Cecelia Quest 5
Cecelia enters the dungeon, stepping through the woods at the edge. She’s attacked by a massive raggedy man, but Threadbare’s LitRPG mechanics don’t care about size and level 7 is level 7, so Cecelia and what’s left of her crew – the necro-knight Graves and also Anise – tear through it with no difficulty. As they approach, she realizes a few things: One, the trees are all wrong, including the one Caradon notched to measure her height on her birthdays, which is a weird detail for him to forget. Two, like the raggedy man, the house is ridiculously massive. Kind of like it would seem from the perspective of someone about twelve inches tall.
She got to the top, and peered down the hallway. There, at the very end, was her grandfather’s room. Light spilled from under the door, and she could hear the old man humming, as he did when he sat up and worked before he went to bed every night. An old familiar melody, but she knew it for the ruse it was now. “He left you behind, didn’t he, Threadbare?” She said, looking instead to her own room, darkness beneath the crack under the door.
“Left you behind to stall me, while he escaped. Come on. It’s me, Cecelia, all gr-grown up now,” she said, tears spilling from her eyes. “Come… come out and we’ll talk about this. I’ll get you some paper to write on or s-s-something.” Oh, the tears came freely now, and she tugged off her helm, shook her head. Her hair bounced, short but frizzy as it had ever been.
I think I got that paragraph break right. It looks wrong as a single mega-graph, but there’s a page break right there so it’s hard to tell. In any case, Cecelia’s hair has been a recurring motif for the past couple of chapters. She decided she was going to get it cut short after she finished murdering a village because it had gotten in the way while she was stress vomiting over it (this scene wasn’t as noticeably botched as the time Celia stress vomited over a screaming eagle having tried to kill her, but it was unexceptional enough that I didn’t bother commenting on it). The idea of shaving her head out of some kind of guilt or something has since been referenced once or twice. There’s a joke in here somewhere about that one time she ran a gauntleted hand through her hair, but I can’t find it.
Regardless, Cecelia’s level of attachment to her old stuffed animal is both weird and makes her look hysterical. Like, she’s a soldier, she’s been killing people who are in turn trying to kill her. Dealing with lots of stress is a totally normal thing for her. And anyway, she knew Threadbare for how long? Like, a month, maybe two? And that was five years ago. She still likes Threadbare, and wants to talk things out with him, fine. But why is he still the most important thing in the world to her?
“That was rebels, who wiped out Taylor’s Delve.” Graves snapped. “They only blamed the Crown for…” he stopped, at Cecelia’s expression. “Ma’am?”
“It’s true,” Cecelia said.
Graves chewed on that. Swallowed hard. “We’re only at war with the dwarves because of Taylor’s Delve. Now you’re telling me that they’re not lying? That they do have just cause? That we’ve seen thousands of our own die in this war because we started it?”
“It’s… complicated,” Cecelia said, avoiding his eyes. “My Father… he had to…”
“Why?” Threadbare said. “He got everything he wanted. He got Emmet and he got you. That was why he moved everyone in to fight Caradon. Well, not everything.” Threadbare put his hat back on, and put the teacup down. “He didn’t get the golemist job.”
“Right,” Cecelia said. “Which is why he needed grandfather alive, which is why I bargained for his life! It was the only way!” She said, and the teacup shook in her hand. “I had to be good, I had to do what he say, and be who he needed me to be, so Caradon would live! I had to… I had to.” She finished, her voice breaking. “I still have to.”
Threadbare looked at her. Then he looked down. “You don’t know.”
So we get some insight here as to why Cecelia went along with Darth Villainous’ scheme to begin with, and it’s a lot better than “turns out he’s my biological father so I guess I’m on his side now.” I was happy to let Threadbare sidestep this with a timeskip to when she’d been a Sith apprentice for five years already, but it’s nice to see there’s some kind of actual progression going on here, that when you peel away the indoctrination about necessary evils and shit, the original motivation is still under there (and based on a lie).
Side note, I feel like we’re about to get to the part where Anise makes good on her threat, made a couple of times in this chapter and the ones just before it, to “make [Cecelia] into who [she] need[s] to be,” but I’m not really clear on how? Like, clearly she’s going to try and stop this conversion from happening no matter which direction it goes in, but Threadbare is Player One. Trying to attack him is basically suicide by cop. Cecelia loathes Anise, so I can’t imagine what Anise could say to Cecelia to convince her to attack Threadbare herself.
And, in point of fact, Threadbare does quickly convince her to switch sides. It’s kind of sudden, but fundamentally Melos’ hold on Cecelia was built on a pack of lies. This isn’t just justifications being unraveled, this is Melos’ leverage over her turning out to be non-existent. And it’s not like Cecelia hasn’t turned on her father when it came to doing bad things to old friends before. The entire course of this conversation was completely predictable.
Anise clapped her hands, gently. “Bravo. Happy ending. Except oh, there’s one little looseend, isn’t there? The nasty old daemon.” Anise smiled.
