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A note from Andrew Seiple

Oh hey, the print version of Threadbare is out! You can find it here.

“...and then Madeline found me, and vamped me. Then that got resolved...”

“Messily,” Madeline added, “but it worked out okay in the end so whatevah.”
 
“...And now I'm here. And I know what I have to do.”

The friends looked at Garon, who spread his hands. “The thing I told you about? You don't remember? Come on, guys. Well not you new guys, so I guess I should remind you anyway. My reason for keeping on here, is to talk with Mastoya again. To let her know I forgive her. To let her tell me she's sorry, if that's what it takes, because I know it's eating her up inside.”

“This might not be the best opportunity,” Graves said. “We're trying to run a covert mission, here. At least, I'm assuming that's where you were going with this, Cecelia?”

“Yes. The Alderman of Paws owes me a favor. It'd be easy to get a wagonload of food from them and take it to the front, and pack us in with the food. You'd be driving, of course. Posing as an older teamster, since, well...” Cecelia indicated his wasted frame. “Sorry.”

“No apologies needed. I'll need to shave,” Graves said, rubbing his goatee. “Pity. But this doesn't change my point. Talking to General Mastoya at this time, General Mastoya, the High Knight of the Empire herself, is a really, really bad way to stay covert.”

“But what if I can turn her?” Garon asked.

“No,” Zuula said.

“Mom, look. I know what you think of her—”

“No you don't,” Zuula said, and the toys and their token human looked at her in surprise. Even through the voicebox that she used to speak, her words held raw pain. “Zuula failed her. She grew up wrong, but she grew up strong. She will not change.”
 
“She seemed strong to me, when I met her,” Cecelia mused. “But tired. And a little sad. Right in the middle of a briefing, she hauled out a bottle of booze and started drinking.”

“Wait, you're serious?” Garon said, leaning forward, and studying her with bovine carved eyes. “Yeah, something's wrong. The Mastoya I used to know would never drink.”

“Yes. Which is why you idea is bad idea now,” Zuula said. “She is not Mastoya you used to know. She is Mastoya of now, General Mastoya, and Zuula got no idea how you talkin' with her would go.”

“Isn't that why you're along, Mom? To get me this shot?”

“Yeah, but if it's at the risk of Cecelia's lives and our own, she's got a point, desu,” Kayin piped up.

“Would you can it with that word?” Garon snapped. “Gah. Sorry.” He rubbed his snout, rattling wood on wood. “Look. What if it isn't at the risk of your lives?”

“Why don't you tell us what you're planning?” Threadbar offered. “And if we don't think it will work out, you wait until another time to talk to her?”

“That's a bad idea,” Garon said. “Because right now we're not her enemies. Look, I know how she thinks. Once you're her enemy, it doesn't matter what you say or do, she'll beat you or die trying. But once we ally with the dwarves, we will be her enemies, and everything gets orc simple then. Uh, sorry, Mom.”

“Is fine,” Zuula said. “The words, anyway. This idea, not so much.”

“My point is once we ally with the dwarves, we either beat the Crown forces or we fail, and either way I lose my shot at talking with her in any sort of situation where she might hear me out. This is it. This is my chance... our chance to get her to listen. To save my sister's soul.”

The fire popped and cracked, as they considered it.

“Tahning the High Knight would be a right kick in the pants for the Crown,” Madeline said. “And losing the general would give the dwahves a chance for a win.”

“You like this idea?” Kayin shot the dragon a glance.

“It's risky, yeah, but if Garon can do it...”

“And what if it's just risky for me?” Garon asked. “Look, we'll have to break into her office anyway. Leave me behind after we do, and I'll talk with her. If it comes to a fight, I'll fight to the death, then go run back to a soulstone.”

“Make sure you get the right one, if that happens,” Graves added. “There are sometimes other necromancers rotating through the fort. It'd be unlucky if that happens.” He glared hard at Garon, who looked away.

“Yeah. I need more luck. I also need the best charisma I can get. Hell...” Garon looked at Threadbare. “We've got a bit of prep time, right? Can you montage me Ruler?”

“I could. Are you sure?”

“Positive. I only ever had two adventuring jobs when I was alive, and thanks to Graves refining the soulstones, I've got a third job slot open. Ruler is charisma luck and wisdom, right?”

