We have now reached the twentieth 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.
A year has passed since the victory that made Leha the Hero of Heart. It is an opportunity for the remaining champions of humanity to reflect on how far they’ve come, and how far they still have to go — a last respite before the final clash.
Chapter twenty: The Anniversary
Breena had been right. In this place, the sun did not set.
As the normal time of dusk had grown closer, Leha had watched the sun’s progress as it drew closer to the horizon. It eventually lowered itself enough to plunge the camp into a dim twilight and paint the sky in a mixture of pinks, oranges, and violets, but it never fully sunk, and night never came.
One hour after when the sun should have set, she prepared for dinner. She asked Drogin and Natoma to join her, and the three of them gathered around a campfire outside Leha’s tent, roasting a piece of reindeer meat that would barely be enough to feed them. The wind blowing off the sea grew colder, but Leha’s tent stood in its way, and they were protected from the brunt of it.
As the meat cooked, Eranna came by, and they invited her to join them. She left briefly to find more food, but she soon returned with a wedge of reindeer cheese and took her place by the fire.
They discussed the eerie nature of the unsetting sun and the strangeness of this land as the fire crackled and the wind ruffled the tent canvas.
Just as Leha was about to serve the meat, Lahune emerged from the twilight, the wind stirring his dark robes. He wore a backpack. Doga followed a few paces behind him.
“Hello,” the priest said in his smooth voice, stopping before their little fire.
Doga stopped beside him and nodded to Leha and her group. He greeted Leha and Drogin in Eastenholder, and he greeted Eranna in Tor.
Eranna favored him with one of her rare smiles. It transformed her normally joyless face. “Ko nadl,” she said.
He smiled back. He turned to Natoma and greeted her in Eastenholder, adding, “I am sorry. My Urannan is not good.”
She smiled at him.
Leha wondered why Lahune had come. He normally avoided places where battle was likely to occur. “Would you two care to join us?” she said. The scent of the cooking meat taunted her hungry stomach.
“Yes, thank you,” Lahune said.
He and Doga sat in the gap between Eranna and Natoma.
Leha surveyed their meager provisions. “I’m afraid we don’t have much food for you.”
Lahune smiled. “That’s all right. I brought my own.” He removed his pack and looked Leha in the eye. “Do you know what today is?”
She furrowed her brow. “No.”
“Today is the one year anniversary of your triumph at the Battle of Heart.”
Leha raised her eyebrows. It didn’t seem to her like it could have been an entire year.
“We’ve come to celebrate it,” Doga added.
Leha thought that this seemed like an odd time to celebrate. The Automatons were bearing down on them, and there was still a good chance that the war would not end in victory for humanity. But after a moment’s thought, she decided that those were good arguments in favor of it. She shared glances with her companions, and their expressions mirrored her own feelings.
Her face blossomed into a smile. “Thank you. That’s an excellent idea,” she said. She nodded towards his sack. “What’ve you brought?”
Lahune opened the pack and began removing items. “Nuts, jenjin fruit, cheese, smoked reindeer meat, and a jug of ulu and whiskey.”
“And…” Doga said. He reached into a sack hanging from his belt and removed a small loaf of fresh bread, a rare delicacy these days.
A murmur of appreciation met Doga’s offering.
They shared out the food. Not everyone received the same things, but everyone had enough. For her share, Leha took a small piece of the meat they had cooked over the fire; a piece of cheese, which she melted over the meat; a jenjin, a plum-sized Tyzuan fruit that looked like a purple tomato and tasted like a grape; a handful of nuts; and a slice of bread. In addition to the food, they each received a cup of ulu and whiskey. The drink was strong and burned Leha’s throat, but it was also pleasantly sweet – she suspected extra honey had been added along with the whiskey – and she enjoyed it.
The meal was simple, but it was far better than anything they had eaten in weeks, and they relished it.
Once her hunger had subsided somewhat, Leha had the thought that others deserved to celebrate this anniversary. She reached out with her mind, found the nearest ice creature, and had it broadcast her order that the army was to have double rations tonight. It would tax their food supplies, but the boost to morale would be worth it.
As they ate, the six of them talked. They talked of the Battle of Heart, of their lives before the war, and of other things. Drogin and Eranna spoke about their meeting in the battle and how they had both agreed to put aside their differences in the interest of survival. Doga told stories of his life before Leha had come to his village. He showed a scar on his left wrist that he had earned in a battle between some Watching Eye warriors and a pair of Stassai. Natoma mostly listened. Lahune talked about his life as a priest prior to the war, seeming not to notice the odd looks given to him by Drogin and Eranna. Leha had heard that the people of Uranna were more tolerant of his order than other nations, but she supposed he must still be used to being an outcast. Leha briefly talked about her life before the war, giving special detail to the diversity of Three Gates and the exotic goods and people that had flowed through the city. She stopped when she noticed that she was making Eranna uncomfortable.
