1. Blazing in Scarlet Battalions

The moon hung in the sky full of sinister red splendor. Balor’s Eye it had been called since the start of the twentieth century. Across the night’s canopy its scarlet shards could be clearly seen, trailing after the infernal body akin to crystal tears. These chunks of the transformed moon started falling to earth over a decade ago and had wrecked such unfathomable devastation. Despite that and the masses of invaders which poured out of those piercing spires in the years after poets still waxed about the Eye’s beauty. Artists had set it mournful above battlefields in oils, singers immortalized in new woebegone ballads. They crafted fanciful analogies about it crying for Mankind’s folly. God had given Mankind domain after the Earth and nothing more, they said. The fomorians were punishment for reaching for the stars.

The good men and women on Scarborough’s Pier #5 didn’t care about the dangerous beauty hanging above in the night but rather about staying alive until morning. The Prussian ship had belched out cannon fire into docks without warning. Only moments before tattered scarlet banners unfurled declared the monolithic warship had been infested with Mankind’s adversary. Its wide cattle catcher like bow had smashed through one of the defense tugs as if the gunboat was little more than a child’s toy. Its course and speed had not let up either, plainly the fomorian horde aboard meant to run aground and the haphazard barrage of cannon shot had no specific target. It was of little consolation to those torn apart by furious explosions which hurled shattered limbs, burning wood, and rent steel into the air.

Pier #5 with its armored railing and coiled lighting had been full tonight of artists, poets, and singers, hawking their wares in the fine early summer’s night air. Now it brimmed with bubbling blood, acrid smoke, and the screams of the dying. One painting casting traitorous moon as a weeping woman’s eye sizzled even as the painter of the piece did the very same strewn abeside it. Children’s balloons wafted slowly up above the carnage waltzing with plumes of black smoke. Crowds leapt off into the water or trampled one another in an attempt to get away from the fate worse than being bombarded which was to come. Raid sirens finally screamed and the big guns within Scarborough Castle were being brought to bear minutes too late.

A fresh cannon ball screamed into the fleeing crowd further up Pier #5 and bowled along splitting it down the middle like a bodice stream being ripped by overanxious suitor. It was strange the shell didn’t burst on impact. Fell runes drawn across its surface in German blood didn’t allow the ball to die but rather sent it spiraling along thirsting to gather even more gore. The gaggle of bystanders screamed anew as it whirled through them throwing people to the side in a flurry of flesh and cloth. While the fleeing dove for cover, or where tossed to their deaths, one woman stood still amongst panicked tide.

The cannon shot roared past Ms. Thyme and left her be. The woman’s proper green skirt ruffled away from thick buckled boots underneath which cogs were turning against one another. Even if she was inches away from being dashed to pieces, among those praying for their lives, and having the ruffles of her bloomers seen, the pale faced woman kept her poise. One delicate thumb brushed over the fine crystal face of the pocket watch she held, her eyes affixed to second hand sliding along. What was taking the others so long to arrive? Another shell whizzed past slamming into the pier’s root. The light half-veil of her lady’s top hat waved. Ms. Thyme’s black mane flared for a moment revealing swan like neck covered with brass vertebrae before settling into place. The leather of her black corset with exposed gold etched boning creaked as she took in a breath to let it out with a huff of disappointment. Thumb shifted to press the drowned sailor’s watched closed with a click before brushing over ivory surface. The Victorian Athena craved into it, spear, helm, shield and all was as ever her inspiration.

“I think I have waited long enough.” Her petal lips moved. The other girls always claimed she was far too impatient and truth be told, they were right. As she lifted soft round face Ms. Thyme’s sparkling green eyes narrowed as returned fire streaked past her and into the Prussian juggernaut’s side. This time it carried her skirt forward showing off thick footwear as the gears within finally aligned. With a click, click, whirr, they slid to augment the pistons and cogs already bonded to her bones from phalanges to femur. She countered down slow. “Three, two, one.”

The warship rocked in the water, but was not driven far enough off course. It would be slamming into the docks far too soon. From there it would spew out alien raiders to harvest souls and slaves for their masters. Like a hungry falcon finally let to wing Ms. Thyme burst down shattered pier just as she heard the castle’s second volley. Her skirts snapped in the wind and it was her own astonishingly speed which made the pale violet cloth of blouse ripple and hair fan out behind her. She leapt over sundered planks and skipped left and right between smoldering corpses. The clockwork-woman heard the shell whistling in behind her knowing that with the way the stolen ship turned and its speed that the timing would be off, it would not strike home. By her perception everything was tickling by with the second hand of her watch, counted off by the springs of coiled copper and crystal heart. The German vessel responded in kind by lobbing out another spelled shot in the general direction of the castle. Due to the momentum and angles Ms. Thyme projected that it would slam into the defensive wall instead and spray brick everywhere but the steel beams beneath should hold.

