1. Ironhorse Races

“Well I don’t like it.” Ms. Parsley huffed as she tipped out of the engine’s window. Her blonde hair flapped like a castle pennant as the train picked up speed. They were nearing their target and the element of surprise would be gone at any moment.

Ms. Thyme flexed her fingers while slits in counterfeit legs opened, gears of her tall boots sliding into place. They would overtake the other train soon and with it yet another battle would begin. This was what they were made for, war. She slid to crouch in the other window. “It does not matter if we like it or not, sister. It is our duty to follow orders, save lives.”

“Still, I gotta agree with Blondie. It’d be better ta have Ms. Sage here.” Ms. Rosemary felt heavy. She could life a steam-carriage with little real trouble, but the despair of being down one sister – possibly forever – was a burden which made her spirit leaden. Their locomotives dual steam engines kicked it up another notch and she watched massive pistons churn as energy was transferred down to sparking wheels. On the back end of the train two armored cars were stuffed full of soldiers. Captain Redgrave was back there with his men, ready to risk real life and limb for Queen and Country. With any luck their mission would go without a hitch and that’d be unnecessary. She didn’t want to see any more good men die. The beautiful brawler knew she would, though.

“They’re in sight!” Harper yelled back from where he stood beside the engineer. Neither of them could see in front of them directly now that the frontal shield had been lowered. They had to rely on wide periscopes settled above the cattle-catcher like scoop that protected the engine. It was a good thing it was there on the war-train too, a shell bounced off with a loud groan of steel. “Seems they’ve spotted us too I’d say.”

“You powers of observation are stunning.” Ms. Parsley laughed as she pulled herself back inside with a squint. “We’re going to need to take out that mortar platform before we get any closer. I for one don’t wish to derail.”

“Leave such to me.” Ms. Thyme nodded and slipped out onto the back of the armored scoop, where it hinged to the actual bulk of the engine. No matter how well armored a locomotive was it still had to stay on the rails. If even one car slipped it would tug the rest with it. She tipped her face so the bulk of her raven-mane was carried away from her face and preceded forward with inhuman grace.

The truth of the matter was the military train the three Thistle Sisters travelled on had been stripped down for speed. There were only two troop cars, the pair of engines and a car for the bare minimum fuel needed. It was a vehicle made for pursuit, not for a straight up fight – which they were heading into. Idyllic countryside sped by at a lethal pace as the gap between her train and the rebel one closed. The steam trail from both was now even mixing. She crept low along the front lip of the cattle-catcher like shield made of the same treated metal air-ships were. Another shell zipped by, blowing apart trees moments after the train zipped past them.

As soon as it was apparent that one of the supply trains sent out to relieve Major Vetch’s strike into Scotland had been compromised by mutineers the Sisters had been dispatched. Her viridian eyes narrowed slightly as she spied the other vehicle thundering across the landscape. Both were moving at foolhardy speeds. Even on this slow and gentle turn between two hills sparks flew off of the rails. At any moment one of them might spill over. The sooner this ended the better.

The iron horse ahead was burdened by several extra cars full of munitions, foodstuffs, vehicle parts and even portable defenses. It was a standard issue vehicle with gun emplacements every few cars as well as a firing platform on the back behind a protective plate. It was there that a pair of soldiers turned cultists was trying to get a clear shot with their man-portable mortar. Two others, sharp shooters playing spotters, were also. Any moment now they’d take pot shots at the periscopes to effectively blind their pursuit. There was little intel on how much of the train’s crew had turned against humanity itself, or if there was anyone loyal that remained aboard. In truth Ms. Thyme was surprised the plan was not to just blow the train from the rails and recover the supplies. Apparently the northern offensive was off to such a rocky start that every scrap of supplies was necessary. If Ms. Thyme was a feeling woman she might have some satisfaction that Archie Vetch was hardly the war hero he wanted to be. Train whistles screamed at one another as the two vehicles turned onto a straight away. It was now or never for both sides.

