Long and high, like some sort of undersea crustacean thrown in a fire, Reason screamed, and the wail tore out of the machine bay, breaking the silence between cannon shots. And like everyone else in the fort, Mastoya's head whipped around toward the window.
“A distraction!” She assumed, turning back toward Garon and the toys... find an empty office, and dissipating green flickers, as the golems' waystones did their work.
Garon materialized at the foot of the bed...
...which was no longer there. Graves was rummaging inside the pack, pulling out different soulstones, looking for the right one. Glub and Madeline were shoving the bed, along with a few others, in front of the only door out.
From beyond the makeshift barricade, the group could clearly hear approaching metal-shod feet.
For a bit, anyway. Reason might be wailing, but the guns weren't stopping.
“Threadbare's not answering!” Madeline shouted.
Garon thought quickly. “Trouble. He'll need our help and we can't stay here.”
“I'm sorry,” Graves said. “I fucked up.”
“It wasn't your fault,” Glub insisted. “Dude had it out for you. Speaking of that, here.” The fishman grabbed the withered corpse on the floor, jumped up, and slam-dunked it into the pack. Graves nearly dropped the pack, and cursed.
“What the heck?” Fluffbear squeaked.
“Evil dude. Magic items. Search later,” Glub summed up, then went back to building the barricade. There was hammering against the door now, and angry voices.
Garon growled low in his throat. “Right. Graves, Madeline, get in my party.” He threw invites, then he threw a quest.
“Follow you?” Madeline said.
“Yep. That simple. Do the Job. Organize minions to follow me!” He pointed at the barricade, and the door slamming against it repeatedly, as the guards battered against the recalcitrant portal. “Burninate that, buy us some time.”
“Bahninate!” Madeline yelled, and then there was fire. Glub screamed and jumped clear, barely.
“Dude! Warn a bro first!”
The angry shouts outside turned to panicked shouts, and Garon nodded, pointed to the window. “Out we go. We get to Threadbare as fast as possible.”
“We're four stories up, give or take!” Graves said, and gestured at his withered arms. “I can't climb!”
“Fff... can you fit in the pack?”
“No,” Graves said, sparing it a glance. “It's just a bit too small. Pulsivar barely got in there.”
“I could adjust it with tailoring.” Fluffbear offered.
Graves coughed, as the smoke from the burning beds started filling the room.
“No,” Madeline snapped. “Can't alter the pack when it's enchanted or it'll lose the magic. No way weah getting the cats back in now if they get out!”
“Okay. Waystone shenanigans with Graves, would they work? Get clear, make a waymark somewhere else, and get him a waystone?” He looked to Glub.
“Dude, those things cost fortune. I'm low. And we'd still have to get him the waystone, how are we gonna do that?”
“Shit.” Garon hopped up, looked out the window. The courtyard below was distracted, with civilians getting clear and armored men advancing on the portcullis of the machine bay. A flash of metal, then the portcullis groaned and bent outward, as something heavy slammed against it.
“I have a different idea,” Said Graves, coughing. “Fluffbear, can you quickly sew me a pair of gloves? Garon, please kick me out of the party.”
A minute later, Graves was coughing helplessly, unable to move a muscle as he cleared his lungs of smoke.
But he didn't have to move his muscles, because he was an animator, and his gloves, shoes, pants, and tunic were all animated. moving on their own they climbed him down the wall with slow and careful grace.
Garon watched as a few fleeing civilians paused, then came over to help, offering him hands and helping him down once he got to the courtyard. He pointed up to the window, which now had smoke oozing out of it, and Garon ducked. “We're good! He can blend in with the crowd. Madeline, you ready?”
“Get ahn!” She said, just as the door sizzled and burned to nothing in the space of a second. A bare female hand pushed through the ashes where a door had been, and a beautiful woman wearing a diaphanous red halter top and harem pants pushed through the barricade contemptuously, black eyes narrowed behind her red domino mask...
...just in time to see a small wooden dragon with its back full of toys go careening out the window.
The creature who the whole land knew as the fourth member of the Hand, called only “The Cataclysm”, sighed and turned her attention to extinguishing the flames. Really, calling her in here had been like asking a sledgehammer to crush a cockroach.
