1. Ouroboros

“Sometimes I think ye want me to get into a row and into trouble, Widow Scabious.” Ms. Rosemary tossed ginger hair into the wind just to feel it bounce and flow. The sea cast a pleasant smell over Scarborough today which was strong enough to cover up the engines of industry and reconstruction. It was hard for the Irish lass to wrap her mind around the idea that this had once been a resort town. Then again one of the lads at the castle mentioned it started as a Viking raiding colony and that made quite a bit of sense. Doctor bag in one hand the brawler felt terrible about bringing her gauntlets to a church but the widow had been insistent. One never knew when the fomorians or their agents would strike and that demanded a constant state of vigilance.

In stark contrast to vivacious android the Widow Scabious was subdued both in clothing and tones. She turned her face toward the breeze to feel lacy veil tease at skin. Underneath black corset with all the trimmings rubber hugged her still youthful form tight and creaked now and again. One never knew when they would be called upon to play with all things galvanic. “It is important for the Order of Thistle to greet and get on well with every pillar of society Ms. Rosemary, you know that. I pray you can set aside your distaste for the King’s church for at the very least one afternoon. Besides I dare say you needed to get some air.”

Snorting the mechanical maid brushed hair from her blue eyes as they lifted to take in the Anglican monstrosity before them. Now she knew she was not being fair to the house of God but the last thing she wanted to do on this fine summer day was to spend it listening to an addled Vicar prattle on. “I suppose you’ve got a point. What is the new fella’s name then?”

The gaunt woman brushed hands against skirted hips then folded them behind her back. A few hints of auburn hair tried to peek out of the back of her hat. “Mr. Stuart Moss if I recall correctly. He was a student of our departed Vicar Lowry, Lord rest his soul.”

“Aye, it’s been a rough little time for our town eh?” Blowing out a hard breath Ms. Rosemary slowed to take in the gothic architecture before them. It had its own stark and sharp beauty; as well as a host of pigeons darting this way and that. Not far from the front steps was an old crater scared from the explosion of a harpy’s bomb. The window closest to impact was still boarded up awaiting repair. “With any luck the damn fey will leave us along for a wee bit.”

“I am afraid not.” The clockwork companion was given a brief reprieve as the Widow drifted to crater edge and looked down into it. One could hear her frown instead of seeing it. The edge of gray skirt caressed at the lip. She lifted her gaze up to the sky and dim late afternoon glow of Balor’s Eye. “All the intelligence we have gathered signals that things may only get worse. Mr. Thistle believes that the cults have spread father than we expect and intend to make places such as our little slice of England the weak links in the island’s armor.”

“So their twisted lords and ladies can come turn it into a fecking mess eh?” Fully expected a glare in reprimand from the Widow Ms. Rosemary was not let down; nor did she stop talking. “Well I suppose we’ve all got to take a few hours when we can and live a little eh? Who knows when we’ll get it next? I say I’m right jealous of the other girls though.”

“Oh and how is that?” The dour scientist didn’t move from her spot. Her gaze however was brought back down to earth resting on undamaged headstones past the church’s west wall. It seemed only the dead had any serenity.

“Well.” With a cheeky bounce Ms. Rosemary drew back up to one of her creators and gave the woman a nudge. As always she was a smiling woman, her cheeks dotted with freckles and Irish eyes flashing with mirth. Nothing really ever kept her down for long. “Seems Ms. Sage is havin’, from what I heard, a pleasant lunch private like with Mr. Thistle. Then you have Ms. Parsley and that solider of hers going on like a pair of schoolyard doves. Hell even stone-faced Thyme has that Harper bloke hanging about her. Me? I get to spend the day with Anglicans.”

“Oh hush up.” Nearly laughing Widow Scabious bumped her back. After a gesture to the church’s scarred doors she drifted on. “You know as well as I do that in all three circumstances they are being right proper fools. Every last one of those pairings no matter their nature is going to end in heartache.”

