Threadbare’s been blown off a cliff and into a catacomb, in keeping with the cat pun theme of the dungeon, and the first thing I notice is that this book is good in inverse proportion to how much Celia is in it. Early on, when Celia was a secondary character and Threadbare’s developing relationship with the world around him and particularly Pulsivar drove the plot, it was good. Later, Celia became the protagonist and Threadbare a deuteragonist, even to the point of regularly jumping into Celia’s perspective without warning, and things began to drag before eventually becoming absolutely awful. Now that Celia is communicating intermittently through a long range comm skill and Threadbare is mainly figuring things out for himself, things are good again. Like, good enough that I went ahead and deleted an introductory paragraph about how I wasn’t sure I even wanted to finish Threadbare because I’m kind of stressing about some things lately and things I’d normally just laugh at are exacerbating the stress right now, and after actually reading a bit of chapter 11 I decided that no, actually, this is fine. This is actually a good book that I’m happy to read on its own merits, regardless of how many snarky blog posts I get out of it.
It took a while, and as he went, his thoughts strayed back to home. He was starting to miss the place. This was a fun adventure and all, but when they were done it would be nice to get back where he belonged. Hopefully Daddy was okay without Celia there to keep an eye on him.
This sets up a segue to Caradon back home, so clearly Anise is about to whack him or something. Hopefully Anise is not actually just going to show up to abduct/murder him, because if she does, that raises the question of why she didn’t do so earlier. She’s had access to the golem command scrolls and Celia’s been out of the house for a while. For that matter, seeing as how Anise can apparently command the king’s men as though they were her own lackeys, why doesn’t she get a patrol together and just stomp all over the raggedy men? Is being a golemancer so OP that a dozen warrior classed characters will succumb to one guy who can’t even get greater golems working right?
Downstairs, at the broad table, with only Emmet and Pulsivar looking on, he poured himself a glass of wine and felt his sanity refill a bit while he drained it. Then he opened the sack, pulling out two things. A framed portrait of a smiling woman, and an old, ragged teddy bear. Six inches tall, with jet black fur, it stared at him as he held it up. One button eye clattered off as the moth-eaten thread gave way, and Caradon sighed.
So, real talk, back before chapter 9 I was toying with the idea of adding a Threadbare-esque character as a side character to a LitRPG I’m currently percolating. The basic idea is that he’d be Threadbare’s meaner older brother who just got out of prison: Separated from his little girl during a war, he learns kung fu and becomes a badass killer in his quest to reunite with her. I pictured him as a smaller sort of teddy bear from Threadbare, only about eight or nine inches tall, with dark fur and an eyepatch, who fought what were to him giant size enemies with acrobatics and a pair of tailor’s scissors he’d broken in half to serve as swords. I bring this all up because Caradon here is about to animate a teddy bear with black fur, one eye missing, a little bit smaller than Threadbare’s twelve inches, and I wanna see how much of what’s coming lines up with what I was imagining (although I’m hoping it doesn’t – having one of my secondary characters be a riff on Threadbare would be one thing, having it be a clone of an existing Threadbare character would be another).
In fury, he turned back to look at the failed experiment, his still-running eye for detail showing every pathetic detail of its anemic status screen, screaming in wordless frustration…
…and Missus Fluffbear cowered away from him, putting its paws over its head. He sighed, feeling his anger ebb. Sure, it was only due to its adorable skill, but…
Wait a minute.
Its charisma… hadn’t it been sixteen, when he’d first checked the little toy?
Now it was seventeen.
He blinked, as his eye for detail faded.
Implications crashed in on him, but he shook his head. It hadn’t responded to the invite. But it had just gained an attribute point, something lesser golems couldn’t do.
On the edge, so close to completing the equation, he unbound the little golem from its place on the shelf, and picked it up, hugging it to him. It was stiff in his arms for a bit.
“Hug,” Caradon said, and hugged the bear once more. “Hug means this.” He embraced it once more, then held it out.
And Missus Fluffbear looked at him solemnly, then held her arms out for another hug.
Caradon gasped, as her intelligence ticked up from five to six.
“I’ve been a fool. I’ve been a damned, stupid old fool.” He hugged the tiny teddy bear, and now the tears slid freely down his face. “What have I done?” The empty spaces on the shelves where dozens of test subjects had sat haunted him, and he turned his face away. “It doesn’t make supergolems. It makes golems into people.”
This is the most compelling character moment we’ve had in the entire story, and once again it’s coming from someone who is not Celia, our actual protagonist (yes, yes, Threadbare is the viewpoint character, but only in a handful of chapters does he drive the scatterbrained, episodic plot). I’m getting the same vibes here as I did from the Godzilla movie a few years back, where the old guy sacrificed halfway through to raise the stakes is a better protagonist than the actual protagonist.
