In the smoky gloom above the foundry
hovered a dozen black, hulking specters. The airships pricked the
darkness with clusters of lamps, like a thousand tiny, glowing eyes.
On occasion it was possible to discern the outline of one of the armored
vessels. Their shapes were bizarre and irregular, resembling a strange
accretion of components from fortresses, seagoing ships and complex
siege engines. Long, bat-like vanes of sailcloth caressed the high
currents of air. Windmill propellers rotated with eerie languor, resisting
the push of the caustic winds.
|PART TWO: FACES OF VICTORY
Like lethargic beasts the airships hung above the foundry and
its surrounding battleground. When one would stir, descending slowly
to pour cascades of arrows or sheets of poisonous vapor on the droves
of enemy soldiers, opposing airships would creep in and punish it
with splashes of flame and whips of lightning and bursts of exploding
metal shards. Inevitably the vessels would pull back, reshuffling
positions, and resume their motionless vigil in the sky.
Observed from the ground they might have been fantastical black
monsters, visible in the glitter of eyes and scales, frightful in
their capricious assaults and in the distant mechanical growls from
their wood-and-iron bellies.
Far below, among the complex catwalks and rooftops of the roving
foundry, three armored figures hurried towards a large foundry house.
As they mounted a spiral of metal stairs, one of them paused and
stared up at the ominous skyborne menagerie.
Narah stopped and glanced back at Kumar. The faceplate of his
helmet was open. His expression was hard with displeasure. "Is there
He nodded. "Our airships. They're running low on levitant. I wonder
if we can outlast the loyalists."
"The captains figure we can." She furrowed her brow. "I didn't
think it was that obvious."
"I grew up on an air scow, dumping gas into the wind streams.
The clouds were my schoolyard. I know airships."
"So I see. Then why didn't you serve on one, instead of becoming
"I still walk the clouds, in nightmares." He grimaced. "I don't
like the sky. Ugly things happen there."
A few paces ahead of them, Rabak caught Narah's eye. She nodded
to Kumar. Then she trotted beside the healer.
"What do you think?" Rabak murmured.
"He's trying very hard to seem … forthright."
"Honesty is a trait, not a skill. Have you noticed how he only
reveals enough about himself to lure more information out of you?"
His eyes grew dark. "Watch yourself, Narah. I have a strange feeling
"I'm always careful." With a smirk she added, "But it doesn't
hurt to have a healer nearby."
Rabak smiled. "Nor a warrior of your reputation. We'll both keep
an eye on him, then."
Behind them, Kumar took a careful account of the positions of
the airships and committed them to memory.
It was a notable characteristic of the Jukan Rebellion that mythology
rose from the grave. Historically the folktales of the Juka had
been relegated to audiences of children. Adults paid myths no respect.
After all, mythology recounted a fanciful time when the world was
bare of paving stones and every place was covered with strange,
green plants. There were wilds so large a man could get lost in
them. The sky, said the legends, was once filled with millions of
tiny, luminous spirits, and during the day it would turn blue and
warm the lands with light. The Great Mother kept all of her children
free and happy. And the Overlords were not yet imagined.
Strangest of all were the tales of sorcerers. These were legendary
men of great magical power whose deeds were bizarre and wonderful.
The stories detailed how the sorcerers began to war with each other,
and how many created machines as well as wizardry to defeat their
enemies. Those that mastered technology mastered their opponents.
Eventually their machines sapped the world of its fantastical life.
The implication, of course, was that the sorcerers eventually became
the Overlords. Historians knew that the reverse was true: The reality
of the Overlords inspired myths about ancient magicians.
In reality, all magic did spring from the Overlords. It was they
who created potions for health and strength that filled silos and
reservoirs. It was they who piped food into the cities. It was they
who mined spark stone to make lightning and refined levitant ore
to lift airships off the ground. And it was they who produced the
alchemical wonders - kinetic springs, spark stone fuels, self-revolving
gears - at the heart of advanced technology. The Overlords had shackled
fire and lightning, sucked heat and power out of the rocky earth,
contrived miracles out of pulleys and pistons and even harnessed
strength out of simple steam.
Of course there were Jukan engineers to implement the Overlords'
designs, Jukan healers to mete out medicines, Jukan alchemists to
dilute and distribute the potions furnished by their masters. But
the material needs of life came exclusively from the Overlords.
