The Toymaker

'Shinji?' Bonehead made a weary inspected the troops that met his group at Lonely Hill's entrance. They were arranged in rows on either side of the entryway at what amounted to parade rest as Shinji stood to greet the party.

'Charlotte sent word via a scuttler that four kobold from the caravan had breached the library.' Empty eye sockets fell to Stone Soup. The lieutenant's hands remained away from his weapon, but his stance was straight backed and tense. 'Have you anything to say of this?'

Stone Soup and Ishida exchanged looks before the dungeon assessor shook her head. "I ... ' There was a sigh as she looked down. 'I knew of these kobold. Knew roughly that they were in the guild's employ but they had not seen fit to consult with me on what their business here was.'

Ishida's voice was hard when she spoke, stone eyes boring into Shinji's empty sockets almost daring him to challenge her, "Are you arresting her?"

'Given the threats on hand we are not.' Shinji's tone a careful official mask to hide any feelings he had on the matter. 'Plus there is the mitigating factor of head librarian Naoko sending word that they are hunting down Lutz with orders to capture if reasonably possible.'

"And if not?" Ally tensed, anger threading through the question.

Stone Soup put a hand on the elven mage's arm, her voice gentle. "Sparkle, you an I both know if it came to it he'd want it quick. You saw what they did to those bandits on the way."

Ally took an audible breath as realization dawned on her. It was a thing she did not wish to think about much less voice, 'That is the problem though. If he is that far gone, he would probably count as one of Midori's minions, wouldn't he?'

That sobering thought processed as the group stood there for several long moments. Shinji snapped his fingers to draw their attention to him. 'Even with that, you're being ordered to go with fresh troops,' He gestured to those that were present, 'to help reinforce the library's defenses. Herbie has agreed to send a dozen Grotesque to act as sounders. GN is sending a team of chemists to coordinate with Naoko's forces on potential medical support. You are to report to Lonny as everyone else gathers and will depart as soon as your meeting concludes.'

Bonehead reached out to Shinji to clasp forearms with his second in command. 'You're doing good. Keep an eye out for any standouts in the troops. Don't forget the spiders and Hands can act as runners.'

There was a pause after he let go of Shinji's arm. 'In fact it might be worth having spiders pair off, as many as each skeleton can carry in their ribcage. We're the smaller force against what will be horde tactics. We're going to need to be unconventional.'

A head tilt from Shinji prompted Bonehead to continue.

'Think about the units we have. technically you're only in charge of the Bone Guard, but having Herbie loan a few of his Grotesque as communication and spotters would work. Maybe get a few of GN's goblins out there as field medics along with spiders to stitch anything back together. If nothing else having them there to handle explosives would be good. I'd say get GN's putties to act as walls, but considering the enemy that's not the use I'd come up with.'

He would nod to signal that he had given what advice he could. Shinji's heels clicked together as he snapped a salute, which Bonehead returned. As the group left to see the core they could hear Bonehead's Lieutenant shouting orders.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

"I have a question." Ally approached Lonely Hill's core once the chamber sealed around the party. "What's the deal with you and Bonehead? Sparkles is a reincarnation of the stone lady's other half. Bonehead's.... your prior incarnation? How does that even work?"

Bonehead, Ishida, and Stone Soup all exchanged looks and collectively shrugged.

The core brightened along with the laughter that rolled off the chamber's walls. "Bonehead is his own person. However, he essentially has the parts of me that are from that most recent life, which is one of those things that would take so many coincidences to happen that I'm not wanting to speculate on the odds, other than 'long.'"

Ally stood there, listening. Arms crossed. "But if he is his own person he has a soul, thus you're kinda turning someone else into. Well. You."

"Well," Bonehead offered, "I feel like Me, and I'm happy with how things are."

