Monthly Archives: December 2015

Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Twenty-five: The True Battle

We have now come at last to the twenty-fifth 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 war is over, but the true battle has just begun.

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Chapter Twenty-five: The True Battle

Consciousness returned slowly. At first, she was aware of only brief snippets of unintelligible sounds or flashes of pain. Then, gradually, her mind ordered the sensations, and her thoughts churned to life.

She groaned and started to rise, but a hand pressed against her chest. “Don’t move,” Erik said.

Leha opened her eyes. Erik crouched over her, holding her down with one hand. In his other hand, his staff glowed faintly. Yarnig knelt next to him, his eyes closed, holding his hands over her charred belly. One hand held a piece of silver-wrapped quartz. Her body throbbed with pain, but it was not as intense as she would have expected. Odd sensations fluttered across her stomach as Yarnig mended the burns.

The sky was still dark, and the firelight had diminished; a Clan lantern to her left provided most of the illumination. The smell of smoke was still present, but it had lessened.

“You were very badly injured,” Erik explained. “Most of your body was burned in the battle, and you broke a bunch of bones in the fall. We need you to sit still while Yarnig Heals you.” She noticed that Yarnig mouthed some of the words as Erik spoke them.

Leha remembered the last few moments of the battle, and she realized that she must have been near death when Yarnig and Erik had started Healing her.

The thought reminded her of what had befallen Doga and Natoma before she’d blacked out.

“Doga… Natoma,” she gasped.

“They’ll be fine,” Erik said quickly. “Doga won’t be back on his feet for a while, but he’ll live. Natoma just broke a leg and got a knock to her head. She’s organizing the camp through the link.”

Leha breathed a deep sigh of relief. She had feared the worst, especially for Doga.

She took a moment to calm her breathing. “What happened?” she asked, indicating the ruins around them with a sweep of her eyes.

“The Automatons are gone,” Erik said, removing his hand from her chest. He sounded tired. “I think the loss of their leader broke their spirit. When it happened, a bunch of them just ran off. A few others went on suicide runs. I heard one laid down and let itself be destroyed – I don’t think that’s true, though. There are still a few out in the wilderness, but no one thinks they’re a real threat.”

Leha nodded weakly and muttered her thanks to him.

Yarnig finished with her stomach and moved on to a badly burnt knee.

After a few minutes, Leha thought to ask, “Where’s Drogin?”

“He’s back from his mission,” Erik replied. “He’s leading a crew cleaning up the camp, I think.

“I’ll get him for you.”

Leha thanked him again and settled in to wait.

“Leha!” her brother called a few minutes later. She heard footsteps, and then Drogin’s smiling face appeared above her as he knelt next to her. He had a cut over one eye and some blisters on one hand, and his clothes were burnt in several places, but otherwise, he seemed well. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“I’m getting better,” she said. “What about you? How did the mission go?”

He smiled wider. “We did it. The ziggurats are gone.”

She returned his smile. She squeezed his forearm with one weak hand. “Good job.”

* * *

Soon after, the two Tors finished treating her more serious wounds, and she sent them away to find people more in need of their abilities. Drogin left to continue the cleanup effort. Leha planned to join him later.

She tracked down Doga and Natoma. The Lost One was still unconscious and undergoing treatment, but Natoma was well enough to talk. She congratulated Leha on her victory.

Then, Leha sought out Benefactor. She found him at the side of a tent, resting and drinking from a water skin. His crossbow sat at his side, and he still wore his armor.

He greeted her, but she began to praise him profusely for his hit to the Automaton Lord’s eye before he could do anything else.

“You saved me. You saved everyone!” she said more than once.

If he had possessed the physical capacity, she thought he would have blushed.

“How did you do that?” she eventually thought to ask. “That would have been a difficult shot for an experienced archer.”

He paused briefly, then he worked his lips furiously. You didn’t notice. I shot at the eye twenty-one times. I hit it once. His whole body shook with silent laughter.

Leha burst into laughter.

When their humor subsided, a sad look came into Benefactor’s eyes, and he glanced up. My family is avenged, he said.

Leha lost her smile. She sat in silence for a time, unsure of what to say.

She came forward and wrapped him a hug, burying her face in his shaggy fur. “Thank you. For everything,” she said, remembering everything he had done for her since her first journey to Sy’om.

He hesitated, surprised by the unfamiliar gesture, before returning her hug. He managed to hold her without touching any of her tender burns. He could read her thoughts; he knew the places to avoid.

They released each other, and Leha held him at arm’s length.

We did a good thing, he said. The Automatons were dark creatures. The universe is a better place without them.

She nodded, sending her agreement.

She thanked him one more time, and left.

She attempted to aid with the efforts to return order to the camp, but she found she was too tired and hurt to do much of anything. Drogin sent her to find her bedroll – after she made him promise to do the same – and within minutes, she had fallen asleep.

* * *

Early next morning, she forced herself awake, and went in search of Natoma, who would no doubt be at the head of the cleanup efforts. The walk gave her the opportunity to see the situation in the camp for herself.

The still-present pall of smoke stained the sunlight red, painting the ashen camp in a surreal tone. The air was warm, but the humidity of the past days had dissipated. Bodies still littered the ground in places, but she noted that many had been collected and moved off. None of the wrecked Automatons had been moved, and their dark forms dotted the camp. About half the tents still stood – most of them in the southeastern quarter. The others had been crushed, torn apart, or incinerated. Distantly, she heard the cries and moans of the wounded. Elsewhere, she could hear people shouting instructions, though the words eluded her. Otherwise, the camp was eerily quiet. She saw almost no one. She assumed that the people were occupied elsewhere.

