled. “Sure.” She raised her right arm. “Just let me stow this in my room at the hall.” She turned to leave. “Meet me at the eastern edge of the camp in a few minutes.”

Drogin waved his goodbye, and she left for the hall, admiring her brother’s handiwork. In the bright sunlight, its polished surface shone like crystal.

* * *

In the middle of the fifth week of preparations, they chose their target. The wizards told Leha that the ziggurat was the largest and most complete of the Automaton cities. It had been built in Uranna, in the lower part of Nettoh, the province Natoma had been tasked with defending. Leha consulted with Natoma and gave it the name Tallatzan Ziggurat; in Urannan, tallatzan meant target.

Using a rare and precious piece of blank paper, Breena sketched Tallatzan’s layout for Leha and the other leaders. The Clanswoman described it as a series of raised platforms built of an unidentifiable, stone-like substance and connected to the ground and each other by a series of ramps.

The ziggurat was centered on a platform that stood twice as high as the others. The machines seemed to use it as a meeting area and a mezzanine. It was empty, save for a tall watchtower crewed by a Wizard-Automaton. The wizards believed a barrier machine had been sealed inside the tower, judging by the local magical currents.

Three other platforms branched out from it to the south, west, and east. Breena described the southern platform as a factory, where they constructed new Automatons, and the eastern one as kind of maintenance area, where smaller machines performed the chores necessary to keep an Automaton running. The western platform had not yet been completed.

After a few minutes of deliberation, they decided that Natoma would lead the forces jumping onto the eastern platform, Leha would command the force taking the center, and Elder Dentu of the Water’s Edge clan would lead the squads on the southern platform. Doga and Eranna would stay on the northern front and keep watch against any counterattacks. Drogin would go with Dentu, and Benefactor, despite his desire for vengeance, would remain at the eastern camp.

It took another five weeks for them to finish their preparations. Five weeks of toil and planning. Five weeks of worry and anticipation. Five weeks of lessening rations and continuing battles with the Automatons.

The day of the attack dawned, hot and clear, the late summer sun rising over the forests to the east and setting fire to the peaks of the Gormorra Range. The forges sat empty, and an eerie quiet pervaded the camp. People said little that they did not need to say as they scurried to their places. The thousands of fighters assembled in the deforested fields around the camp and marched to the jumping points, going to Sy’om and Tyzu, where the attack would be launched from.

In addition to the divisions between the three main forces, each force was divided into dozens of small squads, each with their own objective and location of arrival in the ziggurat. Leha’s squad consisted of fifty soldiers, mostly Tor and Eastenholder; a trio of Clan wizards; and an ice creature charged with maintaining the mental link. They jumped to an ash-coated glacier upon Sy’om and stood in the cold, waiting for Leha to give the order for the attack. She closed her eyes, feeling oddly calm, and waited for Dentu, Natoma, and the leaders of the squads under her command to signal their readiness via the mental link.

When they did, she opened her eyes and commanded her venom glands to begin producing acid. And the attack began.

———————

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Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Fourteen: The Changing of the Seasons

We have now come to chapter fourteen 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. EdwardsSpring has come to Barria, and there is change in the air. Leha senses great potential in the ruins beneath the mountain, and its discovery rekindles something thought lost: hope.

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Chapter fourteen: The Changing of the Seasons

A crisp wind blew down from the Gormorra Range and ruffled the branches of the forest in great sighing gasps. Overheard, the stars burned without being impeded by clouds for the first time in weeks. The air smelled of snow and spruce.

The grass rustled under Leha’s feet as she ascended Yeldar’s slopes. Dim light marked the doorway within the mountain.

Once again, she had found herself unable to sleep. But this time, different feelings had haunted her. After explaining her theory to the others, she had spent most of the day organizing the study of their discovery and examining the crystal, watching it flicker and shift. Here was something far more ancient than the oldest records of humanity, far more ancient than the Machine King or the ziggurats of the Old Gods, she had thought.

