The shield slammed into her face, rattling her head inside her helm. Dazed, she stumbled backward, barely managing to intercept the mace with her sword, as the black knight swung it to her side.
Even then, the blade's intervention only blunted the impact. Her foe was larger, stronger, more practiced. Knocked to the side, she backpedaled, used her superior agility to get some distance. But he followed, relentless, armor dull save for the red runes of the Royal Army.
She had to lock down that mace. Without catching the shield to her face, this time.
"Corps a Corps!" She shouted, lunging forward, and like magnets her blade clashed against the mace, adding her skill to her strength, keeping it locked. Corps a Corps was designed to tie up strong foes, keep them busy while her allies did damage, tore into the temporarily disabled target.
Your Corps a Corps skill is now level 57!
Or not so disabled, as the case may be. Sure enough, his shield came up again-
-and she let her legs go limp, slammed her greaves into the ground, and shouted "Dolorous Strike!"
With boosted strength, she drove her own shield into the plates over his codpiece.
Your Dolorous Strike skill is now level 48!
Her shield had spikes on it. They got in between the joints, and plate tore as she twisted. Her foe staggered back, breaking the corps a corp, choking noises coming from his helm.
The black knight hunched over. Blood spattered the floor, and she shifted her eyes away. She stood there, bashed her sword into her shield, waiting.
From the sidelines, King Melos shook his head. He gestured for his attendants to leave, then beckoned. "Come here, Cecelia."
Cecelia Ragadorn-Gearhart saluted her foe, then turned to her father.
Noise behind her, armor clattered, and she whirled around too late.
Realization crashed into her at the same time the black knight did, bowling her over and hammering down pain. Father called to her, but he never actually stopped the match!
Gods damn it, father.
"Animus!" She snapped out, ignoring the pain, and slapping her hand to her foe's chest. "Invite armor, get the hell off me!"
She couldn't match her foe in strength, but will she had a plenty. And when you were dealing with animi, the animator's will WAS their strength. Her foe howled as his armor moved against his flesh, catching his muscles out of joint, straining them as it threw him backward to land in a heap on the ground. "I yield!" he cried. "I yield me!"
Cecelia walked over to her father, glaring at him through her visor. "What?"
"You just forfeited the match by casting a spell. Which doesn't matter, because you lost it half a minute ago." Melos sighed. His own armor was darker than his opponent's, his red hair stark against it like a spill of blood. But his eyes were full of disappointment, and Cecelia hated to see it.
He was her father, after all, and she had to do right by him.
"How did I lose?" She asked, unbuckling her helm. White armor, pearly white, with a unicorn's horn spike on its forehead. She'd designed it, crafted it herself. There had been some snickering in the barracks, she was sure, talk about "pony knight armor for the pretty pretty princess," but she didn't care. They didn't matter. She had worked hard to fight on even ground with youths and men who had been training for it since they were born. Besides, she had moxie and cool enough to handle a little teasing.
And her armor was cute, dammit.
She liked cute things. There weren't many of those left in her life, these days. The few that were reminded her of better times. Simpler times.
"You lost," her Father explained, clanking over to her and placing his hands on her shoulder pauldrons, "when you stopped hitting him. He wasn't down. You needed to follow up, to end his threat."
"He was done. If he'd come at me again from the front I would have taken him down hard. He only got that last hit in because you distracted me." She glanced over to Renick, her assigned foe for today, standing locked and gasping in his frozen armor. That was a fair amount of blood on the floor. "Hey! Why isn't he healed?" She snapped to the clerics on duty. They looked to the king, and she slammed her sword's pommel against her shield. "Don't look at my father, look to your charge! Heal him!" She yelled.
Her father said nothing, and the two clerics nodded, and rushed over to the knight. She let the animus spell dissolve as they got to him, dropping Renick onto the shorter of the pair.
"Unnecessary," Melos murmured to her, a smile tugging at his lips, swiftly banished.
"They needed to learn THEIR duty." She ran a gauntleted hand through her short-cropped ginger hair. "Do I pass muster?"
Her father pursed his lips, blew air out through his teeth as he thought. "Walk with me," he decided, putting his arm around her shoulders and guiding her away.
"That's a no, then?" She said, feeling her heart sink.
