Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Nineteen: The Pause

We come now to the nineteenth chapter of Rage of the Old Gods, the first book of my epic science fantasy trilogy the World Spectrum. In the coming weeks, I will be posting the entire book for free on this blog. If you’re just joining us, you can get caught up with the previous chapters now.

Cover art for A calm has settled over the world of Barria, giving Leha and her allies time to recover — and time to confront their doubts and their demons. But the calm precedes the storm, and the question lingers over all: Why have the Gods vanished?

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Chapter nineteen: The Pause

When she awoke, it was still dark.

She raised herself on one elbow groggily. Someone had left a water skin and some rations beside her. Her mouth stung with thirst, so she downed most of the water. When she finished, she wiped her mouth and proceeded to fall back to sleep.

* * *

When she next awoke, the sun was up, its light seeping through the fabric of the tent.

She felt much better, though still somewhat sleepy. Her mouth felt dry again, and her stomach growled with hunger. She turned to the supplies beside her and finished the water. Looking into the ration pack, she found reindeer jerky and a thin slice of hard cheese. She wrinkled her nose. Better than nothing, I suppose.

At that moment, a small gust of wind brought the smell of cooking meat – bacon, she thought – to her nose. Her stomach churned hungrily, and her mouth watered. She abandoned the sack of rations, sprang out of the bedroll, and found her clothes. She held her tunic before her face and considered it disapprovingly. It was stained with sweat, and it carried a powerful stink. She decided she had no choice and dressed, trying to ignore the smell.

She shoved aside the tent flap, and the sun greeted her from low in the eastern sky. She blinked at the brightness and began to step towards the source of the cooking smell, using her nose to guide her. She regrew her claws.

Her knee continued to sting every time she put her foot down, but it did not hurt as much as before. She funneled Tyzuan energy into it to make it heal faster – having high energy in just one section of her knee made walking awkward.

From the look of it, it was just after dawn. That meant she could have only been asleep for a few hours. She felt too rested for that to make sense. Maybe I went to sleep earlier in the night than I thought I did. Her mind hadn’t been at its clearest the night before.

A camp had sprung up around her while she had been sleeping. Tents, cook pits, and all the other hallmarks of a military encampment had appeared to dot the land around her. Various skirmishes with the machines had left many trees toppled or broken, so no land had needed to be cleared. A few trees still pierced the spaces between the tents, and she saw unmolested sections of evergreens rising at the edges of the encampment.

The rain had vanished, and the forest seemed lush and refreshed. A cool wind blew out of the north, rustling over tents and through branches.

She came upon Drogin in an open area between several tents. He sat upon a rock with his back to her, and he had his eyes on her quarry: the leg of an animal roasting over a smoky campfire. It was from a keldi, a Tyzuan animal that looked like a deer. She had first tasted keldi meat the night after her transformation at the hands of Sosk.

“Good morning,” she said.

He turned. “You’re awake.”

She approached the fire. Before she could ask, Drogin said, “Join me?” gesturing to the keldi leg.

She nodded hungrily. “Thank you.”

Drogin pulled over a stool, and she sat down.

She glanced at the sun. “How long was I asleep?”

“A little over a day.”

Her eyes widened. “A day?”

He grinned widely. “Yes. Some people wanted to wake you, but we haven’t had any trouble, so I thought we should let you sleep.” He sobered. “The battle took a lot out of you.”

She nodded. “Me and everyone else.”

She shook her head. “A day.” For a moment, she wondered if Drogin was playing a joke on her, but her brother had never been the sort to do that. If she had slept for a day, it explained her hunger.

Drogin gazed into the embers. “I’ve heard of wizards sleeping for days at a time after working great spells. Maybe what you do takes a similar toll.”

“Maybe,” Leha said distractedly, watching a drop of fat sizzle into the fire pit.

Drogin poked at the meat with a finger. He reached into a pile of small sacks at his side and produced two wooden platters. He covered each with two slices of Tyzuan fruit and a large slab of meat, and he gave one to Leha.

She tore into the food with fervor, savoring every morsel. The meat singed her mouth, but she hardly noticed. The meat had a strong, smoky flavor, and the fruit’s sweetness provided a pleasant counterpoint.

Once she had eaten most of her meal, and her hunger had abated somewhat, she said, “Where’d you get the food?”