Which meant, of course, that the Juka had no power. They were
forged and fed using alchemy, like all the other cogs in the engines.
They were slaves to the Overlords' unknowable technological ambitions.
But the time had come to remove the yoke.
The rebels did not like to dwell on how they might survive without
the providence of their masters. Every problem would be tackled
in its time. After all, bravery was a cornerstone of the Jukan lifestyle.
Yet that uncertainty gave rise to fear, which demanded hope; and
the need for hope cried out to a long-neglected ingredient in Jukan
culture: The power of mythology. And the inspiration of heroes.
Standing before Kumar was the largest Juka he had ever seen. That
the man was a fighter there was no doubt -- his face was covered
with weapon scars, his posture was balanced and assured, his short,
stout horns were more cracked and worn than most Jukan males'. And
he wore a suit of armor that Kumar had only dreamed of seeing. It
was a masterpiece of steel and mechanics, with gears at the joints,
pipes and pulleys along the limbs and a cushion of steam underlying
the metal shell. A rare find, pneumatic armor was said to give protection
twice that of ordinary mail. Its mechanisms enhanced the wearer's
strength, as well.
It was also said to be so uncomfortable that only a masochist
would don it. The steam and smoke were hardly bearable, the heat
even less so, and the weight cut endurance in half. That this fighter
was miserable, too, there was no doubt. His face was taut with strain.
"Obden!" bellowed the giant, "dammit, get back here and fix this
flaming thing!" In the center of a large foundry chamber the warrior
was pumping the arm of a gigantic leather bellows, forcing air into
a blast furnace. Smiths shoveled coal into its fires and pulled
white-hot metal from its maw. The air was clogged with ash and embers
and thick humidity.
"Turlogan!" shouted Narah, her voice almost lost in the noise.
The enormous fighter turned to look at them. "This is Kumar of Shire
Athul, under Citadel Britain. The last of the delegates."
Kumar bowed his head. "You're the champion pit fighter, right?
I greet you with respect and honor, Turlogan of Shire Cetyl, under
"I'm not in the mood!" barked Turlogan, heaving his shoulder against
the thick arm of the bellows. "Where's Obden?"
"I'm here!" Stepping through a doorway was a petite woman in a
smudged dress and a leather workman's apron. The engineer's graying
hair was spiraled in a bun. Obden of Yew nodded to Kumar, Narah,
and Rabak, then turned toward the pit fighter. "Save your breath,
Turlogan! It's too muggy as it is."
"Just hurry! The armor's getting low on steam."
"Pull that arm down here." Turlogan shoved the bellows arm down
to Obden's height. In her hand was a large iron bolt. She inserted
it through a hole at the end of the bellows arm, attached to it
a rod that dropped down from the rafters and pinned it with a steel
clip. Then she signaled a worker at the other end of the room. The
worker turned an oversized valve wheel. Somewhere outside the chamber,
huge mechanisms clanked and churned to life. The rod from the ceiling
slowly began to move, pumping the enormous bellows in place of Turlogan.
"Thank the Great Mother!" he gasped, stepping back and wiping
"This way!" called Obden to the others. "I can see by your faces
that something's wrong."
They gathered outside the foundry house, in a narrow alley where
the sounds and smells were muffled. After quick introductions Narah
relayed two pieces of bad news: More troops and artillery were coming
to reinforce the loyalists who besieged the roving foundry; and
enemy infiltrators might be sabotaging the facility's spring-powered
"There could be any number of infiltrators on board," said Kumar.
"When I came through, the loyalists were lobbing spark stones on
the defensive line. It had more holes than a rusty sieve."
"Not good," muttered Obden, pulling off her apron. "I'll notify
the airship captains about the reinforcements. Maybe we can still
hold the foundry. But it's moot if the torsion engines don't work.
I'll get some extra guards to search the place for intruders. We'd
better go down and check on the engines ourselves."
"What about Darhim?" asked Rabak. "I thought he was with you?"
"He's down in the engines already, balancing the lubricant tanks.
They're getting dangerously low. We've been running at full tension
for three days now."
Narah leaned toward Kumar and said, "Darhim of Shire Crucivar,
under Citadel Jhelom, is the only delegate you haven't met."
Kumar nodded. "And the one I most look forward to. His leadership
as a priest is legendary. I didn't know he was also an alchemist."
