“...there's not much else to tell,” King Grundi finished, as his officials hammered out a contract with the giants, and the troops withdrew back into the mountain. “Ragnor came back, Ambersand didn't, and the Seven fell taking down one of their own. All save for the demon knight.”
The toys considered this. Threadbare raised his head. “Celia, did you know about any of this?”
“No! Well... that's not exactly right. I knew that Grissle turned on everyone else, and used the Oblivion to try and gain power over the Kingdom. And that mother died stopping her. That's what I learned, but it's what everyone in the Cylvania learns.”
“Yeah. No mention of dwahves or how exactly the Oblivion wahked,” Madeline said. “Man, I remember dwahf zombie night. That was really freaking weahd.”
“I see,” Threadbare said, looking up at King Grundi. “Why didn't you tell people about it?”
“Wouldn't have done any good.” Grundi sighed. “I had a good talk about it with King Garamundi, before Melos pulled his coup. People knew all of the story they needed to know. Telling them about how dwarves had been involved would only make people blame dwarves. And telling them about how dungeon cores powered the Oblivion would just make people go and try to experiment with dungeon cores more. Which is how we got into this mess in the first place!”
“You're not wrong,” Garon said. “But why exactly is the Oblivion still going? Grissle was defeated, right?”
“Aye. But...” Grundi shot a look over his shoulder, at the arguing ministers and the big blue giantess. “Ah, let's discuss this inside. Dealing with giants always pisses me off.”
Once they got back to the tunnel leading back into the mountain, a cadre of his honor guard fell in around the small king. Working with long expertise, they pulled his blankets back, and used tools to pop apart the stone plinth that the Kneelchair used as a skirt, and uncoupled about half of the bulky machinery, until the king was down to just a small throne with wheels.
“Modular! Nice,” Cecelia looked it over. “It'd have to be, to fit through these tunnels.”
“Modju-what?” Graves asked.
“It's tinker talk.”
“It's a bit sleep-inducing for non-tinkers so we're best keeping it short,” Grundi laughed. Two of his honor guard took the back of the throne, and wheeled him forward. Threadbare and Cecelia kept pace with him as he rolled back to the hold.
“This sounds like a fixable problem, though,” Threadbare said, still thinking about it. “If there's a magical machine, and you have notes on it, then why can't other wizards go in there and fix it?”
“We were trying to.” Grundi sighed. “But Grissle was a genius. Smart as a whip before he started stacking jobs is what I hear. Then he went and got twenty-five levels in alchemist, twenty-five in enchanter, twenty-five in wizard... and twenty-five in necromancer, as it turns out. But we were trying to line up the people to handle it, when Melos started getting skittish. He controlled access to the dungeon core. The main dungeon's core, I mean. He was like a dog with a bone, suspicious and paranoid. And the daemon he brought in didn't help matters none.”
“But wasn't King Garamundi in charge?” Graves asked.
“Mm. In charge.” Grundi raised a withered hand, rubbed his beard. “It's a nice idea. Smart kings know they're only in charge so long as they can keep their vassals wrangled. Garamundi was smart enough to see Melos was on edge. One of his best friends had betrayed him, after all. Ordering him to stand down and stop guarding Grissle's work would have been like throwing fire at a mining charge. We thought we had time. We thought that things were stable, that eventually he'd come around.” Grundi sighed. “Then Garamundi died, Melos took the throne, and told us we wouldn't be touching the core device until he had enough skilled people of his own to ensure we wouldn't try any funny business.” Grundi scowled. “About the same time, Ragnor went... missing.” The dwarf spat the word. “Along with his notes. Then Balmoran rebelled against Melos, and there was no talking to the man after that. Not that there was much in the way of cooperation before that.”
Grundi sighed again, ruffling his beard. “We figured it would end badly. We should have joined Balmoran when they begged us to. But we figured it was human affairs, and that they could sort it out themselves and there was no point in trying to fix things until they did. But here we are.”
“The core device is the key to all of this.” Threadbare said, thinking hard. “We need to go to Grissle's lab and see what's wrong with it.”
“The old labs have been sealed for years,” Graves said. “And to get there you'd have to get to the Capital City, go through Castle Cylvania, and hope that the entrance is somewhere down there in the sealed labs. With the most elite forces that the Crown has guarding it, including the king himself, and the Hand. Who are apparently the daemonic resurrections of the Seven?”
“The odds aren't good to begin with,” Kayin said. “Then you have to figure out something that took a genius a hundred levels of the nerdiest jobs around to create. And hope that you have a way to fix it.”