As to the culprits who had fled, well, she'd leave them to her colleagues. That should be more than enough to take care of the matter.


Reason screamed, the sound filling the machine bay with the shrieks of the damned, and Cecelia ran for cover.
“Cecelia!” Threadbare shouted, staring as the great Steam Knight suit rose, and started stabbing its sword into the piles of junk around it. “No!”
“Cecelia?” Emmet rumbled, loudly this time, voice rising as he managed to shake off the command keeping him quiet. “She is here?”
“Yes!” Threadbare said, running toward the Steam Knight...
...which turned.
Yellow light glimmered inside its helm, and tendrils poked out, slimy tendrils, with glowing orbs like eyes, that trained down upon the little bear as he smacked his scepter on the moving barricades. “Hi! Over here!” He called. “I challenge you! Er, Guard Stance!”
Your Challenge skill is now level 10!
Your Guard Stance skill is now level 20!
But as he did, there were heavy footsteps behind him.
“No!” Emmet said. “I must guard Reason!”
“That's not Reason!” Cecelia wailed, as the massive machine turned from her, and glared its eyestalks down at Threadbare. “There's a monster in it!”
She slowed, as Emmet stared at her, gems glittering under its helm. “You... are Cecelia!”
WHAM! Threadbare twisted desperately to the side as Reason shuffled toward him, and tried to kick the little bear. It missed, barely-
Your Dodge skill is now level 9!
I don't have nearly the skill to keep doing that, Threadbare knew. So he ran past a row of barricades, slapping them with his paw. “Animus Animus Animus Animus, invite barricades 1 through four, get that thing,” he said, calming a bit now that Cecelia was out of danger.
Your animus skill is now level 36!
Your Creator's Guardians skill is now level 27!
The heavy barricades rolled on their sturdy wheels, slamming into Reason's legs as it stepped back, surprised.
“What has happened to you?” Emmet said, gazing upon the little porcelain doll. “You are smaller and not armored!”
“It's a long story and we don't have-”
WHAM! Reason brought its wrecker blade down on an animated barricade, splitting it asunder, and sending a red '303' up into the air. Then it turned to the rest of the barricades, and drew back the ten-foot-long sword for a wide sweep. Hastily Threadbare directed them to scatter, but Reason just turned toward Threadbare, lunging forward and sending more barricades into the air, chopping through chains and resting siege engines alike as it tried to skewer the little bear.
“I command you to kill the monster inside Reason!” Cecelia shouted, desperation making her voice squeak as its strings stressed to their limit.
“All right,” Emmet decided. “I can do that.”
On anyone else it would be a boast. But there was nothing boastful in his tone, nothing but quiet confirmation of a thing self-evident.
And so as Threadbare ran from Reason as it wrecked its way across the machine bay, using barricades to slow it down and animating new ones just as fast as they were destroyed, Emmet thumped his chest with a hollow CLANG, and started toward the infested machine that stood twice his size, speaking with his booming voice as he went.
“Always in Uniform. Shield Saint.” Emmet said, for his forearms WERE shields, with gauntlets on the end of them. “Unyielding. Fight the Battles. Take the Hits. Get that Guy! Build up-” he finished with the first run, drawing a hand back as he broke into a sprint. “The Bigger they are... Fast as Death.” He intoned, running through all the applicable tier one melee buffs.
And then he switched over to his melee tier two skills. “Ablative Armor.” he commanded, and barricades flew up to coat him, along with broken chains and other surrounding metal items. He continued as they slammed into him, forming a shell of his own. “Unbreakable. Unmoveable. Unstoppable. Always Angry...” Then a dip back into tier one, for the last skill. “Rage!”
Emmet roared, and Reason twisted to face him, and nailed him point-blank with an arbalest bolt.
It hadn't shot at Threadbare because the target in question was tiny. But Emmet? Emmet was big.
The bolt, which could punch through plate armor like a longbow through cardboard, hit Emmet... and sent a spray of barricades from the armor golem's back.
A big, fat '0' drifted up.
Realizing too late its danger, Reason twisted, tried to get out of the line of Emmet's lumbering charge-
-to no avail. “Clench!” Emmet roared, and latched his hand around one of the pistons in its calves.
The Wrecker blade bounced off his head, as Reason tried to cut him down. A red '17' drifted up, and more barricades sprayed away.
