The road winding up to the paper mill crossed over a small river. Ramdas held up his hand, and then beckoned his knights forward. They had nearly fifty in their company, white tabards and steel armor streaming through the woods. Persephone rode atop Ramdas’s back, and the shimmering bubble of her ward left a trail of frozen dew droplets behind them.
Helga crouched to plant her hand against the earth. Out in the forest, a watching scout stamped his feet four times.
“Scouts count four active skeletons on the site, sir,” Helga said to Ramdas.
Ramdas gestured with his rapier to the treeline around the mill. “Saints Company, circle west, split no smaller than four-man teams. Two facing in, two facing out. Alektos Company, same thing, circle east. Faith Company, I want breaching teams ready. Four scouts on the bridge, two on each end. Keep an eye on the river. The primary fallback zone is the mill’s yard. Secondary fallback is here. Rendezvous at the camp if things go bad. The Holy Engineers vetted the bridge overnight, it’s safe.”
The paper mill itself was two handsome wooden buildings, one with a waterwheel turning busily in the fast-running spring stream. Ramdas pointed to the waterwheel house. “Breachers, there first. Clear the building, then move to the mill. Go.”
At his word, the group hastened to obey. Six heavily armored and armed knights trotted out across the bridge in an orderly file, their maces and shields at the ready. Ramdas trotted in the middle of the pack, rapier held against his shoulder, ready to drop and fire at a moment’s notice.
The first skeleton bolted from the underbrush on the south side of the mill’s clearing. It made three bounding leaps before the first cry of “Contact!” rose from the knights of Alektos Company. Ramdas dropped his rapier across his forearm, but a volley of spells cast by alert knights cut the skeleton down in a hail of fire and earth before Ramdas could finish aiming down his sword.
“First kill to Squire Lucano, he took the head. Good shot,” called Ramdas. “Watch the perimeter, give yourselves space from the treeline.”
The knights took their positions, a few clapping Squire Lucano on the shoulder on their way by. Squires and knights turned wary eyes to scanning their surroundings. The knights kept each other within arm’s reach, their shields protecting their core from throat to knees as they’d been trained.
Individual squires jogged the perimeter, going point-to-point between the knight teams. Alchemists among them laid down perimeter defenses from bottles and flasks they’d prepared the night before. Each bottle held spells of mud and clay, that would stick and bind to any intruder that crossed their lines, slowing them.
With a shout of “Breach!”, Faith Company’s breacher team threw a volley of hollow stone balls in through the wheelhouse window. Air runes carved into stone flared to life as they landed, conjuring pressurized air into the hollow of the ball. Air pressure overcame the strength of the stone, and the balls exploded.
The windows of the building blew outward, spraying glass across the yard. Beneath the windows, the breacher team rose from cover under their wards and shields. Inside the wheelhouse, chips of rock had shredded the interior, and blown a hundred small holes through the wooden walls.
The breaching team swung adamant hammers through the door a moment later, blasting it off of its hinges. In the eaves of the mill, a family of fat gray squirrels bolted in fright, chattering scolding cries as they sprinted for the treeline. The perimeter traps the knights had meant for skeletons ignored the passing wildlife.
“I’ve got motion, mill building,” Persephone said, pointing. A spear of glittering ice appeared in her gloved hand, conjured by her dismayed hiss. “There. North door.”
The north door of the other building swung open, and three skeletons burst from the doorway. Instead of blindly charging, they juked and dodged in erratic patterns as they sprinted for the river.
Helga threw her hammer, the enchanted adamant maul leaving her hand with a velocity no mortal arm could have thrown. Ramdas’s eyes saw only the faintest blur from the runes on the hammer as they triggered in sequence, lending tensile strength to the handle, then density to the head of the weapon. The next rune boosted its velocity, and a fourth rune warped time itself around the weapon, accelerating it further.
