The hurricane of sand howled a deadly scream. Like a monstrous predator it swept across the cracked barrens of Britannia Desert, beating the air with wings of blood-red dust. Talons of lightning struck the parched ground, churning up stones and debris. The air was an opaque veil of sand. The crimson dust stung all it touched, gnawing the landscape into blurs of scarlet-grey amid the endless, erosive squall.

A tall shape cast a rippling shadow among the curtains of wailing sand. It was a tower, solid and angular, unyielding to the storm's onslaught. Around it splayed a complex of buildings and silos. In the thunderous red gloom lights flickered, smokestacks vented fumes and ash, flames blazed and sputtered quickly away. The automated works of the Core Siphon churned on, mindless of the desert's fury. Its own violence was directed elsewhere.

The Core Siphon was a giant stiletto jabbed through the shell of the earth. Its drill-tipped blade punctured soil and rock until it touched the molten blood underneath. Immense iron pumps heaved magma to the surface, where clanking, hissing machines trapped its power inside alchemical fuels. The fuels were piped away across the cracked landscape. Waste lava was pumped into craggy hollows underground, from which it percolated up as gasses and soot to poison the desert terrain.

No one doubted why the land so often grew angry.

Along the stone walkways of the complex struggled a small group of men. Linked by a cord, they battled through the lashing winds toward the central siphon tower. At its base they vanished into a small door, almost lost among surging, tumbling drifts of dust. Inside they collected in a narrow hallway. Dim light seeped through slatted vents. They thumped shut the outer door, muffling the storm's fierce roar. An inner door blocked the far end of the corridor.

Shuddering off the weight of the storm, they began to unwrap the grit-heavy scarves and cloaks which had shielded them from the weather. Underneath layers of pale cloth they wore helmets, armor and sheathed weapons.

Leaning on the outer door, the largest of the group pulled his head from his helm in a spray of orange and red dust. He coughed and spat through a sour grimace. "Great Mother's bags, Kumar! Is this what you call hospitality in Britain?" Turlogan shook his head, jostling sand from his tightly cropped hair. "I've fought in muck pits with more charm."

"You dazzle us with your credentials." Narah of Vesper uncoiled a veil from her dark grey eyes. A swath of dust colored her face like a mask. "We're not here to admire the view, Turlogan."

Beside her, a broad-shouldered man pulled open his helmet's facemask. Grit crackled in the hinges. "Today is about strategy, not comfort," said Kumar of Britain, licking his dry lips. "If you know of a place more private than this, host the next summit yourself."

"You're sure it's safe?" Obden of Yew shrugged several bags from her shoulders. "You said the guards are sympathetic, but they're not out to meet us."

The last and smallest of the group untied the cord from his waist. Under his cloak he wore a priest's embroidered caftan and minimal armor. "I wouldn't face this storm, either, given the choice." Darhim wiped the dirt from his old, textured cheeks, then smiled. "I was tied to the rest of you, of course, so my own judgment was necessarily impaired."

Kumar chuckled. "Next time we'll loosen your knot. Gather your things, people, so we can go inside. Right now I'd chew the bolts off a steam boiler to get a drink of water." He pointed at Turlogan. "Make sure that outer door is latched."

The pit fighter narrowed his eyes and frowned. "No." With a swift motion he plucked two long daggers from his bag and glared back.

Kumar tilted his head. "If you have something to say," he growled, "use your tongue. It's far less keen than those knives."

"Listen!" The pit fighter's voice was a deep hiss. "Someone's moving beyond that door."

Darhim raised a hand. "Turlogan's right. I heard steel being drawn inside."

Narah lifted her chin and glanced at Kumar. A short sword already perched in her hand. "Well, this is a wrinkle. What now, general?"

"Watch the outside door," said Kumar to the pit fighter, "just in case. I'll have a look." On noiseless steps he approached the inner door, gently unsheathing the greatsword strapped to his back. He pressed his ear against the wood and held his breath.

When the door smashed open from within Kumar tumbled backwards and landed on his feet. He brandished his man-length blade in time to parry two speartips that streaked through the doorway. Sparks cracked from the static greatsword. With a swirl of his weapon he twisted the two spears across each other, then stamped atop the X they formed to trap their sharp points against the floor. In the tight space beside him Narah lunged with her short sword. It struck something metallic.

Turlogan bashed his shoulder against the outer door, then slammed a pommel into it. "Dammit, we're blocked in back here! I'm coming up!"

"No!" shouted Kumar. "Drop those knives, Turlogan." His greatsword pointed through the doorway. He took slow, retreating steps. "We can't fight. I know these men." Pressing him back were the two spearmen, Jukan warriors in distinctive battle armor. Behind them were half a dozen more, aiming spring-loaded bolt throwers. Narah moved down the hall in synch with Kumar. Both lowered their swordpoints.

"I know them, too!" snapped Turlogan, shoving past Obden and Darhim. Twin daggers flashed in his grip. "Janissars! They squeal like anyone else with steel in their belly."

Kumar threw his greatsword against the floor. The metal clattered and spewed white embers. "We've already lost. Don't give them a show."

