A note from Andrew Seiple

Give me ten minutes to format this one...

“Theah!” Madeline said, as Emmet's massive hand reached into the pack. “It's go time!”
“Makeup. Parry,” Threadbare said, smearing his face with paint and feeling it shift into the patterns that resembled a grinning, cocky goateed face. He moved to the front, grabbed his brother's gauntlet, and rode it out.
He arrived to a large bedroom full of dwarves, hopped out of Emmet's grip, and started looking around until he saw the familiar form of Kindness. Feeling relief, he moved over to it and tapped on its knee with his scepter. “Are you okay in there?”
“Just waiting for the signal,” Cecelia said. “Activation is loud. I can't risk doing it until-”
The room shuddered. A gong rang outside, echoing through the castle.
“Yeah, there we go. Stoker Feed Activated!” Cecelia shouted, and the miniature steam knight shuddered as metal ground on metal.
Threadbare turned, looked back to Emmet, who had gotten through most of the golems, and was working on drawing out his mortal friends. Pulsivar came out, scrambling, as his form blurred and shuddered around Emmet's arms. Then the golem let the misplacer beast go, and the great black cat hopped up onto a bed and started grooming himself with an aggravated air.
He calmed down once Threadbare clambered up next to him, and Pulsivar did that air grooming thing, tongue rasping against the little bear even though he was visibly several feet away.
“Alright lads and lasses! Through that door! Hold the halls! GRUNDI AND BROKESHALE!”
“GRUNDI AND BROKESHALE!” The dwarves roared, and burst out of the door, shields ready and axes high.
“Boiler Shunt is Go!” Kindness screamed steam, and Pulsivar flattened his ears. Mopsy, who'd just emerged, tried to clamber back into the pack until Fluffbear grabbed her by the hind legs and wrestled her back.
The dwarves rushed out, as fast as their commanders could haul them out of the plus-sized backpacks that they'd been shoved in. They hadn't lacked for merchants among their own ranks, even if their packs of holding couldn't fit quite as many people in as the plush golems had.
Beryl and Jarrik were two of the last to clamber out, and with a grin, Garon waved them over. “Family party's over here, bro. Sis.”
“Technically I'm not your sister,” Beryl said, adjusting her long-disused chainmail.
“Neither's Sloopy,” Bak'shaz pointed to the enormous serpent coiled in a corner. “But she's close enough.”
“Gee. Thanks.”
“Clockwork Engaged!” Cecelia bellowed. Clattering ticks and tocks chimed out from Kindnes, a rattle at first, then turning to a solid, drawn out hum.
It's about time, Threadbare knew. So he put up all the buffs he could while he waited. “Bodyguard Pulsivar. Organize Minions to Stop Melos. Flex. Self-esteem. Strong Pose. Deathsight. Guard Stance. Harden.”
“Is Cecelia going to be much longer?” Graves asked.
“No,” Kayin said, clambering up above the doorframe. “Just cover her for like another minute.”
Emmet kept drawing, pulling more and more of the golem army from the bag. The forty surviving teddies and plush toys were joined with about fifty more who hadn't been part of the assault on the Wark Riders. They spread out, filling the room now that the dwarves had vacated, readying their weapons, putting up buffs, and staring at the door with button-eyed intensity.
“Linkages Aligned!” Cecelia yelled, and Kindness straightened up, flexed its arms, and drew its sword and shield from the magnetized holders on its back and side.
“You be safe Gar, awright?” Madeline went over and thumped her head gently into Garon's. “We got a lot to talk about aftah this is done.”
“Wouldn't miss it for the world.” Garon hugged her neck. Then he shot Zuula a look.
Zuula didn't see it. She was too busy kissing Mordecai.
“I'd say get a room, but she'd take me literally.” Jarrik elbowed Bak'shaz.
“Cast in Steam and Steel, Raise Thy Blade! All Systems Go!” Cecelia finished. “Let's go finish this!”
The plan had hinged upon Glub.
He'd been carried in by Mastoya, and established a lesser waymark in an out-of-the-way place that was centrally-located enough to be a good staging aread. Then he'd used one of the Fort Bronze greater waystones to return to the waymark there.
