Threadbare never left Celia’s sight for the rest of the day, even when she bathed. Which was weird, because he hadn’t known that her clothes could come off. (She’d been too shy to change in front of him before and he had never been in Caradon’s bedroom, so he had just thought that humans could shapeshift.) But now everything made more sense, and it explained why she and Caradon looked different every day. That was worth an intelligence point.
And later, as he slumbered in her arms, cared for and loved after a long day of playing and hugging, his reverie was interrupted by a chime. His Toy Golem level had reached six, and once again, he felt a little better in every way.
The next morning, he found that he could follow Celia and Caradon’s conversation a bit better. “Yes” and “No” made a lot more sense, he caught the occasional one or two-syllable word, and he practiced nodding and shaking his head at appropriate times. His charisma ticked up a few times when Celia talked with him, but Caradon scarcely took notice… the old man was too busy assembling a quick lesson.
Dusty books came out of the study, as did a notepad, and Caradon showed Celia pictures of trees, plants, and animals, and made her read and copy down words from the books.
And Threadbare stood there stunned, as he realized that hey, those words on the papers matched the squiggles he kept seeing in front of his face.
There it was! There it was again! That was the one that meant he could think more easily! The squiggles MEANT something!
In fact, those letters were on the page too, just usually not in the order that they were in his vision. Fascinated, he watched Celia write. It had never occurred to him that you could draw pictures of what the words you saw looked like!
Gleefully he reached out for a quill-
-and toppled ink across Celia’s notes.
“Threadbare! Be more careful.” She scooped him up before the spreading puddle could stain him. Caradon sighed, and got water and rags.
“In any case, I think this is enough for now.” Caradon glanced at the sun’s angle through the windows. “He’ll be here soon. So I suppose I should do this formally…” He finished scrubbing, then sat down in his chair.
Once more, words scrolled across Threadbare’s vision, then stopped.
CARADON GEARHART HAS OFFERED A PUBLIC QUEST!
DETAILS: GO WITH MISTER MORDECAI TO OBLIVION POINT AND FOLLOW HIS INSTRUCTIONS
REWARD: 1000 EXPERIENCE
COMPLETION: RETURN TO CARADON FOR REWARD
DO YOU WANT TO ACCEPT THIS QUEST? Y/N?
“One thousand experience?” Celia’s already pale skin went paler. “Daddy, are you sure?”
“Then yes.” Celia beamed. “And thank you.”
Threadbare’s mind worked overtime. Now that he knew the words meant something, he thought that he might want to know what they said. But he didn’t know how to read them, like Celia and Caradon did. Maybe if he copied what they looked like his family could read them?
He reached out for the quill again… and Celia pulled him away, again. “No Mister bear, that’s quite enough of that, I’m sorry.”
Fine, fine. Threadbare sulked a bit, crossing his arms like Celia did when she and her Daddy argued, and Caradon snorted laughter. “You’re teaching him bad habits.” He teased.
“Normally he’s not this fussy.”
Grudgingly accepting the fact that he couldn’t try his idea right now, Threadbare sighed, and thought “Yes”. The squiggles-that-weren’t-just-squiggles disappeared.
Half an hour later, a knock came on the door. Celia answered it, and gave Mordecai a happy hug.
Caradon just looked him over, rubbing his goatee. “Run silent,” he greeted his old friend.
“Run deep. Ya ready, Celia girl?”
“I am!” Celia gestured at her pack, about half the size of her.
Mordecai winced. “Give that ‘ere.” He sorted through it without mercy, ignoring her wails as he pulled stuff free and sat it on the dinner table. “No... no… no…” He pulled out Beanarella the doll and looked to Caradon.
“Yes on those.”
“Guess you’ll need some backup. Yes, then.”
Practically dancing on the balls of her feet, Celia reached for the doll. “Okay, just let me animate her-“
“No? Then what’s the point of bringing her?”
“I seen how yer animated toys move. Where we’re going, they’ll just slow you down. If you need 'em break'em out. Otherwise keep them in tha pack.”
“I can carry them.”
“You ent gonna carry that one?” Mordecai pointed at Threadbare, who pointed back.
Your Adorable skill is now level 8!
The old scout fought to keep his face straight.
