Grindluck, while incredibly useful for decreasing the toddler fatality rate, is also an obscenely boring game to most adults, and young adults.
Also, it didn’t help that Garon’s newly-sewn-on thumbs refused to function in any way, shape, or form. “Oh damn it!” Down went his cards again, fluttering to the floor like sad little monuments to the newly-made dragon’s folly.
“I really don’t understand,” Threadbare said, poking at his latest stitchwork. “They went on you just like the mouth did, and I teased the stuffing to where you should be able to open and close them.”
“Told ya it wouldn’t wahk,” Madeline said, slapping down two green cards.
“Ha! Eat it!” Zuula’s plush hand pounded two blue cards down to match her, and the little vampire puppet scowled.
“It was worth a try,” Garon sighed. “I guess the skill wins out over clever ideas sometimes. I can’t feel the stuffing that’s in those thumbs, it’s like it doesn’t exist anymore. Can you remove them?”
“Absolutely.” Threadbare went to work.
On the other side of the table, Missus Fluffbear tried to play cards, but kept getting pushed over by a purring Mopsy. The miniature cougar had decided that she needed pets, and the only one she’d let pet her was OBVIOUSLY doing something dumb and less interesting than loving on Mopsy. With pets. NOW!
Pulsivar watched from the side, yawning. His fangs were still bloody from that wolf. He was still a little weirded out by all the little moving, talking dolls that had appeared, but evidently this was a thing that happened when Threadbare was around. And the little bear had gotten upset when he sat on the big green one. Which had been entirely unfair. That dragon was warm, of course it was for Pulsivar to sit on!
“How long’s it been, anyway?” Garon asked, as Threadbare snipped and removed cloth. “Oh hey, I can feel the stuffing in my thumbs aGNANANANA… careful there.”
“Sorry.” Threadbare shoved the just-snipped fluff back into the dragon’s body, and sewed up the hole. At least the experiment had been good for a point of tailoring.
Garon craned his crested neck to watch him work. “It’s not exactly like pain. But it feels wrong, and like bits of you are fading. Is that how it is for you?”
“Oh yes,” Threadbare said. “I’ve never really gotten used to it.”
“It feels bad,” Missus Fluffbear confirmed, giving in and riffling Mopsy’s head with both hands and her feet. The cougar buzzed a happy purr, and pushed the tiny bear around the floor with her face.
“Yeah.” Garon sighed. “Well, it beats pain, I guess. Not by much, but hey. So,” he said, changing the subject, “Have you thought it over?”
“Whee!” Missus Fluffbear said, as she rolled over a few times, and Mopsy let her come to a rest before licking her fur. “What? Oh, that. Yes I have.”
Silence for a minute, save for the cat’s slurping.
Garon sighed. Kids. They were just kids, really. Had to remember that. “And what did you decide?”
“I’ll do it. It’s not like I have to choose those jobs right away.”
Threadbare nodded approvingly. “It’s only three classes, anyway. That will leave you two more to play around with if you do have to take those jobs.” He glanced over to Zuula. “So how does this work?”
“You say to her, “Teach Missus Fluffbear,” then you say the name of the job.” Zuula said. “Then it kick off sacred ritual. Ancient thing called ‘montage.’”
“Oh, that’s how you do those!” Garon said. “Wait. They take a while, don’t they?”
“About a day per job.”
Garon slumped, and stared at the Grindluck cards. “Great. Just great.”
“Hold on!” Missus Fluffbear rolled to her feet, and gently shoved Mopsy until the housecat-sized Cougar retreated. “I need to use a skill and feed her!”
“Pretty sure she’s gaht plenty ta eat. Still lots of that wolf upstahs,” Madeline said, placidly laying down two violet cards and watching Zuula pound the table with plushy rage.
“Yes, but her loyalty gauge will go down unless I spent time with her or give her monster treats to eat to boost it back up!”
“What?” Madeline looked to Zuula, who shrugged.
“Oh! Oh, this,” Garon rubbed his head with one wingtip. “Right, Bakky had to deal with this, this is tamer stuff. If the gauge gets too low Mopsy might run away. Um…” He studied Fluffbear, all six inches of her. “Have you ever cooked anything before?”
“No, but the skill says I don’t need to know how. But it improves them if they get properly cooked, so maybe I could learn?”
“Eh, maybe you don’t,” offered Madeline. “That’d be yah last crafting slaht. Shame ta use it just foah one little skill you don’t always need?”