Once there, he started casting lesser waystone and handing them out to the leaders of the assault teams, each of whom was carrying a merchant's pack of holding full of their people.
Lesser Waystone used fortune. Glub had about enough fortune left in his pool after casting the waymark that he could make twenty waystones.
The first wave of people through had been six rangers, each carrying a pack of about five to six more. They'd spread out in advance, using their superior infiltration skills to roam unnoticed, and get to critical points of the castle.
The next wave of people through had been thirteen dwarves, clerics, officers, elementalists, and other skilled veterans. Each of them had born a pack holding about four more dwarves, and some assorted gear. Their job was to wait for the signal, then spread out and secure the halls, advancing forward bit by bit and leaving a rearguard at every junction.
Emmet had been the last one through. And he'd had the honor of carrying not only Threadbare and his friends, but all the doll haunters they could cram into Madeline's packspace... which was by now up to a pretty good-sized sitting room. It had been a tight, tight fit, and air had been a bit limited for the living ones, but they hadn't had to wait long. It was done in a matter of minutes, and now they followed behind the dwarves, looking for their objectives.
They only had two.
And it was only a matter of minutes, before one of them surfaced.
Threadbare straightened up on Pulsivar's back. “He's in the inner courtyard!” He called. “Where is that?”
“Follow me!” Cecelia turned, and metal slammed on stone as Kindness charged past them, with Emmet in hot pursuit. The squads of toys behind made space, waiting for Threadbare's team and Garon's team to catch up to her.
“Remember,” Threadbare told the doll haunters as he passed, “He's very dangerous. Leave him to us, just keep a perimeter and stop the guards from intervening.”
They emerged onto a scene of slaughter.
Guards lay strewn about the courtyard, bleeding and dying, filling the air with their screams. Dwarven bodies lay among them... not as many, but enough to show that a mighty battle had taken place here.
The battle still raged on.
Up on the battlements, gray-cloaked men and women clashed blade to blade with a huge man in black-armor, swirling with red demonic faces. Six blades scythed around him, driving his foes back as he clashed the largest sword, the one in his left hand, against his shield. Everything that was metal on him roiled with demonic features, eyes and arms and claws and maws, gaping and hissing and shrieking. And in the split-second that passed as Threadbare took it in, the figure called “Entropic Strike!” and brought his blade crashing THROUGH one of his opponent's. Black light flared, and the ranger fell, flesh crumbling to dust, clothes fading and falling to bits, until what hit the ground below the battlements was old bones that shattered on impact.
“Father!” Cecelia's voice rang out from Kindness.
And King Melos, first of his name, turned.
The surviving rangers fell back, escaping the flashing blades.
“His blades leave wounds that don't heal,” Jericho whispered in his ear, faint as the wind. “We'll support you as we can. Good luck!”
“So this is what they've made of you,” The King's voice was as deep as Threadbare remembered it. With a mighty leap, the monarch hurled himself over the battlements. Red, blazing batlike wings stretched from the back of his armor, and flapped, as he glided to the ground below, alighting with a crash of metal. “He's turned you into a slave, a hollow suit of armor.”
“Father, Anise has been playing you from the beginning to the end of this. You have to-”
“I know,” he said.
The courtyard fell silent.
“Then...” Cecelia said, voice tight and trembling, “then why?”
“I have no choice. Never did. I needed allies, to contact the King, to keep things under control. I turned the strongest-willed woman I knew, used her as a host. I knew she'd become corrupted in time. But I hoped that her love for me would buy me the time we needed. Time to find a solution.” The King's voice wavered. “But there wasn't any solution. No way to fix things before it all fell apart. And I've been here ever since, trying to stall, hoping that time would present a solution. But it hasn't, and everyone's betrayed me. As I knew they would.”
“You had a choice every step of the way,” Threadbare said. “And you chose to trust daemons over everyone else. And it's gotten you here.”
Melos' helm turned, turned to look at the little bear sitting on the big black cat. “And so my daughter's enslaver shows himself.”