When they had returned to camp, just before sundown, the thrill of discovery had remained with her, coursing through her veins and setting goosebumps on her skin, and sleep had seemed an impossible goal.

She moved into the passageway and descended into the gleaming depths. She needed to see more of it.

She reached the first chamber, and froze. Drogin stood there, a wand in one hand a notepad in the other, staring at her.

“Hello,” he finally said.

“Hello,” she said, hovering at the bottom of the stairs.

She moved into the chamber and past him, her shoulders stiff. Down here, the temperature and taste of the air seemed preternaturally neutral.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

She glanced over her shoulder at him and shrugged. “I wanted to see more of this place.”

He glanced down at his notes. “Yeah, me too,” he muttered.

She stepped to the stairs into the second chamber. “Do you want to help me look around?” she asked, peering down. “Maybe we can find more rooms.” Earlier, they had discovered two other rooms, though they hadn’t been able to decipher the purpose of either one.

He stared at her for a long moment. “No. I’ll continue what I’m doing.”

She rolled her eyes, and the claws on her toes scraped against the floor. Her mind went back to the time when the two of them had snuck into the Automatons yards as children. They had worked together to evade the security and overcome obstacles. She remembered him reaching down from the fence to pull her up. She had been too short to climb.

Then she remembered the past few months, and the way he had treated her.

Something inside her gave way.

She spun to face him. She resisted the urge to clench her fists; her claws would go through her palms. “What’s the matter with you?”

He looked at her. “What?”

She stalked towards him. “You heard me. For the last nine months, all you’ve done is ignore me and avoid me. You’ve hidden yourself wherever you can, and if I try to talk to you, you shove me away. What’s the matter with you?”

He faced her and swallowed. “Uh…”

She stepped in close and tilted her chin up. Her breath came hard.

His eyes darted about, searching for an escape. He deflated and let out a long, slow sigh. “I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. Or maybe I did. I don’t know.” He hung his head.

She glared at him.

He pocketed his wand. “It’s just… since you came back, you’ve been different,” he said quietly.

“Why? Because I have claws? Because my eyes don’t look the same anymore?”

He gazed into her eyes and shook his head. “No. That took some getting used to, but no. You’re different. Something changed you – I don’t know what it was. You’re not the same person who left for Sy’om.”

She swore at him, her words reverberating off the arch of the ceiling. “I’m the same person I’ve always been!” Her face and her arms felt hot. Her heart boomed.

He shook his head again. “No, you’re not,” he said, speaking louder now. “The sister I knew wouldn’t have led the charge against the Automatons.”

“I am the sister you knew!”

He continued as if she hadn’t spoken, his tone maddeningly calm. “You were a good girl, Leha, but you weren’t the Hero of Heart.”

“So you’re ignoring me because I saved us?”

He frowned at her. “No!” He looked up and searched for the right words. “Do you know what you look like when you fight?” he asked in the same level tone as before. “You’re like an animal. You don’t fight Automatons; you savage them.”

“So what? They’re trying to destroy humanity!”

He frowned again. “No, you don’t understand.” He didn’t sound so calm now. “You’re different.” His face drooped. “I just miss you.”

“I’m right here!” she shouted, biting off each word. “I’m not different! Maybe you think I am, but I’m not.”

“You are. Maybe you don’t realize it, but you are,” he said forcefully.

A growl escaped her throat. She shoved him.

Drogin stumbled backward. His head hit one of the columns with a resounding crack, and he slumped the floor. One of her claws had torn his shirt.

She gasped and covered her face with her hands. She rushed to his side. He groaned and clutched his head with one hand.

“Oh, Drogin, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to – I – I – I…”

He opened his eyes and looked at her fearfully. “I think I’m okay,” he said. He seemed to shrink, and he didn’t stand back up.

She moaned. “I didn’t mean to do it. I was just so angry and…” She ran her fingers through her hair. “I’m sorry.”

He rubbed his head and grimaced.

She didn’t want to stand still, but she couldn’t look away from him. “I don’t know. Maybe I did change. I nearly froze to death. My body was changed in ways I don’t understand.”