There’s an attack on the workshop that is clearly the doings of Anise. For half a page it looks like we’re going to have an actual fight, y’know, maybe something with an arc. Caradon reels from the initial ambush, rallies his golem allies to fend off the screaming eagles that Anise is using as cannon fodder, then when it looks like he’s won Anise takes the stage herself, turns the weakened raggedy men on each other with her pilfered scrolls, then for a bit it looks like Emmett is going to be turned on Caradon and reduce him to paste, but Dark Threadbare sneaks up on Anise and steals her scrolls before she can brute force her way into commanding Emmett, so Anise fights Emmett personally. Caradon removes the restriction on wrecking the house so Emmett can go all out and he makes a valiant effort of fighting off the succubus, but gets beaten down in the end, and Anise corners Caradon in the burning ruins of his home to abduct/kill/interrogate/whatever him.
None of this, to be clear, is what actually happens in the book. What actually happens in the book is an executive summary that several screaming eagles attacked, but it’s cool because the raggedy men beat them off, and in the end only the anti-demon wards ended up weakening, so Caradon shrugs and is like “may as well call in Mordecai just in case, but it’s probably nothing.” I just wanted to illustrate how awesome things could’ve been.
Back in the catacombs, although there’s no one section I can quote to demonstrate, things actually are pretty cool. Threadbare has a goal – he needs to reunite with Celia – and there are obstacles in his ways – a bunch of undead cats. Threadbare fights a handful of skeletal cats, rumbles with a boss, and then diplomacizes his way through an encounter with a ghostly cat lady with dozens of skeleton cats at her command. At the end of the chapter, Threadbare reunites with Celia, so that’s the fun part over with, then.
Jarrik shook his head. “Naw. They’re set up in a formation that puts most of ’em between us and tha exit. And they’re spread out enough I can’t camo past them and go get help. They’d detect me an’ well, SHUNK.”
“How about the chasm Threadbare came out of? We got rope,” Bak’shaz pointed down into the pit.
Garon shook his head this time. “We’ve got rope but nothing to attach it to. That grate will fry anything it touches, and the closest tie-off point is in the Cataphract room. And even if we did, those Stalagmites are set really close together. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I haven’t been grinding agility. They’d flat out kill me if I fell on them. And if they’d kill me, sorry, but they’d turn any of the rest of you into gibs.”
“Coming up empty. It kills me, Clerics get Divine Transit at level ten. That would solve all of our problems! But I’m one level short, just one friggin’ level!” She pounded her chainmail skirt, with a jingling clash. “If only we had a couple of decent fights, or maybe one big one, I could get there. But there’s no monsters in here. And the Cataphracts are too tough. We burned up all our coins so Garon can’t use his twisted rage blood is gold combo, so there’s no way we’d get the experience without fatalities. They’re just too smart and too tough.”
This is what it sounds like when children and teenagers confront death, apparently. A perfectly level-headed analysis of options and obstacles from all five present.
Meanwhile, back at the racism:
Oracles really had it easier, she thought. Gods were oddly small, in the grand scheme of it all. They could throw easy puzzles at their Oracles, symbols and hopes and visions. Dream quests were much more difficult, because the grand sweep of nature not only had no real interest in things that weren’t it, it didn’t bother to adjust its comprehension so that smaller things could understand it. How could the ant comprehend the elephant, or the pebble comprehend the mountain?
God, Threadbare is so fucking enamored with its shitty nature philosophy, and it’s all so completely empty. Zuula says her god is bigger than everyone else’s and we’re supposed to take this seriously because she appends a couple of cliches to it.
Mordecai had thought she was just into rough foreplay. Well she was, but like most things she did, it served a deeper purpose. High wisdom let you do that sort of thing, after all.
Threadbare would like you to know it’s not racist because it respects blacks for being such a deeply spiritual people, and also that it’s totally okay to subject your partner to violent foreplay for secret magical purposes without informing them, just in case you needed a reminder of both the reasons why Zuula is awful.
“Just so we’re clear, we’re hurling ourselves across the gap to fight the boss, in hopes that he’s less of a lethal fight than the Cataphracts were, in the hopes that he’ll provide enough experience to level Beryl up so she can cast her dungeon escapey spell.”
This raises the question: Why would the final boss be easier than the mid-boss?
“Necromancer,” Celia said, staring down at the bear, clutched tight in her arms. “So you can cast spells too, now?”
Threadbare shook his head and tapped his mouth.
“Right. We’ll do something about that.” Visions of teddy-bear led zombie apocalypses filled her mind.
