The Song of Steel
Dulcitter City, Duchy of Dulcitter, Empire of the Trinity,
Koli, 69th of Red Leaf, Empire Year 27
Dulcitter was a metropolis; no other word would do for a city of its size.
One might say of it that it sprawled, or even lounged across the Dulcitter River, except that, in all honesty, straddled, with its inferred sexuality, was too perfect a choice to pass by.
The city's South Side was home to more pleasure houses, gambling dens, taverns and the ubiquitously named "Dance Halls" than any of the other two ducal cities in the Empire, and that was saying a lot, when one considered the decadence one could find by simply going for a stroll down some of the roads in the West End of Derkain.
It was also home to more thieves, muggers, murderers and "Fix-It" men than either of the others, and a stroll through its South Side could end badly for any rich dandy who decided it was a good idea to take such a walk.
Unless, of course, he happened to be from the college.
The Mancer's College was one of the upsides to living in Dulcitter City. With its huge Mantik Tower, it supplied the entire city with clean lighting, conditioned air and cold storage for meats and other perishables, all for free, as opposed to other places in the Empire, where it cost so much to have a receptor for the Mantik energy produced by the towers that only the truly wealthy could afford it.
Not everyone who attended the college was a Mancer, perhaps only one out of every six, but those odds weren't good enough for the thugs and bad men of the city to risk it.
Which was why the figure in the black hooded robe was able to walk down the deserted, fog enshrouded street, near the South Side docks by the river, without being leapt upon by several large men with big knives and clubs and a serious cash flow problem.
Contrary to popular image, most Mancers did not wear flowing black robes with hoods because black showed stains far too easily, flowing clothes were easy to trip over, and hoods tended to funnel foul odours and smoke into the face. This was not something you wanted when the smoke you might inhale could do anything up to and including make you drop dead like a puppet with its strings cut.
However, popular image gets that way for a reason, and it has a tendency to stick better than the truth, which was why all the horrible people who might have leapt upon this figure did not. It was just common sense to not take chances with that sort of thing.
The figure walked through the fog, boots making a soft tapping sound against the cobbles of the street, as he headed east along the docks, passing by taverns where the sounds of singing and drunken revelry filtered through the doors and windows, but no one was in the street.
It was cold and there was a feel of snow in the air that spoke of an early and hard winter.
It was a night for being indoors where it was warm and comfortable, not for being outside, getting involved with strange figures in black.
The figure walked to the end of the street and turned north, walking down one of the long quays that were so wide and built up that they themselves resembled streets.
At the end of the quay there was a ship. A small, lightweight brig, which had not been there the day before, but, it had been docked at this very quay a month earlier.
The figure stepped up the gangplank and onto the deck of the ship, where it was promptly stopped by a very large hand covered in fur, the wrist decorated by a heavy leather manacle with spikes sticking out of it.
"Hold it" said a deep, thick, rumbling voice, and the figure glanced up into the bristling muzzle of an Értha, a bear wylding, covered in fur dyes and naked from the waist up.
The bear wore manacles on both wrists and ankles, and a similar collar around his massive, thickly muscled neck.
He was close to seven feet tall, his arm the size of a small tree, and his bare chest showed the swirling spiral symbol topped by an axe that said he was a devoted warrior amongst his people.
But he was not amongst his people, now.
Now, he was a slave, the possession of the owner of the vessel upon which they stood, who had somehow managed to secure his loyalty, in spite of the circumstances.
Maybe he just had that sort of mind, the type which liked to be led. There were those amongst the wyldings who were submissive by nature. This had nothing to do with their physical strength, but rather their mental attitude. Some simply disliked responsibility or making decisions, and they were relegated amongst their own people to a low-ranking, subordinate position where they could serve without having to worry about what would happen next.
Amongst the wyldings, it was considered a horrific crime to kill or even harm a submissive without cause.
Amongst humans, there was no such law anymore, mainly due to the fact that slavery was illegal now in the Empire. This did not stop some from practicing it in secret, anyway, and there were other peoples and nations that did not frown upon it so heavily.
"It's alright, Bark" the figure said as he reached up and pulled back his hood, revealing a face of pale skin with shoulder length, reddish-blonde hair, a large sweeping moustache and a thick, neatly trimmed chin beard.
