Madeline was waiting for Garon outside the conference chamber. “Is the boring stuff done?” The red-painted dragon demanded, grinning at him.
“Oh yeah. Is the fam behaving?”
“Mostly. They won’t miss us foah a bit.”
“Cool. Shall we?”
It was a few flights of stairs up to the battlements, then a quick hop on her back, and Madeline roared, before launching herself into the air. Garon clutched her neck tightly for a second, then relaxed as she took off, flapping.
“I didn’t hear a scaly wings in there! Had me worried for a second.”
“I roared it. Tahns out dragons can do that. Just roar out any skill they want, and it counts as commanding it. It’s paht of that Draconic Tongue skill.”
“Any skill? Not just the dragon ones?”
“Any skill.” She beat her wings as they soared over the city, and Garon rode in silence for a bit, checking out the streets below. They were distressingly empty.
“We could use a few more dragons,” he said, as his mind turned over the numbers he’d been privy to in the last council meeting. Four hundred doll haunters, give or take, made up a fifth of Cylvania’s population. True, that wasn’t counting the dwarves, but even adding them in, they were only like four hundred or five hundred more, at most. Cylvania was down to less than two thousand humans.
“It’s not gahnna be a hahd sell,” Madeline said. “Mind you, that faia elementalist thing is paht of it too, unless you want people blowing themselves up.”
“There’s gotta be something in higher levels for that.” Garon shook his head. “You’re only level four. Maybe next level, I don’t know.”
“Guess I’ll find out.” Madeline grinned, as her spine twisted under him. She curved around the edge of the city, circled back, spooking pigeons and crows as they went. “Ya know, I never did ask. Why a minotaur?”
“Eh. More of a matter of why NOT a minotaur. Big, strong, not too obviously dumb, no real weaknesses or surprises. Well, beyond that Maze-ing Grace skill, but that’s more of a weird boon than anything else. And no rage, that’s a big deal.”
Madeline laughed. “Don’t have to tell me twice. It was pretty bad to watch, those yeahs I had to keep you tied up. Wait, shit. Soahry? Too soon? I didn’t mean to…” She shut up.
“No. No, it’s fine. You were a vampire, back then, and that’s what vampires do. Did, anyway. Figure death has buried that, you know? We’re free to be who we want now, and I figure the you that hurt me is dead, and the me that betrayed you in the end is dead, too. I’m Garon and you’re Madeline, and we’re free to be awesome together.”
“Togethah.” She beat her wings again. “Not the way I’d envisioned it, but it ain’t so bad. Though it does make me curious. Zuula and yoah old man, what do you think they… I mean how do they… in bed, and all?”
“You know, you could ask her that, and she’d tell you in graphic detail.”
“Why do you think I ain’t asked her?” Madeline shuddered underneath him.
“Heh!” Garon snorted. His muzzle was good for that. “They sleep together, that’s all I know. Whether or not they do anything uh, beyond that, I couldn’t say. They’re happy. That’s all that matters. Personally…” He freed up a hand and rubbed his chin. “I think it’s the intimacy. That’s what makes it love. They can be alone together, and whatever they do is just icing on top, you know? The core of it is you’ve got two people alone, who trust each other, and just enjoy each other’s company.”
“Sounds kind of like what weah doing now,” Madeline said, flapping her wings to get over a tower.
“Yeah,” Garon said, resting his hand back at the base of her neck. “It does.”
They flew in silence for a bit longer. But not awkward silence. It was more of a warm silence, an answer given to a question that had never been asked, and a satisfaction that grew as they considered it.
They stayed out much longer than they’d planned, but it was worth it.
Zuula was waiting for them when they returned, standing on the battlements and throwing pebbles down at the guards below.
“Mom! Stop that.”
“No, it fine. Dey got helmets.” She lifted up a rock the size of her head.
“Tch. Talkin’ to you mother dat way…” But she put the rock down. “You got de t’ing you say earlier?”
“Yeah. You ready?”
“No, let her go be human and fart around and angst for an hour OF COURSE ZUULA READY!”
Garon nodded, and reached out a hand, smiling as she grabbed it like she was drowning. “Shaman Promotion Fifty!”
