“General alarm!” She called back. “We've got intruders, saboteurs! Find them! Capture them, I want them alive.”
With that she headed back into her room and change, hands moving with long practice, donning her arming underlayer, then her plate, and sliding her sword into its sheathe. She debated on the shield, and took it. All told, the process took two minutes.
And as she wrapped it up, something felt wrong.
What was it?
“Ma'am! There's a fire in auxiliary barracks twenty-five! The Cataclysm is putting it out! There's signs of violence, and the necromancers say an angry ghost found traitors up there!”
“The fuck? Get a perimeter around that barracks,” Mastoya commanded. Something was off. What was off?
Leaving her pauldrons loose and half-tied, she shouldered the door open, and found her honor guard awaiting her. “You're with me. Let's move.”
They fell into step behind her, blades out, glaring around at the rough-cut halls of the fort as she stomped through them. The West Wing was a ways, the barracks in question was pretty remote.
And Mastoya stopped, so quickly that Hicks almost ran into her from behind.
That was what was wrong!
The cannons had skipped a beat! She knew the rhythm by heart now, heard it in her sleep, it had worked its way into her dreams. It was always Two, one, three, five, four. And since the explosion had come from Five's direction... Three. Three had skipped a beat.
“To the machine bay!” She yelled, and pushed past Hicks and Wedge, and flat out ran.
A messenger imp caught up to her as she went. “Trouble in the machine bay!” The yattering thing screeched. “Captain Dontalus is keeping a perimeter! The Steam Knight's gone berserk!”
Cannon Three was right over the machine bay, and chock-full of steam ballistae and tunnel thumpers, and other engines of destruction that Melos had ordered to the front over the last week. It was going to be a big push, Mastoya knew, and she had been waiting for the word.
And now, one of the Crown's most effective warmachines was ripping it all to hell and back. Mastoya's lips twisted against her tusks. Her brother couldn't have found a more effective target to sabotage.
“The barracks. The barracks was their staging point, they're long gone. Call off the cordon and tell the captain to secure the machine bay. If Reason can't be stopped, evacuate the courtyard until I get there. Go back to Captain Dontalus and tell him that!” She shook her head. Garon had distracted her with a heart-felt plea, while simultaneously sabotaging the war effort. Damn, he was clever. Also alive. Kind of.
She believed it was him, now. This was something sneaky, just the sort of thing that Dad would have taught him. She wondered if Jarrik and Bak'shaz had parts in this... they'd been missing for years, but she'd heard rumors of a mighty tamer working with the Rangers.
After a frantic, scrambling minute she burst into the courtyard, to find Captain Dontalus forming a perimeter around the warped portcullis. Beyond it, in the darkness of the bay, something inhuman whimpered and screeched.
“Why is that bay not secured, Captain?” Mastoya snapped.
“The Princess ordered us back, ma'am!”
“Fuck that noise! She's not in your chain of command!”
“Ma'am... the Hand and the Inquisitor were in there, and and the High Inquisitor said to do as the Princess said...”
Mastoya glared at him for a full second, but she understood. The Inquisitor was a special case. Mastoya hated special cases.
She also hated uppity young officers who she'd thought had more common sense than this.
“Hold position. Back us up if trouble starts,” Mastoya said, flipping her visor down and waving her honor guard forward. Her buffs were still up, so there was no need to reset them. But around her, her honor guard muttered their own.
“Yes Ma'am. Uh, she told everyone to keep clear, Ma'am,” said Dontalus.
“That's nice.” Mastoya said, pushing through the perimeter, and clambering through the warped bars, looking around the room...
...and freezing, as she saw the pulped remnants of Reason, and the Princess kneeling over it. Tendrils, fleshy THINGS swayed out of the Steam Knight's broken shell, and groped for Princess Cecelia, questing, trying to find a way through her armor... Surprised, the princess looked back at Mastoya, showing pale skin, and fearful eyes, somehow unaware of the danger trying to eat her!
