"Huff... Huff... Huff... Huff..."
Holden's breath came in ragged gasps as he ran up a grassy slope, feet slipping on the dew.
"Huff... Huff... Huff..."
In his mind, a mantra cycled in time with his pained breaths and stumbling steps.
"Shit... Shit... Shit... Shit..."
The ground continued to shudder behind and below him in a deep rhythmic pattern, beating a slow and terrible counterpoint to his fluttering heartbeat. The massive death machine and its royal controller continued their inexorable advance. Squealing pistons and belching steam signaled the beast's readiness to distribute death.
"Shit... Shit... Shit..."
Then, just a few yards up to the right, a low stone wall appeared out of the early morning mist. Holden had just enough time to take note of a well-manicured lawn with sculpted hills and symmetrical tree patterns in the corners of a low garden wall surrounding a stone tower. Some sort of manor house?
"Oh, please let there be no crazed warlock in there, ready to protect his manse with fire and magic and death," he prayed silently.
The windows of the tower remained dark as the sky continued to lighten behind it to the east. The young gunman fell slumping with his back against the garden wall, gasping for breath. Sweat dripped down his brow, and he realized his panting had created a long line of saliva down his chin. Hurriedly, he swept the moisture from his face with a sleeve as he tried to gain some composure.
When he looked back up from his sleeve, he found himself surrounded by a dozen tall, thin men ... no ... elves. They were all well-armed with bow and sword, wearing cloaks as black as the night. As Holden felt panic well up inside him again, one of them stepped forward, placing his finger before his lips in a silencing gesture.
The sounds of mechanical terror were crashing ever closer. As one, the group of archers dropped to a crouch. It sounded like the end of the world was about to crash out of the forest and through the wall to the south. Holden held his breath.
Something about their motion struck Holden as odd, and he quickly spotted why. These elves had monstrously extended legs that ended in bestial claws, scaly and rough. They crouched like lions rather than men, and wore no shoes.
The frightened boy got up to a crouch and prepared to flee while these monsters were distracted. As he looked over them to ensure his cowardice would not be witnessed, the morning mist cleared and the manor grounds became more clear. These elves were not the worst things within these well-kept garden walls.
A line of living armor stood... or... floated?.. or... well... glowed, anyway... Wait, no... There's nothing 'living' about that armor. Holden's mind reeled for a moment, trying to absorb what he was seeing.
A line of skeletal warriors stood upon the apex of a sculpted hill. The morning mist trailed up, evaporating from the points of their weapons, the sockets of their eyes, and the spikes of their armor. An odd green energy gleamed from the cracks between armor plates.
Behind these ghastly figures, a tall warmachine stood on four legs, the first rays of light glinting off a crablike claw and the barrel of a massive gun. Holden paused, breath steadying, as the entirety of this newly exposed force moved east away from him. He thanked his lucky stars, and every good god he could think of, that he couldn't see the leader of that damned group.
Before he could collect himself fully, it became clear why the undead forces were moving. A sudden rushing of wind and the sound of turbulent air nearly deafened him as a flurry of giant bat-like wings churned the air to the north. Several massive beasts came tearing over the garden wall in organized flight. The young marksman shielded his eyes from the debris being flung in almost every direction from the countless violent wing beats.
"She's insane!" Holden thought as a long winged beast passed directly overhead, a pale elven woman standing on its back. She let out a high-pitched war-cry and her eyes sparkled with a look of wild joy as she directed a blast of frozen air at the retreating armor. A handful of the undead soldiers stopped moving and dropped to the turf, inert.
A short horn blast nearby brought Holden's attention to his closer surroundings. One of the elven archers was directing the squad to move forward from the line of the wall. Holden wasn't sure what the plan was, but he took a few stumbling steps forward, following the squad as they spread out towards the mansion tower, directing their gaze to the south where the warmachine was surely about to burst forth into the theater of battle.
The human wasn't sure about allowing the winged draconic creatures out of his sight, but they seamed to be focused upon the undead to the northeast and the steam powered monster coming from the south. They all had many huge wings and long tails with wicked points. Their roaring maws glowed with internal firelight. As he hesitated, looking about the battlefield, he happened to lock eyes with the fiercest of all the beasts.
She was lithe and powerful, hovering at the edge of a cultivated garden forest. She was a beautiful creature, elven, but with chitinous growths on her head and arms, and powerful wings kept her aloft with her cadre of warbeasts. All of the many-winged dragons showed obvious deference to this, their queen. She moved with a power and dangerous grace that both attracted and repelled him. Her elegant body was like that of a panther or a python or a... a... damn... Holden ran out of similes. He longed to be hers alone, but also wished to be free from her forever.
In that moment, Holden steeled himself. He could not flee from battle while her eyes were upon him. He moved to take position with the elves, determined to stand firm before the iron tempest approaching.
