He watched, worried, as the invisible pressure built, stronger than he’d ever felt it before when he animated a golem. But he had done this many times before, and his skill was high, high enough that he could focus his will. Focus his will, and ensure that his best and oldest friend had the body they’d gone to so much work to prepare.
And with joy in his heart, he watched as the ceramic dolly under his paw opened her eyes and tried to move her mouth.
Your Golem Animus skill is now level 47!
“Afgart.” She vocalized. “Umf. Ango. Ahng on. Hang on.”
“Newborn’s Mercy,” hissed Zuula, laying her head on Cecelia’s red, frizzy hair.
“Yorgum’s blessing of luck on Cecelia!” Fluffbear squeaked, slapping her hand on the ball-jointed doll’s ankle.
“Status,” Cecelia said.
Threadbare smiled, and offered her a paw up.
And the porcelain doll took it, testing her new legs, and finding them graceful enough.
“It’s fine, I hope?” Threadbare asked. He’d put a lot of work into learning and skilling up the sculptor job, which was evidently what you needed to make clay things, and pottery things as well. A LOT of work, knowing that they only had one shot at this. There was a makeshift kiln out back, filled with his failures, and after a full week of grinding, his successes.
“So what didja get?” The three-foot-long wooden dragon who’d been watching through the doorway pushed herself into the bedroom. “Tell me the racial skills are totes bitchin’.”
“Well, the stats are way better than starting toy golems,” Cecelia told Madeline, smoothing her green cloth dress with fingers that Threadbare had crafted individually then worked into tiny ball joints, with Fluffbear’s help. “Better than wood, too. I’ve got a few triple digit attributes, mainly from my adventuring job levels, I think."
“Nahss!” Madeline said, nuzzling her with one oaken cheek. “I shoulda held out fah clay. Be a pahttery dragon or something.”
“Well, one of the skills would do you no good. I’m immune to fire, which is of no use to you.” Cecelia said, easing herself down from the wrecked bedframe. Like most of the rest of the farmhouse, it was ruined, long gone to seed, with mold and vines growing over and through it. “And I have Gorgeous, which is like your Adorable skill, evidently. I skilled it up a bunch when I woke up.”
“Yeah, I’m thinking you’re beautiful,” the two-foot-tall wooden minotaur said, hooking thumbs through his belt. “Not that, uh, well. I mean… ah, let’s not make it weird,” Garon finished.
“No worry. I know what you mean.” Cecelia studied her pale hands, and shrugged. “I guess. It’s… this is going to take some getting used to.” She frowned, as something on her status screen caught her attention. “My hit points aren’t much better than a wood golem’s, but my armor is over a hundred. Some of that’s probably from my Human job but not much.” Cecelia said, rubbing her chin with one ceramic hand. “I wonder if I’d stayed unfired, if it would be reversed? High hit points, low armor?”
“Yeah yeah,” Zuula said. The plush half-orc doll eased herself from the foot of the bed, dropped down next to the armored black teddy bear. “Skip to important part. How many of you jobs and levels you get back?”
“Five animator, five knight... and five Steam Knight.” She smiled.
And Threadbare felt joy well up inside him. It had been a lot of work and time to figure out how to make her face flexible enough to do that, with the tiny joints and the interplay of her wood skeleton and stuffing ‘muscles’. But it had been worth every bit of grinding, to see his little girl smile again.
“Then we have what we need.” Garon relaxed, adjusted the harness slung over his wood-and-fur chest. The hatchet he’d found kept tugging it down.
“I’m thinking of askin’ for an upgrade,” Madeline said, turning glass eyes on Threadbare. They were marbles, catseye marbles they’d found in the attic while casing the ruin. Probably the closest thing they’d get to a dragon’s slit pupils, Madeline had said. “Bettah stats are okay wit’ me.”
“Not right now. We only had the one pinch of green reagent. And that was risky enough to get.” Threadbare shook his head. “But speaking of that, we need to go thank Graves. I think he’ll appreciate the results of his sacrifice. And his hard work.”
The doll haunters and their golem friends filed out of the room, making their way around the big gap in the floorboards, stepping carefully as the floor creaked and groaned.
