“Good of you to finally join us, Dame Ragandor,” the half-orc said. Heavyset and clad in white armor that had once been pristine but was marred with countless scratches and nicks, the green woman’s face could have been marble to match her suit’s coloration for all the emotion it showed.
“Thank you. The rangers delayed us-“
“Your sergeant has already filled me in on that and I wasn’t asking you for excuses anyway.”
Cecelia felt her cheeks tighten. They’d told her the CO of Fort Bronze was a hardass. Her father had warned her she’d find people in the military that would be rude to her on purpose, to test her, and that she’d have to find a balance between sticking up for herself and letting stuff go.
So instead of stammering or apologizing or fussing like the old, weak Celia would have done, Cecelia stood there at attention, keeping her eyes fixed on the General in charge of the Eastern Front.
General Mastoya sighed, and rose, looking out the window. Her hair clicked together, the fingerbones braided into it rattling. She was the first Knight that Cecelia had ever seen with long hair.
Well, besides her father, at any rate, but when you got that high a level in all those classes, you more or less made your own rules.
“You’re greener than I am,” Mastoya said out the window, looking into the courtyard. “But I’m supposed to teach you how to be a proper officer AND run a war at the same time. I don’t like that.”
Cecelia stayed silent. It stretched on, on enough that she eventually thought it safe to speak. “Why not, Ma’am?”
“Because it’s pointless.” Mastoya turned to face her, scorn written into every scar on her face. “You’re going to grow up and be queen. You’re not going to have an officer’s career, or troops to look after, or have to worry about whether or not the enemies are tunneling under you right now, or where your next meal’s coming from. Officer? Bah. First you’ll have to convince me you’re not just daddy’s little girl out playing at toy soldiers.”
“It’s precisely because I’m going to grow up to be a queen,” Cecelia said. “How can I ask people to fight, or even to die for me, if I don’t know what that involves? What kind of Queen would ask her people to do something she wouldn’t?”
“I won’t have an officer’s career, but the wars will come regardless so I might as well know how to fight them. I won’t have specific troops to look after because I’ll have a nation full of subjects to look after. And our enemies will always try to undermine me, and I’ll always worry about my next meal because we’re putting so much stress on the farms and not enough on the fat nobles that we’re one bad harvest away from a famine.”
“Ha!” Mastoya seemed to like the “fat nobles” dig.
“And as far as toy soldiers go…” Cecelia looked away, and sighed. “You know, when I was a little girl and first started adventuring, I animated my toys. And they fought for me. But I never threw them away, or let them get ripped up to the point I couldn’t mend them. We were a team. But I always knew they weren’t PEOPLE.”
A lump rose in her throat. There had been one exception, but now wasn’t the time, and she forced that lump down. “But I grew up, and I put aside childish things.” She closed her eyes, pushed the burning house, pushed her grandfather’s bruised face from her memory. “People are not toys. They never will be toys to me. I’m not the little girl I used to be.” She opened them again, in control of herself once more. “My father saw to that. And as you’re sworn to him, I certainly hope you have faith in his methods.”
Mastoya was nodding now. The scorn faded from her face… mostly.
“Well, nothing can make or break you like family. I should know that. I owe everything I am to my father, as well. Well, that and surviving the barn fire that was my mother. Fucking green bitch.” Mastoya barked laughter. “Guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the rotten tree.”
“I’m sorry. The only half-orc woman I ever knew was a good mother, and the bravest lady I ever knew.”
“Would have been nice to have that kind of mom,” Mastoya said. “Ah well. The past is past. All right, Dame Ragandor, you’ll have your shot.”
Mastoya settled into her chair, and pulled out a handful of scrolls. “The Town’s name is Outsmouth. Not too far from where I grew up, and about the same kind of shithole. Small place, about six or seven hundred people. Only reason they’re important is because they supply about half of the fish we eat in this valley, and they aren’t as dependent on field hands, so we can levy troops faster than we can elsewhere. Easy life, right? Hard as hell for even country bumpkins to fuck up. So of course they went and started a fucking unsanctioned cult.”
