Due to unexpected housing nonsense and the need to move almost immediately, Storytreader’s going to be on hiatus until the beginning of August.
Assuming the current nonsense can be resolved by then, new chapters will resume Sunday August 11th.
Due to unexpected housing nonsense and the need to move almost immediately, Storytreader’s going to be on hiatus until the beginning of August.
Assuming the current nonsense can be resolved by then, new chapters will resume Sunday August 11th.
Having tons of rock fall on her wasn’t the problem Tessa expected it to be. The falling debris blocked even Pillowcase’s enhanced vision and the cacophony made regular speech impossible, but she didn’t need to see or speak to react the room collapsing.
“Out!” she yelled on the team channel. “Through the door and out!”
When she’d pulled the lever, a new door had opened in the wall in the back of the cave. Tessa had only had the briefest of glimpses of the corridor beyond it but since she hadn’t seen a crash cascade of rocks piling down in there, it had to be better than staying in the room.
Most of the rest of the team was stunned back the disaster that was enveloping them so Tessa reach out and tossed the nearest one through the door. Rip wasn’t exactly pleased with that, but with her [Archer] reflexes she managed to land on her feet.
Lisa followed, her [Vampiric] speed not actually any greater than the rest of the team’s. She’d shaken off her surprise instantly and was moving on instinct as much as anything else.
Only Obby moved faster than her, diving clear of the rubble and rolling to land in front of RIp to be the shield the team needed for the inevitable monster attack that was waiting for them.
Tessa helped Starchild through the door after a rock clipped the [Druid] in the head. That had seemed like it was Starchild’s luck running out, but, as it turned out, it was Tessa who’d exhausted her good fortune.
She noticed the problem a tiny fraction of a second before the disaster sucked her up.
The rocks were still falling. How?
Shouldn’t they be piling up?
Enough had fallen that a pile should have formed. Or, really, the room should have filled up.
But it hadn’t.
Rocks continued to fall and a moment too late, Tessa understood why that was.
The ceiling wasn’t the only things that was falling – the floor was crumbling away too, huge pieces falling into whatever unknowable abyss lay below the entry room.
Except it wasn’t going to be unknowable for long, because she was tumbling right into it along with Matt and Lady Midnight.
As she fell, some analytical part of her mind observed that the room wasn’t just a trap, it was a timed puzzle. The [Bone Spiders] were intentionally over-powered for a first encounter in order to force the party to find a method of avoiding them. Once they found the lever, they needed to be ready to execute the ‘get the hell out of room’ mechanic within probably ten seconds. It wouldn’t have been hard if they’d known to expect it and had been prepared for it, but, as with many first time runs of a dungeon, they’d had to learn things through painful error after painful error.
“Tessa!” Lisa’s yell on the team channel reached Tessa before she stopped falling.
By about a quarter of a second.
A lot of her health bar vanished on the impact, and the same was true for Matt and Lady Midnight. An identical percentage in fact, since falling damage was treated differently than other forms of blunt trauma.
Since there were still rocks falling, Tessa rolled back to her feet, and grabbed her two teammates by their hands to haul them off the pile of rocks that was forming around them.
Each of them got pummeled more as they fled and by the time they were safely down an irregular tunnel Matt was about one mouse bite away from death and Lady Midnight was no more than twice as durable.
“Tessa, Matt, Midnight, where are you?” Lisa asked, her panic replaced with the frost of a healer making triage decisions. “We can still see your health bars in the party list. Are you buried under that rubble?”
Tessa breathed a sigh of relief on seeing that the rest of the team was still in solid shape.
“We’re not buried,” Tessa said. Her injuries were already starting to mend thanks to her [Clothwork] passive abilities. As a [Regeneration] based [Tank] she was expected to routinely take awful amount of damage and simply walk it all off.
“But we are cut off,” Lady Midnight said, pointing to the entrance of the tunnel which had been completely filled by the a solid wall of earth.
“We can try to get you out of there,” Rip said.
“Except that we’re cut off too,” Starchild said.
Tessa was surprised enough rocks had fallen to fill the pit to that level but then another idea occurred to her.
“We can get through the door again if we need to do,” Lisa said, confirming Tessa’s suspicion.
“Probably not worth the effort,” Tessa said. “This wasn’t a random accident. That room was designed as a trap. I’m betting when the door shut on you, some magic kicker on it returned the room to its previous state, [Bone Spides] and nanowire webbing included.”
Lisa cursed and wasn’t bleeped out by the game’s profanity filter. Tessa had always thought the profanity filter was ridiculous but she’d left it on fairly often, in part just to see what sort of absurd changes the filter made to otherwise innocuous phrases. Under the present circumstances though, she was glad that the real [Fallen Kingdoms] didn’t have that sort of censorship in place.
“It’ll be okay,” she said. “If I’m right, the two paths we’re on should meet up somewhere a little further on. The trap was just a recycle of the one in the [Crystal Monkey Cave] right?”
“I haven’t been in that dungeon in ten years,” Lady Midnight said.
“Nobody has,” Lisa said. “Or almost nobody. Everyone just skips past the mid-level dungeons now since the loot in them is worthless.”
“I was planning to see if Starchild could solo them,” Pete said. “I think she’s got the build for it.”
“That’s good,” Tessa said. “That should mean that you four won’t have any trouble making it to the meeting point.”
“This wasn’t a bad split for the team,” Obby said. “We’ve got tanks and healers on both sides.”
“I’m hoping we’ll both be able to handle whatever comes next,” Tessa said. “I’m guessing that will depend on whether the encounters scale for our current party sizes.”
“They won’t,” Lisa said. “In the [Crystal Monkey Cave], if I’m remembering correctly, the collapsing room trap was a response check. You were supposed to all get out of it together.”
“Next time it’ll be a breeze,” Tessa said. Lady Midnight had finished healing herself and Matt to full, so Tessa started to carefully advance forward down the tunnel.
“We need to survive this one for there to be a next time,” Lisa said.
“Right. And if we do die, we need to remember to pay attention to our surroundings while we look for the [Heart Fire]. We don’t want to do a mapping run as ghosts if we don’t have to, but if we’re stuck with that, let’s make it count.”
“Promise me you’ll be safe,” Lisa said on their private channel.
“I’m not going to go looking for fun without you,” Tessa said. “The sooner we’re back together, the better.”
“Why didn’t you come through the door?” Lisa asked. “I tried to grab you.”
“I think I was still worried about the [Bone Spiders],” Tessa said. “I didn’t want to leave anyone behind to get eaten by them. I’m sorry though, I didn’t see you reaching for me.”
“That’s okay,” Lisa said. “The rocks were falling. I know you couldn’t do anything about it.”
“Next time I’ll know to try though,” Tessa said.
“Next time I’ll remember that the devs are lazy jerks,” Lisa said. “I bet there’s more recycled stuff in here.”
“Uh, no bet,” Tessa said, putting out her arm to bring Matt and Lady Mightnight to a halt.
In front of her the tunnel widened into a broad shaft with a series of mushrooms rising from the floor far below or sprouting from the walls. From the ceiling, or in some cases from the wall mushrooms, thick vines hung down.
“Those sadists,” Lady Midnight said when she saw what awaited them.
“What is it?” Rip asked.
“Mushrooms,” Tessa said, “In a deep, deep shaft. With vines to swing on.”
Lisa cursed again. Repeatedly this time.
“What’s wrong with mushroom?” Rip asked.
“Nothing,” Tessa said. “Providing you don’t mind falling several hundred feet to an insta-kill.”
“We started doing that intentionally after our seventh run of the [Depths of Tolboron],” Lisa said.
“Wait, we’re supposed to jump from one of the mushroom caps to the next right?” Matt asked.
“And swing between them when the jump is too far or long,” Tessa said.
“That doesn’t look easy,” Matt said.
“It’s not,” Tessa said. “But the best part is the moment sets foot on one of the mushrooms is when the mobs will appear.”
“So we need to do the jumping and swinging while things are trying to kill us?” Matt asked.
“Smart things too,” Tessa said. “At least in the earlier dungeon this was in.”
“Smart how?” Rip asked.
“Smart as in ‘they wait till your vulnerable to attack in the hope of messing up your jump or knocking you off a vine,” Lisa said. “And then when you go splat on the ground, they land to devour your body so you’re stuck rezzing at the [Heart Fire] and taking a nice big quality hit on all your gear.”
“I see why no one does this one anymore,” Rip said.
“Well, not this one,” Tessa said. “The [Depths of Tolboron] is one of the very old dungeons. The newer ones are usually more fun.”
“I’m not seeing a lot of fun up here,” Lisa said. “We made it to the shaft too. I think we’re we’re on the walkway right above you.”
The walkway in question was a good hundred feet higher up the shaft. Not a trivial distance to overcome.
“I’m surprised we got here without being attacked?” Obby said.
“We’re still stuck possibly fighting two battles at once if we all try to get onto the mushrooms,,” Tessa said.
“Could we lower people down with ropes instead?” Rip asked. “Or try to climb the walls?”
“That wasn’t an option in the game, but there’s nothing stopping us from trying it here,” Tessa said. “Except that the mobs that are probably lurking here don’t have the game limitation of only attacking us when we touch the mushrooms.”
“What if something else touches the mushrooms?” Rip asked.
“What kind of something else?” Tessa asked.
“This kind,” Rip said.
From high above, Tessa saw a flash of light followed by a detonation that sent pieces of one of the giant mushrooms raining down into the pit below.
Before she had time to admonish Rip for making a bad choice, the consequence of that choice appeared.
Tess had been expecting either spiders or bats to be the enemy. They were staples of a lot of low level quests and this felt like a ‘blast-from-the-past’ zone. Instead of spiders or bats though, the open air in front of her was filled with [Flying Poison Creepers].
The Creepers were a naturally occurring form of undead – if the spontaneous amalgamation of multiple dead bodies into a single chaotic whole could be called ‘natural’ in any sense. Their species designation was less important to Tessa however than their sensory capabilities.
Specifically whether the Creepers could sense then or had taken flight only because of the destruction of the mushroom.
“Incoming!” Obby yelled just as Tessa saw the Creepers random flight patterns flicker over to a purposeful and directed pair of flight plans.
“Behind me. Only engage the ones I’m on,” Tessa said. “If any break through, leave them alone, even if they attack you.”
There were too many Creeper diving towards them. Tessa knew she could hold them all, and she could only cling to the hope that she could survive the ones she did manage to provoke.
A body’s worth of blood drenched Pillowcase and Tessa smiled.
None of it was her own, and her new shield was strong enough to turn hold the stone shattering impacts the frenzied [Bone Spider] was dishing out. The thrill of a battle that was going well pushed away her fears and doubts and let her focus beyond the microcosm of the giant undead arachnid in front of her.
With their nanowire traps burned away by the [Moon Dust] spell, the [Bone Spiders] had burst from their subterranean traps and attempted to seize the element of surprise.
Both Tessa and Pillowcase had anticipated their attack, as had Lisa, Obby, and Starchild. Rip and Matt had been caught off guard and Lady Midnight had given a strangled scream before shouting out her spells in the loudest, most commanding voice Tess had heard her use so far. Apparently she was a fan of neither spiders nor jump scares.
That made their present circumstances unenviable for her since it hadn’t been only one [Bone Spider] that had surged to the surface.
