Category Archives: Rage of the Old Gods free chapters

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.

———————

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!

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Rage of the Old Gods free chapters

Rage of the Old Gods, Chapter Twenty-two: Something Higher

We’re now closing in on the end as we come to the twenty-second chapter of Rage of the Old Gods, the first book of my epic science fantasy trilogy the World Spectrum. In the coming weeks, I will be posting the entire book for free on this blog. If you’re just joining us, you can get caught up with the previous chapters now.

Cover art for As the Gods’ army nears humanity’s last bastion, the survivors turn to increasingly desperate measures in the hopes of preserving the species, but Leha refuses to abandon her principles. Will humanity’s continued existence come at the cost of its soul? Is surviving the current crisis worth dooming the future?

———————

Chapter twenty-one: Something Higher

The lights danced before Yarnig’s eyes.

Since the battle by the ocean, he had put most of his time and energy into exploring his newfound magical abilities. It helped him keep his mind away from Natoma. Erik had originally urged him to go to Natoma and attempt to win her over, but Yarnig refused to go back on his word to her. He would wait until after the war – if it ever ended. Erik was fascinated by the new abilities he could access with Yarnig’s aid, so he soon forgot to meddle in the emperor’s personal life.

There were many magical abilities, such as Healing, that were so complex as to be out of reach of most wizards. Currently, they were working on another such magical art: illusion.

Most wizards had some ability to bend light – that was how scrying worked – but to create a three-dimensional, believable image of something was extremely difficult. And so they sat in front of Yarnig’s tent, in the hot summer sun, and tried to create images of things that weren’t there.

Yarnig held his hands before him and bit his lip in concentration. In his mind, he wove the strands of light together in a matrix so complex that even he had trouble maintaining it. In the air between him and Erik, the image of a long sword appeared and hovered above the ground. It was blurry, and it flickered oddly.

Yarnig furrowed his brow and forced the energies to cooperate. The image solidified into something indistinguishable from a real sword.

He relaxed slightly, and the image vanished.

Erik and Yarnig’s shoulders slumped in unison.

Sighing, Yarnig opted to take a break, and the ice creature helping them broke the link. Erik tossed him a flask of water, and Yarnig drank greedily of the cool liquid. The weather had been unusually hot lately, though the frequent rains provided moments of relief.

The sound of shovels in the dirt came to them from the outer edge of the camp.

“Maybe we should go back to carving things,” Erik suggested, his breathing heavy.

Yarnig had already shown talent in using magic to carve, shape, and craft items of exquisite detail, an artistic skill that Urannan wizards had been famous for. He had produced a collection of large, flat rocks bearing carvings every bit as intricate and detailed as his sketches had been.

He shook his head. “No, I think I need to keep at the illusion. We’ll get it right.”

Erik let out a breath. “Okay.”

After a few more minutes’ rest, they linked with each other again. Something simpler this time, Yarnig thought. They held out their hands, and a dim brown cloud coalesced between them. Yarnig frowned in concentration, and the cloud coalesced into a perfect replica of the water flask.

Yarnig breathed out slowly, trying to ease his tension without losing concentration. He and Erik decided to try for something harder. The flask dissolved, and in its place, a bottle of brandy, like the ones he had enjoyed at his country home, took its place.

Again, he made himself relax. The image stayed stable.

Yarnig’s brow furrowed in concentration, and the bottle dissolved to reshape itself into the image of the sword. This time, it didn’t vanish.

They experimented with moving the illusory sword, shifting it from vertical to horizontal and back again. Yarnig began to move the sword in a series of cuts and stabs.

The motion of the sword suddenly made him think of Natoma. He tried to push the thought out of his mind, and the image melted away.

He dropped his hands, swearing in his mind. He blushed brightly as he realized that the ice creature could sense his thoughts as well as Erik could.

I’m sorry, he sent to Erik as he tried to reorder his thoughts.

That’s all right, Erik thought, his reply tinged with hints of what he thought Yarnig should do about Natoma.

Yarnig ignored his friend’s opinions. They rested briefly as Yarnig refocused his attention, then returned to their work.

* * *

Near the northern edge of the camp, Leha sat upon a trebuchet and surveyed the camp. It would have been extremely difficult for a normal Barrian to reach her perch, but her enhanced agility had allowed her climb the massive engine easily, and her augmented reflexes allowed her to sit upon the timbers at the crown of its frame without fear of falling.

