Alice had not been overly joyful to hear that the support staff for Broken Horizons had become unreachable. Another person might have been described as apoplectic but Alice had a shade too much control to lose it like that. Not that Tessa would have blamed her if she did. BT was their one lifeline back to the real world and she was too busy to take their call?
A part of Tessa had to admit that it wasn’t unreasonable for BT to be a little overwhelmed and tied up with other problems. Tessa wasn’t sure how the Broken Horizons support team was divided up, but even if BT only had to deal with the people logged into the server Tessa was on, that was still thousands of calls coming in, many of whom were probably in far worse shape than anyone in [Sky’s Edge].
Alice looked unwilling to give much credit to that consideration, but she kept her complaints silent, the burning glare in her eyes and the hard set of her jaw the only hints of how much she longed to lash out.
“There might be another option to get you message out,” Tessa said. “Let’s go see the people in the chapel together. Maybe one of them can call your girlfriend for you. That’s more important than searching for quests here.”
Alice met Tessa’s gaze for a moment and then nodded in agreement.
“Did you meet any of them yet?” Tessa asked as she walked back to the chapel.
“Not really,” Alice said. ‘We respawned and then noticed that you were gone, so booked outside because it was obvious what you’d tried.”
“Ok. No telling what they’re like then,” Tessa said. “If you get a bad feeling about giving them your real world contact info, obviously you can skip it. There’s some other folks who might have survived too. I saw them retreating right as the event started. If nothing else got them, they should still be on the other side of the monitor and able to help us out.”
“You know, I don’t even know if I should reach out,” Alice said, reaching the chapel door before Tessa and opening it to allow Tessa to head in first. Tessa could think of a lot of reasons why that might be true, from the risk of any communication dragging Alice’s girlfriend into this mess too, to questions about how bad the fight they’d had really was. Whatever Alice’s primary concern was though, she didn’t chose to share it.
Inside the chapel, Tessa found things pretty much just as she’d expected them to be. The overall space and furnishings were the same as they’d been in the [Ghost Lands]. In the living world though everything had more color and vitality, especially the blue [Heart Fire] which defined and consecrated the chapel’s grounds.
In the fire light, Tessa saw a dozen people standing around, staring blankly ahead. A couple of them were human, but most of the players had chosen to make their new characters in one of the newly available races like Tessa and Alice had.
“Any one of you still here?” Alice asked, since it was impossible to tell whether the players were away from their keyboards or simply not moving their characters at the moment.
> Mugs Munny said: “Yeah. Is that GM coming back?”
Mugs was a [Void Goblin], with deep purple skin and bottomless black eyes which were filled with flickering points of light. He was standing a distance apart from the other people who were clustered near the back of the chapel, and from how his face was making small motions to track to different points in front of him, Tessa guessed he was inspecting something in his menu options – possibly looking for some other method of logging off.
“Not yet,” Tessa said. “They’re super busy.”
> Mugs Munny said: “Are we supposed to keep waiting? I need to hit the sack soon.”
“BT, the GM, she didn’t tell you what was going on did she?” Tessa asked.
>Mugs Munny said: “No. She booked out of here.”
>Mugs Munny said: “Said she’d fill us in when she got back.”
>Mugs Munny said: “I tried messaging her, but I’m getting bounce backs.”
“Yeah, the support system is overloaded,” Tessa said.
“They don’t know,” Alice said. Her anger was submerged in weariness and an abject lack of surprise.
>Mugs Munny said: “Know what? And how are you typing that fast?”
Ten minutes later Mugs and the two other people who were still at their keyboards were lost in a debate over whether they believed the tale they’d been told and, if so, whether they wanted to try dying to get into the game, or use a log out to do it.
“Yeah, I’m not giving those idiots any info,” Alice said once they were back outside the chapel.
Tessa knew she should have predicted the reaction they’d received. Faced with the prospect of going to work or literally living out her dream, she wasn’t sure she would have been much more rational after someone offered a modicum of proof that it was possible to dive into the [Fallen Kingdoms].
On the other hand giving out personal information to someone who’d asked Alice to jump so he could see if the “jiggle physics” had improved was never going to turn well.
On the plus side though, they had learned something new from the encounter. It turned out that blacklisting someone (in this case a Metal Mechanoid named “King Bong”) was possible with a simple mental command and resulted in that person vanishing from the world as far as Alice and Tessa were concerned. Once he was on the list, they could no longer see or hear him and he couldn’t see or hear them either. Mugs had helpfully confirmed that for them before adding King Bong to his own blacklist as well.
Tessa was happy to see that blacklisting still worked. It was easy and quick and held the answer to a lot of potential problems that could arise. There’d been a little warning screen that popped up which asked for confirmation (so she knew it wouldn’t happen by accident) and stated that once added, a person could not be removed for 24 hours. Tessa was still harboring faint hopes that the situation might be worked out in less than a day, but the realist in her knew that wasn’t going to happen.
“Want to go look for quests?” Tessa asked the dispirited Alice beside her. “I can search for the other party. Maybe they won’t be so bad.”
“Maybe.” Alice managed the word as a single grunt. “You know it’s not safe out there right?”
“Yeah,” Tessa said. “Outside of town it’s going to be all monsters, all the time.”
