Threadbare’s golems had been tasked with breaking the Wark Riders, then falling back to regroup and get new instructions.
What neither they nor the dwarves had anticipated, was that the bulk of the army would pursue the golems.
As such, there was no way that the group of friends could make the rally point before the full force of the Hand (Minus the Lurker, who was hopefully still dead,) came down on them.
So to that end, Threadbare knew that they had to stand and fight, and they needed terrain that would let them hold out until the friends he’d contacted could carry out their part of the plan.
He also knew he wasn’t trained in this. Not at all.
“Celia! Where should we fight?”
“I don’t know!” She waved her sword around in an arc, pointing. “There’s old half-collapsed tunnels all around, but the Cataclysm will cook us if we cluster. There’s open ground, but Reason will stomp us flat! There’s old building foundations, but the Legion will harry us with conjured daemons, and the Ninja will rip us to shreds bit by bit!”
“I can make Reason not a problem. Maybe all of them. I just need a boundary.”
“What’s your skill?”
“That thing will blitz right through it. I’ll do it, that might work… no. No, wait, that’ll drain me. Gah! Kindness is… it’s good against the line troops, but useless against the elites. I just don’t have the levels.”
“Then get out. Once we get to the place we’re going to fight in.”
“You think wards will hurt Reason?”
“Did that thing Emmet beat up look like a daemon to you?”
“Open ground it is… there!” She pointed with her blade, towards a small hill, with the remnants of what had once been a low wall around half of it. “Best we’re going to get.”
They shouted directions to the golems, and in a matter of minutes, the toys were clambering over and through the rubble of the wall, taking up positions, and readying their crossbows. Cecelia, with Threadbare’s help, shut down the Steam Knight suit and struggled out of it. “Reagents?” She asked.
He gave her a vial of green, and she slammed it against the ground. “Ward against Daemons!”
Patterns flashed into life, green and red energy swirled, and spread out to wrap around the wall and stretch up the hill.
“I don’t suppose you have any blue reagents?” Threadbare asked her. “I’ve got two. With a third one I could do something nifty.” He looked to Kindness’ still form.
“No, sorry.”
“Bother.” He turned, to stare at the oncoming daemons-
-and twenty feet from him, something hissed. A red ‘12’ flashed up in the air, and a blurry form darted away, shadows swirling as the Ninja pulled back from the boundary of the ward.
“Shoot her lots please!” Threadbare called to his troops, and they filled the air with bolts. A few grazed her, but then she was gone, bounding across the scree and over the hill, out of sight.
“Okay. We’ve got some advantages here,” Cecelia said. “Oh, and can I have the laurels please?” Threadbare gave them to her and she slumped behind a chunk of the wall, jammed them awkwardly on her head, and said “Rest.”
“When we fought the Lurker he didn’t use any Gambler or Archer tricks that I could tell. And Grifters are good at disguise, but they can’t shapeshift like he did. So I’m pretty sure what we’re dealing with here is daemons that have natural skills that are close enough to what the Seven did to fool people. We’re not dealing with tier two jobs and high level tier ones . But we ARE dealing with dungeon shenanigans that are boosting them to midboss levels.”
“I see,” said Threadbare, peeking over the wall. The Cataclysm and the Legion had slowed, somewhat, and were spreading out around Reason. “They stopped moving so quickly. Do you think they’re being cautious?”
“Either that or they know we can’t escape them now. Or both.” Cecelia yawned. “Wow, this is nice.” She adjusted the laurels. “
“I don’t think you’ll have time to go back to full.”
“Eh,” She tapped her sheathed sword with one porcelain hand. “If it gets me in the neighborhood I’ll be happy. So we’ve got a ward. What else can we do?”
Threadbare thought, then ran over to the golems. They moved along the wall, and most of the crossbow wielders went up the hill, spreading out as they went. “There. That should help against the Cataclysm.”
“From what that ward did to her, I think The Ninja’s kind of fragile. At least to spells. So the golems can spread out so long as they stay within the ward, hopefully without getting picked off too much. Good, good. How many do we have left?”