In the back of her mind, she felt the presence of one of Benefactor’s people. It had created a very minimal link between her and some members of the rearguard so that she could channel Tyzuan energy too them. It was the only way they could hope to reach the camp before the machines did. Leha had grown so used to doing it over the past few days that she barely noticed it. Only a slight, ever present feeling of fatigue reminded her of it.

The air was hot, but a cool wind blew from the mountains. A bank of clouds darkened the sky to the northeast and brought the smell of rain.

Her gaze swept the area. It was the fifth day after the battle by the ocean. In a short time, her people had made remarkable progress in preparing the camp. The clearing of trees was nearly complete, and, at the north end at least, the earthworks, war engines, and other defenses were finished.

When fully complete, the earthworks would encircle the camp in two concentric rings – they were but a pair of crescents at this point. Each ring would have four small gaps for people to move in and out. The gaps in the outer ring were aligned to the points of the compass, and those in the second ring were offset so as to ensure there was no straight, clear path into the camp. Each ring was slightly taller than an average Clan or Tor man, so they significantly outstripped Leha in height. An Automaton would be able to walk over or through them, but they would provide some protection from spells and airborne debris.

To the southwest, the defenses still needed much work. She saw people scurrying about, like ants, in a feverish attempt to prepare that section of the camp.

Just beyond them, smoke from the forges streamed into the sky as Drogin’s people worked to manufacture as much weaponry and armor as they could before the Automatons arrived. Leha had given the order that everyone in the camp was to be armed when the attack came, even those that would not be part of the defense. There was a good chance that the Automatons would breach the defenses and reach the civilians. If that happened, she didn’t want anyone to be without some means of defending themselves.

Limits on time and resources meant that many would be forced to make do with nothing but a few javelins of sharpened wood, but some would be lucky enough to receive crossbows or narviks. Some tools, such as pickaxes, could be used against the machines; those would be given out as well. Even Benefactor, whom she had begged to join the evacuation, and the other remaining ice creatures that weren’t wizards would be given crossbows.

As the days had progressed, the people of the camp had grown increasingly edgy. She saw the worry in their eyes, the fearful way they moved. Tempers had grown short, and arguments and disputes broke out often.

She couldn’t blame them. There was a good chance that the machines would kill them. Many of them had been separated from their families during the evacuation. And for the most part, there was nothing for them to do to make themselves feel useful or to take their mind off the impending attack. Aside from building the earthworks and doing other chores, all they could do was sit and hope Leha and her soldiers would be able to save them. She only wished she could have done better for them.

Her eyes turned back to the north slowly, taking in the camp as a whole. In comparison to the vast wilderness around it, the camp had always seemed tiny, a speck almost swallowed by the forest. But now she realized how large it was. It had housed many thousand people, and it was the size of a small city. It seemed like such a large area to defend.

To the north, a deep, wide trench had been cut in the barren fields. This was the source of the soil and stones the earthworks were made of. The trench was another obstacle the machines would have to avoid.

Farther north, she could see a line, cut by the River Sheen, through the endless trees and beyond that, the dark lump of Yeldar. They had considered moving the camp to the mountain and defending it, but it was too steep and rugged to be made habitable, or defendable, in the amount of time available. She wondered if the Automatons would destroy the First One outpost inside. She hoped they wouldn’t; if its secrets could ever be deciphered, it might have much to teach them.

She felt an ice creature touch her thoughts, but it was not the one connecting her to the retreating army. It was Benefactor. Leha, he said, sounding concerned.

What is it? she sent, wondering what had him so worried.

You must come to the command tent. You will not like it.

She frowned. She leapt off the edge of the trebuchet, cushioning her landing with the energy of Sy’om. Benefactor, what is it?

An image appeared in her mind: a large crowd outside the tent that had replaced the Clan hall as the main meeting area for her and the other leaders. Natoma stood before the crowd, attempting to keep order. Leha heard someone at the fore of throng say, “We want to see Leha. We want to be made like her.”

Her insides chilled, and she groaned. You’re right. I don’t like it.

She sensed Benefactor duck his head sadly.