“I’m a cook,” Garon offered.
“You are?”
“Yeah. Used to help Mom in the kitchen all the time. Come on, let’s get you some wolf chops and you can practice turning them into treats. Over a fire. With supervision.”
“Faiah?” Madeline grinned, and put her cards down. “I’m in.”
Twenty minutes later, they had six steaming skewers of meat, and two very interested cats. “Um…” Fluffbear said, as Pulsivar and Mopsy engaged in a somewhat-joking-but-not-really shoving match, “Please be friends?”
“Threadbare?” Garon asked the largest teddy bear present.
“Oh, of course. Come on Pulsivar.” Threadbare hugged him, and gently tugged him away from the skewers. He had enough strength over the bobcat, and the big black feline loved him too much to do him any serious damage as Threadbare kept him from the food. Chastening nibbles don’t count, Pulsivar told himself as he sunk fangs into the brown bear’s hide. But Threadbare took it in stride, and Mopsy gobbled up five of the Monster Treats.
Missus Fluffbear smiled. “Her gauge is full. Here you go Pulsivar!”
Threadbare released his friend, and Pulsivar took his skewer off to a corner to sulk. And to eat. Mostly to eat. Baked especially for a cat type creature, the meat was delicious. Obviously the smaller bear wasn’t entirely useless. Perhaps he’d deign to put his rump in her face at some point as a reward.
“All right. Are you ready?” Threadbare asked, brushing cat hair from his coat.
“Teach Missus Fluffbear Animator.”
Instantly, things seemed to blur. His limbs moved without his control, pulling out toys and devices from pockets he’d had before, all sorts of little gewgaws and objects he’d never seen. Just as swiftly he showed them to Fluffbear, who sat and learned as he mimed animating them. And towards the end, she started doing it, too.
Then it stopped, and everyone was sitting in different places. “Oh. I thought it would take longer.” He smoothed his coat.
“It did take longah. Go look, it’s naht outside,” said Madeline.
“Yep, twelve hours, give or take,” Garon sighed, balancing his cards with his wingtips, and trying to draw more with his claws. “Oh frak it!” The deck sprayed. Zuula laughed.
“Did you learn?” Threadbare asked Fluffbear.
Status. Yes! Animator is on my unlock section.”
“Well, let’s get the other two done then.”
The newly made doll haunters had had a long conversation with the two greater golems, about how their continued lives were literally dependent upon someone having the necromancer/golemist combo, who was sympathetic to them. Therefore, since Missus Fluffbear had already had necromancer, she’d agreed to get the unlocks for animator, enchanter, and golemist. Though they weren’t exactly directions she thought she wanted to go in, she didn’t want to risk her friends dying and having no bodies to return to.
Also, if, gods forbid, anything happened to Threadbare, she might be able to make him a new golem body and soulstone him over. If Greater Golems had souls. They hadn’t tested that yet, and she really didn’t want to.
And so, the little black teddy bear gained the potential to one day become an animator, an enchanter, and a golemist.
By the time they finished the third one, the cats were nowhere to be seen and their doll haunter friends were gathered around a dirty sack, looking thoroughly wiped out.
“What’s all this, then?” Threadbare wondered, poking at the sack. It clanked.
“Oh, you’re up!” Garon said, pulling his head out from under his wings. “Remember Darla, the vampire knight?”
“Oh yes.”
“This is her breastplate and shield. Her spear’s upstairs. We figured it was a shame to waste good gear.”
“It ain’t magical or nothing, but it’s good solid ahmah and a pokey stick,” Madeline shrugged her wooden shoulders. It looked weird, with her marionette body’s peg-and-ball joints. “Figure ya a smith, so you can shrink’em dahn to one of our sizes.”
“Um…” Threadbare said, rubbing his head, then catching his hat as it started to fall. “I don’t actually know how to do that. The only skill in that list is ‘Refine Ore'.”
“Oh. Let me guess, you got it through a montage or something? Crafting jobs can get weird that way,” Garon said.
“Or something,” Threadbare whispered, remembering the sick sounds of his creator being butchered while he hung helpless above.
Garon took no notice of the little bear’s haunted expression. “Yeah, it doesn’t actually give you the skill until the first time you craft. I think the forge is still here. Anvil might be a little rusty. And we’ll have to stoke the furnace.”
