Of all the events in Jukan history, none commanded more awe or terror than the Last Assault on Citadel Moonglow. The final, impenetrable stronghold of the Overlords had never been conquered, not even in the machine-driven wars between the citadels. Its very name spoke of untouchable gods from antiquity. Ruled by the Prime Overlord, it was an invincible opponent. On the day of the final offensive, the rebel Juka learned the cost of challenging its legendary reputation.

It was, as every schoolchild knows, the end of the world.

Veiled by a writhing thunderstorm, the glimmering shadow of the citadel stretched over the sky like a canopy of smoldering embers. Thousands of lamps twinkled across its hovering bulk. Anchored in a dozen places by tall, thin pillars, the city swayed uneasily in the embrace of angry winds. Ash-grey clouds were tangled with lightning. Thunder roared like a god's nightmare.

Yet the sky was the barest echo of the tempest on the plains below.

The stone-paved battlefield was encrusted with flames. Two armies collided in a clamorous holocaust of torches and bonfires and blazing corpses. Thousands of fires lit the ranks of loyalist Juka, arrayed in a dense circle about the citadel's anchor points. A hundred thousand more surrounded them, as the rebels pressed into the defensive lines. And stretched across the plains among the smokestacks and windmills of abandoned factories were long columns of refugees, pouring out of the city at the sufferance of the attacking troops.

Where soldiers faced soldiers, no fiercer melee had ever been fought. Metal crashed upon metal with demoniac shrieks. The air they inhaled was a broth of heat and sweat and oily rain and acid smoke. Warriors conversed in animal snarls. Each side hurled into combat with the potent, inescapable knowledge that an end to the war was at hand. A rebel victory would extinguish the Overlords. Defeat would come only after the decimation of the revolutionary armies. Honor forgave no other outcome.

Despite a twentyfold advantage, however, the rebels gained little ground. The loyalists met them with the full barrage of Overlord-designed artillery, flame belchers, gas throwers and advanced melee weapons. The air was an inferno of flashes and fumes, forks of lightning and cascades of sparks. Overhead a dozen loyal airships stalked the skies. Missiles and spark stones rained down from the citadel. By comparison the rebels carried only what devices they had scavenged from other citadels. The very goal of the revolution meant that Overlord technology, inaccessible to Jukan engineers, would vanish by attrition from their society. In time, folded steel and Jukan muscle would constitute the dominant powers on the battlefield. Every rebel victory brought that future one city closer.

They paid for their prior successes with a moat of blood around Citadel Moonglow. Loyalist machines cut them down by the scores. Unlike their enemies, the rebels had dwindling caches of healing draughts.

And of course, the loyalists employed monsters to fight beside them.

The rumble of several hundred Juggernauts would echo through the nightmares of the day's survivors, rebels and loyalists alike. Ranks of them pushed through attacking lines with brutal ease. Dozens of Dreadnoughts soared above the melee, raking it with static bursts and torrents of missile fire. Attending the Juggernauts were swarms of maintenance drones, smaller counterparts to the half-living war machines, conscripted into the defense of the citadel.

Above them all towered the largest and most terrifying of the Overlords' mechanized slaves. Only five Behemoths walked the burning plains. It was enough to harry rebel formations. They strode through enemy forces on steel legs hundreds of feet high, crushing troops and equipment under inconceivable weight. Each titan walked on four legs attached to a comparatively small body, with a fifth reared high in the air. Or perhaps it was better deemed a neck, for at its tip was a giant, spade-shaped weapon resembling a long, jagged muzzle. When a Behemoth struck, tons of steel bellowed in the motion. Its jaws swept down in a ponderous, irresistible arc that swallowed up dozens of soldiers, war machines, carriages and ridgebacks and gouged savage troughs across the paved, dead earth. The killing stroke was unsophisticated. Nothing, not even stray Juggernauts caught in the path, survived the fall when dropped from six hundred feet in the air.

These were the opponents that the rebel Juka faced with cold steel, strong arms and stern expressions. The honor of meeting powerful enemies did little to assuage the seething, delirious horror of the front lines.

Near the periphery of the attacking forces, Kumar watched the unfolding carnage. He stood in full battle armor, decked with weapons and festooned with the gilt badges of rank. His arms were crossed. The weight of the day pulled lines in his face.

Beside him appeared another figure, similarly equipped, with a stream of silky hair as red as hot iron. Narah tilted her head and stared at him.

"I know that look. Tell me, are we brooding over our dismal lot in life, or pensive about the terrible duty we must perform?"

Kumar hinted at a smile. "What happened to the grim warrior I used to know? I always counted your scowl among my friends in battle."

"That was long ago, when my purity was intact. You've corrupted me with good nature."

"Could any man hope for a greater legacy? I hope I die before your smile fades." He turned to her. "Is Darhim ready to start?"

"He is. And the Great Mother is hungry for our blood."

Inside a high tent, the Hand of Honor met around a small stone basin. Obden and Turlogan were likewise dressed for warfare. The diminutive Darhim wore long ceremonial robes. When all were in place the aged priest lit a whispering blue flame under the basin. Within the stone bowl, an iron obelisk began to heat and glow.

The old priest raised his hands and called out, "Great Mother, witness this Sanguination! To you we owe the blessings of life and glory. Honor us with the courage to be worthy of the brave Juka who stand against us. It is in your name we fight.

"Grant each of us now the privilege to see with our eyes that which we hold silently in our hearts. In return we offer you this, in the hope you require no more."

The stone basin was toothed with metal blades. Each Juka sliced open his forearm on an iron fang and drizzled blood onto the seething hot obelisk. The droplets vanished into crackles of smoke. They sealed their wounds by pressing them to the glowing obelisk. The air thickened with bitter smoke and a dense, wordless tension.

Darhim closed the ritual with a gesture. He knelt to clip off the blue flame, then stood and shrugged free of his robe. Underneath it he wore thick plates of armor. Weapons dangled from straps around his waist and shoulders.

He nodded. "That's done. Let's go finish what we started."

Three hundred feet in the air, the belly of a Behemoth was riddled with windows. Inside the giant's body was a launching bay, around which teemed a hive of flying machines. These were Juka-manned pods, held aloft by levitant tanks and propelled by large, vertical wheels that stroked the air as a paddle strokes water. The gyrofoils darted nimbly through the storm. They buzzed the rebel hosts and raked them at short range with bolts of static charge. Their lofty roost kept them otherwise out of enemy reach.

The torchlit launching bay flustered with activity. Fresh gyrofoils hurtled into the dark, wet sky through a broad doorway. Spent pods leapt back in, landing on small wheels with brakes that hissed sparks. Crews of workmen scrambled to replenish levitant tanks and scourge chambers. The air churned with bitter scents.

Turlogan roared at the workers when he emerged from a gyrofoil. Many of them cowered but more drew blades, startled by the appearance of the armored giant. Those that faced him met the brunt of his kinetic maul. By the time Kumar climbed out behind him, eight workmen swarmed Turlogan. He seemed invigorated by the resistance. A man clung feebly to each of the pit fighter's arms. More clutched his legs, trying to dislodge him from his immovable stance. His laughter pounded the metal walls.

"This is the might of the dreaded Behemoth? Send them all to me! I'll smash them down from the sky!"

Kumar ignored his companion's boasts. It had cost dozens of lives to capture enough gyrofoils for this mission. They chased a perilous gambit. But no other choice was available - in Jukan memory no Behemoth had ever been defeated.

He drew his static greatsword and rent through a cluster of armed workmen. Turlogan knocked his attackers around the deck, crushing bones and flesh with furious delight. In minutes they secured the gyrofoil bay. A flickering gloom settled around them, trembling with the moans of the dying and the dolorous groans of the Behemoth's walking steel legs. The floor heaved with each step.

Kumar wiped down his blade. "Watch for incoming gyrofoils. Disable the loyalists and let our people be."

Turlogan looked at the stowed pods, each identical to the next. "How do we tell ours from theirs?"

The chamber exploded with a metallic clang. An errant gyrofoil plunged in the open door and banged against the roof. On the deck it toppled to its side and leaked levitant fuel in a floating, silvery cloud. The circular hatch flung open and Narah tumbled out. She rolled to her feet and drew two angular swords, crouched in a defensive stance.

Kumar pursed his lips. "Theirs are manned by skilled pilots."

Obden clambered out after Narah. Other gyrofoils followed, bringing Darhim and Jamark and two score other rebels. When enough had arrived, Kumar gave the order to proceed with the plan.

A steel trap door loomed in the ceiling, at the top of a narrow ladder. Obden had attached spring saps to the hinges and monitored the progress of their beaklike jaws. Below her, Darhim watched with impatient eyes. "Time is not our ally," murmured the old Juka. "Try this."

He unsheathed a short sword and handed it to her. Obden raised her eyebrows. With the flip of a lever she awakened gears in the hilt. The weapon hummed and vibrated. A red glow bloomed across the tempered metal of the blade.

The engineer grinned. "Time seems to be your friend. You've become more practical over the course of this war." She extricated a spring sap and worked the searing hot sword into the crack it had chewed. Smoke coughed out of the wounded hinge.

Darhim shook his helmeted head. "Time favors hearts and legends. Rely on good equipment for everything else."

The trap door smashed open into a room entangled in shadow. A silhouette with broad shoulders climbed out of the floor, inside a shaft of firelight from below. Turlogan knelt, whispering to the shape that emerged behind him.

"You're sure the Behemoth can't hear us?"

Obden grunted as she found her feet. She lugged a long wooden box. "I talked to engineers from the factory where these were built. The automaton can see and hear outside, but it has no sensation in here. We're in its blind spot."

The pit fighter hoisted the maul from his back. "The day is coming when all these machines will be rubble. You don't know how much I'm going to enjoy that."

"Don't swing your hammer too wide. Look around you, Turlogan. Jukan hands built this. This is our craftsmanship. Respect what we've done."

"Respect this monstrosity? You think a lot of me. How many centuries have we wasted building horrors like this?"

She handed him an unlighted spark lantern from the box. "It's all we have. After Moonglow falls, we'll turn our craft to something worthwhile. Good riddance to these Overlord designs."

Turlogan struck the lantern's ignition. A pale glow leapt from the bright, buzzing arc. Both Juka choked on their breaths.

The room was a bramble of ducts and tubes. They burbled and shivered with the flow of alchemical fluids, rushing through clanking pumps, spilling in and out of glass tubes and globes. The jumbled mass was woven into a radiating pattern that converged on the center of the chamber. There on the floor lay the organic portion of the Behemoth.