The problem was, as she vaulted with two hands and a swing of her legs over an overturned balloon cart, that by trajectory the two shots were going to pass by one another like ships in the night. She was going to be too damn close to both. Painted lips turned down and pert nose scrunched up. While she didn’t have the same sort of strength as Ms. Rosemary hopefully what enhancement she had should be enough. Fingertips hidden in lacy purple gloves slid along the cart and took a firm hold of axel. Her legs didn’t stop pumping but twisted with a swirl of skirts. Using first momentum the mechanical maid felt gears grind at her elbows and pulleys flex, twist, taunt under skin. It was just enough to lob the cart for a short distance into the fomorion’s cannon ball which smashed through but was driven off trajectory. Its magical spell sought the closet lives to extinguish which again the gynoid did not need to worry about. Once she was assured there wasn’t going to be some fantastic explosion Ms. Thyme pushed forward weaving and bobbing through splintering wheel, spinning tanks, and other debris. Her movement remained swift, reinforced spine supple and arms splayed out to her sides with fingers wide as she landed into to a dead run. The castle’s shot roared past her striking deep into the water and creating a stories high plum of water.

She banked hard to the left. Veil drifted away from her eyes as drops of water gently floated down. She took a short hop, her boot heels barely scrapped at one of the pier’s central poles before she sprung off to the nearest capsized rowboat. Barely had her foot clicked against wood before Ms. Thyme dashed across unsteady surface and leapt through a thicker column of falling water onto a sideways pitched and burning fishing trawler. Even with these wrecks providing skipping stones seconds were ticking away and tangents were shifting with each tock. The clockwork woman understood she’d reach the ship just as it made ground. Such was intolerable but one must play the hand they were dealt. Fingers curled around the top of bent railing as her legs drew up to curl against the bottom rung. Off on artificial legs she jumped aiming for the starboard of the vessel. For a second she caught sight of one of the taskmasters on deck. Then there was a flash of green light from the storm-lance the alien solider held that crackled and sizzled through the air before smashing into her corset.

Ms. Thyme let out a strangled yelp as she bounced off of the beach’s surf point and tumbled akin to a thrown doll across the sand. St. Elmo’s Fire arched across her body. While slices of Thyme were still quite human there wasn’t enough left for the shock to take hold as it did in the common man. For a moment however her converted chassis failed her as she shakily reached up for the moon. Balor’s Eye was so beautiful and malevolent above. Her corset smoldered and curls of steam flowed from her wide open mouth.

Her legs twitched out of control. She didn’t have legs the night she died, that much the gynoid remembered. That and the moon had been obscured by long clouds of smoke from the burning district around her when her first heart finally faded.
The artificial one in its place stopped for a tick then turned over a few latches before thrumming full and back to life. Unspent tears and fragments of memory evaporated as clockwork surged. Ms. Thyme’s hand closed to a tight fist and she rolled over onto her knees. She’d seen the fomorian overseers deploy such weapons before to subdue those they would take as slaves. It was like getting a static shock but a thousand times worse. However it was not nearly as nasty as the Italian’s lightning guns! Punching one hand down into the fine white sand she pushed herself up to stand, faux spine clicked. She didn’t have moments to linger on how she’d died last time. People were in danger.

Someone called a name to her from under Pier #5’s smoking remains where groups of the wounded and frightened huddled, prayed and bled. With mechanical efficiency Ms. Thyme gave the masses a once over noting a man waving to her before shouting with his hands cupped over mouth. At the same time Pier #6 was being shorn apart from the weight of the Prussian cruiser crashing into it. Tesla lights bent and flickered sickly orange before going dead. Steam exploded as delivery cables under Pier #6 ruptured. The poor humans hiding under #6 didn’t even have time to fully scream as a lobster would when dropped into boiling pot.

Even though the man’s strong frame and dirty blonde hair tugged at things forgotten the motorized belle straightened her top hat by sliding two fingers along the brim. The mourning veil brushed in front of her eyes. The last strands of murderous steam pooled around her feet before evaporating. She had a job to do. Pirouetting Ms. Thyme sped for what remained of Pier #6. She made her way up one thick column by using its barnacles for steps. She committed to a brief handstand at the top; her wet skirts and bloomers snapped before arms flexed and she arched over to the middle of the Pier. Ms. Thyme landed half-crouched and waited to see what the moonmen had planned now that the guns had stopped. The castle artillerists should be shelling the hell out of the vessel still but were clearly worried about hitting what remained of fleeing civilians. That meant it was up to her. From the deck there was the low blowing of a horn not crafted from a creature that ever existed on Earth.

As Ms. Thyme’s eyes constricted as the amphibious assault began. Over the bow’s railing the enemy’s own automatons vaulted landing on the dock with the scream of metal and squeal of gears. Once enough of the mechanical horrors had fallen they started to form up ranks; baleful crystals dripped blood red light from within burnt iron rib cages. These particular robotic brutes had wide spiral scrolled shoulder blades molded into spiked pads and covered with leaking coils which gave them a hunchbacked appearance. Their arms were almost apish, dominated by thickly plated forearms with rust bleeding screws in the middle of each. Wicked sharp fingers molded with all the delicate art of a marionette could tear a man to pieces well enough on their own. Most of the shambling clockworks held weapons that amounted to nothing more than sharpened chunks of metal. Their legs were thick and clawed feet driven by churning pistons.