She found Natoma conversing with Eranna at the northwestern edge of the camp, and they brought her up to date. About a third of the able-bodied survivors had been sent to the River Sheen. A dam of ruined Automatons and other debris had been created by the destruction of the barrier machine, and if it was not dislodged soon, it was possible that the camp might be flooded. Another large group had been assigned to collect and bury the bodies before disease could spread. The area west of the camp had been turned into a vast graveyard. The Northern Clans, the Lost Ones, and the ice creatures had begun to send laborers, medics, and supplies to aid those in the camp.

The forest fire had moved on to the south and was in the process of burning itself out. It was expected to die within the day.

No one had sighted any Automatons since the end of the battle. Once they had the situation here under control, Eranna and Natoma planned to send out parties to hunt them.

When Leha had arrived, the other two women had been planning a census to determine their losses. Leha told them to go ahead. She knew their losses would turn out to be heavy, but she also knew it had been worth it.

She bade farewell to Eranna and Natoma and headed for the river, where she used her strength and her powers to aid those trying to clear the blockage.

Once she settled into the rhythm of work, her thoughts began to wander.

The war was over.

She let that thought move through her mind as she slowly adjusted to it. It seemed too sweet a thing to be true. After all the months of pain and toil and terror, the power of the Automatons had been broken. Those few machines that remained would never be able to adapt to life without the infrastructure of the ziggurats or the leadership of the Automaton Lord. Soon, humanity’s victory would be total.

Her mind turned to the future. Soon, people would be able to return to their lives – what was left of them. They would begin the process of rebuilding. The losses inflicted by the Automatons were beyond measure; it would likely take centuries for the human race to recover.

And that brought her to her own dilemma. With the defeat of the Automatons, her duties as the leader of humanity were almost complete. But not entirely. She had pledged herself to safeguarding the future, to ensuring the mistakes of the past were not repeated. She had spent long hours searching for a solution to humanity’s flaws, but she had yet to find one, hoping that she would in the future.

Now the future had come. The war was over, and her people would soon disperse to rebuild their nations or found new ones. What was to stop them from eventually returning to the old national divides, the old prejudices? She couldn’t stand the thought, after all they had suffered through, of the nations once again going at each other’s throats.

But what could she do to stop it? She couldn’t change human nature, and even if she could, she didn’t think it would be right. Her people could not be forced into peace.

She wondered if there was anything she could do that would have any real impact. Ultimately, people made their own decisions. She could only influence them, and even that power would fade over time. She could not preach her views to the generations that would be born after her death.

She doubted there was anything she could do that would guarantee a peaceful future for humanity.

But, she decided, she had to do what she could. She was a revered figure, the Hero of Heart, and she wielded more influence than anyone alive. If she spoke, people would listen.

She didn’t think she would be able to live with herself if she did not at least try to change things for the better. She would do her part – however small it may be in the long run.

She started to formulate a plan.

* * *

The gathering took place upon a churned and ash-covered but relatively clear field near the west edge of the camp. Several thousand attended – all those who were not too wounded or caught up in the recovery efforts to come – spreading out in a great fan of humanity. Those unable to see it in person would witness it through telepathic links to their comrades. None but Leha knew the true purpose of the gathering, but most believed she would speak about their victory. The people chattered to each other in anticipation.

The sun shone brightly in the hazy sky, warming those below it.

At the far edge of the gathering, Leha climbed atop the back of a ruined Automaton, the platform from which she would make her speech. The metal was cold, but it lacked the unnatural chill of a functioning machine.

She surveyed the crowd and took a deep breath, enhancing her voice and lungs so that she would be heard.

“The war is over,” she declared, her voice reverberating through the afternoon air.

A cheer went up from the crowd. Some clapped.

“The power of the Automatons has been broken. Their ziggurats are dust. Their leader has fallen,” she continued. “Humanity has once again triumphed over the Old Gods!”

They cheered even louder, their voices booming in joy. Leha let them enjoy the moment, smiling faintly.

When they quieted, she spoke again. “But the true battle is yet to come.”

The people fell silent, seeming confused.

She tried to calm her tense nerves. She didn’t find this as intimidating as she had her address before the battle, but she knew just how much rode on how they reacted to her next words.

“The true battle will lie in making sure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated. The true battle will be fought not just by us, but by our children, by all future generations.”

The people stayed quiet. She could not gauge their reaction, so she pressed on.

“The blame for this war cannot be placed upon the shoulders of the machines. Hate is their nature. We are the ones who resurrected them, the greatest enemies humanity has ever known. It was our distrust and our greed that led us to build armies of them, to refine them until they had the power to overthrow us. The destruction you see all around you is the result of human folly, human hatred. The blame for it rests upon our shoulders.

“We can’t allow something like this to ever happen again!”

She heard muttering among the crowd. She feared that they would be unwilling to accept any responsibility for the war.

“The greatest danger we now face comes from within ourselves. We can’t allow ourselves to again fall into fractured nations and factions. We are one race.

“The future of humanity will not be won on the battlefield. It will be won in our hearts and the hearts of our descendants. The darker aspects of ourselves – hate, ignorance, and selfishness – are our enemies now, and it will take all of our strength to hold them back.”

