Brokeshale Mountain rose above the Eastern Reaches of Cylvania like the stump of a massive tree. Large, jagged-topped, and untouched by trees, legend in fact said that it had once been one of the World Trees, destroyed by greedy giants in their war against a pantheon of gods long-since fallen. Or reborn. Or mostly gone, with one or two remaining. Or there was an apocalypse or something but the world recovered so it wasn't the end of the world after all. Or something like that.
What WAS known for sure, was that over a century ago, back when Cylvania carved its way to freedom and withdrew from the Cane Confederation (long before all that slavery nonsense,) a clan of enterprising dwarves made their way south from Mighty Hallas, and liked the look of the place. They knew why it didn't have trees, and it wasn't because of a curse or giants or gods or anything like that. It was because of what was there, hiding below the soil, keeping vegetation from growing on the place...
They knew it held riches. They hadn't realized just how MUCH. Dwarves being dwarves, when they found out how much metal was under Brokeshale, and the surrounding valley, they sent messages back to their relatives. Who got in touch with their relatives. Who called in their relatives. And in a relatively short time, (in dwarven terms anyway,) no less than four clans migrated down to set up new lives and turn Brokeshale into a major mining hub of western Disland.

Eventually the humans in the more central part of Cylvania noticed "hey, there's dwarves over there now," and the usual messages and envoys were sent, tables were thumped, voices were raised... and then envoys were received, handshakes were offered, coins changed hands, and the dwarves, under King-Grundi-under-this-mountain-here-no-not-that-one-the-big-one-you-idjit, (The transcriber was later fired,) walked away with the rights to the land UNDER the remote branch of the Skygrope mountain range, so long as he didn't expand his holdings horizontally, and represented Cylvania to the rest of the dwarven communities in Disland and beyond.
It seemed uncommonly generous, to many of the disgruntled human miners who'd called Cylvania home. But in actuality, it was more than fair. By making the dwarves "Their" dwarves, they staved off future incursions. The truth of the matter, was that being at the confluence of two mountain ranges, Cylvania was rich in mineral wealth, and more dwarven clans were already prepared to move in on the new nation to see what they could wring from below their soil.
But with a formal agreement in place, the oldbeards of the remaining clans knew they'd be moving in on Grundi's turf... a thing which dwarves do NOT do lightly.
So when dwarves wanted to own land or mine or do things in Cylvania, they went to King Grundi, king Grundi would talk with whoever the human in charge aboveground was at the time, negotiations would happen, and everybody got their cut. It worked pretty well.
Up until everything changed, the humans got stupid, and it didn't work any more.