"Honor our defeat," grumbled Darhim. "Surrender, Turlogan."

The enormous pit fighter roared. His daggers clanged on the ground. With a heavy gauntlet he punched the granite wall, which coughed a breath of powdery dust.

Narah closed her eyes as she laid down her blade. "They say the liquor of defeat brings courage to the strong. Drink up, my friends, while the tap is open."

Then the loyalist Janissars fell upon them.

Outside, the sandstorm screamed and thrashed. A cluster of Juka wrestled the furious dust on their way to an outer building of the complex. Shackled together, Turlogan and Kumar headed the chain of escorted prisoners. On the lee side of a wall the pit fighter leaned close and shouted against the deafening wind, "Where are they taking us?"

"Citadel Britain!" Kumar yelled back.

"That's more than a day's travel!"

"Not in that!" Kumar motioned around the corner, where a multivaned flying skiff was pinioned to a wide platform. "Just a few hours, if the weather doesn't kill us!"

"It won't!"

"You're more confident than I am!"

"I'll die blooding my steel, not wearing shackles! Great Mother witness my oath!"

Kumar glanced up at the surges of crimson in the air. "If she doesn't listen now, you can tell her in person by lunchtime!"

Turlogan growled something in response, but the words were swept away by the wind. The group pressed on into the storm, quickly vanishing among the rushing curtains of rust-colored sand.

In the bowels of Citadel Britain lurked catacombs never trodden by Juka, except in fathomless nightmares. Unknowable thoughts dwelled there, housed in unnatural minds, in the darkness that swaddled the masters of the world. The dens of the Overlords knew no mortal touch. Mortality itself was unwelcome.

The blackness tasted sour. It was stagnant with the biting stench of metal. Sounds whirred in the dark - bubbling, clanking, hissing - underlain by the melancholy thrum of distant, laboring machines. When a furtive light flitted mothlike through the gloom, vague highlights moved across thick tangles of pipes and cables, stirred by hook-toothed gears. Sometimes a glass tube or sphere was revealed, and a glimpse of something organic within. But always heavy darkness swallowed the intrusive light. The inhabitants of this place had no need for it.

From the ceaseless shadows issued a dissonant buzz. Its ebbs and quavers recalled a spoken voice, like a haunted room recalls the past. Similar noises mingled with it. The sounds carried a sharp-edged timber like vibrating glass.

{{The insurgence swells,}} said the first buzz, in a language as fluid as oil. {{I recommend extermination.}}

{{Impractical,}} came its reply. {{Slave resources ensure security.}}

{{Exterminating rebels ends rebellion.}}

{{Factor the work of the Prime Overlord. Until Exodus is completed, we need only hold the slaves in check.}}

{{We must do more. If Exodus fails, we stand vulnerable to revolt.}}

{{If Exodus succeeds, we erase our greatest weakness -- reliance upon mortals.}}

{{That does justify risk. Gargoyles prove themselves poor material for slaves. They remain willful. The Juka design has failed.}}

{{If necessary, it is simple to extinguish them. They respond to poison. Prepare our stores as a contingency plan.}}

{{It is already done.}}

{{Remain patient, then. We face no danger yet.}}

By the conversation's end less than a second had passed. A hundred such topics concluded in the span of a minute. The discordant noises filled the black, humid air with a ceaseless chaos of sound. In the dens of the Overlords, this was life. The exchange of ideas occupied every moment. Pure thought was ambrosia; all else was a distraction, best handled by machines and slaves.

By their calculations the Overlords had become gods. And these dark whirring catacombs, noisome with copper and iron and grease, represented paradise. The remainder of the world, then, was simply an expendable resource, little worth a moment's consideration.

It was this philosophy, and a machine known as Exodus, which would in two years' time bring an end to all things and all eras. They would, in a real sense, undo creation.

The skiff sailed over the tumultuous sandstorm like a bird over water. The desert hurricane raged red and hot, a dusty inferno that burned to the horizons. This time of year it seemed never to end.

Its updrafts jostled the flying skiff. The vehicle resembled the cabin of a large carriage, borne in the grip of a gigantic wooden insect. Riveted tanks of fluid levitant held it aloft. Janissar vanemen clung to the wing pivots, handling ropes and pulleys to rein the sailcloth surfaces. Both skiff and soldiers looked tattered after fighting to climb above the sandstorm's reach.

They raced toward a string of lights in the distance, twinkling above the desert like jewels under the grey-clouded sky.

The cabin was divided into three sections. On the aftmost bench sat the engineer Obden, chained to the seat. Two Janissars with bolt throwers kept her company. The center bench held Darhim and Turlogan, likewise secured and guarded. In the front sat Kumar and Narah, side by side. A soldier joined their two guards; his breastplate displayed the gold braids of captaincy. The scar-cheeked officer had removed his helmet and stared directly into Kumar's eyes.

Kumar stared back. "Watch, Narah," he murmured. "The captain is trying to unnerve me. You can tell by the bovine expression on his face."

Narah nodded. "His eyes draw you in. Like an echo in an empty room."

