Finally, the exciting (and ominous?) conclusion to the Doll's Eye, short fiction from the Bug & Claw universe. The Doll's Eye is a mace-like weapon with a child's voice and a thirst for blood. Last we left off, small child had just discovered it in the muck of Stagbay.
The child and the doll
The child was cautious at first.
“Who... who said that?”
“We did, child. Do not fear; we cannot hurt you.”
We could hear their splashing, coming closer.
“I do not... see anyone?”
“We are stuck down here, in the muck and rocks, but we are strong and can help you. Look here; some of our home must still shine in the sun.”
“You are in this?”
“Ah. Er... yes.”
The child shuffled around us, taking our home in. At last, we saw what kind of kin we were dealing with. Crab-kin? Unexpected. If there were crab-kin about, why had we never seen them in the shallows before? We could not see the other bug they spoke of.
They asked, “how did you get stuck there?”
“We were thrown many years ago. From the top of the lighthouse that used to sit at the top of the cliff.”
“Never mind that. What do you hide from, child? And was there someone else with you-- a Toby?”
“Toby!” The child held up a claw, and a tiny mite skittered up to the very tip and presented itself. “He’s my friend.”
“How nice. We can be friends, too. And we can keep you safe from whatever you are afraid of.”
“You can? But how?”
“Dig us out, friend. You will see.”
And so they did. Not much held us there all that time, yet we had been stuck there for almost four and a quarter centuries. We were heavy to the child, but they dragged us a short distance, free from where we had been for so long.
“You are a talking rod?”
“We are a weapon of great construction... of great destruction. And also of knowledge. We may look small, but we are many and know much. We can help you to--....”
“Oh! I get it!” The child suddenly began dragging us through the muck and then up a rocky path, grating us harshly against the stone. We could barely think, but we dared not interrupt. New sights and new tastes were on the horizon!
We finally reached the summit. The child seemed to be checking to see if it was being watched. We could not help but take in all that had changed and was now within view.
The settlement we had seen from below was much larger than we had initially thought. It must be a large town or hill, in the old speech. Now that we could see more buildings, we wondered if the old speech was better suited. There were monuments of fantastic-looking beasts adorning the town streets. They appeared to become more abundant closer to the massive great hall. The hall had grand swooping arches; several appeared to be doorways while others seemed decorative and covered in some colourful... were those exoskeletons? What kind of bug-kin were these?
“Friend, we met Toby, and now we think it’s time you told us who you are,” we said.
“Shh, they’ll hear you!” They whispered as they looked around cautiously, and then “I am just Sofi.”
“Ahh, Sofi. You may call us Doll. We will be quiet. Good crab-kin, good friend. Listen.” And we told Sofi how to skulk about in the shadows of the buildings without being seen, like so many of the bandits we had drunk of knew how to do. We did our best to teach them how to keep their feet light. The hardest part for Sofi was to carry us without scraping along the ground and making noise. All the while, Toby stood on the top of Sofi’s head like a scout. We wondered if the little mite would make a sound if it detected something.
Sofi made it over a ridge past some of the buildings and sighed. “There! No one will bother us now. You are smart, Doll.”
“Good. Now, tell us, Sofi. What is that town?”
“Is that what it’s called?”
“Uhm... Patient Watch.”
“But a watch, yes? And what is a watch?”
“It’s...” Sofi fumbled and kicked at the ground a bit, looking around. We had asked a raw question, it seemed. Suddenly she straightened up and recited:
Have humility, all kin fail
Order none we will not do ourselves
Now our lives tomorrow, the future
Offering not competing
Understanding foes and friends
Remembering those who have fallen
They looked proud, as though they’d passed a test we did not know we had given. Perhaps we had grown too interested in these kin. Perhaps the world was best absorbed through blood. We made a resolution. “Tell us, who is it you wish to understand?”
Their proud look fell. “Uhm, no one, really.” And then they pointed to the north, and Toby scurried up to the tip of their claw to point along with them. “Toby and I just want to go build in the old forest.”
We did not recall any forest in the area. “Sofi, did you hurt yourself recently?”
“I fell on a sharp rock!” They rubbed between two leg segments. “Toby and I ran from the town keepers.”
“Yes, we can smell your wound. Sofi, we can help you better if you let us taste it.”
“It is where our knowledge comes from. The blood.”
“Doll, you are being weird. I don’t like it.”
“Only a drop will do. Then we will know so much more. Please, Sofi.”
