Happy Thanksgiving! As an early Black Friday present, have a double-length chapter.
Months ago, when winter was in full swing and the vermin of the forest were looking for shelter, a pair of rats had found a crack in the foundation of the house, large enough to squirm into. They'd found themselves in a gloriously dark cellar, lit only by one small window, high up in the wall. They'd also found several loosely-stored sacks and barrels of grain and dried vegetables.
Eventually they grew too fat to leave the cellar, but there was plenty of food, so they bred litters, ate, and slept.
But in time, a change came over the oldest of them. Glowing, squiggly symbols appeared in front of the eyes of the older of the original pair. Letters that if they could have been comprehended by ratty minds, would have shown that he was eligible for a rank up.
And he had taken that rank up. The next time he happened to think positively about something, willing “yes” to a small question that involved ratty life, he'd accepted the rank up. This was how most wild animals ranked up without a benefit of comprehending the words.
And, as had happened many times before, an otherwise-ordinary animal became a monster.
That had been a week ago.
The monster's children had stirred when the girl entered the cellar, gathered around, wanting to attack her with an aggression that normally they didn't have. But the monster was eating more and more of the food, even eating his children at times, and the rats were desperate. The little girl's sheer size was the only thing that kept her safe.
But Threadbare and the cat? They were just the right size.
And so the monster lurked behind a row of pickle jars, watching through multiple red eyes, as its children swarmed. It would let them take the brunt of the intruders' attacks, and wear them down with numbers. Then it would come out and claim its due from its ratty children, taking the choicest bits from the kill. It was only natural, really.
It was, after all, their king.
Threadbare was aware of none of this, having too low a perception to see the monster hidden behind the pickles, and Pulsivar the cat was too goddamned busy for a clear look around. The rats hurled themselves at the two creatures like a tidal wave of furry flesh, cramming in tightly together and charging, leaping upon the pair.
Pulsiver moved with lightning speed, sweeping out with his claws as they came at him, dancing back and batting them away as they came, but there were too many angles to cover. One larger rat took a bite out of his tail with its chisel teeth. Another one latched onto his ear and the cat howled, spraying blood as he shook his head, sending the rat flying as a red number 5 floated up to the ceiling.
Threadbare, without the benefit of the cat's agility, stumbled back as half a dozen rats harried him, ripping into his furry body... and finding it tougher than anticipated. A virtual storm of red zeroes floated up to the ceiling of the basement, with only one or two forlorn '1's among them. But it was still aggravating, and he really didn't know how to handle the situation. He looked to Pulsivar, and saw the cat's paws flickering like lightning, slapping and slamming the rats as they came.
Well, why not? That looked like it might do something.
The little golem flailed his arms in great clumsy sweeps, losing more and more of his hide to ratty nibbles as they easily evaded his attacks.
Up until the point one of them didn't.
You have unlocked the generic skill: Brawling!
Your Brawling skill is now level 1!
The little rat rolled backwards, bounced off a few of its brethren, then surged back into the fight. But Threadbare was busy trying out his newfound skill, and didn't have time to notice. Again and again his arms slapped down on the rats, battering them, wearing them down. Eventually a few of them fled, bruised down to only one or two hit points.
The teddy bear kept going as fast as he could, ignoring the numbers and letters scrolling through his field of vision. The rats fought back, and he felt his body get more and more unresponsive as needle-like teeth tore at him.
He dodged a few of them...
But there were just too many, so he had to resort to battering as best he could.
Your Brawling skill is now level 2!
CON +1 Your Brawling skill is now level 3! STR +1 Your Brawling skill is now level 4! STR +1 Your Toughness Skill is now Level 3
Max HP +2
Then, with a lucky strike, he managed to catch a leaping rat full in the mouth with a wild haymaker, sending it up a full four feet, before it fell down to hit the floor.
Your Brawling skill is now level 5!
You are now a level 3 Toy Golem!
All Attributes +2!
And suddenly, he felt good. He felt stronger. Still banged up, true, but... now, somehow, he felt more confident about his chances. He had no idea why these things were trying to kill him, but he figured he'd be walking out of here one way or another. He bonked a few more rats, smacking them until they retreated, and glanced back to Pulsivar.
