The party is sifting through the ruins of the toy shop, and the conversation drifts towards Dark Threadbare’s time with the raccants.
“Yes. They gave me to their children to play with, at first. They played rough! It was very dangerous. But when they saw I could move things and carry things they took me from the children and made me work for them. Then I got attacked by those big hatted cloud things one time and beat them up with my spade. That’s when their Chief, the great Hoomin decided I should be in his dungeon. Then you saved me from that. And then some of them were dead out front and I don’t know why.”
So Dark Threadbare was endangered by the raccants, then enslaved by them, and finally abducted – to the point where she refers to Threadbare as unambiguously having “saved [her] from that.” This does not sound like a fun time.
Threadbare twitched. Zuula’s words rang through his mind. Friends don’t lie to friends, mostly. He pondered it for a second, and decided that it would be bad to lie, here. “They were dead because I killed them.[“]
Okay, if this was going to be a character moment, then probably Zuula shouldn’t have reminded us of her total amorality in the same breath she provided what’s meant to be this scene’s moral guidance. This is the kind of minor nitpick that I probably wouldn’t notice if it weren’t reminding me of how atrocious Zuula is, though. Like, if she had a coherent philosophy in which she actually considers some things to be dishonest or dishonorable, then it’d make sense that she’s the one propping up the virtue of honesty. But she was totally on board with using deception to kill her enemies – to the point that the orc culture she draws her “wisdom” from has actual sayings and traditions about it. You could have a culture where “friends don’t lie to friends” is the moral and lying to enemies is fine, but Zuula has already explicitly disclaimed the idea that she attacks enemies because of their actual wrongdoing, and is instead motivated solely by taking what she wants from anyone too weak to stop her. The only definition of “friendship” here appears to be “people you don’t particularly want to hurt,” which means this “moral” is “only lie to people you want to lie to.”
Threadbare continued. “I tried to ask nicely, but one of them tried to take my tools and hurt me. When I pushed him back they all attacked me.”
“Was it the one with stars on his shoulder? That was mean to you?”
“He was mean to me too. I wasn’t sorry to see him dead. But you killed Bujy and Hamste and small missing ear Kity, and they were my friends. Sort of.” She kept staring at Threadbare. “I don’t know how I feel about this.”
“I don’t know how you should feel, either,” Threadbare said. He took off his top hat and rubbed his head. “I’m not sorry because they were trying to hurt me, and they could have if I didn’t stop them. But I’m sorry because you liked them and I didn’t know, if that makes any sense.”
I mean, at least Threadbare is making his case instead of acting like what he’d done was horrible. If I had more confidence in the narrative, I’d chalk up Dark Threadbare’s mixed feelings to a reasonable and nuanced depiction of Stockholm Syndrome. Considering how regularly this narrative has asked us to accept openly abusive behavior as “cultural quirks,” however, I get the feeling that this is supposed to be a very different kind of morally ambiguous.
It’s weird that Threadbare, the character, can fairly consistently express a coherent moral worldview despite the narrative’s ongoing inability to notice that Zuula’s philosophy is basically just psychopathy.
[“]I feel bad Darla and Barret and Grimble ah gone. But theah ain’t no point in blaming Threadbeah. If it wasn’t him, it’d be somewan else. Bein’ a monstah means soonah or latah someone kills ya. And raccants is monstahs, they all knew the score. They wouldn’t hold no grudge, or ask you ta hold one.”
And here’s Madeleine to inform us that she, too, believes that psychopathy is the best philosophy. There was some indication of this in the first book, but this is the first time it’s been unambiguous. The reason why Threadbare shouldn’t be held accountable is because the raccants abducted Dark Threadbare, so he had a valid reason to go and get her back, and he attempted to resolve the matter peacefully before being attacked. He didn’t hunt down fleeing enemies, resort to violence without any effort at diplomacy, or show up with a request that the raccants would’ve been justified in refusing outright.
For all that Madeleine and Zuula’s total amorality has gone unnoticed by the narrative, Dark Threadbare’s response is actually pretty reasonable:
“You didn’t know they were my friends,” Missus Fluffbear said. “And not all of them were, and they attacked you and they shouldn’t have.”