Her throw was good, but the erratic motions of the skeletons were better. Her hammer plowed a long furrow through soft loam and earth, then skipped across the river, before embedding itself a half meter into the trunk of an oak tree.
“Fire at will!” Ramdas shouted, and leveled his rapier across his forearm. “Merde! Don’t let them get away!”
He snarled another curse, and magic flared in the hollow of his rapier, a searing bolt of green light snapping out of the tip of the weapon. The shot glanced off of one skeleton’s ankle, and the joint exploded, sending the skeleton to earth. A half-dozen more spells from knights and squires all crackled into the thing before it could rise again. Deafening cracks of lightning struck it, followed by a large conjured rock that fell, smashing it to pieces.
“They’re running for the river! Saints Company, stop them!” Ramdas bellowed.
The knights in Saints Company ran to intercept the skeletons, their armor pounding turf and shields battering bones as they cut off the escape path. One skeleton’s lucky swing connected with a squire’s mouth, sending one of her teeth flying, but her partner pinned the skeleton to the ground with his shield. A nearby knight simply kicked the skeleton’s head from its shoulders, sending the clattering skull rolling on the ground.
The last remaining skeleton took a vaulting leap over the knights, higher than any flesh-bound man could have leapt, and landed in the river.
“Don’t you let that horror get away!” Persephone snarled, throwing back her hood. She bellowed a hoarse, broken yell at the thing, and with her shout came a ferocious gust of ice and wind. Anger and magic boiled from her, her eyes freezing over in a filmy, white cap. She opened her mouth wide, and vomited a long, arcing stream of hoarfrost forty meters into the river. Where her cold fury landed, the river froze over, and within seconds the frantic skeleton was trapped in the ice, all of its struggles futile.
“End it,” Ramdas growled, and two knights stepped out onto the now-frozen block of the river. Their maces rose and fell, battering and shattering undead bone, leaving nothing left on the ice but bone shards.
The centaur turned his attention back towards the mill building. Breacher teams continued their work, throwing in their runed-stone grenades through windows, battering open doors, and taking no chances. A medic saw to the injured squire’s mouth, some small, conciliatory laughter traded between them about the irony of losing teeth to bone.
The Knights returned to their positions, their alert gazes watching the trees and underbrush, while others scanned the buildings. The silence was broken only by the gentle sound of the river, and the creak of the spinning waterwheel. Nothing foreign moved, except for a fat, waddling badger that climbed out of its burrow under the millhouse. It caught the scent of the knights and ran back underneath the boards.
Helga waded across the river, grousing in embarrassment as she wrenched her hammer free of the tree. Meanwhile, the breaching team declared the second building clear. Persephone dismounted from Ramdas’s back.
Faith Company’s knights finished their sweep, and then their sergeant approached Ramdas, looking wild-eyed. “Building’s clear, sir. Nothing but local wildlife now. Looks like thieves stripped most of the tools and all the saw blades and machinery. But there’re some ugly works left over inside, sir. You’re going to want to see it.”
“Thank you, knight. Steady on. We’ll be in to investigate,” Ramdas said. “Any active magic?”
“Nothing big, Captain. We thought there was something in the roof on the other building, but it was just squirrels. Probably smuggled a few trinkets into their nest.” The sergeant glanced back nervously over his shoulder, at the building. “And, Captain? You’re going to want the Holy Engineers in here. There’s been some sort of dark work with automatons in there, in the past. And a room where they’ve gathered and thrown dead animals, too.”
Ramdas grimaced. “Alright. Thank you. Sweep the buildings one more time, just to be certain, and then join the perimeter.”
“Yes, sir!” the Sergeant said.
Persephone and Ramdas waited for Helga to wade back. A series of exasperated sighs by Persephone wrung the water out of Helga’s clothing and hair as the dwarf approached. The water formed into a slushy sphere between them, and Persephone let it fall away into the grass with a loud splat.
“If we’re ready,” Ramdas said drily.