A hint of anger seeped back into her voice. “But I’m still me. The real Leha isn’t locked in some Lost One dungeon. Maybe I came back different, but I did come back.”

Her eyes smoldered.

He gazed up at her. She couldn’t read his expression. Her anger sputtered and died, and her hands relaxed. She went to the edge of the chamber and sat upon the top step leading down to the second level. She sighed, cupping her face with one hand.

Drogin remained where he was for a moment, and then, he took a deep breath, shook his head, and stood. He walked to where his sister sat and placed himself next to her.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

* * *

They sat in silence, together, for what felt like a long time.

“Do you really think the creator race built this place?” Drogin asked.

Leha looked at him. “I don’t know who else could have. Even if a band of Old Gods or humans came out this far and never told anyone, do you think they could have made this?” She indicated the shining, mechanical harmony around them. She spoke softly; she felt drained and battered.

Drogin glanced about. “No,” he said. “I don’t.”

Leha’s gaze became distant. “There’s something about this place. It can do something to help us. I know it.”

Drogin nodded.

After another pause, he turned to her. “Do you want to know why I came here?”

She looked at him quizzically.

“I wanted to reward myself.” A hint of a smile touched his features. They didn’t seem so haggard now. “I was going to tell you tomorrow, but I’ve made a breakthrough.”

He stood up. “Come. I’ll show you.”

She followed him, and he led her out of the mountain and into the night. The same wind still blew, cool and moist, refreshing her and chasing away her fatigue. She inhaled the smells of new grass and fresh shoots, and as if for the first time, she noticed the signs of life returning after winter, of the changing of the seasons.

Her brother led her down through the forest, lighting their way with his wand. All the times she had spent with her brother before the war flowed through Leha’s mind, and for the first time in months, they brought her no pain. She didn’t know for certain, but it felt like something between them had changed. And if she was wrong, then she would enjoy this one night, she promised herself.

They entered the camp and headed south towards Drogin’s tent. The usual melancholy hung over the dark, ragged encampment, but tonight, Leha sensed something else in the air. A sense of potential. Perhaps it was her imagination.

Drogin’s makeshift home lay just past the southern perimeter of the main camp. It had been made by stitching together two tents, bolstered by various other textiles, to create a low, two-chambered fabric structure. Worktables, bits of scrap metal, and various other signs of his work littered the surrounding woods. Since they had abandoned the cities, they’d lacked the infrastructure to construct large devices, like the feedback weapon used at Marlhem, but Drogin had continued his work on new weapons and techniques to use against the machines. Thus far, he had achieved little in his pursuits.

He brought her into the outer chamber, his workroom. He flipped on a Clan-made lantern and stepped to the wall on her right. “I started this as a hobby – I wanted to see if it could be done,” he said, rummaging behind a wooden chest. “I was inspired by the Clan lanterns. This functions the same way: a linear system channeling energy to serve a purpose.”

She nodded, pretending to understand what he’d said. Outside, an owl hooted.

He came back, carrying something long and thin. As he approached, she saw that he held a sword. He handed it to her, and she held it awkwardly in both hands. She shrunk her claws so she would be able to grip it better.

Their father had taught her something about swords, and the events of the past year had only increased her knowledge. At first glance, this sword seemed ordinary, but she discovered some minor oddities. Its hilt and handle were stouter than normal, and the edges of its blade were made of silver.

Leha ran a finger along the blade. “It isn’t sharp.”

Drogin grinned at her in the dim light. “It doesn’t need to be.” He retrieved the sword from her, pushed back the tent flap, and went outside. “Let me show you.”

He directed her to a table underneath the fragrant boughs of a pine tree. Four triangles of wood had been grafted to its surface to create a crude holder. He selected a square of scrap metal from a nearby pile and stood it within the holder.

