Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Twenty-three: For Humanity

We now come to the twenty-third 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 The final clash between Gods and humans is days away, but first, there is another conflict that must be resolved. Leha cannot lead a divided army. They must determine their course: to embrace hope, or pragmatism; to fight for the now, or for the future; to save themselves, or save humanity.

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Chapter twenty-one: For Humanity

The next day, Leha awoke not long after dawn, her eyes feeling tired and gritty and her muscles feeling weak. The weather was hot and sticky, and its oppressiveness made her feel trapped. She ate her breakfast without tasting it and then asked around those loyal to her to see if anything had changed.

Nothing had.

Leha wracked her mind for some solution to this deadlock, but she thought of nothing. She still worried about what the consequences of passing on her powers might be, but she didn’t think anything else would settle this.

Needing to talk to someone, she crossed the camp – ignoring the looks and whispers that followed her – and found Benefactor in his tent. Pelts and plant fiber rugs from Sy’om covered the ground in the tent – there were no other furnishings or decorations – and it had a vague earthy smell that reminded her of the caves he’d come from.

His crossbow and set a of custom-made armor rested against one wall. Leha hoped he would not have to use them. He wanted to, but she had convinced him to stay off the front lines. She unburdened herself to the alien, often speaking even though he read it all from her mind.

I understand why the others feel as they do, but I understand you and your stance as well, he said when she had finished. His voice had never regained its old sparkle and verve after the machine attacks on Sy’om.

He turned his head at an odd sideways angle. The eye facing Leha was unfocused. It is true the future will not matter if we lose this battle. He looked at her and quirked his head. But it is also true that these decisions should not be made without great thought.

He rubbed the fur on his oblong head and glanced up. This world is very hot.

He turned back to her. I cannot say what is right. My people never harm each other. We feel others’ pain as our own. Among my kind, this would be no concern. But humans are very different. Your history shows that you must be cautious in giving yourselves new weapons that could be used against your own kind.

She nodded sadly. She briefly thought of trying to give her powers to some of Benefactor’s people, but there was no way of knowing what effect the venom would have on so alien a creature.

He set his jaw. I wish I could help, Leha.

She sighed. “That’s all right.” She stood and gave him an understanding smile.

He returned the gesture by baring his black teeth.

She left, still tormented by her indecision.

The rearguard returned just after noon. They reported that the Automatons were not far behind them, and that they would likely arrive some time the next day. Leha felt ready to scream with frustration. The machines were a day away, and she didn’t even know if she could count on people to follow her orders.

Eranna and Doga met with her briefly to offer their support and sympathy, then left to try and shore up support for her.

Before he left, Doga said, “Do not blame the people who disagree with you too harshly. They’re doing what they think is best.”

She thanked him, but in truth, his words only worsened her feelings of uncertainty. She knew he was right, but she wished he wasn’t. It would be easier to think of all those against her as greedy and selfish.

She paced randomly around her tent for what felt like hours, trying to decide what she should do. She considered getting an ice creature to link her to Lahune, who had evacuated to Tyzu, but she didn’t think he would have anything to say that had not already been said. All the arguments had been laid out; she needed to find a way to resolve them.

Every time she felt ready to acquiesce and allow others to be given her powers, something inside her stopped her from doing it. It felt wrong. She felt like she should reach for the idealistic solution, the moral solution. But part of her worried that the idealistic solution would turn out to be the wrong. Perhaps, with so much on the line, practicality should reign supreme.

Time passed slowly, and her frustration and indecision grew to almost unbearable levels. She had to take action, she knew. Time was running out.

At last, she came to the conclusion that she had to listen to her conscience. She had to pick the choice that she would be able to live with – or die with. She would stand by her principles; there would be no others like her.

Immediately, doubt and misgivings assailed her, but she forced them away. A decision had to be made.

Next, she turned her mind to finding a solution to the deadlock that had gripped the camp. She had to try to convince the people of her way of thinking. She had to address them; she had to win them over. In truth, there were no other options.

With the aid of Benefactor and his people, she spread the word that she would make her case one last time. A vast assembly began to take shape in the center of the camp. While her people came together, she sat in the close, sticky confines of her tent and planned what she would say. She thought back to her books and tried to put together the most elegant wording for her address.

It took nearly an hour for the assembly to come together. Virtually everyone in the camp attended; only those who could not possibly leave their work in preparing the camp’s defenses were absent. Leha took some hope from the fact that people were still willing to hear what she had to say.

When all the preparations had been made, she departed her tent and made her way through the nearly silent camp, circling around to come at the crowd from the west, the only direction it didn’t extend in.