“Eh, I dunno about all that. We’re all children of the Lord after all, Widow Scabious. Just some of second hand eh?” The ginger headed woman winked before filling hefty bosom with breath. The leather of her combat corset creaked. Some ladies might complain about having to wear the same outfit every day but the Thistle Sister’s knew they had to be ready for anything as well as iconic. Not just Britain but all of Free Man in Europe looked up to them. They were as much beacons of hope as Balor’s Eye was one of doom. “You really think it’s all that terrible that Ms. Parsley’s getting a snog now and again?”

The gloomy girl’s tone had more of an edge to it than she wished. “Like you she is a machine.”

“Well yeah I know that.” Ms. Rosemary snorted.

Rubber squeaked when the widow pulled open one of the doors. In reverence her voice fell hush as the warmth from within washed over them both. No matter the denomination Elspeth Scabious always paid holy places respect. “You would do best to believe it as well. What will happen when her Captain dies from battle or going grey? She will live on. It is not like they can settle down and live a normal life.”

Ms. Rosemary tried to recoil from her associates bitterness but there was no other place to go but inside. “Does anyone these days get to have a normal life?”

The mourning glory didn’t respond. Instead she lingered just past the threshold. Both women looked across pews with a smatter of people to the icon of Christ in all his suffering. By reflex despite the setting the brawler genuflected. The Widow quietly worked out crucifix and stroked rubber hidden fingers over it. “You are correct, Ms. Rosemary.”

“Nah. I’m just being foolish.” When Ms. Rosemary murmured she took a step forward to set doctor’s bag to the left of the door. No weapons should go in further than this. “I know that my sister’s and I have no souls. We’re just machines but that doesn’t mean that sometimes we don’t yearn to be real girls.”

Elspeth turned her face away and adjusted veil. “Like Pinocchio.”

“Save we look smart. Right then, Ms. Gepetto. I suppose you’ll be off to the candles. Do you want me to seek out this Vicar or wait for you?” After priming at the edges of her curls Ms. Rosemary caressed fingers to make sure exposed bronze spine was covered.

“Come with? I am sure you could light a candle for someone.” As ghostly as her distant voice the widow drifted along the shadows of the wall. Along the way to dark corner her wraithlike form was highlighted by a stray sunray. Ms. Rosemary on the other hand did her best to catch every bit of light she could. What a pair the two made – the dead woman who strived to be alive and the breathing woman who played at being departed.

Nearly all of the candles this afternoon were lit. They flickered with all the strength of human life, so very fragile and ready to be burned or be snuffed out at any moment. Still day after day they were replaced and relit by the faithful. Life went on. Elspeth quietly slipped a finny into the collection box nearby before taking up a match. After a moment of inspecting its head she stroked it alight with a flick across brick. Lips moved quietly speaking her daughter’s name as she lit one. Guilt made her head heavy and posture was drug down with it.

“You did what you had to do, Elspeth.” Ms. Rosemary patted her maker’s shoulder before starting a few wicks herself. The fine men that had died on a daily basis defending their country needed recognition of their deeds.

“That does not make it any less of a sin, Ms. Rosemary. I hope he is burning quite grand now.” Finely cut jaw twitched with tension. Such words of anger should never be breathed in a church. However the widow hated her husband to the very pit of her soul.

“I’m sure he’s getting everything he deserves.” In bare whisper the redhead stepped back and allowed her better some time. Not that she was idle. Moving along she looked over the stained glass as well as interior carvings. There were the usual English heroes spaced between familiar icons to any good Catholic girl. Really besides busted stairs and window the old church was holding up very well considering. A few freshly installed Tesla coils were tacked along rafters and covered with decorative wire. These attached lights cast the middle of the room and sanctuary in an unearthly glow. Her eyes were drawn back to Christ.

She even smiled a bit and figured that the Son of God would forgive her for stepping into a place like this. The Pope on the other hand, well, that was a different story. In the end no matter the creed they all had one enemy now.