"And a good one," said Obden. "He's done excellent work while
we were waiting for you, Kumar. Now let's get going before the loyalists
turn our engines into a rusty sieve, too."
Turlogan trudged heavily in the hissing bulk of the pneumatic
armor. "Don't slow down for me!" he grumbled. "Dammit, I thought
I'd get to take this off once we were finished with the bellows."
Narah spoke to him over her shoulder. "I hope you stoked up your
appetite, too. I brought you an early lunch - wild loyalist, sliced
The pit fighter grinned. "Narah, you know how to make a man happy."
"If killing my enemies makes you happy, then I'll gladly show
you the way to paradise."
From ahead of them Obden called out, "Don't keep the enemy waiting!
They'll call us bad hosts."
The loyalists had not waited. When the five rebel delegates arrived
at the torsion engines, they found the doors barred from the inside.
Obden banged a fist on the studded wood. "That beam holding the
doors is six inches thick! We'll have to find another way in."
"Maybe not." Kumar examined the doors, then turned to the healer
Rabak. "That's a static greatsword, isn't it? Good. Everyone push
on the doors! Maybe we can open them a crack. If we do, Rabak, see
if it's wide enough to get your blade through."
Four of them shoved their shoulders against the doors. After a
few moments the doors parted not much more than a blade's width.
Voices cried alarm inside the room. "Now, Rabak! Hurry!"
The healer unsheathed his man-high sword, placed the tip high
between the doors and swept it down against the beam on the other
side. A bright light dazzled as the blade impacted, unleashing a
powerful static charge. Sparks with smoky tails jumped through the
air. Wood burned. Men growled curses from the other side and the
doors banged shut again. Rabak jerked his blade from the crack with
no time to spare.
"It didn't cut through," panted Narah.
Kumar shook his head. "It didn't have to. All we need is to weaken
The towering pit fighter grinned. He trotted several meters down
the hall, away from the doors. "I've always wanted to try this."
He turned a crank on his breastplate. Small air vents opened wide,
stoking the hot embers inside the steam chamber. The pneumatics
gasped and swelled. "Stand back, people!" With a grunt he ran forward.
Steam coughed out of his joints with every pumping step, and he
smashed against the heavy doors like a steel battering ram. The
sturdy beam croaked and split; the doors hove inward. With a loud
crack the beam snapped completely and Turlogan toppled into the
He looked up into the points of several crossbows. "Well, damn."
Tucking his head he twisted away as four loyalists fired iron quarrels
point-blank. Three missiles ricocheted; one embedded in his shoulder.
"Find Darhim!" shouted Narah as she leapt over Turlogan. Landing
gracefully she pirouetted, swinging her hammer in a wide circle
and shattering three crossbows. She twirled the polearm in a figure
eight to clear some space. Then she surveyed the situation.
The torsion engines of the roving foundry looked like the interior
of a giant clock. Huge gears, chains, axles and levers filled the
room with motion, animated by a barrage of flat, spiral torsion
springs the size of mill wheels. On the far side of the room lay
the primary coil, a flat spring thirty feet across. Copper pipes
dispersed lubricant to various joints and couplings. The mechanisms
extended all the way up the chamber's eighty-foot height, where
windows in the ceiling spilled orange light into the room in tall,
Four slain engineers lay in a pile to one side of the door.
At first glance Narah guessed there were twenty loyalist soldiers,
equipped for mobility, not heavy melee. She paused only long enough
to take a deep breath. Then her hammer swirled.
Kumar lunged in behind her. His angular sword rang as he drew
it. When he saw a crossbow aimed his way he dove low along the ground.
The bolt zipped over him by inches. He tumbled forward to the archer's
feet. Quickly he swiped his blade. The loyalist soldier yowled and
collapsed, his legs grimly maimed.
Kumar pitched to his feet and charged a group of four loyalists
gathered around a spring sap. The device had sprouted iron jaws
which were chewing through the axle of a large gear. Kumar roared
and chopped a fierce pattern in the air; but his first target was
the spring sap. With a stroke of his blade the contraption exploded
into a tangle of springs and cogs. Then he spun and faced the loyalists.