The Értha removed his huge hand-paw slowly and nodded. "Alright, Brother Carter. You may enter."
Brother Carter, as he was known here, nodded and took off his robes, revealing finely made clothing of linen and silk; a tunic with intricate embroidery and tight hose tucked into the tops of a pair of soft leather calf boots with sharply pointed toes.
"Many thanks, Bark. I'm not late, am I?"
The bear shook his head. "No, sir. You're the last to arrive, as always, right on time."
Carter smiled and nodded, wondering again at the overly complex lunacy of having everyone arrive in a specific order. Then, he stepped forward, towards the stairway leading down into what should have been a cargo hold, but, had instead been converted into an opulently furnished apartment.
As he stepped down into the dark, he looked ahead and saw a circle of finely built, softly cushioned chairs placed around a fire. It burned in a specially made, stone lined pit, the smoke curling up and blowing out the holes in the grated cargo doors above him, through which moonlight softly filtered.
All the people sitting in the chairs, excepting one, had their faces exposed, like his, but none knew the names of any of the others.
Or at least, that was the theory.
Carter was pretty sure he knew who everyone was, including the leader, who was the owner of the ship and the only one who hid his face. He was wearing an intricate mask, depicting a snarling daemon over his features.
The others nodded to him as he walked up and took a seat. He nodded back, then turned as the masked man began to speak.
"Welcome, Brothers and Sister. Brother Carter." Carter nodded and looked around the circle as the man greeted each of the others by 'name'.
Brother Tanner was an older man, slightly rounded through the middle, with a large, bristling grey moustache, dressed in expensive finery and carrying an oak cane of good workmanship.
Brother Baker was the exact opposite. A fine featured, clean shaven young man. Blonde, blue-eyed and far too handsome to be in the middle of this sort of company, he was dressed in the simple, yet well made, knee length canvas tunic of a 'prentice Mancer.
Sister Butcher was a woman of indeterminate age. Her auburn hair was beginning to go dull around the edges, the precursor to turning grey, and her face was lined with care and worry. She still looked strong and fit, though, and something in her bearing spoke of past military service.
Brother Cooper was a peevish looking man, spectacled and thin, who looked more like a bookkeeper than a conspirator.
Brother Smith was a quiet, serious young man, with a small, neatly trimmed black moustache and prematurely thinning hair of the same colour.
Carter looked at each of them, then turned back toward the chair of the masked man as motion drew his eye.
One of the leader's other slaves, a young female Katha wylding, a cat, walked up with her ears, tail and head kept low as she lowered herself down near her master's chair.
Calling her a 'cat' was a bit deceptive, however. The Katha were one of the few, if only, tribes of the wyldings that were not immediately recognisable as a specific species of animal. Oh, they were definitely feline, but that was as specific as it got.
All of them, male and female, had tufts on the ends of their tails and thick manes, like male lions. But, they also had the high, tufted ears of a lynx, and the spots of a leopard.
In this case, the Katha had fur that was a rich golden colour, offset by a pitch black mane and tail-tuft. Her spots, contrary to expectation, were a dull brownish-red colour, nearly invisible against her fur, except in the right mix of light and shadow.
Her fur-dyes were minimal, only a small, flower-like marking down low on her stomach, which marked her as a member of a Shithana, a holy order which only allowed females. And, almost unseen, were the dyes that swirled around her right eye, which meant that she was, among other things, considered a great tracker.
Most of the others there assumed the dyes were just decorative. Only Carter and, he was sure, The Mask knew what they meant.
She was completely nude, the animal like rows of nipples that wyldings had rather than breasts visible slightly in the flame, as she sank down onto the floor. Her large paws, each about six inches in diameter, slid out to the side and she leaned up against his leg.
Like Bark, she wore manacles and a collar. But hers were of soft, supple leather, inlaid with gentle blue decoration that offset the vibrant green of her eyes.
It always made Carter a little uneasy when Fidelity joined them. As with Bark, it was all too clear what her purpose was. And, unlike Bark, it was clear that she was not happy about it, but was too frightened to say or do anything that her master would not like.
The Mask reached down and stroked a gloved hand over her ears. She smiled up at him, but in her eyes, and in the tightness of the smile, was the terror that the man instilled in her.