She paused, letting her words ring through the air. She still couldn’t read the mood of the crowd. She sweated.

“It won’t be easy. But if there is to be any hope – any hope – of a bright future, we can’t allow ourselves to forget the danger that they represent. If we fail, the future will suffer, and this – ” she gestured at the devastation that was the camp “ – will be the result.”

She paused, her heart pounding, and prepared to finish making her case.

She stared into the crowd, standing proudly. “The next great battle has come, and we must face it. Who will stand with me?”

For a brief moment, all was silent, and Leha’s heart stopped.

The thousands in the crowd spoke as one. “I will!” they cried, their voices shaking the Automaton beneath Leha’s feet.

The tension left Leha’s body, and she allowed herself the joy of the moment. The crowd clapped and cheered for her, the noise of it vibrating through her being. She surveyed the familiar faces in the throng. Unmitigated pride filled the faces of her brother and her friends.

Leha smiled and raised her hand in salute to the gathering, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief. She smiled and laughed.

It was finally over. She had defeated her enemies, and she done her part to ensure a better future.

It was possible that the efforts of her people would ultimately fail, that the human race would once again fall into chaos. But now, she had hope. She had planted the seeds of peace, and she and those who believed in her would do everything in their power to make sure that they took root. Her words and her actions would be recorded in books and tales, and future generations would take inspiration from them. The ice creatures would be there to stand as a symbol of unity and serenity, and Lahune’s order would continue their efforts to bring humanity to its greatest potential.

There was hope.

———————

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!

As an aside, I find posting this chapter a fairly depressing experience, as this is a battle those of us in the real world seem to be losing badly as of late. We’re incredibly eager to turn on anyone who bears even the vaguest or most tangential resemblance to those who would do us harm, and one of the leading candidates for leader of the free world is a guy whose political philosophy seems to be that the problem with Nazi Germany was a lack of gold plating and scantily clad women.

One could also look back to GamerGate or its cousins in the Sad/Rabid Puppies camps. Or consider how many people are still displaying the Confederate flag with pride — even here in Canada, which is as depressing as it is confusing.

There’s a prevailing sentiment among “social justice warriors” (as the Internet is so eager to label us) that things like this are the last dying gasp of an outmoded way of thinking, but I fear this is an overconfidence that could cost our society badly.

And if you think you’re above this kind of hate and fear, you’re not. No one is. But if you can be aware of this, if you can make the effort to fight against the darker parts of yourself, if you can choose to be driven by hope and compassion rather than fear and self-interest, then you are part of the solution. The true battle isn’t something won through a single, final victory, but through constant struggle. For all of us.

Also, I do hope I’m not coming across as tooting my own horn here. I certainly don’t expect my silly little sci-fi novel to do much, if any, good in the long run, and I’m sure my rather ham-fisted attempt at a message has all kinds of criticisms that can be leveled against it. I just hope you see some value in the message, however inelegantly presented.

Next up is the epilogue, and then we’ve reached the end of the book.

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Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Twenty-four: The Burning Dusk

We’re almost done.

We now come to the twenty-fourth 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 All the preparations have been made. All debates resolved. Dusk falls, and the final battle is joined.

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Chapter twenty-four: The Burning Dusk

Late in the day, as the sky dimmed and the sun prepared to slip behind the peaks of the Gormorra Range, smoke was spotted on the northern horizon. The alarms sounded, and the camp readied for battle.

Leha went to her tent, put on her leather armor, and attached her blade to her arm. She collected the First One crystal, hoping it would be of use, and jogged to meet the other leaders. She bade farewell to Drogin and Eranna, who would be leading the mission to overload the barrier machine. She feared for her brother, but she doubted he would have been any safer in the camp.

The mental link spread through the army, and the forces of humanity assembled. Leha, Doga, and Natoma took command of their people and led them out of the camp, to the banks of the River Sheen, to their final stand.

* * *

The Automaton Lord came to a stop. It had been moving without pause for days, but unlike a frail human, it felt no fatigue.

It swept its rage-filled eyes across the landscape, seeing the dark river that was its army, the endless trees, and the vast fires its people had created to clear their path. Through the smoke that stained the darkening sky, it saw, too, the dark green hump of the small mountain to the east. From within it, it sensed the enigmatic energy of the First Ones.

When its kind had overthrown their creators, they had sought to remove all trace of them, but they had never thought to look for an outpost in this distant place. It was a mistake the Machine King would right soon enough.

Another source of First One energy appeared to the southwest. It burst out in a wave that filled the Machine King’s consciousness. The humans had used their crystal again.

Given recent events, the Automaton Lord doubted that the humans had any First One powers to use against its people. It would not play their game. It instructed its army to ignore the crystal’s burst and cross the river at another location. They moved on ahead of the Machine King, following in the wake of the great fires.

It began moving again, striding alongside the Automaton column. After several minutes, it paused again and turned its gaze to the mountain, to the First One outpost within. It raised its left hand and fired six bursts of energy in rapid succession. The bolts tore the air with a rumble of thunder, digging into the mountainside.

The creations of the First Ones were hardy, it knew, and that assault would not have been enough to destroy the outpost. But it would be damaged, and if any of the humans had been within, they had likely been killed. Once the battle was over, the Machine King would finish the job.

