Fort Bronze never slept.
The pinnacle of the Crown’s might, the coordinating headquarters of its most grueling war, hummed with activity at all hours. The Siege Cannon never stopped firing, shaking the walls with each discharge, and the stone chips littering the halls that Threadbare passed through seemed to suggest that this was a regular thing.
Not that he had much time to study them. One of his eyes was currently synched up to a small cloth mouse, that he’d animated and kept behind them, watching out for trouble or oncoming traffic. Celia had her own mouse animi up ahead of the group, since she was more skilled with the trick.
Zuula, for the most part, slunk along and tried to be patient with the slow pace. Five levels ago it would have been impossible, but shamans got wisdom, and it made all the difference.
And luck, too, which helped out immensely when people passed by, and the three golems had to scramble for cover. But whenever there was no cover they could reach in time, the toys had to dip into their stock of camouflage beads… all save for Threadbare, who could use the skill with a single soft word.
And use it he did. They passed through two guard posts, and at the second one, Threadbare had to pick up Cecelia and run for it. Although they’d made her cloth slippers to muffle her ceramic footsteps, she just didn’t have much stealth skill at all, and agility was a secondary concern to her, now that she didn’t have access to her scout levels.
Finally, they reached the machine bay. Blocked of by a metal grille, the space between the crosshatched bars was easy enough to squirm through. Threadbare winced as his head smushed through, deforming a bit. The smarter he got, the more uncomfy that was. He didn’t exactly have brains, he didn’t think, but form seemed to follow function and he wasn’t sure if he could survive decapitation. It seemed best to leave that as an unanswered question.
With his good eye, he saw Cecelia bend down and scoop up her mouse animi, tucking it into the pocket of her dress. “I’ll need both eyes for this,” she whispered, staring around at the piles of junk, and racks full of tools scattered haphazardly around.
No one else was visible in the vast, open bay. Chains hung silently, with bits of war machines, geared contraptions, and spare steam knight parts arranged in separate lots, separated by chalk lines on the floor and portable barricades.
“What dose for?” Zuula said, wandering over to a barricade and nudging it. Basically several slabs of metal on wheels, it was solid enough that she could barely move it, even with her fairly-good strength. Compared to a human, it’d be about chest height. For the doll haunters and Threadbare, they were huge barriers that thankfully weren’t in the way right now.
Cecelia kept her voice to a whisper. “Those are for dangerous projects and devices. The Tinkers and Alchemists move them around as needed to partition the shop and get cover if something explodes. Please keep your voice down, we don’t want to draw guards.” The courtyard was right out THERE, just through a huge portcullis. It was lit by glowstones, and still bustling, though down to about half the passers-by that they’d seen during the daylight hours. The lighting didn’t extend to the machine bay, though, and half of it was in shadow. And there were at least four doors and a winding staircase heading up into the cannon tower above, and any of those exits could have people within earshot.
“Can you see all right?” Threadbare asked Cecelia. She didn’t have Darkspawn, like he and Zuula did.
“Yes.” She looked back to the corner, where a hulking form squatted down, arms just visible in the light from the courtyard outside. “Mostly. Hang on.” She rummaged around in a nearby workbench, pulled out a metal tube, and capped one end. Then she grabbed a screw, whispered “Glowgleam,” and dropped it into the tube before it could flash into light.
Threadbare and Zuula looked up at the spot of light on the ceiling, then down to Cecelia, who grinned. “A little trick I learned from Dad.” The grin faded. “One of the nicer ones, anyway. So long as I don’t point it to the courtyard and keep the spot out of view nobody should see it. Give me five minutes to go examine Reason.”
The half-orc plushie nodded. “Okay. Zuula go check doors, listen for trouble. Shouldn’t be-”
The echoes were pretty bad in here. If he’d been organic, he thought he’d have a headache by now.
“I just got a golem body level from that one,” said Cecelia, rubbing her skull as a red ’18’ drifted up. “Mend.
