Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Masters of War

Michael A. Stackpole

  Leap Of Fate . .

  As Clan Wolf launches a daring campaign of reprisal against The Republic. Throee warriors will find their destinies intertwined on the field of battle and in the fight for their futures...

  Alaric is a living legend among the Wolves: fearless, ruthless, merciless. But his own lust for victory may mean his undoing, unless he learns to see beyond himself—and recognize what a true warrior fights for.

  Anastasia is a former Clan Wolf warrior, now leading a band of mercs against her onetime comrades. She knows that to lead, she must prove not only her ability but her complete separation from the Wolves. And there is only one way for her to do so—in combat.

  Verena is the new commander of a ragtag merc force. Her desire for greatness will uncover her own superior abilities and draw her ever closerr to a final confrontation in which mercy is unheard of—and only death awaits the unworthy....


  Heat choked the Mad Cat’s cockpit. Alaric struggled to keep his ’Mech on its feet, and managed it by sinking into a crouch. He shifted the feet and started to come back up, but the engine shut down, freezing the ’Mech as if just about to pounce on the Falcon.

  Alaric closed his eyes for a moment. To have your ’Mech shut down on the battlefield was the product of taking foolish risks. He accepted that, just as he accepted victory as a confirmation of having made the proper choices. It was not that he didn’t believe he could be wrong; he just knew that any error that did not get him killed generated a tale that made him more of an enigma.

  The trick is to avoid making the same error twice. He smiled. Predictability will kill you faster than mistakes.

  Before he attempted to restart his ’Mech, he glanced out the cockpit. His troops had downed the other odd Falcon ’Mech and were mopping up the remains of the Falcon force. Then they would move on to Ogstrenburg and raze it.

  To punish the Falcons.

  Alaric nodded once, then began the ignition sequence. He would beat them to the city and lay waste to it. And the stories they will tell of this battle will be grand.



  Michael A. Stackpole


  Published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

  Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)

  Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)

  Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India

  Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Mairangi Bay, Auckland 1311, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)

  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published by Roc, an imprint of New American Library,

  a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  First Printing, April 2007

  Copyright © WizKids, Inc., 2007

  eISBN : 978-1-429-56851-7

  All rights reserved


  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  To Brian Pulido

  Today screenplays and film festivals, tomorrow the world!

  All in five hours a week.


  Sharon Turner Mulvihill gets a huge helping of thanks for her patience. From the start this project seemed snakebit, but there she was with the snake-bite kit. Loren Coleman, Randall Bills, and Kevin Killiany helped out greatly as well. Without Howard Morhaim—my brilliant agent—this project would never have happened. And thanks to Kassie Klaybourne for keeping me sane.


  DropShip Romulus

  Koniz, Clan Jade Falcon Occupation Zone

  22 October 3136

  Alaric Wolf walked through the star field displayed in the holotank like a god striding through reality. The measured step, the narrowing of his cerulean eyes: Though no one was watching him, and though he was not sure gods even existed, he comported himself as one. Always aware, always projecting a larger-than-life image of himself, he dared not let down his guard.

  He studied the various worlds. As he reached out with long, slender fingers to touch a planet, a window full of information would open. The forces of nature had created the worlds, and though man had been spread through the stars for more than a millennia, many of the worlds were barely tamed. Man had blunted their wild essence in a few places, and yet those victories could easily be reversed.

  The tenuous nature of man’s dominion over the universe could not be denied.

  As he studied the worlds he considered a debate that had raged since before man left Terra. While science had, over the years, provided some answers, it fell to every man to decide for himself which was more important: his nature, or the way he had been nurtured? Genes or training, technology or some innate aspect of man that could not be quantified, which was most vital to supremacy?

  The Clans—who designed their own society—chose nature as paramount. Children were born of unions created by scientists, literally bred for war. They prized faster reflexes and greater stamina, they selected for presence of mind and a predatory love of war. Even the nurturing process and the series of trials a Clansman endured before he was considered worthy of entering the breeding program imposed a Darwinian selection process. Combat would weed out the weak, so only the strong would survive and reproduce.

  Had he been alive when the Clans invaded the Inner Sphere, Alaric was certain he easily would have accepted their genetic superiority as truth. Even granting that Clan technology had outstripped that of the Inner Sphere, the Clans’ initial series of victories could not be ascribed to that alone. The Clans had blown through opposition, virtually unstoppable. Their superiority could not be denied.

  He paused before a glowing golden world burning in the holotank, but did not reach for it. Tukayyid. There the forces of the Inner Sphere had met the Clans in open warfare, and stopped them. The Inner Sphere had learned much about the Clan way of fighting, and had allowed the Clans to overreach through arrogance. Defeat at Tukayyid had ended the great invasion and stopped the drive to Terra.

