What had turned into a one-day trade with the gribbits turned into three days, then a whole week. Threadbare and his friends montaged jobs, traded favors, and established a lifelong peace between themselves and the Smallgronk tribe, which was this group of gribbits’ formal name.
And all of the negotiations were presided over by a grinning Madeline, who used Haggle to great effect and had the time of her life grinding merchant levels.
The gribbits also shared knowledge of their favorite hunting grounds, and the local monsters, which the rest of the group eagerly adventured through while Threadbare montaged and spent his off time teaching the gribbit queen the finer etiquette of tea parties.
He also was busy making them a boatload of hats. They were very taken by his chapeaux, and he was happy to show them how to make it. Then of course he had to show off each one, and that was good for a Model level, and all new skills. Negotiating with a fellow head of state and signing treaties was also good for his and her ruler levels, and he thought very hard before he turned her down when she offered an heir’s betrothal to one of his.
The rest of the group spend the week grinding as hard as possible, and he was happy to gain a golemist level from their actions. Then they came back with scavenged reagents and crystals, (mostly red and orange reagents, and level 1 crystals respectively,) and he turned THOSE into items useful for the infiltration of Fort Bronze.
Threadbare also replaced his pants, while he was at it. He really did feel strange without pants on anymore.
But there were limits, and every time he checked with Graves, the man’s reassuring smile got smaller and smaller. He’d allocated a week to training up, but the longer it went on, the more he realized that had been a hopeful estimate. They needed yellow reagents, and they needed them now, and Zuula, who had been harvesting the most reagents, confirmed his fears when he consulted her.
“You not gonna find yellow around here. Zuula been gettin’ dem from places nature be strong, untouched herbs and places sacred to life and every’ting. But it take months to grow de red flowers for red reagents, and months more for dem to ripen to orange. Yellow takes a year or two, as do de crystals when dey bud from de main stalks. Don’ even be askin’ bout green.”
“Oh. Bother.”
“Dere odder places to get reagents and crystals. Can get dem from ground. Fluffbear been diggin’ for a few. She good at de mining. But dis marshy land, ain’t many places to mine. No, we want any better den basic, we gots to get to dwarves or find a dungeon to clean out. Or kill a bunch of soldiers an’ you crumble dere armor and stuff…”
So with a heavy heart, he gathered the group that night and took the barrels full of smoked fish that the gribbits had supplied them. Then Fluffbear got to work on the wagon, taking down Annie Mata’s cover, and assembling a proper yoke for the lone oxen that the Gribbits had… obtained… from somewhere.
Privately, Cecelia checked the tattoos on its ears and kept silent. Gribbits WERE monsters, but they were monsters that the band of golems needed right now.
But after this was all over and done with she made a note to track down the oxen’s owners and reimburse them for their loss.
Fluffbear gleefully adopted and named Oxey McOxenface, and would have tamed him properly had it not been pointed out that it might shrink him down a bit. Though Mopsy had grown some in the last week as Fluffbear leveled tamer, she still wasn’t back up to her former Mountain Lion size.
Finally it was done, and Oxey was roped to the wagon. A shorn and shaven Graves, now clad in a peasant tunic and breeches and boots that Threadbare had made himself, and artfully smeared with mud, clambered into the wagon seat and settled in for the trip.
In the case of the toys, this meant packing Madeline in a false bottom of one of the barrels, and putting everyone else in, well, her pack. It had gotten a bit roomier in there as she leveled the skill, now up to the size of a bathroom rather than a closet. They’d taken the precaution of putting tools, supplies, and more barrels of fish in there, in case one of the Crown wizards detected it as a merchant’s pack. Any questing hands that came in would latch onto the merchant stuff first, was the hope. They’d also put the crate of cultist soulstones in there, and Threadbare had promised to speak with them a few times every day.
They had to have a tiny hole in the bottom of Madeline’s barrel for her to reach out and poke the pack every few hours, but that was no big deal. And anyone could reach into the pack and pull them out, they just couldn’t get out on their own. Worst case, the pack would blow up, and send all of them free at once.
“That’s how I think it’ll wahk, anyway,” Madeline said, taking once more glance at the barrel she’d be coiled inside for the trip. “Yeesh. Really glad I don’t have a sense of smell anymoah.”
“Wait!” Cecelia said, turning back to look at Graves. “What if they scout you? There’s no way you’re not on a wanted list by now.”
“I thought of that.” Graves smiled. “Fortunately, level five Spirit Medium has the solution for that. You know how cultists have a skill that falsifies their status screens?”