“I've enslaved no one,” Threadbare said. “Betrayed no one... well, not really,” he shot a look at Madeline, who shrugged. “And I'm here to stop you from killing this country and everyone in it.”
“We're here to stop you!” Squeaked Fluffbear.
Melos laughed, loud and long. “Two parties? Two parties of rabble, toys and half-breeds and traitors? What hope do you have? Come then. This won't be the first assassination attempt that I've destroyed.”
“Assassination attempt?” Garon snorted. “Oh no, buddy. This is a Raid!”
And with that, the two parties charged the demon king.
Garon's new job had many drawbacks, thanks to Sylvania's weird situation. You couldn't form a guild in a dungeon, it was that simple. And since the entire land was a dungeon, that meant no guilds, no way, no how.
They'd even tried forming a guild in Madeline's pack, just to see if that was possible. But evidently you couldn't form a guild in an extra-dimensional space, either. Jarrik had even led Garon a few steps into the Oblivion, to see if it was possible to do it there, but no, that still counted as a dungeon. Which left Garon with four out of five skills that he couldn't use, since three of the rest of them dealt with Guild functions.
But the fifth one? The fifth one made up for that.
Because now all parties involved were linked in a raid, a coordinated attack that let them talk at the speed of thought, and be heard by everyone on the same mission. “Our healing is useless,” Threadbare told the others. “The strikes from him don't heal, Jericho told me that. Zuula, Fluffbear, can you switch to damage?”
“Sure, she do dat.”
Threadbare continued. “I can tank him-”
“No! Let me! Boosters!” Cecelia said, speeding ahead of him. “He thinks I'm Kindness. He might pull his punches.”
And then they were on him, and his corona of blades screamed as they came, lashing out at Cecelia, slicing towards Fluffbear.
“Rapid Fire!” Mordecai shouted, and five arrows slashed a blade out of the air.
“Rapid Fire!” Jarrik echoed, and gunshots cracked out, and another blade dropped and shattered.
“Dolorous Strike!” Cecelia lashed out-
-and her blade rebounded from Melos' shield. The daemons inside shrieked, as it carved a chunk free from the steel. Then she was backpedaling, as Melos lashed out of her with ALL his blades, whittling her down. “Entropic Strike!” choked out the demon king, beating her back, as red numbers ground from Kindness with every strike.
Green numbers did as well. Only ten or twelve at a time, but they slid from her as she gasped, and fell back. Mopsy and Fluffbear, who were moving around to the side, striking at his blades, shuddered as well. “What is this?” Fluffbear shrieked.
“Fear. It's fear!” Threadbare realized. “But that's all right. I can use an Emboldening Speech, because you're all very brave! We can survive this. Keep fighting! I believe in you!”
Melos' helm whipped up to study him. “A ruler? Oh no no no, this nonsense ends NOW!”
Quick as a wink he tossed his sword up into the air. “Animus Blade!” Before Cecelia could react, he slammed his hand onto her helm, grasped it by the visor. “You will never know how sorry I am for this, my dear. All is Dust.
And Kindness melted away into a cloud of rust. Melos was already moving past her, snatching his sword out of the air again, and missed seeing the little armored porcelain doll poke her head out of the rust pile, and draw her sword.
“Stay back Cecelia!” Threadbare said through the raid chat. “Let me tank! Find things to animate! Melos, I challenge you!”
Your Challenge skill is now level 12!
Even with the boosted speed of raid speech, he barely had time to get that out before Melos was on him.
But as the King closed, Mordecai and Jarrik shot down the last of the animated swords, and the rest of the melee team encircled Melos. Bak'shaz fought side by side with Sloopy the snake, borrowing his minion's venom, manifesting it through paired knives. Fluffbear smote into Melos with lashes from her whip that left long, smoking wounds in the demon-infused steel of his armor. Garon lashed out with his hatchet, reforged by the dwarves into a proper weapon, while Madeline chomped bites into his shield, keeping that side of him busy. Zuula dove and harried him from above, spear flashing as she tried for his eyes. And Kayin, tiny Kayin, leaped on his legs, and did her best to stab him through the chainmail protecting his knee joints.