  Alaric smiled, turning to look
at Terra, that blue ball at the heart of the display. Terra had been the birthplace of humanity, and had become a grand prize. Whichever Clan took it would become the ilClan— the greatest Clan of all—and their leader would be supreme. There would be no doubting him, his bloodline, or his leadership capabilities. He would transcend humanity and become a god.

  He laughed lightly, ignoring the hollow echoes that came back to him. The Clans had been stopped in their drive on Terra, suggesting to some that their superiority was an illusion. Then the Inner Sphere struck deep into Clan space and destroyed a Clan. They exterminated the Smoke Jaguars, managing with a task force to do to a Clan what only the whole of the Clans had ever managed to achieve. Then they invaded Strana Mechty, the Clan homeworld, and buried once and for all the notion of Clan superiority.

  Many Clansmen had never recovered from that blow. Their solace was to turn inward and fight each other, as if to declare the Inner Sphere warriors unworthy as foes. This was folly, of course, because ignoring the Inner Sphere and heaping contempt upon their warriors did nothing to destroy them.

  Others reacted differently. Vlad Ward, the man Alaric had hoped was his genefather, had challenged the Inner Sphere. He knew their weakness. Though they were capable of waging war, they hated it. They considered it a weakness to resort to war, though their history showed an affinity for and constant reliance upon war. In threatening them, he’d carried away Katrina Steiner, Alaric’s genemother; giving Alaric life and Katrina a legacy she’d otherwise have been denied.

  Though her blood coursed through his veins, it was the nurturing that made him different. She’d not been overprotective, just maternally cunning in how she had him trained. She did insist on little things, like his calling her “Mother,” even though the term had little currency among the Clans. She did not curb his head-strong nature as much as channel it. She gave him breathing room that allowed him to make decisions rationally. The heat of battle might demand instantaneous action, but proper planning minimized those situations—which was to his advantage across the board.

  More importantly, his mother had showed him something to which many Clansmen remained blind: that appearance, when unchallenged, becomes reality. If one acts to discourage challenges—if the bluff is never called—then people must accept as real what has been presented to them. Given a choice between realizing they are stupid enough to be deceived, or believing they are truly in the presence of greatness, rare is the individual who will choose to think badly of himself.

  He pressed his hands together in an attitude of prayer. First you let them think they are smart. Then you destroy them. His mother was a master of political manipulation and, save for one flaw, would never have come to the Clans. Among the Clans she had limited avenues of self-expression, so spent a great deal of time preparing and perfecting him as an instrument of vengeance upon her enemies. Her enemies, as it turned out, were the people of the Inner Sphere and her hatred for them knew no bounds.

  Especially so in the case of my genefather.

  Alaric’s stomach knotted. He fought the pain, refusing to give any outward sign of discomfort. The knowledge of his father’s identity was still new to him, still raw. He’d grown up thinking his genefather was a proper Clansman—perhaps even Vlad. Vlad possessed every virtue a Clansman was meant to possess: strength, cunning, intelligence, courage and a calculated ruthlessness that destroyed weakness wherever it might be found.

  Believing Vlad was his genefather gave Alaric a sanctuary when his mother’s meddling seemed too much. He recognized it as the orphan fantasy, that someday his true genefather would come and take him to greater glory. His mother’s obsession with the glory she had known and lost in the Inner Sphere made the fantasy all the more seductive.

  He had endured her control over his life and kept his resentment to himself. Whereas others tested out of their sibkos as soon as they could, becoming warriors and proving their worth to Clan Wolf, she held him back. She told him to bide his time, to watch and wait; but passive predatory practices were at odds with the Clan ethos. As much as he resented it, he could see the advantages her strategy won for him.

  And when he was unleashed, he channeled his pent-up frustrations into his battles. He tested late, but destroyed his foes. It was not enough that they conceded his superiority when they saw he had maneuvered them into an untenable position; they had to know pain—so they’d not think of challenging him later.

  Memory is a tricky thing. We forget pain, but scars are there every day to remind us of our weakness.

  Alaric had hoped that the nature of his victories would bring forward his true father. Acknowledgment would gain him nothing, and many were the Clansmen who had been bred from stock left behind by warriors who had died gloriously. Still, he wanted a legacy, a Clan legacy, and was certain one waited for him.