They waited until Faith Company completed their second sweep of the buildings, before moving in to investigate.
Ramdas opened up the door to the main millhouse. He wrinkled his nose, pausing in his step at the discordant aromas of sweet sawdust and rotting animal carcasses. Flies buzzed around a doorway left open after the breacher team’s second sweep, revealing a pile of carcasses in the workroom beyond.
Shattered glass and wood shredded by explosives lay scattered around the floor, mixed in with bits of paper and sawdust. The rest of the paper mill was dusty and disused. Old crates stood in a corner, one blasted apart by a grenade. A few moldering sheaves of paper were scattered and spilling out of the open crate. Two mill automatons lay dead and inert alongside, ordinary brass and steel, their runes long ago discharged.
Helga pointed to the elbow joints of the automatons. “Look here. They’re worn through right to the steel. They must have ran without any grease or oil for a while. Someone left them going when they abandoned the place.”
Ramdas frowned. “Automatons are too valuable to leave lying around. What business would just abandon them here?”
“And why haven’t they been stolen, yet?” Persephone asked, glowering. She kept a distrustful distance of the metal figures. “Are we absolutely certain they’re shut off?”
Helga circled around the inert metal figures and took a big, nervous breath. Then she swung her hammer into the back of one, sending it toppling over with a muffled thump of brass on the sawdust floor. She leapt back, hammer and shield at the ready, watching the automaton with a wary eye until it came to rest.
Ramdas flinched at the crash, and then glared at Helga. “That was a bit much, Stengrav.”
Helga shared a significant look with Persephone, and then both looked back at Ramdas, holding his stare with their own.
“Just making absolutely sure, dearie,” Helga said.
Persephone exhaled a long, cold breath, and then nodded agreement. “After the things those necromancers did with automatons in Frostmoor, I’d rather be sure. We should destroy them.”
“No,” Ramdas said immediately. “We leave them for the engineers. Disable their empowering runes, though. They don’t look like anything special, but I will take absolutely no chances.”
“That’s more like it,” Helga said, as she hefted her hammer. “You two stand back, and ward up? Just in case they’ve planted anything nasty in these things.”
Ramdas and Persephone backed away, putting a wooden wall and Persephone’s freezing ward-bubble between them and the automatons. Outside, a squirrel chattered and scolded passing knights.
Persephone murmured a nervous prayer. Alektos, watch over my love, spare her the fate of martyrs. May she come to you in peace, at the end of her days, her soul brought to you gently in the fullness of time. May she pass through you to the Divine, and bear within her only joy without sorrow, peace without horror, grace without shame. Alektos, don’t let that thing come alive and rip her apart like one did to me.
Ramdas took Persephone’s arm in his hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “Alektos watches over us. Breathe.”
Meanwhile, Helga took aim and swung her hammer enthusiastically, once per automaton. The empowering runes welded into their steel shattered under her blows, without so much as a spark.
She stood back and nodded in satisfaction at her handiwork. “Aye. Runes are totally dead in them, thank the Saints,” she said. “No nasty surprises in these ones. Come on out.”
Something thumped under the floor nearby, and a mound of sawdust shifted, disturbed from underneath. Ramdas leveled his rapier, gesturing the party three generous steps back.
The fat badger they’d first spotted outside shook off some sawdust, and stared at them in an uncanny way for a few seconds. Ramdas took a quick step towards it, and it retreated back into its burrow, hissing.
The centaur let out a shaky laugh. “Tch, nothing to be afraid of. Must have been quiet here a while, for that beast to make its den here,” he said, lowering his rapier. He nodded to Persephone and Helga. “Come.”
They gave the badger-hole a cautious berth and continued their walk through the mill. In the workroom, four turtle corpses lay staked out on top of the tool bench, their shells split open, and organs removed. A handful of tools and cogs lay scattered about around the bench. An inert automaton stood in silence, a sheaf of paper still tightly clutched in one metal hand. A pile of animal corpses lay on the other side of the room, most of them too old and rotted to identify.