In spite of the bittersweet nature of the anniversary, smiles and laughs were plentiful among many of their conversations. But as the sunlit night wore on, Leha found herself withdrawing from the discussions.
Since she had awoken after the machines’ retreat, she had seen and experienced many arguments in favor of the goodness of the human race. At times, she had wondered if her quest to “fix” them, to ensure continued unity, was necessary. Throughout her army, from the recruits she had never met to the friends gathered around the fire with her, she saw what humanity should be, a unified people working towards a common goal.
But the warriors of the Liberation had embodied the same ideal. After the defeat of the Old Gods, humanity had been a single society, a society without war or hate. And within a few centuries, it had all fallen apart.
She didn’t want that to happen again.
What was to stop it? Why had it happened the first time? The questions plagued Leha’s mind. It was all far more than she had ever had to consider. She wondered if such ponderings were beyond her.
Eventually, the gathering wound down, and the pounding of waves replaced the sound of voices. One by one, they returned to their tents and sought their bedrolls. When Eranna excused herself, Leha asked to walk her back to her tent, acting on impulse.
“I’m not very tired,” she explained honestly. “It’s the way the sun doesn’t set, I think.”
Eranna agreed to let her come. They strolled through the twilit camp, the moist wind whipping Leha’s hair and tossing Eranna’s braid. It was late, and nearly everyone – other than those assigned to watch – had gone to bed, but a few were still awake, talking or celebrating the anniversary.
Leha ran her fingers through her hair. She tried to think of the right words.
“Eranna, do you ever think about after the war?”
Eranna looked surprised. “Not very much. I’ll be happy if I’m alive to see it.”
Leha nodded and mumbled an agreement. After a moment, she tried again. “I think about it a lot. A lot has changed since before the Automatons turned on us, hasn’t it? Before the war, you and I were enemies.
“Sometimes I wonder if the changes will last.”
“I don’t think our friendship will end with the war.”
“No, of course not. That’s not what I meant.” She paused and took a deep breath. The air smelled of campfires and the ocean. “But before the war, we were all separate nations. Some of them were enemies. Sometimes I wonder if everyone will be willing to forget that when the machines are gone. I wonder if we’ll continue to be one people, or if we’ll just fall apart.”
Eranna peered at her. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”
Leha pressed on. “We’ve banded together because it’s the only way we’ll survive, but what happens when our survival isn’t threatened anymore?”
They’d reached a quiet part of the camp, and Eranna stopped and faced her. “What are you getting at?”
Leha tilted her head up to look her in the eye. “We, the human race, have proven ourselves capable of great things. We defeated the Old Gods once, and there’s a chance we might do it again. We can be good and tolerant. But if you look at our history, we have so often given ourselves to our worst traits. It’s nearly destroyed us. I want to know if it will happen again.”
Eranna stayed silent for a long time. She started walking towards her tent again, and Leha followed.
“I don’t know,” Eranna said at last. “You’re right. I saw what happened at Three Gates – and Broad Field, and Heart – better than you did. I know what we can be at our worst.” She let out a breath slowly. “I don’t know why, though. I don’t know why the Tor Vargis ordered the destruction of your nation, and I don’t know how they convinced my people that such slaughter was a good thing.” She shook her head. “Maybe it’s just part of how the Old Gods made us. Maybe we’re just made to fall apart.”
Leha shook her head. “I don’t think I can believe that.” I don’t want to believe that.
They reached the Tor soldier’s tent and stopped at the entrance.
“This reminds me of a conversation I had with Doga a few months ago,” Eranna said, facing Leha.
Eranna folded her arms. “Yes. He mentioned some teaching from Lahune’s cult, and we started talking about the fact that the Old Gods designed us. Doga was saying that it didn’t matter, that we had evolved beyond what they made us to be.”
Leha nodded. “What do you think?”
Eranna let out a breath. “I don’t want to believe that we’re somehow programmed to be at each other’s throats. I don’t think I would want to live in a world where that was true. But the fact is that we were created by machines, and we are what they made us.” She glanced off to the side as if listening to a voice. “But then, we’re also what we’ve made ourselves.” She turned back to Leha. “I’m not sure what to think.”