The robots most defining feature however gave them their name- redcaps. Each and every one of them had a skull like face of shinned steel with glowing red orbs for eyes. Their heads were covered with dried patches of blood. One could tell from looking into their soulless optics the redcaps could not wait until they could smear fresh gore over their heads.
Behind the squads of unliving three fomorian overseers repelled down. Their twisted forms were little more than leprous imitations of men hidden under black robes and misshapen brass and iron plates of armor. Like the rest of their race they were still built solid and tall; red moonlight playing off the devilish spirals and leering faces of their mail. Here and there their broken bodies could be seen in vague hints, mostly to show off Pict-like tattoos. Two carried storm-lances. The weapons had oscillating globes at either end clutched in gilded human hands. Bundles of wires and cables coiled around the staves’ intricately carved hafts of iron shod wood. The third, who was taking up the middle, had a helmet of a great stag’s skull coated in steel, laced with gold and silver. Pestilent yellow eyes peered out from within antlered helm. In one hand he held a great spear fashioned very much the same way as the storm-lances save its flat alabaster head was wide enough to split a horse, or sunder the side of a battle coach. Across the spearhead’s flat unclean sigils flickered within cascading sparks.

As the slavers and slayers started forward across the empty remains of Pier #6 like a spreading black ink blot; their only opposition was one small woman with Gibson girl frame.
By now troops were being organized and probably marching from Scarborough Castle but they would arrive too late to save souls from being harvested and people taken. The pilfered Prussian guns roared to life in a lazy fashion to rain suppressive fire. Other squads of redcaps leapt off from the flanks of the boat and started for the other piers on either side.

Ms. Thyme’s clock kept ticking as she watched how the redcaps fanned out to protect their fleshy masters, gauged where they were moving from the speed of their steps. Already there were tortured streams of souls flowing up from the dead under this dock and onto the deck of the warship. That meant there might be one of the Beautiful Ones aboard to do the actual harvesting. Her gears strained in anxious anger. What the devil was taking the other girls so long?

As the overseer on the right realized that before them was the same woman he’d blown out of the air he gestured with the staff and hollered in barbaric alarm. That was her cue to move. Bursting forward Ms. Thyme kept her body low, both arms straightened back and behind at a twenty degree angle. Hisses of steam trailed after her fingers as delicate wrists ruptured making messy work of already ruined gloves. Out of her forearms tempered steel blades shot out. They telescopically locked into their full length by the time she caught them loose in her nest of fingers. Wrists closed and a blink later her palms vibrated as they siphoned the energy of her cogs in overdrive. Her legs flexed once more spending her hurtling through the first few redcaps on the right as a child could guide a kite through the air. Once she murdered the one in the stag helmet taking down the rest would be rather simple, according to experience and training. Kill the head and the body will die. That was unless there was one of the Vain leading this raid.

The redcap the manufactured revenant slammed into boots first had already lost its skull and one arm by the time it hit the ground thanks the shearing motion of Ms. Thyme’s blades. She didn’t stop there, but with programmed grace spun into the heart of the squadron. Leading blade rolled over delicate fingers until it was backwards so she could split the shield like forearm of the next automaton raised in defense. The whining sword plunged until hilt was flush with steel casing. She twisted it hard, splitting the redcap’s arm with the horrible sound of tearing metal. Her follow up stab drove between its ribs and straight into crimson seeping crystal. It shattered on impact and what was left was little more than lifeless scrap metal. Ms. Thyme did not pause to enjoy her victory but spun the ruined redcap as one would a fine gentleman at a dance as her third foe hacked down hard after taking a short hop. The large square of sharp steel ripped into its dead college instead of her. She yanked swords out without expression save for a suck of breath into moist lips. Ms. Thyme flowed backwards pulling her shoulders in tight. Black straight hair flowed around her doll like features as she ducked under another redcap’s heavy swing, losing her hat in the process but it was better than her pretty little head. There was only so much damage to her chassis that could be repaired after all. Green skirts, already ruined, tore up along one thigh revealing the mechanized boot that almost went all the way up as she slid into a very unlady like split to take number four off at the knees with a spray of scalding oil, displaced metal caps and ruptured bolts.

Her swords were crossed as she swept legs back together while the legless automaton fell. Into the third redcap’s next blow she turned and caught blocky weapon against the two of hers. Again cogs strained against her elbows and for a moment the clockwork woman was afraid they were going to give out. When she was sure that this automaton was giving its all it she curled her legs tight and pushed to the right. More of her skirt was shorn away bit she didn’t care. She sprang up as the redcap’s sword crushed deep into wood. She was able to slice away part of its right pelvis before she spun behind and took out the ball of hip joint. The redcap fell, down but not deactivated. For now that would have to be enough. Another one of its mechanized brethren charged in bringing its blade in for a low swipe at her music box dancer legs. Ms. Thyme was too fast for it, with a spin she set one boot down hard against the flat of the blade despite its awkward and upward angle. The other foot was planted under the redcap skull’s chin before the pistons in her boots fire with a hard snap kick. Off that redcap’s head popped and sailed back over the horde before plopping into blood churned water. The mechanical girl used both swords to block once more as the next in line attacked, letting its hard swing grate brutal metal against vibrating blades. She was carried off of her feet by design.
The impact hurled her with fresh momentum deeper into the enemy’s ranks. As she came back to earth Ms. Thyme didn’t pause so what was left of her dress could settle but set upon the last redcap between her and the lead overseer. She’d have to end this quickly before the others swarmed back in. The robot before her took up a defensive position even as the stag-headed fomorian bellowed from under his grisly helm.
Without hesitation or worry for her own structural integrity Ms. Thyme pounced and barely escaped the swing of the automaton coming in behind her as she drove into the final obstacle. Her reversed blade was held to block the sweep of heavy weapon which did come to fend her off. Ms. Thyme aimed the other not for a kill shot but ground its whistling edge down and wedged it under forearm plate into the wrist of the redcap’s sword hand. It shoved her back hard toward its mate and she only succeeded in shearing away three of its fingers but that was enough. The swords-woman let her body fall limp to the ground as that protector automaton fumbled its weapon. Flowing with the motion she swept out one boot into the side of pursuing redcap’s knee and piston fired. Back the soulless marauder stumbled as metal leg nearly buckled right off. Ms. Thyme was rolling back up to her feet with a flash of just a sliver of milky thigh when she realized some dumb human had hoisted himself with a flex of thick arms and wide shoulders over the edge of the Pier.

