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December 18, 2019

Things Fall Apart




There was a knock at the door.


Boris did up his robe, tripped over a pile of books, undid the latch. He had to wrench the oaken portal open, as it jammed on a pile of doilies.

A woman in black stood in the frame, grinning crookedly. “Boris Rhodof?” she asked, extending a hand. Boris took it, blinked at the strength of the thin fingers. He noted the woman’s cropped black hair, her belted gun, her backpack bulging with nets and steel. He swallowed.

“Master Kavanagh, I presume?”

“Call me Stoat. Yes, and...” she said, peering over the man’s shoulder. “It looks as though you are indeed in need of my skills.” The parlor beyond was a wreck. Books lay about, open and torn. The shelves were bare. Laundry was draped everywhere. Anything not on the floor had been thrown to it. The man himself appeared to have raw egg-white behind his ear.

“Well,” said Boris, releasing her hand. “I wouldn’t have need of your skill set if the problem could be remedied with a swatter and some harsh language.” He leaned, turned his head to see around the shrubbery. A long-nosed neighbor, some two rows down and across, was staring at the eclectic Stoat. Boris ushered the cutter in, frowning.

“Bugger me, Boris. Don’t need to act like you’re letting in a wandering whore” said Stoat, making a face. Boris shut the door, peered through the glass paneling. “My apologies, Master Kavanagh. My neighbors are of a conspiratorial variety.”

Stoat,” insisted Stoat. “And so, what? You’ve hired me as an exterminator.”

“Well, yes” said Boris, turning. “That’s the thing.”

There was a bang from the upper floor. Stoat squinted. A crystal vase bounced down the stairs, shattered on the final step.  Boris flinched.

“They have no reckoning of the seriousness of this.”

“Tits,” exclaimed Stoat. She listened to further crashes and shattering. “Sounds like they're big. How many?”

Boris looked miserable. “I’ve seen just two at a time, but I fear the attic is full. They’ve been…” he said, tugging a cigarillo from his robe pocket. “Lurking up there.”

“Really?” said Stoat, indicating the dart.

“Allow me my ironies and my vices, and you’ll get the gold you want, Cutter,” said Boris, indignant. He clicked a lighter.

Stoat rolled her eyes. “How long’s it been going on? They do sound huge.”

“Not long, but they’ve tugged the hair off the cats. Found a taxidermized ox head in the attic, too.”

“Thought you might have been saving your toenails, or something.”

Boris frowned, took a drag. Tiny doxbells flew from burning straight, scurried away on fluttering wings. “Would you get up there?” he said, waving an arm.

Stoat made a face, pulled off her backpack. She produced a net with iron beads sewn into the knots. “Let’s see what we’ve got” she said, swinging it idly. It clinked heavily. The stairs creaked under her hobnailed boots. Boris watched her go.

The bootsteps ceased. “Oh, would you look at you,” said Stoat, above, muffled. There was a crash, a squeal, a shout of “oh, bollocks.” The ceiling shook. Boris sighed. He looked around for an ashtray, found one under a pair of pants. Smoke and flying, living puffballs rose from the crushed cigarillo end. Boris sneezed.

Stoat stomped back down the stairs. Her hair was a mess, concealed what was likely to turn into a black eye. Her net was missing. “These,” she said, reaching for her sword belt. “Are the strongest little shits I’ve ever seen.” She produced the blade, gritted her teeth.

An incredible crash of furniture emanated upstairs. “You’re paying me double.”

Boris pursed his lips, took another cigarillo from his robe. “Fine, Mercenary” he said. There was a sound of breaking window glass. He flinched.

“Just get rid of these awful topples!”

Topples

Entropy is a pain. While you're not looking, things fall apart, mold, and rot. The forest will rot or burn down. That castle will crumble. Even the mountains will be worn down by the force of the world. Your favorite lamp will eventually break. A grim truth, but perfectly natural.

Sometimes, when your back is turned, entropy grows a little unnatural. It'll grow little hands and tip your lamp over all on its own.

Topples are entropy incarnate. These little monsters start their lives as eggs lain in the leaves of pepperelle, that plant which all the Litorans love to smoke.* When the leaves burn, they hatch. Tiny, innocuous puffballs called doxbells rise from the smoke, buoyed on freshly furled wings. They fly off; harmless, even charming. They fly off and grow into topples.

A doxbell will find a nice place to lurk. A corner, a hole in the floorboards. Somewhere with plenty of dust and not much light. There, it'll strike up a pleasant life grazing on whatever bits of dust, hair, cookie crumb, and toenail paring it can get. When they're seen, they're ignored. Just little dust bunnies, not much of a problem. Dustpans banish them by the dozens. Children squash them in droves. 

There's a rare doxbell, however, who manages to hide and grow. Fattened by a diet of lint and breadcrumbs, it will shed its wings and grow strong. It will begin to tip things over. First, a thimble off the sewing basket. Next, a salt shaker off the dining table. Then, a lamp off the side table; the cat** off the window sill; the cooking oil into the fire. It becomes a topple. It begins to destroy everything.

If you can catch it in the act when its small, you can squash it with a broom. Once it's large and knows how to throw things, though, it is time to get help. 

Call the big lad from next door. Maybe he can kill it. Likely, he can't. Grown topples are strong, despite their size, and they are awfully hard to squash. A year's worth of hardened human detritus makes fine armor. If that fails, you get a professional. Get a cutter. 

If there's lots of topples, get lots of cutters. Kill the topples before they knock the house down.

Author's Note

Topples are the archetypal Level-1 cruddy monster. Mission number one: Clear the topples from the old Magister's tower. For bonus XP, get him to stop smoking. For bonus gold, get rehired when more topples eventually appear from his mass of cats and toenail clippings. Weaker kobolds or something tiny can easily be reskinned into a serviceable topple.
*Of course, no one quits smoking pepperelle, so people's stuff keeps getting knocked over, and every other poor kid has asthma because of the living dust bunnies.
**Cats kill doxbells and small topples with immense joy. They do, however, contribute significant quantities of matter for the little monsters to feed on.

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