The midafternoon sun shone down on the hill and its impromptu command post. A tall, vertical machine, the decorative blue paint faded from centuries of neglect, stood at the top. The red monoeye at the bottom of the pyramidal device glowed as it processed hundreds of incoming wireless signals. Known as a Tower, it was a converted portable field system designed to handle the operations of an automaton army based on real-time feeds provided by the simpler Orakian war machines. The Tower allowed the general to focus on strategy while reducing the need for Palman field commanders.

Despite its limited range, in the current era, it was a treasure beyond price, and enjoyed protection to match. Several platoons of humanoid-shaped war machines were stationed on the hill. Gray Robomen, armed with heat rods that could either break bones or melt flesh, stood guard, as their feminine counterparts, the agile Fatales, patrolled, a brutal screening force to keep back any Layan raiding party. One hundred Lensoli knights supplemented the metallic killers, brought from that Orakian kingdom along with their supporting levies as a hedge against the unexpected.

At the bottom of the hill, monstrous automatons squatted on their reverse-jointed legs as they fired their heavy howitzers. The twin 155-millimeter guns, mounted on top of the machine's ugly box-like torso, belched fire as the shells flew out of the barrel toward their distant target. Comparatively tiny arms mounted antipersonnel projectile guns that would mow down any Palman or monster that got too close. There were a dozen of the massive war machines, set up in groups of three to follow a standard operating procedure ten centuries old.

Siren stared down at his Gun Busts contemptuously. A millennium ago, he would have commanded an army larger than the entire current population of Agoe, with four times as many heavy weapons to support his operations. The poor job the Technans had done of preserving his artillery had considerably delayed his return to warfare, as he had been forced to salvage and patchwork scores of rusting hulks to get the dozen below operational. Pathetic.

Nine hundred eighty-four years. He had spent nine hundred eighty-four miserable years trapped on the loathsome moon of Azure, banished there by that wretch Laya. He had spent every accursed day of that interminable, hateful exile despising the witch and her minions, burning for the day he would return to finish what he had started, wiping out every last damnable one of the them.

Twenty-four shells burst forth simultaneously, one of the rare moments of synchronization in the firing pattern. The unpredictable barrage was designed to maximize the terror of the besieged; the randomness prevented their natural ability to determine patterns from becoming inured to the attack. That in turn would interfere with their ability to think and demoralize them for his inevitable assault. When the Gun Busts' full destructive power massed against the enemy, they would be forced to confront their mortality. The death of hope would be the prelude to their demise.

Far away, the target shook as another of its walls collapsed under the combined firepower. The Shusorani were no match for him. He had broken their armies in two previous battles, forcing them to retreat back to their stronghold. It was only a matter of time before he slaughtered them. His Dogbots would be covered in Layan guts by the time the killing was done. The traitors' blood would be spilled until the soil turned to mud. He would kill them until he had avenged his master. No matter how many survived, he would hunt until none were left who had ever sworn allegiance to the witch.

"General?"

A nervous young voice intruded on his thoughts. Siren turned away from his study of Shusoran and regarded his Orakian inquirer. The knights of Lensol and Techna wore fitted armored masks that covered the entirety of their faces. Equipped with openings for the eyes, the nostrils, and the mouth, the masks were a useful defense against the arrows the Layan tribes of Draconia utilized. After his return from exile, Siren had instantly recognized the masks were based on his own metallic appearance, down to the stylized tear streaks carved into the cheeks. Were it not for the bronze the Lensoli preferred to use, it would have been like staring into a mirror.

"What is it?"

The knight clenched and unclenched his left hand. Siren waited. The young fool's nervous habit made no difference to him, but he had little time to waste on inferior troops. The Orakian took off his mask, revealing the young face Siren expected. His mouth worked but still he said nothing. Just when Siren was about to return his attention to the siege, the youth burst out, "General, why are we here?"

"To kill Layans," Siren answered, annoyed. Damned foolish question.

"But why here? We have plenty of Layans to kill in Draconia! The Valk are probably raiding Lensol even now, and we're in another world attacking Layans we've never even heard about before! It doesn't make sense!"

Siren stared. The young knight flinched and looked down at his feet. "I'm sorry, General. It's just that... I'm worried. The king here refused to give you troops, and we're far from home. If the king were to attack us or if the Valk attacked Lensol en masse right now..."

"They will not. Even if they did, I left sufficient troops to defend Lensol. As for the King of Agoe, he shall receive Shusoran."

"Receive Shusoran? He refused to give us troops! He just handed us ships without sailors and told us to learn how to sail! Why should he receive anything?"

"What do you see?" Siren asked, pointing across the distance toward Shusoran.

"A Layan city," the youth replied, confused at what appeared to be an abrupt change in topic.

"I see survivors," Siren said coldly. "The tower bastions at each corner indicate the city is designed as an octagon. In front of the main wall is a line of fausse brays and detached bastions. The angles of the walls give them the advantage of extra flanking fire. The detached bastions are placed in front of each tower bastion, and the fausse brays in front of each section of wall, so there are eight tower bastions, eight detached bastions and eight false brays."