They followed the faint sound of music. Eerie and in no tongue that anything on this plane spoke, it wound its way through the old house from outside. The late, unlamented Pastor Hatecraft would have called it eldritch, but then he always was an excitable one.
No, there was nothing eldritch here. The assorted constructs knew it was only their friend Glub, barding it up.
They found him outside the barn, which was moderately better preserved than the house, and intact enough to hold Annie Mata’s wagon. A fire crackled not far from the barn doorway, and the rest of their friends sat around the campsite, watching them approach with relieved eyes. They were five in number, a big black bobcat and a cougar about half his size, both cats sound asleep by the warmest part of the fire. Next to them was a black-haired man wearing a padded cloth tunic and trousers, so thin that his bones were flush to his skin in places. Sitting on a nearby log was a little wooden doll that could only be described as a fishman, down to its leather catfish whiskers and big googly eyes.
And then there was the catgirl.
“Oh wow!” A wooden marionette, of a black-haired woman with two kitty ears sticking out of her head and a tail poking out through a hole in her pants jumped up, stringless. She grinned at Cecelia, showing tiny fangs. “Captain, you’re gorgeous! Desu, desu.”
“You’re still saying that word, Kayin?” Garon snorted. “Seriously?”
“Shut up. I swear it gets me racial job experience,” the assassin who’d once been human but was now an undead spirit haunting a wooden catgirl golem walked up to Cecelia, and knelt. “Captain! Reporting for duty!”
“Oh get up. Come on, come on,” Cecelia took her shoulders and straightened her to her feet. Her ball-jointed body was one of the larger golems here, standing two feet high, towering over her companions. “Pretty sure that oath was only until death.”
“Kayin swore a new one,” offered the sole living human in the group, from the comfort of the fire. Graves leaned his withered body over his cane, studying Cecelia. “I’ll swear to a new code myself, as soon as I get another knight level. My armor’s gone, so I’ll need all the defense boosts I can get.”
“I still feel guilty about that,” Cecelia looked away. “That was enchanted armor.”
“Don’t be. I’m just glad we guessed right, and one of its components was green reagent. And after the bear gave up his pants for the task, I couldn’t do any less.”
“It does feel a little strange without them,” Threadbare said, looking down to his paw, and the golden, bear-headed rod he now had to wield without the benefit of hammerspace. “My scepter’s out in the open now, for everyone to see.”
There was a pause, then everyone but Threadbare and Fluffbear and the cats were laughing.
“Um,” the teddy bear said, puzzled.
“It’s probably a fart joke. Or about poop. Or a sex joke,” Fluffbear explained to him.
“It the last one. Sex joke.” Zuula said, winding down and proceeding to explain the meaning of the joke in detail.
Threadbare still didn’t see why it was funny, but whatever. If his friends got a good laugh out of it he didn’t mind.
“Besides,” Graves said, “the armor would have made me stand out more. I’m sure that the inquisitor has reported me as a traitor by now. And it would’ve… hm… have you heard of the swordsman’s curse?”
“Oh. That.” Cecelia snorted. Kayin nodded.
“I don’t think we have.” Threadbare glanced back to Garon, Madeline, and Zuula, who were three of his big touchstones for worldly knowledge. They all shook their heads.
“It’s a dumb, macho thing. So it's mainly bored noblemen and soldiers, is who you see it in,” Cecelia explained. “If someone is openly carrying a sword you kind of expect them to know how to use it. And if you think they might not and YOU can use your sword, you call them out to see who’s better. Then you fight, and if you win you look good, and if you lose you can kiss up to the winner, and maybe they’ll be your friend. And then you’ll have a friend who’s better than you at fighting.”
“It seems like a big waste of time,” Threadbare said. “Why not just be friends at the start of it all?”
“Because the swords get in the way, for certain types of people,” Cecelia said.
“Some people had to go through a lot to earn those swords,” Kayin said. “Not that I’m defending it, but… they see someone else with a sword, they maybe want to test to see if they’re at the same point. Been through the same stuff.”