What was the fool doing?!

“Kitty?” The man’s square and boyish features strained from renewed sorrow. He had the uniform of one of the sailors who put in port here, civilian corps no doubt. His youthful bulk had been honed by years of hard marine labor; white shirt torn down the front and fluttering in chaos generated breeze showed stained undershirt beneath. There was something about his left hand, covered with burn scars, along with his eyes that arrested the mechanical woman’s attention. They were much the same color as hers. His facial features were too similar to the ones she saw when she looked in a mirror. Ms. Thyme stood still as her wind-up heart ached and mind tried to place where she knew him from.

The fog of memory was neither kind nor complete. The man drug to the forefront was smaller, younger, always trying to protect her from the big bad world. Something in the rebuilt woman clicked “Har… Harper?”

Whoever the hell that was.

Some might call it cliché as one sword tumbled from her loosened fingers but it was not due to shock. Instead the cause could be directly attributed to the Stag’s Head plunging rune-spear straight through her elbow sending forearm whirling off. Ms. Thyme recoiled away with ruptured tubes spraying black oil, exposed gears grinding and sparking. Her lapse in judgment and speed caught up with her as she stumbled only to have her midsection blow out with more spattering grease, intestine like conduits and cracked cogs. She could no longer run skewered so by the cruel spear, its wide head lodged mostly in her left side. Ms. Thyme didn’t cry out in pain or perish instantly from shock as the lead overseer lifted her from her feet high into the air. Instead, as expressionless as any clock, she hurled her remaining sword at human as he barreled forward intent on trying to help her. Harper, whoever he was, would only end up dead for his gallantry. The pommel struck him square in the gut and hard enough to knock the air out. As he grabbed at his stomach the blonde seaman stumbled back and nearly toppled over the edge of the pier.
Stag’s Head chortled in befouled humor and shook the clockwork girl up in the air for a moment before throwing her hard. Despite her side being split open fully and steel ribs exposed Ms. Thyme didn’t feel any fear to give into. She bounced across thick wood planks and started to ‘bleed out’. Her life would be in danger if she had any human organs left to speak of besides brain. Single hand groped and she tried to find strength enough to stand. Her eyes scanned over to Harper as the man finally fell off the edge, then to the redcaps and overseers storming Piers #5 and # 7. Though she couldn’t see clearly they had to be engaging doughboys from the gunfire raining into them.

“Finally.” She croaked before head turned staccato like a winding down watch. One of the lesser taskmasters rushed forward raising his storm-lancer high to deliver a killing blow. Regret curled along her false bones. If only the last thing she saw wasn’t going to be seeing its twisted drooling jaw under black helm.

It wasn’t.

A bullet drove in through the front of black steel helmet covered with arcane symbols like a pence. Out the back of the overseer’s skull it exploded like a holiday hen, blood pudding on the side. Back the monster fell with a heavy lifeless crunch. Fomorians not only had brains, but needed them.

“You best have a good reason for being tardy.” Ms. Thyme pushed to her knees and swayed. Ms. Parsley stepped up to her side and started firing rounds into the redcaps with smooth precision.

The tallest clockwork did something Thyme never could, laugh. The sound was so natural from her delicate throat and pale blue eyes danced. “Do pray pardon, Ms. Thyme. We were delayed by a flock of those ever so annoying harpies. The enemy must have flown them in as a distraction. You know how dreadfully tiresome they can be, almost as much so as hungry geese.”

By rote Ms. Parsley’s thumbs pressed releases on the side of her guns’ central cages and with a flick of wrists out spent cylinders dropped. They hit the dock’s planks and kept rolling, trailing smoke as they went. As she slid in front of her downed ‘sister’ the gunslinger turned her body to make its profile small. The sea breeze caught her coat of bright red and pressed it tight to athletic chest. It was not just the color that was on the edge of acceptable taste but that it was clearly a military officer’s grab complete with gold brocade cuffs, epaulets, passants and shoulder cord – menswear. She focused her sharp features on the incoming wave and was as straight backed as any proper British woman should be. All the while under coat Ms. Parsley was calmly pushing fresh cylinders from wide leather belt into place. She brought up the first gun reloaded, composed and straight armed. The redcap only a few feet away lost its forearms after the first two shots and her third pierced its core. There was the usual furious explosion as its crystal heart popped just like to a real one.