“Siegebreaker Strike!” Emmet roared, and drew back his free arm. Then with terrible, slow force, he punched towards Reason's knee.
Reason could have easily dodged it.
Should have dodged it.
And it would have if it could have. But Emmet had it in a deathgrip, and no matter what the heavier machine tried, it couldn't shake the armor golem free. He was unmoveable. Desperate, Reason slammed the wrecker blade down between its leg and the oncoming fist, trying to parry it.
But Emmet was not only unmoveable, he was unstoppable.
In slow motion his fist hit the wrecker blade. And went right on through six inches of forged steel as the blade crumbled and splintered, went right through Reason's knee beyond, snapping through clockwork and armor, and tearing through the fleshy thing inside it.
Threadbare and Cecelia watched Emmet pull his fist back, sighed in relief as Reason toppled, bloody tendrils whipping from the stump of its thigh.
“End Rage,” Emmet said, stomping up toward the cockpit, ignoring the flailing arms. “Please stay clear Princess Cecelia!” He called. “I shall end its threat.”
“Holy shit,” Garon gasped, and Cecelia and Threadbare turned to see the rest of the group dismounting from Madeline's back.
“No wondah you didn't answah your whispahs,” Madeline said, watching in mixed horror and awe as Emmet slowly, relentlessly, beat in Reason's helm with his metal fists. The tainted machine whined as it scrabbled, trying to drag itself away from him, but every time it made headway Emmet just grabbed it and yanked it back to him.
“That's Juggernaut stuff,” Garon said. “Got to be. Knight Berserker stuff, holy shit.”
“That's my brother, more or less,” Threadbare said, dusting himself off, and dismissing the barricades. “I'm sorry to say we can't take Reason out of here.”
“Where's Graves?” Cecelia asked.
Shouts from outside, as a figure ran up to the portcullis, wiggled through some of the warped bars from Reason's kick, and ran to them. “I'm here!” Graves shouted. “What the...”
“The Hand is here, too!” Cecelia yelled back. “We need to escape!”
“Too late,” someone whispered in her ear, and as she jumped in surprise, as a knife stabbed straight through her skull-
-and she gained another golem body level, because you can't kill golems that way.
The toys whirled, to see a woman clad in tight-fitting black clothes from head to toe, all save a scarlet sash easily ten feet long, around its waist. The figure stepped back in surprise, as Cecelia tore the knife from her skull, and tossed it in the air.
“Mine now!” Snarled the porcelain princess. “Animus Blade!” Then the red '124' drifted into the air, and she staggered. “Woo.” But the dagger arrowed after the figure, who suddenly exploded into smoke and was gone.
“Mend Golem!” Shouted Threadbare.
You have healed Cecelia 120 points!
Your Mend Golem skill is now level 28!
“That's the Ninja! That was the fucking Ninja!” Garon freaked out. “Yeah, it's escape time!”
Fire flared from behind them, in the courtyard, and the portcullis started to melt.
“And theah's tha Cataclysm and why ah we still sitting heah talking?” Madeline said, rushing toward the doors on the far side of the room.
In the afterechoes, the central door out of the machine bay slammed open, and Cecelia gasped as a white-armored form pushed through. She knew that armor well, from the horn cresting its helm to the royal crest on its greaves.
And then she saw who was behind it.
Anise Layd'i stepped into the room, her face roiling with rage, staring around at the mess-
-and fixing on Threadbare's silhouette, as he stared back at her.
“Can't go that way!” Madeline shouted, skidding to a halt and coming back around.
“Up here!” Zuula called from the stairs. “Quickly!”
Graves and the golems ran, ran for their lives, all but Threadbare. He paused, on the last step, looked toward Emmet. “Invite Golem,” he finally decided.
Emmet looked up, surprised.
Your Invite Golem skill is now level 12!
Threadbare stretched out his free paw, offering it...
...and then a shuriken blossomed in the center of it, as stuffing sprayed.
Your Golem Body skill is now level 27!
Your Toughness skill is now level 20!
Max HP +2!
“Stop! Emmet, stop you stupid thing!” He heard Cecelia say, and jumped in surprise as the white-armored form lifted her visor and ran forward. “Oh what did you... oh lord, there go the ventral flukes! I'll be days repairing that!”