She reached the center of the camp and found Doga, Eranna, Drogin, Benefactor, and Natoma waiting for her by a stack of crates, the stage she would speak from. She greeted them quickly, and they offered her their support and encouragement. She thanked them.

The five others went to stand before the crates. Leha took a deep breath, and scaled her makeshift stage. She didn’t know what she would do if this failed. Perhaps she would give in after all. She hoped with all her being that that would not be the outcome.

The crowd stretched out in front of her like a giant carpet of people. The rows between the tents were packed, and the hum of voices washed over her like waves from the ocean. As she took her position, the crowd focused their eyes on her, and the hum quieted somewhat. She felt the weight of their attention bombard her. It reminded her of the Watcher.

At the base of the crates, in a small open space between her and the crowd, her companions had formed themselves into a crescent. Benefactor stood directly beneath her, Eranna and Doga formed the wing to her left, and Drogin and Natoma stood to the right. All wore expressions of calm determination.

Leha enhanced her voice and lungs to allow herself to be heard by all who had come to see her.

“You all know why this assembly has been gathered,” she began, her voice cutting cleanly through the moist air. “Many of you – most of you – believe that I should grant to others the same powers and abilities that I have. I understand why you want this, and while I don’t believe that it would be the right thing to do, I don’t know if it can be called wrong, either.

“The machines are coming to destroy us, and we will need every advantage if we are to survive. I won’t deny that having more people with my abilities would be an advantage.

“But there are other things that need to be considered.”

She paused, letting her words sink in. Her heart pounded fiercely, and she felt surprised that her voice hadn’t faltered yet.

She turned her head slowly, taking in the whole of the assembly. “How many of you will go into battle tomorrow, believing that we will fail? Is that the attitude we should have? Or should we face the Automatons with the belief that victory is possible, that it is within our grasp if we fight hard enough for it?”

The crowd murmured uncertainly.

“We have to believe that we can win. Otherwise, we might as well give in to the machines right now. And if we will fight with the belief that we can come out of this war alive, then we must also plan for the future.”

She paused again as the crowd hummed to itself.

She fought to hide the fear she felt and spoke with all the strength she could muster. “I ask you all, whom are we trying to save? Are we trying to save ourselves, or are we trying to save the human race?”

The people chattered more loudly. She thought she was having an impact, but she couldn’t be sure.

“If it is the latter, then we must consider the future. We must consider the consequences of our actions. We cannot make decisions simply for today; we must make decisions that won’t bring us and our descendants harm later on. We have to fight for everyone in the north and everyone on the other worlds. We have to fight for every man, woman, and child who will ever be born.”

Now, the people had grown silent. They watched her with rapt attention. Her nerves tingled nervously.

“If we fight for all humanity, yes, we have to fight for ourselves as well. If we fail, humanity fails. But if we fight for humanity, we also to have fight for the future, and we have to make certain that none – none – of our actions can damage that future.”

She counted to ten, hoping desperately that this would work. Within the crowd, some groups muttered to each other intensely while others stayed deathly silent.

She reached ten, and fixed her eyes upon the assembled masses. “So I ask you, whom are we fighting for? Do we fight for ourselves, or for humanity?”

Patches of people scattered throughout the throng answered her. “For humanity!” they cried.

It was just a small number, but a moment later, their sentiment spread. Thousands of voices joined together, calling out, “For humanity!”

The words washed over Leha like the first rain after a long drought. She drank them in, joy warming her like the first rays of sun after a long night. Not everyone had added their voice, but a majority had, enough had. She had convinced them.

A brilliant smile lit up her youthful face. She raised her right hand into the air. “For humanity!” she echoed.

Her supporters in the crowd cheered and shouted, raising their fists above their heads.

She let their adulation wash over her. She leapt off the crates and joined her friends, who clapped and smiled. Benefactor brayed and radiated pride and happiness. Drogin grinned and hugged her. He said something, but she lost his words amid the tumult. It didn’t matter; his tone told what she needed to know: he was proud of her. When her brother released her, Natoma hugged her as well, and Doga slapped her on the back and congratulated her. Eranna was more subdued, but even she clapped and added her congratulations.

Leha grinned and waved at her people, hoping to show some of the gratitude she felt.

* * *

That night, Leha, Doga, Drogin, Eranna, Natoma, and Benefactor gathered in the command tent to make their final plans for the defense of the camp. The sun had set, and they stood in the preternatural light of two Clan lanterns. The air had cooled, and the humidity had changed from oppressive to refreshing. The air smelled of moist grass.

They looked over a roughly drawn map of the camp, searching for any weakness in the defenses, and they went over their plans, making sure there were no problems.