“About a hundred and fifty.”
Threadbare rubbed the straps of the pack full of soulstones. “I don’t know if I got everyone. I hope so.”
A yell up the hill, then a flash of golden light. Threadbare looked that way. “Everyone all right?”
“Ninja threw a knife at Rafe! Jackie and he hugged it out.”
“That’s going to get annoying quick, but sooner or later she’ll run out of knives. We don’t have organs so one-shot kills are going to be hard. For her. Not so much for-“
They stared at the ballista bolt shrieking towards them from Reason’s arbalest. “-Reason,” Cecelia whispered, and then Threadbare hauled her up to his shoulders and ran.
A section of the wall ceased to be, and rocks sprayed as the heavy bolt burst through. “I can run!” Cecelia said.
Your Dodge skill is now level 18!
“Not while you’re resting, it’ll break the skill.” Reason had stopped four hundred meters out, give or take. A few crossbow bolts licked out toward it, fell vastly short. “Save your fire!” Threadbare called.
“That’s an intriguing notion,” The Cataclysm called, standing up on her carpet. “I think I’ll disregard that.” She whipped her hands through the air, ripping fiery holes into it, and pulling out gobs of flame. Molding it into a big ball, she raised it up above her head, and hurled it straight at Threadbare.
He hurled himself into cover, dove over Cecelia, and hoped.
Turning his eyes upward, he watched as the ball hit the wards… and shrunk abruptly, down to basketball size.
But it still continued through. And the golems screamed as it exploded above them, raining down fire and light.
Threadbare took a breath…
…and let it out as a red ‘21’ drifted up from his singed fur. He’d put fire resistant enchantments on a few of his armor pieces, as he’d had time and reagents to do so. Now it was paying off.
“Wards? Thought so,” The Cataclysm sat down on her carpet. “Legion, your boys will be useless here. Make sure nobody interrupts our playtime.”
“Don’t fucking tell me what to do!” The daemon rider called, as he wheeled overhead. But he spread out nonetheless, and little fifts appeared in the air, flying daemons squeezing out and scattering around the area surrounding the hill.
The battle still raged on around the toys, dwarves clashing with the Crown’s forces, but the bulk of the army seemed content to let the Hand take care of the golems. Or perhaps they just wanted to stay as far away from them as possible? Threadbare didn’t know.
Another yell from up the hill, another flash of golden light. “She got Vance!”
“Pull his body back,” Threadbare said. “And keep a watch out.” He couldn’t tell them to harvest the soulstones. The way the Ninja operated, she’d surely break them if she knew.
Meanwhile, across the field, the Cataclysm was assessing the fortifications, and finding them not to her liking. “It’s your turn,” she slapped Reason on the arm, and backed away. “Break the walls, drive them back from the cover. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“With pleasure,” Cecelia’s voice echoed from the daemon machine, and Threadbare felt a stir of anger rise up in him to hear it. That was his little girl’s body in there!
Threadbare turned to HIS Cecelia. “May I have your daggers?”
“What? Why?”
“I have an idea.”
“Here,” Cecelia handed them over, barely moving. “And if you can, get Reason close. I’ll see what I can do.”
Threadbare stood, moved around to a gap in the wall. The Cataclysm’s gaze snapped around to consider him, and she sent a wisp of flame teasingly his way. It shrunk when it hit the wards, but he swiped his hand through it, not bothering to dodge and ignoring the red ‘44’ that rose from his singed paw. “So how exactly does this work?” Threadbare asked.
“Does what work?” The red-clothed thing wearing a dead woman’s face asked, as she idly gathered up a bigger ball of flame. “You dying? I think you should know how that goes by now.”
“No. The daemonic possession part,” Threadbare said, ignoring Reason as it stomped closer, arbalest trained on him.
“It’s not possession,” she smiled under her veil. “Your bodies are just meat puppets for us. The brains provide the memories, the hearts run the bodies so we don’t have to. You’re just our material components, more or less. Well not YOU, you little freak. No brains, no heart… and no luck, for your path has brought you here to stand in front of us.” The ball grew in her hands.
