The air was calm as The Gloriana cut its way through the top of a cloud, befouling the white wisp with her disgorges of acrid black smoke. Save for the soldiers who toiled in the bowels of the airship, the crew was blissfully ignorant of the noxious fumes. Like most of its like The Gloriana had venting pipes which ran along the underside of the boat and curved in just the right way to expel the gas out and away. While many an aerial commander bemoaned the loss of artificial cloud cover the Crown had decided the overall health of the crewmen was paramount. Mankind was locked in a war of attrition with the fomorians and there was no reason to make the moonmen’s job easier.
While the early summer day was bright and warm it still did not hide Balor’s Eye but rather reduced it to a faded stamp hanging just above the horizon. Silently Roland Thistle likened it to a rabid dog waiting to pounce. His clockwork fingers curled tight behind his back. Despite the fine weather it would have been smarter to stay back at the castle and leave the girls to handle their own affairs. However ever since Vetch had been given temporary control over the Scarborough’s forces the watch -maker had found it best to take direct control of any mission involving the Thistle Sisters. It was clear to Ro that the Major was looking for any excuse to usurp his authority as well. He canted his head lightly to the left as Ms. Sage approached.
“Mr. Thistle. The captain informed me that we are nearly there.” She moved up shoulder to shoulder with her creator and sighed. It was hard to ignore the way his soft brown gaze skimmed over her features and then her spiced hair dancing with the wind. Instead of commenting she adjusted her spectacles with two fingers pressed to the center. “We still have not been able to raise the fortress on the radio.”
“I am not surprised.” Mr. Thistle snapped his eyes away from black-swathed chassis to the ground below as clouds parted. It was a rich and fertile green occasionally interrupted by a long fallow scar across the landscape. They were all but the edge of the Scottish Grey Zone and by all top secret accounts the blighted land was growing by inches every year. Even if they pushed back the alien invaders had humanity’s doom already been seeded? “Have Captain Redgrave’s men prepare of rapid deployment. I would like you and Ms. Thyme to descend ahead of them.”
“Do you really think that this is a fomorian strike?” A bit breathless as she asked a question she already knew the answer to the exotic gynoid frowned. For the last decade the Crown had fretted that one day fomorians might come lurching out of Scotland but with each year that ticked by that fear seemed less likely. That was until the static ridden radio transmission from Melrose Fortress had come through two days ago. It was short but to the point mentioning trolls before cutting out. She had half-expected to see legions of metal fey marching south as they moved north. Fortunately, that had not been the case.
“Yes.” Roland sighed before giving her hand an impulsive stroke of metal fingers. “Be careful.”
She had the good manners to flush and then nod before stepping away. “Of course, Mr. Thistle, of course. I shall summon my sister and inform the crew of your orders.”
He flashed her apologetic smile before leaning against the railing. Down below the clouds the edge of the compound came into view. Melrose Fortress had been constructed several dozen miles from its namesake into the side of a rise. At the time popular wisdom had been that bunkers and trenches were the best defense to set up against the automata armies. Such a plan had only met with disaster on the mainland fronts. At best it kept the Fomorians at bay. At worst it gave them readymade bases of operations once they scoured it clean of humans. The outlaying buildings of the complex were nothing more than charred timbers and smoldering cinders. Even from here it was plain that the doors which lead to underground emplacement were wide open.
As The Gloriana banked toward the earth below deck soldiers readied their weapons and shuffled along to assault hatches. Up above the officer’s aboard were going over their orders and sharing last minute strategies. Basil gave Ms. Parsley’s fine arm a nudge with his own and the two exchanged crooked grins.
“Are you sure you want to disembark with me and the lads? I mean we don’t want to show you up.” The roguish Captain adjusted the rifle over shoulder before whistling through the gap in his front teeth.
The willowy blonde started her retort with a good natured roll of eyes. She ended with a cock of slim hips to the side. “More like get in my way, Captain Redgrave. Perhaps I should just leap off after my Sisters eh? I suspect that would be a finer entrance onto the field of battle than being involved with such arabble as you.”
Harper and Ms. Thyme, on the other hand, shared a roll of eyes. She even went so far as to groan. The big man offered her a nod before motioning with his chin to Basil that it was time to get going. He was glad this time he had a gun. The heavy pistol was stroked for reassurance. Ms. Thyme caught him with a glance before he could turn.