A rifle bullet flew past the swordswoman’s head as she circled around to prow of the train. As expected that the sharpshooters had spotted her. Her expression didn’t show a trace of concern, skirts billowing out as she crouched. Her difference engine judged the distance and she braced one hand back to hold her balance. Another shot rang out and this time grazed her temple, sending rivulets of oil down the line of one cheek.

“3… 2… 1…”

With precision down to the nearest thousandth of an inch Ms. Thyme cleared the space between her engine and the armored caboose in one jump. Her body was already spinning on the downward arc. Steam exploded from her wrists and telescopic blades locked into place. One sharp shooter was hewn from shoulder to opposite side as she landed on the firing platform’s lip. Next in line to die was one of the artillerists as vibrating blade cleaved his skull. The other man on the mortar was shoved aside as the last sharpshooter tried to bring the muzzle of his gun to bear. Ms. Thyme sliced the weapon in twain with one sword and sank the other into his chest. As bright gore spattered the emplacement she didn’t even bat an eye. The other Sister’s were always appalled when they had to reap human lives. These sods were the enemy and thus there was only one true way to deal with them. A piston-aided kick to the last man’s temple ended the fight before three breaths were finished.

Ms. Thyme signaled the all clear as she stepped down to bloody floor. She immediately looked through the cabooses window, then snapped her head back as a fusillade of bullets shattered it – peppered the other side of the door.

The other locomotive was a mere few yards away. The engineer dare not get any closer despite Harper’s suggestion. There was too great of a chance for catastrophe. Still it was close enough for the gynoids. Once both Ms. Rosemary and Ms. Parsley were atop the armored engine the former threw the later across with a great heave of augmented muscles. The triggerwoman’s crimson coat spread like the wings of a bird of prey as she landed atop the caboose. Her heavy pistols were out in the next instance and breaching shots were unloaded into the roof, tearing through the armor and down into human flesh. Her blind firing was based on where likely targets would be. If she hit or not wasn’t really the point. The suppressive fire would allow the other girls to get inside.

One of the Irishwoman’s steam-driven harpoons punctured the back-wall and she was pulled over with the whine of the pulley inside one bracer. No sooner was Ms. Rosemary over the lip then she ejected the chain. With a roar the redhead plowed right through the door, pulling it off of the hinges as an impromptu shield. Ms. Thyme rolled in after her. This all would have been easier with Ms. Sage to guide them, but things were going smoothly. The gunwoman crouched as the passed by low hanging trees and quickly reloaded fresh cylinders into her revolvers. Once Ms. Parsley could move again she dashed along to the front of this car, ready to blow away anyone that planned to come from the next. Inside the other two lovely living weapons made short work of the troops inside. No quarter was asked for and none was given. These cultists of the Vain fought with an insane zeal and military training. Some might call them martyrs. The Thistle Sisters would call them fools.

Ms. Rosemary poked at her side and the oozing puncture in combat corset. “Crazy bastards.”

“I concur with your vulgar sentiment.” The petite butcher didn’t wait for gunsmoke to clear. She tread a red path to the next door and whistled in signal. Ms. Parsley whistled in turn before hopping to the next car. By now the train full of loyal troops had fallen back to safe distance. The blonde was thankful for that. Basil and his men were only along so they could take control of the supply train once it was clear – or in a worst case scenario try to board it once they hit a section of double track. Things would have to have gone right proper for everyone if that was the case. The gunslinger was going to make sure that didn’t happen. She hopped down onto the landing between as iron ties flew by underneath at a breakneck pace. The next car was full of storage crates.

It was the perfect place for an ambush.

“Plan of action?” Ms. Parsley asked as her two sisters joined her. The trio exchanged a quick look between one another as air whistled by. This really was all the more difficult without Ms. Sage here. That didn’t stop them from having a job to do.

“Ms. Rosemary proceeds first, using her forearms as cover. I shall follow after and prepare to engage. You cover us from the door.” Someone had to take charge. Ms. Thyme decided she had to rise to the occasion. The route was agreed on with a silent shared not.