“Aye,” said King Grundi. “We were grooming people for the task. Had a good start on it. Then Melos pulled his treachery, tried to kill one of our families, and we had to go to war. And between the Lurker and the war... we just don't have the people anymore.” Grundi shook his head. “Dwarves aren't exactly inclined to wizardry to begin with. Now we're a shadow of what we were.”
Threadbare looked around at his friends. “We don't really have any wizards,” the little bear said. “But we've got a few enchanters. We need to try.”
“And I think I know how we could do it,” Cecelia said, rubbing her hair. “But it's not going to be easy.”
“Oh, well, when have we ever taken the easy way on something?” Garon said. “I'm in.”
“Psh, like any of us be out,” Zuula snorted. “We come dis far kicking ass and taking names. Not about to stop now.”
Threadbare smiled. “Thank you Zuula. Thank you everyone.”
“Dude, don't mention it,” Glub said. “This is kinda fun when it's not scary. And sometimes when it's scary. And at least I'm not stuck in some weird cult where I have to bang women all the time anymore.”
“Wait, what?” King Grundi stared down at the little wooden fishman.
“Ah... nevermind. So here's the plan-” Cecelia started.
“Wait,” King Grundi said. “Let's discuss this in more secure quarters. Lurker might be dead for now, but there's no harm in being cautious.”
The honor guard led them through the hold, to a large building they'd passed by last night, on their way to visit Beryl and Jarrik. Great foundries thundered in the halls surrounding the structure, hammers falling like raindrops as the din swelled and pulsed. This part of the dwarfhold never slept, forgefires burning hot as ore was converted into metal, and stone was shaped to the needs of their society.
Hidon was waiting out front for them, frowning.
“What do we have?” King Grundi stopped, and his Honor guard fell in around him, reassembling his Kneelchair, snapping back together the heavy pieces of the stone plinth that they'd been hauling around for the better part of a mile.
“We found Montag's body sealed into the wall of his office. He's been there a while.”
Grundi bowed his head. “I'll arrange his coin. This was war he died in. His family gets the adamant due.”
“I was hoping you'd say that.” Hidon led the way inside, through long, curving halls with heavy metal doors sealing off side passages. “Here,” he said at last, opening the first wooden door any of them had seen in the place.
The office inside was covered in blood, with more hooded dwarves in heavy leather garments scrubbing it, and sorting through the stained piles of papers scattered everywhere.
But the golems eyes were drawn to the piles and heaps of gleaming yellow powder that lay scattered all over the place.
“Oh... my... goodness...” Madeline squeaked. “That's... that's easily wahth...”
“Shh,” King Grundi said. “Don't remind me. Because I'm going to have to do something very undwarflike here in a bit.”
“The Lurker bought out the market last night, working through intermediaries,” Hidon shook his head. “Knew we'd find out sooner or later. Didn't care. Which means that the Crown is close to their endgame.” Hidon sighed. “We had to disable some blasting charges to get in here. Oh, and we found those tinker parts you needed,” Hidon nodded to Cecelia.
“Thank you!” Cecelia smiled. “Now I can get to work.”
“Work fast,” Hidon sighed. “We've got a week, maybe two. That's what our spies tell us. Then the Crown's forces are going to march.”
“Oh. Oh no. I won't have time to montage anyone. This...” Cecelia shook her head. “This is bad.”
“Actually it's good. They were almost all set to go days back, but someone sabotaged the tunnelers they needed to break into our networks.” Hidon smiled under his beard. “Not sure who it was but they did us a good turn. Probably the Rangers, that's their sort of thing.”
“Now you can tell me about your plan to fix the Oblivion,” King Grundi said, while Hidon and his agents cleaned up the yellow reagent, bottling it in vials and stacking it in crates.
“Well first we need to go get a look at it,” Cecelia said. “But I think I know how we can get inside the castle, at least, without having to fight our way to the city, then through the castle gates. Fort Bronze has a Greater Waymark inside it. There's a station where waystones are kept. If we can get one of them, we can pile into Madeline's pack and one of us can teleport right inside the Castle. Mind you, that chamber's guarded too, but it isn't set up to handle a merchant's pack full of golem adventurers.”
“We had enough trouble getting into that place the first time around.” Garon shook his horns. “I can't imagine they won't have upped the security.”
“We couldn't go in the same way, obviously,” Kayin said. “And they'll be on the lookout for little golems now, desu.”