Ramdas covered his nose with his free hand against the smell of rotting animals in the room. The turtles were little more than dry, old husks, and the automaton had scraps of flesh and bits of bone deep inside its complex gearing.
“Captain,” Persephone said, grabbing Ramdas’s barding to pull him back. “There’s bone in that automaton.”
Ramdas instantly went on guard once more, rapier poised to riposte and parry. “Helga, check that monstrosity. Carefully.”
“Aye, dearie,” Helga said, raising her shield. She approached reluctantly. Each step heavy with the memory of Persephone torn apart by a similar abomination, in a cave full of half-butchered corpses three years before. “Last time it was humans and elves stacked up dead, Captain…”
“I know. If it so much as twitches, get clear. We’ll retreat. Any magic at all within it?” Ramdas asked, squinting at the thing. “I see none.”
Persephone and Helga shook their heads, after testing their senses.
“Nothing, Captain,” Helga said, as she circled the silent automaton. “This one’s powered down, too. Getting something from the badger den, but it’s small. Probably dragged something down there it shouldn’t have.” She raised a hand, and turned a slow circle, feeling the air around her. “I feel a lot of little magic that’s been moved around here in the past, but no major arcane workings in this room.”
Helga pointed to the sheaf of water-damaged paper in the automaton’s hand. “That paper used to have some big runes on it. Feels like fire and air, and what’s left on the pages looks a lot like those runed papers they blew up the Sending Gate with. More of Martin Andrews’ bombs, or its like.” She turned back towards the tool bench, with the staked-out turtle shells atop it. “There’s some old magic that’s been moved around and off of this tool bench. Probably the squirrels stealing shiny things. I don’t see a drill bit or blade or nail left on that bench, do you?”
Ramdas glanced over at the tool bench and shook his head. “Only wrenches and hammers left. Too heavy for varmints to carry off.”
“Aye, dearie. I thought perhaps the breacher charges blew the smaller pieces off the bench, but they’re not anywhere on the floor. And I don’t think these are the first animals that met a bad end here, either. There’s been lots of slimy old magic in the air around this bench. Nothing at all new, though.”
Helga waved her hand towards the automaton. “No magic newer here than a year here, I’d say. This one wound down and never recharged, like the others. But that looks like most of a ribcage and spine worked into this clockwork beastie. Definitely some necromancy involved here, once.” She crouched down and inspected the moldering sheaf of paper in the automaton’s hand, and then pointed to the daylight leaking through the roof. “Roof’s missing an awful lot of shingles, isn’t it?”
Persephone glanced up. Sure enough, a few gaps in the wooden roof were letting thin shafts of daylight through. “You’re right,” she said. “Breacher charges didn’t do that. They’d blow holes in the tiles, not strip them right off entirely, right?”
Ramdas reared up on his hind legs to get a better look. “Yes. They’re missing shingles and boards here. Looks like they didn’t use enough nails in the construction.”
Helga pointed to the automaton. “Well if we’re done admiring the piss-poor carpentry, dearies? Corrosion did this one in, Captain. It’s been standing here, working in this room. Water leaks in through the roof, hits iron, and rust formed and ran down across the runes. Fouled them here, and shorted the lines. Water soaked the paper, ruined the bombs.”
Ramdas pointed his rapier at the automaton. “Can it be repaired?”
Helga shrugged. “Not without some restoration work. Even if you recharged it, it would just short out.” She absently poked at the rust-lines, her finger coming away with a streak of brown. “Engineers are going to want to see this one, sir. It’s basically intact.”
As her finger came away with rust, the automaton began to scream.
It was a guttural wail, agonized and anguished. Without the need to pause for breath, the scream assaulted them from a sound box buried inside its skull.
Ramdas, Persephone, and Helga all leapt back, shields and wards and weapons snapping up by hard-trained reflex.