She set off for the command tent at a steady jog, a damp wind from the northeast blowing at her back. She felt herself break out in a nervous sweat. She had feared something like this might happen. This time, she didn’t think people would be willing to accept her usual explanations about it being too risky. She hoped they would understand her true reasoning. She hoped she was doing the right thing.

Sensing her distress, Eranna and Doga’s minds became more present within the mental link. At the same time, they dismissed the other soldiers Leha had connected to so they wouldn’t sense her thoughts – the ice creature would, but they did not reveal information that their human allies considered private or privileged; for a people that kept no secrets among each other, they were fairly good at keeping those of others.

Leha wordlessly communicated the situation to Doga and Eranna. They sent her their sympathy, though they didn’t agree with her decision not to create more with her abilities. She thanked them.

We’ll break the link so you can concentrate fully, Eranna sent.

We should take a break soon anyway, Doga added.

Leha thanked them again. The link broke, and she felt a moment of relief as she stopped channeling energy to the army.

She arrived at the command tent. A crowd of about twenty people, mostly soldiers, had gathered before it. A few paces behind them, a much larger crowd had gathered and were chattering amongst each other.

Natoma stood in front of the tent, watching over the assembled people with a keen eye. She saw Leha approach and nodded to her. Leha came to stand beside her.

Before she could speak, a tall man – she recognized him as Karn, one of Eranna’s men – detached himself from the smaller group and bowed to her. “Leha, forgive our imposition,” he said, speaking accented Eastenholder. He straightened and gestured to the others in his little group. “We have come to volunteer ourselves. We wish to be changed, as you were.”

She started to speak, but he held up his hand. “We are aware of the risks. We know we could come to harm. But the machines will be here within days. We’ll need every advantage if we are to defend ourselves.” He looked at his comrades. “We’re willing to take our chances if it means we can make a difference.”

They nodded solemnly.

Leha felt her throat tighten. They really did believe in what they said. I hope I’m doing the right thing.

She swallowed, and spoke. “No. It won’t happen.”

Karn frowned, looking confused.

She pressed on, speaking loud enough for the larger crowd to hear. “I have always said that to transform others as I was would be very risky, and that’s true. The Lost One ability to change their venom is not an exact science, and the one who changed me is dead. We don’t know if we can replicate what was done to me.”

She stood tall, trying to appear more certain than she felt. “But that is not the only reason why I have forbid the creation of others like me.”

A murmur ran through the assembled people. Karn’s group exchanged glances.

“In the past, humanity has made many mistakes. We’ve launched pointless wars and committed atrocities against each other. We resurrected the Automatons and brought these current troubles upon ourselves.

“My abilities have the potential to be very destructive. I don’t think that I can trust anyone with that kind of power. I – ”

The crowd erupted. People yelled and booed and shouted. They shook their fists and made angry gestures.

Leha enhanced her voice and shouted to be heard over the tumult. “I wouldn’t trust myself with them, but I didn’t have any choice in the matter!”

Her words did nothing to stem the tide of screams and accusations. The larger crowd grew increasingly unruly, their voices pounding at her.

“Listen to me!” she shouted.

Natoma stepped forward. “She does this because she thinks it is right!” she said, her voice loud and commanding without seeming angry or belligerent. “We all owe our lives to her many times over! You should at least hear her out.”

The crowd quieted somewhat. Many of them seemed uncertain.

Leha felt a surge of gratitude for Natoma’s words. She took a breath and tried again to explain herself. “I understand your feelings. Really, I do. But I have to think about the consequences of this. And I worry what could happen if everyone had the abilities that I do.”

People in the larger group continued to grumble.

“Who are you to do decide that no one is worthy? Are you going to keep us inferior, under your power, like the Old Gods did?” a man yelled to her.

She flushed angrily. “I am nothing like the Old Gods! I don’t do this for me; I do this for the future! Can any of you promise me that no human will ever raise their hands against another again? Can you?” She scanned the throng, her eyes fierce.

She flexed her claws and took a moment to calm down. “I haven’t judged everyone unworthy. As you said, I’m not qualified. So who will judge who has earned it and who hasn’t? How can anyone’s judgment be good enough for them to decide who should wield this kind of power and who shouldn’t?”

The people stayed mostly silent, weighing her words. Some still mumbled to each other or threw her suspicious glances.

