Tork yanked on the shoulder straps to ensure the steel backpack could not shift once Caustor ignited the fuel that would spray from the nozzles along the bottom. He checked the flame rifle again and found specks of grit near the trigger. As he turned to take it inside the shop for cleaning Caustor pulled the weapon from his hands.
“It’s fine,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, I’ll swing it like a hammer. Seems heavy enough.”
“If it doesn’t work,” Tork said, “you’ll be too busy screaming and burning alive.” He’d grown to almost like the flameless Pyromancer over the previous days as they worked to tailor the weapon system to Caustor’s shape and movements.
Caustor shrugged. “It’s in Sol’s hands now. Always has been.”
Tork bit hard on his cigar. How a man could rely on faith when the hard guarantees of engineering were right in front of him for the taking, he’d never know. Though he had to admit, if any of the apprentices, journeymen, and citizens of the City of Iron gathered to watch the first test run of his steam-powered weapons wanted to pray for success, he wouldn’t stop them.
Caustor stepped into the clearing of hard-packed dirt and slid the brass helmet onto his head. The polished metal gleamed in the midday sunlight as he pulled the optics and breathing apparatus over his face. The weight of the heavy armor, leggings and boots he wore was partially alleviated by small steam hoses and finely-tuned gear sets, which helped Caustor flex and extend his arms and legs.
Tork held his breath and the front row of spectators took a few prudent steps back as Caustor turned valves on his forearms and pressed the ignition switch. The cylinders on his back shot blade-like blue flames toward the ground. Someone in the crowd clapped and was quickly shushed.
Caustor adjusted the valves and settings, as Tork had shown him, and the flames reached lower and shifted from orange to purple to blue as the fuel mixture changed. The Pyromancer’s boots left the ground briefly and he tipped forward and stumbled a few steps. Tork heard him cursing inside the helmet; a mother frowned and covered her child’s ears with her apron.
Caustor bowed his head for a moment and seemed to be second-guessing the entire ordeal, then he cranked a valve all the way open and sprang into the air. The crowd scattered as he skimmed above their heads, his feet kicking, but Tork stood his ground and yelled, “Lean forward! Tuck your legs or you’ll burn them off!”
Whether he’d been heard or not Tork didn’t know, but Caustor slowly made the series of tiny position and balance adjustments needed to halt his flailing. He hovered in front of the Engineer, mostly under control with the occasional overcorrection and spasm.
“This is as close to the heavens as I’ve ever been,” Caustor yelled inside the helmet.
“You have no idea,” Tork muttered, then called, “How high will it take you?”
Caustor eased a hand onto the valves and began to rise. The flames took him above the rooflines and the wall that encircled the City of Iron. He turned in a slow circle, in awe of Sol’s creations stretching to the horizon. Then he saw the black smoke approaching from the east. His optics zoomed and focused, and he saw what created the smoke and what else traveled with it.
Caustor said, “Tork, is that steam-powered Behemoth you’re working on ready for battle?”
“Battle?” Tork laughed. “Right now it’s good for casting a large shadow, that’s about the extent of it.”
Caustor touched the end of his rifle to the flames jetting from his backpack. The pilot light at the end of its barrel ignited. The Pyromancer sent a burst into the sky and watched it fade to a wisp of curling soot.
“You’d best get to work then,” Caustor said. “The fight is coming to us, whether we’re ready or not.”
Then he disappeared over the wall, flying toward the oncoming threat to see if he and Tork’s invention were worthy of Sol’s blessings.
Caustor hovered at the top of a rise that dropped away to the east. His enhanced optics offered a slightly fish-eyed view of the approaching Hellbourne. At the center was a towering block of burning gray steel that churned across the landscape, felling any trees in its path with enormous axes and crushing them beneath rows of iron wheels.
A man stood on the back of the machine, his arms crossed and chin high as if he surveyed a freshly conquered domain. The smoke and steam from the axe-studded vehicle partially obscured him, but the Pyromancer caught glimpses of a high collar and waving hair, flashes of white teeth.
His eyes were pulled from the man to a hideous creature loping in the machine’s wake. It looked to be made of raw flesh and rusted metal, the panels screwed and bolted into its chest and limbs. Its fingers and thumbs were tipped with wicked needles, and vials of collected blood sloshed on its back. Caustor shuddered when he realized this fiend was the source of some of the brutal deaths Tork had told him about; those poor Legion soldiers with dozens of puncture wounds and not a speck of blood on them.
The train-like monstrosity explained the severed limbs and bodies found cleaved almost in two—but Caustor recalled saying a prayer when Tork had mentioned the bodies with no torso at all, just a ravaged hole where the stomach, heart and lungs ought to be. To Caustor, the two daemonic creations beginning the climb to his perch did not look capable of that sort of damage.
Then the ground began to tremble.
The ground to the right of the Hellbourne rose and swelled into a mound, as if infected. Which it was, Caustor realized. Birds scattered from the trees as a giant spinning drill of scarred metal tore through the mound, followed by two exhaust pipes that spewed toxic smoke into the sky. The machine’s body was a series of overlapping, pulsating segments driven forward by two claw-like arms and eight razor-sharp skittering legs.
Caustor could see no working eyes on the abomination, yet it seemed to focus on him and alter its course for the hilltop. The loping bloodsucker followed, and the monstrous train slowed only long enough for the man to leap from its back onto a shattered oak trunk, then it too steamed toward the Pyromancer.
Caustor checked his gauges and valves one last time. He triggered the pilot light on his wrist-mounted flamethrower for when the rifle ran low and spoke a final prayer: “Alright Sol. I know we’ve had our differences in the past. I may have done some things you didn’t fancy—a little careless with my flames, perhaps—which compelled you to strip me of my beloved fire. I hope you don’t mind; I’ve gotten it back. I’d be obliged if you didn’t engulf me in them, and if you have the time I could use some help wiping these unholy devils from the face of your glorious creation. I guess that’s it then. Ta for now.”
The Pyromancer drifted forward. The Hellbourne had spread into a line as they climbed the slope.
Caustor had to laugh. “Bled dry by needles on the left, crushed and hacked in the middle, or gored straight through on the right? What’s a lad to choose?”
A great horn sounded, and at first Caustor believed it came from the train belching black smoke from its stack. But his helmet indicated the sound was behind him. Caustor turned and saw a blessed sight indeed. Tork’s massive steam-powered Behemoth lumbered through the gates of the City of Iron, jetting vapor and clutching a crumpled support beam in its steel claw.
The Pyromancer laughed again when he realized the Engineer rode upon the machine’s shoulders, turning final bolts and finishing last-second welds before turning his invention loose. Caustor gave a fierce war cry worthy of Sol’s gift, and when Tork dropped from the Steamoth, watched it take its first steps into battle, then loaded his blunderbuss, the Pyromancer knew he was back in his god’s good favor.
And he knew this day, he would need it.