“Stop, or Toby and I will leave you here.” Sofi crossed their claws.
“Very well, Sofi. Where will you take us, then? How can we aid you?”
Sofi set off, dragging us along the harsh ground again, our punishment for offending them. They trudged along for quite a while, stopping infrequently and swiftly. Even if we were to interrupt, we weren’t sure if they’d hear us. Finally, they stopped, and we tried to look about. We stood at the edge of what looked like a long-dead forest. Trees that had barely grown above saplings before some kind of blight wiped them out.
“You will help us stop Mhul, and then they won’t keep us from the old forest,” they whispered.
Mhul, that meant death in the old speech. We realized we were at the base of a larger sapling, Sofi dragging us slowly toward a giant pit around the opposite side of its base, and the stench of death indeed came from within. “Sofi, who is Mhul?” We whispered the question that we did not really need to ask.
“They keep us from having any fun. They... are the one we watch for.”
“Sofi, I am a powerful weapon, and you are surely a great fighter, but you cannot fight the shrew mole.”
“Pa trained me; I know what I’m doing! It’s just a dumb old rodent! No one has even seen it in years!” They raised their voice.
“Sofi, please, take us back to town. We will find a way to get rid of Mhul for you. We promise.”
“You’re just like everyone else!”
“No, we--” suddenly, there were scratching and sniffing sounds. Startled, Sofi must have dropped us. We lay there on the ground watching as an ominous bouquet of multi-coloured mushrooms rose from the hole in the ground. “Quickly now,” we whispered, “stay quiet and listen closely to our instruction.”
But Sofi (and Toby) were long gone, and two massive sets of claws now straddled us. Children are stupid.
The monster hunter
A set of elongated claws were on either side of us. Mushrooms grew slowly from the ground into a massive contrasting white mound. We watched as the tremendous dirty white beast of a shrew mole pulled itself out of its hole. We could see now up close that it was a he. He sucked in through his mouth and gave a quick snuffle out his nose before shaking dust and earth everywhere. So, this was Mhul.
Mhul attempted to adjust his eyes, squinting into the sun. They were tiny, red, and covered in pus and yuck. They must still work, though, for Mhul suddenly locked his gaze on us. We imagined Sofi’s dragging polished us nicely, and we were shining in the afternoon sun. One excited screech later, we were snatched up inside Mhul’s foul-smelling mouth and carried back down into his burrow.
The entrance to Mhul’s burrow was much longer than we expected. We went down almost eight feet before things opened up into a chamber. We stopped there momentarily. He was excited, frothing at the mouth, and his saliva was starting to get inside our home. As it touched our small body, we began to feel strange. We continued through tunnels, though moving more laterally now than descending. We passed branching tunnels several times, the air seeming fresher or worse without rhyme or reason. We assumed some directions lead to different entrances while some to separate chambers. Mhul had made quite the home for himself.
We arrived in a larger room and were suddenly greeted by the familiar clanging and clattering sound of metal on metal. Mhul was digging in his treasures, shiny things he had collected over the years. He found what must have been the perfect place for us, and we came out of his mouth with a crash. We were covered in his putrid saliva and felt woozy. Our vision went dark, and we slept.
When we awake, for once, we are unsure how long we have been out. Mhul’s mouth is a more dangerous place than even it looks. But Mhul does not appear to be here now, and we take in our new surroundings. We could be here for a while. At least Mhul seemed revered, dangerous. Who knows how many entrances there are to his burrow? Perhaps he could drop a new treasure covered in blood, maybe even a body on top of us. Two small metal blocks vaguely illuminated the chamber in the treasure pile. We began to sense around in the dark to see how likely this dream of ours relying on Mhul for drinking might be. A hole in one of the metal blocks moved.
We looked closer, wondering if we were still under the effects of Mhul’s saliva. The front of the other metal block opened and what looked like mandibles wiggled about. “Are you kin?” We asked. It snapped shut, and we could swear the holes on the metal moved about in such a way that we were being observed now.
“Shh... Mhul will get ya!” Said the closer metal block.
Then, “no, no. You were napping. He’s gone, can’t you tell?” Said the other.
“We are not so easily harmed, although his saliva knocked us out for a time.” We said.
“Ahh, yes, you are like us? Metal-housed kin?”
“Yes,” we replied. “Now that we’ve looked at you a bit more, we assume you cannot move?”
“No, miss. No can.” Replied the one.
Then the other added, “we were... made this way. The metal keeps us from moving until another kin puts their appendage into us.”