“I’ll keep watch on the portcullis. And the grille.” Threadbare said, glancing around through the mouse’s dollseye. He glanced over to Zuula, but she was already gone, lost in the shadows. Of the three of them she was the most skilled at sneaking, and he supposed she could pull borrow rat skills or something to help out if she needed there. Either way she was off being Zuula in a good way, so he trusted her to keep doing that. “Be very careful, okay?”
“Absolutely.” Cecelia took one last look up at the light on the ceiling, then covered the end of the tube with her free hand, and slunk across the floor towards Reason.
She disappeared between the rows of barricades, and Threadbare hunkered down, glancing back and forth.
And a few minutes later, he heard something very close by.
Threadbare glanced around, and froze.
Something big was moving, back in the far corner of the shop. Moving slowly, but that was definitely a ‘clack’ as it put a foot down, and a scrape of metal on the stone floor. It looked all the world like someone very tall in very heavy armor, tiptoeing.
Maybe he hadn’t seen them? Threadbare slunk back into the shadows, ready to camouflage himself at the first opportunity.
And then he gasped, as the armored figure moved into the first edges of the light coming through the portcullis. He knew that helm. He knew that armor.
It moved up near him, glancing up at the ceiling, and Threadbare realized that it was trying to figure out where the spot of light had come from. It had been in the bay when they’d entered, and he’d mistaken it for just another war machine back with the rest of the strange contraptions.
Opportunity warred with common sense, caution with nostalgia, and Threadbare realized that he could probably take a risk here, if he took a precaution first.
“Command Golem – please whisper when talking and be generally quiet,” he told the figure-
-and instantly it was as if he’d slammed into a brick wall. The pressure was immense, as SOMETHING fought the spell, but Threadbare, initially surprised, rallied and PUSHED, using the willpower that he’d trained and boosted with level after level of caster jobs, and managed to get the command through.
Immediately, the figure whirled- but slowly, and with grace out of proportion to its size, taking care to remain quiet.
Behind its helm, two gems flared to glowing life, shining red. Threadbare knew those gems well. He’d seen them every morning, when he came downstairs with Celia, back in Caradon’s house.
“Hello Emmet,” he said, stepping out of the shadows. “Do you remember me?”
“Yes,” the armor golem ground, in a rasping voice that was probably as quiet as it got but still about as loud as regular conversation. “You are Threadbare. You are family.”
“Good,” sighed Threadbare, glancing back to the courtyard. Loud enough and far enough away that another discussion might not draw attention. Maybe. “So what have you been up to these last few years?”


Madeline puffed in air, as her barrel shifted. Moment of truth now, she thought, with a word ready on her lips to unleash dragonfire on whoever was decanting her.
But it died unspoken, as the top half of the barrel finished unscrewing and a horned wooden head loomed over her. “You got our message?”
“Yeah.” Her neck rattled a bit as she uncoiled it, poked her head up past the rim of the barrel’s secret compartment, and nodded toward the catgirl in the back of the group. “Thanks for the whispah.”
“Shh,” Kayin said, leaning out the door, holding out a wooden palm. “Twenty seconds. Then you can come out.”
It was hard. Madeline had spent days coiled in that barrel, and though she didn’t have flesh anymore, she FELT cramped. But she waited until the catgirl switched from an open palm to a beckoning wave.
Garon helped her out, and Fluffbear cushioned her fall.
“Feels weahd to see you without Mopsy,” Madeline said.
“We left her back with Graves,” the little bear squeaked. “I’m hoping he can convince her and Pulsivar to come out of the pack before it explodes.”
The whole trip had been harrowing for the mini-cougar and Pulsivar. They’d had to share a litter box, and hadn’t THAT been fun.
“Create Waystone,” said Glub, handing her a little green rock.
“What’s this?” Madeline squinted at it.
Garon answered. “It’ll teleport you back to Graves. Please go, we’ll need the pack re-enchanted if it hasn’t blown up by now. And you’re sneaky, but you’re big, and we need to run up and get into the general’s office and that’s past three checkpoints-”
“What is that, anyway?” Madeline asked. “Been hearing it for a while now.”
“Look, just go, please. And Glub, go with her, okay? No offense but you’re about as sneaky as a bowl of bananas.”