They were discovering flaws in their plan to delay the Automatons at the River Sheen. They had no way of knowing where the machines would attempt to cross, so they could not set up any of the war engines or fixed defenses they were building around the camp. They could try and use the First One crystal to lure them, but there was no guarantee they would once again fall for it.

They tried to come up with something to improve their chances at the river, but they failed, so they decided to move on to other matters for the time being.

Leha leaned on the table. “How are we doing on the feedback machines? Will they be ready in time?” she asked Drogin.

He nodded. He had dark circles under his eyes, and his hair was disheveled. “One’s ready now, and the other will be finished by sunrise.”

“Good,” Leha said.

She began to discuss the earthworks with Doga and Eranna. The workers were putting the finishing touches on them.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Drogin’s eyes widen. He began to scribble calculations in a margin of the map.

“What is it?” she asked.

He looked up. “Feedback. We can destroy the barrier machine the same way we destroy the Wizard-Automatons. We overload it. It’s already pushed to the limit; it won’t take much.”

They all turned their attention to Drogin.

Leha furrowed her brow, straightening. “How would that work? I thought their power was spread out; don’t the feedback machines need a focused spell to hijack?”

He nodded. “Yes, they do. But we won’t use a feedback machine,” he said excitedly. “Barrier machines have a very basic intelligence. They’re set to funnel energy through themselves to smooth out the magical currents and eliminate jumping points. They have a set amount of energy that they channel; this one’s been set to channel as much as it safely can.”

He gestured animatedly. “We’ll change it. We’ll set it to channel more than it can handle.”

“How is that possible?” Eranna said, looking as confused as Leha felt.

“One concern technicians like me had back when we used Automatons was that someone else would take them over. That’s why we keyed them to specific control amulets; that’s part of why we insulated them with lead. It probably couldn’t have happened; their minds are very strong, we know now.

“But barrier machines are different. Their minds are weak, meant to be controlled. And they don’t have any of the safeguards against hijacking that Automatons do. I saw that when I first studied them. I didn’t think it mattered at the time. To control them, you have to be close, and when you’re close, you can just destroy them.”

Natoma folded her arms. “So you’re saying that our technicians will be able to overload it if they get close enough?”

Drogin nodded. “We’d probably need the help of some wizards, but yes.”

“But if we can get in that close, couldn’t we just destroy it? How does this change things?” Leha asked, still trying to recover from her brother’s jargon. She’d always had trouble understanding him when talked about his work.

“A barrier machine can channel far more energy than any Wizard-Automaton – probably even more than the Machine King,” he said, still talking fast. “If it overloads, the explosion will be enormous. They’ll be keeping it well behind their front lines, but if we time it right, the explosion has the potential to destroy their army as well as the machine.”

“Won’t their lead armor protect them?” Doga said.

“What’s to stop the blast from destroying the camp, too?” Leha asked.

Drogin answered Doga first. “If this explosion is as big as I think it will be, their armor won’t make a difference. The lead will be the only thing left.” He turned to Leha. “We’ll have to time it perfectly. It will depend on where they keep the barrier machine. But I doubt it would be able to reach the camp, and if our army is in danger, we should be able to pull them back in time.”

He sobered. “It’s a risk. But if it works, we could cripple or even destroy their army with one strike.”

Leha bit her lip. “What about the team that sets it to overload? Won’t they be killed?”

Drogin shook his head. “Once we make the changes, there’s no way the machine will be able to perform its purpose. They’ll be able to jump out.”

“If that’s the case, we might be able to evacuate more of the noncombatants,” Doga said.

Eranna agreed. “The wizards will probably have their hands full, but we might be able to save some.”

Leha studied the map on the table, hardly listening to Eranna and the Lost One. She weighed the risks and potential rewards of Drogin’s plan.

“We might be able to make this part of our plan to hold the river,” Natoma suggested. “If we hold it until the overload begins, then retreat, they might be trapped on the other side of the river.”

Leha nodded, though she had her doubts. There was too much uncertainty in this plan. She folded her arms and thought.

“Leha?” Drogin prompted after a moment.

“I’m thinking,” she said.

“I’m not sure that we have many options. In a fair fight, we’re no match for the Automatons,” he offered.

“Even if it doesn’t destroy all of them, we can send away more of the civilians,” Doga reminded her.

Leha nodded absently.

I think we should try it, Benefactor broadcast. We must take chances if we are to destroy the Automatons. His psychic voice had a hard edge to it.

Leha looked at him, feeling faintly surprised.

“All right,” she said. “We’ll try it.”

Doga and Natoma nodded. Benefactor ducked his head. Drogin scribbled more calculations.

