Threadbare looked at the heaps and piles of moldy toys, then up to the hole in the roof. There were bits and scraps of cloth up there, and up until a minute ago, there had been some rather irate birds that had vanished from their nests the second that Pulsivar and Mopsy entered the store.
“What’s this white stuff?” Missus Fluffbear wondered, as she poked at the bird shit on her head and stared at her paw.
Garon cleared his throat. “Ah, I’ll tell ya later-”
“It bird shit,” Zuula interrupted.
“Oh. Ew!” Missus Fluffbear tried to get it off, with no real luck. “Fine. Clean and Press.”
“You can do that?”
“Yes. My raccants taught me tailoring so they didn't have to keep fixing me and I could do it myself. But why was the bird shit white?” Missus Fluffbear wondered. “Raccant shit was brown. I certainly helped them bury enough of it, I should know.”
“You buried things for them?” Threadbare turned his head to look her over.
“Yes. They gave me to their children to play with, at first. They played rough! It was very dangerous. But when they saw I could move things and carry things they took me from the children and made me work for them. Then I got attacked by those big hatted cloud things one time and beat them up with my spade. That’s when their Chief, the great Hoomin decided I should be in his dungeon. Then you saved me from that. And then some of them were dead out front and I don’t know why.”
Threadbare twitched. Zuula’s words rang through his mind. Friends don’t lie to friends, mostly. He pondered it for a second, and decided that it would be bad to lie, here. “They were dead because I killed them. Me and Pulsivar. We wanted to come and look for you and they wouldn’t let us.”
Missus Fluffbear stared at him.
“I tried to ask nicely, but one of them tried to take my tools and hurt me. When I pushed him back they all attacked me.”
“Was it the one with stars on his shoulder? That was mean to you?”
“He was mean to me too. I wasn’t sorry to see him dead. But you killed Bujy and Hamste and small missing ear Kity, and they were my friends. Sort of.” She kept staring at Threadbare. “I don’t know how I feel about this.”
“I don’t know how you should feel, either,” Threadbare said. He took off his top hat and rubbed his head. “I’m not sorry because they were trying to hurt me, and they could have if I didn’t stop them. But I’m sorry because you liked them and I didn’t know, if that makes any sense.”
“Hey,” Mads spoke up. “Take it frahm me, kid, it’s okay ta feel bad. I feel bad Darla and Bennett and Grimble ah gone. But theah ain’t no point in blaming Threadbeah. If it wasn’t him, it’d be somewan else. Bein’ a monstah means sooner or latah someone kills ya. And Raccants is monstahs, they all knew tha score. They wouldn’t hold no grudge, or ask you ta hold one.”
“For once stupid vampire actually say somet’ting Zuula agree wit’.” The shaman spoke up from her soulstone. “Dat proper orc t’inking. Don’t hate strong for winning. Be stronger!”
“Gee, thanks,” Mads said, voice dripping in sarcasm. “Because ya vote of cahnfidence is totally something I wanted and cared about.”
“Don’t make Zuula slap you rocks off. She do it.”
“Yeah, that’s what I heard about you.”
“Mads!” Garon shouted. “That’s my Mom you’re talking about there.”
“Right, sorry, sorry.”
Missus Fluffbear thought it over while the spirits argued. Threadbare held his hat in his hands and waited, worried.
“You didn’t know they were my friends,” Missus Fluffbear said. “And not all of them were, and they attacked you and they shouldn’t have.”
“Okay. I’m still sad. But I’m not mad at you. I’m glad you pulled me out of there. It was really weird in there. All green light and like… I don’t know. Pictures and things and you feel yourself doing things and seeing things but you can’t control what you’re doing.”
“You talking about dreams,” Zuula said. “Everyting dream.”
“I don’t,” Threadbare and Fluffbear said simultaneously, then looked at each other. Fluffbear giggled.
“Celia told me about her dreams,” Threadbare said. “But I don’t sleep. I guess you don’t either?”
“No. Sometimes my friends talked about them. It didn’t make much sense.”
“Wait. Green light?” Mads said. “They had ya in a core cahlumn? Holy shit!”
“What’s a core column?” Threadbare asked.
“It’s a ticket ta immortahlity, if ya a monstah. The mahstah puts you in theah, and you stay there all safe while copies of you go out and do stuff. Ya get good enough, ya can control what ya duplicahts do. But ya can’t make them leave tha dungeon.”
“How you know this?” Zuula asked, suspicion in her voice.
“Pssh, I was born in a dungeon. Just a wahnderin’ bloodsucker. One minute nothin’ then BOOP, there I was, a li’l level wahn vampire. Mighta been a copy of somewan in a core cahlum, or coulda been just a randahm spawn. Dunno. Got good at what I did, then tha king’s guards came an’ sealed tha dungeon and I escaped befoah it sealed completely.”