“None taken, dude. What’s bananas?”
“This whole mission. Gods, nevermind. Just go, okay?” Garon glanced back at Kayin at her sudden chopping movement, as she eased the door shut. The little toys waited, until footsteps passed the door and receded. Kayin eased the door open again, peering out. “This is a heavily guarded area,” Garon continued. “All the store rooms are.”
Madeline craned her neck around, took in the floor-to-ceiling stacks of crates and barrels. “I’ll say. Hm, anything good here?”
“We don’t have time.”
She looked at him, then nodded. And came to a decision that she’d made weeks ago, just hadn’t acted on yet. Swift as an arrow, she darted forward and bumped her muzzle against his. “Good luck.”
“Come back alive, okay Gar? Be a shitty undead existence without ya.”
“Oh. Uh.” Garon’s hand clattered to his muzzle as he realized that had been a kiss.
“So how do you use this thing?” She turned to Glub, and after a few whispered questions and answers, they dissipated as the waystones activated.
Madeline smiled, as the two of them faded in to a cold, empty barracks… empty save for a very tired-looking Graves, and two upset cats. Mopsy crouched under a far bunk, her tail sticking out and very puffed up, showing extreme displeasure. Pulsivar peered out next to her, yellow eyes gleaming with rebuke.
“Oh!” Graves said, and fumbled for his cane. “Thank goodness. Can you?” He hauled up Madeline’s pack.
“Of cawse. Pack of Holding.
“Good. I need to rest, then I can see about getting the rest of this stuff back in.” He gestured at the dummy payload, and junk strewn about. “I could have borrowed a merchant level from our dead friends, but I don’t think any of them have the skill at a higher level than you. Most of them were pretty settled, didn’t go on many trips.”
“Why do ya need to put it back in?” Madeline shrugged her wings. “We’re in. They ain’t likely ta search us on the way out. We’ll just push it under the beds and you can just say it was heah before, if anyone asks.”
“All right, I guess that works. Mostly.” He glanced over at the very full and very stinky litter box.
“On it, dudes!” Glub started moving junk around. “Man, why are the cats-”
“-right, stupid question,” the fishman doll said as soon as they could hear again.
“I’ve been trying to get them back in the pack, but they won’t go,” Graves said, miserably. “Can they spare Fluffbear? You could whisper her, since you’re here now.”
“Herbie, man, you never did know much about animals, didya?” Madeline grinned. “Streetrat like you nevah had the chance, huh?”
“Hey, I like animals just fine.” Graves shrugged. “Rendered into sausage and smeared with mustard after they’re thoroughly cooked. Not my fault living ones are stubborn.”
“There’s a trick with cats. Here. Help me get the pack open an’ square it as much as possible.”
“What? Why?”
“Just do it.”
She coached him into making the pack as boxlike as possible, and sat it on the ground.
Mopsy crept out first, sniffing, then settling into it and fading from view with a surprised “Mrp!”
Pulsivar, though, was made of sterner stuff. He didn’t budge. Glub tried to convince him, and got some gentle mauling for his trouble. The bobcat was NOT happy about this place, and wanted his new hoomin to know it.
Graves watched Glub and Madline try for a bit, but after about the fourth BOOM, his head snapped up. “Trouble.”
“Get the pack over here, we need to stow the soulstones. Ah shit… Borrow Skill, Conceal Status.” He blinked a few times, as Glub helped him manhandle the soulstone crate into the pack. “Pulsivar. We need Pulsivar in here. There’s no time!”
Someone pounded on the door.
Madeline grabbed the pack, raced under the bed, and as the cat howled in protest, shoved Pulsivar into the pack. “Get to covah!” she stage whispered at Glub, who dove into an empty footlocker and pulled it shut.
Just in time, too, as the door flew open. Graves tottered to his feet, tapping the floor with his cane. “Eh?” he warbled, in a querulous voice. “Who’s there?” As emaciated as he was, he didn’t have to fake shaking as one hand cupped his ear.
