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 angles.

Kumar caught his breath. "Your argument needs work, but your delivery is persuasive."

"Who are you?" growled the woman, "Reveal yourself."

Kumar shook his head. "Now you're starting to sound like a drone," he chuckled.

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 Kubaron."

"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 it."

"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."

"Who's 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 greatsword.

"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 their nostrils.

The force of the explosion toppled the soldier over the edge. Kumar's trident wagged in the air, still embedded in the soldier's chest.

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 shouted, "Narah!"

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 his knuckles.

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 so."

"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 trident."

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.