“How are we going to get to it? We can’t jump there,” Eranna said.

Natoma glanced up. “Yarnig could slip through. He’s been practicing illusions. He should be able to conceal a small group.” There was something odd in her eyes when she spoke of Yarnig, but Leha soon forgot it amid her other concerns.

“Very well,” Leha said.

The conversation began to turn to other matters. Leha continued to think of Drogin’s plan for a moment, wishing he had thought of it before the attack on Tallatzan. They would have been able to destroy the ziggurat in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the effort.

She looked to her brother. “Could any barrier machine be overloaded in this way?” she asked Drogin.

He peeked up from his calculations. “I don’t see why not.”

The gears of the Leha’s mind leapt into action. “Would the resulting explosion be enough to destroy a ziggurat?”

He straightened. “I imagine so. Why?”

A tingle of excitement ran up Leha’s spine. “Once the nearer one overloads, we’ll be able jump again. We could send teams to the ziggurats and overload their barrier machines. If we win this battle, most of their forces will be crushed. If we also destroy their cities, they’ll never be able to recover.”

The others glanced at each other.

“Wouldn’t it be better to wait until after the battle, after we’ve recovered somewhat?” Doga said.

She shook her head. “The machines don’t adapt easily, but they’re not stupid. Once they know what we can do to their barrier machines, they’ll put in safeguards to stop us. We have to do it all in one go.”

She took a breath and shifted her weight. “We’ll have to use fighters and wizards that we can’t afford to lose, I know. But this is too a good of an opportunity to pass up. We can annihilate the Automaton infrastructure with a single strike.”

“I agree,” Natoma said. “This has too much potential for us to not try.”

After a moment, the others added their agreement. Leha smiled a little. She began to feel hope for the coming battle.

They spent another half-hour working out the final details of their plans, and then they realized they had nothing left to say. The meeting broke up, and they, with the exception of Drogin, went to their respective sleeping places. Leha’s brother would stay up and oversee the final preparations of their weaponry and defenses. Leha wished she could take some of the load off him, but she had no knowledge of the technician’s art.

Sleep did not come to her immediately. She lay in her tent, listening to the sounds of night, and went over all the plans again in her head, searching for some flaw she’d overlooked. She didn’t find any.

She worried about what would happen the next day. She thought of all that could go wrong. But she also felt hope. Hope for victory, hope that the Automatons would know defeat, hope for a world without war.

A world without war. For so long, it had seemed an impossible, unattainable goal. To think that it was so close made her ache with longing.

As the night wore on, she thought of her worries for that future, of her desire to keep the human race united and at peace. She still didn’t know of any permanent resolution for that problem.

The recent dissent within the camp had created doubt within her, but the fact that she had won the people over gave her great hope. They could devote themselves to the future. They could choose what was right over what was best for themselves.

* * *

The moment Leha woke enough to realize what day it was, a feeling that was neither excitement nor nervousness tingled through her body.

This was it. Today would bring about the end of the war. She had no doubt of that. Either her army would fail, and the peoples of three worlds with it, or the Automatons, the Old Gods, would once again know defeat at the hands of their own creations.

There was something oddly calming in that knowledge. She no longer had to worry about the future, about the weeks and months down the road. All that mattered was what happened on this day.

The camp was quiet – almost tranquil. Virtually all the preparations had been made. Their weapons were ready; their defenses were complete. People spoke little. There was nothing left to say.

The weather was as hot as the day before, but the humidity was not as oppressive. The sun shone brightly, seeming oblivious to the storm that would soon rock the camp.

In the midmorning, Leha took a walk along the top of the inner earthwork, studying the defenses. Trebuchets and catapults thrust their arms into the air from just behind the earthworks. Their ropes swayed slightly in a breeze that carried hardly any of the mountains’ cool. Out on the cleared fields, the trench to the north yawned, and though she could not see them, Leha knew that the wards Breena had designed peppered the ground. They were keyed to activate in the presence of lead, so there was no chance of Leha’s people setting them off.

Within the camp, nearly half of the tents had been taken down and stowed so that the machines would have less targets to set afire. Water was being stockpiled for the fires that did arise. Drogin’s feedback weapons had been completed, and they rested at the eastern and western edges of the camp, behind the earthworks. Each had been mounted to a hovering cart constructed from the remnants of the Clan hall. The carts would allow the machines to stay mobile – unfortunately, they were too awkward to bring to the river. A pair of reindeer would pull each of them. The carts were covered in lead plating salvaged from the armor of Automatons to shield them from magical attacks.