“Yes.” Threadbare nodded. “I could loan you my scepter too, if you want.”

“No. That's fine. Just the job and some grinding should do fine. If we've got time for it.”

“We should,” Celia said.

“To a point,” Graves added, glancing back at the crates. “I told you I used to be in the Royal Necromancers, right?”

“Yeah,” Garon glanced at him. “Is there something going on with them?”

“The royal necromancers? No. But a few times I got access to their vaults, to borrow magic items or read old texts. We've got a few boxes of soulstones down there, traitors mainly. Some of them have been in there a while.”

“And?”

“Once, out of curiosity, I cast speak with dead on them. And for the next three days I was deafened. They were screaming, Garon. Screaming endlessly, without lungs.”

“Shit,” Madeline said.

“Yes. No body, no senses, and unless someone casts speak with dead, no way to talk to anyone else. Just eternity in your own little crystal prison, with no one but yourself for company.” Graves shot another look back at the wagon. “It hasn't sunk in to most of them, yet, but I've been making sure to cast the spell three times daily, and let them chat with themselves and myself. But sooner or later it won't be enough. We need to get them bodies, and the longer we take on that, the more pain and suffering it's going to cause for them.”

And then, everyone, Threadbare included, looked to Celia.

She closed her ceramic eyelids. “Even after death I don't get to escape these kinds of decisions, huh?”

“You can if you want,” Threadbare offered. “Nobody's really in charge here. We could talk it over and put it to the vote.”

“Calling frogshit on that one, boss,” Glub piped up for the first time, and everyone else looked over to him, surprised. “What you say usually goes. You're kind of the most important dude here. I think it's the hat. It's totally because of the hat, isn't it?”

Threadbare took of his top hat, and looked at it. “It's nice, and I like it. But if anyone else needed it, they could have it.”

“No,” Cecelia said, patting his head. “Keep it. It looks nice on you. And I gave it to you, a long time ago, so no takebacks. So how long do you think we should take to grind, how long do you think we should ask our soulstoned people to wait?”

“Why don't we ask them?” Threadbare said.

Graves blinked. “Er. Well, it might get them thinking about it if they haven't already.”

“But hey, they're cultists, like you said earlier,” Kayin threw in. “Probably used to hard questions anyway, right?”

“Probably a bit more inured to the notion of existential dread. Yes, let me go ask them.” Graves headed back to the wagon, muttering “Speak with Dead,” along the way. “Hello!” He said, and got a chorus of happy voices back, gabbing and babbling at him as he settled in to listen, throwing in small talk as needed.

The minutes crawled on. The toys watched, then drifted off to their various business, until it was just Cecelia, Threadbare, and Kayin waiting by the fire.

Threadbare took off his top hat and rubbed his head again, then decided to risk it. “Celia?”

“Yes?”

“If it's not too much of a bother, could I ask you to hold me please? Like you used to do?”

He watched her face shuffle, resolve into a sad smile. “Oh Threadbare.” She scooped him up, settled down on one of the fallen logs, and Threadbare sighed in happiness as he settled into her embrace as best he could.

He'd waited five years for this, and it was good. Finally, he was in his little girl's arms again, and it didn't matter that they were ceramic, or that she smelled different, or that she was smaller than she used to be. She was still Celia, and he was still her teddy bear, and all was right with the world.

That lasted for a few minutes, then Cecelia shifted, surprised.“What?”

“You look comfy. Do you mind?” Kayin asked.

“Um. I guess not.”

Threadbare turned his head, as wooden legs poked against him. Kayin had settled in Celia's lap, curled up in a catlike ball.
 
“This isn't like you, that's all,” Cecelia said.

“I know. But it feels right,” Kayin said. “I... tell the truth, I didn't expect shifting over to a catkin to influence me this much. It's like thinking through jelly, my impulse control is all screwy, and my attention span is shot all to hell.”

“If you want, when Graves isn't busy he could try that Evict Spirit skill on you, transfer you to another body.”

“This is the last wood golem we've got though, right? And Threadbare, you're out of the reagents to make another?”

“Yes,” Threadbare replied, shortly. He was a little cross with her for interrupting cuddle time.

