Far to the east on the fringe of dead forest below Grimm’s Crossing, a line of Legion soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, their swords, spears, axes and hammers ready behind overlapping shields. To their rear civilians scurried about a tiny, shabby settlement, some fool’s suicidal idea to occupy the no-man’s-land between Caldavar and Hell’s Keep in an attempt to force the daemons to retreat.
When the rescue detail had arrived the Legionnaire sergeant in command cuffed the settlement’s planner across the ear. “You’ve never faced a real daemon, have you? They don’t retreat. Ever. Certainly not when there’s unarmed meat to be had. Now pack your things and run. Better yet, just run. We’ll make sure you live to spread this lesson of stunning idiocy.”
Then the rescuers had formed a defensive wall, because the Hellbourne were coming.
“Hold together lads,” the sergeant said. “They’ll try to dart around us, get to the easy pickings. Those of you with spears, it makes for good targets.”
The trees and undergrowth ahead were gray and barren but dense enough to hide whatever approached. Strange sounds floated to the Legion warriors—metal scraping on metal, hissing and loud coughs.
“Is that a sick horse?” a private asked.
“Quiet,” the sergeant said.
Ravens and buzzards waited in the branches of the dead trees. There would be death soon, they knew, and it would be a race to the edible corpses; only the sick or damned carrion eaters could stomach Hellbourne flesh. Suddenly, every bird launched into the sky as an explosion beyond the treeline sent a plume of black smoke toward the gray clouds. The sergeant had a brief moment of hope, believing whatever the daemons tinkered with had blown apart, maybe even taken their cursed souls back to hell.
Then a man laughed and the explosion was followed by another smaller one, and another. They were accompanied by a sharp hissing, like a giant breathing, and one of the trees toppled over. It fell with a sharp crack and a startling swiftness. A second tree followed, this one closer to the Legion soldiers, and a third as the explosions and hissing got louder.
The sergeant’s eyes were drawn to a shape in the trees, off to the side. It looked like a man in a large coat, the collar raised, peering at them with some sort of double telescope. The sergeant could see the man’s brilliant white teeth, then his attention was pulled to the treeline as a machine his nightmares could never have conjured burst into the clearing.
A private to the sergeant’s left gasped. “Bloody—”
“Hold the line,” the sergeant said. He did not raise his voice or let concern leak into his words. Behind him the settlers shrieked and tripped over each other to escape. Ahead, the Hellbourne machine churned across the dead earth and raised a giant axe.
The sergeant had once been stationed at an outpost in the Frost Fields, and during an unprecedented warm spell a block of ice had fallen from the side of a mountain, exposing a cave entrance. Inside were semi-preserved artifacts from the Era of Man, scattered across what seemed to be a way station for giant carts that rode on straight rails made of iron. The machine steaming toward them echoed those devices, but none of them had burned and glowed with internal flames as this terror did, nor did they bristle with double-bladed axes chopping and slashing faster as it picked up speed.
A private cleared his throat. “Orders for attack, sir?”
“Fight with all you have,” the sergeant said. “And die with honor.”
The steaming machine smashed into their line and sent soldiers through the air, their bodies shredded and broken. Those on the flanks closed in and tried to scale the sides of the seething contraption, only to be cut down by the flaying axes along its hide. To a man, the rescue detail was killed, then the machine moved on to the settlers. It did not stop until each was hunted in the dead forest and slain.
When the steam-powered machine was finished it returned to its creator, who let his binoculars hang from his neck as he inspected the gore-covered plates and weapons of the invention he had named Mortracksus. Satisfied, he pulled a notebook from his jacket and turned past the sketches and designs and equations to the checklist for Mortracksus. The final item was “Defeat Armed and Organized Resistance.”
The man licked the end of his pencil and slashed a checkmark next to it. He put the notebook away and winked at his amazing machine.
“Well my dear, I think it’s time to cut you loose. I could follow your path of destruction straight to The Capital, but I think we’ll detour through the City of Iron and say hello to an old friend.”
Then he led Mortracksus back to the Hellbourne camp, for there were more inventions to test.