“Daemons or old ones?”
“It’s probably not going to be djinn because we don’t have a history of that here, so of the known cult types we’re probably dealing with daemons or old ones.”
“It’s old ones,” Anise said, from the doorway. Mastoya jumped, and her face darkened.
Cecelia closed her eyes. “Hello, Anise.”
“Inquisitor Layd’i,” Mastoya ground out. “So nice of you to join us.”
Movement behind her, then Cecelia ground her teeth as two strong, thin hands descended to grip her shoulders, rubbing gently against her spine. “I simply couldn’t stay away. Not after your messenger gave me your eloquent summons. And since the rest of me is attached to my ass, I brought it as well, I hope you don’t mind?”
“There are days I do.” Mastoya said.
Cecelia opened her eyes.
“It’s an old one cult,” Anise said. “The worst kind. At least half the town’s converted, which means the settlement is beyond saving.”
“Really.” Celia had her doubts, given the source of the information.
“Really, Dame.” Mastoya surprised her. “A cult like this gets a foothold this size, there’s no saving it. It’ll hurt us for years until the area’s safe enough to resettle, but we have to put the entire town to the sword.”
“We’re one bad harvest away from famine,” Cecelia said, softly. “And it’s only half the town corrupted…”
“Half that we know about,” Mastoya said, sighing, and pulling a bottle out from her desk. She bit the cork off, spat it out, and took a slug. “And insidious. Pacifying them’s no good. Even if we had the scouts to vet them, even if we COULD spare the scouts to vet them, cultists can fiddle with their status screens. They can hide their information. I’m sure you know all about that.”
“Actually I don’t. I’m not a cultist.”
Mastoya’s eyes widened, and flicked to Anise. “But your father-“ She started, then stopped, looking over Cecelia carefully. “Huh. Not what I expected.”
“You didn’t let your mother limit you,” Cecelia said, “So why should I let my father limit me?” Anise’s hands tensed on her shoulders, just for a second. Then they withdrew. The girl kept her sigh of relief silent.
“Well, nobody’s perfect,” Anise said, cheerfully. “Anyway, I hate to interrupt your bonding, but there’s genocide to plan.”
“The Inquisitor is right,” Mastoya said. “Much as I hate it, there’s tentacles involved. There will be abominations, things that should not be, weird magic, and lots of sanity damage involved.”
“Yes. Daemons just want to show people the folly of virtue and torment the weak until they either get stronger or perish so that they stop sucking down resources,” Anise said, matter-of-factly. “The Old Ones want to corrupt Generica, inserting their own reality and overwriting ours. Unlike daemons, who are currently proving they can co-exist peacefully with mortals in Cylvanian society, old ones and their spawn have no place in a sane and reasonable land.”
“If they win, if they even get enough of a foothold here in Cylvania, we’re dead or worse,” Mastoya sighed, taking another slug of drink. The smell made Cecelia’s eyes water. “I hate it, but everyone in that town has to die.”
“There’s really no way?” Cecelia asked, not caring if it made Mastoya think less of her.
It didn’t seem to. The half-orc’s eyes were sad and old, as she gazed at her future queen. “No. Which is why I’m assigning you to this. You are your father’s daughter, and if you want to be a good Queen, mercy alone won’t cut it. You have to be able to bring down the fist, not just offer the open palm.”
“My father told you that, didn’t he? It’s something he’d say.”
Mastoya snorted alcohol, coughed. “Yeah.” She poked a crumpled scroll at the edge of the desk. “Don’t get me wrong, his charisma buff is nice, but…”
“Yeah.” Her father’s Noblesse Oblige was a definite help, when it came to dealing with other people. There really was no excuse for rudeness.
So they sat in the commander’s quarters, and talked about how best to kill every civilian in a town really not far from where Cecelia grew up.
