The mountains shivered at the caress of spring. Warm winds blew from the west, peeling away the snow, sending the ice shuddering down the lower parts of the hills, and freeing the trees from their long slumber. Hardy mountain pines stood as solemn vanguard, as leaves and shoots started to poke, testing sunlight, and finding it good.
And below the peaks, on the downslope of a gentle rise, a single teddy bear waddled through the woods, carrying a bundle of tools and cloth in his arms. His name was Threadbare, and he was on a mission.
But after only a few hundred yards, he realized something pretty important;
These woods were really dangerous, and he would probably need his arms free to deal with whatever came.
So he turned back, and found his way to a pile of timber and rubble. From the outside it didn’t look like much… the remnants of a house, fallen to fire, as a few weathered and charred beams attested, poking loose from the stones that had once been a foundation. A wrecked shed nearby, half-buried in an avalanche, seemed an exclamation point and lonely witness to what had once been a stately manor.
At least, that’s what a bard might say. But the bear wasn’t a bard. He was a hell of a lot of other things, but not a bard.
Crouching low, and worming his way through a muddy tunnel that squirmed under the foundation, he found himself again in the crawlspace that had been his unwilling home for the last few years. It was here he’d lost his family, and here he’d sworn to get them back.
But that was a very big thing, and very big things are made up of very small steps. And right now, the first step was to make himself a harness or something to carry his tailoring tools in.
He needed those tools, needed them badly. He had magical means of healing himself, but magic ran out. The spell he knew to heal himself worked from a resource called sanity, and generally the less you had of it, the worse your focus and judgement got.
So he dug around in the darkness, until he found the part of his creator’s apron that remained. And for lack of any better ideas, he sat down and sewed an apron of his own.
It was harder than he thought, and it took a couple of tries, but perseverance paid off.
Your tailoring skill is now level 37!
He watched the words roll by with long familiarity, by now. They came up whenever he did something well enough to improve himself. They did that for everyone.
Slipping on his apron, not quite a twin to his creator’s own, thanks to the proportionate size of the tools to his body, he put the scissors into the back sheath he’d made for them, and nodded. This would do.
You have equipped an Apprentice Tailor's Apron!
Oh, nice! Maybe he could get more leather, to make a spare?
Then he caught a glimpse of cloth under his creator's apron, sunken in. Old wormtrails led into it, and Threadbare looked away.
His Creator was dead, these five years. He’d lost what was essentially his father, even if they’d never spoken a word to each other. Not that the little bear could talk back then.
“But I can talk now,” he said, in his small, soft voice, and paused as the idea grabbed his mind and wouldn’t let go.
Didn’t he have a spell for this?
“Status,” he said, and nodded in satisfaction. Why yes, yes he did!
“Speak with Dead,” he chanted, and the air seemed to shift, shift and dance. Everything seemed to go stark monotone, the light got brighter and the shadows turned solid black. “Caradon? Are you there?” he asked.
Nothing. And he noticed he hadn’t skilled up from it. Thinking carefully, it seemed to him that maybe this spell wouldn’t get better unless you actually talked to dead people with it.
Strange, that Caradon wasn’t here, though. Where else would he be? Maybe he’d passed on to wherever dead spirits go.
“Status,” the bear said again, and looked at his sanity. It had cost five to cast speak with dead. He was about to turn and leave, when another thought struck him;
How did he regain sanity?
Previously, he’d regained it by leveling up, he thought. But that took time and a lot of work. From what he’d seen of other people, and by hearing his little girl’s friends talk, it came back naturally, faster if you had something to drink. But he didn’t need to eat or drink or sleep, so…
This was going to be important. He sat down and looked at his status screen, calling it up again whenever it started to fade away. After a few minutes the lighting returned to normal, as speak with dead faded. And after about ten minutes or so, he watched his sanity recover by a point.
Slow. Very slow, but he wouldn’t run himself dry and have no way to recover it. That was good. Assumably moxie and endurance worked the same way. He could test those in the field.
Since it was easy to regain, he decided it was time to do the other thing he’d thought of, on his aborted walk into the woods. Threadbare bent low to the ground, and sniffed carefully around the little hollow in what was left of the basement.
Your Scents and Sensibility Skill is now level 11!
Odors filled his nose. Dankness, rot, his own… and an odd one. Sandalwood, he would have called it, if he knew the name for it. He had no way of knowing the proper terms, but he knew he’d recognize it again if he smelled it.