Five years I've been stuck in this castle. Five years, and I might have just blown my chance at getting free-
-no. No, it wasn't freedom. It was just another set of chains.
But at least these would be chains she'd built herself.
"It's a 'let me think about it.' You've taken well to your knight's training, even though you came to it belated. And your craftsmanship is exquisite. It makes me proud. It would have made Amelia proud to see it." He looked away for a second.
Which was good, because Cecelia had a lump in her throat, and boy did her eyes burn. She blinked away tears. "Thank you," she husked.
"But you'd be going to a battlefield. And on a battlefield, there are no rules beyond survival and winning. A painfully disabling groin shot? Well, his healer will shout out a word or two and it'll be healed just like THAT. It's not enough to disable a foe, if they have a chance to recover. You have to end it, decisively, until they stand no chance of posing a threat to you again." Melos' gauntlet clenched. "Every time I've deviated from this practice, from this policy, it's come back to harm me. And worse, to harm my kingdom. And I fear it will hurt YOU. Do you understand, Cecelia?"
She nodded. "I do."
He stopped, studied her for a long minute. "I wonder." He gave her shoulder one last squeeze, then withdrew his arm. "I'll arrange a new test for you."
"What sort of test?"
"No. No, this is a... make-up exam, if you will. It won't be anything you have time to prepare for. You'll have to show me not only your strength but your wisdom, when the time comes. And you'll have to win. No matter the cost."
Oh gods. Her mouth went dry, and Cecelia licked her lips. "I will." This was going to suck.
Then a flicker of motion caught her eye. Down the corridor, just under one of the tapestries, a green glow danced and flickered. "Oh! That thing again. I'll go get the wizards."
"What-" Melos turned, hand on his sword- and froze in horror. He stared at the flickering light, and Cecelia watched as her father, the mighty figure who had been the anchoring point in her new life these last five years, the indomitable King of Cylvania, trembled so hard his armor shook.
"Gh!" He said, leaning on the wall, clapping his hand to his chest.
And for a second, for just a second, he glanced at her. And to her shock it his eyes had gone black, black with dancing green specks. "Go. I'll handle it," he rasped, looking away just as fast.
"Are you okay? Handle what? What is this?" She said, moving around him, to try and confirm what she saw.
But he whipped his hand up to shield his face. "I'm fine. Go! Say nothing of this!"
Green light played through the cracks between his clenched fingers, and Cecelia nodded, and fled.
Behind her, she heard her father mutter, but she couldn't quite make out the words.
"What the heck is going on?" She wondered, heading back to her quarters. It didn't look good, whatever it was, but if her Father said to leave it be, he meant it. She couldn't risk any more of his ire, not this close to her freedom.
Halfway to her room she changed her mind, and headed for the barracks instead.
She'd hurt Renick pretty badly, she figured she owed the guy an apology.
"Haha, no, it's fine, really," Renick grinned. Renick was big and broad, with hair like straw, and an earnest, ugly face. The joke around the barracks was that he'd joined the king's knights for the charisma boosts, so could stand a chance at getting laid someday.
Not that they'd joked like that around her, not at first, but they'd eventually come to accept her. Which was good, because though they weren't exactly as close to her as they were with each other, they didn't tiptoe around her or try to curry her favor and kiss up by flattery. When she wore the armor and trained with them, she was one of the knights, and that was that.
Her father had seemed to approve, though he'd warned her about getting attached. "A lot of these men and women are going to die for you," he told her. "Be careful how much emotional investment you put into any particular one."
"Well, if they're going to die for me, I should at least be good to them, right? Shouldn't I be someone worth dying for?"
Usually it went one of two ways when she stood up to him. The first way was solemn, shameful disappointment that depressed her for days. But that time it had gone the second way, and he'd been proud. And so from that point on she spent time in the barracks, albeit with a chaperone present, and joined in what camaraderie she could.
“It’s fine. I mean, I’ve taken groin shots before. And the clerics healed me right up.” Renick smiled, leaning back in his chair, running a rag over his shield as he cleaned it.
Next to him, a short woman with black hair grinned, and opened her mouth-
“-besides, it’s not like I was using my balls for anything anyway,” Renick smirked.
“You asshole! That was the perfect setup!” The short woman punched his (thankfully unarmored) shoulder.