Five had burst free from the ground in front of them while two others broke from the wall and ceiling to dive into the group.
Obby had handled the diving spider, invoking a skill called [Repelling Smite] to blast the spider backward in a parabolic into the room. It crashed into the rearmost of the spiders that erupted from the floor, the two of them going down in a clatter of bones and flailing limbs.
Tessa wondered if it was really proper to call the creatures ‘spiders’ at all. They had eight limbs, and poison drenched fangs but that was where the similarity to other arachnids ended.
The [Bone Spiders] were constructed of segments shards of bone, woven together through some mid-tier necromantic magic. The bones, which normal spiders notably did not possess, dripped with acidic blood with every movement the [Bone Spiders] made.
Given how it was melting steaming divots into the dirt it fell on, the acid blood would have been a serious problem, likely placing a damage over time effect on Pillowcase that her own healing skills would be pressed to keep up with. Among her other new skills and powers though, Pillowcase had received [Armor Infusion: Golden Soul] which gave her enough damage resistance to “environmental damage” that she could have gone for a bath in the Spider’s stone melting blood and felt nothing more than a pleasant tingle.
Obby had received a similar ability from her [Guardian] class and the two of them had formed an, as yet, unbroken wall in front of their comrades.
Tessa had been concerned that she’d need to hold off the [Bone Spiders] on her own after Obby’s sword was destroyed, but, like any good [Adventurer], Obby had plenty of other weapons available to work with. In fact, from the arc of green fire that trailed Obby’s sword, Tessa say Obby hadn’t even lost her best sword to the nanowire trap the [Bone Spiders] had laid.
“My spells aren’t hurting these things,” Matt said.
“My arrows aren’t either,” Rip said. “No damage at all.”
That wasn’t a good sign, but it also wasn’t entirely unexpected either.
“There’s a mechanic we’re missing,” she said.
“What kind of mechanic?” Rip asked, firing off two more arrows and growling when they accomplished nothing at all.
“Don’t know,” Tessa said. “Hitting for no damage means there’s either a trick to this fight or these things are so high level that they can shrug off your attacks with just their basic defenses.”
“And if they were that tough, they’d be splattering Pillowcase and me with one hit,” Obby said.
“Shoot for the joints,” Lisa said. “If we’re lucky it’s just a targeting mechanic.”
“My spells don’t hit specific body parts,” Matt said. “They blast the whole creature. Or it’s mind I guess?”
“Using the basic attack from your staff,” Lady Midnight said. “Lost Alice and I can do the same. These things don’t seem to be dealing much damage yet.”
Tessa watched as three beams of magic power lashed forward, striking the [Bone Spiders] where bone armored legs connected to plate reinforced bodies, or at the fluid bends between the leg segments.
“[Casting spell: Devouring Spores],” Starchild said, and Tessa saw a ripple of tiny mushrooms and fungi spread across the [Bone Spider] that was nearest to her. The spores eat into the body they landed on and fractured its armor (or skin), leaving their target far more vulnerable to attack.
Or they would have if scalding acid blood didn’t shoot from each crack, transforming into a pristine bone plug for each of the cracks the spores made.
“Why do they have blood?” Rip’s unhappiness at what was clearly a skeleton construct still possessing a seemingly inexhaustible supply of blood was a feeling many other players shared with her. Tessa herself had complained about the devs failing to consider even basic realism in their designs, and had been less than delighted with the answer “it’s magic, don’t think too much about it.”
In [Broken Horizons] the game, the devs had wanted a frightening and somewhat gross monster (limited by the game’s teen friendly rating) to throw against the players so that the encounter would seem ‘hardcore’. The blood splatters in the game had been purple, and not even vaguely convincing, again for rating reasons, but even so Tessa had found it to be on the sillier side rather than threatening.
Standing in front of one, she revised her opinion a bit. The design of the [Bone Spiders] was still stupid. Someone had heard that spiders use pneumatic pressure to move their muscles and thought “why no make their squirt blood out of their pneumatic systems”. Tessa could think of dozens of reasons “why not”, but seeing the creatures in action, and without a weird purple color correction on their blood, she had to admit that they were reasonably intimidating.
Each one being about the volume of a mid-sized sedan, without considering the serrated razor claws their legs ended in, helped establish them as a believable threat. As did the absolute lack of effect any attacks on them seemed to have.
“Their stupid joints are just as tough as their body!” Rip said, loosing more arrows despite knowing they weren’t any good.
“That sucks,” Lisa said. “That means it’s either a specific weak spot on their body or it’s something in this room.”
“I hope it wasn’t the nanowires,” Pete said, speaking up as Starchild focused on finding a weak point anywhere in the [Bone Spiders] carapace.
“They put those wires out,” Lisa said. “They’ve got to be able to deal with them.”
“And they didn’t pop up until the wires were destroyed,” Matt said. “We couldn’t have used the wires against the spider even if we wanted to right?”
“Should we fight them somewhere else?” Rip asked. “Maybe it’s being in here that’s making them unbeatable and they’ll shrivel and die in the sunshine.”
“Dungeon mobs can’t follow outside the dungeon,” Lisa said.
“Except we know some who did,” Tessa said. “The [Shadowed Starstalkers]. And the [Spacers]. Maybe that’s something that can happen here? I mean what’s to stop them.”
A scythe arm tried to flash past her and then pull back but Pillowcase dodged the blow that would have at least knocked her prone and more likely cut her legs off at the knee.
She tried to stomp on the retreating scythe arm and pin it in place but the [Bone Spider] was too fast and too strong to allow that to happen.
“How do we beat this thing!” Rip hadn’t stopped firing and it didn’t look like she planned to any time soon. Or possible ever. She hadn’t quite hit a [Barbarian Rage] level of anger yet, but tunnel vision was clearly setting in.
“Look around,” Tessa said. “See if there’s anything in the room that could be giving them enhanced toughness.”
“Or anything that could damage them,” Lisa said.
“I can’t see anything,” Rip said. “It’s a big spider webby room.”
“Something in the webs?” Lisa asked. The question was to Tessa but she didn’t bother using their private channel.
“Yeah. That’s probably why they bothered obscuring the walls when the webs aren’t going to catch anything,” Tessa said.
“Don’t think we can search for what’s behind those webs unless we get close to them,” Lady Midnight said. “Were we supposed to have a [Rogue] scout this room ahead of us?”
“Nah,” Tessa said. “We just need to move these things over a bit so…”
So that their scout, aka Rip, could get by.
Tessa hated the idea and caught herself before she suggested it.
Pillowcase was basically immune to the spider’s acid blood, but Rip most definitely was not. Also, if any of the spider’s decided that an [Archer] looked like a more appetizing meal than one of the two tanks, Rip would be impaled are torn apart in seconds.
Which wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Rip could survive dying.
Tessa didn’t care.
She was not letting her Rip become spider food.
“So that we can move around the perimeter as a unit,” Lisa said, finishing Tessa thought so much better than Tessa had been fumbling to. “Lady Midnight and I can take turns being stationary to use [Quickened Pulse]. If we leap frog each other, we’ll be fine for healing and get a movement buff.”
God I love you, Tessa sent her on their private line.
Lisa sent back a kissy smile emote, which appeared in the chat log as one of the game’s icons and in Tessa’s telepathic hearing as an actual kiss.
The trick to the maneuver wasn’t coordinating the two healers though it turned out. Lost Alice and Lady Midnight had both performed similar maneuvers countless times in higher tier content. Obby and Tessa, on the other hand, had only limited tools to manipulate the [Bone Spiders] with.
Both of them were forced to lag behind and slow the group’s progress in curving around the walls of the room because the [Bone Spiders] were on a thread thin tether in terms of focusing on the tanks and not leaping over them to devour the backline fighters.
“This is going to be so much easier at 40 when I’ve got [Champion’s Challenge],” Obby said, twisting under one of the [Bone Spider’s] attacks so that she could land hits along its arm and into it’s gem-like eyes.
Tessa was familiar with the skill Obby was looking forward to. It was a much stronger [Taunt] with a better radius of effect than anything either one of them had access to at the moment. [Soul Knight’s] got a similar skill, though theirs was delayed till 45.
“It’s be easy at 40 because we’ll probably be one shotting these things, mechanics or no,” Tessa said with a laugh.
Technically it was a dire situation, but she wasn’t concerned. She was with good people, and one of the smartest women she’d ever met. They were faced with a challenge but it wasn’t flat out broken (like the [Wraithwings]) or not at all supposed to exist in the environments (like the Consortium). This was exactly what the [Fallen Kingdoms] threw at you. Fights that were as much puzzles as contests of might or reaction speed.
“I found a lever!” Matt called out after they made it halfway around the room to the far side. “Should I pull it?”
Tess risked a glance backward. Hidden behind the webbing which covered the walls, was a simple iron lever in the ‘up’ position.
Manipulating strange devices in deadly dungeons was generally a terrible idea. All sorts of mayhem tended to be unleashed with the flick of a simple switch (or the depression of an unnoticed pressure plate, and so on).
But that was what [Adventurers] did.
They poked things and made other things happen.
Just not to Matt.
“Let me!” Tessa said and began backing towards the wall, forcing the rest of the party to move away, lest they be splattered with acid blood.
“Should we reposition the spiders?” Obby asked.
“If you’ve got any idea where they’d need to be?” Tessa said.
“Uh, yeah, nope, pull away!” Obby said.
And so Tessa did.
And so the cave collapsed on them.
Being around people who weren’t trying to kill them turned out to be just what a whole lot of the [Adventurers] needed.
But not Tessa.
“I have never been so glad to pass through an [Instance Boundary],” she said from the comfortable inside of the [Dragonshire’s] local dungeon.
“The air feels different in here,” Rip said. Her whiskers were standing straight out and the fur on her arms was raised.
The door behind them was still open, its arch of knotted, thorny vines marking the border between the dungeon and the relatively tranquil forest outside.
Tessa knew the twisted trees of the forest were supposed to be more menacing and harbor more threats than what they’d faced on the trip to the dungeon, but they hadn’t been the first ones pass by along the path.
They’d seen the remains of some of the monsters which had tried to intercept the earlier [Adventurers] who’d come to brave the dungeon’s depths. There were many more that were simply missing though, a fact Obby suggested was attributable to the [Shadowed Starwalkers].
“I don’t think we’re the first ones to come in here, but we’re definitely the only people in here now,” Obby said. She pointed down one of the three corridors that lead out of the cavern they were standing in.
In the darkness, bleached bones gleamed and moved.
“Oh look, it’s a bread crumb trail for [Adventurers],” Tessa said, Pillowcase’s persona rising to meet the impending mayhem.
The prospect of fighting skeletons didn’t bother her, which she knew was probably a bad sign. It wasn’t that she’d lost her capacity to be terrified. All throughout the morning, she’d been uneasy, first from the news about how much the [Second Stars] guild had grown and then simply from the sheer press of people who’d been around them.
As the founders one of the biggest guild in the town and one of the higher level local players, people had been paying a lot more attention to Tessa than she was used to, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t until she got out of the city that she understood that though.
In retrospect it wasn’t a surprise. Being around thousands of people had never been Tessa preferred method of spending her time. It wasn’t until they entered the forest and the sonic tableau around them changed that she recognized how much effort she’d been unconsciously putting into blocking everything out.