And Zuula’s mouth fell open into a huge, tusky grin as she declared “Level twenty-six!”
“Twenty-four more to go.” Garon grinned. “Maybe by then I’ll have unlocked another promotion skill.”
“You bust butt on dat. Zuula ain’t slowin’ down. Er… maybe good time to mention dat.” She said, nodding toward the trapdoor and the ladder leading down.
“Not slowing down?” Garon said.
“We… gonna go. Mordecai and me. Go sout’, go on one last adventure.” She sighed. “He… not in good way. Forgets t’ings. Slowing down.”
“Oh jeeze. Mom, look, I… you’re not going off to die, are you?”
“Pfft, no. Not our way. Don’t be stupid. But if it happen, it happen. He not soulstoning. Not gonna come back dat way.”
They descended the ladder as Garon considered.
Madeline spoke up. “Yoah coming back, though, right?”
“What? Yes. Or maybe we both come back. This one last chance to see world outside, while Mordecai can still get around.” Zuula said. “Once we see enough of it, we make decision den.”
“You’d better. I mean, we’re not going to have kids, but there’s still hope for Jarrik and Beryl. And Bakky too, maybe, I don’t know what his situation is. Regardless, I really want my cousins to meet their grandmother AND their grandfather, if at all possible.”
Zuula glared at him. “Fighting dirty.” Then the glare softened. “So proud of you! Proper orky tactic!”
“I learned from the best.” He hugged her, and she hugged him back, biting at his shoulder affectionately.
“So when are you going?”
“As soon as you promote Mordecai. He got some jobs to level up!”
“Yeah, he’s at the top of the list. It takes a good chunk of fortune or else I’d do all the rangers at once.” Garon rubbed his head. “Tell him I’ll stop by tonight, okay? He’s… doing well?”
“He sane. It worst in de mornings.” She glanced up toward the sun, scowled at the ceiling. “Zuula be glad to be out of here, soon. When we waystoning back, anyway?”
“Tomorrow, I’m thinking,” Madeline said. “Time enough foah another flight or two round the city.” She nudged Garon with her tail, and he jumped. “See ya around, Gar.” She sauntered off, smiling.
“Dat one a keeper,” Zuula nudged him.
“Yeah.” Garon nodded, watching a draconic tail give one last wiggle as it disappeared around a corner. “She is.”
“Nah. It’s back to Brokeshale for us, bro,” Jarrik said, draining the last of his beer. “Too much light out here. Too much space.”
“That’s kind of ironic, given how much I remember you being into the outdoors and exploring the hell out of things when we were kids.” Garon said over his mug. It was full of water, but he drained a sip into the compartment in his chestwhenever Jarrik took a pull of his own. It was good dwarven manners, that’s all.
“Yeah, well… I think I found what I was looking for.” Jarrik reached over to ruffle Beryl’s hair, and got his arm punched, for his trouble. He gasped, but managed to avoid spilling his drink. “Ass,” he muttered.
“Dick.” Beryl responded. Then she smiled at Garon. “Yeah, we’ve been here long enough. I’ve got a whole ministry to run, and now that I’ve got all the shipments arranged, I’ll have the supplies to keep us playing with all new weapons for a few years. After that, we’ll see.”
“So you’re not losing business? Now that the war’s done, I mean?”
“We’re dwarves,” Beryl said, refilling her mug. “There’s always another war coming. And new weapons are going to be useful, when it does.”
“Yeah. And I’ll be there to see it, too.” Garon sighed. “Grundi’s your guildmaster, so you’re good there. But I’ll have to stay here and stay safe until I’ve got some successors trained up. That’s going to take time. Even after that, I don’t know.” Garon stared at his water. “It depends on what the RAGs find, I guess.”
“Yeah. ‘bout that,” Bak’shaz spoke, for the first time that afternoon, and everyone looked at him. “You got a spot open?”
“Of course!” Garon said, putting his mug down. “Invite Adventurer,” he told Bak’shaz. “We’re still working out the rules and all, but welcome aboard.”
Bak’shaz has joined your guild!