“Interesting.” Threadbare stepped out of the wards, and the onlooking golems cried out, called for him to come back, and started down the hill. But he waved them back, and kept moving…
…straight toward Reason.
The corrupted suit hesitated, snapped its arbalest around to point straight at him.
But the arm was shaking.
“Because I have a lot of memories of Celia. And she has a lot of memories of me. Of tea parties, and nights with her whispering to me, and cuddling, and that time I brought her water, and when we all laughed together in Catamountain, when I was wearing my first clothes. Well, my second clothes, I suppose,” Threadbare said, lifting his hat. “You gave this to me, remember?” he said, walking toward Reason as the great engine stood there and shook.
He’d remembered how Anise had shook, there, when confronted by Fluffbear. And Anise was much, much older and stronger than Cecelia’s daemon had been, he thought.
“I… know what you… do,” Cecelia’s voice, tight with emotion, sobbed from Reason. “Won’t work. Inefficient. Pain… passes.”
“Does it?” Threadbare asked. “Because those were very good memories. I loved Cecelia. And she loved me. And there’s nothing you can do to take that away from us-“
The knife took him from behind, stabbing through his coat, stabbing through his chest-
-and he turned, caught the Ninja’s arm with both paws, and dug his claws in, pulling her hand through him.
Your Claw Swipes skill is now level 47!
“Animus Blade, Animus Blade, Animus Blade, Animus Blade…” Six times over he cast. Six times over the daggers he borrowed from Cecelia ripped free from his coat, where he’d hidden them. And driven with the strength of his will, boosted by his Creator’s Guardians, they ripped into the Ninja.
The creature screamed, and fled, and he heard the Cataclysm shouting behind him, but it didn’t matter. He clung on for grim death as she shook him, tried to pry him off, and sent the daggers after her, after her face, slashing her chest and neck, sending red numbers spiraling up as blood flew.
Your Ride skill is now level 13!
Your Ride skill is now level 14!
Stuffing flew to mingle with the blood, as she drew her knife and stabbed relentlessly, and he switched to mending himself, dumping everything he had into Mend Golem spells. She switched to attacking the animated blades instead, but it took her a few swings to drop each one, and every time she did, he’d just animate it again. And battered and nicked and worn, it reanimated and dug back into her.
In the end the outcome was inevitable, as she shrieked and scrambled and failed to dislodge him. She weakened by the second, and she just couldn’t do enough damage to overcome his healing-
-and unfortunately, the Cataclysm saw that too.
His world became fire, and light, and the explosion hurled him through the air, to land to the side of the hill. He couldn’t see, and he tried to feel his face with his paws, but his paws weren’t working right.
Your Golem Body skill is now level 34!
Your Toughness skill is now level 25!
Max HP+2
He opened his mouth to speak, to heal himself, and nothing came out. There was something filling his mouth. He couldn’t say what.
His nose smelled ash, ash and burnt fur, and Threadbare knew that smell was himself.
Your Scents and Sensibility skill is now level 23!
“Oops. Hm. Well, she’ll be back,” he heard the Cataclysm giggle. “Okay, newbie. It’s a charred lump. Think you can finish THAT off now? Without wussing out on us?”
“Like hell!” Cecelia shouted, and he heard porcelain feet hit the stony ground. “Everyone let’s go!”
No! Threadbare thought, and tried to crawl toward her voice. A paw worked. Nothing else did. Don’t come!
Reason’s footfalls shook the ground… but there was another sound over that.
A droning. From above.
Almost! Get back to the wall! You’re almost safe! He tried to yell, but couldn’t, his tongue was ash.
“Mend!” Cecelia shouted, from a distance away. And he spat ash out. “Mend!” She shouted again, and vision abruptly reappeared as one of his burnt button eyes flowed back together, un-melting. Reason was fighting the golems, he saw, and winning handily, but they were buying time at the cost of their lives. “Mend!” Cecelia shouted, and the stump where his right paw was shuddered and reassembled into a proper arm.