A moment of silence, broken by the drone of waves and wind, followed.
“What’s the point of all this, Leha? Why all the questions?”
Leha lowered her head. “I don’t know. I don’t want things to return to the way they were. But I don’t know what I can do to stop it.”
“I’m not sure there is anything you can do. I’m not sure there’s anything anyone can do.” Eranna grimaced and shrugged.
Leha tilted her face up and smiled weakly. “Well, thanks.”
They bade each other goodnight, and Leha returned to her tent, walking through the quiet twilight.
* * *
When she reached her tent, she was surprised to discover Lahune was still there. He and Natoma had been there when she’d left, but she had thought they would have gone by the time she returned. He sat by the edge of the fire remnants. The few remaining embers gave off a weak heat and an aroma of wood smoke.
He greeted her.
She sat down across from him. “What’re you still doing up?”
“Natoma suggested I talk to you. You were distracted during the meal; Natoma believed it had to do with your mission to keep our people together after the war.”
Leha’s eyes widened. “She told you about that?”
Lahune nodded. “After you and Eranna left, yes.”
“How’d she know that was what was distracting me?” she asked.
Lahune shrugged. “She knew it had been on your mind, and you left to talk to a Tor soldier who helped to destroy your homeland, a soldier who is now your friend. I think the only surprising thing is that it took you this long to talk to Eranna about this.”
Leha netted her fingers together and stared at her claws. She gave a little chuckle. “Natoma is very observant, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she is.”
Leha looked up. “I suppose it was inevitable that I would talk to you about this eventually. You are the priest of humanity.”
Lahune said nothing. She paused to think, and he waited, a patient expression on his face.
“This is so complicated,” she said finally. “Eranna is a good example. She’s a good person; I know that. But she helped to destroy my country. This would be difficult enough if humanity could simply be divided into ‘good people’ and ‘bad people,’ but it can’t. Bad people do good things. Good people do bad things – they can even do it for good reasons; or they can do it unknowingly or through ignorance.”
She rubbed her left temple. “And then there are the truly bad people. The evil people. The people who knowingly do harm. What about them? What makes them go bad? Can they be made good?” She shook her head. “It’s all too complicated.”
She looked Lahune in the eye. “How do you deal with it? Your order is about celebrating humanity; but what about the darker aspects of it?”
Lahune took a deep breath. “I do what little I can. Much of Aya’s teachings have to do with how we should conduct our lives, and I try to follow what they proscribe. I share her teachings with those who will listen. But there’s not much one person can do. I try to content myself with what little difference I can make.”
“Do you ever think about where our darker traits come from?”
“Sometimes, but I don’t like to. I prefer cultivating the positive to worrying over the negative.”
Leha nodded. She huddled close to the remains of the fire. The warmth took away the chill of the night wind.
“I think that pretty much everyone tries to be a good person, though, and it doesn’t seem to have done much good,” she said. “Wars were still fought; murders were still committed.”
“That doesn’t mean the effort is useless. Plans are not always successful overnight. It may take a long, long time for humanity to reach its full potential, but I think it can.”
Leha nodded again. She stared into the orange embers for what felt like a long time, mulling over his words. Some of his points were good, she thought. She started to see why he held his philosophies. Accurate or not, they were comforting.
“There’s one thing I’ve never understood,” she said, looking back at him.
“Why did Aya choose to name her followers after the priests? The priesthood of the Old Gods helped to oppress and enslave their fellow humans just so they could have a more comfortable life for themselves. The Old Gods’ religion kept us ignorant and afraid for who knows how long. Why would she choose to associate her followers with that?”
Lahune paused to think. “We are not named after them. Aya was a child when the Liberation began, and she did not fight in the war, but she did remember what life was like under the tyranny of the Old Gods. Their priests and priestesses represented the worst that humanity has to offer. They embraced the worst parts of themselves, and they made it their work to limit the potential of those around them.
“Our order was founded to be the antithesis of them. It is our purpose to build up the best parts of ourselves, and to work to ensure that the human race reaches its full potential. Aya intended us to heal the damage done by the priests – and their masters – but we are not meant to replace them. Do you understand?”
She chewed her lower lip. “Yes, I think I do.”
Lahune smiled. “Good.” His smile broadened. “I must admit, I sometimes think Aya should have picked a more convenient name for us.”
She leaned back and yawned. Even with the sun still up, she was getting tired. “I think I should be going to bed. Thank you. You’ve given me a lot to think about.”
