The pale body lay within a soiled cloak under a busy swarm of flies. The family of vegetable merchants who had found it in the roadside ditch near the City of Iron sat in their open wagon, the father insisting his wife and children keep their eyes away from the corpse. Against his own advice he mustered furtive glances to make sure it did not stir with daemonic life.
He knew not how the man had died. The body wore the armor of a Legion foot soldier, but if his soul had been replaced with a Hellbourne seed that began to grow, the merchant would see how fast his sway-backed mule could pull. If it were up to him, he’d get a fire going and the body would be ash before nightfall. The dead could no longer be trusted to stay so.
But the messenger riding the fleet steed from The Capital to the City of Iron had ordered him to stay with the corpse and make sure no one touched or moved it.
“Aye, but what if he moves himself?” the merchant muttered. He whispered a prayer to Sol and tried to focus on his wife singing softly to soothe the children, but the flies seemed to grow louder to spite him.
Ahead, the rutted track darkened with shapes approaching from the City of Iron. The shapes became a man on a horse and a wheeled contraption that spewed black smoke into the canopy of trees shading the road. The horseman galloped ahead and the merchant recognized the messenger, his face drawn and damp with sweat.
He reined his blowing mount near the merchant’s cart. “Has anything changed in my absence?”
“He’s still dead,” the merchant said.
“And no one has touched him?”
“We resisted the urge.”
The messenger scowled. “You’d be wise to keep your answers respectful when he arrives.”
He nodded at the chugging vehicle, which squealed to a halt in the middle of the road. The black smoke continued forward and swept over the merchant’s wagon and family. When it cleared a wide, stocky man with round tinted goggles and a crazed red beard stood over the corpse, his hands on his hips. The cigar in his mouth traveled from one side to the other, then back.
The merchant leaned toward the messenger. “Is that…”
“The Master himself,” the messenger said. “Tork. He could have sent any of his Engineers but insisted on coming himself.”
“Did he know the dead man?”
The messenger shook his head. “He came because he thinks he knows the killer.”
Tork waved his cigar over the dead soldier to scatter the flies, then knelt and tugged the cloak aside. He grunted. The body was as he’d expected, and feared. Legs missing below the knees, the stumps indicating several hacks from axe-like blades to sever the limbs. Chest and stomach pocked with dozens of bruised puncture wounds, as if the poor lad had been stuck again and again with needles as large as a fire poker.
Tork had seen enough wounds of butchery, on others as well as himself, to know the soldier had been alive for all of it. The only good news was he didn’t have his entire chest cavity bored out, as some of the bodies had, and he’d most likely died of blood loss. Not a bad way to go, if it happens quickly enough. And it must have happened quickly—Tork couldn’t find a drop anywhere on the body.
He pulled the cloak over the young man’s contorted face and stood. The corpses were increasing in frequency, dumped throughout Legion territory without any effort to conceal—let alone consecrate—them. King Jeraziah and the Martyrs believed they were sacrifices to the dark gods and arts of the Hellbourne.
Tork knew better. He’d built and tested countless machines designed to maim, kill, destroy. This body, and the others like it, were target practice.
Tork spat the cigar into the mud and returned to his steam-powered wagon. He cranked the steering column around and churned toward the City of Iron, unsure what worried him more; the fact that the target practice seemed to be nearing an end and the source of the grisly deaths would soon be unleashed upon the battlefield, or that he recognized the twisted mind behind their creation.