3. Burning Bright

“Why did they have ta give us a sense o’ smell?” Ms. Rosemary wrinkled her button nose and her bright blue eyes turned up the ceiling. The still smoldering pile of human fat and ashen bones at her fee was the second such collection the girls had found on their way deeper into the fortress. As before there was long grease trails telling that the corpses had been piled up – after they were set aflame.

“We’d miss have the joy of strawberry tarts if we didn’t.” Ms. Parsley’s verbal riposte was impish. She had the advantage, though, of being a few more steps away from the mess where she was inspecting a fat scorch mark that ran up the circular tunnel’s wall and onto the ceiling. The trolls had not been the ones to gut this place of human habitation. Like outside flame had been applied liberally. The leggy woman stepped back from the wall and swept the barrels of her pistols ahead so she could bath the upcoming junction with brighter light. Ms. Sage had managed to get the emergency lighting back on in one of the first rooms. The dim orange glow it cast was hardly adequate. In fact it added an extra layer of unease to the scene. The four clockwork heroines had yet to find any survivors.

“Taste is linked to smell. So you would lose all the joy I would suspect.” As she spoke Ms. Thyme was deadpan, it was hard to tell if she was teasing or just stating fact. More than likely it was the former. “It would do wonders for your waistline.”

The gunslinger huffed and kept the searchlights focused forward, even though she looked back. “Hush!”

“Good advice for all of us, I would say.” Ms. Sage could not hide the mirth in her spiced tone though. She took a step forward and pointed with her closed parasol. “The way ahead looks clear. Shall we continue? The dead can be catalogued once we know the fortress is secured.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Ms. Rosemary said, after finishing up a prayer for the unfortunate blokes melted down into one fleshy soup. She crossed herself with one ponderous glove before taking a few steps to catch up with the others. “I don’t recall any fairy that uses fire like this though.”

“Indeed.” While narrowing her eyes at a burned-out storeroom they passed Ms. Thyme nodded. “I suspect we shall soon be the first to report it.”

As the quartet neared a steep slope down in the passage Ms. Parsley’s torch light was cut off by the sudden dip in the ceiling. After a shared slow glance Ms. Parsley popped her shade open and went first, followed by the woman with the light. The downgrade did not last long; its roof ruined with several large panels either hanging from the ceiling or having smashed to the floor. At the bottom blast doors were wide open – both with dents like oversized fingerprints on the interior edges. One of them was all-but-off of its hinges. Sure signs that the trolls had finally seen some combat here. The Thistle Sisters continued, undaunted. Just past the ruined gateway the hall widened with two larger rooms flanking either side. Both entrances were choked with shattered Gatling guns and discarded weapons. A few yards ahead was another, and bigger, pile of burning bodies. Ms. Rosemary stepped off to check into the right room, pulling shattered guns aside. Ms. Thyme lightly moved off to the left, kicking debris out of her way. The other two kept their eyes, shield and lights straight ahead.

“This powder room and armory is still intact.” Ms. Thyme announced.

“So is…this… one….” The broken nature of Ms. Rosemary’s words could be squarely blamed on a sudden rise of whispers from the orange gloom well past the heap of smoldering meat. There weren’t really words as much as a chorus of low giggling. The four heroines drew up back close to one another and readied their weapons. At this point Ms. Thyme realized the spear wasn’t going to be the best of weapons in such close quarters but readied it for a charge anyway. The sound grew slowly, washing closer and closer to their position with all the lethargy of a rising tide. Vibrations of metal scrapping against the stonework floor or gouging at steel walls joined in. It sounded like a truck-load of knives was cascading down the tunnel.

“Ms. Rosemary we are going to need to burning remains scattered in a moment here.” Ms. Sage’s exotic jaw set.

“Feck no!” The Irishwoman shivered and ignore the glare she was given. ‘You’re the one with the umbrella, you’d be better at it.”

With a tone full of icy demeanor Ms. Sage scowled. “Ms. Rosemary.”

In the wide dark space ahead the glow of dozens of tiny ghost lights flickered to life. It wasn’t a battalion of will-o-wisps though. Within moments automatons with child-sized chassis’ could be seen within in every small blaze. They were crafted somewhere between human and rodent in the way that their appendages were laid out. To that point several of them were running on all fours along both the floor and the walls. All of those tiny pointed toes were cause behind the building and infernal scratching. Their heads came to a sharp chin with tiny horns jutting from their foreheads. It was hard to make out any other features, save for that each was wreathed in white-blue hot flames. While none of the ever-burning machines was bigger than a toddler there were perhaps three dozen of them surging forward. Even at this distance the heat was rapidly increasing, as was the sound of devilish giggling. As always the fairies were one part terrible weapon and one part psychological assault. All saved the most disciplined of soldiers would be rattled right now. The Thistle Sisters were weapons of war though, and knew little fear.

