The world returned to Zuula. She rose, trying to blink her eyes, before she remembered that she didn’t have eyelids anymore.
It felt terribly, terribly confining to be trapped once more in such a tiny body, but at least she didn’t ache anymore. No fuzziness from just-waking up. No weird conditions, brought on by the vivid and horrible dreams she’d had.
Or were there? “Status,” Zuula whispered-
-and stared at her full pools.
She’d been low, WAY low on sanity before she went into her dream quest. But now it was as full as if she’d slept a full night.
The shaman wasn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the burnt-out-barn with collapsed walls, let alone the toolshed, but she immediately understood the value of what she’d found.
Zuula hopped out of the wagon, and looked at the stars. Not more than a few hours. She was in a town, too, she saw. Outmarsh? Had to be. There was a church next to the wagon, and light glowed through the green windows, as croaking, babbling speech resounded from within.
None of her party were around. Even the cats were missing. “Party Screen.” Yep, there they were… Fluffbear had been added too. The wooden cats were out, though. Also there was something called “Church Door” on the party screen now.
And to her surprise, she saw that her toy companions’ levels were higher. Not by much, but something had definitely happened. A fight?
What had she missed out on?
Zuula stared at the inactive wooden cats, went back to the wagon, got her spear, and marched up to the door.
“Is you Zuula’s party mate now?”
The croaking continued unabated. The door didn’t answer.
“Zuula’s guessing animator bullshit.”
The door remained shut and silent.
Zuula shrugged, rammed her spear through her chest to hold it, smiled at the con increase and golem body skill boost as a red ‘17’ rolled up, then picked up a loose cobblestone.
A red ‘1’ rolled up from the door on the third try. Zuula watched it tick down in the party screen, from 560 to 559. Yeah, animators were some weird bullshit all right.
The lock clicked, the door handle jiggled, and the door opened…
And the church fell silent, its occupants frozen and staring at her.
Threadbare sat at the head of a low table made from overturned pews, wearing an oversized green-and-red fez with cloth eyeballs decorating it. Madeline, Garon, and Fluffbear sat on the sides of the table, mixed in with about a dozen green, scaly, fishy-looking small humanoids wearing ripped overalls and patchy pajamas and drool-stained dresses. Each of them clutched toys from the ruined toy store, toys that Zuula recognized, because before she’d gone to her dream quest they’d been in sacks that Pulsivar had been sleeping on.
About a dozen more of the little fish thingies slept around the church, curled up on the altar, or the pews, or seemingly nodded off where they were. They had toys too, and what looked like green robes had been tossed over each one.
“Oh, you’re awake,” Threadbare said, lifting up a silver altar cup, and gesturing around the makeshift table. More cups, various trays, and all sorts of religious knickknacks and ornaments adorned the low structure.
The fish things were staring at her.
Zuula pulled the spear free from her chest. “Slow Regeneration.”
“Mom,” Garon started. “Don’t.” His own fez wobbled, and fell off.
Zuula marched forward.
Madeline stood, “Hey no, whoa, they’re kids, don’t—“ a tiny candle-snuffer slid from her head, and she tried to catch it.
“It’s okay! Don’t hurt them!” Fluffbear said, scrambling from her seat…
…too late.
Zuula slammed her spear against the table, hopped on the nearest seat, and bellowed “Where Zuula’s hat?”
There was a pause.
“What? We gonna have a tea party, she need a hat too. Isn’t dat right, child?” She asked the batrachian half-breed next to her.
It giggled, and clutched its dolly closer to its chest. Loose red braids swayed, as it pulled off the stretched scrunchy it was using as a makeshift princess crown, and handed it down to the funny green dolly.
Zuula plopped her new hat around her head, tying it carefully, and her jaw dropped in awe as a dozen skill ups rolled past. All in “Adorable,” but still.
“Okay. Zuula start to see why you all got toy golem levels.” She said, and Fluffbear giggled and slid a candle holder down to her.
“We’re pretending like these are tea cups!”
“Yeah. We found the hats and culty robes in a secret hiding spot behind the altar. Y’know, where every cult has a secret hiding spot?”
“Cult?” Zuula took a sip of her pretend tea, and the kids around her laughed and did the same.