The cat was not having a good day. Unlike the golem, his feline hide was a lot thinner and softer. And while the rats had to work harder to hit him, there were a lot of the little bastards. Also, it didn't help that unlike most of the nests of vermin he had dealt with before, these little bastards weren't going down or fleeing when he thumped them or batted them away. So he switched to more lethal tactics.
At the cost of taking more hits to his unprotected flanks, Pulsivar popped his claws and slashed wildly, getting stuck in and tearing screaming rats into meaty gobbets. He tore two to bits, losing a tip of his tail in the process, stood on his haunches and raked three more with long swipes as two more bit into his back, then rolled, scooping up a large rat with his claws and jaws as he eviscerated it with his hind feet.
The golem would have blinked, if his eyes worked that way. He watched, fascinated, as Pulsivar turned into a screaming, hissing whirlwind of blood and claws and teeth—
—and something within him realized that at least part of that sort of fighting style was within his reach.
Movement to his side, a rat coming in with a furious charge—
—And Threadbare turned and SWIPED it out of the air.
Claw Swipes Activated!
Your Claw Swipes skill is now level 2
The rat disintegrated. Bloody bits rained down on the somewhat-thinned crowd, and for a second, the lot of them hesitated.
Threadbare, oblivious to the momentary reprieve, studied his paw. Black, hardened claws about an inch long stuck out of it, dripping red, red blood in the dim light of the crystal.
And Pulsivar, seeing the opportunity, used his ace in the hole.
Rats weren't the only ones who could rank up. And long ago, two years at least, Pulsivar the cat had slain enough rabbits and rats and birds to unlock the next part of his evolutionary chain.
Pulsivar was a Tomcat, and he unleashed the full force of his mightiest skill upon the ears of all present, as a screeching, hissing, buzzsaw of a howl echoed through the tight basement and shook the mason jars on the shelves!
This was Caterwaul: The sanity destroyer!
Instantly, the area effect skill ripped through the rats like a hot knife through butter, as scores of green “17”s filled the air of the basement.
Threadbare felt the pain too, as a green “3” floated past his vision... but it wasn't that bad, just mildly disconcerting.
You have successfully resisted Caterwaul! Sanity damage halved!
The rats fell to the ground, stunned cat-atonic, their sanity fled.
And in the silence, Threadbare turned to look at Pulsivar. And the cat sat on its haunches, panting, looking back.
Threadbare looked at his claws, then at the cat.
The cat crouched low, and prepared to resolve the unfinished business it had with this infernal thing.
Then, from behind the row of pickle jars, came the strangest sound that either of the two enemies had ever heard.
A royal fanfare, trumpets and all, followed by officious-sounding squeaking. Though without words, it somehow had the weight of dignity behind it. It spoke of valor and duty, to rat, king, and pantry...
…but most importantly of all, it added a sanity buff to its fallen subjects.
And around them, the fallen rats rose, one by one. The ones slashed to death were unmoving still, but the effects of Pulsivar's caterwaul were thoroughly undone.
The two enemies looked to their renewed foes. They looked back to each other.
Threadbare knew he couldn't survive this alone. And while the cat wasn't exactly a friend, the rats sure as hell were enemies to them both.
So he gave the cat a small nod, and turned his back on Pulsivar, taking the biggest risk of his short life, and hoping that the cat understood the message.
Fortunately for both of them Pulsivar had spent long hours grinding his perception.
Threadbare relaxed slightly, as he felt a furry flank slide against his back.
The message had been understood. They might just walk out of here after all.
The rats, down to two-thirds of their starting number, charged in; the real battle began.
At first it was slogwork, with the cat and the golem ripping them up and taking bites in return. More words flashed by, as the seconds turned into a minute;
Your Brawling skill is now level 6!
Critical Hit! LUCK +1
Your Claw Swipes skill is now level 3!
Your Claw Swipes skill is now level 4!
Your Brawling skill is now level 7!
Your Claw Swipes skill is now level 5!
Your Claw Swipes skill is maxxed, raise your Bear job!
But as time went on, the bear began to feel an alien sensation.
It was getting tired.