Threadbare had been trapped down here with the only other one of his kind in existence that he knew of. She’d dug them free, and been kidnapped for her troubles. But the things that had taken her weren’t highly malicious, as far as he knew, so odds were pretty good she was still alive. Well, as alive as little toy golems were, anyway.
Threadbare thought he knew where he could find her, but it would be much, much easier to do so if he had her scent. And now he thought he did.
He waited hopefully, but no attributes rose. His wisdom was pretty high already, it’d take a few more good common sense ideas to raise it, he supposed.
Just before he was about to go out, his nose caught one more thing… the familiar smell of the laundry soap that Celia and her father, Caradon, used to do the wash with. It was a good smell, and one that reminded him of good times, so he hunted around until he found a few pinches of the spilled soap powder and tucked it into an apron pocket. If he got glum he could wash with it later, and it might make him feel better.
Outside the hole, he got the odor of the things that had taken her. He’d never gotten close enough to smell them before, and they were pretty distinctive. Also pretty rank by human standards. Which was good, because the smell was old, old enough he lost the scent trail a few yards away from the foundation.
Well, that was fine. He had something to check on first before he went trying to mount a rescue mission, anyway.
Threadbare started off into the woods again, checking his sanity one last time… and realizing, with his very good wisdom, that he had an opportunity, here.
If sanity and all the other pools for his abilities came back over time, then he could practice abilities as he walked, simple stuff to get their ranks up. He’d activate something low cost, then wait until his pools refilled, then activate them again. It seemed simple and easy enough, and he did have a whole lot of stuff that was really far behind, due to his old speech impediments.
Okay, that settled it! Good idea, time to put it into practice.
“Status,” he said again, and considered his options.
Threadbare had a ton of weird jobs, spread all over the metaphorical chart, mainly due to accepting every job unlock that had come his way. So thankfully, he had an easy time picking out stuff that sounded neat and wouldn’t slow him down too much.
The things he settled on were Flex, which was a simple model trick that used stamina, Self-esteem, a similar model trick that used moxie, and Animus, which he well remembered. His little girl had used it quite a lot, back before times got bad, and it was a spell that used sanity. He eyed his fortune pool, but unless he was missing something, he didn’t have anything that used fortune. Maybe he’d find something later.
In the meantime, three was pretty good to start with.
So Threadbare took the scissors out of their sheath, put them on the ground, and said “Animus,” laying a paw on them.
Golden light blossomed!
Your Animus skill is now level 2!
The scissors twisted on the ground, opening and closing mindlessly.
You are now the party leader, and can access the party screen!
“Invite Scissors,” Threadbare said.
Scissors_1 has joined your party!
Your Creator’s Guardians skill is now level 2!
Threadbare started walking. Now if the skill description was right, he should be able to mentally command the scissors. He called them to follow.
They tried. To their credit, they tried, squirming and clacking across the ground awkwardly. But they didn’t have limbs, or anything else good for walking or even crawling.
No wonder Celia used plush toys, Threadbare thought, and bowed his head at the memory. Good times then. Good times gone.
Good times back again, if he had any say in the matter! Threadbare scooped up the scissors and sheathed them again. Okay, so they were useless as animi, but they were still good to practice his skill with.
Speaking of practicing…
“Flex,” he commanded, and instantly felt confined, like his insides were bigger than his outsides. Threadbare squirmed, trying to get sorted… and unwittingly went into a brawny pose, legs wide, little arms out to each side and popping tiny biceps. Almost, he thought, but not quite, and twisted at the waist, flexing his back too, feeling the stuffing form into muscles there as well.
Your Flex skill is now level 2!
Wow, that felt weird. But a check of his status screen showed that it has buffed his armor and endurance by one. Well worth the price of discomfort, he thought.
That left one thing to try.
“Self-Esteem,” he whispered-
-and instantly felt a bit more confident.
Your Self-Esteem skill is now level 2!
He checked his status again, and smiled to see that it worked much like flex had, only buffing his cool and mental fortitude instead.
He could smile now, he just realized. Having a flexible mouth opened up so many possibilities.
If he’d been a bit less innocent and more worldly, that thought would have probably sent his mind into some rather bawdy places. But he was a golem, and didn’t have any particular urges that way anyway, so the connection went unmade. Which was probably for the best, all things considered.