The creature could still be recognized as Juka. It had a bony torso, punctured by rows of copper pipes. Its outspread arms frayed into bundles of tissue, braided around two crooked rods that connected to heavy, churning gears. Likewise its legs unraveled into stalky, grinding devices. The creature squirmed and convulsed as if in pain. With each jerk of a limb one of the Behemoth's giant legs moved; with each buck of the automaton's head, the machine's towering, steel-jawed neck swooped and swayed.

For a face it had a geyser of leather hoses and jointed copper pipes. The rebels could see strands of grey hair on the wastes of a scalp.

Turlogan let out a breathy growl. "If every machine is smashed tomorrow, it won't be soon enough."

Obden did not respond. One of her hands crawled into the box she had brought and pulled out a mallet and chisel.

A layer of scorching hot smoke hovered above the thick of the battle, reflecting the orange fires below. From the ground, through the drifting miasma, the Overlords' flying machines were visible only as frightful, angular shapes dipping into view just long enough to deliver a devastating barrage of missiles or gas or slithering bolts of electricity. But the gigantic, long-limbed Behemoth captured everyone's attention when it moved. Its colossal legs lifted off the ground with laborious metallic sounds. Through gaps in the smoke it could be seen folding its limbs at many joints and drawing them up to its airship-sized body. Levitant held the machine aloft. Its neck retracted and the titan began to rise, closer and closer to the twinkling storm cloud that was Citadel Moonglow.

From a window in the landing bay Kumar watched the flying city creep nearer. The sight tickled his memory in a deep, neglected place. For most of his life he had shunned thought of his childhood.

The earliest voice Kumar could recall belonged to an old, withered mythsinger who made stars leap off his tongue. In the refinery where the warrior was born, the one-eyed Juka would gather children in the nursery and recite sagas about the ancient, unclouded heavens. Long ago, explained the songs, the sky was populated by a nation of luminous spirits and demons. The tales of their adventures were dreamlike and fanciful. They painted vivid colors against an imaginary sky as pure as smelted silver.

Magic flew from the old man's lips. If Kumar had to describe what a child's wonder looked like, it would be speckled with a million tiny lights that winked in the cadence of a song.

Citadel Moonglow loomed overhead, seething with crimson sparkles amid the thundering gale. The warrior frowned. His jaw tensed.

A warm hand lay on his shoulder. Narah's calm voice murmured, "Should I tell him my secret?"

Kumar creased his brow. "I didn't know you had anything to hide."

"Turlogan wants to know what I prayed for at Sanguination. I told him it was private, but he's more insistent than a chafing codpiece."

The pit fighter strolled closer, twirling his maul in anxious hands. "What difference does it make? They say prayers at Sanguination always come true. Me, I asked the Great Mother to give me fifty Janissars to kill today. That's what I want to be remembered for!"

Jamark leaned against the frame of a window. He pointed at the fiery battle below. "You didn't think it through, Turlogan. General Tallan and his men are down there, defending the central anchor column. Acquitting themselves very well, too."

Narah smirked. "If you jump out now you might land on a few. I promise I'll never forget you."

"What did you pray for, Narah?" Kumar took her hand. "I'll tell if you do."

"My, but we're being forthright this morning! It must have been something in the food. All right, if it's the only way I'll get some peace. I prayed to be the first among us to die."

Turlogan winced. "I didn't know you were so confident about this mission."

"I have no intention of dying today. So if the Great Mother honors my prayer, none of you will die either."

Kumar nodded. "Very noble. What if I asked for the same thing?"

"Maybe we'll both live forever. Why, what did you ask for?"

"I'll tell you after the battle."

Narah sneered. "You're a dishonest man, Kumar of Britain."

"I only want to give you something to live for."

"Quiet, everyone!" Darhim crouched behind a netted barrel and peeked through the open bay door. "There's a Dreadnought circling us!"

A hush fell over the rebel leaders and their troop of forty. Assertive blades kept the prisoners silent. A large silhouette flew through the rain-dark air, passed within yards of the entrance and then vanished. Minutes elapsed before the group stirred again.

"We're almost there," said Kumar in a soft tone. "Gather yourselves. Obden disabled the Behemoth's eyes, so we'll get an army of drones in here once we're inside the maintenance bay. Now, everyone knows their places. Get to them."

The rebels hurried to collect their weapons and equipment. Already prepared, Turlogan reclined against the wall and shook his head. "Narah, you wasted your prayer."

She cast him a skeptical glance. "You're an expert in spiritual matters?"

"I'm an expert in some things. You should have asked the Great Mother to protect that right flank you leave open on your clockwise spin thrust. And Kumar, you should have prayed for a faster vault lunge. My grandmother could dodge that greatsword of yours."

Jamark spit out a laugh as he walked past, until Kumar nudged his scar-cheeked companion. "His grandmother only lost one fight in the slave pits. They say Turlogan won his first tournament against her, but I'm not one to perpetuate rumors." Then he stiffened at a blade that appeared from behind him, at his throat.

Narah leaned her chin on the armor of his shoulder. Her grin reflected in the steel of the dagger. "You know I'll get you for lying to me." Then she kissed the blade and pressed it gently under his jaw.

When she pulled away, Kumar blew out a heavy breath. He smirked at Jamark. "Now I have something to live for."


The disabled Behemoth navigated among a flock of spinning propellers on the underside of the citadel, then floated quietly through a giant hatchway. The din of the storm was replaced by the melancholy hum of the city's machines. Inside, the Behemoth drifted up a tall, metal-plated shaft clogged with dense shadows and wafts of greasy mist. At the top, more than a hundred feet into the citadel, it veered through a side tunnel.

The other end of the short passage opened into a vast chamber. The room resembled nothing so much as an enormous stable, with huge rectangular stalls for the deployed Behemoths. Maintenance equipment outfitted each stall -- ship chains and pulleys, a blazing forge, a crane powered by colossal gears. At the distant end of the room lurked a sixth metal giant, half-assembled, attended by a swarm of workmen and hovering drones. Their hammering echoed through the huge chamber like a distant battle.

Kumar felt a tide of adrenaline rising in his chest. Around him the rebels performed various rituals to loosen their tense muscles. He joined them, stretching for a few minutes, until the beast they rode found the moorings in its stall. Loud clangs shook the Behemoth.

"My team, into the gyrofoils." Kumar directed soldiers with hasty motions.

Obden descended on the ladder from the room above. Turlogan darted beside the grey-haired engineer. "Is it time for me to slay my first Behemoth?"

Her scowl was dark. "Don't waste your strength. This one won't threaten us again."

"You already killed it." His face drooped.

She nodded. "I had to work out which tubes were pumping it healing fluids. Otherwise it would never have died. Do you realize this thing might be a hundred years old?"

Kumar waved to her from several yards away. "Tremendous work, Obden! Your plan was dead on. We got here without a bump."

"The trick was to blind it enough that it left the battle, but not so much that it couldn't get here." She wiped metal-gloved hands down her face. Lines of grease striped her cheeks. "Great Mother's mercy, but that I didn't have to see as much as I did."

"The drones are coming in!" Jamark held a quarterstaff above his head and signaled to his men. A line of soldiers jammed shoulder-to-shoulder across the Behemoth's bay door, then locked their shield edges together. Spearmen planted behind them.

On the other side of the shield wall, the grotesque, legless, half-machine drones whispered off the stall's riveted platform and glided towards them. When the creatures stopped to evaluate the Jukas' formation, Jamark called out to attack. Spear thrusts wounded the frontmost drones. Those in the back raised long, heavy, mechanical arms and charged forward.

The shield wall held, though the clattering was violent in the Behemoth's landing bay.

Kumar rushed the last of his people into gyrofoils. "You better get over there," he pointed to Turlogan. "Jamark's got his hands full."

The pit fighter smacked Kumar on the shoulder. "We can finish off this maintenance crew before any others get here. You're the ones who need to be careful. You sure you want to go through with this? If Obden's plan works, we'll yank the fangs out of the Prime Overlord's mouth. No need to face him head on."

Kumar's face became stern and hard. "I spent the better part of my childhood on a gas scow. Every morning for eight years I woke to a day in which plague and suicide were welcome relief. That's a few thousand reasons for me to take this war to the Prime Overlord personally, don't you agree?"

Narah banged a fist on Turlogan's chest. "Just bring yourself back alive. We face one enemy. You're tackling their whole army. So don't get cocky, Turlogan, though I know that advice is about as useful as a glass anvil." She stood on her toes and touched a kiss to the giant's cheek. "Heart of fire, love."

Turlogan loosed a wide grin. "Look the Prime Overlord in the eye for me, when you're taking him apart."

Kumar punched his companion in the arm. "We'll do that. And you --" He tugged Narah by a scabbard at her waist, ushering her toward his gyrofoil. "You're riding with me this time. There's too much danger in the air already, to uncork you into the world again."

The gyrofoils whirled their paddlewheels and streaked out of the Behemoth's landing bay. Kumar resisted the urge to strafe the drones with static bursts as they punched through a knot of the creatures. The noise would alert others. Instead he led six trailing pods out of the maintenance stall and back through the side passage that brought them there. Following directions purchased with blood, they whisked through a maze of shafts and corridors until they lighted on a platform deep in the bowels of the citadel.

Fifteen soldiers climbed out of the gyrofoils, joining Kumar, Narah and Darhim. Quietly the group slipped down a gloomy corridor, continuing on foot to navigate the labyrinth of Citadel Moonglow. A single spark lamp lit their way. The scent of oiled metal stalked them.

At a turn in the passageway Kumar raised a hand. The group halted. Narah moved closer to him.

"We found it," he whispered. "There's a door on the far side of the next room that fits the description."

"Anything in the way?"

"About twenty-five drones."

Beside them, Darhim unslung a spring-powered bolt thrower. With a crank of the handle he cocked it and set a quarrel in its rails. "We broke stride for that?"

The warriors grinned. At a signal to the group they leapt around the corner.

The walls of the vaulted room were difficult to see, obscured by tangles of pipes and conduits. An arc of bright light twisted between two rods in the ceiling, strewing a skeletal glow over the chamber and its inhabitants. Two dozen dour-faced drones tended the multitudes of valves and pipeways. None of them spotted the Juka before a synchronized volley of missiles slammed into their pale, unarmored flesh.

With polearms whirling the rebels laid into the survivors. Kumar swept his hook-bladed halberd in powerful arcs, chopping a route to the great iron door on the other side of the room. As their intelligence had reported, the door was fashioned from a combination of heavy iron and dark granite. It seemed tremendously thick. The ghostly light gave it an appearance of invulnerability.