The pretty pugilist tore the door open and strode in, her forearms up like she was getting ready to lay down the sweet silence. A grenade rolled down by her feet. “Oh feck me.”

Boom!

Shattered wood, spattered dust and sawdust filtered out the open door. Ms. Rosemary was still standing, though her clothes were tattered. She glared through the crease between her upraised arms before surging forward. One palm was brought right down into a remaining crate of significant weight which those behind it falling like dominos. A few radicals started to scream until they were turned into sticky paste – human flesh couldn’t stand up to hundreds of pounds of pressure so well. Bullets pinged off of her guards as the redhead started forward once more. When the next explosive came rolling along Ms. Thyme was there at just the right moment to send it skipping back with a kick. After that second explosion the room was so clogged with debris that the traitors were too busy hacking to get off a good shot.

Ms. Parsley had no such trouble. With each squeeze of the trigger she dropped another enemy. She didn’t even have to reload before everyone was down. Into the room she swayed, casually plugging fresh cylinders in. “This is too easy.”

“You sound displeased.” Ms. Thyme casually inspected the damage as she made her way to the other side of the car. She didn’t fully lower her guard, just in case. Most of the supplies weren’t even close to intact any more. Even if they did retake the train at this rate there still might not be enough. She brushed her blade through blood-despoiled biscuits. “Odd.”

“Just expected more of a fight. If we take this back without a hitch I shall not complain.” The dainty duelist shrugged as she followed after.

“What’s odd?” Ms. Rosemary spoke up after whispering a few prayers to the Almighty. It would have been better if they’d been able to get these idiots to surrender, but that was never likely. Of all four… three… she loathed killing humans the most. They were supposed to be protecting them. It was hard to do so from themselves.

“Why hijack a supply train in the first place? The rails only go so far after all.” The swordswoman subtly frowned. “I suppose they might have a rendezvous point where they intend to unload the train, or intended too before pursuit followed. Might it have been better to trail them until we found that spot? If mayhem is really their purpose instead why not detonate the-“

Her wondering was cut off by a muffled explosion that cracked the glass of the door out of the car. Its flash was small, but intense. The car they were in shook for a moment before settling. All three gynoids narrowed their eyes before Ms. Thyme sliced the door open. When she peered down her frown was no longer understated. She looked from the mangled coupling to next landing as it started to gain distance. Without a word she hopped across even as a bullet ripped through her side. On the next car she quickly whirled to one side of open door as the chain-gun there opened its throttle wide.

“Bloody hell.” Ms. Parsley took half-a-dozen slugs before she blew out the back of the gunner’s head. There would be only a few mere seconds where the water-cooled weapon stopped spitting out death before someone else pulled the trigger. The unhooked car was rapidly slowly. She eeped as Ms. Rosemary unceremoniously snatched her by the bottom and her coat before tossing her across. Then the Irishwoman stepped out onto the landing and scowled as she looked down. Ms. Rosemary glanced back over her shoulder and then side to side without a word.

Once the blonde construct gained her balance she shouted back. “Come on, Rosie!”

The strongwoman didn’t say a word, but merely shook her head. She didn’t know how long it would be before the pursuing train slammed into these two cars; she just could surmise the results. Ms. Rosemary moved to the edge of the ravaged platform and looked backwards. The shrill whistle of Harper’s locomotive cut through the air. Saints Alive! Not long enough it seemed. She blew out a long suffering breath and aimed her fist at the side of the car she was on. Her second harpoon plunged through the side and easily gained a firm purchase. Then after a salute to her sisters Ms. Rosemary jumped off onto the rolling farmland, splintering a tree as she hit it. That was nothing compared to the frightful devastation which occurred moments after the Irishwoman’s chain went taunt. Metal screamed as it twisted, bolts flew off in every direction along with sparks. An orchard was reduced to smoldering sawdust within seconds. A great plume of smoke followed – and through the ephemeral mass Harper’s train pushed unimpeded. Ms. Rosemary’s sacrifice pulled the two ruined cars off of the tracks mere seconds before the pursuing heroes would have slammed head long into it.

