“What is this?” Graves asked.
“This was my house. This is where I grew up.” Cecelia shook her head. “I was so naive back then.”
Anise smiled, and said nothing.
Her voice sounded distant to her own ears. “He'll be inside. I know what he's doing, why he's doing it.” She swallowed, hard. “And I'm going to march in there and tell him why it won't work, and will never work, and arrest him for treason.”
“We,” said Graves.
“We'll march in there and arrest him.”
Cecelia closed her eyes. “Thank you.” Then she shot Anise a look, and found the thing glowering at the house.
“I thought I was done with this place. It gives me... indigestion.”
“We'll get you something for that when we're done. Let's go... Inquisitor.”
Cecelia led the way, and as they went, the trees loomed larger and larger.
“What is this?” Graves asked. “I didn't think there was any old growth left in the valley.”
“There isn't. This is wrong. It's a perspective trick. Which means... keep an eye out for giant scarecrows.”
Then the first thing stepped out of the trees.
“Eye for Detail,” she scrutinized it as it came, arms extended, lumbering toward them in eerie silence. Covered in tattered cloth, with straw poking out the eyeholes of its massive cloth mask, it was thirty feet tall if it was an inch. Grasping fingers of wood clenched, and more sticks of wood showed through its torn pants, woven together with old rope.
“Captain?” Graves shouted, moving his skeletons in between them and the raggedy man.
“It's level seven, and weaker than our sergeants” she snorted. “Let's take it apart.”
It didn't get a single hit past their shields before they knocked it to bits. Anise didn't break stride, leaving them to deal with it as she marched up the hill.
Cecelia hurried after, lips compressed in a thin line. She didn't trust her alone here. Didn't trust her, period.
That was pretty much how things had been for the last few years, it's just that there had never been anything Cecelia could do about it beyond tread as cautiously as she could around Anise. And even then, the daemon had a way about her, something that let her slip things into conversations that you caught later, and winced at.
But she was literally the devil Cecelia knew.
So for now that would have to do.
Then they were up and moving through the trees, each of them six times as tall as she remembered. But the details were off here, subtly off. Trees that she knew by heart were different, sketchy, foggy.
“Getting senile, Grandfather?” she whispered. She paused by one that he'd used to measure her every year, carved notches into as she grew. The bark was bare, and the wrong type for its species. “Birch,” she murmured and remembered Mordecai, and flashed to the image of the old scout in his cell, scarred and broken, and almost lost it then.
But Anise didn't stop, and Cecelia couldn't leave her be. So she followed, and Graves kept pace alongside her.
Her house was huge, as was the workshop to the wide. She swallowed hard as she saw the black cat in the window of the shop, glowering out at her. “Pulsivar,” she said, and turned her back on him. He'd lain on her back sometimes, when it rained in the night. A heavy purring weight, warm in the cold. They'd slept there that way sometimes and she'd nodded off to dreams, lulled by raindrops and the smell of his fur.
“That handle's pretty far up there,” Graves said.
“It's still a door,” Cecelia said, her voice raw. “Animus. Invite door.” It opened, and she kicked it from the party, running mostly on force of habit.
The front room was empty, a simple dinner set on the table. Venison and porridge, she could smell it, and the smell hit her harder than the sight of the place did. Hurt in a way she hadn't expected.
“Pretty nice place,” Graves said. “But... where are all the monsters? This is a dungeon, right?”
Cecelia looked toward Emmet, huge as two Reasons put together, and shook her head. “Wait for it.”
But the giant suit of armor didn't animate as they crossed the floor, or as they passed the cheerful fireplace, with the logs popping in their merry blaze, but oddly cold.
There was no temperature differential between here and outside, she realized suddenly. It all just sort of was.
That struck her as odd, more than anything else she'd encountered so far. Doubts gnawed at her mind, for the first time.
“This might not be Caradon,” she said, stopping abruptly before the stairs. “This... something's not right, here.”
“If not him, then who?” Anise asked.
