Celia stared at the blade in her hand, then back to Threadbare. Her face grew solemn. “I'm afraid you don't make the cut, Mister Bare.”
Then she giggled, and tossed the little dagger high up in the air. “Animus Blade!”
The knife fell toward the ground... but it slowed as it did so, stopping at mid-height to Cecilia. It turned over a few times, then settled into an upright guard stance.
“That's one of the spells I learned when I got to level five,” Celia told Threadbare, grinning. “Neat, huh? It acts like there's somebody holding it.” She patted the little bear's head.
Threadbare nodded, watching the dagger move. It swung around Celia as she moved back and forth, inspecting her toys. There were five of them, now. The usual tea party guests plus a wooden skeleton string puppet, and a stuffed knight, with knitted wool for chainmail.
“I'm sorry I'm not inviting you into my party Threadbare, I don't have any of daddy's scrolls. But I guess it doesn't matter since golems don't get experience. And my buff doesn't work on you. It works on them, because I animated them, but not you.”
Threadbare nodded. He really didn't understand what she was talking about, but it seemed to satisfy her.
The toys perked up, and fell into lockstep beside her. The dagger shuddered, slashed the air several times, and resumed its orbit around the little girl. Somehow he could tell it had more confidence to it.
Seeing what the toys were doing, Threadbare fell into line behind them. That was what she wanted? Maybe?
Celia giggled. “Okay. For'ard Marsh!”
The little group set off down the well-worn path through the pines, heading down the hill. Soon the trees thinned, and the sound of trickling water filled the forest air. Trickling water, then something more.
Celia stopped as pine cones crunched in the distance, and glanced down to Threadbare. “Hold still, okay? We uh, we might have to run quick if I'm wrong about this.”
There, at the base of the treeline where the hill met the riverbank, moved a patchwork figure in loose brown leathers, furs, and clothes. Haphazard cloth covered it from head to toe, and its lumpy head was entirely covered by a brown sack with holes cut in it. Straw poked out of one hole, and from holes in its mismatched gloves, thorny vines twitched and coiled.
“Hello Raggedy Man!” Celia waved. The Raggedy Man gave her a long look, then surveyed the party. Its gaze stopped, when it looked down at Threadbare.
Threadbare looked back. He did what he'd saw Celia do, when someone approached her from the woods, and waved.
“Uh-oh,” Celia whispered, as the Raggedy Man tottered three steps closer. It swayed straight-backed, as things under its coat rippled and writhed.
But then, it simply turned and walked back to the treeline, resuming its patrol.
“Daddy made them. The Raggedy Men keep monsters and bad people out,” Celia explained as she scooped up Threadbare. “I didn't know if he'd think you were an intruder, like Emmett did. I think it goes by how big things are. I mean, I've seen Raccoons and Raccant's up on the hill, but the deer stay away. So I guess you're small enough it doesn't care.” She headed out into the sunlight.
Threadbare goggled, at the rushing river in front of him. So much water! Wait, she wasn't going to wash him again, was she? Threadbare turned in her arms, and gave her a suspicious look, pointing to the river then at himself.
Celia seemed to understand his concern.
“What? No, you don't need a bath. And if you fell in there you might drown! Well I guess you wouldn't do that but you'd get swept away. But come on, we've got a ways to go and if we don't hurry they'll be done before we get there.”
Threadbare nodded. Celia hurried on, following the curve of the river out of sight from the house. As she went, flickers of silver motion caught the little bear's eyes. Something was in the river, something that blended in well against the foam and rocks.
Threadbare had no concept of fish, but that's what they were. And something in him stirred, told him that he should probably try to grab some of those. He squirmed in Celia's arms.
“What? You want me to put you down? Okay.”
Celia turned away, heading back down the river. The rest of the toys followed.
And Threadbare, with no obligation to follow, toddled over to the river to investigate those silver flashy things.
“Threadbare? What are you-”
It would have probably been fine, if Threadbare hadn't hit the slick mud that the Raggedy Man's path had worn into the banks, and thoroughly blown his agility check.
He slipped on the mud, skidded into the river, and instantly the current grabbed him up, bouncing him off rocks and whipping him downstream!
Red “0”s and “1s” drifted up as he careened from stone to stone, arms flailing, trying to get some traction. And mostly failing.
He did manage, for a few seconds, to flail against the current.
