“So I’m Garon,” the fat boy said. He pointed at the tall youth who was walking ahead of them. “That’s Jarrik. The small one with the turtle is Bak’shaz.”
“I’m Celia. This is Threadbare.”
Threadbare waved, and Garon chuckled. “So you’re old man Caradon’s daughter, then?”
“Um, yes, how did you know?’
“Not too many moving teddy bears out in these parts. Has to be an animator and I don’t know any in town. We used to have one as a neighbor but she was kind of crazy.”
“Oh yer talkin’ about Mimsy?” Jarrik spoke up.
“You know she hated that name.”
“Pssh. She wanted ta bake me into a pie.”
“That was only ever a rumor.”
“Yeah, right, no baker needs an oven that big. And yer can’t tell me them cages was all fer animals.”
“Whatever. Her thing was animated gingerbread men. And baking. I think she might have been trying to find an unlock.”
“Summat mixed with cultist, prolly.”
“Hey, that was never proven.”
“What happened to her?” Celia asked, curious. She didn’t know any other animators than her Daddy. Didn’t know many people, really, when you got down to it, but this Mimsy shared a job with her so it made her more intriguing.
Garon shrugged. “Bad business. Someone pushed her into her own oven.”
“I still say she crawled in herself,” Jarrik grumped.
“Whatever. She’s gone. But yeah, animated gingerbread men. Less fun then you’d think, between the bad weather we get out here and the bugs.”
“But…” Bak’shaz spoke up for the first time, and the two older boys immediately stopped talking, and looked at him. Celia, her mouth half open to ask a question, managed to shut up. The little boy’s voice was high-pitched, and creaky, higher than hers. “But Mimzal’s gingerbread men all said ‘animi’ in their status. His says greater toy golem.” He pointed at Threadbare.
“You can read status screens?” Celia burst out. “That’s amazing!”
Instantly the little boy smiled widely, showing all his teeth, and stuck his hands in his overall pockets. “Ow!” His smile disappeared, and he pulled out a turtle, that was chewing on his thumb. “Okay yes Shelly it’s feeding time. We’re almost to the creek. Please be patient.” He cranked up his smile again, and the turtle let go.
Threadbare felt strange. That kid suddenly seemed a lot nicer looking. Totally a good guy, the golem could tell, though he couldn’t say why.
“It’s not as amazing as you think,” Jarrik said. “It’s not as awesome as scouts, we can use Scouter to start reading people at tenth level.”
“Which you haven’t got yet, so shut up,” Garon said, amicably. “Bak’shaz is a Tamer. He’s all about making friends with monsters, and collecting them as companions. So one of his abilities lets him look at monster status screens. And it looks like golems count as monsters.”
The woods thinned a bit, and Celia started to hear running water ahead. But she barely paid attention to where she was going, fascinated by the conversation and her new… friends? Hopefully friends. “Oh, uh, yeah, my Daddy made him. Golems are special animations that you don’t have to renew every time their spell runs out. They’re pretty tough.”
Bak’shaz nodded so hard his frizzy hair wobbled, still staring fascinated at Threadbare.
“I didn’t know he was a greater golem, though.” Celia looked down at Threadbare, and the little bear hugged her. “I thought Daddy was still working on those. I knew he was special, but I guess Daddy wanted me to have him to protect me. You’re the first of his successes!”
“What’s so great about greater golems?” Garon asked.
“Everything. They’re smart. Regular golems are as dumb as animi, but greaters are as smart as people.”
“Oh yeah. He helped me fight off a gropevine when Mister Mordecai was teaching me to be a scout.”
“Wait, Dad taught yer to be a scout?” Jarrik asked, looking unconvinced.
“Um, yes, why?”
“It’s just that yer ‘bout to walk right inta a big patchof poison ivy.”
One hasty scramble, a dropped bear, and a minimal amount of chaos later, they reached the creek, Threadbare toddling along behind them as Bak’shaz kept peeking at the little golem.
“I’m not a very good scout yet, I guess,” Celia sat on one of the big rocks near the water.
“Did he take ya out to Oblivion Point?” Jarrik asked.
“Yeah, thass a good run. If Dad taught you how to be a scout, yer a scout. Good comes wi’ practice.”
Garron grinned. Wow, his teeth were sharp. “Jarrik is Dad’s son, through and through. Wants to be a scout and an archer just like his old man.”