“With hair like that one might think you’re a lady of Eire.” A crisp voice that was appropriately spiced with the lilt from home came from Ms. Rosemary’s right. When she turned dead set on frowning once she saw the vicar robes the brawler found herself grinning anyway and without any good reason. Perhaps it was because she was expecting some old bag of spite and vinegar and instead was met with the proper smile of a very handsome man. Vicar Moss did have a scar that parted one black brow and ran up forehead before disappearing into rich black hair. From the color of his eyes and the cut of pale features Moss was clearly of the black Irish. Very dark brown eyes held her brilliant blues for a full three breaths before either of them spoke.

“The accent as well I think gives it away.” He quipped and tugged at one cuff and then the other for a distraction. Clearly the Vicar had a trace of military bearing. There was something about the stern way his well molded form stood, the resolve hanging at the edge of his gaze. He was the sort of man that probably never talked about his days on the fronts nor reveled in glory won. “Then again I’ve not get to hear much of that lovely voice so are you going to stand there dumbfounded or has my handsome looks struck you mute?”

His tease forced a flush to Ms. Rosemary’s face but she merely crossed arms under bosom and tried to affix him with one of Ms. Thyme’s icy glares. That didn’t work either. Just how did their shortest sibling do it? She was not used to a man of the cloth chatting her up like this. “Just trying to figure out what to say to an orange man that I’m not going to be struck down for, considering where we’re standing?”

“I’d start with hello myself.” The vicar offered out a hand and dipped his chin. “Vicar Stuart Moss at your service, Ms. Rosemary. I must say I have been looking forward to this all afternoon. More than a few of my parishioners speak highly of you and pray for your poor Catholic soul every Sunday.”

“Bah.” While the beautiful brute turned her face away she still offered out her hand. “There is nothing for them to worry after, Vicar.”

“Oh of course not. I was informed that another representative was coming with you.” He in turn took her hand and gave it a squeeze. Instead of letting go Moss lifted it and made a small hrm while inspecting nails, flesh and steel knuckles beneath. “Ah pardon I just wondered at how very real you feel.”

That earned him a hard poke in the center of the palm before the Irishwoman’s arm recoiled. She folded arms primly behind her back and did her best not to strike a pose for this handsome man. Just looking at his war roughed features caused a little ping with in her coiled copper and crystal heart and Ms. Rosemary had some inkling as to why Ms. Sage and Ms. Parsley were acting so addled. Her hand longed to be touched by his again. “Well with how fast you protestants go through women and all I can see why you’d not be sure. The Widow Scabious is right over there and she shall wander over in a moment.”

Vicar Moss’ serene smile assured that he knew there was no real venom behind the Catholic’s words. “Ah. I have heard of her as well. Wife of the late Professor Scabious yes? Tragic events there. One of many in this dire time.”

“Aye, on that we can agree on.” She swished her hips subconsciously. “So what part of the Ulster are you from?”

“Derry. So I know a bit of something sieges, well it’s in our history after all.” Nodding lightly the former soldier started on for the gloomy girl but at a pace that Ms. Rosemary could easily follow. “Likewise from my former life.”

“I suspected as much, Vicar.” She brushed at the side of her tresses lightly before scooting it back behind cute ears. Her thick boots pressed quietly with each step. She felt her throat flex and swallow. “Where did you serve? Though if you’d rather not talk about it I can lecture you on why you’re wrong for a while.”

“Cheeky monkey.” In return he teased lightly and shook his head. “I would argue that you’re wrong but neither of us are going to budge from where we stand now eh? Mostly because I’m right and you do not know better.”

Rolling her eyes in good nature Ms. Rosemary drowned her smile when the widow finally noticed their approach and turned hidden features their way. It didn’t stay submerged for long. “Bloody orange man.”

“Tsk tsk.” The Widow Scabious shook her head to her creation before offering a hand out to the holy man. Her chin dipped as well. “Victor Stuart Moss, Widow Elspeth Scabious. It is a pleasure to finally meet you and I hope that my charge has not been too mouthy.”