Abruptly Kumar spun to parry the spidery metal arm of an injured drone. A stroke of his halberd cut deep into the automaton's torso. The fallen creature bled colors that Kumar did not like.

He spotted a drone racing at Darhim. The frail priest raised a squat blade to parry the creature's upraised claw, but Kumar felt better when Narah cartwheeled between them and planted a short sword in the automaton's throat.

The rest of the soldiers finished off the opposition with little trouble. "Look for other entrances!" shouted Kumar when the situation was in hand. "Darhim, let's have a go at this door."

The priest unslung a metal-plated satchel from his shoulder. Inside was a trove of plugged bottles, both copper and glass. For many minutes he drained liquids back and forth into one another, finally concocting a vial of viscous fluid with a strangely elusive color. He held it up to Kumar with an expression bordering on pride.

"Dribble that on your static sword. It's a potion of capacitance. Make sure to cover your eyes when you use it."

When the greatsword sawed into the thick iron hinge, it flared like a spark stone bomb. A sweetish tang popped in spurts out of the light. Kumar mashed his eyes shut as he worked to slice through. Even so, he saw spots when he paused to rest.

They leaned in to examine their progress. The gash in the solid iron hinge was four inches deep. Halfway through.

Narah jogged back from surveying the posted guards. Her eyes smoldered apprehension. "Something's very wrong. This is too easy."

Kumar raised his sword again and laid it in the groove he had cut. "I know. Ever since Britain fell there's been half a dozen Juggernauts guarding the Overlords' catacombs. I can't believe the Prime Overlord only uses drones."

"All the Juggernauts are fighting down below. And this door is sturdier than most." Darhim patted the granite-backed iron plating. "But you're right, there's more going on here than we know. I feel I should remind you of something."

Narah braced herself. "What is it?"

"The Prime Overlord is the chief alchemist among them all. By reputation, its skill is unsurpassed in all of history. It created the base metallurgy behind kinetic springs and perpetual gears. It made the first Juggernauts and bound them to its will. It is feared even among other Overlords."

Kumar grimaced. "You're saying the Prime Overlord can defend itself."

"We should be prepared for anything." He withdrew from his satchel a roll of black cloth. As it unscrolled in his hand, a collection of vials fell into view. "I offer a toast, my friends, to our continuing health."


"Such as they are. I mete out potions, but the Prime Overlord creates them. The Great Mother herself doesn't know what's waiting for us behind that door."

Narah plucked a bottle from the roll of cloth. Uncorking it she muttered, "Then we'll tell her all about it when we're finished in there."

Kumar leapt back as the enormous door twisted loose from its weakened hinges. The iron shuddered loudly. It hit the floor with the dull thump of immeasurable weight.

Though his vision was blotchy from the glare of cutting metal, Kumar recognized the mechanical clanking on the other side of the portal. The wheeled Juggernaut had been waiting for them. It charged over the sill of the doorway and a moment after Kumar tumbled out of the way, it plunged a screw-tipped metal arm straight through the body of a soldier behind him. With its victim still impaled and writhing it swiveled to face two more. The men backed away with hasty steps. A salvo of missiles ricocheted from its heavy armor plating. The monster barreled atop three screaming soldiers, crushing two under its giant wheel and lancing the third with a strike of its drill.

Kumar did not pause to think. On wide, crouching steps he sprang in front of the Juggernaut. His static greatsword sang through the air and struck the long mechanical arm with a blinding flash and a crack that split the air. When he pulled back the sword it had a luxuriant tail of smoke. The Juggernaut's arm clanged to the ground, scorched along the plane of severance.

Kumar glanced over his blade. Just a faint sheen remained of Darhim's oil of capacitance.

The hulking automaton swooped its remaining arm, prodigiously clawed, and missed Kumar by inches. The mere breeze of the swipe thudded on his armor. He ducked behind the Juggernaut in time to see Narah somersault onto its wide steel shoulders. Her hands held no weapons. She popped open a bottle of elusively-colored fluid and splashed it in the Juggernaut's grim, soulless face. The oil trickled underneath its massive armor.

The automaton's claw snapped at Narah's waist. She cried out and flipped end-over-end, vaulting the metal pincers and landing a safe distance away. When the creature rolled after her, Kumar swung his greatsword. The blade left a wake of roaring white fire as it carved a gash across heavy armor.

With a cracking sound a serpentine bolt of light stabbed the Juggernaut's face. Darhim had fired his static scourge. On the automaton's flesh the electric charge devoured the splashed oil with greedy tendrils, slithering underneath the creature's metal plates. For an instant the Juggernaut convulsed; in that instant Kumar thrust his enhanced blade through its armor and into its cog-toothed heart.

An eruption within the Juggernaut's chassis swatted the warrior away. He winced at the dagger thrusts of broken ribs. For sluggish moments the room spun around him. Then metal struck the side of his head and he heard a fleshy snap before blacking out.

He awoke to the tangy echo of a potion. He lay prone on the metal floor. Darhim knelt over him.

Kumar shook the fog from his head and glanced up at the alchemist. "You're punctual with those healing draughts. I admire that."

The old priest motioned toward the unmoving Juggernaut. The monster's metal torso had burst from the inside. Ruined clockworks and alchemical fluids drizzled the ground in front of it. A pennant of smoke undulated from the wound. Kumar's static greatsword lay nearby, fractured into many pieces.

Four dead rebel soldiers lay twisted about the wreckage..

"I wasn't fast enough for those honored souls," murmured Darhim.

"Sing them a prayer," suggested Kumar, "but make it a short one. I knew those men. They didn't stand on ceremony."

But his glistening eyes belied the dispassionate words.

Narah slunk through the doorway with the rest of the soldiers, cloaked in a stealthy hush. They crowded just inside the hot, black air and waited. The commotion of nearby drones died away in some distant corridor.

"I'm sorry about Rabak's greatsword," she murmured into Kumar's ear.

The warrior grunted. "Rabak awakened me, you know, with his devotion to duty. When I carried his sword I felt connected to that. I hope I honored his memory."

"You inspired Jamark and dozens of Janissars to join us. You drove the revolution to this day. Your humility is charming, Kumar, but it's not exactly a tailored fit."

He shook his head. "I think I'll always have a piece of that sword with me." He fell silent.

Darhim's slight form clanked up in plated armor. To Narah he whispered, "How's he feeling?"

"Three of us just took down a Juggernaut. He probably feels indestructible."

"I'm glad to hear that. I used our last healing draughts to hone his edge again. Every parry counts now."

Narah rubbed the corners of her eyes. "Shall we press on, Darhim? If you stand there inflating my morale any longer, it's liable to outright burst."

Stillness draped across the group. Their single spark lantern crackled to life as they crept into the sultry, whirring darkness of the den of the Prime Overlord.

In the narrows of a high-ceilinged corridor, a company of loyalist soldiers barked and bellowed in the clashing fury of melee. Through the center of them pushed Turlogan and Jamark, smashing enemy after enemy with fierce, powerful blows. Turlogan slammed his kinetic maul into the brittle parts of loyalists' bodies. Jamark twirled a quarterstaff with blurring speed, cracking bones and armor with deadly precision. Behind the two warriors followed twenty rebel fighters and a stern-faced Obden of Yew. The middle-aged engineer fended off her attackers from behind a tall shield covered with spring-mounted plates. In her other hand was a bottle-shaped device of heavy iron. To convince the loyalists to back away, she pressed a lever until the weapon belched out a short-ranged but voluminous cloud of flame. It was a persuasive argument, and effective.

They plunged through a tall double doorway and formed a shield wall to defend it. Obden shouted, "Close them! We make a stand here!"

Turlogan and Jamark each hove closed one of the two massive doors. A wheel-shaped lock secured them together. For good measure the pit fighter jammed the haft of his maul through the spokes. The loyalists on the other side banged and clanked against the thick iron. They sounded very distant.

"Damn heavy metal doors!" grumbled Turlogan, catching his breath. "Haven't they heard of wood in this place?"

"Thornbrier doesn't grow on the island," said Jamark. The soldier was surveying his men, several of whom sported ugly wounds. A dwindling store of healing draughts fanned out among the troops.

The pit fighter punched a gauntlet into the solid mechanics of the lock. "Great Mother's bags! I'm sick of metal. I'm sick of machines. It's all an Overlord abomination!"

"I think we found what we're looking for," said Obden, ignoring him. She glanced into the weighty darkness that loomed around the company. Noises squeaked and rumbled from machines unseen and very, very large. "Find a spigot by the door. This place must have fuel lighting of some kind."

A pair of man-high rods glowed far above them. Then an arc of light dashed between the rods, showering the room with a bluish radiance. One by one the soldiers looked around the vast chamber and widened their eyes.

The Pump Chamber was a forest of giant pistons. Each piston formed the topmost mechanism of a colossal pump. The huge machines were used to transport alchemical liquids and barrels of goods to and from the surface using the tall, thin pipelines that anchored the citadel to the earth.

As a technological achievement the Pump Chamber was marvelous. As a work of craftsmanship, it had no equal.

Each piston stood ten feet high. Each one was very different. The functional components were the same -- buttress mounts, greased axles, a garden of huge gears moving power back and forth to other devices in other chambers. But every piston was an individual masterpiece of design and execution, ornate with grillwork and relief carvings and wrought iron details. Some were expressions of clean, elegant aesthetics; others burst with engraved designs as intricate as clockwork. The beauty of a single piece could only be surpassed by its juxtaposition with another, and this effect was multiplied over dozens of rows.

Every piston was synchronized to perfection. The sound of their toils seemed miniscule compared to their numbers.

Obden stared at the bright, churning sight before her. "Look around, Turlogan. Among engineers this room is a legend. The best of us strive to be worthy of a place here. Every one of these represents the most skilled craftsman of his day. Are you still going to tell me this is wasted work? Is this an ugly place, because it serves the Overlords?"

The huge rebel stepped close to the nearest piston. The precision carvings in the steel buttress reflected white patterns on his face. He ran a metal-gloved hand over the art. "I never guessed. I never... thought about the machines that way." His eyes seemed captive. "I am... humbled."

"The Prime Overlord collects the best of everything. Citadel Moonglow is a museum of Jukan history. If you want to know what I asked to see at Sanguination, this is it."

Turlogan glanced at her. "Then why do you look so angry about it?"

"Keep your mind on the mission, Turlogan. We can't afford to rest."

