The Wintersgate mountains had always been home to eagles.
Long before the world changed, almost forty years ago, they were there, hunting and breeding along the spine of the continent, and roosting among the cliffs and towering trees, far from civilization. Even when civilization crept in and they found themselves hunted for the prestige of their feathers, they were too well-established to truly be threatened.
Then the world shifted, but for the most part, their lot remained the same. They kept clear of the bigger predators, struck down intruding aerial predators and prey with swift, terrible strikes, and remained overall the most common apex aerial predator in the region.
But as the years rolled on and the eagles slowly leveled up, inevitably, some of them started reaching their maximum ranks.
As far as scouts, shamans, and other people who studied nature and beasts knew, the Eagle job had three rank-up options.
The first option was that of a Golden Eagle. Found mainly in areas where seams of gold were common, or treasure was simply lying about near or in its nest, the golden eagles had dazzling light-based attacks, and a hard, armorlike skin.
They gave up some maneuverability in flight, but could hit like a falling comet if they got a proper diving strike off. Golden eagles were uncommon but sometimes seen in these hills, often followed by prospectors looking for their nest and the nearby seams or hunters who thought they could take one down and make a killing from their feathers.
The second option was Totem Eagle, usually only found where certain monster tribes or human cultures worshipped eagle spirits or a related pantheon. They could deliver blessings unto the faithful, call down rain, and had raw perception boosts that were unmatched in the monster kingdom. At least for most in their level range, anyway. There weren't any Totem Eagles in the wintergate mountains. The cultures that could produce them lived far from here, or had died out in the region long ago.
The third option was Screaming Eagle, and they were pretty much everywhere in the mountains. They were eagles who had focused on their “Piercing Cry” skill and used it at every hunting opportunity.
Like, oh, the one that had come up twenty seconds ago.
This particular screaming eagle had nabbed the fawn from its mother upslope, as she strayed out of the treeline foraging. Its piercing cry had gone unnoticed by the residents of the home nearby, as had the falling deer as it bashed its life out on a high rock above, then bounced to land in a clearing only one hill away from the structure. The eagle didn't care, and had feasted from it. It was a fat creature, and the eagle had returned today to finish eating. Carrion wasn't its first choice, but it hadn't found many other options in the last twenty hours, and it was hungry.
So when the appetizing little furry morsel had toddled straight into the clearing, the eagle did what it always did. Emitted a piercing scream, watched the green seven and “Stun” float up above its head, then dived in and scooped the prey up.
From Threadbare's perception, one second he'd been staring up at an unfamiliar corpse, the next second a sound ripped through his ears and he was reeling, he'd lost a chunk of sanity, and then by the time he could move again, some bizarre creature was carrying him off. Off and up.
He hadn't even known you could GO up. It didn't seem right, somehow. So he turned his face from Celia's pale, panicked visage and looked up at the bird carrying him.
Silver feathers mixed with white, on a form that was shaped roughly like an arrow. Its wings were double-jointed, and beat the air with a whistling shriek. A sharp, serrated beak crowned a feathered head, with no visible neck. A series of smaller-beaks, currently shut, lined its torso.
Blood stained its beak. The same blood smell as the deer, Threadbare realized. Then his button eyes shifted to the wings. Those were the reason it was flying, he realized, as they flapped above his head and he felt the wind shift by with staggering force. The songbirds he saw through the windows had wings too, and this must be how things flew. No wings, no flight, no matter how many times he'd tried to jump off the bed in hopes he could fly like the birds.
Well, at least he could stop doing that, now.
Perhaps, like so much of his existence-to-date, this was all just a big misunderstanding? Threadbare hugged the eagle's claws.
The eagle didn't spare him a glance. But its claws moved back, ripping into the bear's hide, sending a red '4' floating into the air, and falling away in the slipstream.
Nope, no misunderstanding. Threadbare drew his arms back, called up his own claws, and whacked the eagle right back! Surprised, the bird's grip loosened, and Threadbare dropped through the trees, hitting every branch on the way down before bouncing off a rock, so hard that one of his button eyes cracked.
But he had no bones to break, or organs to damage, and as he sat up amidst a floating red '11', he eyed the words in front of his face with a bemused stare.
Your Golem Body skill is now level 5!
Your Toughness skill is now level 6!