Reason whimpered, and stretched its hand toward its mistress.
And as Emmet stopped pounding, Threadbare sighed. “Mend Golem,” he said, on the way up the stairs, as another shuriken whizzed past his head.
Your Mend Golem skill is now level 29!
As soon as he got all the way up the long stairs, Zuula and Garon slammed the hatch down behind him, and shot the bolts. “Animus! Invite Shelves!” Graves yelled, and a heavy set of shelves, with gears and parts falling off of it at every step, shufffled over to weigh down the hatch.
“That won't stop Emmet for long,” Threadbare cautioned. “He's their warmachine now.”
“And the fucking Hand's behind him!” Garon said. “Once the Legion shows up we're dead!”
“Where are we, any... way...” Threadbare drifted off, as he looked around and realized that the room was full of dead people.
A great cannon stood in the center of it, and a bronze dome capped it up top, its workings filled with chains and pulleys, with metal spheres the size of Zuula's hut suspended and swaying like evil, looming fruit.
The shelves all around were filled with mixtures and jars, metal jars. But from several of them, evil-looking thorny vines extruded, growing into the shelves and walls, and through about ten men wearing goggles and facemasks and heavy aprons. Some of them were still twitching, but all were plainly dead.
“Zuula been busy. Tanks for distraction downstairs.” The little half-orc said, mopping blood free from her tiny spear. “Now what escape plan?”
Threadbare stared toward the view slits at the far end of the room. They could fit through them. Graves couldn't.
Cecelia, was investigating the shells and the cannon. “Huh! This isn't complicated. The firing solution's the trickiest part. Looks like these guys were Tinkers. Maybe a few Alchemists. Uh, Graves, stay away from those vines. Don't touch anything.”
“Yes, dose vines from poison seeds,” Zuula said. “Only vegetation stuff to work with up here.”
“It's gone silent downstairs,” Kayin said, cat-ear pressed to the floor. “I think.”
Threadbare shook his head. “I'm open to ideas. This is a bad spot. We could waystone back to the room.”
“It's compromised, I'm sorry,” Graves said.
“Oh. Hm.”
“Wait,” Cecelia said, glancing up at the spheres overhead. “I have a crazy idea... Madeline, how tough is that pack?”
“Your merchant's pack!”
“Eh, it's leather.”
“I mean if it gets destroyed, what happens?”
“Everything inside comes out at once.”
Cecelia gnawed her lip. “Can you put a pack inside a pack?”
“Oh sweet Hoon no, the skill's explicit about that. And I can only have one at a time anyway.”
“What are you thinking?” Threadbare asked.
“That you all get inside her pack, we stick the pack into one of the shells, and fire it past the lines over to dwarven territory.” Cecelia started cranking levers and wheels, and the counter-weighted cannon swung around.
“Whoa.” Garon said. “Don't you need someone outside to pull you out, though?”
“Yeah, or yah stuck waiting until the spell expires.”
“Could one of us survive the impact?” Threadbare said, looking up at the giant brass orbs.
“Maybe.” Cecelia said. “It'd be one big hit, but I mean a BIG hit. They're not made for force, they're made for delivering gas and other stuff.” She took a breath. “But we don't have organs, or bones, so if one of our plush types does it... oh shoot. Graves.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It's all right. I'll stay behind to fire the cannon. I fucked it up, I'll pay the price.”
“No, you didn't!” Garon and Cecelia chorused. They shared a glance.
“It went wrong on my end,” Garon said. “Maybe. I have an idea of how to reach Mastoya now.”
“It went way wrong on my end, too” Cecelia said. “Besides, you're not a Tinker. You need to be one to fire this thing.”
“Feet on the stairs!” Kayin called back. A siren started up, wailing, throughout the fort. “And there's the general alarm,” Cecelia said. “We're out of time. Graves, get in the pack.”
“I can't. It's not big enough.”
“No,” Threadbare decided. “Nobody stays behind. Nobody dies. Unless...”
“Unless?” Cecelia said.
“Glub, do you have enough fortune left for another waymark and waystone?”
“Yeah. Why?”
“Graves, do you have any merchants you can borrow skills from in your soulstone collection?”