Carter felt his jaw clench for a moment, but then calmed himself. For the betterment of the Empire, it was necessary for him to deal with this.
He glanced up as The Mask continued speaking.
"Welcome, Brothers and Sister, to this fifth meeting of our little . . . club" he said, his voice its usual warm, friendly tone which just made everything about him seem more virulent and dark, rather than the opposite.
"We all know by now why we are here, so let us get straight to business. Sister Butcher, you first."
The woman stood up, her back ramrod straight, and cleared her throat, glancing disapprovingly down at Fidelity, before turning her eyes to stare over the Mask's head.
"I have some good news. Recruits for the armed force we will need to bring our plan around have been slowly but steadily growing over the last few weeks, as we've finally been able to get enough people out into the taverns and pleasure houses to start picking up the right sort of people."
Something in the way she voiced that last said she disagreed with the idea, and the Mask, ever observant, caught the inflection.
"Something you'd like to say, Sister?"
She cleared her throat and shifted her weight in a slightly nervous gesture that secretly amused Carter. If she knew that she did it, she'd probably order it to stop. And it probably would.
She continued. "Well, sir, they aren't the sort of men I would have chosen for this. For every trained man we get, there are ten who are nothing but drunken thieves and murderers. Hardly soldier material."
Nothing could be seen past the intricate black and red design of the mask, but one got the impression that the man was smiling when he responded.
"Well, Sister, beggars cannot be choosers, and neither, it seems, can conspirators. Besides, you'd be surprised at what murderers and thieves can accomplish with the proper . . . inspiration. You may be seated."
She blushed slightly, then nodded, sitting down stiffly, her jaw flexing as she ground her teeth, casting another glare at the young cat wylding, who turned her eyes away.
Sister Butcher did not appear to like wyldings much, or that her present commander seemed to find them so interesting.
"Brother Cooper. You next." The Mask said, and the man stood with as much dignity as he could, drawing his slender frame up until it looked like he was trying to bend over backwards. Or shove a corncob up his ass, one or the other. Carter covered his mouth, faking an itch to hide his smirk.
"The finances are going along quite well, sir. We have been steadily stocking up cash for our . . . endeavour since we first began to plan, raking it in from the small . . . jobs, that our soldiers have been doing all over the city and, indeed, the entire duchy. It will take a while before we have a rich enough treasury to make our move, but, barring unforeseen circumstances, there should be no difficulty in gathering the money."
The Mask nodded. "Good. See to it that you keep trying to increase the cash flow. You may be seated."
The man nodded and sat back down.
The Mask shifted, and the feeling of gleefully malicious eyes was felt all around the fire.
"Brother Carter, you next."
Carter smiled slightly and stood up, nodding to the company.
"Well, sir, the City Watch is less careful than it could be, as usual, and this is turning out to be of great help to us. A few carefully placed words, here and there, and they are running around after phantom robbers and mass murderers, never seeing the larger picture of what we are up to. It should not prove a problem to keep them disconcerted until such time as we can place our plan into action, even should it take several years."
The Mask nodded. "It is likely to, as we all know. You may sit."
Carter sat down and leaned back into his chair, breathing out carefully while he listened to the other reports.
Brother Smith was promising that their army would be well supplied with weapons and armour when the time came. And Brother Tanner was talking about logistics and supply lines for food and fodder.
Then there was silence, as all eyes turned to the final member, young Brother Baker, who had been quivering in growing excitement as the conversation progressed, and only now, as always, did the Mask turn to him and nod.
"Speak. Have you found what we need?"
Baker practically leapt up from his chair, a smile of satisfaction on his face. "I believe so, sir, yes!" he said, and held up a thick folder of paper.
"These are the plans for a redesign on the old Mantik Tower system, meant to increase its storage and productivity of Mantik energy significantly. It really is genius stuff. The fellow who wrote it really knew what he was talking about. The idea was to install a larger dynamo onto the coil, which would allow for a much higher rate of revolutions per minute, which of course, would increase the power of a Mantik Tower exponentially–"
The Mask held up his hand, ceasing the flow of chatter as most everyone else around the fire was beginning to grind their teeth in annoyance.