“This isn't an old man's house,” she said, as she sheathed her sword and slung her shield on her back, and scrambled up the stairs, grabbing each one and boosting herself up. “It's the house as seen from a very small person's perspective. Which means...”
She got to the top, and peered down the hallway. There, at the very end, was her grandfather's room. Light spilled from under the door, and she could hear the old man humming, as he did when he sat up and worked before he went to bed every night. An old familiar melody, but she knew it for the ruse it was now. “He left you behind, didn't he, Threadbare?” She said, looking instead to her own room, darkness beneath the crack under the door. “Left you behind to stall me, while he escaped. Come on. It's me, Cecelia, all gr-grown up now,” she said, tears spilling from her eyes. “Come... come out and we'll talk. About this. I'll get you some paper to write on or s-s-something.” Oh, they were coming freely now, and she tugged off her helm, shook her head. Her hair bounced, short but frizzy as it had ever been.
And for a second, everything flickered. For a second, there was nothing there but darkness and green light, and Anise gasped.
“What is this?” Graves said, pushing in to put his back to Cecelia's.
“The master just stepped out of his slot,” Anise said, and for once her voice wasn't tainted with cool malice. “But someone else stepped in before the dungeon could close.”
“Dungeons close?” Graves narrowed his eyes.
“How do you think we seal them?” Anise said, looking around.
“Come out!” Cecelia shouted. “You have no idea how much I've m-m-missed you all these years! It's not too late, we can talk this over!”
And after a moment, from under the door to her room, a light flickered on.
“Perhaps you'd better come in,” An even, calm voice said. “We have a lot to talk about.”
Anise started forward, then hissed in anger as Cecelia's gauntlet fell on her shoulder. “Listen, and listen well, daemon,” Cecelia said. “Our bargain about my grandfather extends to Threadbare, as well. I don't care the terms you tried to extort, or about the exact wording. I just want you to know that if you try to harm him in any way, shape, or form, I WILL kill you or see that you spend all eternity with the worst punishment I can inflict upon you.”
“As you like,” Anise shrugged her hand off, staring at her like a lion watching a housecat strut and hiss. “To be honest, we've long passed the point where I need your permission to ensure you're all you must be. The bargain was more for my amusement than anything else, and eventual irony to salt the wound a bit, in case things fall out like I think they might.”
Cecelia digested that, and the anger and disgust helped her focus her mind a bit. “I think this is the most honesty you've ever shown me.”
“Part of me DID love you once.” Anise smiled. “It took years to grind away that weakness. Then you turned into a teenager and it got much easier. Shall we?”
Pushing the arrogance of the woman-thing from her mind, the young woman approached her room. The door swung open as she went to push it open.
And there, in a cluttered room, with her old drawings on the walls, and her old bed looming giant to the side, with toys strewn about and rendered exactly like she remembered them, was a table.
And around it, sat toys having a tea party.
“Beanarella,” she said, staring at the little stuffed doll. “D-dracosnack,” Cecelia managed, looking at the little green plush dragon that had survived so many battles. “Loopy,” she sighed, at the fuzzy giraffe, much larger proportionately now, in this dungeon of memories and sweet pain.
“Threadbare,” she finished, staring at the toy, the smallest one in the room.
He wore a red coat with mismatched buttons, and an apron over it, and baggy pants that looked ridiculous on him. But she recognized the scepter and the toy top hat, the very same one she'd given him here, in this room, at this table, so long ago. And Cecelia wailed then, overcome as she sank to the floor and sobbed, arms open wide as the little bear ran to her and hugged her, hugged her tightly. Golden light flared, and her minor injuries closed, and she picked him up and cried into his fur, cried for everything she'd lost and everything she'd done, and sobbed until she couldn't anymore.
Purring at her side then, and she looked up through a veil of tears, to a black feline face and yellow eyes. The ears were wrong somehow, but that purr...
“Pulsivar?” She whispered.