"...and that's why we can't have nice things," Garon finished.
"It was more than just the humans getting stupid," Cecelia said, just a touch defensively. "I mean, if you're correct, then Anise tricked my father into- into slaughtering Taylor's delve. So yes, Grundi's claim against the Crown was correct on THAT. But they pretty much did the same thing to the Hornwoods, and refused the Crown's requests for evidence."
"What kinda evidence they supposed ta show?" Madeline asked, resting her head irritatedly on stone. She'd been out of sorts since the dwarves had confiscated her pack, along with the rest of their items, even down to the cloth mice Cecelia could have used to scout out their prison. "Empty mineshafts? A place where gold ore ain't?"
To be fair, they'd given the toys who had been clothe replacement clothes for their confiscated magic items, but the gray prison shirts were much too large for them, and they'd refused to allow the bears tailoring tools to fix that situation. At least Cecelia's SORT of fit. Kind of. If she held the neckline pinched shut.
"I'm just saying, that mistakes were made on both sides," Cecelia said. "Though admittedly, more on my father's side."
"Yeah. I don't know the details, not exactly, but Beryl told me the dwarves were NOT happy about the Oblivion. It didn't work at all like they were promised it would. " Garon sighed. "It was supposed to be a thing where we could raise or lower it. Was never supposed to be always up."
"You know a lot about this, Gar," Madeline said. "Why?"
"Eh, some of it's from Beryl, a lot of it is history I studied. If you're going to be a Mercenary you have to know what opportunities are out there for profitable conflicts. I figured that it'd end up the Crown against the dwarves at some point, and wanted to know the history of my potential employers."
"Nice!" Madeline said, admiringly.
"The Crown doesn't use mercenaries," Cecelia rubbed her chin.
"No, I would've fought for the dwarves. Precisely for that reason." Garon smiled. "Well, that and Mom and Dad would have disowned me if I helped the Crown."
"Beh. You t'ink too little of you parents," Zuula said, as she continued roaming the cell, poking at the walls. "We forgave Mastoya, didn't we?"
"Yeah, AFTER you died. At her hands. See, I didn't want it to come to that with me, at least."
"Technicality!" Zuula snorted.
"I hope Graves is okay," Kayin said, her ears flat against her skull. Her clothing, like Zuula's, had been sewn on, so she was spared a prison shirt at least.
"I just hope I can feed Mopsy on time!" Fluffbear waved her paws. "My code's gonna break if I don't!"
"Surely the gods won't mind?" Threadbare asked. "These seem like, oh what's the words... extenuating circumstances? Yes, those fit."
"It doesn't matter," Fluffbear said. "I swore it so I have to do it. That's the paladin's way."
"Wow. That sounds rough, man." Glub said, offering her a pat on her back. "I couldn't do that. I mean, I'd try, but stuff gets away from me, you know? More of a guidelines type than a rules guy."
"I'm sure Graves is okay," Cecelia reassured Kayin, giving her a one-armed hug. The catgirl leaned into it, even purred a bit as the porcelain princess scratched between her ears. "As are the cats, wherever they took them all. They're probably getting fed right now." She nodded to Threadbare. "So she's getting fed on time."
"Yes, but I'm not the one doing it."
"Look at it this way," Threadbare said. "If someone else is caring for them, then the cats are on THEIR time. Not yours. It's only while they're with you that they're on your time. Otherwise how could they hunt?"
"Hm..." Fluffbear scrunched her little black furry face up, so hard that her eyes flattened upward a bit. "I guess... Maybe?" She sighed. "I'm really new to this job. At least I've got Oops Sorry."
"Desu?" Kayin stirred and looked over to her.
"What did you do?"
"What do you mean?"
"You said oops sorry."
"That's the name of the skill."
"Seriously?" Garon said.
"Oh yes! It lets me talk to my god or the nearest applicable deity for the crisis of faith at hand and seek forgiveness! But I get a black mark on my status for a while and if I get too many I lose the job."
"It's not that funny," Fluffbear frowned at him.
"I uh, I didn't laugh," Garon said, glancing around.
"GAHAHAHHAHAH!" The laughter echoed through the room. "HAHAHAH! Heee, okay. Bring it down, Graf," said a deep and burly voice.
The walls of the cell faded.
The group found themselves standing, sitting, laying about, or in one case, abruptly falling over. (Zuula had been shoving against a wall.) They were in a great hall, wide and vast, broken by support pillars every hundred yards that stretched up to a vaulted ceiling. Glowstone chandeliers hung down, countless numbers of them, bathing the entire place in dim, silvery light. Light that glinted and reflected off the armor and weapons of the forty or so dwarves surrounding the golems.
