“Eye for Detail.”
Cecelia stared at the town. What little of it she could see, with that ten foot wall in the way, and a large, wooden gate slicked with moss and mud along its bottom. This was probably the first time it had been closed in decades.
“It's an animi,” she confirmed to her command staff. “Whoever their animator is, she's smart.”
“She's probably the only animator of significance, unless she's got an apprentice or two. That's something,” Renick said. Animator was one of the harder unlocks, it required either lot of study of magical theory from pre-change books, or apprenticeship to an animator willing to teach the fundamentals.
Cecelia lifted her head, and Reason's helm rose as well as she considered the top of the wall. It had a black-robed watcher with a bow visible every five feet or so. At least two hundred people were on the stockade, waiting for trouble to start. “Why so many archers?”
“It's a small peasant town,” Graves said. “Bowfishing is a thing, and they'll supplement their catch with whatever they can hunt. Some of them will have just formalized it, that's all.”
“And it's not hard to get someone passable in the weapon skill and job in a few days,” Renick said. “True, most'll be five or under, but the same goes for our guys. And that doesn't take into account the craftsman and oddball jobs some of them will have.”
“Which some of our people have too, so in the end it should balance out,” Kayin said. “I'm more concerned by what I'm not seeing and what I'm not hearing.”
“Dark ominous chanting ripping at our souls, weird monsters hitting us from the sides, and occult graffiti everywhere. You know, everything you'd expect to see when you're fighting an Old Ones cult.”
“The Dark Chant is a level five skill,” Anise said. “Perhaps their cult is young, yet?” Even she didn't sound convinced.
“No. No, a cult of this size you're at least looking at a few eights and tens. With someone near double that leading them,” Graves said.
Cecelia gnawed her lip. “Something isn't adding up here. They're acting too... sane. We need more intelligence.” She took a deep breath, released it. It was time to put more men into danger. “We have three scouts left, yes?”
“Yeah,” Renick confirmed. “A seven, a six with some oddball support jobs, and a four.”
She winced. “Tell the four to stay with the army and keep an eye on that lake. Send the seven and six around on long recon. Swing wide east around the town and tell me what's happening at the other gates.”
“At least half a day,” Cecelia said. “I know. I'm a scout too, remember?”
“I'll pass on your orders to the scouts and go with them,” Anise decided, and was off before anyone could say anything.
“Where exactly is she in our command structure?” Renick asked, rubbing his face with one gauntlet.
“Way, way above it,” Cecelia said. "But unable to countermand my orders in the field on military matters."
“Well that's something, I guess."
“Half a day means that it'll be night before they get back,” Kayin pointed out.
“I know. But we've got enough darkspawn-enchanted helmets among the units that we should be able to see any trouble they throw at us. And night opens up possibilities for us, too.” She moved Reason's visor down to look at Kayin, and lowered the voice coming from her magic mouth. “You were an assassin. Think you can infiltrate that town?”
Kayin's cold smile wasn't entirely devoid of charm. “You know that dead cultist's robe? I picked it up and washed it, just in case you asked that question.”
“I'm a little unclear on how assassin works, besides the stabby bits,” Cecelia confessed. “Do you have any useful stealth tricks for the situation?”
“That's more burglar and scout,” Kayin said. “We're good at bullshitting our way past people and being unobtrusive. Though my stealth skill is good enough that night should be all I need. Probably the best way to use me is to launch your assault, and I'll use the chaos to slip in. Question is; what do you want me to do when I'm in there?”
“I figured that would be self-evident, given the name of your old job,” Graves grinned.
“No, you're right Kayin,” Cecelia said. “We have no idea who the cult leader is, or if this Dreadbear guy is him, or what their command structure's like. We need intelligence. Not the attribute kind, the military kind.”
“We've got an imp wrangler, don't we?” Renick asked.
“Good thinking. Let's check while we're waiting on the scouts.”
Cecelia got clear of eyesight from the wall, hunkering reason down behind a copse of trees, and decanted. She took a breath, as she felt her pools slowly start to refill again. That was the downside to Steam Knight armor, it shut off the slow, natural regeneration that every living being got. Raising thy blade cast in steam and steel meant awesome power, at the cost of needing either someone backpacking you to keep it going, or carefully rationing what you had.