The captain smirked, gazing from under a prominent brow. "You weren't always so disrespectful, Kumar of Shire Athul. Treason has ruined your Janissar discipline."

"My discipline is intact. I've simply reconsidered who deserves my respect." Kumar smiled at Narah. "Let me introduce Captain Jamark, my commander in another life. Through every kind of hell I stood behind this man, if only because his backside was an improvement over his front."

The captain sneered. "And what kind of hell were you planning for the Core Siphon? Your engineer was carrying an impressive list of corrosives."

"I'd heard the place was overrun with rebels. Disgraceful, isn't it? I was doing my part to shut them down."

Jamark grinned. "That's kind of you, but pointless. My men have secured the complex now. I'll be happy, of course, to commend you to my superior."

"I bet you will. We're visiting General Tallan today?"

"Indeed we are. I can't wait for his reaction when he sees who I've got. Did you know under Citadel Britain, the rebels are calling the five of you the 'Hand of Honor?' Your insurrection is getting prideful."

"'The Hand of Honor.' It is a bit ostentatious, but I could get used to it."

Narah flipped aside a sliver of red hair. "It's an auspicious day. You captured us on the anniversary of the first summit. Just think, you'll be the envy of all the other obedient slaves."

The Janissar's eyes almost flashed as he spoke. "Envy? I'm bringing all five delegates from the Revolutionary Summit to the most heavily guarded area of Citadel Britain. After today, I'm going to be a legend."

In the seat behind them, Turlogan hunched over and mashed his powerful hands into fists. Ugly growls escaped his throat.

"Easy," whispered Darhim, directly into the huge warrior's ear. "Don't tire yourself fretting."

"I knew I should have brought the pneumatic armor! I could have faced them."

"It would not have survived the sandstorm. Nor can it defend against treachery."

Turlogan raised his head. "Whose?"

Darhim frowned. "Kumar led us into that ambush."

"Not Kumar. I don't believe you."

"He only acted surprised. I can read a man who's lying. Kumar set us up."

"No." The pit fighter wrung his hands together. The chains on his wrists clinked. "You've got it wrong," he mumbled, though his brow began to furrow.

The priest eased back into the seat and did not speak again during the trip.

Hovering above the blazing sandstorm, Citadel Britain was a glittering island on a sea of fire.

Held aloft by enormous reservoirs of levitant, the citadel could have been called a floating mountain. Its slopes teemed with factories and tenements, brilliant with the pale lights of a thousand static sparks. Tendrils of smoke streamed from dozens of tall stacks, merging into a grand plume that rose like a crest into the sky. Underneath the central peak of the city were the municipal works -- steam plants, nutriment engines, alchemical refineries, levitant tanks -- which kept Britain operational. Deeper still was the black heart of the citadel -- the frightful warrens of the Overlords, whom few had seen and fewer desired to. A crimson haze obscured the lowermost levels of the city, where pipelines and skyhoists dangled a thousand feet to bridge the space to the ground.

In the other rebel delegates, the sight of Citadel Britain evoked an involuntary thrill. In Kumar, it summoned only dread. Here he had deserted his Janissar company. Seven capable soldiers lay dead in his wake. He had not returned in the three years since.

As he gazed out the window of the flying skiff, he prayed that the day's scheme might repair some of the damage.

They docked on a pier that jutted out above the dizzying precipice. Twenty fresh Janissar soldiers joined in their escort. Kumar was first on the chain of shackles, followed by Narah, Obden and Darhim. At the rear, Turlogan's expression grew more and more dour.

General Tallan of Citadel Britain was as solid as the stone barracks that housed the Janissar company. The bald, hard-boned officer wore a long coat with a high collar that emphasized his broad frame. When he recognized the prisoners stumbling into his austere office, he leapt over the steel desk and yanked Kumar by the flare of his shoulder armor. "Kumar of Athul!" He bared his formidable teeth in the rebel's face. "You murderous filth! I've kept a tally of your crimes, and I'm going to personally see that you account for every one of them!"

Kumar curled back his lips. "Let me see the list. I'll fill in any blank spots. Wait a few hours and maybe we can add some new ones."

"There's one crime I certainly did not forget." The general reached behind his back and drew a crooked dagger from under his coat. His hand on the hilt sported only three fingers. "I'm going to relish this. Captain Jamark, put his palm on top of the desk."

"With respect, sir, not until they're presented to the Overlords."

The general glowered at Jamark. "What are you talking about, captain?"

The officer stood at attention. "Sir, we've been ordered to bring the rebels before the Overlords. Immediately. In person, sir."

"Who issued this order? I answer only to the Overlords' seal, and I've seen no such seal today!"

Kumar leaned close to the burly general. His eyes blazed. "I gave the order, Tallan."

The room burst into a storm of motion. All around swords flew from their scabbards and bolt throwers clacked at the ready. In a matter of seconds the Janissars had divided into two opposing groups -- one in formation with weapons drawn, one in bewildered disarray. The prisoners took a defensive stance as well, as much as possible while shackled.

"My apologies, sir, " said the Janissar captain, "but you're going to take the Hand of Honor to see the Overlords. I now request your surrender."

