The Aegis of M
Renaud pressed a hand against the metal rail that ran through the open plain, caressing its cool surface. With a grim expression on his face he turned and raced over to the hill where his five companions stood. A sharp wind blew over the group, causing their cloaks to billow behind them.
"You were right, Thibaut," Renaud said to one, a small man with messy black hair and gleaming eyes. "The Dragon's cursed brood passes this way now."
Thibaut snorted. "And you thought that I was simply jesting. I do not joke about dragons and the like."
"No, you don't," replied another one of their companions, a tall mountain of a man. "We should not have doubted you."
"So what do we do now?" asked a thin, reedy man with thick, bushy whiskers stabbing out in all directions from his face.
Renaud turned toward the tracks, a dark expression on his face. "Where the dragon's brood goes, men soon follow," he remarked. "Armies." He grated his teeth against each other. Ever since their people were cast back beyond the Rhine that had been the pattern. The metal tracks appeared and then came the beasts, belching fire and smoke. The armies followed soon after to protect them, though why he did not know. They were not wyrms, at least he did not think so, but he had no other way to describe them.
"Do you propose that we try to stop them?" asked Thibaut. His eyes glimmered in the daylight, a worried tint to them. Renaud didn't blame him—could not.
"If only we knew the nature of these beasts," he mused, "then perhaps we could stop them. He looked down at the trail thoughtfully. "Perhaps…"
He shook his head. It didn't make sense. The beasts seemed to need those straight metal paths to get around. His father said as much, but it sounded ridiculous all the same.
"The trails," he said finally, coming to a decision. "We shall destroy the trails." He turned to the mountain of a man that was with them and nodded to him. "Can you do it?"
The mountain nodded and strode toward the trails, a small gleam materializing around him.
Jacob Albiker jotted some notes down in his diary, listening to the clacking noise of the train's wheels as it carried its passengers to its destination in Gaulic Albion. The sound was lulling and he fought to keep himself awake. He knew that it didn't matter, having plenty of time, as the trains moved slowly enough, still being a fairly new technology, but he preferred to have his thoughts and notes organized now. One page showed details of geography, particularly the landscape known as Kiev Rus' while the page next to it held additional notations, dates and times with arrows pointing to specific areas.
Setting his pen down, he ran his freed hand through his thick mop of dark-brown hair. He was sure he was missing something. He flipped back to earlier points in his journal. The newest pages merely summarized his experiences in the past year. Perhaps there was something he missed?
Everything seems to be in order, he thought, not finding anything out of the ordinary. That's just terrific. That means this is going to bother me for the rest of the trip.
Leaning back in his seat he blinked twice, widening his eyes as he did so. It did little good in fighting off his fatigue. Maybe I'd better just nap it off and attack this when I'm refre…
He was jolted out of his thoughts when the train's brakes unexpectedly shrieked, forcing it to a halt. Jacob cursed as nearly hit the seat in front of him. No sooner was he certain that nothing else was going to happen he got up. All around him were the surprised and panicked whispers of the other passengers—merchants and businessmen mostly—wondering what was going on. A compartment door opened in the back and in strode the conductor, heading toward the front of the train.
"At ease everyone," he said, fanning his eyes over everyone as he passed, "at ease. Return to your seats, I will be back momentarily to tell you what's going on. In the meantime, don't panic."
Grabbing his dark-brown jacket, Jacob threw it on and went after the man. "Excuse me," he said. "If I could come with you…"
The conductor turned toward him, mouth already opening to protest, but upon seeing the patch on his shoulder—a golden ring surrounding a silver orb with six points stabbing from them, the symbol of the Albion military—he simply nodded. "Come along," he agreed. "Come along."
They made their way to the front of the train in short order and located the driver, who had stepped off the train and was now swearing loudly outside.
"What seems to be the trouble?" asked the conductor. "Get this train moving!"
"Trouble with the track," replied a grimy-looking man, no doubt the one who shoveled coal into the furnace.