And in what might have been the back, front, or center of the room, were three circular slabs of stone, atop which sat a fat throne. Made of some silvery metal, with plates and rivets and gadgets festooned all over it, carved with runes, the seat of it was buried in pillows, and quilts. Graves sat at the foot of the throne, with two glowering guards next to him, halberds crossed above his head.
On the throne sat an old, old dwarf, buried beneath cloth, with only his face and beard poking out. He had a gold crown on his bald pate, eyebrows that would have put Garon's father to shame for their bushiness, and a beard that stretched down six feet, well off the throne, and coiled neatly on the floor in a pile of braids.
It was hard to tell, but it looked like he was smiling.
"Have we been teleported?" Threadbare asked.
"No. The floah's the same," Madeline said, looking down. "Carrara marble with a two-chisel cut, holystoned regularly. I recognize some a' the nicks that I saw in the cell. What we thought was the cell."
"Do you now?" The old dwarf leaned forward. "You're a Mason, then?"
"Nah. I'm a stonecuttah. Taught myself the old fashioned way. Used to be I couldn't have craftin' jobs."
That caused a stir. Many of the dwarves around them stirred and muttered, and the King laughed again. "Wahahahhaha! Oh, this is good. Alright young man, you may stand."
The guards uncrossed their halberds. Graves stood, and Cecelia gasped, for he was no longer emaciated. "You're better!"
"They were kind enough to ask one of their high priests to see to me," Graves said, wiggling his feet a bit, to wake them up. "Thankfully it went off, just like a curse being removed." He shivered, and pulled his prison tunic down, trying to keep his nether parts covered. "I assume that you're satisfied, your majesty?"
"Mostly." Said the King. "Sorry for tha trick, children. Your man Graves here said some pretty outlandish things. We had ta be sure."
"You put us in a cell that wasn't real, and listened to us talk," Threadbare realized.
"Aye." The King nodded. "With a barrier to let your sound out and keep ours from comin' in. Wasn't the first time we've used this trick. Won't be the last."
Cecelia stepped forward. "Then... Graves, did you tell them everything?"
"More or less. He stopped me midway through."
"Ghosts in golem bodies I could buy." The King shrugged. "Seen weirder, though na for a while. No friends to the Crown, that needed a listen. Paladin? Well, few of those nowadays. I knew one once, before tha Oblivion. Oops Sorry ain't something most know! And most important of all, ye talked about yer father, the King." Two large, thin hands emerged from the quilts, and steepled under his chin, combing through his braids. "And ye did."
"So you believe that we're who we say we are?" Cecelia said.
"I believe ye think that. I believe that's what yer statuses say, since my scouts have confirmed it. Ye're either them, or the greatest cultists what ever existed in Cylvania. And that last bit don't seem likely."
Cecelia let out a sigh. Then she straightened up. "Your Majesty. I stand before you now as a Princess of the Realm. My Father has been-"
Silence fell throughout the throne room.
"Your majesty, please, we have risked so much to journey here-"
"Aye. But yer no longer princess of the realm. My dear, yer dead."
"Oh. Oh." Cecelia said, putting her hands to her mouth. "I completely forgot. Oh no."
"Aye. Our laws are clear on undead. Even if ye've got a nicer husk than most."
"Cecelia?" Madeline said, stirring restlessly. The dwarves nearest to her raised shields, and leveled weaponry at the little dragon.
"No, no, relax. It's not that bad," Cecelia said. "It's just that... we don't count as who we were before."
"Can't inherit, can't hold titles, can't hold property or wealth, all existing debts owed and recievable null and void, up to you if you want ta stick around but ya don't get a single copper from yer past life. Give it to yer heirs or to yer thane, and enjoy yer fresh start." The King nodded. “Which is a point in yer favor, because honestly, if you WERE still King Melos' daughter, you wouldn't be leavin' here until we ransomed you back to yer Father for peace. Assumin' we found a way we could trust that fucker.”
“He's only half of the problem,” Cecelia said. “The Inquisitor-”
“I wasn't finished!” The King thundered, and Cecelia fell silent, along with the rest of the hall. Threadbare moved up to her, and took her hand in his paw. Someone in the crowd went “Awww...” and turned it into a cough.

