The boundaries of Tessa’s world were fraying. The plains which stretched between the mountains where the entrance to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] had been and the abandoned farmhouse where the new members of her team were trapped should have been a broad, open field, but the wreckage from battles, both ancient and recent, which covered it blocked out the view in all directions, narrowing her world down to the small area around them.
Somehow that helped though. There were enough problems close by without needing to consider the disaster which lay across the rest of the world.
“How bad is the hunger getting?” she asked Alice in their private channel.
“I can bear it,” Alice said. Her jogging was loose and easy, the same as the rest of them, but her eyes remained fixed on a spot on the ground a few paces ahead of her.
“Can I help?” Tessa asked. She could hear the determination in Alice’s voice, and knew from experience the kind of pain determination could be covering.
“How? Is there a lot of blood in your stuffing?” Alice asked irritation toppling into anger before she shook her head and reeled it back in. “Sorry, dammit. I didn’t mean to snap like that.”
“You should see what I’m like when I get hangry,” Tessa said, laughing off her momentary blip of panic at having said the wrong thing.
“I’ll be ok,” Alice said. “It’s my own stupid fault for picking [Graveborn] for my race.”
“I’m going to bet getting stuck living in Alice’s skin wasn’t exactly a factor in the selection process,” Tessa said.
Alice chuffed out the fragment of a laugh.
“She wasn’t supposed to be anything more than a one-off,” Alice said. “CeaseAll was supposed to come and power level me up to max and then I’d be able to prove that [Solar Priestess] are just as viable as [Grave Menders].”
“I’m sorry,” Tessa said, out of reflex but tinged with a measure of guilt too. Alice’s misfortune had turned out to be a windfall for Tessa, Rip and Matt, and that didn’t seem to be fair when it also came with an unslakeable thirst for blood.
“It’s not your fault. I’m just an idiot,” Alice said. “A hungry, cranky idiot. God, why am I getting twisted up about this of all things? Oh boohoo, I’m a cute vampire with magic and a huge pocketful of gold. Oh how dark is my life. Next I’m gonna start writing bleak poetry.”
“We’ve all gone through that phase,” Tessa said. “Well, maybe not the cute vampire part of it, or the gold, but if we get home I can show you a stack of bad poetry about twelve feet high. Or, you know, the ashes of it after I went and burned it all.”
Alice gave a more honest laugh at that.
“I’m sorry to hit you with that,” she said. “I think it’s just just starting to get to me.”
“Being here or being a vampire?” Tessa asked.
“Either? Both? All of it?” Alice said. “It’s…I don’t even know. If you’d told me about this a week ago I would have said ‘cool’ and been looking forward to it. If you’d told me about it ten years ago I would have sold body parts for it to be true. I should be so happy we’re here.”
“And with being a blood sucking undead?” Tessa asked. It wasn’t teasing, but she didn’t mean it seriously either. She just wanted to keep the smile on Alice’s face.
“That most of all!” Alice said. “Well, when I was a kid at least. I went through a hardcore fang phase. Nosferatu to Twilight. If it had fangs and an aversion to sunlight, I was so there for it.”
“Did you ever see Near Dark?” Tessa asked, remembering her own forays into vampire obsession.
“A classic,” Alice said. “I take it you were a fan too?”
“My first girl friend and I were entirely too into giving each other hickeys,” Tessa said. “It’s embarrassing to even think about it. I still can’t believe no one ever figured it out.”
“People are amazingly good at not seeing things they don’t want to,” Alice said. “Even when the reality is right there. Everyday.”
Her smile faded as she spoke, some private melancholy crowding out both the undead hunger and the brief moment of good cheer.
“What I see is someone who got stuck with a rotten deal and has been going above and beyond the call for a while now,” Tessa said. “We need to find a way for you to chow down like your body needs too.”
“I am not going to start killing random people and drinking them dry,” Alice said. “Tempting though that may be.”
“I was thinking more about collecting some blood from a monster. Or an animal. Or even a person if you don’t need that much.”
“There hasn’t been a lot of blood in the monsters we’ve fought,” Alice said. “Just ichor and bug guts. I’ve been watching for that.”
“It’s probably because of the T for Teen rating the game had,” Tessa said. “We’ll find you something though.”
“I’ll be okay,” Alice said. “We’ve got more important things to worry about at the moment.”
“More urgent maybe,” Tessa said. “You’re as important as the rest are though.”
“Everybody loves a healer, so long as no one ever dies.”
“Oh, I’ve been there too,” Tessa said, thinking back to the fickle mood of a party when she was playing Glimmerglass and things were well compared to the party’s mood if things turned against them. “But that’s not what I meant. Alice is great to have on the team, but you’re important too.”
“Thanks. It’s nice to hear that once in a while.” There was a surprising warmth in her voice. “My real name’s Lisa by the way, Lisa Chen. I don’t remember if I mentioned that yet or not.”