“Faiah? I’m in!” Madeline grinned. “Gahd I love this jahb. Shit, no wander all you people types spend so much tahm leveling and raiding dungeons.”
“Zuula got to come along, obviously,” The half-orc said, perking up. “You gonna play with heat like a forge fire, then someone gots to be responsible adult here.”
One hour and a nearly-disastrous blaze later, Zuula was banished from the smithy until they could trust her not to throw random stuff in the forge to see how it burned.
“Awright, remembah it ain’t huge. Only reason I’m basically immune is because it stacks with another skill I gaht. Ya ready, Mistah Beah?”
“I think so,” Threadbare said, clutching his smithing hammer and balancing awkwardly in front of the furnace.
“Awright. Endure Faiah!
Suddenly, it seemed to be a lot colder in the cramped smithy. Threadbare nodded, and used the head of the hammer to nudge the furnace door open.
Garon poked his head into the smithy from the outside door. “I think you just push metal in until it gets soft, then hammer it into shape. Try making… I don’t know, a basic shape or something.”
It took some experimentation, but finally, finally, Threadbare managed to get what he wanted.
You have Unlocked the Smithing Skill!
Your Smithing skill is now level 1!
It took the rest of the night to level it up to five, though. The town had been pretty well scavenged for metal, and the rest of the toys dragged in everything they could find, up to and including a few window linings. Which cheered Zuula up no end as she got to help break things to get them loose.
Finally, four Smith levels and four points of Strength and Constitution later, Threadbare put the hammer down. “I’ve got it. It’s called ‘Adjust Arms and Armor,’ and the description seems to be what you told me I could do with it.”
“Cool,” Mads said. “Hey, drag those smithing tools out, wouldja?”
“I got a skill I ain’t used yet, and this forgefire’s a good place ta test it.”
The toys got to a safe distance.
“Awright! Endure Faiah! Least Faiah Elemental!
From the outside, nothing seemed to happen. Garon coughed a bit.
“Oh it’s cute!” Madeline squealed.
“Is it safe to come in?” Zuula enquired, barging back through the door and stomping up next to the little vampire. The two toys stared at the floating, watermelon-sized little ball of orange flame with black spots for eyes that drifted around the room, staring at things.
“You’re in control of that, right?” Garon asked.
“If it’s in my pahty, yeah… shit.” Madeline knocked her knuckles on her head. “We got a full pahty, don’t we?”
“Yeah…” Garon nodded. “And no offense, but I’d rather take any of you over a teeny little elemental called up by a level one skill.”
“Zuula gots solution,” the half-orc pointed out. “Dreadbear and Pulsivar leave party.”
“Say what now?” Garon looked stunned.
“Is not enough to have new bodies, and new classes,” she shot a stern look at Madeline, who was tossing dried weeds to her new pet as snacks, “but you gots to train dem. And Dreadbare and Pulsivar high level compared to us. Dey big experience suck.”
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Threadbare said.
“It de way de world work. High level hang wit’ too low level, high level get most of experience. Slows down leveling. Slows down strength. So you two go out of party, but still be around watching and helping if you need to. We still work together, just you two in own party.”
“All right, I suppose that makes sense,” Threadbare felt relieved. For a second he’d thought Zuula didn’t want him around anymore.
“Besides, now you can pull skeletons and animated objects into you smaller party. Level dose skills and jobs.”
“What? How?’
“Every time a created thing win a fight or do something wicked awesome, creator get experience.” Zuula put her hands on her plushie hips. “How you not know dis? You got two creator jobs!”
“Uh, three, actually, if golemist counts.” Garon pointed out.
There was a pause.
“So what ya sayin’, “ Madeline finally said, her voice distant as she considered the possibility, “is that every time we win a fight or do something awesome he gets experience?”
“Yes! Maybe. It might only work for Golems in his party,” Garon said. “I know Bakky didn’t get any skill ups when his pets were off hunting, only when they were doing stuff with him.”
“Why don’t we test it out?” Garon asked. “Threadbare, you want to be a better golemist, right?”
“Oh yes! If I can figure out that greater golem upgrade that Caradon used on me, perhaps I can make you even stronger!”
“Stronger be good,” Zuula said.
“Fah once we’re agreeing. Again. Which is fah twahss?” Madeline shrugged. “Semahntics.”
“Actually this is a good time to discuss long-term goals,” Garon said, “And ways to get there. Let’s do that party split, find the cats, adjust that armor, and figure out a game plan for the long term.”
