The tension in the house lasted for a few days. Celia spent most of her time in her room, playing with Threadbare. On the few occasions she left, for food or to use the toilet or whatever, she’d hurry back as quickly as possible.
Occasionally Threadbare heard Celia talking with Daddy downstairs. They didn’t shout, but his new-found social skills could hear the tension. The discussions were always short, and Celia usually showed up within a minute afterwards.
Threadbare spent a lot of time playing with Celia. It was good for a few more points of Charisma and Perception, and a few Adorable Skill level ups, not that he knew what was going on there. He just knew that the more time he spent around his little girl, the better he could understand how she was feeling.
But as the days went on, the attribute and skill bumps slowed down. The little bear had no way of knowing that the higher a primary attribute rose, the more time and practice it took to increase.
He did gain a small intelligence boost, as well. And his newly-grown intelligence was starting to comprehend a few words, here and there. Celia was the girl, he understood. Daddy was his creator, and Celia’s too, he guessed. Threadbare was his name. And Pulsivar was the cat, who was roundly cursed when the smell from the basement started emanating into the house proper.
That ended the stalemate between Daddy and Celia. He knocked on her door, humbly asked for her help in cleaning up Pulsivar’s mess, and agreed to take over the laundry from that point on. Celia enlisted Threadbare and her squad of stuffed toys for the task, and the lot of them marched downstairs, to look at the mess below. Flies had gotten in through the broken window and found the rot, and the hum of their eager feasting filled the basement. Spilled preserves sent up a sickly-sweet smell that mixed with the rotting rat flesh, and it was all the two humans could do to keep their lunches down.
“Um. I don’t suppose your cleaning spell will handle this?” Celia asked.
“If it could I wouldn’t need the help. My spell only works on textiles.”
“What’s a tek style?”
“Cloths, furs, that sort of thing.”
“Well. Let’s make this a proper quest, then.” The old man blinked a few times, staring into the distance.
And to Threadbare’s surprise, a whole bunch of squiggles appeared in his vision.
CARADON GEARHART HAS OFFERED A PUBLIC QUEST!
DETAILS: CLEAN THE BASEMENT
REWARD: TWENTY-FIVE EXPERIENCE POINTS
COMPLETION: AUTOMATICALLY FULFILLED WHEN BASEMENT IS CLEAN
DO YOU WANT TO ACCEPT THIS QUEST? Y/N?
Annoyed, Threadbare willed “Yes!” and the squiggles disappeared. Stupid things!
But now the old man had a light glowy shine to him, for some reason. He didn’t know that only people who had accepted a quest from Caradon could see that shine.
Celia grinned, as she accepted the quest as well. “Yay! Twenty-five experience! Let’s get to it!”
Her jubilation lasted up until she looked at the mess. “Okay. Okay okay,” Celia said, glancing back to the six stuffed animals she’d brought. “Let me get my party going, then you can clean them.”
“Capital idea. I’ll handle Threadbare.”
“What do you mean? I’ll just tell him to-“
The old man shook his head, and pointed at Threadbare. “Command Golem: Clean this mess.”
Threadbare straightened up. He marched up to the old man, took the bucket of soapy water and scrub brush that the man offered, and got to work.
Celia shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Come on guys, hup to it!” The toys bumbled down around Threadbare, and contributed as best they could.
“So what happened in here anyway?” Celia asked. “I knew we had rats, but… this is a lot of them. I think. It’s really gross and I don’t want to look too hard at this.”
“As best as I can figure out, Pulsivar got trapped in here somehow and panicked, like he did in my workshop. He killed all the rats in a frenzy, tearing my shelving to pieces in the process, then broke the window to escape.” The old man rubbed his eyes. “That cat’s stronger than I thought. I’ll have to keep an eye on him, make sure he doesn’t go monstrous.”
“He wouldn’t!” Celia turned to him, shocked. “He’s our kitty and he loves us!”
“Probably not. But there’s always a chance, and if his instincts are this violent, I can’t take the risk of inattention.”
Celia just stared up at him. After a time, the old man’s stern face softened, and he rubbed her frizzy red hair. “He’ll be fine, though. He probably won’t become anything. That cat’s five, if he was going to go bad he’d have done it by now.” He glanced back at the cellar, watching the glass chips and broken crockery get piled in one corner by the giraffe and dolly, as Threadbare tossed armloads of dead rodents into one of the few intact wooden crates. “What I wish I knew, was how Pulsivar got trapped down here in the first place. The glass was outside in the flower bed, so he came out that way. He didn't enter that way. And I’m pretty sure he can’t get the basement door open by himself.” He shook his head, but his eyes slid back to watch Celia, catching the way she bit her lip. “It is a mystery.”