The rebellious clockwork that had come in black trousers with gold military stripes to frame her sculpted legs only needed two bullets to finish off the redcap immediately to the left. “I do pray that you have some fight left in you, Ms. Thyme. I am rather afraid to report our two siblings will not be arriving promptly. They have other matters to attend to first.”

Placid Ms. Thyme turned her face up to the pale blonde, whose hair was tied up in a lemon grass scarf at the moment, and sighed. Boots whirred and clicked as she forced herself to her feet. “I have misplaced only one arm, sister. I am hardly helpless.”

When she nodded with a ripsaw grin across thin but pretty lips Ms. Parsley stepped forward into the next rushing automaton. The top of her right pistol caught and held its weighty weapon until she jabbed the other up under its exposed ribcage and pulled trigger twice. That redcap fell inert before the gunslinger and she took her single shot left in the one gun on Stag’s Head only to scowl as he turned the bullet away with screaming shoulder guard. As her body shifted its position to the wind did as well, blowing open coat way from her torso. This time her refilling empty revolver while still firing away with the other was not hidden, nor was the same style of corset that Ms. Thyme wore. She however had gone rather improperly blouse-less beneath. Thus the glow of her heart shaped center could be barely seen along with the scar tissue and brown stained metal around it. “Then this should be a stroll in the park.”

Knowing that Ms. Parsley’s expert gunplay could only hold back the redcaps for so long Ms. Thyme soldiered on even if the integrity of her middle was rapidly declining. The clock started ticking again. Within two steps and with a loud whine her long legs were back up to speed and the dead overseer’s storm-lance was in hand. As she spun the crackling staff like a baton despite its girth and width she forcibly ignored Harper as he looked over the edge of the Pier. Plainly he was flabbergasted now as well that she was still functioning despite grievous wounds. She skipped off to the right, away from him and around one redcap’s lazy swing. The bloodthirsty bots were going to get no fresh red tonight. Ms. Thyme swept the redcap’s legs out from under it before shoving the rod against its metal frame to see what the arcs of green electricity would do. In time with her acrobatics Ms. Parsley advanced and gunned down the automaton that tried to gut the one armed war-dancer next.

Here on Pier #6 the dispatched redcaps were finally starting to thin out and thus those that remained did not rush forward to attack but rather after harsh order pulled their ranks in to defend junior and senior overseer. Over on Pier #7 the regular lads weren’t doing nearly as good but were still holding their own despite getting into it hand to hand with the buggers. The troops over on Pier #5 had their hands full evacuating those civilians that could move while trying to keep the horde there at bay. Harper worked back onto the edge and looked around before lifting ‘Kitty’s’ sword. The strange blade had a brass and mother of pearl cross guard but no leather warps over its hilt, just exposed metal and contact points.

Ms. Thyme one-handed somersaulted away when it was clear that the storm-lance only worked on the living or close facsimiles. She considered flinging bolts at the overseers just as the lesser one was now throwing them at her. Now that she knew what to look for the faux woman was too quick to be struck down. She zinged the staff out so it skipped along the dock and into the redcap fodder. Its impact created a blinding flare as the green lightning intensified and showered off of their metal forms. When she skidded to a stop the swordswoman darted her gaze about looking for a fresh weapon.

“Kitty!” Harper took a few hard steps before pitching her sword back toward her. It was better used in her hand than his. Hopefully she wouldn’t sling it right back at him. The cry and motion caught Ms. Parsley’s eye and pale brow arched. Subconsciously the tom-boyish blonde posed for the brave man and she graced him with an easy smile.

Ms. Thyme was ill amused by both actions. After a short dash she caught the blade and within seconds of touching her palm it hummed back to angry life. Boot soles glided across oil slickened planks in a long slide until the speedster braced herself against the heap of redcaps where she’d began. In that moment’s pause at the center of raging battle Harper had the good sense to back away to the edge while eying the gunslinger’s arms. Those revolvers were so large he doubted he could easy fire one even if he was holding it with both of his rather meaty hands. The thing that looked like Kitty was leaking oil had turning gears instead of guts. They had to be two of the Thistle Sisters but why did one look like Kitty? The blonde had to be Ms. Parsley. His best mate Basil had mooned over one of her press cards often enough in the past.

Six redcaps remained, out of which two were pulling themselves back to stand after being tripped up by thrown staff. Ms. Thyme’s lips moved slow as she realigned timing. “Three, two, one. Keep them down.”