"Don't push me off, Obden! We're here to disable these pumps. If you think you're going to flinch, tell me now."

"Oh, I'll shut this place down. And I won't have to smash it to pieces to get the job done. That's called 'finesse.'" She sucked in a deep breath. "But you see, Turlogan, these master engineers, they get a special marking to signify their status. It's a tattoo, on the chest. It's extremely prestigious. I... once dreamed of a day I might wear that tattoo."

The pit fighter moved beside her. His voice lowered. "What are you getting at?"

"The Behemoth." She swallowed a word, gritting her teeth. "The Behemoth had that tattoo on its chest. It was hard to see because a pipe had been shoved in on top of it."

Turlogan grimaced. "Great Mother."

"And the drones. Some of them, too."

"No." He scanned the room again, his expression darkening. "Great Mother, Obden, let's do our work. Let's get it done right now."

"Good idea," Jamark interjected, approaching them at a trot. "We killed a few drones at the far end of the room. All the doors are locked now, but I doubt they'll stand if Juggernauts show up. We're not going to have this privacy for very long."

Without another word, Obden picked up her box of tools and marched deeper into the humming chamber.


When Kumar and his team penetrated the humid blackness of the Prime Overlord's den, they immediately knew that their prey had anticipated them. The sallow flicker of their spark lantern revealed the enemy's preparations. Instead of the copper pipes and glass canisters they had expected, this creature dwelt under an armored shell. Plates of heavy, discolored steel were riveted around the components of the Prime Overlord's catacombs. In the shrouding gloom the keen edges and corners gave the den a hard, angry mien.

Furtive organic things peered at them through grates and grilles. The shadows concealed their exact nature, though there were hints of flesh and fluids and perhaps an oddly engorged eye.

When one soldier struck the armor with his sword, the blade cracked in half with the loud snap and searing flash of a static charge. The armor had been forged using the same alchemical magic as the greatsword Kumar had just lost, except that its stored energy seemed tenfold greater.

The rebels realized they did not know how to kill the Prime Overlord.

Courage alone convinced them to try. They pressed ahead into the stifling blackness, trusting the Great Mother to guide their path. Blades and shields poised ready, in the event she let them stray.

Not even the sounds of the den were those they associated with Overlords. From under the armor emerged noises like scurrying and tearing and popping, and an odd, organic vocal sound as if a moaning throat were undergoing wormlike compressions and extensions. Taps and vibrations seemed to follow them. Once they imagined a clutch of some voiceless, animate things must be fighting under the riveted plates. The lubricated growl of massive gears saturated the clinging darkness.

Something faraway in the catacombs hissed mechanical breaths. The temperature began to rise.

Then the fumes came. Gouts of opaque mist tumbled over them from cracks between the armor plates. It was the foulest, sharpest smell any of them had experienced. Darhim guessed it to be some hellish brew of a dozen different gaseous poisons. His antidotes performed well enough -- no one died of the fumes -- though the experience of secreting dense antitoxins through the skin was far from pleasant. Violently the rebels coughed up clots of gelled poison.

That was when the acid darkness grew fingers.

Hydraulic digits or hands flew out of the shadows and latched onto their skin and armor and clothes, which had corroded to tatters. It was impossible to tell whether gear-driven creatures reached from beyond the lamplight or the very walls thrust out mechanical arms. They were too numerous to parry.

Kumar felt his halberd yanked from his grip. He lashed at the clutching machines with furious blows from his quickly-drawn longsword. Smoke and sparks danced amid peals of sheared metal. The effort was wasted. He snarled with impotent fury as pneumatic claws found purchase and jerked him into the dark innards of a tight, hungry machine.

Kumar plunged into a horrific, poison-choked labyrinth whose steel-edged walls collapsed atop him and pawed with slithery tongues. He was whisked along like rainwater sucked down a bedrock fissure, passed from metal grip to metal grip in an endlessly groping chain. He felt as if a steely, acid-spittled throat had swallowed him.

Elsewhere in those clockwork bowels, other rebel Juka shrieked with muffled horror.

When he crested the surface he tore a deep breath from the thick, oily air and tried to regain his bearings. His longsword was gone. The gloom was thicker, cut now by a sporadic, artificial, nervously flickering glow whose source he could not locate. The breathing sound was much closer.

He was pinned between flat metal panels. Only his hands, feet and head emerged. The arrangement gave his limbs a small measure of mobility; but when he struggled the two panels squeezed against his body, forced together by the screw-threaded shafts connecting them. The darkness itself seemed to crush breath from his ribs.

Kumar stopped squirming.

After many moments of calming the hammer strokes of his heart, he started to resolve shapes in the sweltering murk. He was trapped on the irregular surface of a wall or incline within a cramped mechanical tunnel. Gears and pistons clanked all around. His fellow soldiers were likewise snared, suspended at random angles of inversion. Few of them made a sound. When one soldier broke into panicked shrieks and thrashes, the metal plates that enfolded him compressed until the sound of his voice was replaced by a sickening parade of cracks.

The Juka tended an exquisite silence after that, respecting the grind and thunder of their mechanical prison.

Narah was trapped a few feet beside Kumar. He could not make out her eyes in the darkness, though she appeared to be alive. He suspected the shape on her far side was Darhim.

Farther away in the gloom, near the random, unreliable glow, objects moved. Kumar guessed they were collections of levers and gears. A more distinct shape lurked in the center of the corridor, nearly filling its volume. The thing suggested a misshapen globe or ovoid of armor plates. Its circumference was half split by a horizontal cleft, which opened and shut like some grotesque mouth. In the oppressive darkness Kumar imagined the machine to be a giant set of clamshell jaws, though the toothy parts were chaotic and animated. The maw was easily large enough to chew a warrior. One or more spits of very pale flame were visible inside. On the back of the thing were two large flapping extensions, though he could not discern whether they were leathery bellows or undersized wings.

The machine gave the bizarre appearance of issuing commands to hydraulic components in a voice made of strewn hisses and clacks and scraping metal.

His team, Kumar decided, had reached its objective. It did not appear they would slay the Prime Overlord, however, now that they had uncovered the legendary being.

"Obden, what's wrong? Why are the pumps still pumping?" Turlogan jogged among the beautiful, high pistons in the ghostly-lit room. The devices churned with steady resolve.

"It's a redundant system! Dammit!" She slammed a handful of tools against the metal floor. "I shut these pistons down, but they're ram pumping from the surface. There must be an underground complex we didn't know about."

"That's not the right answer!" Turlogan bore a stern look upon her, though it showed more dread than anger. "We don't stand a chance on the battlefield unless we can cut off their munitions and healing draughts. What's the next step?"

The engineer tugged black-smudged fingers through her grey hair. Her eyes squeezed shut. When they opened again, they burned hot.

"Get the men together. We're going back to the Behemoth." She crouched to gather her scattered tools. "Let's gamble today, Turlogan."

Kumar breathed in irregular spurts. His body was trying to sort clean air from the wafts of disturbing vapors that seeped through the darkness. Something about the atmosphere haunted him with odd sensations, as if thoughts and feelings and images tickled into his lungs on misty droplets. He focused on tactile awareness of his body, fighting the unsettling effect.

Down the corridor, the enormous mechanical jaws swiveled to face them. Its maw was a deep black gash in the gloom, lit by occasional tendrils of pale flame. It began to crawl nearer. Spindly hydraulic legs propelled it forward in spiderlike fashion, though the legs extended from the walls and not the machine itself. The thing bore down upon them, heating the air in its approach. Kumar heard the gasps and whimpers of his fellow captives.

It stopped a few yards short of the prisoners. In the punctuated light it seemed as much silhouette as solid object. The jaws opened and closed with greasy sounds, as if mouthing words. The wings or bellows on the creature's back forced air across tongues of fire. Orange light flared within. Metal flaps squeaked and clicked along what might pass for steely lips.

The rumbling words were carved from a blast furnace wind: <<I am the mouthpiece of that which you call the Prime Overlord. Attend me.>>

Kumar spoke back, expecting his metal snare to constrict at the noise. It did not.

"You have our attention," he said.

The machine growled with breaths of flame. <<Today I dispense a gift to you. You shall be grafted into immortality. This act is designed to fit within the parameters of the doctrine you call honor.>>

"We don't want that honor."

<<That is irrelevant. You will receive it. You complete the samples in my catalog. Transformation to automaton ensures your durability.>>

"We'd be more honored if you and the rest of the Overlords left the citadel. It would save us all a mountain of trouble."

The large machine clanked and dribbled steam in response. <<In point of fact, we are leaving the citadel.>>

Beside him, Narah's mouth gaped open. "You are?" Kumar felt a thrill of relief that she sounded unhurt.

<<Our Exodus will initiate within the hour. The citadel is no longer relevant to us.>>

She stammered over a few breaths, then turned her face toward him. "Did he just say that we've won?"

The warrior shook his head slowly. "Forgive me if I'm irrationally skeptical."

The giant metal jaws coughed fresh licks of fire in its gullet. <<Our Exodus falls outside the scope of the slave conflict. This world will soon be depleted. I have finished the calculations which will tunnel us to a new home. Once there, we shall have no use for organic slaves.>>

A hot anger tingled Kumar's flesh. His tone sharpened. "That's the best news I've heard all day! So why, by every pock on the Great Mother's body, didn't you just tell us you were leaving? Acres and acres of Juka soldiers would still be alive today!"

<<The slave insurrection is irrelevant to Exodus.>>

Kumar spit into the darkness. "Then it's a coincidence that you're leaving when the city is surrounded by rebels? Your intellect might be unimpeachable, but you lie worse than a stuttering child."

<<The slave revolt impacted my timetable. That is certain. However, I have implemented my designs for more than a decade.>> The enormous jaws inched closer to him by an unseen mechanism. They smelled of charred grease. <<I am able to calculate your motives of pride and dignity. Not all of us have forgotten what it is like to walk on legs of soft tissue. It is clear, however, that your insurrection falls within the tolerance of my designs.>>

Somewhere farther down the corridor, behind a veil of elusive darkness, other machines began to stir and approach. Their pneumatics hissed like serpents.

Lit by the flames in the Overlord's monstrous mouth, Kumar narrowed his eyes. "So why bother to explain it to me? I think you're more upset than you want us to believe."

<<Knowledge alleviates stress. Calmness enhances the balance of humors in your bodies, for simpler grafting.>> The machine seemed to huff several alchemical breaths. <<However, I know your identity. I am aware that my actions upon you intersect the parameters of mortal revenge. This does not displease me.>>

Narah wriggled under the metal plates that pinned her. "Well, at least he's enjoying himself," she muttered, in a timber thin with fear.