“Get that thing!” Mastoya called to her honor guard, and charged it. She didn't know what the fuck it was, but it had tentacles, which meant old one or something eldritch like that. And she had a trick against supernatural evil, now didn't she? “Back You Fiend!” She bellowed, slamming her sword against her shield.
Ritaxian clerics had an edge here. Most other clerics had to present their holy symbol to do this. But Ritaxis had adopted the sword as her holy symbol, because putting down your weapon or your shield in the face of extraplanar evil was pretty idiotic.
The tendrils whipped back, and something writhed in the ruins of Reason. Unable to escape the oncoming holy rebuke, it shrieked as its unnatural flesh burned.
And the Princess, startled, screamed, and ran the other way. “Wedge! Hicks! Get her to safety!”
Then there was no time, as the creature, unable to escape, fought. But it had already been wounded, she saw, by whatever had broken Reason. She went down its length, hacking until the ridged, slimy meat of it stopped wriggling, stopped trying to gut her. And all the while it burned, as the holy fire she'd called to herself cooked it.
“General Mastoya!” A voice snapped from the stairs, and Mastoya took a few more hacks, then stood next to the cockpit as red steam billowed out, and the thing in there screamed its last.
Mastoya waited until she was certain the monster couldn't rally, and lifted her gaze to meet Inquisitor Layd'i. Next to her, the rest of the Hand filed down the stairs, followed by Emmet, who stopped above the Inquisitor, too big to push past her.
“Inquisitor,” Mastoya said. “I'm glad to see this abomination didn't hurt you. Or anyone else?” She glanced over at the Princess, safely surrounded by her honor guard-
-and caught a look of pure loathing from Cecelia's red and burned face.
Mastoya blinked under her visor.
“We're fine.” Layd'i ground. “Everything's FINE. Except it's not. The cannon's personnel are dead and the saboteurs have escaped. I want to know how the hells they got into the Kingdom's most secure facility on your watch.”
“That's a good question,” Mastoya said, staring at Cecelia. “I'd like to know how the hell an eldritch abomination got into this Steam Knight armor and wrecked my machine bay on your watch.”
“Me? Me! You're accusing me!” Layd'i put her hands on her hips. Below her, the three members of the Hand present looked at each other, and started to spread out.
“Maybe.” Mastoya said. “King's daughter goes out on a mission to stomp old ones, and comes back with an old one spawn hiding in her armor. You were present throughout that. Seems an odd thing to miss,” she said, staring hard at Cecelia, and watching the girl's eyes slide away, and her face go blank. The girl I spoke with a few weeks ago had excellent emotional discipline. Now it's gone. What happened out there?
“This is a classified matter,” the Inquisitor snapped. “I order you not to speak of it, in the name of the Crown.”
Mastoya gritted her teeth. “Yes, Inquisitor.”
“As to these other witnesses...” Layd'i smiled with pure malice. “We can't risk-”
“No, Ma'am,” Mastoya said, moving up to join her men. At her approach the Princess cut and run, surprising the hell out of Wedge and Hicks. They moved to grab her, and the Hand tensed. “Stand down!” Mastoya bellowed, and everyone stopped. “We're all loyal here, ma'am. Hicks, Wedge, Dyson, Myers, I order you to silence on every event that's transpired here tonight, and will transpire. Go rejoin Captain Dontalus and tell him to pull his men back, and await my orders to secure and cleanup the area.”
“Ma'am!” They saluted simultaneously, then hurried back to the portcullis. Mastoya held her breath as the Hand looked to them, then looked back to Anise, who was visibly swallowing her fury.
But she didn't speak, and Mastoya's honor guard reached the portcullis alive. Mastoya let out a breath. The Inquisitor wouldn't dare have them killed in full view of the courtyard. Even that sick little daemon wouldn't dare.
But she could make trouble in other ways. It was time to toss her a bone, though.“Your orders, ma'am? Regarding the creature?”