“When not worn, we can’t go anywhere, but when worn, we can help the wearer fly and see things.”
“If they’re light enough!”
“We understand. See things because of how you glow?”
“We can get brighter. See!” They laughed at their joke as the entire cavern lit up bright green. It was a longer oblong cavern with an entrance at either side. We sat in the treasure pile near one entrance. The other entrance looked like it immediately started an incline; maybe it was an exit to the entire burrow. We could make out many exciting treasures among the pile now, but none so interesting as these two kin, who still held the most of our attention.
“We assume you are bug-kin, then? What are your names?” We asked.
“Right! We were two of the phew surviving lightning-kin. I’m Zill.”
“And there’s a few of you in there, you said?” Zill added.
“In a manner of speaking. You may call us the Doll’s Eye, or Baneberry, whichever you prefer.”
Zill and Zat began chittering excitedly. “We have heard of you,” Zat said.
Zill began “many ages ago by now. That’s how long we’ve been down here. Our last keeper was looking for you. When they stopped to soak in a small pond, we were on our way to find you. They took us off, you see.” Zat began chittering in the background. “That’s when one of Mhul’s ancestors saw us reflecting in the sun and snatched us from the pond bank. We saw our keeper slink into the water to avoid detection, being no match for a shrew mole on their own.”
“And so you’ve been here ever since?”
“Afraid so.” Said the less chatty Zat. “Kin used to make their way down here. Either in shrew mole jaws or on their own, but they never lasted long when they did.”
“No one has tried in a while?”
“No, but maybe it’ll stay that way even more now,” said Zat.
There was silence for a time. The two bug-kin allowed their greenish glow to settle back to its original dim state.
“Aren’t you bad?”
We wondered how long we might be stuck down here and with whom. Our rumination was cut short as we thought we still saw more movement in the cavern. This time near the roof. What was that? We thought we saw a couple more flits of activity on the roof coming from the passage furthest away, advancing slowly toward us.
We could hear Mhul coming down the tunnel into the cavern from the far inclined-passage, where we saw movement on the roof. Zill and Zat remained silent, but we suddenly heard a new voice from the other entrance behind us.
“Where is she, beast?” Mhul stopped, his claws digging into the earth. Did they mean Sofi? Did they not get away after all?
We tried to draw his attention, “use us, we--“
“Shut up, Eye.” Did it know us?
The voice stepped into our vision. A large crab-kin, decorated, armoured, carrying a large axe with a smaller claw, but its larger claw was menacing enough on its own. The lucky type of crab-kin whose forelegs were occasionally born more like smaller nimble claws with extra digits. His were moving about at his belt, arranging tools as he advanced, but he never looked down.
“I said, where the hell is Sofi, beast?! WHERE. IS. MY. DAUGHTER?”
On the last word, Mhul charged, as did the crab-kin.
We watched a dramatic and graceful scene play out, the likes of which we had never witnessed before. The crab-kin threw something from its belt into the face of Mhul, causing him to screech. At the same time, movement from the roof came shooting down. Five isopod-kin that had blended so well with the colour of the earth unless they were moving were placing wires in Mhul’s way while he was blinded. The crab-kin had been loud to draw attention away from them!
As each wire tightened, Mhul grunted and screeched. The isopods now concentrated their wire work on Mhul’s front legs, meaning to topple him forward. And so they did, just as the crab-kin leapt in the air, swinging his mighty axe at Mhul’s mushroom-covered head. An isopod on each side drove a spear in either of Mhul’s eyes for good measure. Mhul slumped, and his breathing stopped, but the crab-kin and smaller bug-kin stood at the ready for several more moments before easing.
“Form groups and look for her. Pip, with me,” the crab-kin said. And they dispersed through the tunnels.
Eventually, the crab-kin and the lone isopod-kin, whom we assumed was Pip, drew near us. “Take us with you; we can help you find her. It’s not safe down here. We hear Mhul has family in these tunnels.” We tried to reason with the two of them.
Pip looked up at the crab-kin and then back at us, shaking their head.
“It thinks we’re in danger, Pip.” He mock laughs. “Did you see many shells or exoskeletons down here? No. Ol’ Mhul took some that wandered where they shouldn’t or went looking for his treasure, sure. But Mhul left Patient Wa-- Mhul was trained to leave Patient Watch alone. And Mhul was the last shrew mole in the area. No, there’s no more of its family in these tunnels.”