It resumed its march toward the human camp. Its people had been much weakened in recent times, but it would know victory this day, it told itself. It would crush that human girl and her army. Humanity would not be allowed to usurp the Gods’ rulership of this world again.

Never again, it promised itself.

* * *

Yarnig ran through what he would have to do and focused on keeping calm. The alarm bells had rung only minutes before, and the squad that would attempt to overload the barrier machine had begun to assemble. Filled with nervous energy, he had been one of the first to arrive.

They had come to him the night before to tell him what he would have to do. He had told them he could do it, but the fact was that he had doubts. He had never attempted so complex an illusion. But the entire battle plan hinged on him, and he would do everything he could to keep it from failing.

He had been given the shield of a battle wizard, a large, lead-plated oval. It weighed heavily on his left arm, and his muscles already ached. The weight of his shield and mail hauberk coupled with the waning heat of the day made him sweat. His sword hung at his side, but he doubted he would need it. His magic would protect him.

His heart pounded with apprehension at what was to come. But he wouldn’t have traded this for his life as a royal. Now, he mattered.

A gauntleted hand clapped onto his shoulder. “Good luck,” Natoma’s gentle voice said.

He spun around and found himself staring at her kind eyes and full lips. “Good luck,” he said dumbly.

She nodded once and jogged off, her armor rattling.

The other members of his squad looked at him oddly. He blushed, but it went unseen in the orange and red light of the sunset.

Not long after, the rest of his squad arrived, an ice creature connected them, and they left the camp, their feet pounding on the soil as they jogged northward. Yarnig felt the minds of the others, especially Erik, their thoughts and concerns thrumming at the edges of his consciousness. He felt their fear, but also their determination. Today, there could be no mistakes.

Eranna and Drogin took the lead, their faces stern and expressionless. Breena and Karn followed just after them, and the rest of the squad – about thirty specially selected wizards, technicians, and soldiers – spread out in a column behind.

After several minutes, Leha empowered them with Tyzuan energy. They soon left the field behind and entered the forest. Here, the twilight was far heavier, and the air felt cooler. Yarnig’s eyes struggled to adjust to the shadows.

Through Erik, he felt a bizarre tingle of energy from the west as Leha activated the crystal.

The party came to the shores of the River Sheen. They headed east, searching for a place to cross, and soon found a suitable ford. Before Yarnig even entered the water, he felt its chill through the minds of those ahead of him. When he and Erik waded in, the cold became more intense, and his legs ached from it. Once they stepped onto the opposite bank, the balmy evening air helped to warm him, though his pants stayed damp and heavy.

They started to move again, but then Eranna and Drogin stopped. Yarnig knew Leha was conversing with them – she maintained a link with them – but he couldn’t fully understand what the three were discussing.

Leha returned to her own affairs, and Drogin and Eranna faced their comrades, sending the news through the link. The Automatons had ignored the crystal; they would cross the river farther to the east, closer to Yarnig and his group. Several people swore. They had already planned to travel eastward to avoid the Automaton fires. Now they would have to waste time going even farther east. According to earlier scryings, the barrier machine lay in a direct line north of where Leha had activated the crystal. Moving to the east would take them out of their way.

They resumed their journey with renewed fervor, running as fast as they safely could in the dim twilight. They veered to the northeast, drawing ever closer to the edge of the machines’ forest fire. The omnipresent scents of evergreen needles and moist underbrush were slowly drowned out by waves of smoke.

From a distance, all Yarnig had seen of the fire was columns of smoke, but now he saw how massive it was. It seemed to stretch for miles, a wave of red and orange that swallowed everything in its path. The smoke blackened the sky and turned the setting sun a blood red.

When they came close enough that they could feel the heat of the fire and hear its roar – they were still many minutes of Tyzu-sped travel away – they paused so that Yarnig could weave his illusion. He focused his mind and gathered the strands of light around them, spinning them into a net around his party. He clenched his fists in concentration and forged an illusion that rendered them invisible without distorting the surrounding land.

The true difficulty lay in doing it while using so little magic that the Wizard-Automatons would not be able to sense it. He soon developed a headache.

They started forward again, moving slowly at first so that he could become accustomed to moving the illusion with them. Then, they sped up, running fast to avoid the edge of the forest fire, sweating in the heat.

The fire raced through the brush with incredible speed, and it almost caught them as they passed by. But most of them, including Yarnig, had grown accustomed to the behavior of the fire during the retreat from the north, and they managed to avoid it. Yarnig fought to tame his fears as waves of heat lashed at them. He could not afford to break concentration.

They made it past the leading edge of the fire and immediately looped back around to reach the area it had already burned.

Yarnig’s mouth lolled open. A vast area, miles in length, had been burned away to nothing, leaving only endless smoky fields of ash and soot. He could not see its northern tip. During the retreat, he had caught glimpses of the devastation the Automatons had created, but now the full enormity of it dawned on him.

The others felt equally shocked. Breena was especially affected, nearly stumbling at the sheer horror of it all.

They cleared their minds and pressed on, running north across fields so hot that their feet stung.

To the south, Yarnig could distantly see the Automaton army. Bursts and flashes of magic showed that they had engaged Leha’s defenders. That knowledge spurred them to further speed. To the north, they saw the Sextamaton carrying the barrier machine. Five Wizard-Automatons stood guard around it.

If he was to let the illusion weaken, and a single machine from either group looked their way, all their plans would be ruined, and he and his companions would die. He and Erik set their jaws and focused on holding the spell in place.