Unbeknownst to the teddy bear, the Claw Swipes skill ate up a little of its stamina with every hit. And while it was brutally effective, it wasn't designed for prolonged fights. Bears were more of an “overwhelming force” fighter, as melee combatants went. Trying to fight like Pulsivar wasn't doing him any favors, especially since he didn't have a mouth to bite with.
Pulsivar, fortunately, was coming to the same conclusion. While they were covering each other's flanks, he was getting tired too. His own Catscratch, and Rake skills were getting the job done, but his endurance was running very low. Too many hours grinding Nap, not enough grinding Hunt. He contemplated another Caterwal, but dismissed the notion. He was already low enough on Moxie, another shot of that would surely knock him out.
Then the teddy bear had an epiphany;
Pulsivar was better at killing, but judging by the rips in him versus the less-severe wounds in the teddy bear, Threadbare could take damage more easily.
He thought he could maybe use this to their advantage.
Threadbare gave Pulsivar a shove, then waded out into the regrouping remnants. Pulling his claws back in without knowing quite how, he went back to thumping at the rats, deliberately letting himself get surrounded, and taking the bites. His already abused hide was rent further, stitches giving way, and desperately he fought, hoping beyond hope that the cat got the message.
Fortunately for him, the cat did.
The rats were thin on the ground now, depleted enough that they weren't filling the bloody, corpse-strewn ground. They had to peel off into two separate rings, one around the golem and one around the cat. And when the cat got surrounded he simply leaped out of it, smacking with both paws on one of the ones snapping at Threadbare.
Before they could realize that death was among them, the cat mowed down the distracted rats like a scythe through grain. Then Threadbare ran past him, intercepting the next string of rats, and making them ring up around him again.
And Pulsivar was free to rip and tear without fear of reprisal. He had much more stamina left than the teddy bear, even if his endurance was abysmal. And so, when the last rat fled squeaking, the cat settled back on his haunches once more, glaring with cruel eyes. Threadbare, for his part, sat on the ground and tried to push the few puffs of escaping stuffing back into the holes in his chest.
You are now a level 4 Toy Golem!
All Attributes +2!
The cat looked at the bear once more. The bear looked back. Then the cat started to groom itself.
Threadbare couldn't tell exactly, but he thought maybe that meant that Pulsivar might stop trying to kill him now?
Both cat and bear jumped upright, as a row of pickle jars broke.
And something crawled out from the darkness.
At first it looked like another group of rats... bigger, filthier, and even more angry. But they were moving strangely, jerking and stopping, straining against the floor, practically clawing their way along.
Then they got into the light, and Threadbare saw why.
Their tails were twisted together into a pulsating knot, and sitting on top of this knot was a rat twice the size of the others, In its clenched paws was a scepter, a little golden shiny stick with a stylized rat's head on it. And as Threadbare watched, it sat upright on its knot, pointed the scepter at Threadbare, and let out a screeching warcry.
Threadbare turned to look at Pulsivar...
… who promptly leaped up on the nearest shelf, eyes wide and full of nope.
Threadbare stared after him, hope fading. Then there was no time for despair, as the rat king was upon him.
These rats were stronger than the last, well-fed and sleek, with muscles about double that of the subjects Threadbare had tanked without much difficulty. Three bites in, he knew he was in trouble, as red “5”s floated up into the air.
Your Toughness Skill is now Level 4!
Maximum HP +2
Claw swipes took down one of the big rats, but there were nine in total, and they dragged along their fallen comrade, only slightly slower for the effort.
Your Brawling skill is now level 8!
Your Claw Swipes skill is maxxed, raise your Bear job!
Shuddering, with a large gash in his left side, and one arm limp and only hanging on by (literally) a thread, Threadbare stumbled back, out of the light. Sensing weakness, the rat king pushed forward.
Up on the shelf, Pulsivar moved forward to get a better look, nudged a jar of strawberry jam, and thoroughly failed his agility check.
The jam careened downward, narrowly missing the rat king. It squeaked and ducked, chittering, and directing its bearers to the side away from Pulsivar's shelf.
Threadbare watched all this with button eyes.
And he remembered the workshop, and the table, and what it had done to him. And he came up with a plan.