“You took Mhul down effortlessly-- then why--“
“Why leave Mhul alive so long? The Breach doesn’t always kill its watch. We seek to understand friends and foes. That big, dumb shrew also kept other infected away.”
“You used it.”
“We used it.”
Several isopod-kin and a stink-kin came down the far, inclining tunnel and approached. The stink-kin addressed the crab-kin. “Overseer. Your daughter has been found above. She is quite, er... apologetic.” The overseer’s expression and demeanour softened slightly.
“Good. Thank you. Start sampling Mhul for the scholars while Pip and I finish here.”
“Yes, Overseer,” said the stink-kin before turning away and issuing orders to the others.
The overseer paused and took the treasure hoard in for a moment. “Sorry, Pip. While we didn’t mean to lose Mhul today, you’ve certainly proven yourself. The Breach is lucky to have your tactical mind.”
“Thank you, Overse--“
“They’re out of earshot, Pip. Lou is fine, old friend.”
Pip chuckled. “Softy. Thanks, Lou, that means a lot coming from you.”
“Well, I mean it. And I don’t know what I’d do if something had happened to Sofi. Now, take them and anything else you want and can carry. You knew they were here, and they’ll help you on your way further up the ranks.”
“Wow. To think they’ve been sitting down here so long.” We wondered if we were included in this exchange, but Pip leaned down, picked up Zat and Zill and a few other trinkets and said to them, “don’t worry, I’ll treat you right” as he walked away.
“Now, as for you,” Lou said.
“You knew we were here as well?”
“I did, and in the shallows of the bay before Sophie, as many before me in the upper Breach ranks have known.”
“Why leave us there? Why avoid the bay?”
“It bothers you not knowing, doesn’t it? Having to pull information out of kin. Trying to manipulate them.”
“I’ll entertain you this. If you had experienced much of our town, you would have seen that we are mostly bug-kin. The bay is infected; no kin have risen from it in years. However, it seems not to have bothered you much. The things we can eat or use from the sea are selective. We knew you were there, sitting among some of the worst of the infection, but we also knew your reputation preceded you. Over centuries the Breach sowed rumours of you like a ghost to help keep children and trainees away from the shallows.”
“But all it took was one.”
Lou looked offended. “One and my own.”
“Yet you will use Zat and Zill and not us? We can be of great help.”
“You’ll drink only the blood you’re allowed now, wretch.”
We could hear a gong ringing in the distance.
Lou had us scooped up, wrapped in a blanket and ushered off. From what we could hear, any that knew of us being in Mhul’s cave were either sworn to silence or misled.
We were kept in the Breach’s great hall for a couple of weeks until the excitement had died down. They transported us in secrecy at night. We never saw the route, the direction, or even the means of travel. We did not see any of it above ground when we arrived at our destination. At least not at first, and not with our own eye.
We were taken deep underground before we were ever uncovered. They chained and locked us with a key in the very center of a deep room. Strange geometric sculptures hung from the roof-- a roof of which we had trouble seeing the ceiling. A solitary gemstone sat near the base of where we were chained, giving the room its purple light.
This was the village of Orman, we were told. A place built on secrecy and faith, a place no one would think to look for us to begin with, but also one no one knew had hidden depths even if they did come looking. All other questions we had we were told would be answered in time. And so they were.
We had only been chained in the village of Orman for a week when a bug-kin was pulled into our room by cloaked and masked figures, using chains to keep him equally distant and under control. A figure in a different colour and mask trails behind them but does not hold a chain.
As the chained kin was led in, we noticed the amazing looming bodies of matriarch bug-kin descend from the ceiling. We had not even seen them hiding among the sculptures, their voluptuous figures blending with the geometric patterns.
The bug-kin seemed to sense the ominous tone of the room it had been led into and began to struggle. They beat it down with cudgels hidden in their robes. The lone figure approaches and draws a dagger, stabbing the chained bug-kin, though non-vitally.
The figure brings the dagger to us, dripping with blood.
The matriarchs all smile, bobbing with excitement.
“You will tell us his crimes. The rest is yours.” the lone bug with the dagger says.
We begin to shake excitedly in our new home.
The silk roads come faster now, bobbing up and down, intertwining over top of one another. We can almost jump from one to the next. Brilliant colours guide us. The dark tree at the center awaits. Soon.
End & references & tools used
This constitutes the end of the Artefact actual play. I strongly recommend anyone else building out a world, whether for fiction, their own setting, or any other purpose, to use solo TTRPGs like Artefact to do so. I had a lot of fun with this!