A black-robed man swept into the room, glancing around. “Deathsight. Speak with Dead.” He murmured, and Madeline pulled back under the bunk, avoiding his view as the world turned monochrome.
“Camouflage,” she hissed, as the cannon fired, thanking heaven that she’d gone the scout route and practiced it back in the swamps. The man stopped and knelt, peering under the bed straight at her, but didn’t seem to see her. “Hello? Is anything here?”
Behind him, she saw Graves staring down at the man, eyes wide. Wide, and full of recognition.
“Is everything all right, young man?” Graves rasped, voice creaky and doing its best to sound forty years older.
“Perhaps,” the man said. He was thickset, with mutton chops and a black moustache, greased to neat points. He had small eyes, in a broad face, and an insincere smile as he turned it upon Graves. “High Magister Arxan Arcane, I’m with the necromancer corps. I was experimenting downstairs, and caught some residual chatter from above. Tell me, old man, have you noticed any apparitions about? Free-floating? Class Threes, if you know the term?”
“No, no, I can’t say I do,” Graves said, coughing, and holding his hand in front of his face. “Just a humble farmer, sir.”
Madeline watched, as Arxan stepped toward him. “Now that’s odd. You sound a bit familiar. Why is that…”


Garon sighed with relief, as the window broke, silently. He waited for Kayin to slip in through the busted pane, waited longer while she forced the window open. Then it was over and down, with Fluffbear clinging to his back, and through the open window, letting go and falling in a clattering heap to the floor.
“Four point six,” Kayin whispered, dropping her Silent Killer skill. Useful for her, since it made herself and most things she did completely noiseless, but not so good for Garon.
Garon didn’t answer. He froze, listening, and holding his breath. He’d made noise, and this office was guarded.
“Relax. Two triple thick doors between here and the guards,” Kayin said, easing the window back down, half an inch at a time. “We need to avoid shouting, but a little noise will get lost in the-
Garon rose, looking around the room that his sister had spent years in. Cold, Spartan, with weapons on the walls and a fireplace that looked barely used. She always did like it cold. The few tables in the place were cluttered with plans and diagrams, and little wooden figures of royal troops lay scattered in among pewter dwarves, with a few three-inch-tall steam knight miniatures looming among the fray.
“Mom should just let you have those dolls,” Garon said, finally. “Would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.”
“Where’s the ledgers?” Fluffbear squeaked.
“They’ll be in her desk, probably. That’s sensitive information,” Kayin said. “I think. Still got a head that’s kind of like jelly, desu. At least scout helped with that a little.”
“It’s all right,” Garon said shooting a glance at the main door, then at the smaller door on an adjacent wall. “Where’s that one go?”
“Beats me, but it’s quiet in there,” said Kayin. “Private bathroom, maybe?”
“Maybe,” Garon said, uncertainly. “But she’s never been much on luxuries. Not when I knew her, anyway.”
“People change, maybe,” Kayin said, poking around the desk, before hauling out a set of tiny lockpicks. “Wow, this is a lot easier with tiny hands. Give me five minutes, and-
“And you’ll do what?” Said Mastoya, opening the side door.
The toys froze.
Mastoya lowered the sword in her hand and squinted down at the two wooden dolls and the tiny, armored bear. She blinked twice, glanced back to the small bed that filled most of the cramped bedroom. “Am I dreaming?”
“No,” she said, eyes unwavering as she snapped her gaze back to the intruders. “No I’m not dreaming. Always In Uniform. Shield of Divinity. Holy Smi-
“Heya Nasty Masty,” Garon said, swaggering up, hands on his hips. “You forgiven me for putting mud in your hair yet?”
The buff died on Mastoya’s lips, as her eyes went wide, white against her green skin. “Garon?”
“Yeah. Can we talk?”
“What the hell is this? What the shitting hell is this?” She whispered, the sword dropping to point at the ground. With her free hand she tucked her nightgown closer around her. It was pink, with ruffles, Garon noticed, and he smiled to see it. Yeah, it’s still her. I’ve got a shot.
“It’s… a little weird.” He jumped, pulled himself up onto her desk. “I hear you’re drinking now.”