And then he was licking her tears away, and rubbing his face all over hers, and she laughed and held him to her breastplate, held them both, and the anger and sorrow and bitterness that had filled her and buoyed her to this point drained away like pus from an infected wound.
“I'm going to vomit,” Anise announced behind her.
“No Inquisitor, you're going to shut the hell up and let her have this,” Graves said, and Cecelia giggled, absurdly, breaking her sobs as they wound down.
She had friends now. New and old. She'd been so lonely, for so long... but now everything could be fixed.
“I missed you, Celia,” Threadbare said. “I was so worried for you.”
“I'm sorry. I'm... I thought you were dead. The sword... I looked up and you were pinned and you weren't moving, and then they backed me into a corner and I couldn't see- I wondered, later. I thought you had more hit points, but they told me the house burned, and I didn't know if you made it out, and I tried Wind's Whisper a few times just in case, but I didn't have much range-”
“Shh.” he said, patting her lips with the teacup he still held in his left hand.
She giggled, as she remembered how he'd done that, long ago. Then, collecting herself, she put him down.
“Hm,” he said, looking down at his snot and tearstained coat. “Clean and Press.”
“Your grandfather left behind a toy teddy tailor to... do what, exactly?” Graves asked. “Forgive me, I'm honestly a little confused by this whole situation."
“He's more than that,” Cecelia whispered. “Much more. We ran dungeons together. Well, a dungeon, anyway. Which... how?” She gestured at the house-shaped world around them.
“It's a very long story. Would you all care for some tea? It's mostly real.” He pointed to the table.
“Erm.” Graves said, glancing at her.
“Appraise,” Cecelia said, looking the setup over. She didn't think he'd poison her, but this place was strange, and golems might not be used to things like the vagaries of human digestive systems. “It's tea. It'll restore a little sanity, that's all.”
“Tea parties are good for that, I find,” Threadbare said, settling into his chair and laying his scepter on the table. “You taught me that one early on.”
“They are,” she giggled, as Pulsivar licked her face again, then gently nudged him away. “Gods you've gotten big. Wait, you're a bobcat?” She blinked. “You weren't a bobcat before.”
“He ranked up in the years after everything went bad,” Threadbare said. “I did too. My head's bigger now. Evidently that's a cave bear thing.”
She shook her head as she took her seat. Graves settled in next to her.
“I'll pass, thanks.” Anise shook her head. “I'm really here for one thing only.”
“Which is?” Threadbare asked.
“I'll tell you if it comes up.”
“Fair enough, I suppose.”
“It never is.” Cecelia drank her tea. “So. You can talk now.”
“It took a lot of work and tailoring. I figured out how to make voices. My chest is full of strings and other things. And then once I could speak I could say things like Status, and all of my skills and spells, and life got a bit easier. In some ways.” The little bear took off his hat, and rubbed his head. “I guess it's more complicated now, too. So it's not much easier. It's just that I've got more ways to handle problems, if that makes sense.”
“That's how life goes, I'm afraid,” Cecelia said. “We all have to grow up, and do things we don't like.”
“Oh. I don't know about that,” Threadbare said. “I like helping people, and saving them. And that's mostly what we did tonight.”
“Helping people like old ones cultists? Saving innocents by feeding them to blasphemous gods?”
“No, listen, I know he's a teddy bear, but those cultists were feeding kids to whatever was in that stone circle. Still are, maybe. How's that jibe with your helping people thing, Mister Threadbare?”
“Oh, that. That's a misunderstanding. They're not feeding the children to the old one, they're taking the ones with his bloodline home so the soldiers don't kill them all.”
“They're not being eaten?” Cecelia blinked.
“No. They're all half fishpeople, the ones that are going to wherever the old one is. They'll meet their distant relatives and swim forever in lightless seas. It sounds a bit damp to me, but they seemed eager enough. Well, considering the alternatives...”
Graves and Cecelia looked at Anise. “You left out the fact the kids were fishmen,” Cecelia said.