Cecelia laughed with the rest of them.
“Sorry Lana, you gotta be quick. Or try something new,” Renick said, placidly. “But seriously, Cee, that’s a pretty good trick you did out there. I might try it sometime.”
“I wouldn’t,” A thin, whiplike young woman with a scarred face spoke from her corner, where she was busy sorting knives into sheathes. “That’s more of a duelist trick. And with your weight, Renick, you’d jam up your knees something fierce.” She’d been an assassin, before she’d joined the Corps, as the rumor went. Going by how she acted, how she fought, Cecelia believed the rumor.
“You calling me fat now, Kayin?” He flipped her off casually.
She put a dagger past his shoulder, equally casually, sinking it into the dartboard beyond. “Nah, just big. But no, I'm just saying she can get away with it because of her weight and agility. You can't.”
“That’s a point. But either way, it was a smooth move.” Renick sighed. “You’re lucky, you got to dip into scout when you were younger. Lots of good battlefield stuff there, I hear.”
“I haven’t practiced it much. But sturdy back helps with the armor, won’t deny,” Cecelia smiled.
“I’m still waiting for my Duelist training approval,” Renick said, checking his armor. “I mean a lot of the nimbleness stuff will be hard to pull off until I get my agility up there, but that class bumps strength, so it’s good. And since Knight bumps charisma they dovetail nicely.”
“And duelist adds dex and agility, so don’t completely suck once you finally get someone in bed,” Lana said, smugly. And this time as the laughter rang out again, Renick punched HER shoulder. She just laughed harder.
“Hey, Cee,” Kayin whispered in her ear, when the rest of the barracks had fallen back to arguing and boasting and the small talk and stuff that the knights filled their day with. “Your daddy tell you when we’re shipping out East?”
Cecelia bit her lip. “No. And… I might not go with you. It’s…” She bit her tongue, not wanting to confess to the lean girl that she’d failed what was supposed to be her graduation test. Not a failure yet, she reminded herself. I get a do-over. “…I have to prove to my father that I can handle it.”
“What? I thought it was a sure thing!”
“He cheated. Upped the stakes.” And he had. She’d won that fight, but he’d changed the rules, thrown in another variable. Which… okay, she could see the point of that as a general life lesson, but still, she’d WON.
“That's a shit thing to do to your own kid…” Kayin hissed, then shot a glance around. No one was listening, or even looking, save for the quiet servant in the corner. Cecelia met her chaperone’s eyes and nodded, and the man nodded back. She didn’t know his name. Didn’t know any of their names, really. They never spoke to her, except when absolutely necessary.
“It is what it is,” Cecelia said. “Though…” She thought ahead. “I think I know what he has in mind. Would you be willing to help me if things go like I think they will?”
“What did you have in mind?” Kayin stepped back, and smirked. “And what’s in it for me?”
Cecelia reached into her pouch, and jingled a handful of coins, and the former assassin smiled…
“Stoker Feed Activated!” Cecelia shouted, feeling her hit points drain as a metal conveyor whirred to life under her. Whirring and clanking, it carried coal from the fuel box, to the fire. Heated instantly by magic, the gauges around her jumped and flickered, glowing in the cramped darkness.
“Boiler Shunt is Go!” Cecelia screamed, over the din of the stoker feed. Instantly her invention screamed, sending clouds of steam past the viewport, as the magic got the water boiling in seconds, synching it to the fire stoked by the belt. It took moxie from her, but not more than she could spare.
“Clockwork Engaged!” Cecelia roared, shoving her arms and legs into the sleeves, feeling metal clamps rattle and bind her limbs. Whirring, ticking, driven by steam and kinetic energy, she twisted her arms and felt the arms of her armor rise around her, massive by comparison to her regular fleshy limbs. She clenched her fingers, feeling her sanity diminish, but she had plenty of that and now the armor moved as she did.
“Linkages aligned!” She shouted, and the port slammed shut, as the cables throughout the massive metal suit stretched taught and fed into the clockwork gears. Stamina leaked from her, and fed into the suit, and she took her first shuddering steps, as the counterweights and gyros kept her upright.
“Cast In Steam and Steel, Raise thy Blade! All Systems Go!” Cecelia finished the last of the five spells, and that strangest feeling of all came, as her fortune fell, transferring to her Steam Armor.