Max HP +2
He still couldn't read the squiggles, but he was starting to remember the shape of some of them. And these shapes in particular always turned up when his body was getting beaten up. He wished they'd turn up less, but oh well, at least this had ended well. Threadbare toddled to his feet, and started looking around for Celia.
Then that scream came from above again, and 10 more sanity went poof.
You have been affected by piercing scream!
But this time, it was slightly different.
Your golem body renders you immune to stun!
His head ached terribly, but unlike the last time, he could still move. Could still think. So when the eagle came howling down at him again, all of its beaks open, Threadbare rolled to the side.
Your actions have unlocked the generic skill: Dodge!
Your Dodge skill is now level 1!
The eagle's claws closed on air, and it swept by, flapping its wings furiously as it pulled up.
Threadbare ran over and grabbed the biggest stick he could find, hefting it with a strength out of proportion to his twelve-inch tall body. He waved it around a few times, hoping the Eagle got the message.
But sadly, the eagle's intelligence was far worse than his own. The bird pulled up, reversed, and hovered in an action thoroughly unbelievable for its ten-foot wingspan.
Threadbare watched as the creature's chest inflated, beaks clamped tightly shut, and he had one slim moment to wonder why it was doing that-
-and then it SCREAMED.
All of its beaks slammed open in unison, as the vents on the Eagle's back drew in deep breaths of air, slamming them through its mighty lungs to unleash solid sound on the offending prey.
The skill was called Raptor's Racket, and this wasn't one that the Eagle used for hunting. Which was good news, since it hadn't practiced and leveled up this skill to its maximum, like it had the piercing scream.
The downside was that this skill was designed for defense, and it was, simply, designed to HURT.
Threadbare found himself flying, fetching up against a tree, as the sound thundered around and through him, and a great red '29' floated up into the sky.
Your Toughness skill is now level 7!
Max HP +2
Fur shredded, stuffing blew out of the holes and gaps in him, and seconds later when the blast ended, Threadbare fell to the ground, wondering what the heck he'd done to deserve this.
The eagle, tired from its rarely-used skill, flapped to the ground and stalked over, torso-beaks once again shut, studying the twitching form.
Threadbare watched it come, and racked his brain for ideas. This thing was like Pulsivar, it pounced and killed small things. But Pulsivar didn't care about things that weren't moving, so maybe Threadbare could stop moving, and the Eagle would go away?
He tried it out.
But the eagle's perceptionwas far, far more advanced than the bear's poor charisma, and Threadbare thoroughly failed to be convincing.
With a rapid, shuffling stride the eagle half-flapped, half hopped forward, and lashed out with his head. He did have a neck, it was just buried in the feathers and skin of his shoulders and wings, and it strained as he bit into the bear and tore, gashing Threadbare open and sending him flying down the hillside. Threadbare rolled to a stop, feeling more and more of his body going unresponsive. He wasn't sure how hurt he was, but he knew he didn't have much more to go.
He stood up, looking around. A small hollow, a crumbling log, and pines all around. He could run, could maybe find someplace to shelter. Maybe.
But no. The thing would just hunt him down. This was a good enough place to die.
The eagle burst up from the treetops, glaring around and acquiring him immediately. The bird looped back and prepared another dive as Threadbare hauled up the biggest branch he could find, staggering and feeling his remaining stitches start to go, as the twelve-pound branch weighed down upon him.
The bird screamed, and more of his sanity fled, but he drew the branch back and waited, waited for the moment as the bird dove...
...and veered off, as a red-haired form ran up through the trees downslope.
“MEND!” Celia shouted, puffing and panting.
You heal 17 points!
Celia's toys pattered downslope, having fallen far behind, and the eagle, thoroughly annoyed, took note of the smaller prey, dismissed it. Too small for the amount of energy and effort it had expended.
The little girl, on the other hand, didn't look like she weighed much more than that fawn from yesterday.
So while she shouted her mending spell, over and over again, the eagle switched targets and screamed, watching the green number drift up...
...but this particular prey resisted the 'stun' effect.
For Celia was an animator, and on top of that her willpower had been honed by years of arguing with her father. She turned, saw it coming, and her animated dagger lashed out. The Eagle evaded, hastily, coming within a few feet of the ground as he swerved-
-and met Threadbare's heavy club head-on.
Your Clubs and Maces skill is now level 7!
The pine branch broke, Threadbare staggered back, but the makeshift club and mighty swing had done its job.