Anise scowled. “They were all wearing robes and I couldn't get close. For the love of Cron, I'm not always trying to fuck you over. Although it's rare, I can make mistakes too.”
Threadbare continued. “That's all the old one wanted. He was never going to come here. Too weak to do it. But the last high priest of the cult lied, and manipulated the villagers into thinking he was. Which is why they rose up against the Crown.” Threadbare considered his tea, pretended to sip it. “We killed the high priest and showed everbody the truth, but the army was on the way and it was too late.”
“You could have explained it,” Cecelia said.
“Could we really?” Threadbare lifted his button eyes to look up at her. “The King's laws are clear. Death to any settlement that embraces the old ones or other unsanctioned cults. He destroyed Taylor's Delve for less than that., and there wasn't even a cult there. Why would the army stop and listen? They never have before.”
“That was rebels, that wiped out Taylor's Delve.” Graves snapped. “They only blamed the Crown for...” he stopped, at Cecelia's expression. “Ma'am?”
“It's true,” Cecelia said.
Graves chewed on that. Swallowed hard. “We're only at war with the dwarves because of Taylor's Delve. Now you're telling me that they're not lying? That they do have just cause? That we've seen thousands of our own die in this war because we started it?”
“It's... complicated,” Cecelia said, avoiding his eyes. “My Father... he had to...”
“Why?” Threadbare said. “He got everything he wanted. He got Emmet and he got you. That was why he moved everyone in to fight Caradon. Well, not everything.” Threadbare put his hat back on, and put the teacup down. “He didn't get the golemist job.”
“Right,” Cecelia said. “Which is why he needed grandfather alive, which is why I bargained for his life! It was the only way!” She said, and the teacup shook in her hand. “I had to be good, I had to do what he say, and be who he needed me to be, so Caradon would live! I had to... I had to.” She finished, her voice breaking. “I still have to.”
Threadbare looked at her. Then he looked down. “You don't know.”
And slow horror filled her. She knew, she knew, in the back of her mind she knew what he was going to say, and she knew that it would unmake her. That her life would come tumbling down, and nothing would ever be the same again. “Don't,” she whispered.
Threadbare took a breath. “Celia, Caradon's dead. Your father killed him.”
The teacup shattered in her gauntlet.
Warm tea spilled over the table, and she stared, feeling her eyes burn, but no more tears came. She stared over Threadbare's head, and the last hope that she'd had died with the little bear's calm, even words.
“Mrrow?” Pulsivar pushed his head against her again, insisting, and she put her arm over him, hugged the cat tight.
“He lied to me,” Cecelia said.
“He twisted his words,” Threadbare said. “I'm smart enough to see that now. He promised he wouldn't hurt him, and that you'd see him again. He fed him numbing powder so he didn't feel pain, and figured you'd end up in the same afterlife. Then he carved him open, used a cultist trick to try and steal Caradon's jobs. But he didn't realize I was still alive. And that I was in Caradon's party.”
“Ah, is that what happened?” Anise said. “My my, how unfortunate.”
“You knew. Of course you knew,” Cecelia said, Pulsivar freezing motionless below her as the girl's voice filled with hatred. “And he DID lie to me. He said Grandfather had escaped custody, two years ago.”
“Oh. I wasn't there for that,” Threadbare said. “I was busy getting myself free from that sword. And the rubble of the house.”
“I didn't know, precisely,” Anise said, hands behind her back as she paced around the room. “But it was one of the plans we discussed, if the old man proved reluctant to give up his secrets. Really, we couldn't leave him as a loose end, Cecelia, surely you see that. For the good of the kingdom, the King cannot tolerate treason. Even from his relatives.”
“He lied to me!” Celia shouted, rising, drawing her sword. Pulsivar growled and backed away, and Threadbare stood as well, putting his teacup to the side and picking up his scepter. Graves looked to the both of them, and glanced back to the skeletons.