As the echoes faded Mastoya moved in, grabbing a ring of keys off a nail on the door as she did so, and settled in at her desk, giving Fluffbear and Kayin hard stares until they backed off. Unlocking a drawer, she reached in and pulled out a bottle, then two cups. She poured a shot for herself, slugged it back, then poured another. Then she tilted the bottle over his cup, and hesitated, glancing at him.
“We all got stomach cavities put in so we can drink. Doesn’t do anything, but hey.” Garon thought it best not to tell her it was Cecelia’s idea, so they didn’t offend the dwarves if the issue came up.
She poured him a shot and he picked it up carefully, sipped it carefully. “Whoo, that’s some varnish gone,” he lisped, and twisted his tongue to wring the alcohol from the cloth. “Your throat must have more holes in it than cheese.”
“My original question stands. What. The shitting hell. Is this?” Mastoya said again.
“Basically I got a second chance at life, sort of. I’m a ghost haunting a golem.”
She digested it for a bit, then swallowed. “So I did kill you.”
“That’s where it gets weird. No, you didn’t kill me. A vampire came across me while I was bleeding out and turned me. Then an old friend showed up, and I died as a vampire, and he helped stuff me in a golem shell when I asked him nicely.”
“And you honestly expect me to believe that?”
“I don’t care if you do or not, sis. It’s me either way. I’m just here to tell you it’s fine.”
“What… this?” She waved a hand at him, and took another shot. “Because from where I’m sitting that looks like some sort of tortured existence as some other guy’s pet monster.”
“No, no, it’s not like that. He’s pretty cool. Seriously, great guy. But also that’s not what’s fine. What’s fine, is that I’m fine with you attacking me when you were killing Mom.”
She slammed the shot glass down on the table, so hard that it cracked. Kayin winced, and shot a glance toward the door.
“Fuck. I’m muddling this, aren’t I?” Garon asked. “Shit. I’m sorry. I just…” he sat there, staring into the cup she’d given him. “I needed to tell you that. I forgive you, okay? It was the rage, not you, and-
And then her arms were around him, the sword clattering to the ground, as High Knight Mastoya, Western General Mastoya, the badass mother to her men and hammer of the Crown was hugging Garon to her chest and bawling heavy, racking sobs.
“Ma’am?” A voice said, muffled through the outer door. A gauntleted hand knocked, and Kayin and Fluffbear looked at each other, spread out to either side-
“Go away! It’s fine!” Mastoya yelled.
And Garon relaxed into her arms, and hugged her back. Maybe this will work. Just maybe.
Finally, she put him down, and mopped the snot from her crooked nose with one sweep of a fluffy pink sleeve. “This guy who brought you back, is he around?” She looked over at Kayin and Fluffbear. “Gonna assume you’re dead people too.”
“I’m not!” Fluffbear squeaked, and Mastoya giggle-snorted in surprise at the sound of her voice. Fluffbear’s adorable level rose accordingly.
“I am, desu,” Kayin said, shrugging. “And he’s not around right now. We’re here because of Garon. He needed to talk with you.”
“Yeah. My… savior? Huh. Weird, but I guess he is. He’s busy.” And hopefully things are going as well on his end of things, Garon thought.


“These past few years,” Cecelia heard Emmet rumble, and nearly lost her footing on the crates she’d stacked together as she jumped in surprise. She knew that voice well!
Sure enough, a backward glance showed the old familiar armored form, half visible in the light coming in from the portcullis. Right about where Threadbare was.
“Yes,” she could just make out the tiny bear’s voice in the darkness. “The last time I saw you, everything was on fire and you were falling over a bannister. Well, through it, I suppose. It was rather flimsy to you I think.”
“I was. Then there were soldiers, and I fought them. But then King Melos was there, and I could not fight him, for he was stronger than I. And he took me back to Castle Cylvania.”
“I see. I was stuck under a lot of rubble for a few years. Then I got out and found my old friends and made some new ones and now I am here.”
