"I swear to serve - by flesh and steel, I serve Rafdorek. By mind and action, I serve the Geren-thal. By soul eternal, I serve Melrala."
-Soldier's Oath, penned by First Speaker Mekran
Echoes of the eruption split my ears as the bullet pierced into the workshop walls. Crooked cracks spiraled around a darkened hole, punched into the pristine stone; an unseemly eyesore to most, but a prize worth more to me than any painting or trophy.
I shook the ringing from my ears, looked to the desk across the room.
“It worked!” my wife shouted. “Koreck – it worked!” I lowered our device, grinned as she rose from behind the counter through the heavy curtain of smoke. She wore a wide smile, drew a deep breath of the chemical scent of expended thundersalt. A single strand of hair draped her features, dangling just beside her brightened eyes. “Again!” she called. With an eager nod I reset my aim.
Our prototype worked better than we could’ve imagined. I drew the hammer back, lips curling as the wheel turned with a click and lined up the next shot. I squeezed the trigger, watched as the mechanism slammed into the bronzed cap filled with our concoction of powdered quicksilver. Sparks flew into the cartridge, lit the treated paper and thundersalt with a loud crack, and spat another bullet into the brick façade to a cheer.
Two more shots, Bam! Bam! At my wife’s urging, I loaded another four and fired again. She ran into my arms and pressed her forehead to mine in celebration. We spun, her fingers digging into my shoulders, and she squealed with delight.
We went straight to work, mixing mercury with alcohol and nitric acid to gaseous plumes and powdery crystals, wrapping more cartridges and forging bullets and caps. Hours passed like minutes as we smelted and shaped steel, as we ground charcoal to mix with sulfur and saltpeter. Our original design we left untouched, but we replaced the flintlock firing mechanism on our rifle with the new percussion hammer designed for our masterpiece.
“We’ll be able to do whatever we want, now,” Kheta said. “Once we give these to the Geren-thal, Koreck, we’ll be able to go wherever we want. To build whatever we want.”
I brushed the weapon with my fingers, swung my gaze up to her and wondered if she’d ever looked more beautiful than she had just then. Her hair was disheveled despite the tight knot, black smudges colored her face from the work, her forehead and exposed arms glistened with sweat from the glowering forge in the corner, but her smile was wide and earnest, her eyes twinkling in the light as she eyed our inventions. If I never saw anything else, I wouldn’t have minded.
She caught me staring, the amber of her cheeks shading red as her grin turned wry. She shoved against my shoulder, chuckled. I caught her wrist and gently pulled her closer. She smelled of work and grime – impossibly intoxicating. She eyed me from under her brows, let one rise in an arch. My hand cradled her cheek, thumbed away the grime, and she melted against me. I stepped closer, felt the humid mixing of our breath on my face, hooked a hand around her and lifted her onto the counter. She shot our inventions a glance, then dragged me closer, tearing my clothes away. Patience evaporated; everything disappeared. It was just her. Just us.
We ended on the floor, lying beside one another, panting. Her hand found mine, fingers curling together. “We’ll need a meeting with one of them,” she said sometime later. “One of the fetans. Any of the four would do.”
“Someone else will need to shoot it,” I said, eyeing the barrel of the rifle that hung over the counter’s edge. “Can’t be one of us. Has to be someone who hasn’t used one before.”
“You’re right. Someone untrained – a civilian.” She turned, eyed me as I looked to her, smiling. She wiggled herself closer.
A clerk of the quartermaster division came by. He asked questions and viewed the diagrams before scheduling us to be seen by the master of Rafdorek’s 3rd army, Fetan Ebonskar, in two weeks. Every minute went into preparing our demonstration.
With twine and sticks I built a dummy, filling a sack with carrots and potatoes to give it form. Kheta painted a scowling face on the construct’s head and gave me a wink as I tied it on. For a volunteer, we found a hobgoblin preparing to delve into the Warrens and offered him more money than he could make in a week under the city to assist us. I could tell by the sickening inward curve of his gut he would’ve let us do anything to him for that much coin. He seemed more confused than anything when I explained what we needed from him, but he agreed all the same.
Fetan Ebonskar arrived as scheduled at sunset. He wore the heavy black plate fashioned specifically for the Fetans; armor that was rumored to be impenetrable. His face was covered with his Geren-thal mask, featureless save for two eyeholes and the lines that marked his position in the ruling class: four diagonal slashes, three red, one black and jagged. A heavy falchion hung off his shoulder, locked in but always present.