“Back away from it, Knights! Out of this room immediately!” Ramdas shouted.
“Persephone, ward his back,” said Helga, putting herself between the automaton and Ramdas. “I’ve got the Captain’s front. Go, go.”
The distant chatter of squirrels grew louder, and then there came a different scream, a human scream, from somewhere outside. Without enough room to turn around, Ramdas backed out of the doorway, protected front and back by Helga and Persephone.
The automaton continued to scream, its head slowly ratcheting on rust-corroded gears towards them. Nothing below its neck moved.
“Its body is still shorted, sir. It can’t follow us,” Helga said.
“I don’t care, keep moving away from it. It’s the the Holy Engineers’ problem, now.”
Persephone caught motion out of the corner of her eye and threw out an arm across Ramdas’s flank. “Badger!,” she hissed.
“No time for varmints right now!” shouted Helga.
On the floor stood the small, fat badger. And erupting from the flesh along its fat sides were two wicked, steel chains. They coiled and lashed in the air, striking against Persephone’s ward like vipers. Steel chain whipped through the air towards Ramdas, and was caught in the shimmer of Persephone’s ward. Robbed of momentum, the chain clanked against itself and fell short. The animal hissed viciously, teeth bared to reveal a mouth rotted black. Its teeth had been replaced by jagged iron tips, filed down from roofing nails. Helga swore and dove under Ramdas’s body at the noise. She emerged in a tight, armored roll on his other side, lifting her shield to screen Persephone from the threat.
“What in all the Saints?!” bellowed Ramdas, as he fired his rapier wildly at the thing. Bolts of light spalled against chains and burnt tight, black holes through wood, as the badger went scrabbling around them.
Helga and Persephone moved without thinking, adjusting their positioning as they’d drilled. Helga took the lead, with Persephone falling back to keep the bubble of her ward covering Ramdas and Helga both. The badger dug its claws into the wooden floor and pressed its attack. But each gleaming chain that shot from the sides of the badger’s body was robbed of momentum by the ward-bubble, and fell short.
“That’s it, hold still, ye wee rotten hat,” Helga growled at the badger, slapping away an errant chain with her shield.
Ramdas snarled and fired from his rapier again, the green bolt of light grazing a line across the badger’s flank. It gave a pained hiss and retreated down into its burrow. Chains rattled and scraped along the wood as it withdrew them down the hole.
A pregnant second of silence passed. Persephone drew a couple quick, panting breaths. “Is it gone?”
In answer, chains erupted out from under the floorboards behind Persephone, punching up through the floor. The chains lashed hard against against Ramdas’s side, and rebounded off of barding. Ramdas let out a whoof as the impact knocked some wind out of him.
One chain wrapped around Helga’s left boot and began to pull. With a furious bellow, she swung her hammer blindly through the floorboards. It missed, but not by much, and she was rewarded with a vicious hiss from below and the chain hastily retreating.
“Out the door, now!” wheezed Ramdas, and they ran for the doors, and towards the sounds of fighting and screaming.
Behind them, the badger bolted out of the hole, and darted into the workroom they’d abandoned. Chain began crashing against steel, and then the automaton’s screams cut off with a sharp, final shriek.
Pandemonium reigned outside. A small herd of deer with nail-studded antlers charged groups of knights. Where they met, the deer thrashed their grotesquely altered antlers, gouging flesh where they could.
As Persephone leapt onto Ramdas’s back, a pack of squirrels darted off the roof of the mill and launched themselves at her. Seen from below, they revealed empty rib cages, most of their organs replaced with spinning cogs. Glinting steel drill bits protruded from their sternums, whirling away, chewing through rotten flesh.
Persephone’s ward slowed their fall, and Ramdas wheeled in a tight circle. He gathered his fury and surprise, inhaled, and roared a hard blast of fire at the wretched abominations. They went shrieking and fleeing across the yard, trailing plumes of black, greasy smoke. Bone and steel and bits of machinery revealed where their flesh had been burned away.