“Yes?” Harper’s brows rose as he stopped. He folded his arms and offered a light smile.
“Good luck, Mr. Carson. With two braggarts like they in the same squad as you I can only imagine the danger you are going to be in.” Placid in tone, it was as close as the swordswoman was going to get to expressing worry. After all their coachman could take care of himself, more or less. In truth it was sad that he was the least impulsive of the three. Ms. Thyme’s expression didn’t change even under her tallest sister’s huff of indignation.
“I’ll do my best to keep him in one piece, ma’am.” Captain Redgrave gave a salute and a cheeky look at his dear friend.
“Oh I’m going to have my work cut out for me. I shall see you good ladies on the ground then. Be careful.” After shaking his head Harper followed the officer and trigger-woman below deck. He did take a lingering look over wide shoulder at Ms. Thyme.
The clockwork woman ignored it. “Shall we?”
“We shall. Do you have any idea what Ms. Rosemary has been assigned to do?” With a nod the Ms. Sage turned away and popped open her shade. The pair of faux females walked to the deck’s railing and looked down. The difference engine within Ms. Sage’s chassis calculated where the best place to land would be.
“Mr. Thistle.” As usual the front-line fighter showed no inflection. It was a mere statement of fact. She slid watch from its pocket and clicked it open. The second’s hand was watched, without a blink, whole gears shifted and aligned in her legs. She could not fathom why Ms. Sage had a jealous downturn of lips as she watched their maker and the curvy redhead speak. It was all duty and nothing more.
“I see. Well…” The tactician cleared her delicate throat. “Whenever you feel that you are ready to precede, sister.”
Ms. Thyme offered out her hand on reflex but did not look away from the watch even as it was accepted. Her thumb clicked the elegant face closed. There as a spike of something within her, a twinge of emotion quickly smothered by coiled copper and crystal heart. She had no reason to be glad that Harper was once again not present to see it. Such an odd malfunction of thought. “3… 2…. 1…”
As soon as the timing was right Ms. Sage leapt off of the edge of the airship and unleashed the cavorite in her umbrella at a meager twenty-five percent. Her placid sister moved with her with all the poise of a perfect dancing partner, and the additional pull of her weight sent them both slowly drifting down toward the ground. Ms. Sage kept her intense gaze riveted to the mouth of the mountainside fortress. In turn Ms. Thyme’s green eyes scanned the rolling hills beside it for any hint of an ambush. There was no trace of movement, not even animals scattering way from the growing shadow of The Gloriana.
“Now.” The living chronometer offered simply and detangled her grip from Ms. Sage’s. It was the right moment to be set free so she could fall the rest of the way and land with surface damage at best. Even though Ms. Sage didn’t ever doubt her sister when it came to such calculations, to be on the safe side she waited for one full deep breath before letting go. After all it wasn’t as if Ms. Thyme was going to be cross with her. Of all of them the melee specialist was the least emotional.
Gravity did its work with a reliability no works of man could challenge, and down Ms. Thyme plummeted. The vat grown skin of powerful legs split along seams as the gears of her thigh high boots locked into place to augment those within. She hit the ground in a crouch and only waited for her spring green skirt to settle before sprinting. Her ground reconnaissance had to be finished before the airship touched down. Ms. Sage watched her sister move along for a moment before sweeping her attention from left to right, and back again. There were no obvious threats so she shifted the angle of umbrella and wafted off for the nearest burnt remains of a building. Even from here she could tell there were no corpses and that disturbed her; not nearly as much however as Ms. Rosemary trying to cozy up to Roland.
The Spanish flower shook her head sharply and pressed lips to a straight line. “Grow up.”
However the Irish woman was doing everything but putting the moves on Mr. Thistle. In fact right now she was cursing the stuffed shirt in her head while gritting her false teeth hard not to make any of her unkind thoughts verbal. She merely graced their creator with a small smile. She should be going out in the first wave with her sisters, especially if there were trolls in there. However, Roland thought it better to keep her back until their foes played whatever gambit they were planning.