Your Adorable skill is now level 32!
The King sighed. “The point is, you ain't his daughter no more. The point is, you're enemies of the Crown now. And that makes you welcome here, to stay for a bit, purchase what you need, and be our guests for now. So long as y'stay out of the way and don't cause trouble, we'll bring none to you.”
Cecelia's face twisted, the ceramic plates of it shifting along with the 'muscles' under her 'skin'. “But... we want to help. We want to end this war.”
The dwarves around them muttered, shared looks varying from scorn to sadness. The King nodded. “I know. But... it ain't as easy as all that. Come on. Walk wi' me. I'll tell you why. We owe you that much, I think, and no man, or dwarf, golem or ghost can say that Grundi Embergleam doesn't pay his debts.” He glanced up at the rest of the 'court'. “Right. Bazdra, Gudrun, Montag, Hidon, yer wi' me. Rest a' ya, get back to it then!”
The golems looked to each other. Graves coughed. The dwarves dispersed, save for two women and two men who stepped forward, moving to flank the throne.
As soon as they were next to him, the King started fiddling with something under the pillows. Pipes on the back of the throne puffed to life, belched out clouds of steam, and to everyone but Cecelia's amazement the throne slowly revolved, and started moving away. Stairs and all.
“Nice!” She said, leading the rest of her friends in a quick jog to catch up to it, then falling into a walk alongside as the King tooled through the vast halls, the wheels on the underside of the throne driven by internal mechanisms. “Is that... no, it can't be a Fizznocker engine, not even a mark four. That's at least half a ton of marble, not counting the throne itself.”
“Not really a throne. I call it my Kneelchair.” He rasped a laugh, then continued. “Nah, each wheel has its own engine. And you're looking at Burlstrads there, not that weak Fizznocker bullshit. So you're in the trade?”
“Yes. As much as I can be, with only the Royal Archives' books on it, and the few tutors the Crown has left. I'd hoped to learn from your people here someday, to round out the parts I was ignorant of, but... well...”
“Still possible,” said the King. “If we win.”
“Or if we can achieve a peace.”
“Mm.” He sighed. “My son thought as you did, once. My son Dhurlem. He knew this war would do us no good. He went to fight, aye, but always held out hope... No. No, not anymore, lass. It's the Crown or us, now. We can't trust Melos, and that's all there is to it.”
“The Inquisitor is fooling him. She's the one that killed me. She's a daemon, with the face of my mother. And... I think she's made my corpse into a daemon.” She closed her eyes. “I thought it took souls, but I'm here and I'm pretty sure I'm me, and-”
“Celia,” Threadbare said, and the four dwarves pacing the throne looked at him, two with expressions of revulsion, two with fascination. “You are you. Eye for Detail's confirmed it. Whatever's in that armor isn't.”
The King nodded. “We knew she was a daemon. As are the Hand. Melos did something forbidden, and damn our eyes, we didn't call him out on it, didn't join the fight when Balmoran rose up.” The old dwarf sighed. “If we had, we wouldn't be in the spot we are now, tell you that. But no, we decided to wait and stay out of human affairs, let them settle their own squabbles.” The King spat. “Blind, damned, fools. The wrong man won in the North. And it was because of those godsdamned daemons. And now you're telling me there's one more out there, wearin' yer face?”
“And they've corrupted my Steam Knight armor somehow.”
“A Steam Knight? Well now!” Said the King. “So we'll face a daemon war machine on the battlefield. Even more grand.”
“Probably my brother too. Though he's not a daemon,” Threadbare said. “Yet. Hopefully whatever they did doesn't work on him.”
“Mmm.” The king sighed. “Well, you can talk that over with my ministers.” He turned the throne, heading toward a wide archway in the wall, identical to the six they'd passed in his wake. They followed, and he gestured down the hall, to a series of numbered doors. “Your possessions are in room Nineteen. As are your captive souls.”
“Not exactly captives,” said Graves. “Think of them as refugees, who even lost their bodies. Temporarily, we hope. That's one of the things that you could help-”
“Ministers. Talk to them,” said the king, holding up a hand. “And after you're dressed, come and join me in the Hall of Heroes. And I'll show you why negotiating peace won't work.”
Without another word, he turned, and motored away, the heavy stone plinth revolving with the Throne and rumbling across the floor on its myriad unseen wheels.
Threadbare and Cecelia and the rest of the companions watched it go, then turned back to the four dwarves looking them over with curiosity, and in two cases, a little bit of hostility.
“I'm Gudrun Scarstone. Priestess of Yorgum,” said one of the friendlier ones, a lady in an apron with tools sticking out of every pocket, her hair gray and back in a long braid. “It's amazing to see real golems in the... flesh? Plush? Ah, ye know what I mean.”
“Bazdra Coaler.” The younger dwarven woman introduced herself. She wore gray armor, enscribed with an hourglass across its breastplate. “Temple guard of the shrine to Aeterna.” She was one of the ones who'd scowled at Threadbare earlier.
“Hidon Fingers,” the older dwarven man said, a scowl still on his face. “Minister of lightless matters.”
“Which probably doesn't mean what you think it does,” said the young, blonde-bearded man next to him, a smile on his broad face. “Montag Steelknife. I run the ministry of dangerous and new devices.”
“He won't take that last part out of the name of it, no matter how much we tell him they mean the same thing,” Hidon said. “Ha ha ha,” he said without laughing.
“Ha ha ha.” Montag echoed. “Still as funny a joke as it was seven years ago.” His voice held a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
“Nineteen,” said Madeline, pointing at the door. “Loot, sweet loot, come back to Momma!”
Garon opened the door, and the group spent the next few minutes sorting out their items, digging them out of the chests they'd been put into, and in Pulsivar and Mopsy's cases, releasing the irate cats from two cages. The dwarves backed off warily as Pulsivar growled and snarled in their general direction, but Missus Fluffbear placated them with Monster Treats.
For his part, Threadbare shrugged and said “Call Outfit,” adjusting his clothes as they snapped into existence around his body. “If you see my scepter, please bring it here,” he asked the others, and turned to the ministers. “What does your King want us to discuss with you?”