They raced across the ashen fields, the smoke burning their lungs. The barrier machine grew closer, and Yarnig’s party prepared themselves for what would come next. As they came in close, they slowed to a walk. Every footfall kicked up a cloud of ash that threatened to give their position away – even Yarnig’s illusion couldn’t compensate for all of it – and running only made the problem worse.

Yarnig surveyed the dark forms of the Automatons, sweating from more than heat and exertion. The machines seemed worn and weather-beaten – their armor was dirty, and they showed signs of wear and tear. He sensed Drogin think of all the various forms of maintenance they needed.

They came to the foot of the old Sextamaton. Its broad, six-legged form reminded Yarnig of a beetle. Before the Automaton revolt, Sextamatons had carried compliments of human soldiers, usually armed with crossbows, and this one still had a number of platforms on its back, near the barrier machine. He and his party took a deep breath, gathered their strength, and leapt onto the nearest platform, Tyzu’s energy propelling them upward as Yarnig let the illusion fall away.

The platform lay a few feet away from the rings of the barrier machine, and it was studded with automated crossbows designed to fire at people below – they could not target things on the platform, luckily.

The moment they landed, they spun about and unleashed a barrage of magic and crossbow bolts against the two nearest Automatons. One stumbled, a concerted attack tearing a hole in its neck. Yarnig sent out a disc of magical energy – something the Clanspeople had taught him – and it arced through the hole and into the machine’s chest. It fell, crashing against one of the Sextamaton’s legs and causing the humans to stumble.

Then the Automatons retaliated, nearly overwhelming Yarnig and the other wizards with a wave of burning energy. Leha soon weakened them with the energy of Sy’om, but he and the other wizards still fought hard to maintain their shields.

Drogin searched the floor for a hatch into the interior of the machine. He found one that had been sealed, but he cut it open with a beam from his wand.

“Come on!” he said, kicking the hatch aside with a clanging of metal.

The party filed through the hole, the wizards slowly retreating and shrinking their shield. Yarnig was the last to go through, his body shaking with the exertion of holding the protective magic. He would have died if the wizards below had not given their own energies to reinforce it.

He tried to jump into the hole, but it became more of a fall.

Breena and a few of the other wizards had lit their staffs to illuminate the dim interior of the Sextamaton. The austere cabin still held all the chairs and handrails that had once serviced its human crew, but a series of thick supports had been placed between the ceiling and the floor in the center of the chamber, below the barrier machine. Drogin shook his head disapprovingly at the hasty nature of the welds.

The wizards split into two groups. Half, led by Drogin and including Breena, gathered around the center of the cabin. They produced quartz crystals wrapped with silver wire and shut their eyes in concentration as they began altering the barrier machine. The other half, including Yarnig and Erik, worked on keeping their shield across the hatchway. The Automatons’ attacks had become subtler, but that made them no less deadly.

Eranna and her soldiers paced nervously, radiating frustration through the link.

The task took only minutes, but it felt like an eternity to Yarnig. Even with Leha evening the odds, the Wizard-Automatons were incredibly strong, and it took great effort to ward off their attacks. The battle between humans and machines made the cabin grow stiflingly hot. Yarnig’s head throbbed, and his and Erik’s bodies begged for rest. But Yarnig would not give in. This was his chance to prove himself, and he would not fail.

Finally, Drogin’s voice echoed through the link. It’s done.

Almost immediately, the energy in the cabin changed. Via Erik, Yarnig sensed the barrier fade and the machine draw vast amounts of energy to it. The air in the cabin soon buzzed with energy. The Sextamaton was now the center of a new jumping point to Tyzu.

Breena raised her staff, and the party vanished in a burst of light. They would make for the first of the ziggurats they planned to target.

They left behind Yarnig and Erik, who would be returning to the camp. They tensed as they dropped the shield, shifting their efforts and jumping away moments before the Automatons’ spells slammed into the floor where they had stood.

Moments later, the barrier machine began to emit an ominous whine.

* * *

They started with fire.

The forest fire spread to the opposite bank of the river, and the machines used their magic to fan the flames, sending hot embers and choking smoke to assail Leha and her people. The fact that the crystal had not lured the Automatons had meant that they were already off kilter – they had barely settled into their new position when the Automatons arrived – and now dozens of small fires started on their side of the river, further disrupting them. The human wizards contained the fires with their magic, but it kept them distracted.

Then, the fires cleared, and the Automaton attack began in earnest. They started draining energy from the river, and they hurled it at their human opponents. It was all Leha’s wizards could do to protect against the bombardment. They couldn’t launch any significant assaults of their own. The fury of the magical conflict roared in Leha’s ears and set off further fires within the trees around her.

As time wore on, the human wizards faltered, and dozens, then hundreds, died at the hands of the machines’ spells. Leha watched helplessly as her people perished. She could not cross the river; the magic was too fierce. A few crossbow bolts made it through the raging energy, but they did little to weaken the machines.

Leha listened to the screams and felt the heat of the fires. She debated whether to sound the retreat.

Drogin’s voice entered her thoughts. It’s finished. Pull back!

She sent him her gratitude and ordered all her people back to the camp. They leapt into action without hesitation, the combined powers of Tyzu and fear driving them out of the burning woods and onto the field around the camp. Leha led her people behind the earthworks, the acrid smoke of the fire still lingering in her nose.