“You never told mentioned anything like this to me,” Garon said.
“Look, Gar, most of our convahsations were me telling ya ta settled dahn, and you going NO FUCK YOU RAGGLGLGBALARGGELE ROAR! Or some variation thereahve.”
“Is that why you wanted a dungeon core?” Threadbare asked.
“Yeah, from what I heard, it’s a pretty sweet deal. Supposedly if ya in a core cahlum ya get some of tha experience ya duplicates get. Then if the master’s any kind of cool, he’ll let ya out eventually and swahp out for anothah monstah. That’s propah dungeon management. And… well… if we stayed out heah, then eventually we’d be hunted down and killed. Just anothah monstah, to most people. But we need blood, so we need ta eat, so we can’t go fah from people and animals. And that’d be anothah benefit! While yah in a core cahlum you don’t eat, you don’t age. That’s what my friend Sydney told me anyway.”
“Fun as dis is, we getting off track,” Zuula said. “We got big pile of bodies here, just waiting for us to try out. Zuula kind of sick of dis no body stuff. So maybe we get on dat?”
“Oh, right,” Threadbare said, digging through the pile. “I see a lot of teddy bears.”
“Pass,” Zuula said. “Half orc or nuttin. Zuula want to be bear, she got spell for dat.”
“If it even works when you’re a golem,” Garon said. “Threadbare, would that work?”
“I don’t know. I’m not even sure this will work,” Threadbare said. “I don’t know anything about this, beyond what’s on my status screen help options. I know that when I was made words came up, and looking back on it, I think they were asking me if I wanted the bear job, but even that’s conjecture. I was very stupid then, and my memory’s not perfect. But the timing would fit for the skills I got and used after it so… maybe.”
Garon thought it over. “So we need to experiment, is what I hear. All right. I’ll be the test subject.”
“What? No, hey-  Mads burst out.
“No! Absolutely not! Zuula will- Zuula said at the same time. The two spirits stopped, and Threadbare somehow got the distinct impression the soulstones were eyeing each other with hostility.
“Look,” Garon said, “I’d like to do something before I die, but if I can’t, I’ll cope and move on to the afterlife. In which case Mom, you get your wish. And Mads, your deal is for a body, so we can’t experiment on you in case it turns out it kills you permanently, because that would be wrong. I’m a mercenary, and when you make a bargain you keep it. We made a bargain with you, we keep it.”
“Zuula not like this.”
“I ain’t a fan neithah. Ah… be careful, ahright? Don’t try nathin’ without running it by us fahst.”
“So. Threadbare, you were made a teddy bear and you got the bear job. I don’t have any experience with that, so IF I went with a teddy bear or something else, I’d be coming in blind. Let’s find one of the soldier dolls, and make him look like a half-orc. Try as exact a match as possible to my old body, and see if that helps the transfer.”
“All right.” Threadbare pulled out his enchanting box, and looked through the vials. “I’ll make an empty soulstone, to catch you if you get dumped out or something.”
A suitable doll, a quick Clean and Press and some sewn-on tusks and leather armor later, and an axe-wielding knight doll was ready to go. The little bear also renewed Speak with Dead, just in case, and put up Assess Corpse and Eye for Detail. Then, thinking it over, he kicked on the enchanter’s Appraise as well. His friend’s soul was literally in his hands. He wanted to make sure he was careful with every step of the experiment.
“Missus Fluffbear?” He asked, wisdom kicking in. “Can your blessing affect luck?”
“Put it on me, please.”
“Yorgum’s Blessing of Luck upon Threadbare!” She poked him, and his luck buffed up thirteen points. Couldn’t hurt, he figured.
Then it was the big moment. Threadbare laid Garon’s soulstone on the (newly-cleaned-and-pressed) doll, and emptied a vial of yellow reagent into his paw. “Toy Golem,” he said, and watched anxiously as the soulstone dissolved, sinking into the doll…
Your Toy Golem skill is now level 3!
…and sighed in relief as its status screen turned from “Simple plush toy” to “Doll Haunter (dormant)” It appeared to be the same message on all three screens, his eye for detail, his assess corpse, and his appraise.
“Are you all right?”
“Okay. Get ready... Golem Animus!”
Your Golem Animus skill is now level 3!
Congratulations! Through necromantic experimentation with spiritual desecration, you have unlocked the Spirit Medium class!
You cannot become a Spirit Medium at this time. Seek out your guild to change jobs!
“It worked!” Threadbare said, sagging in relief. “And oh my…”
Garon sat up. “It certainly did!” He said, then felt his mouth, which was sewn on and hadn’t moved. “Whoa. Did you hear that? Can you hear me?”
“It come through the speak with dead. You talking because of his spell,”Zuula said. “Not hear you with ears, probably.”