“Different matters,” said Montag. “I'm to see if you can contribute anything useful to the war effort and offer you a useful price for it.”

“If you've got any information useful to us on the covert side of things, that's my department,” Hidon said. “We'll pay you if you tell us anything interesting.”

“And I'll arrange anything you need during your stay! And be your liaison for day-to-day matters,” Gurdun said. “You'll be staying in Yorgum's house while you're here.”

“Oh. Fluffbear will like that. I didn't know he lived so close. Is he as nice in person as he is when she prays?”

The two clerics looked at each other, and clamped hands over their mouths. “She means a temple to him. He doesn't actually live there. Most of the time,” Montag said, while they fought to keep straight faces. “Maybe visits every few centuries or so, so to speak.”

“Right,” said Threadbare. And he turned to Bazdra, who'd remained silent through most of this. “And what are you here for?”

“I'm here to make sure you don't die or get yourselves killed.”

The rest of the group slowed, half-dressed and looking back in confusion. “Excuse me?” Cecelia asked.

“The Lurker's among us again,” Hidon said. “We've had two officials die of mysterious causes in the last month. He's in deep this time.”

“You know he's here? That was one of the things I was going to tell you, once I was sure it was safe!” Cecelia burst out.
“What do you mean, again?” Threadbare said.

“We've killed him twice, and he keeps coming back.” Hidon said, simply.

“How?” Garon said.

“Daemon shenanigans, we're assuming,” Bazdra said. “We've killed other Hand members before, and they've come back, too. This war would be over by now if they'd only stay dead.”

“I see.” Threadbare rubbed his head. “I'm glad I didn't risk killing Anise when we might have had the chance.”

“The Inquisitor. She's Amelia Gearhart's daemonic form.”

“Oh. Her. I've heard of her, never met her,” Hidon said. “She hasn't been in action yet.”

“She will. She's got Emmet with her now, and Cecelia... evil Cecelia, I mean. They're going to reveal that the Hand are the survivors of the Seven and rally the kingdom around them. Oh!” Threadbare said, toddling over and reaching into a nearby cubby. “There's my rod. Good, I was beginning to worry.”

Silence from the dwarves for a bit. The other three looked at Hidon, who nodded. “Okay, that's worth a bit.” He pulled out an abacus, tallied a number, and wrote it down on a scrap of parchment before handing it to Gudrun. “Anything else we can use, information-wise?”

“We'd better talk as we walk,” Montag said. “The first reports should be coming back now.”

“Reports?” Threadbare asked.

“We launched an assault last night,” Bazdra said. “Come on then.”

Reclothed and re-armed, the toys and their living companions followed the ministers back across the main hall, through another archway, and down several long flights of stairs. Madeline looked on as they went, snout swiveling as she examined the architecture. “Nice. Most of it. Some of it's too smooth, though. Mahgic?”

“Earth Elementalists, to smooth the rougher parts out,” Montag said. “This is young as dwarven holds go, and we had to shift to war footing in a hurry. Don't worry, we've made drawings of how it was before, and we'll put it back that way after we're on a peacetime footing again.”

“Why would you do that?” Fluffbear squeaked.

The four dwarves stopped and stared at her, as if she'd asked how tasty dwarven babies were.


“You're pretty ignorant, aren't you?” Bazdra said.

“Sometimes, yes.”
“Dwarves must build, but we can't take permanent shortcuts, and have to do it right, because nothing lasts so we owe it to creation to do the best we can while we're here.”

“Say what now?”

“Keep moving. I'll explain it,” Gudrun offered. “If I can. Okay. So... hm. You know Aeterna is the goddess of time, yes?”

“I think Yorgum told me that.”

“Hee hee! He told me about you, dear!”

“Did he now...” Bazdra shot her a suspicious glare.

“Oh hush. He told me when I prayed at Grundi's request, the same as you did. Canceled each other out, we did.”

“Say what now?” Glub flared his fins. “I'm lost.”