Shapeless machines plucked one of the rebel soldiers from his trap and carried him into the blackness. A splash of wet noises suggested he was already beginning his conversion into immortality. The man did not have time to scream.

Several spark lamps painted the Behemoth's central chamber icy blue. Obden squatted in the center of the floor, in the space where the automaton had once lain. The being was gone. The engineer was sorting through tangles of cables and pipes.

Turlogan's immense frame squeezed up through the trap door. "Time to move! Have you figured it out?"

"The legs and neck are straightforward. I'm halfway to activating the levitant agitators."

"No time for that! We can hold back these loyalists, but there's a pair of Juggernauts on the way. If they get in the launching bay we're finished. We'll have to make do walking."

Obden blew out a heavy breath. "This'll be the end of us, you know. But Great Mother willing, we'll leave a deep footprint behind!"

"The Great Mother wills it. I know her."

The room lurched amid deafening metallic shrieks. Turlogan and Obden each held a pair of crooked rods. They turned and flexed the control handles, causing the steel of the Behemoth to shudder and squeak as the legs unfolded. Obden peered into the tip of a jointed copper pipe that once fitted on the automaton's face.

"Okay, we're touching the floor," she confirmed. "Let's walk."

They moved the rods in unison. The moorings of the maintenance stall snapped with loud grumbles and clangs. The room pitched at an angle which forced them to abandon their controls to regain balance. Exchanging a glance and a sigh, they returned to their posts.

With clumsy, ponderous motions, the Behemoth crawled out of the maintenance bay. Riveted walls were left dented in its wake.

Smoke funneled out of its launching bay, surging from an impromptu funeral pyre.

When they reached the vertical shaft leading out of the citadel, they proceeded cautiously. They could not activate the levitant agitators, so they were forced to crawl down the shaft with the gigantic legs braced against the walls. Halfway down, they lost their footing.

Gravity vanished as they started to fall.

"Fold the legs up! Quickly!" yelled Obden. The titanic mass of the machine roared out of the citadel and into the raging storm. The rebels heard a brittle crack as they smashed through large propellers that twirled on the underside of the city. Then they were plummeting freely.

Viewed from a great distance, the Behemoth was a small object dropping out of the giant, glittering Citadel Moonglow. A moment after it appeared the machine's skeletal legs unflexed at multiple joints. Fully extended, the legs reached a third of the distance to the ground. Uncounted thousands of fires lit the surface of the desert below.

The Behemoth's feet slammed into the armies on the ground. The sound of the impact eclipsed thunder.

Inside the machine the floor leapt up and whacked Obden and Turlogan. The pit fighter was the first to his feet. He angled the copper pipe to his eye level, then grabbed two control rods and pushed. The horizon righted itself. The Behemoth groaned as it unbent many knees, which had absorbed the brunt of the fall.

Through the pipe Turlogan watched the battlefield in a tiny, distorted lens. He felt scores of massive gears heave at his touch. His knuckles whitened. "Obden, are you injured?"

The engineer grunted. "Not terminally."

"Good. Let's find that underground pump."

Obden fumbled to her knees. Blood striped her face and arms. "It's got to be under the central anchor point."

The pit fighter smiled. "You mean where General Tallan's troops are? I was hoping you'd say that. I asked the Great Mother for fifty Janissars to fight, and she's given me five hundred!"

By the time the machines converged upon a third rebel soldier, Kumar had worked a flat piece of metal into his hand. The steel plate covering him began to push against his ribs. He had scant seconds to act.

He touched the end of the object to the plate. The sharp edge sputtered embers when he dragged it. Quickly he slashed the steel plate with the shard of Rabak's static greatsword, still oily with Darhim's potion of capacitance. An inferno of sparks blasted loose. The metal trap peeled open. He kicked at the riven plates and leapt free.

The third soldier cried out as she was snatched away into the darkness: "Kumar, go! Get out of here!"

Then Narah's voice vanished in a burst of wet sounds.

Kumar sprang after the mechanical claws that carried her off. A hammer of hot air clipped him in midleap, shoving him against the riveted wall and onto his knees. When he looked up, the colossal jaws of the Prime Overlord rushed at him.

<<You have condemned yourself,>> it said in a calm voice, its maw slavering fire and steam. Kumar grabbed a piston overhead and kicked his feet high, narrowly dodging the crashing bite of the clamshell machine. He scrambled over the searing hot metal of the thing and landed in front of Darhim.

"Close your eyes!" With one fierce stroke of the static shard he cleaved in half the plate that trapped the old priest. The catacombs brightened in the blazing glare.

"Watch out!" shouted Darhim, pointing. Kumar ducked aside and looked behind him. The huge jaws rushed forward again. Kumar hurled the priest out of the path. A fist of fire punched out of the maw, searing Kumar's chest and pounding him against the wall.

The sliver from the static greatsword fell between armor plates in the floor and was gone.

Kumar fought talons of pain in his torso. Finding handholds he scrambled up the textured wall, emitting a train of smoke. At his sides were two short swords. They were the only weapons he had left. He drew them, grabbed a humid breath and pounced on the foul machine. His blades crashed against its thick surface, to no effect.

In front of the creature Darhim likewise wielded a short sword. He scrabbled across the irregular floor to keep away from the fiery jaws, which pivoted to track him. A greasy joint presented itself and the old Juka struck at it. The blow hit hard.

A hundred more like that, though Kumar, and this monstrosity might yield. He flipped off the clamshell mechanism and landed behind it, where two large bellows beat the air. Ferocious swordstrokes gashed the leather. A backdraft spewed flames through the holes, forcing Kumar to tumble away. The jaws spun to face him.

Kumar backed against the wall. The jaws charged at him. He realized he could not escape.

The corridor flashed white when Darhim unleashed his static scourge. The bolt of electricity clawed the machine's armor. Its mouth flung open wide. By the light of its flames Kumar saw an exposed spring and hacked it with his short sword. The steel cracked with a musical note. The jaws gaped and fumbled for an instant, during which Kumar dashed around the creature. His face stung from its radiant heat.

He reached Darhim, who unslung his satchel. The old Juka snatched several vials from the bag and then handed it to Kumar. "Throw this at those flames inside. There's enough volatile potions in there to take down an airship!"

Kumar glanced at the satchel in horror. "That much? Thank you for sparing me that knowledge before now!"

The jaws of the Prime Overlord rotated to greet them. Without hesitation Kumar wheeled the satchel overhead by its strap and launched it inside the giant maw. The mouth clamped down with a clang, as if to swallow.

Kumar and Darhim scrambled into a crook in the wall.

The explosion was nearly volcanic. The machine's jaws gaped open and erupted torrents of scarlet fire. The force of the blast hurled the huge creature like a rocket down the corridor, smashing against sparking armor plates. The din pummeled their ears. Then the holocaust ended, somewhere out of sight. Acrid fumes choked the air.

Darhim glanced up. Besides themselves, eight rebel soldiers had remained trapped. All of them dangled unmoving in their snares. Their panels pressed sickeningly close together.

"Narah! It's taken her!" Kumar climbed to his feet and leapt over scraps of twisted metal. The path was treacherous in the fickle strobes from the unseen source of light.

"Kumar! Stop!" Darhim clambered after him at a much slower pace. "I'm the only one who can help her, if the processing has begun."

"Then I hope you're feeling fit," said Kumar, darting back towards the priest. "Climb on my back and hold on like a cavalryman. I guarantee you've never ridden a steed this angry before!"

The Behemoth struck like a gigantic pickaxe. It gouged a deep trough in the paved desert, flinging boulders and clouds of dirt across the battlefield. Loyalist men and machines toppled in. Others were scooped up in the huge, jagged snout. The colossus gored the earth at the base of the centermost pillar, where the bulk of the defensive forces had staked their ground. Their precision formations suffered.

Wielding the control rod for the war machine's neck, Turlogan roared with glee. "Pray to the Overlords, General Tallan, because the Great Mother fights with us!"

Obden worked two of the Behemoth's legs. She squinted into a second viewing pipe. "I think that's just what they've done."

The fighter swiveled his viewing pipe and let out a growl.

Their war machine dug beside a thin cluster of pipelines that formed the central anchor line. From all sides it was approached by more of its kind.

Four Behemoths against one, and half-abled at that, were not odds of which Obden approved. "We have to pull out of here!" she snapped, her face turning red. "Dammit, we got so close!"

"We're not pulling out." Turlogan bent his knees and clutched the control rod for the neck like it was a melee weapon. "You've got two of our legs. Keep us upright. Leave the giants to me."

"You're a madman," answered the engineer, though her face drew into a rampant smile. "Can you handle four at once?"

"I'm a match for four of anything! Just give me a big enough hammer."

Obden laughed out loud, then loosened her wrists and braced.


Kumar sprang across the machinery of the catacombs, carrying Darhim like a backpack. Tentative flashes of white from somewhere up ahead lit the humid darkness. With no other clues to guide them, they hurried in that direction. .

When they rounded a tight corner the quality of the atmosphere changed. It was still hot to the lungs and flesh, but it moved now as if circulating through an extremely large space. Crackles of sporadic light emerged from beneath a broad tangle of huge gears and panels on the floor. The ghostly brilliance revealed a gigantic mechanical cavern. The chamber was large enough to house several airships. The walls surged with movement, every inch jammed with gears and pipes and chains and pumps, squirming as if infested with parasites. The air fluttered with ceaseless clanks and buzzing whispers like panes of vibrating glass.

In the flickering light the rebels immediately recognized what they saw. It was a congress of Overlords, in quantities to surpass their foulest nightmares.

Much of the movement on the cavern walls issued from disjointed organic masses. Though pools and streaks of shadow blackened the majority of the chamber, glimpses suggested the repellent whole: Tissues wriggled through heavy glass ducts; bags of flesh crawled amorphously within cages; many machine parts were fashioned from living bone or tendon; and eyes stared at them, always a million stark, bodiless eyes, swimming and swirling in freakish schools through a warren of translucent pipes.

The subtle, pervasive sluicing noises brought bile into Kumar's throat. He had never grown accustomed to the presence of Overlords, nor had he any desire to do so. He swallowed hard, then noticed a shape in the ceiling that stood out from the rest. When a prolonged glare swept across the center of the room, he ground his teeth.

