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.
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.