2. The Vermin Engine

“Right. We’re going to need bigger guns.” Captain Redgrave commented in an offhanded manner. He’d come up from to the engine, wanting to scope out the battle from the best vantage point. Being near Harper always calmed his nerves too, though with the crooked grin Basil wore it was hard to tell that he was feeling frayed. His bonny girl was on that other train, which parts had been blown off and derailed. Now there was some twisted piece of machinery torn from a committed engineer’s nightmares skittering across the landscape toward the fray. Of course, the apple of his eye was a weapon of war herself – finely crafted and as devastating with guns as she was with her looks. He still worried after Ms. Parsley as it was only natural, even if love between a man and machine was not.

At first Harper only responded with dumbfound silence. He watched the Vermin Engine weave closer to the two speeding trains. His scarred hand twitched and then the large man nodded slowly. Harper didn’t answer his best mate directly, but turned to the conductor instead. “How much further until we hit another straight away?”

The soldier didn’t answer. He was too busy staring at the insect-like dreadnaught, and sweating.

“Mike, answer the man.” Basil cleared his throat before giving the gent a nudge.

“I.” The conductor shook his head, removed his hat and mopped his brow. “Another ten minutes or so at the speeds we’re going. That’s if we don’t jackknife or that thing tears us apart first.”

“Lay off the speed some.” Harper directed. It felt odd to be leveling orders as he didn’t have rank. Hell, he’d only ever been a seaman in the civilian arm of the navy. Now he was nothing more than the Thistle Sister’s coachmen. Then again he was the only representative of the Order aboard. So it was no surprise as the engineer reached out to tug a lever and comply.

“We can’t just abandoned them, you bleeding white lilly!” A flare of anger nearly set Basil’s eyes alight.

“Piss off. That’s not the idea. We need bigger guns to dent that thing.” Harper jerked a thumb in the direction of the Vermin Engine. The sinnous bulk had turned away from them for the cargo train. Though the figures that teemed within its cars like infant spiders on a mother’s bag were pointing wildly in their direction as well. “So we need the space to set them up, fire nice and straight. Besides something tells me you’re lads are going to have to get down and dirty with whatever is on that… abomination. I’ve got faith that Ms. Thyme and the others can hold their own for now.”

“If you say… so.” Basil’s response trailed off as the formorian vehicle scythed away one of the back cars with a spray of wood and torn metal. The men instinctively cringed and tried to duck as it came tumbling down the track after them. Thankfully the two main halves spread far enough apart that they rolled harmlessly past both sides of the troop transport, though the surrounding countryside was much abused. It didn’t matter much. Fertile land was starting to give way to the greyed wastes of Scotland. Hundreds of pulverized parts sparked as they plinked off of the trains armored scoop. “Sweet Mother Mary.”

“Move.” Harper urged and the men shared a nod. Basil rushed off to get everything ready. That left the big lug left more or less alone to stare at the Vermin Engine and worry. He wasn’t sure how they were going to defeat it. If anyone could figure it out, it would be Kitty.

The pilfered locomotive shuddered so hard that for a moment Ms. Thyme wondered if it was going to come apart. The cogs and gyro’s in her legs shifted to keep her standing. Ms. Parsley weathered the trauma just as well as the shadow of the death-machine spread over their train. She assumed that the turncoats that filled the next two cars ahead and no doubt controlled the engine didn’t fare so well. It was just like the fomorian’s not to give one whit about their human pawns. She twisted the grip on her two humming blades, spring green shirt shifting with rushing air. Instinctually Ms. Parsley back-stepped to her sibling’s side. It was always odd when they were paired together – shortest and tallest.

The gorgeous gunslinger kept her cool and her guns trained on the towering monstrosity. She considered shooting one of its ‘eyes’ but she could tell up close that they were merely vents that glowing heat spilled out of. Still as it curled above them for a moment, the engine lifting off of the ground as the rest of the cars continued to push the mad-locomotive forward, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was staring hungrily at them. Then it came crashing back down and made up lost ground with a heavy drag of its forearms. There were no visible windows for its cockpit. One had to wonder if it even had one. Then again with all the extra armored plates and ridges to give it that chitin motif such could be easily hidden. It dragged its blade-arms through tortured earth once more and gained ground this time. This put the first car full teeming with soldiers within distance to board, all save for the gleam of their weapons and armor were hidden in that eternal moment by scarlet steam.

