Upon the instruments of death, The sunlight brightly gleams
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"What in hell's bells are those?" Charles exclaimed to the equally confused expedition team. He pointed to seven sets of still-smoldering topaz circles embedded into the sand. At the epicenter hovered a foetal mass. It disintegrated and reformed itself in tandem with the ambient chiming of Church bells. The noise came from the chrome pedestal stationed below the mass. Small pipeline and conduit extremities orbited the strange engine.

Father Maxwell stood nearest to the inner rings— the priest was thoroughly vexed. He contemplated adlibbing passages from Genesis to make sense of it all. Margarette tugged Maxwell's left arm, her robotic eyes fidgetted anxiously.

Was this God?

Beyond the Ophanim's core lay fragments of twisted metal a good five meters away. Attempts to investigate a contiguous set of gears by a soldier in blue fatigues were made. A shriek followed. His prodding fingers were melted clean off. The group beside the soldier had more luck pulling out strange clockwork mechanisms from a bed of rubble. Some Scribes busied themselves with kneeling and praying. They bowed their heads to the contours left in the sand. Others looked on with skepticism.

Was this God?

100 paces away, Ernest leaned on a bare fence post. His spidery pincers took out a pen and paper. He scrawled down "shape of a beating heart" in his notes.

[NEW SECTION EDIT]

Silicate steeds escorted the autocannon wagons to the left and right flanks of the team. Each faced away from the commotion and purveyed the view beyond the "Rhyolite Mercantile" sign. Since arrival, the buildings seemed damp, soft like skin. The pungent aroma of death and decay lingered everywhere, but bodies? Nooses hung from the gallows, empty. Inside speak-easies, scantily clad corsets rested on the floor. Bowler hats sat on bar tables next to tall pint glasses, half-full of lukewarm whiskey. Clearly, the reaper had visited but hid the coffins and the graves.

The bells chimed from the pedestal.


Suddenly, the building with the Rhyolite Mercantile sign sprang upward on wooden planks resembling millipede legs and charged at the mounted men.

"Jesus fucking Christ!" A soldier yelled as the structure landed on top of a wagon. It creaked backward - displaying three triangular maws, of which also revealed fleshy sphincters merged with cast iron radiators and boilers behind rows of carnivorous teeth - only to collapse like a guillotine on horrified men. Bone cracked in conformity to weight. Blood painted sand and drywall.

The bells chimed.

Ever the opportunist, Ernest rallied to his hidden agents, "shit fuck, Charles, let pantywaists and cog kooks die, we need to move now!" Hysterical howls broke out from those behind him as further buildings became animate. He ran forward. Ernest raised six double-action revolvers from his brown vest and fired into the skies, scattering those around him.

Gatling fire rang out, then ceased. Maxwell and Margarette ducked, instinctually as a wagon was flung above them, its steeds were neighing and panicking and bleeding. Fresh oil rained above their head. He hollered, "What's the meaning of all this!"

"What's it look like?" Charles said. He cracked his rifle against the skull of a Scribe and took the latter's haul of artifacts. His compatriots exposed themselves in a similar fashion, pushing and shoving past crowds. "Get whatever you can, pack-it-up and move," Charles yelled to a small group picking apart fragments and loading them into a large wheelbarrow.


"No one leaves the frontline, we must secure—" Father Maxwell retorted, clutching Charles' arm.

The greasy scoundrel turned reflexively to the priest; his good hand fumed from wafer thin wires and exhaust modules, matching the fire and impatience of its master. Maxwell was not a dexterous man.
After dashing to the left, he collapsed clumsily onto his knees in pain. It was then he noticed that the chunks of cooked meat on the blistering sand were from his ear and cheek.

Maxwell cried out in anguish.

"We leavin' with whatever we haul outta here with," Charles spat back.

Maxwell coughed out blood. "You're not leaving until you answer me right here, right now."

Ernest hollered from behind a wooden sign. "That's not the deal we made with the boys."

Charles nodded to Ernest. The tips of Ernest's revolvers dipped out from cover.

Maxwell's eyes burned in tears and empathy. "Think on it, long and well."

Charles cocked his gun. His cronies and the Scribes besides Maxwell did the same. Margarette stowed away elsewhere moving far from view into a bushel.

"Our mind was made. Oh, what?" Charles said laughing slightly as the sun sank below the long unending horizon. "You think we'd sell our souls to you - to your Lord, not mine - because you knew how to fix a coal furnace or engine into an arm? You gifted a free gun to a man and him ta die for you."

"The path you walk, I cannot save you from."

"Forgive and forget, right Father?" Charles grunted.

"Look around you!" Maxwell pointed back to the onslaught behind them. "WE WILL DIE. We will die because of you and your lot."

Charles grimaced. "Better than hearing another goddamned sermon, wastin' oil for every goddamned false lead we had along the way here."