“Well, we'll just have to fight our way in, then,” Threadbare said. “Because we're going to be helping the dwarves anyway.”
The room fell silent.
“They turned us down,” Cecelia said.
“Aye. About that...” King Grundi coughed, his lungs rattling. “The situation has changed a mite. Namely, the Lurker ain't here no more. So I don't have to pretend that I don't like your offer.”
“You were lying about that?” Threadbare frowned.
“Mmmm... it wasn't so much lying, as it was... prevarication. We had an enemy agent around. Had to be careful, because anything we said would go back to Melos. Of COURSE I want three hundred golems marching alongside us! Which brings me back to that undwarflike thing I said I'd do.” He waved a scrawny arm around to the crates of yellow powder. “Take it. Take all of it. Along with any other thing you need.”
Every dwarf in the room stilled, and looked toward their king, eyes wide open.
“What? Can't spend it if yer dead.” Grundi shrugged. “And Melos is out for blood. Whoever he might have been once, whatever he did, he's in league with daemons now. There's no way this won't end with blood.” He leaned forward, staring down at Cecelia. “Which brings me to one big question, here. He's your Father. If it comes down to it, comes down to his life versus all of ours and probably everyone else's, what will you do?”
The rest of the dwarves looked to each other, slowing in their work as they tensed, and looked to Cecelia.
Cecelia looked down. “I...” She said, then stopped.
Threadbare took her hand in his paw, and she looked down at him, gazing into his button eyes. For a minute she stood there, thinking.
“I have to stop him. But I'm sorry, he's my Father. I can't kill him,” Cecelia told King Grundi. “I... if he won't surrender I'll try to capture him.”
“That answer...” King Grundi began, and Cecelia closed her eyes.
“...was completely correct!”
Cecelia opened her eyes.“Wait. What?”
The tension in the room had eased. The other dwarves were nodding, as they cleaned.
“Lass, I don't care how undwarfy we're getting here by giving up valuable reagents, there's still a line. Asking family to kill family is just wrong.” Grundi snorted. “As far as I can see we're in this mess because hard men made hard decisions over and over again, and look where that's got us. Fuck that noise. You reminded me of that with the giants,” He said, looking down at Cecelia and Threadbare with a smile poking through the braids of his beard. “The only way we're going to win is by helping each other, and saving lives. Not by doing MORE evil things, on top of what's already been done.”
“I like you!” Fluffbear squeaked.
“Bahhahahahaha! Thanks, lass.” Grundi nodded to his honor guard. “Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go figure out who to appoint as my replacement minister of dangerous and new devices.” He sighed. “And talk with his family. That's not going to be fun.”
“Sir,” Garon shared a glance with Jarrik. “I have a recommendation, if you don't mind...”
“I'm what?” Beryl said., a day later, after the details had been hammered out.
“In charge of the department. Oh, and if you need more yellow reagent we're going to have a lot to spare,” Threadbare said, his golden laurels gleaming in the light of the glowstones. “The Lurker went a little crazy trying to keep it out of our hands.”
“Fuck me running with a pogo stick.”
“I'm sorry, to begin with I can't do anything like that, besides it sounds really uncomfortable to try to run at the same time, and I really have no idea what that last thing is.”
“This is what you were hiding from me?” The purple-haired dwarven girl turned to Jarrik. “This is why you wouldn't tell me what was going on? You, you, you...”
She grabbed his shirt, hauled him in and down, and locked her lips on his. “You wonderful boyfriend, you,” she murmured, when they came up for air. “Holy shitcakes with fucknuggets on top.”
“So that means you like it?” Threadbare guessed.
“Ohhh yeah.” She grinned up at Jarrik, who shot her a goofy, toothy grin right back. “Ah... you need anything from me, Threadbare?”
“No. Not really. Nothing that we can't figure out later. We have some time yet.”
“Good. Me and Jarry are gonna go find my new office and break it in.” She ran out of the room, giggling, with Jarrik chasing after her.
Threadbare rubbed his head, and wandered out the door, back into the heart of the foundry district. The rhythm of the hammers had changed overnight, and the streets were full of dwarves and carts full of ingots, shipping them frantically to the forges and machine shops and enchanters. The dwarven way of war relied on metal, on things, on having the best equipment and the most gear, and by golly, every last dwarf who lived in this place was finding ways to help however they could.
