“I still don't know if this is a good idea,” Celia confessed, clutching Threadbare to her as they walked up the lonely pass. The wind howled alongside the trail, dusting snow off the sheer drop to the valley below.
In the distance, through the curtain of snowflakes, the three peaks of their destination loomed like forgotten idols to dead gods.
“It'd be a bad idea if we was going far in,” Bak'Shaz shrugged. “But the Catamountain don't get nasty unless you cross the first bridge. Long as we stick to Housecat Peak we won't have no trouble.”
“I guess.” Celia chewed her lip, and shivered in her coat. “I wish we'd come up here with the others. All in a group.”
“Won't be any problems until we get in. Guards keep the path up clear. Might be problems with the guards.”
“Yeah. It's why I left Porkins at home. The guards don't like us too much because we're half-breeds. I used to have a Bloodhound, but they kicked it off the mountain, said it was because he was too weak to survive in there, so they were saving it the trouble of a slow death.”
“Yeah. I loved that Hound.” Bak'shaz sighed, and stuck his hands in his overalls. “So I'll find a pet in there an' use it for the run, then let it go 'fore I come out.”
“I- you don't think they'll do that to Threadbare, will they?” Celia hugged the little bear tight.
Threadbare didn't like the notion of being kicked off the mountain much. He started fumbling in Celia's pocket for one of her daggers.
“Hey, no. Settle down, I won't let anyone get you.”
Bak'shaz watched them, and chuckled. “No, they won't do that to Threadbare. You look rich. Uh, they might call you some nasty stuff because you're with us. But whatever you do, don't let them see you getting mad. They got cells up there they can stick 'troublemakers' in.”
“Why are the guards so awful?”
“Dad says it's 'cause good men don't get assigned here. Just the jerks who can't cut it in the reg'lar military, so they get their kicks picking on people and 'busing their authority. But they're mostly cowards, they know Dad would kill them in their sleep if they killed us or disappeared us. Besides, they need him to train their scouts. He's the best at that.”
“There y'are!” An unfamiliar voice came from ahead, and Celia flinched, thinking they'd hit the guards already. But no, it was an unfamiliar figure, Celia's size but three times as broad, wearing jingling chain mail and green eyes barely visible above an oversized shield. “We figured you'd be late. Not as late as I thought, from how Jarrik described you.”
“Um, you must be Beryl.” This was the first time Celia had ever seen a dwarf that wasn't in a picture book. She had a horned helmet with multicolored braids hanging out of it, purple and black and pink. As Celia got closer she saw the girl's eyes were surrounded by black makeup, that matched her lipstick. The ankh on her steel breastplate gleamed silver, though, and Celia thought it looked familiar.
“Is that a holy symbol of Aeterna?”
“Yeah. Not my choice but you got to keep the fam happy, right? And she's actually pretty cool when you get to know her.” Beryl sighed, and rolled her eyes.
From behind her, Jarrik waved. He had black lipstick smeared on his throat and mouth, and Celia's high int let her put two and two together.
She decided not to say a word, and blinked as her wisdom increased.
“Just so you know, girl, if you try to steal my boy I'll rip your tits off,” Beryl grinned, showing flat, even teeth. “Do you understand?”
“I, I, I wouldn't, I mean yes. I understand.”
“Great. Come on, let's go make some money.”
Beryl stomped forward, and Celia watched her go. Jarrik smiled, looking a little out of it.
“You got a hicky, bro,” Bak'shaz mopped his own neck and mouth.
“Oh! Shit.” Jarrik wiped them away, fell in with Bak'Shaz and Celia. “She's the leader, okay?”
“All right.” Celia shrugged. “I'm just along for the ride with this one.”
Ahead, a gatehouse loomed out of the snow, sealing off the trail. It looked like the construction ran back into the cliff to the side, with arrow slits and parapets above. Two guards stood stock still, wielding halberds, dressed head to toe in black plate with red glowing glyphs on it.
“Magical armor?” Celia sucked in her breath.
“Aye,” Beryl had stopped, and heard her question. “Work for the king, you get the good stuff. Just costs your soul.”
“He consorts with demons. Everyone knows it.” Beryl spat off the cliff. “But that'll get political and it's too cold for that shit now. Where's your damned brother, Jarry?”