He aimed his gun at the Shepherd, crawling and bleeding like a lamb.

Maxwell's breath was strained. He rocked back and forth.

"Goodby—"

Suddenly, volley fire erupted. The current of bullets suppressed Charles before he could take action.

"WE TRUSTED YOU!" Margarette screamed, squeezing the trigger to her gun and almost taking out Charles entire right arm with a haphazard shot. Upon their sister's righteous cry for redemption, the Scribes fired at Ernest's position.

"What's ours is ours, bitch," Charles yelled. He kicked the wheelbarrow in front of him and made himself small behind the obstacle. He tore off his vest and wrapped it around like a makeshift medical gauze. Bullets rattled the iron wheelbarrow that separated him from his doom. Patiently, he waited. The untrained gunmen would need to reload eventually.

One man sprang upwards too early in an attempt to retaliate. A well-aimed bullet tore open his neck. Another lay wounded from a stray bullet beside Charles. His right lung almost leaked out of its ribcage. Each anguished breath inflated it and pressed it upon the broken bone. Unfortunately for him, Charles could not reach his horse saddle, each replete with surplus cartridges. Never one for mercy, Charles pried a repeating rifle from the man's arms, kicking at the exposed organ until he stopped resisting.

Urgently, the bells echoed warnings through its toll; there were many that went faster and faster from distances unknown.

When enough of them attempted to reload their .58 cartridges into their chambers, Charles rose with his newly earned rifle and aimed at the man who attempted to reach for his sidearm. He squeezed the trigger and the man ate one through his mouth, then slumped over dead.

Sensing a break in morale, Ernest fired from beneath the signpost with the arms and revolvers Maxwell's fellowship gave him. Twisted irony flooded his veins. The scene reminded him of his former trade, tricking natives with insignificant platitudes and a whole bag of meaningless beads.

Three out of six bullets passed through the ankle and thigh of one man and exited into the foot of another. Both of them dropped downwards in pain, reeling on the floor.

Click. The cylinders on each revolver whirred. He pulled the triggers again. Six out of six bullets pelted those injured Scribes, burying themselves deep into bone. Even luckier, a bullet ricocheted off the metal skullcap of a dead Scribe and cleaved Margarette's nose clean off. She kneeled reflexively and bawled miserably.

Click. The cylinders on each revolver whirred. Ernest aimed for the unguarded Maxwell. He targeted the Priest's spine as the latter crawled to cover Margarette.


BANG

Ernest fell down in shock as he stared at a small barrel-hole. It belonged to Margarette's six-shot service rifle which had been obscured below the space between Maxwell's armpit as he lay atop her. Ernest's eyes went wide. Blood seeped in from his temple's entry wound. His body tensed as he lost all feeling.

Fortunately, soldiers had rushed from the frontlines to surround Maxwell. A loyal soldier slung him over his back whilst five others formed a circle around him and Margarette. Finding actual cement or wood to duck behind was impossible; they were surrounded on all sides by the ghost town, its dwellings stampeding like wild bulls. All converged towards the ringing of the bell.

Engorged faces spasmed out from doors, windows, and chimneys from one such dwelling as it hurdled forward. It was met with a series of relentless muzzle flashes from autocannons. It was lit aflame with dynamite and oil. It was hindered further by merged wagons that formed an unbreakable semi-circle. Another dwelling lumbered forward with tripedal legs made of adolescent heads, and it too was met with the same. Charles had already slipped past everyone's attention.

The men that ran into the desert — others taking refuge in the mines further north of the town — lost faith. What great and terrible deity would allow for this slaughter? What fragment of him would appear so ill-designed compared to his children? However, the ones that remained matched bewildered fear with nostalgia and conviction. By now, the damnable houses were more like a wall or encroaching tide. Irrational fervor made them immovable, Maxwell's harmonizing voice led them in rapturous songs, and the maelstrom of bullets from the fellowships' volleys found critical arteries in the Sea of Flesh.

There were no other paths to the divine. Baltimore was dead. Their families were dead. All that remained was an image of His gears and His wings superimposed in the fellowship's collective periphery. In Heaven, the Lord would sort his own.

Still, the corpse-infested houses had many tools at their disposal. Fungal stinkhorns bloomed like worms underneath the faithful's formations, swallowing whole wagons. Staggered, they were blind to the looming danger to the south. An abandoned warehouse slithered past the corpses of its kin. 10m of entrails spewed forth from its window. Its spinal base notched in sharpened femurs— the image of a grand scythe. It swiped clean the heads of each of the faithful. Until only Margarette and Maxwell were left.

Before it could sink its maw on the two, a familiar sensation rattled the ground. The blue skies became smog. Whistling bronze cylinders rang out. The COM Harbinger had arrived with its rotating trackwheels wreathed in twisted sinew and bone from the corpse of a saloon and several small buildings; it went about smashing and trampling the warehouse below it.


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