Lahune stood and bowed to her. “It is my honor. If you ever wish to talk again, or if you would like to know more about Aya’s philosophies, I’ll be happy to help.”
“Thank you. I might.”
“When you have the time, perhaps we can return to our recordings.”
She smiled. “I’d like that.”
He said goodnight and departed, and Leha went into her tent. She undressed and crawled into her bedroll, where the sounds of the wind and the ocean soon calmed her busy mind. Within minutes, she was asleep.
* * *
The morning after the celebration, Drogin set out for the other end of the camp. The weather was identical to that of the day before: sunny, clear, and with a cool, salty wind blowing off the ocean. Drogin wondered if it was always windy here.
As he strode through the rows of tents, his stomach knotted in apprehension of what he planned to do. What’s the worst that could happen? he asked himself in an attempt to calm down.
He entered the section of the camp that housed most of the Lost Ones, his wand slapping against his thigh. He’d known he would have to do this since his breakfast with Leha and Doga following the Automaton’s retreat, but it had taken him this long to build up the courage to do it.
When Leha had returned from Tyzu, she had changed in ways he’d found shocking, and, he realized now, he had placed some of the blame for that on the shoulders of the Lost Ones. He had treated them with hostility and suspicion. Over time, he had become more accustomed to them, and when he had patched things up with Leha, he had forgotten his prejudice.
But that morning, he had been reminded of his earlier belligerence. Doga had avoided conversation or eye contact with him; what interaction he’d had with Drogin had been tense and cautious. Now that he thought about it, Doga had been acting that way for some time now.
Drogin knew that he would have to make amends with the Lost One.
He found Doga preparing his breakfast in front of his tent. Drogin smelled cooking meat and warm ulu.
Drogin gathered his courage and went to stand before Doga’s fire. “Hello.”
Doga looked up. “Hello.” He seemed surprised.
Drogin ran his fingers through his hair. He sighed. “I need to talk to you about something.”
Doga stared at him. He wore a neutral expression.
Before he could stop himself, Drogin glanced at Doga’s jagged claws. He forced himself to meet Doga’s gaze. “I’ve come to apologize.”
If Doga had possessed eyebrows, Drogin suspected they would have shot up.
Drogin continued, sweating. “In the past, I’ve treated you poorly. When Leha came back from Tyzu, I couldn’t accept how she’d changed, and I blamed your people. All I knew was that my sister had disappeared, that you’d done something to her, and that she was different. I treated you, and all the other Lost Ones, poorly, and I did so without good cause.
“That was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
Doga considered him silently for a few moments.
The Lost One stood, stepped forward, and clapped a hand onto Drogin’s shoulder. Drogin felt pleased that he didn’t flinch.
“Thank you,” Doga said. “That took courage, and honor, and I respect you for saying it.” He smiled.
Drogin managed a shaky smile.
Doga released his shoulder. “Consider yourself forgiven.”
“Thank you,” Drogin muttered.
Doga stepped back. “Would you like to join me for breakfast?”
“I’ve eaten,” Drogin said. “But thank you,” he added quickly.
Doga nodded and sat back down. Drogin excused himself, and the Lost One waved goodbye. Once Drogin was out of sight, he breathed a sigh of relief.
* * *
Yarnig watched the fire, seeing the wood crack and burn. Suspended over the flames, an iron kettle swayed slightly in the breeze from the ocean. Last night, he, Erik, and the soldiers from the nearby tents had pooled their rations to make a simple but tasty stew. They had eaten it, among other things, as part of the impromptu celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of Heart. Some of the stew had been left over, and once it boiled, they would have it for breakfast. He could already smell the stew’s earthy aroma.
A gust of wind ruffled his shirt. His tent lay at the northern edge of the camp, and its canvas could not fully shield them from the incessant wind.
For the first time in days, he felt relatively calm. The celebration had allowed him to put Natoma out of his mind. Thoughts of her still played at the edges of his consciousness, but they were not overwhelming.
The soup boiled, and he served it out. As he ate, he talked with Erik and the other soldiers. Those he fought with were finally beginning to grow used to his company – Yarnig believed Erik may have helped with that; under the right circumstances, his manner could put people at ease. Whatever their feelings had been about Yarnig’s role as emperor or his magical abilities, they seemed to be getting past them.
As he finished the last few bites of stew, he heard footsteps approach. He barely noticed until a smooth female voice said, “Yarnig?”
He almost dropped his bowl, but recovered quickly. Natoma.
He forced himself to appear calm, and turned to face her. “Hello,” he said.