Skill-ups rolled by, but she ignored them, as she piloted her armor out through the hangar doors, and to the practice grounds.
She was taking a risk, she knew, draining her pools this close to father’s unknown test, but piloting Reason always settled her nerves. Grabbing a clockwork arbalest, she fitted it into Reason’s arm, winding the bolt feed carefully into the compartment she’d built for it. For the other hand, a wrecker blade, ten feet long and three feet back, like a massive cleaver that had been stretched out to a ludicrous length.
And as the sun sank below the castle walls, she stomped around the proving grounds, shooting targets and chopping through logs, running the obstacle course as she went. She’d hit level four in the Steam Knight class recently, about as far as she could go on the training grounds alone.
It had been a hard one to achieve, pushing her tinkering skills to the limits. But she’d thrown in even more of a challenge, by enchanting the various components, buffing her knight well beyond the specs that most who came to the job bothered to. It was an odd job anyway, mixing Knight and Animator and Tinker, and requiring a ton of resources and components to first craft the suit, then figure out how to animate the various parts to do what they needed to, and THEN you had to be a fifteenth level knight, so you could use the “Favored Mount” skill upon the finished product. Only then would the second-tier class unlock.
But holy fump, could she kick ass when she wore Reason. Fifteen foot tall and almost every bit of it crafted by her own hand, she was in full control when the boiler was screaming behind her and the mighty cable muscles were stretching at the guidance of her responsive clockwork.
She felt strong inside the suit. Untouchable, unbeatable. And more than that, it was a symbol of her freedom. The only way she’d be able to leave this castle, was as one of the elite steam knights sent to fight the dwarves on the eastern front. Only then, her father told her, would he be willing to let her anywhere near a battlefield. Steam Knights had the best survivability rate, and they got taken alive, thankfully. The dwarves had weird rules when it came to killing tinkers.
Her father had laughed, when she named it Reason. For the wrong reasons, actually, but she hadn’t corrected him. Her hope was to make him see reason. That was why it was called what it was.
And all her good mood and restored confidence fled as she turned back to the hangar, and saw who was waiting there.
“Oh fump,” She muttered. “You?”
Smiling, Anise Layd’I raised her hand and waved.
Cecelia stomped back, brought her armor’s components down one by one, and stepped free of the cockpit. Soaked in sweat, uncaring, she hopped down to glare at the demon who wore her dead mother’s face. “What?”
“Aren’t you eager to get to your test?” Anise smiled, blandly.
And suddenly, Cecelia felt a lot less confident.
The Tower of Shame stood in the middle of the keep, holding those that the Crown chose not to kill, but could not let free. It had thick, thick walls, layers of stone lined with cork, that ate up the sound and prevented the screams and wails of the prisoner inside from disturbing the rest of the Castle’s inhabitants.
But once you were inside the tower, you could hear them shouting, crying, begging for mercy. That’s what Cecelia found as she followed Anise into the tower, ascending the long stair that broke off into corridors, heading into the various cellblocks.
She smoothed her arming jacket. A clean and press had gotten rid of the sweat stains, but Anise hadn’t given her a chance to get armored, let alone grab a sword. “Always in Uniform,” she muttered, using a knight skill to buff her armor for the third time since she’d followed the demon. It kept running out, but it hardened her clothes, gave her SOMETHING in the event of sudden violence. And it used moxie, so whatever. She didn’t have many abilities that used that, none that mattered for this test, she reckoned.
“Here we go,” Anise hummed, opening a door near the top. Cecelia eyed it warily, but her alertness didn’t fire off, so she figured she wasn’t going to be ambushed yet. Still… “After you, I insist,” she told Anise.
“Of course, dear.” Anise strode into the cellblock.
It was dark in here, and empty, save for a pile of rags in the corner. As she watched, they stirred, and an old, weathered face lifted up from the man lying under them. A white-bearded, unshaven face, bald-headed with bushy eyebrows.
A familiar face, that she hadn’t seen in a long while. “Mister Mordecai?”