“I can take it from here!” he called, as he reached into his coat, found the beads, and slammed three to the ground.
The healing rushed over and through him, and Threadbare stood up as Cecelia reached him, and the little bear spun around…
Just in time to see another massive fireball shrieking toward him.
Threadbare knelt, fast as lightning, and dragged his paw around them, slammed a vial of green reagent into the ground, and yelled “Ward against Daemons!”
Your Wards skill is now level 3!
The explosion blew them out of the circle, consumed it.
But the hasty, weak ward did its job. And when Threadbare picked himself up off the stony ground, he saw to his relief that they’d lost no limbs.
“Oh for the love of Cron!” The Cataclysm snarled, as Reason slew a golem with every stomp. “Just give up and die already! Legion, they’re out of the wards, swarm them. Finish this sad…”
The droning rose, and she looked up, as the bombs fell down.
“Get back! Get clear!” Threadbare yelled to the golems, and they fled. Some of them even made it in time.
But not all, as the bombs exploded around Reason, and the Cataclysm steered her carpet in a frantic attempt to dodge the worst of it. Gunfire cracked down as well, and the fire daemon shrieked as bullets ripped into her. From that range it was a long shot, even for Jarrik, but the few that found her HURT.
And as Beryl’s fliers passed overhead, drifts of flying toys headed down, spreading out to go after the Legion and his daemons. The fliers circled back as the toys harried him, as Jarrik and Kayin and Zuula got into the fight, hitting him with bullets and arrows and wind bursts repeatedly.
Not that the toys below had time to spare for the dogfight above them. Cecelia certainly didn’t wait. While the bombs were still falling, she ran up to where Reason was down to one knee, sheltering its cockpit with its arms. Great holes had been blown in the armor, and inhuman flesh and gore spilled out, as the machine groaned and sobbed. Cecelia ignored that, ignored the teddy parts and stuffing strewn around, and ran to the back of the machine, lunging for compartment she knew was there, and jamming one hand through the hole. “Animus!” she shouted. “Invite blanket!”
Then she ran.
Reason shook.
Reason let out a confused burble.
Reason abruptly fell to the ground and started thrashing, digging around in itself, ripping armor plates off, trying to get at the shapeless, crawling THING that had been let loose in the equivalent of its nervous system.
Months ago, Cecelia had put a fireproof blanket into Reason, as a last-ditch system to keep herself from being cooked alive in her armor. If Reason caught afire, she thought, then she could always animate the blanket and have it crawl out, and go smother the fire. It had worked very well, the one time she had to use it.
But the compartment the blanket occupied was open to the inside as well.
And now the blanket squeezed its way inexorably up through the fleshy mass of the daemon engine, towards the thing inside.
Threadbare saw none of this as he ran, trying to close with the Cataclysm as she hurled fire into the sky, shrieking, fireballs exploding in midair and burning daemon and flier alike. He shoved the remaining mend golem beads in his mouth, and ran. One of the fliers caught a fireball square on and disintegrated, hurtling toward the ground, and Threadbare could only hope his friends survived as he leaped…
…and caught ahold of the edge of the carpet.
The daemon snapped her face down to him, stomped down hard, trying to kick him off her ride.
Threadbare was having none of it. He ignored her, clung on with both paws. She wasn’t his target. anyway.
“Disenchant,” he told the carpet.
Your Disenchant skill is now level 24!
They fell to the ground, as blue reagents rained down, and she fell. He hit first, tumbled to his feet, and launched himself at her.
“Fool!” She shouted, clambering up, and then the world was fire… but he had beads left, and he waded in, slashing, ignoring as his eyes melted, ignoring his face turning to ash, just lunging in and striking. Whenever he felt his paws start to burn he bit down on the beads, triggering the healing, and staying on her.
And then the fire was gone. He bit down on the last bead, snapping it, and his eyes returned to him.