The way he said that was weird. “Wait, if he’s his Dad’s son… You’re… not your Father’s son?”
“What? Oh no, no. We’re all his sons. It’s just I don’t want to follow in his footsteps, that’s all.”
“He wants ter be a mercenary,” Jarrik explained. “Do ya have a fishing pole?”
“No, sorry. I can watch, it’s all right. Wait, mercenary is a job? I just thought most of them were knights or archers or other fighting jobs.”
Jarrik hunted around found a stick, started tying some twine to it. “Oh don’t get ‘im started-“
Too late. Garon grinned widely, and spread his arms. “Let me tell you about my awesome career path!”
Bak’shaz rolled his eyes and started digging in the mud, putting Shelly down to do so. Jarrik sighed, and worked on the makeshift fishing rod. Garon continued, oblivious. “Most of the fighting types come from the four warrior classes, it’s true, but sometimes they don’t fight for money. Mercenaries, now? We fight, but it’s secondary to getting paid. In fact, we’ve got stuff that lets us fight better so long as we’ve got money! And we always get paid.”
“Yeah that’s one of his skills,” Jarrik said, in a sing-song voice, clearly copying his brother. “If you give him a quest and stiff him on the reward he can give you a permanent luck and fate debuff.”
Garron punched his shoulder, and Jarrik yelped.
“Wow!” Celia leaned in. “That actually sounds pretty good.”
“That’s not all!” Garon grinned, rummaging around in his pack and pulling out his own fishing rod. “When I’m on a quest I get bonuses to every attribute when I’m doing something to complete that quest.”
“So wait,” The girl frowned. “If mercenary isn’t one of the warrior classes, what is it?”
“It’s one a tha wanderer classes,” Jarrik said. “Explorer, Mercenary, Merchant, and Scout.”
“Yep. We’re made to travel. I won’t be around here forever.” Garon glanced over to Bak’shaz. “How are you coming on those worms?”
“Shelly eats first.” Bak’shaz pointed at the turtle.
“Right, right. Don’t leave us hanging, I want to eat tonight too.”
“He’s got you covered.” Bak’shaz pointed into the creek.
The three other kids turned, to see Threadbare in the shallows, claws hooked into a fat trout, dragging it ashore. Another forage level and point of dexterity achieved!
“Okay, I like this little guy,” Jarrik said. “I see how he got you through the scout test.”
“We kind of helped each other,” Celia smiled. “But yeah, he’s great.”
Threadbare toddled up and laid the flopping fish at her feet. Garon leaned down, grabbed it, and casually beat it against a rock until it stopped moving.
Celia jumped a bit, then settled down, but Jarrik caught it. “Woss wrong?”
“I… guess I’m just new to killing. Ah, things.”
“Well yer a girl, I spec it’s diff’rent fer girls.”
“Maybe?” She shrugged. “I don’t have any sisters. It’s just me and Daddy, most of the time. And Emmet, but he doesn’t do much. And Threadbare, now.” She smiled down at the little bear. “Thanks for the fish.”
He patted her knee, then started to amble back to the creek. “No, no, I remember what happened the last time you got into running water,” She scooped him up. Then juggled him to one side, as Jarrik handed her a rod, with a freshly hooked worm writhing on it.
“Ya know how this works?”
“I’ve… read about it.”
They spent a good hour fishing. After a bit of prodding, Bak’shaz made him a little rod, too, though Threadbare took care of gathering his own worms. It bumped up his forage skill again, so he figured that was worth the effort.
And finally, he caught something-
You have unlocked the generic skill: Fishing!
Your Fishing skill is now level 1!
-and was promptly yanked into the water. Sure, he had the strength of a weedy human at this point, but he still had the mass of a twelve-inch tall teddy bear.
Here we go again, he thought, as the waters closed around his head. Irritated, he flailed around, looking for purchase.
Your Swim skill is now level 2!
He did manage to get his feet to the bottom. Unlike the Icewine river that ran past Celia’s house, this little creek was much slower. Threadbare came to a halt, and walked along the bottom, emerging up on shore…
…and staring right into the face of a creature he’d never seen before. It was four times his size, with a grubby snout, two squinty little eyes, and hooves for feet. It had a ridge of hair down its muddy back, and two tusks that positively dwarfed Garon’s sticking up from its lower jaw.
The boar, which had been enjoying a peaceful drink up until now, snorted.
Threadbare considered his options, and waved.