As though on cue, the southern garden wall crumbled with a deafening cacophony of broken stone, crushed under the foot of a Khadoran colossus. Several storeys tall, with a massive central cannon and bristling with slightly smaller guns on its shoulders, steam-powered desolation was here. Walking calmly over the rubble at the heels of this tank was the Dark Prince himself, cold and scowling, who moved into a copse of trees that mirrored the small arrangement that the dragon queen was hovering near. He quickly slipped into the decorative foliage disappeared from sight.
Several archers were dropped to the dirt as cannons shattered the air with a deafening series of concussions. The ground all around Holden was lifted into the air, and he was lifted with it. As he came down onto the broken ground, his vision went fuzzy and the wind was knocked out of him. He lay dazed and gasping for a moment and could hear some faint commotion of battle through the ringing of his ears.
The earth was damp, and the grass was ruined beneath him. The shuddering of the ground felt more and more like the rocking of an easy chair.
For a moment he was miles away. A sound of frying bacon, the smell of a wood stove, and the gentle rocking of a warm comforting breast at his cheek.
Holden's vision and hearing slowly cleared and he stood back up. The hell-scape from which he had momentarily been removed came crashing through his senses. He found himself stumbling on uneven ground and choking on black smoke. Most of the elves that had been standing nearby were now laying broken on the ground, unmoving. Only three were left standing; the leader who had shushed him, the obvious lieutenant, and the one with the horn.
Their attention simultaneously snapped south. Following their gaze, Holden glimpsed the Prince through the trees. They all shuffled to better position around him and shot into the trees. Holden was slow on the draw, still recovering from the barrage. He cursed as he was only able to get a single shot off before a short horn blast directed the four marksmen to move back from the colossus. They stayed low, trying to force the Khador machine to move closer if it wanted to fire upon them again.
As they retreated, Holden tried to take stock of the battlefield. A number of Khadoran snipers had appeared at the crest of a hill to the south, and a smaller warjack was standing on the east side of the Prince's temporary hideout. From this angle, the cruel royal was no longer visible through the trees.
The dragons moved up behind Holden and the archers, preparing for an assault on the Khadoran forces. Their warm breath was suddenly now a comfort, and the swirling of their wing-beats a reassurance. The Queen had moved into the trees, and Holden selfishly regretted her lack of visibility.
Another salvo of booming cannon fire erupted from the looming Khador tank. It had chosen to ignore the quad of stealthy footmen and was targeting the large four-winged dragon on their west flank. The beast absorbed several explosive shots and was pummeled backwards through the air away from the warmachine. She crashed to the ground for a moment, but quickly righted herself and launched back into the air, roaring her defiance and rage.
Holden ducked as a number of shots from the snipers on the hill hit the dirt. None of his new companions were hit, and he thanked the forces of good luck once again. As he was praying, the four snipers suddenly cried out their own pain, and collapsed in a heap where they stood. Looking east past the manor, Holden was surprised to see five large humanoids with over-sized repeating rifles at their hips.
The five had blue skin, no noses, prominent chins and strange rocky outgrowths from their knuckles and joints. He had heard of these creatures in his travels... tribal warriors... fast healers... What were they called again?
"Are they on our side!?" Holden shouted over the din of battle and pointing.
The elf lieutenant turned to him with a look of pure disgust on his face which Holden took as a "Not during this lifetime" response.
"Then why are they here!?"
This inquiry was answered with only a shrug.
Holden felt confusion fill him. Undead, Khador, Dragons, and ... Tribesmen..? Why were they all here? What was this all about?
A new boom echoed through the morning air to the east. Holden saw what looked like a moving mountain behind the manor tower. There was a hail of armor plates and bone shards as the moving mountain's roaring blast destroyed what was left of the skeletal armor.
A huge monster the size of the Khador colossus was laying about itself with reckless abandon. Armor scraps began to litter the north lawn, and the four-legged crab 'jack buckled at the knees under the repeated assault. This new beast looked like an extreme version of the tribesmen. Massive flesh speckled with stony growths, and a mountain of stone jutting from its back.
Holden's attention was dragged upward as a serpentine six-winged dragon shot overhead, its eyeless face snarling with deadly intent. At incredible speed, it dropped down upon the warjack at the edge of the forest. The winged serpent whipped its spiny tail forward at the last moment and skewered the war machine straight through.
The warjack went limp, and the fire in its eyes dimmed. It was slumped to the ground, with both arms resting in the once-beautiful turf. It continued to lurch about sporadically like a lame horse, but was totally ineffective.
Holden and his companions fired several shots at the crippled 'jack. Their attacks did some minor damage to the machine, but failed to fully disable it. It continued to limp about pitifully.