The rat king resumed pursuing him, murder in its gleaming red eyes. This blood-stained bear, this ratshit-smeared slayer, it would pay for what it had done! With a wave of its scepter, the rat king gave in to its instincts and leaned forward, puking green smoke from all nine of its remaining mouths!
The skill was called “Plague Breath”
And it affected the little golem not at all.
Your Golem Body skill is now level 4!
Threadbare leaped out of the cloud, leaped past the king onto the nearest shelves—
—Moved himself between the shelf and the wall, grabbed one of the wooden rods supporting the shelves at its back, planted his feet against the wall, and pulled.
His arm gave way and fell off, and he doubled down with his last arm, curling it in tight, and pulling, feeling his stitches along his side give, feeling his stuffing slip and fall out of him, straining with every inch of his augmented body regardless of the damage done to himself—
Your Toughness Skill is Level 5!
Max HP +2!
And he toppled the shelf, and all the jars and cans on it, onto the rat king.
The shelf went to pieces, dowel rods flying. Threadbare hit the dirt floor and rolled, streaking his bloody form with mud, his loose arm landing next to him.
He lay there still for a minute, until the rat king screamed. The shelf rustled, stirred, as Threadbare looked at it... then fell still.
Threadbare stood, limping, wrapping his right arm around to his left side to hold himself together, and stumbled over to peer into the shelving.
The biggest rat, the king itself, was straining, trying to get free of the wreckage. Around it, the corpses of its nine dead bearers lay broken and dying among the shattered glass, fallen wood, and heavy cans.
The rat king hissed. He was cornered now, and all his stats gained a nice buff for it. When that little bear came near, he'd shred him to death.
Fortunately, the bear saw that, too. Though he didn't know about the buff, he was pretty sure the critter was still highly dangerous to approach.
Threadbare went and picked up a dowel rod. Much easier this time, he noticed. Which was good, because he was down to one hand.
Then he limped back to the rat king and slowly beat it to death, staying well out of its reach the whole time.
You have unlocked the generic skill: Clubs and Maces!
Your Clubs and Maces Skill is Level 1!
Your Clubs and Maces Skill is Level 2!
Your Clubs and Maces Skill is Level 3!
Your Clubs and Maces Skill is Level 4!
Somewhere around Clubs and Maces Level 6, the thing finally succumbed to its injuries.
You are now a level 5 Toy Golem!
All Attributes +2!
You unlocked the Innocent Embrace Skill!
Your Innocent Embrace Skill is Level 1!
You are now a level 2 Bear!
Mental Fortitude +2
He felt good for all of three seconds. Then, to his horror, a new set of those damned squiggles showed up in his vision and did not leave!
Congratulations! By committing regicide you have unlocked the Ruler job!
Would you like to become a Ruler at this time? Y/N?
Threadbare was about four fucks beyond his limit, and he'd started with no fucks at all. This was too goddamned much... but fortunately, he knew how to make those squiggles go away, now didn't he?
He concentrated on the feeling he'd had at Celia's tea party, concentrated on the feeling that was “Yes!”
You are now a Level 1 Ruler!
You have Unlocked the Emboldening Speech Skill!
You gain Emboldening Speech at level 1
You have Unlocked the Identify Subject Skill!
Your gain Identify Subject at level 1
You have unlocked the Noblesse Oblige Skill!
You gain Noblesse Oblige at level 1
You have unlocked the Royal Request Skill!
You gain Royal Request at level 1
You have unlocked the Simple Decree Skill!
You gain Simple Decree at level 1
None of this meant anything to the bear. But he did feel different. He couldn't say how, so he shrugged with his remaining arm, and turned with a weariness that his body language hadn't had the complexity to show before.
Then a gleam caught his eye.
The golden scepter lay next to the fallen rat king. Threadbare marched over and scooped it up, examining it curiously... and the stylized rat's head on the end of it turned into a teddy bear's face.
His thoughts swam again, and jumbled into order. Well beyond animal intelligence at this point, he was now somewhere around the level of a sharp toddler or a very simple adult.
Twenty-five pounds of cat leaped down onto the dirt floor next to him, and Threadbare turned to study Pulsivar.
Pulsivar, for his part, leaned in and sniffed the bear.