"My Gun Busts," Siren gestured to the monstrous war machines as they fired their guns, "will clear away the defenses before us. That still leaves them with six of each. No matter how overwhelming the force, survivors will escape using those other defenses. They will flee into the mountains, where we will not be able to find them all. They will find others of their kind, gather their monsters and their weapons, and take revenge on their conqueror. Or their conqueror's nearest representative."

The youth's expression changed as he realized the rest on his own. "And they'll fight like the Valk do."

Siren nodded. "That is correct. The Kingdom of Agoe has no experience with mountain or guerrilla warfare. The survivors of Shusoran will make the King of Agoe pay on my behalf. When they have paid sufficiently, I shall return to wipe out the Shusorani survivors."

The gall of that pathetic old fool! His refusal to muster Agoe's army and put it at Siren's disposal made the ancient general's fingers twitch with the desire to crush the old man's throat. It would have been child's play to haul the Agoen King out of his throne and snap his neck. But even idiots could take measures to preserve their own skins.

"I swore by Orakio that Agoe would not fight Shusoran and Cille so long as I lived," the old fool had said. "I will keep my oath, orders from the great Siren himself or not. You may borrow my fleet, but no Agoen sailor will join you. If you think to slaughter me and mine and take my army that way, I will warn you. My soldiers have orders to attack you in case of my death. No doubt many of them will fall, but even you cannot defeat Agoe's army alone. They will then burn Agoe's fleet to ash."

Siren had had little choice. He lacked enough ships to bring his army across the waves to attack Shusoran and Cille. While he could have manufactured his own, that would have taken precious time and resources he did not wish to spend. It had already taken him five years to subdue the Orakian kingdoms of Draconia. Another ten had been spent devising a way around one of that wretched witch's barriers. How Techniques could stand for a millennium and deny passage to all were beyond Siren's comprehension.

The delay had exponentially increased his blood lust. Slaughtering Layan guerrillas was not enough. He had to destroy them utterly, shatter their strongholds, massacre their warriors, drive their families into the wilds to die of starvation and exposure. His thirst for revenge could be soothed by nothing less.

He had agreed to the old fool's conditions, suffering the defiance in exchange for Agoe's fleet. It had been the practical choice. The months to produce enough ships to bring his army to the island had been eliminated, the minutes to devise Agoe's punishment quickly expended. It was such a simple plan that kept his hands clean and taught a fool a painful lesson. A decade or two of irregular warfare would bring Agoe to heel nicely and allow the android general to concentrate on breaking the other barriers that kept his forces penned. Siren knew his master could not have done better himself.

There was no need to order the young knight to silence; the young Orakian's open admiration was proof of that. The youth bowed, fastened his mask to his face, and walked down the hill to rejoin his fellows. Siren did not mention that Lensol would also be punished for its defiance of his commands. He had not yet devised a suitable punishment, but he was certain it would come to him.

So far as Siren was concerned, obedience was his due. He was Orakio's rightful heir, inheriting the leadership of his master's followers and the imperative to wipe out the treacherous Layan scum. It made sense. After all, during the Devastation War, he had stood second only to his master in the command hierarchy, which made his claim to preeminence far stronger than any of the so-called kings and nobles that had sprouted up like weeds in the past millennium. More importantly, he was Orakio's imitation. Who better to lead the Orakians than one based on the mind of their namesake?

Who better to kill Layans than someone who had spent every second of the last one thousand years yearning to spill their blood?

Something soared over the city walls. Siren used his internal software to enhance the image. A rock. The wretched Layans had figured out how to create a lesser form of artillery!

The ground shook. A few Dogbots were destroyed by the boulder as it bounced through his quiescent lines before it came to a rest. Before Siren could scorn his worthless adversary's pathetic imitation of his own barrage, more rocks flew from the distant citadel. More of his machines were crushed.

Hatred burned through Siren's circuits. He quickly sent an order for the Tower to relay, drawing his machine troops out of the range of the enemy. It was obvious to him that the cheap toys the worthless traitors had deployed had a limited reach. That they had not used artillery, however crude, before this point meant that their commander had learned from Siren. Disgusting.

His machine army obeyed the Tower's command, drawing back out of reach. The losses he had taken from the insolent copy of his own tactics were inconsequential. After he had taken and destroyed Shusoran, he would recover the damaged robots and recycle them. The cheap machines his master had been obliged to use during the Devastation War were plentiful and easily produced. He could easily spend five of them for every Layan he slaughtered and consider it a fair deal.

Another volley flew over Shusoran's walls. Siren dismissed the pathetic attack. It had taken them over a minute to launch another strike. They were no threat.

He was forced to reevaluate that assessment when a second volley followed the first within ten seconds. A third, fourth, and fifth found their way across within the space of a minute. They had to be using their damnable monsters to manage such a rate of fire. Giants, most likely.

A sound akin to an explosive belch brought Siren's attention down from Shusoran's artillery. Masses of slime were making their way through his army. The fireballs that burst from the mindless beasts were enough to shatter armor and knock down full-sized combat drones. Siren knew from long experience that neither blade, bludgeon nor bullet would kill the things, which would only die from explosives or flames. They were perfect for concealed delivery through a method that would shatter the bones of any other organic being.