The Gloriana shuddered as it continued its rapid decent and banked to keep a broadside of cannons toward the conquered fortress. Down in the hull Basil and Ms. Parsley continued to crack jokes to keep the tension at bay. Harper didn’t chuckle,though., he stared at the door before them and took in steady breaths. Any moment now he expected the airship to be rocked by flak fire – or worse to land and find Kitty nothing more than smoldering metal. While rationally he’d accepted that Ms Parsley was his sister in appearance only, his heart was a different matter. The sturdy man closed his eyes and took in long slow breaths. The ship slowed, before groaning as it hovered just above the earth. It wasn’t a feeling he was used to quite yet. Being in the bowels of one of these flying contraptions had its difference to those of the sea.
Basil stopped joking as the metal plate before the platoon moaned and then peeled away from the wall with streams of sunlight filtering in. The mechanical blonde had lapsed silent too and pulled both of her pistols as she pranced to the front and her lithe body tensed beside the Captain’s. She would be spearheading the first wave and despite the steady boil over of pressure her caramel gaze found Basil’s before she winked.
“Ready.” Basil called out after he grinned and looked ahead. “Ready Men.”
The soldiers in turn said their prayers and readied their rifles. Even with Captain Redgrave and one of the Thistle Sister’s with them they knew that their chances of getting cut down where high. Not that there was any sound of incoming fire yet. The heavy steal ramp lowered fully before pistons whined and its second half telescoped out. There was a heavy thud of metal when the lip hit the ground and stirred up embers of a ruined building. The Gloriana was still hovering above ground level so it could take back to the sky as necessary once the troops were deployed.
Basil took up his whistle and blew hard three times before surging forward with the rest of his men. By then Ms Parsley was already in motion, her long legs carrying her onward with an inspiring snap of her red officer’s coat. Harper pulled his pistol and advanced with the first line, his rich green gaze taking in the landscape around them. He could only imagine how his dear friend felt being so close to home…
Captain Redgrave’s platoon was not the only one aboard the ship. Two other detachments stormed out of the bowels of the airship in a steady stream of men ready to engage the enemy directly. Their rifles were raised and their shouts drowned out by the heavy engines of the vessel. Out of the side of the The Gloriana which faced away from Melrose Fortress support teams were dispatched along with a clutch of steam-carriages so they would have cover while setting up a firing line. Everything ran like well-trained clockwork.
Basil, Harper and all the rest of the valiant souls pouring into the smoldering ruins quickly came to the same conclusion as Ms. Parsley. There was no immediate enemy to fight. As the ground forces fanned out to secure the perimeter the great grates on the side of the The Gloriana laboriously closed before it lifted back into the air. Mister Thistle leaned against the railing, listening to relayed reports and peering at the landscape before them. Just what were the fomorians up to?
Ms. Sage wondered very much the same thing. She’d still yet to find any corpses and an eerie feeling crept along her brass spine. Shade was swirled once before being snapped closed. She made her way over to the now still Ms. Thyme who was standing before seared rail crates. Unease only grew with how blankly her sister stared into the empty steel box.
“They came from inside these.” Ms. Thyme answered the Spaniard’s question before it was even asked. She lifted a hand to gesture inside the steel box and then to the five other ones stacked next to it. From the outside they were each nothing more than the voluminous shipping contains the military put on trains to get supplies to outlaying outposts such as Melrose Fortress. They were either sent by rail or dropped off by airships in the case of remote regions. Each of them had been scarred by now long dead fires but survived intact. On the inside however they were covered with fomorian sigils scoured into the metal that still pulsed with faint traces of quicksilver. There were the remains of smashed crates at the mouth of every one and cinders of the supplies within. “That would be by guess at any rate. Delivered right into the heart of the base looking just like a normal shipment on cursory investigation until whatever fairies inside came bursting out. I sorely suspect the lads here did not know what hit them.”
“A dreadful development.” Fingers brushed at her throat, before Ms. Sage adjusted her glasses. Gingerly she moved forward into one of the boxes to take a closer look. “Ms. Thyme if you would be so kind to find one of the radio men and let Mister Thistle know of this development.”