Threadbare waddled off into the woods once more.
With his compatriot, the inestimable Missus Fluffbear missing, the next logical step was to get help. Although chances were slim, his little girl’s friends had said to rendezvous at Oblivion Point when she’d saved her father. Well, her Daddy was dead and a lot of time had passed, but maybe they were still up there? The place had fish to eat, and everything. It was… possible…
Not likely, but possible.
Threadbare retraced the path he’d taken five years ago, finding it overgrown, barely what Mordecai, his old scout master would call a deer trail. But he was small, and his hide was now thick enough that the underbrush didn’t bother him much. He was getting a little muddy, but he knew a trick for that too. Tailors had a skill that let them instantly clean things like wayward teddy bears, and since he was both he was happy to have it.
Threadbare meandered over the hills, actually scrambling in a few places. Before, Celia had been carrying. Now he had to manage on his own. But he was much stronger and more competent now, and he did. Though the exertion did cost him a couple of stamina, and gained him two levels of the climb skill, along with three agility boosts. And along the way he cast his spell and used his buffs whenever his stamina, moxie, and sanity got back to full. The skills slowly rose, as did his intelligence by a point, after one successful casting of animus.
Finally, he stopped to pause at the jutting boulder high up on the second cliffside, which overlooked the route he’d taken. He didn’t need to rest, not really, but Celia and Mordecai and he had rested here the first time, and he liked the view.
It was night now, but the moon was out, and he could see relatively fine. He debated using his glow gleam spell, but… well, common sense said that was a bad thing. He was a tough bear, but he was a small bear, and the light would be seen a long way away. Better to run dark for now.
As he settled on the rock, his nose twitched. Scents and Sensibility fired up, and he smelled a strong scent. Some animal had marked this spot. Something big. Something familiar, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on how he knew it.
Your Scents and Sensibility skill is now level 12!
It wasn’t too old, which made up his mind. He’d been planning to shelter here for the night, but if a large creature had marked this territory, that was a bad idea. Threadbare glanced up at the full moon, and the cold stars above. So long as he stayed to the ridges, he thought, he should be able to see fine.
He’d be better off sticking to the ridges anyway. The big tree was next, and that should be easy enough to spot from high up, and then there was the little hollow where the Raccants had lived. If they were still there, he wanted to stay out of that hollow anyway.
It took longer in the darkness. He flexed, self-esteemed, and animated his way across the high hills, taking well into the morning to do it. Little legs didn’t go as fast as he had with Celia, but he didn’t stop to rest or even feel a lot of fatigue thanks to his golem/bear fueled endurance.
Not long into his walk, he cast animus, and did the invite again, and got the following messages;
Your Animus skill is maxed! Level up your animator job to increase this skill.
Your Creator’s Guardians skill is maxed! Level up your animator job to increase this skill.
He checked status. Those skills were only at level 5. Curious, he stopped for his regular dose of flexing and self-esteem.
Your Flex skill is now level 6!
Your Self-esteem skill is now level 6!
Those weren’t maxed. Why was that?
No, wait, his model job was higher level than animator. That was it.
Well, that was fine. If he did more animator stuff, maybe actually used the spells when they mattered, then he’d raise his animator level. From what he could recall of his relatively short life (The conscious parts of it anyway,) he usually got levels after he survived really lethal situations, or killed enemy monsters. Maybe that was what he needed to do?
He waited hopefully, but no int or wis stat bump showed up. The little bear sighed. It was so hard having high stats in that area, finally. He couldn’t just use them as a guide to figure out what to do. But then, he’d gotten a whole lot more reflective ever since his early days, so maybe high wisdom was a blessing there, at least.
Clearly, to be the most efficient at surviving the stuff coming his way, he’d want to have his skills leveled up before he hit trouble. So when he was moving around and not in clear and present danger, he should be practicing something he could gain skills at for every pool that had it.
“Status,” he whispered into the night, and took another look to find something else that used sanity.
Well, being a bear (of sorts) had worked out great for him so far, hadn’t it? He didn’t think he would have survived if he didn’t have the bear job. So he decided to fire up Scents and Sensibility, and see how that went.
“Scents and Sensibility,” he whispered. And again the world of advanced odors opened up to him. But he didn’t level the skill.
