We’re now closing in on the end as we come to the twenty-second 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.
As the Gods’ army nears humanity’s last bastion, the survivors turn to increasingly desperate measures in the hopes of preserving the species, but Leha refuses to abandon her principles. Will humanity’s continued existence come at the cost of its soul? Is surviving the current crisis worth dooming the future?
Chapter twenty-one: Something Higher
The lights danced before Yarnig’s eyes.
Since the battle by the ocean, he had put most of his time and energy into exploring his newfound magical abilities. It helped him keep his mind away from Natoma. Erik had originally urged him to go to Natoma and attempt to win her over, but Yarnig refused to go back on his word to her. He would wait until after the war – if it ever ended. Erik was fascinated by the new abilities he could access with Yarnig’s aid, so he soon forgot to meddle in the emperor’s personal life.
There were many magical abilities, such as Healing, that were so complex as to be out of reach of most wizards. Currently, they were working on another such magical art: illusion.
Most wizards had some ability to bend light – that was how scrying worked – but to create a three-dimensional, believable image of something was extremely difficult. And so they sat in front of Yarnig’s tent, in the hot summer sun, and tried to create images of things that weren’t there.
Yarnig held his hands before him and bit his lip in concentration. In his mind, he wove the strands of light together in a matrix so complex that even he had trouble maintaining it. In the air between him and Erik, the image of a long sword appeared and hovered above the ground. It was blurry, and it flickered oddly.
Yarnig furrowed his brow and forced the energies to cooperate. The image solidified into something indistinguishable from a real sword.
He relaxed slightly, and the image vanished.
Erik and Yarnig’s shoulders slumped in unison.
Sighing, Yarnig opted to take a break, and the ice creature helping them broke the link. Erik tossed him a flask of water, and Yarnig drank greedily of the cool liquid. The weather had been unusually hot lately, though the frequent rains provided moments of relief.
The sound of shovels in the dirt came to them from the outer edge of the camp.
“Maybe we should go back to carving things,” Erik suggested, his breathing heavy.
Yarnig had already shown talent in using magic to carve, shape, and craft items of exquisite detail, an artistic skill that Urannan wizards had been famous for. He had produced a collection of large, flat rocks bearing carvings every bit as intricate and detailed as his sketches had been.
He shook his head. “No, I think I need to keep at the illusion. We’ll get it right.”
Erik let out a breath. “Okay.”
After a few more minutes’ rest, they linked with each other again. Something simpler this time, Yarnig thought. They held out their hands, and a dim brown cloud coalesced between them. Yarnig frowned in concentration, and the cloud coalesced into a perfect replica of the water flask.
Yarnig breathed out slowly, trying to ease his tension without losing concentration. He and Erik decided to try for something harder. The flask dissolved, and in its place, a bottle of brandy, like the ones he had enjoyed at his country home, took its place.
Again, he made himself relax. The image stayed stable.
Yarnig’s brow furrowed in concentration, and the bottle dissolved to reshape itself into the image of the sword. This time, it didn’t vanish.
They experimented with moving the illusory sword, shifting it from vertical to horizontal and back again. Yarnig began to move the sword in a series of cuts and stabs.
The motion of the sword suddenly made him think of Natoma. He tried to push the thought out of his mind, and the image melted away.
He dropped his hands, swearing in his mind. He blushed brightly as he realized that the ice creature could sense his thoughts as well as Erik could.
I’m sorry, he sent to Erik as he tried to reorder his thoughts.
That’s all right, Erik thought, his reply tinged with hints of what he thought Yarnig should do about Natoma.
Yarnig ignored his friend’s opinions. They rested briefly as Yarnig refocused his attention, then returned to their work.
* * *
Near the northern edge of the camp, Leha sat upon a trebuchet and surveyed the camp. It would have been extremely difficult for a normal Barrian to reach her perch, but her enhanced agility had allowed her climb the massive engine easily, and her augmented reflexes allowed her to sit upon the timbers at the crown of its frame without fear of falling.
In the back of her mind, she felt the presence of one of Benefactor’s people. It had created a very minimal link between her and some members of the rearguard so that she could channel Tyzuan energy too them. It was the only way they could hope to reach the camp before the machines did. Leha had grown so used to doing it over the past few days that she barely noticed it. Only a slight, ever present feeling of fatigue reminded her of it.