She’s so smug about it, which is weird, because she’s basically just saying “oh, by the way, don’t forget to murder me on the way out.” We don’t really have any idea how powerful Anise is, but she doesn’t go around single-handedly stomping all over Darth Villainous’ enemies and she’s up against four mid-to-high level enemies already, with a fifth currently manning the dungeon who A) can unleash the dungeon monsters on Anise as backup and B) is herself a mid-level knight who can help them wreck Anise directly. Just how overpowered is Anise if she isn’t completely outmatched right now, and why has she never used this power before?
“Do you know why he pacted a succubus, using his dead wife as the vessel? Do I have to spell it out for you? Not that he’s had much free time to enjoy those benefits.”
“You shut up about him. You’ve twisted him all up, driven him mad,” Cecelia said. “All for your own amusement, fiend.”
“Me? Driven him… Ha!” Anise slapped her thigh. “Oh, you have no idea how fucked he truly is, and how much worse it’ll be for him and everyone else, soon. On the shoulders of the king, the world rests. When he falls, so does this miserable little land.” She sneered. “This situation wasn’t his doing, and he tried to stop it, but he was just weak enough and here I am. Along with all the others.”
“Others…” Graves said. “The Hand?”
“If you’re looking for the part where I confess all my evil plans because you’re going to die anyway, look again.[“]
Okay, I’m gonna scroll back up to the last paragraph and…yup, it’s still there. I mean, okay, you didn’t give away all your evil plans, but you did just reveal that all of Melos’ old party members are still alive. In some form, at least.
“And your job is…” Cecelia asked, staring, feeling the tension balance on a knife edge.
“Well, my main one is cultist, actually.” Anise winked at her. “High enough to cast the Second Pact, finally. Remember how I told you how I would make sure you became the person you needed to be?”
Then she moved, faster than she’d ever moved before, faster than Cecelia had thought she could; A burst of motion, too fast to process, an impact that exploded against her chest like Reason’s sword against the gate, an impact that SHOULD have sent her flying backward but didn’t, and her breastplate broke open like cardboard, as Cecelia felt her limbs go numb.
She looked at Anise’s face, inches from her own.
And she looked down, to see the daemon’s arm disappearing into her breastplate.
And through her chest.
Her sword clattered to the ground. She couldn’t feel her fingers anymore. “I really only need two parts of you to do that, Cecelia,” Anise told her, and kissed her gently on the lips before grabbing her neck and tearing and Pulsivar was howling and Threadbare and Graves were shouting, but they were too late, too late by a hot, horrified second.
…and Cecelia died, with her head and heart in Anise’s hands.
But, I mean, we’ve spent this entire book establishing that death means nothing, so this is a pretty minor setback. Like, Cecelia is specifically shielded against any negative consequences of death because she’s got a soulstone set up with Graves. Predictably, Anise is capable of serving as a boss-fight to the entire mixed Cecelia/Threadbare party, but it’s still not clear how. There’s tons of people here with second tier class unlocks and most of them are like level 15 in their first tier classes. There’s supposed to be this big revelation that oh, no, demons can get job levels, too, but what job does Anise have that lets her completely wreck a second tier like this and why isn’t anyone else using it?
The boss fight begins in earnest and Threadbare quickly reassures us that there won’t be a good explanation for Anise’s unprecedented superpowers:
Anise whirled as Pulsivar’s claws raked her back, and hissed as a red ‘32’ rose up. She spun in place, lashing out with one heel in a sweeping round kick, and the cat cried out in pain, knocked backward.
“She’s a glass cannon!” Graves yelled. “Keep on her!”
Threadbare didn’t know what a glass cannon was, but he was pretty sure he’d seen Pulsivar straight up murder soft targets before, and Anise sure as heck wasn’t one.
So no, this isn’t Anise leveraging her classes’ strengths to compensate for her weaknesses by spiking Cecelia and then bolting with the bits she needs to demon-ify her. She’s just generally crazy OP.
The boss fight finishes when Fluffbear shows up as reinforcements. You might think it was her cleric powers that turned the tide, but you’d be wrong.
Anise turned, staring drunkenly at the little black bear, who reined in Mopsy and glowered up at her. “Leave them alone!”
“You… you…” Anise said, shaking. “No… how… no… Amelia!” She roared, her voice mingled with something inhuman and deep, bellowing, filling the chamber, “You fight me on THIS, Amelia? This TOY! You… I…” She fell to her knees, and blood pattered out of her eyes, bloody tears spilling onto the sand of the dark cove under the church.
“Fluffbear,” A woman’s voice said, hissing from Anise’s throat. “Her name is Missus Fluffbear. And you can’t HAVE her!”