“My point is,” Graves said, settling back onto his broken chair, “if I go around wearing really heavy armor, then when we get into a fight people are going to assume I’m a very hard target and try to hit me really hard. Whereas if I’m wearing cloth, they’ll go “oh, mage.” And send someone sneaky to shank me while the tanks batter at each other. Which is where Always in Uniform comes in. Invisible, weightless chainmail-equivalent, you know how that goes, Cecelia.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” The doll smiled. “Always in Uniform.” Her eyebrows rose, and Threadbare sighed in relief to see it. Those had been tricky to rig.
“Oh! It stacks with my golem armor!” Cecelia said.
“Good. We need you alive and as hard a target as possible if this is going to work,” Garon said, leaning on one of Madeline’s wings as she played with the fire. “Which means that if and when we get a higher golem option possible, we have to consider transplanting you. So don’t get too comfy.”
“Thanks again for letting me try that out,” Graves said to Kayin. "Good to know we can swap people around without destroying the golem bodies first."
Bored by all the talk about swords and challenges and stuff that was self-evident to every orc, Zuula wandered over to Glub, who was merrily humming along more quietly, now that his pals were back and chatting. “He eating?” She said, jerking a cloth thumb towards Graves.
“Oh yeah dude,” Glub broke off singing, and pointed to a pot, set next to the fire. “Some kinda furry critter stew. Kayin killed the fuck out of it.”
Graves had been afflicted by the kiss of a succubus. It had essentially withered his strength, and he needed help with a lot of things. Teaching him animator levels let him move around without too much pain, by dint of turning his clothing into something like temporary golems, but hunting and foraging his own food was a lot to ask of the guy. Especially since he’d been born a street rat, and thought the woods were something you moved through as quickly as possible when you traveled to different settlements.
“I’m going to need to work on soulstones more,” Threadbare said finally, “before we do any more spirit transplants. Otherwise you’re going to lose levels you’ll need later.”
“And I’ll keep working on that refine soulstone skill,” Graves promised. “Fortunately we’ve got a lot of volunteers to experiment with, and extra soulstones to transfer them to when I get failures.” He jerked a thumb spasmodically back at the wagon, and the crate of soulstones within it. “It worked, didn’t it?” He said, worried, looking to Cecelia.
“Level five across the board, in three adventuring jobs. Also got all my crafting jobs.” She smiled, and Graves sagged in relief. “But I’m not a scout, so three’s the maximum, I’m guessing.”
“It might be that a higher soulstone skill affects that,” Threadbare said. “At any rate, no one die again until we know more about it, okay?”
Everyone promised to do their best.
“Are they doing all right?” Threadbare glanced over at the crate.
“Some grumbling, but yes,” Graves said. “An advantage of them all being cultists, I suppose. They’d expected some form of weird afterlife down the road, this is actually probably a bit better than their prior expectations. They do want to get into new bodies as fast as possible, though.”
“Once we get more reagents, yes,” Threadbare said. They’d burned through all the rest of the yellow dust animating wooden shells for Kayin and Garon and Madeline.
“And there’s only one likely source for that and all the other things that we’ll need, so we need to figure out our approach,” Cecelia said. “Garon, could you?”
The minotaur nodded. “Secure the Perimeter,” he said, and glanced around. “Yeah, we’re good. Or they’re good enough at hiding that it doesn’t matter and we can’t stop them anyway.”
“Good.” Cecelia scooted in closer to the fire. “We need to ally with the dwarves. There’s only two real points of resistance left in Cylvania, and they’re the bigger side.”
“Easier ta find, too. Not like the othah guys. The ranjahs are all over the place,” Madeline said.
“And there’s no guarantee they’ll talk to us, since they don't need help as badly.” Cecelia nodded, her frizzy red hair swaying against her porcelain scalp. She reached up and touched it. “What is this stuff, by the way?”
“Blisterweed pod silk,” said Zuula. “Relax. We boil it to make it frizzy, get de poison out. Zuula got better uses for dat stuff.’ She indicated a barrel in back of the cart. “Added it to de poison stores.”
“I’m going to have to have a long talk with you later about those poisons,” said Kayin, ears twitching. “Sorry to interrupt, desu. So, dwarves?”