One knot of knights in Alektos Company was barely holding the line against what had once been a bear. The creature’s head was split down the middle, splayed open to reveal a whirling, rusted sawmill blade. The spinning blade chewed through wooden shields and sparked against the steel armor of a screaming knight pinned under its paws. Every swing of the bear’s head sent a spray of gore up into the air.
Saints Company had their corner of the yard relatively under control, as the surviving beavers of a pack lunged and snapped at the knights. The steel chisels that had been used to replace their teeth found little purchase on heavy armor. Adamant mauls rose and fell, shattering and splattering woodland beasts and their hidden mechanisms within.
“Companies!” bellowed Ramdas. “Fall back to the primary point, now!”
The centaur aimed his rapier, and a clean bolt of green light shot from the hollow tip, dropping a raccoon as it tried to swim across the river towards them. The raccoon sank immediately, a cloud of oil and blood spreading along the water like an inky stain.
Knights fell back, encircling Ramdas, shields high. The knight under the bear-saw abomination lay dead, but everyone else joined formation. Some of them limped, nursing wounds. Others rolled on the ground, trying to shed angry, chattering squirrels as their drill bits sought flesh.
As the knights fell in, Ramdas’s order proved its worth. Amassed, the knights could defend each other, and their spells began to answer back against the woodland creatures in force. Two medics took up triage alongside Persephone, pulling back wounded men from the line to apply hasty spells or apologetic amputations. Two squires took up maces and spells, smashing squirrels that made it past the shield line.
“Breaching team!” Ramdas bellowed. “I want that bear down! Throw hammers, one at a time!”
“Aye, sir!” chorused the knights.
Helga threw her hammer first, and this time, her aim was true. The adamant maul slammed into the left side of the bear’s bisected head, tearing it away. The bear skidded backward from the impact, only to be met by a second hammer, and then a third. Five more pummelled it before the saw blade finally stopped spinning.
Ramdas’s eyes widened as the trees around the north end of the mill thrashed, as things that had once been animals came pouring out of the woods. They moved erratically, limbs a herky-jerky clockwork of jagged metal and dead, lifeless muscle. Many were partially decomposed, with roots and dirt still clinging to their rotting bodies. The perimeter traps finally activated, spraying clinging mud and clay onto the beasts, slowing the smaller ones. But the tide of steel and flesh advanced.
“Alektos and Faith Companies, north face!” Ramdas bellowed. “Blanket spells!”
Furious, frightened men and women formed up in a tight wall, shields sinking into the earth. The Alchemists and Miasmers of their company went first, flinging down potions, censers, and incense plucked from pockets. Their magic spread in erratic bursts of smells and fluids. Some of the spells burst into white, purifying flame, and others transforming into hissing puddles of corrosive slime.
Next came the Spellsingers, ten men and women raising their voices in a chorus. Their voices found harmony, and they pushed their magic out in a wave. It was a beautiful hymn, a rising cry of worship to the Divine. As the wave of sound broke over the beasts, it slapped them to the ground. They bounced hard off of the earth and flew back against one another, broken, like mice swatted by a lion.
The Gorgons of Saints Company picked off the ones still standing, or hanging back too far to be caught by the short-and-medium-range solutions. Their hard glares caused flesh to explode, bones to calcify, or metal to warp and crack wherever they held their gaze.
Within a handful of seconds, the battle switched from a fight to an extermination. Beasts that rose again were cut down by spells, shouted and stared, and their corpses rent asunder by the next wave of knightly magic.
Ramdas pointed his rapier at a deer, and the blast of light that shot forth blew one of its legs off, sending it toppling. “Advance! Faith Company, I want the legs off that deer, but leave it otherwise active and intact!”
“We’re not falling back, Captain?” Persephone said, eyes widening in alarm.