“Command Teapot. Give pretend refills,” Threadbare told the incense burner in the center of the table, and it went to work trundling around the table and dipping its spot toward the “teacup”. “It’s been good animator practice, I got a level of that. Also two of model, and one of golemist.”
“We think that’s because we’re leveling as well,” Garon said. “I mean it looked that way from the ogre fight, but this seems to confirm it.”
“Na offense, but we were a little worried ya’d take this the wrong way. Maybe come in slinging spells and getting ya stab on.” Madeline balanced her thurible on her hard wooden head.
“What? Why?” Zuula frowned.
“It’s just that… well…” Garon said. “All right, look Mom, we were worried you’d think these kids were eldritch or something. Abominations, or old ones, or something horrible and jump to conclusions.”
“Child. Have some faith in you mother.” Zuula waggled her candlestick holder at him. “These kids. And they not eldritch, they just fishmen.”
“Wait. They’re not?” Garon looked confused. “But the cult calls them blessed children. And there’s the old one outside of town-”
“Yeah, who is all tentacles and too many eyes. Do you have tentacles and many eyes?” Zuula asked the tiny fishman across from her. It giggled and stuck its thumb in one nostril slit. “Yeah, Zuula no think so. Just fishmen.”
“The cultists we talked with called them blessed children.” Madeline didn’t look convinced.
“Cultists all humans, right? Humans be dumb sometimes. Den dey try to talk to old ones, and old ones go t’rough dere minds like cheese grater t’rough cheddar. Of course dey gonna be wrong about shit.”
The kids at the table burst out laughing. Funny little dolly said a swear!
Zuula sipped her imaginary tea, and smiled. “Besides, Zuula not break sanctity of tea party. You forget, her firstborn be girl. She know how important it is.”
Besides, if it got her another toy golem level or two, that worked. Speaking of which…
“Dream Quest refill all pools like regular sleep.”
“Whaaat?” Madeline jumped straight up. “Get out!”
“Why? Zuula just got to party?”
“No, no, I mean… really?”
“Yeah. Workaround to stupid no organs t’ing. Downside is, you in dreamquest you not wake up until it done.”
“So it could be risky,” Threadbare said. “But when we’re not in danger, it’s probably a good way to train.”
“Can you do me?” Madeline asked. “I think I got all the levels I can from tea partying tonight. I can spend the rest of my sanity to do some fire tricks for the kids, skill up that way, then regain it all back in half the time.”
“Sure,” Zuula said. “We got a day or two before everyone here die, anyway.”
The table fell silent, save for the happily croaking children, and the clink of their teacups.
“Wait, what?” Garon said.
“No!” Fluffbear said. “They can’t die!”
“Tell you after dey go to bed. Which be SOON,” Zuula said, using her momma voice. “Soon after Zuula level, anyway.” She had her priorities, after all.
About half an hour later, a bit past midnight, the last of the children bedded down in Annie Mata’s lap, next to a snoozing Mopsy. “Cat put up wit dem?” Zuula was impressed.
“They played a little rough, so when she lay down on the dummy I had it show them how to pet her gently. It was doing that most of the night. These children are… a little young, I thnk,” said Threadbare, with all the wisdom he’d earned over his five years of existence.”
“Mopsy likes how they smell!” Fluffbear said. “She was licking them a lot.”
“Yeah, the cat was a good distraction until we got the tea party rolling,” Garon said, removing his fez. “Normally I’d be worried about desecrating a church, but eh, the cult got there first anyway. But seriously, why’s everyone going to die?”
“Nature ain’t big on whys. All Zuula know is dat in a couple of days ain’t no humans going to be left alive around here. And the Old one is waking up too, so dat not be good neither.”
“The nice cultists at the gate DID say something about the old one calling them all home,” Threadbare said.
Silence, as the toys considered it.
“Ah fuck me theah a death cult,” Madeline said. “We need to get outta heah.”
“No! They can’t kill the children!” Missus Fluffbear waved her arms. “I won’t let them! I just swore a vow about that, I think!”
“Maybe they’re deluded,” Garon said. “They aren’t going to kill anyone, maybe, but the Old One’s going to eat them. Maybe he’s not what they think he is.”
