There were so many ways charging towards her body could have gone wrong that Tessa was almost disappointed when none of them did.
As she passed through the wall of the [Heart Fire] chapel, she braced herself to dodge an attack by the [Hounds of Fate]. In hindsight she would kick herself and wonder what had possessed her to risk a close up encounter with them. Stress, and a rebellious streak she’d never paid enough attention to eclipsed common sense and rational thought there, which was usually a guarantee of disaster, but the cosmic dice came up in her favor and she didn’t wind up paying the price she could have.
The hounds didn’t attack. They were gone.
That should have told her something too, but she was too distracted by racing to Pillowcase’s fallen form to consider the implications of their absence.
The [Heart Fire Spark] in her hand was a part of that distraction. It throbbed like an excited heartbeat, pulsing with a pressure that brought every nurturing instinct within Tessa screaming to the fore. She was holding a new life in her hands. Her life. It didn’t burn her but she felt the edges of her being growing indistinct. Though she ran through the [Dead Lands], she could feel a current of life flowing around her, through her, and ever farther beyond her.
As she slammed the spark into Pillowcase’s body – no, her body – a circuit completed and the greatest relief she could imagine surged through her.
She followed the spark, flowing back into her body, and for the briefest moment, everything was exactly right.
Then she remembered the [Wraithwing Assault].
Jumping back into Pillowcase’s body had seemed like a brilliant idea compared to facing the challenges of the [High Beyond], and the [Fallen Kingdoms] in general, in her own body. As she opened her eyes on the living version of the town of [Sky’s Edge] though she flinched, expecting to be knocked right back to ghost form by another set of killing blows from the [Wraithwings].
After a few moments passed without her being skewered, Tessa looked around and noticed that the town square of Sky’s Edge was devoid of enemies.
She’d made it.
She was alive again.
And standing, for real, in the Fallen Kingdoms.
[Clothwork] hands were not made to tremble. Pillowcase’s body was a constructed thing with no elements in her design included for fear, or wonder, or overwhelming surprise. That thought percolated up through Tessa’s consciousness as she gazed in wonder at the sky of blazing colors which hung above her.
The hands which she moved into her gaze trembled, despite the action being alien to them. Too much in her was shaking, with delight, with terror, with disbelief, for her hands, her finely woven, cloth hands not to tremble.
“I’m more than I was,” she said, whispering the words because in the face of everything else, that was the most impossible thing for her to believe. She wasn’t human. And she wasn’t a Clothwork. She was the sum of those parts, however it was they might add up.
She couldn’t process it. The world had changed around her, but the world always changed, sometimes violently, and rarely for the better. She didn’t. Or at least she changed so slowly that the differences were impossible for her to perceive. She was always just herself. Just “Tessa”.
Except now she wasn’t.
She flexed her cloth hands into fists, stiffling the trembling as the heart she wasn’t supposed to have beat more fiercely in her chest.
Where are you? Lost Alice asked, her voice appearing in Tessa’s mind as clear as when they were in the room together.
I’m outside, Tess replied, Tell everyone it’s safe to come out. The event is done.
“WHAT THE HELL!?” BT said, appearing at Tessa’s side. “Why didn’t you reincarnate inside?”
“I thought we needed to test what happened if we rezzed back at a body instead of in the chapel,” Tessa said.
“Are you stupid!” BT shouted. Tessa heard the emotion in BT’s voice and paused.
“Are you angry?” she asked. Obviously BT was, but Tessa could hear it in the voice emanating from the GM’s [Angelic Armor], and there were some disturbing implications to that.
“Of course I’m angry!” BT said, fear, concern and frustration alloying into the kind of anger that can only exist in someone who still cares. “I just told you we’ve lost contact with people who died. And you said the [Hounds of Fate] were right there! What were you thinking?”
“I can hear the anger in your voice,” Tessa said, slowly, emphasizing the words so that BT would take them seriously.
“Yeah, I can too,” Alice said. She’d regained her game avatar’s body again as well, despite returning to life in the chapel.
BT was silent for a long moment, the [Angelic Armor] shifting into the unattended state it took on when she wasn’t controlling it.
“She’s not wrong,” Alice said. “That was a pretty crazy thing to do.”
“I know,” Tessa said. “The Hounds were silent though, and I figured we needed to know as much as possible about what living here might entail.”
“And you didn’t want to risk not coming back as Pillowcase?” Alice asked.
“That too,” Tessa said. “Oh, hey, thanks for the healing there before.”
“Didn’t wind up making much difference,” Alice said.
“Was still nice to have the support though,” Tessa said. “I know a lot of people would have booked it for safety the moment the [Wraithwings] weren’t chasing them.”
Alice shrugged, “I don’t think anywhere’s really safe anymore.”
“So, to confirm, you are hearing chat messages as an audible voice, and it seems to be conveying tone and inflection as well?” BT’s [Angelic Armor] asked in a deep baritone.
“Yeah, who is this?” Tessa asked.
“I’m chatting through the *GM Burnt Toast* account,” the [Angelic Armor] said.
“Clearly, but you’re not BT. You sound like the Old Spice guy,” Tessa said.