For his part, Threadbare focused on staying alive. He'd put up all his buffs and guard stance back in the room while he was waiting for his friends to prepare, and he was very, very glad that he had. Even with his blades gone, Melos was an unrelenting foe.
But for all that, even he couldn't land a solid strike on the teddy bear. Pulsivar was a Misplacer Beast now, and Zuula had spoken with him, hammered his part in their plan home. He dodged for all he was worth, and between that and his image displacement, Threadbare was everywhere the King's blade wasn't.
But Melos had more than one way to grind his foes to dust.
“I know the weakness of emboldening speeches, little bear,” he hissed, as Threadbare parried a blow that came far, far too close.
Your Parry skill is now level 23!
“They don't affect the ruler who gives them! Staredown!” Melos called, and his eyes burned red from under his visor, boring into Threadbare's own.
Within Melos' aura of fear, his cool was stretched thin already. The eyes blazed into his own, and the little bear gasped as moxie fled him. He knew fear, for the first time ever, and he quailed, even as he ducked another strike.
And then Garon spoke. “Emboldening Speech. Come on Threadbare, you've got this!”
Melos' red eyes widened, and he slowed, just for a second. “What? You're... two rulers?” He gasped. “How? WHY?”
“It's amazing the things you can do when you're not insane with paranoia,” Threadbare told him, recovering himself a bit. “Plan snekshot, please!” He called.
Zuula snarled, a long wordless howl in feline, and Pulsivar leaped away. The team hacking away slowly at Melos' hit points cleared out... all save for Sloopy, who coiled around the King at Bak'shaz' command. “Hang on Sloopy! Sloopy, hang on!”
Melos snorted, released his sword, and the blade hacked mercilessly into the serpent, who tightened his grasp-
-until Emmet spoke, in a voice like crashing metal. “Rapid Fire. Razor Shot. Concussion Shells.”
Emmet's hand split open and rolled back, revealing the cannon behind it.
And he put his grenadier levels to good use.
“Call Beast!” Bak'shaz shouted, and in a heartbeat Sloopy dematerialized from Melos, and returned to his side, as the lanky half-orc beat feet... along with everyone else who had been hacking at the King a second ago.
The bombs exploded, sending Melos staggering back. Hi shield warped under the pressure, and with a shriek, the demons insided burst, dripping from the cracks of it as red goo.
With a shout, Jarrik and Mordecai unleashed arrows and bullets on him, rocking him back and forth...
...and from the battlements, gray-cloaked figures rose, and added their own arrows, arrows of pure light, ripping into his armor.
Cobblestones flew from the misses and explosions, the two ground teams backed up, and smoke and dust swirled through the area in clouds... clouds that dissipated, as Zuula shouted “Call Winds!” and whisked them away... reveal Melos standing, helm cracked, revealing his lower face, and the spreading grin across it. His shield was a wreck and he tossed it aside... then drew six more blades from his sheaths, one by one, energy flickering as they produced swords from thin air. “Animus all,” he said, and they snapped into position around him. “Hellblades!” he cried, and the black steel bubbled and burst with red light that resolved into demonic faces. Melos spat, and pointed his sword at Threadbare. “You face a Champion of Entropy!” he yelled, and wrecked shards of cobblestone rose up around him. “Who will Fight Beyond Reason, offering No Mercy!” he roared. “I will not yield! I am Unyielding! Now come, my Hellsteed-” he said, and a fiery horse ripped out of a hole in the air and screamed, as he mounted it in a swift motion. “Prepare to Charge-”
“Dispel Magic!”
Beryl had been lurking on the sidelines, for the most part. With mediocre close combat skills, and no way to heal the wounded thanks to Melos' entropic strikes, she'd been feeling useless. But now, now she was very grateful that she'd fought so hard, and adventured so hard in the last few years, and ground Cleric up to twenty-five. Because watching that bastard fall to the ground as the horse disappeared out from under him? That was pretty fucking awesome.