She was too busy cursing a blue moon within a temporary tomb of rent steel to notice. The soldiers on Harper’s train were too stunned by the sudden destruction wrought before them. Perhaps later they would give a cheer for the Irishwoman who’d saved them, again. That was if they lived through this fight.

“Over-dramatic, as usual.” Ms. Thyme dryly remarked and arched a brow as she looked through this car filled with crates as well. No one had taken a pot shot at either of them. It seemed unlikely that the gunners had been the only traitors on this car.

Ms. Parsley only dipped her chin and focused on the task ahead. They met no resistance save a handful of easily avoided trip wires through this supply car. The door clearly had another explosive wired to it. The gunslinger crouched to disarm it while her sister studied the path ahead through the window. It was a flatbed next stacked with sandbags and gun emplacements. The only thing lacking were troops, save a few dead bodies. The Thistle Sisters assumed they had to be what remained of loyal Crown subjects done in by their fellows. Then there were the two figures which stood waiting in the center of the entrenched zone. One was impatiently staring at the door, his armored shoulders quaking with barely restrained fury. The other was watching the countryside roll by with one leg propped up on sandbags, a cigarette in his fingers. Both wore the khaki uniform of their dead fellows but the army’s symbol was covered with hastily sewn patches of a silver fist.

“They’re like the addled nurse Basil and I confronted at the hospital.” With terse words Ms. Parsley examined their foes. She didn’t like what she saw.

The anxious one’s pauldrons and shoulder plates were of corroded iron and screwed directly into flesh and bone. The red around the massive bolts wasn’t rust. Conduits festered along the inside of each and ran into what looked like a boiler on the man’s back. The blackened metal pulsed with hellish crimson light from within. He wore a steel mask welded directly to his doughboy helmet that was featureless save eyeholes. Even from this distance one could see they were jaundice with rage. The ends of his officer’s coat were tattered thanks to steel talons fused with ruptured skin and bone. One might well imagine there were more make-shift cybernetic parts affixed to his butchered frame which were hidden by rumpled clothing. His associate took a slow drag from the cigarette before flicking it away and sliding a similar helmet back on. The cool customer was just as terrible augmented if not as twitchy. From the knee down his legs had been replaced with pistols and struts – cast to be reverse-jointed like a horse’s. The metal was festooned with barbs and curved blades. While his arms were fully armored with the sleeves of his coat torn away it was plain where most of his attacks were going to come from. He paced over to the clawed man while gesturing toward the door. Who could miss the lovely faces staring out of it?

Ms. Parsley’s expression knotted up. “Just two of them from the looks of it. They couldn’t really think that that was going to be enough to stop us if we were at full strength?”

“I suspect they did not expect the Thistle Sisters to be assigned to this, but brave soldiers they could cut down. Let us make quick work of this and stop the train. I am worried about Ms. Rosemary and uneasy about the purpose of the cult taking the train.” Her deadpan sibling responded.

“One way to find out. Would you like to go first?”

“I would, thank you.” Taking a page from the ginger’s playbook Ms. Thyme kicked the door right from its hinges. It bounced along, careening off of one of the stacks of sandbags and over the heads of the two patchworks. She stalked out and saluted them both with the raising of one blade. Not a word was spoke before she dashed toward the two of them with an amazing burst of speed. A short hop helped her surge over the barricaded. The taloned traitor fended off humming steel with a swipe and Ms. Thyme twirled away leaving only empty air for the other man to brining heavy boot down into. The steampunk satyr’s attack gouged wood, but he didn’t even grunt in disappointment. Instead he fled two steps back as Ms. Thyme’s riposte became a skillful lunge for his covered throat, with one sword anyway. Her other blade flashed toward the clawed man to keep him at bay. He pressed forward anyway and she had to dance back from the two men.

As Ms. Thyme moved with perfected poise one of Ms. Parsley’s bullets spiraled through her trailing black mane. Talons slapped over one eye hole trying to catch the sudden gush of blood but failing entirely. Frankly it was surprising the back of the patchwork’s head didn’t blow out. The blonde vowed to rectify that.