Jarrik pointed a thumb back down the trail.
Celia turned, and saw a fountain of snow rushing off the cliffside, as something brown sped up the trail, moving way faster than she'd seen anyone run before. She took two steps back... and Garon appeared out of the snow cloud, skidding to a stop on the rocky path. “Forced March. So useful.” He tossed a package at Celia, and she almost dropped Threadbare as she caught it. “Got your tailoring kit. Wasn't too expensive so we'll just take it out of your share.”
“Tailoring kit?” Beryl snorted. “You gonna make us pretty dresses while we're in there, girl? Maybe some pretty bows for our hair?”
Celia frowned at her. No one had ever been this rude to her before, and she didn't know how to handle it. “No. They told you I'm an animator, right?”
“Right. So what?”
“So it takes sanity to heal my toys. This will let me repair them without spending sanity points.”
“I do the healing for the group. That's the rules, squirt.” Beryl took a step forward, squinting at her.
“Then try it,” Celia held out Threadbare. “See what happens.”
“You're joking, right?” Beryl squinted harder.
“Uh, Beryl? That bear's got more class levels than you do,” Bak'shaz told her.
Instantly Beryl's eyes opened wide. “Get the fuck out!”
“He's a golem,” Celia told her, and Beryl's jaw dropped.
“Seriously? They have a pair of big stone ones guarding the gates of Shalekeep. My Da' told me about how they came alive during the troubles, and crushed armies.”
“I think I heard of those,” Celia said. “My mom's notes mentioned that she helped build-”
“Okey-dokey then!” Garon interrupted, clapping them both on the back. “Let's get sorted. Beryl?”
“Right, what's the little bastard's name then, so I can invite him?” Beryl knelt down a bit to smile at Threadbare. “Oooh, he's got a wee knife! How cute!”
Your Adorable Skill is now level 14!
“He's Threadbare, but, uh, it takes a special skill to invite golems into a party. I've tried without it and it doesn't work. The only way to do it takes scrolls I don't have.”
“Well what use is he then?” Beryl frowned.
“He's pretty smart and he'll do what I ask him to. Won't you, Mister Bear?”
Threadbare nodded, and patted her arm. Celia put him down. “Let me get a few other toys out to fill out our ranks. And maybe a dagger, I'm thinking.”
After a bit of animation and sorting, it ended up being Beryl, Celia, the brothers, a floating dagger, and the little dragon toy.
“That's all seven then,” Beryl nodded. “Sorry Bakky.”
“S'okay.” He hauled out a slingshot that looked quite a bit nicer than Celia's. “I'll just be support, and if her stuff gets wrecked I can tame something.”
“Works better this way. Your little golem won't siphon our experience,” Beryl grinned. “We'll just have to make sure we make the kills, not him.”
“Okay. Time for the next step.” Garon sighed. “Let's hope they're in a good mood.”
“They can't do anything to us. My family's rich. She looks important, too,” Beryl pointed a gauntleted finger at Celia.
“You look soft, like you've never had to work much. They'll think you're rich too. I'll pretend you're my friend if they ask or give you a hard time.”
“Thanks, I think.” Celia frowned.
“If you want to thank me, do well in the dungeon and help make me rich. Then we'll see about being friends for real.” Beryl punched her in the arm. Hard.
But the dwarf had already turned, and was trudging up the path again, with her back and forth gait.
Wondering what the heck she'd gotten into, Celia followed along, Threadbare up on one shoulder, the dagger orbiting her in slow circles, and her dragon at her side. The boys fell in behind her, keeping their empty hands visible and their weapons obviously stowed in their respective sheaths or hangars.
“Scouts'll be checkin' us out from this point on,” she heard Jarrik whisper in her ear, and recognized the Wind's Whisper skill. “Don't say nuffin' suspicious or that you don't want'em ta hear.”
She nodded back, and shot him a thumbs up.
“Full party to enter Catamountain,” Beryl waved at the guards.
The rightmost one called back, his voice deep and echoing in his helm. “The dungeon is closed. Turn back.”
“I don't have to give you that answer, citizen.”