He was flanked by his Fetanasi, though upon inspecting our workshop he realized he had to leave most of them outside. Three hobgoblins entered with him, his personal bodyguard, a Geren-jatt in the red silks and white armor of his station, spear in hand and sword at his hip, a young pyromancer wrapped in a black and red tunic with a contemptuous glint in his eye, and the Geren-thal’s master smith, responsible for the designs of the armor and weapons used by all the soldiers in Rafdorek.
Kheta and I bowed deeply. Ebonskar had us hold the position for a moment before waving it away. “Show me what you have.”
“Of course,” I said. I led them into the backroom of the shop which we had cleared save for our assistant, the dummy, and a table bearing our creations. I stepped over to the table and pulled the revolver from the surface. With a comfortable motion I slid the wheel free, baring its empty container to the spectators. Ebonskar accepted it as I approached. “This is our invention,” I said. “We call it a thundergun.”
“A thundergun?” asked Master-Smith Azren. “Why is that?”
“It goes boom,” Kheta offered with a smirk. The pyromancer snorted as the smith frowned. “And it uses thundersalt.”
Azren hummed in thought. “That explains the smell,” he said. Ebonskar eyed the smith, then handed him the revolver. His fingers ran along every inch of the weapon – the steel tubing, the treated wooden stock. He gave the wheel a tentative spin and cooed in admiration. “An interesting device,” he muttered. I felt my chest expand at the praise and saw the same reaction in Kheta’s eyes. He offered it down the line. The pyromancer gave it a cursory glance; the spearman wasn’t interested.
“What can it do?” Ebonskar asked, his gravelly voice slicing away any further preamble.
“It can protect Rafdorek,” Kheta said with pride. “A man with one of these atop the walls will be worth a dozen crossbowmen.”
I held out my hand and the pyromancer returned the gun to me. With rehearsed steps I returned to the table and loaded the gun. I’d spent hours practicing, to ensure Kheta and I put the best foot forward. It took me no more than six seconds to load the cartridges and fix the copper caps onto the gun. With a confident smile and an indulgent flourish, I handed it to our assistant.
“You’re giving it to this tunnel-rat?” asked the spearman through a disgusted scowl.
“I am,” I said. As we’d told him, he lifted the gun with his bone-thin scabby arm and pointed the barrel at the dummy across the room. “Cover your ears,” I advised. Ebonskar and his spearmen did not heed the words. I nodded to the man.
Crack! The delver flinched as the gun jumped in his hand. Across the room, the dummy’s head had burst apart, potato mush slopping onto the stone floor. I looked to Ebonskar. He blinked once, twice, then his hands rose to cover his ears. “Again,” he said.
Our assistant didn’t hesitate. He fired at the dummy, unloading the last of the bullets in rapid succession. Shattered carrots and other vegetable viscera clattered to the ground, and he grinned with glee, with power. I pried the gun from his hand and set it into the holster at my belt. Kheta came to my side. “Our invention, Fetan Ebonskar,” she said, and we bowed as one.
He looked me straight in the eyes. “How many do you have?”
“Three models,” I answered. “One of each.”
“How fast can you make them?”
“I … I’m not sure, Your Excellence,” I said.
“Share your designs with Azren,” he said. “Disseminate the knowledge to all the smithies and workshops in Rafdorek. I want everyone making these ‘thunderguns.’”
“How … how many can we need?” Kheta asked.
“As many as we can make. I want one of these weapons in the hands of every soldier.”
Kheta’s brow arched. “That seems excessive, Your Excellence. Defending the walls wouldn’t require—”
“Defending the walls?” Ebonskar’s eyes thinned with a hidden smile. Words dripped from his lips like tar. “You misunderstand, smith. We will not use these to merely defend Rafdorek. We will reinstate the order that was lost. It is time we returned to our role as the rulers of this world. With an army of soldiers armed with your thunderguns, we will take Kros Ebb back, and the humans, the jerrath, the deregal – all will answer to our rule once more.”
I felt my lips twitch and my brows twist with a sudden fear. Conquering Kros Ebb? That wasn’t … that wasn’t what we wanted. Was it? I eyed Kheta and saw the same suppressed horror in her gaze.