Drogin swallowed a piece of fruit, licking yellow juice from his lips. “The Tall Tree clan had a little extra food, and they decided we needed it more than they did. Most of it went to the camp to the east, but I couldn’t resist commandeering a little for myself and the other commanders.”

“What happened while I was asleep?” she asked, flushing a bit. A day. She sliced off a piece of meat with a claw and popped it into her mouth.

Drogin put aside the remnants of his breakfast and wiped his hands on the grass. “Not much. We sent out scouts to try and find where the Automatons went, and Breena and a few other wizards are looking for them in the areas under the barrier, but we haven’t found them. They’re not in the camps south of here, they’re not in any of the ziggurats we know of, and we haven’t found them anywhere in the immediate area. We did find the trail of the Machine King – it went north somewhere. Eranna managed to find a few horses, and we sent a mounted party to find it.

“Most of our energy has gone into recuperating and reestablishing our defenses along the front. We lost a lot of people over the last few days – we still don’t know exactly how many – but we’re doing our best to put things back together.”

He took a breath, his shoulders rising and then falling. “For now, we seem to have been given a reprieve.”

“And it is a welcome one,” a deep voice from Leha’s left said.

She turned and saw Doga approach. He wore his usual Tor military uniform, but his armor and weapons were nowhere to be seen. He squatted beside Leha and eyed the keldi leg.

After a moment, he sheepishly asked Drogin for a plate.

“Oh, of course,” Drogin said. He rummaged through the sacks, produced another platter, and served out a piece of meat and two more slices of fruit. With a hint of timidity, he handed it to the Lost One.

Doga dug into his food.

Leha mulled over Drogin’s news in her mind. She finished the last bites of her meal, cleaned her hands on the grass, and stared at her claws, flexing her fingers. The fire popped.

“You do realize that the Automatons have likely just concocted some new plan to destroy us, that we’re probably in as much danger as ever?” she said to her companions.

Drogin’s face darkened, and he glanced at his feet. Doga swallowed his food and stared forward starkly. Silence hung over them for a moment.

“Yes, I know. I try not to think about it,” Drogin said.

Leha glanced at Doga.

The Lost One continued to stare ahead in silence; then, he tore off a piece of meat and held it up with a claw. “It is probable that the machines have simply found some new tactic to try; we probably will be in peril again soon.” He studied the meat on his claw. “But for the moment, there is nothing we can do but wait to learn more. Whether or not it was their intention, the Automatons have given us a break, and we should make the most out of it.” He ate the meat.

Leha smiled. “You’re right.”

They stayed by the fire for what felt like a long time, chatting and trading stories. Leha noticed a certain tension between Doga and her brother, and they rarely spoke to each other, but both were eager to talk to her. The time passed slowly as the sun climbed higher into the sky and the fire burned down to nothing. The workings of the camp continued around them, but they hardly noticed.

Leha found herself thinking back to her conversation with Natoma after the battle at Tallatzan, of her ruminations on humanity’s darker and more dangerous aspects, and the thought came to her that she could think of no better arguments in favor of humanity’s inner goodness than the two people on either side of her. It gave her some comfort.

* * *

Eranna had left sleep behind, but the images of blood and fire that had burned in her dreams stayed with her, throbbing in her mind like a wound. She dressed quickly, putting on her worn uniform, the uniform of a ruined nation. She bound her pale hair in a long and complex braid with a series of swift, efficient motions.

She glanced to the chest containing her weapons and armor, hesitated for a moment, and slipped into her padded red undercoat and mail hauberk. She strapped her short sword to her belt and took her spear, a relatively light weapon that could double as a javelin, in her right hand. She had lost her shield in the recent fighting, and she hadn’t found a replacement yet. Lastly, she placed a metal skullcap on her head.

She strode into the bright sunlight of the summer morning and out of the shadows of her tent, hoping to leave the violent images of the dream along with them. She paid special attention to every detail of the camp, forcing her mind to focus on the way the grass swayed in the northerly breeze, the way the sun reflected off the tents and the evergreen needles, and the mingled smells of camp life and the forest that permeated the air.

But no matter how much she focused on being in the moment, the memories of her dream continued to rise up out of her consciousness. The central threads of the dream had already begun to fade away, but the darker and stronger images remained with her, taunting her.

The dreams had begun after the battle in the Mannall Mountains. They did not come every night – they sometimes disappeared for weeks – but they never failed to return. Sometimes they were of the battle in the Mannall Range; other times, they took place in the battle at Three Gates. Sometimes, they shifted between the two or combined them. Always, they were a maelstrom of gore, smoke, and death. Always, the machines, the machines that her people had brought to ascendancy, presided over the slaughter. Always, she could not stop it.