All through the camp and across the earthworks, salvaged chunks of Automaton armor had been made into stationary shields; civilians and soldiers alike could use them to take cover from the machines’ magic.

All the preparations had been made. Waiting was all that remained.

The next day, Leha awoke not long after dawn, her eyes feeling tired and gritty and her muscles feeling weak. The weather was hot and sticky, and its oppressiveness made her feel trapped. She ate her breakfast without tasting it and then asked around those loyal to her to see if anything had changed.

Nothing had.

Leha wracked her mind for some solution to this deadlock, but she thought of nothing. She still worried about what the consequences of passing on her powers might be, but she didn’t think anything else would settle this.

Needing to talk to someone, she crossed the camp – ignoring the looks and whispers that followed her – and found Benefactor in his tent. Pelts and plant fiber rugs from Sy’om covered the ground in the tent – there were no other furnishings or decorations – and it had a vague earthy smell that reminded her of the caves he’d come from.

His crossbow and set a of custom-made armor rested against one wall. Leha hoped he would not have to use them. He wanted to, but she had convinced him to stay off the front lines. She unburdened herself to the alien, often speaking even though he read it all from her mind.

I understand why the others feel as they do, but I understand you and your stance as well, he said when she had finished. His voice had never regained its old sparkle and verve after the machine attacks on Sy’om.

He turned his head at an odd sideways angle. The eye facing Leha was unfocused. It is true the future will not matter if we lose this battle. He looked at her and quirked his head. But it is also true that these decisions should not be made without great thought.

He rubbed the fur on his oblong head and glanced up. This world is very hot.

He turned back to her. I cannot say what is right. My people never harm each other. We feel others’ pain as our own. Among my kind, this would be no concern. But humans are very different. Your history shows that you must be cautious in giving yourselves new weapons that could be used against your own kind.

She nodded sadly. She briefly thought of trying to give her powers to some of Benefactor’s people, but there was no way of knowing what effect the venom would have on so alien a creature.

He set his jaw. I wish I could help, Leha.

She sighed. “That’s all right.” She stood and gave him an understanding smile.

He returned the gesture by baring his black teeth.

She left, still tormented by her indecision.

The rearguard returned just after noon. They reported that the Automatons were not far behind them, and that they would likely arrive some time the next day. Leha felt ready to scream with frustration. The machines were a day away, and she didn’t even know if she could count on people to follow her orders.

Eranna and Doga met with her briefly to offer their support and sympathy, then left to try and shore up support for her.

Before he left, Doga said, “Do not blame the people who disagree with you too harshly. They’re doing what they think is best.”

She thanked him, but in truth, his words only worsened her feelings of uncertainty. She knew he was right, but she wished he wasn’t. It would be easier to think of all those against her as greedy and selfish.

She paced randomly around her tent for what felt like hours, trying to decide what she should do. She considered getting an ice creature to link her to Lahune, who had evacuated to Tyzu, but she didn’t think he would have anything to say that had not already been said. All the arguments had been laid out; she needed to find a way to resolve them.

Every time she felt ready to acquiesce and allow others to be given her powers, something inside her stopped her from doing it. It felt wrong. She felt like she should reach for the idealistic solution, the moral solution. But part of her worried that the idealistic solution would turn out to be the wrong. Perhaps, with so much on the line, practicality should reign supreme.

Time passed slowly, and her frustration and indecision grew to almost unbearable levels. She had to take action, she knew. Time was running out.

At last, she came to the conclusion that she had to listen to her conscience. She had to pick the choice that she would be able to live with – or die with. She would stand by her principles; there would be no others like her.

Immediately, doubt and misgivings assailed her, but she forced them away. A decision had to be made.

Next, she turned her mind to finding a solution to the deadlock that had gripped the camp. She had to try to convince the people of her way of thinking. She had to address them; she had to win them over. In truth, there were no other options.

With the aid of Benefactor and his people, she spread the word that she would make her case one last time. A vast assembly began to take shape in the center of the camp. While her people came together, she sat in the close, sticky confines of her tent and planned what she would say. She thought back to her books and tried to put together the most elegant wording for her address.

It took nearly an hour for the assembly to come together. Virtually everyone in the camp attended; only those who could not possibly leave their work in preparing the camp’s defenses were absent. Leha took some hope from the fact that people were still willing to hear what she had to say.

When all the preparations had been made, she departed her tent and made her way through the nearly silent camp, circling around to come at the crowd from the west, the only direction it didn’t extend in.

She reached the center of the camp and found Doga, Eranna, Drogin, Benefactor, and Natoma waiting for her by a stack of crates, the stage she would speak from. She greeted them quickly, and they offered her their support and encouragement. She thanked them.