“Gather your notes and deliver them to Azren. We will wait,” Ebonskar said, ignorant of our terror. My teeth ground together, locked fiercely tight as my hand curled around the revolver’s stock.
Kheta was quicker than I, thankfully. “We will need time,” she said. “Our notes are jumbled and written in cipher to protect our work. We will need to create a set for Azren to use.”
The air turned tense. Ebonskar watched us, his expression a mystery behind the perfect white mask marred only by four lines. Azren’s eyes darted to the Fetan and back to us, sweat beading on his brow. Heat began to flicker into life as the pyromancer drew upon his power. The spearman was ready to pounce at the first implication of a command.
“Very well,” said Ebonskar, dispelling the thickened air with a careless wave. “You have two days. Deliver the notes to Azren or we will come take them and you will receive no compensation or recognition for your discovery.”
“Of course, Fetan Ebonskar,” I said, dipping into a deep bow. Kheta shadowed the motion a half-second later.
“Come,” he said to his entourage. Azren hurried after him, clearly thankful a battle hadn’t come. The pyromancer affected ease as he let his power slip away and slinked out of the room. The spearman watched us with narrowed eyes until he too left without comment.
We gave the delver his coin and he scampered out of the workshop. Night came, the moon rising bright and golden. Stars swayed overhead, then my dinner came rushing out of my mouth and into the street. Kheta helped me to my feet and pulled me inside. I stumbled across the room, leaned on the desk as Kheta locked the door.
“We can’t give him the guns,” she said.
“No,” I agreed, wiping my mouth. My breathing grew rapid as I thought of the world pressed under the Geren-thal’s thumb, cold sweat streaming down my face. “They … they’ll kill us.”
“Better us than the world,” she whispered.
A shiver coursed up my spine. I bobbed a nod. “What do we do?” I asked.
“We run. We run until we die.”
“We should destroy them,” I said.
“We will,” she agreed. “Once we’re far away from here. Somewhere they’ll never find the scraps.”
Something didn’t sit right with me. “What about Azren?” I asked. “Do you think he could replicate it from holding it?”
She hesitated. “I don’t know.” Her fist found the desk. “Fuck. We have to kill him.”
I winced. “I’ll do it,” I said. I’d served under Fetan Blackwall’s rangers for nearly a decade. Interior defense. Most threats to Rafdorek were from within rather than out. Odd how that was.
I had the training to get into places quietly. I could work with a knife better than most. I could do it.
Kheta nodded. “Alright,” she said. “Alright. I’ll get supplies. We’ll meet at home, then we’ll take care of everything here.”
“Okay,” I said. I pulled the revolver from the holster and placed it in her hand. “Just in case.” She accepted it without a word. Then she pulled me close and pressed her head to mine. “I love you,” I said.
“More than anything,” she replied.
I squeezed her hand and hurried away.
I stashed the other thunderguns in the hidden locker under the desk, slipped into my ranger leathers, and made my way through town toward the Masked Seat. I kept my head down and my hood up. The last thing I needed was for anyone to recognize me.
Most steered clear anyway. I wore the jack inside-out to signal I was off duty (as I’d been for years, now), but that didn’t stop soldiers from “quelling seditionist behavior” when they felt like it.
Rafdorek had always been a shithole, I realized. I’d just been lucky. The unfortunates braved the Warrens to harvest fungus just to keep themselves alive, and most didn’t survive the creatures in the tunnels. I’d always assumed—hoped, even—that the brood mothers enjoyed taking the burden of child rearing away from all the other citizens, or that the other hobgoblins in Rafdorek were always thankful to have the children taken from their arms to be raised and cared for far away from their busy lives.
I’d dodged the worst avenues of life under the Geren-thal. I’d been an athletic youth and I’d never had an issue taking orders or giving them. Like all the good children of Rafdorek, I’d dreamed of joining the army and serving the city. That was the best life you could hope for, and shortly after leaving adolescence, I’d worked my way in. Soldiers enjoyed leniency where others suffered under the fist of the Geren-thal’s rule. We had lives of drink and joy, we worked hard to know our way around blades and crossbows and how to move laden in armor, but a campaign hadn’t been launched in nearly two decades. The most action the armies saw was the odd monster from the woods or a bit of bloodying against a troop of deregal from Nabith searching our land for their escaped slaves.