With a perfect display of savate the other traitor renewed his assault on the swordswoman. Though she could never admit it Ms. Thyme appreciated the skill this man displayed. With each swift kick she worked on deflecting deadly blows away. The two moved as if they were trapped in some sort of formal dance. Sometimes she gave ground; other times took the lead and drove him back. Her humming swords drew red, his shin barbs oily black. As the dance stretched into a second song she found herself pressed back again, but having to deal with his assault alone. One of his heavy axe-kicks exploded abused sandbags. She hoped back to the far end of the platform and slid down to a crouch rather than allowing herself to be blinded. Her fertile gaze focused on the billowing cloud of dust, waiting for her opponent’s next step. His timing was off and she tipped her head at the softest sound of a click. The instant before one of the spun chain guns opened up with a flurry of hot lead the slight construct sailed forward, twisting as she vaulted the cloud and landed far behind the gunner. As she landed Ms. Thyme slung one of her swords out. It spiraled end over end in a deadly arc, only to be kicked away by a snap of the man’s leg. Her nose wrinkled.

Ms. Parsley wasn’t having any better luck. She’d not managed to hit the twitchy bastard with another bullet before the savage was upon her. Even though she was programmed to be an ace pistolero she wasn’t a push over when things got up close and personal. That didn’t make the battle she was locked in all that easy. The turncoat’s talons were easily almost as long as the forearm that supported them and he wielded them with the skill of a master with a brush. He’d managed to gouge open her side down to metal ribs before she got the hang of parrying rapid attacks with her revolvers. The big guns were a rather sturdy design because they had to support the caliber of bullet she used. Still she didn’t fancy how terribly they were getting scratched up. The next time he slashed she drove the attack astray with the tip of her pistol so the barrel was pointed at his torso. Her face twisted up in frustration as the bullet fired struck armor and sank no deeper.

“Going to carve you up.” The maniac’s voice was strained. Not from madness alone but from pain and the damage done to his face. It was a wonder he didn’t drop dead, or even slow down. A great deal of blood and ruined bone was leaking from under the mask. He ducked down low to try and disembowel her with a rending stroke.

In turn she shoved both barrels down into the claws and took a different tactic. The next time she pulled the triggers the slugs tore through finger-joints. A few talons shattered easily with the rain of metal motes. Her adversary howled as he recoiled in shock. Ms. Parsley took the opening offered and took a strong step forward. Smoking muzzle pressed into the patchwork’s unmarred eye hole and she turned the rest of his head into soup. The man’s body slumped to the ground and she gave it a kick for good measure. “Stay down.”

Ms. Parsley’s attention turned to the duelist. It was a bit odd that Ms. Thyme had not slain her opponent as of yet. This other patchwork had to have been a man of skill and patience before electing to become a monster. She eased out one circular clip with the flick of a thumb before easing a fresh one into place. Instead of remaining focused on that fight she looked ahead and around for any sign of trouble.

The man with metal legs lashed out with his left one again, slicing through not but air. Ms. Thyme had ducked low and attempted to counter with a thrust into his crotch. A kick drove her sword point down and she was forced to draw away before she lost her weapon. The harmony of metal against metal in that moment was almost captivating – if she’d had an actual hard. She let out a small tch and then moved back in with an artful slash. The traitor blocked with a bracer, which was gouged the vibrating blade threatened to cut through. He kicked out for her becoming stomach. While metal sole connected it did little damage. First there was the combat corset to blunt some of the impact and the raven-haired beauty didn’t really have any internal organs to rupture. Ms. Thyme fell back but did not double over. Without even a tick of frustration to mar her beauty she struck out again at an angle that would require the same arm be raised to block again. IF she had to take this monster apart piece by piece she would.

