It was a sunless world of smoke and
iron, of fumes and oil, of brickwork and smokestacks and pipelines
and other lifeless, stirring things. It was a forged world; a cemented
world; a machined world. For mountains it had factories, for rivers
tar and grease, for oceans reservoirs of viscous, foamy runoff.
Its smoldering, soot-black sky had forgotten the sun and the stars.
It was a grotesque, cancerous mechanism in the shape of a landscape.
And it was in the throes of war.
Like swarms of insects two armies battled among the land's geometric
crags and hollows. The combat sparkled and flared with lights and
fire. Poisonous clouds spread like fog. Soldiers clustered around
twisted black machines, which flashed and pumped streams of angry
lightning into enemy formations. Overhead, iron-keeled ships floated
on the toxic wind. Their hulls were riveted with armor plates. Windmill
sails pushed them slowly over the battlefield, where they showered
the combatants with flame and poisoned missiles.
Man-to-man the soldiers clashed steel upon steel. They were faceless
shapes in the choking, corrosive haze, their outlines distorted
by ornate armor and mechanisms of defense and destruction. Their
melee was furious and precise. They moved with fluid skill and struck
with lethal accuracy; yet their noisy weapons roared and buzzed
and spat flames and glowed hot metal, and rarely were kills clean.
Instead the battleground keened with the wails of the dying. The
stench of boiled flesh seared like acid in the air.
In the center of this thunderous nightmare was a creeping giant.
The brick and metal beast stoked flames in its belly. It might have
been called a small village or a large factory, bristling with peaked
roofs and tall, fuming chimneys; except that the entire complex
rode atop metal scaffolding on huge, toothed wheels. The cogs of
the wheels fit into enormous tracks. The scaffolding crouched astride
a wide cluster of pipelines. It inched forward with loud creaks
and groans, resembling some gigantic, impossible beetle crawling
along a meandering iron vine.
This was a roving foundry. Its smokestacks heaved up boiling,
ashy clouds. Orange fires blazed inside. Molten metal burned along
narrow ducts. The foundry's purpose was to roam the length of the
iron pipeline, forging repairs where they were needed. Its garrison
of smiths provided constant, hammering percussion. Never sleeping,
the foundry was grim and noisy in its work.
And it was the focus of the clamorous battle that followed at
its slow, deliberate pace. One army fought to keep control of the
enormous machine. Surrounding them was another army fighting to
capture it. Both sides left the landscape blackened with scorched
brick and strewn corpses.
Amid the chaos and haze moved a lone, armored man. Like a shadow
he slipped through gaps in both offensive and defensive lines. A
long trident was strapped to his back. His helmet was decorated
with horn-like spars. When he reached one of the foundry's wheels,
more than three times his height, he found an iron staircase and
began to climb. Halfway up the height of the scaffolding he paused
and reached for his weapon.
Kumar kept very still. Though he thought he was undetected, he
heard the sound of footfalls somewhere in the gloom of the scaffolding's
walkways. With luck they would continue past without an incident.
For good measure, however, he thumbed a lever on his trident. A
mechanism clacked inside. The haft grew warm as an internal chamber
ignited and began to build a head of steam. A curl of smoke oozed
out of the weapon's vent, its burnt smell tingeing the bitter reek
of the foundry.
"Halt," commanded a woman's stern voice. "Turn and reveal yourself."
Kumar turned, trident in hand, and faced the direction of the
voice. From the gridwork shadows of the scaffolding emerged a tall
figure, almost Kumar's height, though not so broad across the shoulders.
The woman was armored as he was, with steel breastplates, metal
skirt and a flared helmet that hid her face. She carried a large,
mechanical hammer. Her stance was proud.
"My business is private," Kumar answered in a deep voice, "and
urgent. I have no time for you."
"You'll make time!" she barked. "Open your faceplate or I'll attack."
"Do what you must." Kumar planted the butt of his trident on the
ground. "But I won't comply. How do I know you're not a loyalist?
You have the demeanor."