The air was hot, but a cool wind blew from the mountains. A bank of clouds darkened the sky to the northeast and brought the smell of rain.
Her gaze swept the area. It was the fifth day after the battle by the ocean. In a short time, her people had made remarkable progress in preparing the camp. The clearing of trees was nearly complete, and, at the north end at least, the earthworks, war engines, and other defenses were finished.
When fully complete, the earthworks would encircle the camp in two concentric rings – they were but a pair of crescents at this point. Each ring would have four small gaps for people to move in and out. The gaps in the outer ring were aligned to the points of the compass, and those in the second ring were offset so as to ensure there was no straight, clear path into the camp. Each ring was slightly taller than an average Clan or Tor man, so they significantly outstripped Leha in height. An Automaton would be able to walk over or through them, but they would provide some protection from spells and airborne debris.
To the southwest, the defenses still needed much work. She saw people scurrying about, like ants, in a feverish attempt to prepare that section of the camp.
Just beyond them, smoke from the forges streamed into the sky as Drogin’s people worked to manufacture as much weaponry and armor as they could before the Automatons arrived. Leha had given the order that everyone in the camp was to be armed when the attack came, even those that would not be part of the defense. There was a good chance that the Automatons would breach the defenses and reach the civilians. If that happened, she didn’t want anyone to be without some means of defending themselves.
Limits on time and resources meant that many would be forced to make do with nothing but a few javelins of sharpened wood, but some would be lucky enough to receive crossbows or narviks. Some tools, such as pickaxes, could be used against the machines; those would be given out as well. Even Benefactor, whom she had begged to join the evacuation, and the other remaining ice creatures that weren’t wizards would be given crossbows.
As the days had progressed, the people of the camp had grown increasingly edgy. She saw the worry in their eyes, the fearful way they moved. Tempers had grown short, and arguments and disputes broke out often.
She couldn’t blame them. There was a good chance that the machines would kill them. Many of them had been separated from their families during the evacuation. And for the most part, there was nothing for them to do to make themselves feel useful or to take their mind off the impending attack. Aside from building the earthworks and doing other chores, all they could do was sit and hope Leha and her soldiers would be able to save them. She only wished she could have done better for them.
Her eyes turned back to the north slowly, taking in the camp as a whole. In comparison to the vast wilderness around it, the camp had always seemed tiny, a speck almost swallowed by the forest. But now she realized how large it was. It had housed many thousand people, and it was the size of a small city. It seemed like such a large area to defend.
To the north, a deep, wide trench had been cut in the barren fields. This was the source of the soil and stones the earthworks were made of. The trench was another obstacle the machines would have to avoid.
Farther north, she could see a line, cut by the River Sheen, through the endless trees and beyond that, the dark lump of Yeldar. They had considered moving the camp to the mountain and defending it, but it was too steep and rugged to be made habitable, or defendable, in the amount of time available. She wondered if the Automatons would destroy the First One outpost inside. She hoped they wouldn’t; if its secrets could ever be deciphered, it might have much to teach them.
She felt an ice creature touch her thoughts, but it was not the one connecting her to the retreating army. It was Benefactor. Leha, he said, sounding concerned.
What is it? she sent, wondering what had him so worried.
You must come to the command tent. You will not like it.
She frowned. She leapt off the edge of the trebuchet, cushioning her landing with the energy of Sy’om. Benefactor, what is it?
An image appeared in her mind: a large crowd outside the tent that had replaced the Clan hall as the main meeting area for her and the other leaders. Natoma stood before the crowd, attempting to keep order. Leha heard someone at the fore of throng say, “We want to see Leha. We want to be made like her.”
Her insides chilled, and she groaned. You’re right. I don’t like it.
She sensed Benefactor duck his head sadly.
She set off for the command tent at a steady jog, a damp wind from the northeast blowing at her back. She felt herself break out in a nervous sweat. She had feared something like this might happen. This time, she didn’t think people would be willing to accept her usual explanations about it being too risky. She hoped they would understand her true reasoning. She hoped she was doing the right thing.