“And? What does it change?” Said Anise, turning to stare at her with those black, black eyes. “This kingdom burns, Cecelia. It burns with chaos and anarchy, slipping out of control with every day that rises while our enemies still live. Enemies like this one, standing before you.” Anise gestured to Threadbare.
“I... you're right...” Cecelia whispered. “I've seen...”
“I haven't seen much,” Threadbare interrupted. “But I talked to people who have. It seems to me that the King creates the enemies he goes to war against. The war with the dwarves happened because he killed everyone in Taylor's delve, when he didn't have to at all. And the only reason the cult rose up against him here is because they were sick of heavy taxes and their children all being conscripted.”
“It... we do good. We do good things. The Crown does,” Cecelia said. “We brought down a corrupt nobleman.”
“You brought down a corrupt nobleman, ma'am,” Graves said. “Point of fact.”
“Watch your words, little man,” Anise murmured, smiling at him.
He blanched, then rallied. “Well, speaking my mind got me kicked out of one job. What's one more?”
“Shut up,” Cecelia told Anise. “You tried to get me to kill Mordecai.”
“And you set him free instead. By all rights you should be rotting in his cell as a traitor,” Anise sighed. “But Melos has a blind spot when it comes to you. You're his perfect little angel. The good queen, who will fix everything that he's turned to blood and shit. The untarnished successor, who will bring honor and truth and peace back to the kingdom.” Anise laughed, and her scorn rang from the walls. “He doesn't see just how much he's screwed things up. No, it'll be all you can ever do to keep afloat, my dear. You'll scrabble and you'll fight and watch your subjects die and writhe in torment over and over again, for the rest of your life, because the alternative is a dead valley, and corpses stacked to the skies. This is your destiny, Cecelia.” Anise extended her hand, nails gleaming red in the dungeon's off-kilter light. “Are you strong enough to take it?”
Cecelia looked to Anise. She looked to Graves, who had his shield out, and she knew his hand was on his sword's hilt, under it. “I trust your judgement, Ragandor,”
She looked to Pulsivar, who sat under the table, tail lashing, eyes narrowed as he stared at Anise.
And she looked to Threadbare, who stared back at her.
“What should I do?” She whispered.
“I love you, Celia. I'll love you whatever happens, whatever you decide.” Threadbare told her. “Now that I've found you I'll never leave you again. Not if I have any choice in the matter. But...” he looked out the window. “I don't think you're going to be happy if you do what your father wants you to do. If you try to be who he wants you to be.”
“My happiness doesn't matter,” Cecelia said. “Not when you balance the lives of everyone in this kingdom against it.”
“It does matter,” Threadbare said. “If you don't want to rule them, you shouldn't rule them. How can they be happy if their queen never is? Is the King happy?”
“No.” She said, closing her eyes. “He hates it. He hates every day of this.”
“Like you would, if you took the job.”
“Yes,” Cecelia said, and her heart throbbed within her chest, as a final sob forced its way out of her throat. “Yes!”
“Then don't take the job if you won't be happy. Celia, I want you to be happy. Nothing matters more to me.”
“This kingdom will burn if I don't.”
“Then stop it from burning.” Threadbare said, walking around the table, to stretch his paw out to her. “You don't have to be a ruler, to do that. We saved everyone here who was innocent, because the ones who were guilty atoned and laid down their lives to buy them time. And that was just me and my friends. Think of what we can do together! You don't have to do it alone, either! I've made so many friends, and some of them are people you know, too. Some of them still are your friends, Celia. We all want to help you. We want to help you so much...”
Celia's sword quivered in her hand. She looked to Anise, smiling, with eyes colder than the space between the stars.
Then she looked to Threadbare, mouth quivering, eyes black and made of buttons but more expressive than most human eyes she'd stared into.
“You've never lied to me,” she told him. Then she glared at Anise. “You have.”
And casting her doubts to the wind, she grasped Threadbare's paw.
Casting the last five years, the training, throwing everything away, duty and fear and the confused tangle of emotions that was her father and all of that, away, she took up the paw of her oldest, truest friend, and raised her blade against the demon.