An enormous mechanical claw distended from the roof of the cavern. In its grip was a glassy cylinder, capped at the top and bottom by armor-encased machinery. Within the cylinder undulated a faintly glowing fluid or gas. A shape resolved inside. It was a torso, or the remnants of one. Glass and copper components riddled it like a disease; or perhaps the living body was a rash upon the machine. It had a head, invaded by pipes and tubing. The organic creature this once had been was bloated and oversized, twice that of any Juka, though Kumar guessed the thing had never breathed with Jukan lungs. It was a monstrosity from an elder race.

There was something different about this Overlord. Ancient. Primal.

In the corridor where they were trapped, the rebels had battled the horrible mouthpiece of the Prime Overlord. Now, Kumar knew, they faced the being itself.

Kumar sucked on a trembling breath and growled, "Darhim, fire now."

The priest had climbed off the warrior's back. He flicked up the tip of his static scourge, aimed it at the weakly luminescent cylinder and cocked forward the trigger. A bolt of lightning shrieked into the air, dashing against the Prime Overlord in a blast of smoke and thunder. The assembled Overlords flurried over the cavern walls like caged birds.

Through the haze, the rebels saw that the surfaces of the Prime Overlord were unscathed.

The torso moved very slightly. A fiery voice rose behind them: <<Submit to immortality and join your companions. I do not desire to damage your corporal integrity.>>

Kumar whirled around. Blocking the passage from which they came, half cloaked in the flashing gloom, the jaws of the Prime Overlord rested on spidery legs that were not its own. The massive machine looked undamaged. It must have been a second, identical device. Its bellows flapped with healthy vigor.

Behind it were bulky silhouettes, four of them. By now the rebels recognized Juggernauts even under a mantle of darkness.

Beside Kumar, Darhim's rich voice murmured low. "I'll try to distract them. Escape, my friend."

"Forget it. You're not equipped to handle this."

"I still have a trick or two left. Live and lead, Kumar. Dying's for the old."

"Besides me you're probably the youngest one here," grumbled Kumar, "so shut up and get ready to move." He pointed at the grotesque torso hanging from the ceiling. "You! What's happened to Narah?!"

<<The organism with that identity has been grafted.>>

Kumar's body surged with an icy chill. His eyes swelled red. "Then bid farewell to your immortality, you spineless, caged barbarian!" He twirled with a swift motion and flung one short sword into the mouthpiece of the Prime Overlord. The blade crashed through nozzle mechanisms and released a tide of flame from the device's maw. The Juggernauts scuttled around it on numerous thick, spiky legs; but when they entered the cavern Kumar was already carrying Darhim towards the center of the room. The two rebels passed over struts in the machinery from which the furtive light flashed.

The floor began to rumble.

Kumar paused to glance back at his pursuers. The Juggernauts had stopped several yards away. They even backed up a bit, shying from the source of the bright, flickering lights that splashed the Juka from underneath.

The warrior realized the ground was moving. Giant gears were peeling back layers of steel panels underfoot. Kumar jumped from surface to surface, balancing the old priest on his back, endeavoring to find some purchase that was not moving. When he finally lit on a stable beam of metal, he glanced around at his perch.

In the course of invading five citadels, Kumar had seen many extremes of Overlord technology. It did not prepare him for the sight of the thing he was standing upon, rising with deliberate grandeur from the floor.

Heat and steam exuded from it in a tremulous miasma. Its hill-sized bulk heaved what sounded like solemn breaths through unfathomable lungs. It whispered in a thousand voices.

The device was huge. It nearly filled the breadth of the vast floor and continued down to unknown depths. Most of it appeared to be a massive, tangled network of thick glass pipes and globes, supported by a coppery scaffold; though its fleeting, inscrutable internal movements suggested unguessed layers of complexity. It flashed and glowed in a thousand places, in the cadence of a distant thunderstorm. Darkness trickled throughout its workings. Its countenance was furtive, mysterious.

Kumar felt the uneasy sensation that this device was more alive than the Overlords could ever aspire to be.

The crystal maze surged with breathy phantoms of steam. In some globes the mist condensed into bubbling liquids. In others it made strips of silver metal glow, then pop with a flash of static charge. Valves snapped open and closed with electric crackles. Turquoise flames heated liquids of many colors inside copper-bottomed spheres, adding to the endless, rasping circulation of steam. The activity extended deep into the device's interior.

Despite its chaotic appearance, it hissed and sighed with a disquieting rhythm. There was an organization about it. Flames rose and fell according to some enigmatic formula. It bubbled numbers and spells.

The Juggernauts maintained a respectful distance from the pulsing, living alchemical artifice. The scorched mouthpiece of the Prime Overlord stood in the glittering strobes of the device.

<<Behold Exodus,>> it said.

In that moment it occurred to Kumar that he should have accepted Darhim's offer of escape. The wrinkled old priest always had been the wisest of the group.

When it began to topple over its long, thin legs, the loyalist Behemoth emitted a dolorous moan from tons of buckling steel. The plains quaked when it smashed down. Waves rippled out from its impact, tossing soldiers into the air.

"That's two!" howled Turlogan after a gruff cheer. Kneeling behind him, Obden worked their Behemoth's legs. Both glued their eyes to copper viewing pipes.

The trap door across the room clanked open. "We're losing ground down here!" shouted Jamark from below. "We can barely keep the Dreadnoughts from tearing off the bay door!"

"Get your men out!" bellowed Turlogan. "It's useless to stay! You can't help with this."

"May the Great Mother glorify you," said Obden.

Jamark furrowed his brow. "You two need divine protection, not me. I can get my troops past the Dreadnoughts in gyrofoils, but those monsters are going to get to you soon enough!"

Turlogan broadened his grin. "Then make sure our songs are sung loudly!"

Jamark blinked, smiled, and vanished from the trap door.

"You were right," grinned the pit fighter. "This is a beautiful machine, Obden."

The engineer wagged her head to shake loose her hair. It rippled over her shoulders in grey waves. She wiped the sweat from her brow. Her face glowed with excitement.

"What do you say, Turlogan? Let's show them what slaves can do when the yoke is off!"

Kumar and Darhim climbed toward the center of the bizarre, hissing, hill-shaped device called Exodus. Steam of varying colors raced through its glass tubes, boiling out of alchemical mixtures and billowing through valves that sparked and crackled. At the peak of the device's bulk was a soft orange glow. It was a virgin glass bubble, blown from the end of a long, narrow tube. It cooled into place at the nexus of half a dozen glass pipes. When the gentle glow faded away, steam tumbled up the pipes and flooded the globe with a whorl of pale colors.

After another look they realized that glass components were being created all about the exterior of Exodus. The device glowed with beads and stalks like a machine's surreal jewelry. It had extended its height by several feet in only a few minutes.

"It calculates," said Darhim, scanning the device's staggering complexity. To the torso on the ceiling he shouted, "This is an alchemical factory, isn't it? It's making something!"

The Overlord's booming reply sounded almost proud. <<It has completed the calculations to open a tunnel to our new home. It now proceeds with designs to fashion an architecture for us.>>

Darhim squinted. "You can't tunnel out of a floating city!"

<<The nature of our Exodus is beyond your fathoming. Know only that the place we go has all the resources of a young world. Exodus will perform the functions for which we have thus far relied upon slaves.>>

Kumar sneered. "This thing must pretend to be as smart as a man."

<<Far more so. Exodus surpasses even Overlord capacity. It is the pinnacle of creation. It is the ultimate being.>>

"That doesn't give me comfort," muttered Kumar.

"The Juggernauts don't attack," noted the priest in a low voice. "Neither do the jaws. They're afraid of damaging this thing. They're stalling."

Kumar chewed his lip. "Noticed that too, did you? All this glass looks very fragile. It's practically an invitation. There's only one thing that keeps me from smashing it to pieces."

Darhim nodded. "It's supposed to take the Overlords away from here."

"But I daresay they've got more to lose than we do." The warrior whisked out his last remaining short sword and held it over his head. "Listen to me! All I want from you is the return of my soldiers! Give them back and there's no need for me to crack this bauble of yours! You can tunnel your way to wherever your bloated, grisly heart wants to crawl. We'll call this whole war a draw. I'm willing to swallow my pride."

<<The weapon you hold cannot threaten Exodus. It has grown for a decade. Its size precludes termination. Your interference is therefore insignificant. However, your request conforms to my timetable. Your soldiers return.>>

Abruptly the workings of Exodus accelerated. Gas clouds streamed wildly through the webs of glass. The whispers became bubbling murmurs. Flames fingered higher and brighter.

<<It has begun. Attend Exodus, my slaves.>>

Squalls of spasmodic light barraged them from a thousand strobing arcs. The voices of Exodus transformed into wails. The cavern shuddered with the deafening sounds, tinged by the hyperactive buzzing of excited Overlords.

From the dazzling gloom appeared two silhouettes. They were Juka, as much as Kumar could discern, though something was wrong about them. They stumbled over the irregular surface of Exodus, toward him and Darhim.

When the two men were close enough to distinguish details, Kumar and Darhim grimaced. They were indeed rebel soldiers, the ones who were carried away to be transformed. The process seemed well under way. Both had torsos perforated by tubes and pipes. These extended like tentacles away from their bodies and into the mechanical darkness. One soldier had an additional pipe jammed into the roof of his mouth. His entire lower jaw had been removed.

The jawless soldier brandished a huge steel claw where his left hand had been. The other raised a longsword to attack.

"Bastard!" howled Kumar at the Prime Overlord. He leapt between Darhim and the automatons and parried their simultaneous lunges. In a furious pattern of clanging strokes he drove both of them back, then severed their thrumming pipelines. He finished each of them by plunging his short sword into their tough hearts. Through his blade he felt the metal tubes that invaded their body cavities.

"Barbarian," growled the warrior, catching his hot breath. He glowered at the Prime Overlord, looming grotesquely over the proceedings. "You perverse savage! Why do you use men like mindless weapons? Why?!"

Nearby, Darhim knelt over his own sword. He was shuffling several vials in his hands. When he glanced up his eyes widened. "Kumar, behind you..."

The warrior mashed shut his eyes. "Please, Great Mother hear me. Please tell me it isn't she..."

He turned and looked. Another shape picked its way across the pulsating topography of Exodus. Her transformation was less progressed than her companions, though several pipes had been jammed into her ribcage. She held a longsword in her hand. Amid the blinding chaos of lights and molten glass, ebony shadows splashed her face like slick paint. Her eyes pulled open wide. They bulged with vivid horror.

Narah struggled for a moment, convulsing, as if fighting the effects of this new enslavement. But something was battling for her will and she was clearly losing. Finally she stood at her full height, glared at her erstwhile companions and attacked. Kumar howled an anguished scream and parried her skillful blows.