Ms. Thyme did not let the moment to pass unfettered. She didn’t announce her plan to the trigger woman. Instead with a firing of pistons and grim determination she didn’t wait for the first volley of withering fire. Instead the gynoid plunged blades first into waiting ranks. To her surprise blood spattered everywhere as she hacked into the enemy, to a chorus of panicked screams. Her foes were all too human! They wore half masks that were similar in style to those of the Beautiful Ones, covered in intricate spiral designs but plainly mass produced. They did, however, have an eye hole. It seems the even the Vain realized it was impractical to send soldiers to the field half-blind. They wore olive overcoats over likewise drab uniforms and unadorned half gas-masks. Every single one had one steel gauntlet along with a similar symbol eblazoned on one arm. It left no doubt to whom they belonged. Ms Thyme noted, as she hacked deep into their midst, that they were an emaciated and lackluster lot. Unlike the valiant doughboys she fought alongside they were lackluster in their movements. This was something that had to do, not that they wished to do.

Conscripts.

That didn’t matter to the swordswoman. They were the enemy. If she didn’t neutralize them, they would kill her and dozens of others. When it came to neutralizing them she didn’t have much trouble either. They were armed with basic rifles and bayonets. Such were not ideal for up close fighting. A few tried to jab her, or worse yet shoot. Every single time they slew one of their comrades instead. A few wised up and either pulled hand weapons or started to back away to give the distance needed. The green-eyed monster didn’t let the former do so. Every time the lines of battle shifted she stepped up. It was all just a matter of timing.

Now that there was a sizeable space to jump into Ms. Parsley followed her sister over. Unlike the haphazard human soldiers she had no qualm, or trouble, firing into melee. Her artificial senses and difference engine made all the difference. It wasn’t like she could blaze away to her crystal heart’s content, though. She only had six bullets in each revolver, and one was tucked away as she gingerly hung onto the spiked lip of the troop car’s edge.

The silent plan clearly was to sow chaos aboard the Vermin Engine so it would draw away from the trains. Yes there was danger involved but this way they could mitigate damage that could be done to Basil’s train, Ms. Parsley understood that. It wouldn’t take much debris flying away from a fight to derail and murder all those valiant souls. In fact it was a damn miracle that hadn’t happened already.

With a groan of metal and squeal of hellish pipes the infernal iron horse pulled away from the tracks and back to twisted countryside. By now the landscape was blasted and lifeless, what little vegetation there was dead or ashen. It was the perfect site for such a conflict. The Vermin Engine reared like some living thing as it moved. The massive forearms which extended from its front sliced through the air and then down into ancient rock. The train full of traitors raced on. The train full of heroes raced closer – and Ms. Parsley hung on for dear life.

Her blonde hair whipped about and one eye squeezed shut as she mowed down three more conscripts. Then over the edge she hauled herself with no little grace and was forced to bean one foolhardy soul that came at her with a ‘cutlass’. The weapon was little more than rusted and sharpened scrap metal. She could have sword the man’s bloodshot eyes held a sense of great relief as he slipped off into oblivion. Just what did the Vain have to drive these poor bastards to their deaths? No doubt hostage families back home. She just hoped she wasn’t killing any of her captain’s cousins. Three more shots as she pushed the opposite direction from Ms. Thyme had the willowy woman pulling out her other pistol. Divide and conquer. Her long legs were firm with each step, red coat flaring away from sensual hips. In practices rhythm she sent a spent cylinder spinning away into the eye of one opponent before pressing the revolver to her belt. With a click the spent gun was reloaded just in time as she ran out of bullets on the other.

“Ms. Thyme! I think there is something like a door on the back of the engine. I can see hints of it from here.” She grunted as she turned aside a blade with smoking barrel before plugging the conscript in the chest. They weren’t really a challenge but damn if they didn’t keep coming. The ranks on this car were finally starting to thin out. She snapped out her right arm straight and expended another around into a conscript’s skull. Once the red mist had cleared her weapon pointed straight for the seam she spotted. Just as she started to step in that direction Ms. Thyme whistled sharp. She snapper her gaze back just in time to catch the other mechanical vaulting backwards.