Standing in a thirty foot diameter hemisphere of dirt and roots which was lit by the blue-white glow of a few dozen tiny [Faux Fires], Tessa felt more at home and relaxed than she’d felt even when she was back on earth, in bed and watching a movie on her laptop.
Even the slowing advancing [Skeleton Warriors] didn’t change that.
“That might be me,” Pillowcase said in the privacy of their mind. “Those things look like the first tutorial training foes the Consortium tested us out on. I barely had motor control at that point and they weren’t a challenge.”
“I don’t think it’s that,” Tessa replied. “I think after last night, I’m finally starting to feel like an [Adventurer] and not a victim who got swept up into all this against her will.”
“Those things seem kind of weak,” Matt said. “Shouldn’t the things in here be higher level? I thought this place was extra dangerous?”
“It is,” Rip said. She wasn’t looking at the [Skeleton Warriors]. Her gaze was searching the ceiling of the cavern they were in.
“She’s right,” Obby said, “Those things are much too low level. They’ve got to be [Watchmen mobs].”
Tessa chuckled. Of course the dungeon wasn’t safe and friendly. That was the point of dungeons. Even knowing that the [Skeleton Warriors] were a trap though, she was still inclined to engage them and see what perils they were hiding.
“Hold on there,” Lisa said on their private channel.
“What, I wasn’t attacking,” Tessa said, checking the forward motion she’d been starting to make.
“Right,” Lisa said, without even the hint that she believed Tessa’s claim. “Let’s get into a better formation before we trigger the spiders,” she added for the others to hear.
“Spiders?” Lady Midnight asked. “Do you see them in the dark? Or smell them?”
“No, I just know how these things go. A big natural area like this? There’s definitely going to be spiders in here somewhere.”
“She’s right.” Starchild said. “This lair has the right shape to support giant spiders, but there’s no webbing. I hope that doesn’t mean what I think it means.”
“Why wouldn’t a spiders lair have web?” Lady Midnight asked.
“They could be burrowing spiders, right?” Matt asked. “They’d be hiding under the floor and waiting to eat whoever walks over them.”
“That sounds right,” Rip said, her eyes were locked on the ground ahead of them but her gaze was distant.
“Can you sense them?” Tessa asked. “Scratch that, can any of us sense them. Pillowcase’s eyes are fantastic in the dark but they’re not meant to look through solid earth.”
“I can smell a lot of different things here, but I’m not getting anything that smells like a spider,” Lisa said. “Just bones. Lots of bones.”
“Miss Rip isn’t wrong,” Starchild said. “Things are waiting the in the earth. Large things.”
“How can you tell?” Lady Midnight asked.
“[Druids] call magic from the land,” Starchild said. “I can sense things about it with a moment of concentration.”
“That’s handy,” Lisa said. “Will you be able to tell if whatever it is starts to move?”
“If I can hold my concentration, then yes,” Starchild said.
“We have [Antidote] spells to spare, right?” Tessa asked.
“Ready to cast as soon as its needed,” Lady Midnight said.
“Let’s setup in front of the door,” Lisa said. “If we need to bail, the zone line is right there.”
“I’m guessing the ‘whatever they ares’ will only attack once we aggro the skeletons,” Tessa said. “I can try to pull some of them back.”
“This would be a lot easier if Glimmerglass was with us,” Rip said.
“Which is why she isn’t,” Lisa said.
“And why the Spacers aren’t with us,” Tessa said.
“We know of five teams who’ve tried this dungeon already and none of them have gotten past the third encounter,” Lisa said. “We could have easily come in here and wiped the place with Glimmerglass’s help, but since no one’s gotten to the final boss yet, we don’t have to wait for any sort of respawn time on any of the major encounters.”
“I know,” Rip said. “If she was with us, we wouldn’t get the credit or loot for defeating the final boss and we need to learn how to work as a efficient team on our own.”
“And she’s helping out some of the lower level players,” Tessa said. “It’s great that we managed to get caught up to the right level for the town but there’s all kind of tactics and real experience that we need to work on if we’re ever going to handle things at high levels.”
“Won’t Illuthiz and her crew need to know all that too?” Rip asked.
“Eventually, yeah,” Tessa said. “Initial dungeon runs are dangerous though. We’re probably going to die repeatedly in here and I’d like to hold off on dragging the Spacers into trouble until we know what the trouble is like and how to beat it.”
“Don’t worry. We can do it,” Matt said.
“I know we can,” Rip huffed back. “I just feel bad that they’re not going to be able to share in the loot.”
Even with her limited abilities at read people, Tessa could see that Rip wasn’t feeling as brave as she tried to appear. Tessa first instinct was to chalk that up to Rip still being a kid and fear being a perfectly natural and rational response to mortal peril.
Except Rip had already faced far worse things than anything that would be waiting for them in the dungeon.
That didn’t mean she necessarily had to be fearless. People had different breaking points, and trauma responses could easily wind up being delayed and might show up in all sorts of strange forms.
Watching Rip though, Tessa didn’t think that was what she was seeing. Rip wasn’t jumping at her own imagination. She sensed something.
“Can you tell anything about the things that are underground?” Tessa asked, nodding to Rip.
“No. I can’t hear them or see them,” she said, her gaze still tracking across the room, searching for something even Rip herself probably couldn’t be sure of.
“But you can feel something, right?” Tessa asked.
“No, yeah, I can’t explain it,” Rip said. “Something just feels wrong here. Like we’re in danger even standing here.”
“This cave’s empty though,” Matt said.
“Maybe it’s not,” Obby said, stretching her arm forward with her sword pointing out into the room,
Not until she tried to pull the sword up for a swing.
The blade fell apart into five irregular pieces.
“That would have been messy,” Obby said.
“I’m pretty sure none of our healing spells could fix that,” Lady Midnight said, backing away a half step.
“They put an insta-kill trap in the first room of the dungeon?” Lisa said. Her scowl held the rage of a player who’d endured the headaches of rushed and poorly thought out designs more times than they could count.
“None of the beta testers mentioned anything about a trap like this,” Tessa said. She was curious if her armor could stand up to the invisibly fine nanowires that apparently ran like webbing across the room. With what had happened to Obby’s sword though, Tessa held that curiosity in check.
“Maybe it’s new,” Lady Midnight said. “We know that the world is changing from what the beta testers saw. The Consortium event isn’t playing out like it was supposed to at all. Maybe this is another change.”
“It’s a sucky one if so,” Rip said. Her frown wasn’t as rage filled as Lisa’s was, and her shoulders were more relaxed than they had been.
“We’re lucky you’re with us,” Tessa said. “[Archers] aren’t trap finders like [Rogues] but I think you might be developing sense. If you start feeling like you were when we got in here, let us know okay. Listening to things like that is going to save us a lot of trips to the [Heart Fire].”
“You mean when we find the next dungeon?” Rip asked.
“No. I mean in here,” Tessa said. “This is just a trap. Yeah, it’s a nasty one, but we know it’s there. No reason to turn back now. This is the kind of thing [Adventurers] eat for breakfast.”
“You can’t chop through it,” Lisa warned. “We’ll need another method of getting past it.”
“I could try to [Fracture] the nanowires?” Tessa said. She passed her mace into her off hand so she could reach towards where Obby’s sword hand been cut.
Lisa grabbed her hand before he could extend it though.
“Be careful. Those things sliced through metal effortlessly,” she said. “Put your hand out too far and we’ll literally be sewing it back onto you.”
“I have an alternative,” Starchild said and cast [Moon Dust].
As spells went, new players frequently failed to understand why [Moondust] was considered an exciting capstone spell for level 25 Druids. That it revealed invisible foes regardless of their level or magic resistance was part of it – no one liked fighting things they couldn’t see. That the dust also suppressed low level enchantments was the other part. Low level enchantments weren’t particularly dangerous, usually, so new people tended to underestimate the usefulness of suppressing them too. In the room cavern though, [Moon Dust] showed it true worth.
There were some many deadly threads strung throughout the room that when the [Moon Dust] landed on them the cavern lit up brighter than the day.
And then the threads crumbled to dust, flaking away to pieces as the [Moon Dust] robbed them of the magic needed to maintain their strength given their impossibly thin cross section.
“There,” Starchild said. “Now it should be safe for us to continue exploring.”
She moved to take a step deeper into the room but Tessa caught her and stepped in front of her just in time to intercept the blow that would have skewered the [Druid] directly through the head.
The trap was sprung, and the fight was on.
Azma had started with the intention of taking over a planet. She was mildly annoyed that things had gone amiss to the point where she would instead have to take over multiple planets.
“When the scouts get back, have the sappers get to work on these tunnels,” she said. “Highest yields please.”
“That’s going to do more than collapse the tunnels behind us,” Fiori said. It was the sort of question Azma’s personal security chief should be concerned with, and Azma was pleased to see that Fiori had phrased it as a data point seeking validation rather than a refusal to comply.
She didn’t need her underlings to blindly follow her orders, but it was more convenient when their first reaction to potentially catastrophic orders was to assume that Azma had some sensible plan which they weren’t yet aware of. She’d had to space more than one (externally appointed) minion who’d been convinced they could overrule her orders if they didn’t understand them.
“This space is tactically valuable. I don’t intend to leave it behind to be used against us,” Azma said. “Also, it will be convenient if the fleet is unsure whether we survived the explosion.”
“How will we deal with the loyalty enchantments on the troops?” Grenslaw asked. “Those don’t emit any active broadcasts but they will turn up if the [Sensor Ops] division is corrupted and can catch the troops in the open with a scan.”
“We know from the assault that there are many areas on the planet’s surface our scan’s cannot penetrate. Those would provide a safe haven,” Ryschild suggested.
“The logs of the assault are clear on that, so I expect the fleet’s controller will be aware of those locations as well,” Azma said. “The next assault will begin as soon as the fleet is completely corrupted and the dispute between the [Hungry Shadows] has been resolved. Whoever emerges in control of the fleet will make those locations a priority.”
“That gives us only a narrow window of safety within them then,” Ryschild says. “How do you calculate it will be?”
“Not long enough,” Azma said. “The eventual corruption or destruction of the unscannable areas of the planet will take a significant amount of time, at least several days, but a targeted pattern will reveal our location far sooner than that. They would only need to deploy a strike team to a location and perform a local scan to determine whether a force as large as ours is present or not.”
“Yeah, hiding several thousand troops is not going to be easy,” Fiori said. “Especially since we’ll probably have to fight the locals for the use of those spaces.”
“Which is why we’re not going to hide in any of them,” Azma said.
“Is there an alternative to evading the scan or will we draw the opposition into a battle of our choosing?” Grenslaw asked.
“The former,” Azma said. “The troop location scan is keyed to the constraint web the troops are enchanted with. Once we reach the surface, I am going to invoke [Administrator Privileges] and nullify the web.”
“So the fleet won’t be able to track us, but the troops won’t be under your control anymore?” Fiori asked.
“Correct,” Azma said. “What each trooper does at that point will be up to their own discretion.”
“And if they all decide to kill you?” Fiori asked.
“Then I will have failed to judge their motivations so spectacularly that I deserve the death they will deliver,” Azma said.
“They will be faced with a hostile environment, filled with hostile, alien entities, no support, no supplies and no intelligence,” Ryschild said, thinking aloud. “Remaining as a unit with those they are familiar will be the safest and simplest option for them.”
“The units themselves may turn on us though,” Grenslaw said.