She was polite, she was attentive, she took orders well, and at the end of it after she was dismissed she went to the nearest privy and vomited until she could vomit no more.
This was it.
Everything her father had been training it for, everything she’d been trained to do, was leading up to this point. If she did it, then she’d have proven to her father, to his enemies, to everyone that she was strong enough. That she’d not be a weak Queen.
All it would cost was the lives of a cult, who deserved it, and about three hundred or so people that didn’t.
Cecelia cried then, on the privy floor, knowing there was no way out of it, knowing that if she refused, then General Mastoya would just send someone else. Knowing that Anise would be there, smiling, wearing her dead mother’s face and looking on with approval and making sure that nobody was spared.
It sure didn’t seem like shielding the weak. She thought, recalling her code. But it definitely was smiting traitors. And obeying the King.
And when she was done crying, she washed her face, stared at her short, frizzy hair in the mirror, and wet it down until it stayed. She’d shave it all off after this, go bald like many of the more fervent soldiers in the army did.
It would be less trouble, when it was all gone.
Reason clanked and clattered, gears groaning as it pushed through the mud. The rains of early spring had been harsh in this part of the valley, and the roads around here were more of a suggestion than anything else.
Behind her, two hundred troops followed in silence.
They weren’t the best. They were what General Mastoya could spare from the eastern forts. And they mostly had to come back alive, or even that amount would cause serious problems down the road.
“Most of them are somewhere around fifth to tenth level,” Mastoya had said. “Conscripts with a little training, remeffs, the usual lot that the dwarves would eat for breakfast if we threw them into the direct line of fire. This will be good for their experience, probably level them a few times if everything goes right. They can handle sword and shield and crossbow, and that’s enough for a bunch of tentacle cultists. But that won’t be enough to handle any spawn or shit they call up. That’s where you and your lieutenants come in.”
Riding on their steeds, her knights kept pace alongside the ten squads. Mastoya had kept the four most well-trained members of her cadre for herself, to shore up the shortage of elites against the dwarves. But Cecelia had been able to get Graves, and Kayin, and Renick, so she was satisfied. Renick was a sturdy fighter who could take a serious beating, and the other two had useful non-knightly abilities.
She also had two royal wizards, a smattering of low-level clerics of Ritaxis to keep their units healed, and a handful of very jumpy, very new scouts who had somehow survived the rangers and made it to the front in one piece.
And also her. Cecelia frowned through the vision slit, at Inquisitor Anise’s green-clad form, strolling along tirelessly, hands in her pockets, smiling at the countryside and the empty shacks they passed on the muddy road. Even the mud didn’t seem to touch her, as if it loathed even being near the woman-shaped thing.
“Movement to the left!” The caller bellowed, and the column ground to a halt. Shouts, the whir of a few arrows, then after a minute one of her scouts ran into view, panting.
“Spotters, ma’am! Got one but more escaped!” the wind whispered in her ear.
“Good work,” she said, through the magic mouth she’d slapped on Reason. “We’ll catch up with the escapees in short order. We know where they’re going.”
The scout saluted with pride, then jogged back to his flank.
Then they came to an area where the road wasn’t. Someone had done a number on the surrounding marsh trees here, toppling and filling the area with logs and fallen foliage.
“What’s to the left of us?” She asked.
The Scout’s Whisper came in quickly. “The marsh gets worse. Sucking mud and blackflies.”
She looked right and didn’t have to look far. The lakeshore was right there. No way through that didn’t involve water, and it looked like logs had been toppled there, too.
Cecelia gnawed her lip. “Every fourth unit, tools out and clear the way. Everyone else, crossbows up. Cover them.”
The army shuffled, as the units chosen for dirty work hauled out their entrenching tools, and started digging into the pile-
-and then a horse thundered up, as Graves bellowed. “Undead in the roadblocks! Get back! Undead in the roadblocks!”