They each drew short swords, unmatched against his longsword, though
Kumar had to slash a rapid series of cross-body parries to repel
them all at once. A few small gashes made it through to Kumar's
forearms. Then one of them thrust his sword a hand's breadth too
far. Kumar removed the man's arm with an upstroke. He hooked his
elbow around the man's shoulder and slung him into another. A blade
streaked at Kumar's neck. He dropped to a crouch and with a brutal
kick crushed his attacker's knee. The loyalist doubled over and
impaled himself on Kumar's upraised sword.
He spun to the side to avoid another sword thrust. Pushing off
the ground with his legs he slammed his back against a loyalist,
pinning the soldier against the huge, slowly turning gear. The soldier's
weapon fell into the cogs. Kumar rotated his sword's point backwards
and stabbed the man in the belly. The last of the four he blocked
with two quick parries and finished with a violent diagonal slice
across the chest, bisecting the man's dark livery and parting the
hard leather of his armor.
A deafening clang resounded through the chamber. Kumar looked
across the room to see that Turlogan had picked up one half of the
broken bar from the doors and was swinging it like a club. The enormous
timber swatted loyalists off their feet, one of whom had hit a metal
panel with his iron helmet.
The pit fighter had three quarrels stuck in him. He barked insults
at his foes. Their swords clanked off his pneumatic armor. Then
two leapt on him at once, only to be lifted, one in each hand, and
flung against a pillar-sized axle.
Kumar counted eight loyalists downed by Turlogan, who had brought
no weapons along. He made a mental note to respect the pit fighter's
opinions during the upcoming summit.
Someone shouted, "Obden, watch out!" Kumar gauged the direction
of the voice and dashed into the enormous animated mechanisms of
the torsion engine. There he discovered two soldiers, double-bladed
daggers in hand, converging on the unarmed Obden. The engineer had
two deactivated spring saps at her feet. Kumar dodged past levers
and chains, though he knew the passing seconds were against him.
In the last instant he sprang forward, extending his arm and longsword
to their fullest length. The soldier tried to duck to the side.
He failed. Kumar landed on his stomach as he impaled the man --
only to watch the second loyalist stab at Obden.
Abruptly the loyalist vanished with a thudding sound. From a cluster
of pipes overhead dropped Narah, resetting the pendulum of her hammer.
When she saw her victim was unconscious, slammed against a metal
buttress fifteen feet away, she relaxed a bit. She exchanged nods
with the unharmed Obden. The engineer resumed her work disabling
a third sap. Then Narah smiled down at Kumar, lying on his stomach.
"Why are you always fighting from the ground?"
"It keeps me humble."
Her smile faltered. "Janissars have no humility."
He rose to his knees. His eyes hardened. "I told you, the legion
is behind me. Violently so. You should have seen the wake I left
at my retirement. It was lush and red as your hair, I assure you."
"I'd take that as a compliment, if I knew I could trust you."
"Forget trust. Just pay close attention."
She pointed at him. "That, I'll do."
"Up there!" Obden exclaimed, motioning up to the higher machinery.
"There's Darhim!" Kumar peered into the gloom, finally making out
the shape of a small Juka perched on a platform fifty feet above
them. Darhim of Shire Crucivar wore the long robe of a priest. He
seemed quite old. And also quite trapped.
Not far below, the four remaining loyalist intruders were climbing
up toward him. They used pipes and struts and gears as footholds,
as no ladders were present. They would reach him within minutes.
Rabak the healer was climbing after them, though his progress was
much slower. Kumar cursed. "Come on!" he growled at Narah as he
leapt up to the pipes from which she had dropped. Narah laid down
her hammer and was close behind.
Kumar did not pause to look down. He scrambled up the churning
machine and quickly passed Rabak. A few feet below the loyalists
he unsheathed his sword.
"Leave the priest be!" He smashed his blade against a metal support,
demanding the soldiers' attention. One of them stopped and drew
his short sword. Kumar maneuvered below the man on a crisscross
of pipes. But the awkward footing threw off his sword stroke; he
nicked a large iron gear. With a kick the loyalist pinned Kumar's
blade against the gear and then stomped a leather boot into his
face. Kumar snarled and grabbed the man's ankle. For several seconds
it was a match of strength until Kumar twisted his opponent's foot
and flung the man off his perch. With a cry the loyalist fell through
the machinery of the room, bouncing off hard iron.