“Basement?” Madeline asked.
“Think you can get that thing through the building without burning it down?” Garon eyed the fiery ball.
“I make no prahmises! But seriously, yeah. If he’s in my pahty. And his name is Spahky.”
They did some hasty shuffling and Threadbare kicked Pulsivar out and left the party. Though he knew his oldest friend wouldn’t understand the words anyway and wouldn’t be hurt, Threadbare was very relieved when they turned up Pulsivar and Mopsy curled up together. Annoyed at being roused, the big cat and the no-longer-big-cat groggily followed them back to their lair, and accepted Threadbare’s new party invite with surly grace, blinking at the words until they went away.
They curled up by Sparky and went limp into slumber, while the nigh-inexhaustible golems talked.
“Okay. I guess it falls on me to give you the talk,” Garon said.
“Zuula do it!”
“Mom, no.”
“What? She give you de talk, you work out fine!”
“Normally yes, Mom, but right now you’re running on half-orc mental stats, mostly. You’re level one.”
“So is you!”
“Yes, but… oh geeze, just let me do it, okay? Please Mom? You can jump in at any time if I miss something or you want to add something.” Because I can’t stop you from doing that anyway, Garon added, mentally.
“Hmf!” Zuula crossed her arms. “Fine. Make it good. And short. We got stuff to do.”
“Okay, so nobody ever gave you the talk,” Garon said.
“What talk?” Missus Fluffbear asked.
“The talk of planning out your future. Finding your focus, figuring out how to make your jobs work for you, instead of you working for your jobs.”
“I did work for my jobs,” Threadbare took off his top hat and rubbed his forehead. “That’s not making much sense.”
“Okay, no, look-“
Zuula jumped in. “You need to figure out which jobs you want, get dem, den work on you focus first. Everyt’ing else wait until you got enough to survive an’ get by. What you want to do, Dreadbear?”
“Save Celia,” he replied, instantly.
“From what?”
“The King and his armies, probably. And Anise Lahd’i.”
“A nice lady?”
“Yes, her too.”
“Bah, whatever. Look, you no do dis by bumbling about and pulling up little level one tricks. You do dis by making youself walking badass who know his focus and sharpen things until they bleed you enemies just by looking at dem.”
“I… don’t think I can actually do that.”
“You don’t t’ink, but maybe in higher level job skill unlock you CAN! But you only get to higher level if you focus on leveling de good jobs and leaving de crap jobs for later. Like necromancer. Remember how Zuula make you grind necromancer?”
“Well, yes, and I’m glad because I used a lot of command undeads, and the soulstones were good for-“
“You keep grinding necromancer!”
“Right. And you’re not just saying that because he might make us stronger if he figures something else out with it,” Garon said, shoving his mother off the tabletop with his tail.
“Hay is for horses,” Garon snapped. “Okay, look. What have you got to stop people from killing you up close? Jobwise, I mean, what’s good at it?”
“Well, Duelist and Bear seem to be working out so far.”
“Good. Your duelist was what, three? That’s only two away from new skills. It’s always useful to have a fighting job, so go for that.”
“I don’t have a fighting job!” Missus Fluffbear, who had been listening raptly, spoke up. “I need something like that so I don’t almost get my head popped off again!”
“Right, let’s talk about that after I’m done,” Garon said, watching his mother grimly climb the table leg, heading his way with the angriest of eyebrows. “So necromancer’s a good one for you Threadbare, and duelist, so that covers fighting and casting. What else do you want to focus on?”
“Well, golemist, so I can make you stronger. Beyond that, I don’t know. I haven’t really had time to give it much thought.”
“Enchanter!” Zuula burst out, leaping on Garon and trying to bite his muzzle. Unsuccessfully, as her mouth wasn’t set up for biting and Garon just knocked her back with one paw. But she clung to his wing and swung around. “You need reagents to make de golems! Learn enchanter up, at some point you get disenchant! Dat makes de reagents.”
“Okay,” Garon said, thumping Zuula on the table until she let go, “So Golemist, Necromancer, Duelist, Enchanter. That’s four, that’s half your jobs. Are there any you can safely neglect?”
“Well…” Threadbare watched Garon and his mother fight. “Scout is at level five. It’s handy, but I don’t use it much. Ruler’s at level five, too. So I guess I can leave it. Animator’s nice, but Golems are more important right now. Oh! Model’s at four! I need to level it, and see what new skills I get!”