She lay crumpled, with enough crossbow bolts in her that she looked a bit like a porcupine. Turning, he saw the surviving golems behind him, reloading their crossbows.
But she still breathed, so with a final slash, he ended that.
You are now a level 14 Cave Bear!
Mental Fortitude +5
You are now a level 11 Duelist!
You are now a level 14 Ruler!
And while he rejoiced to see her fall, he felt bad that only forty, barely forty of the golems were still up. Reason and stray fire had left the bodies of their friends and families strewn across the rocky ground.
He spoke, found his mouth full of clay fragments, and spat out the remnants of the beads. “Soulstones. Retrieve the…”
Reason groaned, and he turned to see the great machine on the ground, tendrils flailing from its cracks, thrashing the earth. Its cockpit was open, gore gushing forth, dark blood staining the ground. A trail led from it to Celia. The little doll moved toward him grimly, tugging with all her might at a squirming, blanket-clad form, dragging it along in fits and starts.
“Got her,” Celia said. “Alive. For now.”
“Dreadbear!” He heard above him, and the bear and his girl looked up to see Zuula ghosting down on spirit owl wings, with Kayin in her arms. “We need to go! Legion is too strong!”
A shadow rose over Threadbare. He turned, to see the final daemon descending on its batlike mount. Around it the swarm of daemons swirled, four times the size it had been just minutes ago. “Is everyone in the fliers all right?”
“Madeline be out dere somewhere wit’ Garon. Jarrik…” Zuula shook her head. “Don’t know. We tore daemon asshole up good, but… no more fliers. Can’t finish de job!” She caught ahold of the winds, threw them at the skies, and the swarm swirled, then recoalesced as the last member of the Hand headed straight for them, and the first imps started their descent. “Get to de tunnel!”
“No time,” threadbare said, softly. “Get to the wards-“
Light lanced through the sky.
Light pierced through the batlike daemon, and its rider. An arrow of light, leaving a contrail of shrieking ichor behind it as it tore through the cloud.
Followed immediately by six more.
“Rapid fire arrows of light,” Zuula whispered. “Burnin’ so much fortune…”
“Wards!” Threadbare shouted, and they ran, ran as the lesser daemons kept on coming, tearing at the golems. Threadbare jogged over to Celia, grabbed ahold of the blanket, and helped her pull it up to the edge of the wards… then stopped. “She’ll die if we take her in here!”
“We’ll die if we stay out here!” Celia pointed out.
“I need her alive!” Threadbare insisted, as imps tore and ripped at him, trying for his eyes, and he laid about with his scepter, scattering them. They couldn’t do much damage, but there were a LOT of them.
“Alright, I can do this!” Celia decided. “Pommel Strike! Pommel Strike! Pommel Strike!” Drawing her sword, she smacked the blanket-clade form with the blunt end of her blade again and again. Yellow numbers flew as she beat the stamina out of her daemonic self, and Threadbare kept the imps off her as best he could. “There! She’s unconscious!”
The two of them retreated behind the wards, and oh, threadbare’s heart broke to see the state of Cecelia’s clothes and hair, and the long scratches down her face. “Mend Golem,” he told her, laying a paw on her, relieved as her injuries repaired. “I’m sorry. But we DO need her.”
The imps swirled around them, breaking on the wards, daring it a bit and hissing as it burned them. A few of them worried at the blanket, and Threadbare swung his scepter across whenever they got organized about trying to open it.
The golems got into the act, shooting into the cloud, using the rest of their crossbow bolts on the screeching, birdlike daemons.
But as the minutes passed, the swarm shrunk.
“They’re disappearing,” Threadbare said, watching as holes opened up in the air, and swallowed them. Back to someplace full of red light, someplace they did NOT want to go.
“He works like a conjurer. Lots of things, some of them pretty powerful, but they don’t stick around for long,” Celia sighed. “Is that reagent over there?”
“Yes!” Threadbare went and gathered up the scattered bits that were all that was left of the magic carpet. “Good. I can use this. Right away, actually. Well, once the daemons are gone.”