Kumar watched his own sword slide down into the machinery, as
well. Underneath him, Narah darted out a hand and snatched the weapon
from the air. She hurled it back up to him. He grabbed the pommel
in time to parry another short sword. Two more soldiers had turned
to face him. The last soldier, Kumar saw, had reached the old priest
He feinted a thrust past one opponent's neck, then peeled open
the man's throat with the return stroke. As the soldier began to
fall, Kumar grabbed his short sword. He tossed it over his shoulder.
Behind him, Narah caught the weapon and slipped it into her belt.
She had climbed to his level and was continuing up toward Darhim
and the last soldier. Her face was wild with adrenaline.
Kumar buried his blade in his last opponent's gut, then looked
up at Narah. She stood before Darhim and the loyalist soldier. She
slashed high and the soldier easily ducked; but her blade cut a
pair of leather straps that held in place a heavy pipe. The pipe
dropped several feet, bashing the man's helmeted head. Narah clutched
the stunned man's neck, bent down in his face and bared her teeth.
"Did you see that? Did you see what we just did, loyalist? That's
how we'll finish the revolution! We'll climb faster, we'll fight
better, and we'll always find a way to beat you!" A swift knee to
his face flattened him on the high, narrow platform.
"Narah!" shouted Kumar from below. "Look after Darhim!"
"Great Mother!" She whirled to face the priest. The wrinkled old
Juka was slumped on the platform. His hands were painted with blood.
"Darhim, you're hurt!"
The priest coughed and pressed his forearms against his stomach.
"Stabbed," he managed to say with bloody lips.
"Relax now. Rabak's coming."
On the platform, Kumar and Narah stood back as Rabak knelt beside
the old priest. "I'm sorry, Darhim," murmured the healer. "I tried
to catch them, but I'm not the athlete I used to be." He produced
a small vial of amber liquid. "Here's something for you. It'll take
the pain away."
Darhim wrinkled his nose. "Will it, now?" In the next instant
Rabak stiffened and dropped the vial. He stared down the length
of a hand weapon, which Darhim was pointing directly at his face.
"Not today," said the priest.
The healer choked on a breath. "By the Great Mother!"
Narah's jaw hung open. She stared at the mechanical weapon with
its hand crank and spark chamber. "A static scourge? Darhim, what
on earth --?"
Kumar glowered. "We've got a spy among us." He pulled his sword
from its scabbard and stepped closer to the two Juka. "My guess
is, Rabak's a traitor. Am I right, Darhim?"
"Indeed you are. I've suspected for days, but I wasn't convinced
until this little encounter." He smiled, though his eyes did not
leave Rabak. "You must be Kumar of Shire Athul, under Citadel Britain.
I greet you with respect and honor."
"And I you, Darhim of Shire Crucivar under Citadel Jhelom. Greatly
so on both accounts."
Narah stepped forward. "Hold on! How can you say Rabak's a traitor?
He's just been fighting beside us!"
Kumar shook his head. "He never lifted his blade against them.
Not here or when we first 'rescued' him. But that wasn't a rescue,
was it, Rabak? We caught you making a deal with them, didn't we?
A deal to lure all of us down here, into an ambush."
The healer moved to stand, but Darhim's insistent weapon kept
him kneeling. "I'm no traitor! Has the taste of blood stolen your
reason? Which one of us just faked an injury? Which one of us is
holding a static scourge on another delegate? Use your eyes!"
Darhim snorted. "If you're no traitor, then that's not poison
in the vial you were about to give me. Drink it."
"That's a rare potion. I will not waste it."
Kumar raised his sword's point. "Drink it, Rabak. It may yet save
The healer's face drooped into astonishment. In a whirl of motion
he snatched the weapon from Darhim's hand and pointed it at Kumar
Kumar twitched forward. Rabak turned the hand crank and fired
the static scourge.
A fork of lightning arced from the scourge's tip. Kumar lunged
out of its path, but the static energy danced across the end of
the metal platform, stunning Kumar and Narah with its dispersed
force. The engine room glimmered in a pale blue light. Kumar reeled
with burning pain, then felt his body return to him. It was trembling
and weak. He looked up to see Rabak with his greatsword drawn. The
static scourge lay smoking on the platform, its single shot expended.
"Dishonor!" said Rabak, keeping the others away by the distance
of his long blade. "Thank the Great Mother I can finally say it
aloud! You shame yourselves with this rebellion. Jukan honor comes
from service to the Overlords. It's our duty, and you're spitting
"Our duty is to ourselves," said Darhim, rising to his feet. "Juka
must serve each other."