Then he rose and ran for her, and it was a hell of a lot less awesome, as she ran and kept throwing dispels back at him-
-and then Threadbare and Emmet were in the way, Threadbare clawing at him, and Emmet smashing down on his former liege with heavy metal fists, and Melos was backing up. Again the melee teams closed in, and again Mordecai and Jarrik sniped his blades from the air.
Melos fought hard. Melos fought brutally. Melos fought with all the strength of a high-level adventurer, amplified by his status as a dungeon master's projection.
But Melos fought alone.
And with the superior communication coordinating all the groups, Melos could not win.
He still fought. His blade crashed down on Emmet again and again, and managed to connect with Threadbare a time or two, but they persisted. They had the hit points and armor to stand against him, and whenever he tried to turn back to take care of one of the smaller fry tormenting him, they'd back away while the others pressed harder. It was like a great lion fighting a wolf pack, and the outcome was inevitable.
But it was Cecelia, who finished it.
“Drive him towards the gate!” Cecelia said through the raid chat.
“What? Why?” Garon snapped.
“Do it!”
Threadbare snapped his head around, almost lost it, as he saw that the portcullis was up and the gate was half-open.
“Okay,” he said through the raid chat. “I'm going to try to trick him.” Then he spoke, pointing. “No! They've got the gate up! Don't let Melos escape!”
Immediately, the King turned and bolted., backhanding golems out of the way as he did. His armor a wreck, green patches glowing from gaping holes, he darted with all of his agility-
“Command Animus! Shut!” Cecelia shouted.
-and as he passed under the portcullis, a solid ton of animated steel snapped down, crashing into him and pinning him to the ground like a butterfly.
“Now! Hit him with everything!” Threadbare called.
And this time, when the smoke cleared, Melos did not stand.
Melos merely turned his head as Threadbare and the others approached, spitting out blood. He gazed at them with weary eyes. “Knew... it would... end this way.”
“It doesn't have to,” Threadbare said. “Dismiss Anise. Dismiss the other daemons. We'll come to you, and we'll figure out a way to fix the Oblivion.”
“No,” Melos said, closing his eyes. “Better this way. Find me. Kill me. The things I've done...”
“No Father,” Cecelia said, moving to stand next to Threadbare. “You'll get a trial. And then you'll be executed or imprisoned for life, maybe. We're not going to commit regicide. Not today. Besides, this isn't you, anyway. If we killed it, you'd just reform it. You're going to stay here pinned while we find the core chamber entrance, and-”
Melos screamed, long and hard, and reality flickered. And when it stopped flickering, he was gone.
And Threadbare stared, as words flashed pass his view
Royal Quest Stop Melos failed!
Target is dead.
“What the hell?” Garon barked. “Who-”
“Anise.” Cecelia said, pointing upward.
The sky was turning red. Clouds like bloody clots grew and rose in front of the sun. “She killed him,” Cecelia whispered. “She killed him and took his place.”
“Aw shit!” Madeline said, as the castle shook, twisted. Spikes burst from the walls, bloody protrusions, and demonic sigils rippled and formed patterns in the walls. “This is BAD.”
“We didn't level. We spent so many resources and we didn't level to recharge any of it,” Kayin said. “How the hell are we supposed to deal with THIS?”
“No,” Threadbare said. “We don't have to deal with this. We have to get to where she is, and stop this. Jericho?”
“I'm here.”
“Go to the labs, we'll be right behind. Tell the dwarves to secure the way. Find a place full of flashing green light, and guide us to it. Quickly!”
“On it! You heard the bear, move people!” Jericho waved, and the rangers faded out one by one, save for the last couple, who simply hopped down from the spiky wall and ran.
“Let's go!” Threadbare said, riding fast after them.
“She pretty much almost annihilated us the last time we fought her,” Graves said, falling in behind him, riding a skeletal horse he'd gotten from somewhere. “How are we going to deal with her AND the Hand at the same time?”
“I'm working on that right now,” Threadbare told him.
“And what of us, Lord?” said one of the teddy bears, as the golem army fell in behind him.
“I have part of a plan,” Threadbare said, mopping the makeup from his face. “Once we get down there I'll need every one of you to get naked...”
Spoiler: Spoiler



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About the author

Andrew Seiple


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