The boar’s eyes narrowed.
“Oh boy,” came Jarrik’s whisper from upriver. The boar shuffled back, glaring between the tall half-orc and the little bear.
“They’re over here,” Jarrik called, as loudly as he dared, then froze. The young boar stared his direction for a while, then looked back to Threadbare. It snuffled him, and Threadbare snuffled back.
Your Scents and Sensibility skill is now level 7!
Then Celia burst through the trees and the boar whipped around to face her, squealing and pawing the ground.
“Hey!” Bak’shaz burst out behind her, a big goofy grin on his face, with a dead fish in each hand, and Shelly clamped on for dear life to his hair. “Let’s be friends!”
The boar hesitated.
Behind Bak’shaz, axe out, Garon moved up, step by step, slowly. “You sure you want to try this, Bakky?”
“I always wanted a boar.” Bak’shaz never looked away from the pig. He approached, step by step. “Besides, I got my Beast Truce.”
Celia froze, a stuffed animal in both hands, and looked over to Jarrik. The thin scout nodded. “Let ‘im try. If it dunt work…” Jarrik tapped his bow.
The boar and Threadbare watched Bak’shaz approach, holding the fish, grin up the whole time. Eventually the smell of the fish became too strong, and the boar sniffed once, twice, then paced forward and tore it from the boy’s hands, slurping it down in three crunching bites.
“Tame Monster!” Bak’shaz said. Green light flared…
…and the boar instantly shrunk to half its former size.
“What?” Celia said, staring.
Behind her, Jarrik and Garon relaxed. “It means it worked,” Garon said. “He’s Bak’shaz’s pet now.”
“Yeah, but it’s a manageable size fer him until he gets ta a higher level,” Jarrik explained.
“That’s… that makes no sense,” Celia said.
“And moving teddy bears do?”
Well, they had her there. She watched Bak’shaz laugh delightedly and tackle the boar, winced as they rolled around on the dirt, and the boar bit and shoved at the little half-orc. Red numbers flashed up, low ones, but still… she hissed between her teeth. “Are you sure of this?”
“Relax, this is why Tamers get good con. Besides, I’m not just a mercenary.” Garon pointed at his brother. “Slow Regeneration.”
“Mom taught ‘im shaman,” Jarrik explained. “Figgered if he was gonna go off ter fight in battles, he should prolly know how to fix himself.”
“His name is Porkins,” Bak’shaz finally declared after the scuffle was over, and Shelly was returned to his pocket.
“Well, tha’s nice. Let’s get tha fish and go home before Porkins eats any more of our dinner.”
“As for you!” Celia shook her finger at Threadbare, who looked back at her, seated as he wrung water out of his legs.
Your Adorable skill is now level 12!
“Aw, it’s not like it was your fault,” Celia said. “We’ll just… tie you to a rock or to me next time you’re fishing. Here, let me try this… Clean and Press!”
Mordecai’s sons watched, as the water sprayed out of the bear, along with the mud, stains, and random weeds he’d collected during his dunking. “Neat!” Garon declared. “Is that an animator trick?”
“No, just a tailor skill. The only tailor skill I’ve got right now. I’m still new at it.”
“Huh. Well, none of us can do that so that should make Mom happy.” The kids and their assorted companions started their walk back home.
“Wait, should we be going back?” Celia asked, a few hundred feet later. “Are you sure they’re… done?”
“Oh, right, we can do that.” She shook her head, and Jarrik patted her back.
“Dun’ worry. We’ll teach yer tha ropes, Da’ and me.”
Garon chuckled. “Just make sure you tell Beryl about Celia before she finds out on her own. She’ll jump to entirely the wrong conclusion.”
“Who’s Beryl?” Celia wondered.
“His girl.” Garon grinned, and blocked Jarrik’s punch.
“She is not!”
“It ent like that!”
“Pretty much is.”
“You don’t know nuffin’ about it!”
“See this, Celia? This is probably like that book you read, with the knight and the maiden and the ripping bodices.”
“Oh!” Celia brightened up. “How romantic!”
“Not you too…” Jarik groaned, shooting her a betrayed look.
Garon and Bak’shaz laughed, but then they were at the hut, and Celia felt the gnawing of fear coming back to weigh her down. That look the woman… that Mordecai’s wife had shot her… that look had been pure wickedness. What if his wife was angry that he brought Celia home? What if she was going to, to… Celia’s imagination failed, but she was sure it was something horrible.