"Selfishness! Disloyalty. Destitution. That's what you're fighting
Kumar's voice croaked from the scourge's aftermath. "What a miserable
assassin you are, Rabak! Leading us into a botched ambush? Next
time tell them not to bar the door." He stepped closer. "I suspect
you're not much of a warrior, either, so you'd better drop that
sword. Let's climb down from here and figure out what to do with
Rabak tilted up his chin and narrowed his eyes. "I'm the only
one here who isn't a traitor to the Juka." He stepped back, toward
the edge of the platform. "Shire Galvan will always stand against
you. Honor still means something there. I'll be remembered with
honor." The heel of his boot eased back, over the ledge.
Kumar raised a quivering hand. "Rabak, don't! Come with us!"
Darhim pointed downward. "He's above the primary coil! If he falls
on it with that static sword, the spring will crack!"
Rabak stepped over the edge and began to fall. Kumar leapt after
Time slowed, as it had earlier when Kumar jumped after a loyalist
falling over the foundry's edge; but this time Kumar grabbed Rabak's
wrist. His grip was weakened but secure. Only too late did Kumar
realize he could not anchor himself in time. He began to fall with
A savage pain tore through his shoulders. He still clung to Rabak's
arm, but he had stopped falling. Glancing up, he saw Narah leaning
over the edge of the platform, holding his other arm with both her
hands. Her face was dark with exertion.
Kumar felt his own strength rapidly vanishing. Below him, Rabak
snarled and worked to gain one-handed control of his greatsword.
The primary coil loomed like a huge target fifty feet under them.
"If the primary spring uncoils," yelled Darhim, "it could kill
all of us!"
Kumar screamed and tried to will his fingers to hold onto Rabak.
But the traitor slipped free and fell.
Kumar stared in horror as Rabak tumbled toward the circular frame
that housed the primary coil. Halfway down, the healer was struck
by a long, heavy piece of broken timber that broadsided him in midair.
The timber deflected Rabak and his greatsword away from the giant,
coiled spring. He smashed hard into the floor a few yards away from
it. His sword crackled and flashed when it landed. The timber slammed
into a corner.
On the ground, not far from the doorway, Turlogan doubled over
in his pneumatic armor. He gasped for breath in a cloud of white
steam. Obden stood next to him, working to loosen the armor's straps.
"That's the last of them!" she yelled after scanning the room.
"Wonderful, Turlogan!" shouted Darhim from above. "I knew you
were the right man for that armor!"
"Thank Obden," huffed the pit fighter. "She squeezed another head
of steam out of it. I thought I'd already run it dry."
"It wanted a woman's touch," said the engineer. She helped to
pull the huge breastplate loose, revealing Turlogan's densely muscled
torso. His skin, like all Juka's, was textured with spans of hard
callous. It was also steeped in sweat. With a look of relief he
clanged the heavy breastplate on the ground.
Obden admired the younger man for a moment, then grinned and smacked
him on the back.
With some effort Narah and Darhim pulled Kumar onto the metal
platform. He lay on his back, catching his breath. His strength,
stolen by the static shock, was gently returning to him. Narah crouched
beside him, similarly weakened.
"You did it again," she panted, "jumping over the edge to save
"Maybe I was just saving the primary coil."
"You'd have done it anyway, coil or not. I can see that." She
grimaced as she flexed her sore fingers. "You amaze me. I can't
figure you out, Kumar of Britain."
"You almost jumped off the edge yourself, saving me."
"I couldn't let you die. You're the most interesting person I've
Kumar chuckled. "That's glory at its essence, isn't it? I would
have died fulfilled."
"Pardon me," said the frail but uninjured Darhim, "but could you
two help me get down from here? I fear I overtaxed myself on the
"Our first victory as revolutionaries!" shouted Turlogan as they
stacked corpses on a low-slung cart. Stripped of his armor, the
pit fighter wore only a tight pair of breeches. He carried a dead
man in his arms. "Ten slain and fourteen maimed. Damn good for only
five of us, and two not even warriors!"
"The Great Mother has honored us with good fortune," said Darhim.
He stood beside the bloody collection and watched it for any sign
The engine room clanked and clattered, its activity uninterrupted.
Kumar's strength was nearly whole again. He hoisted a one-armed
body over his shoulder and grumbled, "What victory? Weren't you
paying attention? That was a victory for the Overlords."