“Besides, I think it'll get easier once I get my mental stats up,” Kayin sighed. “Didn't expect catkin to be so low. Or to be so... it's like everything's way more fun, and the less seriously I take it the better I feel. Catkin are a weird race, I guess. I'm thinking the one I ran into when I was a contract killer was a really experienced one. And I shouldn't gripe anyway, because I got the skill I wanted out of it.”

“Oh?”

“It's called Nine Lives. I THOUGHT something was screwy about that catgirl. I should've killed her three times over, but each time she got back up.”

“Did you get her, in the end?”

“No, she managed to escape. I heard she ran off and started a dungeon somewhere, then got punked by the royal guards eventually. Or maybe not, maybe she still had some lives left. Seriously the skill's THAT good.”

“Oh.” Cecelia settled back. “Sorry, just trying to get comfy.”

“If you want me to move, that's fine. I... know we didn't have this sort of relationship. Or any, really, beyond mutual respect and being knights together. I'm not looking for anything, just...”

“Friends?” Threadbare offered.

“Friends,” Kayin decided. “Friends is good. Yeah, let's do that.”

“I'm game,” Cecelia said. Her hand strayed down to rub between Kayin's ears, and the catgirl emitted her first surprised purr. “I never had too many of those. I'm glad you're one of them."

Friends, Threadbare thought. Yes, that would do. His little girl was back, but he had to share her, now. But that was fine, because she'd still cuddle him, and that was all he wanted, really was for her to be happy and give him lots of hugs.

And as they waited, a heavy, black weight settled in to one side of them, as Pulsivar moved over to join the nap pile. “Um...” Cecelia said, flailing for purchase with her free arm, and bracing herself against a wooden bole.
 
Then Mopsy moved in on the other side, and it got easier.

For a while, the toy golem and the two doll haunters just lay there with the cats in the cuddle puddle, with the fire burning down, and the stars overhead. And it was right.

Eventually, Graves finished his discussion, moved back to the fire, and saw what had become of his friends.

Your Adorable skill is now level 31!

Smiling, he turned his back, and started shuffling off, taking it slow, his animated pants moving his wasted muscles along while he balanced with the cane. “See you in the morning, then.”

“No, it's fine,” Cecelia said. “We don't sleep like this, do we? I mean, golems don't sleep, right?”

“Not normally,” Threadbare said. He sighed, and wiggled down, out of the cuddle pile. “What did they say?”

“I'll get the others, first,” Graves yawned. “You may not sleep, but I do, and it's been a long day so I only want to explain it once.”

Soon, the toys were reconvened, much to the disgruntlement of the cats who had enjoyed sleeping next to a fire-warmed porcelain doll.

“Most of them are fine with waiting,” said Graves. “They put their trust in you, and you didn't disappoint them. Their friends and neighbors and relatives who aren't in the cult are safely away, and you spent a ton of resources making toy golems to protect the ones who are braving the wilds. But the problem lies with the children. Oh not the really young ones, those all got evacuated, but some of the teenagers were old enough to be cultists, and they're taking the angst a bit harder.”

“Figures,” Kayin said.

“Yes. I'm pretty sure a lot of them had body issues to start with, and this isn't helping. It's not so bad, not yet, but given time, it could cause major rifts. Which is rough, because when they're having a bad time of it, it's harder for the adults.”

“How long do they think they have?” Threadbare asked, concerned. Of COURSE the children were the first priority!

“I talked with the parents privately. Maybe a few weeks. Maybe a month if we're really lucky, and I start animating spare toys and letting them take them out for a spin, work out some of their issues with temporary animi. Even so we're still probably going to lose a few to madness.”

Cecelia rubbed her hair. “A couple of days to Pads. About a week or more up the main roads, to Fort Bronze. Then a day or two out to an observation post. It leaves us two weeks, at the most.”

“Then let's take one,” Threadbare said. “One to sort out what we need and grind as best we can.” He looked to Garon. “Do you think you can do it?”

“Yeah. Give me command of the training group, and it should skill up the ruler skills nicely.” The little minotaur nodded to Zuula. “She scoped out ruins of Grubholm while Graves was busy. Goblin sign all over.”

“Goblins?” Kayin said, straightening up. “Didn't think there were many left in the kingdom.”