All except for Carter, who was staring at the young man as though attempting to burn a hole through his head.
"That is quite enough, Brother" said The Mask with a lenient, fatherly tone to his voice, and the young man blushed in embarrassment.
"How will this help us?" the Mask asked, and the boy nodded.
"Of course, sir. Sorry, sir. You see, the fellow who came up with the idea started doing tests in his lab in the college and had some good results. But, he wanted to test it on something bigger. So, he built a one/tenth scale model of the college tower, which would have been about eight feet high, in layman's terms, and had a few assistants help him cart it out to a field outside of the city, where he intended to test it.
Unfortunately, he failed to take into account the difference the scale up in size would have on the way some of the parts of the device would work, you see, and, well . . . there was a . . . an accident."
The Mask cocked his head, giving the impression somehow of a raised eyebrow. "An 'accident'?"
Brother Baker nodded. "Yes, sir. The machine went out of control and released a massive burst of Mantik energy in the form of a sort of mixture of forces, like a cocktail of kinetomancy, pyromancy and electromancy, all rolled into one.
The blast destroyed the machine, killed the professor and his assistants and vaporised everything taller than a caterpillar within a hundred foot radius. I've been to the field. It's still bare to this day, and local peasants say that nothing grows there, not even the hardiest of plants."
Carter stared in shock, having never thought that the boy could find anything of any power, let alone something like this.
The Mask leaned back, idly playing with Fidelity's ears, and nodded.
"That is interesting, Brother. But can you do anything with it?"
The man nodded. "Yes, sir! I believe that, with some work, I can retrofit the design to allow us to choose where the blast will hit, and how much energy it will displace. I even think that I can come up with a way to fine tune what forces it actually uses."
"Could it be used against something like, say, the Drake's Keep?"
"Oh, yes, sir! Structural damage will be well within the parameters of the device, even on something as large as that."
The Mask nodded, sitting up and staring at the boy. "When? When can you have it ready?"
The boy fidgeted and glanced down.
"Speak up, boy, I won't harm you."
Baker shrugged. "Well, sir. It's complicated. In order to do it right, and make sure that it works properly, it will take time, and a proper working area where I will not be disturbed. I cannot do it at the college."
"What do you need?"
"Well, sir . . . I was thinking about starting when I return to my father's estate, in a couple of years, sir. It would be perfect. O-Of course, I could hurry it along, and return earlier, if need be, sir."
The Mask held up his hand, shaking his head.
"No need, Brother. Something like this must be done patiently, or risk failure. Return to your father's estate when it is time, and not before. Best not to arouse suspicion." He sat back in his chair, again fondling his pet wylding's ears.
"Yes. Patience is a virtue, after all. Take your time, Brother Baker. It will do nothing but give us time to work out any kinks in the plan and accumulate more followers and money. We have plenty of time. All the time in the world."
Bark saw the last of the conspirators off the ship, watching them as they trailed away through the fog, then he turned and walked down the stairs to the living quarters.
His master was sitting in his chair, petting Fidelity's ears.
The big bear wylding liked the little Katha, and had received the pleasure of her company several times, when his master was feeling generous.
Some wondered at his ready acceptance of being a slave, but the truth was that Bark was a simple fellow, and as long as he got to kill someone and bed a girl every so often, he was happy, and his master let him do those things with some frequency.
Now, he walked up and knelt in front of his master's chair, bowing his head. "You asked to see me, master?"
"Yes, Bark. I have good reason to believe that our dear Brother Carter is not who he says he is."
Bark blinked in surprise, then growled low in his chest, his anger starting to build already at the thought of the gall of the man to dare and betray his master.
"How many pieces would you like him to be in?"
His master stood, reaching up and removing the mask, revealing a handsome man, younger than his co-conspirators would have guessed, a large sweeping moustache of deepest red gracing his features, the same colour as his short, collar length curls, along with a scar that had barely missed putting out his right eye.
He walked over to a bar and picked up a bottle of good cognac and poured a shot into a glass. He drained the glass in one go, then poured another, before taking a sip of it and turning to face the two slaves again.
"As many as physically possible, Bark. I want this to be a message, loud and clear, of what happens to traitors."