"What sort of trouble?" demanded the conductor. Instead of waiting for an answer he pushed past the man, his face red with fury. Giving the workman a sympathetic look he followed the conductor and took a glance outside. Trouble didn't even describe the problem that they had. The track in front of them had been torn up and ripped free from its moorings. Some of it lay nearby like a twisted serpent, while other bits were…absent entirely from immediate view. Jacob scanned the landscape, looking for any sign of who might have done this. He suspected a German tribe as they remained in the land beyond the Rhine in spite of the severe defeats handed to them the past few centuries, but their ability to do this kind of damage to Albion technology didn't seem possible.
They're much too superstitious anyway, he thought. They wouldn't dare try. Unless…
His hand drifted to his cloak and brushed it aside, revealing the wooden grip of his flintlock pistol. He brought his hand to rest on it, but did not as yet draw it.
Shit. Left my sword back on the train…
"We've got to get this train moving!" continued the conductor, spitting anger at the driver.
"It'll be harder that way since we're facing this way," grunted the driver. "Not saying it's impossible though. It'll screw up operations for miles around. The gov' isn't going to be too pleased about that."
"There's no chance that they'll blame you for it," soothed Jacob, stepping forward. "Immunes Jacob Albiker." He pointed to his rank insignia on his coat's shoulders above the Albion symbol. "I'll be sure to testify for you when we get back to civilization."
"A Legionnaire?" The driver looked Jacob over with a critical eye.
"Yes," Jacob smiled, though it was a thin one that did not reach his eyes. "I suggest that we do as the conductor says and get moving. We're out in the open here."
As if waiting for him to say that a loud howl broke across the air, causing all the men there to freeze up. Drawing his pistol Jacob's eyes darted toward the horizon, searching for its source. Sure enough he saw it, a large, shambling monstrosity of a creature stalking toward them from just over the next hill.
My worst fear… he thought, swallowing hard. Even if they started the train now they weren't going to be able to get away fast enough. He needed to buy them some time.
"Conductor," Jacob said, withdrawing his ticket from his coat pocket and handing it off to him. "I'm afraid that I'm under-armed for this particular battle. I'm going to need you to fetch my sword from the compartment above my seat. Can you do that for me?"
Jacob turned a dark glare at him. "Now!" he shouted. That seemed to snap the man out of his paralysis. Spinning on a dime he raced back into the train and began to rush toward the passenger compartments. Jacob brought his gaze to rest on the driver, who had also broken out of his fear and was inside the train, revving it up and throwing it in reverse. Jacob grabbed hold of the train and climbed aboard, keeping a close eye on the creature while cocking his pistol.
It probably has considerable durability, he thought, taking in the monster's size, and it was huge, easily towering at ten feet high and six feet from elbow to elbow. Its arms were a hulking mass of muscles, solidly built and stone-grey, matching the massive chest that rose up and down. It appeared to be like a human male, though more along the lines of a giant of some sort, such as the Nephelim were described from the old Biblical stories from before the Deluge. Jacob was familiar with such beasts—Berserkers they were called during The War. He resisted the urge to look down at his pitiable pistol. If his suspicions were correct—and he had every reason to believe he was—it would be useless.
Slamming its massive fists against the ground, the grey beast let loose a demonic roar and broke into a run toward them. It intended to smash them like a raging child with a tower of blocks. The train continued to pick up speed but it wasn't fast enough. Raising his pistol, Jacob licked his lips and took a gamble. The weapon let out a loud report with a puff of smoke, flinging a metal sphere at the charging beast. Even at this range it was impossible to miss and the bullet struck the creature's chest dead center. His gamble failed. It didn't so much as slow it down, and with a final roar it leapt toward them. Dropping his pistol, Jacob clamped one hand against the train's wall. A flicker of light extended outward from his body and engulfed the engine section of the train. Jacob whispered a prayer as the beast descended…and passed right through them.
