The wind stirred the trees, as the hills fell behind in the distance. A squirrel poked its head out of a bole in a large ash tree, peered around. Seeing nothing, it began the descent, ready for another day’s foraging.
“That one,” someone whispered, and the squirrel froze-
-then promptly ran for its life as a rock smacked into the tree behind it, knocking loose a bit of bark. With a flash it was
gone, back into the bole, chattering its head off.
“Aw,” Celia whined, lowering her slingshot.
“Ya tried, ya missed. No sense fussin’ about it. C’mon then.” Mordecai nodded, and ambled off back to the trail. Celia followed, casting glances back at the squirrel-filled bole. Behind them both, Threadbare trotted, his arms full of smooth stones. Not enough to increase his strength, sadly. But he was alright with being Celia’s ammo bearer.
Besides, carrying them around seemed to be slowly increasing his newly-gained “Sturdy Back” skill. It almost seemed like they got a little lighter every time the skill ticked up.
“I don’t see how this counts as a thrown weapon,” Celia eyed the slingshot. Newly crafted from leather and fresh stretchweed on a wooden stock, it had been Mordecai’s gift for her for passing his test. “I mean, I guess you make a throwing motion when you use it.”
“Actually ya don’t. All yer work's in the pullback, after tha it's a clean release. Ya just do a little nudge. Let the straps do the work. Hsst!” He held up his hand. Celia stopped, for about the tenth time since they’d set out that morning, right before dawn. Threadbare stopped too, and barely managed to keep from spilling the stones all over.
“What?” Celia whispered.
“You tell me.”
Celia frowned, then muttered “Keen Eye.” Blinking a few times, she stared in the direction Mordecai was looking. “Is there something behind the blue jay?”
“Nah. Blue Jay’s yer target.”
“You want me to kill a songbird?” Celia’s voice rose.
“Keep it down. Jays ent songbirds. They’re jerks what beats up and drives off songbirds. And they sound horrible.”
Celia’s lips twisted. Finally she nodded, reached down, and grabbed one of the stones from Threadbare’s pile. Carefully she drew it back in the slingshot, aimed, and took a breath.
The bird fell, broken, and Celia whooped! “Yay! Level 7! It IS a thrown weapon!” Then she fell silent, as she watched blue feathers drift down. “Um.”
“Good.” Mordecai clapped her on the back. “Normally I’d teach yer to prop’ly harvest the feathers, but yer Daddy tells me ya want to wait on learning new crafting jobs.”
“I… yes.” She rubbed her face, still looking at the bird’s corpse, her smile fading. “After we found Threadbare last night we had a talk. He taught me Enchanter and Tailor. That means I only have four adventuring jobs left that I can choose and uh…”
“Two crafting jobs left.” She swallowed. “One of them will probably have to be smith, if I want to- If I want to follow in Mom and Dad’s footsteps.”
“Because of Emmet?”
“Yeah. And more like him, someday. So I’ll probably need Tinker too, like Mom had. So I don’t have a lot of room to learn more stuff.”
Mordecai nodded. “Smart. Wise, y’might say.” He grinned at her, as he shinnied up the tree the Jay had fallen from, and scooped a nest from where it had been hiding in the crook of a branch.
“Wait, I just killed a mama bird?” Celia looked stricken.
“Yah. And got us lunch.” He retrieved the bird’s corpse.
“But what?” Mordecai pointed at the bark. “Still got yer sight up, yah?”
“Yah. I mean yes.”
She squinted. “Clawmarks, really small ones… and I just skilled up Eagle Eye.”
Oooh! Threadbare looked at the tree too, and saw nothing. He tried thinking Eagle Eye as hard as he could, but nothing happened. This was a problem he’d have to fix at some point.
“These are ferret clawmarks. Kinder old. Prolly before the nest was here. Unless the ferret’s dead, it’d be back and it’d eat the eggs an’ prolly the jay too, most likely. If we didn’t eat it now, it would later. This is how nature works. Ya want ta eat, ya got ta hunt. We ent got enough time ta harvest veggies on tha way fer this trip. We eat meat an’ eggs or we go hungry.”
Celia looked down, searching her soul, trying to get over the fact she’d just killed a momma and was about to eat her babies…
…and was betrayed by her treacherous belly, as it grumbled. It had been a long walk through new territory, and she was hungry. “I’m a scout now,” she told herself.