He was doing his part. And his sanity was low because of it. Recharging faster, thanks to the skill the laurels granted him, but the fact remained that golems took a lot of sanity to prepare and animate. And Zuula was busy shuttling around between the other members of the group, dreamquesting them to recharge their pools faster, so Threadbare, for the moment, had a rare hour or two to himself where he wasn't casting or sleeping.
Three streets down, he found the small chamber that Cecelia had requisitioned, and knocked on the door. After a few minutes, a viewslot slid open, and he found himself staring into Kayin's glass eyes. The slot closed, and the door opened.
“Desu, boss,” she greeted him with a thumped salute, fuzzy hand to her chest.
“Hello. Is everything all right?”
She glanced to the rear of the chamber, where tools rattled, and an old suit of plate armor shook as a doll-sized figure worked within its opened breastplate. “I guess? Cecelia! Bear's here!”
The rattling stopped. The plate shook. Cecelia's grease-smeared face poked out of the armor, hair bound up in a kerchief. “Oh! Hi.”
“Hello. I wanted to see how you were doing.”
“Good. Working in smaller scale is harder, but... well, I've got access to dwarven engineers. You just missed a couple of them, they're in here studying how I'm doing it. Since I've got them to handle the parts that require non-job tinkering, I can focus on just one part at a time and get it done quicker.”
Threadbare nodded, and stood there, feeling awkward for no reason he could tell. “That's good.”
Cecelia considered him. “Clean and Press,” she said, and the smears vanished from her dress. She hopped down off the armor, and gathered the little bear into her arms. “Your sanity is low, isn't it?”
“Yes.” He hugged her back. “I'm sorry if I'm imposing.”
“No, no, you're not. Don't even think of it. This...” Cecelia gestured around the workroom, and all the tools and gears and items that Threadbare didn't know the names of. “This is all because of you. I'm here because of you. I'm alive because of you.”
“Are you really alive?”
She nodded, her chin moving against the top of his head. “I think so. It's weirder than it used to be, but I'm still me. You saved me, and I'll never forget that. You'll never impose. You can always visit, always get a hug. I'll always have time for you.”
The little bear leaned into her, buried his muzzle in the porcelain between her neck and shoulder. “Thank you.”
And there they sat for a while. Kayin busied herself cleaning up other parts of the workshop, giving them peace.
Finally, Threadbare stirred. “I should let you get to it.”
“Yeah. They'll need me on the battlefield. And I'll need the armor to do the most good.”
“I'm a little surprised you aren't making it... well, bigger.”
“I thought of that. But there's a lot of reasons not to do that. If I did, then the Hand would be after me. I'm a priority target that way, and I don't think I could survive with all three of their active members on me at once. And also, this will let me get into the fort and bring it to the core chamber. Then there's the fact it's going together quicker, and actually? I think, if I'm lucky, that the strength reduction won't be too bad. All of our calculations are indicating that. Though there are downsides. I'm going to burn through coal faster. No way around it.”
“Madeline does have that merchant's pack,” Threadbare pointed out.
“Ooooh, there's a thought. I'll talk to her and Graves later, see if we can rig something up...” She put him down, and picked up a wrench. “Don't worry about me,” she smiled over her shoulder as she turned back to the armor. “But you might check on the others, if you're looking for something to do. I've been at low sanity many times, and company always helped me get through that. I think it could do you some good as well.”
“That's not a bad idea,” Threadbare said, readjusting his laurels. His ears really weren't set up to hold them too well.
So the little bear went and found the corner where Kayin was sweeping, handling the bulky broom that was five times her size with easy dexterity and strength. “Hello. Are you all right?”
“Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?”
“Well, we've got that war coming up.”
She snorted. “I've been training for years to fight that war. On the other side, mind you. Don't worry about me, I don't let things like that worry me. Do the job, get paid, move on.”
“Oh. Should I pay you?”
“You already have!” She indicated her body with her furry hands. “This gets you my help until the Kingdom's saved. Afterwards... I don't know.” She shrugged. “I like you guys, but we're all going to have to decide on our own individual afterwards. I don't have any family to go back to, my old killers' guild is dead and gone, and I don't have many friends outside of work.”
“I thought we were your friends.”
“Oh. Uh... well, you are. I didn't mean anything bad by it.” She wrapped her arms around the broom and leaned against it. “You're cool enough. Some of the others aren't the friends I would have chosen, but I guess it's fair to say mostly we're friends. But I don't know if I want to spend the rest of my life with you all. You know?”
“It is a pretty big decision,” Threadbare agreed.
“Bottom line, don't worry about me. I look after myself, and I'll look after you and the rest.” She shrugged. “Might want to check in with Graves, though. He's a little more invested in... well, everything.”