“Is possible.” Zuula shrugged. “Or it possible it call them home. No humans left alive might mean humans in a place dat nature can’t see.”
“Wait. Did tha dreamquest say anything about fishmen left alive in a few days?” Madeline asked.
“Dey obviously half-human,” Zuula pointed at the kids, some with hair, some without. Some with human proportions, some more distorted. “So dey count as humans to nature. Humans bone so many t’ings dat nature just t’row up hands and say fine, you all human.” Zuula snorted. “Which doesn’t keep really fucking stupid humans from yelling dumb shit about keeping bloodlines pure and how humans is superior. Eh, at least humans not elves.”
“We’re getting sidetracked, Mom.” Garon chewed his fuzzy lip. “So the great old one-”
“Mediocre old one.”
“-Yeah, that guy-“
“-No gender.”
“-Whatever. So it wakes up and calls everyone home?”
“Maybe. All Zuula know from what dream quest showed is dat in a few days fish still be here, dogs still be here, bugs still be here, but humans? Humans gone.”
The toys considered that. “No.” Threadbare finally decided.
“No?” Zuula asked. “She guess maybe dere a few chances it not happen, but most signs point to whoop, humans out.”
“These people are nice. Their kids are fun. I don’t want them to die.”
“Yeah, they’re kind of worshipping the thing that’s going to eat them,” Garon said. “And maybe it isn’t dying, but going to their afterlife... which would be pretty much like dying.” Garon sighed. “We don’t know enough about what’s going on here.”
“So let’s fix that,” Madeline said. “How about this? Come tha morning you suit up as Annie Mata and we’ll start asking questions. We’ll coach ya to make sure they don’t catch on, and we’ll see if we can sleuth out this shit.”
They decided that was a good plan. And after Madeline had fun practicing and controlling fire for a bit, Zuula dreamquested her, then sat on the comatose marionette while they discussed the details and preparation they’d need to pull it off…


Come the morning, a key clicked in the lock again, and the door handle rattled.
“Showtime,” Garon called to Threadbare.
“Animus. Invite Annie. Magic Mouth. Dollseye,” Threadbare rattled off, and the dummy stirred from her pew, placing both the sleeping Mopsy and the snoozing fishchild to either side of her as she rose.
“Hello? Ma’am? Are you… oh, thank goodness,” Marva said, putting a basket full of sackcloth to the side. “I’m sorry to leave you like that, I was just on my last legs. They all take childcare for granted, you know? Phew! I think you’ll need these. Do you know who needs changing?”
“Changing?” Annie asked.
“You don’t smell that?” Marva squinted. “Oh. Well, you’re new to Blessed Children, I imagine. Turns out they’re like any other two year olds. Potty training sticks earlier with some than others.”
“Say no more!” Zuula marched out. “Hand Zuula diapers and rags and point her to poopy bottoms!”
“Oh my! What a delightful little savage puppet!”
Zuula froze.
“Isn’t she?” Garon asked, flapping up to sit on Annie’s shoulder. “So strong, too. And wise. Wise enough not to be easily offended. Incidentally we’re thinking of doing a cultist one, in honor of our stay, here.”
“Oh that’d be delightful!” Marva handed a bunch of diapers and associated sundries down to Zuula, who unfroze, took them, then stomped around to the somnolent children, muttering. The middle-aged cultist followed, picking up sleeping, fussy kids, and stripping and changing them with the ease of long practice. “We’ve had to hide for ever so long. But now we’re in charge, and we don’t have to anymore. I’m so very glad that you’re a follower of the Thing in Yellow. You understand how it is.”
“Very much so,” Threadbare said, unhappy at the lie but seeing no way around it. “Er, is everyone in this town an old one cultist?”
“Oh no. No, no, no. But the rest are friends and neighbors and supporters. So everyone’s okay with us. You don’t have secrets in small towns like this, not from your neighbors.”
“Then why hide what ya were doing?” Madeline asked, peering around a pew.
“Oh, a little puppet! How precious! Can I pick her up?”