“Not in de settled places,” Zuula said. “But in de empty spaces, still lots of dem. Dey stay out of sight, live in ruins. Everyt'ing eat dem. Dey find a place to nest, den breed, den expand out until people or stronger monsters come an' kill dem.” Zuula grinned. “Stronger monsters like us.”

“Are you sure we should be doing this?” Fluffbear squeaked. “Just going in and killing them for the experience?”

“We'd be doing the kingdom a favor,” Graves said. “Goblins have about sixty-three different recipes for cooking human babies.”

“What?” Fluffbear shouted, then jumped up. “Where'd I put my whip!”

“Patience,” Zuula consoled. “Goblins be darkspawn. We go in day when we go. Kind of surprised they haven't come to see our fire tonight. But we behind a ridge, and dey lazy, so maybe dat it.”

“So you need to be a Ruler.” Threadbare pointed a paw at Garon. “Does anyone else need a montage? I can do two per day.” That was roughly corrrect. Each one took about ten to twelve hours.

“Yeah, we're about to do a covert mission, right?” Kayin spoke up. “I've been thinking that over. We need more scouts in the group. I'll take one of them.”

“I can teach ya while Threadbeah's montaging Gar.” Madeline offered.

Threadbare twisted to look at her, in surprise. “You learned scout?”

“Hey, I had a long and exciting unlife befoah I met you guys, just didn't have no jahb slahts to use all the stuff I unlocked. So I had two more open when I got my soulstone upgraded, then re-embodied. I figahed, why wait? Yer looking at not only a faiah elementalist, but a scout and a merchant!”

“You didn't tell us you were taking that stuff,” Garon said.

“I don't have to. That's mostly my business.” Madeline looked at him, glass eyes glittering in the firelight. “I like you guys, but ya not the boss of me.”

“Right, right, I didn't mean anything by it... wait, merchant?”

“Yeah! Check this out!” Madeline headed off into the ruins of the house, and returned with a backpack, dragging it along with her mouth.

“I wondered why you asked me to sew that,” Threadbare said. “Does it have some significance to merchants?”

“Watch!” Madeline grinned, stuck her head in the pack, and pulled out a sack of coins, the ones that the villagers had given them to hang on to. Then a set of golden candlesticks from Hatecraft's ritual room. Then several stuffed toys. Then one of the wooden cats they'd originally used to pull the wagon.

“There's no way all that fit in there,” Cecelia said. “May I?”

“Shuah!”

Cecelia went over to the pack, stared into it. Then stuck her head in, and abruptly she was gone.

“Celia!” Threadbare charged up to the pack, and Madeline hastily put a wing in his way. “It's fine, watch.” She reached her head in again, and the wooden dragon drew Cecelia out, her maw holding one ceramic hand and drawing her forth.

“That was weird,” Cecelia said. “It's like a room with black walls and floor, but there's light coming from somewhere. And there's random junk on the floor. It's not that big, maybe closet-sized?”

“Yeah. Skill says it gets biggah as I level it. Should be safe to be in theah so long as the spell don't expaiah.”

“What happens then?” Kayin said, tail twitching. “Because I'm seeing some possibilities for infiltrating the fort like this.”

“If it expaiahs whatever's inside explodes outward and the pack's ruined. Lasts like an howah per merchant level thoah. Not too bad to cast, either, just some sanity.”

“Why Merchant? Why Scout for that matter?” Garon asked. “I'm not seeing a combo for fire elementalist or dragon in there.”

“Nice broad range of attribute boosts. Int and Wis between 'em foah boosting sanity.” Madeline shrugged. “And it turned out we didn't need jewelah and with no thumbs I'm crap at crafting anyway, but I figga handling gold and hoarding it will help me level dragon. Besides, with Scout, I can fly recon and message back to you, and be invisible when I need to. Invisible dragon? Pssh, that's a no brainah.”

“With three scouts in the party that'll let us split up if we have to,” Cecelia said. “Does anyone else have any job slots to fill out?”

“If you want to try the Evict Spirit soulstone upgrade combo we discussed, I could maybe give you more jobs,” Graves said to Glub.

“Dude, I dunnno. Bard's pretty sweet by itself.” The little fishmen thought it over. “Besides I've only got like a few unlocks.”

“Well, what are they?”

“Cultist, Explorer, and Water Elementalist.”

“I'm going to say please don't be a cultist,” Threadbare decided.