Sensing her distress, Eranna and Doga’s minds became more present within the mental link. At the same time, they dismissed the other soldiers Leha had connected to so they wouldn’t sense her thoughts – the ice creature would, but they did not reveal information that their human allies considered private or privileged; for a people that kept no secrets among each other, they were fairly good at keeping those of others.
Leha wordlessly communicated the situation to Doga and Eranna. They sent her their sympathy, though they didn’t agree with her decision not to create more with her abilities. She thanked them.
We’ll break the link so you can concentrate fully, Eranna sent.
We should take a break soon anyway, Doga added.
Leha thanked them again. The link broke, and she felt a moment of relief as she stopped channeling energy to the army.
She arrived at the command tent. A crowd of about twenty people, mostly soldiers, had gathered before it. A few paces behind them, a much larger crowd had gathered and were chattering amongst each other.
Natoma stood in front of the tent, watching over the assembled people with a keen eye. She saw Leha approach and nodded to her. Leha came to stand beside her.
Before she could speak, a tall man – she recognized him as Karn, one of Eranna’s men – detached himself from the smaller group and bowed to her. “Leha, forgive our imposition,” he said, speaking accented Eastenholder. He straightened and gestured to the others in his little group. “We have come to volunteer ourselves. We wish to be changed, as you were.”
She started to speak, but he held up his hand. “We are aware of the risks. We know we could come to harm. But the machines will be here within days. We’ll need every advantage if we are to defend ourselves.” He looked at his comrades. “We’re willing to take our chances if it means we can make a difference.”
They nodded solemnly.
Leha felt her throat tighten. They really did believe in what they said. I hope I’m doing the right thing.
She swallowed, and spoke. “No. It won’t happen.”
Karn frowned, looking confused.
She pressed on, speaking loud enough for the larger crowd to hear. “I have always said that to transform others as I was would be very risky, and that’s true. The Lost One ability to change their venom is not an exact science, and the one who changed me is dead. We don’t know if we can replicate what was done to me.”
She stood tall, trying to appear more certain than she felt. “But that is not the only reason why I have forbid the creation of others like me.”
A murmur ran through the assembled people. Karn’s group exchanged glances.
“In the past, humanity has made many mistakes. We’ve launched pointless wars and committed atrocities against each other. We resurrected the Automatons and brought these current troubles upon ourselves.
“My abilities have the potential to be very destructive. I don’t think that I can trust anyone with that kind of power. I – ”
The crowd erupted. People yelled and booed and shouted. They shook their fists and made angry gestures.
Leha enhanced her voice and shouted to be heard over the tumult. “I wouldn’t trust myself with them, but I didn’t have any choice in the matter!”
Her words did nothing to stem the tide of screams and accusations. The larger crowd grew increasingly unruly, their voices pounding at her.
“Listen to me!” she shouted.
Natoma stepped forward. “She does this because she thinks it is right!” she said, her voice loud and commanding without seeming angry or belligerent. “We all owe our lives to her many times over! You should at least hear her out.”
The crowd quieted somewhat. Many of them seemed uncertain.
Leha felt a surge of gratitude for Natoma’s words. She took a breath and tried again to explain herself. “I understand your feelings. Really, I do. But I have to think about the consequences of this. And I worry what could happen if everyone had the abilities that I do.”
People in the larger group continued to grumble.
“Who are you to do decide that no one is worthy? Are you going to keep us inferior, under your power, like the Old Gods did?” a man yelled to her.
She flushed angrily. “I am nothing like the Old Gods! I don’t do this for me; I do this for the future! Can any of you promise me that no human will ever raise their hands against another again? Can you?” She scanned the throng, her eyes fierce.
She flexed her claws and took a moment to calm down. “I haven’t judged everyone unworthy. As you said, I’m not qualified. So who will judge who has earned it and who hasn’t? How can anyone’s judgment be good enough for them to decide who should wield this kind of power and who shouldn’t?”
The people stayed mostly silent, weighing her words. Some still mumbled to each other or threw her suspicious glances.
Not everyone in the camp had joined the initial gathering, and now others began to arrive to see what the commotion was.