“Ms. Rosemary, now!” Ms. Sage was more insistent as she held out her precious umbrella to the redhead. In turn Ms. Rosemary took it with a snort and plowed forward on hard steps. Along the way she tossed the radio pack to the side. When she hit the mass of smoldering corpses with the full brunt of the shade they all went tumbling forward in a fiery mess. The already abused bodies broke apart as they smashed into the middle of the tiny fire starters with limbs and sizzling fat flying everywhere. Most of the smaller human bits instantly became ash and cinder as they hit the wall of white hot flame. There was enough bulk left over to bowl over a great deal of the burning machines in the middle. They took little time getting back to their feet though.

The beautiful brawler then tossed the umbrella to the side as its lace and fine fabric evaporated while flame licked against hardened steel beneath. She set her stance wide and growled low. “Come on ye wee bastards!”

“Ms. Parsley, suppressive fire if you would. We cannot let them get to the gunpowder on either side of us. I do not think the spear is going to be all that useful, Ms. Thyme.” Ms. Sage was surging forward with a flutter of skirts as she spoke. There was the usual groan of the magnet in her right arm activating along with a low hum. The shade came skipping back to her. She gave it a spin to get the last bits of flaming cloth off before snapping it closed. As she arrived next to Ms. Rosemary’s side she used the umbrella like a bat, smashing away the first automaton that leaped forward, its head coming clean off in the blow. “They are thankfully fragile.”

As the headless body rolled back another one of fairies jumped up, caught the now-lifeless fireball in claws fingers and zinged it back the way it came. Ms. Sage recoiled as the projectile caught her full on in the face – spectacles shattering. She felt her hair catch fire.

Ms. Rosemary took a heavy step forward and grabbed the next that came in by the torso, feeling the intense heat immediately seep through her gloves and scald cultured-flesh beneath. She slammed it down into the floor, twisting metal and crushing bolts. As she was recovering from the savage action two had already gotten onto her. One wrapped its small arms like a child hiding in her mother’s leg – save the cloth around it immediately lit up. The second had grabbed onto her other arm and was working on scaling toward her shoulders. She howled and grabbed that one, flung it hard at a wall. By the time it exploded two more were on her and just about everything that could be aflame was.

“Bollocks.” Ms. Parsley fired smoothly as she took a sliding step to the left. These things presented a real danger to the Thistle sisters. Once clothing and flesh was burned away they’d start melting and destroying internal workings. With calm reserve and a furrow of brow she took down four of the first six fairies coming down the left wall, before ejecting the cylinder. The other revolver started on the remaining robots while she worked on reloading the first.

Ms. Thyme was in a quandary as she saw her sister’s overwhelmed. The orders were to keep the damn things away from the powder room beside her but she couldn’t let Ms. Rosemary or Ms. Sage burn. The spear struck out and tore off the bottom half of one of the mechanical monsters on the redhead’s back. With an artful flick she knocked away the rest of the droid. Out of the corner of her eye she watched the tide of burners roll over itself as more tried to break past and get to Ms. Parsley. The blonde was putting them down with supreme efficiently. They weren’t even concerned with igniting weapon stockpiles. She slipped a step to the left and skewered one of the many now on Ms. Sage.

The shield-maiden twisted away as one of the four on her was plucked off. The problem was the other three were still burning and she could feel her metal skeleton growing hot. Coiled copper around crystal heart started to melt and her gears slowed. Ms. Sage gritted her teeth and violently snapped open her umbrella. Pulled along by wondrous ore she skimmed past one of the busted doors, peeling away another. Even worse a great deal of her torso and now one leg were exposed, though they were as black the rest of her clothing at the moment. She rolled and tucked the shade beneath her, propelled up into the tall ceiling once she got past the doors. Another one of the fey was smashed to bits on impact. That only left one more.

“Jus’ fecking shoot them!” Ms. Rosemary’s bellow carried quite a distance through the tunnels. She didn’t have a clue how many were on her. One of her lovely blue eyes had already popped and the other one was threatening too. She tore one of the blighted burners off of her face and shoulder, stripping a great deal of charred flesh from the left side of her metal skull. The flaming robot was crushed into a ball and tossed before she punched at one of her hip crushing its head into its torso. That leg went out though as a hydraulic line burst with a spray of hydraulic fluid. Ms. Rosemary fell and gouged the floor with exposed cheek. “Sweet Christ Almighty! Not like this.”