Bark smiled, feeling his muzzle split and show his teeth as he imagined what he would do to the human when he got his hands on him.
"Take Fidelity with you."
Bark blinked in surprise and glanced over at her. He knew better than to question his master, but . . . she was just a pleasure slave, hardly cut out for that sort of thing.
His thoughts must have been written on his face, because his master chuckled a bit and then nodded.
"Yes, I know, but believe me, those dainty little claws of hers are sharper than yours by a long shot. One of the benefits of retractability, I suppose. And, her ears are better. And besides, it might serve her well, to see what happens to those who are disloyal."
The tone of the master's voice was such that Fidelity cringed, whimpering, and Bark grinned wickedly. An expression that only grew darker at the master's next words.
"Feel free to have a bit of fun with her, afterwards, if you like."
Bark nodded, growling, and looked the attractive little kitten up and down with a dark light in his eyes, and she shrank back from him.
Carter, whose real name was, in fact, Smyth, stepped up to the door of his apartment and bent down, checking the strand of hair he had stuck over the gap between the doorframe and the door itself, using a small piece of tape.
It was unbroken, so he stood up, stepped to the side of the door and unlocked it, then swung it open and stood there for a second, before quickly stepping inside.
When nothing untoward happened, he shut and locked the door, then lit the Mantik lights in the apartment with a flick of a switch on the wall.
They really were interesting little gadgets, which harnessed raw electrical energy to create clean, stable light. They were powered by the Mantik energy put out by the college's tower, which was picked up by the receptor on the roof of the building. The entire city was powered for free by it, unlike elsewhere, where it could cost an arm and a leg just to have one installed.
And to think, that with just a little tinkering, the tower could be made into a weapon of mass destruction, the likes of which the world had never seen.
The knowledge of what a test tower only one/tenth the size of the one here in the city had done by accident made a shiver run up his spine.
He took off the stupid looking robes that he was forced to wear by the little group of conspirators, threw them in the corner and started stripping his clothes off as he headed back down the hallway to the small bathroom.
He stepped inside and went to the loo, flipping the lid up and leaning on the wall, groaning as his bladder emptied.
Once he was finished, he pulled off a bit of the paper on the roll and wiped himself clean, threw it into the bowl and pulled the chain that flushed the stool. He watched the water run down through the drain in the bottom, carrying his waste with it, then he blew out a breath and walked out, crossing the hall to his bedroom.
He was in the process of preparing to take off his face, when their came a knock on the door.
He froze and looked up, waiting.
A moment later, there came another, polite little knock from the front door. Nothing big, just someone wanting something.
Except that no one ever knocked on doors in this neighbourhood. Not at this hour. They were skittish of doing it at noon, let alone at nearly three hours after midnight.
He frowned and pulled a bathrobe off of a hook behind the door, and after putting it on and tightening the sash around his waist, he walked over to the small side table beside his bed, opened the drawer, and pulled out a spring-shot. An interesting little toy that looked like a pipe with a small handle attached.
Inside of the pipe was a carbon steel spring that was so heavy it took a specially made goat-leg lever, which could be attached through a small slot in the top of the pipe, to coil it up inside.
Then, on top of that, was a small quarrel. A four-sided, sharply pointed blade made out of the heavy head of a crossbow bolt or war arrow, and designed to pierce plate armour.
The quarrel was slid into the pipe, locking in place on a small rod inside, right over the top of the coiled spring. It was powerful enough to drive the head through steel plate at point blank range, and could punch it clean through an unarmoured person at ten feet. Past that, it lost accuracy, but for short ranged lethality and the ability to be hidden, it was king.
He had another, slimmer model designed to launch broadheads sewn into the lining of the fancy tunic he wore to the meetings, just in case.
He made sure the spring-shot was cocked and loaded, then slipped it into the pocket of his bathrobe and headed for the door.
He stopped about eight feet back from the door and aimed the spring-shot at the centre of the panelling.
"Who is it?" he asked, and was answered by the door leaving its hinges.
It burst inwards in a shower of splinters and Smyth pulled the trigger without really thinking about it.
The spring-shot jerked in his hand and the quarrel head went through the air between him and the door in less time than it would take to twitch, and buried itself in the stomach of Bark the Értha.