A woman from Karn’s group, a Lost One, came forward and bowed her head. “I understand what you say,” she said. “I will respect your decision.”
Without another word, the Lost One left.
Leha nodded to her dumbly, taken aback by the suddenness of her decision.
“Why not simply give this power to everyone? Things would be equal. No one would have an advantage,” another man from the mob said.
Leha glared at him. “No one had an advantage when every nation had Automatons. That didn’t work out, did it?”
An angry rumble came from the masses.
Karn addressed her. “Leha, I understand your point of view,” he said respectfully. “But isn’t the time to play it safe past? The future is uncertain; right now, we know we need this. Once we’ve survived the machines, we can decide how to proceed.”
“No!” she said.
Natoma glanced at her quickly, seeming surprised at the strength of Leha’s emotions.
Leha shook her head and looked down, trying to rein in her anger.
She tilted her head back up and spoke to all assembled. “If you really disagree with me, if you really think it would be right to give more people these powers, prove me wrong. Stop seeking them! Prove that you can dedicate yourself to something higher than your own survival.
“Maybe there will come a time when I can trust people to wield this kind of power.”
She stared at the throng, her expression resolute, and those in the crowd, save for a few, stared back, appearing equally determined.
Eventually, it became clear to both sides that no resolution would be reached, and the people slowly returned to their lives and duties, continuing to grumble and look upon her with distrust. Their glances and harsh whispers sent an aching sadness through her. She had protected them for more than a year. She had risked her life and sacrificed, and now, it seemed to her, all their trust in her, all their gratitude for what she had done, had been washed away in just a few minutes.
Karn’s group started to dissipate not long after the larger crowd did, but Karn himself did not move. After a few minutes, Leha realized that he did not intend to leave.
“My decision is final, Karn,” she said tiredly, returning her voice to normal.
He stepped towards her. “I understand your point of view. I truly do,” he said. “But I think you need to be willing to accept that you may be wrong. You’re just one person. You can make mistakes. I ask you to reconsider.”
She shook her head. “You don’t understand. You can’t understand.” You don’t have the future of humanity on your shoulders.
He peered into her eyes. “Then make me understand. Get an ice creature to link our minds.”
Leha considered for a moment. “All right,” she said. “We’ll link.”
She closed her eyes and reached out to Benefactor. She conveyed what she needed.
She sensed him duck his head, and her mind began to link with Karn’s.
They started at the basic level of linkage that was normally used, where she sensed his assurance in his own rightness and his calm certainty, but then they progressed to a deeper, more profound link.
He saw her belief in her rightness, and the toll that having responsibility for the human race had taken on her. She, in turn, saw his belief that surviving in the here and now was more important than any undetermined future. She also saw that nothing in her mind surprised him.
Her jaw hung slack.
He did understand. And he still disagreed.
* * *
There were no more confrontations that day, but the air in the camp remained tense. Whenever Leha went somewhere, conversations would suddenly stop, or people would peer at her suspiciously, or they would avoid looking at her. Sometimes, they offered support for her decision, but those instances were rare.
The debate over whether she was doing the right thing seemed to send fractures through the people of the camp. She had trouble assessing things herself – most people no longer felt comfortable sharing their thoughts with her around – but many Lost Ones and the majority of Benefactor’s people agreed with her, and they funneled information to her.
From what her informants could tell, about half of the people in the camp were convinced she was wrong, and some of these were very vocal. Less than a fifth openly admitted to agreeing with her, though it was suggested that there were some who felt that way but would not say so. The rest were unsure of what stance to take. Many members of the camps for and against her decision had taken it upon themselves to convince others of their beliefs, and that led to a great deal of conflict. Arguments broke out all over the camp. Leha had heard raised voices herself on more than one occasion.
Thankfully, none of the confrontations had turned violent, and everyone was continuing to follow her orders and perform their duties – for now, at least. Things had spiraled out of control so quickly that Leha half-expected open mutiny soon.
Leha deeply regretted the timing of this. Eranna and Doga’s latest reports said that the machines would reach the camp within the next three days. Her people could not afford to be splintered like this so soon before a battle.