“Celia? Celia girl?” Mordecai leaped up, and in a flash grabbed the bars. He was nearly naked, save for dirty, torn trousers, and thin, so thin, with ropy muscles straining under his withered flesh. “Celia? Is this a trick? You bastards, you ain’t trickin’ me!” In a heartbeat he went from smiling to screaming, pounding his head against the bars. “Stay out of my ‘ead! Stay out of my ‘ead! I ain’t tellin’ yer nuffing!”
“No! No, it’s me, please Mordecai, please stop hurting yourself!” She ran to him, then flinched back as he punched through the bars, his hand falling short by inches. “Please stop!”
He screamed himself hoarse, then seemed to come to himself, looking around at the cell, looking down at himself in shame. “Sorry. I… sorry. Real. Hope yer real. Hope… sorry. Oh Celia girl, don’t look at me. What they done to me… what they done to me…”
It was hard to tell what they’d done to him. He was covered with scars, but then again, she had seen how his marriage was firsthand, so she had no way of knowing if they’d been the ones to…
…no. They’d tortured him. “Mordecai, it’s me.” She reached through the bars, took his hand, and he wept, pushing his hairy cheek against it, dirty beard rasping against her skin. “It’s me. I’m… I’m sorry.”
“And here he is,” Anise said. “Your enemy. The enemy to the Crown.”
Cecelia froze. “What are you... what are you saying?”
“Did you think it would be an easy test?” Anise dropped a key on the ground, followed by a dagger. Then she turned and left. “Good luck!”
“What… demon!” Mordecai hissed. “Wears her face wears little Amelia’s face I know what you are! I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE!” He tore free of Cecelia’s hand with enraged strength, grabbed the bars and pushed his face out between them, roaring at the departing monster. “YOU DEMON!”
Then he collapsed, sobbing, leaving Cecelia with the key, the dagger, and the dawning realization of the nature of her test.
“Oh no,” she whispered, sinking to the floor. “No, no, no…”
She weighed her freedom against the old man’s life. Old man, sick and wasted, thin and ragged from starvation and suffering. An old man, mind broken, barely anything left of the strong, confident scout she’d once known.
He’d die here anyway.
It'd be a mercy.
They'd just keep torturing him.
These thoughts and more trembled through her head.
And finally Cecelia picked up the dagger.
The guards didn’t look twice at her as she descended the stairwell, empty handed. She’d taken nothing from the cellblock, and she was alone, so they didn’t check her.
The keep was oddly quiet, and the door to the wing leading to her chambers was locked.
She blinked, then her eyes settled into a squint as she realized. There was one route around the locked door, and it lead through the courtyard.
She took a ceremonial shield off the wall. “Animus Shield.” It was lower quality, but better than nothing. “Harden,” She said, patting her clothes. “Always in Uniform. Keen Eye.” She didn’t have any other buffs that were useful to the situation, so she took a deep breath, and walked through the keep, reaching the side courtyard.
And there she found the knights waiting. Everyone in her training squad by the looks of it, and Sergeant Tane too. Seven Knights, ringing the courtyard, fully armed and armored, drawing blades as she approached.
“This is your test, girl,” her father called from the battlements, the demons in his armor glowing and active, hellblades whirling around his head. “There are no rules! Fight for your life!”
And then, a song rang out, bouncing around the walls, echoing from the outbuildings, causing the King and his knights to peer around.
“There was a fool king, who clung hard to the dark…”
King Melos stiffened. “Who… who dares?”
“Killed his own wife, and thought it a lark…”
“You’ll die for that!” Melos yelled.
“But in all of our hearts, he lit the spark… of rebellion!”
It was an old, raspy voice, unsuitable for a bard. But it was a song that heartened Cecelia nonetheless. “Status,” she whispered, and smiled at the strength buff she’d just received.
All too soon it ended but the song was replaced by quietly chanted words. And every one made the King’s eyes go wider.
“Fast as Death. Build Up. One Track Mind. Power From Pain. Ambush. Subdue… RAGE!”
“And oh yeah, Backstab!” And then, a knight went sailing backward, helm crumpled. Mordecai stood where he’d been, camouflage fading, grinning. “ello there Melly. Long time no see!”
“You son of a bitch!” Melos roared, then froze in horror as Mordecai whirled, and tossed his dagger at Celia… who stretched out a hand, and grinned. “Animus Blade!” She shouted as it passed her head, and swung into a low orbit around her.