The five others went to stand before the crates. Leha took a deep breath, and scaled her makeshift stage. She didn’t know what she would do if this failed. Perhaps she would give in after all. She hoped with all her being that that would not be the outcome.

The crowd stretched out in front of her like a giant carpet of people. The rows between the tents were packed, and the hum of voices washed over her like waves from the ocean. As she took her position, the crowd focused their eyes on her, and the hum quieted somewhat. She felt the weight of their attention bombard her. It reminded her of the Watcher.

At the base of the crates, in a small open space between her and the crowd, her companions had formed themselves into a crescent. Benefactor stood directly beneath her, Eranna and Doga formed the wing to her left, and Drogin and Natoma stood to the right. All wore expressions of calm determination.

Leha enhanced her voice and lungs to allow herself to be heard by all who had come to see her.

“You all know why this assembly has been gathered,” she began, her voice cutting cleanly through the moist air. “Many of you – most of you – believe that I should grant to others the same powers and abilities that I have. I understand why you want this, and while I don’t believe that it would be the right thing to do, I don’t know if it can be called wrong, either.

“The machines are coming to destroy us, and we will need every advantage if we are to survive. I won’t deny that having more people with my abilities would be an advantage.

“But there are other things that need to be considered.”

She paused, letting her words sink in. Her heart pounded fiercely, and she felt surprised that her voice hadn’t faltered yet.

She turned her head slowly, taking in the whole of the assembly. “How many of you will go into battle tomorrow, believing that we will fail? Is that the attitude we should have? Or should we face the Automatons with the belief that victory is possible, that it is within our grasp if we fight hard enough for it?”

The crowd murmured uncertainly.

“We have to believe that we can win. Otherwise, we might as well give in to the machines right now. And if we will fight with the belief that we can come out of this war alive, then we must also plan for the future.”

She paused again as the crowd hummed to itself.

She fought to hide the fear she felt and spoke with all the strength she could muster. “I ask you all, whom are we trying to save? Are we trying to save ourselves, or are we trying to save the human race?”

The people chattered more loudly. She thought she was having an impact, but she couldn’t be sure.

“If it is the latter, then we must consider the future. We must consider the consequences of our actions. We cannot make decisions simply for today; we must make decisions that won’t bring us and our descendants harm later on. We have to fight for everyone in the north and everyone on the other worlds. We have to fight for every man, woman, and child who will ever be born.”

Now, the people had grown silent. They watched her with rapt attention. Her nerves tingled nervously.

“If we fight for all humanity, yes, we have to fight for ourselves as well. If we fail, humanity fails. But if we fight for humanity, we also to have fight for the future, and we have to make certain that none – none – of our actions can damage that future.”

She counted to ten, hoping desperately that this would work. Within the crowd, some groups muttered to each other intensely while others stayed deathly silent.

She reached ten, and fixed her eyes upon the assembled masses. “So I ask you, whom are we fighting for? Do we fight for ourselves, or for humanity?”

Patches of people scattered throughout the throng answered her. “For humanity!” they cried.

It was just a small number, but a moment later, their sentiment spread. Thousands of voices joined together, calling out, “For humanity!”

The words washed over Leha like the first rain after a long drought. She drank them in, joy warming her like the first rays of sun after a long night. Not everyone had added their voice, but a majority had, enough had. She had convinced them.

A brilliant smile lit up her youthful face. She raised her right hand into the air. “For humanity!” she echoed.

Her supporters in the crowd cheered and shouted, raising their fists above their heads.

She let their adulation wash over her. She leapt off the crates and joined her friends, who clapped and smiled. Benefactor brayed and radiated pride and happiness. Drogin grinned and hugged her. He said something, but she lost his words amid the tumult. It didn’t matter; his tone told what she needed to know: he was proud of her. When her brother released her, Natoma hugged her as well, and Doga slapped her on the back and congratulated her. Eranna was more subdued, but even she clapped and added her congratulations.

Leha grinned and waved at her people, hoping to show some of the gratitude she felt.

* * *

That night, Leha, Doga, Drogin, Eranna, Natoma, and Benefactor gathered in the command tent to make their final plans for the defense of the camp. The sun had set, and they stood in the preternatural light of two Clan lanterns. The air had cooled, and the humidity had changed from oppressive to refreshing. The air smelled of moist grass.

They looked over a roughly drawn map of the camp, searching for any weakness in the defenses, and they went over their plans, making sure there were no problems.

They were discovering flaws in their plan to delay the Automatons at the River Sheen. They had no way of knowing where the machines would attempt to cross, so they could not set up any of the war engines or fixed defenses they were building around the camp. They could try and use the First One crystal to lure them, but there was no guarantee they would once again fall for it.