Graves' sword rasped as he drew it, and he fell in next to Cecelia. The skeletons shifted to block the door. “This is treason, you know,” he told Cecelia.
“I know,” she said, and sighed as her code of chivalry broke. Thirty-two points down from all defenses, at a really inconvenient time. “Sorry.”
“Eh. I lost my fiancee to the dwarves,” Graves said, glaring at Anise from under his helm, the skulls on his pauldrons writhing in response to his cold anger. “I pledged allegiance to a realm that doesn't deserve it. So I figure it's only fair if I take it back.”
Anise clapped her hands, gently. “Bravo. Happy ending. Except oh, there's one little loose end, isn't there? The nasty old demon.” Anise smiled. “Do you know why he pacted a succubus, using his dead wife as the vessel? Do I have to spell it out for you? Not that he's had much free time to enjoy those benefits.”
“You shut up about him. You've twisted him all up, driven him mad,” Cecelia said. “All for your own amusement, fiend.”
“Me? Driven him... Ha!” Anise slapped her thigh. “Oh, you have no idea how fucked he truly is, and how much worse it'll be for him and everyone else, soon. On the shoulders of the king, the world rests. When he falls, so does this miserable little land.” She sneered. “This situation wasn't his doing, and he tried to stop it, but he was just weak enough and here I am. Along with all the others.”
“Others...” Graves said. “The Hand?”
“Yeah, if you're looking for the part where I confess all my evil plans because you're going to die anyway, look again. Most of you are going to die here, but I think a couple of you could make it out if you really tried hard. So I'll shut up now.” Anise reached up and they flinched, as she put her hair through a scrunchy, making a ponytail of it. “Shall we?”
“You're very confident,” Threadbare said, spreading out to the right, as Pulsivar faded back into the shadows under the bed, readying for a pounce.
“No, I truly don't care. Fifteen years I've been stuck in this miserable shell, fighting the willpower of the last vestiges of Amelia goddamn Gearhart, trying to break free so I can finally have some FUN. If your father hadn't been so rushed with the Pact I wouldn't have been able to do even that, so thank Cron for small favors there.”
They looked at each other, across the room. Each of them knew that the first command, the first skill invoked would set off violence.
“Tell me this, at least,” Cecelia said. “Is there truly nothing of my mother left within you?”
“A few childhood memories. Makes this house painful, slows me down a bit,” Anise said. “I've managed to grind down the rest. Make room for new experiences. New jobs.”
“Wait. Demons can't take jobs!” Graves burst out, and for the first time he sounded worried.
“First Pact demons, no. Imps, hellhounds, nah. Second Pact demons? It takes a while, but yes, yes we can.”
“That goes against every bit of lore that—” Graves shut his mouth.
“That we told you.” Anise said, grinning. “Or implied through skillful omission of the truth. Cron, I love my passive skills, they make you people forget to question things you really, really should.”
“And your job is...” Cecelia asked, staring, feeling the tension balance on a knife edge.
“Well, my main one is cultist, actually.” Anise winked at her. “High enough to cast the Second Pact, finally. Remember how I told you how I would make sure you became the person you needed to be?”
Then she moved, faster than she'd ever moved before, faster than Cecelia had thought she could; A burst of motion, too fast to process, an impact that exploded against her chest like Reason's sword against the gate, an impact that SHOULD have sent her flying backward but didn't, and her breastplate broke open like cardboard, as Cecelia felt her limbs go numb.
She looked at Anise's face, inches from her own.
And she looked down, to see the daemon's arm disappearing into her breastplate.
And through her chest.
Her sword clattered to the ground. She couldn't feel her fingers anymore.
“I really only need two parts of you to do that, Cecelia,” Anise told her, and kissed her gently on the lips before grabbing her neck and tearing and Pulsivar was howling and Threadbare and Graves were shouting, but they were too late, too late by a hot, horrified second.
...and Cecelia died, with her head and heart in Anise's hands.