“I’ll need to make you a mouth,” Threadbare said, reaching for his tools. Ten minutes later, it was done.
“Okay, now that the transfer works, I need to check a few things,” Garon said. “This might be temporary. Status.” The littled doll shifted, cloth helm wiggling as he read over his status screen. “Oh. Hoo boy. Um… Mom, you’re gonna hate this.”
“What? Why?”
“I’ve only got my mercenary and half-orc and crafting job… and a toy golem one, which looks fun, but for each of them I’m only level one. And I have zero job slots open in adventuring and crafting jobs.”
“WHAT! Level one!” Zuula shrieked. “But stupid soulstone gave level t’ree!”
“Yyyeeeah, but the vessel doesn’t, I guess. Also my stats are way lower. Way way lower. Like my intelligence makes me feel like I’m thinking through a headache, lower. And… oh, shit. Guys?”
“Yes?” Threadbare said, examining it. And he froze, as he looked at one of the attributes low on Garon’s screen, just as Garon confirmed his fears.
“My luck’s at newbie half-orc levels.”
That was the point the evicted birds returned to reclaim their territory, swarming through the hole in the ceiling, and attacking everything in sight.
Starting with Garon.
Two frantic minutes of fighting later, the little group managed to drive them back once more. Garon’s golem body was intact, but banged and scratched up pretty well. Thankfully, toy golems got a shadow of golem resilience, enough to survive a furious flock.
The golems and spirits reconvened, as Pulsivar and Mopsy had a field day, and chased the birds outside, hungry for fresh meat.
“Good news is I got some stat boosts in there, and I’m a level two mercenary and toy golem and half-orc,” Garon said, picking his torn helmet plume off the floor. “Bad news is my luck’s still pretty horrible. Threadbare, I’m going to need you to destroy me. Or Fluffbear can do it, either’s fine. Maybe Fluffbear, she’s low enough she’ll get some experience from this probably.”
“What? Why?” Zuula asked.
“We need to find out if I can be caught in a soulstone if my vessel gets destroyed here. Otherwise death in this form is permanent for us. And if I survive, then I want to see if my stat boosts and level carry over, or if it wipes and I have to start fresh each time.”
“That… would be good to know,” Mads confessed.
“Don’t you start!” Zuula hissed.
“Just sayin’, we’re gahnna be monstahs eithah way. Might as well figure out if we’re immoatal monstahs, befoah we get inta a bad spaht.”
“Are you sure about this, Garon?”
The walls of the toy store groaned. Threadbare shot a glance around… the fight had damaged them. It would be terribly unlucky if they collapsed right now.
“I’m sure,” Garon said.
Another groan-
-and then Threadbare plucked him up and popped the knight’s head off, shredding the body for good measure. The groaning settled to a rolling creak.
And the empty soulstone glowed. “Whew! Level three all around, again. I was worried they’d be stuck at level one.”
“Now that we’ve sorted that out, we should probably continue this somewhere else,” Threadbare decided. “Everyone choose a body, and we’ll go somewhere safe.”
“I have just the spaht,” Madeline declared.
She lead them out of the toy store, and down into the basement of the inn. There, in the remnants of the wine cellar, were a collection of stone caskets.
Hers had racks of clothing next to it, most of it patched up and worn. And some of it very impractical.
“I don’t see how this would have fit you,” Threadbare said, holding up a slinky dress with a very low-cut bodice.
“Hey, not my fault I gaht stuck in a bahdy looks thirteen. I had hopes of learning ta shapeshift someday. Or maybe unlocking a rank up ta ‘Mistress of the Night.’ That job gets a sick hairdo and some huge gazongas.”
“What’s a gazonga?” Missus Fluffbear asked.
Garon sighed. “I’ll tell you lat-“
“Tits,” Zuula interrupted.
“Oh, okay.”
“They’re basically kids!”
“Kids know what tits are. Not last long as babies ot’erwise.”
“Shouldn’t thaht be ‘udderwise?” Madeline asked, slyly.
There was a pause, then Zuula’s laughter rang spectrally around the room.
“But it’s safe enough here, right?” Threadbare asked.
“Safe as anywheah. Still… maybe Fluffbear puts that blessing of Luck on Garon when he gets out, instead of you?”
“Wait,” Zuula said. “Do Zuula first.”
“What? Mom, why?”
“Zuula be midwife. She gots Newborn’s Mercy. Dat level one, should come t’roo. She mercy all of us. Between dat and… guh, ugh, stupid god’s blessing, we get t’rough maybe better.”
That seemed like a very good idea. So Threadbare hauled out the doll Zuula had chosen, and modified it. A plush doll of a woman in a dress got the skirt ripped into a loincloth and halter top, her cloth ‘skin’ dyed green, and big tusks. Her hair was styled into dreads, her black cloth eyes got replaced by glaring yellow ones, and at Zuula’s urging, he gave her big angry eyebrows. “Ready?”