“Yes, but you’re not a cultist.”
“No, but I can talk to dead ones. And as a spirit medium, I can borrow their skill for a little while. Or others, for that matter. Level ones, only, right now, but that’s okay, because it’s a level one skill.” He held up a soulstone and smiled. “Marva here’s going to talk me through it once we get to the fort. Doesn’t last long, but it should get me past the door if they’re looking. I’ll be a merchant with farmer and carpenter levels, that seems safe.”
“All right. Just…” Cecelia hopped up to the backboard of the wagon, and gave him a hug. “Play it safe, all right? This golem thing has its downsides. Stay alive.”
“Believe me, I’ve no desire to shed this mortal coil anytime soon.” Graves hugged her back. “Sit tight. We should be there in three days. I’ll pull you out if things go to plan and it’ll be Madeline if things don’t.”
“Okay,” Cecelia muttered. “Okay, okay…” She headed into the pack, joining the others.
“Oh, there you are. I was beginning to worry,” Threadbare said. He waved from the big grindluck circle that the others had settled in for. “Shall we deal you in a hand or three?”
“We could do that,” Cecelia said, then shook her head. “But I’d rather practice. We can’t kill monsters in here, but we can use some of our skills. And Zuula can dream quest us."
“Dat might be a little weird in here,” Zuula said. “No nature. Dreams gonna be screwy.”
“They’re screwy anyway, desu,” said Kayin, neatly stacking the deck and setting it back. “All green and stuff with weird things moving in a light that’s actually darkness.”
“That’s what you see?” Garon said, grabbing the deck from the cheating assassin and shuffling it again, before slapping it down in the middle of the circle. “I see trees, usually. Just trees on a hillside, bending in a windstorm.”
“I see fish mostly,” Glub said. “Some real hotties.”
Celia didn’t want to say what she saw. It was pretty disturbing, to her at least. “But we’ll still get the rest, right? Full pools?”
“Yes,” Zuula conceded.
Glub put down two blues, and won the hand. “I also got something new at tenth level. Song of Clarity, dudes. Should help refill moxie and sanity for people so we don’t have to wait on dream quests so much.”
“Nice,” Garon said. “Has explorer gotten you anything nifty yet?”
“Yeah. I can make like waymarks and waystones.”
The circle fell silent, and everyone put their cards down, and stared at Glub. “What?” Cecelia said. “That’s huge! Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
“Dudes, it’s lesser ones.” Glub put up his webbed hands. “They’re not permanent or anything. Just last like an hour and their range is piddly at this skill level.”
“Can you set them anywhere?” Garon asked.
“Not in here. It gives me beef about illegal geography. But outside, I think so, yeah.”
“What are these exactly?” Threadbare asked.
“He set de waymark, and anyone he had de waystones to can use dem to teleport to it.”
“That would have been very handy to know before we got in here,” Threadbare said, glancing at the darkened space that was the ‘door’ to the room, impassable from this side of things unless they were drawn forth.
“It only lasts like an hour, man,” Glub said, waving his hands. “I didn’t think it’d be useful!”
“Peace, Glub,” Kayin said. “We can use it in the fort. Carry a few to get out of tight situations.”
“It’s best if we keep them for emergency use only,” Cecelia said. “If they’re anything like the greaters, there’s a cooldown on those, right?”
“Nah, no cooldown. But you can only carry one at a time and using it breaks it.” Glub shrugged. “And when the waymark expires all existing waystones break.”
“Hm. Well it’s a good idea for you to make a waymark once we’re out and in a safe spot in the fort, and to give us waystones while we’re sneaking,” Threadbare decided. “In the meantime, yes, let’s practice. We can grindluck when we’re tired and Glub can sing to us to make us regain faster, or Zuula can tuck us in, or both.”
And so they whiled the time away in the small space, practicing on each other and themselves, in the case of buffs. Threadbare was happy to try out the new model skills he’d gained. The others weren’t so happy, especially the first time he tried out his ‘Sexy Pose’ without warning them about it. Adjust weight went over a bit better, even if he did look bizarre when he went too far toward one end of the spectrum or the other.
Still, he could see the uses. He was tired of being kicked or knocked away by strong foes. Being able to add on a few pounds so he could stand his ground now and again, that was good stuff. Even if it did debuff his agility if he added too much.
But in the end, he fell back on his golemist, ruler, and scout skills, along with a broad range of utility buffs. The scout skills were sorely underdeveloped, and they’d be very helpful for sneaking around. Golemist was fast becoming his focus. The others were counting on him to upgrade them as soon as possible, and if this could knock out some easy experience, then so be it.