“Yes.” He rummaged around in the pack, drew out a soulstone. "Why?”
“There's no time, so I'll try to be concise.” Threadbare said. “Here, hold my pants.”
And with that, the little bear started stripping, as he told them his plan...
Two minutes later, the cannon belched, and filled the room with BOOM.
Threadbare grimaced, then relaxed as Kayin's whisper filled his ears. “Survived the launch,” The catgirl whispered. “Also, OW.”
“Get in!” He motioned to his side, and Cecelia dove into the very large pack below him, vanishing to join Graves inside. The sturdy pack was some of Missus Fluffbear's best work. Though not the only bit of work she'd done in the last minute, since the rest of their cloth supplies had gone into the padding necessary to keep Kayin alive. Fluffbear had made her a very, very thick pillow, since Kayin was a wooden type.
This part had actually been the biggest gamble of the whole affair.
CLANG! “Ow!” a woman called. He turned in time to see the shelves fall through the burned-out hatch, and listened as they crashed down the stairs.
Sighing, Threadbare sat on the large pack that he'd had Fluffbear make, and waited. Maybe not the biggest gamble, he thought, as he waited. Waited and counted.
Tendrils of fire burst from the hatch, clearing away the vines and wreckage, rupturing pots and spraying poison smoke into the domed chamber.
But Threadbare had no lungs.
Your Golem Body skill is now level 28!
Emmet was up and through next, a massive arm raised to shield himself, peering over the edge with his gemstone eyes. Threadbare waved to him.
“The bear is alone here,” Emmet ground out.
“Oh, yes. My name is Threadbare, actually. I don't remember if I mentioned that or not.” He held up a teapot. “Would you like to have a tea party?”
Emmet's free hand snapped forward, and the teapot shattered. Threadbare looked at the handle in his paw, over to the hollow finger that Emmet had used to fling the bolt, then back to the bronze dome, and the footlong iron spike buried into it. “I would have taken no for an answer,” he said.
“The real Princess Cecelia tells me you are a traitor who tricked me.”
“No,” Threadbare said, shoving the two teacups he'd set out back into his pack before Emmet could get trigger happy again. “You can only betray something if you were on its side in the first place. I am on Cecelia's side, and not the King's side. The King killed our maker. I don't like the King very much.”
“That is still treason,” Emmet said, taking a step forward, training his finger on the bear.
“Command Golem. Please stand down,” Threadbare said.
And he felt the spell fizzle. He remembered how Caradon had griped about the magic resistance skill, many a time. “He was right. It is annoying.”
Emmet advanced upon him, and Threadbare simply sat, staring up at him with button eyes.
“Do you surrender?”
“I will not fight you,” Threadbare said, hoping that Emmet didn't question him further.
“It is safe,” Emmet called back.
“Wait for the smoke to disperse first,” Anise said. “Unless...”
“I'm on it,” A man said. He was nobody Threadbare had ever heard speak before.
Doors slammed open in midair, above the hatch, doors to someplace full of blackness broken by red light. THINGS crawled out of the holes, things like wasps made of metal that darted upward, slamming into the roof, and tearing at it with mandibles. Bronze shrieked and gave way, and the smoke eddied up, as the draft drew it out.
And all through it, Threadbare counted. He hit the goal he was trying for, hesitated, then decided to give it a bit more.
“Kill the fire, dear,” Anise said.
“Aw. Wasting so much of my time stopping fires,” a woman griped, in an exotic accent.
Fifteen seconds crawled by as the fires shrunk and vanished, and the draft pulled the smoke out and away.
Then wind whipped past Threadbare, and he turned to see the black-clad woman who'd thrown a metal star through his hand, crouched behind him, twenty feet away and ready to cut him down.
“Hello,” he said to her. She squinted at him, over the mask that covered everything but her eyes.
“Well well well,” Anise said, heels clicking as she strolled up the stairs. “The little bear. Naked and alone.”
“Not alone. You're here.” Threadbare said, placidly. “But I am naked, yes.”
“I suppose you wanted to leave your magic items to your friends.” She smiled, then glanced down at the pack. “What's in there?”
“Two of my friends. We had to stay behind for this to work.”
“Stay behind?” She arched an eyebrow.