“No rules, father! No rules!” She reminded him, and charged the remaining knights as Mordecai whooped and laid about him, fists falling like hammers.
On the battlements, Melos leaned his elbows on the battlements, and palmed his face with both hands. "She is our daughter, Amelia," he whispered, unheard. "Hell help us all."
Then Cecelia was too busy fighting.
Each one of her class had at least three levels on her, but she was an animator, too, and their weapons had been padded. They hurt, they sapped her stamina and left bruises every time they hit, but whenever she managed to get a hand on a shield or a blade or a suit of armor, it became hers. And she’d fire up Corps a Corps with an animus blade, then hammer her friends down with an animus shield while they were locked. Or she’d slap their armor and hinder them. Her sanity went fast, but oh, it was glorious.
Glorious, but painful. They were all trained knights, and the Dolorous Strikes that got through had her reeling.
Midway through, four knights down, she heard Mordecai yelp. She bought some breathing room by running back in time to see Mordecai leaping over the outbuildings, pursued by a black-clad form. She caught her breath.
The Four! That was one of the Four Hands of the King! The Ninja, Janus!
“What?” She yelled up at her Father, almost getting clocked in the head by a training sword for her trouble. “You’re seriously throwing a fumping HAND into this test?”
“No rules!” He shrugged. “This is more fair, anyway.”
“Fair!” Cecelia shrieked, backing into a corner as Sergeant Tane hammered down her last shield, and Renick closed from the other side. Kayin came down the middle.
They stopped, ten feet from her, as she stretched a hand out. “I’m a good animator. You know what I can do.”
“Aye. And I know it’ll take you six words to get one of us,” Tane ground out. “At which point the other two will be on you, Squire Ragadorn. So why don’t you surrender and save your face a pounding?”
Cecelia’s eyes flicked from Tane, to Kayin, to Renick… and back to Kayin. She winked.
“Distant Animus-” Celia shouted, and they charged…
“Invite Renick’s Armor stop!” She shouted. He stopped and fell over, and she felt the wind as the other two approached…
And a feeling of relief surged through her, as Kayin shouted “Backstab! Pommel Strike!” And rang Tane’s helm like a bell so hard that he tumbled, knocking Cecelia to the ground.
The girl stared up, dazed… at Kayin’s open gauntlet. She took it, accepted the hand to her feet, and smiled at Kayin. “Do you surrender?”
“Absolutely.” Kayin knelt.
For a long second, there was silence on the battlements. “What.” Melos finally managed.
“I thought you might try something like this, father. So I went and found allies. It was a cruel test to begin with!” She stepped forward, leveling her hand at him. “Trying to make me kill on an old friend!”
The king removed his helm, and stared down at her. “What are you talking about?”
“Trying to get me to kill Mister Mordecai like… that…” She blinked. “Wait. Anise said-”
“Anise?” The King frowned. “What’s she done this time?”
Realization crashed in.
Anise had never SAID that killing Mordecai was the King’s test, or that she’d lead Cecelia to the test. She’d let Cecelia form her own conclusions. Shaking, the girl leaned against the wall.
“It’s to do with that senile old scout, isn’t it?” The King said, hopping off the wall and floating down, as the demons he wore carried him gently through the air. “Of course he’d seek you out, and try to get you to escape with him.”
“Something like that,” Cecelia said. “I… couldn’t stop him even if I wanted to.” Which was the truth. She didn’t want to stop him. She’d unlocked his cell and offered to run interference while he escaped.
“Mm. Well, no matter. You were wise to use him to your advantage while he was here. In any case, it’s a moot point. Janus tells me he’s in the woods outside the walls now, and it’s only a matter of time before he's back in his cell. He can't evade for long. The crazy old bastard may be a scout, but he’s no ranger.” Melos dispelled the demons in his armor and let his blades fall, then folded her into a hug, ignoring the scattered and groaning knights around her. “You passed. You’ll get your wish.”
Freedom. Cecelia sagged into her father’s arms. “Thank you,” She whispered.
It had been a hard life, in the castle. A hard life, hearing about the foes that bedeviled her father and tried to bring chaos to his kingdom.
But now she could sally forth, and meet them with steam and steel. Like her father, she would do what she must, and bring peace to Cylvania.