I’d never advanced past the intermediary rank of corporal. You had to be Named to rise to sergeant, and there were very few opportunities for that without a campaign. Priests of Melrala would visit the wounded soldiers and use their hieromancy to seal a wound to your flesh forever. Ebonskar was rumored to be named for a black rift torn down his face from brow to chin, mirrored by the mark on his mask. Noseless for the hole between his eyes. Sevenfingers for the appendages he lost to the first test of Halfjaw’s munitions against one of the Nabithan towns captured in the last campaign.
My time in the army had been purging seditionists and little else. Now I marched to the center of Rafdorek to kill a man who served only the Geren-thal. Not that I could muster a grin at the irony.
I approached the gate to the Masked Seat. Two Geren-jatt stood with their spears at the threshold, eyeing those who would seek passage into the masked one’s district. I discreetly flipped my jack and pulled it back over my shoulders. They let me walk right through.
Azren’s refinery wasn’t hard to find. Heat boiled out from the room at all hours. Azren kept his forges stoked in case he woke with inspiration in the night. He wouldn’t have been anywhere else.
The front room was empty, all the other workers sent home, as they would be. Everything was dark, only the orange coals lighting the room, save for a lantern filtering in from the back. I crept forward, pressed my back to the wall, and peered inside. I saw Azren bent over a desk, a quill in hand as he inked lines onto page. He was completely unaware of my presence.
The iron shade left of the threshold wasn't. He lunged, the glimmering tip of his knife seeking my throat. I threw my head backward, knees bending, felt the kiss of cold steel slide against my chin. He drew back to thrust again, and I scrambled away, managing to get my knife into my hands. I danced around, eyeing all the room's corners. Dim coals proved a hindrance more than anything. Like all Shadowblade Jhetan's pets, the shade wore a skintight ebonthread weave, thickness doubled at the hands, feet, hood, and mask. The material was as protective as chainmail, but silent and weightless as one's own flesh. Each shade was at the very least an initiate in umbramancy – the magic of shadows and altered perception, and as such, he had slipped entirely into the murk, invisible to my eyes despite their proficiency for darkness.
Only the whisper of wind gave his first attack away. I nearly tripped over my own feet turning to meet him as he lunged at my side. We both dodged the other's blades, once, twice, then my fist found his jaw and I opened a cut across his forearm, a dark trickle of blood splashing onto the flagstones. He hissed, leaped away, and the shadows enveloped him.
I kept moving, my gaze swinging back and forth, waiting for his next strike. My feet traced tight, concentric circles, my arms ready, swaying with my movements just in front of my chest. The dancing light of the flickering forges slowly faded away, leaving me in utter darkness. Just as my eyes adjusted to the lacking light it grew more oppressive, concealing everything, depriving me of even seeing the knife inches away from my face. My jaw tightened; my feet didn't stop their successive circuits.
Two golden dots flared ahead of me. They grew larger, luminous, reminiscent of draconic eyes. Light bloomed below them, revealing the visage of a demon, curled horns arcing backward. A flash of white stung my eyes as the light stretched into the shape of a blade, fiercely roiling, and illuminating the massive shape of a muscled monstrosity. It lurched forward, roared, spittle catching the firelight and gleaming orange as it splattered away. It charged on clomping hooves. The blade rose.
I whirled at the last moment and caught the iron shade in the neck. His eyes were wide, shocked. He had chosen intimidation and deceit as his tactics, and on another hobgoblin it may have worked. But I had been trained against such things. And I had used them myself. His blade rattled on the ground as it slipped from his twisting fingers. He collapsed and began painting the floor, his illusion scattering to nothing at my back.
I rushed to the threshold. Azren had remained at the desk, and he recoiled in horror as he saw me instead of the iron shade. I held my knife forward, my intention clear. “Wait – wait!” the master-smith shouted. “Don’t do this! You and your wife can still save yourselves!”
I’d masqueraded as an active soldier. I’d slain an iron shade in service to Shadowblade Jhetan, Third of the Geren-thal. I’d committed treason of the highest order save for killing a member of the Masked Council. There was no chance to reverse my fate.
I closed the distance to Master-Smith Azren while he begged and pleaded. I grabbed a fistful of his wiry, white hair and opened his throat, snarling all the while.
On the desk, he’d drawn diagrams of our creations. He’d made a perfect recreation of all three thunderguns.
The iron shade wasn’t just a guard, present by coincidence.