Turlogan slumped his load onto the pile. "How's that, Kumar? Speak
loudly, so these corpses can hear you."
"You saw it, Narah, and you too, Darhim. You both saw Rabak's
face. He sacrificed himself for the Overlords because he believed
it was right." He grimaced as he laid the dead soldier on the cart.
"What you said up there was wrong, Narah. We won't win this revolution
by climbing faster or fighting better. We'll only win if every Juka
out there is willing to do for us what Rabak did today for the Overlords."
He pointed up at the platform. "That's what victory looks like!
Not this." He looked down at the pile of corpses. "This … this is
Turlogan tilted his head and popped his neck. His skin was splotched
with Jukan blood. "So you say. I say it feels pretty damn good."
"Be quiet, Turlogan," mumbled Narah.
"You're absolutely right," said Darhim to Kumar. "We'll never
win as underground fighters. Especially if we're so weak under Citadel
Moonglow that a spy can walk among us. We have to rally the rest
of the lands around a symbol." He spread out his hands. "That's
why I called this summit together. We're the heart of the revolution.
Let's not allow the Overlords to forestall us any longer."
"But we have to forestall longer," Obden interjected. A grimy
battlefield messenger stood beside her. "Word's come -- loyalist
reinforcements have been spotted on the horizon. The summit has
Turlogan laced his fingers together and cracked his knuckles loudly.
"My father used to say, 'Tongues may taste glory, but hands must
bake it.' Let's go collect some more hollow victories!"
The battlefield exploded with renewed, savage vigor. The fresh
loyalist troops pressed quickly into the defensive lines that encircled
the foundry. Their ridgeback cavalry pounded the shield walls. The
melee was brutal and chaotic, sparking a fierce barrage of heavy
archery fire from the foundry's ramparts and from the rebel airships.
The rain of arrows and grapeshot and spring-thrown missiles succeeded
in disrupting the loyalist advance. Balls of flame and forks of
lightning dropped out of the black sky. One of the airships emptied
a large, copper tank of its acidic contents; the corrosive fog poured
over the attackers amid gruesome shrieks and thrashing.
The loyalists regrouped. The rebels bolstered their shield walls.
When it seemed as if the conflict was balanced again, a heavy lull
creeping across the landscape, the loyalists ignited their pneumatic
trebuchets. The fifty-foot, steam-driven levers tossed huge missiles
through the air. The iron balls and spark stone boulders were aimed
not into the defensive lines, however, but rather at the rebel airships.
Half a dozen of the floating hulks loomed above the foundry. Their
bright lamps looked like colorful globes hovering beneath the roiling
black clouds. But when one vessel cracked its armored hull and listed
under a hail of pneumatic artillery, the remaining five whirled
their windmill sails and pulled back.
Loyalist airships lurched into the void. Their uncontested position,
high over the defensive forces, threatened a quick end to the battle.
On the ground, Kumar motioned Narah back from a skirmishing shield
wall. With Rabak's greatsword he pointed up to the conflict in the
air. "We're finished if our airships can't support us on the ground.
The captains have to make a move soon!"
"They can't stand against the trebuchets, Kumar. And we can't
capture that artillery in time." She gritted her teeth and shook
her head. "You're right, it's over here. Dammit! We'll have to retreat
and go back into hiding for now. Obden will give orders to destroy
the pipelines." She sighed. "I suppose all storms must come to an
Kumar gazed up at the sky. "Maybe we still have a thunderbolt
left in us. How can we signal that airship to lower a skyhoist?"
The captain of the vessel waved his hands in front of him. "Ridiculous!
We'll crash, or be pulled down to the ground."
Kumar was disheveled from the quick ride on a skyhoist to the
airship. "No, we won't. I've piloted tighter maneuvers on waste
scows half this nimble."
"You're insane! I won't risk my ship that way."
Narah stood beside Kumar. She leaned in close to the captain,
her voice turning gruff. "If we're beaten in this battle, your ship
won't escape theirs. You'll lose it for certain. You're in the thick
of it, soldier! Fight back."
The captain frowned.
On one deck of the many-tiered airship, Kumar ordered the flywheels
opened wide. Engineers released the brakes. Huge gears, treated
with kinetic alchemy, spun up to their maximum speed. The vessel's
windmill propeller twirled rapidly, driving the armored craft forward.