Her friends had put a great deal of effort into selling people on her policy. Natoma, especially, had been vocal in her defense of Leha. Leha was told that Drogin refused to let any of the forge workers or technicians speak ill of her while they worked. Even Doga and Eranna, who did not agree with her, had done their best to convince the rearguard – and via the link, those in the camp – that she should be supported for the sake of unity. Doga’s words had gone a long way towards building her support among the Lost Ones.
The efforts of the other leaders did a great deal to shore up support for her, but the camp remained divided. A hard knot of worry settled into Leha’s stomach and stayed there throughout the day.
That evening, as the sun dropped towards the peaks to the west and the heat of the day reduced to a more tolerable balminess, Drogin joined Leha outside her tent. Leha started a fire with wood that steamed from the afternoon rains, and they set a pot of soup over it. The soup was made from mushrooms from the forest and dried meat. It would barely feed the both of them.
They sat on stools to stay above the moist ground, and as they waited for their food to cook, they spoke of the events of the day. Leha would have preferred a more private location, but luckily few people were in the immediate vicinity. Only a few voices drifted from nearby tents.
She unloaded her worries and frustrations onto him, and he did his best to offer support.
“You’ll win them over,” he told her reassuringly. “You’re very good at persuading people.”
She nodded numbly and went on as if she hadn’t heard him.
As time went on, and their soup began to boil, they ran out of things to say, and the conversation died for a time.
“Maybe – maybe you should give in. Let the future be what it will be. Maybe you’re thinking too much; maybe this is too much for you to handle,” he suggested after a few minutes.
She frowned at him, feeling too tired to summon her earlier passion.
“For anyone to handle,” he added quickly.
He sighed and ran a hand through his sandy hair. “I just want to help. I wonder if all this planning and worrying for the future is too much. I understand why you want to keep these powers from spreading, but maybe it is best to do what’s right for the present and face the future when it comes.”
She nodded slowly. “I understand what you’re saying, and I appreciate it. But I have to stick to what I believe in.” She chewed her lip, thinking.
“You said that Tyzu changed me. Maybe you’re right; maybe some of that world’s savagery is now a part of me. But what the Lost Ones did to me imparted me with a piece of Sy’om, as well.
“Do you understand what a different perspective Benefactor’s people have, the way their world has shaped them? They don’t have war, or conflict. Sy’om will not permit it of them; they can only survive together. They think only of what is best for their race as a whole, over the long haul – and they remember their ancestors’ lives as their own, so their perspective of history is so much better than ours.”
She ran her fingers through her hair, mirroring his own use of the old family tic. “Ever since I came back from the other worlds the first time, I can’t bear the thought of our people being divided, of human warring against human again. I certainly won’t do anything that could let us do more harm to each other in the future. Bad enough that we must use weapons at all; my claws and my powers could be worse than an army of Automatons in the wrong hands. I’d sooner we all died now, together, as one people, than see a repeat of what happened to Three Gates.”
Her brother’s eyes were wide, and her cheeks burned as she realized she’d frightened him.
But he placed his hand on hers and said, “I understand.” And she knew he did.
She managed a shaky smile.
Drogin returned an equally fragile smile.
Their served their soup a short while later, and Leha ate it without tasting what little flavor it had.
She retired early, but she didn’t fall asleep for a very long time. She tossed and turned in her bedroll, mulling over the events of the day and trying to come up with some plan to resolve things. She couldn’t help but think of her conversations with Eranna and Lahune, of her mission to save humanity from itself. If they could not stay unified now, when the fate of three worlds depended on it, she didn’t know if they would ever be able to.
Despite her strong belief that she was doing the right thing, a part of her started to wonder if she had been wrong all along, and that part grew louder throughout the night. She had assumed that her way was the only right way, that anyone who understood the pressures on her would agree with it. But her link with Karn had proven that to be false. Now, she didn’t know what to think. Maybe it was unfair of her. Maybe people deserved access to power such as this. There was no guarantee that it would be abused.
Part of her echoed Drogin’s sentiments, saying that the answer was beyond someone such as her. Near midnight, she began to wonder if she should be bothering with any of her efforts to safeguard the future. Trying to bring lasting peace to the entire human race seemed far beyond a simple shopkeeper from Three Gates.
It wasn’t until well after midnight that exhaustion finally claimed her.
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