“…yeah I’m gonna carry him.” Was Celia’s subdued reply.
“Good.” Mordecai cinched up the much smaller pack, ignoring the books, writing supplies, snacks, changes of clothes, and rock collections that Celia had lined up for the trip, leaving all those behind on the table. “Here yer go. Come on. Gi’ yer Daddy a hug and let’s be off.”
Threadbare found himself smushed between Celia and Caradon, and then it was out the door and off through the woods.
“So where are we going? The quest says Oblivion Point,” Celia said, following Mordecai’s even, long strides as he strolled through the pine bluff.
“Tha’s where. Ya never heard of it?”
“No. It sounds… dangerous?” There was just a hint of excitement in her tone. Mordecai chuckled.
“Only if ya get really stupid. And I know you ent stupid.”
“Oh that’s a relief. So Daddy showed me a book today, and I learned how to tell trees apart, and-“
Mordecai stopped, turned on her, knelt down to her level, and put his finger on her lips. “Shhh.”
“Buh-what?” She froze, staring at him with hurt eyes.
“Look around, Celia girl.” Mordecai’s voice went low. “Do you know this place?”
She did. “It’s the pines. Just a hill or two over. I think, right? I’ve lost track.”
“Yeah. Tha’s why yer here. Scouts don’t lose track. Scouts look and remember. Can you do that?”
“I… oh. Oh, sure!”
“Scouts also know to keep quiet when they’re in strange lands. So things don’t know they’re coming. Can you do that?”
Celia opened her mouth, and he shushed her again. Instead, she nodded, and he smiled for the first time since he’d turned around. “Good. Come. If you have to speak, keep it quiet and short.”
She followed him, chastened, but with excitement growing in her chest. She was going to be a scout!
So instead of talking, the little girl held Threadbare tight… except when they came to a steeper grade, and she had to put him down to clamber on all fours. The bear followed, doing pretty well as he went.
Your Climb skill is level 6!
They moved through the pines and down into a small valley, filled with rambling streams, wildflowers, and different sorts of trees.
“Oak,” Celia whispered to Threadbare as they went. “Sycamore,” she named another, as they passed it, leaves just starting to grow from its buds. “Willow,” she pointed at a mass of tangled branches over one of the creeks they splashed through. And though the old scout’s ears twitched under his hat at her every whisper, he tolerated it. This was good. He’d have less to explain, later on.
Then it was back uphill, up a rocky slope, to where a moss-green boulder jutted out over the path they’d just taken. “C’mere,” Mordecai said, scrambling up. “We can talk up ‘ere. Time for a break.”
Celia nodded. She’d long since stopped whispering, conserving her breath for puffing and panting as she climbed. “I just… got… a con up,” she said, dropping to her rump and dangling her legs over the edge of the boulder.
“Good. You’ll get more afore the day’s through. We’re a quarter of the way there.”
“What?” Celia’s jaw dropped. “I, I need a snack! My stamina’s way down! There’s no way I’ll make it all the way there with what I’ve got.”
“Yes, you will.” Mordecai sat down next to her, pointing across the way. “See over the little culvert of woods we just came through?”
“Yeah. It looks so small, but it seemed so big while we were in it.”
“Now stand up and look over it.”
Celia did, and blinked. “Is… is that our house over there?”
“Yeah. Only two miles off.”
“It looks so small. And I just got a perception up.”
Threadbare caught most of that, and he turned in her arms, trying to see.
He DID see the house!
But he turned too quickly, and wiggled right free of Celia’s grasp! He tumbled toward the slope below as Celia shrieked-
-And Mordecai’s hand shot out like lightning, snagged him, and deposited him back on the boulder.
“Careful there. Don’t wanna lose yer toys.”
“Oh! He’s so naughty sometimes!” Celia backed away from the edge, knelt, and picked up the trembling bear. “Oh, he’s frightened. Come here.” She hugged him, and Mordecai chuckled.
“Anyway, that’s why yer out here. Eleven years old and ya never been two miles from yer house. We’re gunna fix that, today. And you’re gonna rake in bonuses you ent seen in a long while, unless I miss my guess. You’re worried you can’t do it, because every time before when you lost stamina you went and ate to get it back. And you didn’t bring no food.”
“No. You took it out of my pack!”