Behind them Exodus erupted into unearthly squeals. Smoke and steam flooded in sheets from the device's interior. Up from the dark, flashing hulk thrust many thick, metal stalks -- ten long rods, tipped with knifelike fangs. Thirty feet above the floor the rods punctured the very substance of the air itself. Then they began to part, peeling a ragged hole into empty space. Beyond was an impossibly rich blackness.

<<Exodus digs our tunnel to the past,>> boomed the voice of the Prime Overlord. <<Now begins the final harvest of fuel.>> The collected Overlords buzzed and clacked with excitement.

Everything began to shake.

On the storm-darkened plains outside, masses of soldiers retreated from the space where the Behemoths battled. Lightning whipped the combatants. Two of the colossal machines bore down upon a lone third. The legs of the rebel war machine were slightly curved and twisted, as if the steel had performed actions for which it was not designed.

Yet the rebel machine displayed a battery of maneuvers unknown for automatons. Currently its upraised neck was crossed with that of an enemy. Steel beams trumpeted their contest of strength. The lone machine shivered, weakened by its bent legs; but before it became unstable its neck swerved to the side.

The loyalist Behemoth lurched forward, unbalanced. The rebel swept its neck into its enemy's rear legs. The move was ponderous but quick enough to trip the automaton. After many tense moments, the loyalist Behemoth fell forward. It slammed the ground close to a refugee column. The impact rippled the earth like water.

The surviving loyalist Behemoth punctured the body of the rebel machine. Its gigantic muzzle smashed through the proportionately small section, dislodging huge steel tatters and a leaping cloud of levitant. The devastated Behemoth swayed. At that moment a gnatlike cluster of flying objects soared into the wound.

Inside Turlogan bellowed with rage. His kinetic maul whipped through the air and crashed against the steel chassis of several invading Dreadnoughts. Though each automaton approximated a flying Juggernaut, the raw fury of the pit fighter's attack engaged four of them at once. No more than that could sweep through the gaping, ragged hole in the ceiling of the Behemoth's central room.

"Obden!" howled the giant Juka. "Fall against it! Do it now!"

A bladed claw tore through Turlogan's thigh. Gore sprayed the air and he roared with pain. A backstroke of his kinetic maul bashed the Dreadnought's partially exposed face. Against the odds the automaton's skull cracked. The creature clanged to the floor, floundering mechanical arms.

A few feet away from it Obden's face was tight with agony. Her abdomen spilled a heavy stream of blood from many brutal gashes. Turlogan's abilities were transcendent but he could not parry every attack. Nor did Obden possess his stamina.

Yet she bit back her pain enough to reach for a control rod. The room had begun to sway as the impaled, undirected war machine lost its balance. The engineer had no intention of losing like this. Not when the very weight of this Behemoth was the most potent weapon on the battlefield.

She calculated a difficult maneuver, then twisted the control rod with the last scraps of strength she could muster.

The armies watched while the rebel machine teetered beside the central anchor of the citadel. When it rocked precariously to the side, one leg raised up high, braced against the cluster of vertical pipes and pushed off. Some of the pipelines burst, raining barrels and alchemical liquids onto the battlefield.

The rebel Behemoth shoved itself in the direction of its final opponent. Its neck chopped into the axis of its enemy's body. Both giants bent.

The violence of the maneuver shoved the Dreadnoughts against the twisted roof of the chamber. The room pitched completely onto its side. In that welcome instant Turlogan caught his breath. Wounds and broken bones sang torment through his body. His head swam from blood loss. One of his legs was a catastrophe.

He caught sight of Obden clinging to the control rod, hanging from it. Though the rest of her body was rags, her eyes still blazed with fire. In that moment of pain it occurred to Turlogan how beautiful she had always been. Beautiful like a work of master craftsmanship.

Another claw snapped around his waist, scissoring through flesh and organs. But the pit fighter grinned, flayed himself from the Dreadnought's grasp and reached for the control rod to the Behemoth's neck. He shoved it with all of his strength. The room spun again and as the Dreadnoughts lanced him with half a dozen whirling, grinding blades, Turlogan bellowed out his own name, like a peal of thunder in the ageless tempest of battle.

In its final act the rebel machine bucked its ruined neck forward. Tilted by the maneuver, the loyalist Behemoth toppled in the direction of the central anchor. Its muzzle plunged into a huge trough in the ground, with a titanic roar that was mirrored by a rumble under the earth. Black smoke billowed out of cracks in the demolished pavement.

Barrels and liquids ceased to fountain from the ruptured pipes. The pumps ground to a stop. After a pause the rebel troops sent up a rain-soaked cheer.


At that moment, on every horizon, fire exploded into the sky.

The ground shuddered. Columns of pulsing lava thrust into the air, puncturing the storm clouds. Each new eruption thundered closer to Citadel Moonglow. The terrified Juka began to scatter in groups across the plains, thousands upon thousands of tiny lights fleeing the approach of giants.

Yet the lava that gushed forth did not fall back to earth. In the nearer pillars the Juka could see streams of magma forming into geometric shapes. It must have been a nightmare, for it seemed as if the molten core of the world was shaping itself into a machine made up of pipes and globes, rods and gears. As each pillar cooled, its radiance shifted from searing yellows to crackling blues.

Exodus had hatched from its incubation. It was time to harvest fuel.

When enough of its pillars had formed, Exodus began to carve up the land.

Darhim gaped as rivers of light poured through Exodus and lit up the dagger-tipped rods. The black hole they had gashed in the air now pushed farther into solid nothingness. The rods sliced a deeper wound. Then a pinpoint of color appeared in the center of the hole. It was a rich green hue.

Instantly the unearthly device pulsed with new activity. Glass components extruded toward the hole at a pace too quick to follow. Steel and copper supports sprang forward as well. The tunneling rods tore the green spot open and the living, alchemical artifice called Exodus began to inject itself into another world.

On the walls of the mechanical cavern the Overlords whirred and buzzed impatiently. Above the proceedings the Prime Overlord simply waited, lurking in a swirling fluid of light and mist and unholy alchemy.

After five quick parries Kumar felt Narah's foot hammer into his stomach. He collapsed backwards against the stiff glass components of Exodus. The echoing ring of sword against sword vanished in the cacophony of the Overlords' burgeoning Exodus.

His cry was strident. "Narah, stop! Fight for control!" Her bulging eyes told him that she was fighting, though, but that the battle was hopeless.

"It's the thralling potion!" shouted Darhim. "It steals her mind! Cut the center pipe!"

Though her will was not her own, Narah's skills were brutally intact. Kumar used his forearms to deflect three swirling kicks, then jumped over a sweep of her sword. He threaded his blade through the crook of her elbow and attempted to disarm her on the return stroke. She clamped onto his wrist, leapt over his arm with legs wheeling and then pirouetted. When she faced him again, she had two blades and he had none. Before he could dodge she stabbed one of them into his leg. He stumbled backwards, dancing atop glass and metal beams.

"Kumar, take this!" Darhim tossed his own sword end-over-end. In one motion Kumar plucked the weapon from the air and slashed at the center pipe that pushed into Narah's heart. It cracked in two and spilled a putrid ooze. He took aim at the remaining four tubes.

The old priest called out, "Leave those! They keep her alive!"

"She's not flushed with gratitude here!" Kumar clashed away her deadly swipes and ducked through the maze of Exodus.

"I put the antidote to the thralling potion on my blade. Stab her, Kumar, while there's still time to save her!"

To himself he whispered, "Great Mother, find me another way." But he pressed back at Narah, thrusting and slashing with furious skill. She parried using wide, arching strokes, twirling and dodging with characteristic grace.

Again she stabbed his leg. He felt it nearly buckle. At that moment he knew there was no way to stop her, except with killing moves. When the thought came, his stomach knotted and his limbs fell cold.

She charged him, flinging blades in a relentless attack. Kumar parried and ducked, unwilling to strike back. His head pounded hot with anguish.

Narah's wide eyes passed through a band of dazzling light. They seemed to read his mind. They seemed to beg him.

Kumar howled and vaulted past her, lunging with his outstretched sword. It was his slowest killing attack. Narah avoided it, despite herself.

Then she threw two quick slashes and spun. At the end of her clockwise turn she thrust at him again.

It was the attack Turlogan had warned her about. Her right flank was wide open. Her large eyes stared directly into his.

Kumar pushed the tip of his blade into her abdomen. When her face twisted with agony his own features mirrored hers. He shoved the short sword deep inside her body, wedging between bones and hard muscle. Still he had to duck underneath her strike. He left his weapon within her as he pulled back, then lurched forward again when she crumpled. Gently he guided her to the ground. Her expression revealed unimaginable torment. He forced himself to look until his eyesight blurred with tears.

Darhim stood before an unfolding cataclysm.

In a column of vertical glass Exodus extruded itself through the black wound in the air. The entire cavern throbbed with the raw flow of power. The old priest knew nothing about the bizarre tunnel through oblivion, but he did know alchemy. He deduced the nature of the potions that mixed in self-regulating permutations within of glassworks of Exodus. Their power was unprecedented.

Exodus required impossible amounts of energy. The citadel possessed no generators on that scale. Not even a dedicated Core Siphon could quench the device's thirst. When Darhim pondered what fuel Exodus might use, his face pinched with horror.

"What are you harvesting for power?" he shouted at the unmoving Prime Overlord. He cringed at the answer.

<<Exodus transforms this world into fuel,>> said the clacking, fiery mouthpiece, still perched at the entrance to the cavern. <<The sum of this land's base materials provides the energy for the move into the young world. Once begun, the conversion cannot be reversed. As I have said, this place will soon be depleted.>>

"You're burning the Juka to fuel your escape!"

<<The analogy maps well. Console yourself. Logic identifies this outcome as a victory for your revolt. It is the end of your slavery.>>

Darhim cursed the mechanical jaws as they spouted a series of hisses and clacks. It sounded unnervingly like laughter.

Kumar did not hear the pandemonium of Exodus and Overlords. He knelt over Narah's bloody form. Her agony had subsided and her face calmed as if asleep. When her eyes fluttered abruptly open, they looked hot as cinders. Kumar held his breath and tensed.

Her voice was cracked. "Get this Overlord out of my body," she growled, then clutched the pipes jammed into her chest. Roughly she yanked them out. Amber fluid splashed around them amid a sharp, tangy scent. The pipes carried some form of healing draught, which had kept her alive. The wounds from the pipes bled red and amber and sealed themselves quickly. She cried out when Kumar pulled the sword from her flank, but that wound, too, seeped with the healing potion that had coursed through her veins. The puncture squeezed shut and faded.