I know I said that Threadbare’s quality is inversely proportional to how much Celia is in it, and I stand by that at least so far as the book has got so far (and we’re 3/4s of the way through), but all that said, I like the way this kid thinks.
A flight of stairs later, they came to the Master’s Chamber. Tall, vaulted ceilings filled a Cathedral like-hall, complete with an altar up front, covered with well-thumbed copies of “Cat Fancier.” Balls of yarn were strung across and around the candle-sconces, hanging between the pillars and draping down, ends blowing in the draft from the high windows. It had the reek of a thousand thousand litterboxes, and as the group stood coughing, Threadbare took the bump up to his Scents and Sensibility level, and shut his nose off as fast as it could go. To either side of the altar stood large chests, overflowing with coins.
“Hoomins!” A voice boomed from above. “Ceiling Cat is watching you!” A blur of white above, that shifted away as a door slammed open, next to the altar. Greenish eyes glared out.
“And Basement Cat will swallow your souls!” Came a hiss that would have put Pulsivar to shame.
According to Royal Road, Threadbare started sometime around December 2017 or January 2018, so this reference is just as dated in original context as it is now. It’s so dated that it’s kind of wrapped around to being just part of the general cultural background of the internet, though, so I think we’re good.
Five more brawling levels, two more strength, a point of luck, and six more Claw Swipes levels later, Basement Cat staggered back.
Threadbare drops description like this a lot. I get the feeling the narrative feels like it needs to mention each and every time Threadbare levels anything, and for the Amazon version it kind of does, but this just raises the question why it’s not just showing Threadbare’s character sheet at the end of each chapter like it does on Royal Road? Even at its longest, it’d only take like two pages. Also, I double checked, and this line also appears in the Royal Road version, where updating Threadbare’s character sheet incrementally in the text like this is totally unnecessary because it’s posed in full at the end of each chapter. Why?
Threadbare could see how it would end up. Which made him wonder… were these guys supposed to be the strongest monster here? The group was handling this one fine. Why had they worried about it so much?
He got his answer as the two polar opposite cats reached the same conclusion, glanced to each other, then disengaged and bound upwards, to stand on the altar.
“By our paw-ers combined,” meowed Ceiling Cat.
“Call the ultimate magus!” finished Basement Cat.
“Come forth, Nekomancer!”
At least we’re ending on some decent puns. I say “ending,” but we’re only 75% of the way through. This seems like as good a climax as any so it feels like this here is the end of the book, but really, it’s not like this is wrapping up the plot or anything. In fact, it’s a total digression from the actual plot, which is the secret schemes of Caradon and Mordecai and how Anise is after them and Celia, and which will get started aaaaaaany second now.
His cape fluttered in the wind, as the flashing light resolved…
Into a girl. Small, thin, wearing a black fur bikini, with white kitty ears. A twisty tail, made of swirling black and white fur, waggled behind her. “Nyaaaa-aaan,” she purred, squatting on her haunches, and grinning big…
…showing very large, but cute fangs.
Apparently when they said “you’re here forever” what they meant was “/tg/ will follow you if you leave.”
With a magic-item boosted leap, he hopped up on the altar, and bopped her in the face with a fistful of claws, sending a red ‘40’ skyward.
Your Brawling Skill is now level 19!
Your Claw Swipes Skill is now level 16!
“Me-OWWW!!! That is NOT KAWAII!”
No, never mind. This isn’t /tg/. This is someone dimly aware that /tg/ exists and shoving weeb memes in at random with all the care and understanding as 80s references in Ready Player One.
Then Threadbare was there again, and punted away again, for another fifty-seven points of damage.
I’m only glancing at the Royal Road version, but I don’t think there’s any indication of how much health the Nekomancer actually has, so these exact numbers are doing jack diddly to establish stakes.
The boss fight is okay. They win by sending the mercenary half-orc to loot the Nekomancer’s chests, convert the gold to buffs, and beat the shit out of her. They exit the dungeon, and the scepter stuck inside Threadbare from when he killed the rat king is detected by the wizard manning the gate, so now everyone’s in trouble for smuggling. Although, honestly, this group has plenty going for them in terms of making their case. The magic item is tiny and trivial, so they can make a strong argument that it was unintentional just from the fact that it’s not worth the risk for something so puny, Beryl is apparently from a wealthy family, and Celia and especially the half-orcs are all directly associated with Mordecai, who trains the King’s scouts and is therefore very much not someone the King wants to agitate. Unless the succubus intervenes, but she seems to be able to command these soldiers with authority second only to the King himself, so it’s not clear why she couldn’t just command them to abduct the kids to start with. In fairness, this book warned me it contained nonsense up front.