“Okay. I’m still sad. But I’m not mad at you. I’m glad you pulled me out of there.[“]
The dialogue is a little weak, it kind of gives me robot devil vibes, but it’s not atrocious and it’s nice to see characters behaving like reasonable adults for a change.
“What’s a core column?” Threadbare asked.
“It’s a ticket ta immortahlity, if ya a monstah. The mahstah puts you in theah, and you stay theah all safe while copies of you go out and do stuff. Ya get good enough, ya can control what ya duplicates do. But ya can’t make them leave the dungeon.”
“How you know this?” Zuula asked, suspicion in her voice.
“Pssh, I was born in a dungeon. Just a wandering bloodsuckah. One minute nothin’ then BOOP, there I was, a li’l level one vampaiah. Mighta been a copy of someone in a core cahlumn, or coulda been just a randahm spawn. Dunno. Got good at what I did, then the Seven came an’ sealed the dungeon and I escaped befoah it sealed completely.”
Confirmed: Dungeon monsters are independent and sapient beings.
Conversation turns to who’s going to get shoved into a golem body first. Zuula reasserts that she is a half-orc, which means her children are not, but the really notable bit is this:
“Look,” Garon said, “I’d like to do something before I die, but if I can’t, I’ll cope and move on to the afterlife. In which case Mom, you get your wish. And Mads, your deal is for a body, so we can’t experiment on you in case it turns out it kills you permanently, because that would be wrong. I’m a Mercenary, and when you make a bargain you keep it. We made a bargain with you, we keep it.”
See this? This is actually a set of non-standard morals. “I keep my end of a bargain, no matter what” is a real principle and someone who upholds that principle is an actually interesting character – even if they are otherwise amoral and totally willing to pillage and plunder to get ahead.
Garon gets his soul stuck into a toy soldier modified slightly to be a half-orc, in an effort to make sure he keeps as many of his class levels as possible. It’s partly effective – just like toy bear Threadbare gets bear abilities, toy soldier Garon gets to keep his mercenary job. There are some side effects, though:
[“M]y stats are way lower. Way way lower. Like my intelligence makes me feel like I’m thinking through a headache, lower. And… oh, shit. Guys?”
“Yes?” Threadbare said, examining it. And he froze, as he looked at one of the attributes low on Garon’s screen, just as Garon confirmed his fears.
“My luck’s at newbie half-orc levels.”
Two interesting concepts are raised here: The idea that intelligence, as a stat that raises and lowers, can be drastically increased or reduced through buffs, and the same but for luck. Threadbare doesn’t leave these concepts completely unexplored, but it does kind of gloss over them. Like, magic items buff stats. Imagine a world where the ultra-rich control magic item markets to buff their luck and intelligence higher, or where there’s an oversaturation of people taking INT and WIS boosting classes because of the broad benefits those attributes give compared to relatively narrow things like STR and DEX.
Also, there’s no particular quote I wanna use to show it, but Garon keeps referring to Madeleine as “Mads” which kind of suggests a level of familiarity, despite the chapter reinforcing in other places a relentless animosity between the two until very recently.
Garon’s original body is destroyed at his insistence to test what happens, and specifically because he wants everyone else (and hopefully him, too) to know whether or not dying in the golem body means dead for keeps. The answer turns out to be no, but Jesus, can we maybe veto Garon’s crazy recklessness now and again? Obviously the way you test that is to assume that dying in the golem body is permanent and then hope you’re wrong if it actually happens.
Regardless, he does survive (obviously, he has an unresolved character arc), and also realizes that he’ll pick up whatever race the golem body is a simulacra of, regardless of what he was in life.
“I don’t want to be a half-orc anymore.”
“But… you was awesome half-orc!” Zuula said, waving her arms. “Why you give that up?”
“Oh geeze… ah… look, Mom, it’s not you, or half-orcs, it’s the rage. I can’t handle the rage.”
“But you build battle plan around it!”