Where Ms. Thyme had been standing was now occupied with an axe-head infested with galvanic coils. The still-living conscripts who had been standing around the point of impact were overcome with mad spasms as faux-lightning rode them to death. Before the electrical discharge faded the fomorian wielding the battle axe hefted the weapon and strode fully onto the blood-soaked car. His black armor had been ruined once, repaired now with silvery plates. One hand was clad in a fancy gauntlet of the same shimmering metal, which made it all the more striking. Some animal’s hide hung off of one shoulder as a badge of authority. The giant’s gaze was full of jaundice and hatred as he glowered at the Thistle Sisters from within gilded stag’s skull with only one antler.

“Fancy meeting you here, good sir.” Ms. Thyme readied her stance as her eyes slipped to the fresh ranks of drab soldiers behind the mooman. “I do regret that I did not bring the rune-lance I borrowed from you. I have been anxious to return it.”

Stag’s Head snorted before barking out an order in guttural words. One could hear fury frothing his words even in alien tongue. This particular monster had been humiliated by the women before him, particularily the one with two swords. Not only had Ms. Thyme shorn away one of his helm’s antlers but had stolen his spear as well. In the end the Beautiful One he served had been slain and he was forced to flee – to be a coward. The formorian’s gnarled hands curled tighter against the half of the axe. He bent knee to a new master now, a better master. It was time to get some payback. The human dregs were all too glad to cower on the car, to take cover and level their rifles as ordered. He was going to destroy this mechanical women all on their own. Full of bluster he strode forward, his weapon crackling.

“This is going to be unpleasant, isn’t it?” Ms. Parsley aimed both of her revolvers, not at Stag’s Head but at the men behind them. The pause had set up the perfect shooting gallery, with the two girls as metal ducks. She might as well paint a target on her torso.

“Ah, the British, such a gift for understatement.” The feminine voice dripping with exotic seduction sliced along from behind the gynoids. While the swordswoman didn’t turn away from their hulking foe the gunslinger did and her unneeded breath caught.

The seam at the back of the engine’s skull was indeed a door that was now closing as a last few wisps of scarlet steam tried to escape. The soiled air did not get far before it curled around a lithe figure like adoring snakes curling closer for heat. The smoke curled along the nymph’s athletic curves in almost a lecherous fashion leaving patches of sweat against milky skin. A common man would feel himself compelled to brush away the moisture with his tongue, quench his thirst with slow suckling from compact but perfect breasts. Even without a half-mask of bone one could not mistake the woman for anything more than one of the Beautiful Ones. Her elfin body was complete with slim hips and pointed ears which poked from a mane that perfectly captures the colors of autumn leaves. Like many of her kind the Vain’s perfect flesh was marred with branded patterns and tattoos. In this case there were what looked like thorny vines weaving through cogs across the side of her stomach and up across sculpted ribs. She didn’t wear an impossible cloak like the first the Sisters had faced. Instead the vision of beauty bore sandals with straps of charred metal that crossed all the way up to her knees in a Roman style. She had bracers too, intricately made with insect motifs stamped across the flat. The simple leather gloves of a workman on such exquisite hands were utterly out of place. In the same vein the massive hammer she held like it was a frail parasol over her shoulder. She looked too thin to hold the weapon with its sledge of blackened steel on one side and a wicked looking spike on the other. The whole weapon was made of metal, besides singed leather straps winded at the bottom of the haft. A thin chain hung from the pommel with a delicate silver gauntlet charm.

There was little doubt where this Vain’s allegiance lay.

“Oh… hellfire and damnation. “ The threat of being shot to bits was forgotten. Ms. Parsley spun with a snap of her officers coat and trained her guns on the stunning woman. “Sister dear, we have a Vain here with us.”