"Shit." Smyth cursed, as the big bear roared in anger and bashed his way into the room.
Smyth threw the spring-shot at him and turned to make a break for his bedroom, where his sword was, hoping that the tight hallway would slow the big wylding down.
He never even made it to the hall. Bark grabbed him by the tail of his robe and yanked him backwards off his feet, and dragged him across the floor towards him.
Rolling over, Smyth saw the slavering madness in Bark's face and the blood running slowly from the wound in his abdomen. He knew he stood no chance at all against the monster and prepared himself to go down fighting.
Then Fidelity, whose real name was Kara, unsheathed her claws, reached up under Bark's kilt, grabbed him by his balls, and dug in.
The cat wylding had slipped in behind the bear when he was busy going after Smyth, and had wasted no time in looking for an opportunity to jump him from behind.
Bark roared and twisted, trying to reach back and get hold of her without damaging himself too much. But, she just hung on, her claws savaging him. Smyth turned and scrambled over to the sofa, which sat against one wall.
He reached down between the cushions and the back of the sofa, his hand wrapping around a cylinder of wood. He pulled out a foot-and-a-half long dirk from where it was hidden.
He twisted and ran over and drove the dagger up in a fast stab at Bark's cardio plexus, aiming for his heart.
The bear was faster than he looked and grabbed Smyth's arm by the wrist, stopping the blow in its tracks, then squeezed. Smyth felt the bones in his wrist grate against each other and then snap with a sound like dry tree limbs cracking.
Smyth gasped in pain and the bear reared his other arm back to slash out with his claws and remove the human's head. Kara pulled her hand back with a fast, ripping motion.
Bark's eyes crossed and he gave a roar of pain that was a few octaves higher in pitch than it had been before.
But he didn't go down.
Bleeding from two different places, one of them quite profusely, he turned on Kara, who stepped back, her face twisting in unpleasant shock.
He snapped his leg forward and down, aiming to rip her open from her head to her groin with the claws on his foot. But she jerked back, showing her speed and agility, and the claws only scored along her flank.
Looking around, Smyth spied the tunic he had worn to the meeting lying on the floor nearby. He scrambled over and started tearing at the hem with his good hand.
Bark went after Kara, who leapt up onto her feet and ran into the kitchen, the bear following her with a roar of anger. A moment later, the Katha came flying through the thin drywall that separated the kitchen from the front room and landed heavily on her back in the middle of the floor, gasping, her leg twisted at an unnatural angle.
Smyth got the hem torn open and shook the tunic and the second spring-shot fell out and hit the floor with a thunk. He bent over and snatched it up just as Bark came smashing his way through the wall after Kara. A kitchen knife stuck out of his right arm. He pulled it out with a sneer of disgust and threw it across the room as he came towards her.
Without further ado, Smyth snapped the spring-shot up, took a quick bead, and pulled the trigger.
The little weapon twanged and jerked and the broadhead it held whipped through the air and hit Bark in the left eye at an angle, drove through the orb, and got caught on the ridge of bone at the back of the ocular cavity, stopping it from going on into the brain.
Bark roared in pain and anguish, jerking and thrashing, until he finally got a decent grip on the socket of the blade and ripped it out with a bellow of hate and pain. He then turned one baleful glance on them, one eye glinting in pain and anger, the other a nasty mess of blood and clear fluid running down his face. He turned and fled out the door, smashing the frame to pieces on his way.
They heard him trip and stumble on the stairs outside, then the sound of him snarling and scrambling to his feet and continuing on his way, until the sounds faded to nothingness.
Smyth swallowed past the lump of adrenaline in his throat, still aiming the empty spring-shot at the door.
He slowly lowered his arm and staggered over to Kara, his injured hand tucked in against his chest as he dropped to his knees beside her.
"You alright?" he asked, and she nodded, grimacing.
"Y-Yes. Broke my leg" she said, sitting up with a grimace and looking at it.
He did, too, and nodded. "Yep. We'll get it taken care of soon, but we have got to get the hell out of here."
She groaned in frustration and dropped her head down to the floor, glaring at the doorway that Bark had disappeared out of a moment earlier.
"Well, fuck," she cursed, snarling. "I guess that's our cover blown, then."