"Your choice then." The woman lunged. Kumar crouched to a guard
position. As she swirled her hammer overhead Kumar wheeled the trident
points-up and caught the heavy thud of her strike. He locked her
weapon between prongs. But her hammer was a complex machine; the
impact unlatched a second hammer head, attached to the weapon's
tip by a spring-mounted rod. The second head spun over his trident
like a flail over a shield. Kumar flung himself to the ground to
avoid a vicious blow to the skull.
Damn pendulum hammers, he grumbled silently. Twirling his legs
he flipped off the ground and back on his feet, in time to sidestep
a graceful high kick. He jammed the haft of his trident between
his attacker's ankles. She leapt over his legsweep. They both swung
their polearms like staves and cracked them together in rapid bursts.
Then they pulled back, crouching low, weapons aimed at exaggerated
Kumar caught his breath. "Your argument needs work, but your delivery
"Who are you?" growled the woman, "Reveal yourself."
Kumar shook his head. "Now you're starting to sound like a drone,"
She scuttled forward in a low stance. In a swift move she slung
her hammer at his face, narrowly missing. The hammer clanged against
the iron landing; the pendulum head lashed out and caught his calf.
Kumar recognized the tactic but could do nothing to stop it. He
was swatted to the floor. Quickly he rolled to one side, scissoring
his legs around the haft of the hammer. He smacked the butt of his
trident against the captured weapon. The woman flinched. In another
instant the prongs of Kumar's fork jammed under her chin.
From the ground Kumar held the points of the trident just above
her gorget. "I'm sure you recognize a pneumatic weapon," he panted,
his leg throbbing in pain. "Move and I trigger the piston. Now the
choice is yours."
The woman moved. Her kick was so fast Kumar's thumb pushed the
stud only after her boot clanged against his helm. As he toppled
backwards he heard a hiss of steam and the felt the jar of his trident's
head thrusting out two more feet. He rolled to a kneel. He knew
he had punctured something.
The woman pressed both hands to her face. They were bloody. Her
helmet, torn from her head, lay behind her. Her uncovered hair was
brilliant red and drawn into a topknot.
When she drew away her hands, Kumar saw she had a shallow gash
up one cheek. There was more blood than real damage. The ritual
scarring on her brow had probably been much more painful.
Kumar also saw that she was beautiful. And that she was not human.
But then Kumar was not human, either. They had never heard of
humans. They were Juka -- strong, proud, long faced, hard skinned,
stoutly framed. Theirs was a race of tireless workers, tireless
soldiers. Like the world in which they lived, the Juka were a forged
race. A designed race.
A slave race.
"Narah!" he shouted, raising his palm. "You're Narah of Shire
"You know my name." The woman's eyes smoldered. Blood streamed
down her face in dark rivulets. "Then you know you're going to die."
He waved his hand. "No! I've got a better proposal. I yield to
you." Swiftly he unfastened the catch on his facemask and opened
it on small hinges. "I'm Kumar of Shire Athul, under Citadel Britain.
You must recognize me."
She squinted and stared at his face. "Perhaps you are." Her guard
relaxed a bit. "I was given a description. You do seem to match
"I am who I say. There's no sense lying when we're already killing
each other." He stood up slowly. He left his trident on the landing
at his feet. It sputtered steam and hot water. "But if it puts you
at ease, I'll disarm until you're convinced."
"No need. That just convinced me. You live up to your reputation.
I greet you with respect and honor, Kumar of Shire Athul." She started
to smile, but grimaced when her wound pulled tight.
"I greet you with respect and honor, Narah of Shire Kubaron, under
Citadel Vesper," said Kumar, retrieving his weapon. He frowned at
the blood on one prong. "We should get to a healer."
"We should get to the summit," she responded. "Everyone else is
here, waiting for you."