She suppressed a shudder.

As she moved through the camp, she heard people say that Leha had finally awoken. Eranna felt a faint trickle of relief and considered meeting with her, but she didn’t see a point. Plenty of other people could bring her up to date. Eranna continued with her original plan: seeking out one of her lieutenants.

She found one, a tall Tor man named Karn, at the northern edge of camp. He was conversing with two other soldiers. From the words that reached Eranna’s ears, she guessed that they were discussing logistical matters.

As she approached, the meeting broke up, and Karn turned to face her. Beyond his name, she knew little about him. He had not had any prominence in humanity’s army until recently. She knew that he had been a farmer before the war, and that he had taken up arms around the time Leha had occupied Marlhem. He had displayed talent in combat and decision-making, and had thus come to her attention.

He nodded respectfully to her and spoke a greeting.

She returned his greetings. “Have the scouting parties found anything yet?”

He shook his head, the motion ruffling his short blonde hair. “Just more of the same.”

She nodded absently. “I want to join one of them.”

Karn furrowed his brow. “Why?”

“I need something to do.”

His jaw tightened. “I understand.” He paused. “We can send you by jumping point. Do you want to go south or north?”

“North. I’ll join the people looking for the Automaton Lord.”

He nodded again and went to find a wizard. A few minutes later, he returned, and the wizard linked with the scouting party via an ice creature, learned the target location, and led them to the nearest jumping point.

After a flash of light, a brief walk across a once-burnt field of shrubs and saplings on Tyzu, and another flash, they arrived on a vast, windy plain of tall grass. The wind was cold for summer, but Eranna was a Tor, so she was accustomed to much lower temperatures, and her clothing was thick.

The scouting party, a group of armed men and women on horseback, was arrayed around her in a crescent. One of them, a man, came forward, greeted her quickly, and dismounted. He handed her the reins and joined the wizard. They disappeared in a burst of green-white energy.

Eranna swung up into the saddle and placed her feet in the stirrups. The horse grunted. She patted its neck reassuringly. “Lead me back to the trail,” she instructed the scouts.

The party turned and headed to the east, their horses parting the grass like ships parting the sea. Eranna propped her spear butt against the horse’s side and held it in the air, wishing she had thought to bring a less-burdensome weapon. Within a few minutes, they arrived at a seemingly endless trail of huge, shallow footprints pressed into the soil of the plains.

“They’re not very subtle, are they?” she said over the wind.

One of the soldiers shook his head with a trace of amusement.

They set off down the trail at a canter, the sound of pounding hooves mixing with the rush of the wind. The grass glowed emerald and gold in the bright sun, and the vast dome of the sky was a deep azure. The scent of leather saddles and reins mingled with the smell of the horses’ bodies and the perfume of the grass. Eranna’s braid blew out behind her, and the imagery of her dreams began to fade away, disappearing as the task of scouting filled her mind.

A half-hour into their ride, the Automaton Lord’s trail terminated in a massive stretch of crushed grass and trampled earth. Eranna yanked on the reins, and her horse thudded to a stop. The other scouts drew up on either side of her.

Eranna swore. The area bore the kind of flattening that could only come from a large group of Automatons. Numerous trails led off of the ruined field, going in multiple directions. The largest one headed straight north.

Eranna’s heart went cold. She exchanged grim glances with the other scouts. Their faces showed that they had come to the same conclusion as she had: they had found where the machines had gone after Sy’om.

She turned to the battle wizard on her left, one of two in the party. “Find the nearest jumping point. Warn the camp.”

He nodded and galloped away.

“Over there,” a brown-haired Karkaran woman said, pointing to the east.

Eranna turned and saw a dark smudge of smoke hovering over the horizon. She tightened her grip on her spear. “Are there any clans traveling through the area?”

A Clansman eased his horse forward. “No, but the village of the Urdi clan is near,” he said, speaking rough Tor. “Their settlement is permanent; they’re rye farmers.”

Eranna chewed her lip. Her eyes darted to an eastward path cut by mechanical feet. It led straight towards the smoke. “Come on,” she said, urging her horse forward.

“It could be cooking fires,” the Karkaran woman called to her.

“Maybe,” Eranna said. She spurred her horse into a gallop.