There was no verbal response given nor did the bespectacled bionic expect one. Off the green-swathed woman shot to the confused, but still battle-ready, doughboys. Deeper into one of the crates Ms. Sage stepped. Her fingers didn’t quite touch the fell runes. There was still much of the invader language that had yet to be deciphered but every symbol known had been etched into her difference engine’s core. If she had to guess she would think that the sigils were keeping the fey inside magically hidden. A few, however, clearly signified winter.
“Odd.” She slowly pulled off her glasses to have a better look. Pretty lips pressed together tightly as thoughts ticked away. Winter, cold… all the fiery remains outside of what had once been the outer reaches of the outpost. The magic had kept whatever was burning inside from making the whole steel container hot. It must have been at a remarkable temperature indeed. Her expression bloomed with understanding. “Oh.”
Along the way to Redgrave’s platoon Ms. Thyme had much the same realization as her smarter sister. The odd patches of burned land here and there weren’t random scorch marks. Instead they were all that remained garrison soldiers caught out in the open when the attack began. She didn’t slow or show a trace of distress. She had a message to deliver and did so. The radio male paled as Ms. Thyme relayed her terrible suspicions. Now and again, her rich green eyes caught Harper keeping an eye on her.
Mr. Thistle was almost as impassive as he listened to the report up above on the airship’s deck. Beside him Ms. Rosemary on the other hand muttered a curse under her breath, and then crossed herself. Those poor bastards. She squinted over the side even though she knew at this distance she’d not be able to see any of the carnage up close. The three platoons spread out as soon as Mr. Thistle’s orders were radioed back down. From up here the struck the Irishwoman how much like toy soldiers the men looked, which was ironic considering what she was. Ms. Rosemary smirked and lounged against the railing, rich red hair dancing with the breeze. Two of the columns went to flank the hillside fortress itself by using smoldering buildings for cover. Captain Redgrave’s advanced forward straight up the middle.
Down below Basil gave the order to halt once his squads had caught up to where Ms. Sage stood. He offered a nod to the darkly dressed woman then looked to her two other sister’s and Harper. “So. How do we proceed from here? “
“I believe Mr. Thistle orders were for your men as well as the three of us to advance on the central doors.” With deadpan grace Ms. Thyme pointed with one of her swords to the entrance. The two massive steal doors which lead into an underground bunker network were wide open with only yawning darkness beyond. Something had killed the interior lights. “Then we radio back for further instruction.”
A crooked grin followed Basil’s laugh. “I know that, Ms. Thyme. I meant how are we going to about that? Is there any formation you three want us to use? Are we going to be moving as one or-”
“Ms. Sage? Please enlighten the fellow.” Ms. Parsley wiggled her pert nose and gave Basil a saucy smile. “And be kind, talk slow, he’s Scottish you know.”
The Spanish Rose sighed and turned away as the blonde and solider started to tease one another with little looks and nudges. In truth she felt a bit jealous for them, if wary for the consequences. “Advance at a standard speed and spread, Captain. Ms. Parsley will continue to travel with your front line and be ready to give fire support. Ms. Thyme I shall need you to scout head. I will be right behind.”
Ms. Thyme nodded with a machine’s efficiency and was off like a shot. The rest followed after her and proceeded with cautious steps. Basil had his rifle at the ready, as did Harper and the rest of the men. Ms. Parsley on the other hand had her oversized revolvers lounged back against her shoulders as she strutted beside Ms. Sage. All eyes were on the small woman covered in green as she neared the gates.
The swordswoman drew close to one of the doors and noted that while there were a few charred stripes they bore little damage at all. Nothing had blown or tore them open. Either the defenders were too slow in getting them closed or more likely there had been turncoats on the inside. Her plum painted lips turned down. Every day it became clearer that the roots of betrayal ran deep – not just in His Majesty’s forces but across the continent. If she could be distressed she would. Instead Ms. Thyme slid along the door and peered around the corner into the darkness beyond, black river of hair sliding over one of her shoulders.