He didn't smell rage, or fear, or hostility. He smelled rat blood and shit, sure, that was everywhere...
...but under it all, he smelled soap. The soap that Celia used to launder every piece of clothing and sheet in the place. It was a scent that to Pulsivar meant home, and family. He'd known it all his life, and associated it with shelter, food, and love.
Pulsivar looked at the bear, and wrinkled his nose. Why hadn't anyone told him the little golem was part of his family? His hoomins would get a stern lesson later. Perhaps a hairball in a shoe, or maybe he'd spray the big one's pillow. This whole thing could have been avoided.
He was still miffed at the little guy, but he had earned Pulsivar's respect during the fight. Besides, what he was dealing with here was obviously some sort of malformed kitten, thoroughly clueless and dumb. But cute.
Threadbare watched words go by.
Your Adorable Skill is now level 5!
“Marp,” Pulsivar told Threadbare, less an apology and more of an explanation. Best to let bygones be bygones.
Just to show that there were no hard feelings, he leaned in and started grooming threadbare. Normally this would heal anyone he groomed, but sadly, the little golem was incompatible with standard healing effects.
But the little bear had no idea what the cat was doing. It had seen Pulsivar doing that before, to himself, so to his newly-socially-boosted instincts, it seemed to him that the Cat was telling him that he was no longer an enemy. That he accepted Threadbare.
So, the bear leaned forward and gave him a hug as a “thank you”. And as he did so, a golden glow enveloped his arms and sunk into the cat.
Spent 10 Sanity! You have healed Pulsivar 10 points!
Your Innocent Embrace skill is now level 2!
Wow, he felt light-headed.
Pulsivar stopped, surprised. Then he gave Threadbare a few more licks, and pulled away. None of that touchy-feely stuff, thank you very much.
The bear stared at him for a bit, then started looking around for a way out. Celia was around here somewhere, she'd know what to do. Maybe she could clean up this mess.
He made his way back to the stairs, tucked his new scepter into one of the holes in his body, and did his best to climb the stairs one-armed.
Your Climb Skill is now Level 2!
Your Climb Skill is now Level 3!
After some time and repeated falls, he managed to make his way up to the door. He pushed on it, but it didn't open. He pushed harder, and stopped once more stuffing threatened to bulge out of him. He didn't have that much left, so this clearly wouldn't work.
He clambered down the stairs once more, and looked around the basement. No way out, except...
One window, high on the wall. About five feet up.
Threadbare looked to the dowel rod, picked it up, and smashed the window.
Immediately, just like before, Pulsivar jumped up on the nearest shelf and fled through the newly-made exit. Much slower, and with a great deal more effort, Threadbare followed, fell a few times, kept trying until he got up there...
Your Climb Skill is now Level 4!
...And managed to squirm through the window.
He lay there for a bit, in the grass and the flower beds, watching the trees overhead. The wind swayed the branches in the sunlight, and finally, just maybe, this particular ordeal was over.
“I think it came from over here!” Celia's voice came from around the corner of the house. Tired, drained, and hurt, Threadbare clambered to his feet and ran as fast as he could toward her voice.
“Oh my gods! What happened to you?” Celia grabbed him up, then wrinkled her nose. “Ew ew ew you smell horrible! What is this- is this blood?” She went pale. Then she fled, shrieking, toward the front door. “Daddy! Daddy Daddy Daddy Threadbare's dying!”
She hugged him to her so tight that she pushed the scepter well down into his body, without even noticing. The bear just clung to her and hugged her as best he could, with one arm gone. This time no glowy stuff happened, and he didn't know why. Someone could have explained to him that Innocent Embrace only triggered if the target was injured or the caster had enough sanity to use it, but again, he probably wouldn't have understood.
Not yet, anyway. He'd been through a lot, and he was starting to learn, learn and grow.
“Celia, what's... wrong?” The old man burst into the front room as his blood-smeared daughter cried and thrust her toy at him.
“Oh dear heavens! Ah, let me... ugh, this is horrible. Give him here, give him here.”
“Can, *sniff*, can I mend him without his arm? Will it stay that way?”