“Yeah, and you know what? After I got to try it out in an actual fight, it sucks! Everything goes red and you’re just killing, and killing, and hurting until it goes away. And it’s not just that, it’s what it does to your temper, outside of it!” Garon’s voice raised, got shriller as he started speaking faster. Threadbare and Fluffbear glanced at each other, feeling not very comfortable at where this was going.
So instead Garon becomes a motherfucking dragon. Garon’s power-gaming the Hell out of this, and I love it.
I really dislike how it’s presented, though:
“All right, but if you don’t want a half-orc body, what do you want?” Threadbare asked.
Garon told them.
For a second, there was stunned silence in the basement. Then Mads whistled. “You ain’t afraid ta go big, Gar.”
“Zuula forgive you,” his Mom decided. “Not half-orc, but… eh, close second. She tink she see one in de toy store. Let’s go get it.”
Twenty minutes and one salvaged toy later, Garon stirred, and opened plush eyes as the world came into focus. Again. He was immediately met by a prompt.
You have unlocked the High Dragon Hatchling job!
Would you like to become a High Dragon Hatchling at this time?
Threadbare is just continuously held back by its obsession with having a big reveal, of having all the emotional impact of a moment come in all at once – and thus leaving surrounding paragraphs or even whole chapters sucked dry of the emotions they need to be compelling.
“Zuula forget. Why Zuula forget? Oh. Oh wait. Status. That why Zuula forget. Man, dese stats be nurphed.”
“What’s a nurphed?” Madeline asked.
“Nurph be god of weakness and losers.”
“Actually he’s the god of Honor and Fair Play, Mom.”
“Did Zuula stutter? Same t’ing anyway.”
I may have to put a moratorium on the mounting evidence that Zuula has no redeeming qualities and is totally amoral. This passage is also, Kindle tells me, one of the most frequently highlighted passages in the book. I’m gonna guess that a good chunk of the people who highlighted that passage did so because they agree with Zuula, and that a good chunk of that are actually scrubs who do poorly in genuinely balanced competitive environments, the kinds of people who form the initial surge of popularity when an MMO opens up a PvP server and then depart soon afterwards when they discover that they’re not actually good at video games and don’t want to put in the effort to get better, leaving the initially radically popular PvP servers a ghost town. I have no solid evidence to back that up, the only thing Kindle tells me about these mysterious highlighters is that there’s 26 of them, so it’s possible that all of them just thought it was funny. But, y’know, Threadbare has lots of jokes. This is the first statement that would appeal primarily to people who like to think they’re good at video games despite lacking the understanding of balance and high-level play required to actually be good at video games.
Anyway, Garon’s testing out his new dragon skills.
Burninate, which dragons usually roar in the draconic language so as to avoid mockery by younger races, is a costly and exhausting skill. It also calls up the fire directly from the dragon’s mouth.
And at the time, the little plush toy golem who’d activated it had absolutely no resistance to fire.
I like this bit, both for being kinda funny and for showing the unexpected and not always helpful side effects of pasting new race and profession skills onto a toy golem chassis.
Madeleine gets a wooden marionette body (courtesy of Fluffbear, who unlocks a carpentry crafting job to do the appropriate modifications to turn it into a vampire):
“Wait,” Garon said. “What about the daylight thing. And the wood thing?”
“I thought of that. You know how many nights I spent staring at my status? Got those ‘skills’ memorized. The exact wahrding was my flesh burns at the touch of sunlight. My FLESH, Gar. So if all I got is wood, instead, I should be fine. And the wood thing don’t kick in till level five, and it says wood which pierces my skin will pain me, and wood through the haht will paralyze me. Guess what puppets don’t have! Skin or hahts!”
And it works, too. I approve. This kind of rules lawyering, power gaming shenanigans uses the LitRPG concept to its fullest.
They spend a bit more time gaming the system – Madeleine has a spare adventurer class slot since she was a monster from the start and had no classes to bring in with her, leaving her default slot open, so she takes a chance on killing some rats with fire and unlocks fire elementalist. And that is the chapter.