The statuesque slugger sighed in relief when a bullet entered her side; the shot from Ms. Parsley shattered one of the droids on Ms. Rosemary before going into singed flesh too. The gunslinger was free to pick off the tiny fairies off of the flaming woman as quick as she was able; Ms. Thyme had moved to just behind Ms. Parsley and was stabbing the spear into those machines that tried to attack the trigger -woman. As usual the raven haired beauty’s timing was impeccable. The muscles and gear work of her arms wound never get tired as she kept rapidly jabbing. Once Ms. Sage was rid of her last stowaway she didn’t linger, despite lethargy and pain. Back into the fray she charged and did her best to smash more of the moving firebombs off of the beleaguered Irishwoman.

This routine of shooting, stabbing and bashing went on longer than any of them fancied, especially Ms. Rosemary. Eventually ever last automation was destroyed. Once their hell-stone cores were smashed they stopped burning too. Ms. Rosemary on the other hand had to be rolled and buffered until she was finally out. The poor gynoid was a mess. All of her proud ginger mane was gone as was almost half of her face. He clothes were little more than burned strips but there was nothing left to be considered risqué. Steel bones and marred tubing steamed as she rolled over onto her back and blinked her remaining eye. One massive gauntlet slammed into the ground with a deep reverberation. Then she settled it over the hole where her artificial heart had been placed. It felt weak and with it her mind was swimming in and out of consciousness. Its delicate cage had been damaged.

“’m no good to ye girls at the moment. Stick me in one o’ the rooms o’ somethin? Just promise to come back and get me later.” When Ms. Rosemary smiled it exposed more of her teeth than she wanted, thanks to a lack of lips.

Ms. Parsley turned away from the burned woman’s grin and covered a gasp. Where they normal women her sister would be dead by now, Ms. Sage well on her way. They were not and had all suffered grievous wounds in the past. None of them had been reduced to such a terrible state as this, though. It was hard to see Rosie all burned flesh, bubbling gristle and seared metal.

The other two heroines didn’t turn away. Ms. Sage’s face was filled with predictable rage but she bent down and took one arm, not liking the way that greasy meat oozed through her fingers. Ms. Thyme was stone-faced as she took the other arm and both worked on dragging their fallen comrade to a defensible position.

“We shall not leave you behind, not to worry.” Ms. Sage had to fight through her anger to get the words out. She cradled their stricken sister while there other two build up a nest of bags and debris for Ms. Rosemary to be set against.

Ms. Rosemary let out a weak laugh. “Just bring a towel eh? I dun want all the lads gettin’ a free peep show.”

“We will.” As hard as she tried Ms. Sage could not smile. Once the ‘bed’ was constructed they lowered the Irish woman against it. “Are you certain that you are going to be all right?”

“O’ course. Now get going.” The burned woman waved them off with another terrible smile. Ms. Parsley really wished she’d stop doing that. She didn’t say so, though.

Instead she cleared her throat. “We know it’s clear all the way back to the entrance. We could summon a few squads to secure up to this point and take her back.”

“Mmm.” Ms. Sage dipped her demure chin in consideration. She was well aware that her own hair was missing in clumps and that her skirts and combat corset were quite damaged, as well as vat-grown skin beneath.

“It seems like a wise enough idea.” Ms. Thyme was already moving out the door. She’d left the spear behind in case Ms. Rosemary needed it. Steam ripped out of her forearms as telescopic swords were ejected. “If you agree, Ms. Sage.”

The Spanish Rose looked about before finding a burlap sack to give Ms. Rosemary some dignity. She lifted her chin to Ms. Parsley, used it to motion toward the door. “I think it is a fine idea, sister dear. You go ahead and radio the request in. I will be out in a moment.”

“Oh.” An unease look shifted across the blonde’s unblemished features. The only burned flesh she had on her was transferred while helping the fallen warrior. Her own wounds seeped still from being blasted with buckshot earlier. She pursed her lips and forced her gaze back down on the torched woman. She crouched and brushed slim fingers along still hot metal. “Just take care of yourself, okay Rosie? We’ll see to the rest.”

“I’ll be fine.” Ms. Rosemary’s single blue eye rolled in ruined socket. “The Widow will put me back together as good as new in no time. We’ve all had worse. Now shove off.”

Ms. Parsley bit her bottom lip. None of them had looked so terrible before. She patted the side of the boxer’s face before slipping out to get Mr. Thistle on the horn. The cuff of her officer’s coat tried to hold back a sudden cascade of tears.