“So the two most venerated gods in our hold are Aeterna and Yorgum,” Gudrun said. “They're also rivals. Aeterna insists that nothing survives given enough time, and Yorgum says hold my beer.”

“All the fucking time,” Bazdra rolled her eyes.

“They're rivals. But we honor both, most of the time. Though rarely there are occasions we can't, like with you all.” Gudrun said.

“With you so far. Kinda,” Fluffbear said.

“Today we found we might not. See, the King asked us to pray to you for advice about necromantic golems. Now the thing about gods is the more secrets they give away to mortals in prayers, the more their rival gets to act. In this case they got asked about you simultaneously, so we know all about why Aeterna doesn't like the notion of you one bit, and why you're very dear to Yorgum.”

Cecelia frowned. “What? But we adventured with a cleric of Aeterna, years back. She was entirely fine with Threadbare.”
“It's not that,” Bazdra said. “And it's not who you are, personally. It's what some of you are. See, you're undead, and she dislikes those to begin with, but they're not anathema because all undead fade with age. It just takes longer. But those of you who are haunting golems? You're in forms that will never decay, provided you give them a little maintenance, and don't require sustenance, ever. Golems are acceptable because they grind down over time. Takes ages, takes forever, but eventually they stop working. You? You can ensure near-immortality with a little effort, or the right class feature. Just hop golem bodies endlessly.” She sighed. “And that's not good at all.”

They walked in silence for a bit.

“I never even thought of that,” Garon said. “Immortality, I mean.”

“Zuula did,” the half-orc spoke up for the first time in a while. “Is one reason why she going to die after she see dis business done. Too tempting odderwise.”

“Good on you,” Bazdra smiled. “Which is why Aeterna has nothing against YOU per se. It's...”

“She's worried that some of our own people would be tempted,” Gudrun said. “And she's right to worry. Dwarves have had problems with undead for millenia, it's why our laws are what they are.”

“And our own dead, who need bodies?” Graves interrupted. “They've been in there long enough, they're going to start going mad, unless we can get yellow reagent, and lots of it.”

“We don't care what you do there, so long as they don't cause trouble,” Gudrun said. “But... it would cause serious problems with the King, the Clan Heads, and the temples if we just gave you yellow reagents. That's not our way.”

“Right. Dwarves take gifts very seriously. But if we buy them?” Garon spoke up.

“That's just trade.” Gudrun grinned, sharklike, with bad teeth. “Though a lot of our reagents are going to the war effort right now. So it'd cost you.”

“Mind you you've earned about four or five vials from what you told me about that Hand,” Hidon said.

“What if they eahned it back?” Madeline said. “Like a couple of hundred gahlems to help you fight? They get the bahdies fahst, then eahn it back in battle?”

Montag sighed. “Wouldn't work. Undead are a touchy subject to begin with. That would be seen as the King compromising the laws out of desperation. I'm sorry, but we can't do that. But... we can help you earn the reagents you need. You ah, you mentioned you were a Steam Knight?” He looked down at Cecelia, his eyes aglow.

“Yes. And Threadbare's a golemist, and we'll be happy to montage them to anyone you want-”

“For a reasonable fee, of course!” Garon interrupted.

“Just one apiece to start,” Montag nodded, pulling out his own abacus, and writing down another number, before handing it to Hidon.

“I'm not their merchant contact. Sweet Nebs, you're offering THAT much?” Hidon scowled, and handed the two slips on to Gudrun. She read them and whistled. “Okay, so you're up to twelve vials, assuming the market hasn't shifted since this morning.”

“Nah, I think I'd like to Haggle that if I may,” Madeline grinned. “After all, these are two unique tier-two jahbs we're talking about heah...”
Five minutes, three halls, and two staircases later they settled on enough coin for fifteen vials of yellow reagents. Graves nodded, happy. “That should take care of the ones who are worst off.” He shifted the crate full of soulstones in his arms. “Really, that'll buy us even more time. They'll see we're following through on our promises.”

“All right,” Threadbare smiled. “Let's have a sit down with them later and see what bodies they want, so we can build them something that will make them happy.”

“I'm assuming you're Caradon's work?” Montag blurted out. “Because seriously, you're amazing. If we can get a few dozen like you made...” he glared up at Bazdra, who glared back, “...BY a dwarven golemist or two, WITHOUT undead inside...”