The other scouts spurred their mounts and followed her.

* * *

They thundered down the path, the only sounds coming from the thudding of hooves into the soil, the huffs of the horses, and the wind. Eranna’s mouth was set into a tight line, and she held her spear forward like a lance. She hoped they would find nothing but homes and rye fields, but as the path continued to take them toward the smoke, her expression grew more dour.

The land had slowly been sloping upward since the trampled field, and now they came to the crest of the rise. The plains spread out below them, and a patchwork quilt of farmer’s fields spread itself amid the tall grass. At the heart of the grain fields, a jagged dark stain brooded and smoldered.

They were too late. The Automatons had come and gone.

Eranna stared at the ruins for a moment, her shoulders tensed. “Let’s have a closer look,” she said quietly. She and the rest of her party started down the hill at a more sedate pace.

As they moved towards the ruined village, her thoughts grew dark again, and she couldn’t help but the think of the violence of her dream. They reached the edge of the grass and arrived at the first of the grain fields. The trail of the Automatons cut a swath through the rye stalks, but they found a broad dirt path and took it through the farmland.

In places, fires or mechanical footsteps had flattened the fields, but for long stretches along the road, the rye stood unmolested, swaying in the cool wind as if the machines had never come. It was eerie. Eranna had grown up in the rural areas near Retgard, and the fields reminded her of the home she had left behind.

As they grew closer to the village, the signs of destruction grew more apparent. The smoke hung above them in thin clouds, and the stink of ashes assaulted them with every breath. Shards of wood and pieces of homes littered the earth and carved holes in the grain fields.

The rye ended, and they entered what had been the Urdi clan village. What had once been a system of streets and squares was now just a blank stretch of dark ash and still-burning cinders. Only the entrances to cellars and a few broken foundations marked where houses had once stood.

Eranna dismounted and took a few cautious steps forward. She could feel the heat of the ground through her boots. “This couldn’t have happened very long ago,” she said.

* * *

One by one, Leha crossed out a trail of Clan villages across the map.

This was not the same map she had used during the recent battles; this was an old chart drawn upon a piece of reindeer skin and used by Clanspeople to teach their children. It depicted the entirety of the territory claimed by the Northern Clans. A meandering line of crossed out markers showed the path taken by the Automatons, and the swath of destruction they had left in their wake. They were heading north-northeast.

A messenger poked his head into the tent. “The scouts have returned from the Larnen clan village. It’s been destroyed.”

Leha sighed and dismissed the messenger.

“That one,” Breena said, pointing to a dot on the map. Leha couldn’t read the script on the map, so she had found Breena and brought her to translate. The wizard showed an admirable composure under the circumstances.

Leha picked up her quill – she had shrunken the claws on her right hand to allow her to write – dunked it in an inkwell, and made a cross over the dot representing the Larnen village. “What did they produce?” she asked tiredly, speaking Tor for Breena’s benefit. The pleasant conversation of the morning seemed a distant memory.

“They were silver miners,” Breena said sadly.

Drogin nodded, his arms crossed. “They provided a lot of the silver we used to make the new cutting weapons.”

Leha pursed her lips, set down the quill, and stepped back from the table. She glanced at her two companions, observing their grim expressions. The other leaders were occupied by various other tasks, but they linked to her through Benefactor, and she could feel their worries mirroring her own. Thus far, all of the villages destroyed had been permanent ones – save one nomadic one that had had the misfortune to cross the machines’ path. The stationary Clan settlements had been a vital source of supplies since the Althing had voted to join the war.

Breena stared at the map. “Why are they doing this?” she said quietly.

Leha furrowed her brow. “Isn’t it obvious? They want to cut off our supplies.” She felt a murmur of psychic agreement from the other leaders.

The Clanswoman shook her head. “No. Their path is taking them north – ” she traced a line across the map with her finger “ – away from many of our other settlements.” She indicated villages to the west and southeast. “If they wanted to cut off our lines of supply, they could have chosen a far more efficient route. They’re just destroying whatever they can without detouring much from their chosen path.”

Leha surveyed the map. The Automatons’ route would soon take them to the northern edge of the lands commonly occupied by the Clans. Despite the midday warmth, she had to suppress a shiver.

“You’re right,” she said. She frowned. “What are they doing?”

A ripple of disquiet passed through the link.

Perhaps they wish to come at us from both the north and the south, Doga suggested.

Leha passed his message on to Drogin and Breena.

