Mastoya hated fighting giants.
The big sons-of-bitches (and daughters of bitches,) hit hard, took a lot of hits, and scared the shit out of troops that weren’t expecting them.
Which was why, instead of beating ass, Mastoya was stuck behind the lines, charging Petunia up and down them, and yelling "Rally Troops" to rally her soldiers.
Honestly, if she hadn’t had Goliathan in her battlegroup when the blue bastards had popped up out of a suddenly-opening tunnel, she wouldn’t have bothered. Just sounded the retreat, and moved north, turned the feint up that way into a real strike.
But no, the Steam Knight had reached the level where she was Named and Feared, and also the giant she’d battered to pulp with her enormous flail still lay there, crushed, in mute testament to her might. The giants had lost momentum then, fallen back and played keep away with it, tried to get at the troops behind Goliathan instead while a few of their smarter sisters barraged him with rocks.
That was one anchoring point.
The other was Emmet.
With Inquisitor Layd’i just behind him, Emmet marched across the battlefield, and things died. When the dwarves came out to support the giants, Emmet was there. When Goliathan faltered, caught between three axe-wielding giants at once, Emmet was there.
Whoops, no, Emmet is here, Mastoya realized, reigning Petunia in as the massive armored shell loomed out of the lines. The daemon followed in his wake, frowning. “Why are you taking prisoners?”
“Why are you not on the front lines?” Mastoya bellowed, waving her sword between the two of them. Anise stepped back, eyes opening wide. “My battle! Fucking get back in position!”
“This is against the King’s direct wishes-
“GET BACK TO IT!” Mastoya bellowed, riding directly up to the inquisitor, and rearing Petunia’s hooves over her head.
Anise backed up quickly. Then she looked to Emmet.
Emmet who was moving back to the front lines.
“What?” and oh, the daemon’s face was beautiful to see in its outrage.
“The General gave us orders,” Emmet said, moving through the ranks of the archers, and Anise followed, complaining, her voice fading as she chastised the golem.
Not that Mastoya listened for long, she was already moving again. Explosions northeast meant mortars, and the advance was slowing there.
“Unyielding,” Mastoya whispered, protecting herself against critical hits. She sheathed her sword. “Lancer,” she said, reaching into the air and pulling a steel spear out of nowhere, twirling it between her fingers before snapping it into place. “Last Crusade!” She yelled, passing through her front line, bellowing it, and hearing her troops roar as they followed her, straight towards the thin line of dwarves and the mortar teams behind them. “CHARGE!” she commanded, and Petunia sped up, sped as the bombs fell around her, as her troops crumpled from shrapnel and concussion, charged straight through the fire, leaped OVER the double-line of axemen, and landed amongst the first artillery nest.
She wanted to rage. She NEEDED to rage. It was there, it was hungry, and this was its feeding ground. Blood would sate it, she knew, more blood, even if it ripped through her like a glorious storm, even if her own blood spilled…
…but no. No, she had to keep to the plan or all was lost.
And in the split second before Mastoya landed, she sighed, fought her rage down, and said “Pommel Strike.”
Lance reversed with a quick flip, she STILL knocked the poor bastard with the telescope back about fifty feet. Then lashes took down the rest, and before the axemen could turn she was galloping hell for leather towards the next nest, and her troops were roaring, too close for the axemen to turn anyway, unless they wanted seventy-five riled up infantry up their asses.
Mastoya beat down the artillery crews, or sent them running, running back toward the newly-opened holes that they’d come from.
Once it was done, she allowed herself a moment of respite, looked around. Took stock of her battle.
She’d started with a wide advance, putting the northern forces out in front. The Wark Knights made it look like a regular assault, like many she’d tried before. Then enough of the line troops that it looked like both fronts were even.
All this had been to mask the major push that she was with, the one moving up the southern front now. The plan had been to draw the bulk of the dwarves’ forces north, retreat the northern front west, and push hard with the southern front through the diminished dwarven forces, and straight on to the mountain. Once there the siege engines could do the work.
But she hadn’t counted on the Hand tearing north, and leaving the forces they were supposed to support in the lurch. She hadn’t counted on the dwarves having artillery that could reach that far, or the loss of most of the Wark Knights. Hadn’t counted on fliers, fucking fliers, with swarms of tiny monsters that had driven off the Dragon Knights she’d deployed to cover the northern flank’s withdrawal.
So instead of pulling their forces north, then having her troops do a disciplined retreat back, to threaten the dwarves and keep them from rejoining the battle in the south, she had been forced to put everything on the southern push, while the dwarven forces held firm to the east, and were starting to tunnel in and drop off their troops from the north. The western rally point was full of injured soldiers, and broken warriors. They were no threat to the dwarves, not anymore.