“Oh yes. Everyone else went into the cannon shell.”
“Desperate,” The ninja whispered.
“And you would be one of the Hand?” Threadbare asked. “Or is it the finger? I'm not sure how this goes."
“Three fingers, I suppose, is a good way of putting it,” said the red-robed man as he walked through the hatch. An iron, grilled mask covered his face, and scar tissue showed around the points it didn't cover. “She's the Ninja. I'm the Legion. The Cataclysm is waiting to cook you if you escape.”
“And the Princess is waiting below,” said Anise, smiling. “Trying to salvage some Reason from the situation. And here I am, Amelia Gearhart, ready to unmask myself to the kingdom... with Emmet's help, to sell it, of course.”
“Of course,” Threadbare said. “It seems very clever. But isn't there one more?”
“He's busy,” said the Legion, gesturing the wasps down to patrol around the dome, blocking the vision slits out. “You're a clever one, aren't you? You see how we're going to play this?”
“Garon told me about the Hand. How the entire country thinks they're the surviving heroes of the Seven, yes. I suppose you're all going to unmask and show them that yes, that's true?”
“A new Seven. Now that Cecelia is grown enough to take her place with us,” Anise smiled. “I'm the secret thumb, you could say. And she's two extra digits, her and reason combined.”
“Except she's not Cecelia, is she? Just as you're not Amelia?”
Emmet shifted, restless.
“Don't be ridiculous, who else would we be?” Anise smiled, but her eyes were hard now. “And you're a little bear who knows too much.”
“All I know is that you're not a nice lady, not at all.”
“No dear. That's part of the irony.” Anise smiled. “Ready to die now?” She asked, eyes flicking past him, looking for the trick, looking for the trap.
“I suppose so.” Threadbare hopped down. “Do you mind if I put my clothes on? I'd rather not die naked.”
“Be my guest. Ranshax, kill him if he gets stupid.”
The ninja nodded.
“Call Outfit,” Threadbare said, and was clad in his clothes once more. He lifted the pack up, and settled it on his shoulders.
Your Call Outfit skill is now level 4!
“Your hat,” said Emmet. “It was different before.”
“Yes,” said Threadbare, putting his paw to the waystone that had been sewn into it. “I suppose it was. Goodbye.”
He saw Anise's eyes widen, and then everything was green, and his view distorted as shurikens whipped through it...
...and he was fading in, right in the middle of a crater.
Kayin, battered and scorched, grinned happily at him and waved. “One life down, boss! Glad to see it was worth it!”
Next to her, a burned, holed, but intact pack was open, and Glub was pulling a very cranky Pulsivar out. Next to him, Fluffbear put away her sewing supplies. Then Madeline was hugging him.
“Ah! Thank you!” He pushed her away after a second. “I need to get Cecelia and Graves out. Excuse me. Oh, hold on. Clean and Press.
He did himself and the pack, raising levels twice. Both it and he had been dosed with toxic smoke, after all. No sense to going to all this trouble just to kill the man as he emerged.
Threadbare rummaged around in HIS pack, and pulled them out one after the other. First Cecelia, then Graves.
“Everything went to plan?” Graves asked, sweatstained from the evening's efforts.
Threadbare looked at Kayin.
She grinned. “Perfectly. I shoved the pack into the padding, and when the shell hit I used Nine Lives to survive it. Then I pulled Glub and Fluffbear and your clothes out. He made the waymark and the waystone, and she sewed it into the brim of your hat.”
“I finished like ten seconds before it disappeared,” Fluffbear squeaked. “You cut it really close. What happened?”
“My teapot got broken.” Threadbare sighed. “Too scattered to mend it, I fear. Oh, and the Hand are going to reveal themselves as the surviving members of the Seven and reunite the kingdom.”
Everyone went silent.
Then Pulsivar hissed, and backed into the center of the group, as a man cleared his voice from up above the crater.
“Aye, perhaps ye'd better tell us more about that?” A stranger said, and Threadbare looked up, to see about a dozen dwarves in heavy armor, leveling guns down at the golems and their living friends. “Later. After ye're properly in a cell.”
“Oh, good!” Threadbare said. “NOW we can surrender.”
Spoiler: Spoiler



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About the author

Andrew Seiple


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