She sensed Natoma shake her head. Their forces in the south are too weak to attempt that.

Drogin’s brow creased. “They missed a village.”

“What?” Leha said.

He pointed to a dot to the west of what they had determined to be the Automatons’ path. The dots to the north and south had been crossed out. “The Fenheer clan. We were expecting them to come under attack soon. But they’ve already hit the Larnen village.” He indicated the dot to the immediate north.

Leha studied the map, shifting her weight forward and feeling a dull pain in her knee – it was nearly healed, but it still pained her if she moved the wrong way. “It’s a bit far off their path, but no farther than the Sannen village was.”

“So why did they spare the Fenheer?” Breena said.

Silence met her question.

After several moments, Eranna’s voice came through the link. The Fenheer village was the only one with a jumping point in the town. The nearest jumping points for all the other villages were at least a few minutes away. The Automatons must have figured that out. That would explain why none of the villages were able to evacuate or warn us, she said.

That and the fact that we never expected anything like this to happen, Leha added to herself regretfully.

You could not have foreseen this, Leha, Benefactor said.

Doga echoed his sentiments.

I know, she sent.

Leha explained Eranna’s theory to Breena and her brother.

Leha returned her attention to the map. “So they’re just destroying what they can while they make for whatever their real goal is.” She leaned on the table and thought for a moment. “What do you know about what’s up here?” she asked Breena, indicating the northeast corner of the map.

“There isn’t much to know. It is a harsh land with little life in it. During the winter months, it’s completely inhospitable. None of the clans bother to try and eke out a living there.” She paused. “Some of our people have explored the far north in the past. Eventually, the land reaches the ocean and ends.”

“What about to the east?” Leha said.

“The Gormorra Range continues almost until the edge of the land.”

Leha raised her eyebrows. “Almost?”

Breena nodded. “Eventually, the mountains fall into a spur of rugged hills. Soon after that, they disappear altogether. But a series of rivers sprouts from them and heads due north, to the ocean. The land around them is full of bogs and salt marshes; it’s virtually impassable in the summer, and nothing can survive there at any other time of year. No one of the Clans has ever tried to traverse the rivers, as far as I know.”

Leha considered. “I wonder if they’re trying to reach the camp east of the mountains,” she said.

Drogin shook his head. “I don’t think so. As hard as those marshes and rivers would be for humans to cross, it would be far harder for the machines. They’d sink into the mud, and the salt and water would cause corrosion.”

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the Automatons, Doga said.

Leha passed on the message. “I agree with Doga,” she said. “They’ve figured something out.”

“How would they even know about the eastern camp – or the break in the Gormorra Range, for that matter?” Breena said.

Leha shrugged. “It wouldn’t have been too hard to locate the camp. We didn’t try very hard to conceal our trail when we went there. They could have guessed its location by a process of elimination. They could have used some kind of spell. I don’t know how they could have learned about the gap – maybe the Machine King learned of it before the Liberation; the stories say that the Old Gods held great knowledge – but I’m sure that’s their goal.”

I agree. It is the only explanation for their journey north, Natoma said.

I also agree, Benefactor said.

She relayed their opinions, and after a few more minutes of discussion, the leaders agreed to act on her belief and set up a defense on the eastern side of the marshland.

“We’ll leave a small force here so they won’t be able to launch any assaults from the south,” Leha said. She looked up. “What’s the latest estimate on our losses since Tallatzan?”

At least eight or nine thousand people, Eranna sent sadly.

Leha’s heart fell. “Let’s hope we have enough forces to hold them off,” she said quietly.

The meeting broke up soon afterward. The link dissolved, and Breena left the tent. Drogin and Leha lingered behind.

Drogin stared into nothing. “I don’t understand why they would want to strike at the camp. We can evacuate it with the jumping points. Losing it would be a setback, but it wouldn’t be a decisive blow, and it wouldn’t justify the effort they’re going to.”

Leha looked up from folding the map. She paused to think. “You’re right; it doesn’t make sense.” She finished folding. “There must be something we’re not seeing.”

She and Drogin exchanged a glance. Drogin nodded once, looking worried.

* * *

Preparations for departure began immediately. Tents were taken down, supplies were packed, and assignments were made as to who would go where. Within an hour of Leha’s decision, the jumping points across the front were busy with activity. Leha felt a touch of pride as she watched her people bustle about their duties. They were people of many nations and many cultures, but today, they worked as one, darting about the camp and making ready for the journey. This was how she had imagined the armies of Phanto and the other heroes of the Liberation. This was how things should be.