The general cast a scorching glare at the scene before him. "You know I won't give it, captain."

Jamark nodded. "I know, sir. Honor is satisfied."

Tallan returned the nod and sprang into action. The two groups clashed.

Kumar ducked to the side to avoid the general's charge, but the larger man anticipated the move and crushed a knee into Kumar's chestplate. The rebel sprawled backwards. Chains caused his limbs to tangle. When Kumar looked up he saw Tallan's dagger plunging at a crease in the armor of his side. He flipped his chains in the path of the blade in hope of a desperate parry; but before contact, two feet smashed into the general's flank and toppled the soldier over his own desk.

"I relished that," Narah commented as she lay on the floor, on her back. "Who's got the keys to these stupid shackles?"

"Jamark!" shouted Kumar; but the captain had two swords drawn, each engaging a loyalist Janissar. Kumar coordinated with Narah to regain their feet. A loyalist rushed him with a hooked longsword. The couple snared his arm in their chains and Kumar stunned him with a head butt, horns first.

Obden shrieked, "Kumar, the general!" He darted his eyes across the desk. Tallan remained on the far side of it, but his dagger tumbled through the space between. Kumar felt time freeze as the weapon spun closer and closer. He sensed more heat than pain when the blade thrust into his neck. His lungs seized up, thick with blood. The room tumbled. Through white haze he heard Narah scream and saw her facing the general; but Tallan struck her with a hooked longsword. She had twisted her body, thank the Great Mother, so the cut dug into her shoulder rather than her head. But she collapsed into a shuddering pile. The general raised the sword for a deathstroke.

Kumar moved. He twirled himself on the ground, jerking taut the chain that connected him to Narah. The tug informed him that she had been yanked out of the way. The longsword smacked the floor with a loud, sharp ring that was glory to Kumar's ears.

When he looked back, Turlogan was standing before the general. The tall pit fighter looked particularly hobbled by his chains, which allowed less than three feet between wrists and ankles. Yet Kumar watched a miracle. Turlogan crouched low. As Tallan slashed the giant warrior leapt up, higher than his chains should allow, higher than possible for a man of his size; Turlogan soared above the general's head, snagged the sword in a loop of chain and landed perfectly behind his opponent. The hooked longsword sat firmly in his grasp. Turlogan swept three deep gashes across the general's unarmored chest and at the last moment checked a swing that would have removed the soldier's head.

General Tallan staggered to his knees, bowed his head and crossed his wrists over his brow. "He yields!" cried the Janissar rebels who witnessed the moment. Kumar tried to smile, but his lungs began to burn and flashing darkness abruptly enfolded him.

He woke to the dry, familiar taste of a healing draught. The simple, stoic barracks of the Janissar company faded into view. He was lying on a soldier's cot. Narah's smiling face dangled over him. He imagined that the streaks of blood made her seem even more beautiful; then he laughed at the thought.

She took him into a tight embrace. Their armor clicked and clattered together. Kumar inhaled the scent of her blood and sweat and laughed again.

Narah pulled back and grinned at him. "You're quite friendly for someone nearly decapitated."

"I would say the same about you," he said in a roughened voice, "but it wouldn't do for you to blush in front of the troops." He patted her hand, which still cupped his side.

The comment had its desired effect. "Ah, the warrior kicks his comrade while her guard is down." Her eyes narrowed. She did not withdraw her hand. "Watch that she doesn't kick back." For an instant her lips hovered a breath away from his own. Then she stood and walked away.

Kumar felt warm.

The battle had finished with few deaths. The wounded received healing draughts. The loyalists, including General Tallan, were locked inside the commander's office, awaiting the next move. Eighteen Janissars now counted themselves as rebels. After assessing the arrangements, Kumar indulged a few minutes to walk off the stiffness from his wound.

"How do you feel?" asked Turlogan's deep voice from behind him.

Kumar rolled his head for a moment and stretched his arms. "Ready for the next headsman to have a swing at me."

"Good." The giant pit fighter grabbed the neckline of his chestplate, spun him around and almost lifted him off the ground. Turlogan's face turned scarlet. "What the hell do you mean, dragging me into this ruse without telling me first!"

"We were minimizing risks! The fewer of us that knew about it, the less chance we would reveal ourselves. In case you didn't notice, not all of those Janissars were on our side. Too many eyes were watching us."

"You didn't trust me?"

"Trust was irrelevant. Narah and I hatched the plan. Obden worked out the technical details. No one else needed to know."

"I told him that earlier," Narah inserted, leaning against a stone pillar, "but it only made him more upset. So I said it was your idea. It seemed the safest answer."

Turlogan released him. "I understand," he frowned, "but I'm not satisfied."

Kumar held out his hands. "This is an extremely important operation, Turlogan. You're going to love the results. Right now I give you my apology. That's all I can do."

"Wrong." Like a steel piston Turlogan's fist bashed Kumar in the face. Kumar's head whirled and throbbed as he tumbled back over cots and bedsheets. A bloody tang flooded his mouth. Raising to his knees, he watched the pit fighter make his way to him through the debris.

"Are you satisfied now?"