“Yeah, that's really not my thing. My old one's cool and all but I'm not about to worship the dude. Wouldn't feel right.”

“Explorer's kind of weak,” Garon said. “That's what I always heard about it, anyway.”

“I don't know about that,” Cecelia said. “Explorers from outside made the greater waymarks when they passed through, and left us the waystones, to use them. That's what's let the Crown maintain the front, by teleporting the Hand and other important people and supplies from Waystone to Waystone one person and packload at a time. If we had more of them, or the cooldown wasn't so bad... if my father had more of them, then the war would be over by now.”

“How high level is that?” Garon asked. “That's got to be like a twenty, twenty-five. I don't know if he can grind it high enough to be useful in time.”

“Yeah, but theah's gonna be a time AFTAH, raht?” Said Madeline. “If he wants it, then let him take it. And watah elementalist would be totally bitchin' ta have around. Be like synergy with my faiah and all.”

“It'd also give you water resistance so your parts don't degrade underwater,” said Kayin. “Otherwise your leather bits will need a lot of mending or replacing eventually.”

“Oh? Oh yeah, that'd be a hassle,” Glub nodded. “Sure dude man, let's try that spirit shuffle trick while they montage.”

“Absolutely,” Grave said. “It'll be worth it to skill that up, if nothing else.”

“Then yeah, I'll do that. Eventually you'll get better and I'll get more job slots, right? So I might as well go all in here. Uh, except for Cultist.”

“Thank you,” Threadbare said.

“How about you, Mom? It'd probably take a spirit eviction, and you'd lose a few levels, but it'd open up more jobs.”

“No,” Zuula said. “Best you can do is five, right Graveman?”

“Graves. And yes, that's the best I can do right now with the skill I've got.”

“Then no. Zuula just got ten. Not worth it to go back to being weak. Not wit'out bitchin new body.” She glanced over to Threadbare. “Still got the picture she drew you?”

Threadbare drew it out, and showed it to the group. Silence fell around the fire, as Graves struggled not to laugh, Kayin hid her face, and Cecelia looked away, coughing desperately.

“Are those battleaxes for hands?” Garon asked.

“And is that faiah yoah breathing?” Madeline said, grinning wide.

“No. Dose be lighting bolts. De fire be coming from Zuula's ass.” The little plush half-orc pointed with her spear.

Graves lost it then, waving his hands as he headed into the barn “All right, all right, it's late. Good, heh, goodnight. Talk to me in the morning if you need something.

“It's the heaps of skulls that you're crushing that have me confused,” Missus Fluffbear said, leaning in closer. “Are those things we have to make for you?”

“What? No. Zuula provide her own skulls.” She considered. “Maybe you make a few clay ones just to start. Starter skulls. So her enemies know what is in store.”

“Oh, I'm pretty sure they'd know just from one look at you.” Garon said, shaking his head. “All right. Let's get montaging. If we start now, we should be finished before noon tomorrow.”

*****
 
Noon rolled over the village of Grubholm.

Once a trapping and farrier outpost at the edge of the marsh, it had fallen a decade ago to monsters. Evacuees had spoken of eyes in the night, twisted little men striking from the dark places of the marsh in the dead of the night. Enough had died that the surviving families threw up their hands, packed up their supplies, and headed out for greener pastures.
Abandoned by civilization, filled with monsters, it was now only really useful to adventurers looking for experience and loot.

Like the seven toys, and their mounts, who moved slowly along the old road, eyes wide for trouble. Threadbare, Graves, and Pulsivar had remained at the old farm. The first two did so because they'd siphon too much experience and they could spend their time animating toys and letting soulstoned villagers romp around. Pulsivar because he didn't seem to care to come along. Dude had some serious napping to catch up on.

Zuula led the way, glancing around, following goblin sign, looking for signs of the twisted little baby eaters.

Kayin and Madeline took the flank, with Keen Eyes up, ready to Wind's Whisper back if they ran into something that required silent warning.

Garon and Glub backed Zuula up, walking in step with her.

And Fluffbear rode Mopsy, guarding the rear, glaring around for goblins to smite or babies to save. She wasn't picky. And her Inspiring Aura buffed the moxie of her nearby friends, so it was a good spot for her.