Even as Siren issued the order through the Tower for his machines to dispose of the wretched slimes, something flew past him. The crunch of metal and the abrupt termination of his connection told him his most useful tool had been either severely damaged or destroyed. The machine general clenched his hands into fists. He turned.

Siren glared at his adversary. Sharp fangs were revealed as the beast's jaws parted in a terrible roar. Easily twice the height of a man, the squamous animal's green scales glinted in the sunlight. The fingers on the beast's large hands ended in sharp claws. Green eyes glared at the android general from a long, reptilian face. A long tail slammed into what was left of the Tower, the tip of its spiked appendage driven deep into the high-quality steel. It was the most hateful of the witch's followers. A Dragon Knight.

Palmans that could transform into other forms were a staple of folklore and myth. Dragon Knights were fairy tales given reality through science and Techniques. They were stronger, faster, and tougher than Laya's other followers. Their Techniques were powerful even in their Palman form. Should their normal strength prove insufficient, they transformed into humanoid-shaped perversions of the old Palm's Green Dragons. They had been the witch's trump card, a deadly force to be reckoned with.

Siren quickly deduced how the beast had arrived here without being seen. He had been launched by Shusoran's artillery. He had transformed into his repulsive second form in midair and used his large wings to fly the rest of the way. Clever.

The machine general reached for the gun behind his back. One of a kind, his shot would easily penetrate the subhuman's protective scales. The Dragon Knight moved faster, launching itself straight at Siren. The android did not flinch. He extended both his arms and caught the beast's clawed hands in his own.

Where a Palman might have lost his footing, Siren held firm. Two ruts were dug through the earth from the force of the Dragon Knight's charge as the machine general was pushed back. The beast attempted to use its inhuman strength and mass to try to overwhelm him, but Siren did not move. His servomotors were an even match for the Dragon Knight's muscles and the machine general knew every trick of personal combat in Palman history. He was not fooled by any of the subhuman's tricks and every change in force was met with equal and opposite force.

However, Siren had little time to waste on one Dragon Knight when there was a city to slaughter. He shifted his torso and reduced the force applied by his right hand. Off-balance, the Dragon Knight fell forward, his grip weakened slightly. Siren freed his right hand and thrust at the subhuman's face. His fingers reached the surprised green eye. He pulled.

A loud roar seemed to shatter the air itself. It was annoying enough that Siren was tempted to turn off his audio receptors. The Dragon Knight roared again as he clutched his head. Blood ran down his long lizard face as pain filled his voice. Siren discarded the eyeball he had ripped out of the beast's face. He drew his gun. It was not often he got to kill with his own hands. He would relish this Dragon Knight's death.

The subhuman had anticipated him. It took several strides and leaped into the air, intent on escape. Its wings flapped mightily to give him enough momentum to fly away. Siren took aim. It would be too easy to kill the Dragon Knight with one shot, or to shoot him down from the sky for his machines to cut to pieces. He had a better punishment in mind.

Siren changed his shot's ammunition for a special round. It had been made specifically to deal Dragon Knights painful, miserable deaths. The machine general took careful aim. A hundred factors were calculated within a thousandth of a second. He pulled the trigger.

The beast screeched as the round penetrated the scales that defended his stomach. The Dragon Knight staggered, fell a bit, then flapped his wings again. He clutched his stomach with his left hand as his right hand covered the empty socket where his eye had been. The subhuman made his way back to Shusoran to seek healing.

It would do the beast no good. The round Siren had fired was special. It penetrated the Dragon Knight's scales before it exploded in a burst of shrapnel inside the victim. Not enough to kill instantly, of course. No, the little shards of metal would cut just enough that the victim would bleed to death by centimeters. Even if healing Techniques were applied, the shrapnel would remain deep inside of the body. Every inhalation of the lungs, every beat of the heart, every twitch of the intestines would cause the fragments to reopen the wounds. Death was inevitable, painful, and guaranteed.

There was now the matter of punishing Shusoran's commander for the affront of this raid. Siren glanced down and saw the body of one of the Lensoli knights, a smoking hole where his chest used to be. Useless noblemen. How had they managed to become the rulers of their society? The only thing they had of any use was their hatred for Layans.

An idea occurred to him. He could kill two birds with one shot. The machine general began to walk down the hill. The loss of his Tower would require him to lead in person and give each Lensoli knight a segment of his army to command. They would be ordered to capture Shusoran's noblewomen. Unharmed, of course. Those Layan women would be taken as hostages to Lensol, kept in the dungeon for a time until Siren ordered all the noblemen to take Layan wives.

Shusoran would weep for its lost daughters. Lensoli society would scream in horror at being forced to mate with their loathed enemies. The mutts born from the unions would divide Lensoli society, turning commoners against nobles even as the aristocracy tore itself apart. The hatred would unite both sides to him even as they writhed under his commands.

Siren walked faster. He was eager to see the fruits of his retaliations.