“What I want to know,” Kayin said, as the imps slackened, and the last of the swarm returned to whence they came, “is who shot those arrows.”
“Funny ya should ask that,” an old, familiar voice drawled.
Threadbare whirled, as from behind part of the wall, a gray-cloaked figure blurred into existence.
Save for that gray cloak he wore brown from head to toe, and stubble adorned his chin. His face was a mass of wrinkles, and what hair he had left was on the sides of his head, stark white and unruly.
“Ullo Mister bear. Been a while, yeah?” Mordecai said. Then he squinted at Celia. “Oh, ya got a little doll what looks like Celia now? S’cute.”
“Mordecai…” Zuula whispered, stepping out from behind Celia.
And the old scout froze. His jaw worked up and down, and he stared at the little doll. “What?” he barked, hands trembling. “What is this! What kind of… no. Mad. It’s the madness come ‘gain.” Mordecai dropped to his knees, burying his face in his hands, fingers white as he squeezed his skull. “Out! Na really there! Na really there!”
“No,” Zuula said, trembling herself. “Is Zuula. Is…” She whispered, then fell silent. She looked to her spear, cast it aside. “Dreadbear. Loan her your club.”
“It’s… more of a scepter, really.”
“Do it.”
Wordlessly he passed her the bearheaded scepter.
And the golems watched in silence, as Zuula strode up to Mordecai’s trembling form, and bopped him, HARD, in the knee. He yelled in surprise, jumped up with wiry strength, and his bow was in his hands, nocked with an arrow drawn, head right in Zuula’s face.
“You is late!” Zuula thundered.
Then she bit the arrowhead, twisted her neck to the side, wrestling it from his grasp. It hummed as it went past Threadbare, and he watched as she started wailing on her husband with all her might.
“Hey!” Kayin yelled, starting forward-
-but Celia whipped her arm out to block the wooden catgirl. “No! This might work!”
“What might work? What might work?”
And as Mordecai danced backward, running from his wife, a wondering grin filled his face. He pulled out his knife, and the golems around him raised their bows… only to lower them as Threadbare waved his troops down. “Just go and harvest the soulstones. That’s more important. Let’s, ah… let’s give them some privacy.”
“Yes. Best not to stick around for what follows,” Cecelia said, looping her arm around Kayin’s shoulders and walking her away.
“What follows?” the assassin asked.
Cecelia told her.
“Um. But she’s… and he’s… how?”
“I’m not actually sure, and I don’t want to know,” Cecelia said. Kayin agreed with that on general principles.
So they concentrated on saving their dead.
A few had broken soulstones, and a quick speak with dead saved some of them… others had expired too long ago in the battle for it to make a difference. Threadbare mourned with each one that came up missing. They were lost for good. This was war, this was the cost of victory.
But the battle wasn’t done, not by a long shot. Judicious use of Celia’s telescope showed that the fray had shifted to the South. “The giants are down that way.” Celia said, from the top of a nearby hill. “They’re having a hard time of it, looks like- oh fump.”
“What?” Threadbare asked.
“Emmet. He’s down there. Along with a whole lot of troops.”
“An’ our daughter too,” Mordecai said, walking over to Threadbare and the two doll haunters, cuddling Zuula in his arms.
The half-orc glared at them. “Not one word.”
The trio nodded in unison.
“Graves and Missus Fluffbear were over with the giants,” Threadbare said, worried.
“So are the rest a’ the dwarves,” Mordecai said. “But there’s too many troops still up. Dwarves can’t stop that lot if Emmet breaks past them giants.”
Threadbare looked around at his team. Then he looked south. “I suppose we’re not done yet, then. But before we do, Celia, you’ve got a choice to make.”
“A choice?”
Threadbare walked over the blanket, and pulled it free, revealing the white armor beneath, and the unconscious daemon within. “It’s very risky. It’s also maybe a bad idea. But if it works, I think, just maybe, I can give you your body back…”
Spoiler: Spoiler



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About the author

Andrew Seiple


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