When she responded Ms. Thyme didn’t betray an ounce of worry. “I know.” With that she leapt at Stag’s Head and swirled low with an extending thrust. With any luck she’d cripple the beast before any real fight had to begin. A grunt popped through her lips as the axe haft was brought down and deflected the blow. She twisted away from a steel shod kick and stabbed upwards with her other humming sword. The fomorian turned that attack away as well before lashing out at her with the galvanic axe. Stray hairs of her black hair stood up on end she leaned away from the attack, charged metal passing within an inch of splitting her face open. Stray arcs of electricity tried to jump over. However, after she was nearly taken off-line by storm glaives months ago the Widow had added more insulation to their systems. Still she could feel some of her internal cogs twitching. Taking a hit from this new weapon was not an option.

For her part Ms. Parsley had yet to fire. Her lovely eyes were wide with fear but her guns didn’t shake. She was waiting for the Vain to make the first move. Her trigger fingers twitched. There was no way that the two of them could fell one of the lords of the moon on their own. She had quite unpleasant memories of losing her legs and one eye to the last one.

When the alien woman did, it was merely a cute smirk that cast her cheek in a perfect light. “You are one of the Thistle creations are you not?” The words poured out of becoming throat like a song of glory days burned away. “I shall delight in pulling you apart and seeing what makes you tick. I dare say you are so very close to one of our fairies, save you act as if you are a thinking creature – even if it is a lowly one.” The Vain pointed the head of her hammer at the blonde. “If you allow this to happen I may even put you back together once I am finished.”

“I am afraid I cannot submit to such a request. I do not suppose you would allow me to just gun you down?”

The Vain’s beryl eye sparked in amusement. The labyrinthine mask that consumed the other side of her lovely face caught a few rays of sunlight that would never escape. “It seems we are at an impasse then.”

“It seems.” Ms. Parsley was just about to unload her guns when crimson light cascaded up the Vain’s warhammer and shot out in a bolt from the top. It wasn’t utterly unlike the screaming shot of souls the last Beautiful One had used against her – save it was a tighter beam that mostly seemed to be spread mouths awaiting something to lash onto. Unfortunately for the gynoid that something was one of arms. While Ms. Parsley tried to roll away from the necromantic lance it caught her in the arm and the mouths immediately started chewing through vat-cultured flesh. The hellish red light faded after a few blessed moments. The damage was done, though and another shot was already lined up. If she was an ordinary woman the gun in hand would have slipped from useless fingers. Instead she fired twice in rapid succession while still on the move.

The heroine’s bullets missed their mark, but so did the Vain’s shot. Some of course were deflected by a shield of spirits cast by that damn hammer. While mundane bullets bounced off of the Vermin Engine’s plating the hungry ghosts chewed their way through conscripts on the far side. The Beautiful One did little more than pout before stepping forward and swinging at the elusive blonde. “Do stay still now, bothersome thing.”

Ms. Thyme was thinking much the same thing as Stag’s Head blocked her latest blow before drawing away. Obviously the brute had been training since their last clash, or the modifications to his armor allowed greater movement and speed. Still, she had faced off against faster foes of late. She knew eventually she would find a way through his guard, as long as his strength did not overcome her first. Her other blade warded off a retreating swipe of the crackling axe. The weapon was spun in momentum and she slashed out with it in reverse grip. This time she connected but the vibrating tip merely skittered off of the armor. With an internal curse she drew back and set to receive a charge, which was soon to come. Stag’s Head realized his only chance was to overpower the viper with a woman’s face, so he let loose a heavy chop as he barreled in. When the axe head struck metal lightning coursed in a madcap pattern. It was all Ms. Thyme could do to leap away before she was singed. No trace of the galvanic forces touched the armor the fomorian wore. This brought an arch of her raven brow and little more. Her boot barely graced the lip of the car before she quickly glanced away across the blasted landscape.

The whistling her ear caught and the rate of its increase could only mean one thing. She caught a flash from heavy guns on Harp’s train. Her lips started to lift into a smile before she rocketed from where she stood. Her aim wasn’t for Stag’s Head, or even the Vain. She body checked her own sister who was already reeling from being struck by the Beautiful One’s hammer on injured arm. Ms. Parsley had lost one of her guns and Ms. Sage dropped a sword during the maneuver.

