We start with a perspective switch to Madeline, where she recaps the plot of chapter 4 to Garon. This takes several pages. Towards the end, a note arrives, in which Threadbare says he’s got the dungeon core but is injured and needs backup before the cat queen comes to claim it. Naturally, the cat queen gets the same note. Both show up, but when the cat queen arrives, she notices something amiss about the stuffing left lying around from Threadbare’s battle with Zuula’s skeletons:
The Cat Queen stood in the clearing, looking up at the fluff scattered around the wrecked hut. Then her eyes narrowed. “Puffweed fluff?” She said, peering at it more closely. And it was. Here in the mountains it bloomed far earlier than it did elsewhere, and someone had wadded great masses of it together, wetted it down to look like stuffing.
But, hang on, that battle actually happened. Zuula was power leveling Threadbare by actually attacking him with skeletons. Since Threadbare has the skills to mend himself and they had the better part of a full day before the undead would be out and about, why not just actually injure Threadbare enough to leave some stuffing around during the fights they were already having? It would’ve prevented the cat queen from catching on and would probably have taken no more time than gathering up puffweed fluff anyway.
One of the oldest orcish games, often played in variations among other species and known by other names, is called “let’s you and him fight.” It’s typically used when a weaker tribe is caught between two bigger tribes, and when done correctly, can ensure that the weaker tribe is the strongest one around.
This book just can’t help but make it more and more clear that all the talk about orcs being in any way “honest” or whatever about their violence is completely bullshit, because here it establishes not just that manipulating enemies into fighting each other to finish off the weakened foes is not just something orcs do ever, but something that is so ingrained into orcish culture that they have traditions and generation-spanning memes about it. Despite vague claims of having some kind of morals, it’s pretty clear that there is nothing that orc culture considers to be actually wrong. They have literally no morals.
When done incorrectly, the poor game-playing tribe’s bones are made into toys for clever children to play with, to remind them not to be too clever unless they can pull it off.
Oh, and also they’re so casually homicidal that they use the bones of their enemies as children’s toys, specifically to remind their children that they have murdered their enemies. Reminder that the first book made a clear allegory between this setting’s orcs and real world Afro-Caribbean people.
This digression into orc sayings is also what snaps us back to Threadbare’s point of view, watching the two sides clash from a safe distance.
The hard part was done. Well, mostly. “Why did we have to put you in the Soulstone, anyway?” He wondered.
“Dey not come around here if Zuula still here,” Zuula explained. “Dey know better. Fear her too much. So Zuula hide in stupid crystal shell dat sticks her at level fucking t’ree. You is welcome.”
So why not have the rendezvous somewhere else? It’s not like Zuula’s actually doing anything.
In any case, the vampires and cats eventually catch on that Threadbare is lurking about, and the battle becomes three-way. Threadbare’s innocent embrace skill allows him to heal, which damages the undead, which makes it his most powerful skill. Fluffbear’s cleric powers are super effective for the same reason.
At some point, Zuula leaves her soul stone to fight with the cat queen. Which, what the Hell was she pouting about earlier about the soul stone reducing her level if she could just leave it whenever she wanted anyway?
“You kill you dearies,” Zuula said. “You hurt dem. You keep dem hungry and bound and scared. Not natural. Not right. But dese are not reasons why Zuula kill you,” The ghost witch said, hair fluttering out behind her in long dreads, as she gave a sudden hop and caught the Cat Queen up in her grasp.
“Then… why?” Tocksy said, struggling, clawing at the implacable ghostly hand holding her.
“Because Zuula stronger den you. And she hungry.”
“Just to make sure there’s no confusion, I’m not killing you for any of the legitimate moral grievances someone might have against you. I’m killing you because I am totally amoral and an ongoing threat to everyone around me.”
Threadbare heals up Pulsivar in the aftermath of a fight with the undead cats, when…
And as the golden light flared, he saw a figure stagger up from the hut, and bring a makeshift stake through another’s chest. “Garon?” he asked.
Garon has left the party.
“Garon!” Madeline’s fangs glistened in the darkness, as she buried them in Garon’s still form, and drank deeply. With a soft sigh, Garon slumped to the ground, body dissolving, leaving only clothes behind.
I mean, hooray? He said he didn’t want to be a vampire, and there was only one way that was going to happen.
As the snippets I’ve quoted have hinted, this fight tends to bounce back and forth between lots of different characters fighting lots of different enemies, so instead of retreating into executive summary while the two sides wail on each other for several minutes, it just skips to different view points as the different skirmishes reach their conclusions or turning points.
Right until the end, when it has a terrible anti-climax by having the last vampire standing, Madeline, killed via exactly that kind of executive summary. Threadbare uses his necromancer levels to reanimate a skeletal dragon, and then…the book informs us that eventually he won. It wouldn’t be super hard to convert this into a proper fight: the dragon skeleton catches Madeline in its jaws, she tears its skull off, but she’s covered in puncture wounds from the dragon’s teeth and Threadbare is able to jump onto her, knock her down to the ground with the momentum, and claw her face off. That there was a one-sentence summary, but you can see how you could expand that into like two paragraphs and be reasonably compelling, particularly since it’s on the tail end of a fight scene that otherwise mostly works.
Garon returns as a ghost and gets shoved into the soul stone, and refuses to move on because he wants to forgive his older sister for killing him. Apparently she was driven to it by orc battlerage and not any actual animosity. Threadbare thinks he can make a golem body to shove the orc ghosts into, and then Madeline’s ghost pops up and offers to tell him where he can find her stash of reagants and other magic materials in exchange for also getting a new golem body.
“Fahk it. Can’t stay mad at you. So whaddya say? Soulstone me, prahmise to give me a new bahdy, and I’ll show you wheah we hide our loot. Ain’t much, but we got plenty of yellow dust. An’ other colors besides.”
“I’ll vouch for her,” Garon spoke up.
“Garon! She enslave you!” Zuula hissed.
“She’s a monster. She was just doing what came naturally. You should know all about that, Mom. That nature thing?”
“Dat is low blow.”
“Doing what comes naturally” is in no way distinct from “doing whatever you want.” Until we get transhuman brain augments or something, all impulses are natural.
In addition to the ongoing association between orcs, total amorality, and actual real Afro-Caribbean people, this is also the point when the stakes of the story plummet. Death is now easily reversible, and vicious enmities are resolved with a joke. In theory, this could be an unstable alliance between mortal enemies that’s ready to fall to pieces at any moment, but in practice I’m very confident that the entire conflict between Zuula, Garon, and Madeline will never be plot relevant again. At best, it may occasionally come up in dialogue. So death means nothing, because ghosts can be shoved into golem bodies for so long as supplies last, and Threadbare just got a sizable cache, and interpersonal conflict means nothing, because anyone who needs to be allies will become so instantly, regardless of previous enmity. Say Threadbare shows up at Castle Melos and Celia’s become an evil Sith apprentice and from her point of view the Jedi are evil. So what? The precedent here is that this will reverse itself instantly as soon as the plot demands it.