Ruler now, ruler had been very useful when negotiating with royalty. The dwarves had royalty too, Cecelia confirmed. They’d need to talk with them as well, sway them to his side. So he got to work giving those skills a workout, throwing around decrees, organizing minions, and identifying his subjects. Also dropping silly quests for small experience rewards, and emboldening with speeches.
Most of his stamina went into buffs or duelist moves, sparring with the others. There was only so much that peaceful practice could do, so they stepped it up a bit, tearing into each other with brutal force, and using mend, repair golem, and slow regeneration to fix each other up. So long as he or Cecelia was on the sidelines with Eye for Detail up so they could monitor the fighters, the risk was negligible… but there WAS risk, and whatever mysterious force governed the universe judged that to be worth extra experience.
After about two days of this, they called the practice session quits and got dream quests from Zuula, getting ready for what was hopefully their decanting from the pack. Then there was nothing save for hands of grindluck, and quiet conversation. Threadbare spent most of it sitting on Celia’s lap, enjoying her arms around him as she reached past him and sorted her cards.
That was worth a few adorable levels, but it really wasn’t the point. The point was that they were going into their most dangerous situation yet, and he wanted all the hugs he could get from his little girl.
A thought occurred to him, as they wrapped up about the thousand and third hand of grindluck.
“You’re not upset we didn’t use your suggestion to go to Pads village, are you?”
“What? No, no,” Cecelia said. “It would have been poetic to get their help, but the more I think about it, that would come with problems of its own. If the Crown investigates the trail would lead back there, and it might risk people getting tortured. Besides, Graves will lie and tell people he’s from Pads, and he knows enough about the place to fake it. But the wagon’s not really from there and everyone there is ignorant of our ruse.”
“Yeah, and I trust the gribbits more than I do those peasants, desu,” Kayin threw in. “Less chance of the froggies selling us out for a handful of turnips.”
“I’m sure the peasants of Pads wouldn’t do that,” Cecelia said.
“Look at it this way, we’re taking the gribbits’ food, and not theirs, so we’re not tempting them to do so either way.” Garon added. “And whoa, that better be Graves.”
They turned to see a withered hand groping out of the darkness, questing around, and poking the various items they’d dragged in as cover. “It is,” said Threadbare. He walked over, tapped its pinky finger, and stood still while it drew him out.
Threadbare found himself drawn into a dingy barracks room, with beds lining the chamber, open footlockers sitting empty, and narrow slits in the walls letting in sunlight. The wooden floor was grubby, and many of the blankets were stained. But the walls were solid stone, and it was empty enough for their purposes. Graves put Threadbare down, and reached into the pack for another toy.
Threadbare took a long look around, then turned back to Graves. “Did everything go-“
The room shook, from the explosion. The noise was loud, close, and it was all Threadbare could do to not leap under the bed and take cover.
“What.” He said, when the stuffing between his ears stopped throbbing, “was that?”
“Siege cannons,” Graves said, drawing Cecelia out, then following up with the rest of the toys.
“Siege cannons? Oh, good!” Cecelia smiled. “Well, maybe. Shipments are going to be delayed, but there won’t be as many eyes watching for us.”
“What is a siege cannon?” Threadbare asked, rubbing his temples so hard that he smushed his head in a bit.
“We’re in the western block?” Cecelia asked Graves.
“Yes. Above the infirmary.”
“Come look.” She hopped off the bed and beckoned Threadbare to one of the arrow slits, then lifted him up so he could see clearly.
Threadbare looked down into a vast, curving courtyard, partitioned by smaller walls, each of them with patrolled ramparts and guards, most now clustered on the outer walls. Wagons and groups of busy men, hauling around crates and barrels and other supplies, filled the courtyard directly below, moving into a main building about twelve times the size of Caradon’s old house. From that main building stone wings spilled off, winding their way around inside the walls of the vast Fortress. They were in one such wing, he realized, about three stories up from the ground floor.
And in among the wings, breaking part of his view up, were great stone towers, five of them, each with a massive gleaming dome of bronze topping them. From each dome a black metal cylinder protruded, smoke rising from them in gouts and billows. As he watched, gears ground on the side of one bronze dome, and the cylinder started to retract.
“Do you see them?”
“I think so. You mean the big things up on the towers?”
“Yes. They can drop shells full of gas or geek’s fire or anything else the alchemists whip up, anywhere in Brokeshale valley. So long as we- the Crown, I mean, can keep the battlefield confined there, keep the dwarves from breaking out, we can shoot at them whenever they surface.”