History would record the first Revolutionary Summit as the hinge
that opened the door out of slavery. Prior to the summit, Jukan
rebels operated in isolated bands. Strewn throughout the brick-paved
countryside were small, clandestine gatherings of seditious factions,
mainly soldiers and factory workers. They embarked on solitary,
disconnected forays. A bold endeavor, the first summit brought together
delegates from each of six major regions. Each represented the resistance
cell in his homeland. Their plan was to piece together, from a disjointed
scattering of Jukan industrial and military units, the components
of a worldwide rebellion. Their goal, to smash the mechanisms of
slavery. Their enemy, the vile and enigmatic Overlords.
Jukan rebels spoke with an audible thrill as they discussed the
revolt against their masters, for the Overlords occupied a place
of primal dread in the Jukan subconscious. Juka feared their masters
in the same inexpressible way a prey animal fears a predator. The
Overlords were mysterious, unseen, and incalculably powerful. They
had created this world. They were its gods. It was Jukan labor that
pumped life into the machines, but the design and the control came
from the Overlords. From their great citadels issued both technology
and alchemical magic.
There were legends that claimed the machines themselves were the
Overlords, that the Juka served inanimate masters, that the lands
were ruled by gigantic, gear-driven engines which played at being
alive. But these were myths for common parlance. Jukan leaders knew
that somewhere, buried in their enormous, fearful citadels, the
Overlords were living beings of flesh and bone. To defeat their
enslavers, the Juka needed only to lay their hands on living Overlord
bodies. The Juka trusted the power of flesh against flesh.
Of course there were fortresses and war machines and loyalist
Juka troops standing in the way. These occupied the daily work of
an organized rebellion. Yet that first summit yielded little progress
in such matters; rather it served as the first sparkle of light
after a history of darkness.
Witnesses claimed that the light was nearly snuffed before the
torch could ignite.
Kumar and Narah hurried along an iron-railed walkway, high in the
ramparts of the roving foundry. Brick smokestacks roared with hot
breath just a few feet from them. Under the walkway flowed canals
of molten metal, tumbling over mill wheels and into various casting
houses. Aproned workers raked the glowing ooze into molds and hammered
the ash-black shapes they removed. The air was a miasma of cinders
and fumes. In the distance, the flames of battle were hardly visible
through the glare of the foundry's works.
Kumar tore a strip of silk from his breeches and handed it to
Narah, who pressed the wad against her bleeding face. "There's six
of us at the summit altogether," she told him, using a loud voice
against the rumble of the metalworks. "That covers all the major
resistance cells. But we haven't started talking yet. We've been
too busy. The local forces have held the foundry for five days now,
but the loyalist troops are tightening in. If the battle goes sour,
we'll have to break up the summit or risk discovery."
"Why take this foundry?"
"The pipelines under us transport barrels of food and military
supplies. At the next town there's a junction that services three
loyalist cities. If we can make it that far we can highjack their
supplies, or at least stop the flow. That would cripple their strength
in this shire. But we need this foundry to do it."
"And the foundry can supply our troops with all the weapons and
missiles we need, right?"
"Victory by attrition is still victory."
Kumar frowned. "Don't rely on attrition. I passed a loyalist column
on the way here. There were at least two hundred spearmen and fifty
ridgebacks. They had several pneumatic trebuchets. It won't take
them more than a day to get here."
Narah winced. "You came a long way just to cancel the summit,
Kumar of Britain. When we find the others, make sure to give all
the details to Obden."
"Obden of Shire Fusil, under Citadel Yew. The local delegate.
She organized the smiths to capture the foundry."
Kumar smiled. "I like her, then. She plans big."
They headed in the direction of a tall tower overlooking the foundry's
works. Partway there, Narah stopped. She held Kumar still with fingertips
on his chest.
"What is it?" he whispered.
With a tilt of her brow she motioned ahead. Around a shallow bend,
just to the side of the walkway, was a small platform carrying a
bolt-mounted winch. The winch's rope hung off the edge of the giant
foundry, swaying on a high, sooty breeze. Beside the winch stood
a lightly armored Juka warrior. A greatsword was sheathed on his
back. Before him were two soldiers, dressed in the dark livery of
the attacking loyalist troops. One of them held a strange contraption
consisting of coils and gears, while the other brandished a weapon
shaped like a wide-mouthed horn, pointed at the warrior with the
"Blunderbuss," whispered Kumar.