The dwarves were way off script. Fliers, long-range guns, and giants. Three wild cards, she’d known nothing about. Combined with her own unreliable elites going off on a wild bear chase, the plan’s chances of success were dropping by the minute. Too many more surprises, and she’d have to order a retreat. And then, if she was wrong, the Inquisitor would ensure she had a long, painful death.
One chance, Mastoya knew. Once chance to win this.
She looked back to the very rear, to the massive wagon, animated and driving along under their own power, the drills and cannon and catapults, and the carts of explosives that would crack the mountain wide open, break open the dwarvenhold to the point where the dwarves would be forced to surrender. All they had to do was get them intact to the mountain. Five more miles, and they could do this.
She shook her head, threw a Greater Healing on herself, and headed back south-
-only to be brought up short as a figure loomed out of the dust on the horizon.
Battered, covered in seams, staggering, it moved with ponderous speed, smokestacks still for once. Its arbalest was a shattered mess, but the monstrous machine still gripped its sword in one hand.
Mastoya stared at it for a second, something niggled in the back of her mind, but… it was gone.
No time to think. She had a battle to run. “You all right in there, Ragandor?” Mastoya bellowed.
“I’ve been better,” the heir spoke, her voice faint, barely audible. And again, something niggled at Mastoya’s mind.
No. It was Cecelia’s voice, or the voice of the thing pretending to be her, if Mastoya’s suspicions were true. Either way, it was in no shape to take on giants. But… “Go guard the engines!” She shouted. “Protect them with your life!”
There, that should keep her happy. She spent the last couple of weeks fixing those damned things anyway, she’s invested in them.
Without another word or thought, Mastoya turned and wheeled Petunia away, back to the lines.
The giants were in full rout, she was pleased to see. She was less pleased by the stream of casualties heading west. This is going to be close. And we haven’t even hit the main dwarven force yet.
Their lines were just ahead. She could see them spilling out of the tunnels their elementalists had opened, see them dressing their musket lines, braced on the shields of the axemen in front of them. So few, compared to her troops, but that didn’t matter. Each one was a veteran. Each one had been here from the start. She’d need to drown them in numbers to win, and she wasn’t sure she had the numbers.
But she did have a Goliathan. And an Emmet.
Then the cannons started, from the cliffs above, and she winced as Goliathan rocked under heavy fire. It held its shield up and forged forward, and she bit her tongue. The giants had battered her up pretty badly already… and the damage hadn’t all been mended. Was the pilot low on sanity?
She cast a look over to the Inquisitor, who was waving her hands, as Emmet’s wounds healed.
Mastoya activated the voice enhancer in her helm. “Emmet! Front and center! Goliathan, fall back!”
Goliathan hesitated. The helm turned to her.
Unlike Sir Grayson, the Steam Knight of Inkidoo, Goliathan’s driver was a far more reasonable person. Less prone to outrunning his support, more willing to listen to orders. Which was always a tough one with Steam Knights, because they were charismatic enough to argue the point if they felt like it. Goliathan tipped the dwarves a jaunty salute with the handle of his flail, and trudged backwards, soldiers scattering to let him by and reforming around the titan.
“I don’t like this,” Dame Genya spoke from Goliathan’s visor as she passed Mastoya. “They’ll need me.”
“I don’t give a flying fuck. Go back to the siege engines and get one of the menders to patch you up.”
She spared a glance north, saw the force she’d led to swarm the artillery position on their way back, escorting battered dwarven prisoners with them. “Then get the latest bunch of captives back to the fort. Make sure nobody gets stupid.”
“Yes ma’am!” Goliathan left.
The cannons rolled, the muskets fired, and Mastoya drove her troops forward, shields up. But even with the lines running Shield Saint, even with their heavy armor, the bullets still ripped through into the troops behind. Add in the cannonballs raining from above, and it was a slog just to get to the dwarves.
This was why their small numbers didn’t matter. What mattered was what got across the field.
And Emmet, thankfully, was drawing the fire she hoped he would. He was half the size of the Steam Knight, a much smaller and faster target. Musket fire sheeted off of him, in rains of zeroes and ones as he stomped forward, Juggernaut powers active.
For her part, the Inquisitor was just as brave, give her that. She moved along behind, almost birdlike, shifting in microscopic increments, zig-zagging, dashing unpredictably. She kept her arms behind her.
“Incoming!” Sergeant Tane called, “Graves? Graves!”
“The fuck is a…”
Screaming, clinging for dear life to a cat the size of a great dane, a man in armor burst out of the dwarven lines, rode through her own, leaping over everything in his way. He was CLEARLY not in control of the great black cat.
The bizarre sight was immediately followed by a smaller, tan cat, with a very familiar little bear riding on it.
She slowed as they loped past her, stared… then her breath caught in her throat as she realized where they were going.
The Siege Engines!
“Fucking…” Then, to her amazement, she saw Sergeant Tane gesture to his squad, and start backwards. “TANE! KEEP IN LINE! REMEMBER YOUR ORDERS!”