Layd'i descended the stairs, then strode up to her, raising a finger-
-and gasping, as it sizzled. A red '5' floated up and she fell back, looking at her red, burned flesh. “Turn that fucking thing off!” Anise Layd'i shrieked.
“Of course, ma'am. Slipped my mind.” Mastoya lied, and shut down Back you Fiend. “May I heal you?”
“No! No. That will not be necessary.” Anise ground out. She glared around at the ruins of the workshop. “I ask again, how the hell did saboteurs get into YOUR fort on YOUR watch.”
“Because we weren't keeping an eye out for puppets,” Mastoya said.
“More specifically, ghosts inhabiting golem bodies. If my brother was to be believed.”
On the stairs, Emmet clattered as he whipped around to face her. Mastoya blinked, then returned her gaze to the Inquisitor.
“Dead in the cleansing of Taylor's Delve, ma'am. I saw to it personally. He turned up in my office tonight with several others, and tried to convince me to join him in treason. I tried to arrest them and they waystoned out. That's about the time that thing was wrecking my machine bay.”
“Ghosts in golem bodies. Ghosts in... golem...” The Inquisitor's eyes slammed open, and her already-pale skin blanched even further. “Oh. Oh you... you little... you BEAR! HER! YOU FUCKING SOULSTONED HER...” She slammed her mouth shut.
“Yes, they did have a bear with them. Funny thing, she said she was a paladin.”
“Insufficient,” Anise barked, reaching the Princess' side, and putting her hand on her shoulder.
The Princess looked from the Inquisitor's hand, back to Mastoya.
Her face was as red and burned as the Inquisitor's hand, Mastoya realized. And a cold feeling ran down her spine. “I'll go and get that ready for you.” Mastoya husked, and saluted.
A few steps toward the door, and she expected Anise to order her dead.
Just at the door, and she expected the command to be given, and the Hand to spring into action.
Then she was through the door, and out, and sweat rolled down her face as she realized how close she'd come.
It was only a suspicion, no proof at all, but those burns had been way too similar. And the implications that arose...
I have my duty. I have no proof. I have to move carefully here, she knew. And before all of that, I have an assault plan to salvage She sighed, as more mundane concerns trickled down. And also a letter to write to the King, to try and save my career.
She rather thought the odds were good. She was the best general he had, and he needed her for the assault that would end this fucking war for good. But the Inquisitor was a thing of malice, and whatever had happened here tonight, she'd never forget the insults that Mastoya had given her. Blood would come of it.
She looked down at her blade, which still dripped with ichor. Taking a cloth, she swiped it along the sword, and sheathed her holy symbol. Then it was a quick turn, back to the Courtyard, picking up her honor guard along the way.
“Ma'am? Everything all right?” Myers said, saluting, slamming her fist into her breastplate.
“Walk with me,” she said. Once they were back in the keep, in a lonesome hallway between checkpoints, she gave the gory rag to Wedge. “Go to the enchanters. Get them to analyze this. It's darkspawn blood, but I need to know what kind.”
“No one else is to know of this. Especially the Inquisitor.”
“That's... yes Ma'am.”
If it was from the old ones, well, that was problematic, but it was the Inquisitor's problem.
If it was from something daemonic, though...
If it was daemonic she had a great, big problem, and no clear way to solve it.
“Garon, you little shit,” she muttered to herself. Things weren't perfect before he'd shown up, but they'd been simple, and that had been enough. With the booze, and her duty to lose herself in, that had been enough.
Now she stood on the edge of a deep, dark precipice, with not just herself, but everything she'd built, everyone she'd trained and supported, everyone who looked up to her at risk. And worse, was the possibility that she'd erred, badly. No general likes to face that possibility. But the bad ones hide from it, cover it up.
Good ones owned what they'd done, and adapted the strategy so they didn't make the same mistake twice.
Mastoya desperately hoped that when this was all said and done, that she had been a good one.