“I think ye should disconnect me.” Once the other two were gone Ms. Rosemary leveled a serious look at Ms. Sage. What remained of her lips flattened. “I can feel myself fading with every passing minute. My heart’s obviously damaged.”

“Pish posh.” As the field commander crouched next to her fallen comrade she checked at the gash in her own head. Oh hell why hadn’t anyone told her that her nose was broken. She fiddled with it only for a moment. Then, quite gingerly, Ms Sage peered into the melted copper cage where Ms. Rosemary’s’ crystal heart was plugged in. The complex machinery around it was clearly damaged but doing its best to keep the gynoid powered. None of them had been trained how to take care of their own power cores, save for the most rudimentary procedures. In fact they weren’t supposed to play with it at all. Pain echoed through Ms. Sage’s grey matter as memories tried to surface from the scars of a life ended. She squinted as fragments of knowledge about the crystal heart floated to the surface, but she tried not to think on them. It was best of she didn’t know more about their construction than she was supposed to. “Let us have a look now.”

“Trust me… it’s bad.” Ms. Rosemary cleared her throat and closed her eye now that she was sure it wasn’t going to seal shut. She relaxed her arms as well and focused just on breathing. Her heart glowed now and again with a faint light. “It’s just better if you unhook me so no further damage is caused. I’ll be fine.”

“You shall be technically dead.” That didn’t sit well with the Spaniard as she spoke softly. Her slim fingers poked here and there at the cage as she did her best to right a few of the conduits. On reflex she started rewiring connections and adjusting cogs to try and minimize the damage. Everything was done by rote and she felt as if the information was coming from somewhere outside her body, as if someone else was controlling her hands. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling at all. “I think I have got it anyway. How is that?”

“.. Better actually. I dun feel heavy anymore. What did ye do?” Ms. Rosemary’s eyebrows curved upwards. She settled one of her massive gloves atop the other woman’s hand. She squeezed carefully and tried to meet gazes.

Ms. Sage did her best to avoid her sister’s eyes. Her throat flexed as she swallowed and she tugged her hand away. Next she fussed with trying to fix her nose. “I do not know. The doughboys will be to you soon. Do not despair.”

“Sage?” Despite Ms. Rosemary’s questioning tone the dainty defender headed back into the fire scoured hall without a word.

“They have silver hands too.” Ms. Thyme turned over one of the wrecked automatons on the floor with the tip of her sword. Then she taped on a hand in question before pointing to others nearby. The stoic women moved forward and used both of her weapons to point out each extremity in turn. “All of them.”

“We’re debating on calling them rats or imps.” With a curious and shaky smile Ms. Parsley adjusted the radio pack across her shoulders. Hopefully the damn bundled wasn’t cursed. She didn’t end up like Ms. Rosemary. “I think imps works best.”

Ms. Thyme nodded with a wash of black hair. “I, on second thought, have to agree.”

“The final determination will be made by our betters.” Ms. Sage looked around the ground for her ruined glasses. They were nowhere to be seen in all this mess. She flicked her shade open and let it rest behind her shoulder. “Do we have fresh orders?”

“Just to be more careful. Mr. Thistle is sending in a platoon behind is to secure everything.” With a few extra long strides Ms. Parsley caught up with their shortest sister. Her red coat billowed along with swift steps. “So, let’s continue? You didn’t… didn’t disconnect her did you?”

“No. I did not. Onward then. Let us pray we do not run across any more silver handed fairies eh? I am not in the mood to take any more body damage.” Ms. Sage squeezed the crook of her bare umbrella hard. She wanted to beat something and chase away the foreign sensations dancing in her mind. It was not that easy.

As they continued to weave deeper into the mountain the trio came across more piles of burning meat, as well as fairies. In this case though they were what remained of a perhaps a dozen redcaps in total. They had clearly been in a state of bad repair even before being blown to bits by ardent defenders – who were in turn immolated by the ‘imps’ probably behind the expendable robots. Every single one of them too had a silver hand covered with Fomorian script. Ms. Sage poked the shattered automatons a few times with her shade. All three of them noted how much of the redcaps had been jury-rigged to keep going. They were ramshackle in comparison to the three trolls and the fire-starters. A full investigation was needed. They pressed on, however, now was not the time. The first order of business was securing all of Melrose.

As they neared the heart of the fortress the smell of burning was replaced with something wet and metallic.

“Blood.” Ms. Thyme commented first and crouched low as they neared another bend in the tunnel. Her nose wrinkled and fertile gaze narrowed. Odds were good that whatever villain awaited them at the terminus of the tunnel the trolls were going to pale by comparison.