“Thanks bro.” Bak’shaz smiled, and fiddled with his helmet. “I’m thinkin’ I don’t want to explore much yet. But I wanna help set up the lodges an’ stuff. I’m thinkin’ that maybe it’s a way around th’ tamer problem.”
“Tamer problem?” Jarrik killed his beer.
“It’s hard as hell to keep more’n one critter tamed. Might be that changes in later levels, I dunno, but I’m thinkin’ we can have like pens and paddocks set up at the lodges, so the RAGs can bring in more animals, stuff you don’t find in these parts, and leave them between missions…”
Garon smiled, as the words flowed from Bak’shaz, starting hesitant, and speeding up. That was the brother he remembered, normally curt but enthusiastic when he got talking. He’d been worried for him, after his snake died in the battle against the daemons. But now? Now Garon thought his little brother would be okay.
Putting his mug down, he leaned in, and the Skunkstomper boys (and significant other,) started talking about the logistics they needed to run a proper guild…
“Me? No, I’ve got everything I need, to be honest,” Graves said, looking up from the latest batch of golem bodies. “While I’ll be assisting the Guild as needed, right now I need to see about making soulstoning and doll haunting socially and morally acceptable. Because if people HERE have problems, then the people we’ll run into out THERE will have problems, too. It’s better to settle the problem here first, so we have a united solution to present to the doubters out THERE.”
“All right, if you’re sure. You’re one of our members now regardless, so if there’s every anything, you let me know?” Garon held his hands up in a placating manner.
“Sorry. Was that too harsh?” Graves rubbed his face. “I’m used to having a lot more charisma than this. Twenty-two knight levels gone, that’s sixty-six points right out the window. And I wasn’t much of a charmer before I was a knight.”
“Eh, look at it this way,” Kayin said, walking among the golem bodies and plopping down right in the middle of his work. “It’s easier to grind your charisma the normal way now.”
“No, it wasn’t too harsh.” Garon shrugged. “You’ve got a ways to go before you piss off a half-orc. Even one who’s had a race-change, I guess.”
“And doesn’t that open up some big questions?” Kayin asked. “Like, oh, how do you think actual high dragons are going to feel about toy dragons horning in on their dragonity? Is a dwarf still a dwarf if he’s a golem and in another shape?”
“Well, the dwarves have that ‘undead are no longer who they were when they were dwarves’ rule, so that part’s easy for them at least,” Graves said.
Kayin nodded. “Yeah, but it’s more complicated for other folks. giants just flat-out don’t like the notion, but they don’t care if other people do it. The Gribbits are politely uninterested. And what about elves? They’re out there somewhere, probably. What happens when we run into someone who wants to be an elf?”
Graves cleared his throat. “Actually…”
“You’ve already had someone, haven’t you?” Garon asked.
“Yes. She wants to be a dark elf, actually.”
“Oh. Shit.” Garon was glad he didn’t have skin to go pale anymore.
“Would that even work?” Kayin asked, the marbles in her eyesockets glittering.
“I have no idea, but we’ve got no good excuse to turn her down, so we’re going to give it a whirl.” Graves held up a pale, stuffed plushie, clad in spidery robes, with a cruel sneer on its face and black, pupiless eyes. Pointed ears jutted out from silvery hair.
“Who in their right mind would… you know what, never mind,” Garon rubbed his horns. “Yeah, that’ll go over well if we run into any elves out there.”
“Do you even know what their beef with dark elves is?” Kayin glanced over to him.
“Not a clue. I think only other elves get to learn about that.”
“I’m reasonably sure this is just asking for trouble, but whatever. Speak with Dead.”
“Oh wait, she’s here? Now?” Garon said.
“Yes, I am. And it’s my choice!” One of the soulstones pulsed.
“Are you ready, Janice?”
“Go for it, Mister Graves!”
“Toy Golem!” He poured yellow reagent out of a vial, and it dissipated into the plush elf, as did the soulstone in his other hand. “Golem Animus!”
They watched… and gasped, as the elf doll’s skin turned from sheer pale white, to a regular flesh color. The black eyes rippled, then turned into white patches of cloth with pupils.