Marva scooped up Madeline and examined her eagerly, chuckling at the tack fangs, and making the little doll squeak when the cultist peered up her skirt. “Hey! Don’t get weird!”
“Hah hah hah! I half expected her to be anatomically correct, the carving is exquisite. Did you make her yourself?”
“No, she was bargain at her price, though,” Threadbare said. “Why DID you hide your cult?”
“Because the garrison weren’t our neighbors. Or our friends.” Marva’s smile faded, and she smoothed Madeline’s dress down, and tucked her into the crook of her arm. “They took the best of our catch, and they took our sons and daughters as conscripts, and when the dwarves killed the Hornwoods they didn’t care or interfere. They didn’t want to start another war, they said. The Hornwoods deserved it for claimjumping, they said. Then just a few years later the dwarves accuse the King of killing Taylor’s Delve. Of trying to kill the dwarven clan that lived down that way. And the dwarves declare war on the Crown anyway, and taxes go up, and conscription goes up, and it looks like the King DID maybe kill off an entire town.”
She’d started rocking Madeline now, unconsciously, holding her like a baby. “And my daughters die fighting dwarves. And I’ll never get to hold them again.” She was crying now. “So yes, we hid our cult. But now we don’t have to. Now we’re free.”
Soft, fuzzy arms closed around her ankle, and Marva jumped a bit, as golden light flared. “Oh!” She said, examining her hands, and the fading gouges from where the blessed children had gotten a little bitey last night. “Thank you…” she said, staring down at the little armored black bear that had just hugged her leg.
“You’re welcome. I’m very sorry things were bad,” Missus Fluffbear squeaked.
“Oh, it wasn’t your fault.” She brightened. “Want to come to breakfast?” She asked Annie.
“Oh no thank you, I couldn’t impose. Besides, I’m quite full from late-night tea.” Fluffbear had the dummy gesture at the remnants of play.
“Goodness me,” Marva said, picking her way through the repurposed religious paraphernalia and equivalents. “Where did…. Did you give them these toys?”
“Yes. I salvaged some from the toy shop down in Taylor’s Delve, when I was through there,” the dummy said. “That was before the fire, I’m afraid.”
“Um. The fire.” Marva said, her face instantly filling up with worry. “You saw that, did you?”
“Oh yes. It started in the forests. We- I barely got my wagon out of there in time.”
“Hahahah… this is going to sound strange, but… could you not mention it? To anyone around here?” Marva definitely looked very nervous. “My husband and I would be in a whole lot of trouble for a very silly, totally ridiculous misunderstanding if that came up.”
“I suppose I can keep quiet about that. Why would there be a misunderstanding?”
“It’s a long story.” Marva glanced southwest, out that one window that had a perfect view of the lonely hill in the distance. “Are you sure you won’t come to breakfast?”
“I’m afraid so. I’m quite full and I should probably sleep and defecate later. You know, as humans do.”

“Uh, well, yes?”
“Although I would appreciate learning more about your cult, and the old one.”
“Oh, of course!” Marva smiled. “I’ll let Pastor Hatecraft know you’re interested. He’s the one who does all the pamphlets and the printing, anyway. He kept the printing press after the librarian passed on under mysterious circumstances, you see.”
“Wait.” Garon said, frowning. “This town has a library?”


Outsmouth’s library was set back away from the lake, in a cramped and twisty street that had shuttered storefronts to either side. Suspicious eyes peered at the toys from oilskin-covered windows of the few homes still occupied on that street, and from somewhere in the town, unseen flutes played a tuneless melody.
“Is this eldritch?” Fluffbear asked. “I can’t tell.”
“Maybe a little,” Zuula admitted, as she stared at the stone building, and the really big padlock on the door. “Doors. Zuula’s true nemesis now!”
“Not mine,” Threadbare said, from Annie Mata’s arms. The dummy held him out so that he could touch the lock. “Animus. Invite Lock. Open for me, would you?”
The lock clunked to the ground. “Kick lock from party,” he told it, as Annie opened the door with her free hand. Dark inside, though that mattered little to most of the puppets, and Threadbare’s nose twitched with the smell of old paper.
Your Scents and Sensibility skill is now level 18!