Making sure she could see what he did, Drogin held up the sword and turned what she had thought to be a decorative knob on the pommel. Its silver edging flared to life, shining bright enough to illuminate Drogin’s face and make Leha blink for a few seconds. The blade emitted a faint hum. He raised the sword and struck downward with two clean, angled cuts. With each hit of the blade, the metal square would spark and hiss, and with the completion of the second slash, a section of the square came free and fell to the table, its edges smoldering. The sword had cut through the iron.

Leha stepped closer and gaped at what her brother had done. He turned back the knob, and the sword’s light went out. In the sudden darkness, the burnt pieces of metal glowed like glyphs of fire.

She looked to the dim shape that was her brother. “This will pierce an Automaton’s skin?”

He nodded. “The test piece is from a Tor machine’s leg. The silver will burn right through. It won’t work on lead, of course, but we can attack the seams.”

“And you don’t need to be a wizard to use it?”

She thought she saw him grin. “No. Anyone who can use a sword can use one of these.”

She glanced back at the cooling metal and returned her eyes to her brother. “Can I try it?”

“Sure.” He handed it to her with only a hint of the hesitation that had marked their interactions for so many months.

She took the hilt in both hands, stood in front of the table, settled her stance, and activated the blade. The magic turned on with a flash, and its harsh light bathed the glade. She felt its heat wash over her hands – intense, but not painful.

She raised the blade to deliver a cutting blow, but she changed her mind at the last instant, and she pushed forward with a stab. The blade glided through the test piece as if it was mere leather and not metal. Where the blade touched the metal, it sparked and crackled.

She withdrew the sword and held it before her face, being careful not to bring it too close. She admired her brother’s handiwork.

With a flick of the knob, the light died. With her powers to slow the machines and a little planning, these devices could be powerful weapons against the machines. Many competent soldiers had found themselves fighting out of their element when the Automatons had rebelled and swords had become useless – close combat weapons had been used successfully at Heart, but the Automatons had been unprepared and scattered throughout the city. They had been forced to use crossbows or javelins, or find some other way to be useful. By making close combat weapons useful again, Drogin may have given them a bevy of potential new tactics.

“Could you adapt this technology for other weapons – axes, narviks, javelins?” she asked.

“Narviks and axes, yes. Modifying ranged weapons this way would make them too heavy to be practical.”

“How quickly could you make enough to equip a force – say, a thousand people?”

He thought for a moment. “The mechanics are fairly simple, though they can be hard to install,” he said, muttering to himself. “We’d need proper facilities…” He shrugged. “It depends on how much resources and people you want to commit, and how much metal the Clan villages can supply us with.”

“Assume you get decent supplies. I’ll commit everything I can.”

“Five weeks, maybe.”

Leha felt a smile coming on. “We’ll start tomorrow.” She gave back the sword. “You might want to go to bed. Things could be busy, come morning.”

“Yeah,” he said after a pause.

She began to walk back to the camp, waving goodbye at her brother, though she wasn’t sure he could see it.

Night birds called in the distance, and the dewy grass rustled beneath her feet. There was something in the air. For what felt like the first time in years, she thought about the future without fear.

* * *

That night, for the first time in months, Leha slept long and well.

* * *

The following morning, work began on Drogin’s new weapons. Leha called in every available craftsman, technician, and wizard to help. She sent messengers north to request supplies from the Northern Clans – the handful of permanent Clan villages were now the only source, aside from scavenging, of metals and certain other essentials.

Leha, Natoma, Eranna, and Doga worked together to select a thousand men and women who would receive the new weapons. Each would have their weapon designed for their specialty: former Tor foot soldiers would be given short swords; Eastenholders would receive the double-edged long swords they preferred; Natoma, who had been among the chosen, had handed over her single-edged sword to be reforged.

A section of forest was cleared to create an area for the manufacture of the new weapons. After a week, the crude forges began to burn, and sounds of work made their way through the camp. Five weeks, Drogin had said. Leha settled in to wait.

These thousand would be the first. Time and resources permitting, there would be more.

The work brought new activity to the camp, but it changed little. The same melancholy hung over everything. The food remained scarce and crude, the rations becoming smaller with each passing day. The battles to the north had ebbed, but everyone knew that wouldn’t last. For the average person, nothing had changed.

