Every groove of the wheat field’s earth came through the Musketeer’s seat in dramatic fashion. He piloted a metal carriage, driven over hill and river on mighty treads of steel and pushed by steam of a fire burning not twenty feet away. The cabin was humid and hot and crowded with the recruits the Musketeer was charged with. He drove with little view, a mere gap in the tin walls of the transport. If the Musketeer were allowed to feel anger, the slightness of his viewing portal would be subject to much rage.
His commander had given instructions to find five recruits deemed chief in their abilities displayed in training. The five troops would be taken to the glade nearest the farmstead of loyal subject of the Crown, Jedidiah Holstrum, and left for an overnight mission. The Musketeer took the orders and began his mission. The five young soldiers were identified quickly enough. They were skilled with rifle, speed, logic and leadership. All fine examples of the best men and women to serve in the greater glory of the Royal Court and Crown.
The Musketeer was once such a recruit. He was eager to serve and bring stability to the subjects of the Crown. He stood head and shoulder above his fellow enlistees when he first arrived at training camp. His shoulders were wider than most doorways and many thought he was exceptionally polite as he bowed upon entering new rooms. In truth he was taller than doorways as well. His masters saw a young mind that was willing and happy to hear their words. Those masters were searching for those with no mothers, no fathers, no brothers or sisters, no spouse or child; no one to mourn their passing.
The Musketeer was their ideal specimen. He was identified for the Musketeer training program and a week later was outfitted with a suit of metal armor that would be his last outfit. He remembers little more than cold granite and men in goggles from the installation and graph of the armor to his skin. The thick armor made of nickel, tin, steel and copper ensured he was the last to fall in a fight. It was the tubes and coils that ran through the suit and into his skin, pumping the powerful aether compound the Crown developed, that ensured he was not going to fall in a fight.
He piloted the transport to the outer rim of the glade marked on his parchment map. The breaks squealed and the exhaust pipe of the burning stove whistled. He dropped the exit ramp with the pull of a lever and waved his hands. The recruits knew this to mean it was time to take their leave.
“Do you know what we are to do, sir?” Recruit Wilson asked.
The Musketeer had not spoken a word in five years and was not about to begin by answering a question the recruit should have known already.
“Thank you, sir,” the recruit said. He exited the transport craft and followed his fellows into the night. A half empty bag was strapped over his shoulder, a rifle in his hand and a the bright blue and lavender colors of the Crown covered all of the young man that stepped out.
The Musketeer had not thought of color in a very long time.
His instructions were to wait at the transport and observe. He was not to interfere or aid the recruits in any fashion. That point was made abundantly clear. He sat in the transport, the mobile oven that had become a home away from home. He listened to the constant chirping of field crickets. When he heard the slither of snake through the tall grass, he knew he found his dinner. The aether made sleep unnecessary. He sat in his bunker and listened. And listened. He examined his helmet, letting his shoulder length hair fall and wave in the cold night’s breeze.
The glade was under the darkness of a new moon. Spruces and other evergreens were little more than invisible spikes in the ground. A well, clearly drawn on the map as being a centerpiece of this grove, would be nearly impossible to find without the aid of an alchemist’s potion or aetherweaver’s torch, or a standard torch for that matter. With the haste the group had left camp, and the sizable empty space in the one lad’s pack, the Musketeer thought the group would have little luck finding water until morning.
He heard a sound most unnerving and unfamiliar originate from the woodland. A whirring of gears and cogs suddenly firing themselves to life and rotating at incredible speeds. A tree cracked and tumbled to the ground forcing a mighty clash of limb and earth.
The muddied voices of the recruits crept out of the glade soon after.
The Musketeer listened.
Rhythmic thuds rose from the distance. The Musketeer thought he was listening to the stomping feet of a bipedal elephant, for nothing else could cause such a thunderous step.
“What is that?” A recruit’s voice called.
“Rifles, comrades!” A second voice said.
“To the tree line,” a third.
The forth and fifth voices screamed.
The Musketeer listened.
Rifle rounds and muzzle flashes came from the trees. Thudding steps continued.
“They are bouncing!” a recruit screamed.
“Retreat,” another cried.
The Musketeer thought on the unprepared recruit. Thought of the youth in his eyes. Whatever he was facing now, in the darkest of nights, in the thickest of woods, the recruit knew not how to stop such a threat.
“Haslin! Someone get Haslin!” The screams were becoming more panicked. The rifle rounds were firing less frequently. And then the thunderous steps ended.
The Musketeer learned long ago that if an enemy ceased its pursuit or ended its movement, it had found a position found tactical and advantageous to its cause.
The Crown found in the Musketeer someone that would not be mourned, someone that had no one waiting for them. What the Crown forgot was even those without mothers or sons to call their own, found brothers and sisters in the thickest of battles.
The Musketeer heard the cries of the recruits he was told to bring to the glade and stopped listening. In his gauntlet was a button that forced a surge of aether through his blood. A guttural sound rose from deep within him as the chemicals ran through him. He assembled his rifle, stowed in two parts at his upper arms and ran into the glade.
The armor glowed green as it too fused with the aether. The light caught the attention of the recruits who cheered and called over the Musketeer. The aether’s glow inspired the five and they formed a line, a wall of the Crown’s firepower to put an end to the threat before them. The Musketeer cleared the field between him and the five and found their oppressor.
Standing as tall as the surrounding trees a beast of gear and steel looked down on the mortals. Outstretched arms ended with barrels for hands, thin jointed legs created the menacing sound of the thunder steps, the center of the mechanical assault weapon was an exposed box showing the unshielded inner workings of the iron demon.
Its hands flashed and rained rifle rounds on the line. The Musketeer shouted again, the five recruits stood their ground and sent a volley into the belly of the beast. He darted at the machine fired at its knee joint, shattering the metal work in an instant. The explosion of the knee sent a shockwave through the rest of the body. Gears stopped spinning in time and jammed themselves together.
The five at the line cheered once more as the cog based robot fell to the ground. The assault was ended.
The Musketeer went to the machine’s corpse to ensure it was defeated. His armor still glowed brightly, an aura of green light encircled his person as he stood over the enemy. He looked it over from foot to head for any sign that it might find a way back to life. He found something much more disturbing. The machine was covered in the blue and lavender, the colors of the Crown.
The Musketeer found anger within himself. The Crown had sent this automaton assassin against is comrades in arms. He turned to the line and looked over their faces, each of them staring right back at him.
“Resist.” The Musketeer said his first word in five years. He turned to the woods and as the green light began to fade, abandoned his post as a most honored member of the Crown’s forces. He set out to find those that could help right the wrongs he had seen this night. He took with him into those dark woods five other souls looking for vengeance.
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