Long minutes passed. Threadbare got a couple of points of dexterity from chucking rat corpses and handling cleaning supplies. He paused every now and then to glance back at his family.
Finally, Celia swallowed hard. “I uh, I think I left the door open. The basement door.”
“Oh? Did you now?”
“I was washing Threadbare so I got the soap, and I might have left the door open. I guess… Pulsivar could have… gotten in. And maybe the door shut or something. It was shut when I came back in the house, so maybe he accidentally knocked the door shut. I guess.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I didn’t think anything of it! Threadbare had wiggled loose from the clothesline so I went looking for him, and then he was all bloody, and-” The little girl put two and two together and got three point five. “-Pulsivar must have grabbed him on his way down to the basement! Then the door shut and he panicked, and got the mess all over Threadbare! THAT’S where the blood came from!” Celia looked down, and her eyes went wide. “Oh gods I got it on my face when I hugged him oh gods… MRP!” She covered her mouth with both hands and ran upstairs, retching.
The old man looked after her, and nodded. “I knew you had it in you, girl. I’m proud of you,” he whispered. Then he turned around, and frowned as Threadbare tottered toward the stairs. “Here now, has the command worn off already? Command Golem: Clean this mess!”
Golden light flashed, and Threadbare went back to his task. But it didn’t stop him from worrying for his little girl, so he kept sneaking glances back toward the stairs. The old man took no notice of this, standing on the bottom stair, arms folded behind him, waiting for Celia’s return.
Eventually she did, wearing a different smock, looking pale. She shook as she stood at the head of the stairs, too afraid to come down. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave the door open and this whole mess is because of me. I’m really sorry.”
“Celia…” The old man winced, as he walked upstairs, and folded her into his embrace. “No, I’m not mad at you Celia, it’s okay. You didn’t mean for this to happen. It’s not your fault. This is on Pulsivar, and even then he was panicked so I can’t truly blame him. It’s just bad luck, that’s all. And, look at it this way; Pulsivar saved us the trouble of having to chase the rats out.”
She snorted laughter into his chest, as she hugged her Daddy for all she was worth.
“In fact, I’m proud of you for confessing what you did… what you THOUGHT you’d done. So I’ve come to a big decision.”
“I was planning on stepping up your lessons, telling you some of the things I’ve been holding back. You’re mature enough to handle the truth now, I think.” A shadow passed across his face, unseen by the little girl or her bear. “Some of it, anyway. Bear with me, you’ll get the whole story in time."
“Really?” She looked up at him, snuffling, but her eyes were filled with hope.
“Really.” He glanced back down to the basement. “Come on. The toys can’t reach everywhere. Get your gloves on, it’s time for us to do our part.”
At the end of the job, Threadbare felt no different for being twenty-five experience points richer. And a level of Resist Magic, after it took the old man a few tries to get “Clean and Press” to work on him. Threadbare silently and uncomprehendingly watched his Magic Resistance skill kick up a notch. The old man saw nothing but a stubborn toy that couldn’t help but resist him.
“Golems,” the old man snorted. “I swear, that resist magic skill is more trouble than it’s worth, sometimes. Normally beneficial magic bypasses it, but since the golems don’t care if they’re dirty or clean, it doesn’t hurt them either way.”
“Is that how it works?”
“More or less.” The old man tossed Threadbare to her, then beckoned her back upstairs. “Come on. Let’s go to the back porch and break out the slate and notes. It’s a good day for lessons.”
With the promise of answers, Celia eagerly scrounged up the schooling supplies and followed her Daddy through the Study, and onto the wooden porch overlooking the downward slope of the hill. The forest lay beyond, thick, towering trees blooming with springtime growth, birdsong heavy and filling the branches. In the distance she could just make out the river that marked the edge of their property, such that it was. As she watched, a brown figure stomped through the trees briefly, and she smiled to see it. The Raggedy Men were a familiar sight.
The old man took no notice of this, as he took the slate from her, and settled back into his chair. Producing a piece of chalk from his apron, he started scrawling on the slate.
“The thing that I must tell you, before anything else, is that the world was not always this way.”
“Letters in the air. Little boosts to your fundamental qualities, for doing difficult tasks. Jobs, status screens, even quests… none of this was a thing, forty years ago.”
Celia stared at him, uncomprehending. “How? That doesn’t even make any sense!”
“But that’s how it was.” The old man scrawled words on the slate, and crossed them off one by one.
“But… how did people learn skills without jobs?”
“We didn’t have skills. Not as you know them, anyway. We got better at things by years of practice, and trying to learn new things.”
“Like unlocking generic skills?” Celia still looked unconvinced. This was a lot to swallow.