Reaching their final destination initially proved a problem. One could not journey to a specific location via a jumping point unless one of the people being sent or the wizard casting the spell had a clear memory of the target location, and no one had ever set foot in the place where they now needed to be.

After some searching, one of Benefactor’s people managed to telepathically contact an elderly Clansman who had explored the far northeast in his youth. He provided the memory of the western edge of the marshland, and once a few wizards had arrived there, they used scrying spells to spy out the eastern edge.

Over the past months, the people under Leha’s command had grown accustomed to moving to new positions. They dismantled most of the camps and defenses along the northern front with practiced efficiency. By the end of that day, half of the forces that would be departing had already made the trip. By mid afternoon of the next day, the journey was complete.

* * *

The sound of crashing waves filled Leha’s ears as she stood at the shoreline, staring out at the endless waters of the ocean. A foot in front of her, the ground gave way to a brown beach of damp sand and dark rocks. Behind her, the land stretched away in a vast expanse of dark, rocky soil studded with the occasional patch of grass, scrub, or lichen, eventually rising up into the jagged hills that were the crown of the Gormorra Range. To her left, a series of rivers, their waters shining in the bright sun, twisted around and through each other like a knot of serpents before emptying into the blue waters of the ocean. The rivers stretched west beyond what the eye could see, and water stained the land around them. No trees could be seen in any direction – no plant taller than Leha’s hand could survive this place.

A cold wind blew off the ocean, carrying with it the scent of salt and a fine mist of chilled water.

She’d heard tales of the ocean. One of her favorite adventure books told of a hero visiting an enchanted land across the western ocean. Before her birth, her father had taken a journey to Pira, and he had described his first sight of the ocean to her. But none of that had prepared her for the sheer enormity of it. It stretched to the horizon in an unending blanket, eventually melding with the blue of the sky. It looked like the end of the world.

After some discussion, Drogin had determined this to be the place where the machines would likely try to make the crossing. Though the largest rivers fanned out as they approached the ocean, closer to the hills, many smaller rivers extended outward to feed into the marshes. As a result, this was the narrowest point of the marshland.

A few dozen feet behind her, the forces of humanity went about the work of setting up camp. Over the roar of the waves, she could hear voices and the sounds of work.

She heard footsteps. She turned and saw Breena walking towards the shoreline.

“Breena!” she called, waving the wizard over.

Breena hesitated and then moved to stand at Leha’s left. She bowed her head respectfully. “Greetings.” She faced outward, holding her posture rigid and keeping her staff erect.

Leha let out a breath. Some people still found her presence intimidating, it seemed. “Relax, please,” she said amiably.

Breena’s shoulders relaxed somewhat, and she gave an uncertain smile. “Quite a sight, isn’t it?” she said, indicating the ocean.

Leha nodded and looked out across the waves. “Yes. It’s magnificent.”

“Coming from you, I suppose that says a great deal,” Breena said after a moment.

“Yes, I suppose it does,” Leha said.

Glancing to the west, she noticed a large white arrow shape poking out from the ocean. She squinted at it and furrowed her brow. “What is that?” She pointed.

Breena looked. “An iceberg, a mountain of ice that floats on the water.”

Leha peered at her. “A floating mountain of ice?”

Breena nodded. A gust of wind ruffled a few loose strands of her fiery hair. “I’ve heard stories about them. They float down from the north. No one knows where they come from.”

Leha considered the bleak nothingness around her. “This is a strange land.”

After a brief pause, Breena said, “Did you know that, at this time of year, the sun never sets in this place?”

Leha stared at her for several seconds, waiting for the Clanswoman to burst into laughter. When she didn’t, Leha said, “Are you joking?

Breena shook her head, smiling slightly. “During the heart of the summer months, night never comes to this place.”

Leha blinked. “And I thought Tyzu was strange.”

Breena chuckled.

* * *

Yarnig walked across the barren landscape, feeling gravel and rocks crunch beneath his feet. An ocean wind washed over him, stirring his brown curls and tugging at his new woolen tunic. He had received the maroon tunic, and a similarly colored pair of pants, from a Clansman in exchange for some minor magical services. Most of his clothing had not been designed for long-term exposure to the elements, and the recent months had taken their toll on his once-fine wardrobe. He’d needed something new and more durable. These clothes were not as elegant or as rich as what he had worn for most of his life, but they were comfortable and practical.