And speaking of rations, she was hungry as hell, and more than a little thirsty. “Let's have lunch while we wait.”
The actual rations of the army had been distributed among the lower-level footsoldiers' packs. They only had a couple of days worth, but they weren't that far from the fort, and the expectation was that they'd have plenty to eat once the town was dead.
Once the town and everyone in it is dead, Cecelia tried, and failed to push from her mind as she ate her ration loaf. Dead, because we're going to massacre them.
“We're going to have to kill everyone here because if we don't the old ones will eat everyone, innocents or no,” Cecelia reminded herself.
Graves took it as a question. “Yes, I'm afraid so. It isn't our fault. They were dead either way once the cult grew too big for the locals to stop it. Me? I prefer the version of them being dead that doesn't end up with me in an elder god's belly.”
“But it isn't their fault either. The people who aren't cultists, I mean.”
“Yeah. It fucking sucks,” Renick said, looking at her soberly. “Which is why we need to win the wars, so we can concentrate on policing people and making sure it never gets bad enough that a cult grows this big ever again.”
Cecelia thought it over, as she finished her loaf. There were some flaws in that idea, her Intelligence pointed out, but she didn't think the knights would be willing to listen to them.
Things will be different when I am queen, she decided. She desperately hoped that was true.
“You called for me, Captain?” The imp wrangler bustled up. A large man with a slightly-haunted look and cages strapped to his back, he wore the red sign of an approved cultist on his black robe.
“Yes. What have we got, impwise?”
He hauled off three cages and showed her. Three black, scaly little things with wings and overlarge eyes stared back at her, licking their needle-like rows of teeth and grasping at the bars of their cages with tiny clawed fingers. They were somewhere between a bat and a housecat in size.
“Trained and disciplined. Aren't you, you little vermin?” sneered the cultist as he rapped his knuckles on one cage. The imp inside cowered and shook.
“That's enough,” said Cecelia. “So they'll obey orders and take messages?”
“Yes ma'am. They can manage about five sentences, the shorter the better. Beyond that gets unreliable.”
“Can you make more?” Cecelia asked.
“Plenty of birds around here,” He fished around on his belt and held up a slingshot. Nostalgia stirred within Cecelia, and she shoved it aside. “I can do one, maybe a day if I get access to the grog rations, but it wipes me for anything else. The sanity cost is about a hundred each. And they won't be as trained or disciplined. That takes about a week to work the kinks out of any pact.”
“Is that how it works?” Kayin asked, surveying the little fearful demons.
“Oh yeah. The basic pact just gets them manifested, and the core directives installed into their new forms. Then you want to spend about a week or two hammering out the paradoxes, and ensuring that the vows are all locked down, and the loopholes are sealed. You do NOT want a daemon running free without those, even something as simple as a Rank I. They'll find tons of ways to twist your core commands, completely exploit the letter of the pact, and do things just to spite you. Even if it screws them over, as well.”
“How boned am I if I carry two of them on me?” Kayin asked. “Say in some padding under a robe, while I'm trying to keep them a secret.”
“Eh, they're prone to weird noises when they get surprised.” He hauled off and whacked a cage with a stick, and all three of the imps shouted and squeaked, warbling in weird, repellent tones that were like birdsong only oilier.
“Right. Give me two in cages then,” Kayin said. “I'll stash them someplace accessible when I breach.”
“Need to know stuff,” Cecelia told the imp handler. “Tell her how to use them then go back to the rear and summon another. Work on training it, I'll send word if I need a message sent back to headquarters.”
“Yes Ma'am,” he pounded his chest in a salute, then pulled Kayin off to the side.
“What now?” Renick asked her, as he walked back alongside. Graves followed on her other flank, eyes peeled as he watched the swamp around them.
“Now we wait. Depending on what the scouts say, we either move at dawn or fort up for the night.”
“The troops will get restless,” Renick pointed out.