As they took up their positions, bursts of light flickered through the camp as wizards dispatched the squads that would seek to destroy the cities of the Automatons. Other wizards focused their efforts on evacuating the noncombatants. There was no way that all, or even most, could make it to safety – time was short, and the wizards needed to save their energy for the battle – but they hoped to spare a few hundred.

Distantly, she sensed the minds of the squad leaders on the other worlds as they breached the barrier and began their attack on the ziggurats. By now, they understood the barrier well enough to breach it without her aid, though only with great effort and at great risk.

She climbed to the top of the first earthwork and turned her gaze to the north, where the fire continued to spread through the forest on both sides of the river. The Automatons had begun to cross the Sheen. They clustered on the shore, waiting for more of their force to make the crossing.

She held her breath as she waited for the barrier machine to detonate. Every Automaton that came across the Sheen brought her closer to their charge, closer to failure. But as long as they stayed close to the shore, there was hope that they would be caught by the explosion.

She channeled Tyzuan energy to where to she knew the machine to be, hoping to accelerate its end.

A light far brighter than the sun flared into life to the north. It expanded outward, devouring the countryside in a flood of blinding energy, and a roar greater than the greatest battle shook the earth and stabbed into Leha’s ears. She shielded her eyes from the glare, and a wave of hot air slammed into her, knocking her into the second earthwork. Through the link, she sensed the blast batter and topple those near her.

When the assault on her senses ended, she stumbled to her feet, brushing dirt from her armor. Around her, soldiers blinked their eyes and stumbled back to their stations. She scrambled back atop the first earthwork and gazed north, her heart pounding in anticipation.

The blast had boiled the river, and a dense fog hung over the north, mingling with the smoke from the fire. She enhanced her eyes and tried to sift through the murk.

Something stirred in the mist. Her face fell. The Automatons had survived.

But as the fog cleared, she saw that they had not done so unscathed. The machines on the far bank, nearly a third of their force, had been reduced to nothing but a field of burning slag. The river had absorbed some of the blast’s force, but many of the closer machines had also been damaged or destroyed. All told, roughly half of the Automatons had fallen.

Leha allowed herself the hint of a smile, returning her eyes to normal. The odds had been evened. Now, her people had a chance.

Minutes later, as the last hints of the sun disappeared behind the mountains, the machines charged, the Automaton Lord leading them from behind the front ranks.

Leha’s people launched everything that had at them. The trebuchets and catapults hurled boulders and volleys of smaller stones. Leha enhanced their flights with the power of Tyzu, and they smashed into the machines with terrible force, tearing bodies, smashing armor, and crushing heads. The battle wizards, also empowered Tyzu’s energy, lashed out with every spell they could muster, the light of their attacks flickering across the land. Breena’s wards burst up from the ground, hurling the machines off balance. Some picked themselves up, but others smashed into their comrades or the ground with enough force to cripple them. Some had the misfortune of falling into the great trench.

Still, the machines pressed forward, spreading out to come at the camp from multiple sides. Their magic met that of Leha’s army, and many of their spells slipped through the shields and blocks to blast the camp’s defenses.

The feedback weapons darted around the edges of the camp. With the aid of Leha’s abilities, they burned any Wizard-Automatons unfortunate enough to come within range.

As the battle raged, the sun set, and evening became night. But the fires continued their march through the forest, surrounding the camp in a ring of roaring flame, and their light created a new and eerie twilight.

The Automatons drew close to the camp, and Leha’s people could no longer mount their defense entirely from a distance. Leha, Doga, and Natoma charged forth from behind the earthworks, leading soldiers armed with swords, axes, narviks, and other weapons of close combat.

Leha gave herself to the primal fury of combat, and all sense of time fled from her. She fought until her limbs ached, and her skin shone with sweat. She fought until ash coated her face, and she could no longer remember a world without smoke. She fought until her venom glands threatened to run dry, and her throat hurt from screaming. She fought until countless cuts and burns marred her body, and her skin stung from the heat of flames and magic.

And still she fought.

Over time, she came to realize that the Automatons struggled with nearly as much ferocity as she. It made sense, she realized. By now, they surely knew of the attacks on the ziggurats. They fought with desperation.

Through the link, Leha also experienced the battle through the eyes of Doga and Natoma.

To the west, Doga had exhausted his supply of javelins, and he fought with a pair of silver-edged hatchets, leaping between the machines with an agility that almost rivaled Leha’s. She felt fear mingle with exhilaration within him as he struggled to hold the line against the Old Gods. She felt his heart pound as if it was her own.

To the east, Natoma danced through the battle, swinging her sword in arcs as beautiful as they were destructive. She had focused entirely on the moment, and no fear or hesitation could claim her.

Though she was not directly linked to him, Leha also saw much of Yarnig. She hardly recognized the figurehead emperor she had met all those months ago. He wielded Erik’s magic with awe-inspiring skill, and Automaton after Automaton fell before him.

The Automaton Lord stayed at the edges of the conflict. It would pick opportune moments and then charge in to deliver devastating spells or crushing physical assaults, before barreling back to safety. Leha gritted her teeth in frustration every time her people failed to catch it.

The very earth shook beneath the raging conflict.

And still, Leha fought.

* * *

Eranna raised her crossbow, and fired.

The Automatons came at them from all sides, the entire population of the ziggurat coming down upon them. Even the Worker-Automatons hurled themselves at her people.