They tried to come up with something to improve their chances at the river, but they failed, so they decided to move on to other matters for the time being.

Leha leaned on the table. “How are we doing on the feedback machines? Will they be ready in time?” she asked Drogin.

He nodded. He had dark circles under his eyes, and his hair was disheveled. “One’s ready now, and the other will be finished by sunrise.”

“Good,” Leha said.

She began to discuss the earthworks with Doga and Eranna. The workers were putting the finishing touches on them.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Drogin’s eyes widen. He began to scribble calculations in a margin of the map.

“What is it?” she asked.

He looked up. “Feedback. We can destroy the barrier machine the same way we destroy the Wizard-Automatons. We overload it. It’s already pushed to the limit; it won’t take much.”

They all turned their attention to Drogin.

Leha furrowed her brow, straightening. “How would that work? I thought their power was spread out; don’t the feedback machines need a focused spell to hijack?”

He nodded. “Yes, they do. But we won’t use a feedback machine,” he said excitedly. “Barrier machines have a very basic intelligence. They’re set to funnel energy through themselves to smooth out the magical currents and eliminate jumping points. They have a set amount of energy that they channel; this one’s been set to channel as much as it safely can.”

He gestured animatedly. “We’ll change it. We’ll set it to channel more than it can handle.”

“How is that possible?” Eranna said, looking as confused as Leha felt.

“One concern technicians like me had back when we used Automatons was that someone else would take them over. That’s why we keyed them to specific control amulets; that’s part of why we insulated them with lead. It probably couldn’t have happened; their minds are very strong, we know now.

“But barrier machines are different. Their minds are weak, meant to be controlled. And they don’t have any of the safeguards against hijacking that Automatons do. I saw that when I first studied them. I didn’t think it mattered at the time. To control them, you have to be close, and when you’re close, you can just destroy them.”

Natoma folded her arms. “So you’re saying that our technicians will be able to overload it if they get close enough?”

Drogin nodded. “We’d probably need the help of some wizards, but yes.”

“But if we can get in that close, couldn’t we just destroy it? How does this change things?” Leha asked, still trying to recover from her brother’s jargon. She’d always had trouble understanding him when talked about his work.

“A barrier machine can channel far more energy than any Wizard-Automaton – probably even more than the Machine King,” he said, still talking fast. “If it overloads, the explosion will be enormous. They’ll be keeping it well behind their front lines, but if we time it right, the explosion has the potential to destroy their army as well as the machine.”

“Won’t their lead armor protect them?” Doga said.

“What’s to stop the blast from destroying the camp, too?” Leha asked.

Drogin answered Doga first. “If this explosion is as big as I think it will be, their armor won’t make a difference. The lead will be the only thing left.” He turned to Leha. “We’ll have to time it perfectly. It will depend on where they keep the barrier machine. But I doubt it would be able to reach the camp, and if our army is in danger, we should be able to pull them back in time.”

He sobered. “It’s a risk. But if it works, we could cripple or even destroy their army with one strike.”

Leha bit her lip. “What about the team that sets it to overload? Won’t they be killed?”

Drogin shook his head. “Once we make the changes, there’s no way the machine will be able to perform its purpose. They’ll be able to jump out.”

“If that’s the case, we might be able to evacuate more of the noncombatants,” Doga said.

Eranna agreed. “The wizards will probably have their hands full, but we might be able to save some.”

Leha studied the map on the table, hardly listening to Eranna and the Lost One. She weighed the risks and potential rewards of Drogin’s plan.

“We might be able to make this part of our plan to hold the river,” Natoma suggested. “If we hold it until the overload begins, then retreat, they might be trapped on the other side of the river.”

Leha nodded, though she had her doubts. There was too much uncertainty in this plan. She folded her arms and thought.

“Leha?” Drogin prompted after a moment.

“I’m thinking,” she said.

“I’m not sure that we have many options. In a fair fight, we’re no match for the Automatons,” he offered.

“Even if it doesn’t destroy all of them, we can send away more of the civilians,” Doga reminded her.

Leha nodded absently.

I think we should try it, Benefactor broadcast. We must take chances if we are to destroy the Automatons. His psychic voice had a hard edge to it.

Leha looked at him, feeling faintly surprised.

“All right,” she said. “We’ll try it.”

Doga and Natoma nodded. Benefactor ducked his head. Drogin scribbled more calculations.

“How are we going to get to it? We can’t jump there,” Eranna said.