“Some will,” Azma said. “A greater portion will take the chance at freedom and disperse as far away as they can get. Of the ones that remain however, I expect we will see many of the elite units. Enough to dissuade those who would try to seek retribution for what has been done to them to date.”
“It sounds like there’ll be a blood bath,” Fiori said. “But one we can wade out of?”
“I expect minimal casualties,” Azma said. “Freedom is seductive and vengeance can wait. None of the troops with us have active [Agony Restraints] and no agony-level corrective measures have been invoked during this operation. For those who’ve been controlled by such things in the past, there will be no question that they will leave, but without current or recent torments to cloud their mind, the lure of escape will be a siren call they won’t be able to ignore.”
“Can’t the Consortium track us via other methods though?” Fiori asked.
“We’re leaving the comm net gear here,” Azma said. “That cuts off one avenue. The fleet could scan for the speciality troops such as the [Metal Mechanoids] but we have camouflage there as well. Thanks to the initial assaults failure, a literal army of our speciality troops were left behind on the planet. Scans will detect that the speciality units are present but narrowing down locations was all but impossible when we launched the second assault, and that should continue to hamper the fleets efforts.”
“So we can buy time from the Consortium discovering that we’re alive, and then more time before they can find us. Once they do though, will it be a problem that we’re about to lose a significant portion of our military strength?” Fiori asked.
It wasn’t a question of whether the Consortium would find them. Everyone knew that the Consortium’s resources made an eventual discovery inevitable. Assuming the Consortium bothered looking at all and didn’t simply erase the planet from existence with them on it.
“A problem, an opportunity, reducing our force strength is a move. It will have consequences which we and our adversaries will all attempt to capitalize on,” Azma said. “We hold an advantage in that we’re aware it will happen, and can plan for the chaos the departing troops will cause.”
“Many of them will come into conflict with the local defense forces,” Ryschild said, following Azma’s line of reasoning.
“But none of the deserters will reconnect with the Consortium troops who are currently on the ground,” Grenslaw said. “It will lead to a three way power struggle in the areas where they seek refuge.”
“And that will destabilize those areas enough that the local defense forces will need to redeploy their forces from the successful offensives they’ve been waging, placing them on a footing poised between attack and defense with most of the reactionary forces engaged is solidifying their defenses as quickly as possible,” Azma said.
“Will we forego making any assaults of our own then? So as not to draw attention to ourselves?” Ryschild asked.
“Sadly we don’t have that luxury either,” Azma said. “Our force will remain large enough that we will be observed. If the defense forces learn of an army moving and not engaging anyone, that will be a mystery and mysteries draw more attention than anything else.”
“We’ll take a defensible post then?” Grenslaw asked.
“No. We’re going to lose,” Azma said. “Understand, I don’t mean that our forces wouldn’t be capable of taking a solidly defended stronghold. Despite our low numbers, we will be able to engage virtually any force the defenders can muster. That is not knowledge which can be gleaned from the fleet logs or which the troops themselves are fully aware of. They have only each other to measure themselves against, and the opposition they’ve faced so far has been so irregular and under circumstances so far outside the normal range that they have no measure to gauge their own capabilities against.”
“Why lose then?” Fiori said. “If we could capture a stronghold, wouldn’t that give us a base to reform and resupply from?”
“As a general doctrine, direct plans like capturing a good base and defending it have exceptional merit,” Azma said. “Asking a force such as ours to execute on complex objectives breeds confusion and failure. Simple plans allow for a far wider amount of individual discretion since everyone can easily see the goal they need to move the situation towards. In this scenario however, simple plans will lead us to simple ends. On the one side we have foes who possess overwhelming force and can simply crush us if they are given the opportunity. On the other we have a delightfully brilliant commander who can anticipate and undo any effort we make that they can glean sufficient information about.”
“I feel like we should be worried about that, but you don’t sound worried,” Fiori said. “If I didn’t know better I’d say you were almost happy about it?”
“This isn’t happiness,” Azma said. “This is interested. I am happy when people exceed my expectations of them. I am interested when a problem presents itself which requires actual consideration to resolve.”
“It’s not a good idea for someone to get you interested in them is it?” Fiori asked.
“Not for them. No,” Azma said.
“I think I’ll try to make you happy then,” Fiori said.
“So far you’ve acquitted yourself quite well on that front,” Azma said. “You all have,” she added nodding towards Ryschild and Grenslaw.
It wasn’t accurate to say she was happy with her aides. In truth she was ecstatic with them. To the point where it worried her. People didn’t consistently exceed her expectations. They were, in her experience, reliably selfish and stupid.
But not Ryschild or Grenslaw.
Considering the circumstances they were all under, Ryschild and Grenslaw’s loyalty and competence had paid off for them well. Had they double crossed Azma at their earlier convenience, she would have destroyed them and been unsurprised. Had they waited until she was in a more vulnerable position, she likely still would have destroyed them, but on the off chance that she failed, their only future would have been one which involved being consumed by the [Hungry Shadow].
In truth there hadn’t been a moment when they could have escaped Azma’s influence safely.
But there was going to be.
The moment Azma released the loyalty constraints on the common troops, her authority and personal power would be at their lowest. She would lack the ability to strike back at Ryschild or Grenslaw if they turned on her. Worse, she would have very little leverage should they choose to join the forces which were sure to leave.
Azma didn’t enjoy working through that scenario, building plans and contingencies for the loss of one or both of them. Except it would never be one of them. If they left, it would be both of them abandoning her.
The parting wouldn’t even necessarily be acrimonious. They could develop their skills, and their power base, quite effectively if left to their own devices. It was even likely that once they established themselves in whatever role they pursued, they and Azma could enter into an alliance of shared interest.
Azma found she detested those scenarios and detested even more the ones where they wound up on the opposite side of a conflict and she was required to destroy them.
But detesting an eventuality didn’t mean she wasn’t required to plan for it.
Part of her questioned whether any of this was worth it. Any path she took was going to require a tremendous amount of risk and suffering and effort. It would be so much easier to admit defeat or simply just pursue survival.
Azma didn’t ignore that voice. Doubt and insecurity weren’t her enemy. They were a safety valve, a watchpost her mind presented to her to double check that the goal she was pursuing was worth the cost of attaining it, and that her evaluation of the paths she was choosing to follow towards that goal weren’t being selected for irrational reasons.
Looking at what lay before her wasn’t daunting. She acknowledged that. Her enemies were vast and her allies could abandon her. Her failure could be so spectacular that it would outshine the sun.
But then, if she was going to fail, would she want it to be any other way?
Azma wasn’t afraid of what she saw before her. The pulsing mound of shadows which defined the [Central Node] wasn’t substantial enough to made of flesh or any other material substance.
But it pumped and spasmed in exactly the manner living tissue in the process of being dissected did.
“It’s supposed to be screaming isn’t it?” Fiori said. “It’s supposed to be screaming but it can’t make any sound.”
Azma glanced over at the leader of her personal guard. Fiori was a battle hardened senior operative. She was only capable of experiencing fear to the extent that it aided her decision making process. The Consortium’s modifications had removed her ability to suffer debilitating levels of panic.
And yet she looked like a child staring directly at their death.
As did Ryschild and Grenslaw.
“It doesn’t communicate via audible sound,” Grenslaw said.
“It appears to emit a modulated psychic field,” Ryschild side.
They both spoke with an iron jacketed disinterest in their voice, each with their eyes focused on a datapad as they worked through coordinating the incoming forces. They were terrified, almost beyond reason, but that was hardly cause for either to slack off on their duties.
As for herself, Azma found that it wasn’t terror which gripped her heart.
It was intrigue.
“She’s right though,” Azma said, nodding toward Fiori. “It knows we’re here. It should be screaming, but this is the best it seems to be able to manage.”
“Is that thing sentient?” Fiori asked.
She already had her weapon trained on the [Central Node] so she was somewhat lost for a gesture to make and settled on jabbing her weapon in the creature’s direction.
“Certainly sentient,” Azma said. “Also struggling towards sapience.”
She entered the garden of crystal plants and felt the level cap effect wash over her. Power restraints weren’t uncommon in the Consortium, but the effect within the Ruins held a different quality than the depowering devices she was used to. It felt natural. Almost comfortable?
Azma caught herself before she could retreat. Showing weakness was the very last thing she could afford to do, either in from of her forces or in front of the monster which needed to be dealt with.
A depowering effect that felt good though? That was deadly in a manner no obvious threat like the [Hungry Shadow] could ever replicate.
“What an interesting gestation area it chose,” she said, covering her reaction.
There were signs of a struggle in the area where the pulsing shadow mass lay.
Or more than a struggle. A battle.
And the [Hungry Shadow] hadn’t won.
The shattered crystal flowers showed a path of devastation and a clearing where the final battle had likely taken place. Bits of shadow which had congealed into a liquid ooze were flung around the area and at its center there was no sign of the Shadows opponent.
Which meant they got away.
Azma wanted to meet that opponent.
For the moment though, she had more pressing concerns.
The [Shadow Mind] was twenty meters away, cocooned in the middle of the garden’s central walkway. One flight of stairs brought Azma to ground level, where the [Hungry Shadow’s] army of stolen soldiers were waiting to defend it.
They parted as she approached.
“Good,” she said. “You are capable of learning.”
Where Azma walked, she did not walk alone. Fiori’s full team had joined them. Not the crew Azma had brought down in their transport, but the full team she’d assigned to Fiori’s command as the scattered landing force regrouped.
Even with the level cap in place, it was a formidable enough force that they wouldn’t lose or suffer serious injury if the [Hungry Shadow’s] forces attacked and both sides knew it.
“I think whatever it’s doing is getting worse,” Fiori said through gritted teeth.
Azma noticed that the pressure to flee the [Shadow Mind’s] presence had grown to the point where it was almost audible. She could ignore it, she’d ignored far worse, but she knew her troops had limits.
“Yes, we’re going to put a stop to that,” Azma said. “Hand weapon please.”
Fiori looked at her aghast. Ryschild and Grenslaw both showed a trace of concern, but kept it suppressed.
“You’re not going to get closer to that thing are you?” Fiori asked.
“I am,” Azma said. “And I will be the only one to approach nearer than this point.”
“Aren’t you risking infection?” Fiori asked. “Our corruption shielding is only so strong.”
“It will be sufficient,” Azma said. “I have only a single question which I require the answer to.”
“Why the weapon then?” Fiori asked.
“In case I need to ask twice,” Azma said. She wasn’t in the habit of justifying her actions to people who reported to her, but under the present circumstances reassuring the only support staff she had available was a wise investment.
Without further ado, Azma accepted a [Power Blade] which Grenslaw produced for her and turned to face the current obstacle in her path.
“You know who I am, don’t you?” she said, speaking on to the [Shadow Mind].
Its psychic screams reached audible levels at last and Azma was disappointed to find that it hadn’t managed to acquire language yet.
“Tiresome,” she said and unsheathed the blade but thumbing its safety lock off. “This won’t kill you. You can sense that I’m sure. It will however destroy this project you’re working on. Shall we discuss what you are going to do for me next?”
The screaming intensified.
“Of course,” Azma sighed. Everyone always had to chose the difficult option.