He let out a sigh of relief as the Berserker struck the ground and rolled with the impact. Looking up in bewilderment, the beast charged after them again, though this time they now had considerable more speed and distance. It would still be a close thing though. His hand shaking, Jacob wiped a hand across his brow, his sleeve coming away drenched with sweat.
It's not over yet, he observed, hearing the rampaging monster storming toward them. His gift was at its limit. He couldn't make the whole train immaterial. He needed something else. He needed…
He spied the shovel sitting in the corner and a thought occurred to him. Snatching it up he raced out of the cap, climbing up onto the tender whereupon he spun around to locate their pursuer. Sure enough he found him, still pounding after them, lips torn back to reveal powerfully built teeth, clenching and unclenching as the beast of a man let loose a terrifying howl.
I've got to time this just right… His coat billowing in the wind he allowed the thin film of light to engulf his body again and he stepped forward, making his way toward the front of the train without so much as a single bump upsetting him. One of the benefits of his powers was that he could selectively allow what affected him, and that included the vibrations and jostles of the train beneath his feet. In order to move though required that he be solid enough to remain in contact with whatever was beneath him. If he didn't…he chose not to think of his last harsh lesson, learned early in his childhood. The concept of gravity was just now being discussed in science circles at Arthur University but he didn't need to attend its classes to know its impacts.
Arriving at the front of the train he solidified his hands just enough to allow him to climb down until he was standing behind the support-rail. The man-beast continued to plow forward and Jacob tightened his grip on the shovel's handle.
Come on… Come on…
The man-beast flung himself forward just then, leg muscles coiling and propelling him forward. Huge hands lashed forward and snatched the support rail. The train lurched at the sudden weight and Jacob felt a flash of fear. The man-beast had to be horrifyingly heavy with all that mass.
Are we going to tip…?
The support rail deformed beneath its powerful grip and the man-beast pulled himself forward, grabbing hold of the casing surrounding the smoke box behind Jacob. The train jerked again but managed to hold onto its track. Jacob raised the shovel as the beast towered over him. It didn't seem to be the least bit concerned about him.
Solidifying all the way back to normal he lunged forward, swinging the shovel blade like an axe. Light flashed around its tip and passed through the beast's abdomen as easily as though the creature were nothing but air. Jacob let go mid-swing and the creature's eyes bulged in their sockets in shock, the shovel solidifying in his stomach. Hands left the train and went to the shovel, touching it lightly as though unable to believe that it was there.
Bereft of his grip on the train for support and too stunned by the unexpected spearing of his body, the Berserker fell back, slamming onto the track and letting loose a deafening roar of anguish and pain. Jacob fell back against the train, his entire body shaking violently.
Oh gods that was close… He wiped his arm across his brow, coming away with a sheen of sweat. That trick with the train took a lot out of him. I'm surprised I was able to manage just getting down here, never mind the shovel.
Resting now to regain his strength, he saw a trio atop the hill where the Berserker came from, rushing toward the fallen beast.
Renaud and his men attempted to approach their comrade, but his thrashing brought them up short as he smashed the rail and flung metal around without regard for who or what it struck. Trapped in his Berserker form he pulled on the handle of the shovel, attempting to dislodge the tool from his abdomen, but here the toughness of his transformed state worked against him and the handle snapped off as easily as a dry twig, leaving the rest trapped inside.
Foaming at the mouth, the grey-mountain of a main's eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed to the ground with a thunderous crash. As Renaud and his companions watched, his body began to recede and shrink, light surrounding his body with a thin glimmer, shrugging off the mass of stone-colored muscles until he returned to his original shape. With a final twitch, the mountain man breathed his last and fell silent, blood bubbling at the corners of his mouth.
"Is he…?" began Thibaut and Renaud nodded, dropping down beside their fallen comrade and closing his eyes. Angrily glaring at the retreating wyrm Renaud ground his teeth against one another, hot fire burning in his heart.
Albion will pay! he swore, his fist shaking as his nails bit into his palm. I will see the holy city burn to the ground for this!