Instead the patchwork dropped low, turning at an angle which was impossible for a human being. His alien crafted legs twisted too, struts and gears changing position to be more like a mine’s pulverizer than something that could be walked on. Ms. Thyme abandoned her attack and swayed to the side rather than have the powerful strike land. He hooked his leg back down, twisting even as it shifted back into proper place. His snap kick caught her in the temple.

As the clockwork woman stumbled she didn’t fault her sister for not joining in. A glance confirmed that the shooter was keeping an eye out for additional trouble. What did irritate her was that she’d yet to put this creature down. Her sword had moved reflexively to prevent any follow up attack, but she keenly felt her precarious position on the edge of the flat car.

Her adversary knew it as well and advanced. Something elegantly French flowed from his lips. She didn’t bother to listen. Instead Ms. Thyme feigned that her balance was utterly corrupted and let her guard falter. By hook or by crook she was going to be victorious. The man stepped in, body poised in a perfect stance of his martial art. As soon as he started to kick she pressed forward letting one of the blades slide deep into her bust. Ms. Thyme looped an arm around it; there was not a hiss of pain as she didn’t feel any. Her leading leg lifted and set against his supporting knee. The pistons of her own boot fired once, then again. As soon as the man was devoid of one limb she whipped him over the side. His startled scream was cut off as he was ground down within the wheels of the train.

“Seems you have a leg up.” Ms. Parsley grinned as she neared the other gynoid.

It was hard to ignore the droll statement. Ms. Thyme looked down at the leg she carried. It was tossed to the side. “Such might be useful for evidence later. At least these ones were not implanted with bombs or some such. What sort of danger do we have ahead?”

“There is movement in the next too cars. I can see that they’re moving goods out onto the platform beyond that. For the life of me I can’t fathom what they’re doing. None of this makes sense. Why not blow up the train and be done with it?” The blonde rolled her shoulders with a dainty shrug. “Perhaps they were planning to ambush the poor doughboys at the other end.”

“It seems they mean to steal some of the goods.”

“How? It isn’t like the train can jump the tracks” Ms. Parsley brushed hair from her face and huffed.

Ms. Thyme nodded slowly. A sigh of relief puffed out of her as she found her other sword. It was given a testing swing. “Perhaps by some other conveyance?”

“Oh I hate when you do that.” The other woman was suddenly very put out. When Ms. Thyme glanced at her in inquiry the sultry shootist merely pointed to the west with one gun. Ms. Parsley wore quite the pout. Some device, which looked like a locomotive, was racing across and open field in their direction. There were no tracks out there, only acre upon acre of farmland being torn up by its passage. The way the engine moved would remind one of a centipede in both the way attached limbs moved and vile countenance. This train did not need tracks thanks to the multitude of insect like legs fashioned from hardened steel that never ceased moving. Nor did it need steam for the crimson glow of hellstones spilled from grating in such a manner which gave it leering and malign ‘face’. This too, along with having several attached cars slithering gracefully, lent to the idea of some great predator bug moving in for the kill.

What bothered the Thistle Sisters was that they were part of the prey.

As the Vermin Engine sped closer a great plum of sanguine tainted steam blew from its pines that ran across its spine. A host of cultists and no doubt patchworks and fairies were ready to be expelled onto the supply train. What would follow would be a quick harvesting – or it would have been so if the crown’s own droids had not be dispatched. Warning shouts in the guttural yet lovely tongue of the space men could barely be heard. Two saber-like arms, for lack of better description, detached from the sides of the engine and with a groaning of metal, hiss of steam rose. The insect analogy was complete. It was a motif that the fomorians did adore.

“You have got to be kidding me.” Ms. Parsley’s expression sank but she still leveled both barrels at the oncoming maelstrom of metal and brass. There were cheers rising from the turncoats on their pilfered locomotive.

In turn Ms. Sage started to study the Vermin Engine for weakness. She tried not to imagine it coiling around this train she stood on like a common centipede and crushing the life out of. “My sentiments exactly. I do pray that Harper and your Captain have a plan to aid us.”

“I’m not sure anyone can.” The response was grim and the gunslinger’s doe-brown eyes lifted to the shadow looming over them even now.

To be continued

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