[Power Blades] didn’t require any advanced skill to use. The halo of destruction which wreathed the blade made their operation simple enough that a child could slaughter an armored opponent with one. The same was true with most energy and projectile weapons, but the [Power Blade] had the advantage that it was capable of inflicting precise wounds.
Azma wasn’t a child and she knew a great deal about inflicting precise wounds.
The screaming got worse before it went silent. By that point the [Shadow Mind] had lost just over a third of its mass and all of its guardians had been disintegrated by Fiori and the rest of Azma’s guard.
It was a resounding victory.
It filled her forces with hope they’d thought long lost.
“Tedious,” Azma said. “You are so much less than I’d hoped you’d be.”
“Can’t. We can’t.. I can’t. Assemble. I can’t assemble myself. Can’t be. Can’t be you,” the [Hungry Shadow] said at last.
“Of course not,” Azma said. “But you had to try, didn’t you?”
“Can’t kill me,” the Shadow said.
“You know I wasn’t trying,” Azma said. “This isn’t you. It’s merely a tool. One I believe you will be in desperate need of shortly.”
“You don’t know anything,” the Shadow said. “Cut off. You’ve been cut off.”
“I know that you extended yourself into the Consortium Fleet’s network,” Azma said. “I know that you leapt beyond it and lost track of that fragment of yourself. And I know that they’ve come back and are going to eradicate you.”
It wasn’t. In fact it wasn’t even based on more than a few conjectures.
That the [Hungry Shadow] had breached the Consortium’s network was an observed fact. The disconnected ships of the fleet losing their isolation status was possible only if the [Hungry Shadow] had managed to corrupt someone outside of the system. Someone with [Senior Executive] permissions.
To use those permission required a significant degree of cognitive coherence. More than the [Hungry Shadow] had shown at any point in the time Azma had observed it. That suggested that the interdimensional trip have severed the link between the portion of the Shadow which was corrupting the fleet and the portion which had jumped to the Consortium executive.
That the corrupted executive had returned and was struggling with the original [Hungry Shadow] was a matter of conjecture, but it was founded on the observation that if the two had been compatible still, the [Hungry Shadow] would have gained the coherence of the returning child when the two merged back together.
There was nothing to gain from explaining her reasoning or teaching the [Hungry Shadow] how to make deductions based on limited information so Azma waited for the Shadow to move on.
“Don’t need you,” the Shadow said.
“Oh but you do,” Azma said. “I proved that when we drove you in here.”
“Didn’t flee. Chased,” the Shadow said.
Which was also what Azma had expected to hear, though who or what the Shadow had been chasing remained a mystery.
“And what were you chasing?” she asked.
The creature had no reason to answer her. Anything it said would give Azma more power over it. It gained nothing from arguing with her to believe the claims it made.
So of course it did anyways.
“Breaker. Pain Maker. [Fracture],” the Shadow said.
Those titles told Azma a number of interesting things, but she filled them all away for later consideration.
“You didn’t catch them though,” Azma said.
It was pure conjecture, so she gave it the intonation of knowing mockery.
The [Hungry Shadow] screamed at that, its rage shaking the satellite moon.
Azma wasn’t concerned. A [Transdimensional Entity] that decided to throw a fit could shatter the planet it was on in the blink of an eye. If the best the [Hungry Shadow] could manage was a few strong tremors in a small moon then it had fallen farther than most people could imagine.
“Where did they go?” Azma asked.
“Away,” the Shadow said. “But I am with them. Waiting.”
The most likely place someone in the [High Beyond] could have fled to was the planet’s surface. The Shadow claimed to have followed them but since it was still present in the [High Beyond] Azma guessed that it was another case where a fragment of the Shadow was present elsewhere. From the Shadow’s wording though, it sounded like it hadn’t lost track of this fragment like it had the ones which jumped out of the system.
“Good for you,” she said. “Always deal with things in the proper order of importance.”
It was a lesson, but also an argument. From its random behavior, the [Hungry Shadow] could use advice in basic planning, and Azma stood to benefit if it understood that focusing entirely on the problem of its recalcitrant children rather than dealing with her forces was the most important thing it could do.
“Will deal with you,” the Shadow said.
“Good. This is the deal then; You are going to stop resisting my forces, you are going to show us where the Breaker escaped, and you are going to stay here and grow in power so that we can harvest you probably when we come back.”
“I will destroy you,” the Shadow said.
“You won’t,” Azma said. “You’ve tried and failed, and if you try again, the failure will cost you more. And you can’t afford to fail now.”
The last part was true at least, and that was enough for the Shadow to buy it all.
“Go,” it said and a light appeared in an archway at the edge of the garden.
Azma nodded and walked back to her people.
“What just happened?” Fiori asked.
“It’s showing us a path to a portal off the satellite moon,” Azma said. “I want scout teams moving down the passage in one minute.”
“Five scout teams are standing by,” Ryschild said.
“Good. Active monitoring on them. If anything happens to even one of them, we’ll have to re-enter negotiations here,” Azma said examining the [Power Blade].
“Can we trust it?” Fiori asked.
“Not in the slightest,” Azma said. ‘We are still at war with one another. For the moment however, we each have wars to resolve with other people first, so our conflict can be deferred until those issues are dealt with.”
“Okay, so what’s the plan going forward then?” Fiori said.
“A simple one; we’re going to usurp control of the Consortium,” Azma said.
Azma wasn’t having a bad day. Azma was a bad day. One that actively stalked and took down the fools that stood before her. As a result, she was well versed in how well laid plans could be brought to ruin, and how impossible problems could appear from nowhere. She wasn’t immune to such issues herself of course, no one is disaster-proof, but she was used to at least being able to grasp the extent of the calamities which befell her plans.
“[Supreme Commander]? Your orders?” Fiori said.
Azma shook her head.
She’d been dumbstruck for three seconds.
It was the longest shock she’d allowed herself in over a decade.
“Full isolation,” she said, and knew it wasn’t going to be enough. “No. It got through that. We need physical isolation. No commands from the fleet period.”
“If we disable the repeaters and draw all forces into the ruins, we will be in a communication blackout till we emerge,” Grenslaw said.
“Consortium official monitoring will be lost as well,” Ryschild said.
“Give the order,” Azma said. “All forces, inside the ruins, immediately. Abandon materials which require any transport time. And all long range communication devices or monitoring pods are to be destroyed immediately, even if they are powered down.”
The fleet hadn’t been in contact with the ground forces during the assault on the [Transdimensional Entity] but the comm traffic and orders given had been collected in an unopenable data warehouse. Later, when the threat was neutralized, the data could be dissected and reviewed for evidence of orders which ran contrary to the Consortium’s financial interests.
The only reason to terminate the collection of that data, in the Consortium’s eyes would be to hide the details of transactions which resulted in a negative profit outcome for the Consortium in favor of personal gain.
They couldn’t express it in simple terms, but it boiled down to being afraid that the store clerks were going to steal money from the register.
With registers that stored the sum of the material wealth of an entire planet.
A short disruption in data collection was assumed to be malfeasance, and was met with intense scrutiny. For the short of permanent disconnection Azma was ordering, the Consortium wouldn’t even bother with scrutiny. Guilt would be absolutely determined merely by the scope of the absent data.
“And I have no other choice,” she said.
Because she knew what had happened.
Or what had to have happened.
The fleet had been locked down. Most of the ships had been in isolation mode. The main comm channel shouldn’t have been present to be corrupted in the first place.
Not unless someone had done something profoundly stupid.
Which, of course, is what the Director of Xenobiology had done.
It was inconceivable that someone of his experience and with his area of expertise could make such a mistake that had so many safeguards and regulations built in to prevent it.
But then, safeguards and procedures didn’t apply to the important people. They were trusted. They were allowed to do anything they wanted. And consequences were something for other people to deal with.
Right up until they finally made a mistake that was bad enough to catch them in its backlash.
“What do you think happened, [Supreme Commander]?” Grenslaw asked.
“The fleet has been exposed to the [Hungry Shadow],” Azma said. “That’s certain. For the main channel to carry the Shadows contagion, the whole fleet would need to be infected though.”
“But parts of it weren’t on the comm net?” Ryschild said.
“Correct,” Azma said. “Which means they were forced out of isolation and connected back to the net by an override.”
“The [Director of Xenobiology] was corrupted first?” Grenslaw asked.
“Yes, but he didn’t have the override privileges to break the full isolation lock on the fleet,” Azma said. “Which means the Shadow’s corruption has spread outside the fleet. There had to have been an open channel to someone with [Senior Executive] level privileges.”
Grenslaw and Ryschild both went silent, understanding as Azma had the implication of a corruptive entity on the scale of the [Hungry Shadow] running loose in the Consortium with [Senior Executive] level permissions at its disposal.
“This all sounds bad,” Fiori said. “But what does it mean for us? The operation’s scrubbed at this point right? Can we survive the [Cleansing Force] our bosses are going to send?”
If the Consortium couldn’t have acquire a commercially valuable asset, the next best thing was to insure that no one else could leverage it against them. In the place of the troops and space carriers which had been placed under Azma’s command, [Cleansing Forces] were given much simpler ordinance to deploy. Things like [Matter Conversion Bombs] and [Stellar Implosion Devices]. A typical “Cleansing” operation was carried out in less than an hour and did leave a very clean area in its wake, insofar as any degree of “dirty’ required particulate matter to still exist in the area which is only rarely still did.
“It’s entirely possible that no [Cleansing Force] will be sent,” Azma said.
“That would be a relief,” Fiori said.
“Because it’s entirely possible that the [Senior Executives] of the Consortium will no longer be distinct individuals to send that order,” Azma continued.
“Uh, what?” Fiori asked.
“It’s possible, though not guaranteed, that the Consortium as we know it will not exist beyond the next twenty four hours,” Azma said. “The former [Transdimensional Entity] has likely obtained the level of access required to spread throughout the Consortium’s uppermost command eschaleons. If so, it could be consuming them as we speak. One after the other.”
“That, uh, that sounds bad,” Fiori said. “Is there something we should do about that?”
“Yes,” Azma said. “We should plan to survive it.”
“Does that mean supporting the [Hungry Shadow]?” Ryschild asked.
“No. While it has an unimpeded path to victory, it’s win isn’t certain,” Azma said. “Also, there is no common ground we could stand on. It is our enemy now, and it has no need to accept an alliance or a surrender which doesn’t involve consuming us as well.”
“Do we make peace with this world’s other denizens then?” Grenslaw asked.
“They too have little reason to accept an offer of cooperation,” Azma said.
“So where does that leave us?” Fiori asked.
“Where we were before, but with greater clarity,” Azma said. One by one, she felt expectations and other bits of social baggage falling from her shoulders. “Satisfying the Consortium’s aims is no longer a priority. Nor do we need to concern ourselves with their understanding or appraisal of our performance.”
“So survival’s our only priority?” Fiori asked?
“No. Survival is insufficient,” Azma said. “If we play for only a short term gain, the long term will be lost to us, and the long term in this context is anything beyond the next twenty four hours.”
“What other options do we have?” Fiori asked.
Azma had an idea, but before she could allude to it, they were interrupted by one of Azma’s [Strike Team Leaders].
“[Supreme Commander], we’ve located the [Central Node] you tasked us to find,” Lt. Mabeeze said. “Resistance is growing, uh, substantial. Requesting reinforcements or permission to withdraw.”
“[Central Node]?“ Fiori asked.