“So yer gonna rest here and get it back the old-fashioned way.”
“But that takes so long…”
“What else are ya gonna do?” Mordecai shrugged. “Scouts have to travel hungry, sometimes. Key there is to pace yerself. You don’t not have the option of going where you need to go.”
Celia parsed the sentence, then looked at him. “Okay. Fine. Whatever.” She flopped down, and played with Threadbare, but eventually, the vista got to her. It really was a nice view, and she found herself staring off in the distance, watching the birds, following the leaping forms of deer from afar, and studying the river as it wound on its way.
Then she blinked. “I just leveled up?”
“Weren’t an animator level, was it?”
“No. How’d you know that? It was a human level. I haven’t gotten a race level since… wow.”
“Humans are built to wander. S’called exploration experience. Like a built in quest wi’out words. The more you explore, the more you see, the higher ya get. Key is followin’ yer instincts. Ya do that, then the better a human ya are.” Mordecai frowned. “A course, sometimes it’s bad if you foller your instincts. Got ta find a balance. Use yer intelligence AND yer wisdom. Like me wife. Level 9 half-orc, she is, and couldn’t be happier. Mostly cause she’s got wisdom ta match her strength.”
“I don’t have any jobs that get wisdom boosts. Well, human does, I guess.”
“A little bit. But Scout gets more.” Mordecai stood. “And now since ya leveled up, yer stamina’s full again, ya?”
“It is.” She rose, and stretched her legs. “I’m ready!”
Three hills over, he took her to the peak, pointed at the tallest oak tree he could find, and made her tell him all about it. He seemed pleased with her assessment. Threadbare was more interested in the busy beehive that churned up in its branches. But Celia held him tight, and it was a bit far away from her, anyway.
One valley later, Mordecai’s eyes went wide, and he whipped a hand up. “Monsters,” he whispered.
Celia instantly started pulling out her daggers, and he shook his head. “I got this. Come along an’ stay quiet.”
He led her through some young trees, past stumps and corroded metal bars sat into the ground. And there, at the base of a solid stony cliff, lay a series of planks nailed across a cave heading back into the mountain. A few crumbled, rusted metal carts lay scattered nearby. Obviously it was one of the abandoned mine shafts that her Daddy had told her about.
Two strange creatures patrolled back and forth in front of the mine. They had black and gray and white fur, bushy tails, and each one wore a crude wooden mask. The one to the left had one that said “KITY” and a crude caricature of Pulsivar’s face. The other one had a mask that looked like no creature Threadbare had ever said before, and had the word “DOGY” scratched into it.
“Wait here. Do NOT move, Camouflage,” Mordecai said, and then he was gone, blurring into an outline before the blur itself moved away and vanished in the afternoon haze.
Threadbare had understood that sentence, up until the last word. But the rest of it was simple, and it made sense for the situation.
So he froze. Celia froze too, but her breath came a little heavier, and one hand crept inside her coat to where she kept her knives.
Minutes crawled by, and then Mordecai crawled up, reappearing. He pointed at Celia, pointed back the way they came, and straightened up, heading back through the underbrush. Celia followed, glad to be away from the monsters.
Once away, they resumed their walk. Finally, Mordecai gestured a halt, at the base of the tallest, steepest hill yet. “We can talk. Those were Raccants.”
“Raccants? I think I heard Daddy swearing about those once. They’re what raccoons can become, right?”
“One o’ the options. They’re raccoons what like livin’ around humans. They see how easy pets got it and want to be pets, but they can’t pull it off. Just ain’t got the temperament. So they wears masks and nicks stuff and causes trouble.”
“So what are they doing here?”
“There’s a steading or two just on th’ other side o’ the ridge. An’ yer father’s house ent far. They roam. As to what they’re doin’ here, they made a dungeon.”
“What?” Celia almost shrieked, then clapped her hands over her mouth. “Dungeons are bad!”
“Aye, they can be, if ya let’em go. But this one’s small yet. Figure it’ll take a few years before it even reaches a level where ya’d find it a challenge. So fer now, it can stay.”
“But shouldn’t we take care of it? You and me, we could stop it from being a threat.”