A familiar battle cry came from above as the beast-riding sorceress dropped into position near the archers. She yelled something unintelligible into the wind, which started whipping up into a frenzy. The air became turbulent all round the draconic forces, stopping the Khadoran monstrosity from making any further shots.
Under this protection, the Queen emerged from the forest to better command her forces, only remaining behind a brick wall for protection. She looked slightly annoyed that the winged serpent had gone so far from her.
The beautiful six-winged angel dragon suddenly stabbed into the forest, attacking the unseen royal within. He emerged from the trees opposite the beast and stood behind the colossal warjack. Holden looked between the machine's legs, and could see the Prince holding his side with blood dripping through his fingers and down his elegant armor.
Directed by royal command, the great Khadoran death machine stepped back out of the windstorm. It focused all its firepower upon the newly sighted draconic commander. Pounding beat after pounding beat struck the brick wall and the soil all around. Holden suppressed a cry as the beautiful winged woman disappeared from view. When the earth and smoke settled, he was relieved to see her proudly hovering above the destruction created around her, coolly surveying the battlefield.
The great mountainous beast stepped forward, his massive feet crunching the ruined armor and skeletons littered about. He took a great breath and then howled with more force then Holden had ever heard come from a living being. The sonic wrath of the Mountain knocked the dragon-rider down to the ground, and Holden didn't see her or her mount get up again.
Holden's attention was drawn back to the crippled warjack as it crumpled down under the metal onslaught of the tribal riflemen, finally defeated. The blue men's attack continued, putting mark after bloody mark into the angelic dragon's wings and flesh. One last tribal woman stepped forward, two pistols in her hands. She took aim and with those two final shots, the serpentine dragon dropped to the earth.
The surviving dragonspawn moved past its Queen, distorting the air as she passed. The Queen was moved several feet in its wake, turning to face the moving mountain. With a vicious cry, her sinewy muscles bulged, and her arms and legs lengthened to monstrous size. She launched herself into the air, coming down upon the mountain.
She slashed again and again at the massive beast's flesh. Great ribbons of muscle and flesh came flying off the tribal monster, and Holden was shocked to see these gobbets of flesh start writhing of their own volition upon the earth. A few of them even grew arms and legs and started to jump around like little lawn gnomes.
As the Queen struck her gargantuan foe with her piercing tail, he seemed to become drained of the will to fight. The Rage in his eyes dimmed, and the beautiful Queen seemed to use this sapped strength to empower her continued assault upon him.
The ground shook again as the Khador Colossus stepped forward, unleashing its explosive ordinance again. The cannon-fire struck the Mountain and the Queen, obscuring both behind smoke and debris. This time, Holden had greater confidence in the supreme woman's vitality, and was gratified as his faith was rewarded with a fresh view of her healthy frame.
But his mood soured as the Mountain picked up all the little dancing flesh creatures around him and shoved them in his gaping maw. As he chewed sickeningly, Holden could see the Mountain's shredded flesh knit itself back together and the rivers of blood pouring from the its wounds dry up.
Obviously satisfied with its snack, the lumbering beast focused its beady little eyes on the lovely morsel before him. He bellowed at her, flecks of spittle flying about her in the air. More swiftly than seems possible, the Mountain then brought both of his fists down upon the much smaller woman, knocking her from the air. She struck the ground with a muted thud, leaving a dent in the soil of the sculpted garden hill.
This time, Holden did cry out. A wordless yell of sudden loss. Before any of the enemy forces could react to his outburst, his three companions grabbed him by his arms and began loping off the battlefield as fast as their distended legs could carry them.
They stopped within the surrounding forest, just out of sight. After he got his breath, Holden used his rifle scope to watch the final maneuvers around the manor. For some reason, the Khadoran forces ignored the Mountain. The Colossal warjack was instead focused on one tribal warrior to the south of the manor, and the Prince stayed far back out of the scrum.
Suddenly, one brave tribal warrior charged through the forest that had once protected the Prince, engaging him in single combat. With a few glancing blows, it was clear that the warrior was no match for the skill of the royal swordsman. He was soon bloodied up and down, looking ready to keel over. Just as his collapse was imminent, the warrior took one last swing, meeting the face of the Prince with one stony fist.
He went down...
Holden breathed a sigh of relief and quickly scanned the garden. There was no sign of his Queen. One last grateful prayer to the forces of good luck, and he signaled to the others that he was ready to go.
We started the Crossroads of Courage Season 1 with a bang!
A four-player 35pt rumble game. Cryx, Legion, Khador, Trollbloods.
Super fun! My Holden proxy is the sniper woman with the long brown hair and white backpack standing with the Striders.
Special thanks to all those who played with me. You guys are the best!
Caught Dallas in the background while trying for a battleground shot.