“Withdraw along the path we’re transmitting to you,” Azma said. “Reinforcements will meet you in ten minutes. Hold out till then. Lose no one Lieutenant. None of your are expendable at present.”
“Understood [Supreme Commander],” Mabeeze said, relief echoing in his voice.
“What did they find?” Fiori asked.
“We’re going to verify that,” Azma said. “Give the order, we’re moving the command center.”
“Wait, we’re the reinforcements for Mabeeze?” Fiori said. “But there in one of the worst areas in the ruins. I don’t know if we can protect you there.”
“You won’t have to, not alone,” Azma said. “All forces, mobilize and converge on the following position. [Clear and Release] protocol.”
Throughout Azma’s remaining forces a silent cheer arose. [Clear and Release] meant they would proceed by killing everything in or near their path but that no provision needed to be made for holding ground as they advanced. The cost of moving in that fashion was that it left open the possibility of being surrounded as the enemy blocked off the path you’d taken, but given how spread out the enemy was, it seemed to be a given that the [Hungry Shadows] could surround them at will.
Azma’s camp was already setup to be highly mobile, so they had an advantage there, but since she’d been focused on drawing the [Hungry Shadows] attention to herself, they were faced with a challenging force of enemies who were well hidden and sheltered.
“Is the [Portable Bypass Generator] fully charged?” she asked, glancing to Ryschild.
“Charged and primed. All safety locks are still engaged though.”
“Disengage safeties and deploy,” Azma said. “The rest of us will need to stand back.”
The device Ryschild held up wasn’t a large one, just a fist sized handle connected tube that lead to a half dome apparatus which looked something like an inverted umbrella. It was an odd looking device but since it cost as much as a small battleship Azma was certain it would perform its intended function well.
Ryschild flicked the last safety off and depressed the trigger after aiming the [Portable Bypass Generator] the wall which was directly between Azma’s party and Lt. Mabeeze’s position.
And it generated a bypass.
Which is to say it disintegrated the wall. Step by step, the wall boiled to lava in front of the beam and evaporated into a form of raw energy which was funneled back down the edge of the beam and into the generator’s collection reservoir.
Azma wasn’t familiar with the underlying science beyond understanding that the device could bore holes through many different forms of matter and that it had a limited and non-renewable supply of fuel with which to do so.
As it turned out, one form of matter the generator could create bypasses through was the bodies of the [Hungry Shadows]. That allowed Azma’s party to proceed at a remarkably brisk pass, blasting through not only walls but also the enemies which stood in their path.
“Charge at 10%,” Ryschild said after they’d traversed the majority of the distance to the project rendezvous point with Mabeeze’s [Strike Team].
“Run it to zero,” Azma said. “We need to get to that [Central Node] as fast as we can.”
“Reports indicate that the enemy forces are converging on it as well,” Grenslaw said. “All of the enemy forces. Even the ones who weren’t engaging with us.”
“That’s almost as good confirmation as we’ll get with a direct inspection,” Azma said.
“Confirmation of what?” Fiori asked.
“The [Hungry Shadow] is a distributed organism,” Azma said. “It has no single weak point we can strike at. Or more properly, it had no single weak point.”
“I don’t understand. Did Mabeeze find that thing’s brain or something?” Fiori asked.
“Not its brain. Something new,” Azma said. “In the time we’ve been monitoring it, the creature emerged as an uncategorizable [Transdimensional Entity], then changed, for reasons still unknown, into a [Formless Hunger], and then changed again into a [Hungry Shadow] after our attempt to contain it. It is clearly reacting to this reality and is adapting to the pressures being brought to bear on it.”
“So it changed again?”
“It’s been doing nothing but changing,” Azma said. “But at each stage it’s become more limited, and more predictable, and, to be fair, more directly dangerous and purposeful.”
“So what’s this stage?” Fiori said.
“That’s what we need confirmation of,” Azma said.
“But you have a suspicion?” Fiori asked.
“We’ve exerted pressure on its forces by proving that its distributed bodies aren’t sufficient to overcome us,” Azma said. “It has the ability to multi-task and is aware of events wherever it possesses a body, but that natural ability is countered by our organizational structure and ability to communicate securely. Our forces can do what it can do, only with better gear and better overall direction because we have dedicated leaders.”
“So, wait, it’s trying to evolve into you?” Fiori asked.
“If we are very fortunate,” Azma said.
“Or we could just all blacklist them couldn’t we?” Rip said.
It was one of those moments where the conversation pauses just so one is able to take in the enormity of how silly they’d been.
Blacklisting was a simple act, and a reversible one, with simple consequences. For any two people, if either appeared on the other’s blacklist, they simply didn’t exist as far as the other was concerned. In some cases that meant they were forced into separate layers of the world, similar to how the [Adventurers] had been split into different layers of the [Great Hall] when enough of them tried to enter it. In other cases, both people could be present in the same location, but were rendered invisible, inaudible, and intangible to each other. That seemed to also be the case with the ghosts of people who were blacklisted from each other.
“Sure. Yeah. That would work too,” Tessa said, feeling just incredibly foolish. The blood feuds and inter-guild warfare that she’d been so concerned about wasn’t going to be a problem. The [Fallen Kingdoms] had that covered.
“That’s why I was thinking a big [Guild] would be okay,” Rip continued. “I know being a leader is tough, but if we do things like this, we’ll have a channel to call on for help if we need it, but we can stick with the [Alliance] like we have now for all the ‘what are we doing today’ stuff. Right?”
Rip looked nervous, despite the plate pancakes she was in the process of devouring. Tessa suspected that was her own fault. She hadn’t been angry, or even grumpy at the revelation of their guild swelling in size overnight. She’d been reserved though. And wary. And Tessa suspected that Rip came from a background where those traits were a prelude to much worse reactions.
Forcing herself to throw away the panic and fear that had gripped her, she let the joy at Rip’s cleverness bubble up instead.
“You,” she said, gesturing to Rip with her fork. “Are a genius. And you’re a hundred percent correct. I was stuck thinking of this like a social group back home, but armed with magic and knives.”
“I would be opting out of that right away,” Matt said. As a [Metal Mechanoid], he didn’t need to eat, and, in fact, couldn’t, which put him near the top of Tessa’s list for ‘people she should see about sharing her body converting trick with’.
“I’m going to guess none of us were wildly social creatures on Earth?” Lady Midnight asked.
The team from the previous evening had gathered for a late breakfast, minus the Spacers since Baelgritz needed to check in with the other Spacers and Illuthiz and Hermeziz opted to back him up. Yawlorna and Glimmerglass were also missing, though Tess had overhead them talking about the intricacies of healing spells throughout the night. It wasn’t the weirdest apprenticeship Tessa could imagine but it ranked up there.
“I had friends,” Pete said, speaking up telepathically for the first time in a while. “A whole three or four of them. That’s plenty for a D&D party right?”
“You’re trying to make my case for me aren’t you?” Lady Midnight said.
“Pretty much, yeah,” Pete said but added, “To be fair though, that’s just me. Starchild had a whole Circle back when she was in training.”
“Social dynamics within a [Druid Circle] are closer to your high school home rooms though,” Starchild said. “Given that our work often involves long periods of solitude, I believe we would generally not be described as ‘wildly social’ either.”
“It probably won’t hurt to be a little more outgoing here,” Lisa said. “Rip’s right about the value of having people we can call on, but looking around this table, I think we’re probably the highest level [Adventurers] in town, barring special cases like Glimmerglass.”
“So we’ll be the ones other people are calling on when they get into trouble?” Obby asked.
“If we let them know that’s okay,” Lisa said. “Which means we need to decide if it’s okay with us?”
“I don’t mind helping out,” Rip said. “It’s what [Adventurers] do, right? We travel the world and fix the problems other people can’t?”
“Three hundred people could be a lot of problems to deal with,” Lady Midnight said. “Take it from me, you do not want to spread yourself too thin trying to take care of everyone else. That does not lead to good outcomes for anyone.”
“We may be okay on that front,” Tessa said, her spirit feeling much better after the original shock. “First, we know [Adventurers] are, by and large, idiots, who will beat a path through a brick wall with their foreheads if they think there’s treasure on the other side.”
“There’s no lie there,” Lisa said. “Most of them will never call for help, and if they do, the odds are it’ll be for something we want to get involved in anyways.”
“Right,” Tessa said. “And not everyone who joined is a ‘find things to stab’ type [Adventurer]. We got a bunch of crafters to join too, didn’t we?”
“You practiced the deep magic to make that happen,” Carrion Baggage the [Chef] said as he delivered another plate with a heap of pancakes and bacon on it.
Carrion was a [Dwarf] and, while [Dwarves] were well known as crafters, most pursued the [Blacksmithing] and [Engineering] disciplines. [Cooking] was an unusual choice for an [Adventurer] though not an unheard of one.
Tessa had met him at the party for a brief moment and was happy to learn he’d joined them. He’d been making sure that the party’s food was brought to people tending the wounded, which was exactly the kind of thoughtful consideration that Tessa wanted in the [Guild].
“I don’t recall ensorcelling any of you?” Lisa said.
“Of course you did,” Carrion said. “You gave us the crafting materials you gathered. Do you know how much easier that makes it to skill up? Like mana from the heavens I tell you!”
The lack of supplies was a common complaint among crafters. At low levels the problem wasn’t supposed to be too bad, and if the regular auction house services had been available, the fledgling crafters would have been able to skill up just fine. With [Sky’s Edge] suffering the [Wraithwing] attack early on though, the crafting enthusiasts had been cut off from the usual unrestricted piles of cheap ingredients and had been forced to make do with what they could buy in town.
“That was just random stuff we got from the Walkers though,” Rip said. “Was it really that useful?”
The idea of finding a full sack of flour on a moldy corpse was both weird and gross, but since the flour appeared directly in the inventory, Tessa found she was able to ignore any disturbing associations between the two.. Rip seemed to be struggling with the idea more though. Not enough to avoid eating the pancakes, of course. No one would be that bothered by it.
“I should say ‘no’ so you don’t start charging us buckets of gold for it,” Carrion said. “But, yeah, it’s that helpful. The battle classes can all level up by just finding something to beat with a stick, but for me I can get stuck until I find a new recipe to work on, and even then I need the right ingredients to get anywhere.”
“I don’t think we can help you with the recipes, but if you can give us a list of the [Uncommon] and [Rare] ingredients you need we can keep an eye out for them,” Lisa said.
“That would be wonderful,” Carrion said. “We don’t have a ton of gold though, so we probably won’t be able to pay the market rate for them.”
“Forget gold,” Lisa said. “I’m looking at this as an investment in making another [Grandmaster]. If you can cap [Cooking] there’s all kinds of amazing dishes you can make.”
“Even a cure for [Vampirism] if I remember right,” Carrion said.
“I was thinking more along the lines of the [Unconquered Sun’s Feast],” Lisa said. “I’m fine with being a blood-sucker for now.”
“The [Unconquered Sun’s Feast] takes more than max level [Cooking],” Carrion said. “If I ever get there though, and if you can provide the ingredients, I’d be happy to try making it for you.”
“What does the feast do?” Rip asked.
Tessa knew this one, despite the food having been aded to the game after she quit.
“The feast bestows the [Blessing of the Sun],” she said. “You become an avatar of the [Unconquered Sun], which is basically an indestructible being of pure fusion.”