Oh Threadbare. Cecelia palmed her face with her free hand. Then she shook her head, and looked up at the boxes. She had a job to do, and he was… buying her time? Having an innocent conversation? Hard to say.
Emmet. Emmet was a surprise. She’d never thought to ask after him, assumed he was sitting deactivated in a storeroom somewhere. But here he was, talking, and his words sounded an awful lot like he was smart now, too. Another Greater Golem… She thought, as she scrambled up the boxes.
And then she was hopping off the last box, and scrambling up Reason.
“I was not done,” said Emmet. “He told me of my destiny and personally took me through many dungeons. I fought many foes at his side, and learned to become strong. Even though I must pretend to be stupid, and follow Anise Layd’i around and obey her commands, I am smart, too.”
“Anise Layd’i. Is she about? That could be trouble,” Threadbare said.
“She is in the Fortress somewhere. Speaking with the Hand. And Princess Cecelia.”
Cecelia froze.
Once the echoes faded, the little bear continued. “Princess Cecelia? Are you sure?” Threadbare asked.
“I am sure. I was awaiting here as ordered when she came in her Steam Knight suit which is strong but not as strong as me. She came out, and Anise bowed to her and smiled in a way that should have been pleasant but I thought seemed unpleasant.”
“And you are certain it was her?”
“I have seen her face, her armor, heard her voice many times before. King Melos told me I must guard her with my life and do as she instructs, even if Anise Layd’I does not want me to. And that was Princess Cecelia.”
Cecelia felt a sick premonition welling up in her gut. She remembered rumors, barracks whispers, and old tales.
Old tales about daemons, and what they could do with people.
But I’m here! My soul is here in my new body, right? Sick to her stomach, she scrambled back to the hatch, and wrapped her fingers around the handle.
“Oh. That’s strange. I saw Anise Layd’I kill her.” Threadbare said.
Metal shrieked, as Emmet stirred, restless. “Impossible. That would be treason.”
“And yet she did.”
Cecelia’s hands shook, and she pushed hesitation aside, and twisted at the handle, got it half open...
And then her eyes opened wide, as something inside twisted back. The handle ground shut again.
“You are fooled or lying. I am a representative of the Crown. It is treason to lie to me,” Emmet ground out, and there was a hint of frustration in his voice.
“I think Anise Layd’I has been fooling a lot of people,” said Threadbare.
“And she has told me that is what traitors would say. Are you a traitor to the Crown?”
“No,” Threadbare said after some consideration. “But the King killed Caradon, you know.”
“The old man who made us.”
Cecelia closed her eyes, let the old sorrow wash over her, to be replaced with new resolve.
Reason was hers, dammit! And since Reason was dormant, she had a trump card.
“Animus!” She whispered, touching the hatch. “Invite door!” And then she gave it a sharp tug, putting her will into the animi as she did so, and it sprang open-
-as flesh tore, and a spray of blood hit her face.
Something inside screamed, louder than any steam. She staggered back, got the glowgleam rod up, and shined it in…
In to a mass of writhing tentacles, and wires, and nonsensical gears, and glowing sigils, that she’d never seen before. Eyeless faces sobbed at her, as the thing that filled Reason like a hermit crab filled its shell, whined and shrieked over the tendrils that she’d torn free with the hatch, and lashed out after her.
She fell off Reason, hitting the ground, feeling her body crack a bit, as a red ‘34’ floated up.
“What?” Emmet said, voice gaining volume as he rose. “No! I must guard Reason!”
The hatch slammed shut, and gears groaned, as Reason stirred, rising in jerky motion, turning toward Cecelia as she crawled backward, and watched the parasite-filled mecha up its massive blade.
Reason needed no guards, as it turned out.
Not that it was Reason, any more. No, they were far, far past reason here, Cecelia realized…


“So you’re Graves’ old man,” Arxus smiled, as he paced around the barracks, looking over the junk scattered hither and yon. “I hear he turned traitor.”
“I wouldn’t know. He don’t exactly call home no more.” Graves said. “Ran away to the big city cause he was too good for pickin’ beets the rest of his life.”