“I'm sorry. I can only make unintelligent golems so far,” Threadbare said. “It's probably a higher level skill. And also most of us are... born... with horrible luck. It's very dangerous. For us and all around us.”

“Speaking of that,” Hidon said. “We're almost there. If you value your lives, stay silent and be respectful.”

“What?” Zuula said. “You t'reaten us?”

“No.” The black-haired dwarf sighed, and pulled his hood tighter around his head. “If you piss them off we won't be able to save you.”

And with his warning ringing in their ears, they entered the Hall of Heroes.

A long gallery, low, with golden plaques glimmering on the walls. Each one had a name. Each one had a clan sign. And each one had a simple slot engraved in it, just a small lip, sticking out of the metal.

Looking down the hall, which stretched a good way back into the mountain, Threadbare could see that perhaps half the plaques had their slots filled, each by a single silvery coin.

The center of the hall was packed by dwarves, older dwarves, some standing with canes or with the help of others who were obviously family. They faced the front of it. Faced the King, who had parked the Kneelchair next to a series of tubes that ran down the wall and opened up next to him.


An unseen bell chimed, and the tube rattled. The King sighed, and reached a large, emaciated hand out, taking a cylinder from the opening in the tube. He opened it, and coins cascaded out, followed by rolls of paper, falling onto the sheets that covered his vehicle.

And the crowd murmured in dismay. An old woman in back started sobbing.

King Grundi unrolled the scroll, and bowed his head. “Agni Durable,” he said, and the crowd sat silent. The Kneelchair ground and clanked as he rolled down the gallery, next to a plaque. There he took one of the coins, and placed it in the slot, with trembling hands. Then he read the next name on the list. “Jasper Motherlode,” and moved across the hall, fumbling another coin out. Three more names he read, and then-


Another cylinder clanked in the tube, and the crowd groaned.

“They're the dead,” Cecelia whispered, and Threadbare grabbed her, hugged her as she held him back, as the ancient king read the names of the dead, and gave them their final due. All this while their relatives, the ones who couldn't fight, who had stayed behind, stood and waited and hoped against hope.

Some sobbed. Some cursed and wailed, or stomped away flushed with anger, pulling beards or biting back tears.
But almost worse than that were the ones who were silent. Who reacted when they heard a name, but simply stood there, watching, as the hope drained from them. Left them hollow, like dwarf-shaped outlines in the world.

Four cylinders came down the tube in total. Each had perhaps fifteen to twenty names, all told. And when it was done, and the crowds had gone to grieve or enjoy the relief that their kin were still alive and hadn't been named, only then did the King clatter up to them.

“My son thought peace possible,” King Grundi told Cecelia. “He fought with that hope. And he fell with it.” The King's hand stretched, out to point at one section of the wall, with two plaques.


And in Dhurlem's plaque, sat a coin.

“So no,” said King Grundi, “There will be no peace. We will win or we will die here. Do you understand me, she who was Princess Ragandor?”

“I do,” she said. “And I'm sorry. But more death won't help you or your son or your people.”

“No, but about seven will. King Melos. His Hand. And that thing wearing your mother's face. Will you help me with that, Cecelia?”

“Kill my father...” She looked away. “I...”

“Mm. No, it is too much to ask.” The old dwarf's face twisted with compassion. “Tell you what. Help me handle the others, and you leave him to us. A trial and justice if we can take him alive, and death in battle if not.”

Cecelia let out a long breath. “He killed Caradon. His own father in law.” Behind her, Hidon's eyes widened and he pulled out the abacus again. “Yes,” Cecelia decided. “I won't kill him but he has to answer for his crimes.”

“Good. What do they have so far?” The King asked.

Hidon handed Gudrun another slip of paper, and Grundi looked them over. “Hm. Decent start. You, Cecelia. Steam Knight? You'll need new armor, then.”

“Yes, but our bodiless refugees are the first concern. We need to get them settled before we help ourselves.”

Grundi smiled. “You would've been a good queen for your people. Tell you what...” He rolled the Kneelchair up to the Emberglow plaques...

...and as his ministers gasped, he took out his son's coin.

Cecelia caught it by sheer reflex, as he flipped it to her. “This should cover the components she needs for a new Steam Knight suit. And if it doesn't, talk to the tallyman and take mine.”

“Sir... no...” whispered Bazdra.