“Wait.” Zuula froze, in the act of failing to put Garon in a leglock. “You got ruler? Seriously?”
“Mahdel?” Madeline snorted. “Seriously?”
“Scout?” Missus Fluffbear asked. “Seriously?” Then she spoiled it by giggling. “Sorry, everyone else was doing it.”
“Oh yes. I got ruler when I killed a big rat with a crown.”
Garon facewinged. “Because of course you did.”
“And I got model when I made my own clothes in the dungeon that time. Though I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was just sewing cloth on to make carrying it easier.”
“Yeah that sound like you,” Zuula said, snorting. “Model. Bah. Weak.”
“I’m getting plus forty to all my pools from one skill out of it.”
THAT got their attention. “Wait. What.” Madeline said, hopping down from her chair to stare up at him.
There was a fairly long stunned silence after he explained how the dietary restrictions skill worked. Madeline spent most of it laughing her ass off.
“Yeah, definitely grind that, at least to five. Shoot, if you level it just by wearing clothes and doing buffs, go for it,” Garon said. “I never knew it had that much useful stuff.”
“Still weak. Bad by itself…” Zuula said, and then she gained a point to her anemic intelligence. “But it not MEANT to be by itself, is it? Zuula have to rethink this. Muchly.” Then she shook her head. “Wait. Go back to ruler?”
“What about it? It gives an okay free buff, but only to people in my party, or my subjects. And I don’t have any subjects. Although…” He checked his status. “I suppose I can give buffs to people if they share the same quest. Oh, and people can swear fealty to me and become my subjects. Do you want to do that?”
Another long silence.
“It comes with a free buff that’s always ahn?” Madeline asked.
And so, there in the basement, they knelt and swore fealty to King Threadbare the first of his name, ruler of the basement, at least until they were done and ready to leave the town.
“Ought to be good for some experience. Now you go and put on fashion show,” Zuula said.
“Excuse me?”
“We got you sorted. Got to talk with Fluffbear about future. She get talk too. Meanwhile, you level model by showing off new clothes, yes?”
“Oh. Yes, that’s one way.”
“So go upstairs, make new clothes, den come down here and let us see them. Do it enough, probably get you to level five.”
“Okay.” Threadbare headed upstairs, stopped, then walked over to Madeline’s rack of half-charred clothing. “May I?”
“Of course, yer majesty!” Madeline curtseyed deeply. “Anything for da king!”
“Hilarious,” Garon tried to roll his eyes, but they were beads and the best he could manage was wiggling them a bit. “Naaahahahah, that’s a weird feeling.”
Threadbare, with a bit of difficulty and some brute strength, finally lifted up the rack and climbed upstairs, dragging it behind him. The cats winced and growled as it banged every step of the way.
“So I know I want a fighting job,” Missus Fluffbear said. “The whip worked okay until the man got too close. So I want to use my dagger better. And the whip.”
“All right, so Duelist is probably out,” Garon said. “Those guys focus and you want to use different weapons. Um… if you go through the fighting class, the other three jobs there are berserker, knight, and archer.”
“Bearserker?” Missus Fluffbear asked, bouncing up and down. “That sounds like it was made for me!”
“Um.” The three doll haunters shared a glance, and a long headshake. “No. Trust me, that one’s a bad one. Especially for healers. Which, by the way, how are you using mend anyway? That’s not a cleric spell, I didn’t think.”
“No, but it’s Yorgum’s godspell. Every god gets a spell to give to his clerics, that’s what he told me. And mend is his.”
“Huh, that’s handy, not gonna lie. But the fact is you’re built to heal right now, and maybe use undead if you lean into necro, and definitely tamer if you use Mopsy here, and when you’re raging all you can do is beat things up. Which means no casting spells and probably no ordering undead or Mopsy unless you drop the rage. So I’d recommend no on that.”
“Besides, you not have it in you to get unlock,” Zuula pointed out. “Have to kill in anger.”
“Yeah, I ain’t seein’ you are tha big beah ever doin’ anything like thaht,” Madeline said. “Just don’t have it in yah.”
“So archer’s next… but we don’t have a bow. Though you’re a carpenter, you could try to make one. Though a bow your size would have a piddly pull, so…”
“What’s a bow?”
He explained it. Missus Fluffbear shook her head. “It sounds really complicated.”