They headed straight at the loyalist airships. The dark, hazy air
was filled with eerie haloes around the vessels' many lamps.
"Cut the levitant agitators!" shouted Kumar. "Full pitch now!
Everyone hang on!" Huge chains clanked as the great propeller tilted
forward and down. Broad vanes of sailcloth rotated to catch the
rushing wind. The airship dropped its prow and picked up velocity
as it dove at the battlefield, five hundred feet below.
Kumar leaned over a spiked iron railing. He peered through the
smoky gloom of battle and picked out the glowing furnaces of the
pneumatic trebuchets. He marked battle lines by concentrations of
sparkling torches. "Prime the scourges! Prepare to fire! Vane men,
steady into your leveling!"
Narah clung to a handhold next to him, her eyes squinted in the
satiny flow of wind. "Great Mother! Are you sure we can pull out
of this dive?"
Kumar only laughed and burst into a wild, animal howl.
From the ground the diving airship might have been mistaken for
a slow-moving dragon. Lightning lashed like serpents' tongues from
deck-mounted heavy scourges, as its armored belly swooped no more
than ten feet above the stone-paved surface. Its speed was less
than a running man. The unexpected assault slipped under the artillery's
effective range and completely shattered loyalist formations. Rebel
warriors charged in its wake, harrying large numbers of the enemy,
while the airship navigated a course among the pneumatic trebuchets.
The artillery could not fire on a target so close and so low.
When the vessel passed each trebuchet, a broadside of lightning
and flame devastated the machine. Boilers exploded into scalding
water and shrapnel. Burning husks strew in the airship's path.
In the midst of the ground combat Turlogan wore his steaming armor,
swooping a colossal maul through the enemy as if they were brambles
to be cleared. He glanced at the marauding airship. On the prow
of the vessel Kumar and Narah were barely visible, fending off loyalists
who tried to climb aboard as it passed.
If his helmet were removed, the pit fighter's smile could have
lit up the endless night. "Here's to a heart of fire, Narah!" he
bellowed, laughing raucously. His maul smashed the chest armor of
a loyalist holding a white-hot sword. Another stroke dismantled
a barrel-sized machine designed to spray molten embers at the shield
wall. Then he held his weapon to the sky. "And here's to fobs of
High in the air, the remaining rebel vessels followed Kumar's
wild offensive and began to dive. When the loyalist airships descended
to intercept, the foundry's own defenses repelled them with fountains
of fire and streaming bolts. In return the surviving trebuchets
peppered the foundry with spark stones. Pyrotechnics erupted with
each impact. Many of the rooftops caught fire.
But the diving airships finished off the loyalist artillery. Though
the battle was not over, the loyalist forces were ravaged. Their
reinforcements were decimated; they were even weaker than the previous
day. A tactical retreat was called. Free of artillery fire and surging
with momentum, the rebels recaptured the sky after the loss of a
single airship, which had miscalculated its perilous dive. A second
ship received considerable damage from ground-based heavy weapons,
but remained skyworthy. The foundry began concerted work to forge
components for its repair.
Two tired armies fell quiet. Bonfires were kindled for another
After a brief celebration with ground commanders, Kumar and Narah
retired to a turret high among the roofs of the foundry. They rested
against a metal banister, drinking from leather jacks and looking
over the calm of the slumbering battlefield. The earthy tang of
copper brandy relieved the acrid smell of soot and metal.
The evening whistle sounded, shrill and fatigued.
"They're saying that if any of us survive this war," Narah commented,
"songs will be sung about your daring today."
He chuckled gently. "Daring and desperation are identical twins.
Promise me you won't join in?"
"Don't worry, my singing voice has atrophied. Words don't exactly
leap gracefully from my tongue anymore."
"They did once, though, didn't they?"
She quaffed a mouthful of brandy. "I don't know. Did I sing songs
as a little girl? I can't recall."
Kumar smiled at her. "Well, anyway, the helm and hammer suit you
She stared into the distance. "We face down our fears in our own
ways, I guess." With a sigh she glanced back. Kumar's eyes had lifted
to the sky. High above them, the outlines of the airships were barely
visible against angry, boiling clouds that reflected the light of
the foundry. A multitude of lanterns twinkled like tiny, luminous
spirits from some ancient, improbable myth.
She fell silent again and enjoyed the proud beauty of the rising