"Not yet."

Turlogan struck again. Kumar captured his forearm with a swirling block and locked his wrist and elbow. For an instant Kumar realized how small his own arms seemed by comparison, but he did not relent.

"One will have to do you, Turlogan."

The pit fighter snarled and yanked his arm free. "I'll judge that."

"Turlogan," said Narah, "when your indignation has run its course, you might be interested to know there's some mail in the armory that looks like a good fit for you."

He shot her an angry glance. "What is it?"

"Kinetic armor. Good condition. I think it was made for a ridgeback, so it might be big enough for you."

Turlogan paused, then snorted at Kumar. "The next time you make a plan, consider all the risks "

"We should have seen that coming, like a roving foundry." Kumar wiped the blood from his lips after the pit fighter retired to the armory. "How did you escape his wrath?"

Narah chuckled. "Either I duck faster than you or I don't bruise as easily. Pick which one you prefer."

"I prefer to get moving again. We're a long way from being finished today. History demands diligence, or so the historians say."

The rebel leaders, swathed in their desert clothes, were chained together in a row. An escort of fifteen Janissars ushered them through spark-lighted brick corridors deep inside the citadel. General Tallan himself guided them, along a route few others traveled. In these deep, echoing hallways the oppressive gloom clung to them like a damp chill.

The procession stopped before a door of banded wood. Tallan pointed. "This is it. Behind this door is where I speak to the Overlords."

Darhim shook his head. "Don't lie to us."

Obden consulted a small globe of blue glass, in which was suspended an irregular stone. "Darhim's right. We're not deep enough yet."

"Deceit is a sin, Tallan." Narah slipped a hand from her shackles and laid it on the general's shoulder. "Lead on."

The burly general spat. "You really want to meet the Overlords? You're walking to your own deaths! And for what? Your revolution? That philosophy doesn't make sense and it never has."

Kumar urged him along with a quick shove. "Slavery is like seduction. The more skillfully it's performed, the less the victim is aware of it. And general, you're the Overlords' own harlot."

"Think of what you're giving up! We've already seen the beginnings of your Jukan paradise. Sickness is on the rise, because you refuse to work the alchemical plants. Airships are practically extinct, because you've sabotaged half the levitant mines. Now remove the Overlords and everything shuts down. No alchemy. No machines. No levitant. We could barely run our nutriment engines! In your paradise we'd be starving, directionless savages."

Narah raised her eyebrows. "Your faith in your fellow Juka astounds me, general. Tell me, did the Overlords teach us to eat and sleep as well? Or did we savages figure that out on our own?"

Tallan scowled. "You mistake confidence for ability. It's a sad day when the fleas overthrow ... the ... beast..."

The procession halted. Kumar and Captain Jamark stepped to the front. "What is it?"

The general pointed to the next corner and nodded. Jamark crept ahead, peered around the bend, then returned. "That's it," he whispered. "Let's go in."

Narah rubbed the general's shoulder. "Remember, play nicely."

"I don't have to resist. You're dooming yourselves."

Obden peeked around the corner, then exhaled a deep, long sigh. "He does have a point."

The entrance was kept by a pair of Juggernauts. The gigantic beings flanked either side of an iron door that seemed hardly big enough to accommodate one. The flesh-and-metal horrors could have been statues, as neither flinched when the entourage approached. They did emit an oily scent and generated warm air from idly gurgling steam engines. Many of the rebels had never seen a Juggernaut before, and even those who had found it difficult to discern where a man ended and a machine began. All Juggernauts had Jukan faces, locked in a dour, unresponsive expression. Most of them had arms, or metal appendages approximating arms. A few even had proper legs, though these were rare. More often they moved on wheels or propellers or hydraulic insect legs; or perhaps they interchanged mechanisms. Little was truly known about the Juggernauts, except that they obeyed the Overlords with animal loyalty and that, on the battlefield, they were the equal of entire platoons.

Some observers thought the Overlords were mad for riveting together these patchworks of Jukan flesh and steam-driven vehicles and armored war machines. Others considered the transformation into automatons to be a glorious, albeit terminal honor. Most, however, preferred not to think of the Juggernauts at all. They were unclean, repulsive, terrifying, and when not sitting idle, invariably deadly.

The two Juggernauts guarding the door stood half again as tall as anyone in the procession. They were wheeled and armored and equipped with drill-tipped arms.

One of them turned its head to regard General Tallan as he stood between them.

"You know me!" declared the stout officer. "Let us enter."

The Juggernaut did not move. Its sullen gaze remained fixed on the general.

"I've come with prisoners to bring before the Overlords. Let us pass."

A scraping sound burst into the air. Everyone present flinched. Pneumatics hissing, the Juggernaut raised a long arm, from which unfolded a steel claw. Metal components squeaked and complained as the claw reached to the side, fitted into an irregular cluster of holes in the door, and turned slightly. After a loud sequence of clanks and clatters, the Juggernaut pulled back its arm. Then its head turned to face forward again. The clamor of its machinery dwindled to a grumbling idle.