Celia looked back to the boys, but they looked as confused as she was.
“Is this normal?” Celia asked the guards. “Is it being remodeled or something?”
The leftmost guard facepalmed. The rightmost one shook a bit, and there was a little mirth in his voice. “Orders, I'm afraid. It should be only be sealed for a few days. After that, you're free to come back.”
“I don't recognize your voice,” Garon asked. “Sir, are you new here?”
Instantly the mirth left the guard's tone. “Be on your way.”
“All right,” Celia said, half feeling relieved. “We'll go. Sorry for the fuss-”
The gatehouse portcullis shuddered, and started to rise. The guards started, then whirled and pointed their halberds at the children. “Drop to your knees! Hands in the air!” The leftmost one yelled, but the rightmost one grabbed him, pulled him back, and said something in a low voice.
The recalcitrant guard immediately straightened up, stepped aside, and banged his fist against his breastplate about where his heart would be. “You may enter. I apologize, miss.”
“Oh-kay...” Beryl said, glancing around at the group. “Let's go then.”
Silent, they filed by, entirely uncertain of what had just happened, and how they should feel about it.
And only Threadbare, peering over Celia's shoulder, was looking in the right direction to see a face peering out of one of the arrow slits. A face with blue eyes as cold as ice, framed with long, straight black hair. He waved, and Anise smiled, waved back, and faded into the shadows.
What a nice lady! Threadbare turned back to watch his friends struggle up the path.
“What just happened-” Celia started, but Garon shook his head. “Wait.”
They turned the corner in the path-
-and instantly the light falling snow cleared. Celia gasped, as she could suddenly see a rocky slope, filled with boulders and prowling forms. The slope led up to a cave. Further up the peak she could see some sort of scaffolding, ending up in a weave of ropes that stretched from a low peak, up to a trail on a second mountain.
“What just happened there?” Celia asked.
“We entered the dungeon.” Beryl replied. “Sweet Aeterna, you are green.”
“Dungeons are weird,” Garon said. “No one outside can hear or see us, even if they're literally five feet away from us. So it's safe to talk now.”
“Okay, what was that back there? Why'd they suddenly let us through?” Celia burst out.
Jarrik raised his hand. “When the rightmost one told 'is buddy to stand down, he said ya were on the azempted list.”
“Exempted list?” Celia frowned. “I don't know why I'd be on anything like that. How'd he know?”
“Easy,” Garon said. “They have scouts checking out every party on the way up. One sent a Wind's Whisper to the guards, telling them to stand down. They just got one before the other, that's all.” Garon frowned, creasing his forehead as he pulled on one tusk. “What I can't figure out is why they were so polite.”
“That was polite?” Celia shook her head. “Didn't seem like it.”
“You don't know them,” Bak'shaz spoke up. “Usually they give Beryl all kinds of shit for being with us, and push us around some.”
“Fuckin' cunts,” Beryl spat. “They know that's all they can do, but they don't miss a chance to be shits.”
Celia shuddered. This dwarven girl cussed worse and more in the few minutes she'd known her than Celia had ever heard before in her whole life.
Beryl mistook the shudder. “Aye, you're all right then.” She punched Celia's arm again, lighter.
“I think it's horrible that they treat you that way. But these guys didn't.”
“Yeah. They're new.” Garon's frown deepened. “They didn't even try to get a bribe out of us.”
“Somefing's going on,” Jarrik decided. “But we need ta get our heads in tha game. Came here to sweep this peak and get loot and experience, an' if we worry about problems we can't solve we might screw up. So let's focus on tha dungeon.”
“There's my Jarry.” Beryl beamed with pride. “I keep tellin' Da' he's wrong about you but he just won't listen.”
“Um... I don't know much about this place,” Celia said. “And those things look very big. They're cats, right?”
“Right, right, you're green.” Beryl tapped her shield with gauntleted fingers. “So dungeons are made up of different sections. Each section has different challenges to get through. Some are monsters, some are traps or puzzles, some are combinations of those, and some are weird.”
“The Catamountain's a pretty easy one,” Garon said, drawing his battle axe, and strapping a wooden shield to his arm. “Comparatively. For this peak, anyway. We just have to fight our way through the slope ahead, get through the catcave, and climb the catwalk.” He gestured to the scaffolding. “That'll take us to the Kittyhawk's bridge.”