She didn’t have to wait for the rest of heroes to catch up. The resounding smash of metal against metal proceeded Ms. Thyme sailing backwards, head first, through the air. Anyone else would have had their neck snapped and back broken but like the other gynoids she was made from stronger stuff. She barely even caught a glimpse of the piston- sledge before it had caught her under the chin, which she was certain was split, and maybe even dented in, now. Some of her teeth were most certainly loose but they could be easily replaced. Once Ms. Thyme’s arc degraded she twisted with a rustle of skirts and landed on her feet within one of the burned out buildings. Even as she slid, kicking up clouds of ash and sizzling embers, her gaze focused on the quartet of trolls charging out of Melrose Fortress. Their bellows shook the very air and the fiber of all but the most stalwart of men.
The one that had struck her was in the lead and was cocking back his massive pneumonic hammer with two hands. Like all of the mechanical fey, all four trolls had the same armature design expected of their classification. These clockworks towered at over three meters tall and were covered with interlocking metal plates that withstand small arms fire – as well as light artillery. One only ever caught a glimpse of their inner workings as the pistons within their arms and legs surged with terrible power. Wisps of red steam brushed out of reinforced vents in the center of their torsos. The grills and metal around it were designed to look like the face of a roaring demon so victims would always have something terrible ‘looking’ down at them no matter where the troll was actually glancing. Cruel barbs and hooks adorned massive shoulder plates, from which chains and grisly trophies were hung for maximum effect. Redcaps were the fomornian’s rank and file; trolls were shock troops in every sense of the word.
Basil’s platoon opened fire almost immediately as the trolls came rampaging in. The captain screamed orders even as he lifted his own rifle and scanned for some sort of weak point in the trolls’ oily green-black armor. Alas Ms. Sage was calling out commands that contradicted Redgrave’s offensive posture, intent on minimizing the causalities – for there was certainly going to be many. She wanted folks to scatter back behind the large metal crates. If the platoon got out of the way then the hand-held artillery from the other two detachments could open fire. Ms. Parsley stuck close to her ‘beau’ and had yet to fire a shot either, biding her time.
The automatons were not as patient. Two of them brought to bear guns so massive it took both of their hands to carry. They were little more than oversized scatter guns with oversized drums of ammunition attached to the side, as well as an axe head underneath. The weapons made an almost deafening choom-choom as the two trolls opened fire, while still running, and hosed down the soldiers with a spray of buckshot. The front line buckled even with Ms. Sage swirling and trying to block as much as she could with her umbrella.
Ms. Thyme made a judgment call – the two with firearms needed to be stopped first. She spat a mote of oil slicked porcelain to the side. Once she was able to plant her heels the faux-woman sped off for that pair of trolls. She kept track of the fourth one though with a slow slide of her eyes. The last machine carried a pair of, what to it were, hand axes. Is gargantuan metal fingers gripped at them, anxious to spill more blood. Her head snapped left as the lead troll took a running leap. The armored plates along the back of its shins spread wide when it had crouched so oversized pistons had more room to move. Similar to Ms. Thyme’s boots they rocketed him off into the air but for less distance and with far less grace. The green-eyed warrior was able to calculate his point of impact within seconds and wished that she had the proper timing to react. That just wasn’t the case.
The lead troll crushed four men under its cross-shaped feet when it landed, spattering their insides all for a good three yards. He ended up square in the middle of the platoon’s ranks and cut down another half-dozen men with his first swing. The steam-powered sledge sent their broken bodies flying through the air like ragdolls. Panic quickly overcame orders, despite Captain Redgrave’s and Ms. Sage’s best efforts. The combination of assaults broke the units completely.
The troll with two axes turned his sharply angled face plate toward Ms. Thyme as she came barreling in. It swiveled in its ball joint of an ankle and sprang off to intercept her, both axes crossed together for an extra defense. She always hated it when the damn ‘bots used tactics. The pistons in her own boots went off and she sailed over that troll. The small of her back nearly grazed one of its two horns of black and twisted metal. Each of the automatons had a pair of them to complete the gargoyle-like cast of their visages. She landed on a crouch while spinning one of the humming blades into a reversed grip. Even though she plunged it into the back of the axe-man’s knee she was already moving away for pair with rifles and didn’t really care of she did any damage.
“I am going to try and slow down the one in the middle of the rout.” Ms. Sage’s voice was terse as she braced the umbrella forward to keep Harper and Basil form getting cut down from the gunfire. “I would like to anyway. I do not suppose you could do something about at the very least one of the big guns?”