"That's Rabak, one of the delegates, at gunpoint." Narah frowned.
"I have no missiles to throw. You?"
"Only one." Kumar loosed the trident from his back and balanced
it on his palm. It was heavy with water and pneumatic mechanisms.
The pair exchanged a nod.
Creeping forward with expert stealth, he drew the weapon back
and estimated the distance. Then he flung the trident. It arced
quietly at the soldier with the blunderbuss. Its prongs thudded
into the man's chest armor and shoved him back toward the precipice.
The soldier howled. He tottered on the edge. After a heartbeat his
blunderbuss fired, a ferocious blast that cracked the air and sprayed
the platform with knife-sharp fragments. The warrior with the greatsword
bent over and clutched his stomach. The smell of spent fuel bit
The force of the explosion toppled the soldier over the edge.
Kumar's trident wagged in the air, still embedded in the soldier's
Kumar leapt after him.
"Rabak, stand back!" shouted Narah as she charged behind Kumar.
The wounded warrior stumbled backwards when she swung her pendulum
hammer at the remaining soldier. The loyalist dove over the arc
of her strike. Dropping the contraption from his hands, he tumbled
to his feet and yanked a short sword from his belt. Its double blades
were curved and toothy.
Narah simply grinned.
Kumar plunged off the side of the platform. Below him the soldier
plummeted as well, the pneumatic trident still stuck in his chest.
Two hundred feet of smoky air separated them from the ground. Time
slowed, as if they fell through water.
The rope from the winch passed through the crook of Kumar's arm.
Kumar stretched out after the falling loyalist, but the man was
too far below. Grinding his teeth, Kumar tightened his arm on the
rope and jerked to a painful stop.
Ten feet below him, the soldier also grabbed the rope. He snarled
at the violent wrenching. The trident dislodged from his chest and
fell away, disappearing into the gray, cloudy air. Seconds later
Kumar heard the distant sound of its impact.
Drooling blood, the soldier gasped for breath as he looped the
rope around one wrist. Hanging below him at the end of the rope
was a stout iron hook. With his free hand he yanked up the slack
and began to twirl it in a tight circle, as one would twirl a sling.
"Narah, pull us up!" Kumar held on with both hands, heaving up
his legs as the soldier lashed out with the hook. Kumar reached
for the sword at his hip, but contorted again to dodge another blow.
The hook gouged a shallow cut on his arm. He spat a curse, then
On the platform, Narah backed the loyalist against the head-high
pole supporting the rope and pulley. With a thrust of her hammer
she knocked the double-bladed sword from his grip. Then she swung
her weapon behind her back and around for another strike. The soldier
yelped. By inches he pulled himself up the winch pole, out of the
path of the strike. Narah growled as her hammer clanged against
the pole, the pendulum head wrapping around it. For an instant her
weapon was pinned. The loyalist seized the moment. He leapt at her,
gauntleted hands clawing for her throat.
Narah bent back at a sharp angle. The loyalist sailed over her,
unable to fasten a grip. She kicked up her legs and cartwheeled
backwards, landing in a grappling stance as the loyalist scrambled
to his feet. He lifted his gauntlets to reveal long spikes festooning
Narah lifted her hand to reveal the soldier's two-bladed short
sword. He blanched. With a swift motion she tipped the weapon over
her shoulder and then hurled it end-over-end at him. It embedded
to its crossbars in his unarmored throat. He exhaled blood and gurgled,
dropping to the ground.
As the loyalist soldier writhed feebly on the ground, Narah turned
her attention to the winch. The mechanism had a long spool and an
iron handle. She ratcheted the rope higher and higher, until Kumar's
head appeared over the lip of the platform. In his hand was his
unsheathed sword, long and angular. The rope was severed a few feet
below his grip.
He rolled onto the platform and stood. When he turned to speak
to Narah, she was kneeling over the warrior with the greatsword.