“Wait, does everything here have a theme?” Celia was pretty sure they were kidding her.
“Yes,” the brothers and Beryl chorused.
“That seems a bit... silly.”
“Well it's how it is,” Beryl said. “I don't make the rules of how the world works, I just exploit them for my own gain. And yours, if you follow my lead and don't fuck up.”
“I'll do my best.” She sat Threadbare down. “You might as well keep that dagger.”
Threadbare nodded, and thumped his chest like he'd seen the guard do when he did what Celia asked.
“Don't you start,” she told him, and he nodded instead.
They fought their way up the slope cautiously, creeping from boulder to boulder, staying out of sight of the bulk of the mountain lions. The trick here, as Garon explained, was to only draw the attention of one or two at a time. They were hard of hearing from constant exposure to the winds, but had decent eyesight, so noises from fights wouldn't bring more of them down.
The lions were tough and fast, and the tactic they fell back on was using the dragon toy to soak up their initial pounces, then send Garon, Beryl, the Animus dagger, and Threadbare in to wail on the large felines while Celia, Jarrik, and Bak'shaz pelted it with slingshot stones and arrows. Celia mended Threadbare and the dragon when necessary, and Beryl healed everyone else.
It worked pretty well, and Threadbare got some dagger practice out of the deal... along with a few stat boosts.
Your Golem Body skill is now level 6!
By the end of the slope, his dagger skill was up to level 9, and his Dodge skill had risen to 2.
“Okay, we're clear. This shelf is a safe space,” Garon said, plunking down on a rock.
“I got some good mending practice out of that,” Celia said. “But I'm down about a fifth of my sanity. How is yours doing?” She asked Beryl.
“I'm going to need to rest a bit.” Beryl dug out a hip flask, and uncorked it. Instantly alcohol fumes filled the air.
Threadbare sniffed, sneezed as the unfamiliar odor teased his nose. “Kff!”
Your Scents and Sensibility skill is now level 8!
“That's not water, is it?” Celia asked.
“Nope. Want some?”
“No thank-” Jarrik's hand landed on her shoulder, as Beryl's eyes went wide in shock. Her face reddened, and her eyebrows wrinkled in anger.
“Drink with her!” Celia heard Jarrik whisper to her through the wind.
“-On second thought, sure,” Celia said, and Beryl's reddening face slowly went pale again.
“Here you go then.” Beryl said. “Small sips. You're a weedy one.”
Celia took a small sip, trying to ignore the fumes.
Five minutes later after she stopped coughing and Beryl stopped laughing, the dwarf corked her hip flask again. “Humans are so funny. You're all right, kid. I think we're friends now, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Celia wheezed. “Hate to see... enemies. Drink made my... con go up.”
Beryl hooked a thumb downslope. “Enemies? We left them down there. For now.”
“For now?” Celia blinked, clearing her throat. “What... do you mean?”
“Dungeons,” Garon said. “It makes monsters much sturdier than they would be outside of here, and it removes their corpses after a few minutes. New mountain lions will show back up soon. We'll have to watch for them on the way out.”
“If it gets bad we can just cut an' run,” Jarrik said. “They don't leave tha dungeon.”
“That's bizarre...” Celia said. “What keeps them here?”
“The master,” Beryl said. “Not that we're going anywhere near it. Whatever it is.”
“Each dungeon has a boss monster, or master, or whatever,” Garon said. “But the garrison put a barrier between the second peak and the third, so no one's ever seen it. That I know of, anyway. Rumor is they're hunting him, to shut down this dungeon for good. So whatever he is, he's either smart enough to set up obstacles to keep the guards off of him, or tough enough they can't kill him.”
“Of course, most of the guards are shit and weak, compared to the troops in the north,” Beryl said. “So maybe he's not that tough.”
They rested there for half an hour, regaining a bit of spent sanity and endurance. Celia touched up Threadbare's hit points by practicing tailoring on him, saving her mending for more dangerous situations. Finally Garon nodded. “Okay, this next part is easy, so long as we keep the torches lit.”