Your actions have unlocked the generic skill: Swim!
Your Swim skill is now level 1
Celia's cries receded behind him, his body got more and more sluggish as it got waterlogged. The surface receded away from him, as the river started to spill out into the deeper waters at the base of the hill, and the sun vanished as he sank into the muddy depths...
...and a crimson-nailed hand, much bigger than Celia's own hand, darted down into the water and scooped him out.
The world blurred, and Threadbare found himself lifted up, water pouring from his seams, staring at a strange woman's face. Any human who looked upon it would have called it beautiful... not a single blemish on the skin, perfectly symmetrical. Black lipstick covered tiny lips, and large, almond-shaped eyes surveyed the tiny bear from bedraggled foot to soggy head. Straight, long black hair blew in the breeze, as light as feathers.
But those eyes were ice, and they held as much emotion in them as the Raggedy Man's eyesockets had.
“Threadbare, come back! Whoa-”
Threadbare twisted in the woman's hand, and looked over at Celia. She'd skidded to a stop, so quickly that her toy retinue slammed into the back of her feet. With a squeak, she went head over heels backward. “Ouch!”
The woman approached, swinging Threadbare easily. “I think you lost this,” she said, in a low, warm voice. It seemed to resonate somehow, and made Threadbare think of good things. It was a comfy voice, and it brought to mind the tea parties with Celia, the hugs, and the purrs of Pulsivar as the cat groomed him.
Curious, he sniffed the woman.
Your Scents and Sensibility skill is now level 4!
And he was very surprised to find that she didn't smell like a human at all. She smelled like that weird, spicy scent he sometimes caught around the windows of the house.
“Uh... thank... you? Who are you?” Celia tried to scramble up, tripped over the knight, fell to her knee again. “I, wait, you're a stranger. I'm not supposed to-”
The woman bent and swept back her green cloak, offering a perfectly manicured hand. Celia took it, and with effortless strength she hauled the little girl to her feet, before tucking the teddy bear into her arms.
“It's all right Celia, you can talk to me.”
A pressure in Threadbare's skull, just a brief one, as the words whispered of warm days in the sun, and the lovely quiet of night in a warm bed, and-
Your Magic Resistance skill is now level 4!
-and suddenly her tone changed. It sounded different. Kind of... smug? Like Pulsivar's purrs sounded when he was sitting atop the wardrobe and Threadbare tried to join him, but just couldn't climb the side of it. Threadbare, puzzled, burrowed into Celia's arms.
But Celia didn't seem to notice the shift. “How do you know my name?”
The woman smoothed her hands down her green coat, and the traveling leathers under it that hugged her voluptuous figure. “I don't have time to go into details, but I knew your mother.”
“You knew...” Celia frowned. “How?”
“It's too long to go into detail here. Let's just say your Daddy made some choices, and... cut ties with my employer. We think he made the wrong choice, but he doesn't listen.”
Celia snorted. “Yeah, he's bad at that.”
The woman shot a glance downriver. “I have a lot to tell you. You've got a choice to make, Celia, and it's going to make a lot of difference. But we just don't have time right now. I can't approach openly, because Caradon's going to attack me if I turn up. And if we scare him, he might kidnap you and vanish. Like he did last time.”
“Kidnap? Wait, what?”
The woman reached out and smoothed Celia's frizzy hair. “But I've got a solution. We can talk here at the base of the hill, if we can fool those walking scarecrows into ignoring me.” She glanced upriver, at the shambling, brown-coated golem still a kilometer distant. “It's almost on us. Here, the quest should sum it up.”
And words filled Threadbare's vision, once more.
ANISE LAYD'I HAS OFFERED A PUBLIC QUEST!
DETAILS: BRING HER THE GOLEM CONTROL SCROLLS FROM YOUR HOUSE REWARD: 500 EXPERIENCE COMPLETION: DROP THEM OFF AT THE CHEST HIDDEN IN THE DEAD TREE TWO MILES DOWNRIVER DO YOU WANT TO ACCEPT THIS QUEST? Y/N?
Annoyed at how they blocked his vision, just when something really interesting was about to happen, Threadbare sighed and thought “Yes!” as hard as he could. The words went away, and he could see again.
But Celia frowned. She took a step back from the woman. And her eyes went wide as an idea struck, and her intelligence, for the first time in a long while, rose by one.
“How did you know about those scrolls?”