Too late, as a few soldiers screamed, and vanished into the foliage. Bony moldering hands ripped forth, seeking the living, and the soldiers shouted, battered at the logs, and retreated. Crossbows sang and bolts flew, but Graves bellowed “Save your bolts! Stop firing! Bash them, don’t shoot them!”
Then he rocked in the saddle, as something pinged off his helmet.
No, Celia realized as the first ragged volley came hissing out of the trees. Arrows.
“Ambush!” She yelled. “Clear the road, return fire!” She maneuvered, lifting Reason’s arbalest arm up and out of the way, and bringing the wrecker sword around to bear. “I’ve got the barricade! Graves, get back!”
Screaming and wheeling, his horse burst skeletons asunder, then fled as the clanking, thundering steam knight suit charged forward, slinging the blade low and up, sending logs flying into the air and back. Old bones went with them, but more were revealed, and at least three dozen skeletons wormed their way out of their hiding place to claw and scrabble at Reason’s legs.
And all the while, arrows hissed past her, to fall on her troops. Her troops!
This wasn’t how battles were supposed to go. Fortunately her knights were there to keep her soldiers from panicking. “Wounded fall back!” Renick shouted. “First rank, shields up, shield wall! Second rank, form up and return fire! Leave the bones to the Captain!”
It still felt strange, to be called that. But she put it from her mind, as she brought the wrecker down on the skeletons. They couldn’t hurt her armor, not beyond the occasional ‘1’ from a lucky crit, though the ones clambering up her back were worrisome. Groaning and creaking back there, as they tore at the seams in the housing and tried to tug at the smokestacks, and she winced as the stoker belt stuttered on its cylinders for a second.
Only a second, as suddenly the scrabbling thinned.
“Command Undead, get off of her!” She heard Graves shout. “Command Undead, get off of her!” he repeated, until the noise was gone and she thought Reason’s back was clear.
She didn’t know where the hell a bunch of old ones cultists had gotten a necromancer, but she was glad she’d brought one of her own.
Then there were more shouts to the rear, and she smiled. She’d gambled with that little trap, and now it had paid off.
In what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only a few minutes. With the destruction she’d wreaked on the skeletons and the makeshift roadblock in general, the way was clear again.
She was tempted to press on… but… she turned, rotating the steam knight suit to look at her troops. Shaken, still firing into the trees, jumpy…
Cecelia watched a bit, saw no return fire. “Cease fire!” She ordered.
Silence stretched, broken by sobbing behind her. “Form Perimeter, regroup!” She ordered, and the sergeants echoed the commands down the line. Graves spurred his horse to fall in next to her, as she clanked back north.
“Old bones, looks like they emptied a cemetery,” Graves shouted up at her. “Still did for three casualties.”
“See that they’re properly stowed on the dead cart,” Celia said. “There’s a necromancer running around and I don’t want them used against us.”
“Yes Ma’am.” He spurred his horse back to the front.
Cecelia came to a whistling stop, peering down at the smoldering cart, full of barrels and boxes and labeled ‘supplies.’ Several of the barrels had been pushed out and were burst open, showing absolutely nothing inside save for emptiness.
Renick stood guard over a bloody man in a brown robe. Not far, in the woodline, the soldiers she’d hidden in the cart chopped at a field of squirming tentacles, hewing them down hack by ichorous hack.
“Worked brilliantly, ma’am,” Renick said. “They went for the cart, our guys went for them. There’s a couple more dead past the tentacle field but the rest escaped.”
“Burn the bodies,” Celia commanded.
“And the prisoner?”
Cecelia stared at the man, who stared back. “I’m not afraid of you!” he shouted, then shrieked as Renick kicked him.
“I know,” Cecelia said. “That’s why we’re here today. Inquisitor?”
“Yes?” Said the thing, and Cecelia closed her eyes. She’d been half hoping Anise wasn’t here. “See if he knows anything useful then render justice.”