“I can do that.”
Threadbare found his way outside, and went back to the temple of Yorgum. Back around to the side-entrance into the storeroom, where rows and rows of plush toys had been laid out with glistening black soulstones resting in bundles of cloth next to them. Graves moved among them, chatting. Fluffbear kept him company, as she worked on the wooden toy bodies that some of the ex-cultists had requested.
“No, I don't think it's a bad notion,” Graves said. “A bunny has some advantages over a bear, just in different areas-”
He broke off as he saw Threadbare. And about two hundred voices shouted out various greetings, as the soulstoned dead got into the act.
Threadbare greeted them back by name, one at a time, and chatted with them for a bit until about ten minutes later when Graves interrupted. “Sorry, I think we'll need a few minutes. Can I shut off the Speak with Dead for a bit, folks?”
Then it took another few minutes to get through all the goodbyes. Threadbare didn't mind. Everyone seemed happy, so that was good.
Graves, on the other hand, looked almost as haggard as he had back when he was still affected by Anise's kiss. “Let's walk, okay? I need to get out of here for a bit.”
Fluffbear joined them as they walked out. “Breaktime is good.”
“Very good.” Graves sighed. Then he smiled. “I wonder if this is what it's like to have children.”
“Well,” Threadbare said, glancing to Fluffbear, “She's making their bodies so that makes her their mother, and we're giving them their souls, so that makes us... hum... no, it doesn't quite add up.”
“Am I being a good mother?” Missus Fluffbear asked.
“The best.” Graves smiled down at her.
“It really is a strange situation.” Threadbare admitted.
“I wasn't meaning in the biological sense, or even the creator's sense, like Caradon was with you lot. They're already existing people, we're just helping them transition from a bad state to a good one.” Graves rubbed his forehead. “Though I'm worried that they're... well, they're coming to see you as more than a good samaritan. Me too, but I've been discouraging it. I think if there was a job based around worshiping you, they'd take it.”
“What?” Threadbare would have blinked if he could have.
“Remember, these are people who let a charismatic cultist talk them into worshiping a dark power. You're very much not that, you saved them from him as far as they're concerned, and they've...” Graves shook his head. “They went for a good long time with a center to their lives. A faith, no matter how misguided. Then that faith got taken away. Now they're searching for a new one, whether or not they know it. And here you are.”
“I'm not a dark power. I'm certainly not a god.”
“No. But that's how they're coming to look at you.”
“I don't know if that's right or wrong.”
“I can ask Yorgum about it,” Fluffbear offered, pointing to a stone bench off to the side of the Temple.
Threadbare looked to Graves, Graves shrugged. “Couldn't hurt.”
The little bear clambered up on the bench, armor scraping on stone as she went, and knelt.
After a few minutes she looks up. “He said that if you don't like it he'll take them.”
Graves snorted. “Oh come on now...”
“He also said that you and Threadbare are the friends they need right now, but there's things you can't do for them, that will cause problems eventually. But he can do those things for them. And that in time if you survive and share responsibility you will find a lot of friendly priests of Yorgum who will be willing to learn how to make golems and transfer souls, with rules about it to keep Nurph and Nebs and everyone happy.”
“Huh. That's a good point, actually,” Graves said, leaning against the wall, and pulling his goatee. “Right now it's dependent on us. This whole thing we've discovered. And it raises questions about eternal life, which no Nebite worth their salt would tolerate. I mean now, we're fixing the Kingdom and saving the world, but if we succeed there's going to be a tomorrow.” Graves' eyes lit up. “And if we can get the backing of the Church of Yorgum, and turn it into a sect, a holy order... it'll be a lot easier to get it accepted by the populace. My gods.”
“Just one,” squeaked Fluffbear.
“I may have to join the faith. This guy is savvy.” Graves grinned.
“Ooh! Ooh! You should join right away! Tomorrow is pastry day!” Fluffbear said. “Living people love those thingies!”
“I'll have a talk with the priest when we get back inside,” Graves said, animated in ways that had nothing to do with necromancy. “Thank you!” Then he twitched, and turned to Threadbare. “I'm sorry, what was it you wanted to talk about?”
Threadbare smiled. Graves didn't look haggard at all anymore. “Oh, nothing. Do you know where everyone else is? Ah, besides Celia and Kayin?”
“Glub and Zuula are down at the Sturdy Stout, doing dungeon triage. Garon is running the training dungeon. Pretty sure the cats are with them, though with Pulsivar it's hard to tell. You know.”