“Right. So Archer’s probably out. Besides, you want something for up close, so-“
Padded paws pounded on the stairs, and they whipped around to see Threadbare leap out, clad in a potato sack with holes in it for his arms and head, wearing one of Madeline’s scarves on his head.
Your Adorable skill is now level 21!
Your Work it Baby skill is now level 10!
They watched him, as he solemnly flexed, and strutted with self-esteem. Then they were howling with laughter. Threadbare beamed to see them so happy.
“Ah. Uh. Ah…” Madeline said, “Yeah, tell me you leveled from that.”
“No. Though my Work it Baby skill is boosting one of my items a little now.”
“You have a skill called Work it… Baby…” Garon doubled over laughing again, for a time. “Oh wow. Uh, yeah. Goodbye Threadbare. Anyway…” He turned back to Fluffbear, as Threadbare trundled upstairs again. “I think you need to pick up Knight.”
“Yeah. Mercenary’s another option but it’s fiddly and you have to know how to get the most out of it. Knight is pretty good defensively, and has a few tricks that dovetail nicely with cleric. My sister was training as a knight and cleric, trying for paladin, I think.”
“Yes. She was,” Zuula said, shortly.
“Oh hush, it made HER strong, didn’t it? We wouldn’t be here otherwise. So yeah, Knight’s a solid combo for you there.”
“Best of ahl, we still got Darla’s ahmah and shield and speah,” Madeline pointed out. “So how do we get her the jahb unlock?”
“Oh, you’ll love this,” Garon grinned and pointed over at the sleeping form of Mopsy. “All she has to do is win a fight while mounted.”
Missus Fluffbear jumped up, hands to her face in horror. “I’m not killing Mopsy!”
“What? No, no, you just need to-“
“Forget it! I won’t be a knight! That’s horrible!”
“No, listen, I-“
“You need to ride Mopsy and kill something else while on her,” Zuula explained.
The little black bear calmed down instantly. “Oh. Okay.” Fluffbear frowned. “What does ride mean?”
Pad pad pad on the stairs, and… “Dazzling Entrance!” Threadbare yelled, and leaped into the basement. The baggy legs of his pants fluttered behind him as he jumped, empty and loose since he’d buckled the pants around his head. His apron was on like Zuula’s loincloth, and he was wearing an oversized pair of bunny slippers on his arms.
Your Dazzling Entrance skill is now level 2!
Your Work it Baby skill is now level 11!
More laughter. “No, just no,” Madeline gasped as he flexed and strutted. “Go… just go back and try again. Please. And for tha love of hurt, pants don’t go theah.”
Threadbare hurried off. Meanwhile, Garon explained riding to Fluffbear. “Easy enough for Threadbare to make a saddle when he’s done with… this… Normally they’re leather, but you’re light enough heavy cloth would work.”
“Okay! I’ll be a knight!”
“Cool, now all we need to do is-“
Slam! Pad pad pad pad pad…
“Dazzling Entrance!”
About a dozen more fashion shows later, Threadbare was almost out of moxie, when-
You are now a level 5 Model!
+3 AGL
+3 CHA
+3 PER
You have unlocked the Call Outfit skill!
Your Call Outfit skill is now level 1!
You have unlocked the Makeup skill!
Your Makeup skill is now level 1!
You have unlocked the Strong Pose skill!
Your Strong Pose is now level 1!
Checking Dietary Restrictions….
Your Dietary Restrictions Skill is now level 25!
With a sigh of relief, Threadbare pulled off the black spiky wig, and shucked off the see-through teddy. “Here’s your whip back, thanks for the loan,” he said as he gave it back to Missus Fluffbear.
“I can’t look,” Madeline whimpered, from under the table.
Next to her, Garon’s tail poked out, lashing back and forth like Pulsivar’s. “Is he changed? Please tell me he’s changed.”
“Hm? What?” Zuula put down the parchment she was using to take notes, as she studied Threadbare. “Oh yeah, he done.”
“In more ways than one,” Threadbare said. “Status. Oh my. Yes, these will do nicely.”
“Good. Please never weah my lingerie again,” Madeline pleaded.
Garon stared at her.
“You said that word without your accent.”
“I’m a vampaiah. We get a pass on saying sexy words.”
“You’re just making that up.”
She chucked him under the chin. “You wanna put me to tha test, tall green an scaly?”
“ANYWAY,” Zuula said. “Dreadbare, Missus Fluffbear here gonna be knight. So we gonna make her a saddle so she can ride Mopsy. Maybe you make one for Pulsivar, too, so you can ride as well?”