“Dwarves.” Cecelia spread her arms. “I’ve spent the last half a year reading the intelligence reports and preparing to battle them. They’re sturdy, they’re stubborn, but they’ve been hard pressed by the last five years. If we approach them the right way, they won’t turn us down. Especially when we tell them we can convert reagents into troops. Three hundred and some golems can turn the tide in just about any battle on that front, with four exceptions.”
“The Hand,” Graves said, and Madeline and Garon whistled, low and worried.
Cecelia nodded. "Right. We're not set up for open battle against any of the Hand. Not yet."
“What hand?” Threadbare asked.
“Ah, right, you ignorant,” Zuula said, patting his paw. “Four of de King’s most elite servants. Powerful adventurers. Maybe.”
“Or they might be demons in disguise. There’s always been talk,” Garon said. “That Melos killed his old adventuring group, murdered his friends, and traded them in for high-level demons.”
“My father insists that he didn’t kill them,” Cecelia said. “But I wouldn’t put it past him to recycle their corpses if someone else did. If he did it to my mother, he wouldn’t hesitate to do it to anyone else. He’s pragmatic that way. But yeah, the Hand are the reason that the dwarves can’t win without help, and they’re a problem we’ll have to face sooner or later. There’s four of them. And that’s one advantage we can give them straight away.” The ceramic doll grinned.
“Oh?” Graves asked.
“Remember I told you I read up on intelligence reports? The best ones were from the Lurker. He’s infiltrated the dwarves, and he spies on them nonstop. We were well on our way to losing before that, even with the Hand’s help. Since then, things have been turning around. But I know enough about him that if the dwarves believe us, we can probably help them ferret him out.”
“But first we have to reach the dwarves,” Kayin said. “How are we gonna do that?”
“We’re not far from the main roads,” Garon said. “This is the outskirts of Grubholm, so a couple days north should get us there. The front’s only another day or two east, unless it’s moved on us."
Cecelia rubbed her hair. “It’s not enough. We could get to the front, but we can’t approach the moats without the army noticing. They’ve got observation posts every mile along there, with people looking west watching for rangers, and people listening east, for sappers. If we want to break the lines we need to get up to one, disable the watchers, then scoot before they notice. Otherwise they’ll call in fire support, and that’ll mean anything from Wark Riders to Dragon Knights to Steam Knights to one of the Hand themselves. We’re not really set up to survive most of that.”
“So we need to sneak in among them?” Threadbare asked.
“Yeah. But we need to do it against folks who have a good chance of spotting rangers in the wilderness.” Kayin sighed. “Even at my old levels, I don’t know if it’d be doable. At level five? No. And not with you guys along, no offense. Most of you are no good at it.” She shot Madeline an envious look. “Except you, you’re scary quiet for what should be a big clattery wooden toy. What’s up with that?”
Madeline’s carved reptilian jaw fell open in a smile, and she lifted a paw to show Kayin the cloth pads sewn on under it.
“Eeeeee I’m totally doing that!”
Threadbare cleared his throat. The catgirl and dragon fell silent, and the rest of the group looked to him. “Who goes to these observation posts, normally?”
“Supply shipments,” Graves said.
“Personnel rotations, groups of infantry and specialists cycling in and out,” Cecelia considered.
“Regular patrols,” Kayin said, eyes still on the sweet little sneaky dragon feet, her tail and ears twitching.
Garon shook his wooden-horned head. “I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the guys at the observation posts know the schedules for all three of those types of visitors.”
“Oh yeah,” Cecelia said. “The rangers are sneaky, so the staff on duty know to keep security tight. As soon as a convoy is ready, coded messages get flashed up along the line with semaphore flags with the rest of the day’s messages, telling them what’s coming, who’s with it, and when it’ll arrive. And the code changes weekly.”
“No shit?” Madeline peered at her. “That’s some pretty smaht stuff. We talkin’ about the same Crown that overreacts and slaughtahs villages over minor shit?”
Cecelia rubbed her hair, Graves sighed, and Kayin shook her head. “The thing to realize,” Cecelia said, “is that the Crown forces, for the most part, are people who have put a lot of faith in my Father because to do otherwise would be to admit that they’ve been wrong for years, and they’re very afraid of what would happen if he fails. He’s the devil they know. And…” She looked out into the darkness, gathering strength. “…and some of them have been fooled pretty thoroughly. I was. And it only took a few years of him and… her… working on me. So a lot of the soldiers and a good part of the officers are smart, motivated people trying to make the most of a bad situation and win the war quickly so that everyone can go home.”