The necromancer chuckled as he nudged the overfull catbox with his toe. “Looks like someone’s been keeping pets against the rules. Sorry for the mess. It was here when you got here I suppose?”
“Yes. Eh, it don’t smell worse than the barn on a hot day. I reckon.”
Gods, he was laying it on thick. Madeline kept her camouflage going, feeling the sanity drain.
“Well, it’s no worry,” said Arxus. “The Crown makes war on traitors not their relatives. So you were bringing supplies in?”
“Yessir. Bunch of fishermen came through Pads and traded for stuff. We’re simple farm folk and fish disagrees with us so we decided to tithe it to tha troops.”
“How patriotic. You know, I’m from Riversend, myself. My folks weren’t peasants, but they weren’t far from it, and I don’t ever recall knowing any peasants who would give up food.”
Graves shrugged, uncomfy. “Well, I didn’t make the choice. New Alderman’s a shit, probably wanted to kiss up to the Crown.”
“New Alderman?”
“Baron down there went bad. Royal Knights rooted him out. Put in an Alderman in his place.”
“Oh? See, that’s interesting. Because I heard that my old colleague Graves was one of those royal knights who did that, back before he went traitor.”
Madeline studied Graves’ face. He was sweating, and using the time to think, she could tell. But if she could tell, she rather thought Arxus could, too.
“Yeah. I did talk to my son after he did that,” Graves said, bowing his head. “Didn’t want to mention it to ya because he went traitor a few weeks after.”
“Mm. I know why you’re here.” Arxus said.
“You do?”
Madeline shifted slowly, slowly under the bed, angling for a good pounce.
“You’re here looking for news of your son.”
She relaxed a bit.
“I am,” Graves admitted. “Do you know anything?”
“Honestly, I don’t know if I’d tell you if I did. He thought he was better than us. Felt bad about the soulstone archives. Kept asking questions about where the bodies came from.” Arxus chuckled, an oily sound. “First rule of the necromancer corps, you never ask about that. He thought he was above that rule. Better than us. But we got him back.”
“Did you?” Graves asked, and there was something in his voice, something that Madeline had never heard from the cool, collected necromancer she’d come to like.
“Oh yes. His fiancée came back from the front, dead. One of MY friends had a contact in the morgue. Guess which body we had shipped over for training, when Wight day came?”
“You did,” Graves said, forgetting to put the quaver of old age in his tone. There was a quaver there all right, but it wasn’t from age.
“And guess which trainee ended up with her body, staring up at him, when he pulled the sheet off?” Arxus said, sneering.
“You son of a bitch,” Graves said, standing.
“Hello, Bertie,” sneered Arxus, whipping a wand from a holster, and pointing it straight at him. “How’s tricks?”
"Chomp!" Madeline lunged. Arxus screamed as Madeline’s fangs went into his calf. The wand fired and black energy went wild, and Graves shouted words that were lost in the thunder of the cannon, as red life burst from Arxus and flowed into him. Over and over again he stomped forward, pounding his cane on the ground, shouting until the echoes of the cannon faded and Arxus was a shrivelled husk on the floor. “-Life! Drain Life! Drain Life!”
“Stop!” Madeline howled, crashing into him, and sending him off balance.
“You jackass!” Howled a spectral voice, and both of them whipped their heads around to see Arxus’ spirit, standing over his corpse. “You are so fucked!” And then he dove through the floor.
“He’ll get help,” Graves said, and from outside, down the corridor, shouts were already starting to rise. “I’m sorry. I’m…”
“Glub!” Yelled Madeline, grabbing up her pack. “Get ready to move!”
Wind’s Whisper Threadbare, she thought. “We’re made! Need an escape route!”
And then it was Garon’s turn…

“She hated me,” Mastoya said, slurring her words. The second bottle crashed to the floor, empty, as she fumbled for it. “Nuts. That’s alcohol abuse, it is.”
“She didn’t hate you,” Garon said. “She loved you, she was just awful at showing it.”