"The alternative," Ally continued, "Is that he doesn't have a soul proper and is instead a sort of proxy vessel that you've been puppeting about and I'm not sure if that's possible or-"

"It is." Both Stone Soup and Ishida stated flatly. then after Stone Soup gestured, Ishida continued. "Adaze did that a few times. Created plant-beings that then got used as sort-of proxies for herself til they became extensions of pieces of her mind."

Bonehead looked to the two, "Why is that name-"

"Lady you kept Fuzen from turning into a salad by threatening him with a broken sword." Ishida clarified.

"... Gods ... I remember having the biggest dumbest crush on her." Bonehead exhaled sharply despite the lack of lungs. "Wonder what happened to her."

Stone Soup patted the skeleton on the side, "S'alright lad. What I remember puts her at being quite a looker, and we all do dumb things because of a pretty face." She then stepped forward, standing next to Ally, "But we're getting a bit far afield on that talk ye and we need."

"Quite," The Dungeon core dimmed before speaking again. "I'm going to ask Thom's caravan to leave as soon as feasible. At this point they're a liability, and them getting to the popup settlement where Jen and the other regulars live or at least work out of will give them warning to stay clear unless they're willing to sign up for a war."

"OK, sounds fair." Ally sounded skeptical. "I don't get why you needed a face-to-face with us for that."

"Because you are representatives of a quasi-nation stuck in the middle of a war between Dungeons. Plus one of your party members has effectively died under my watch with no ability to properly retrieve the body. This is going to be your last easy chance to bow out gracefu-"

"No." Stone Soup's voice was firm as she and Ally both stepped closer to Ishida and Bonehead. "My wife isn't getting the option to leave, and my daughter's stuck with a target on her head."

"Where she goes, I go." Ally spoke with the same firmness. "And even though it won't likely bring him back. I'm not leaving til Midori's core is turned to powder."

"OK." Lonely Hill's core took this information in. "We lucked out with Nyx. her Hands were detached when that creature attacked them. The infection took time to take them over and by then we'd caged them for study. She's getting another pair grafted onto her and will serve as my heavy hitter here along with Goliath and Norman."

"Norman?" Ally asked, confused.

Ishida chuckled, "The Goblin Champion serving Good Neighbor."

"Ahh." Ally then paused. "I know an inside joke when I hear it, but I don't get it."

Her attention turned back to the dungeon Core, "Anything else?"

"What I am sending with you." Lonely Hill's core pulsed, "I have had to isolate the spawners for these creatures In case they get infected in the field. Toad is working with Norman on potential treatments, but considering how fast Lutz fell. If anyone out there falls. Even you two. I have to assume you are compromised and i can't send anyone else as reinforcements out there."

Bonehead nodded, his voice manifesting for the sake of punctuating the severity of this new wrinkle. "Ironman Mode. Gotcha."

"Come home alive." The chamber walls unassembled themselves to form a doorway exiting the chamber. "That is all."

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

When Taru exited the bounds of The Library's holdings, her pace slowed. The Toymaker's holdings had been four square blocks of buildings. His core could be in any of them, or underground. So, in her mind, it was a worse than useless idea to go hunting.

She saw a squad of tin soldiers approaching. Had she a mouth, Taru would have smiled. These were close kin to the things her and her found family fought Before. Tall caps with short black bills. Prussian blue greatcoats. High boots. Long rifles with bayonets affixed. She even smiled as their blank featureless faces turned to her.

She called out, hoping that this wasn't going to turn out as it had in her past life. "I come in peace! Don't shoot!"

Two of the soldiers looked to each other. then the four advanced, weapons still shouldered. Their movements were stiff and artificial as they advanced. Their rank insignia were the same as before. None of these were officers.

She stood there, relaxed, her bow shouldered, and her hands empty when they gestured for her to follow. As she fell in step she waited for an explanation. When none came. She started talking. "There are four kobold. Lizard-folk smaller and slighter than me, that went this way tracking down the creature that had crossed both yours and the Library's territories."

"We have seen no such creatures." One spoke, voice flat and matter of fact. "Are they an enemy?"

