Please note – this is the unedited preview, and may undergo changes before the published book.
In general, Folas agreed with the idea that giving out too many herocores would start giving the heroes ideas above their station. They were already an uppity lot, with some of the higher ranked heroes considering themselves the equals of gods. It was true that Silver tier heroes could match a lowly Tin Godcore in a fight, but that didn’t make them equals in any manner that mattered besides raw combat potential. They were still mortals. Yet…it was true that too many of them could overwhelm the Godcores. As such, the High Pantheon had decreed limits on how many were given the precious herocores. In general, Folas agreed.
In this specific scenario, however, Folas wished they’d given more of the cores out.
Alas, even gods were powerless against the consequences of their own actions. As such, it had taken him nearly a full month as the moon they called their home made its way around the ringed world that dominated the sky. From the scorching heat of Midsohm to the deathly chill of Umbra, Folas had set himself to the task of gathering heroes. It was hard, and that was not a word Folas normally used outside of a bedroom. The problem was his requirements. Folas had a plan, and it did not involve the classic raid group.
Now, here they were, assembled in his foyer. Fitting twenty people into such a space would have been difficult for people who were Folas’ lessers, but Folas’ foyer could house a family of four with room for an adorable puppy to run around after the children. Not that he would allow such grubby beasts – children and dogs both – anywhere near the marble columns or gilded artwork. Still, it was more than enough space for twenty men and women standing in organized ranks. Adults, who could keep their hands behind their backs and away from the display of vases from the empire that existed before the Dungeon Wars.
Folas wasn’t in the room yet. He watched through the door, a tiny hole he’d created with a couple of lenses that let him see without anyone knowing they were being watched. It was worked perfectly into the filagree inlaid into the door, hiding it from anyone who did not know what to look for. He’d also deliberately given them scant information before gathering these men and women together. It gave Folas the unique pleasure of watching as they casting confused glances at each other. Folas couldn’t read minds, but he didn’t need to. They were clearly attempting to determine why this particular group had been gathered. Tiers ranged from Bronze, just two small steps above the pathetic Tins, all the way up to Gold.
People who might have imagined that tier made them equals of Folas’ divine Gold tier had, of course, been excluded.
Folas waiting for them to start murmuring. Asking each other classes and showing each other the back of their hands for rank and tier. Heroes couldn’t rely on the elegant perfection of a Godcore to show how powerful they were. They had to resort to such crude drawings. It was…pathetic, how they aped their betters. Still, they were useful, and as such, could only be left dangling on the string for too long.
Folas waited until the murmurs were getting on the edge of bursting into a real conversation, then threw open the doors with both hands to stride in, his cape billowing behind him. “Good evening,” he said in smooth tones that flowed over the chatter, strangling it before it could develop further like a silk garrote. “I’m certain you’re all wondering why I gathered you here today.”
Nods. The crowd was almost entirely humans and aelifs. There were, of course, other races on the world, but Folas wanted this group because humans and aelifs were aesthetically pleasing. The other races? Hideous at best. He could tolerate humans small eyes and disturbingly round ears. Although he had been more selective with the appearance of the humans he’d gathered today. Few humans could approach his own Aelif perfection, but some were at least enjoyable to look at.
“I’m certain you’ve heard the rumors,” Folas said. That phrase was one of his favorites. “I’m certain.” It made it clear that disagreement was the domain of the foolish. Saved him from having to remind mortals of their place, visa-vi his divine self. Beneath him, one way or another. “But I am going to confirm them. A new Dark Lord has arisen in the Wastes, and the party we sent against him was slain.”
That was not particularly surprising to anyone where. The initial party sent against Dark Lords had a little better than fifty percent success rate. The only reason the High Pantheon mandated the five man party was sent first was because it was worth losing five heroes that could be replaced rather than denying the Green twenty heroes. Even if the latter had never before failed.
“What you do not know – or at least, you should not know – is what else happened there.” Folas dropped his voice to a low, intimate whisper. “This Dark Lord has also slain a Goddess of the Green.”
There was a moment of stunned silence, followed by a cacophony of outrage and confusion. Folas basked in that chaotic jumble of words, letting them wash over him like the tide.
“He has built something new,” Folas said before the response could die down, letting his own words slice through the conversation again. “Something our spy among his kind calls a Factory. This Factory can produce wonders even I could scarcely believe. Metal horses that ride on steel tracks across miles of waste. Drills that tear ore from the ground and dispense it by the ton. Demon-possessed turrets that shoot at anything that moves. Pillars that belch smoke into the sky like the dragons of old. Truly monstrous creations.”