The animation went off without a hitch, and provided more skill ups… and a pleasant surprise.
You are now a level 3 Golemist!
Not really a surprise, when he thought about it. That had happened the first time he made a toy golem. Then he’d used Beanarella to do things while she was around, and made more golems. So that was useful…
At any rate, he was glad for the level up. His sanity had been getting very low… golem creation and animation was expensive. But the level up refilled it, so that was good.
Little cloth Zuula sat up, and slapped a plush hand to her forehead. “Newborn’s Mercy! Wait, what? Newborn’s Mercy, she say!”
“You’re speaking through Speak with Dead!” Threadbare realized. “Uh-oh.”
“Yorgum’s Blessing of Luck on Zuula!” Missus Fluffbear shouted, and Threadbare felt his luck go back to normal. The plush cleric could only have one blessing active at a time, sadly. That was the rule on that spell.
Zuula sighed. “Will have to do,” she spoke, on the spirit realm.
“Let’s get you talking properly,” Threadbare decided. “Just in case.”
That took fifteen minutes to sort out, and about another hour when she was unsatisfied with the volume, and she made him dial it up so she could properly yell at people. He burned a lot of tailoring materials figuring it out, but ended up with a deep, resonant voicebox for her.
It wasn’t a bad idea. He decided to upgrade his own and Missus Fluffbear’s voices at the first opportunity. After his friends were settled and all in their new bodies, of course.
“Status.” She took a long look, then sagged. “Level one Shaman. Level one Midwife. Level one half-orc. Hm, at least both skills came t’roo.”
“They did on me, too.” Garon said, glumly. “Let me guess, you got darkspawn for the orc one?”
“Yes. How you know?”
“Because I knew you had it before. Me, when I came through I got Twisted Rage. And Man’s Drive to Achieve for the human one, which is what I had when I was alive. Which means that if you had those skills in life, and go into the same race, they carry over. Which means… yeah, you know what? I’m changing my choice. Threadbare, you can keep that other dolly around for a spare half-orc if you want, but I want to be something else.”
“What?” Zuula straightened up, yarn hair whipping around as she stared at her son’s Soulstone. “Why?”
“I don’t want to be a half-orc anymore.”
“But… you was awesome half-orc!” Zuula said, waving her arms. “Why you give that up?”
“Oh geeze… ah… look, Mom, it’s not you, or half-orcs, it’s the rage. I can’t handle the rage.”
“But you build battle plan around it!”
“Yeah, and you know what? After I got to try it out in an actual fight, it sucks! Everything goes red and you’re just killing, and killing, and hurting until it goes away. And it’s not just that, it’s what it does to your temper, outside of it!” Garon’s voice raised, got shriller as he started speaking faster. Threadbare and Fluffbear glanced at each other, feeling not very comfortable at where this was going.
“But it you heritage!” Zuula wailed. “How ancestors know you if you not be half-orc! How dey guide you!”
“Mom, look, I respect your religion, but no. This is the only chance I have to ditch the rage. All my life I’ve had to take abuse and struggle to keep calm, because I knew I’d start killing like a maniac if I didn’t. All. My. Life. Now that I’m dead? It’s not gonna be all my death.”
Zuula was still for a long minute.
“Hey,” Madeline said, sounding like she wanted to be anywhere but there, “Garon, you still got yoah half-orc levels raht now, raht?”
“Three of’em,” Garon said from his Soulstone.
“So it’s only temporahry, then. Look at it this way, if he dies in the gahlem bahdy he becomes a half-orc again. So if he kicks it permanent-lahk, he’ll go to his ancestahs as a half-orc.”
Zuula considered it. Then she heaved a great sigh. “You right. Garon, Zuula sorry. You do what you want, clever boy. It be okay.”
“Thanks Mom. Thanks Mads.”
The teddy bears relaxed. This was better. It was hard when friends argued.
“Hokay,” Zuula said, looking around the cellar, picking up a bottle, and breaking it. Clutching the glass shank, she toddled toward the stairs. “You do the thing, Dreadbear. Zuula gonna go grind some levels.”
“I wouldn’t,” Missus Fluffbear said. “Pulsivar and Mopsy are still out there and they don’t know you. You might get pounced and shredded just because.” The little bear earned herself a wisdom point with that one.
Zuula sighed. “Fine. Fine, whatever.” Then the little half-orc frowned. “Why Zuula not think of that? She wise too!” Zuula slapped her forehead. “Zuula forget. Why Zuula forget? Oh. Oh wait. Status. That why Zuula forget. Man, dese stats be nurphed.”
“What’s a nurphed?” Madeline asked.
“Nurph be god of weakness and losers.”
“Actually he’s the god of Honor and Fair Play, Mom.”