  Then he learned his father’s identity, and learned of his father’s death. The fact that Alaric had survived and thrived within the Clans was cold comfort for learning that he was of pure Inner Sphere stock. It was true there had been warriors from the Inner Sphere who had joined the Clans and even had risen to high rank among them, but this was by far the exception, and Alaric did not like being a statistical anomaly.

  Not that his bloodline was anything to be ashamed of, even if only examined along the maternal line. Katrina Steiner and Hanse Davion had both been great warriors and greater leaders of their nations. Their progeny—Victor Steiner-Davion—had eclipsed both of them, proving the worth of the line in the area of martial skill. The Inner Sphere had its own rather dynamic testing program, and countless were the moldering bodies of would-be rulers littering Inner Sphere worlds. Alaric yet had cousins and half siblings who lived and ruled within the Inner Sphere.

  As a youth studying the history of the Clan invasion, Alaric had been fascinated with his uncle Victor—though he learned quickly never to mention him around his mother. Had Victor been of the Clans, he would assuredly have served as a role model for Alaric. Victor had been physically small, yet fought with a ferocity that had enabled him to successfully lead the coalition that had repeatedly thwarted the Clans. Victor had led the task force that had attacked the Clan homeworld, and his victory had secured a future for the Inner Sphere.

  In Victor, Alaric found much to admire, save for two incidences in the man’s life. When Victor returned from Strana Mechty, he discovered that Katrina had usurped his realm from the regent he had left behind to rule in his stead. He stood at the head of an army that would gladly have followed him and deposed her, but he declined to fight her. Given the choice between waging a war and leaving his people subject to a tyrant—and Alaric was under no illusions about what sort of ruler his mother had been—Victor turned from bloodshed.

  And then, later, when Devlin Stone and his revolution started the drive to create one unified nation within the Inner Sphere, Victor endorsed the plan. It was another move toward peace and away from war. It was a move away from man’s base nature; and as much as Victor and others tried to nurture peace, the effort always failed.

  Alaric again studied Terra and thought about when he traveled there with his mother for Victor’s funeral. He’d found the world beautiful. The caress of soft breezes, the verdant plant life, the gentle and unceasing rustle of waves on beaches—this world called to him, though generations of his people had been raised far from it. It was the cradle of humanity, and even the most cursory study of it revealed so much about the forces that shaped mankind.

  He recalled visiting museums and wandering through displays showing the evolution of mankind. Alaric was certain others viewed the extinct life-forms with a sense of nostalgia or loss, but he drew from them a greater lesson. Neanderthal had coexisted with modern man for several millennia, yet ultimately had succumbed to modern man’s more violent tendencies. Animals that had vanished had been hunted to death: the mammoth, giant sloths, flightless birds; the list was endless. And while others saw those extinctions as a warning against a profligate disregard for the san
ctity of life, Alaric just took it as confirmation of man’s true nature.

  I think, therefore I am. He knew the philosophical concept, and could see the logic in it, but it seemed too limited. It was not enough for him to know he existed. Others had to know he existed. I can cause others to die, therefore they know I exist.

  That was how people had known his genefather existed. His mother, though she hid it well beneath a veil of hatred for his genefather, also defined the man that way. He was the one who could have killed her. Even his passing had not lessened this sense—she clearly feared he would somehow reach out from the grave and destroy her.

  And Alaric knew that because he was the man’s son, someday she could come to fear him as she had his father.

  But she won’t act against me because she believes the illusion, too. Alaric lifted his head, straightening his spine. He had learned well from his mother, and as he read and studied his father, he discovered a lesson that Katrina never learned, but that his genefather clearly had. It was a lesson so basic as to be accepted as military wisdom, yet few people ever understood the true nature of the axiom.

  Know your foe. There wasn’t a military leader who had avoided gross defeat when he ignored that tidbit. Embracing it had led to countless victories. From the first hunter who ever stalked game, through Vlad Ward and Devlin Stone, the warrior who studied his enemy for weaknesses—and then exploited them—knew victory.

  His mother was indeed very good at spotting and exploiting weakness, but she concentrated on specific enemies. Her hatred for Victor had kept her focused on him, which led her to make mistakes that ultimately resulted in her defeat. In combat that sort of focus was known as a lack of situational awareness and it often proved to be a fatal flaw.

  His father, however, had possessed more vision than Katrina. The man had somehow realized that his foe was human nature itself. While he might focus, from time to time, on a particular individual, Alaric’s study of him suggested he was always studying mankind as a whole. People might think of themselves as unique, but the simple fact was that aside from minor and cosmetic differences, the vast majority of people unthinkingly followed in the footsteps of others. If one figured out the general tendencies for humanity, shaping strategies to deal with them as a group became almost simple.