Not everyone in the camp had joined the initial gathering, and now others began to arrive to see what the commotion was.

A woman from Karn’s group, a Lost One, came forward and bowed her head. “I understand what you say,” she said. “I will respect your decision.”

Without another word, the Lost One left.

Leha nodded to her dumbly, taken aback by the suddenness of her decision.

“Why not simply give this power to everyone? Things would be equal. No one would have an advantage,” another man from the mob said.

Leha glared at him. “No one had an advantage when every nation had Automatons. That didn’t work out, did it?”

An angry rumble came from the masses.

Karn addressed her. “Leha, I understand your point of view,” he said respectfully. “But isn’t the time to play it safe past? The future is uncertain; right now, we know we need this. Once we’ve survived the machines, we can decide how to proceed.”

“No!” she said.

Natoma glanced at her quickly, seeming surprised at the strength of Leha’s emotions.

Leha shook her head and looked down, trying to rein in her anger.

She tilted her head back up and spoke to all assembled. “If you really disagree with me, if you really think it would be right to give more people these powers, prove me wrong. Stop seeking them! Prove that you can dedicate yourself to something higher than your own survival.

“Maybe there will come a time when I can trust people to wield this kind of power.”

She stared at the throng, her expression resolute, and those in the crowd, save for a few, stared back, appearing equally determined.

Eventually, it became clear to both sides that no resolution would be reached, and the people slowly returned to their lives and duties, continuing to grumble and look upon her with distrust. Their glances and harsh whispers sent an aching sadness through her. She had protected them for more than a year. She had risked her life and sacrificed, and now, it seemed to her, all their trust in her, all their gratitude for what she had done, had been washed away in just a few minutes.

Karn’s group started to dissipate not long after the larger crowd did, but Karn himself did not move. After a few minutes, Leha realized that he did not intend to leave.

“My decision is final, Karn,” she said tiredly, returning her voice to normal.

He stepped towards her. “I understand your point of view. I truly do,” he said. “But I think you need to be willing to accept that you may be wrong. You’re just one person. You can make mistakes. I ask you to reconsider.”

She shook her head. “You don’t understand. You can’t understand.” You don’t have the future of humanity on your shoulders.

He peered into her eyes. “Then make me understand. Get an ice creature to link our minds.”

Leha considered for a moment. “All right,” she said. “We’ll link.”

She closed her eyes and reached out to Benefactor. She conveyed what she needed.

She sensed him duck his head, and her mind began to link with Karn’s.

They started at the basic level of linkage that was normally used, where she sensed his assurance in his own rightness and his calm certainty, but then they progressed to a deeper, more profound link.

He saw her belief in her rightness, and the toll that having responsibility for the human race had taken on her. She, in turn, saw his belief that surviving in the here and now was more important than any undetermined future. She also saw that nothing in her mind surprised him.

Her jaw hung slack.

He did understand. And he still disagreed.

* * *

There were no more confrontations that day, but the air in the camp remained tense. Whenever Leha went somewhere, conversations would suddenly stop, or people would peer at her suspiciously, or they would avoid looking at her. Sometimes, they offered support for her decision, but those instances were rare.

The debate over whether she was doing the right thing seemed to send fractures through the people of the camp. She had trouble assessing things herself – most people no longer felt comfortable sharing their thoughts with her around – but many Lost Ones and the majority of Benefactor’s people agreed with her, and they funneled information to her.

From what her informants could tell, about half of the people in the camp were convinced she was wrong, and some of these were very vocal. Less than a fifth openly admitted to agreeing with her, though it was suggested that there were some who felt that way but would not say so. The rest were unsure of what stance to take. Many members of the camps for and against her decision had taken it upon themselves to convince others of their beliefs, and that led to a great deal of conflict. Arguments broke out all over the camp. Leha had heard raised voices herself on more than one occasion.

Thankfully, none of the confrontations had turned violent, and everyone was continuing to follow her orders and perform their duties – for now, at least. Things had spiraled out of control so quickly that Leha half-expected open mutiny soon.

Leha deeply regretted the timing of this. Eranna and Doga’s latest reports said that the machines would reach the camp within the next three days. Her people could not afford to be splintered like this so soon before a battle.