“Dwarves prefer fighting underground,” Graves added, drawing out Kayin and putting her next to Zuula, who was already clambering down the bedpost. “But occasionally they launch a raid, cracking open a tunnel and assaulting the lines. When that happens, the guns-"
The room shook, and Threadbare fell off Celia’s shoulders. “Sorry, could you?” He asked.
But she didn’t protest as he climbed back up on her shoulders again, and peered out. One of the other cannon had erupted in smoke and flames, and as he watched black clouds poured upward from its dome.
“I heard about those!” Garon said, coming over and hoisting himself up. “Took years to build, even with the best tinkers the Crown has working on it.”
“Yes, I studied them.” Cecelia threw in. “But since they’re firing, most personnel will be watching outward, and below, for surprise attacks to make sure the dwarves aren’t going to get sneaky. Which means we’ll have a little more room to sneak around.”
“Oh dear,” said Threadbare.
“Oh dear?” Glub looked at him, fishy eyes goggling. “What’s wrong with more sneaky room?”
“No, not that. There’s that Steam Knight again.”
“Oh, is one of the Steam Knights back from the front?” Cecelia added. “Which one? Fedifencer? Goliathan? Inkidoo?”
“I don’t know, but it’s the one you were driving around back at Outsmouth. You tell me what it was called.”
“What? Reason? Impossible! Garon, take him, would you?”
Garon shifted Threadbare over to his shoulders, as Cecelia clambered up, porcelain feet scrambling for purchase on the rough stone blocks of the wall.
And there below her, battered and a bit burned-looking, but still very much intact, was Reason. Its massive helm passed not ten feet below the arrow slit, giving her a very clear view of the cloth covering that no other steam knight in Cylvania had.
“Impossible! Impossible!” She said, putting her hands on her hips. Then she hastily scrambled down, as one of the guards on a distant parapet glanced her way. “That… no. Can’t be done.”
“What can’t be done?” Kayin asked.
“Steam Knight armor can only be piloted by the Steam Knight who made it. You CAN’T use another Steam Knight’s suit. The magic doesn’t work. Worst case, you botch, and the suit tries to kill you.”
“It looks like it’s not as impossible as you think it is,” Threadbare said. “Because there it goes right now. Could they have animated it?”
“No. It… animating things willy-nilly on them is dangerous. You need the right spells and sequence, and only steam knights get those. I… suppose someone could have completely taken the suit apart and reassembled it, but that would take a month, even for a top-tier tinker. It hasn’t even been half that. And I don’t know any top-tier tinkers who could be spared for that.” Cecelia frowned. “Something’s going on here.”
“It went through a big portcullis in the eastern wall,” Threadbare said, then hopped down from Garon’s shoulders. “Thank you.”
“That’ll be the machine bay.” Cecelia sighed and rubbed her chin, ceramic rasping on ceramic. She glanced around at the assorted doll haunters, golems, and very worried necromancer. “Graves, how secure are we here?”
“The fish were an out-of-cycle shipment, they told me. I get to spend the night here, then it’s off with the wagon tomorrow at dawn. I’ve been here an hour and no one else has come by, so it’s probably pretty safe here.”
“No problems getting in the gate?”
“No, though they did wonder why so many fish were coming from Paws. There’s no big bodies of water down there. I told them that a bunch of fishermen had passed through and traded for stuff, but the village found the fish not to their taste. That got some picky peasant jokes tossed my way.” He shrugged. “They checked the barrels and decided not to turn down free food. The only problem is that I don’t know where they’ve taken Madeline’s barrel. They wouldn’t tell me.”
“That’s a problem. But it’s a problem we anticipated,” Threadbare said. “Garon? Time for a King’s Quest.”
He sent the details across. It was very simple, when all was said and done, as was the monetary reward. Just enough to synergize with Garon’s mercenary skills.
“Find Madeline, huh? Works for me.” The minotaur grinned. “Sure, I’ll Do the Job. And Follow the Dotted Line.” He glanced around, and over at the door. “Goes right out the door. One minute.”
He hoisted himself up to the window again.
The toys waited for the explosion to fade, and Garon dropped down, spoke a few times until he was sure they could hear. “…Testing, testing… yeah, okay. The line doesn’t cross the courtyard, so I can probably get to her without going outside. Piece of… No wait, hold on. I have something I need to do. I need to talk to Mastoya.”
“Can you do dat, bring her here, and den go talk to Mastoya?”