“Okay, I don’t know why a tiny town like this has a library, but… Uh…” Garon said, following Annie into the room. “Um.”
The library was one big room, full of dusty shelves of moldy books. Holes in the roof showed where water had done its thing, and stains below them showed where mold was doing ITS thing. Papers lay strewn about, and ink washed free by water pooled and puddled in stains along the walls.
“Weeky would straight up start killing bitches fa this,” Madeline said, surveying the damage.
“How are we supposed to find out anything useful?” Fluffbear asked.
Garon thought for a bit. “Your blessing skill, it’s up to twenty or so, right?”
“Slap it on Madeline, boost up her luck and let her search.”
“What? Why me?”
“Mom doesn’t have the patience to sort through hundreds of books. And I don’t have thumbs. So that leaves…”
“Shit. Awright, but ya owe me one.”
They boosted Madeline’s luck, and turned her loose. Threadbare tucked in and helped as well. Fortunately it was dark enough in there that their Darkspawn buffs came into play as well.
Missus Fluffbear picked up a heavy tome, and waddled over to some light streaming in from a narrow slit window. After a few minutes, she cheered. “Yay!”
“What did you find?” Garon walked over.
“Oh, nothing. But my intelligence went up from reading about swamp plants! Did you know that every mushroom around here is bad for you in some way?”
“Yes. Zuula not need book to tell her dat,” Zuula confirmed. “Wait. You get smarter from reading books?”
“Yep,” Madeline said. “Well-written books can give mental experience. Not always to intelligence.” She had her nose buried in an ancient ledger. “Okay. So this is interesting. Turns out the fish harvest doubled a few years ago. ‘bout the end of the northern wars. It’s been going good evah since… well, up until last year, that’s when tha last entry is.”
“So what?” Garon asked.
“So nothing yet, but ya look at this, and about the same time, tha priestess of Pau in town dies from a mysterious illness. Right, Threadbeah?”
“Yes, the dates are about a week off.” He waved a book labeled ‘dearly departed – deaths in Outsmouth, volume four; cows, goats, and humans’
“That’s when a new fella steps up as tha local pastor of Pau, a newly-arrived guy called Hatecraft.”
“We’ve heard that name, just that morning,” Garon said. “So unless there’s two of them, we know he’s a cultist.”
“Raht. And he’s blessing tha fishing boats instead of the old Pau priestess doin’ the blessing.”
“So he impresses the fishing town by increasing their haul.” Garon nods.
“Yeah. And if ya look, tha Crown steps up BOTH the tax AND the fishing tithe a month later.”
“Ooooh…” Garon shook his head. “Dick move.”
“It’s when tha dwarven war started, but still…”
“Yeah. Lots of converts to the cult.” Garon lay his head down, and thought. “Who is this guy?”
“I didn’t find him in tha local family birth records. So he probably came in from somewhere else,” Madeline said. “First record of him is actually on the library payroll. Dude was an assistant. Lived in the basement of the library.”
“Jinkies!” Said Missus Fluffbear.
They all looked at her.
“What? It says jinkies!” She held up a book, with brightly-colored childrens toys on it. “I think that’s a fun word.”
“To the basement then,” decided Threadbare.
They eventually found it, after moving some piles of paper around until they revealed a trapdoor. Garon went down first, and froze. A blue ‘8’ escaped from his head, as he recoiled from something out of their line of sight.
“He being attacked! Is old one! Or eldritch!” Zuula shrieked, and the toys piled down, ignoring the ladder entirely…
…and stared in silence, at the tiny room below.
And the horrific images plastered on the wall.
Sanity damage rippled through them, all save for Threadbare, who took off his top hat and rubbed his head, puzzled.
And Fluffbear, who was squinting around, with her dagger out and ready. “What is it? I can’t see!”
“Good,” Choked Garon. “Someone please cover her eyes. Or get her out of here.”
“What’s wrong?” Threadbare asked. “It’s just more pictures of tentacles. Well, I mean, there’s women in these pictures, too. And they sure don’t look comfortable. But that’s not really anything to fuss about, I’d say.”
“Let me see!” Fluffbear said, trying to get a better angle in the bad light.
“No!” The doll haunters chorused. Zuula covered her eyes.
