Steam bellowed from the elbow joint of the hulking monstrosity. Sitting with it's armpits hooked, the machine bore the shape of a brutish man with large broad shoulders, and a sunken wide skull whose neck had been swallowed by clavicles, twenty feet tall when operated and fully erect, the mechanized suit of armor was a brilliant invention. Tanned leather wrapped around sheets of mythril that formed the major portions of plating, hempen pipes weaved in and out from the gauntlets up to the pauldrons, and the same for the sabatons to the grieves, and up through to the legs before disappearing into the sides where the cuirass pieces met. Decorative copper sewn into the leather often fogged when the hiss of the steam became audible, and the gemstones pounded into the alloys dazzled in the light from the moisture as the steam dissipated.
Mac sat in the belly of the mechanical beast, pulling levers and adjusting wooden knobs that were connected to intricate collections of semi-exposed gears and pulleys lining the inside of the machine’s stomach.
“Damnit Mac! You blew another line! I told you the pressure was too much.”
“We need more power if this thing is ever going to be able to wield a Goujian blade.”
Gabriel shook his head in defiance and disbelief. “You know this is why the forest and mountain folk laugh at us... for not being able to hurle, heave, and drive auguries! The divine arts and magic they possess give them the advantage over us in battle.”
“Gabe, you worry too much. The weave on the lines just needs to be tighter for the fluid to flow. Tomorrow I’ll go to Abilene, the couturier, she should be able to provide some stronger tubing for the joints.” Mac lurched from the cockpit looking for the rope ladder that hung down from the upright wooden paddock which held the pyre-stone powered armor in standing position.
“I suppose we should give it a rest anyway, nightfall will be here soon, and I’ll need some ale to help me sleep.” Gabriel had been at it all day, patching this, and re-calibrating that. His tongue was in need of the gentle caress of heavy amber drink. Lambic sours had just arrived earlier in the day, the camp’s apothecary made the rounds about noon to notify the men, Gabriel had already been plotting for several hours as to when he was going to convince Mac when to stop toiling away.
The camp that Gabriel and Mac were stationed at wasn’t far from the front lines, and their Pyre Armor was one of many; ten other two-man teams were stationed at Fort Mishnah, but the outpost was primarily set up as a means to test new Pyres, and improve on older designs. The war had pushed the lines back, much closer to the Fort than when the war had started. As the Ministry began to feel the pressure of heavy casualties, their Bishops began stressing to the mechanics and test pilots that they needed to deliver machinery that would help end the conflict--inner-fighting that previously preoccupied Cain’s Goblins and the Dwarves of Black Mountain in the McCullough Range subsided after the Pact of the Praetors was signed in solidarity with the Elves of Coppice Oldham--the humans had no one to rely on except the untrustworthy Indri Javan. They were one army fighting a war against three others. Yet, Ministry officials baulked at the possibility of striking up an uneasy alliance with such a shifty bunch of warrior merchants. The last thing that the humans needed was another enemy to face. Ministry officials figured it was best to keep the Indri involved only as a supplier of raw goods, as long as they were paid a handsome fee for their wares, they wouldn’t be much trouble, and could keep to themselves, content not to supply the Dwarves with ingots that could be forged, or the Goblins with oil to craft their explosive munitions.
Camps like Fort Mishnah were scattered throughout the Nine Parishes that bordered the lands of the uncivilized races. Little did Gabriel and Mac realize how much of a role Mishnah would play in the coming months.
As the sun sank to the sea behind them at Mishnah, an Elven scout to the east hid in an outcropping waiting for darkness and his chance to sneak up on the drunkard humans and investigate their technology. Zarrison was a seasoned druid who could command the shadows like thick smoke blowing in heavy humidity;
“Pada-wa-sumpta, pada-wa, pada-wa-sumpta-HA.”
Murky darkness that hung at Zarrison’s bare feet began to rise and swirl towards his face, the inky blackness of shade from the moonlight formed up and around his eyes like spectacles. His incantation provided him vision like an owl, and the violet of his pupils reflected the camp fires that illuminated Mishnah. Peering around the perimeter he looked for an opening, any small break in the cheval de frise that would allow him to slip in unnoticed.
“There,” Zarrison exclaimed to himself. He lifted his hands, cupping them with a small air pocket between his palms, his thumbs pressed together, and the knuckles bent to form a slight opening that met his pursed lips, he let out a subtle whistle as his softly blew through the opening. In response, a raven from a nearby tree let out a gurgling croak and took flight towards the camp.
Zarrison’s pupils turned a milky white as his own vision became that of his new friend the raven. Cupping his hands to his face, a final whistle from Zarrison’s manual makeshift flute caused the raven to dart downward, this gave Zarrison the tactical advantage that he needed as the whole of the camp zoomed closer from an aerial perspective.
Meanwhile, inside the camp, minstrels sang and danced as the humans gulp the freshly brewed ale and gossiped around the prostitutes that fluttered about the camp looking for intoxicated soldiers to take advantage of.
“What I wouldn’t give to suckle those teets, miss!” A shout from one of the soldiers blurted out as one of the working girls, Erin, caressed the grizzled chin of an lanceman who sat adjacent to where Mac and Gabriel were perched at one of the bonfires.
“Will you get a load of this guy!” Gabriel bellowed.
Mac retorted, “like you wouldn’t if you hadn’t spent all your coin on this fine ale!” His head fell back as his gaze hit the stars above them, “not that I’m ungrateful or anything, I appreciate the fact that you’re willing to share.”
“Don’t get all sappy on me, I know how you are, you’re thinking about our Pyre again. That old suit will live to fight again, we just have to work it out. Like you said, tighter weave.”
Mac’s glance shifted to his left where attempted to look Gabriel in the eyes to have a serious conversation, but Gabriel was entranced with the flames, and he sat looking straight ahead, careful not to acknowledge a work-related conversation.
A shifting in the brush to Mac’s right caught his attention, “hey! Did you hear that?”
“Hear what? Probably just a pompous raven looking for scraps from dinner tonight.”
“No, it sounded like something on the ground to the south… over there,” Mac’s hand extended, but his pointing didn’t appear to be towards anything but some bushes that remained calm and still.
Twenty meters from where Mac was sitting, Zarrison was crouched, the leafly garment that normally held tight to his skin had expanded and encapsulated his body, Gabriel turned his head briefly to see where Mac had been pointing, but he didn’t notice anything, other than an oddly placed shrubbery… Gabriel couldn’t remember if he had seen it early in the day, or if he was just too drunk and was imagining his paranoia.
“Yeah… I don’t remember that bush,” Gabriel seemingly said to himself. One of the soldiers who had been sitting close to them chimed in, “the apothecary really outdid himself tonight boys! He’s gotchu lookin’ at the plants all funny!”
“You didn’t mention that this stuff was brewed with any sweet flag root or wormwood… Did you?” Mac questioned Gabriel with a distant and trailing tone of voice as he focused on the shrubbery. “Well, no, the apothecary didn’t mention anything like that. Besides, I feel fine! You’re just paranoid,” the voice of Gabriel cracked slightly and quivered at the thought that maybe there was something to the strange shrubbery.
Zarrison began to get uncomfortable, he could tell that the humans were on to his disguise, but there was no one to blame for his sloppy reconnaissance. He misjudged the effects of the ale, and underestimated his adversaries.