“Mmm… bad idea.” He held up a pouch, and jingled it. “I only have so many of the enchanted camouflage beads. I don’t know how many it’ll take to get to Madeline.”
“How about this?” Cecelia asked, coming out of a long rumination. “We split into two groups. One group goes and gets Madeline loose and raids the General’s office. Garon, you go with that group so you can hang behind there and talk with Mastoya. Glub, you go with that group so you can give Madeline a waystone. You Waymark this room, and everyone Waystones back here when they’re done. Including you, Garon, if the talk doesn’t go so well. Promise?”
“I’ll lead the other group. We’ll go see if I can get reason back.”
The toys would have blinked if they could. Graves did blink. “With all due respect, Captain-"
“I’m not your Captain anymore. But I am a Steam Knight, and if I can get Reason back, I can beat feet all the way to the front, with everyone safely inside the cockpit.”
Garon shook his head. “And the guns firing on the rogue Steam Knight every few-“
“-thank you dramatic irony, for making my point.”
“No, they can’t target anything as small as Steam Knight armor,” Cecelia shook her head. “Besides, the shells are hollow, used for gas and alchemical dispersion. Reason could take a near hit, no problem.”
“And what if they call in the Hand to deal with you?” Kayin pointed out.
“It’d be overkill. I don’t see why. Besides, they’re probably busy with whatever assault the dwarves just launched.”
“Zuula tink dis be bad idea.”
“Look. I’m…” Cecelia raised her hands, and smoothed down her green dress, fingers shaking with agitation. “I’m not stupid. I know it’s a long shot. But I at least want to go and see if it’s possible. If it’s not, then we’ll wait for you guys to check the ledgers, and pick a shipment to put us in. Then we’ll see about getting over with that convoy’s goods.”
“And assigning me as a driver,” Graves said. “I’m guessing I’ll wait in here until you all send word?”
Threadbare nodded. “I think this is close enough to the original plan. It should be dark soon. Who wants to go with which group?”
“You’ll need someone who knows where the commander’s office is, Garon,” Kayin slid over to join the tiny minotaur.
“Zuula don’t want to get nowhere near Mastoya. Not go well for anyone if she see me,” said the plush shaman, trudging over to plop down next to Cecelia.
“I got to go with you to give Madeline a waystone, right?” Glub said, holding up a hand to Garon. “High five, team sneaky!”
“Um…” Said Fluffbear, looking back and forth between Cecelia, then Garon. “You said she was a cleric?”
“Yeah, of the goddess of war.”
“I’m a cleric too. Maybe I can help you talk with her.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”
“I’ll pray once we get there and ask Yorgum about it. If he says it’s a bad idea I’ll leave with the others.”
The doll haunters and golems were starting to get used to the thunderous shots, by now. They simply waited half a minute, then Garon resumed. “All right, just make sure you’re ready to use that waystone the second things go south. Because they might.”
“That leaves me with you,’ Threadbare said, patting Cecelia’s shoulder. “You’ll need a scout to whisper to the others, just in case.”
“And I’ve got the easy job,” Graves said, reaching into the pack and pulling things out, one by one. He nearly dropped the barrel of fish, before the others went to help.
“Why empty it?” Threadbare wondered. “Oh. It’s going to burst at some point when Madeline’s spell wears off, isn’t it?”
“Yes. And also… ha!” Graves said, as they hauled out the crate of soulstones. “I’ll need to keep them company. And it gives me access to a hell of a lot of skills if I need to borrow anything. Like oh, that wind’s whisper thing so I can call you for help if something goes wrong here. Because it might. There are so, so many ways everything could go wrong, here.”
“Yes,” said Threadbare. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be, man,” said Glub. “Savin’ the world, right?”
“The Kingdom, anyway,” Cecelia said. “And he’s got a point. If we don’t take the risks, other people have to. And we’ve got a backup plan if we die. Again.”
“Might I remind you that I never took my last decree down?” Threadbare pointed out, and they chuckled.
For yeah, they had all pledged to the little bear, to be his subjects and reap the bounty of his Noblesse Oblige. And there on their status screens, the simple message remained –
“Nobody die. Again.”
“Almost dark,” Garon said, glancing toward the window. “No better time. Glub?”
“Create Waymark. Create Waystone, Create Waystone, Create Waystone…” The fishmen solemnly handed out the weirdly-marked rocks that appeared with each chant.
“All right.” Garon sighed. “We’ve got one shot at this. Let’s make it-“

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Andrew Seiple


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