“No, I mean it’s worse than that,” Alice said. “It’s supposed to be low level stuff out there, probably nothing we couldn’t solo, but we can’t count on that being true.”
Tessa stopped walking.
“The [Wraithwings],” she said, as the implications of Alice’s words settled in.
“Right. They were ridiculously higher level that anything we should have fought. So either the game’s glitched, or someone’s trying to kill off players.”
“To get us into this world,” Tessa said as the pieces arranged themselves in her mind.
“Maybe not just that,” Alice said. “The voice over when we were sucked in, it talked about a hero. That’s not me, and probably not any of us. But if someone’s looking for a hero and they’ve got a bajillion possible candidates, what do you think they’re going to do?”
“Winnow out the good ones from the bad,” Tessa said, a fresh weight of dread descending on her.
“Or the strong from the weak,” Alice said.
Tessa rubbed the bridge of her nose. It felt weird to do in Pillowcase’s body, which was somehow both squishier and more resilient than her human one.
“We should setup a game plan,” she said. “If we run into anything stupidly overpowered, we flee. If we all can’t flee, then you three flee and I’ll act as a rearguard. If none of us can flee then we move to as safe a spot as we can, together, and die there so we’ll have a chance to reclaim our bodies on a respawn.”
“Sounds like our basic raid encounter plan,” Alice said. “The trick is going to be getting the kids to go along with it.”
“They’ll need someone to lead them in the retreat,” Tessa said. “Are you up for it?”
“I’ll have to be until we get some more people in the group,” Alice said.
“After King Bong back there I’m not feeling too eager to go on a recruiting drive,” Tessa said.
“That works for me. Low odds we’d get people who would be willing to fight like the NPCs in this world are people too.”
“I used to know people who would,” Tessa said. “I should probably feel glad that they’re not in the game anymore.”
“Yeah, I should feel glad that my power leveler wasn’t able to log in tonight,” Alice said. “It kind of sucks though.”
“We’ll make it suck less,” Tessa said. “I’ll see about finding the other team and a decent hunting ground. And if BT gets back to me I’ll send her right over to you.”
“Thanks. Sorry you got caught up in this too. Really thought I’d be able to keep you alive there during the event.”
“Can’t save me from my own stupidity,” Tessa said with a smile and a shrug.
She turned to head out of town in the same direction she’d seen the other party take but Alice grabbed her arm.
“Be careful. Seriously,” she said. “If anything comes up, at least give a shout in party chat. If you just disappear it’s going to be creepy as hell.”
“No worries,” Tessa said. “I am not a brave person. First sign of trouble, I am out there.”
Alice looked dubious of Tessa’s claim but that was fine. Tessa had every interest in avoiding peril, both at the moment and in general.
Outside of the town, Tessa felt the transition to the [Fields of the Wasted] as a palpable charge in the air. Her senses came to life and a nervous energy ran through her body which seemed to be waking up from a light slumber.
The aura of peace which kept most monsters out of a town like [Sky’s Edge] apparently also had an effect on players who were within its boundaries as well. Whether that was a magical effect or just the result of the characters sensing that they could afford to relax was something Tessa couldn’t be sure of but the absence of that aura wasn’t entirely unwelcome either.
Breathing slowing and carefully scanning her environment, Tessa felt more alive and alert than she had in years. Untold dangers waited for her in the gloom which shrouded the lands around the town, but her heart was singing with anticipation at the thought rather than shrinking away like she’d expected it would.
Biting back her rising excitement, Tessa forced reason to prevail. The first order of business was taking the lay of the land. Despite the shadows which covered the world, her Clothwork eyes could still pick out a lot of detail.
[Sky’s Edge] was named as it was because it stood on the edge of a mile high cliff which overlooked the [Low Beyond]. From most vantage points though, it looked like the town sat on the last piece of land before the end of the world and the beginning of the star strewn sky which encircled the heavens.
It was a grand and glorious vista, even more so when experienced in person rather than through a computer monitor, but it did present Tessa with some challenges, the largest of which being the choice of where to go.
The cliff ran in an irregular north-south line bowing inwards where [Sky’s Edge] sat beside a swiftly flowing river which pitched over the edge of cliff to form a waterfall which never quite reached the ground of the [Low Beyond], dispersing instead into the glittering mist and rolling clouds which covered the base of the falls.
When Pillowcase had revived, she’d been just off to the southwest of [Sky’s Edge] at the edges of the [Fields of the Wasted]. That was also where Mister Pendant had sent her for the [Radioactive Goo Rats] quest, so she felt at least slightly familiar with the area.
The other party she’d seen during the [Wraithwing Assault] event though had looked like they were heading more northwest, which would have led them behind a few hills she hadn’t ventured over yet.
The tactical considerations of whether to further explore an area she was familiar with or seek out a group of unknown players in an area that was likely to hold an entirely different breed of monsters than the ones she’d run into so far warred in Tessa’s mind.
If I’m going to lead this party, I need to make the smart calls, she told herself.
Then she heard the scream.
It was coming from the south.
She hadn’t been to the south.
She hadn’t seen any players heading to the south.
As it turned out, Clothworks could move pretty fast when they weren’t stopping to think about whether or not they should.