Eranna’s squad was hard pressed to protect Drogin and the others as they modified the barrier machine buried beneath their feet. If it not for Leha’s powers and the element of surprise, they would not have had a chance.

An Automaton burst through the battle wizards’ defenses and charged the squad. Reloading, Eranna swung around and took aim at its knee. The bolt struck a weak point in the armor, and the joint crumpled. The Automaton fell hard, smashing into the flat surface of the ziggurat with a mighty crash.

Karn dropped his crossbow and rushed in. He drew a silver-edged short sword and attacked the machine’s face, his cuts spraying sparks and reeking smoke.

Eranna reloaded again. She fired at a Worker-Automaton rushing in from her left. The bolt pierced the machine’s head, and it collapsed.

As she swung back to the right, a brilliant light burst to life a few miles out from the ziggurat, momentarily distracting her. In addition to the ziggurats, Leha had ordered the destruction of as many major machine settlements as possible. That flash had been an Automaton mining encampment.

The Tor soldier turned her crossbow on another machine. She had begun the war as an invader. It seemed somehow appropriate that she should end it as one.

Okay. Let’s go, Drogin sent through the link.

Eranna and the others clustered together. The wizards raised their staffs, and they flashed out of existence, on their way to the next ziggurat.

* * *

At some point, the machines had broken through the camp’s defenses to the northwest, though Leha could hardly remember it happening. The breach had plunged both armies into anarchy, and the battle had lost all semblance of order.

Leha raced into the camp and placed herself before the advancing Automatons, calling all available forces to her. The Automatons had carved into the civilians taking refuge within the camp, and she sought to form a barrier between the machines and their targets. All around her, people fought, screamed, or ran for their lives.

She experienced some success, especially as other fighters began to gather around her. The Automaton’s march to the center of camp halted, and several of the machines fell within the first few minutes.

A damaged Automaton twitched on the ground ahead of her. A group of Clanspeople rushed in to finish it, but a crossbow bolt flew past Leha’s right side to break through its face, shattering its artificial mind.

Leha glanced behind her to see the shooter, and to her surprise, she saw it was Benefactor.

Death to the Rock Gods! he broadcast, braying maliciously.

Leha’s chest constricted at the sight of him so close to the fighting. Get out of here! she sent to him.

He stared at her for a moment, then slunk away, though he did not go far.

She turned her attention back to the battle. Her soldiers began to push the machines back. But then she felt a terrible rumbling, a rumbling she knew all too well.

As if out of nowhere, the Automaton Lord appeared, charging through the breach in the defenses. It came to an abrupt stop not far from Leha’s forces, seeming to know that she would slow it with the energy of Sy’om. It tilted its massive head downward, its baleful eyes burning, and she felt it take her measure.

It had planned this, she realized. It had stayed at the edge of battle, avoiding any risk to itself, and waited for her and her people to exhaust themselves. She had suffered countless minor but draining injuries, broken her left-hand middle finger’s claw, and tested the limits of her enhanced endurance. It was a tireless machine, strong and ready for battle.

And it had her trapped. If she went in any direction but forward, she would leave the soft underbelly of the camp exposed to its attacks. She couldn’t do that, and the Machine King knew it. It had goaded her right where it wanted her, and now it planned a final confrontation.

So be it, she thought.

She leapt into action, bolting toward her adversary. Her forces followed and engaged the lesser Automatons, leaving her and the Automaton Lord to square off against each other. She came to a stop a few dozen feet from the Automaton Lord and screwed up her legs as if to leap at it, but then she retrieved a javelin from the dirt at her feet and hurled it with all her strength.

Surprised, the Machine King couldn’t stop her javelin, and the missile slammed into the side of its neck a metallic clang and a shower of sparks. The javelin shattered, but the Machine King was undamaged.

Leha flexed her claws in frustration, and she became aware of the sheer size of her opponent. She felt a touch of fear seep into her heart.

The Automaton Lord attacked with a bolt of magic. She summoned Sy’om’s energy to weaken it, but the spell still had enough strength to kill her.

She rolled to the side. Hot dirt and pebbles pelted her back as the spell missed. She danced backward in avoidance of the Machine King’s continued assaults. At her command, her blade shot from its housing – with Drogin absent, a battle wizard had been assigned to controlling it – and leapt forward. The moment her feet touched the ground, she jumped again, hurling herself at her opponent.

It attacked, but a nearby battle wizard shielded her. She landed on the cold surface of its right knee and attempted to cut into the seams of its armor with her blade. She noticed it still bore scars from the battle along the northern front.

The Automaton Lord continued to pound at her shielding with its magic. Sparks flew through the air, and thunder pounded in her ears,

She growled as each stab of her blade failed to make any headway. She swore. The thing was indestructible.

A jarring burst of magic from the Machine King shattered her shield and sliced across her left upper arm. Searing pain cut through the limb, and she lost her grip, slamming into the earth below. She screamed and tried rolled out of the way as spell after spell burned into the soil around her.

Sensing her distress, Doga and Natoma ran for her position, bringing whatever few troops they could spare.

Leha and the Automaton Lord struggled for what felt like hours. Leha hacked and stabbed at its armor with her blade, gouged and dug at it with her claws, and hurled rocks and debris at it, but none of it seemed to have any effect.