“Did Zuula stutter? Same t’ing anyway.” The little doll hopped clambered up on a casket. “Suckage. Dat a lot of wisdom gon’ have to be grinded again.”
“Speaking of that,” Garon said, “I want to go next.”
“All right, but if you don’t want a half-orc body, what do you want?” Threadbare asked.
Garon told them.
For a second, there was stunned silence in the basement. Then Mads whistled. “You ain’t afraid ta go big, Gar.”
“Zuula forgive you,” his Mom decided. “Not half-orc, but… eh, close second. She tink she see one in de toy store. Let’s go get it.”
Twenty minutes and one salvaged toy later, Garon stirred, and opened plush eyes as the world came into focus. Again.
He was immediately met by a prompt.
You have unlocked the High Dragon Hatchling job!
Would you like to become a High Dragon Hatchling at this time?
“Hells yes!” Garon whooped.
And then he was a dragon.
“Newborn’s Mercy!” Shouted Zuula.
“Yorgum’s Blessing of luck upon Garon!” Fluffbear chorused, happy at the skill ups she was getting for this one. Each one upped the cost a bit, but increased the effectiveness of the buff. Still, she was getting a bit loopy from the sanity cost.
Threadbare swiftly moved in and fixed him up with a mouth.
“Oh boy… this feels…” Garon twisted his stuffed head on his long neck, and opened and shut a mouth full of newly-hardened cloth teeth. “This feels GOOD.” He stretched his wings, feeling the power of his new frame. “Status.”
He was silent for a long minute.
“Is everything all right?” Asked Threadbare.
“You’re looking at my stats, right? With that eye for detail thing?”
“And other things, yes.”
“Tell me you’re seeing that eighty-three in strength.”
Zuula jumped up. “Whaaat? Zuula be stuck wit’ piddly forty-seven!”
“I see it,” Threadbare said. “It looks like some of your numbers are pretty high. Except for dexterity.”
“Yeah… I mean, the strength and con aren’t up to my old stats from when I was living, but it’s close, it’s close. And the rest is… yeah, I can live with this.” The three-foot-long green plush dragon strutted around the room, stretching and testing its legs and muscles. “Ooh, seven skills…. Two of which look like trouble. I get ‘No Thumbs’ and ‘Limited Equipment.’ Let me… Yeah, yeah, they suck. No weapons for me.” The dragon grinned. “But I’m a mercenary, so whatever! Fighting is fighting. And with a basic armor rating this high, I should be fine. For now, anyway.”
“What are the othah skills?” Mads asked.
“Let’s see… Scaly Wings, Dragonseye, Chomp, Draconic Tongue, and Burninate. Oooh! I gotta try this. Threadbare, can you up the volume on my mouth? Something more impressive?”
“I’ll see what I can do. You’re bigger so I can put in a bigger air bladder.”
It used up most of his remaining leather, but finally he got one installed that Garon was happy with.
“Yes,” the little dragon said, in a voice that had been carefully crafted to sound like a proper voice for yelling at thieving halfens and arrogant dwarves. “Yes, this’ll do. Okay, stand back. Burninate!
This was actually a pretty poor decision, as it turned out.
Burninate, which dragons usually roar in the draconic language so as to avoid mockery by younger races, is a costly and exhausting skill. It also calls up the fire directly from the dragon’s mouth.
And at the time, the little plush toy golem who’d activated it had absolutely no resistance to fire.
Fortunately, with much credit owed to Yorgum’s blessing and the quickness of his colleagues, they managed to get him put out before he was destroyed. A few mends, plus Zuula’s test of shamanic Slow Regeneration (which worked perfectly), put him to rights.
“So unclever!” Zuula stood over the chastened dragon, shaking her plush finger at it. “What you t’ink happen! Showing off! Foolish boy! You not too big Zuula can’t spank you!”
“Sorry, sorry, sorry Mom.”
“Yeah, you know, ya burned up about half my dresses theah too, kiddo. Not too happy about that,” Mads chipped in.
“Meh, you couldn’t wear them now anyway.”
“Ain’t the point, Gar. Ain’t. The. Point.”
“Sorry,” he muttered. “But hey, I’ve got a powerful skill! That fire did amazing damage!”
“Yeah, to you.” Mads snickered.
“Okay, so it wasn’t made for plushie mouths. We can work on that. Ah… asbestos tongue? I don’t know. I’ll think on it. What gives fire resistance?”
“Fire elementalists, mostly,” Zuula said. “Easy skill for dem.”
“Woo. Okay, so… well, maybe I can get that job once we figure out how to raise our job limits. It’s an easy one, especially with this breath. All you have to do is kill something with fire, the job unlocks.”
Madeline sighed from her soulstone. “Right, whaddeva. Now that we got tha squirt outta tha way, it’s my turn.”