“Not at all.” The scarred man took her hand and shook lightly before letting go. “Not at all. It is always refreshing to meet another Irish. We are a rare breed, without a fomorians collar anyway. I pray you Brits figure out a way to push them from our isle once more. Ah what I wouldn’t give for a Saint Patrick.”

“Who was Catholic by the way.” Ms. Rosemary chimed in playfully. “And Roman.”

The vicar laughed quietly and rocked on his feet. There was a silent strength that never left him. “Heroes can come from anywhere. Did you ladies wish a tour or shall we retire to my study for tea and crumpets?”

“Before you ask for a pint of the Black let me say that would be delightful Vicar.” Drifting between the two Widow Scabious sliced a gaze deep down into the redhead to quiet her. “Come along then I think I know the way from visiting your predecessor now and again. I hope that you are settling in well.”

With a small turn Vicar Moss beat a steady pace after the black clad woman but his attention kept turning back to the lady in primrose. “Fair enough I dare say. It is always a delicate situation trying to fill in for such a great man. You want to make the post your own to better serve the flock. However it must be done in a respectful manner to not seem that you are trying to erase their fond memories.”

“Quite delicate. I assure you that you cannot replace our dear old Lowry. However you seem to be a strapping young man. I am sure you are fit for the duty or the Archbishop would not have sent you here to see after us.” The rubber encased lady didn’t slow as she turned down one of the short side halls. Indeed she knew the church well. “However from what I was told there are other reasons…?”

The widow didn’t turn back to get her answer. Instead she pulled the door open and gestured them all inside. From behind sorrow’s lace she alertly scanned for any one paying a bit too much attention and was pleased to find none. Ms. Rosemary ticked a brow up. The vicar didn’t meet her gaze but instead followed after. He paused to pull at a chord. His office had been cleared out of its former steward’s things and was in the process of being filled. Across one wall was a map of the greater area covered with pins. Crates of books were only half unpacked and were already infested with papers and the occasional abandoned pencil. Moss had managed to fill one cedar bookcase with the bible and accompanying Anglican texts. Leaning in the corner was a battered combat rifle and saber hanging against it.

Lingering at the door Vicar Moss smiled small to the two of them and gestured to cloth covered chairs. Ms. Rosemary wasn’t surprise to find hers filled with tomes and didn’t hesitate to move them. Once his assistant came and a request for tea set in their host moved behind a thin stone topped desk and sat. He cleared his throat and folded fingers together before settling his chin atop them. There was a pair of scars that lingered around one wrist.

“Well then if I might know if I am totally off base? The Order after all prides itself not only on our machines but our intelligence. Both are necessary to win this war.” Widow Scabious folded gloved hands in her lap. Skirts rustled as she folded her legs and focused obfuscated eyes on the quiet man.

“Pride is a deadly sin for a reason.” The vicar countered and shared a fleeting grin with Ms. Rosemary. He motioned for quiet when his assistant returned. Everyone took tea as they liked it and he bade the woman to lock the door as she left. The assistant was displeased at such secrecy but said nothing. “Right then. You two fine lasses please drink up while I explain matters.”

“Oh I cannot wait to listen to this.” Cracking her knuckles one by one Ms. Rosemary didn’t care how uncouth the habit was, nor the fact that her artificial bones and joints didn’t need it. The damage she done to such exquisite work sometimes drove the Widow batty. Mr. Thistle had convinced Elspeth that was more important for the Thistle Sisters to be allowed small human mannerisms to keep their sanity. The redhead took up her untreated tea and blew across the surface. Robin blue eyes focused on the Vicar’s mouth and how it moved.

First wetting his lips Moss blew out a heavy breath before using the cup to gesture to the weapons not far off. Some might say a reverend having them in his study was blasphemy but he’d argue in this era it was necessary. “You are quite correct, Ms. Rosemary. I used to serve the Crown before I bent my knee before the Lord above. I was in of the army but I am afraid that I cannot say what part.”

“Our clearance is nigh absolute.” The widow offered in small tones.