Anise just murdered Amelia’s daughter, but it’s her childhood toy that brings out the sudden resistance from inside? It was mentioned earlier that Anise has been grinding down what’s left of Amelia and that only childhood memories are left by now, so it’s not that this is unjustified, it’s that it’s thematically bizarre. This isn’t just another in a series of reversals, this is the actual turning point that allows Graves to soulstone Cecelia and all of them to escape consequence-free. It’s the climax of the fight, and it hinges on the fact that Anise focused on scrubbing the memories more likely to come up and didn’t bother with the ones that did not, and then it turns out that Team Threadbare happened to have a party member who could tug on the heartstrings that hadn’t already been severed. It’s not the power of love overcoming the demon at a critical moment – which would’ve been fine, because demons are magic bullshit anyway and may as well be magic bullshit that’s vulnerable to the power of love – it’s just a remarkable coincidence exploiting a flaw in Anise’s build. It’s not unforeshadowed, but it’s still basically deus ex machina, in that the heroes triumph through what amounts to a bolt of lightning randomly striking their enemy at a critical moment.
But, whatever, the good guys got away with Cecelia’s soul, the bad guys kept her head and heart, so presumably there is going to be some doppleganger mirror match at some point.
“It’s…” Threadbare spat the last water from his voicebox. “It’s me. This armored guy is a friend, too.”
“T’ank goodness.” Zuula said. “Dreadbear. Fluffbear and cats tell us what happened. We sorry. We so, so, sorry.”
And oh, yeah, where the fuck were you in all this, Zuula?
The chapter is a pretty unexceptional denouement. Every named character, as well as every single villager, have all been soul stoned. The named characters quickly agree to make a unified party and brainstorm some build strategies. They’ve got a ton of people spread out over lots of classes, so they’re going to use montages to shuffle some classes around and get the spirit medium tier two unlock onto Graves, which he can hopefully use to make some new bodies for everyone. And, uh. That’s basically it.
This here is our epilogue, where Anise summons up a demon using Cecelia’s remains. They get another snipe at Hatecraft in here…
The succubus spoke and red energy pulsed up from the heart, its torn arteries stretching and growing, spreading out to flop upon the mattress, sprouting veins and capillaries as they went. One stretched upward, seeking like a snake, before slamming home into the severed throat of the head, in a manner that would have made Reverend Hatecraft reach for his lotion.
And follow it up two pages later with a naked sixteen year old:
She came to the end, as the skin formed, and Cecelia’s nude shell stopped screaming, and opened its eyelids for the first time. For a second nothing was there but blackness, darkness from a plane mortal mobs were never meant to touch. Then she blinked, and Cecelia’s eyes replaced it.
It’s not super gratuitous or anything, but the “nude” descriptor is dropped in there for no apparent reason and I don’t see why a demon summoning can’t come with its own set of spiffy black robes, considering they just spent half the book hating on people for having weird kinks. Kinks that, while weird, are still legal in a way that nude sixteen year olds are not.
Here, we learn that we have never once seen the actual, real Darth Villainous. King Melos has actually been in one of those green glow-y dungeon pillars the entire time, sustaining…a dungeon, apparently. And if he’s out of the pillar for longer than 30 seconds, enough time for the dungeon to dissolve, that would apparently be super bad. He struggles to control his doppleganger in a way that’s not entirely clear, and is hoping Cecelia will eventually be able to trade off with him in the pillar, although why she can’t do it immediately is unclear. For that matter, why he can’t just stick anyone loyal in there is unclear. Why he can’t just let the dungeon expire is unclear. Really, this whole chapter is basically white noise.
My guess is that the entire kingdom is a giant dungeon and that’s how they cut themselves off from the rest of the world, that if you tunnel through a dungeon wall far enough you’d eventually reach the madness-inducing binary stuff they have at the edge of the kingdom and no one’s realized because dungeons are usually enclosed by walls (and we’ve seen dungeons with outdoor bits before – the cat dungeon was only mostly inside the mountain). The Melos we’ve been seeing is actually a dungeon boss of some kind, and Melos has been assuming direct control over him most of the time, but whenever he has to go to sleep the boss gets to act on his own. And is apparently a total asshole who assassinates kings and starts wars and stuff.
It’s still not clear why the dungeon boss is such a jerk, nor why Cecelia is the only person who can swap in to manage the dungeon when Melos needs a nap. It’s even mentioned that he tried having a bard come in and play a sanity-restoring song that would allow him to remain awake indefinitely, and when it didn’t work (apparently he can’t get buffed while he’s in the pillar?) he was “forced” to execute the bard, even though the guy was both decently leveled and loyal. But why? What’s the big secret, so important that you can’t just swear a loyal subject to keep it? Why can’t the bard just tag in to manage the dungeon for a while? And since being in a dungeon when it expires doesn’t actually kill you or anything, just dumps you in the part of the world that the dungeon used to occupy (this happened to Threadbare, Pulsivar, and Dark Threadbare in the Raccoon Rumpus dungeon), why would letting the dungeon expire even be bad? This is a bad note to end on, because it means I’ve stopped wondering what’s going to happen next and started wondering what’s going on right now, and I’d thought Threadbare had finally outgrown this.