“Hey!” The blonde choked out as the pair of them slid through corpses to the far side of the car. “What are you-“

The question was cut short as shells slammed into the Vermin Engine. Harper was taking a great risk in gathering its attention, perhaps the action was foolhardy. However, he knew that to deal with the train full of traitors they would need to fell the terrible machine. That was going to be easier said than done. One of the spotters had shouted that the Thistle Sisters were on the enemy vehicle. He and Basil had given the order to fire a second volley anyway. Already stricken the Vermin Engine flailed like a living monstrosity as it was struck again. One of the middle cars was torn apart this time, cutting the titanic machine in half. The screams of dying men were short and bittersweet. War always made good men murderers.

“The gall! I shall turn their bodies into oil, boil then down whilst they still live!” The vision of splendor and terror that was the Vain struggled to her feet. Her vibrant tussles of hair hung over her features, giving her an almost angelic loveliness. That was until she tossed her head back and howled in fury. Part of her mask of bone had been cracked and seeped rich blood into its endless spirals. “Turn my pet! Turn and tear that pitiful machine from the tracks!”

The Beautiful One turned and raised one hand for emphasis. Akin to some well-trained hound the alien locomotive turned back toward its original play. A shrill wail tore from its twisted pipes followed by long plumes of bloody steam. The arthropod-like apparatus skittered across the grey land back for Harper’s train. Its mangled middle car was drug along as if it was spilled intestines, what conscripts remained tumbling off to their doom. The third set of bomb bursts from the doughboys sailed right past it.

“Prepare to repel boarders!” Basil screamed to his men before gritting his teeth. He’d always wanted to play pirate as a child, but this was too close for comfort. Actually he’d given up such fantasies after listening to Harper’s tales of sea combat. Now they were about to experience something similar on dry land. That was if the Vermin Engine didn’t just derail them all into a certain death. Somehow he knew that the fomorians would want to make this up close and personal.

The ravishing engineer most certainly did. That was not to be. The woman’s perfectly toned midsection was forever ruined as a bullet punctured it. The Vain doubled over and nearly lost her footing as lead tore through her innards. Bright blood quickly soaked grimy gloves as she fruitlessly tried to cover the ragged hole. She didn’t look at the wound in shock but instead glowered with a dreadful aura at Ms. Parsley behind smoking barrel. She took a step forward, then lurched back as another bullet tore through one of her dangerous thighs. Too the alien’s credit she didn’t go down. Ms. Parsley slowly drew the barrel of her gun up leaving a trail of grey mist curling in its wake. She tugged back the hammer but didn’t fire yet. Instead, once she met the Beautiful One’s cyclopean gaze the blonde smirked. She used her other hand to point down, despite oily trails of fluid running from her scalp to becoming chin. The Vain looked down and then at her empty right hand. Ms. Parsley tapped the fell hammer with the toe of her boot and grinned smug.

“Not so hot without a hell-stone are you?” The triggerwoman’s gloating didn’t last long. She was blindsided by Stag’s Head’s axe as it sank into her side. While Ms. Parsley wasn’t bisected she was launched off her feet and overcome by agonizing seizures. By the time her slide was stopped by piled corpses she was in no shape to move, save for the occasional twitch. Her lovely gaze went glassy as cogs fused together.

The fomorian chortled. He was torn between finishing off the gynoid or returning the hammer to his better. When his trunk-like leg nearly buckled from Ms. Thyme’s kick his mind was made up for him, Stag’s Head did neither. As he stumbled away while gristle ground against knee the monster reached out and took the elegant engineer roughly by the arm. While she gave him a withering look for such indiscretion he did not shrink from the duty. Even if the Vain’s war machine managed to smash the train full of British soldiers they might very well die in the process. “Protect you.” His jagged maw was not suited for English. The Beautiful One didn’t have the strength to pull away.

After wounding her personal foe Ms. Thyme had rolled away and ended up crouched next to her fallen sister. She only took her eyes off of the vile pair for a moment to check on Ms. Parsley’s coiled copper and crystal heart. It was still pulsing slightly despite the lattice around it being partially melted. “Snap out of it, we do not have much time.”