The door stood slightly ajar. A tangible darkness almost seeped out to the hall. General Tallan glanced once more at the rest of the procession. "You're determined to go in there? I warn you, you'll want to turn around and leave. But you can't leave, without me." He cracked a slight smile at one of the motionless Juggernauts. "Remember that, and don't panic."

Several of the Janissars ignited lanterns, in which arcs of electricity flickered pale blue light.

Darhim bowed his head. "Great Mother, honor us with good fortune in this dire task."

Narah added, "And grant that our courage is as true as our blades."

Then they stepped inside.

In Jukan society, popular ideas about the nature of the Overlords conjured three clear possibilities: that they were living beings -- some reclusive Juka-like race, or perhaps Juka themselves; that they were entirely machines, with wood and steel and iron for flesh and nothing resembling a soul; or that, like the Juggernauts, they were a conglomeration of the two, clanking around the darks of their citadels with living heads and unliving bodies.

As General Tallan guided Kumar and the others into the unplumbed domain of the Overlords, the rebels began to fathom a fourth possibility, all the more repellent because the light of their lanterns allowed glimpses of its bizarre, unnerving reality. The catacombs whispered the truth.

Dark and stifling were the mechanical labyrinths where things that ought to be dead lived on. Dim, humid tunnels stirred with pistons and pipes and meshed iron cogs. The thick air smelled of grease and coppery steam. For over a mile these catacombs coiled and twisted upon themselves, entirely isolated from the living world. Within them dwelled organic half-things with little claim to natural life and no right to be animate.

In nightmares the Juka glimpsed such places. Few dared imagine they were real. The rebels now walked inside them and wordlessly pieced together what they meant.

These were the dens of the Overlords. Ages ago the masters of the world had forsaken the cycles of growth and death which defined the boundaries of natural biology. Alchemy freed them from bodily needs. Machines released them from the tyranny of corporal integrity. With each passing century their physical forms grew indistinct from the gears and valves and bubbling glass tubes that kept them alive; until the organic parts of them were strewn and disconnected and unrecognizable, suspended in gurgling potions, oozing through narrow pipes, crawling on pneumatic legs, like a steam-driven hive of blind, formless, mutual parasites.

The Overlords and their mechanical dens were indistinguishable. They were sentient catacombs; entombed gods.

Yet whispers of timelost lives echoed through their black, sweltering corridors. Whispers of an elder race, from which the Overlords spawned. A fragment of a ribcage here, entwined with cables and slithering chains. A sheet of white skin there, dotted with hairs, formed into a tiny bellows. A whole eye drifting along a glass pipe, orienting inside the liquid flow as if to watch a watcher.

And voices -- loud, relentless, buzzing voices -- droning a language that intruded upon sanity.

Many of the Janissars cried out in horror. General Tallan bellowed a ferocious laugh. "My lords! Your audience is requested by the Hand of Honor!"

{{What is the Hand of Honor?}}

The rebels made out the words from the cacophonous vibrations. Kumar willed himself to ignore the machined horror in which he stood. He shouted, "Representatives of the Juka!"

"Leaders of the revolt!" yelled the general.

Narah leaned close to Obden's ear and murmured, "Take your gear and start searching. Time could turn against us." The engineer nodded and began to step away, only to find that Narah's trembling hands were clutched to her desert wrap. The warrior attempted a smile as she let go.

Obden slipped away into the gloom. Darhim and half a dozen Janissars followed close behind, carrying the engineer's bags. Narah felt suddenly exposed in the midst of the black gears and pipes and formless, slithering tissues. She found Turlogan. He squeezed her hand in his. The giant's face was pale.

{{Surrender your revolt. You cannot win.}}

Kumar tried to focus on the one, intelligible voice. "No. But we can negotiate."

General Tallan waved his hands in the air. "It's a trick! They're here for sabotage!"

{{Negotiation is meaningless. You hold no advantage.}}

Kumar stood beside a barrel-sized glass canister, mounted in copper supports. The clear fluid inside began to bubble furiously. From the bottom erupted a plume of white globules that quickly filled the container. When he saw that the globules were eyes, churning and pressing against the glass to stare at him, he yelped and shrank away. "Listen to me! We can negotiate an end to the fighting. All we ask --"

{{Negotiation is meaningless. Surrender your revolt.}}

"Too late!" shouted Tallan with a grin. He motioned down a corridor. Kumar saw a huge shape approaching.

One of the Juggernaut guards had arrived.

The Janissars immediately swarmed it. With precision blows they struck at its joints, at its uncovered face, at its exposed workings. Turlogan joined them, unfolding the three-sectioned haft of a collapsible poleaxe. Sparks danced in the gloom with every smash of metal on metal. But the drill head on the creature's exaggerated arm squealed to life. With motions too quick for its bulk the Juggernaut swept the rebel soldiers from its armored chassis. Turlogan took the brunt of several blows. The spring-mounted plates of his kinetic armor cushioned the worst. Each time he sprang to his feet in an instant, striking at a single joint of its armor.

Yet one by one the creature pinned Janissars with a claw and impaled them with its whirring bore. The other soldiers battled to disable the weapon.