But for Leha, things were different. Something had changed. Something was coming. She knew it. She had known it from the moment she had entered the creator race outpost. She couldn’t explain it; she couldn’t account for it. But she knew it to be true. Some of the folk in the camp speculated that the production of the new weapons was a prelude to something important. It was; Leha had simply yet to learn what it was a prelude to.

Externally, her life remained much the same. But internally, she felt hope. All day, every day, anticipation thrummed through her. She slept better, she worked on her writings with Lahune, and she waited for what she knew was coming.

Over the next few days, she spent her free time – what little she had – studying the crystal she had recovered from within the mountain. She sat and watched its pulses and swirls, its shimmers and its flickers. She felt it pulse between warm and cold, and she pondered the beings that had made it.

Drogin and the other wizards had determined it contained strong energy, but they could offer no further information as to its nature. She considered bringing it to the Watcher and asking if it knew anything of the crystal’s nature, but she doubted it would be of any help, and the hardship of the journey did not seem worthwhile.

Sometimes, Benefactor examined it with her. It fascinated him, and the sessions helped to bring some measure of life back to him.

One day, while enjoying a rare period of peace in her room, Leha took up the crystal, lay back on her bed, and began to study it, as she had many times before.

She lost all track of time, staring into its nebulous depths. She stopped hearing the rain tap against her window; she stopped feeling the dampness in the air; she stopped feeling her bed sheets beneath her. The crystal occupied all her attention.

It began to glow brighter.

She started and nearly dropped the crystal. After a moment spent calming herself, she reexamined it, and discovered that it had returned to normal. She furrowed her brow and wondered if she had imagined it.

She brought the crystal up to her eyes again and focused on it once more, pouring all her attention onto it. After a minute, it brightened again. Leha slackened her concentration, and it dimmed. She repeated the process.

Someone banged on her door.

“Who is it?” she called absently.

“Leha, it’s me. Open up.” Drogin.

Reluctantly, she lowered the crystal to her side and sat up. “It’s not locked.”

Drogin pushed open the door and stomped in, water dripping from his hair and clothing – rain seemed far more common in this part of the world than in Eastenhold or Tor Som. “What are you doing in here?” he demanded.

She frowned. “I’ve been looking at the crystal.” She held it up. “I think I just made a discovery.”

Drogin interrupted her. “Whatever it is you’re doing, you need to stop.”

Her frown deepened. “Why?”

“I can sense it. The other wizards can too. If we can feel it, there’s a good chance the machines can too.”

Her irritation drained away along with the blood in her face. “I – I – ” She sighed. “I’m sorry; I wasn’t thinking.” She put the crystal on her windowsill and backed away from it cautiously, returning to her bed.

Drogin’s expression softened. “That’s all right. It was very faint. I doubt anyone outside of the camp could have sensed it.” He hesitated for a moment, then stepped forward. “What did you learn?”

Leha toyed with her sheets and shrugged. “Not much, really.” She glanced at the crystal. “If I concentrate on it strongly, it starts to glow brighter. That’s it.”

Drogin made a perplexed noise.

He moved for the door. “I should get back to the forges.”

She nodded.

Halfway through the door, he turned back. “Sorry.”

She gave a half smile. “So am I.” Her lips turned into a full smile. “Get back to work.”

He smiled back, and left.

Leha lay back and inspected the ceiling. She sighed and looked back on the crystal. The lights within it flickered and danced, taunting her. She resisted the urge to try to learn more from it, looking away. She did not know what would happen if the machines detected the energy of their creators, and she didn’t want to find out.

Despite her efforts to stop them, her eyes flicked back to the windowsill. There were things to be learned from that crystal, she thought. She wished she knew how to uncover them. As irrational as she knew it was, she still felt that the power of the crystal would prove valuable. The feeling of importance she had felt under the mountain had never really faded away.

She forced her eyes away from the crystal.

* * *

Mainly, Breena remembered the cold.