“It does not breach personal promises I have made and for that I am sorry. There are some secrets that cannot pass through my lips.” The man was not going to budge so neither woman pressed. “In such service I was privy to the dead zones of Scotland and the terror of scarlet Eire. There were excursions into other parts of Europe and the North. Only through the Lord’s guidance I survived so into His hands I stepped.”

The clockwork maid tilted forward and urged his lips to move once more. “Yet you still care about the normal man and not the beyond? What exactly are you doing here?”

“Work on the behalf of the Church of England and others. My parents were fine protestants but truth to be told my grandmother was still set in the old ways. On her knee I heard many a tale of how things used to be, of the fair folk and those that came before.” He sipped before thumbing at a wrist scar. “It aided myself and my comrades, Lord rest their wary souls, when were behind enemy lines. So many of the fomorian’s customs have roots in similar mythology as one delves deeper. It is easy to understand how so many have been duped into believing they are ancient gods returned. Once I returned and spoke to both the Crown and the Archbishop they decided that it would be best if these threads were pursued.”

“So you are part of the Society then?” It was the first time in a long time that Ms. Rosemary had heard her associate be what one might call coy. Ginger brows popped back up.

Vicar Moss gave the widow a slow look that told her not to speak another word. Then they shared a nod. After another drink he set cupped his drink in lap. Its steaming depth with a bit too much milk was focused on by the holy man. “I am here to do research along those veins. It is evident that the cult of the scarlet banner has a strong presence in Scarborough and the surrounding area. I am here to find out what I can from them as well as gather information on fomorian society and how it relates to the old tales. With any luck it will aid in their defeat.”

“So you think there is some credence to the idea that they once treaded on Creation?” Ms. Rosemary wanted to say something about crazy Anglicans but she didn’t have the stomach for it at the moment. The idea started to sink into alchemically preserved grey tissue and was followed by its dangerous consequences. “Oh dear.”

“Oh dear I think barely covers it in all truth good lady.” With a sigh the former solider drained the rest of his drink and set it aside before giving the cup a spin. “There are too many similarities to ignore. It is my work to find out why.”

“Oh.” The faux female didn’t envy him.

Nor did the young widow. “Well the Order would like to aid in any way that we might be able on both fronts. Religion after all is not only the glue that keeps civilization together but one of the greatest weapons of war. Like so many armaments the moon-men have been superior in that avenue for far too long. The cult has spread even into our own forces as I am sure you already know.”

Vicar Moss sniffed and lifted his chin. Once fingers were freed from cup he gripped his hands tightly together. “I have read the reports. The Archbishop is just as concerned over that as any officer. Something I suspect even he and the man in the big hat agree on.”

“Pope.” Of course Ms. Rosemary bristled. She relaxed once his stone face broke with a slip of apologetic grin.
It was at that point that the Widow Scabious realized was going on. Trying not to sigh she lifted her veil enough for lovely chin to peek out. Lips were applied to the edge of her cup. Even when they were nothing more than machines young women were such trouble. Some nights she longed for the days of her youth returned. Most of the time she quietly tried to ignore the ache.

“Oh yes, Pope. I forgot.” Chuckling the scarred man turned to look out the office’s opaque window. One could vaguely see green leaves shifting outside. ‘Well I will aid you in any way I can as well. I have hung up my way of violence. After all Thou shalt not kill… other men at least.”

They all shared a wan grin. Even the fomorians were close to men they were not creatures of God and their fae servants just machines. The mourning glory finished as much of the tea she was going to and set the accessory aside.

“What of those men and women that serve them willingly or the sorry souls that are enslaved by them? Where do you feel they fall in our sense of morality? Would the Lord forgive us for taking their lives?” The Widow Scabious fully realized it was a difficult question.

“The Lord forgives nearly everything as long as we repent, good lady.” Though he tried to laugh it off the subject was too heavy for the vicar. It was something that weighed on his soul. A man that bore such scars out the outside had to have many more in the inside. “The worst sin is to desire to kill others. In times of war it is an ugly necessity that we must face and lament.”

“So sometimes taking another’s life is warranted, is necessary?” It really wasn’t much of a question when the dowager asked it. It came out as more than a plea.