“My heir's dead, I'm the last of my clan here, I've got no blood who might need it after I die,” Grundi snapped. “What are two pieces of Adamant in the face of all that, hm?”

“Adamant!” Garon shrieked, and stared around the room. At the hundreds of coins, filling hundreds of plaques. Just sitting there, next to the candles... “This is... the cost must...” He snapped his mouth shut. “This is the safest room in the hold, isn't it?” He said, conversationally.

“Oh yeah,” Hidon confirmed, recovering from his shock. “Little doll girl, I hope you know the honor the King just paid you.”

“Why?” Cecelia said, staring down at the coin, and up to the King.

He smiled, sad then, eyes misty. “Because he, too, believed in peace.” He glanced over to Gudrun. “Get them settled. Bazdra, keep them alive. The rest of you, come with me.”
Two hours later, in a simple chamber decorated with hand-woven rugs and tapestries ranging from children's first attempts to masterpieces that must have taken years to finish, Graves and the golems and their cats stretched out behind a closed door and huddled together to discuss matters.

“So we've pretty much got free run of the place, so long as Bazdra or the other ministers are with us, right?” Kayin asked.

“Yes,” Threadbare said. “Though we need to be careful. The Lurker is probably going to try to kill anyone of us he can catch.”

“He can try,” Zuula said.

“He can do more than that,” Garon said. “If the Hand are actually the remnants of the Seven, then the Lurker's probably what remains of Graham.”

“Oh shit,” Madeline said. “That's wahse than just assassination.”

“What's worse?” Fluffbear squeaked.

“Graham was a con man, a grifter for the greater good,” Cecelia said. “The first one to unlock the gambler job... well, in Cylvania, anyway. He favored range attacks, bluffs, and cons that usually put the Seven's foes in a bad tactical position. If the daemon has any of his skills, he's going to come at us using people, and in a way that we won't be expecting. He was also a master of disguise.”

“Can he disguise himself as a doll?” Graves asked. “If there's size limitations we might be good.”
“Except for you,” Zuula pointed out.

“Right.” Graves sighed. “Groups. Nobody does anything alone until this is over.”

“That's going to be a bit rough,” Garon said, glancing toward Zuula, then quickly away before she could see him. “I mean, some of you have valuable jobs to montage, and armor to build, but some of us won't have much to do. I... I'd really like to help here, but I don't know how.”

“I've thought of that, actually. I think there might be a way you could help, you all could if you're willing,” Cecelia said. “I'm going to be stuck putting together my new armor, and montaging.”

“I'll be montaging as well.” Threadbare said, then frowned. “Maybe not. I taught you golemist.”

“You did, though I've barely used it. But I see where you're going with this.” Graves nodded. “I could montage it to other people easily enough.”
“I'm down for being useful,” Glub said. “Beats staring at the walls.”

“Good.” Cecelia leaned forward. “Gudrun tells me the two coins will cover the Steam Knight armor and the reagents to golemize most of our dead, but there's about forty or so left-uncovered. So we need a lot of money... or we need more sources of reagents. And since we're free to roam the city, we've got every legal reason to enter the dungeon that they've got down here.”

“Wait, whoa, dungeon?” Garon said, leaning forward. “I've never heard of one here.”

“Oh yeah. It's a well-kept secret outside these halls. I only knew about it because of the Lurker's intelligence reports. It's legal to go in, unlike a lot of the Crown-controlled dungeons were. The downside is that it's way more dangerous than Catamountain was. You know how that one was all about cats? This one's themed around giants.”

"Worth a shot," Zuula decided. "Ogre went down pretty easy, all t'ings considered. How hard giants be?"

"Mind you, that's also going to be a lure. We'll raid in and out of the dungeon, and try to tempt the Lurker into ambushing us when he thinks we're weakest- emerging from a dungeon." Cecelia explained. "But I've got an ace to play, there."

"Yeah?" Kayin said, scooting in closer.

"I couldn't say anything before, because there were too many people listening, but we've got an old friend, one who'll probably be happy to help us. If she's alive, and if she's here. But I can't imagine she WOULDN'T be here."

"Oh?" Garon asked. Then, "oh."

"Yeah. Once things are quiet, let's break out the dollseyed mice, Threadbare, and do some exploring. And if we're very, very lucky we might be able to track down Beryl Wirebeard..."

Spoiler: Spoiler



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About the author

Andrew Seiple


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