“Have you been spying on us? Those scrolls are a secret, even to Mister Mordecai.”
“Well, it just makes sense. Caradon's an enchanter and a golemist, of course he'd-”
Celia backed off further. “No. No, I won't. He told me never to take them out of the house. And I don't know you. You could be a monster in disguise.” The orbiting dagger suddenly snapped around to put itself between her and the strange woman, and the toys formed a line in front of her, paws and hands and mitts raised. Threadbare, realizing the tension, slipped out of Celia's arms and spread his own paws wide, like he'd faced the rats in the cellar.
The woman sighed, and massaged her face with her hand. “Celia. I'm not your enemy. But fine, I understand. I won't ask you to disobey your... Daddy.” She glanced up and smiled, showing perfect teeth. “Amelia would have been proud of you.” She gave one more look over Celia's shoulder, frowned as the raggedy man in the distance switched from marching to running, making a bee-line toward the obvious intruder. “It's not perfect, but maybe we have can talk later. As long as you don't tell Caradon.”
“I'm not going to make any promises.”
“It's in your own interest, to keep it secret. If he learns of me he'll take you away from everything you know. Everything you ever grew up with.” The woman sighed. “I'll be out here again in one week. If you want to talk, find an excuse to come out and play. Goodbye, my dear.” And the woman turned and fled across the river, hopping nimbly from rock to rock, despite the high traveling boot she wore.
The raggedy man slowed as it watched her go. Celia stared after her with a mix of emotions, confusion warring with caution, warring with curiosity.
She looked down to Threadbare, and knelt down beside the little teddy bear, put her hand on his shoulder. Threadbare looked back.
“Do you think she was telling the truth? About knowing Mommy?”
Threadbare looked her over carefully. She had that look that seemed to want reassurance. He knew how to handle that, and nodded.
“She didn't seem to mean me harm.” Celia sighed. “I'm not giving her the scrolls, but maybe we can talk. And if she tries anything funny you'll help defend me, right?”
Threadbare nodded again. Celia smiled and swept him into a hug, standing up to watch the woman disappear into the forest on the other side of the river, her traveling cloak blending into the underbrush. Behind Celia, the Raggedy Man resumed its patrol, neither taking note of the intruder it had routed or caring. Its orders had been fulfilled. Back to its job.
Celia put Threadbare down, and gestured upriver. “Okay. Let's try this again. Follow me and don't go in the river!” Celia pointed at the river, at Threadbare, and shook her head, sending red frizzy hair whipping everywhere.
Threadbare got the message.
Not that he'd go back in that river if he could help it, that thing would fucking kill him if he tried.
Celia started back upriver again, hurrying to make up for lost time, glancing back every now and then to make sure that Theadbare was keeping up.
He was, but it was kind of tough going. He'd never had to walk across this sort of varied terrain before, and as the trail broke away from the river and went up another hill, he was having to struggle with fallen branches, steep grades, and loose footing, things that were very troublesome for a small toy.
AGL +1 Your Climb Skill is now level 5!
But he managed, even if he did fall behind a little bit.
And then his nose picked up a familiar, troubling odor.
Your Scents and Sensibility skill is now level 5!
Slowing, he turned right, pushing through the underbrush to a small clearing on the hillside.
And the gutted fawn carcass, lying broken in the middle of a small tree, weighing it down. Dried blood dyed the spring flowers under it.
“Threadbare?” Celia whispered, from up the hill. This close to the house, she didn't dare call out, for fear of drawing Mordecai's attention.
Threadbare moved in to examine the carcass, completely failing his perception check as the branches overhead rustled...
At the minute, Celia shouldn't have worried about drawing the old scout's notice. Caradon and Mordecai were in the middle of a weighty discussion. The most troubling news was done with, and they were on to more pleasant topic of discussion. Even if this topic was vexing in a way all its own.
“I'm running out of ways to stall her,” Caradon confessed, staring at the bottle of rum he'd dug out of the hiding spot in his study. “She's asking more and more questions, and not taking 'because I say so' as an answer any more.”
“Figured the day was gonna come. Takes after Amelia, that one does.” Mordecai held over a tin cup, accepted the splash of rum with a tip of his hat. “What level is she up to now? Eight? Ten?”
Mordecai squinted at him, and leaned forward in his chair. “Why?”