“Celia.” Mordecai knelt to stare into her eyes. “Everyfing has a purpose. Dungeons have a purpose. And raccants ent likely ta kill, not like some o’ the other monsters out here. Time goes on, it’ll make treasure, too. Be a good trainin’ ground, and source of loot.”
“But… I mean…”
“Not all monsters is bad. Some just is. And bad or good, this’ll be a good spot fer ya to level up later.” He straightened up, and cast a gaze up the cliff. “Come on. One mile left ta go, and it’s the worst part.”
Two hours later, as dusk fell, Celia clambered up the last slope, and stared wide-eyed at what lay in front of her.
It was nothing at all.
Literally, nothing at all.
Around her she could see a high mountain plateau, with snow melting and forming a pool, that ran off into a small waterfall she’d passed on the way up. A few straggly pines grew up here, but nothing else.
But on the other side of the mountain?
Nothing. Blackness so deep that light seemed to vanish into it. It filled the horizon, wrapped around with a visible curve, and literally bisected mountains to either side.
“What is that?” She whispered.
“Oblivion Point,” Mordecai told her. “Easiest place around here ta see the evidence of our stupidity.”
“I never heard of this.”
“It’s not somefing to be proud of. Not as I count it, anyway.” He sat on a rock, next to an old fire ring, long burnt-out and now filled with snowy ashes. “Yer Daddy tell you how we got afraid, when the changes hit? Started losing settlements?”
“Yes. But not much further. We were interrupted.” She pulled Threadbare out of the back where she’d stowed him, and sat him down. and walked toward the pit, with the little toy golem following. They pulled up their own rocks, eyes staring into the nothing.
Threadbare had no idea what it could be, but he wasn’t about to leave Celia’s side, so he figured it could stay over there and he’d stay over here, and that would be fine.
Mordecai spoke again. “So the king at the time, he gets the notion that we need to seal off our kingdom. Cut ourself off from the madness. He goes to the high wizard, th’ oldest member o’ the Seven.”
“Tell yer about them later.” Mordecai coughed. “Much later. Anyways, Grissle, the high wizard, spends years figurin’ out the spell. Then he gives it a try.” Mordecai scowled, and hucked a pebble into the void. It disappeared without a trace. “And damn his eyes, it works. Sort of. Nothin’ goes out a’ Cylvania. Nothin’ comes in. But we didn’t know that the trouble was already in here, sealed in wi’ us.”
“How does it work? I mean… does it kill anyone who tries?”
“No. Yes. Nobody knows. Knew a man once, swore up and down that the farther you go in there, the weirder it gets. Said that you go far enough, you start seein’ numbers. Nothin’ but numbers. And he said that if you do that, you turn and get back as fast as you can, or you start turnin’ INTO numbers.” Mordecai shook his head.
“Who said that? What’s his name?” Celia asked.
“Don’t matter. One day he went in and didn’t come back. Which is what happens ta most who go in there.” Mordecai shrugged. “The wizard’s gone, too. His labs under Castle Cylvania are a dungeon now, the most dangerous one left in this sealed-off little land. If there’s any way to fix it, it’s lost forever.”
Celia shuddered. Then she clapped her hands with glee as Mordecai pulled out several plants he’d foraged, and a pair of rabbits he’d hunted on the way up.
He showed her how to build a fire, striking a steel knife against a flint stone, and how to dress and clean rabbits. Threadbare watched, fascinated, gaining a point of wisdom as he learned that living things could be disassembled too.
Mordecai also showed her how to build a bed of branches and pine needles, sheltering it out of the wind and close enough to the fire that it’d hold a little heat. And as she slept he sat across from the fire, looking at her, then around, keeping watch.
She was tired by then, and never thought to question why he didn’t make one for himself.
Threadbare didn’t sleep. And as he lay in Celia’s arms, as always, he watched Mordecai eventually take out a piece of paper and dig out a stick from the fire. The old scout scratched the stick against the paper, leaving charcoal letters. Then he stuck his knife through it, stuck it into a nearby tree, and hung his waterskin from the knife’s handle.
The bear stirred, and Mordecai caught it. “Stay still, Mister Bear. This is her test, savvy?”
Threadbare didn’t know what a savvy was, but he understood most of the rest. So he nodded.
Mordecai nodded back, and vanished into the night.
And when Celia woke up in the morning, he was long gone.
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