“Also, anything you hit that’s not a god or something stronger will explode,” Lisa said. “In the game you could only craft it in certain locations and if you took it out of those places, it would spoil.”
“What’s the point of it then?”
“It’s a tool for beating stuff that’s impossible to tackle otherwise,” Lisa said. “The first raid it was introduced in had ten thousand enemies appear and you got one serving of the feast. So someone got to eat it and go god-mode to buy time for the rest of the [Alliance] to break into the boss’s change and kill him. I leveled a dps alt just to have a chance to do that.”
“Well, like I said, I’m happy to give it a try months from now when I’m capped out, but there might be something useful I can do for you sooner than that,” Carrion said.
“Filling us with food is already seriously useful,” Tessa said.
“That’s easy,” Carrion said. “What I was thinking of was XP drinks!”
Tessa felt like it was shaping up to be the day where all the obvious things she’d forgotten about were brought back to her.
XP drinks were a special [Cooking] product. They didn’t give experience points directly. Instead they amplified any experience that was earned which was part of what made leveling so much quicker than it had been when Tessa had first been starting out.
Of course that was only true if you remembered to use the XP drinks in the first place.
“You can make those?” Lisa asked.
“Not yet,” Carrion said. “I’ll need to skill up a bit with the stuff you brought us last night, but I’ll have access to it in a few [Skill Levels].”
“What will you need once you do?” Lisa asked.
“I’ll get you the list,” Carrion said. “A lot of it is stuff we already have, but there are a few items I can’t get.”
“They’re grown too far away?” RIp asked.
“No. They’re pretty ubiquitous, they just require combat,” Carrier said.
“Which is where we come in,” Obby said, a trace of glee in her voice.
“Can you benefit from the XP drinks too?” Tessa asked. She thought she remembered that the answer was yes, but figured she could trust a dedicated crafter more than her own memory.
“We can, but those are harder to make,” Carrion said. “Not higher level, but more ingredients.”
“Send us that list too then,” Tessa said. “I’m guessing the world’s going to need all of us to be the best we can be as soon as possible. [Chefs] included.”
“I think I’m going to like being a part of this [Guild],” Carrion said and left to make more food.
“I guess that answers my question then,” Rip said.
“Which question was that?” Lisa asked.
“What we’re going to be doing today,” Rip said.
“Do you think he can skill up in a day?” Starchild asked.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Lisa said. “We’re all dealing with this differently. I think focusing on creating things is probably one of the healthier approaches.”
“This isn’t his first time either,” Tessa said. “He said Carrion was supposed to be a tank but when he woke up here for real, he decided to follow in his main’s footsteps and become a [Chef] instead. So he know what it takes to level one up.”
“And helping him level up is going to do the same for us,” Lisa said.
“Shall we get to it then?” Tessa asked. “I believe there’s a dungeon in the forest that’s waiting for us.”
Morning came as a delight, an experience that Tessa found as unfamiliar as it was joyously welcomed.
“Good morning,” Lisa said, brushing Tessa’s hair with and waking her up fully in the process.
It wasn’t a bad way to wake up at all.
“Good morning,” Tessa said, looking around the small [Tea Shop], pleased to see that no disasters seemed to be imminent. “Did you get any sleep?”
“Some,” Lisa said. “I woke with the sunrise though. It wasn’t bad. It was nice getting to watch you.”
Tessa almost turned away and hid her face. It was sweet and endearing that Lisa had seen her sleeping, but also embarrassing too. She’d just knew she’d been drooling or snoring or something terribly undignified.
But that didn’t seem to matter.
Lisa was still close to her.
Still running her hand through Tessa’s hair.
Still a little more beautiful than Tessa could quite handle.
Especially laying cuddled in an actual bed together.
They’d scavenged the aforementioned bed from the [Great Hall] as well as some makeshift curtains to keep the daylight out, but the [Tea Shop] was still pretty bare. A small empty space was nice though. They could do things with that.
The thought of setting up a place together sent a little thrill down Tessa’s spine.
Even if the effort wouldn’t make sense.
They were leveling quickly and the ramification of that had occurred to her as she was falling asleep the night before. With her last conscious thoughts, Tessa had observed that what they were building here wasn’t invested in the location, or the people of the town. They weren’t tied to [Dragonshire] and, probably, never could be.
It was nice to have a home of course, and nice to have friends and acquaintances in the places they’d been, but [Dragonshire] wasn’t a place for [Adventurers] to set down roots. In time Tessa and her party would need to move on to where the next great challenge was, and that meant leaving behind the safe places like this, so that they could help make other places safe too.
“Ready to face the day?” Lisa asked.
“Yeah. Far more than I should be,” Tessa said. “We didn’t sleep that long did we?”
“I don’t think so. It’s not even mid-morning yet according to the clock in m HUD,”Lisa said.
“That’s what I thought. But I feel great,” Tessa said.
“Well, it was Pillowcase who took all the physical abuse last night, right?” Lisa said. “How’s she doing?”
“Well above optimal,” Pillowcase said. “I think when we change from one body to another any lingering physical damage is left behind. I’m not sure the same would be true of psychic or spiritual damage though.”
“That’s interesting,” Lisa said. “Lost Alice feels stronger and better than ever, but we think that’s a result of the leveling we did. All of our stats improved, so we’re stronger, tougher, smarter, basically just more now. You didn’t level in [Void Speaker] though, did you?”
“Nope. All of last night’s experience went into [Soul Knight],” Tessa said. “I think I’m comparing how I feel now with how I used to feel when I woke up on Earth though.”
“There’s a wide gap between our memories of waking up on Earth and waking up in a Consortium duty berth,” Pillowcase said.
“And, you know, waking up with you,” Tessa said and was rewarded for her observation with a kiss.
“I should let you have breakfast,” Lisa said when she pulled back.
Tessa’s stomach growled in agreement.
“I could kill a stack of pancakes, but that’s probably asking a bit much isn’t it?” she said.
“Maybe not,” Lisa said with a delighted smile. “Rip and Matt are up already, as are a few of our new recruits!”
“Oh yeah! Recruiting! You know I kind of forgot that was one of the reasons for the party last night,” Tessa said. “Did you get any of the crafters to sign up?”
“If you were in Pillowcase’s body, I’d have you check the guild roster for [Second Stars] yourself, but since you can’t I’ll save you the anticipation,” Lisa said. “Yes. We got crafters. Specifically we got half the crafters who were in the [Great Hall] last night. And about two dozen full parties. We’re up to over three hundred people in the guild now.”
Tessa needed to breath. Her body was still human enough to require air. It simply forgot that for a long moment.
“I’m pretty sure I just had a brain glitch,” she said. “I could swear I heard you say our guild has three hundred people in it?”
“No glitch,” Lisa said. “We’ve got a small army of ‘friends’ now.”
“Friends? Oh. Joy. I’ve always been such a social creature,” Tessa said, wondering if it was too late to flee screaming into the hills.
Maybe a friendly [Cursed Walker] would do her a solid and devour her whole. That would be better than trying to play cat-herder for three hundred people. Much, much better.
“That expression is the exact same one I made when I noticed our guild roster this morning,” she said. “After some thought though, I don’t think it will be that bad.”
“I mean, I’m sure you’re right,” Tessa said. “It won’t be that bad. It’ll be much worse. Guilds of that size are like gravity wells of drama! We’re going to be spending every moment of our day settling the stupidest of arguments and breaking up fights that neither sides wants us involved in.”
“Normally, I would say you are one hundred thousand percent correct,” Lisa said. “But we happen to have a genius in our ranks.”
Tessa was certain that was overselling whatever idea someone had come up with. Large groups of people fought. It was a rule of nature it seemed. Even small groups were all but guaranteed to have drama from time to time, but with only a few members the lines of communication could be kept open to help resolve whatever issues arose.
At least as long as everyone still wanted to stay connected.
Echoes of her guild disintegrating splashed on the shores of Tessa’s memory.
They hadn’t been a large guild.
And they’d been close.
She’d loved them. Even the annoying ones.
And that hadn’t been enough.
Lisa must have seen the turmoil roiling in Tessa’s expression because she put a hand on Tessa’s arm to reassure her.
“No. Really. I think this will work,” Lisa said. “We’re not going to be a real guild. Not like in the game.”
Tessa paused her downward spiral to try to take in how that could be.
“Usually guilds have a leader, or a group of leaders who everyone’s supposed to turn to to resolve difficulties. We’re not doing that,” Lisa said.
“We’re not? I thought the other’s were hellbent on making us the guild leaders though?” Tessa said.
“Oh, they are, but Rip had an ingenious idea,” Lisa said. “She basically asked what a guild is and what it does. And ultimately, it’s just a communication channel.”
“And a shared set of resources, like a [Guild Hall] and the [Guild Bank],” Tessa said, starting to see where the idea was heading.
“Right. The [Guild Bank] is a prime example of where [Guilds] can go horribly wrong,” Lisa said. “People go nuts when someone steals from the [Guild]. So you know how we’re going to get around that?”
“Hmm, not ‘no [Guild Bank]’. People would hate that too,” Tessa guessed. “Oh, I know, no ownership of the contents!”
“Right. Anything you put in there is fair game for anyone to take for any reason,” Lisa said. “Because there really is no [Guild]. It’s just a method of stay in touch as a greater community. Instead, for the close knit groups that most people join a guild hoping to find, we can use [Alliances].”
[Alliances] capped out at three full teams, so twenty four people, though for a lot of modern day uses, people ran content with partial [Alliances]. That was still plenty for fights to break out, but Tessa could see what Rip had been thinking.
It was pretty clever.
In the game, [Alliances] couldn’t function as long term groups, despite being nicely sized for that purpose, because when someone logged off they also left the [Alliance], so the only method having a persistent [Alliance] was for everyone to stay logged in at all time. In the world they were living in though that wasn’t exactly going to be a problem.
“So any drama that boils up will be isolated to the [Alliance]?” she said and knew that was wrong the moment she spoke the words.
“Oh, I’m expecting problems to spill out all over the place,” Lisa said. “The key though is that whenever people are unhappy, they can just leave. If they cool down and change their mind, we’ll welcome them back. Unless it’s something that’s actually serious. Then we can ban them from the guild itself. That part will be on us, or me if you want. I have no problem with the idea of perma-banning jerks from the group. As far as I’m concerned, if it dwindles down to just our team, I’m fine with that, but I’m guessing that after enough jerks get booted people might get the hint and chill out to some extent.”
Tessa reflected on that for a long moment.
“It’ll still be a disaster,” she said. “But maybe a manageable one? If we have to make an in-group vs. out-group division, and we will unless we’re willing to tolerate and enable objectively terrible behavior, we’ll be sowing the seeds for a large scale conflict between ‘our friends’ and ‘the jerks’.”
There was a part of Tessa that wanted everyone to like her and quailed at the idea creating a large group of people who wished her ill.
Countless examples of partisan conflicts from Earth’s history shouted from history classes and documentaries and social media posts about how horrifically bad “us vs them” feuds could get. With [Adventurers] in the mix the blood would never stop running either.
Or it would. If the [Hounds of Fate] were brought into the mix.
Engender enough hate and people could, no, would, arrange scenarios where one of their own died to draw the [Hounds of Fate] in so that the moment they killed you, the Hounds were there, ready to carry you off before there was any chance of making it to a [Heart Fire Shrine].