“I do.” Now that his friend was a Misplacer Beast, it was amazing how little they saw of him anymore.
“Cool. Alright,” Graves offered Fluffbear an arm up, and she hopped into his embrace. “Let's go talk about my sudden attack of faith.”
“Yay!” Fluffbear said, as they went back inside. “My first convert!”
Threadbare smiled and headed down the street, to where the edge of the crafter's district turned into microbrewery lane. Copper vats started poking out of the walls, and the sound of gurgling water running over mash filled his ears, as yeasty scent filled his nose. He lingered for a few minutes by the meadhall, sniffing, as he always did.
But eventually he remembered his task, and found his way to the Sturdy Stout. A tavern that had fallen on harder times, due to the war and the death of a lot of its regulars, the owners had been happy to rent it out to Gudrun, when she'd asked on the golems' behalf.
After all, thanks to the giants, and King Grundi's negotiation skills, they had a dungeon core to play with, didn't they? And a whole lot of newly-made doll haunters who needed levels.
Downstairs, a strange melody played, as Glub squeezed an accordion and sang something soothing. Torn up teddy bears, with a brace of other toy types, sat at the tables and chatted, showing off loot and tending to their weapons. A few female-looking teddy bears leaned on the stage, gazing up at Glub with affection. And there, in the back corner, was Zuula. She sat there with a mug almost as much as she was, drinking it, then spitting it into a nearby spittoon.
“Is that fun?” Threadbare asked, pulling a chair up to the table. Dwarven chairs and tables were much more friendly to very small toys than human ones, he'd been relieved to find out.
“Is something to do,” Zuula grumbled. “Garon not letting Zuula run de dungeon no more. Just because Zuula killed a few dudes. Pfft, not like it permanent or nothing.”
“We're supposed to be making them stronger, not making them have to reset their levels with deaths.”
“Bah! Is lesson! Next time fight better! Is... motivation.” She pounded another gulp, then spat it out. “Now is all slow regeneration whenever dey come back hurt, or whoops, get in de soulstone.” She gestured at the bag next to her. “At least Graves manage to get dem up to five-job stones. Which is more den most of dem need.”
“Well...” Threadbare began, then realized the room had gone silent. Every toy in there was looking his way, and whispers were going around the small crowd. “I think it's good to have options,” he finished, adjusting his laurels.
Your Adorable skill is now level 36!
Your Adorable skill is now level 37!
Your Adorable skill is now level 38!
Your Adorable skill is now level 39!
You are now a level 11 Model!
Checking timer...
Your Dietary Restrictions skill is now level 55!
Your Work it Baby skill is now level 55!
“Perhaps we could talk behind the bar?”Threadbare pointed at the room beyond.
“Sure. Beats barfing bad ale over and over.”
“Why are you doing that anyway?” He asked, as he followed her into the back room.
“It is what you do in taverns. Besides pinch ass and start fights.” She sighed. “Not allowed to do dat even. Not dat it help. You punch one of de golems, dey say sorry. Dey...” she shook her head. “Too grateful.”
“I had a talk with Graves and Fluffbear about that.”
“Dey see problem too? Good.” Zuula punched his shoulder. “Lot of faith dey got in you, Dreadbear. You better not let dem down.”
“I'll try not to.”
“You do fine.” Zuula grinned. “Talking wit' Jarrik earlier. Beryl t'inking maybe we three, me, Garon, and Jarrik be first flier driver people.”
“We all gots flight skill. Garon from when he trying to be dragon. Zuula from owl days. Jarrik because he actually survive first couple of tests. T'ree half-orcs be flying dose t'ings. Gonna call ourselves de Green Bear'uns because of you.”
“Thank you.”
Zuula leaned against a barrel. “You here because it starting to get to you, hm?”
“It is?”
“De fight. You not be liking fighting people. Not much for monsters, but dose is different. People, not so much. Not to you.”
Threadbare nodded. “Yes. However this goes, people are going to get hurt. And a lot of them don't want to fight in the first place.”
“Is war. Is why stupid gods got a whole god so people can deal wit' it.” Zuula sighed. “Is gonna be hard on you.”
“Yes. But I have to do this. Celia needs me to.” Threadbare thought a moment, then looked back to the door. “They need me to. You need me to.”