“Right.” Cecelia sighed. It was hard work managing this many barely-trained soldiers. “Put them to work building camp while we've still got daylight. Plenty of trees, and hey, there's that pile the cultists already knocked down for us back up the road. I won't say no to free logs.” Her scalp itched, and she ran her gauntlet through her hair, frizzy again in the moistness of the marsh. Yeah, it'd be time to shave it off soon, just lose it forever. Maybe she'd find a good barber and make that style permanent.
“They're stalling us,” Anise announced, fading out of the early-dusk shadows. Behind her, the midlevel scout staggered into camp, and threw her a sloppy salute. One arm was bandaged, and his armor was torn.
“Report,” Cecelia commanded him, sparing a second to nod at Anise.
“All's quiet on the eastern gate. They only have a few people watching it.”
“How's the terrain between here and there?” Renick asked.
“Bad. It's mostly two-foot-deep water between the two gates, with lots of overgrowth and marsh plants.”
“No good for a sortie then,” Cecelia decided.
“Good for my purposes, though.” Kayin nodded. “I'll go get changed.”
“At the south gate there's people leaving. They're moving in groups. All sorts, and children are with them. No robes.”
“They're evacuating the townsfolk who aren't cultists,” Cecelia said, surprised.
“Or that's what they want us to think,” Anise said. “This could be a trick, and they'll come around on our flank.”
“Evacuating them where?” Renick said. “There's nothing but wilds out this way, ever since that one mining town was wiped out by rebels.”
Cecelia felt a lump rise in her throat. She looked away, letting the lie slide. Telling the truth of the matter wouldn't help the situation at all here, and the guilt weighed heavy on her.
“There's more,” the scout said. “Every group of them has a little stuffed toy or two following along with them. Some are carrying things.”
“What?” Cecelia stood upright, so fast that her armor rattled. “You're sure?”
“They're going to take a chance on surviving the wilds.” Cecelia said, her mouth going dry. “With guardians along that don't sleep, and can take on things five times their size.”
“For what, an hour or two?” Renick frowned. “Animi don't last that long. You told us that.”
“They're not animi. They're golems. Those families are being escorted by golems. Little golems that think and learn and love their children, and will fight to the death for them.” Celia swallowed, hard. “I wondered where he'd gone, after father told me grandfather escaped his prison. Now I know. Oh gods—” she said, putting two and two together and getting five-hundred-and-ninety-seven. “—he's even calling himself Dreadbear, to hide his real identity. He's hiding here somewhere, talking to them through magic mouth on that poor little teddy. It all makes sense now!”
“Ma'am?” The Scout asked.
“Anything else to report?”
“No ma'am. But the Inquisitor made it farther than I did. You should really hear her report, it's concerning.”
“Very well. Dismissed. Go talk to the clerics and rest up.”
“Aye ma'am.” He thumped his chest and was off.
“I wasn't ignoring you,” Cecelia said, turning to Anise. “But he was pretty badly torn up, so I wanted to hear his report first. What happened?”
“They have scouts too. Not very good ones,” Anise shrugged. “But good enough to kill the senior scout. But that doesn't matter, what does matter, is a hill about three miles out of town. There's a circle of stones up there, and the old one linked to them is waking up. They're ferrying sacrifices out there. Children, as far as I can tell.”
Cecelia's breath hissed between her teeth. “In my father's name I order you to tell the truth. You're certain of this?”
Anise looked annoyed. “I'm positive. Children-sized figures in robes arrive by boat, and are accompanied up to the dolmens by people who are presumably their parents, based on the weeping embraces and pathetic goodbyes they get. I watched for a full hour, as closely as I dared. Not a single child came back down from the hill, and every time one went up there the old one's power grew.”
“They're summoning him.” Renick said, horror filling his large features. “They're stalling us here so they can summon him fully into this world.”
“Something doesn't add up,” Graves said. “Why are they letting the uninvolved people leave? To old one cultists, those would be perfect sacrifices.”
“Grandfather.” Cecelia sighed, settling back down. “It's because he's working with them.”
She didn't see Anise twitch in surprise, didn't see how the woman-thing's face settled back into its usual mask, as Cecelia continued. “It was hushed up, but my Grandfather was a rebel. He escaped custody a few years back, and now he's here.”
