Anise put her hand on the scout’s shoulder, as they peered down at the pass, and the group of children below. “You’re sure?”
“Yeah. The bear’s got a magic item equipped, the stat boosts are way too large for any mundane equipment.”
“Unregistered, most likely,” Anise considered her options, then nodded. “Whisper to the guards. Tell them the kids are on an exemption list.”
Anise’s cold, cold eyes narrowed. “Did I stutter?”
The Scout, Jericho was his name, paled and nodded, lips moving as he used his magical skill to pass on the message.
Anise threw the lever to open the gate, and hurried over to the arrow slit at the sound of shouting. But it was just the typical problem you ran into with Whispering Wind, and people who were on hair triggers. The guard who hadn't heard overreacted, but fortunately his friend had calmed him down. They were all on-edge, and highly trained, overtrained really, for this situation.
But then, Melor had insisted on bringing only the elites out here. She rather thought it overkill, but it didn’t matter in the end. She had what she needed. Everything else was details to be arranged at her pleasure.
Like those details outside. She peered out the window at the children moving up the path, and stifled a giggle as the little golem waved at her. She waved back.
“No,” she told Jericho, as he reached toward a clipboard of parchment. “Don’t record this one.”
“Well, they brought an item in, we don’t want any misunderstandings after they come back out-“
Actually, Anise did. “I’ll tell the next shift personally. Keep this one off the books.”
“Those are Mordecai’s kids, miss. I…” Jericho snapped his lips shut. Like many of the King’s scouts in this region, the old man had trained him personally. Which was why they were still around, unlike the local garrison. They were the best scouts in the Crown's army, and the King had nobody more elite to replace them with.
“You need to be going on back to town, to the mustering point,” Anise told him. “We’re moving tonight, and your help will be crucial to the Crown’s success, Jericho.”
He paled. “Yes ma’am!” Snapping off a salute, pounding his fist against his heart, he rose and departed.
Anise smiled, and pinched out the candle, leaving the observation room in darkness…
Celia had never been in jail before, and she didn’t like it one bit.
Ten feet by ten feet wide, it held a bedroll in one corner, and a chamber pot that smelled like it had been changed a few years ago. Though Celia desperately needed to pee, she couldn’t quite bring herself to do that, even if the boys had promised to turn their backs.
The cold stone walls were only a little warmer than the snowy mountains a few feet outside, and the bars set high in the wall looked out over a sheer drop. They’d thought of pushing Threadbare out of them and sending him to get help, but even with his stuffed form and the benefits of Golem Body, there was no way he’d survive the fall.
The guards had shut them in here and left them. Nobody guarded the dark hallway beyond, lit by a single glowstone hanging from a chain. The guards hadn’t even bothered taking their equipment, except for Threadbare’s confiscated scepter. At first they thought it had been an oversight, but as an hour crawled by and Jarrik wondered for the seventh time why that was so, Garon voiced the truth of the matter;
“The guards don’t care. We can’t take them on even with our stuff.”
“We didn’t even try,” Jarrik shook his head.
“Suicide. They’re knights for sure, and did you see how Threadbare was wailing on that one? He was doing decent damage to the Dungeon Boss. But it was all zeroes on the guard, he had to be double his level if he was a day, or that magical armor was stupid tough, or both. And with a wizard up out of our reach? No, we would’ve died.”
“That one guard hurt poor Threadbare more than the dungeon boss too,” Celia added. “In one hit, anyway, and he wasn’t even trying.”
“Guards ain’t usually this buff,” Bak’Shaz said.
“Aye,” Beryl frowned. “They go off duty in town and get into bar fights, and they’re not that hot. They’re decent, but not that badass.”
“Goes back ta what I was saying before,” Jarrik put his arm around Beryl, and leaned back against the cold wall as he considered. “Something’s goin’ on. High-level guards out here, dragon riders comin’ inta the barracks, closed dungeons… I don’t like this. This ent good.”
“And they planted a magic item on poor Threadbare!” Celia hugged him tightly. “Why?”
The little golem tried to gesture and explain that no, he’d had that to begin with, and he was quite sorry because it had slipped his mind, but Celia just thought he was squirming and put him down.
“We could send him through the bars,” Beryl nodded to the darkened corridor. “See what he could find.”
“No! You saw how that one guard tore him up like he was… just a… just a thing!” Celia was horrified. “If they catch him out there they won’t think twice about killing him!”
“It might be our only option,” Garon said. “Besides, he can handle himself. He fell into certain death and walked out of that hidden dungeon area with two new jobs.”
“Three if you count tailor,” Bak’shaz offered.
“Look, I got this, maybe.” Beryl said. “Let me talk with Aeterna. Ask her for advice.”