Relentless the mechanical revenant bolted off and had no doubt in Ms. Parsley’s ability, and for good reason. As Ms. Thyme raced for the weak point in the automaton’s line the trigger-woman unleashed a hail of searing lead on the two rising redcaps. The pair lifted their large flat forearms in defense but each shot punched a large hole straight through steel. Back they were driven even as Ms. Thyme sprung ahead. She plowed with both heels straight into the left most defender just as the last volley of shots struck and smashed it violently down to the ground. Its armor shattered under her soles. As both whacked against the Pier Ms.Thyme’s right foot caught the jagged forearm, spun it up and sent its clawed hand sailing into the crystal heart of one of the other bots rushing in on her via a swift kick. Even as she turned with more grace than most ballerinas the one-armed fury plunged her blade into the side of the other covered up redcap’s shimmering steel skull and leapt up, pulling the sword from one temple all the way across to the other. Her legs slammed into the side of redcap four’s armament driving its lumbering bulk back. By then Ms. Parsley had refreshed her revolvers and was charging. She blasted apart one of globes of the lesser overseers’ storm-lance as the fomorian raised it to bash Ms. Thyme. She still couldn’t get a good bead on Stag’s Head. The senior taskmaster was wise enough to move behind the two redcaps remaining and back closer to the ship.

The misshapen giant didn’t however fully break and flee onto the ship. Once one added that fact to that of the wailing souls were still being pulled into the bowels of the warship it was obvious that there had to be one of the dreaded Beautiful Ones onboard. Only the sheer malignancy of one of those towering horrors could keep an overseer’s blatant self-interest in check from all reports. Both Ms. Thyme and Ms. Parsley knew they would have to wait until their other two sisters arrived before even attempting to tackle such a problem. Hopefully their silent but shared assumption was incorrect.

A fresh crackle of emerald lightning sizzled past the pretty pistoleer as she threw herself to the ground with an angry ruffle of red jacket. Epaulet scraped along popping a few threads as she rolled and was back up to her lady’s riding boots, just in time too. The wood was seared by another blast. Ms. Thyme was making short work of the last two redcaps so Ms. Parsley continued forward snapping off another two shots from her right revolver before diving behind a pile of corpses so they could absorb wild bolts. One bullet glanced off of the lesser overseer’s black and greasy breastplate. Its ingrained circles too similar to ringworm scars were marred but lumpy body beneath went unscathed. Baleful moonlight reflected off of the fomorian’s armor as it moved out of the way of the second shot, the almost insect like raised ridges of bronzed armor between unclean spirals highlighted. Chunks of sizzling flesh sprayed over the top of Ms. Parsley, she shifted to the right of the stacked corpses and squeezed off a shot toward his leg. The overseer stumbled as part of his shin disintegrated but the armor between absorbed most of the damage. Even as she drew back behind the safety of the dead to avoid the next lancing of lightning Ms. Parsley fired again. The overseer didn’t have much control at all over the artificial storm any more, the damaged end of the galvanic staff was held back and low. It sputtered sparks and stray cables curled together like a dying spider’s legs as they burned. The lesser fomorian left his direct master’s side out of desperation and started to rapidly limp ahead to see if he could catch this gun-toting maid close up. Green bolts were hurled one after another to keep her suppressed. Of course that left Stag’s Head alone with Ms. Thyme as she shattered the last redcap’s heart from behind while facing the lead fomorian. The automaton’s eyes lost their luster slowly before spine separated.

The head overseer made his move while the larger battle continued to rage about them. The formerly Prussian warship was still lobbing out shells but slower now that the bulk of the human military had arrived. Both Piers on either side of #5 were full blown melees as man struggled against mechanized fairies and inhuman invaders. It was hard to tell at the moment exactly who was winning. Stepping up with a low and guttural cry Stag’s Head thrust his spear forward through an inert but standing redcap even as its body was falling apart. The intention had been to catch the one-armed warrior off guard but she leaned away with an extreme craning of her body, false bones jutting further from gashed side. The lean became a crouch as the overseer swept the horse-splitter to the side pulverizing what was left of the once mobile automaton. Back to dancing between ticks and tocks Ms. Thyme judged where his spear was going to turn as the head flared its electrical runes before he even thought of doing so. It was jabbed down at a sudden angle toward her heart. Sword snaked out as she continued to move with the sort of poised drift that only crafted things could perform. As the burning spear slimly missed coasting across her chest Ms. Thyme caught it just behind the head. She tried not to flinch away from the terrible power coursing contact. To throw Stag’s Head off balance she tugged violently. The overseer lurched forward and she fell flat on her back. Both legs whipped up as she flipped over backwards, pistons firing after they planted in the gut of the fomorian’s offal smeared armor. Finally Ms. Thyme smiled as she heard ribs crack and back Stag’s Head reeled taking his spear with him.

Having gathered up the fortitude to jog the lesser fomorian jabbed the ruptured end of his storm-lance deep into Ms. Parley’s once living cover. She was already on the move, popping to her feet she ran backwards and managed to edge a bullet between already ruptured plates and evaporate the rest of the fomorian’s lower leg. The gunslinger’s second pistol would have placed her next shot into what looked to be the tumor infested hollow of its throat but even as the moonman caved in he gave the middle of his staff a twist. The remaining orb at the top flared violently before dimming akin to a blown light bulb, all of the coils and wires lashed about from overload. Like a grim pile of fragmentation grenades the stacked dead exploded outward and tossed Ms. Parsley away. She bounced along for several yards before ending up on her side, body punctured by the shards of many others. Blonde hair spread across the dock around her shocked and narrow face, head scarf undone by the gory explosion. The overseer used his now depowered staff to try to stand. One gun lost and one pretty eye ruined by… well Ms Parsley didn’t even what to think about what was stuck in it, it took the industrial shooter several moments to recover. When she did it was with a curse better suited for a veteran soldier’s lips. She unloaded what bullets she had left along with a trio of empty clicks into the unsteady monster. As much as Ms. Parsley wanted to take this bastard apart like he’d just desecrated those poor dead people she had to be satisfied with the brute slumping dead to the ground instead.