The redheaded wildcat knew why Elspeth was pursuing this line of questioning. Sometimes it was clearly a blessing to not have memories. Now and again though fragments of what Ms. Rosemary realized were her former life floated to the surface. She recalled the joy her real heart swelled with at first communion; there were fleeting memories off Christmas mass. Every fragment of who she might have been was held close, cherished and never spoken of to anyone. The Order was fearful of the Sisters recovering who they were, that much she could tell. Ms. Rosemary suspected she was the only one of the girls that recalled much at all. Sometimes she felt that they were too much of a burden to bear. Even if the memories were painful for her they were gifts from God.

“Yes, yes it is. The bible is ripe with such tales. A life should never be taken lightly but to protect others it has to be done now and again. Such a tricky thing I understand.” Rising Vicar Moss skirted around the table and didn’t hesitate to crouch next to the Widow Scabious’ chair and rest a hand on her elbow. “If you need to talk I’ll ask the nosey Catholic girl to leave.”

Ms. Rosemary snorted!

“No.” So meek was Elspeth’s tone she had to repeat herself and move the holy man’s hand away before it was understood. “I would rather not dwell on it.” So said the woman swathed in black from head to toe.

“As you fancy.” He touched her arm once more before he stood and moved behind her chair. He ended up leaning on the back of the brawlers’. “Now if you good lady would like to unburden yourself for being a puppet of Rome…”

“Bugger off!” Huffing the mechanical lady protested too much and folded her arms tight. Her chin dipped and face turned from his attention. That only made the vicar laugh.

“Well then perhaps we could do something constructive and you can tell us some of the mythology that is linked to our adversaries from above?” The Widow Scabious had had enough of this.

Neither Irish had though but for the sober woman’s sake Vicar Moss moved to his boxes of books and started to rummage. “Well I suppose we should start with their names. Most mistakenly think, by my summation, that it was we humans who dubbed them fomorians. Specifically so we Irish. However let us look at… oh devil take me where is that book?”

The pair of ladies shared a look before turning back to their host. Ms. Rosemary’s was focused on posterior until she realized that’s where it was. Then she coughed, flushed and roamed her eyes over the other boxes as if it might help.

“Ah-ha!” The folklorist came pumping a worn edged book in victory. “Here we are then. Fomorians. According to some academics these first invaders of mythical Ireland either came from the land itself or more likely the sea. They were a terrible people, tall and twisted; even their loveliest of men and women bore one deformity or another.”

The mechanized lass twitched her lips and folded legs at the ankle of armored boots. “Well that seems spot on doesn’t it?”

“That it does.” A murmur of approval echoed from the Widow Scabious.

“It really is no? They were terrible and savage creatures of great magic and martial skill. According to the account in here they inflected a plague on one of their enemy tribes. Rumors persist of them engaging in human sacrifice and binding the souls of the dead to their will. Again something that runs a bit too close to these men from the moon. Now.” The fellow sat on the edge of his desk and flipped though pages. “It was also said that they could blight crops wherever their red castles lay. That sounds quite a bit like spires in the earth after all. Again it references their great height, calling them giants now and again. However in descriptions they are not much more than a head or two above the men of the time. Likewise it references them being as pale as the moon or yellow with the sickness they spread. There are just too many physical characteristics that line up.”

“You said they came from the sea in some of the stories. Where did they come from in the other ones?” Rubber creaked when the Widow Scabious stretched. Her fingers laced together above her head for a moment before she settled back in her chair. “That might give us some clues.”

“It may but in truth it is always vague. There is no place that cannot be tracked back to one vilified tribe of early Irish history. All the sort of things you’d expect to see when you investigate the birth of myths aren’t there. My guess is that the true fomorians came from the sea just as their preferred method now. I may be a bit bias but with what I have read and what I have seen…” Many at that point may have deemed the vicar obsessed but the two ladies were starting to agree with his conclusion. It explained so many things but opened up a frightening swath to possibilities.

To be concluded

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