“Sort of, only without the words appearing to tell you you’d gotten better at something.” The old man snorted. “I was a wizard’s apprentice, back then. I’d spent years learning the basics, and my biggest trick was animating a rope. I could do that once per day…. Twice a day if I didn’t memorize detect magic, and double-stocked animate rope spells.”
“Things were very different back then. We had spell slots, and don't ask me to explain those. Anyway, it took years to get good at things. Decades, even, for some complex skills. I suppose it still does, now, if you take it slowly and avoid danger.”
Celia shifted, hugging Threadbare tight. “So what about level ups?”
“They weren’t called that. I think… I think what happened was that the numbers still appeared, but nobody could see them. You had to guess what you had, if you cared about that at all. Most of us didn’t, we were too busy living our lives.”
“So what happened to make everything change? How’d we get to level ups and jobs and stuff?”
“Seriously. One day, the words started appearing, and everyone found out that they had status screens. And qualified for various jobs.”
“No, actually.” The old man looked at her with solemnity. “It was utter chaos.”
“Think about it. We’d gone for years without knowing exactly how smart, or how strong, or what our limits were. Then, in a heartbeat, all that knowledge of ourselves was at our fingertips. In fact, we couldn’t get away from it! You’d be right in the middle of kissing your girlfriend, and CHA +1 would float up out of nowhere!”
Celia’s eyes went wide. “Wait, what?” The lesson had gotten even more interesting. “Tell me more about how kissing levels charisma.”
The old man flushed, as he realized his mistake. “Ah. Uh, later. Much later. Anyway, nevermind that. The thing was, once we started figuring things out, and looking around, as the months went by we found out it just wasn’t us, here in the Cylvania Valley. It was Baramor to the west, and Mighty Hallas to the north, and the Cane Confederation to the south, and pretty soon we realized that it was everywhere. Everywhere was like this. Still is, probably.”
“Why do you say it’s probably like this?”
The old man sighed. “It’s not a very nice subject. Which I suppose is why I’ve avoided talking with you about it. But… cards on the table, as it were.” His chalk scratched the slate. “Those early years, we thought the words, the jobs, we thought they were a blessing. Even when monsters grew in numbers and the first dungeons formed, we took it all with a sense of adventure. We even had seven heroes, that swore to protect Cylvania. Seven brave souls, that deserved better than they got.” He stared off into the distance, watching the wind over the trees. “Much better.”
Celia bit her lip. “I don’t understand.”
The old man shook his head. “I’m woolgathering. But essentially, it turned to chaos. Jobs only go to level twenty-five, that we found out in the first few years. But the monsters kept getting tougher and tougher. Soon we were losing the smaller settlements. Then we were fighting to keep the larger ones. And it never ended, more monsters came in from outside, drifting in from the bigger countries, where more people were around to kill them more easily. We didn’t have enough people to manage them, and for a while it was pretty ugly.” The old man took a breath. “But even that, we could have lived with. In the end, as it always is, the biggest threat to our little kingdom came from other men.”
“Worse than monsters?”
“Oh yes. Monsters just want simple things, like to eat you, or take your treasure, or to act as their nature tells them to. Men? Men want to rule you. To change you, until you’re what they want you to be, rather than what you want to be.”
“So what happened?”
“You remember how I told you once, that jobs can’t go beyond level 25?”
“Well that’s not exactly true. And in one land, they figured out a way around it faster than anyone else did. So we knew the time had come for drastic action-”
Celia blinked. Then she whipped her head around, and stood, as a figure broke the treeline at the side of the house. “Oh! It’s Mister Mordecai! Hi hi hi!” She waved, lessons forgotten, as the brown-coated figure waved back.
“Ah! Is it that time already?” The old man smiled, and put the slate down. “We cleaned the basement just in time, then, I’d hate to have him subjected to that smell. Come on, let’s go meet him.”
They got inside just as their visitor rapped at the door. Celia ran ahead and answered it, squealing with joy. Threadbare watched from under one arm. He hadn’t understood a word of that lesson earlier, but this seemed interesting.
Leaning against the doorframe, clad in a hunter’s brown leather coat that had seen much wear, collar turned up against the cool winds off the mountain, and a brown, floppy-brimmed hat over his bald head, was a man not much younger than Threadbare’s creator. He was whip-thin, with a face rounded by nature rather than good eating, and the only hair on his face was a stubbly brush that parted to reveal missing teeth as he reached down and lifted Celia up by the armpits. “Garrr! What’ve we got here, then?”
Celia laughed. Threadbare held onto her arm for dear life as she flailed in the newcomer’s grip. “Put me down! Hee hee! I’m not a little girl any more! Ha ha ha!”