“Oh, sure.” Threadbare said. “I think I’ve got about one more left in me. Then I’ll need a few hours to recharge my sanity. Maybe a few days. I’ve got a lot of sanity now. It takes a very long time to recharge.”
“What you talking about?” Zuula turned to scowl at him. “You just go to sleep, and when you… wake… up… oh.”
“Oh,” Garon agreed. “That’s a problem. Betting we can’t eat or drink like this, either.”
Zuula considered. “You smell?”
Threadbare sniffed himself, then shook his head. “I don’t think so. Everything smells like burned Garon now though, so it’s hard to tell.”
“No, you sniff! You have sense of smell! Maybe herbs work.”
“Like in hut.”
“Yes, we try burning some later, and-
“You are NOT getting him hooked on that stuff.”
“Bah. It not work dat way for him. Probably not. Most likely not.” She rubbed her cloth chin. “Hopefully not.”
“Yeah, no. Or we wait until Fluffbear levels up cleric and learns curative… which we don’t know will work on him, either.”
“Yeah, hm.”
“Yeah, can I have my bahdy now?” Madeline said.
“Oh, yes, of course.” Threadbare lifted up the doll she’d chosen. “You’re sure?”
It had been a marionette once, of a pretty lady with long brown hair. Her face had been painted with exquisite care, and her red dress was made of velvet, as were her elbow-length gloves.
“Once we give her teeth, she’ll be a perfect vampaiah,” Madeline said with satisfaction. “Whaddaya think, Mistah Beah?”
““Well it should work, even if she’s not plush. Appraisal reads her as a toy, so the golem animation should take. But I don’t know how to give her a mouth so you’d be stuck mute, unless we’ve got Speak with D… that spell going. It’s just that I don’t know how to work with wood,” he shook his head. “Tailoring I can do. Wood’s trickier.”
“I can learn,” Fluffbear offered.
There was a bit of silence. “You’d do that for me?” Madeline sounded surprised.
“Sure! I like learning new jobs, and I’ve got two more crafting ones open! Yorgum likes building and crafting! This will let me make wood things like houses, right?”
“Well, yeah,” Garon said.
“If you’re sure. Um…” Threadbare thought. “I don’t know how to unlock that job.”
“I do,” Garon said. “Hey Mads, Grimble’s workroom is behind the bar, yeah?”
The ventured upstairs, and after some digging, found his tools. He’d been the one to repair the tavern, after all, and he had plenty of wood and nails left over. Some quick carving and whittling, and Missus Fluffbear whooped. “Got it! Oooh, Strength and Dexterity. Yay!” She started happily whittling, and skilling up. “Straighten wood? Okay, I guess that’s useful. But hey, new job! More power! Better attributes!”
“Ah…” Garon said, “You might want to be careful there. You don’t want to fill up your jobs too fast.”
“Bah, not dis again,” Zuula grumped.
“Why?” Missus Fluffbear asked.
“If you leap on the first unlocks available, you might seal yourself off from a job that really suits you when it comes up. You don’t want to just choose the first things available. Especially before you’ve had a chance to develop your attributes while they’re low.”
Zuula snorted. “Pssht. So afraid of fast paths to power…”
“Says the woman who stuck with shaman and let her other adventuring jobs rot.”
“Bah, she only need shaman. Shaman awesome.”
“Garon has a point,” Threadbare put his paw on Missus Fluffbear’s shoulder, as she whittled busily at scraps of wood. “I just found out a very good job that probably would have helped my friends, but I can’t learn it. Unless I find my guild. Oh! Does anyone know anything about that?”
Silence for a bit. Then Zuula sighed. “No. Dat part of de problem.” The little half-orc doll leaned against the counter, and shook her head. “Ain’t no one know what guild de words talking about. People first t’ought maybe it meant dem old trade guilds dat ain’t around no more.”
“Yeah. Dad told me about that,” Garon said. “When instant crafting became a thing, it wrecked the trade guilds overnight,” Garon said. “Touched off some really nasty trade wars, and a lot of people died, as the bigger Guilds tried to scrabble to keep their power and influence, and mercenary work boomed. But those weren’t the guilds the messages were talking about.”
“So no one know, and so we stuck wit’ de jobs we got,” Zuula shrugged. “How many you got little black bear?”
“Five left,” said Fluffbear, and they were all silent. “Adventuring, I mean. One crafting one left, now.”
“Oh, you’re eight and four too,” Threadbare said. “Good to have that confirmed.”
“How?” Garon finally managed. “Humans get SEVEN. Half-Orcs are stuck at six, for crying out loud. How’d you get such a big amount?”
“I don’t know.”
“Mff. So damned broken… Well, anyway, normally the path most people take is to level up their attributes associated with a job BEFORE they go into the job. That means that they train up their attributes while the training’s easier, so that the skill ups from leveling go farther. But you’ve kind of blown that away, I guess.”