Graves' jaw dropped. “Wait. Wait wait whoa, you're talking about the father of Amelia Gearhart. The guy who taught the hero everything she knew, before...”
“Well. Shit.” Renick summed up. “There's no way that guy isn't a level twenty-five Tier Two. We need to call in reinforcements. Get some dragon riders in—”
“No,” Cecelia said. “I know my grandfather. He hates the Crown, but he won't end the world. He's a good man, just deluded. If he's shown himself to the cult, it's only to save people. Which means that he'll try to intervene to stop the old one from being summoned, as soon as everyone's safe.”
“Your grandfather committed treason against the Crown,” Anise said. “The King's commands are clear when it comes to traitors. Can you face him and fulfill your duty, Dame Ragandor?”
Cecelia narrowed her eyes, as she gazed at the thing wearing her mother's face. “I have not forgotten my father's lessons on the weakness of mercy. But my father's promise to me stands firm, and we shall both honor it. If he is here I will capture him. You shall not hurt him and you shall assist me in this task to the best of your ability.”
“I know full well my place in things, Cecelia,” Anise said, bowing her head. “If I promise to do everything in my power to avoid harming your Grandfather through action or inaction, will you allow me to fulfill my promise to you? You do you remember that one?”
“That you would help me become who I needed to be,” Cecelia said. “And I accept your bargain. Now go, and tell the unit commanders to make ready for the assault. Renick, go with her and sort in the details. It's going to be frontal, as soon as the night's fully upon us.”
The two departed. Graves remained, looking at their retreating backs, then over at the town. “Why? If your grandfather's going to backstab the cult in the end...” One gauntlet rose to rub his beard. “But we don't know that for sure, do we?” He answered his own question. “No. It's possible he was driven mad by cultists, or they've managed to trick him.”
“Grandfather was smart but gullible.” Cecelia sighed. “I realize that now. We can't take the chance they're stalling us, and this cult is sacrificing kids. It's pretty clear-cut who the villains are. It'll be painful but we need to assault them head on, now, and blitz through the town so we can get to the dolmens to stop the ritual.”
“And the uninvolved townsfolk? The ones fleeing into the hills?”
“Not our priority,” Cecelia said, feeling a great weight shift from her. “If they're not fighting us and they're clearly not the cult, then they're not traitors. We'll inform the general and she might send someone to hunt them down. Eventually.” And their blood won't be on MY hands.
“Even if there are cultists among them secretly? Old one cults are insidious,” Graves pointed out, with his quiet logic.
“We know where their old one's summoning site is now. What are the odds there are two of those in this valley? We just lock it down or destroy it and render their religion a moot point. Between you and the wizards I'm pretty sure we can figure out something.”
Graves nodded. “All right. To tell the truth that sits better with me anyway.” He rubbed his beard.
He really was a good man, Celia reflected. And only about five years older than me, maybe, she thought and banished the notion with confusion. Now wasn't the time to fantasize. But still... “What's your first name?” She asked, suddenly. “You came in just after I did, and nobody ever used it. I don't think we really properly knew it.”
“Oh, uh,” Graves said, lowering his gauntlet. “That's because I don't use it very much. Herbert. I'm Herbert Graves. Why do you ask?”
“You're going to have my back tonight, and we're going to kill our way through a lot of people who really, really deserve it.” Cecelia smiled. “It only seems polite.”
Graves nodded, eyes glittering as he studied her smile. “Listen. If we get separated... try to keep me in view, okay?”
“Well, yes. Steam Knights need support to guard their flanks and rear, that's the first lesson we learned.”
“No, it's not that,” Graves said, shifting. “I mean if the worst happens, you won't have long to get to the soulstone. Spirits last the longest around their bodies, but we're talking minutes, here. It's tied to Will, so you should be good, but uh... You can travel a bit as a newly-dead spirit, but that cuts it down by a lot, the farther you go. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to ruin the moment, this is morbid, and—”
“Herbert,” She smiled, and he shut up. “It's all right. Come on, let's get the army straightened out, we've got a battle to win. We can talk more after that.”
