Kami steadied his nerves as he reached the door. Hunter was at his side and felt his hesitation, so he dared a word of comfort: “Remember, he is strong but so are we.” Kami nodded and opened the door, revealing a rather modest study featuring a diverse library of books and a desk lit by a tall candle. Behind the desk was the figure with a shadow that stretched outwards for thousands of miles: Yurgen Kaneko, the Bull of the North.
“Ah, Kami, and Hunter, please come in,” the Bull said politely, rising from his seat. “I was just catching up on some reading. Grab any chair.” There were several of differing levels of comfort around. Kami picked one that was simple but well-made, while Hunter continued standing. The Bull nodded politely to both as he sat down again. Hunter toyed with the idea of hanging from the ceiling – both for a new vantage and to unsettle his host – but he decided against it… for now.
“So, Kami, I’m sure you have many questions for me that Richard wasn’t able to answer and I will be happy to answer them all, but first I want to thank you both for coming. I hope you have been treated well so far.”
“Yes indeed,” Kami said, removing the carrier from his back and letting Jacob out for some fresh air. Hunter noted a flicker of interest in Jacob from the Bull that he didn’t really care for but he didn’t say anything immediately.
“So, I’m sure you both hunger for knowledge. Permit me to satisfy your cravings.”
“Very well,” Hunter said, smoothly stepping in as Kami was distracted by Jacob stretching his legs. “First off, Richard said something about the Golden Army. What is it? And why do you need Kami, when Richard claims a dozen Solars now ally themselves with you, at least one of whom I’m sure has Kami’s technical expertise.”
“Excellent, Hunter, cutting right to the heart of the matter,” The Bull said with a calm smile. He was clearly anticipating this line of questioning. “The Golden Army is the primary defense force of the city of Denandsor. The automata you see broken in the streets or malfunctioning in their patrols of the city, of course, are not part of the Golden Army, and we know this because of two simple facts. First, the Golden Army is composed of seventy by seventy warstrider-sized automata composed of pure orichalcum, totally indestructible and incapable of malfunction. Second, they have automatic defense programming, but to accomplish anything more than basic functions, they must be controlled by the one wearing the Crown of the Craft-King.”
With that, The Bull pulled two strips of orichalcum from his pockets and snapped them together. They formed a circlet that seemed to fit cleanly on one’s head. He held this up for all three (Jacob included) to see.
“This is the base of the Crown of the Craft-King. With this, a clever craftsman can make alterations to the Golden Army, because by itself it authorizes you to access the Central Mainframe. But it’s still missing the centerpiece. Once we have the centerpiece, the wearer will be able to command the Golden Army remotely.”
“I see,” Kami said slowly. “May I?” He reached out, and The Bull nodded as he handed the crown over. Kami started looking it over carefully while The Bull continued talking.
“Modifying the Central Mainframe is important, because right now the Golden Army cannot leave the city of Denandsor, but I believe with some modifications they can become completely mobile. But Harold and Zeke, two of my allies from the Rathess Empire, are currently working on that. I need Kami for other reasons.”
“Reasons, plural?” Hunter asked with a hint of surprise. The Bull nodded.
“Indeed. First, the Central Mainframe’s Originator has been modified to include Soulfire crystals around a human-sized space in the center. Any changes made to the Originator propagate out to the entire Golden Army, which means all the automata of the Golden Army also have these same modifications. We don’t know why but we suspect that each automaton of the Golden Army can now house a living human inside. Whether the human can gain control of it or merely sustains it with his soul, we’re not sure, but we need Kami to figure it out, and also figure out whether any modifications need to happen to the human inside. There is no greater expert on magical technology, occult sciences, and biology anywhere in Creation.”
“Well, actually the Doctor—“ Kami started but The Bull cut him off with “That sticks around at least.”
Hunter and Kami glanced at each other, shrugged, and nodded.
“Secondly, Kami, I want your help in finding the centerpiece of the Crown of the Craft-King. We have a source that informs us that it’s currently in the possession of the Iselsi outcastes hiding from the Realm, but we couldn’t get anything better than that. Supposedly the base of the crown can be used to track the centerpiece but we don’t know how so we want you to figure that out. We also know that you have a much more extensive network of contacts than we do. Surely you can get some help from them.”
Kami nodded slowly as he handed the base of the crown back to The Bull. He had already deduced how to use the base of the crown as a scanner to locate the centerpiece but it would only work when within a few miles, and he also had a guess as to why the soulfire crystals were implanted into the automata, but after what had happened last time he was asked to build an army, he was less forthcoming with the answers immediately.
“Well, Yurgen,” Kami said after a moment’s thought, “I understand now what you’re asking of me, and I would like a little time to consider and consult with my friends. I have my own requests if I am to undertake these missions for you, but I want to think those through more carefully before sharing those with you.”
The Bull of the North nodded gravely. “Take all the time you need, Kami. Time is not of the essence because nothing can proceed without you right now. All I ask is that when you consider this, you think of all the lives we could save together with this army.”
Hunter raised an eyebrow. “I can’t remember the last life-saving army I saw.”
The Bull scoffed slightly. “As a fellow artist of death, I’m sure you realize that to save often means to kill. Think! The Wyld Hunt would flee before us. The armies of the Wyld would be meaningless, the First and Forsaken’s entire force swept away like sand on the beach, and people could finally live in peace! You could even return someday to the Neck with Jacob, when this is all over. That’s all I ask. Consider it please.”
Kami nodded and picked up Jacob in his arms. Kami and Hunter then left the way they came.
“So?” Hunter asked after they were down the hallway. “What do you think?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing. I know I could do all the things he asked of me, but I don’t know yet if I should.”
Hunter nodded. “He’s hiding things, certainly, and that army sounds like it would be immensely powerful, if it’s a bunch of orichalcum warstriders with an unkillable human inside each one. But he’s right: the army would solve a lot of our problems.”
Kami nodded. The image of Fred, his friend who had died in his arms after being deceived by Oneiros and turned to a hideous mutant, flashed through his mind. What would Fred say? Canna’s son, Phineas’s family, they were back in Wavecrest, vulnerable to piracy because most of the Wavecrest fleet was still making war on the Skullstone Archipelago. The images of the ordinary civilians he had seen over the last few years stuck with him as well: the people of Langri-Sha, Kamak, and the Gemstone Islands. All these people were counting on him to save them. What would have happened if Scars had begun mass-producing Daleks? Or if the Infernal Exalted had gotten a hold of that wretched wedding bell now sitting in Yu-Shan? Could they still?
Kami sighed. “I’ll sleep on it and we can discuss it in the morning.”
“Are we sleeping soon?” Jacob asked, yawning suddenly.
“Yes, it’s your bedtime Jacob,” Kami replied almost automatically.
“Oh, okay. Uncle Kami?”
“What did that man want?”
Kami sighed. “He wanted my help with a project.”
“Oh, okay I guess I’ll get used to it here.”
“What do you mean?” Kami asked, puzzled.
“You like to help people, Uncle Kami.”
Hunter shot Kami and Jacob a wry smile but said nothing. Kami blinked, stammered, then let it drop. “I guess so.”
[Debbie and Eli are invited to suggest their next course of action.]