There was a moment of thought from the automaton and she sighed, "I don't think so, but they might be flagged as such, which is the exact thing we can't have given Midori is likely to make a move against the Library soon."

At this, the tin soldiers stiffened. Joins wirred and their attention focused from Taru to the path ahead. "Then we must meet with The Doctor to discuss this."

"Glad to see Diplomacy is on the table." Then lower, as if to herself, "Hopefully it will work this time.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Taru looked at the formation of tin soldiers flanking the building she was about to enter. Of course, he would make a toy store his sanctum. She snorted as she turned the handle. The solid oak door opened, revealing a place of wide aisles, and displays. The sort of thing from a century before her prior life. Except the little creatures on the displays waved happily at her, and the tired-looking skin-horse stepped off of its rockers to pace beside her.

'Hello, you are expected.' Its voice a soft motherly sort.

The automaton and skin-horse exchanged looks, each eyeing the other up. Some part of Taru wanted to smile at the old mare. "I know your voice."

"As I yours Sagittarius." The horse spoke again. "It is good to see you child. We have need."

She followed the skin-horse deeper into the toy store. As they walked Taru would see automata of all manner of make ranging from obviously magically animated clay, to the mechanical clockworks that might have been plausible save for having an intellect directing their motions.

The pair would continue until they came to a stairway flanked by a pair of tin men with mechanical grins. Their cartoonish proportions caused Taru to tilt her head that way and this.

"Let us pass." The Skinhorse spoke, and the guards bowed before giving way.

As they traveled down a winding spiral stair, Taru's eyes shone. A question asked, hope in her voice, "Does he remember me?"

The bottom of the stair put them at the door to a study. Plaster walls, chair rail, fine rug, and fireplace flanked by a pair of chairs. In one of these sat a man-shaped thing with a black-gloved hand lightly touching a transparent sphere emitting a soft amber glow.

"Doctor S-" Taru began as she stepped inside the study.

"Just Doctor these days my dear." The voice came from the figure in the chair, but the orb pulsed in time and intensity to the words. "Marie saw you at the Library's tower. More importantly, she saw what you did."

Taru stood there, her pace halted as the man spoke.

"I remember well what it is capable of doing." There was a faint note of resentment in the Doctor's voice. An accusation? "I know you do not use such a thing lightly."

The light behind Taru's obsidian eyes dimmed til they were pinpricks of black marring a bone-white face. "I'm sorry."

She took a step. And then another.

"You were right," Her voice was soft as she sat in the chair on the opposite flank of the fireplace.

There, she saw an automaton with very obvious pin and socket joints at the elbows, wrists, etc. She saw a painted on waistcoat and trousers. the white lab coat, a fabric addition it wore rather than was bound to.

Her black eyes met his over large black goggles. She spoke again. "You were right. We had been corrupted. It took the turn of the world but it has finally been purged."

The too-wide grin of the Doctor never moved, light emitting behind it in time to his speech. "And that dashing lad you called 'pon the starry black to save?"

Had she a mouth Taru would have smiled. Instead, she gave a gentle incline of her head. "He is here, as well as my parents, and friends."

"Strange isn't it that even with your obligations past, your lives bring you together here? In this place? At this time?" The doctor's hands, black clad mechanical things lightly stroked the orb in his lap.

"Y-yes?" Taru sounded uncertain. "We had always been close. Why would we not find each other again?"

"At a point when and where a new plague, stronger, stranger, and more cataclysmic than any prior undead menace has sought to spread?" The Doctor's wide welded grin lit to full brightness. "As you well know, I am no fighter. Yet mine are the holdings standing between your library and this new tide. Were it just those resources to call, this place would surely fall."

Taru said nothing as he spoke.

"Yet with lives entwined, there is chance against the maligned." The automata that was the Doctor's body emitted a series of low laughs. "Before your beau makes a war of my home. I ask that sanctuary you bestow."


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