His smile was genuine, and he thumped his breastplate with enthusiasm. “Yes Ma'am!”
“And keep that Deathsight spell of yours up. We know they have a necromancer, and I expect more surprises from that quarter...”
They came for the cult in the night. They came with torches held high, with shields up in the first few ranks, and with the more adept crossbowmen behind them, raining down rapid shots from their crossbows, sending the heavy bolts flying in ways that anyone without the archer job couldn't match.
The cultists returned fire from the walls, their own bows weaker but better ranged, even if their accuracy wasn't as good. They had volume, and they punished the first ranks.
Cecelia strode forward slowly in Reason, the darkspawn-enchantment on her inner helm letting her see despite the uncertain light. Well, as best she could with Reason's forearm held up to shield her visor's slit. Peripheral vision she had. Forward view? Nah. But she only had to keep pace with her front lines, keep going forward until she got to the gate. Even as an animi, she was pretty certain it wasn't going anywhere.
Arrows thumped and rattled off Reason's hide, and she swallowed. Occasionally one hit with enough force to do one or two points, but overall she wasn't worried. Was happy, even. The more that came for her, the less that went for her troops. No, the gorge churning in her belly was from the fact that she was going up against people who actually wanted to kill her. She'd felt that feeling when they cut down Baron Comfort's bandits, and she was feeling it again, here. It was bad. This wasn't monsters, or beasts, or a situation where she was up against a thing following its nature. These people had made the active decision that they needed a Cecelia-shaped hole in their lives and were doing their best to make it reality.
Well. She had a thing or two to say about that. “Mend,” she snapped as the damage started to mount.
“To the flank! Right flank!” Renick bellowed, and she shifted.
THINGS were coming out of the lake.
“Right flank shields!” She screamed through the magic mouth. “We planned for this, people!”
You don't go up against old ones without keeping eyes on the nearby body of murky water. That was just asking to get tentacle.
“Rally Troops!” Renick shouted. “Let's send these eldritch fuckers back where they came from!”
She heard the right flank roar with approval, as their moxie got a decent buff.
Oh yeah, I can do that too. She risked an unshielded glance at the walls, found them near, and snapped her arbelest arm back up as arrows clattered off Reason's helm. “Rally Troops! The gate's right there, let's go knock that fumper down!”
Then her men were cheering, or screaming, and she didn't know because she was lifting her sword up, and charging.
“Now now dispel now!” She yelled.
“Dispel magic!” She heard over the yelling, from just behind her. Then something that could have also been a dispel magic, from further back, where the other wizard was. She'd spread them out in the battle, to make sure at least one of them survived to get within range.
At least one of them got through, because when she hit the gate, that had been augmented animated wood but was now disenchanted, it broke. Ordinary, somewhat rotted mossy wood splintered into fragments as she brought the sword through it in a single ponderous thrust. Then the bulk of Reason slammed into it, and it burst into fragments.
Screams from above her, and the splash of liquid, and the smell filled her nose as she backed off, hastily.
Her mentors had briefed her on this. Fire, sticky fire like Geek's fire from alchemists or oil or tar from sieges, could roast a steam knight alive in their suit.
Which is why, like most problems she'd come to, Cecelia had given a lot of thought and experimentation to finding a good solution. And in this case, the solution involved the outer layers of quilted cloth she'd sewn around Reason's helm and front. “Clean and Press!” Cecelia shouted, and sighed in relief as the first few flaming arrows clattered off of her, seconds too late.
Relief that lasted until something inhuman roared from above her. “Burninate!”
Her world became fire, and she shrieked as red numbers rolled up from Reason's components. She backed off further, hunkered down, and started hissing the spells of her backup plan. “Distant Animus blanket! Invite Blanket!”
Rustling from below her, as the fire-quenching blanket she'd commissioned from the royal enchanters wormed its way out of the cork-stoppered compartment she'd put it in, and crawled up Reason to smother the flames. “Mend, mend, mend,” she chanted, once the fires started going out. Distant animus was a good ace to play, but it had a range limitation of about one foot per level. Which was more than enough to land the spell on the blanket five feet from her.