“Torches. Ya brought 'em, right?” Jarrik asked Garon.
“No, I only brought the sewing kit, and supplies,” Garon said. “That was all you guys asked for.”
“I thought you'd know ta get torches too!” Jarrik told him, crossing his arms.
“If you don't ask for things, how do I know to get them!” Garon threw his hands in the air.
“Settle down. Half o' you can see in tha dark, and I can feel nearby monsters so long as they're on stone floors,” Beryl said. “They'll be tougher, but we can handle it. Maybe. Just need to stick close and be cautious.”
“Um, is it just torches?” Celia asked.
“I've got an enchanter level.”
“What's that do?”
“Among other things, I can make objects glow.”
“I don't know, I learned it two days ago. Never tried.”
“Give it a whirl.”
“How about your bear?”
“Okay... Glow Gleam!”
And then Threadbare was shiny, shiny enough that they could tell it even in the bright light of midday.
“Wow. Yeah, that'll do,” Beryl nodded. “You were smart to bring her,” she told Jarrik. “Unlike some!” She glared at Garon, who rolled his eyes.
“Whatever. Let's get going.”
“Hang on, let's have some backup, here. Throw it on our shields too, okay?”
“Sure, it's cheap.” Celia cast it a few more times, smiling as it skilled up. “I think the effect is boosted by my intelligence.”
“So hiring a stupid enchanter is pretty dim, right?” Beryl asked, and Celia laughed way more than the poor joke deserved. But when you're tired from hard work, any laugh is a good one.
The next part was the night hunter's cave. It twisted and turned, with a lot of side passages where glittering eyes watched them go by. Most stayed out of the light, but a few cat-headed scorpions scuttled after them, biting with mandibles and toothy maws, and jabbing with stingers. Fortunately Threadbare and the dragon were immune to poison, though Threadbare's golem body got a workout and two levels out of the business. And Beryl knew something called “Curative” which detoxified the living members of the group.
Midway through the last fight, Threadbare got his dagger knocked out of his paws, and it skittered off into the darkness.
The brightly-glowing bear switched to his claws, and the party had a good view of him shredding the Minicore that had trapped him into shreds.
Your Claw Swipes skill is now level 7!
Your Claw Swipes skill is now level 8!
Your Golem Body skill is now level 9!
Your Brawling Skill is now level 10!
Before the rest of the group could catch up, he punched his claws through the Minicore's face, and ripped it asunder.
You are now a level 5 Bear!
CON +3 STR +3 WIS +3
Armor +2 Endurance +2 Mental Fortitude +2
You have learned the Growl skill! Your Growl skill is now level 1!
You have learned the Hibernate skill! Your Hibernate skill is now level 1!
You have learned the Stubborn skill! Your Stubborn skill is now level 1!
“Damnit, he stole our kill!” Beryl shouted.
“He earned that one, let him have it.” Garon bent down, searched in the darkness with his glowing shield. “Here it is. And whoa, this one was guarding a chest!” He handed the dagger back to Threadbare, as Celia inspected the little golem and applied a few mends. In the shadows beyond, the Minicore's brood shifted uneasily, but seemed unwilling to press the attack. It would have been a deadly encounter without the light, but with it, the outcome had been inevitable.
They stared at the chest. Celia reached out a hand, and Jarrik caught it. “Nope.”
“Oh. Aren't we going to open it?”
“We? Yes. You? No.” Beryl said. “Ready, Gar?”
“Ready. See, we don't have anyone here with any rogue jobs, so... I've got the most hit points. Should be fine though,” Garon mused. “Worst I've ever taken from one of these popping a trap in this area is sixty.”
“Sixty!” Celia shrieked. She grabbed up Threadbare and her dragon and hurried to the rear of the group, who backed up and left Garon by himself.
“Here goes!” Garon yanked open the lid...
...and nothing happened. “Whew. Hey!” He pulled out handfuls that shown silver in the light. “Come back, we've got loot!”
The loot, as it turned out, was a good-sized pile of silver and copper coins, and a staff that shone with blue light.
“Blue is sages and water elementalists, right?” Celia asked.
“Mostly. I guess Bak'shaz could try to use it, Tamer's a sage job...wait, you've got enchanter, don't you?”