Threadbare nodded so hard his ears flapped, and stones spilled to the ground. The pair of humans looked his way and chuckled.
Your Adorable skill is now level 11!
“Come on. Get some practice wi’ Firestarter,” Mordecai clapped her back.
One small meal later, as Celia tried hard not to think about the bird embroyos she’d just eaten, Mordecai explained. “Firestarter does wot it says. Jus’ means ya don’t have ta mess with flints, so long as ya got wood or tinder or anything burnable. Also costs 1 endurance, so ya can do it ennytime more or less no matter how wiped ya are. Keen Eye’s for seein’ things from a distance, sharpens yer perception up nice. Sturdy back’s why you ain’t griping about yer pack. Camouflage blends you in wiff tha surroundings. Costly, eats up a bit o’ sanity fer every minute, but ya got that to spare, especially you bein’ an animator.”
Celia nodded. “And Wind’s Whisper?”
“Focus,” Mordecai said. “Think Wind’s Whisper Mordecai as hard as you can, an’ move yer mouth like yer talkin’. Like yer sayin’ the words, but don’t put air behind them.”
Celia tilted her head, then her lips danced as she mimed speech. Her eyes went wide.
“Ya said I’m a jay murderer,” Mordecai smirked. “Yah?”
“Well ‘ere’s what I says to that,” Mordecai’s mouth twitched, and Celia glared at him.
“What do you mean you’re just my accomplice?”
“You ‘eard me.”
“That’s ‘cause I thought ‘Wind’s Whisper Celia’, and pretended to whisper my words.”
Threadbare, watching all this, realized that he’d finally, finally caught a break! He could finally talk to Celia! Wind’s Whisper Celia, the little bear thought, and then he moved…
…nothing, because he didn’t have lips. Or a mouth that wasn’t a stitched on piece of cloth. Aggravated, he slumped to the ground.
“Does this work anywhere?” Celia asked.
“Ya got a skill up, right?”
“Yeah, it’s level two now. Status.” Celia blinked. “Oh, that cost a little sanity. Not much…”
“The more ya level it, the further out ya can be heard. Too far out beyond yer level, an’ ya start getting hard ta hear. Gets garbled, words get lost. Figger yer prolly limited ta a few hundred feet ‘till ya hit level ten. Level thirty gets ya up ta a mile or so.”
“Wow,” Celia blinked. Then her eyes moistened over. “I can whisper to Daddy while I’m away.”
“Eh… we’re too far out from him, where we’re going. Sorry. We usually sends little golem birds back an’ forth.”
“So THAT’S what they’re for!” Celia raised her hands. “I asked him and he wouldn’t tell me! He’s got a whole hutch of those things, and they come and go and I never found out why.” She frowned. “Wait, why would he need a dozen of them to talk with you?”
“Ah…” Mordecai shifted. “I ain’t the only one he talks with.” His eyes flickered, and his face darkened. “Though I reckon a lot of his friend up north ain’t gonner be talkin’ much wi’ him no more.”
“Nevermind. Anyway, come on, time ta dig a hole.”
“Ya always bury the trash an’ bones an’ bits. Makes ya harder ta track. Keeps random necromancers from animatin’ bird skellies.”
“Wait, that’s really a thing?”
“Eh, ain’t likely ta run into many out here, but ya always get oiks poke their noses in where they shouldn’t. Best to keep ‘em from temptation. But first…” Mordecai scooped up the bird’s head, tugging it free from its body. “Bonestripper,” he told it, and tossed away a palmful of bloody meat and brains, leaving only a clean white skull, with beak attached.
“Um. Ew.” But Celia’s curiosity warred with her disgust, and won. “What was that?”
“Tanner trick. Gets stuff off the bones cleanly. Intact if you cares about it, which I dunt right now.”
“Why do you need the skull?”
“Let’s just call it a present an’ leave it at that.” He grinned, and tossed it up and down.
Once the remnants of lunch were buried, and Celia had a pocket full of blue and white feathers and mixed feelings about the whole affair, Mordecai led her onward. Threadbare followed close behind, thinking furiously.