Her friends had put a great deal of effort into selling people on her policy. Natoma, especially, had been vocal in her defense of Leha. Leha was told that Drogin refused to let any of the forge workers or technicians speak ill of her while they worked. Even Doga and Eranna, who did not agree with her, had done their best to convince the rearguard – and via the link, those in the camp – that she should be supported for the sake of unity. Doga’s words had gone a long way towards building her support among the Lost Ones.

The efforts of the other leaders did a great deal to shore up support for her, but the camp remained divided. A hard knot of worry settled into Leha’s stomach and stayed there throughout the day.

That evening, as the sun dropped towards the peaks to the west and the heat of the day reduced to a more tolerable balminess, Drogin joined Leha outside her tent. Leha started a fire with wood that steamed from the afternoon rains, and they set a pot of soup over it. The soup was made from mushrooms from the forest and dried meat. It would barely feed the both of them.

They sat on stools to stay above the moist ground, and as they waited for their food to cook, they spoke of the events of the day. Leha would have preferred a more private location, but luckily few people were in the immediate vicinity. Only a few voices drifted from nearby tents.

She unloaded her worries and frustrations onto him, and he did his best to offer support.

“You’ll win them over,” he told her reassuringly. “You’re very good at persuading people.”

She nodded numbly and went on as if she hadn’t heard him.

As time went on, and their soup began to boil, they ran out of things to say, and the conversation died for a time.

“Maybe – maybe you should give in. Let the future be what it will be. Maybe you’re thinking too much; maybe this is too much for you to handle,” he suggested after a few minutes.

She frowned at him, feeling too tired to summon her earlier passion.

“For anyone to handle,” he added quickly.

He sighed and ran a hand through his sandy hair. “I just want to help. I wonder if all this planning and worrying for the future is too much. I understand why you want to keep these powers from spreading, but maybe it is best to do what’s right for the present and face the future when it comes.”

She nodded slowly. “I understand what you’re saying, and I appreciate it. But I have to stick to what I believe in.” She chewed her lip, thinking.

“You said that Tyzu changed me. Maybe you’re right; maybe some of that world’s savagery is now a part of me. But what the Lost Ones did to me imparted me with a piece of Sy’om, as well.

“Do you understand what a different perspective Benefactor’s people have, the way their world has shaped them? They don’t have war, or conflict. Sy’om will not permit it of them; they can only survive together. They think only of what is best for their race as a whole, over the long haul – and they remember their ancestors’ lives as their own, so their perspective of history is so much better than ours.”

She ran her fingers through her hair, mirroring his own use of the old family tic. “Ever since I came back from the other worlds the first time, I can’t bear the thought of our people being divided, of human warring against human again. I certainly won’t do anything that could let us do more harm to each other in the future. Bad enough that we must use weapons at all; my claws and my powers could be worse than an army of Automatons in the wrong hands. I’d sooner we all died now, together, as one people, than see a repeat of what happened to Three Gates.”

Her brother’s eyes were wide, and her cheeks burned as she realized she’d frightened him.

But he placed his hand on hers and said, “I understand.” And she knew he did.

She managed a shaky smile.

Drogin returned an equally fragile smile.

Their served their soup a short while later, and Leha ate it without tasting what little flavor it had.

She retired early, but she didn’t fall asleep for a very long time. She tossed and turned in her bedroll, mulling over the events of the day and trying to come up with some plan to resolve things. She couldn’t help but think of her conversations with Eranna and Lahune, of her mission to save humanity from itself. If they could not stay unified now, when the fate of three worlds depended on it, she didn’t know if they would ever be able to.

Despite her strong belief that she was doing the right thing, a part of her started to wonder if she had been wrong all along, and that part grew louder throughout the night. She had assumed that her way was the only right way, that anyone who understood the pressures on her would agree with it. But her link with Karn had proven that to be false. Now, she didn’t know what to think. Maybe it was unfair of her. Maybe people deserved access to power such as this. There was no guarantee that it would be abused.

Part of her echoed Drogin’s sentiments, saying that the answer was beyond someone such as her. Near midnight, she began to wonder if she should be bothering with any of her efforts to safeguard the future. Trying to bring lasting peace to the entire human race seemed far beyond a simple shopkeeper from Three Gates.

It wasn’t until well after midnight that exhaustion finally claimed her.

———————

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Rage of the Old Gods free chapters