Folas let the words hang in the air for a moment. Who would be the bold one? Amrissa? No, she would push if someone else started, but would not initiate. Urmalin? No, no him. He was deathly afraid of playing the fool. Perhaps-
-Ah. Of course. Luxathia. She’d been the twentieth member, and Folas had only selected the Necromancer because he’d run out of other option. She knew her place relative to the gods, but was resistant to his ability to influence the minds of lesser beings. She’d chosen an unorthodox necromancer specialization, the Preserved. Technically speaking, she was dead, but also not. Living, and yet something else. It made her deathless beauty something Folas could appreciate, but never properly enjoy.
“Why us?” Luxathia repeated. “We’re not a raid party. Everyone in here is a primary caster of some sort.” Luxathia gestured over the crowd. “I see three necromancers counting myself, six summoners, two Celestial Binders, an Infernalist, and eight others I do not know.”
“The eight you do not know include two more necromancers, another summoner, and three healers with two tanks – a Paladin and a Blackguard.” Folas said, letting the mystery dangle in the air a moment longer. Now just to wait for the right moment-
“Ah,” Luxathia said, nodding. “You mean to bury this Dark Lord with sheer weight of numbers, and you’re going to rely on those five to keep the rest of us safe. Why not just come out and say that?”
Gods of Old, Folas thought, fighting the urge to turn his eyes upwards. Allow this woman to survive the battle, so I might slay her the moment it ends. “You are correct, my dear Luxathia,” he said aloud, all traces of frustration smoothed from his voice. “This Dark Lord is a threat like no other. We cannot win through traditional methods of-”
“Gotcha,” Luxathia said. “Zerg rush tactics. Say no more.”
Folas pursed his lips. That was another things bout this necromancer. She was…strange. Allegedly, she hailed from a distant land, and would often use idioms from that strange place. Folas knew there were kingdoms across the Shattered Sea, of course, but he’d never imagined their inhabitants would be so bizarre. Of course, if things went well…well, Folas would get to see how much of her strangeness came from her homeland. “Enough,” Folas rumbled. “You are correct. This Factory of his is able to produce numbers greater than a traditional raid party could handle. Which is why you all. Your minions will serve as the front line soldiers, your magic will fill the damaging role we will need for his greatest soldiers, and these five will preserve you.”
Amrissa found her voice, now that someone else had spoken. “And why are we not bringing an army with us, if numbers are that important?”
Folas prided himself on being outwardly unflappable. He was certain none of the raid party saw the tightness to his lips that was there for just a fleeting moment. “The High Pantheon, in their infinite wisdom, has decreed that this must be done without asking the nations for their soldiers. You know of the recent…troubles, yes? There is concern that any change to the delicate balance of power will result in war.”
Amrissa nodded slowly. Heroes, like gods, were expected to be neutral in the conflicts that happened between nations of the Green. And, again like gods, that was as a difficult position to maintain. She certainly had opinions in regards to those troubles. Given she was an Aelif from Carmonia, like Folas, she likely suspected his opinions aligned with hers.
She would be mistaken there.
“We also,” Folas said, and here was the real reason he was speaking to them all privately immediately before departing, the real reason it had taken him so long to assemble this group. These twenty, in addition to being powerful, attractive, and reverent enough, had one more quality that Folas considered of primary import – they were not familiar enough with the inner workings of Divine politics, and would not think to question this next be. “Have two more mandates. The first is that we shall do as little as possible to damage the infrastructure he has in place. The High Pantheon is intensely interested in studying these devices – which is why the second mandate. I will personally be leading this expedition. And I will not be the only god among us. You will be lead by the Sable Pantheon.”
That got the murmurs started again. Even Luxathia looked shocked. Sometimes, a single god would go with an expedition like this. An entire Pantheon – and one they’ve never heard of – was something out of storybooks. Folas smiled. They wouldn’t talk about this now. There wouldn’t be time. He’d seen to that. But after the Dark Lord was defeated? They would speak of it at every opportunity. The Sable Pantheon would be on everyone’s lips within a day of their return. All five member’s names would be spoken in every household within a week. And then the seeds Folas had spent so long planting would begin to take root.
This Dark Lord had been a variable Folas couldn’t have accounted for. But now that he was here, he provided a unique opportunity. One Folas was keen to seize onto. He’d spent decades bringing the Green to the brink of war.
If he’d known this “Julian” would appear and present him with a perfect threat, Folas could have just spent that time being the idle gadabout that he’d convinced the other gods he was. Now all he had to do was crush this pretender, seize control of this factory, and turn it to serving Folas’s goals.