“Oh. Oh!” Jarrik brightened up. “Yeah, good idea.”
The little cleric closed her eyes, cupped her hands, and chanted. “Pray to Aeterna!”
The children, and Threadbare, leaned in to watch Beryl as her lips moved, silently.
JUST A LITTLE LATER
Steam filled the room. Steam filled the world, and gusted and eddied, and pooled in Zuula’s vision. Herbs smoldered in their pots, mixing with the hot, wet clouds and soaking into her as the sweat left, breathed in, not just by her lungs but her very pores. And as the steam billowed, the walls of the lodge expanded, fell away, became darkness and stars.
And Zuula drifted in the darkness, turning in the sheltering heat of the steam, peering down upon the green and white and blue, seeing the patterns that ran through.
She saw, and she grieved. Ah, that is how it is, she thought not with her mind, but with the soul that was all she was now, for she’d left her brain behind in her other body. Where she was, you didn’t need fleshy eyes to see. Or a brain to think, for that matter.
Slowly, once she was sure of what she saw, she began the long drift back to her body. Oracles really had it easier, she thought. Gods were oddly small, in the grand scheme of it all. They could throw easy puzzles at their Oracles, symbols and hopes and visions. Dream quests were much more difficult, because the grand sweep of nature not only had no real interest in things that weren’t it, it didn’t bother to adjust its comprehension so that smaller things could understand it. How could the ant comprehend the elephant, or the pebble comprehend the mountain?
The bottom line was that dream quests did better with natural things, and stuff that disturbed them. Which is why she knew the Oblivion would fall, in five years or twenty-seven. She knew that the wild animals around here would get a population boom soon, and with a sick feeling she thought she knew why that was so.
But the thing of being a shaman, is that to do so you had to put yourself into nature, but keep a foot back in the world of people. You had to stand in the middle, and nature being what nature was, it got into you, grew outward, made you more of a part of it then you would be otherwise.
Which was why Zuula knew for certain the timeof her death. And precisely how many worms would eat her corpse after all was said and done.
Nude, she left the sweat lodge, trekked back to the house, and dried herself by the fire. Flipping up the loose board beneath the hut, she withdrew her good club, the one she hadn’t turned in to the king’s men when they demanded that her family register all their magic items.
Then she stared up at the totem mask. It stared back, purring with restrained power, holding all the primal emotions she’d poured into it through the years. Fear, rage, and lust, mostly. Easy stuff to work with. Powerful stuff, when all was said and done.
Mordecai had thought she was just into rough foreplay. Well she was, but like most things she did, it served a deeper purpose. High wisdom let you do that sort of thing, after all.
With both hands, she took the mask down, feeling it writhe within her hands, the painted wood becoming more than wood, stretching to her face. Put me on, she heard within her mind. Her own voice, but not a part of her that normally bothered speaking, just doing. Put me on, it whined again, and Zuula shook her head.
“No just yet,” she sighed, staring out the door of the hut. Her death she’d seen, but others were far, far from decided. “No just yet. Soon…”
EARLIER IN THE DAY
By the house at the edge of the hills, in a newly-cleaned workshop, Caradon sat and stared at his enchanting supplies. Golems were resource hogs, and he’d used up every smuggled magic item that Mordecai had brought him this week, disenchanting them and mowing through the entire supply of reagents and crystals in its entirety. And then he’d disenchanted the last two batches of toy golems that he’d tried, and failed to enhance. That hadn’t returned as many reagents as he’d hoped.
Sighing, he sat back and did the equations. He had enough left for one more Toy Golem. Not one more batch, one more Toy Golem. He rubbed his knuckles against his eyes.
First, he needed a toy. The old man rummaged through the bin, found it empty. His daughter had taken all of hers, so that was out, not that he’d touch her toys without her permission anyway. That left one option.
He drummed his fingers against the wood of the table, turning it over and over in his mind.
Caradon didn’t want to do it. But he’d been through two batches since Celia had gone, and he felt he was on the cusp of a breakthrough. He could work straight through, without interruptions, without having to spare time to tend to her, or mind the house. One good push might do it.
He had to stop holding back.
Caradon went back to the house, rubbed Pulsiver as the cat purred against his leg as soon as he got through the door, and made his way upstairs to the attic. And once there, with only the cat looking on, he dug out the trunk he’d hidden safely away oh so many years ago. Trembling, he opened it, and snatched up the loose sack inside, feeling the weight of the contents. He started to open it, then stopped. No, no. Not here.
Downstairs, at the broad table, with only Emmet and Pulsivar looking on, he poured himself a glass of wine and felt his sanity refill a bit while he drained it. Then he opened the sack, pulling out two things. A framed portrait of a smiling woman, and an old, ragged teddy bear. Six inches tall, with jet black fur, it stared at him as he held it up. One button eye clattered off as the moth-eaten thread gave way, and Caradon sighed.