At the same time, the Machine King bombarded her with its magic, and her number of injuries grew. A lance of energy seared the skin of her left thigh. A glancing blow from a ball of magic burned through her armor on the right side of her abdomen. Errant sparks blistered her face. Pain throbbed through her body.

As the battle wore on, her desperation grew. The Automaton Lord wore her down more with every passing minute, and she seemed unable to do anything to harm it. Having defeated many of the nearby Automatons, squads of soldiers rushed in to aid her, but they could not accomplish anything either, and the Automaton Lord killed them by the dozen. Their deaths stabbed at Leha like a knife.

Her world narrowed until it had room for nothing but her battle with the Machine King. And in that world, she was losing.

Doga and Natoma arrived, and they and their troops joined the battle. Leha almost wanted to tell them to leave, to warn them away from the danger, but she couldn’t make herself do it.

We won’t leave you, Leha, Natoma sent.

Never, Doga added.

Leha’s heart warmed with gratitude. At that moment, she didn’t believe anyone could find friends finer than these.

Leha redoubled her efforts to bring down the Automaton Lord, and Doga and Natoma added their own, cutting into the machine’s armor with sword and hatchets. For a time, Leha allowed herself some hope that, together, they would be able to achieve victory.

But as the minutes passed, she saw that the aid of her friends made no difference. The Machine King stood as strongly as before. She and her companions launched assault after assault, but it always pushed them back.

Then, it took the advantage.

They had fallen back again, and Doga was the first to dive back into the fray. He leapt for the same knee that Leha had attacked earlier, but the Machine King struck back, a bolt of energy slamming into the Lost One’s chest before he could avoid it.

Leha watched in horror as Doga’s limp form flew backwards and slammed into the ground a few feet from her.

Her blood boiled with frustration and grief. “Why won’t you die!” she screamed.

The Automaton Lord glared at her mockingly. It raised its right hand, and the ground before Natoma exploded. She fell, and she did not get back up.

Leha let out an inarticulate howl. She made to charge, but the earth before her burst, and a rock slammed into her forehead. She blacked out.

When she came to, the Automaton Lord stood a few feet away, staring down at her coldly.

She pushed herself to a sitting position and started to reform her connections in the mental link, but a wave of dizziness assaulted her and prevented her from standing. Her head pounded, and her vision blurred slightly.

The chilling voice of the Machine King ground through her thoughts. You are the reason the ziggurats burn. You are the reason humanity still infests this world. You have been the source of great suffering for my people. It raised its right hand and pointed it at her. Now, die, vermin.

Her dizziness had begun to fade, and she tried to scramble away, summoning Sy’om’s energy to weaken the Automaton Lord, but she knew it would not be enough.

A single crossbow bolt soared out from behind her. It struck the edge of the Machine King’s eye, and a small amount of glass fell to the earth.

The machine paused, seeming disoriented.

Leha spun around. Benefactor stood on a small rise behind her, holding his crossbow.

The Automaton Lord’s eyes flashed with anger, and it pointed its hand at Benefactor.

“No!” Leha cried.

A bolt of magic leapt from the great machine’s wrist and tore the air above Leha’s head. But as it raced for its target, the spell slowed and bent, turning back on itself. It looped around and struck its source at the Machine King’s wrist. The plates of silver shattered and rained down on the earth below, leaving a dark hole in the glittering bracelet at the base of its hand.

Leha looked about and spotted Yarnig off to her right, his hand held high in the air. Erik stood a pace behind him, his staff raised.

The Machine King made to retaliate, but Yarnig was not finished. The fire at its wrist did not die away. Instead, it spread between the silver plates and through the weak points in its armor, dissolving its hand and forearm in a slow-motion cascade of burning metal.

The Automaton’s remaining wrist glowed, and its magic fought against Yarnig’s, attempting to stop the spread of the emperor’s fire. Bursts of energy split the air, and Yarnig and Erik held their leaden shields up to withstand the assault.

The Automaton Lord was distracted; Leha saw her chance. The eyes, she thought.

She came to her feet, her blade singing from its sheath. The mental link resonated with cheers and encouragement for her, but she heard none of it. She had all her focus on the task at hand.

She tensed up her legs and leapt, landing on the Machine King’s torso. Before it could react, she leapt again, soaring high into the air.

And as she soared, by the light of the fires, she saw the camp, really saw it, for the first time since her battle with the Machine King had begun. She saw the dozens – hundreds – of bodies littered at its feet. But she also saw the hundreds rushing to aid her against it. She saw the broken bodies of Automatons littered in all directions, and she saw those machines that remained fighting for survival. She saw her people charging with renewed vigor, laying the final blows against their enemies.

She had not noticed any of it before. She had even ignored the information granted through the link, paying only enough attention to know what energies to channel where. But now she knew the truth.

Victory was at hand.

She slammed onto the face of the Machine King, her claws digging into the gaps in its armor. She pulled herself before its undamaged eye and stared into its hateful depths. “You’re not coming back a second time.”

She pulled her arm back and stabbed her blade through the glass of its eye. And she stabbed again. And again.

The Automaton Lord ceased battling with Yarnig to turn its power against her. Magic crackled and sparked all around her. Her flesh blistered and charred, but she fought through the pain, stabbing until her blade gouged deep holes in the Machine King’s artificial mind, and the light went out in its eyes.

The magical bombardment abruptly ended, and Leha released her grip on the machine, falling backward.

She was unconscious before she hit the ground.

———————

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