The great bird crashed to the ground, a red '13' floating up, surprised and hurting for the first time in a very long while. It struggled to its pinions and claws-
-only to be swarmed by the five animated toys, bashing and thumping with their magically-hardened extremities. Boosted by Celia's magic, '4's and '5's floated up as the creature screeched and turned, backing up until it had both the girl and the toys in its arc. Its beaks snapped open again, the unseen vents on its back below its feathers drew in air...
...and Threadbare dove forward, shoving Celia out of the way as the bird screamed once more, throwing the toys across the clearing and over a small rise, sending Threadbare tumbling, mended rips tearing open again, catching ahold just barely of a low-hanging tree branch, and riding out the storm.
The eagle fell silent, gasping. It felt its blood running down its chest, felt its head pound. Its moxie was drained, its hunger forgotten as the toll the toys had taken registered on its nerves.
Then, motion. Celia sat up, glaring, and pulled two more daggers, tossing them into the air. “Animus Blade! Animus Blade!” They joined their steely brother, orienting toward the Eagle as she pointed at him.
On the other side of the clearing, Threadbare dropped from his branch, stood up, and spread his torn arms, meeting the eagle's disbelieving eyes with a black-buttoned glare.
Following an impulse, the bear thumped his chest with an arm, and pointed at the bird. Then down.
This time, the message was received.
Faced with a foe who could take whatever he could dish out, and those weird, dancing blades that really shouldn't be moving like they were, the Eagle flapped until he was skyborne, and whirled to head upslope.
The rising arrow caught him in the rump, tore through the mostly-hollow part of his chest, exited through one shoulder, and ended his life in a microsecond.
From below, Threadbare and Celia watched as a red '182' rose above the falling corpse of the bird.
Then the girl and her bear looked backward, to where the trees rustled. Barely a second's warning, then a brown flash of leather, as Mordecai bounded from branch to branch, landing in a crouch, whipping an arrow from under his coat as it flared back revealing four quivers bandolier-style across his body, and nocking the shaft as he tracked the falling Eagle. After it hit the treeline he nodded, straightening up and letting the bow go slack. “Sorry,” he offered. “Not tryin' to steal yer kill. S'why I waited till I was sure it'd escaped-”
He broke off, as Celia glomped him. She wailed, crying into his coat, and he sighed, dropping the arrow and hoisting her up, adjusting her arms until he could slide the bow away. He bent down to scoop the arrow up...
...and found Threadbare there, offering it to him with both hands.
Mordecai blinked. Then he nodded down at the little toy.
The teddy bear nodded back.
Mordecai took the arrow and juggled Celia, sliding it back into its quiver. “Sh, sh, sh. That's right. Sh, yer safe.” He had to watch his movements, as the three daggers she'd animated orbited around her, taking a slightly wider route to go around Mordecai as well. It was unnverving, to tell the truth, but the old scout ignored it as best he could.
“I was so scared,” Celia whispered, but the scout's sharp ears caught it.
“Why?” Mordecai said.
“Why? Were you afraid it'd kill yer?”
“No. I mean, I was, but... I was afraid it would kill Threadbare.”
“Threadbare. That yer little bear down there?”
Celia shifted in his arms, looked at the teddy bear. “He was so brave.”
The bear, somewhat annoyed at being left out of the cuddle puddle, stretched its arms upward.
“Oh, he's still all torn up. Ah...” She sniffed. “Status.” Then she winced. “Oh. No, no, my sanity's a wreck. I spent way too much today, I can't heal him any more.”
“S'all right,” Mordecai said. “Cavalry's comin'.”
And indeed, heavy iron footsteps echoed through the forest, as Caradon charged up the hill, breathing heavily, with Emmet the armor golem right on his heels. Branches broke against Emmet's form as he lumbered through them, feet grinding inoxerably into the pine needles and soft soil, sending sprays of detritus to the rear.
“Celia!” Caradon shouted, and she barely had time to blink before Mordecai deposited her into the old man's arms.
“I'll just find them toys you lost, eh?” Mordecai asked. “Be hard for any but a trained scout, eh?” He gave Caradon a knowing look. Then he was gone, slipping into the shadows of the pines.
“Daddy?” Celia asked, her voice very small as she smushed her face against Caradon's chest. “Can you please mend Threadbare?”
The old man looked down at the teddy bear, stretching its arms up for a hug, smeared with pine needles and mud, torn nearly to shreds.