"Is he dead?"
"He's fine." She pointed to a half-empty vial in the warrior's
hand. "He's a healer. He carries an antidote to steel."
The healer sucked in a quavering breath. "My gratitude to both
of you. And my apologies. I'm not used to being caught off guard
like that." He grunted as he stumbled to his feet. "You must be
Kumar. I'm Rabak of Shire Galvan, under Citadel Moonglow. I greet
you with respect and honor. When did you arrive?"
"I just got here." Kumar bowed and returned the greeting. "Moonglow?
That's going to be the toughest citadel to crack."
"Mmmm." Rabak squinted his eyes. "Strange, isn't it, that you
arrived at the same time as those infiltrators?"
"Not very strange. When I got to the battlefield, the loyalists
were firing spark stones into the defensive line. There were holes
in it a juggernaut could have passed through without being noticed."
"Rabak, it's bad form to accuse a fellow delegate. We've got to
learn to trust each other." Narah held up the geared device the
loyalist soldier had dropped. "Besides, there's work to do. This
is a spring sap. Those men were going to dig holes in the walls."
Kumar frowned. "One sap won't do much damage by itself. There's
got to be others. Which means these can't be the only loyalists
creeping around the place."
"The torsion wheels!" Rabak stared at Narah. "That's got to be
their target. I bet a couple of these saps would be enough to destroy
the foundry's axles!"
Narah pitched the device over the ledge. "Let's get there first,
then." Hurriedly she disengaged her pendulum hammer from the winch
pole. As they started down the walkway, she glanced at Kumar and
murmured, "That tattoo." She motioned to his arm, where the hook
had cleaved his shirt to reveal a multicolored design on his skin.
"You're a Janissar?"
He said nothing.
She frowned. "The Janissars are loyal to the Overlords. Extremely
"The legion and I have retired from one another." He glared at
her. "I could cut out this tattoo, if it would suit you, but I can't
sever my past."
She nodded slowly. "Are you okay? That was something, jumping
over the edge like that."
He glanced back in the direction of the platform. "I don't like
having to kill Juka. We shouldn't be fighting each other. I'd rather
face a juggernaut or an Overlord."
She reset the mechanism on her hammer. The latch clicked tight
like a tiny jaw. "Are you saying you leapt over the side to save
that soldier's life?"
"Is that so hard to believe?"
"It's easier to believe you didn't want to lose your pneumatic
He narrowed his eyes. "That cuts, Narah of Vesper."
She smirked. "Then we're even, Kumar of Britain." She propped
her hammer on her shoulder and swigged the rest of the healing draught
from Rabak's vial. The cut on her cheek began to fade. Then she
trotted faster down the walkway, leading Rabak.
Despite himself, Kumar chuckled.
A mile away, on a brick-paved hilltop overlooking the grim battlefield,
several unarmored soldiers gathered around a table. Their livery
included the gilt ornaments of loyalist officers. They conferred
over a map depicting the foundry, pipelines and surrounding terrain.
Small stone markers represented troop positions. The only light
fluttered from a tall glass lantern, inside of which bright blue
sparks leapt between two metal rods.
"This is taking too long," grumbled one of them. "Their airships
neutralize ours. We need to request the presence of some juggernauts
or they'll reach the junction before we capture the facility."
"Patience," said another. "The reinforcements are almost here.
The extra artillery should whip back their airships. Once we take
the skies, we'll have them."
A third officer shook his head. "No need for patience or air power.
I've just heard news. Our commando teams are on board and our spy
is now in place. The foundry will be immobilized before the evening
whistle. And better still, they'll regret ever trying to call together
a summit of traitors." He smiled and crossed his arms, revealing
a colorful Janissar tattoo in the quivering blue light.
The rest of the officers grinned and looked across the smoky battlefield,
at the black silhouette of the foundry. Its many rooftops resembled
jagged teeth bared to the dark sky. Its molten iron blood pulsed
like a hot, glowing heartbeat.