“Yes,” Zuula said. “You saved us all. But when you save some'ting, you responsible for it, from dat point on. It only exist because of you. If it turn out bad or do bad, is because you save it. But...” Zuula punched his shoulder again, gentler this time. “It same t'ing if it turn out good. That is you good, too.” She smiled, cloth lips stretching around wooden tusks. “And you done some good here. Never doubt dat.”
“Thank you.” He hugged her. And after tensing for a second, she hugged him back.
The door creaked behind him. “Hey man, I... oh, cuddle puddle? I'm in.” Wooden arms reached around them both and Glub grinned wide wooden jaws as he hugged them close.
“Yeah, Zuula go heal weakys up now,” the half-orc said, disengaging herself. “Good talk.” She punched them both in the shoulder, and wandered outside.
“Ha ha! See, she's cool,” Glub said, disengaging. “In a sorta spiky might tear your head off randomly kinda way.”
“She's Zuula.” Threadbare said.
“Yeah, that works. You doing okay bossman?”
“I came to check on you all.”
“I'm doin' okay.” He shrugged. “Singin' to a good audience, chilling with peeps and old, uh, friends. Turns out they're pretty cool, now that I can talk to 'em all. I'm glad we're on good terms again. That whole cult thing was weird, in hindsight.”
“I think that's how most cults are, from what Celia told me.”
“Dude. Well, s'all right. I'm doin' okay. Just kind going with the flow. Y'know?”
“I think so.”
“Never seen a war before. Don't have anything like that at home. Got a lot of cool stuff here we don't have at home.” Glub filled his air bladders, let them sigh empty again. “Know what I'd like to do?”
“I don't know.”
“I'd like to travel around some, after this is all done with, and see everything. Then go home and tell stories and sing songs about it.”
“Can you go home?” Threadbare asked. “Celia was pretty sure the Crown forces destroyed the gate.”
“Eh, I'm pretty sure there's others around. And where there's gates there's cults to my old one. Just gotta find one.” He shrugged. “I'm immortal unless someone kills me, right? I got time. And this explorer thing is pretty cool, so leveling it up is only gonna make it cooler.”
“It really has helped us.” Threadbare smiled. “And so have you.”
“Thanks man.” Glub gave him a squeeze, then let him go. “Welp, gotta get back. Hand out waystones to groups going in, so they can teleport out if they get in over their heads.”
“Okay.” Threadbare nodded, and waved. Then his laurels slipped, and he pushed them up on his forehead.
One last person to check with.
Given the choice between going in the dungeon and waiting with Zuula, he opted for the latter. He watched doll haunters in their new bodies enter the tavern, collect waystones from Glub, and head upstairs... usually staring at him the whole while, or whispering to each other, with awestruck looks on their faces. His adorable skill chunked up a few more times, and he was pretty sure that he was getting model experience as well. To pass the time he put up buffs from that job.
Eventually, all the groups that went upstairs returned, coming back down the stairs or teleporting directly to Zuula, usually torn all to hell and back. And slowly they made their way out, to let their pools recharge, or perhaps just to experience moving around in bodies again. All told, it took a long time.
But golems are patient, and golems have no trouble with time. And after a couple of hours, Garon came down the stairs.
“We done yet?” Zuula growled.
“Almost. Figure it'll be morning soon, we can go hang with Jarrik. Oh hey, Threadbare!”
“Just in time. I wanted to talk with you.”
“Zuula headin' back to de temple. Come get her when you done. Glub, you coming?”
“Sure, ma'am.”
And then they were alone in the tavern.
“It's going well, before you ask,” Garon said as he pulled up a chair. “We're letting them sort out their own jobs. We don't have a prayer at teaching them dwarven battle tactics before the big fight, so they're mainly going to be skirmishers. Skirmishers with a seriously good endurance, who don't feel pain, and have a racial armor that stacks with the armor the dwarves are giving them. It should work out pretty well.”
“That's good. How are you holding up?”
Garon tilted his head. “This is what I trained for, for most of my life. War. This isn't how I was expecting to come to it, but I'm excited to finally get to try out my lessons.” He sighed. “And a little sad that I'm going to have to go up against my sister.”
“So what did you want to talk about?”
Garon folded his hands. “It's about Mastoya, actually. I think I know how to reach her. But we're going to have to beat her first.”
Threadbare nodded. “Okay.”
“When we meet her on the field, if we meet her on the field, and I'm sure we will, I want you to follow my lead, okay? No matter what I say.”
“Can you tell me what you're planning? So I know how to follow it?”