For a second he wanted to punt the damned thing down the hill. He didn't know how, but he was sure the little golem was at fault, somehow.
But only for a second. It was Celia's prized possession, after all.
Besides, even torn to hell and back, it was still bizarrely cute. And while objectively he knew that it was all due to its Adorable skill, the truth of the matter was that he wasn't immune to it, nor did he mind so much.
Threadbare watched as letters rolled by.
Your Adorable Skill is level 7!
Caradon sighed and released Celia. “Mend,” he told it, simply. The bear had earned those battle wounds honestly, defending the little girl. It was the least he could do.
You have been healed for 302 points!
Threadbare shuddered, as golden light pulsed through him, bringing him back instantly to full health. It really was overkill, though not as much as the old man thought.
“I'm okay,” Celia told her father, scooping up Threadbare. “The Eagle didn't hurt me. Threadbare saved me when it screamed. He pushed me out of the way.”
“Must have been a small Screamer then,” Caradon said, remembering the teddy bear's pathetic hit points. “Well. That's over with.”
“It wasn't all bad. I... I skilled up in mend for the first time in a long time. And got some intelligence and willpower, and agility, and constitution... and, I kind of lost track, I'm sorry. Uh, no, wait, some Animus skill too. Wow, a lot of skill.” She studied the air for a second, then shook her head. “Close Status.”
“Yes. That was because you were in a real fight, with real consequences,” Caradon said, taking her hand. “Are you sure you're all right?”
“Yes.” She blinked, as realization struck. “Is that what I'm going to have to do? To get more levels? I'm going to have to keep doing... that... again?”
“Yes,” Caradon said, feeling every second of his fifty-eight years weighing down on him. “Yes it is.”
Celia turned and vomited on the pine needles. Caradon let her go, then held his hand down once she was done. “I'm sorry. But this is the world we live in. It is what it is, now.”
The little girl took it, and hugged Threadbare tight with her free arm. Then she took a deep breath, and looked to her bear, and back to her old man. “If this is what it takes to protect Threadbare, and you, and everyone I don't care. I'll fight a dozen times or a hundred or whatever, so he doesn't have to. I won't let any monsters or anything get him! Or anyone else!”
Deep in the woods, perched on a hollow log with the remnants of the toys sitting beside him, Mordecai took a puff on his pipe and smiled to himself. He'd heard every word of the conversation from a quarter-mile away, and more importnatly, he'd heard the spirit in her voice. There was hope after all, he thought.
“Well, let's get back home,” Caradon said, draping his arm around her shoulders. “That's quite enough adventure for one day.”
“Okay. Yeah, okay.” Celia spat to the side. “I need a drink of water.”
“Easy to do. Come along, Emmet.”
The mighty armor golem fell in behind them, as Threadbare's family picked their way back down toward the home. A few steps in, Caradon cleared his throat. “I've been thinking.”
“Are you serious about learning to be a scout?”
“Oh heck yeah? Did you see that thing with the arrow? Where he shot the Eagle out of the sky? It was like POW, and then that was the most damage I've ever seen in my life! Well aside from when Emmet punched that raccoon who was hissing at you on the porch that time. I want to learn how to do THAT!”
“Ah, technically that's an archer trick, Mordecai's good with that job too.”
“Can I learn that?”
“We'll see how you do with scout...”
The voices faded into the trees. Behind them, Mordecai chuckled and took his own path back to the house, giving Caradon and his daughter time to themselves.
And in the deep woods, the imp faded into view, crouched among the pine needles and grinning. “So the little girl's leaving the house for the first time ever. Oh, this'll make things much, much easier. Anise is going to laugh her tits off when she hears this one-”
Twenty-five pounds of the gods' perfect killing machine crashed down on the imp.
Before he could react, Pulsivar the cat grabbed the demon's throat and slashed his claws on the target below, rending its shrieking form into shreds.
FINALLY, it had caught that annoying weird bird which taunted it from the windows. It had been worth it, following its sulfurous trail from the house when his hoomin had rushed off into the woods. Now vengeance was Pulsivar's, and no more would the little thing be annoying.
To the cat's annoyance, it faded into smoke and puffed away, before he could even eat it. Even in death, the thing was annoying. Pulsivar groomed himself, pissed on the pine needles where its stench lingered, and waddled off back to the house, keeping a weather eye on the skies.
There were eagles out. One had to be cautious, after all.
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