Natoma glanced up. “Yarnig could slip through. He’s been practicing illusions. He should be able to conceal a small group.” There was something odd in her eyes when she spoke of Yarnig, but Leha soon forgot it amid her other concerns.

“Very well,” Leha said.

The conversation began to turn to other matters. Leha continued to think of Drogin’s plan for a moment, wishing he had thought of it before the attack on Tallatzan. They would have been able to destroy the ziggurat in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the effort.

She looked to her brother. “Could any barrier machine be overloaded in this way?” she asked Drogin.

He peeked up from his calculations. “I don’t see why not.”

The gears of the Leha’s mind leapt into action. “Would the resulting explosion be enough to destroy a ziggurat?”

He straightened. “I imagine so. Why?”

A tingle of excitement ran up Leha’s spine. “Once the nearer one overloads, we’ll be able jump again. We could send teams to the ziggurats and overload their barrier machines. If we win this battle, most of their forces will be crushed. If we also destroy their cities, they’ll never be able to recover.”

The others glanced at each other.

“Wouldn’t it be better to wait until after the battle, after we’ve recovered somewhat?” Doga said.

She shook her head. “The machines don’t adapt easily, but they’re not stupid. Once they know what we can do to their barrier machines, they’ll put in safeguards to stop us. We have to do it all in one go.”

She took a breath and shifted her weight. “We’ll have to use fighters and wizards that we can’t afford to lose, I know. But this is too a good of an opportunity to pass up. We can annihilate the Automaton infrastructure with a single strike.”

“I agree,” Natoma said. “This has too much potential for us to not try.”

After a moment, the others added their agreement. Leha smiled a little. She began to feel hope for the coming battle.

They spent another half-hour working out the final details of their plans, and then they realized they had nothing left to say. The meeting broke up, and they, with the exception of Drogin, went to their respective sleeping places. Leha’s brother would stay up and oversee the final preparations of their weaponry and defenses. Leha wished she could take some of the load off him, but she had no knowledge of the technician’s art.

Sleep did not come to her immediately. She lay in her tent, listening to the sounds of night, and went over all the plans again in her head, searching for some flaw she’d overlooked. She didn’t find any.

She worried about what would happen the next day. She thought of all that could go wrong. But she also felt hope. Hope for victory, hope that the Automatons would know defeat, hope for a world without war.

A world without war. For so long, it had seemed an impossible, unattainable goal. To think that it was so close made her ache with longing.

As the night wore on, she thought of her worries for that future, of her desire to keep the human race united and at peace. She still didn’t know of any permanent resolution for that problem.

The recent dissent within the camp had created doubt within her, but the fact that she had won the people over gave her great hope. They could devote themselves to the future. They could choose what was right over what was best for themselves.

* * *

The moment Leha woke enough to realize what day it was, a feeling that was neither excitement nor nervousness tingled through her body.

This was it. Today would bring about the end of the war. She had no doubt of that. Either her army would fail, and the peoples of three worlds with it, or the Automatons, the Old Gods, would once again know defeat at the hands of their own creations.

There was something oddly calming in that knowledge. She no longer had to worry about the future, about the weeks and months down the road. All that mattered was what happened on this day.

The camp was quiet – almost tranquil. Virtually all the preparations had been made. Their weapons were ready; their defenses were complete. People spoke little. There was nothing left to say.

The weather was as hot as the day before, but the humidity was not as oppressive. The sun shone brightly, seeming oblivious to the storm that would soon rock the camp.

In the midmorning, Leha took a walk along the top of the inner earthwork, studying the defenses. Trebuchets and catapults thrust their arms into the air from just behind the earthworks. Their ropes swayed slightly in a breeze that carried hardly any of the mountains’ cool. Out on the cleared fields, the trench to the north yawned, and though she could not see them, Leha knew that the wards Breena had designed peppered the ground. They were keyed to activate in the presence of lead, so there was no chance of Leha’s people setting them off.

Within the camp, nearly half of the tents had been taken down and stowed so that the machines would have less targets to set afire. Water was being stockpiled for the fires that did arise. Drogin’s feedback weapons had been completed, and they rested at the eastern and western edges of the camp, behind the earthworks. Each had been mounted to a hovering cart constructed from the remnants of the Clan hall. The carts would allow the machines to stay mobile – unfortunately, they were too awkward to bring to the river. A pair of reindeer would pull each of them. The carts were covered in lead plating salvaged from the armor of Automatons to shield them from magical attacks.

All through the camp and across the earthworks, salvaged chunks of Automaton armor had been made into stationary shields; civilians and soldiers alike could use them to take cover from the machines’ magic.

All the preparations had been made. Waiting was all that remained.

———————

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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