Ms. Parsley nodded in agreement and eased back the hammers on her guns. She gaze her eyes aside to Ms. Sage, waiting for orders instead of creeping forward as their ever-eager sister did. “Pretty thick in the air, yes.”

“Quite. Let us proceed with caution then.” The tactician lowered her voice and gestured to Ms. Thyme with her chin. “Ms. Thyme, if you would.”

The swordswoman was already moving around the corner. She kept low with her back pressed to the steel wall. There were singe marks here as well but they were not nearly as large, nor as complete. Just around the bend were the meager remains of a last line of defense. It was hard to tell where smashed crates, barrels, sand bags and young soldiers began and ended. They were all one uniform mess on either side of the wide hallway. There was even Gatling gun with its barrels all twisted away from the center shaft as if someone had punched their fist straight down the middle. Hopefully that had been done by one of the now-defunct trolls. As with every bulkhead along the way, the final set of doors were torn from there hinges – plainly sundered by giant metal hands. From between them a glistening puddle of blood had spread.

Ms. Thyme eased forward and took a gander around one of the doors. The war room that was at the center of Melrose Fortress was bathed in gore. The parts of senior officers and their assistants were strewn about with careless savagery. Several of the tables were smashed to bits. After glancing around, and up to the ceiling just in case, she noted that there was no threat to be had. That brought a frown to her face.

When their sister called back the all clear the other two forged females shared a look of disbelief. They hurried and caught up to Ms. Thyme as she entered the control room. All of them were getting their boots and the hem of skirts dirty with red. After what they had already walked through it really didn’t matter.

Ms. Sage reached for her glasses that weren’t there and ended up fiddling with her broken nose. “Just once I would like to walk into a situation like this and not be greeted by such a terrible sight. Just once…”

“Not in our cards, sister dear.” With a roll of strong shoulders Ms. Parsley slid her revolvers back into holsters. She took a quick scan around before fiddling with her wispy hair. Hopefully Basil was having better luck up top. “There’s no file cabinets.“

“And only a hole where the wall safe used to be.” Ms. Thyme used her sword to point that out. She’d not even bothered making them hum. It was rather obvious that whoever had hit this place had gotten what they wanted and left behind their terrible machines behind. It was an arrogant waste of resources in her personal opinion.

Ms. Sage didn’t speak up. Instead she stood silent over one of the corpses. From what remained of shredded uniform it had to be the base commander, Major Martin Stonebridge. While the other poor souls around them had been smashed, shot and sliced apart the major was in quite a different state. She crouched beside the cooling lump of ruined meat and pressed open split ribcage with delicate fingers. He didn’t have a heart anymore, or a spine, nor the head attached to it. She gagged in a proper way, with little sound.

“I do not suppose any of you can see a disembodied head lying about?” She asked with a small tightening of her throat.

“Nope. Just about ever unlucky fellow here has his noggin accounted for.” Ms. Parsley sighed and quietly pulled her coat closed over corset and fine cleavage. The chill she felt was nothing natural. She didn’t fancy being that prissy either. “No one deserves to go out like these men did.”

“Are they any different than those that fall around us regularly?” The question was lifeless when it slipped out of Ms. Thyme. She took a slow look around; the stock of the carnage was absorbed. “Everyone else besides the body you are next too has their head, Ms. Sage.”

“Thank you.” The words didn’t sound quite right when the Spanish Rose said them. She would rather they had fund the major’s skull. There was no use, Ms. Sage suspected, looking the heart and the spine either. More pinpricks of memory pressed at the edge of her psyche. She chased them away with slow deep breaths.

“Are you quite all right?” Ms. Thyme drew up close to her. As usual her facial features were too placid for the question of concern.

Ms. Sage answered only by waving the question off. She pushed to stand and looked around for an officer’s coat that wasn’t too mauled. She’d need something to cover up her womanly blessings before the fellows got her. Oh! If Roland got a good look at her in such a state she’d be positively mortified. “Raise Mr. Thistle of you would, Ms. Parsley. Inform him that the fortress is secure but we need to go over it with a fine toothed comb.”

The woman of spiced features and keen mind had the sinking suspicion that her sweet Roland wasn’t going to be all that forthcoming about this silver hand business. Clearly it was something grave, and thus more than likely a state secret. Ms. Sage focused her hazel gaze back down on the major’s corpse. Was there something worse than grave? Dire perhaps?

A chill wind washed down from the Scottish grey zone to the north and clouds covered the sun.

heart

Verse Six

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