“I guess. I didn’t really know what I was doing through most of it.” Threadbare said. “My luck was pretty horrible for a lot of it, so things kept happening to me. I think…” He rubbed his head. “I think if I hadn’t taken all those jobs I wouldn’t have survived.”
“So…” Missus Fluffbear turned her head back and forth. “Which way is better?”
“No way’s bettah, really,” Madeline said. “Speaking as someone who’s eaten people who followed both paths, it really just depends on wheathah you want to have powahful focus in one or two things, or have a bunch of useful skills in a bunch of areas.”
“I think the important thing is to figure out what you want to be, what you want to do to get to your goals, and find jobs that you like that support that,” Garon said. “Whether that’s all at once or waiting a bit to see if you change your mind later, or if you unlock something nifty, that’s up to you.”
“No wahn can tell you how to live yah life, right?” Madeline sounded approving. “Kickass. So, uh, ya ready to make me a mouth yet?”
Twenty carpenter skill ups and five levels later, she was.
It took Threadbare working in tandem with her for the leather and cloth components… the former of which they had to salvage from the curtains. This also gave him a tailoring level up, which… refreshed his sanity. Ah yes, he’d forgotten he could do that!
Handy, but sooner or later the levels would be farther apart. It had gotten him through some tough instances, but he couldn’t count on being able to do that forever.
And finally, the crowning touch. Missus Threadbare notched the eighteen-inch-tall marionette’s flexible, jointed cloth-and-wood mouth carefully, and slid in two tacks for fangs.
“Does that look vampire enough?” She asked Madeline.
The Soulstone pulsed red. “Oh yeah! She’s hot. I’d do me.”
“Do what?” Threadbare asked, confused.
“We’ll tell you LATER.” Garon shouted, then stopped, confused. “Huh. Sorry, I thought Mom was going to explain again.”
“What? Zuula not know what she talking about.”
“Thank gods for small favors.”
“Eh, fahgeddit. Let’s do this thing.”
“Wait,” Garon said. “What about the daylight thing. And the wood thing?”
“I thought of that. You know how many nights I spent staring at my screen? Gaht those ‘skills’ memorized. The exact wording was my flesh burns at the touch of sunlight. My FLESH, Gar. So if all I gots is wood, instead, I should be fine. And the wood thing don’t kick in till level five, and it says wood which pierces my skin will pain me, and wood through the heart will paralyze me. Guess what puppets don’t have! Skin or hearts!”
“Sounds sketchy to me.”
“Eh, if it don’t work out we go with anothah bahdy, and I just accept I can’t be a vampaiah.”
“You sure you don’t want to be a dragon instead, Mads?”
“I’ll stick with what I know. Like yer old lady, there.”
“Maybe a bit clever girl after all. For dead t’ing.”
“Love you too, Zuu.”
They returned to the relatively safe basement, Threadbare did his thing, Zuula laid her midwife’s blessing upon the puppet, Fluffbear blessed her as well, and she sat up.
“Yes! I DO want to be a vampaiah. Bing! There we go. Awright. Moment of truth… Status.” The puppet read her screen, then jumped in place with a clatter. “You guys!”
“What?” said Garon.
“Zuula not a guy.”
“I’m not either! I think,” Said Missus Fluffbear.
“I suppose I’m a guy,” Said Threadbare. “Celia thought so and she would know.”
“You guys you guys you guys!” Madeline said, dancing a wooden jig with vampiric agility.
“What?” Garon said. “C’mon, share.”
“I have an open adventuring job slot! And a crafting one!”
There was silence for a long moment. “What? How?” Garon asked.
“Well I didn’t have an adventuring job befoah, right? And you all could carry one job ovah when you got turned into doll haunters, right?”
“So what if tha vessel opens up a slot regahdless, even if you don’t have one ta begin with? Like you tucked a baby in heah, he’d be able ta learn new jobs! Oooh, good idea. Let’s go find a baby.”
“No.” Garon said.
“What? Oh, right, what was I thinking!”
Garon looked relieved.
“There’s none around heah.”
Garon looked less relieved.
Oblivious, Madeline continued. “But the point is, I can learn something like an adventurer could. I’m kind of like people now. Wow. Didn’t expect this.” The vampire hopped up on her coffin, and drummed her heels on the lid with a staccato beat. “Man. What should I choose?”
“It’s… tough to say. You’re still a vampire, right?”
“Yeah, but my strength got a li’l nurphed. Most everyting else too, but eh, level one, so whatcha gonna do? Only one way up.”
“Unless you die. Then you gots to start all over,” Zuula said.
“Yeesh. Buzzkill. Eh… well, good time to test it, before I try anything. Hey guys, wanna walk me upstairs to do the sunlight test thing?”