Then his real conquest could begin.
“We leave now,” Folas said. “It’s a long march into the Wastes.”
The road to victory began with a single step down a marble staircase. As far as Folas believed, it was the perfect beginning.
Growing up Catholic, Julian had been fascinated by the tower of Babel. Not because of the explanation for people having various languages, but by the implication that heaven was something that could be reached by building with stone, clay, and wood. When he’d been that age and still believed in the story, he tried to imagine how high that tower must have reached. Skyscrapers were allowed to exist, after all, so the tower of Babel had to be even larger than the largest of those. It had started a lifelong love of immensely tall construction. Even in video games – when playing a survival crafting game, the first thing he always did was collect as much of the most basic material the game had to offer, then start building under himself until he reached the top of the map.
Doing it in real life was far more harrowing than in a video game.
Julian heard the reassuring clang of his power armor touching down on top of the latest layer and let out a sigh of relief. “I think that’s all for today,” Julian said into the helmet. “Winds getting strong up here. I think we’re at the limits of the safe tolerance.” He wasn’t jumping up to place the individual pieces of the platform, of course. That would be madness. It also wasn’t a perfectly straight tower. He’d opted for a design similar to the Eiffel tower, only with six points of connection with the ground below. Hexagons were just better than squares for stability.
“Copy that,” Ryne said, her voice in his ear. So far, Julian could only communicate between the AREVE and the Godcore, heavily fortified near the coal burning steam engines that powered everything. Ryne was his only connection with the ground right now. “How high up did you get?”
“About a thousand feet,” Julian responded, leaning back against the pole that ran through the center of his creation. It had taken twelve thousand iron plates to construct the entire structure. He’d had to divert nearly a half day’s production away from everything but the turrets to build it. As far as Julian knew, it was the tallest structure on Keldora.
Ryne whistled. “How’s the view from there?”
Julian smiled, even though she couldn’t see him. “Like nothing you’ve ever seen, kid. You and Kurli have got to come up here tomorrow.” It felt like he could see the entire Waste. That was an exaggeration, of course. If he assumed Keldora had an Earthlike curvature, he calculated he could see just a bit shy of forty miles in all directions. Keldora was a moon, however, and in spite of the similar gravity he strongly suspected it was smaller and denser, which would change his view point. The distance to the horizon was the square root of two times the radius of the world times the height of the observer. If Julian knew Keldora’s radius, he could figure out exactly how far he could see. He had some ideas for how to do that, but not right now.
Right now, he wanted to enjoy the view.
In the month since the battle with Lilwen and her party of heroes, the factory had grown immensely. There were six auxiliary bases he could see from up here, with two more that would be over the horizon. Each one had taken the design he’d used for the first auxiliary iron patch and expanded on that. Rows and rows of automated drills, depositing iron, copper, limestone, and coal onto conveyer belts. Those took the raw materials directly to layers upon layers of crates that were automatically fed with robotic grasping arms. Julian had use the binoculars he’d brought with him to see their motion as anything other than vague motion. There was a network of train tracks that criss-crossed the waste, breaking off to stations that would allow their cargo cars to be loaded with the precious materials and brought back to base.
In fact… Julian swiped his hand, triggering the Areve’s display to switch to the clock. One PM. He turned to the south to watch. There was a coal patch there, and the train was pulling into the station. He could imagine the hiss the steam would make as it was released with the train coming to a complete stop. It was a thing of beauty. The locomotives combined the aesthetic of both steam and diesel, swept lines for aerodynamics barely interrupted by pipes to release smoke as it travelled. The moment it fully stopped, the arms started their motion, coal being plucked from crates that stored far more than should be possible and deposited in cargo cars that worked under the same principle. Magic storage being fed by robotic arms powered by electricity and divine investiture.
“You going to come down, or you going to sleep up there?” Ryne said, pulling him back to the moment.
“Going to come down. Just going to do a sweep. Is the watching team ready?”
“Ready and waiting.”
Julian affirmed he would be down and set up the last bit of the tower. This top layer was an observation platform, with binoculars for the crews that came up here. Binoculars designed to account for the enhanced vision offered by Aelif eyes, and thus able to see far more than even a similarly equipped human could. No one was going to sneak up on Cast Off ever again, and given how flat the wastes were, this would be a beacon to everyone who was coming for safety or to attack. He supposed the name for the building was a bit on the nose, but a particular hand gesture Julian had brought from Earth gained popularity over the last few months.
And really, who could resist building the largest structure on a world and calling it Raktin Tower – which, in the language of the Urkin, translated to “middle finger.”