“Ricochet shot!” She heard someone call, then whipped her cheek to the side, as a lucky crit hit Reason's visor slit, bounced toward her, and collided with her helm instead of her face. Close! Too Close! She wanted to turn, to flee, to retreat. Instead she slammed the burning arbelest up to cover Reason's visor, gritted her teeth as the heat roiled around her, and waited.
She'd done her part here. She'd shattered the gate, and she could hear the bellowing of the troops around her as they surged to and through the wall, and the shouts and cries of combat once they were past the gate. Cecelia and reason had given them their shot, and now it was on them to make it count.
So she knelt, letting the blanket do it work, breathing as shallowly as she could, mending the damaged parts of reason as the flames died, falling to the fireproof blanket's embrace. If I hadn't cleaned the oil, I'd be dead, Cecelia knew. There would have been no way to escape Reason quickly enough.
The minutes passed, the fire died, and when Cecelia lowered her the arbelest arm, an imp crawled through the visor. “Kayin has entered the village. Everything's chaos. The dolls are in charge, cult says follow their orders. Dreadbear's a teddy bear in a voodoo outfit. They have a dragon golem and Kayin wants to know if you want it dead.”
A dragon golem! Cecelia's eyes widened. She'd only ever heard about dragonfire. Never seen it in action.
Now I have, she supposed, shuddering at how close that last call had been. “Gods dammit grandfather, you nearly killed me,” she croaked.
“What? What what? What?” The imp jumped up and down, boggling at her. They were generally dim, she knew, their own intelligence a reflection of the creator's own. And the imp handler hadn't impressed her overmuch in that regard.
Cecelia cleared her throat. “Tell Kayin to take out the dragon if she can. Leave Dreadbare to me.” Gods, if Dreadbear was what she thought it was, she wasn't sure she could kill it. She really, really hoped she could take him alive. Get him away from grandfather, to a safe place where she could break the little golem away from the rebel lies the old man had been teaching it.
But first things first. “Return to her with those words. Do you understand?”
“Yes yes I go!” The imp screeched and departed.
She'd heard that the higher-level officers had access to better imps, ones her father had personally made. Ones that were suited to skilled recon and intelligent enough to operate independently.
They still creeped her out.
Finally, the arrows against her slackened, and she stood, to see the shattered gates before her, and most of her army fighting inside the town. No good place for her there, so she waited, observing, for the bodies to move so she could squeeze in without trampling her own people.
And then the level-up flashed across her field of view, and she sighed. She'd hit level five steam knight, finally. “Status, help,” she said, and settled in to read and best think how to synergize her new tricks into her tactics.
“Ma'am!” Graves rode up, an entourage of skeletons following him. “The things from the lake were animated boats with wooden wheels nailed on. They were full of skeletons. There was something in the water croaking eldritch song supporting them, but we drove it off with concentrated fire. Renick thinks it was some kind of bard.”
“Bard?” Cecelia blinked. “Seriously.”
“Yes. Also, uh...” he rode in closer. “I seem to have unlocked a Tier 2 job I've never heard of.”
“Really?” Academic interest fired up... then faded, as she looked to the battle raging in the town. There was a time and place to discuss this in depth, and it wasn't here. “What is it? Make it short.”
“It's called Death Knight. Big on necromancy and buffing undead. And plagues and frost for no reason I can tell.”
“Gods.” Cecelia rubbed her face. “You're one of the few people I trust with something like this. Look, will it help you survive this battle?”
“Take it. As your current commanding officer I authorize it.”
“Thank you ma'am! Yes!” he stood there for a second, helm elevated as he read the details. “Intelligence and Con? Okay, works for me. Good news is the plague stuff is only plague resistance at this level. Everything else seems manageable, nothing that the inquisitor would kill me over. Oooh, this'll help. Bony Armor!” Half the skeletons shivered and fell apart, wrapping around him, until his pauldrons were jawless skulls and the rest of his plate was laced in ribs.
“Cute,” Cecelia sighed. “All right. Get Renick and the wizards and let's go get this over with.”