The smarter he got, the more he realized that he’d need a way to talk to people. Or just talk in general. There were all these neat things that people could do that he thought he could do too, if he understood jobs and skills and ideas correctly, but a lot of them seemed to require talking. No mouth, no speech. He’d thought writing would work out, but boy howdy, did humans ever seem to be annoyed whenever he tried to write. So he’d given that up, at least for the minute. Maybe he’d find a good opportunity later to sneak some paper and a quill and experiment. Or a charcoal stick or whatever.
But his sulk didn’t last through the whole trip. He saw new territory, mostly woods and fields and meadows, sprinkled among the hills. His perception ticked up a few times, and that sturdy back skill did as well, topping out at Level five. The rocks were as light as they’d ever get, he realized, passing his wisdom check. Maybe something heavier would raise it?
Then the trio crested a small bluff, and Celia gasped. “What’s that?”
“Tha’s Taylor’s Delve”, Mordecai gestured to the town, sat on a trio of large hills overlooking a pass between two of the largest mountains. “Mining town. Used ta be a trade town too, but the caravans got nowhere ta go since the Oblivion sealed the South.”
“I mean, I saw the smoke, but I thought it was a camp or something…” Smoke did pour out of the place, from foundries and houses and other, larger buildings scattered throughout. Celia shivered, as she looked the place over. It had more people than she’d ever imagined! Why, there had to be at least thirty people out and moving around between the sturdy wooden and stone buildings!
“Get a good look, then c’mon. That ent where we’re going today.”
“Oh.” Celia felt a fluttering sense of relief. That was a lot of people, a whole lot for someone who’d seen three other people in her whole life before. Well, four if you counted the vampire, though she rather thought monsters didn’t count.
And Threadbare of course, but he was a golem, so technically a monster. She spared him a glance back, and he waved, dropping half his rocks.
“Go ahead an’ drop them,” Mordecai told the little bear. He did so, scattering them on the slope and dusting his paws. “No more slingshot practice fer now,” Mordecai nodded to Celia. “Ya got the way of it, ya can practice on yer own time.”
“Okay-dokay. Where to now?” Celia smiled, and tucked the slingshot into her coat.
“Home.” Mordecai pulled the jay’s cleaned skull out of his pocket, studied it, and replaced it. “Gonna be good times later. Oh, an’ carry Threadbare from here. Tell him ta stay still fer now.”
The trio headed back down the bluff, and back into the hills across from the pass, following the trail back into a small hollow. They passed shacks and small houses as they went, half of them boarded up and clearly empty, but others had livestock outside, or hard-eyed men and women who turned into smiling, friendly people who waved and called over when they saw it was Mordecai. Mordecai exchanged waves and a how-do-ya-do back now and then, but he didn’t stop to talk, and he ignored questions fired his way. Most of which were about Celia.
The girl, for her part, felt out of her depth and shut up, clutching Threadbare tightly and making sure she didn’t make eye contact.
“Jus’ the neighbors,” Mordecai told her. “You’ll meet ‘em later. We’ll come up with a story for who you are.”
“I’m Celia. Who else would I be?”
“It’s yer last names that could cause trouble. Just, ah, call yerself Celia Hornwood. Tha’s a family that’s feuding up north. People will think yer down here ta get away from that.”
“Won’t the other Hornwoods be mad that I’m doing that?”
“Nah. Most of’em are dead already.”
“Tha’s what happens when yer a clan of humans feuding wi’ dwarves. Dwarves don’t just hold grudges, they juggles them.”
“Long story.” Mordecai paused, where the trail led down into a dark hollow, on the lee side of a hill. “C’mon. Now… you’re gonna see some stuff.”
“Jus’ stay out of it. Remember I’m fine wi’ it, wouldn’t be doin’ it if I didn’t love ‘er. An’ stay out of the hut till I gives yer tha all clear.”
“I don’t understand.”
At the end of the trail, sat a wooden and straw hut, with a thatched roof of woven sticks. Skulls poked out from it, capping the end of every stick. Big ones, little ones, mostly animal skulls… though Celia hissed, to see a few human skulls mixed in among them. Others were from creatures she’d never seen before, hollow eyes staring from weather-yellowed sockets. Smoke poured from the center of the hut, and a strange odor, spicy and strong, filled her nose and made her sneeze.
At the sound, the three youths on the porch sat up and peered at her with curious eyes. They wore mismatched clothes, half of sturdy cloth and half of leather and hide.