She had been raised on the bitter tundra of the Northern Clans. Her people said that the winter was in their blood, but even her limits had been tested after the battle in the Mannall Range.

After the handful of survivors had taken to the peaks, the machines had been unable to pursue, but the environment had brought dangers of its own. The weather had been their constant enemy. Each night, they had huddled around to take advantage of what little heat their fires and magic provided, hoping the cold would not take their digits or their lives as they slept. Once, they had been caught in a blizzard. They had cobbled together a few crude shelters in a thick copse of trees beneath a cliff and done their best to shield themselves as the blowing snow had blinded their eyes and torn at their skin.

After six days in the wilderness, and the loss of more people to the wilds, they had reached the edge of the barrier machine’s influence and been able to jump to Tyzu and, from there, to the Gormorra Range.

The lone ice creature that had survived the battle had kept in touch with the other leaders, and the group under Eranna and Doga had known of the horrors visited upon the other worlds, but the stories had not prepared Breena for what she had seen from the Watching Eye village. The settlement itself had been spared, but the jungle around it had been ruined. Wide sections of it had been flattened completely, and the rest had been little more than smoldering trunks and a few still-living plants dying from the ash that coated them. The air had reeked of smoke and death, and the sky had been an unnatural black.

For days beforehand, Doga had worried about the fate of his home. Before arriving at Kerhem, Breena had never seen a Lost One, and what little experience of them she had gained since then had led her to the conclusion that they were a people of great stoicism and emotional strength. But when the news of Elder Sheen’s death had reached them, she had thought he would weep.

When he had returned to his village, he had.

Once Doga had composed himself, they had gathered around him upon the platform. A debate – carried out in mind-bogglingly fast bursts of the Lost One language – had ensued. One old man had taken pity on Breena and translated for her.

The clan had asked Doga to become the new elder, and he had refused.

“I am only thirty-five,” he’d said. “I am not yet worthy of the title.”

The others had argued that he had proven himself a capable leader in the war against the Automatons. Doga had said that his duties on Barria would prevent him from giving his full attention to the clan. Eventually, the others had acquiesced, and they had chosen an aged warrior named Kotl as the new elder.

Soon afterward, Breena, Doga, Eranna, and the other survivors had returned to Barria, but Breena had not stayed there long.

A few months ago, Breena had known nothing but the life of a Clanswoman wizard. Her existence had centered on simple tasks like keeping the halls floating. She had known little but reindeer, snow, and cold.

Then the Tor emperor had come, and she had been chosen to make the journey south. Within her first few weeks in Tor Som, she had seen and experienced countless things that she never had before. She had traveled through the evergreens separating the lands of the Tors and the Clanspeople and the dense forests around Retgard, wildernesses vastly different from the frozen plains she had called home. She had seen cities, things that had seemed mythical and unimaginable to a girl raised among the Clans. She had walked the boulevards of Retgard and seen the spires of Kerhem. She had been exposed to the alien magics practiced by the southern peoples. She had seen strange tools, weapons, and clothes. She had heard new languages and new philosophies.

Not long after, she had done battle with the Automatons, the Old Gods of legend, and seen and experienced yet more things she had hardly imagined – dark, frightening things. She had visited the mythical world of Tyzu, walked in energy so high she had almost flown off the ground with each step, eaten the alien foods of the Lost Ones, and caught a glimpse of the wonders the jungles had held before the machines had burned them.

After all that, a mere trek eastward, even one into lands never before seen by humans, hadn’t held much appeal for her.

On top of that, after the events in the Mannall Range, she had seen enough of mountains to last her a lifetime.

Since the battle in the mountains, she had found her thoughts drifting to the power of the machines – and their ability to create the barrier in particular. To be able to affect the fundamental functions of the world in such a way was a feat of a magical engineering beyond anything she had ever thought possible. Many nights, she had lain awake, thinking about how such a thing could be possible, and how it could be defeated. She had listened to stories of Leha’s early attempts to breach it and learned everything she could about the barrier machines themselves. Nothing was perfect; every spell had a weakness. She had wondered if she could find the barrier’s.