Midway through the town, as they fought the fifth batch of cultists in the burning remnants of a block of houses, Graves stiffened up. “Shit! I just got Kayin!”
What was he... oh. Oh!
“Ask her where!” Cecelia shouted, rage filling her. “We'll fumping make them pay!”
“Speak with Dead.” He chanted, and Kayin's voice echoed through their minds.
“Hey Cecelia. Got the dragon, fucked up the escape. Bad assassin, no cookie.”
“Where!” Cecelia said, shaking, feeling the tears burst from her eyes. “Show us where!”
“Southwest, by the church. They've got a rallying point there.”
“ON ME!” Cecelia bellowed, and surged ahead, breaking Steam Knight protocol. Her friend was dead, and by the gods she'd make her killers pay.
They found her by the church, windows shattered, cultists inside firing arrows desperately at the approaching knight.
“TALK TO THE HAND!” Cecelia roared, and her arm, no longer needing to be in front of her visor, intercepted arrow crits as she charged the building. “STEAM SCREAM!” she bellowed, and Reason sent a shuddering howl to the skies, trembling the stars within their firmaments. She had the hot satisfaction of seeing green numbers, big ones streak from the cultists at the windows as they shrieked, and then she was crunching through the wall, sword raised high. “Oh yeah!” She yelled, sword chopping down as blood sprayed red, red on the busted bricks.
At some point in there she unlocked the berserker class.
“Undead!”Graves called. “I'm on it... what the hell?”
“That's it! That's the thing that got me, the dragon rider!”
A squeaky voice yelled in desperation. “Call Faiah! Least Elemental! Shape Faiah- shit!”
“Bitch please!” Renick roared, and then came the sound of heavy metal boots stomping through wood. "Dolorous Strike! Dolorous Strike!"
“An Emberling? Seriously?” Graves said. “Oh. Oh shit, Kayin. Sorry.”
“Yeah, that's my body. The little shit got my throat,” Kayin said. “It was pretty messy. You might not want to see this, Cecelia.”
Finally, there was silence. Cecelia snorted snot from her nose, and blinked away tears. The fury drained from her, leaving her feeling hollow.
She wasn't sure what kind of people were insane enough to take rage as a job feature.
Then stillness. A change in the air, nothing she could put her finger on. It was like reality shuddered.
She backed Reason out of the church, wheeled around, gasped as she saw Renick and Graves off their horses, kneeling next to Kayin's charred corpse. Her darkspawn helm showed her the pool of blood her friend had died in, in agonizing full color. It pooled around the rent stuffing and green fur of a little dragon, torn and fragmented from Kayin's successful work.
Cecelia swallowed, hard. “We need to get her to the corpse cart. And make sure their necromancer gets nowhere near her.”
“Well, her spirit's with me. They won't lock her soul into a corpse, that's the important thing,” Graves promised. Then he glanced west, to the shore, and frowned. “The little puppet thing had a spirit. It was like an undead sealed into a toy body.”
“What? You can do that?”
“No shit?” Kayin sounded interested.
“I've heard rumors,” Graves said, muttering. “They can go into animi, but they pass on once the animi expired. Or if you're really evil you can enchant weapons and armor, make hauntblades or wraith armor.”
“I could maybe stand being a dagger for all eternity,” Kayin mused.
But Graves was still talking. “That... that puppet was a fire elementalist, though, and I've never heard of jobs carrying through. And it was a girl's spirit that ran by me, right into the lake.” He turned, surveyed the town. “And there goes another! On the edge of the shore. The dead cultists, their spirits are running into the lake.”
“Soulstones,” Cecelia whispered. “Soulstones don't need to breathe. They're under there somewhere.” She sighed. “It would probably take days to find them. And something capable of operating underwater.”
“The way is clear,” Anise announced, stepping out of the shadows. “We need to stop the rite.”
“Yes, of course,” Cecelia was drained, so drained. The battle had been long and hard, and now she understood why the cultists hadn't feared death. “Grandfather, what have you done?” She whispered.
“Your orders, Captain?” Anise asked, hands folded behind her back, smiling.