“Of course, Captain,” Anise purred as she came into view from behind Cecelia, and knelt down by the captive. Cecelia bit her lip and moved into the woods, searching and doing her best to ignore the man’s screams.
Renick followed. “Ma’am? We haven’t secured this side yet.”
“I know. That was our scout’s job. He didn’t sound out, so-”
“There!” Renick shouted, dismounting and running over to a crumpled form.” With a heavy heart, Cecelia recognized the scout who had waved to her, not ten minutes ago.
And suddenly she was breathing, fighting a panic attack, trying to get steady.
“He’s dead. Throat’s torn. Something chewed it,” Renick said, glancing around into the marsh trees, greaves sinking into the mud.
“Bring his corpse. We’ll have Graves talk to him,” Cecelia decided. “And we’ll bring him home with the others, see he gets a decent burial. We’re not savages,” she said, trying to ignore the screams behind her as Anise ‘questioned’ the prisoner.
Fifteen minutes later, as the shock of battle faded, and the army was reassembled into a marching order, Graves came up, rubbing his head. “I’m going to need to get into the claret if you keep needing necromancer spells, here. My sanity hasn’t had this much of a workout in a while.”
“I make no promises,” Cecelia said, lowering her voice. “Did he have anything to say?”
“When the ambush started he got drawn off a bit by snipers. Then something small dropped on him from the trees and started chewing his neck. While he was trying to get it off, the snipers charged him.”
“He says that he got his hands on it at one point, just before the snipers dogpiled him. He says he felt wood and cloth.”
Cecelia shook her head. “The townsfolk. It has to be. We’re not up against cultists, but the rest of them who know they’re going to die as well. Gods dammit.”
“If it’s any consolation, skeletons are a weak spell. Level five.”
“That’s something. Although this guy’s neck was torn…”
“No, it's probably a trick. The first thing I thought of were vampires. But no, the marks are all wrong. And way too small. Besides, we haven’t had those in Cylvania since the Seven sealed Count Joculah’s dungeon a few decades back."
“True.” She glanced through the visor up at the sun, still high in the sky. “Wouldn’t make sense to see vampires in the daytime anyway. Not that wood and cloth things ripping throats makes sense, either. Unless they’ve got an animator, too…”
“They do,” Anise said, stepping in from behind Cecelia. The girl shut her eyes, and let the frustration surge through her. That was the only downside to Reason, sneaky assholes like the inquisitor could sneak up on her at will. “Someone calling herself Annie Mata.”
“That’s almost as dumb as your alias,” Cecelia told her.
Anise merely smiled. “Evidently she’s a servitor of Dreadbear, a mighty necromancer. He’s seized power in the town.”
“Uh huh.” Graves said. “Mighty. I’m thinking not so much on that. There was some decent resistance on those skellies when I ordered them, but not anything I’d call mighty.”
“He’s a king of some sort, too.”
THAT made Graves shut up. Cecelia’s eyes went wide. “You’re certain?”
“No, and that bothers me.” Anise’s eyes blazed with sudden fury. “He didn’t fear death!”
“Soulstones.” Graves said, instantly. “I’d bet my last coin on it.”
Cecelia’s breath whistled in her nose. “Either that or he was happy to go to his old one. We’re dealing with cultists here, remember.”
Kayin came galloping up, with her helm off. “Orders, Captain?”
“The troops are getting restless.”
Cecelia closed her eyes.
She was beginning to see why her father had made her grind her willpower before she came to her first command. She couldn’t leave people alone for twenty minutes, before they started asking her to do things.
“We advance,” she decided, bringing Reason around to stomp forward again. “Necromancer or no, animator or no, our goal remains the same.”
“And this Dreadbear who’s leading them now?”
Cecelia passed the dead cart, with the scout now on it, staring at her with accusing, unmoving eyes. She looked away.
These were the first who had died in her service. They wouldn’t be the last, and she hated it. “He’s a traitor too. He dies with the rest of them…”