“Hello Missus Fluffbear.” Caradon put down the toy, and looked at the portrait, feeling a lump swell up in his throat. “Hello Amelia.” He took a breath, two, three, until he could speak again. “Ten years gone, and I’ve never missed you more. No man should outlive…” He cleared his throat. “Anyway. I’m sorry, but I have to borrow Missus Fluffbear. Will you… don’t worry. I’ll take care of her.”
Pulsivar purred like a buzzsaw and rubbed against his calves, and Caradon picked up the fat cat, grunting as he did so. He scratched Pulsivar’s neck, and waited until the tears that threatened his eyes had subsided.
“I’ll take your silence as a yes. Thank you, Amelia.” Caradon put Pulsivar to the side, and picked up Missus Fluffbear.
Then he dug out his sewing kit and got to work.
Ten minutes later, in his workshop, he made the final pass of his enchanting wand over the little bear, and the crystals and dust he’d arranged in arcane patterns around her glowed, disappearing as magical patterns flared over her body. The vessel was ready.
Fifteen minutes later, he stumbled out of the workshop, pounding his fist against the door frame, barely holding in his disappointment. Another one! Another stunted little barely-intelligent thing! He’d sacrificed Amelia’s childhood toy, her favorite, for what?
In fury, he turned back to look at the failed experiment, his still-running eye for detail showing every pathetic detail of its anemic status screen, screaming in wordless frustration…
…and Missus Fluffbear cowered away from him, putting its paws over its head.
He sighed, feeling his anger ebb. Sure, it was only due to its adorable skill, but…
Wait a minute.
Its charisma… hadn’t it been sixteen, when he’d first checked the little toy?
Now it was seventeen.
He blinked, as his eye for detail faded.
Implications crashed in on him, but he shook his head. It hadn’t responded to the invite. But it had just gained an attribute point, something lesser golems couldn’t do.
On the edge, so close to completing the equation, he unbound the little golem from its place on the shelf, and picked it up, hugging it to him. It was stiff in his arms for a bit.
“Hug,” Caradon said, and hugged the bear once more. “Hug means this.” He embraced it once more, then held it out.
And Missus Fluffbear looked at him solemnly, then held her arms out for another hug.
Caradon gasped, as her intelligence ticked up from five to six.
“I’ve been a fool. I’ve been a damned, stupid old fool.” He hugged the tiny teddy bear, and now the tears slid freely down his face. “What have I done?” The empty spaces on the shelves where dozens of test subjects had sat haunted him, and he turned his face away. “It doesn’t make supergolems. It makes golems into people.”
Noise from outside, a rumbling crash, and that’s all the warning he got before the wall of the workshop exploded, and a rock the size of his dining room table rolled towards him. He yelled and jumped back, dropping Missus Fluffbear in the process-
-and the boulder swerved, the damned rock hit some tiny obstacle and swerved, heading straight for the prone form of Missus Fluffbear.
“No! Animus!” Caradon shouted at his chair, “Invite, ah, Chairy Mcchairface!” Split seconds to go as the rock tumbled, but now the chair was in his party, and subject to his buffs and will, and it scooped Missus Fluffbear up and fled the workshop at Caradon’s heels as the thoroughly random rock took out another wall and rumbled to a stop.
A short distance away, Caradon stared at it, then stared upslope, at an outcropping which now looked decidedly less sturdy than it had this morning. “That stone shelf has been up there for years. That’s an odd stroke… of… bad... luck….” A horrible thought filled him, and he looked back at Missus Fluffbear.
Sitting calmly in her chair, she held her arms out for a hug.
And to his horror, he realized that her luck had just gone up. From four to five.
“Oh no. No, no, no."
From behind him, he heard the call of Screaming Eagles on the hunt. Eagles, plural.
He grabbed Fluffbear and ran.
Hours later, after the last monster was dead, the fires were out, and Emmet was stomping around the yard hauling monster carcasses away, a haggard and exhausted Caradon looked at the battered but triumphant Raggedy Men. The wards on the house had been damaged a bit, but that was fine.
“Two greens,” he told Missus Fluffbear as he put his hand of cards down, and she considered, and put down two blues.
“Good! You win!” He patted her head, and she wiggled with pleasure, something she’d picked up from Pulsivar, probably. The cat had taken a look at her and fled, for no reason Caradon could tell. “Keep playing grindluck,” he told her, studying her status screen's thirteen luck with his eye for detail. “We’re going to be here a while.”
A few more hands later, and silence surrounded him for once in… hours? Something like that. He’d kind of lost track after the third avalanche. But now he felt secure enough to send the Raggedy Men back to their patrols.