The veteran knight yelled back, but she couldn’t hear him-
-and then he was gone.
She blinked, looked to the side, found him on the ground, his shield in fragments, and the cannonball that had caught him rolling on the ground, glowing red.
He had Unyielding up. He didn’t take the crit. His squad clustered around him, shielding him from musket fire, and then he moved and Mastoya wheeled.
The next part was the melee, and it’d be up to Emmet and her troops, now.
They’d win the fight.
She had to win the war.
Mastoya rode like mad, spurring Petunia on. An ordinary horse would have been exhausted long ago, but Favored Mount buffed her, and Horsemanship buffed her more. “Lancer,” Mastoya said as she went, pulling a spear from the air. Then she grimaced, and dipped into her sanity and fortune. “Ritaxis’ blessing of strength upon me. Shield of Divinity. Holy Smite.” The lance developed a halo, was outlined by light.
She arrived to a scene of madness.
Reason, broken and scarred Reason, was standing over the shattered form of Goliathan.
Beyond it, the siege engines were in full retreat. Three wrecked carts lay scattered nearby, cleaved in half by a massive blade. Overhead, a tiny dragon wheeled with a horned rider on its back. The catriders were, oddly enough, not heading toward the wagons. They were heading toward the battlefield where she’d broken the giants.
Mastoya reigned up. Had one of the giants survived and wrecked the wagons?
Then Reason brought its fist down to hover meters above Goliathan’s helm. “Yield, Genya,” Cecelia’s small, muffled voice spoke. “I don’t want to kill you.”
It’s silent, Mastoya realized. The engine’s silent. That’s what was wrong with it!
“I yield!” Genya called, from what was left of her cockpit, laying in the remnants of her green armor.
Reason turned then, back to the wagons as it lifted its blade and started moving forward…
I am betrayed, Mastoya realized. The daemons have betrayed me! She felt rage curdle in her heart...
But she knew how to fight this foe, now didn’t she?
She spurred Petunia, and chanted as she went. “Divine Conduit. Unyielding. Back You Fiend! Charge…”
And the minute before she hit, “Twisted Rage!”
Oh, it felt good.
She snapped the lance in Reason’s leg, making it stumble… and from aboard it, she heard screams. Many many screams. Oddly different from the last time she’d killed it, but she was too busy to think about it, too filled with the red anger, and she leaped from Petunia’s back and drew her sword, beating the thing over and over again, hacking chunks of metal free, chopping without a heed for defense. The Divine Conduit healed the wounds she took as it struck back, draining her fortune to give her the smallest bit of power from her goddess.
But Reason was healing too.
As fast as she chopped, it mended. And it wasn’t burning.
Something inside was, smoke was leaking out…
…and between hacks, as time dilated and stretched while adrenaline thundered through her, she saw the hatch in the back open and flaming teddy bears drop out.
The rage paused.
She stared, open mouthed.
And Reason backhanded her away. The teddy bears stopped burning, kept running. Someone was shouting. What were they shouting? The words blurred, the rage distorted them.
Mastoya fought it back, bottled it up.
“…go help Graves! Keep clear of her!”
A tiny red-headed doll, mildly burned, hopped out of the hatch. She was wearing a replica of Dame Ragandor’s armor. And talking in her voice.
Mastoya blinked again. Then she grunted, and dashed forward, hacking into Reason. The details didn’t matter. The goal was the same. Protect the siege engines or lose.
Then her world turned to fire.
“Give it up Nasty Masty!” She heard from above, as she leaped out of the dragonfire. Garon? Then that means…
“I can’t!” She said, taking Reason’s sword on her shield, and returning its strikes fourfold. Its healing was slowing, she WAS having some effect. But her fortune was draining so very fast…
“Stubborn girl!” She heard from behind her, and froze.
Reason fell back.
“You… I killed you,” she said, turning, the goddess’ light filling her eyes and blazing forth.
“Yeah. Killed Zuula fair and square. But Zuula cheat,” said the little half-orc doll, waving a spear at its wayward daughter. “Sorry.”
“I’ll kill you again!” Mastoya roared…
…and her heart skipped a beat, as the air rippled next to her mother, and Mordecai faded in.
“Dad?” She whispered.
He looked old.
“That’ll be quite ‘nuff out of ya, Mastoya Skunkthumper,” said her Father. “Yer on the wrong side and yer beat fair an’ square.”
The Divine Conduit flickered. One of its conditions, one of its drawbacks, was that you had to align yourself, your being, your purpose with the work of the deity you called upon. And Ritaxis wanted only war.
Ritaxis did NOT do domestic disputes.
“I…” she said, and willed the buff away. “I can’t.”
“Yes you can,” Garon said, as his dragon beat its wings, hovering with unnatural wooden grace. “Look behind you.”