“Oh, sure.” Threadbare hesitated, his regular coat halfway buttoned. “What’s a saddle?”
A few minutes later, he nodded. “That’s a good idea. I had a real problem getting to where I needed to be in that battle where every undead died.”
“Not all of dem,” Zuula chortled.
“Shaddup.” Madeline poked her in the arm, and Zuula backhanded her off the table.
“Hey!” A faint red ‘0’ worked its way up from where she’d fallen.
Threadbare ignored it. “But if I’m riding Pulsivar, he can get me around faster. If he wants to. And I can show him where he needs to be. And he listens to me.” He rubbed his forehead. “Oh dear. Maybe this isn’t a good idea.”
“He loves you,” Missus Fluffbear said, “And I can show you how to teach him. I think.”
“Zuula can speak wit’ nature, and he nature,” Zuula pointed out. “We set him straight. Practice tomorrow.”
“Yes. Enough dilly dally and fashion shows and stupid fucking grindluck. Zuula fed up wit’ level one! We gonna level tomorrow!”
“Mom?” Garon surreptitiously dangled his tail off the table, letting Madeline grab it and swing back up. “Our luck’s still not great. A few more days of grindluck…” he made a face. “Yeah no, you’re right. what’s your idea?”
“Zuula know a place that still be full of skeleton bits, and a necromancer to animate dem for us.” She pointed at Threadbare. “Tomorrow we go dere and he make dem fight us, and we practice as party!”
“Why wait?” Threadbare asked.
“Well, you need to refit Fluffbear’s armor and shield and spear… no, wait. You said you wanted to use the whip and dagger?”
“Oh yeah.”
“That leaves a spear.”
“Zuula take it.”
“What? How come you get thaht?” Madeline shook a wooden finger.
“You got teeth to bite with and a bitey job. Zuula got not’ing.”
“Oh, so ya agreeing that vampaiahs is bettah than orcs?”
The basement fell silent, as the toys watched Zuula shake, wordless. Her eyebrows twisted until they tore, seams pop pop popping as they gave way.
Madeline realized, too late, that she’d crossed a line. “Whoa, hey, I’m sahrry-“
Zuula hopped down, grabbed the broken bottle she’d made a few days back, and chased the marionette around the room, howling incoherently.
“Please, stop!” Missus Fluffbear called, and Threadbare stepped forward-
-and stopped, as Garon raised a paw. “Let them work it out. Better this way.”
A few hours later, after everyone had been mended, and Sparky’s fires were out (he’d taken the assault on his mistress a bit personally,) the teddy bears rode their groggy and disgruntled cats into the pre-dawn darkness, with the doll haunters and sparky following after.
“See? If she’d had twisted rage, one of you would be dead, right now,” Garon admonished.
“I don’t know if this is going to work out,” Threadbare said.
“What? Zuula apologize and give back eye. It only wood chip with paint anyway.”
“No, I mean this riding thing. He keeps going off to look at things,” Threadbare said from fifty feet away.
Most of the party could see him fine in the darkness, and Fluffbear had Sparky to see by, so they watched as Pulsivar ambled back, ignored them, as he followed a scent trail from one side to the other.
“Do you smell anything?” Fluffbear asked.
Threadbare took a sniff. “Yes, but I don’t know what. Never smelled it before.”
“No matter. We almost dere.”
They crossed the creek, keeping an eye out just in case.
And right before the bonefield, they stopped, staring up the hill, with shadows flickering at the limits of Sparky’s light.
“Tell me,” Threadbare said, staring at a round shape in the darkness, “Was there a boulder there before?”
The boulder stood up.
The boulder turned, gray rock revealed to be gray flesh as it turned around, eyes wide and moonlike in the darkness, club clenched in one hand. It considered the toys below it on the slope.
And then it roared, and fetid air washed over them, and the doll haunters were very, very glad that they didn’t have noses.
“Dreadbear! It be an Ogre! Quick, we gots to-“
She was wasting her breath. Mopsy had frozen in fright, but Pulsivar? Pulsivar was outs, yo. He didn’t do ogres.
With slowly dawning horror, the level one doll haunters watched as the black cat vanished into the night, taking their hope, salvation, and chance of resurrection with them.
Then they turned back to the ogre, as it charged and the ground shook under its feet…
Spoiler: Spoiler


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Andrew Seiple


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