Threadbare walked, peering into the night, freezing every time he heard noise that seemed like it was approaching, keeping an eye out. He needn’t have worried. Though he didn’t know it, the area he was in was prime hunting grounds for Screaming Eagles, which had gotten more numerous since their main predator moved out of the region. And Screaming Eagles were daytime hunters. The night actually saved him a ton of trouble. (As did the fact he actually had an average luck score, rather than the sucking mess of horrible karma that had been following him around for his early days.)
He did level stealth up twice, and once he came upon something that fled from him, that he never got a good look at. When he went to investigate where it had been, he smelled deer.
Your Scents and Sensibility skill is now level 13!
Okay, that made sense. Just casting it wasn’t enough to level it, you had to smell stuff with it to increase the skill.
He found the big tree, peering at through the moonlight, remembering the branches. Remembering the honey he’d dug out of the hive there, and been unable to eat.
The little bear considered. He had a mouth now… and he also had dietary restrictions, and no idea if honey was unhealthy or not. If it was, it’d blow his dietary restriction skill away.
Man, being a model was tough.
He got his bearings, checked his course, climbed a tree for good measure so he could sight the course he wanted to follow…
Your Climb skill is now level 9!
…and found the peak he needed. Not far from what looked like a mass of campfires.
Threadbare would have blinked if he could have. There were people out here?
He got closer, keeping his scents and sensibility up, keeping to the thicker parts of cover. It took an hour, but his stealth crawled up two more points as groups of chattering things crashed through the underbrush ignoring him, and his scents and sensibility picked up a familiar smell.
These had to be raccants.
Your Scents and Sensibility skill is now level 14!
He didn’t know why they had campfires now. But it looked like there were a lot more of them than the last time he’d been here.
Threadbare got just close enough to see the sharp fence of pointy sticks they’d made around the area in front of the old mine entrance, and the collection of patchwork tents around several fires, then he slunk back into the shadows, heading for high ground once more. There were at least a dozen Raccants out, masked in wood and carrying clubs. Nothing he wanted to face right now.
He took it slow, gained another stealth when a patrol nearly caught him, and managed to get out of their patrol radius without being detected.
You are now a level 4 Scout!
Awesome! Come to think of it, scout skills like keen eye and camouflage would have probably been really helpful in that situation. He resolved to try them next time.
Finally, he came to the mountain cliff that lead up to Oblivion Point. No Celia to help him this time, and it was pretty steep… “Status,” he declared. Maybe there was something to help with this.
No, not really. Nothing that buffed climb or agility. But flexing would help endurance, which would keep him from getting tired. He flexed, and for the first time in a while, he didn’t level it. It stayed at nine.
He decided that he had enough stamina to experiment, flexed again, and there it went.
Your Flex skill is now level 10!
Maybe the higher up you got in a skill, the more usages it took to level it?
Yeah, that was it! Made sense, he supposed. Otherwise it’d be trivial to hole up somewhere and exercise your skills repeatedly until they maxed out. That sounded thoroughly boring, and he had stuff to do anyway, so it was kind of a relief to know he didn’t have to do that. And you couldn’t, anyway, not for all of them because things like Scents and Sensibility and Speak with Dead required stuff around to practice with.
Threadbare thought he might be getting the hang of how things worked. All it had taken was the loss of everyone and everything he ever held dear, forcing him into isolation in the wilderness, surrounded by hostile and uncaring monsters, and-
-the little toy sat down with a bump, as events caught up to him. The flex buff faded and expired, as he put his head in his paws and just sat there for a time. The stuffing behind his eyes hurt, and he knew that if he could have, he would have been crying. But he couldn’t. Button eyes didn’t cry. Instead he opened his mouth and sobbed, little rasping gasps.
He really, really missed Celia.
He wanted to go home.
But he had neither Celia nor home anymore, and after a while after the pressure left he stopped sobbing and stood back up. He flexed again, restored his self-esteem, which made him feel a bit better, and started climbing up the goddamn cliff.
Your Climb skill is now level 10!
Your Climb skill is now level 11!
Your Climb skill is now level 12!
Occasionally he’d slide down, or lose his grip and tumble downslope a bit, but he was very strong now compared to his size, so stopping his fall wasn’t a big deal. He just caught ahold of the ground and pushed, until he slowed, and then it was back to climbing.
But during the climb, he completely forgot about his buffs. Which was a pity, because otherwise his nose would have told him that he was going straight into the lair of the region’s biggest predator.