“Yes! Does this mean...”
“You get to use it until we're out,” Beryl said. “But don't get too attached to it. We'll have to give it to the guards.”
“It's the King's decree. All magic items looted from dungeons must be turned in to representatives of the crown at the first opportunity.”
Celia picked it up. “Well, it'll be fun anyway... wait, I could disenchant it at the end of this run. Ooh, it shoots little static electricity balls!”
“No good, it's been tried. Disenchanting, I mean,” Beryl said. “The guards take the components and fine you half your coin.”
Celia sighed. “Well, it'll be fun while I've got it I guess.”
“That's the spirit.” Beryl punched her in the arm. In the same place as before. Celia was getting pretty sure it was bruised under her coat, but was too cold to haul it back and check. “Come on. Let's get to the Catwalk.”
The catwalk was an agility challenge. Celia scooped up Threadbare for this part, and left him sticking out of the top of her pack. It involved crossing terrifying rope and plank bridges up the side of the mountain, which actually wasn't as hard as it seemed, so long as you were careful and went slow. But this was broken up by divebombing attacks from winged cats, Flying Tomcats, as Bak'shaz helpfully identified them.
They weren't difficult, but they chose the most inopportune times to attack, and their caterwauls were hard on the group's sanity. But Jarrik reigned supreme here, using his archer skills to harass and drive them back, and finish off the ones that skirmished then tried to flee.
Threadbare, for his part, didn't care. He'd heard worse from Pulsivar.
Though interestingly, it did raise his willpower a few more points and his new Stubborn skill to level 4 by the time they were through it.
Finally they came to the top of the peak, and a long rope bridge that stretched across a slope filled with tall pine trees, that reached almost to the underside of the bridge. It was shadowed there, down between the pines, and Threadbare's eyes just managed to pick out slender shapes moving through the bristles of the evergreens.
But it was what was above the bridge that was of more concern. A thing looking much like a squarish, spindly creature made of wood and cloth and fur and fangs floated in the air currents, glaring down at the party with suspicious eyes.
“That's the Kittyhawk,” Garon explained. “And this is where we're done. Fighting that thing on the bridge is suicide. I saw someone get knocked off once. And that was pretty much it for the poor guy.”
“Aye,” Beryl said, but she was squinting up at the Kittyhawk. “Fighting on the bridge would be suicide. But fighting it here, might just be doable.”
“We got some treasure and experience,” Celia offered. “I leveled, too. Are you sure we want to push our luck?”
“You got a ranged attack item, and I'm still pretty good on healing,” Beryl said. “And we've got Bak'shaz on the slingshot and Jarrik with his bow. As long as we dodge when it comes in for attack runs, we should be fine.”
“You just want to see what it drops,” Garon said. But he was considering it, Celia could tell.
Maybe this thing wouldn't be too bad. Celia thought. “Okay, come here,” she picked up Threadbare again, and put him in her pack, with just his head poking out. “It's a long way down and I'm not losing you.”
“How about your dragon?” Bak'shaz asked.
“No, let's leave him out,” Celia decided. “I can replace him if I have to.”
“All right. I'll get 'is attention. We ready?” Jarrik asked.
The kids chorused their readiness, and prepared for battle.
The first arrow embedded itself deep into a cloth wing, and it zoomed in fast, dodging the static orb from Celia's new staff. Bak'shaz cracked it with a slingstone and it turned on the little half-orc, veering in and spreading claws wide-
-only to be knocked off balance as the little dragon threw itself into its side. For all its size, the bizarre creature was very light. It whirled a few times, regained some altitude, and hovered, directing jets of wind down upon the party.
“Grab a boulder or get low!” Beryl called. “It can't keep it up forever!”
Celia, skidding backward, just managed to grab a boulder in time.
The little dragon didn't, and disappeared off the cliff, falling into the pines as it tried to flap non-functional cloth wings.
And Threadbare felt himself start to slip free of the pack. Desperately he grabbed on, using his full strength to hold himself tight to the cords keeping the pack shut-
-the cords that tore, spilling the contents of the pack to the forested slope below, and sending Threadbare sailing down to join them.
“No!” He heard Celia yell, and then he was falling...
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