“No. It was… it would have been fine, I guess, if it was just us, y’know? But she let Dad take me into th’ town to play. An’ I had friends. An’…” Mastoya slumped back in her chair. “An’ they got to play with dolls, and wear pretty dresses, an’… but not me. Not Nasty Masty. Had to wear furs and loincloths, an’ get my ears pierced early even though it hurt, and fight off the rats she called to eat me. The rats. Garon. She tried to eat me. With rats.”
“Yeah. We, uh, we got her to stop doing that after they nearly got Jarrik that one time.”
“I… shit. And Dad… what’s he do? He like acted all supportive and stuff, but whenever it was him ‘gainst her he’d crumble. Weak. Just… good man. She didn’t deserve, him, him. Hm?” She reached for the bottle, found nothing there. “Shit.”
“Yeah. Listen, do you believe me? Believe what I said about what Anise is doing?”
“Oh yeah. She’s a shit. Thing is…” Mastoya chortled. “The King is strong. He’s just... just giving her rope. He needs’er now. Needs’er till the dwarvesr dead. Then she’s nexx, nexp on the chokking blopp.”
“But what if she’s not? What if she’s playing him? From what you told me about Taylor’s Delve, it sounds like SHE was giving the order to scrub it.”
“You. You have no idea how much that hurt, Gar.” Mastoya said, staring at her hands. “My ol’ friends? Gone. Dead. But… it was… final test. It was what I had to do, to finish HER. To move on from ‘th past. In the end… Anise, the King… in the end it was gonna happen. An’ if I didn’t, then someone else would. So why shoodn’t I benefit from it?”
He opened his mouth…
…and Fluffbear squeaked up. “Because it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter who ordered it, it’s wrong either way. Killing innocents is never okay.”
“Yeah, well, Ritaxis don’t care. War hhappens,” Mastoya said, glaring at her.
“That’s bull hockey! Those were the people you were fighting to protect! What good is a war if you kill your own people? That’s worse than losing!”
“Wash your mouth, li’l bear!”
“You’ll never be a paladin that way!”
“Psh, what’d you know ovvit. Ain’t no paladins no-
“Clarifying Aura!” said the little bear, and the office filled with light as she glowed, holy radiance easing in and around the toys and the drunken half-orc.
“There are,” Fluffbear said, as the echoes faded. Her aura did its thing, buffing mental fortitude and restoring sanity, bit by bit. “And I am one. And I tell you now, there’s good ways to wage war, but the ends never, ever, ever justify the means.”
Mastoya looked at her, mouth opening and closing.
And Garon stiffened, as Madeline’s message screamed in his ear. “Oh hell. Look, Mastoya… this isn’t right. You know it. At the heart of it, you haven’t changed!” He said, the words tumbling, coming faster. “You’re still my sister, you still don’t deserve the crap you go through, and you still want to be an awesome paladin! You can! Come with us! We’re fixing things! We’re putting it right! Come with us and help!”
Mastoya looked at him. Then she stood, wobbling. “Gar…” She sighed, and put her hand to her head, rubbing the crewcut black hair, and the scars under it. “Curative.” She said, and instantly straightened up, cold sober. “Innocents. Good men. Yeah. Thing is… I’m commanding a lot of’em. Not all innocents, but…” She moved around to where she’d put her sword, and picked it up. “They’re relying on ME.”
“Masty… don’t do this…”
“They swore to the Crown, but they’re my family now, Gar. The one I chose. And if I turned? I could never look them in the eye again. Yeah, I killed my mother, and it didn’t help like I thought it would. I just felt bad. I killed you too and I’m sorry, and I can never make that up to you. But them? They’re my redemption. They’re the one good thing I did, the one thing I tried that hasn’t turned to shit. They TRUST me. They know I’ll have their back. Just as I know they’ll have mine.” She sighed. “Holy Smite. Divine Conduit!” She said, and light burst from her, eyes erupting with holy glow, as a halo formed around her head, and she raised the shining golden sword high.
“Now surrender, Garon,” She said, in a voice that reverberated like thunder. “I don’t want to have to kill you a second time.”
And then Reason screamed, and all hell broke loose.
Spoiler: Spoiler



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Andrew Seiple


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