She stood over him, her armor and hair shining in the bright sun. “It’s been a few days since we were last able to work on your swordsmanship. Would now be a good time?”
Yarnig cleared his throat. “Uh, yes,” he answered, not really thinking about what he was saying.
She nodded once, smiling politely. She gestured for him to get his sword, and he headed for his tent. He felt pleased that he did not stumble or do anything else foolish, and he experienced a rare moment of gratitude for the years of strict protocol he had endured in the courts. It helped him keep his composure.
Erik, on the other hand, wore an expression of sympathetic terror. The other soldiers looked at him oddly.
Yarnig strode from the tent, strapping on his sword belt, and Natoma led him past his tent, out of the camp, and onto the fields. Yarnig’s heart pounded, and he sweated. His mind felt fuzzy. Part of him wondered how he would manage to practice his swordsmanship in his current state.
She led him to a shallow depression in the ground where the winds were slightly weaker. She turned to face him. “I’m sorry; I didn’t ask you here so we could work on your fighting abilities,” she said.
She shook her head. “We need to discuss your feelings for me, and I didn’t think that you would want your comrades to know the true reason behind our meeting.”
She said it so matter-of-factly that, for a moment, he didn’t realize what she’d said. When he did, he briefly had trouble breathing. “Discuss my feelings?” he said weakly.
“Yes,” she said, a patient expression upon her flawless face.
He wondered if he was dreaming – this seemed too surreal. With great effort, he made himself speak. “So, what did you want to discuss?”
Nothing in her body language suggested any of the confusing emotions he felt. She seemed calm. “First, I think it’s important that we both acknowledge that we’re aware of how you feel. I don’t believe any good comes from keeping things like this hidden away. This way, we can deal with things in a mature way.”
She looked him in the eye. “Do you have anything you want to say?”
Several things popped into Yarnig’s mind, but they all sounded foolish. “No,” he said. “I think you have probably figured everything out for yourself.”
“Very well,” she said, her voice still perfectly serene. “Then, I should tell you how I feel. I assume you would prefer honesty?”
His heart beat even faster. “Yes,” he said, though he wasn’t sure he did.
She studied him for a moment. When she did speak, a tiny hint of uncertainty had crept into her voice. “I don’t know how I feel.”
She started to pace a little – her first sign of discomfort. “If not for the mental link, I’d never spare you a second thought.
“I’m not ignorant of the way men react to me. I know that I’m considered beautiful. On top of that, my father was a man of great wealth, and I quickly rose to a position of power within the military. Suitors began approaching me before I had even passed puberty, and the bombardment did not relent until the revolt of the machines.” She let out a small sigh.
“I’ve long since lost interest in men who are simply handsome, rich, or powerful. Even the title of emperor fails to impress me.”
Yarnig’s stomach twisted painfully, but at the same time, he felt an echo of familiarity in her words. He, too, had spent his youth surrounded by potential lovers, only to discover they were interested in him only as a political bargaining chip. Simple beauty no longer mattered so much to him.
Natoma stopped her pacing, hands clenched. “But I’ve seen into your mind, and your heart. I know there’s something inside you that all those other suitors lacked, and I find I can’t simply write you off.”
Hope – achingly strong and bright – blossomed in Yarnig’s chest.
She shook her head. “I don’t what I feel, but what I do know is that we are at war, and neither of us can afford to be distracted. It would be impossible to completely ignore the situation between us, but I think it would be best to focus on more important matters. If and when the machines are defeated, we can come to some better resolution.”
He stuck his slick hands in his pockets and mulled over her words. It was not the acceptance he had hoped for, but it was not the rejection he had feared. His stomach knotted with disappointment, but hope for the future warmed him.
The rational part of his mind saw the logic of postponing things until the war ended – though part of him hated the idea. After what felt like a very long time, he said, “I understand.”
She smiled warmly, causing his heart to flutter. “Good. I’m glad. Do you still wish to serve in my squad, or would it be too hard for you?”
“I know something about keeping focus. I’ll stay in the squad, if it’s all right with you.”
“I have no objection.” She came to stand in front of him. She reached out with one hand and squeezed his left shoulder, giving a dazzling smile. “Until the end of the war.”
He returned her smile and patted her hand with his. “Until the end of the war.”
She released his shoulder and headed back for the camp, her armor clanking.
Yarnig stayed where he was for what felt like a long while. He worked on repairing his outward calm. He could afford to take his time – the people back at the camp thought he was having sword lessons; they wouldn’t expect a speedy return.
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!