“What’s wrong?” Janice said, staring at them. “Status.” She frowned. “Hey! I wanted a dark elf, not an elf!”
“Ah. Er…” Graves sat down. “Oh dear. I think I see why the elves don’t talk about it much.”
“Why’s that?” Kayin asked.
“This sort of thing only happens when somebody gets a ranked up body. The rank won’t transfer, so the body defaults to the lowest possible rank of the form. Dire bears turn into regular bears. Misplacer beasts turn into cats. So that means that dark elves…”
“So can I be one or not?” Janice asked, thoroughly lost.
“Yeeess, but you’ll have to get enough elf levels to unlock the choice. And figure out the race unlock,” Graves said, massaging his eyes. “And for the love of Yorgum we need to keep this quiet. This is something elves would probably kill us to keep quiet and feel not a bit of guilt over.”
“What?” Janice said.
“Please,” Graves said. “I’ll explain it to you later, but I’ll need your promise to keep this secret.”
“Okay. You are one of the makers. If you want me to, I’ll promise.”
She did, then headed out, still relatively happy, off to show her friends her new body.
“We’re going to hit more stuff like that, won’t we?” Garon asked, as he stared after her. “Weird little secrets, stuff that we can’t forbid, because then people will want to do it more. Stuff we can’t predict.”
“Yes,” Graves said. “Which is why I need to stay here, and sort it out as it comes.”
“And I’ll stay here and guard him,” Kayin said. “Because he’s one of the keys to our kingdom, and this whole thing we’ve got, and he and Threadbare are central to the whole operation. And that lady over in the dwarfhold. What’s her name?”
“Irga. We’re staying in touch. I already cleared it with Grundi, we’ve got golem birds dedicated for that.”
“Yeah.” Kayin smiled. “Because this?” She gestured at the tables full of golems, “this is something I can’t help with. But keeping my shield buddy alive is. Lots of assassins will be coming his way if we keep doing this.”
Graves reached down and scratched between her ears, and she leaned back into it, purring for a second. Then her eyes snapped open and she glared at Garon. “Not a word.”
Garon held up his hands, and shrugged.
“Well. At any rate…” Graves said, turning back to his work.
Smiling, Garon found his own way out… and nearly tripped over Glub as he did. The little fishman had a pack on his back, and a grin on his face. “So when we going?”
“To set up the lodges.”
“Oh. Ah, it’ll take a while. The first one will be in the South, we’re thinking.”
“Right, that’s where you’re going back to, right dude?”
“Yeah, in a day or two.”
“Aw man.” Glub looked down. “Eh, I guess it’s cool if it’s later.”
“Why the hurry?”
“Eh… at first it was fun singing at the taverns, but…” he scratched his head. “The uh, the ladies from Outsmouth. They’re like following me, man. And there’s some… living women, and dudes, joining them. I think I’m being flirted with. Like lots.”
“And you’re not okay with this?”
“No man!” Glub clapped his hands over his mouth. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, most people here are pretty cool, but aside from those bomb-ass gribbits ain’t nobody’s got a booty worth slamming to me! And even if I was still inclined to that I’m a toy now! Got no urges, or equipment to work with that’d do anything for me. No, uh, I think I’d kinda like to hit the road. Fast. And maybe let the… heat die down some.”
Garon laughed, and put his arm around the guy. “See, this isn't usually a problem that most bards care about. But I get where you're coming from. Hey, is Missus Fluffbear still around?”
“No. She’s still sorting out the troops. And getting used to her promotion. So you probably shouldn’t call her Missus anymore.”
“Right, right… General Fluffbear. Gonna take a while for me to get used to saying that,” Garon shook his head. “Go help her. Run errands and stuff. That should keep you busy, I think.”
“Worth a shot. Don’t leave without me though, okay?”
Garon watched him go, and headed back upstairs.
There was a hell of a lot to do. Cylvania was a shadow of what it had been, but they had a way ahead. It wasn’t without problems, but he had his friends, and he had plans and options and a guild hundreds strong, now.
He couldn’t say what the next year, or even the next month or day would bring, but he’d meet it with a smile.
A smile or a really big axe, as the occasion required…