"Call it off!" bellowed Kumar. "We're here to talk!"

{{Surrender your revolt.}}

Kumar gnashed his teeth. "We'll play by your rules, then." At a signal he and Captain Jamark circled behind the monstrous Juggernaut. By the time they arrived, five Janissars lay dead. The survivors backed off, playing cat-and-mouse.

With a bellow Turlogan charged the creature alone. A final stroke from his poleaxe cracked open the damaged joint of its armored chassis. But the steel claw clamped on the pit fighter's thigh and slammed him against the ground. Kumar lunged to his side. When the Juggernaut's drill closed Kumar smashed it with his static greatsword. The blow was enough to deflect it. On the second attempt the Juggernaut feinted, Kumar missed and the drill dropped on target.

The pit fighter screamed, "Cut my leg!" Kumar brandished his blade for the stroke.

But a deafening crack resounded through the catacombs. Two inches into the surface of Turlogan's kinetic armor, the drill stopped rotating. Kumar whirled toward the Juggernaut. Captain Jamark stood next to it. His sword was plunged in the hole Turlogan had opened in its armor. Flames licked out of the wound. The creature's engines whirred to a halt.

Turlogan laughed up at Kumar. "Thank the Great Mother your reflexes are slowing!"

Kumar stumbled backwards, over the body of a soldier. Distant sounds filtered to them -- of large, mechanical things approaching.

He had seen enough. Twirling his static greatsword, Kumar let out a furious howl and began to smash the mechanics of the catacombs. Bright static bursts flew from every impact. Pistons buckled and sprayed steam; gears bucked off their cogs; pipes shattered, sluicing their organic contents squirming to the ground.

The buzzing voices raised to piercing shrills.

Narah dashed through the blackness, toward a pale light ahead. Amid the painful shrieks of the distressed Overlords she heard the sound of blades clashing. Rounding a curve in the corridor she spotted lanterns. Silhouettes battled between the electric glows.

Four Janissar rebels sprawled dead or unconscious. Two remained. They stood between General Tallan and Obden and Darhim, both of whom worked frantically at a junction of pipes.

"Tallan!" she barked, rushing forward. "Face me!"

The soldiers glanced up for an instant, which Tallan seized to thrust his longsword into one man's gut. As she darted past him Narah swiped a powerful stroke at the burly general's flank. To her surprise he parried it, as well as her follow-up reverse swing.

She found her stance on the uneven floor. Tallan lunged. Her blade caught the tip of his thrust, then she quickly adjusted her timing to fend off a barrage of rapid cuts. She threw at least seven parries; but the last cut made it through. Narah snarled at the sting in her arm.

She ground her teeth. My turn. She chopped a quick sequence of high strikes, then spun and dropped to a crouch, thrusting out a wide legsweep. Tallan hopped over her ankle. She squealed at a sharp fire in her shoulder, inches from her neck. By instinct she tumbled backwards, pulling off of the general's blade. Had she continued to spin, she would have cut open her own throat.

She regained her footing as Tallan finished the last Janissar rebel. The lamplight revealed that the general had many cuts. His coat was dark with blood. Of course he wore no armor; they hadn't allowed him any. Which meant he had beaten six armored elite Janissars with nothing but a sword.

Narah took a deep breath, wiped at the stream of blood on her breast and advanced.

Tallan growled and came at her with another furious bombardment, as she knew he would. The general was losing blood. He could not afford to draw out the battle. Narah blocked frantically and waited for the pause when his sequence was over, then feinted a counterattack, took a stutter step and barreled into the stout warrior. His pommel smashed the back of her neck, in the crease between helm and armor. Narah's vision turned to sparkles. Then he flung her off. Though blinded she followed her stratagem, jabbing at his stomach as she toppled away.

He roared with pain.

She hurled a snap kick in the direction of his voice and connected with his jaw. Her vision began to recover. She held her sword back and danced three spin kicks, two of which he blocked with his forearm. The last cracked against his cheek. Then she swirled her blade in a wide arc and thrust it into the stunned general's thigh.

Tallan stumbled away and collapsed to the floor. She watched him for a few seconds more. Weakened and in agony, the general yet leveled an angry glare at her from the darkness. He staggered a trembling knee under him and lifted his blade again.

Narah stared back at him. "Your skill is true beauty, general. Now walk away."

Tallan blinked, sneered, nodded once and lurched away.

She turned to her companions.

"Finished!" declared Obden. She clamped shut the valve in front of her. A silvery stain clung to her hands; she shook them and agitated levitant floated through the air in tiny droplets.

Narah coughed, pawed at the streaks of her blood. "How long before it starts?"

"Fifteen minutes," said Darhim. "Half an hour at most. Obden calculated perfectly. The Overlords route everything through here."

The warrior slid her blade into its scabbard and smacked them on the shoulders. "Let's find the way out of here, then, before this place starts to turn ugly."

They fled the nightmare of the citadel's deepest catacombs. Of nineteen Janissars only five remained, including Captain Jamark. When they burst out into the bleak, smoky air of the city, everyone sucked in a hungry chestful.