When she had sought a way to avoid the journey east, the barrier had given her the answer. She had gone to Brodar and asked to be allowed to study it fulltime, and he had been convinced of the mission’s value. The next day, she had traveled to Tyzu.

Other wizards had already done research on the barrier from Barria, and she had performed some of her own investigations after the battle, but it had been little studied from the outside, and Leha and Elder Sheen had already succeeded in breaching it from the Tyzuan side.

She had taken up residence in the village of the Tall Tree clan, a place relatively unharmed by the Automaton attacks. And there she had remained for three months, extending her mind and senses to study the barrier created by the Old Gods all those millennia ago.

Each day, after breakfast, she would sit in the hut they had given her – it belonged to a warrior currently fighting to defend her homeland – kneel upon the floor – holding her staff in one hand and a piece of quartz wrapped in silver twine, a tool of her own invention that helped her extend her mind, in the other – and slip into the trance-like state that allowed her to study the barrier, often remaining there until someone came to remind her of lunch. Most afternoons, she did the same until dinner.

She didn’t know the current time. She had eaten lunch, but beyond that, she had no idea. Time was difficult to measure in this state of contemplation. Her mind drifted through the currents of magic that flowed over Barria, currents that had become as familiar to her as her own skin. In the directions she knew to be north and east, the currents flowed naturally, running over the landscape in rivers and streams, emptying from certain areas and pooling in others to create jumping points. But in the south and west, the barrier wiped the slate clean, creating a vast area of artificial uniformity.

She tapped and prodded at the barrier with her magic, but after three months, there were few things she had yet to try. The barrier repelled most of her probes, and those bursts of magic that did make it through were quickly dispersed by the ministrations of the barrier machines. She knew from Leha’s experience that she could punch through if she used enough force, but she had no way of knowing what she would find on the other side. Even if she did, no one she sent through would have any way of coming back.

She sighed and watched the machines wash away another spell.

An idea popped into her head, and her back straightened. She launched another spell. This time, the moment the machines began to wash it away, she gripped her crystal and focused on pouring all of her consciousness into the subtle barrier currents revealed to her by the spell’s death. She pressed her mind into it, frowning with exertion, and broke into the barrier itself.

She could see.

Far below her, a landscape of former farmland dotted by grassy fields and copses of trees spread out in all directions. To her right, she saw the burnt ruins of a town or city. To her left, she saw what appeared to be one of the Spurs of the Gormorra Range. She didn’t recognize the area, but the mountains appeared unfamiliar, so it was most likely the Southern Spur. That put her in southern Karkar or northern Uranna. Her mind felt constricted, as if she had placed it in a tight box.

She experimented with moving. It felt like trying to swim in a river of honey, but she found she could move forward, backward, or side-to-side. She couldn’t move her perspective much higher or lower, but if she focused on the ground, it became more distinct.

She pushed her way through the currents, heading right, the direction she believed to be west. She looked over the ruins of the town, finding no signs of life, and continued past a river and onto a large plain of what had once been grain farms. The land seemed empty and lonely without the people that had once tended it.

Ahead, she spotted two Wizard-Automatons making their way down an abandoned road. She approached cautiously, but they didn’t appear to be able to detect her presence. She hovered above them for a time, observing. She couldn’t guess their purpose. She wondered if they might be searching for human survivors.

She withdrew herself from the barrier. The feeling of pressure on her mind eased, and she felt herself relax. Blinking, she opened her eyes and set down her crystal. The silver wiring had left indents in her palm. She took a deep breath and wiped sweat from her brow – she doubted she would ever grow accustomed to the Tyzuan heat. She felt drained, and her stomach growled with hunger.

She laid her staff on the floor and took a moment to consider the implications of her discovery. This was something far superior to normal scrying. Those spells lost efficacy after a few thousand feet. This had a theoretically unlimited range. With this, they could spy on the heart of the Automaton’s realm.

She stood stiffly. She planned to find some food, and then she would make the journey to Barria to report her findings.