“I don’t think you’re missing much,” Threadbare reassured her. “It’s kind of boring, honestly. But since it seems to be upsetting the others, maybe you could keep watch upstairs? I’m not sure where Pulsivar got to and sooner or later he’ll come looking for us, I’m quite sure.”
“Well, okay. Um…” She considered the ladder. Definitely not sized for her six-inch frame. “Could you?”
“Of course.” Threadbare had Annie come down and pick her up, then return upstairs.
“Dis be why humans make de worst cultists,” Zuula sighed, keeping her eyes well below visual level of the homemade drawings on the wall, and looking around the small, dank basement. “Dey get WEIRD about it.”
“Never have I regretted being so unable to vomit,” Garon muttered. “Come on, let’s search. Dibs on not under the bed.”
“Not it!” Zuula and Madeline chorused.
Threadbare shook his head, and started poking around under the moldy bed, while Madeline rummaged through crates and the few items of furniture down here.
Everyone jumped, and Fluffbear peered down into the hole again. “What was that?”
“Mom!” Garon howled.
Zuula looked over from the wreckage of the barrel she’d smashed, and put down the rusty crowbar. “What? Is barrel!”
“Geeze. Not this gain. Mom, look, you can’t just go around smashing every barrel you come across…”
“Yes she can! Sometimes is loot inside!”
“Mom, look, no, that was ONE small dungeon, and Taylor’s Delve had that one sealed years back-”
“Ho, so you tell de story? You want Zuula to stay awhile and listen?” The little half-orc grinned.
“Don’t get me started. Just… please, no more barrel smashing. Not now.”
“Psh. Could have been somet’ing in dere.” Zuula said, sitting down and pouting. “Maybe dat one kid’s spare pegleg. Never could find it for dat little fucker. He would have had good loot for reward, too!”
“Yeah, he was totally an item smuggler. Pretty sure pegleg was code for reagents.”
“Found it!” Madeline whooped. “I think so, anyway.” She held up a pink book, with bunnies on it, labeled “Dear diary.” The bunnies had tentacles.
“I want to see!” Fluffbear said.
“We’ll come to you,” Threadbare said, coming out from under the bed, covered in dust bunnies. “There’s nothing under there but more drawings. I’m pretty sure they would cost you more sanity,” he told his friends.
Upstairs, in the moldering library, they read the book. Some of the words took a little guesswork, the guy was fond of using obscure words with way too many syllables.
It didn’t take long. For all he was verbose, his entries were very short, all things considered.
Also pretty blasphemous.
By studying forbidden lore you have unlocked the Cultist job!
You cannot become a Cultist at this time!
“We need to find this guy,” Garon concluded. “Quickly.”
“Someone’s coming!” Fluffbear said, scrambling down from the windowsill. “A whole bunch of someones! They have crossbows and spears.”
“Shit,” Garon said. “We need to get out of here-”
“Why?” Threadbare asked.
“Well, if they’re armed, they’re not going to be friendly. I think this is going to go bad.”
“Isn’t that why we’re using the dummy?”
The toys considered Annie in silence. She waved.
A minute later, when the cultists shoved the door open, Annie was sitting in one of the lone chairs in the room, reading through a storybook. Her toys sat around her, still and clearly deanimated. “Oh, hello sirs and madams!” Annie said, closing the book. “Is everything all right?”
“Yeah,” Daav said. “The pastor wants to see you. Now.”
“And no funny business!” Mhorty said, his voice squeaking and breaking as he waggled a fishing spear in her direction.
“Of course not. I was just practicing some stories for your little dears. Such cute little scaly kids.”
The half-dozen cultists relaxed. “Yeah, they’re little angels, ain’t they? Maybe you’ll be blessed with one of your own!” Phred said.
Annie went peacefully with the group, who seemed much relieved at her acceptance of the matter.
Five minutes passed. Ten. And then Threadbare twitched, and stood up. “I think that should do it. Also, I caught a glimpse of Pulsivar. We can collect him and Mopsy on the way, I think.”
“On the way where?” Fluffbear asked.
“The place it all started…”
Spoiler: Spoiler



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About the author

Andrew Seiple


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