Shapely jaw clenched as Ms. Parsley used the still smoking barrel of her pistol to move into a crouch while waves of golden tresses framed her face. In her mind the faux sex symbol knew it was best to hold the pose so those good fighting boys to the left and right might be captured by the patriotic beauty of it and inspired to fight on. That and she had the giddy hope one or two of them might send her sloppy love notes, those were always such a treat. The gears in her legs ground as she stood straight and tall, gauging how Ms. Thyme was fair in her fight. Once it was clear that the damaged swords-woman was holding her own Ms. Parsley started to haltingly advance because of bits of bone lodged between some of her cogs. In the meantime she took a breather to reload her remaining revolver and glance about for where the other one had skipped off too. She caught Harper there just staring not at her but the mess of devastated bodies. Tsking she snatched his attention with the best petulant pout she could and the flutter of the eye which still worked.

“No calling me by another woman’s name and tossing my sidearm too me in a rather heroic fashion? For shame. I do believe I am heartbroken.” Her voice lifted with amusement despite the Grand Guignol all around them Ms. Parsley motioned for the seaman to make for some sort of cover before squinting and taking aim. The problem when paring up with Ms. Thyme sometimes was that girl moved too fast to risk shooting into melee. The glow of her heart intensified highlighting where soft skin ended and burnished gold cage began.

It might be true that Ms. Thyme had yet to suffer any more wounds at the end of spear but she had yet to inflict one with her singing sword either. Now that Stag’s Head fully realized that her feet were perhaps more dangerous than the blade he kept using haft to keep them away while trying to skewer the madcap contraption wrapped in the guise of a girl. For Ms. Thyme slowing down was not an option. It was clear the weapon could easily sheer metal and she didn’t want to end up like all those redcaps she’d demolished. The swordswoman deflected a sweep of the spear’s back end meant to crack open her jaw before she skipped back a step. The overseer spun the weapon around the center of his mass. Out the lance’s more lethal point snapped but she was already moving to the other side in mid-leap. As her soles graced wood she drove forward with a hard thrust. For now the mechanical woman wasn’t trying anything fancy, her rhythm was too disjointed due to the damage done to her chassis for anything more than the basics. Even as sword tip ripped up with sparks and flecks pulled from abused metal armor she had to abandon this gambit when Stag’s Head whipped his body and thus the spear’s haft into her flank. The reverberating sound was horrible but Ms. Thyme just rolled with the strike taking some satisfaction from fetid blood oozing through fresh tears in black steel.

She expected for the fomorian to follow up with throwing out a shoulder at her but that was only half the case. While he pushed off on thick muscled legs Stag’s Head didn’t turn his now aligned shoulder into her but rather lowered his head like a charging buck. Remiss in not realizing that gilded antlers could be a weapon too Ms. Thyme paid the price as they gouged into both of her shoulders. With toss of his neck the slaver threw her down to the ground hard. She didn’t stop moving however, legs spun to kick his dolorous blow away. One of those grand horns disappeared as Ms. Parsley blew it off. Now that Ms. Thyme was down but not out she could pop off a few rounds.

The second bullet tore a bloody path through Stag’s Head’s side even as he drew back for the ship once more and bellowed out a plea. As the next three slugs whistled their way to kill shots the fomorian spun his spear, the galvanic rune shifted. Pulled off of their correct trajectory each of the bullets exploded against the weapon’s steel in showers of sparks. Stag’s Head, now half-emasculated, firmly set the backend of his spear to the ground with a groan of the whale bone it was crafted from and a jingle of tiny rings attached to the last foot of its length. Ms. Parsley’s last bullet before having to reload veered off to be destroyed by the head as well. She swore loudly. The taskmaster merely adjusted his black and red tartan signifying of rank and turned his head left and right. No fresh reinforcements would be coming from the flanks.

Ms. Thyme somersaulted all the way back to her sister before she crouched next to Ms. Parsley’s regal legs. Stag’s Head bellowed again in barbaric tongue and this time with kicked the side of the warship behind him with steel shod heel.

“Our adversary it seems,” Ms. Parsley eyed the spear for a moment before looking up along the ship’s hull. She locked a fresh cylinder into place. “Is trying to summon up assistance. I suggest that we be rid of him quick before it arrives?”

“I concur fully, Ms. Parsley.” Ms. Thyme half-stood, her body poised like a leopard ready to feast. She did her best to ignore the fact that this man Harper was still there. The strange and uncomfortable manner would be dealt with later. Mr. Thistle had warned them that incidents such as this might happen. “By my summation his weapon is currently absorbing your expert shots so he does not perish quickly from them. Might I advise that you keep the pressure on as engineers adore saying while I charge in and make short work while his stance is one of total defense.”