“OMG! You can tell who’s typing?” BT asked, sounding like herself again.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Tessa said. “Uh, what the hell is happening?”
“No idea, but this is another data point, and collecting those is the name of the game at the moment,” BT said.
“Who was the other guy?” Alice asked.
“That was my shift manager,” BT said.
“My name is Marcus,” BT’s Angelic Armor said in the baritone voice after a moment. “I wish we had more news for you, but know that we’re doing everything we can here.”
“No offense Marcus,” Alice said, clearly preparing to give offense, “but unless you guys have Gandalf, Merlin, or Hermione Freaking Granger on your payroll, I think we both know there’s not going to be a damn thing you can do about this.”
“My money would be on Hermione,” Tessa said, and saw Alice’s scowl deepen.
Right, Tessa decided, not the time for levity.
“Our options are limited at the moment,” Marcus said. “We’re still in the best position to coordinate what’s going on though, and pass you the information you need.”
“I haven’t seen any system announcements go out yet,” Alice said, the anger in her voice restrained like a sword only loosely tucked into a scabbard. “When are you going to tell people to be careful about dying. Or stop them from logging in.”
“We’ve already cut off the login servers. Those have been down for a while now,” Marcus said. “We’re still working on the next announcement because we have to get it right or no one who’s unaffected will believe us.”
“Is that really going to be a problem?” Tessa said. “Check the forums, and whatever Discord servers you have access to. This information is getting out there. It has to be.”
“We took the forums down too,” Marcus said. “We can’t be sure what connections to the game are enough to draw someone in, and we didn’t want to take chances.”
“Direct people somewhere else then,” Alice said. “Do you get what’s going on here? How many kids have disappeared from their parent’s home? How many spouses are missing? Do you think there’s no single mothers who play this game? You have got to get word out now so people can start fixing all the things that are going to go wrong.”
Tessa felt the world crashing down. Her giddy joy at being transported to the place that had felt more like a home than any spot on Earth had ever managed, crumbled under the weight of Alice’s words and the terrible implications they carried.
“Has anyone made it back yet?” Tessa asked. “You said the logout button is disabled, and that some people who died aren’t showing up. Have you tried reaching out to them in the real world? Maybe you can’t reach them because they made it completely out of the game.”
“We don’t store contact info for our players,” Marcus said.
“No but you do have their friends lists. And what guilds they’re in,” Alice said. “Some of us know each other out of game. Or at the very least people might have other methods of contacting them.”
There was a pause, which Tessa read as Marcus talking to someone else before
“Ok, we’ll try that,” he said. “I’ve got to go deal with some other folks now. Please hang on and stay calm for now though. We’ll get you all the information we can as fast as we can.”
No they won’t, Alice whispered. They’re going to want to understand everything before they start sharing anything meaningful. It’s what they’re doing now with delaying the system-wide announcement.
“I’ve got to go too,” BT said. “You’ve got a channel open to me though and I’ve flagged you so your chats will come through – normally we disable that – so give me a shout if anything else comes up.”
“Will do,” Tessa said. “Oh hey, before you go, are any of our other old friends logged in?”
“No,” BT said, the syllable colored in accents of sorrow. “You’re the first person I’ve seen pop up on my friend list in a long time.”
Tessa felt the loneliness wrapped around the words, but pushed through it to the silver lining.
“I’m glad they’re safe,” she said.
“Yeah,” BT said. “Stay safe too ok?”
“You know me,” Tessa said.
“I do. Seriously, stay safe!” BT said and, after seeing Tessa’s half shrug of agreement, dissolved into a teleportation animation.
“So, what should we do now?” Rip Shot asked. Matt Painting was in tow behind her, towering over her in the [Metal Mechanoid] body of his character. Rip Shot had chosen a smaller avatar in picking a [Tabbywile], one of the new [Beastkin] sub-selections. Looking at them it would have been easy to guess that Matt was the protector of the pair and Rip the fragile one, but from their classes, [Dream Spinner] for Matt and [Archer] for Rip, Tessa knew that the roles were almost the reverse.
Tessa wasn’t sure how long they’d been listening in but it looked like they had as much of a handle on what was going on as anyone else did.
Not that anyone seemed to have a solid understanding of what lay before them, or that there was a particularly limited set of options to choose from, but at least one stood out as more immediately important in Tessa’s mind.
“We should see who else is around here still,” she said. “We can start passing around the information we’ve got. I mean, we probably can’t reach too many people on our own, but it’s better than letting them continue on blindly right?”
“Yeah,” Alice said. “There were some people in the chapel. Your GM friend started to talk to them but when she figured out you weren’t coming over she took off to find you.”
“Sorry about that,” Tessa said. “If they survived the [Wraithwing] event, do you think they’ll believe us?”
“If they don’t we’ll have to convince them,” Alice said.
“It should be easy if we can hear their voices right?” Rip said.
“Maybe,” Alice said. “The tough part is going to be convincing them that they can’t go off and level up.”
“Because it’s too dangerous?” Matt asked.
“No,” Alice said. “We don’t know why we’ve been brought here, but whatever the reason, whatever the person responsible for this had in mind, all that we can know for sure is that we can’t play this game at all.”