“That's the hard part. I can't, because it's all going to depend on the circumstances and how it plays out. But...” Garon spread his hands, slapped them on the table. “It's one last try. My last chance to save her. I... I need this. You know? And Mom needs this, even if she won't admit it.”
“Zuula said something about you being in a flier.”
“Then Wind's Whisper me when you come to her. You're staying on the ground, right?”
“Oh yes. I don't know how to fly.”
“Then she'll come to you. I guarantee it. Stall her until I get there. Fight her, talk to her, whatever.” Garon shook his head, tossing his horns. “Please. I need this.”
Threadbare didn't look at Garon's face. Garon's face didn't move, save for his jaws. It wasn't like humans, who he'd spent most of his life studying. Instead he studied Garon's posture, the way his fingers moved, the way he sat.
And Threadbare nodded. “Okay.”
“Thanks. I owe you. Big time.” Garon leaned back.
“Madeline.” Threadbare slapped his forehead. “I forgot to talk with her.”
“She was chilling on the roof of the temple, last I saw. Wanna walk there together? I can't leave Mom alone too long, she'll burn something down.”
“I don't think she can. Most of this place is made out of stone.”
“You don't know Mom like I do. She doesn't do well with boredom.”
The two of them headed back, and sure enough, there was a flash of red on the temple roof as they approached. “There she is. Want a toss?”
“A what?”
“Some of the new guys invented this. The stronger ones just up and threw the weaker ones across a big chasm I put in their way. It bangs you up a little, but you've got mend.” Garon laughed. “Here I was set to be the guy training them, and they're teaching me.”
“Sure, toss me.” Threadbare held his arms out.
The dwarves on the street gaped as the little wooden minotaur whirled around a few times, and threw the bear up to bounce off the steeple.
He flailed, caught ahold of the edge of the roof before he fell, and hoisted himself up.
Your Climb skill is now level 14!
“Hey,” Madeline said.
Next to her, Pulsivar looked up, and immediately hurried over. The Bear no longer smelled like him! This could not stand! Threadbare scrambled for footing, as Pulsivar rubbed his invisible face all over him, the image five feet away rubbing against air. The rank up had made the black cat strong.
Threadbare managed to find his voice. “Hello. I've been checking in with everyone.”
“Cecelia suggested that I do it. And I want to make sure you're all right.”
“Oh. Yeah, mostly.” She put her head down, listened to Pulsivar purr as he groomed his bear.
“I've done a lot of things. Never done wah. Theah's a lot of stuff that could go wrong when the bacon hits the pan. I mean...” she flexed her wings, “we've gaht more chances of sahviving than most, so long as they don't take down you and Graves, but we really ah gonna be risking everyone in this. Nothing's for shah.”
“For sure?”
“That's what I said.”
“I'm sorry. We have to do this.”
“I know. Gotta beat the bad guys, win the Kingdom back. But aftah THAT, we gotta go take on the King, and maybe the Hand if we don't stomp'em in the field. And he's a badass. And the people wahking for him are badasses. I'm...” She looked at Threadbare, and he'd never seen her like this. “I've lost so many people, you know? I've fahked up so many things. This heah, this is the best group of friends I've evah had, and I don't want to lose any of them, and I'm so godsdamned scahed-”
Threadbare pushed Pulsivar gently away, marched over, and hugged Madeline.
She sagged into his arms, shaking, and he held her, rubbing her ridged spine. After a bit, Pulsivar came over and curled around them, because why not.
“Thanks,” she said, pulling back from him, after a few minutes. “You give good hugs. I see why Cecelia keeps ya around.”
“I do my best.”
“I'll be fine.” The dragon took a breath, let it out. “Will you?”
Threadbare thought about it.
“Yes,” he said. “I think it will be hard, but we'll win. And I'll fight hard so none of us die.”
The dragon smiled. “Then you're fine.”
“I should be animating more golems. But... I think they can spare me for a moment. Just a moment. If anyone asks please tell them I'm resting.”
“You chose a good spot foah it,” Madeline settled into Pulsivar's furry bulk.
And so, the little bear rested, and prepared for what was to come. Days fled as he animated golem after golem, gaining a level from his work. They managed to get every one of the soulstoned ex-cultists embodied, and somewhat trained. Celia managed to get her Steam Knight armor up and running. And a myriad of other preparations with the leftover reagents helped gain Threadbare gain another two enchanter levels.
But even so, when the alarms rang through the hold, and the scouts returned saying the Crown's army was on the move, Threadbare did not feel prepared....
Spoiler: Spoiler



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About the author

Andrew Seiple


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