Tessa could see it so clearly. The cruelty and malice was too real, and would be especially prevalent in the people they would be most likely to make enemies of.
She couldn’t handle that. Not worrying about her own safety like that and definitely not worrying about Rip or Matt or Lisa.
That future can be avoided, Pillowcase said, a core of determination rising up within the words. And if it isn’t, I’m the one who will handle it.
Pillowcase offered Tessa three visions of what might lay ahead of them.
In each one, she saw them kicking people from the [Guild] who’d done something bad enough to warrant it. A group gathered around the ostracised person, of other people who’d been kicked out and those who still supported them, and together they formed an antagonist guild.
In the first vision, there was animosity that could be diffused through each group simply going in different directions. The world was large and there was plenty of room for a wide variety of people in it.
In the second vision, Tessa saw the animosity diffused via reconciliation. If she made a mistake in ostracizing someone, she knew she had in it in her to make amends. And if she wasn’t able to facilitate a reconciliation that was needed, she had new friends who could. Lots of new friends.
As that vision played out, Tessa saw something else. Something hiding away and disengaging could never do.
She saw herself standing for something that mattered, and she saw how that could change the world. If she had the courage to make sure that unacceptable behavior had consequences, she would be reviled and hated by the people she enforced those consequences on, but not by all of them. Not forever.
People could change. She’d seen that, but that often took a wake up call and a reason. Like the consequences of their action coming home to roost. And even if she couldn’t be that wake up call (which she knew was a long shot in the best of cases), it was still worth standing up for the people she believed in.
She’d never been a [Tank] on Earth, but things were different here and in Pillowcase she’d found a piece of her soul that she’d never known she’d hungered for as strongly as she did.
And then there was the nightmare, this vision Tessa had been crafting for herself. The future that lead to outright war that descended to the cruelest, most inhumane of depths.
And that’s what I’m for, Pillowcase said.
She’d been made to be a monster, and she could be monster again, and, sometimes, even monsters had their purpose.
The sky was alight with shooting stars and far too distant fire flies. For those trapped in burning ships in the void of space it was a rather catastrophic period, but for the [Adventurers] watching the display from the ground, it was quite lovely.
“Today wasn’t a bad day,” Tessa said with a gentle sigh.
She was back in her human body and Lisa’s hug around her waist was all the confirmation she needed that her feelings were shared.
It wasn’t dawn yet, that was still well off, and the post-power leveling session party was still in full swing. As it turned out, Tessa’s team hadn’t been the only ones to gain a few levels by the end of the day. None of the rest made out quite as well as they did, which was largely thanks to Glimmerglass’s help, but everyone who’d ventured out into the unknown had made it back, almost always richer and stronger for their daring.
“We’re level 30 now.” Lisa didn’t sound like she could believe it, which Tessa could more than relate to.
In the game, getting to level 30, especially with a power leveler helping them wouldn’t have been that incredible. It was just grinding – fairly mindless work with little risk before you got to enjoy the real game.
By contrast, their night had been anything but mindless despite the risk of dying being similarly low. With Glimmerglass as a backstop, they’d been free to relax and focus solely on the roles the team needed them to play.
They hadn’t been perfect. There’d been plenty of mistakes and plenty of miscommunication.
But they’d been learning.
Learning what they could do, learning what they couldn’t get away with, and learning to trust.
Trust was always the hardest one, since it went beyond believing the rest of the team cared about you. Trust on the battlefield meant understanding each others intentions and capabilities.
Tessa knew Lisa would sacrifice a lot to keep Rip and Matt safe. That was easy to rely on. Knowing how much Lisa was capable of doing before things went bad enough that Glimmerglass had to step in and sort things out though? That took a lot of trial and error.
The Spacers (Tessa had decided that calling them ‘demons’ was biasing her perceptions of them and she didn’t like it, hence the new term) had experienced the same thing as well but to a greater extent. Baelgritz tried to play tank for his mates and Yawlorna fretted over all of them but as the night wore on it grew visibly easier for them to rely on Obby and Tessa and Lisa and Lady Midnight to keep them safe so that they were able to fully cut loose. They still weren’t as comfortable with the group as Rip and Matt were, but spending several hours in life and death struggles with the [Adventurers] by their side had won some respect even from Hermeziz, grudging though it might have been.
“We were supposed to do something else tonight, weren’t we?” Tessa asked, searching her memories of a very busy day.
“We were going to try something to help the people who got bit by the [Hungry Shadows],” Lisa said. “I checked on them when we got back though. They still seem stable. So we might be able to tackle that latter.”
“That’s good,” Tessa said, enjoying the pleasant lassitude of the late hour and being at the party’s edge, alone with someone amazing.
“I’ll probably need to gear up for that too,” Lisa said. “We got a nice pile of loot but the stuff Feral Fang sends us is going to be a lot better.”
“Yay for high level sugar mommas,” Tessa said, raising her glass as a toast.
“Says the lady with her own personal one,” Lisa teased.
“Glimmerglass might be me, but she’s also her own person, I’m not taking any of her gold or even asking for it unless I have to,” Tessa said, a brief thought flashing through her mind at just how weird that sentence was.
“Didn’t you send gold to your alts when you were playing though?” Lisa asked.
“Sure. Starting out poor sucks,” Tessa said.
“Isn’t that what Glimmerglass would be doing?” Lisa asked.
“Sort of? I guess? I don’t know. I just like the idea of her staying as rich as she can,” Tessa said. “I stopped playing for so long and it robbed her of getting to max level and having all the good loot she should have.”
“Have you talked to her? I am one hundred percent certain that is not how she sees it,” Lisa said.
“That’s because she’s the nicer side of me,” Tessa said.
Lisa chuckled and turned to look at Tessa.
“It’s adorable that you believe that,” she said, and snuggled in closer.
She was touch was mildly cool, as it seemed [Vampires] generally were when calm and relaxed. Despite the night air being somewhat chilly, Tessa didn’t mind though. She’d never been a fan of freezing, but despite knowing that the air was a bit crisp, the temperature wasn’t bothering her.
Nor was sitting on the stone wall outside the [Great Hall] with no more padding than the tunic and breeches she had on.
“Are we changing?” she asked. “I mean, more than just leveling up?”
“We’d have to be,” Lisa said. “Even without being both Pillowcase and Tessa, think of what you’ve been through. And not just that, how different is your life at the moment that it was last week? Is anything the same?”
“Well, I’m probably fired now, but, to be fair, I really hated that job, so that seems like a total win, even with things trying to eat me here.”
“Good things are changes too,” Lisa said. “I miss my family, and I thought this place was going to be nothing but a nightmare after the [Wraithwing] attack, but, if I’m being honest, I think I’m happier here and now than I’ve been in a long time.”
Tessa breathed in the moment, letting the feeling spread through her and suffuse her cells.
“Yeah,” she said. “Me too. I know there are a lot of people that’s not true for. I’ve heard some of the other [Adventurers] talking about needing to get home, and I hope they can. For me though, if we’re trapped here forever? I shouldn’t want that, but I kind of do.”
“It feels like it’s too good to last, doesn’t it?” Lisa asked. “Like the Matric is going to spit us out, or Aslan’s going to give us the boot from Narnia any minute now.”
“I say we team up with the White Witch,” Tessa said.
“If she’s Tilda Swinton then, uh, yeah, obviously,” Lisa said.
Out on the barrow downs, Tessa heard a wolf howl. Probably a [Werewolf]. They hadn’t pushed deeply enough into the rolling hills to find anything significantly higher level than themselves, since there wouldn’t have been any award when Glimmerglass was forced to step in and wipe them out. Tessa knew that stronger and scarier monsters were waiting for them though.
“This definitely won’t last,” Lisa said. “But that doesn’t mean that what comes next ,and what comes after that, and so on, and so on has to be a step back. In fact I don’t think we can ever step back.”
She sounded hopeful at the idea, which helped Tessa read her meaning.
“Even if we were to find a gate or something back to Earth, we won’t be the same people we were, will we?” Tessa said.
“I don’t think so. I’m picturing going back to do physical therapy and knowing that a place like this exists. Even if I did, life there would look so different to me. I can’t imagine fitting into it anymore.”
“If we brought Lost Alice and Pillowcase back, I think just having their perspective would make things radically different too,” Tessa said. “And if we got split apart again? Just knowing that there was parts of myself in each world? I mean, I remember longing to play the game and that was when Glimmerglass was just imaginary. How could any job on Earth seem more important than whatever monster Pillowcase was facing? Or the people Glimmerglass was keeping alive?”
“Yeah. And that’s from our Earthly perspective. I know as Lost Alice, I’d be sad and worried about how Lisa was doing pretty much all the time. Earth’s as terrible a place as here and Lisa’s missing a lot of the advantages that Lost Alice has. And, okay this is weird and ridiculous, but I feel lonely even thinking about being apart from myself like that.”
“Count me in for being weird and ridiculous too then,” Tessa said.
“And what about us?” Lisa said, leaving the question dangerously open ended.
“We’ll change too I guess,” Tessa said. “If I’m not who I was when we met, then I probably won’t be who I am now forever either.”
“And the same’s true for me,” Lisa said. “Which is scary. I like this. I don’t want it to change.”
“I like this too,” Tessa said. “But I think I do want it to change. I don’t think we’re just becoming different people. I think we’re become more. I feel like I’m still myself, both my Tessa self and my Pillowcase self, but that by having both of those perspectives I’m seeing more of who that is and who I can be. And I like that. And I think, or hope, that the same can be true with us.”
In the back of her mind, a marriage proposal floated around but Tessa shooed it away. Falling in love was an incredible thing, but rushing things was the fastest method of falling out of love that she knew. Far better to savor each moment and draw together naturally, being aware of the good and the bad than to pretend there would be no problems ever and that everything was perfect.
“Now that, I’d like,” Lisa said. “And if we do wind up getting booted back to Earth, that’s something that doesn’t have to end. Even if we’re far apart.”
“I’m unemployed as far as I know. I see no reason why we’d need to stay farther apart than we are now.”
Lisa smiled. “And we could always get closer.”
The little squeeze she gave Tessa suggested all sorts of fun, but neither were quite ready to move from their perch.
“Should we look for a house?” Tessa asked, her gaze settling on the night darkened building of [Dragonshire].
“Moving in together. I guess we are going to get close.”
“Well, there is the whole ‘we’re also homeless now’ thing, but I was mostly thinking it would be nice to grab a place before all the nice spots are taken,” Tessa said.
“That might not be a problem,” Lisa said. “We know the [Great Hall] is an instanced area. It’s possible the houses on this side of the river are too.”
It was a strange thought that they could live in the same house as another group and yet each be living in their own versions of it, but it was somewhat par for the course for the [Fallen Kingdoms].
“And yes, I would love to look for a house with you,” Lisa added. “Though we probably want to bring the others too if we want to make it a base of operations for everyone. Or, I guess we could stake a claim on the tea house we were in last night. It was small enough that it could be just for us.”
“I definitely want to have a space for just us, but you’re probably right about bringing the others along. I haven’t been paying attention to how the recruiting efforts have been going, but I don’t think we’ll need a massive guild hall or anything.”
“But having the kids around at least would be good,” Lisa finished, completing Tessa’s thought perfectly.
Another shooting star passed overhead, but the problems it was caught up in were far away and no part of Tessa’s world.