And oh, did Cecelia hate her at that moment. But why? She wondered. Anise was easy to blame, true, but she couldn't help what she was. And she hadn't killed Kayin.
Cecelia thought. And as she did, that sensation nagged at her mind. She'd felt something like that before, both in the Catamountain, and in the dungeon the elite knights had special access to...
“Renick, Graves,” she said, carefully. “A second ago, did it feel like everything shifted? Like when we ran Highmountain together?”
“Yeah. Yeah it did,” Renick said. “I didn't think anything of it because I was busy breaking that doll, but now that you mention it...”
Cecelia gnawed her lip. “Grandfather. Renick, take Kayin's body to the corpse cart, then get the army moving. I assume it's that thing?” She pointed across the lake, to where a green glow was visible to the southwest.
“Yes.” Said Anise. “I'll have the scout guide them.”
“You're not going yourself?” Grave asked.
“If this strange feeling is your grandfather, I need to be there with you when you find him,” Anise smiled at Cecelia. “You understand, dear.”
“I know,” the girl sighed. “You don't trust me one bit.”
“I trust you every bit as much as you trust me.” Anise smiled.
“That's pretty much what I just said.” Cecelia confirmed, then checked her coal reserves. A bit left. Enough for the task at hand. “Stand back. If there's a dungeon it'll be in the church somewhere. I'll clear the wreckage and see what we can find.”
The trapdoor they eventually uncovered, and the wooden stairs down, were too small for reason. With a sigh, Cecelia decanted from her suit, animating it and inviting it to her party. It should be enough to stand guard over the site while they explored, but... “Does Kayin still have a messenger imp on her?” she asked.
“Burned up like she was, sorry,” Graves said.
“No worries,” Kayin said from her soulstone. “I'm pretty much beyond offending, here. Besides, I've made too many corpses to be sensitive about my own.”
“Heh. Just sit tight, we'll get to you shortly,” Cecelia smiled, glad to hear her friend's spirit in good... well, spirits.
“Who are you speaking to?” Anise interrupted.
Cecelia shot Graves a glance, got one in return. “You didn't hear that?” Cecelia asked.
“Let's just focus on the job at hand.” The Inquisitor descended the steps, peering around, distracted and with a hungry look on her face. “A dungeon, yessss....”
“Might want to stay silent for a bit, Kayin.” Graves whispered. “Don't want that one getting ideas about you.”
The cave below was relatively small, and definitely not a dungeon. It had bloodstained sand next to a cove full of dark water. There was also a small chamber down a side-passage, that led to a room with bleachers, mattresses on the grimy floor, and an unexpected shock to her sanity when Cecelia saw the kind of drawings that lined the walls. If there'd been any doubt to the righteousness of her cause, it was gone now.
But it was also empty of any kind of dungeon.
At least, she and Graves thought so until they returned to the main cave, and found Anise crouched at the water line, staring into the darkness. “Clever, clever,” said the Inquisitor, a smile curving her flawless lips. “They put it underwater.”
“How far?” Graves asked.
“Not far.” And then Anise waded into the cold water, fading from view as she went.
Graves and Cecelia shared a look. “Invite me,” She said.
One invite later, she and his remaining three skeletons, and a hastily created animus blade and shield went into the water...
...and surfaced into the light.
“Oh,” Cecelia said, staring around her, at the riverbank, and the pine woods just beyond.
And there, up on a hill, was a two-story house. Cozy, hidden...
Beyond the stretch of river, a narrow bit of woods, and the house, everything was foggy and unresolved. The colors were bleached and strained, and some of the trees had a translucent quality to them.
“It's new. Barely formed,” Anise hissed, to their side. She paced back and forth, hands flexing, fingers grasping. “Oh this will be perfect!”
But Cecelia didn't hear her. She was too busy looking at the house, where she had been safe. Where she had been innocent once. And her eyes burned once more, as she felt her heart burn in her chest.
Here was her reckoning, she knew. The final reconciliation, one way or the other, the final challenge to overcome, to put aside childish things and become the woman her Father and her future subjects needed her to be.
And she didn't know if she was strong enough.