“Agreed. Whenever you have the measure worked out.” The oversized pistol crafted of finest Damascus steel and tempered with Colt’s ingenuity rose once more. Its briar and flower etching was illegible in the dim light. Ms. Parsley’s fingers adjusted around mother of pearl grip. Weight, wind, and motion sensors adjusted under her skin, relaying information to the miniaturized difference engine which aided her preternatural aim. Right now it was all that was compensating for her lack of depth perception. “Pray do it quickly, sister. My systems are quite damaged. As are yours.”

“Every moment has its place, Ms. Parsley. They can neither be rushed nor delayed but occur precisely where they must.” Slow to nod Ms. Thyme pushed hair away from the sides of her face with as much aplomb as she might given the circumstances.

“Fatalist.” The tall blonde blew out lingering breath and adjusted her stance with a slow slide of shrapnel harried legs.

Ms. Thyme’s retort was just as simple. “Tart.”

Nearly finished composing coming cadence of violence in her mind the swordswoman lifted her chin and was about to motion for their action to start when Harper cried out that other name in warning. His alarm arrived when it was supposed to, and thus overdue for the pair of artifice.

Carried off her feet on a torrent of fused together solid shadows and ravenous wraiths Ms. Parsley screamed before crashing into to the insides of an armored coach all the way down past the beginning of Pier #6. Its steam pipes cried out and blew long streams as they were bent and the doughboys manning its guns were thrown into the air like scattered confetti.

Ms. Thyme wound down low once more, sword flaring to the side. Her black hair was spread out in a long wave for a moment before settling even as unease washed from her artificial core. There was no doubt in her mind that Ms. Parsley was quite possibly down for the count but green eyes didn’t move from what aberration now perched on the warship’s railing with one foot like an arrogant pirate lord posing for swooning women. It wasn’t the sensual admiration of the people of Scarborough the Beautiful One craved but rather their very bondage body and soul. She had never seen one of these dark masters in any manner save blurred photographs and his utterly foreign, utterly terrible, beauty struck her motionless.

Unlike the common fomorian the Vain stood straight and tall with a regal mien that made the kings and queens of earth seem filth weaned squatters. He raised his arm to the heavens full of grace. Raiment’s woven from unearthly textile covered with interlaced patterns of royal purple, abyssal black and living tangles of thorns washed around his body. It was hard to tell if it was a robe or just one rather voluminous cape but throughout the fertile mass sigils associated with these lunar folk drifted like drunken fireflies. Perhaps a lesser mind, or one not restrained by programming, would be caught in the maddening depths offered. It was as if the Beautiful One was wearing a swath torn from reality and slung around handsome shoulders instead of simple cloth. Glimpses of slight and delicately muscled chest peeked out. His flawless skin held a milky white tone that every woman would envy. Just like his oafish cousins that perfect canvass bore the occasional primal tattoo or brand. The Beautiful One’s feet were clad in painfully exquisite leatherwork sandals with scrolled stripes of brass and gold inserted between Roman styled weave to just below knee. Rings of polished bones covered with wards fortified every finger while most of the digits also had silver talon-like jewelry. The arm that was held up in a gesture of absolute domination was likewise covered in dark leather straps and plates of precious metal. Hovering a little over two inches from spread palm a jagged chunk of crimson crystal seethed with wicked hunger. Small bits of the moon’s true form orbited around the central shard. Having expended power to thrust Ms. Parsley away the hellstone craved souls to replenish it, they were the source of the Vain’s arcane power. It was the same sort of stone that made up every heart of the metal fey.

It was when the fomorian master looked down to the mechanical woman that Ms. Thyme recalled what fear was like. Within flowing waves of idealized auburn hair broken here and there by tight braids and sparrow skulls was a face whose two asymmetrical halves dashed all previous concepts of what beauty meant. The uncovered left was truly elfin with long exquisite features hinged around sharp cheekbone and an eye of lavish beryl mothers would murder their children just to find favor within. Lips were thin yet becoming, what could be seen of chin slim but masculine.

Oh that mouth became all the more devastating when the Beautiful One smiled down at Ms. Thyme. It lit up his visible features with all the power of revelation. “Two broken dolls? My feast has been interrupted by two broken dolls. How… amusing.”

The other half of his face was covered by a mask of aged and cracked wood. Dominating the façade was a labyrinthine circle which it seemed that every mote of light that entered was doomed to wander its halls until it wasted away from starvation. Like a great eye it gleamed with unbridled and unclean power. Aboriginal motifs one would expect to find in caves lit by Neanderthal fires made up the rest of the covering, pictures of hunting men, of great beasts, of bloody victory and bitter loss. There was something ancient lent to this invader from the heavens because of that mask; something tied it to prehistoric fears rooted deep in mankind’s evolution.

“Well sweet plaything.” The Beautiful One held her captive by gaze and primeval voice. “Let us see how many souls your destruction will cost mankind in recompense.”

The hellstone surged and rippled with unhinged ache as freshly tortured souls screamed back to a mockery of life. It was like the fuse of a primitive cannon flickering for just a breath. As eldritch shot burst and violated the air between palm and Ms. Thyme it made no sound. Green eyes dilated and the woman built had no life to flash before them.

Harper was already diving with no concern for his well being and discarded storm-lance in hand…

To be continued

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