What if she was mean?
“Ah, there y’are.” Mordecai rocked on the porch, seated comfortably in a fur-covered chair, feet up on the railing, puffing his pipe. “C’mon up an’ meet Zuula.” He had a weary smile on his face, that she’d never seen before. It was almost smug.
Gathering her courage, reassured by the presence of her new friends at her back, she pushed through the beaded curtain and into the hut.
The scent was different now, she noticed. Not that raw, spicy scent, that hotness that grabbed at the nose that she’d first smelled. In her arms, Threadbare snuffled, turning his head to see.
The walls were lined with beds, and the largest of them had Mordecai’s boots next to it. In the center of the hut coals smoldered in a firepit, the smoke from the bubbling pot escaping through a hole in the roof. Idly, Celia wondered what they did when it rained, but she was soon distracted by the decorations on the walls. Broken weapons, a pair of shattered manacles, what looked like half a dozen shriveled up body parts from animals she didn’t recognize, tapestries, dried plants of all kinds, and looming above it all like a god’s idol before its offerings, was that painted wooden mask. Much too large to fit Celia, too large to fit Mordecai, it loomed with red-painted wood and bone teeth filling its mouth, the eyesockets empty but seeming to dance in the firelight, shifting around as if it was constantly surveying its domain.
“Child...” A deep voice purred, and Celia jumped. What she thought was a wall hanging was a curtain off to another room. While she’d been woolgathering, it had been swept aside. Yellow eyes peered out at Celia from the darkness, and the little girl swallowed.
But this time, the eyes were free of malice.
“Welcome to Zuula’s home, child.” A somewhat plump woman swept into the room. She had a robe on this time, loose around her enormous bosom, but snug around her wide hips. Her visible skin was green, dusky green in the firelight, and Celia could just make out the traceries of scars starting where her wrists met the robe’s sleeves.
But she had a pretty face, and though her teeth were many and sharp, her satisfied smile matched Mordecai’s for friendliness. Her dreadlocked hair was pulled back in a braid now, not loose.
It almost seemed like two different women. Celia’s eyes flickered from the matronly figure to the mask.
Perhaps it was two different women. She gained a wis increase then, and didn’t know why.
Zuula merely stood there, arms wide, smiling at her.
Zuula swept Celia into a bonecrushing hug, squishing Threadbare against her side. The little bear wriggled, and Zuula looked down. “Ha! De little Golem!”
“Er, yes, he’s Threadbare. Say hi, Threadbare.”
“Dreadbear. Good name.”
“Ah, no, Threadbare.”
“Is what Zuula said, Dreadbear.” The woman released Celia, dropping her to the ground. The little girl staggered madly on the planks of the floor, trying to avoid going into the stone-ringed fire. “Come come, you is welcome. Mordecai be sayin’ you feed him, yes?”
“On de way here. You hunt him food, yes?”
“Oh, the Blue Jay…” She rummaged in her pockets, and pulled out a handful of crumpled blue feathers. “Yes, I guess I did, though he did most of the-“
“Then Zuula owe you a dinner!”
“She helped with the fishing too, Mom.” Garon offered up from the doorway.
“Ha ha! Fish for dinner! Goes well with every ‘ting that Zuula growed this morning! Bring it in, put it in de gumbo, Garon.
“Oh, and we’ve got a pig now.”
“Pig can go in de gumbo too.” Zuula pulled a massive, curved knife down from a ceiling rack. “Part of it, anyway.”
“No, I mean, Bakky tamed it.”
“Hm! Den he go in de gumbo eventually, but not now. Pig, not Bakky.”
“Almost done cleanin’ the fish,” Mordecai called in.
“Tch. Waste of good fish heads,” Zuula groused, but shrugged. “Feed to de pig, den.”
“Already did!” Bak’shaz yelled.
“Not all of dem, Zuula hope.” The woman licked her lips.
“Saved you the biggest one, mom!”
“Good. Good boy.”
And so, a little while later, they all had gumbo. All except Threadbare, which was fine with him. The others seemed to enjoy the taste, but it smelled spicy and weird to his bear nose, and he was much more interested in exploring the hut, anyway. He ambled around freely, peering at things. Behind the second beaded curtain he found a small room with a heavy fruitlike scent over the smell of dung. It had a toilet and small sink in it, a thing he’d never seen before because he’d never accompanied Celia to the bathroom or even been in the bathroom of Celia’s old house. Curious, he clambered up and peered into the bowl of it, staring at the water, not seeing any fish.