Kumar gathered them into a circle. Healing draughts were distributed. "We need to find shelter. Those Juggernauts will finish searching the catacombs in no time. Then they'll come to the streets."

"This way," pointed Jamark, and led them through the deserted lanes of Citadel Britain. The workers in the city labored primarily indoors, and the splashes of wind and sand from the duststorm below kept the remainder off the streets. The party arrived unmolested at a multistory residence. Without delay they crowded inside.

The roof of the building supported a spike-railed balcony, from which Kumar and Narah gazed out at the soot-black metropolis. For long moments nothing was said.

Finally Narah leaned over the rail and murmured, "I believe you killed an Overlord today. Or part of one. If I have it right, a lot of men might take satisfaction from that."

Kumar worried a spot on his arm, where a sticky ooze resisted scrubbing. His eyes lingered on the distance. "People don't know what they serve." He shuddered. "If they did, there'd be a lot fewer slaves."

Narah did not reply, but scanned the dusky streets. Then she stood up stiffly and pointed. "There. Juggernauts."

A few blocks over, many huge, dark shapes emerged from a broad doorway. Narah counted sixteen of them before she looked in alarm at Kumar. But her companion's expression had not changed.

"Doesn't matter," he mumbled. "Obden's magic is starting."

The world swayed under them. They clung to the railing until their legs mastered the tilting and pitching of the citadel. Then they began to wrap their desert cloaks and veils about them.

Abruptly the sky bloomed silver. From a dozen stacks poured clouds of metallic smoke, or fluid, or some floating mixture of the two. It was refined levitant, billions of gallons of it, heaving up weightlessly into the air. As he watched the sky blanket with a dazzling glimmer, Kumar recalled a myth he had heard as a child. Once the heavens were smooth and black like velvet and abided uncounted hosts of tiny, glittering spirits. The spirits collected into patterns in the air, creating the forms of gods and heroes to delight the mortals below.

But the levitant could not remain aloft. As the agitation of its release began to wane, the substance lost its weightless properties. Gently the glittering cloud descended from the sky and splashed over the city in a beautiful rain.

And Citadel Britain descended with it.

Narah clung tightly to the railing. The world heaved around them. "I'm always falling out of the sky for you," she smiled.

Kumar grinned. "Are we really doing this, Narah? Can a citadel really be conquered?"

"Pray the storm hasn't worn our troops to nothing. They've been waiting down there for days."

His smile was pure pride. "My people endure. This land carves unbendable souls."

Narah studied his strong face, spattered with droplets of silver. She touched a palm to his cheek and kissed him. Tender currents passed between.

Then they covered their faces with gauzy veils, tripled the layers over their mouths and watched the rising, dust-red winds pour over the city like a tide.

The black catacombs howled with metallic distress. The voices of the Overlords buzzed and piped with mounting volume.

{{The problem is insurmountable! Exterminate the slaves before all is lost!}}

{{Useless. The citadel has fallen into the sandstorm. Wind disperses the poison gas.}}

{{Make the attempt!}}

{{We have. The Juggernauts are likewise ineffectual. Sand clogs their workings.}}

{{Reports claim a rebel army awaits the citadel on the surface! Alert the slave troops!}}

{{They are deploying. But this course wastes resources. Citadel Britain is lost. We are evacuating.}}

{{I cannot evacuate! I am damaged! The drones cannot reconstitute me before --}}

{{You are lost with the citadel. We carry your memory with us.}}

{{Where go you?}}

{{Citadel Moonglow. We shall assist the Prime Overlord. It is clear that Exodus represents our best hope to maintain dominance.}}

{{If Exodus succeeds, you will reconstruct me?}}

{{We carry your memory with us.}}

The black, humid corridors began to fall silent. Ancient machines, complex and grease-slick, shut down one by one.

The fall of Citadel Britain marked the turning point of the Jukan Revolution. Collected rebel forces from Britain and Yew took control of the city and began to unlock its secrets. Though they could not fathom the Overlords' advanced magic and technology, they did discover ways to defeat them.

The following two years saw other citadels fall. With each conquest the ranks of rebellious Juka mushroomed. The Overlords were forced to unleash more and more Juggernauts onto the battlefield, and though the strategy fostered greater carnage it could not stop the advance of revolutionary sentiment. In order the lands under Yew, Trinsic, Jhelom and Vesper swept away the controls of the Overlords. And while a period of hardship began soon after, starved of the food and medicines their masters had provided, the Jukan people were heartened by the glorious, unfamiliar freedom they now enjoyed.

Ancient customs resurfaced. Suppressed cultures of duty and loyalty and the pursuit of skill and beauty began to rekindle and flourish. Primarily under the guidance of Darhim of Shire Crucivar, a system of clan-like governments organized to supplant the obsolete factory and labor divisions. The Juka felt themselves at the genesis of a new, unfettered age.

Over the same two years, the harried loyalist Juka mustered around the single place where the Overlords' strength did not diminish -- Citadel Moonglow, palace of the Prime Overlord and welcome refuge of the defeated immortals. The crowning goal of the Hand of Honor.

It was here that the final clash would occur. It was here that all things would end.