She turned, whipping her shield up, expecting Reason to pummel her down-
-and saw blue forms chasing after the siege engines, loping along, snarling. The giants! But no, they weren’t moving like giants. And a lot of them were wounded, bloody, and… undead.
“Even if you get through the armor golem, you want get through the giants that Graves just animated. And all the while we’ll be on your back, harassing you, hindering you, but NOT killing you,” Garon continued. “And it’ll be the whole family, save for Jarrik and Bak’shaz, against you. But hey, if you wanna go for a threefer and take down Dad, too, now’s your chance. Bad odds. Wanna do it anyway?”
The sword fell from Mastoya’s hands.
“I hate you, Mother,” she told Zuula.
“She know… Zuula is…” The half-orc shook her head. “Sorry. Was stupid to beat you. Was bad to hurt you. Was… trying orc parenting on half-orc. Bad t’ing to do to little girl. Never did it again.”
“I will never forgive you for it,” Mastoya told the doll.
“Okay. Is fair.”
Mastoya picked up her sword and sheathed it with a snap, reached up to the ring of beads around her neck, and ground one to dust between her metal-clad fingers. “Retreat,” she said. “Surrender where retreat is impossible. We’ve lost. We’re done.” She spoke, and the enchantment whispered the command through six more officers. They had their own beads. The command would echo down, she knew. The General of the Crown’s army bowed her head.
“Oh no.” A strange voice said from behind her, and she turned to see a little bear, a sharply-dressed bear clambering out of Reason’s hatch, pulling a charred form behind it. “No, no… I’m sorry Celia, I didn’t even notice.”
The form wore Dame Ragandor’s armor, a full-sized version of it.
With sudden understanding, Mastoya dropped her buffs, and clapped her hand over her mouth, eyes going wide. The daemon princess had been in Reason, and I was fighting it with Back You Fiend up for… how long? Long enough, evidently.
“Oh. Well. I guess that settles that,” The doll-sized version of the princess said. “No going back to my old body now. If it was even possible.”
“I didn’t even notice she was dying. Everything smelled like burning and I was healing Reason,” The teddy bear said, staring forlornly down at the meaty lump.
“No. It’s not your fault. And it was the right choice. Messing around with daemons at the last minute was how my father fumped everything up. Come on, it’s better this way.” The doll moved forward to hug the teddy bear.
And goddamned, if it wasn’t as adorable as it was tragic.
Masoya pulled her hand from her mouth. It still took two tries to wet her lips and whistle, until Petunia returned. Then it was up, up and to the front lines, to get her troops in safe.
“See ya soon girl,” Mordecai drawled, and faded from view.
She got up to the lines, to find one of Tane’s subordinates leading the withdrawal. Lana? Kara? No, Kara was the shorter one. “Status?”
“Bad. The dwarves let us go, but… the golem…”
“They killed him? How?”
“Not them. The Inquisitor.”
“He was too thick in the fight to retreat. He surrendered. The Inquisitor looked furious. She… she punched right through him. Then she ripped his helm off, ripped it clean off. I don’t know how!” The blonde woman shook as she recounted the betrayal.
Mastoya closed her eyes. My last ally is dead I told him to surrender if I ordered it, and he followed my orders into death. “Back. We need to get back to Fort Bronze. The King needs to hear this. From your lips, right away.”
It took two hours to get back to the gates of Fort Bronze.
They were closed.
And the Crown flag no longer flew from its towers.
“Told yer we’d see yer again,” Mordecai said, fading in next to her. Without Zuula around, this time, thankfully. Mastoya thought that if she had been, there would have been nothing on Heaven or Generica that would have stopped her from trying to kill her Mother. Again.
“How?” Mastoya whispered. “The garrison…”
“Fell ta Jericho and tha rest o’ tha Rangers when ya were far enough away. Our fort now.”
Mastoya looked at him. In front of her, her army stood, staring at the gates, not quite comprehending what was wrong yet. Lines of dwarven captives stood off to the side, staring silently. Staring at her.
“Ma’am?” Sir Renick asked, riding up, eyeing Mordecai. “Everything all right?”
“No.” Mastoya said, and she drew her blade. The nearest soldiers called out in alarm, but she waved them down, as she eased off Petunia. She was tired, so tired, as she walked forward, walked to stand in front of the gates, and whirled to face her troops.
“Soldiers of the Crown!” She said, using the final charge for the day on her helm’s giant voice. “You fought well. You fought hard. You fought with honor. But you lost. We lost.” She said, feeling her eyes burn, fighting the tears. “This war is over. We fight no more.” She took a breath, turned to the gate again. “This war is over. I order all of you to stand down. I order every prisoner freed. And I surrender unconditionally.”
We’re done, Mastoya thought, bowing her head.
And may the victors be kinder to us, then we would have been to them.

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Andrew Seiple


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