Before starting the descent, Julian took one last look through the binoculars. There was a seventh outpost that fell within range of Ratkin’s watchful eye. This one was a town in its own right, close enough to Cast Off to be only an hour by train, but far enough away to be free from the immediate area of the Factory’s pollutants. They’d called it Cleanse. Julian grimaced at the name. Right now, Cleanse was the breadbasket of the Factory, but it still rankled him they’d given themselves such an unsubtle name.
“Says the guy that named his giant steel tower after a middle finger,” Julian muttered to himself, unable to resist the irony. It would have bothered him less if they hadn’t elected Carthio mayor.
That was a problem for future Julian, however. Right now, Cleanse was a community of about a hundred people, most of them farmers, and while they didn’t want to be close to the factory, they were too dependent on what it produced to ever turn against Cast Off. For now.
Since he was looking at problems now instead of stroking his own ego, Julian turned the binoculars in a different direction. The factory had stretched all across the Wastes around the crater that had once housed the tiny town of Cast Off and was now home to almost a thousand people – except in one direction. To the West, there was a wedge of space where nothing had been built except defensive structures.
These weren’t the simple autoturrets he’d built before. These autoturrets were the Mark 3. Using the next level of Divine Drives that gave him simple code access to the design, as well as all four of the Godseyes he’d unlocked so far, these autoturrets had limited friend or foe recognition, fired steel crossbow bolts at a rate of nearly a hundred per minute, could aim in a ninety degree arc, and would lead their target based on the targets speed rating – giving them a much higher accuracy. Julian had surrounded these turrets with bunkers of concrete and steel, and fed ammo to them via conveyer belts that were similarly guarded.
This wasn’t a protecting against invading heroes and gods, however. These were there to stop the Hive.
Julian could finally see their nests from up here. He didn’t know if he should be appalled or horrified. They looked like termite mounds but closer to thirty feet tall, and they were made of a combination of stone and flesh that blended seamlessly together. The fleshy bits had compound eyes on stalks that swept their surrounding, and several organic structures Julian could only call sphincters that would disgorge new swarms of drones. The Hive had the standard soldier drones, the phalanx dones with immense shield-heads that could withstand several rounds from the autoturrets, and the newest variety that looked like ants. Those could spray a potent acid at a shocking distance. Like the phalanx drones, these were new. They were evolving to meet the demands of the threat they faced.
Sighing at the number of problems looming in the future he had to deal with, Julian took one last look over the factory to improve his mood, and then stepped onto the elevator. It was the first of its kind on the world, and he was looking forward to watching people’s reactions to it. For now, however, he was just grateful to have an easy way down the tower.
When he got to the bottom, someone was running in his direction, waving to get his attention. Julian squinted to see who it was. Comol, one of the Olog. Julian started to jog in his direction. The three armed man had become the town messenger by default, since he was always more than happy to dash about the crater. From what he’d told Julian, he was a warrior who had been drafted into Grem’ta’s army and hated fighting, but lacked much in the way of useful skills beyond combat. So he’d found a niche and occupied it. “Hey Comol!,” Julian shouted. “What’s the rush? Everything okay?”
Comol came to a halt, standing up so the third arm that jutted from his chest was no longer being used as a leg. It never failed to shock Julian how damn tall the Olog were. Moving around with their central arm as a third leg made them look no larger than a human, but when they stood upright…well, right now, if Julian didn’t crane his neck back, he was eye level with Comol’s pectorals. “Everything’s fine,” Comol said. “That’s why I was running. Glendel just finished her assessment of Kurli.”
Julian’s eyes widened. “That’s today. Glendel cleared her for the second phase?”
Comol nodded. “She said that if you wanted to try the installation today, you should hurry.”
He needn’t have added the last sentence. Julian handed Comol a pouch of coins for his service. Glendel had likely already paid him, but Julian made sure to tip Comol handsomely whenever he ran a message for Julian. It was important to have the town messenger give you priority, and Julian wanted to ensure Comol kept doing so. “Ryne, you hear that?” Julian said into the helmet.
“On my way!” Ryne said, and from the way her voice faded over those three word, she meant ‘right now.’ Julian gave Comol a quick thanks and started to head to Glendel’s, flicking his fingers to pull up the Areve’s menu and make sure he had everything he needed.
Medicine had never been Julian’s field, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to do his damndest.
Want to read more? Motors of Keldora releases 02/08, but I’ll be posting full events (between 10-20 thousand words on average, with 8 per book) on my patron for $5 and above if you don’t want to wait!