Crouched over her desk, midway through the Inquisitor's report, at the darkest hour of the night, she looked up as heavy metal footsteps clanged on the hallway outside. Heavier than any of her guards. She reached for her sword.
Then metal rapped on wood. Knocking.
“Enter,” she called, keeping her hand around the sword's hilt.
Emmet stood there, literally filling the doorway. Mastoya let go of the sword. If the Inquisitor had sent him to kill her, it wouldn't help. She shot a glance at her window, and scooted her chair to the side for easy defenestration if it came down to it.
“Does the Inquisitor need me?” Mastoya asked.
Behind him, the two of her honor guard on duty did their best to peer around him, faces looking to her, awaiting her order.
“No.” Emmet ground. “The message I am to deliver is private.”
She glanced back to the honor guard, and nodded. “Hicks, Myers, turn in for the night. You, big guy, come in, shut the door, and lower your voice.”
Emmet did, moving oddly daintily for something so massive, something that she was pretty sure could punch down her entire Fort one wall at a time.
“It is not actually a message,” The golem confessed. “I have doubts. I must talk of them. And you are the only other person in this fort that I am permitted to talk with freely if the need arises.”
“I am? Who told you that?”
“King Melos. In his secret instructions. I am permitted to reveal my sapience to Princess Cecelia, Anise Layd'i, and you. You are the only three confirmed one hundred percent loyal to the Crown here.”
“Before tonight I'd agree with that,” Mastoya said, opening up her drawer. “Do you have an extra stomach compartment for drinking?”
“No. Why? Such a thing seems foolish to install upon a golem.”
“I'd figured there was more to you than just a silent machine. You don't move like the old war golems we have down in the Machine bay... had.” Mastoya sighed. “Shattered to bits without even being able to react, since their handlers told them to stand still until ordered otherwise. You're a pretty shitty actor, Emmet.”
“Charisma has not been a priority in my training. Aside from my Knight levels.”
“What all do you have, exactly?” She said to buy herself time and think.
“Archer. Alchemist. And Grenadier for ranged attacks.” Emmet rumbled, his voice as low as it could go, and still filling the room. “Berserker. Juggernaut. Knight. And Mercenary for close-combat engagements.”
Sweet fucking Ritaxis' assplate. Yeah I wouldn't make it out the window.
“And just to be clear, you follow the orders of the Inquisitor? So she could order you to tell her about anything we talk about here, and you'd have to obey?”
“Yes. Although...” he leaned forward. “I have been ordered to put the orders of Princess Cecelia above hers, and not tell Anise Layd'i about this fact. You are third in order priority.”
“Okay. I'll watch what I say.” Mastoya kicked back a shot, feeling her spent moxie restore a bit. “So why are you here?”
For a while, he was silent, the gems behind his helm flickering.
“Your brother came to you tonight. And he is now a golem.”
“Yes.” It had been him, she was sure of that. Not a trick, not a test. That had been Garon, she'd stake her command on it.
Shit, maybe I'll have to.
“My brother came to me tonight as well.” Emmet said. “I did not know I had one. He is also a golem. And I very much wish to know more about him and I thought that since your brother came to YOU tonight as a golem, that perhaps you could tell me more about this, and help me decide how to resolve the conflict.”
“The conflict?” Mastoya asked.
“Per Inquisitor Layd'i's orders, confirmed by Princess Cecelia, the next time I see my brother I am to quote unquote rip his fucking head off and burn all his remains and make him suffer if at all possible through every step of the process and kill or destroy everything that he ever loved within his sight before he dies if at all possible you massive metal meathead.”
Mastoya laughed, sardonically. “Yeah, sounds like one of my brother's friends, all right.”
“But my earliest command, was to protect my family. And he is on the list.”
Mastoya sighed, got up, and looked out the window. No imps, the courtyard was bare, save for the watchers she had stationed to make sure nobody spied on her.
Then she nodded, and turned back to Emmet. “Okay. First thing I should tell you? I am absolutely the last person you should be asking on how to NOT kill your relatives...”