The youngest was about half Celia’s size, a little boy with green skin and yellow eyes, and short frizzy black hair that reminded Celia of her own. He hid a turtle behind his back, and stared at her for only a second, before his gaze slid to Threadbare and his jaw dropped open.
The one in the middle was built like a block of stone that someone had put muscles on. Thick and squat and about as tall as Celia, wearing a crudely-stitched suit of leather armor. He had the hilt of a battleaxe hanging from his belt, and though his skin was pink, he had his brother’s yellow eyes and two small tusks poking out over his upper lips. The overall effect was if someone had poured a boar into a human skin. He smiled and waved.
The third one was tall, taller than Celia, with wispy hair on his upper lip. Green-skinned like the youngest, he was all lean muscle, dressed in a bone-beaded leather shirt, a hide cloak, and a pair of trousers. His black hair was drawn back in a ponytail, and he had a bow slung on his back. Unlike the youngest one, his eyes were human and gray. Much like Mordecai’s, Celia thought. In fact…
“You never told me you had kids!” She burst out. But Mordecai wasn’t looking at her anymore. Mordecai was moving up, staring at the beaded curtain that led into the darkness of the hut. Then he drew his knife.
Celia stepped back, fumbled for her own daggers-
-and promptly dropped it, jumping backward in fear, as something inside the hut roared and charged through the curtain, bowling Mordecai over as they rolled across the grass.
It was green and brown and roaring, and it battered him with a heavy club, as Mordecai fought for his life, knife flashing. Blood sprayed and for a second she dared hope-
-but then he reeled back as the club hit his face with a CRACK, and Celia gasped as the two separated, staggering back to take stock of each other.
It wore a painted wooden mask, she saw that, and stood like a human did… broad and scarred and green and muscled, taller even than Mordecai, clad in a leather halter top and loincloth. Black, dreadlocked hair flew out from behind the mask as it snarled, and stalked back and forth like a beast, yellow eyes shifting in the holes of the mask as it stalked Mordecai. The skull-topped club shook, as the creature feinted, testing for weakness, testing for hesitation.
Then Celia blinked, as she realized what the curves under that halter top meant.
“That’s a woman?” She asked, putting her hand to her face.
The creature spared her a glance, filled with malice that she’d never seen and then Mordecai was on the thing, stabbing desperately, and with a great wail and a blur of motion the fight was back on. Celia turned tail and ran, hugging her bear tight, getting way the hell away as fast as possible. She reached the treeline, turned…
…only to see a limp Mordecai being dragged by one leg, hat off, into the hut.
“No!” She shouted, dropping Threadbare, and pulling out her daggers. “Animus Blade! Animus Blade! Anim-”
“Hey, s’all right,”
“Huh?” She dropped the last dagger, stared up at the tall, thin youth with the green skin. He’d worked his way around while she’d been distracted. The two blades whirled around, aimless, as she stared at him, nonplussed.
“Yeah, this is what they do,” The sturdy boy said, walking up from the side, with the smallest boy in tow. “Dad was away too long without telling Mom first, so first they’re gonna fight. Then she’ll heal him up and they’ll get to the other part.”
“That was your… that’s his wife?” Celia realized. “Oh my gods.” Then her eyes narrowed. “Wait, what’s the other part?”
“Uh…” The tall one shot a look at the fat one, who put his hands over the youngest one’s ears. Then he told her.
“Yeah, we don’t stick around for that part. Wanna come fishing with us?” The fat boy smiled.
“Yes. That would… yes.” Celia blushed more. Then as she followed them into the woods, a thought struck her, an old fancy, and she glanced back at the now-quiet hut. “Um. I read… there was a book, once. It had a knight on the front, and a lady with her shirt half-off. I think it was Mom’s. It was... interesting.”
“Yeah?” The fat boy asked.
“Do you think, ah, what, do you think it’s like that?” Celia asked, with something like desperation.
There was a pause. The three boys looked at Celia, then simultaneously the four kids, and Threadbare, turned to look at the hut.
With a crash, Mordecai’s head and torso rammed through the straw. He shot an arm through, grabbed one of the larger skulls, and threw it back inside. His wife shrieked, and pulled him back in, as he fought desperately for a handhold.
“No,” the tallest one said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, “I rather fink it ent like that.”
Feeling entirely out of her depth, Celia retrieved her fallen knife, and followed the trio into the woods.
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