The sky brightened as he reached the top, moon sunk below the mountains. Dawn soon, he knew. The bear hauled himself up over the cliff, got to the little plateau, and there was the curtain of blackness, dividing the mountain peak in half. There was the little pond… no so little now, swelled with the first of the season’s snowmelt, and roiling with silvery fish. And there was the stand of pine trees, where Celia had sheltered and they’d built a small fire.
But no sign of either of the half-orc brothers. If they’d ever made it here, they were long gone.
Threadbare’s heart sank, and the terrible despair that had struck him down at the bottom of the cliff came rushing back. He staggered to the trees, calling out as he went, “Jarrik? Garon? Bak’shaz?”
But his little voice fell into silence. The snow crunched underfoot, warm and… yellow?
Yes, there was a patch of yellow snow. Someone had peed here!
“Scents and Sensibility!”
And predator stink filled his nose, the same predator that had marked the rock. Big and deadly, and familiar, and…
For the first time since he’d arrived, hope, that fragile thing with wings soared in his chest. He looked at the sky. It had been so long. Would he remember Threadbare?
The little bear got to work, brushing snow away until he found the old firepit. Damp wood, pine wood went into a pile, and the little bear pointed at it.
Your Firestarter skill is now level 2!
A tiny spark leaped out, and the wood smoldered, but nothing happened.
No! He would NOT be denied!
“Firestarter! Firestarter! Firestarter!”
That did it. Around skill level four, the wood caught. Threadbare kept a few pointy pieces of wood aside. Then he glanced over at the pond, shucked off his apron, and stomped toward it with bearly determination. “Forage,” he said, skilling up, and wading into the school of newly-born salmon.
Twenty minutes and one dexterity boost later, the sky was light, so light, and he knew the sun was just behind the eastern mountains. He eyed his eight fish, and decided they’d have to do. He tossed them over by the fire, and stuck them on the skewers, then put them over the flames. It took some fiddling, but soon he had them cooking.
You have unlocked the cook job!
Would you like to be a cook at this time? y/n?
No, that was pretty silly, he decided. The words went away, and he breathed a sigh of relief. What use was cooking to something that didn’t eat?
Besides, he wasn’t trying to cook them. He was just trying to get the smell into the air.
“Clean and Press”, he decided, tapping his noggin. And instantly the fish blood and guts and grime and mud and dirt from traveling whisked away from him. He put on his apron again, buckled it, turned around-
-and there it was, looming over him in the predawn light. Twice as tall as he was, black as pitch, with suspicious yellow eyes fixated on Threadbare. A pair of high, pointed ears poked out from its skull.
Though Threadbare had no word for it, humans would call this beast a bobcat.
And while every instinct shouted at the bobcat to chase the little creature away from its good-smelling dinner, to assert dominance and steal its food, the big feline hesitated.
Because something about this little thing seemed familiar.
It leaned in, animalistic instincts activating its own Scents and Sensibility, and it sniffed the teddy bear. It sniffed him carefully…
…until it came to the apron pocket that Threadbare had tucked soap powder into.
And its eyes opened wide, as a rumbling purr burst from its chest!
It had not ALWAYS been a bobcat, after all, and he too had lost his home, his home that smelled of soap powder and hoomins and polished wood and comfortable napping spots in the sun and warm places in winter and that little toy bear
It WAS the little toy bear!
“Pulsivar,” said Threadbare, hugging the big cat, and then he was purring and licking the little bear over and over again, and rolling around on the ground and purring and getting up and running in circles in pure joy.
Well, Pulsivar celebrated for a little while, anyway. As much time as he could give the matter. Those fish smelled delicious and you had to have priorities, after all.
Threadbare watched happily as Pulsivar gobbled up the catch, even helping remove them from the skewers so the black bobcat could properly enjoy breakfast. Afterwards it simply flopped down next to the fire, half-on top of Threadbare, grooming him for all he was worth.
By befriending a wild beast you have unlocked the Tamer job!
You cannot become a Tamer at this time.
The words faded as Threadbare laughed for the first time, tiny little giggles completely lost against the massive feline’s purr. It didn’t matter. Not one bit, because though everything wasn’t right with the world, this, right now, made everything a bit better.
And though there was a lot to do, though so much bad had happened and he still needed to go and save everyone else he could, Threadbare sighed and relaxed against the warm, purring lump of fur and muscle that was his first foe, and first ally, and just enjoyed being cuddled again.
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