Ms. Parsley still had yet to fire a shot. Her body had taken a few of the pellets that had changed men to ruined pudding around her and did a number on her coat to. No weak spot in the armor had appeared just yet but then a tease of a smile creased her lovely features. She trained both revolvers on one of the ammo drums and empted both cylinders in just a few eye-blinks. The side of one of the hulking scatterguns exploded and took that troll off of its four-pronged feet.
“Done and done.” The wispy blonde flicked her wrists and spent cylinders rolled out, leaving a trail of smoke as they tumbled to the ground. She slid back a step and started reloading. A fresh brush of buckshot opened up her leading shoulder and scalp. “Anything else?”
“Cheeky monkey. Gentlemen it has been a pleasure but I am afraid I have to switch dance partners.” Ms. Sage gave her willowy sister a hazel wink and grinned plush to Basil and Harper. She dipped her chin and turned away from them. The shutter over cavorite was loosed and up she went into the air at an acute angle, right for the lead troll.
In the same breath Ms. Thyme somersaulted gracefully backwards over the top of a spinning hand axe. The metallic brute she’d tried to stab in the back of the leg had thrown one at her in pursuit but all it really got was a shaving of her bright skirt before it continued on and stuck deep into the arm of the troll who still had a functioning gun. She barely landed and started slidding before she jumped once more, this time over the spray of that big gun. The torrent of pellets peppered the legs of her pursuer instead. With a supreme mastery of acrobatics the soles of her feet slammed into the already imbedded axe bit it didn’t go that much deeper, there was a shower of sparks. Ms. Thyme was off again with a swirl of skirts and a whip of black mane. She dragged her vibrating sword across one of the troll’s eyes in hopes that the spot was weak. Instead she was caught by the butt of its rifle and knocked down to the ground. The gun-toting machine wasted no time stomping on the small woman; its cardinal positioned talons drove her down into the dirt.
“Harper, mate.” Basil blinked and tried to shake motion into his limbs. “Please tell me you feel utterly outclassed here too?”
“You think you would’ve been used to that by now, hanging around me all these years.” The thick man shot back, even if his voice was strained. He resisted the urge to run and try to help Kitty… err. Ms. Thyme.
“Twat.” Basil half-glanced to Ms. Parsley who was giggling now as she finished re-loading her revolvers. He brought up his own rifle and drew sight on the remaining troll’s ammo-bin. It had worked for her after all and now the damn thing was aiming down at the woman it had under foot. He fired one high-velocity round, ejected the shell quickly and let off another. The soldier gritted and looked away as that bin exploded too.
“Oh! Fantastic shot!” Ms. Parsley leaned over and pecked Captain Redgrave’s scruffy cheek. It was only then did she notice her pale head of hair was smeared with oil leaking form scalp. Her eyes rolled and she huffed. “Do you two need cover fire?”
The troll atop Ms. Thyme was knocked over by the detonation but she was still slow in getting out of the ground. Her blades stopped humming so she could use them as a wedge to push, the scowl on her face was almost as deep as she was in the dirt. The axe-wielding droid was intent on capitalizing on her situation though and came charging in with weapon held high. Even as its shadow spread over Ms. Thyme she didn’t show a trace of worry. It was observed that the machine’s left hand was covered in silver. She had also noted a high pitch whistling two ticks ago and knew her sister would reach her in time.
Which was exactly what Ms. Rosemary did. She didn’t move through the air with any grace but plummeted instead. She impacted fists first into the troll’s raised arms, sheering off one at the elbow as well as taking the axe with it. Both of the brutes toppled with a loud grinding and crunch of metal – along with a massive cloud of dust.
“Your timing is impeccable, Ms. Rosemary.” The swordswoman finally dislodged herself and sat up. There wasn’t any response from the Irishwoman, just the sound of metal striking metal from within the debris cloud. She looked to the two troll gunmen who were now standing. Both had sustained damage and their guns were little more than double-handed axes now. They could do more than enough harm. She managed to get to her feet and kicked out one leg to knock dirt from her tattered skirts. Sunlight glinted off of the two trolls’ left hands; they were gilded in silver too. They turned toward her almost in unison. Her gaze narrowed on the pair as they got ready to charge.