* * *

Leha made her way through the heat and the stinging smoke of the forges, passing technicians and laborers hammering at steel and pouring liquid metal into molds. She adapted her lungs to cope with the fumes, but it wasn’t entirely effective.

She found Drogin near the center of the manufactory. He was bent over a crude worktable, welding small pieces of metal with his wand. Sweat stained his shirt, and he wore goggles to protect his eyes.

She touched him on the shoulder, and he jumped.

He spun around and tore off his goggles. When he saw her, he relaxed. “Oh, it’s you.” He pulled in several deep breaths. “You startled me.”

“Sorry,” she said sheepishly. She held out a plump skin. “I thought you might like some water.”

“Thanks.” He grabbed it from her.

As he did so, his fingers brushed her claws. He did not flinch, she noticed with a slight smile.

Drogin took a long, deep draught from the skin, and then he splashed water over his face. He gasped in relief.

“I chilled it in the river,” she explained, speaking loudly to be heard over the ring of a nearby hammer.

“Thanks,” he said again.

She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “I would have brought you some food, but our supplies can’t really support snacks.”

He nodded.

They stood in awkward silence for a moment. Some of the surrounding laborers peered at them curiously.

Leha felt a familiar presence touch her mind, and her eyes lost focus.

Leha, Benefactor said, his mental voice still seeming dead.

Wordlessly, she asked him why he had contacted her.

Drogin leaned forward. “What is it?”

She held up a hand to her brother.

A Clan wizard has arrived from Tyzu. She wishes to speak with you, Benefactor said, sending an image of a red-haired woman sitting on a cushion in the meeting chamber of the Clan hall at the center of camp.

Leha thanked him, and his presence receded. She looked to her brother. “It’s nothing serious, but I need to go.”

He nodded. “Goodbye,” he said after a pause, sounding as if the words were alien to him.

She waved to him and strode out of the forges, glad to be gone from the heat and the fumes.

She crossed the camp and climbed into the hall, arriving at the tapestry-covered meeting chamber at the rear. The Clan wizard stood, putting down the mug of water she had been drinking, and greeted Leha respectfully, speaking accented Tor. She introduced herself as Breena. The woman was average height by the standards of the Clans, but that still made her extremely tall from the perspective of an Eastenholder. Her vivid red hair was gathered into a ponytail, and a handful of freckles dusted her cheeks. She looked to be in her late twenties. She wore a maroon woolen tunic whose sleeves appeared to have been cut off, and her staff lay on the floor nearby.

Leha returned her greetings and sat upon a cushion opposite the wizard’s. At Leha’s gesture, Breena regained her seat.

“What is it you wish to discuss?” Leha said.

Breena straightened her back. “I have spent the last three months on Tyzu, studying the barrier.” Leha detected a note of tension in her voice. Even among the Clans, the Hero of Heart carried a powerful reputation.

Leha nodded. She vaguely remembered hearing about the research mission. She signaled for Breena to continue.

“I’ve discovered a way to implant my consciousness within the barrier. It allows me to observe any place protected by it.

“As far as I can tell, the machines are completely unaware of my presence while I watch them.”

Leha blinked. Her mind churned to life, shuffling through the strategical possibilities that provided. “Anywhere under the barrier? And the Automatons can’t detect you?”

Breena nodded once, a smile spreading across her face.

“Can any wizard do this?”

Breena nodded again. “I see no reason why they couldn’t.”

Leha thought over the possibilities for another moment. Then, she reached out and clapped Breena on the shoulder. “Well done.” She leaned back. “If you like, I can see that you get extra rations for a few days.”

Breena mumbled her thanks.

Leha stood and began to pace.

“Would you like me to leave?” Breena asked.

“No, stay, please,” Leha said, thinking.

She reached out with her mind and sought Benefactor. I need you to summon the other leaders, she told him.

He sent her an acknowledgement.

Leha continued to pace in silence for a moment. Then, she glanced at Breena. “I have an idea.”

———————

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