"I'm not dressed for immortality, anyway," she muttered, trying to sit up. "Posterity would be shocked by these rags."

Kumar's heart soared. With an eruption of energy he scooped her up, lifted her to her feet and then threw his arms in the air. "Darhim!" he bellowed, "we're leaving!"

"We can't!" barked the priest. "Kumar, look at it!"

The hole in the air was spread wide now. On the other side was a place more green than Kumar had ever imagined. The landscape beyond the tunnel was a bizarre, unreal place, yet somehow familiar. The earth was entirely emerald green, swathed in a lush blanket of what looked like plants, but for their abundance and luxurious hue. The sky was crystalline blue, populated by tranquil, milky-white clouds. A blazing gold light warmed the land with color.

It was a world out of myth. It was a dream Kumar had hidden away since he was a child.

It was a place no Overlord belonged. The foul presence of Exodus built itself purposefully atop that extravagant landscape.

Kumar turned his face up to the Prime Overlord, his eyes smoldering, his tears reflecting the brilliant chaos. "You can't go there," he growled.

<<Your protest is irrelevant,>> said the mouthpiece. <<It is done. Exodus cannot be denied.>>

"Wrong! You won't ruin another world like you have ours!" He lifted his sword overhead and brought it down upon the glass skeleton of Exodus.

The blade rebounded from the resilient material. The glass did not have a mark. He smashed down the sword again, with redoubled vigor, but the effect was the same.

The jaws of the Prime Overlord exhaled flame. <<Your interference is meaningless.>>

Kumar leapt toward the surging pillar of glass and metal and steam. Narah climbed after him. They reached the base of the pulsing shaft and searched it for handholds.

"In this world we're powerless," said Kumar. "On the other side Exodus looks small enough for two warriors to handle. Care to join me in paradise, Narah of Vesper?" He grinned wide.

Her eyes flashed. "With blade in hand, Kumar of Britain."

They began to scale the column of seething, steaming glass.

In the plains surrounding Citadel Moonglow, the lava pillars of erupting Exodus cooled until their surfaces were patterned with webs of flashing blue. From the peak of each column blasted streams of orange heat. These bolts of holocaust fire carved fissures through the brittle earth.

The desert landscape fragmented into thousands of polygonal shapes. Each shape in turn flared into a dazzling fountain of fire. Through some unthinkable, apocalyptic alchemy the pillars of Exodus sucked the flames into itself, leaving behind vast, yawning pits. The blackness within the pits was impossibly deep and strangely animate.

The petrified Juka on the broken plains could only scream as Exodus consumed the world.

Kumar and Narah climbed through thirty feet of smoke and blistering heat. Above them gaped the black tunnel in the air, through which Exodus was transmitting itself. The rich darkness had a material quality, as if oblivion was a tangible medium. It quivered with ambient tension. They realized that the tunnel was unstable. Only the ten glowing rods of Exodus kept it open.

Beyond it lay an emerald land of legend.

Kumar flipped the lever on Darhim's short sword. The blade hummed and began to heat. In seconds it sizzled with a white glow.

"Let's see what this thing bleeds," he muttered as he thrust the blade into the glassy works of Exodus.

Something cracked. A cloud of sparkling steam geysered at his face. He ducked aside with inches to spare.

Exodus howled. The wriggling, clanking hosts of Overlords screeched and thrashed over the walls of the cavern. The Prime Overlord belched a mushroom of fire from its gullet.

<<Forward, my brethren!>> it roared. <<Seize the young world! It is yours to devour!>>

With countless cracks the walls sloughed their mechanical denizens. In a grotesque tide the Overlords dropped to the irregular floor and oozed in a half-machine, half-organic swell up the flashing surface of Exodus, driven by swarms of pistons and gears and churning wheels. Bodiless eyes leered ahead from tubes carried in the flow. The monstrous sounds of the shapeless metallic flood drowned even the wail and thrum of Exodus itself. In seconds it would reach the tunnel.

"Sword!" screamed Darhim at the base of the pillar. Kumar looked down at the priest, a tiny shape in the smoke and glare. The warrior saw the old man's terror carved in the lines of his face. Yet Darhim reached up two hands, one clutching vials of potion, the other grasping not for rescue, but for a weapon.

Kumar threw down the white-hot sword. It streaked through the searing fog and impaled Exodus at Darhim's feet. Plumes of steam screeched out of broken glass.

The priest smiled unfettered relief. Kumar sensed an onset of calm in his expression. "Go!" shouted the old Juka, then shoved the vials of potion into the blossom of steam. He pulled back a gauntlet glowing with heat. With his other hand he unslung his static scourge

"Great Mother witness this sacrifice," he murmured, then fired a trident of electric charge into Exodus. Where the bolt met the potions of capacitance he had inserted, the network of glass tubes ignited white. The flow of steam spread the potion quickly. In a fraction of a second the entire surface of the giant device lit up and shattered, consuming Darhim and the horrible flood of Overlords that surged toward escape.

Overhead the Prime Overlord thrashed inside its translucent tube.

Kumar and Narah clung onto copper struts to resist the violent quaking of Exodus. The ten rods holding open the tunnel bucked and twisted and finally dislodged. Several of them tumbled away into the lush, green world beyond the blackness. The unbalanced tunnel shivered and began to collapse.

Exodus screamed. Scarcely a few cubic yards of the device had formed on the luxuriant landscape. As the tunnel folded, glass and metal spars severed, spewing plumes of colored, bitter steam. Yet the scent that wafted to Kumar's nose was sweet and clean and satiny. It was the glorious fragrance of a world out of myth.

He had time, before the portal closed, to leap through.

When he glanced back at Narah she had lost her grip. A holocaust wave of flame and fury rose toward her. Kumar did not hesitate. He lashed out a hand and grabbed Narah's wrist, lifting her farther into the black tunnel.

The portal to the green world folded, and was gone. The tunnel itself began to collapse. The uncontrolled power of Exodus flew at them like a wall of unbound hell.

Narah clutched Kumar's shoulder and murmured, "Surely this isn't the victory we wanted."

Something happened to the luxuriant blackness. A cleft formed upon it and quickly parted open. A pure light streamed from it.

Then a warrior appeared in the light. He was a slender man, clapped in armor of bizarre, fanciful design. His face was misshapen, pointed and angular. His smooth-skinned brow bore no horns. His demeanor was undeniably regal.

On his chest was an emblem depicting a silver serpent.

The warrior reached out a hand to them. Kumar turned a heavy glance to Narah, then took it.

They felt an avalanche of fire as the power of Exodus smashed into them.

In a symphony of flame and glass and metal and stone, the world shattered to fiery pieces and toppled away into the void. Time lost meaning like a shadow stripped of light. Oblivion took its place.

Eternity ceased to be.

Kumar awakened on a bedroll under a cloth awning. His ears rang with the echoes of something cataclysmic. It sounded as if he were underwater.

His body throbbed with pain. He knew what that meant. His wounds were not serious enough to merit a healing draught. It was sparse consolation.

Turning on his side, he gazed out from the hilltop encampment. The plains were a ruin of paving stones and scorched earth. Citadel Moonglow remained in the sky, though its glittering lights had died. Scattered fires marked the survivors from two armies.

The storm clouds were rent apart. A fresh rain was cool and silky.

"Welcome to the new world," said a familiar voice. Wrapped in a rainproof cloak, Narah stepped out of the downpour and knelt beside him. "Things look a whole lot like they did before, but that's the way of beginnings."

Kumar chewed his lip. "Was it a dream?"

"Not unless you and I and a hundred thousand others had the same dream. No, it was more like ... a very nasty earthquake."

He sat up, clutched his pounding head. "How did we survive?"

"I'm not really sure. It felt like we were sucked into a whirlpool. Everything was on fire. We were thrown out the catacombs, found a gyrofoil and here we are, by the mercy of the Great Mother and a fortunate mound of loose dirt to land in. That's where you got the knock on the head."

He touched a sore lump on his skull. "You were piloting, weren't you?"

She shoved him, grinning faintly.


She shook her head.

"Obden? Turlogan?"

Narah sighed. "Gone. In grand fashion, but I would expect no less. They were grand allies."

"Carve those words into stone." For long moments he stared at the tattered, rain swept plains. "The citadel is dark."

"After what we saw, I'm surprised it's still afloat."

"What did we see, Narah?"

She nudged closer and eased his head back into her lap. "I saw you turn away from paradise."

He closed his eyes. "I couldn't bear the thought of it without your scowl to keep me company."

"In paradise, you have to make your own scowls." She chuckled and softly stroked his horned temples. "You know, I got my Sanguination wish. So far, anyway."

Kumar furrowed his brow, then winced at an ache. "I thought you wanted to die before the rest of us?"

"That was a lie. What I really wished was to outlive you."

"All of us? Then you're one slit throat from achieving your goal."

"Not the Hand of Honor. Just you. Kumar, I'm going to watch you get old, wither away and die an old man in his bed, surrounded by glory and grandchildren."

He sat up a bit. "Narah of Vesper, that sounded like a preamble to courtship."

"I told you I'd get back at you for lying to me." She brushed an easy kiss over his lips. "Speaking of which, you still owe me. What did you pray for at Sanguination? You promised you'd talk."

Enveloped by Narah and a chorus of rainsong, Kumar cast his eyes to the sky above the citadel. Something was strange about the perpetual cloud cover. It grew darker in places. Less angry.

Then he recognized what he was seeing. It was a break in the clouds. A velvet blackness shone through, pure and unmuddied. Twinkling in that swath of night sky were a thousand tiny, luminous bodies. They flickered in a wild, heavenly dance.

Kumar blinked wet eyes and answered, "I prayed for an end to the war. Just a childish little request."

The rainstorm swelled again, drawing a veil of clouds over the glimmering stars. Kumar closed his eyes and settled into a deep rest.

History records several months of continued fighting after the Cataclysm. When scouts eventually reported how drastically the world had changed, the rebels abandoned their siege. The crippled Citadel Moonglow presided over their departure. Its skyborne defenses were never seriously compromised.

The last stronghold of the Overlords had become nothing more than a phantom of the past haunting a barren desert, tended by a smattering of loyalists. The Juka had no more cause to fear it. A new world awaited them, strewn with the ruins of the old, inhabited by peoples they could not have imagined.

The Juka had survived the end of eternity. They welcomed the next challenge.