Cecelia rode one of the wooden wagon-pulling cats, animated, and about the only thing they had that was suited to her greater size. The parties had been sorted out... Garon had Zuula, Glub, and Madeline, and she had Kayin, and Fluffbear. That seemed like the best split, and ensured that Mopsy got experience too, and that each leader had a scout to listen for.

It didn't mean they couldn't work together, just that they wouldn't eat into each other's experience too much. Cecelia and Garon had spent most of the walk up towards goblin turf planning out scenarios and strategies.

But for all their troubles and preparations they weren't ambushed on the way.

Not when they moved past shoddy barricades, broken and covered with moss, old skulls on pikes now rusty and shattered.

Not when they crossed over into the edge of town, past fire-blackened and crumbled hovels, made from bits of other buildings, but now abandoned.

And not even when they came to the town square, at the edge of a shallow pond that stretched off to more marsh in the distance. The silence rolled on, quiet and unbroken save for the clattering of Garon and Glub's steps. Zuula halted there, turning around, squinting at the buildings and checking the burned sigils on their side, rubbing them with her cloth fingers.

Finally, Garon tapped Zuula's shoulder. “Well? Where are they?”

Though he tried to keep it quiet, his voice echoed across the marsh. In the distance, a bird took off, hooting.

“Dis sign be old. Way older den de stuff inland.” Zuula said, shaking her head. “And de ruins... dey wrong.”

“Yeah,” Kayin said, fading in from the left. “I looked through a few. Goblins WERE here, but... well, you'd better come see this.” She motioned, and the group followed her around from the square, to what had once been a town hall. Now the roof was gone, fallen in or fallen apart, leaving only a foundation, a few wooden walls, and a few floorboards.

The cellar below was filled with slimy water, weeds and goop and round spheres as big as beach balls. Gelatinous, with some sort of greenish embryo curled up within each, they were clustered together six or eight in a bunch. They twitched and pulsed in the noonday sun, and as soon as Zuula saw them, she nodded once, and said a single word.

“Run.”

“What?” Garon said.

“RUN!”

And from the pond, from the marsh, and from other dark, wet places, came the sound of dozens of large throats croaking, as giant green THINGS hauled themselves out of their hiding places...
 
THREADBARE'S CHARACTER SHEET
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Andrew Seiple

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Omegamon @Omegamon ago

5 more minutes until you blow up this planet format this chapter. Please dont have the time sense of space hitler

Thanks for the chappie

Baumi007 @Baumi007 ago

Still confused: why didn't Threadbare get a new Toy Golem Skill at Lvl 15? Thought you get something every 5 levels?

Dave @Dave ago

Thanks for the chapter. Looks like frogs or toads.

just thinking.... does tailor and model somehow upgrade to tier 2 job “designer”. Also does smith, sculptor and animator upgrade to something like “robot maker” or maybe “mecha builder”

Hacalyhd @Hacalyhd ago

Thanks for the chapter.

Correction: Fluffbear seems to both stay behind and come along:

Like the seven toys, and their mounts, who moved slowly along the old road, eyes wide for trouble. Threadbare, Graves, Fluffbear, and Pulsivar had remained at the old farm. The first two did so because they'd siphon too much experience and they could spend their time animating toys and letting soulstoned villagers romp around. Fluffbear because and Pulsivar because he didn't seem to care to come along. Dude had some serious napping to catch up on.
...

And Fluffbear rode Mopsy, guarding the rear, glaring around for goblins to smite or babies to save. She wasn't picky. And her Inspiring Aura buffed the moxie of her nearby friends, so it was a good spot for her.

Eolias @Eolias ago

Thanks for the chapter.

The Aimless Passerby @The Aimless Passerby ago

I have such a hard time sometimes reading what Madeline is saying

oblivious @oblivious ago

Hey, we have a Ruler/Mercenary. Guildmaster unlock coming up? I'm guessing Garon needs to 'pass along' a quest that's been given to him. Rulers specialize in giving quests, Mercenaries specialize in performing quests, and trope-guilds act as intermediaries.

    Granitefish @Granitefish ago

    Honestly I've been hoping Garon becomes a Guildmaster. Of all of them he makes the most sense as one. Whether it's by the method you mentioned or by Threadbare making him a Guild Officer. Whatever the method I hope Garon becomes the first Guildmaster.