“Saints and Alektos favor us today, Matthewson! Push on!”
The knights lifted shields and advanced. Hammers and maces on the front lines rose and fell, crushing the few squirrels and beavers that could still move. A porcupine emerged out from the abdominal cavity of a moose. Without warning, it exploded, spraying quills, paper confetti, gore, and steel fragments across shields and armor. Two knights and a squire cried out in pain, but the line held, and they continued to advance.
“Keep your distance on these beasties, lads!” Helga called. “Who knows how many more are primed as bombs! Knock them down at a distance!”
Another cry rose up from one of the sharp-eyed scouts left on the bridge. “Captain! We’ve got turtles coming down the river! Six abreast!”
The unnatural formation was warning enough. “Get off the bridge! Now! All of you!” Ramdas bellowed.
His warning came just in time. The six turtles caught the river’s current and swept in a line underneath the bridge. As one, all six of their shells, packed with runed paper, detonated. The blast sent the wooden bridge up in shards and splinters, high overhead. River water and bridge pieces rained down atop the knights and yard.
A few more spells met the last stray squirrels, and then the natural silence of the forest returned. Ramdas held up a hand. “Company, fold in. Triage. I want wounded in the circle, wards all around. Breachers, you hold close to medics! Get the injured on shields and back here for treatment. Teams of three! Go, go!”
“Oi, that’s just mean-spirited!” snarled Helga, staring at the ruined bridge. “I can wade across that river!”
Persephone shuddered, and spat a long stream of ice from her lips. “We’d already won, and someone knew it. They just want to make us walk home in wet boots.”
“Ye could freeze it, dearie, and walk us across?” Helga said.
“Not with us carrying wounded,” Ramdas pointed out. “We’ll wade.”
Ramdas’s jacket squeezed around him to get his attention. He cursed quietly, a small burst of flame and soot escaping his lips as he surveyed the scene, and then he raised a cuff to his ear.
“What is it now?” he whispered.
The monotone voice, too emotionless to be any living thing, whispered back. “Assess damage to the automaton. Asset denial by Scrimshaw Spider suspected. Investigate immediately.”
“Acknowledged,” he groused, then turned to his team. “Helga, with me. Persephone, keep a ward ’round the injured. We’ll be right back.”
Persephone frowned. “What about the badger?”
A scout spoke up. “Lieutenant Matthewson? I saw it cross the river, in the confusion. On the northwest side. Didn’t get a chance to call it out, brother Benson was being attacked.”
Ramdas gestured to the scout, and then back to Persephone. “See? We’ll be fine.”
Persephone made a sour face, but nodded reluctantly. She knelt down in the knot of injured men and women, the bubble of her ward surrounding the wounded.
The centaur turned to the knights gathering in the yard. “Scouts, keep an eye on that crippled deer, I want it still functioning when the Holy Engineers clear the site. But if it gets up again, drop it dead. Same goes for anything else still moving. Cripple, don’t kill, and always from a distance.”
Helga trotted into the mill once again, hugging her shield tight and staying close to her Captain. Their eyes scanned for any lingering threats, but nothing moved this time. No badgers emerged from the floor, nor squirrels from the eaves. No further screams erupted from outside or from the automaton in the work room.
Helga leaned up against the doorway of the workroom and peered in. “Looks like this was something those nasty wee fiends didn’t want us to have.”
The automaton lay scattered in pieces, head and limbs ripped apart, neck pried open by bashing chains and iron teeth.
“Seems so, Stengrav,” Ramdas said as he surveyed the wreckage, and then spat in the sawdust. He stamped out the ensuing fire with a hoof. “Ever heard of anything like this before? Automatons, hidden in dead animals? Tch.”
“No, dearie,” Helga said, shaking her head. “And I’ve had it up to here with new and nasty surprises in my life.”
The centaur closed his eyes in frustration. “Aye. We’re going to need Blackthorne.”
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