Caradon sat down heavily, with his back to the woods. “What do you mean?”
“Me youngest is nine, and he's stompin' around at level six. Celia's got two years on'em.”
Caradon scowled. “Yes, but we're not like you, we can't run around as we want. We're trapped up here, so long as he's alive we can't risk leaving.”
“Mm. Maybe so.” Mordecai tilted back. “She asked me to teach her to be a scout again.”
Caradon rolled his eyes. “Dear gods. No, of course.”
“She ent gonna be satisfied wi' just one job, Caradon.”
“And if I let her go after every adventuring job she wants, she'll fill up her choices before we know it, without the one we need. Then we'll all be sunk. You know the stakes, Mordecai.”
“I do, but...” Mordecai finished his rum. “Scout's good fer passin' unnoticed. Good fer seein' danger, and escapin' it. Veeeerrrrry useful skills, wi' how the kingdom is right now. Verrrrry useful.”
“And absolutely no synergy with her animator job.”
“So what? It'd help 'er get more well rounded. Gi' her a few bow tricks. And hells, if I ever figure out how to unlock ranger, I'll share the trick wi' her. And you knows what a second tier job can do, mister Golemist.”
“What it should be able to do,” Caradon corrected, swirling his own rum in a glass tumbler, and staring at it moodily. “Research isn't going so well. I should have a way to make golems sentient by now. I don't. Every test fails, they don't come out right. When the time comes, if we don't have our army-”
“About that.” Mordecai looked at the empty tin cup, and turned it upside down on the table. “She's gonna have to meet more people. Learn how to get along with'em. Polish her charisma till it shines, if you want this fing to work.”
“Gods.” Caradon rubbed his eyes. “Too risky. Too risky by half.”
“Nah, lessn' you fink. Dye her hair, mud up her face, take 'er into town as me apprentice from a family out in the hills, won't nobody bat an eye.”
“Mordecai, I don't want to hear it.”
“Then you sure as fuck won't wanna hear this. Right now she's eleven. In a year or two she'll get her woman's blood. And if you fink she's restless now, what d'ya fink she'll be like then?”
The silence stretched. Caradon closed his eyes, and sunk back into his chair.
Mordecai broke it. “I'll teach'er woodlore, get'er some practice in a safe space that won't kill her, so she can level up. Start 'er off spendin' time wiff me lads, learning how to be around boys wivvout the downside of puberty muddlin' er head and loins. And then, once I'm sure she can handle it, I'll take'er to the town. She 'as to learn people, Car, if we want to win. She 'as to learn people.”
Caradon studied Mordecai for a long minute. Then he smiled. “And while you're at it, you'll introduce her around to the other leaders as well. Let them get a look at her, to settle their worries. To show them that I'm not the crazy old hermit who's forgotten about our cause, up in the hills alone in his workshop.”
Mordecai coughed into his hand, and had the grace to look guilty. “There's been talk, Car. This last round of purges at the Capital... things are getting' tight. People getting' worried. I know you, I ent worried, but they... people talk, Car.”
Caradon rubbed his head. “This would give me more time for my research, without having to worry about her. I hate to admit it, but she is a distraction.”
“All kids are. Ever parent needs a li'l time off.” Mordecai grinned. “Benefit o' being a scout, ya get plenty, out in the wild spaces.”
“Your wife's a damned saint, Mordecai.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Is saint even a fing?”
“I don't know. Maybe cleric blended with oracle, but I've no idea how people qualify for that unlock.”
“Here's to us that ent saints. Not sorry to not make that cut.” Mordecai raised his cup, and frowned. “Ah, empty.”
“Bottle's dry,” Caradon sighed, rubbing his hand through his wispy gray hair.
“I brought some a' the good stuff this load. Lemme go get it.” Mordecai rose and went inside...
...and not ten seconds later, Caradon glanced over as a large bird, easily as big as a human, shrieked with a deafening wail and burst out of the trees with its prey clutched in its claws.
“A screaming eagle? Hunting this close to my land?” Caradon frowned, and finished his tumbler. “Have to check the perimeter later, make sure the Raggedy Men are doing their jobs.”
From this distance, with his perception, he had no way to see that the Eagle wasn't clutching its usual sort of prey.
Threadbare, on the other hand, had a very clear view of the Eagle's claws and Celia's screaming face, as she stood below him in the clearing, crying out as the Eagle carried him away.
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