“Whew! Truth in that, you’re getting big little Celia!” Mordecai knelt and deposited her on the floor. “Ere we go. Big hug?”
“Big hug!” Celia embraced him. Threadbare found himself shoved up against the man’s neck. Curious, he followed his instincts and sniffed at his hat.
Your Scents and Sensibility skill is now Level 3!
Oh, right, that was a thing he could do. The teddy bear compared the scents to those he’d sniffed around the house. Some similarities, but more differences. He rather thought he knew what all this huge two-legged scents had in common, though. And even though he didn’t know what humans were, he was starting to figure out that he could smell something and tell if it was human or not.
“Mordecai.” The old man nodded.
“Caradon.” The newcomer gave the old man a sober look, over Celia’s shoulder. “Run silent.”
“Run deep,” Caradon replied, and gave the woods a cursory glance, before shutting the door. “Did you bring the usual supplies?”
“That and news.”
“News?” Celia pulled back from him. “What’s happened? Is it something with Taylor’s Delve?”
“Er… big picture stuff. Borin’ stuff. I’ll tell yer Daddy later. Want to help me bring the supplies in?”
“Sure!” Celia trekked outside, next to Mister Mordecai, who listened somberly, nodding as she burst out with a week’s worth of words, telling him all about Threadbare and how Pulsivar had gone crazy twice, and how she’d seen her first Cardinal redbird a few days ago, and how they’d had to clean up the cellar. Mordecai spent a lot of time nodding, and Threadbare was glad to see that the newcomer’s technique for listening to Celia matched the one that the teddy bear had figured out. Lots of nodding, and she was happy.
They reached four stuffed packs at the treeline, and Celia went for the smallest one, grunting as she tried to heft it. Threadbare slipped free of her grasp and tried to help her…
…but holy heck, was it heavy. The little girl staggered back toward the house, grunting and sweating. Threadbare was nearly crushed several times, but managed to take the weight off of her now and then.
“How do you get these up here?” Celia whined.
“Told ya before, Scout’s a good job. Got skills ta help with that.”
“I want to learn that.”
“You always say that. An’ what do I always say back?’
“Not… without… Daddy’s… permission…” She made a farting noise with her mouth.
The rest of the trip was silent. Mordecai went ahead, walking with the three, heavier packs slung over his shoulder like they had no weight at all. Celia and Threadbare finally caught up, to find Mordecai and Caradon talking in low, solemn voices. Threadbare caught a bit of it, just before he and Celia staggered through the door.
“…don’t think he’ll look out this far right away, but you best watch yourself. Had a few people askin’ about where all them toys are going-“ Caradon cleared his throat, and Mordecai glanced over his shoulder, rubbing the back of his neck as Celia stared at them, curiosity writ large on her face.
“Celia?” Caradon spoke, tousling her hair. “I’ve got some catching up to do with Mister Mordecai. Why don’t you go play outside?"
“Can I go down to the river?”
Caradon looked to Mordecai. Mordecai nodded. “River’s clear. Ent much rain. Worst of the snowmelt’s down from the mountains. No sign a’ monsters.”
“All right, but stay to this bank of the river,” Caradon told her. “Give us about half an hour.”
“Okay! Okay okay. Come on, Threadbare!” She gathered up the little bear, then ran up, and came back down with an armload of stuffed toys. “Bye, Daddy!”
Celia jogged down to the treeline, went a bit further down the hill, to where the pines stood in the loamy soil, and glanced back at the house. “There we go. Out of sight.” She knelt down and put Threadbare and the other toys on the soft cushion of pine needles, and leaned in close. “Did you know something, Threadbare?”
Threadbare nodded his head.
“Well you don’t know this. If you go down to the river and keep going west, then circle around on the sycamore’s bluff, you can get right up to the other side of the house. And you can hear what they’re talking about, without them knowing!”
“That’s our quest! We’re gonna go figure out what’s got Mister Mordecai so worried! I mean, I’m not gonna give you any of my experience for it, but that’s our adventure. Are you with me, Threadbare?”
The little golem nodded once more, and Celia clapped her hands in glee, before turning around and animating the rest of her toys.
And from a low pine tree, its black scales blending into the hollows between the needle-filled branches, an impish face smiled at the opportunity presented. A short, stealthy flight, a quick hop over the river, and a woman’s arm rose to meet him, as he settled onto her wrist, and met her icy blue stare.
“The girl’s playing outside.”
“Finally!” The woman shook her head, staring up at the little house, just visible through the trees. “Can you run distraction without revealing yourself?”
“Maybe. Mordecai’s no slouch. I can barely sneak by him when I’m invisible.”
“Get as close as you can, and prepare yourself. We’ll only have one shot at this, and I don’t want to meet the master empty-handed when he arrives…"
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