“Mine’s Tessa. Tessa Moore. I wanted to ask before, but we’d just met and…”
“And you didn’t want to feel weird?” Lisa asked. “Yeah, I kind of know the feeling.”
They ran on for a handful of breaths before Lisa spoke again.
“I haven’t asked the kids what their names are yet.”
“Me either,” Tessa said. “At first it was just the usual thing of ‘don’t ask under-age people personal info’, because this was all going to stop as quick as it started.”
“”Which is seeming less likely with every minute that goes by with no response from from the GMs,” Lisa said.
“Which I knew,” Tessa said. “I mean, there’s nothing their programmers are going to be able to do because there’s no way this has anything to do with coding, or the servers, or anything anyone in our world has any familiarity with.”
“Not even Russian Super Hackers?” Lisa asked. “That’s a theory that went around where CeaseAll is. She messaged me a little while ago to see how we were doing.”
“Please tell me no one took that seriously,” Tessa said.
“If by no one you mean about half the people at the bar Cease was at? Then, yeah.”
Tessa shook her head.
“This place has a terrible inclusion filter. The unfortunate and the stupid. And we’ve got a global crisis rolling in.”
“It sounds like people are working on that,” Lisa said. “Cease was saying that a lot of the high level players are being gathered together into an army like the one we saw in the intro video. Niminey’s out there calling everyone to join up.”
“Wait, like the actual Niminey? She’s alive in here too?”
“I think all the NPCs are,” Lisa said. “They’ve got Prince Brandoth, and Penswell, and a bunch of the Iconics leading the defenders.”
“Cease is still outside of the game though isn’t she?” Tessa asked. “Shouldn’t she be playing it safe?”
“Yeah, but my whole guild is there for the planning. Or you know everyone but me and the people who weren’t logged in. They don’t intend to fight on the front lines, but if the battle comes to them, everyone wants to be ready.”
“Oh wow. I wonder if EE can put a stop to any assault events they had planned? A big brawl in a major city like [Thaldinsforge] would be cool but so many people would get drawn in. I mean those things are deathfests under the best of circumstances.”
“I wish I could be there,” Lisa said.
“Me too. Even just as Pillowcase, though Glimmerglass would be a lot more useful.”
“It’s funny isn’t it?” Lisa asked. “What we’re doing here? These fights, and leveling up? It kind of doesn’t matter.”
Tessa wanted to object but she could picture the grand armies being deployed in the Fallen Kingdoms. She could see guilds banding together, people rallying behind characters with the power to challenge the gods themselves. She could see the whole world moving in a great tide of destiny while she was left on the shore. Too small and too far away to matter in the titanic struggle that was going to come.
“Maybe not,” she said and then brightened. “Maybe not, and maybe that’s a good thing.”
“How so?” Lisa asked, more intrigued than skeptical.
“If we’d been on our usual characters, we’d be swept up in the war with the [Consortium of Pain] right? But there’s hundreds of thousands of people fighting in that, so even if we had the best gear we’d still just be one small part of it, not all that important, and not able to choose our own destiny.”
“Whereas now, we can do whatever we want,” Lisa said, tasting the idea like hard candy.
“Yeah, what we’re doing now is happening because we chose to do it, and it matters because we’re the ones here to do it. I’m sure any of the other players could be the ones to rescue Starchild and her crew but none of them are here. That’s all on us.”
“Eventually we’ll out level this part of the [High Beyond] though and then we’ll be stuck down with the mid-levels in the older zones,” Lisa said.
“I hope so!” Tessa said. “Picture us warping down from the heavens to land somewhere like the [Pelgrathi Highlands]. You’ve got teams of mid-levels there who’s been staying in the taverns or running dungeons with the help of a bunch of high level players to keep them safe. Then we show up. Tell me any of them could handle the [Mind Crusher] fight we just went through? We’re going to be the most badass team of mid-level adventurers ever.”
“You paint a beautiful picture,” Lisa said. “But we’ll have to see how it turns out. I know a lot of groups who would snap up a tank like you in a heart beat.”
“We’re close to having a full group as it is,” Tessa said. “And I’d rather stick with you. PUGs were terrible when I wasn’t literally going to have my head chopped off thanks to people ignoring what I say.”
Lisa was silent for a moment which prompted Tessa to review her words in case she’d said something wrong.
“That’s just me though,” Tessa added. “You’ll have access to your guild once we’re back in the old zones. You can do a lot better than a PUG. Heck, you can probably have CeaseAll power level you then.”
Tessa could see the split that would happen. Lisa would take an invite as Lost Alice to a guild party and head off to shoot up to the level cap as quick as possible. Without a healer, Rip and Matt would have to leave the team to search for one who needed two more damage dealers.
Tessa could try to stay with them, but when the inevitable offer for a team came it would doubtless be for one with only one openings, leaving her to choose between teaming with her young friends and advancing further to help keep them safe.
They’d walk away from her eventually.
They would have to. It was the only chance they’d have to improve.
It was what everyone else did after all.
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Lisa said. “I think I’d rather stay with you.”