“But it won’t work that way,” said Threadbare. “There will always be an enemy, won’t there?” He’d spent a great deal of time thinking this over, trying to figure out how a very bad King and some obviously evil demons could keep making good people do what they wanted them to. “As long as there is some other enemy to fight, then most people won’t fight the King. So he has to keep making enemies or keeping some around or else his own subjects will be very upset with him.”
“They already ah,” Madeline said. “But yeah. People get restless in peacetahm, and forget about how horrible wah is. They go lookin’ for fights, and the King’s a big faht tahget unless he shifts blame like a propah cowahd.”
“Yes,” Cecelia said, picking up a stick and poking the fire. “I see it now. I fought for peace, but any peace we could win was a lie. It wouldn’t last. We need a good one, one without demons and murders and skipping trials, and we won’t get that with my Father in power. Heck, it might be a moot point even with him in power. We’re running low on food, have been for…” she stopped. “Supplies.”
“Yes?” Threadbare knew this tone. This was her ‘idea’ tone. And he smiled to see the beautifully-sculpted face he’d given her twist in joy. She’d figured something out!
Evidently Glub recognized it too, because he switched from soft humming to dramatic drumming on a nearby log, knocking out an uplifting, hopeful beat.
“All supplies go through Fort Bronze,” Cecelia said, slowly, eyes gleaming. “Which is a hell of a lot easier to get into than the observation posts, and has people and things coming and going all the time. Garon, Madeline, how far is Pads Village from here, do you think?”
“Pads? That craphole? A couple of days in the wrong direction, through some bandit-filled wilderness,” Garon said, consulting his knowledge of the local geography.
“Less bandit-filled now,” Graves grinned. “I see where you’re going with this.”
“I know how we’re going to get in,” said Cecelia. “And once we’re in, we can get ourselves assigned to an observation post shipment. All we have to do is get a look at the logistics records, and find a good one.”
“That’ll be the hard part, desu,” Kayin threw in. “Probably have to break into General Mastoya’s office, for that.”
“Wait,” Zuula said, whipping her head around, and putting down the makeshift drumsticks she’d been using to backup Glub. “What you say?” her voice was hoarse and tense, and her button eyes practically burned as she stared at the little catgirl.
Kayin shrank back from the little shaman’s sudden intensity. “That we’ll have to break into the General’s office, and-“
“General Mastoya,” said Garon.
The circle of friends went silent, staring as Garon and Zuula shared a long glance.
“You know her?” Cecelia said, confused. “She is a half-orc too, I guess. But I didn’t want to assume.”
“Yeah,” Garon and Zuula said, simultaneously. “We know her…”
Ruler Skills Appoint Official - Level NA Emboldening Speech - Level 16 Identify Subject - Level 10 It's Good to be King - NA King's Quest - Level 6 Noblesse Oblige - Level 26 Organize Minions - Level NA Royal Audience - Level 17 Simple Decree - Level 8 Swear Fealty - Level NA
Equipment Journeyman Tailor's Apron of fire resistance (+6 Armor, +10 Tailoring, Resist Fire 9)(+2 Armor, +4 Tailoring, +3 Resist Fire from WIB) Okay Quality Bling Ringtail Master's Coat (+5 CHA, +5 LUCK, +5 Armor, +5 Fate)(+2 CHA, LUCK, Armor, Fate from WIB) Rod of Baronly Might (+5 CHA, +5 WIS, +10 Cool)(+2 CHA, WIS, +4 Cool from WIB) Yellow Belt of Bravado (+5 AGL, +5 DEX, +5 to the Fancy Flourish skill)(+2 AGL, DEX, Fancy Flourish from WIB) Toy Top Hat (CHA +10)(+4 CHA from WIB)
Inventory A Finely-Made Dagger (Dagger Level 5) Tailor's Tools A small jewelry box with a few reagents and crystals, most minor. 1 bead of Mend Golem (Level 15) Minorphone (Enhances voice and social skills focused through it twice per day)
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