As to the wards, eh, he could get to those later, when he had more enchanting supplies and sanity. As it was, the only ones that were seriously damaged were the ones against demons, and what the hell were the odds that any of those would show up tonight?
He took another look at Missus Fluffbear’s luck. The odds were entirely too high, he decided. So he had Ah Chairy Mcchairface go fetch him one of his toy golem birds. “We’ll call Mordecai in, just in case,” Caradon said, and blinked as his wisdom went up for the first time in years. “Definitely Mordecai!” he said, scratching out a hasty message and sending the bird on its way.
Anise’s heels clicked as her boots hit the stone floor. The corridor was dark, lit only by a single glowstone. She approached the bars, taking no effort to hide the sound of her approach.
“Someone’s coming,” She heard one of the half-breeds whisper.
“Shh! Don’t interrupt Beryl!” The girl whispered back.
“It’s all right, I’m done. She said say yes.”
“The goddess said say-“
Anise moved into the pool of light just outside the cell. “Oh dear, such a misunderstanding.” She looked down at the little golden scepter in her hands, and looked back to Celia. “Would you and your little friends like to go free?”
There was a long pause. Beryl slapped her forehead. “Yes!” she said.
“Come along then.” Anise took out a slender key and unlocked the cell door, then unlocked the door to the rest of the keep. The children filed out, cautiously, save for Threadbare who marched up and pointed at his scepter. She handed it to him with a closed-mouth smile, and patted his head, before moving further into the keep.
They followed her through empty halls, past abandoned rooms and arrow slits letting in nothing but darkness and the cold night’s air. The wind howled down the hallways as they went, playing an odd sort of tune entirely by accident. Anise sneered to herself as she felt the tension build behind her. The glowstones were few and far between here, leaving large pools of darkness between them, and she felt almost at home.
It was one of the half-breeds that broke the tension. “Where are all the guards?” The fat one asked.
“Gone,” Anise replied. “Seven of them went to go seal this dungeon for good. The rest are headed to town. There’s a small matter to take care of tonight.”
“Seal the dungeon? What?” The godlicker gasped, her ridiculous braids swaying as she stomped up to walk alongside Anise. “You can’t do that?”
“Me? No. The guards? Yes,” Anise said. “King’s orders. As is the business with the town.”
“Business with the town? What business with the town?” The tall half-breed with the bow moved up to flank Anise on her other side.
Anise halted, and nodded to a thick wooden door. “There’s the exit. I trust you can find your way home?” She opened it, letting a sliver of moonlight into the darkness.
“What business with the town?” The tall green freak insisted, moving towards her, pushing away the fat one’s cautioning hand.
Anise ignored him, walked past him to kneel by Celia. “Thank you so much for trusting me,” she said, icy blue eyes staring into the girl’s own green ones. “I won’t forget it. We’re going to sort matters out with Caradon, and then your long nightmare will be over. We will do what we must, and then I will help you, Cecilia. I will help you become who you were meant to be.”
“Nightmare?” Celia blinked, staring uneasily at the pale white arm, almost shining in the moonlight, and the bloody hue of the scarlet nails on her shoulder. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“You will, soon. Which is good, because we’ve got so much to talk about,” Anise smiled. “But you’re going to have to hurry if you want to say goodbye to him.” Anise turned and stood, stepping back out of the moonlight into darkness, regarding the children without pity. “That goes for all of you. Say goodbye to everyone you know and love, children. Ladybug ladybug, fly away home…”
Green skin turned pale. The children backed away from her as one, and Celia clutched Threadbare tight as they ran out the door. Anise smiled. “No,” she said, grabbing at the air well after they’d left. “Wait,” she said, going to the door. “Stop!” she commanded the air, shutting the door.
She gave it another five minutes to make sure they weren’t coming back or anything stupid like that, then hauled out a disk of black marble. She kissed it, then knelt, holding it aloft with one hand as she watched a red image blur into existence, standing on the flat disk. A man in heavy armor, his horned helm crowning plate worked with demonic faces and glowing with its own enchantments.
“Master,” she whispered. “The children have escaped me. I tried to stop them, but failed.”
His anger smote her down, and she fell, gasping as she continued. “Cecilia is returning home, master, home to Caradon! But her friends, I don’t think… I think they might go into the town! I fear… I fear we have loose ends.”
Her master bowed his head. Seconds passed, and Anise kept her face sorrowful, kept her ambition caged in her heart, hoping against hope that she’d struck the right tone…
“No loose ends,” her master said. “We planned for this, if necessary. Once Cecilia is clear, put the town to the sword. Then join me. It’s time to end this sordid farce.”
“Thy will be done,” she said, closing her eyes. “My love...”
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