From there, it was easy enough to climb up onto the seat, and stretch up, take hold of the sink to hoist himself up and examine that…
…which worked until his paws slipped, and he tottered backward, feet sliding on the well-worn ceramic of the toilet seat-
-only to be caught at the last minute by a callused hand.
Mordecai looked down at him. “You keep fallin’ at bad times, mister bear. Need ta work on yer footing.”
Threadbare nodded, and patted Mordecai’s wrist.
“Glad I ran into yer. Summat we needs ta discuss, anyway.” He left the bathroom. “Celia, you mind ifn’ I have a word with Threadbare?”
“Um, no? He doesn’t talk.”
“He lissens, though, yah?”
“Yes! He’s great at that!”
“Right, then.” Mordecai headed out the door, putting the teddy bear to the ground as he did so. “Walk wi’ me a bit, Threadbare.”
The bear nodded, and followed.
Mordecai headed out towards the setting sun, to where the woods grew thin and the hills started up again. “You’re a bit more’n ya seem, me friend.”
“I knew Caradon was up ta somefing when he asked me ta bring him toys every week. Bunches of ‘em. Rose some questions in town, I tell you that. But I did. An’ yer the result.”
Threadbare considered it, and nodded.
“Smart golems. Tha’s part of what we need. Figurin’ out a way to make’em work properly, so he can upgrade Emmet. Because we need Emmet, if this fing is gonna work.”
“Ya know scouts of tha proper level can look at yer status screen, right? I did when I met ya. And for tha longest time I couldn’t figure out why Caradon had given yer tha ruler job.”
Threadbare shook his head. He hadn’t gotten that from Caradon. He’d earned that through regicide, thank you very much. He wasn’t sure what regicide was, but it was the word that had popped up, he remembered.
“Two possibilities come to me, then. Both pretty ugly.” Mordecai stopped in a field of grass. It was empty out here, with the sun well on its way down, and the wind riffling through the field. Just Mordecai standing there solemn and patient, and Threadbare looking up at the old wanderer.
“First thing that come to me, was that yer tha way for Emmet to get the Ruler class. Emmet pops you, an’ then becomes king. But then I think nah, if he’s found a way to give it ta golems, then he could just give it ta Emmet, right?”
Threadbare nodded. That wasn’t what had happened, but the statement was true. The part that he understood, anyway.
“The second thought, an’ the one that makes the most sense ta me, is that yer how he wants to give the Ruler job to Celia. And it ent through marriage or adoption. Which leaves…”
Regicide, the grass seemed to whisper. Threadbare shivered, though he didn’t know why. He’d have to figure out that word at some point. It boded.
“Tha’s the one job we need for ‘er, the hard one ta get. We need ‘er ta have that job, an’ there ain’t many kings around these days. Or queens. Or other kinds of royalty. Balmoran has fallen in th’ North, and the Earl’s dead, along wi’ his son. The engagement’s not an option no more. There’s just one king left, an’ she’ll need everyfing she’s got against ‘im. And so will them what follers her.”
Threadbare stood in the grass, staring at Mordecai as the wind swirled and howled across the hills.
Mordecai stared at the little toy for a long time. He’d seen it in action, first against the eagle, then during Celia’s test. Watched it every step of the way. He knew what it was capable of. At least, he thought he did.
“I suppose the question I got fer yer, the big one, is simple. Will ya give yer life for Celia when the time comes? Give up everyfing you ‘ave for that little girl?”
Threadbare considered it.
For exactly three seconds.
Then he nodded.
Celia had saved him. Saved him from being dust, he thought, saved him from the cat the first time around, though that had worked out okay in the end. She’d definitely saved him from the Eagle, and they’d more or less saved each other from the troubles during that whole scouting run. He couldn’t imagine a life without her, and though he didn’t know what love was, he knew that he loved her. She was his little girl, and he was her teddy bear, and that was that.
Mordecai sighed. “Can’t say I like it, even if I unnerstand it. Hard times. Hard choices. But I respect yer creator, so if yer at peace wi’ it, then I’m at peace wi’ it, regardless of what comes. Come on Mister Bear, let’s go home.”
Wondering what all that had been about, Threadbare followed him back to the hut.
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