He kicked a stone and watched it skitter across the dry soil. With no immediate need for his unique magical abilities, he had taken the opportunity to leave Erik and the camp behind and spend some time on his own. No one had objected to his departure. Up until a few months ago, he never would have been able to wander into the wilderness alone. It was a strange feeling.

Over the past days, he had rarely been away from Erik or other people for more than a minute or two. After the machines’ retreat, what little energy he and Erik had left had gone to Healing the wounded. There had hardly been time to sleep. There had been even less time to think.

Yarnig exhaled and took a deep breath of the cool air. During those few moments when he had been able to think, his conversation with Erik before the ambush had dominated his thoughts, but all he’d had the chance to do was obsess without reaching any conclusions. He frowned uncertainly.

Uncertainty. It was a feeling he was used to in regards to his duties as a ruler, or to his path in life, or to many other things. But he had not felt it in regards to anything more personal in a very long time. That had been a bastion of certainty. Early in his life, he had learned that there was little true love or friendship among the nobles and royals of Tor Som, and that those of lower classes would never see him as anything but a royal, a creature far above them. Erik was the only true friend he had ever had. It was a harsh reality, but it was one that he had long ago grown accustomed to, and the certainty of it had provided a kind of stability.

But now, things were different.

Natoma’s face appeared in his mind, as it had countless times over the past few days, and he found himself awash in emotions he had not felt since he had been a teenage boy – before he had learned that, while beautiful faces and shapely bodies were common among the Tor courts, kind hearts and honest tongues were not.

His mind buzzed with confusing thoughts and impulses. Part of him wondered why, after all this time, his feelings had been roused again. Part of him wanted to run to Natoma now and confess his love. Part of him wished that none of this had happened. The human race was at war. He had better things to worry about.

“Emperor!” a voice called out.

Startled out of his contemplation, Yarnig turned to his right. Taldin strode towards him, approaching from the camp. The old soldier still wore the gray uniform of a royal guard. Yarnig pushed back his feelings and put on an expression of polite welcome.

“Taldin! Good to see you again,” he said, smiling.

Taldin ate up the remaining distance between them with a few long strides. “Likewise, sire.” He bowed. Strands of white had begun to streak his iron gray hair.

Yarnig acknowledged his bow, falling back into the old role of emperor. “Walk with me?” He offered, gesturing with one hand.

“Thank you, sire.” The corners of Taldin’s lips tilted up by an almost imperceptible degree.

They set off together, picking their way across the rough terrain as the cool winds whipped at them. The air tasted of salt and dry soil. Despite his best efforts to keep them at bay, images of Natoma’s kind face, porcelain skin, and warm eyes continued to pop into his mind. He did his best to stay composed and put one foot in front of the other.

“How have you been?” Taldin asked.

It took him a moment to formulate an answer, though he didn’t think Taldin noticed. “Good.” He considered. “Good. The last few days have been hard; I’m tired; but I’m good.”

Taldin nodded once. “Good.”

The conversation stayed on trivial topics for several minutes. They discussed the odd land they’d found themselves in, the weather, and various other things.

Then, Taldin said, “I’ve heard about what you and Erik have been doing.”

They stopped walking and faced each other.

“I’ve heard you’ve Healed the mortally wounded and toppled Automatons with ease,” Taldin said.

“It’s true,” Yarnig said simply.

“I know.” He looked Yarnig up and down appraisingly. He gave a half smile. “I guess you won’t be needing my protection any more.”

Yarnig smiled. “I guess not.”

Taldin’s smile blossomed fully. “Just be careful out there.”

Yarnig suppressed a chuckle. He was reminded of all the times throughout his life that Taldin had told him to be careful. “I will.”

Taldin nodded, seeming satisfied.

They resumed their walk. They talked for a few more minutes, and then Taldin returned to the camp, the wind ruffling his gray hair. Yarnig watched him go. By rights, Taldin should have been able to retire by now. If he ever asked for it, Yarnig wouldn’t hesitate in allowing him to.

Yarnig shook his head. The war took its toll on everyone, even those who should have been able to rest.

He continued walking towards the ocean. As much as he tried to avoid it, his thoughts soon returned to Natoma. He sighed. He missed his certainty.

———————

Enjoying the story so far? The next chapter will be posted soon, but if you can’t wait, you also have the opportunity buy the full ebook now!

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