“No, he's a golem. The severed parts will dissolve from where they're at and reattach as he's mended, so it shouldn't be a problem. No, don't mend him yet, if there's anything inside him the mending will seal it in. We'll have to get the blood and filth off him first.” The old man held Threadbare at arm's length, and cleared his throat. “Clean and Press!”
Instantly the grime fled Threadbare's body. The old man nodded. “Now you can mend him.”
Celia shouted her "Mend" spell until he was whole again. Relieved, she hugged her best friend close. “Oh thank you thank you! And I even skilled up! Yay me...”
“Then it was worthwhile, whatever happened.” The old man frowned. “Er, what did happen? That wasn't your blood, so whose was—”
“Wait a minute.” The little girl's face turned into a mask of dawning comprehension. “You cleaned him in like an instant. How did you do that?”
The old man coughed, and reddened. “Ah, we'll discuss that later. For now, let's figure out how he got so bloody in the first-”
“You said you were low on sanity, and couldn't do any more magic today! And that was a spell!”
“Well I was, I mean, it's only a level 1 spell.”
“I've been doing the laundry for years, and you could have done it just like that with a level 1 spell? What the hell, Daddy?”
“It's like hours a week out of my life and you could have done that at any time? Seriously?”
“It's a very important chore! You can't depend on magic, you have to learn how to do things without-”
“Well why not teach me, then! I'm old enough to be a level 5 animator, why don't you teach me that level 1 trick!”
“It's not an animator trick, it's a tailor skill-”
“Then teach me to be a tailor!”
“You're not ready to make such life-altering decisions yet-”
“Not ready? Not ready! That's all I ever hear from you is that I'm not ready!”
“No! There's an upper limit, you can only ever have so many jobs! I can't waste your potential with the trivial stuff-”
“But it wasn't too trivial for you! And you're okay with wasting my potential on doing laundry by hand! What the hell, Daddy!”
The old man stood bolt upright, glaring down at Celia. “I will not be talked to like this in my own house! Go to your room, young lady!”
“Fine!” Celia stormed upstairs, threw herself onto her bed, hugged Threadbare to her, and cried her eyes out.
Inside Threadbare, the scepter itched a bit. He settled into Celia's embrace, and moved by new instincts, stroked. He'd been frightened and upset when Celia and his creator started shouting, but it hadn't come to a fight. Which was good, because he didn't have any shelves around to drop on the old man and he was pretty sure the guy would be harder to take down than the rat king had been.
Outside, the light faded as dusk came on, and night covered the land. The little girl fell into a troubled sleep, and Threadbare settled into the crook of her arms. For now, at least, all was well with the world.
In the dark of the night, in a sprawling hillside village set among several farmers' fields, a batwinged form settled onto the window of the largest house. It slunk in, peering with beady eyes, as it folded its wings against its scaly back.
Sitting up in bed, a blanket clutched to her voluptuous form, a raven-haired woman smiled sweetly at the imp. But the smile didn't reach her eyes, which might as well have been chips of ice.
“Caminthraxus? You have a report to make? About the girl?”
“No, milady. About Caradon.”
“Ah... So the old man has figured it out, then?”
“Er, no. The old man has made no real progress with his research.”
“Then why do you waste my time?” Her tone didn't change, but the imp knew how close he was to torment, right now, unless he found a way to make her happy.
The tiny demon shuddered, and tried to find his courage. “I, I learned that he keeps a set of scrolls within his house. An emergency stash. Many of them are spells that let the user command golems.”
Icy eyes gleamed. And a set of perfect white teeth smiled. “Ah. Yes, that will make things easier. I'll send word on to the master, and we'll see how he wants to use that information. Thank you Caminthraxus, you've done well.”
“Just my duty,” the lesser demon hissed, though his gaze was drawn to the figure next to the woman, just visible through the sheets. “Are you going to finish that one?”
The woman turned, and considered the man next to her. Drawn skin over shriveled bones, his paper-like eyelids moved up and down, as horrified eyes moved from her to the imp. Muscles thoroughly drained from the night's earlier activities twitched, and the woman easily held him down with one red-nailed hand.
“Mmmm... no, I think I'm done. You can have what's left.”
The imp grinned, showing teeth that Pulsivar would have envied, and moved in for the feast.
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