Another mobile-artillery shell hit home, it was hard not too now that the Vermin Engine drew up over its prey. A fresh howl echoed from the infernal construct. Its saber-like arms rose as a cloud of bullets pattered off its unloving hide. An almost equal amount of fire poured from what remained of the engine’s back cars. Basil’s men were bracing for the worse. Most of them were equal parts amazed and horrified as the insect-like juggernaut sliced through one of the car loads of doughboys. While the train shuttered, steel was shorn away and good men turned to red soup they didn’t jump the tracks just yet. It was clear that they were going to be played with before finally being destroyed.

Up in the engine compartment Harper scowled as he craned backwards. He felt so bloody impotent back here. The best he could do now was take up a gun and get back there – or think of a plan to save their asses. He brushed hair from his eyes and squinted forward into the rushing wind. The train of traitors was still in sight. Was it really worth catching? “Slow us down.”

“Eh?” The man at the levers gave him a queer look.

“Put on the breaks. Our mission be damned. If we don’t stand and fight then we’re all going to die.” Harper gestured hard at the controls before peering back out the window at the towering monstrosity as it readied to strike down another squad. It was like some mythical monster brought to life. How were they going to stop such a thing? The conductor followed orders with nary a grumble and pulled slowly on the break lever. The effects were immediate, and inadvertently well timed. As the Vermin Engine curled back in there was a wave of conscripts who made a leap to board. Their timing was thrown off, their screams blood curdling as they bounced off of armored steel or were sliced apart by sparking wheels. Dozens of them made it through the waves of gore their dying brethren created. Once on the iron horse they engaged Basil’s men in a fatalistic fashion, pushing directly for the guns. After all they were going to be demolished along with the rest of the train if the Vermin Engine succeeded.

The British soldiers on the other hand had families to go home to, a way of life to protect and gave it their all. Basil shouted orders from beside the heavy guns. The artillery needed to be protected at all costs. His heart ached with worry for his lass, why he didn’t have a clue. At the moment he was too busy cooking off shots as quick as he could with his rifle. The personal cannons managed to belch off another spatter of shots directly into the fomorian weapon’s ‘face’.

The Vermin Engine recoiled with a shrill sound as steam escaped out of fresh holes punched in its front. The thing was not invunrable, nor was it stopped. It slammed both of its fiendish appendages down into the middle car of its prey. Thankfully the train had already stopped with how it buckled as it was sliced in twain.

Meanwhile Stag’s Head sliced across empty air leaving nothing but ozone in the wake of his strike. While the jaundice giant had been content enough to leave with his current commander in tow the cogwork swordswoman had abandoned her fallen sister and came at him full force. Even now Ms. Thyme swirled off to his right and her humming blade snaked out. He managed to shift away and let his armor take the brunt of the attack before following up with another powerhouse swing. The she-devil leapt to the side and started at him without any expression. He planted one leg as the car they were in was jostled again. His growls were drowned out by the scream of rent metal, din of fighting men and sea of gunshots a few yards away. Ms. Thyme lithely swayed with the unsteady floor.

On the other hand both Ms. Parsley and the Beautiful One were in no position to resist the roil. Both of them slid and tumbled with the multitude of slave corpses every time the Vermin Engine rose up to strike. The artificial didn’t blink an eye. At first glance one might assume her dead, but could a machine actually die? Ms. Thyme confirmed her heart was still functioning and probably her brain was still intact. She was just inert for the moment and rolled like a rag doll along with the cadavers.

The moonwoman had it worse. Lucid as she slid and let long smears of her bright blood the woman called out in lyrical pain every time. Never had suffering sounded so beautiful. She weakly whimpered as her shoulders struck the far lip. Her beryl eye closed tight as if that would wish away the ache. When she opened it the villainess found that her hammer was a mere handful of feet away. She stretched, then rolled on her side and started to drag herself toward it. There wasn’t enough strength for her to direct the Vermin Engine to stop attacking, with any luck she’d reach her hellstones before it shifted once more. Then she’d smash these female automatons to piece, find out what made them tick, find out how to make them feel pain. Her fingers strained but could not fill the gap as exhaustion threatened to take her.

To be concluded

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