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
And of course, the loyalists employed monsters to fight beside
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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 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
"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
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
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
"I'm sorry about Rabak's greatsword," she murmured into Kumar's
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
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 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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Jamark blinked, smiled, and vanished from the trap door.
"You were right," grinned the pit fighter. "This is a beautiful
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
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
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
"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
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?
Nearby, Darhim knelt over his own sword. He was shuffling several
vials in his hands. When he glanced up his eyes widened. "Kumar,
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
<<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
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
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
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
When enough of its pillars had formed, Exodus began to carve up
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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,"
<<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
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
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
"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
"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
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
His body throbbed with pain. He knew what that meant. His wounds
were not serious enough to merit a healing draught. It was sparse
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
She shoved him, grinning faintly.
She shook her head.
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
"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
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