They did, and the little puppet stared at the hole in the curtain where Threadbare had cut it for the leather, and the sunlight leaking through onto the ground. “Moment of truth,” Madeline whispered.
Then she put her foot into the sun.
“Tingles,” She said, shifting it back and forth. “Ya put ya right leg in, ya take ya right leg out… yeah!” She whooped. “Left leg in, an’ you shake it all ABOUT!” The marionette, stringless, danced the hokey pokey through the sunlight. Because THAT was what it was all about.
“Lucky, lucky day! Rules lawyerin’ for tha win!” She said, stepping back into the darkness. “Whew. Comfier. Good ta have darkspawn bonuses back. Lucky…” She froze. “Hey. That ah, that blessing of luck?”
“Yes?” Fluffbear asked.
“It’s on me, right? And not Zuula? Who’s runnin’ on half-orc luck now?”
“Oh, yes. It’s okay, because she has her Newborn’s Innocence… up…”
They fell silent, and looked to Zuula.
She never had put her midwife buff up. She’d tried it on herself, but she hadn’t had a mouth then, and in the joy of discovery they’d all forgotten completely about it. And once she had a mouth, she hadn’t cast it. She’d forgotten too.
Zuula, oblvious, stared back. “What-“
The door flew down, as Pulsivar and a ragged wolf, frothing at the mouth and bloody, rolled through the room. Mopsy chased the screaming, brawling pair, slashing…
…and then her eyes fell on Zuula. Panicked, and spooked by the sinister little doll, she leaped-
Half an hour later after they disposed of the wolf’s carcass, chastened the cats, yelled at Zuula until she Newborn’s Innocentsed herself, and finished mending themselves and the door, they settled into the basement for a nice long game of grindluck.
“Best present I ever took off a corpse,” Madeline said, fondling the worn cards as best as she could with wooden hands. Fortunately the animus spell and some careful woodwork beforehand had given her usable, if stiff fingers.
“Shut up and keep playing,” Zuula grumbled.
“What ah you worried about? And… oh, I just unlocked necromancer. Guess we all still count as undead.”
“Do you want to be one?” Garon asked.
“Thinking. I dunno. Threadbare’s got us covahed on that front. Unless he dies.”
“Oh gods, you’re right.” Garon said. “We’re effectively immortal unless he goes, so long as we die around him and he can soulstone us in time. But we’re boned if he dies. Unless we somehow find another friendly necromancer, and convince him to help. And even then I doubt we’d luck into another golemist-
“I’m a necromancer,” Missus Fluffbear said.
They all stared at her.
“Right. Of course you is.” Zuula slapped a cloth hand to her yarn-covered head. “You deal peacefully with smart undead yesterday. Then job came up you just say ‘yes’. This why undead suck. Corrupting all the innocent youth.”
“Says the lady who used to put scorpions into our beds,” Said Garon, dropping his cards from his claws again. “Agh! Fucking dex.”
“I gotcha hun.” Madeline scooped up the cards, then froze. “Wait. Maybe I DO gotcha, Gar.”
“I’m out for this hand.” Madeline folded her cards, walked over to one of the wall sconces, leaped up, and kicked an unused torch free. “Ya a scout, right mistah beah?”
“Yes, I am,” Said Threadbare.
“Firestartah me?”
“Um… won’t you die? Oh wait, you mean the torch.” It was a very good thing he had a fairly high intelligence, now. “Okay. Firestarter.”
She took the burning torch and stalked off into one of the side tunnels that the vampires had burrowed out from the basement. Mystified, the group watched her go. Eventually she turned a corner, and all they could see was the flickering torchlight.
“Mads?” Garon asked, uncertainly.
“It’s fine. Just looking for… ah, hello my pretties!”
A horrible squeaking chittering filled the air, and the toys jumped up from the table. “Rats!” Threadbare said, and charged towards the tunnel.
“It’s okay, I got this!” Madeline called back. “They’re caged! Darla had some set aside for snacks latah!” Threadbare slowed as he approached and oh goodness, wasn’t THAT a horrible smell. Roasted meat and rodent fear. “Yeah, theah’s the unlock! Thanks Garon! Yes! Ooooh, Status.”
The dragon’s eyebrows wrinkled. “You’re… welcome? Why?”
“Hee heee heee… ha ha ha!”
“Madeline? Starting to worry me, here.”
“Endure Fire! Call Fire! Yeah, that’s the stuff!”
The light in the tunnel flared, and Threadbare gasped as Madeline came around the corner, wreathed head to toe in fire.
But NOT burning.
“What?” Said the sunproof, stakeproof, and now fireproof vampire. “You wanted a faia elementalist, didn’t cha?”

Spoiler: Spoiler



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Andrew Seiple


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