Tessa collapsed. With the battle finished, she couldn’t do anything else.
It wasn’t that her body was tired. It wasn’t that she was injured. It wasn’t even that she was sickened by the carnage around them.
“Are you ok?” Alice demanded, her blood red eyes flaring wide in concern.
“Probably not.” Tessa’s short laugh wasn’t a sign of an impending breakdown into madness, but she wasn’t entirely sure if that was because she was managing to hold things together or because her psyche had already fractured. In either case though, Alice’s hands on her shoulders felt really nice.
“What happened?” Alice asked, the concern locking her jaw relaxing by a hair’s breadth. Behind Rip and Matt had come to a halt a few feet away and were watching with worry writ large on their faces as well. To their credit though, they were also keeping an eye on their environs as Alice had been teaching them.
“I’m not sure,” Tessa said. “Just wasn’t feeling like myself there for a bit, then once the fight was done everything kind of snapped back.”
“What about now?” Alice asked, searching in Tessa’s eyes for…what? Signs of a concussion? Or a stroke? Could Clothworks have strokes?
“I’m all me,” Tessa said. “I think it comes on when I’m fighting.”
“That sucks. We can’t have you collapse in the middle of a fight. Maybe we should head back,” Alice said.
“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Tessa said. “I’m not falling apart when it happens. If anything it seems to make me stronger. Like this is all old hat. Like I was built to fight like that.”
Alice narrowed her eyes, searching for understanding but it was Rip who asked the question which showed she already did.
“Is it like you’re becoming Pillowcase?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Tessa said, knowing how ridiculous that sounded. “Except it’s not like a transformation, or like she’s taking over my mind. It’s more like she’s already there. Already ‘me’, and hearing her voice is just hearing another side of myself.” Tessa paused, searching for words that were hidden behind a veil of personal experience. “I don’t know if that makes any sense? Did any of you feel anything like that?”
“No,” Alice said and released her hold on Tessa, backing away to give Tessa room to rise.
“Yeah,” Rip said, meeting Tessa’s eyes and nodding.
“N-No,” Matt said, tripping over the word and leaving Tessa to wonder why he was lying.
“You felt like that too?” Tessa asked, ignoring Matt for the moment to focus on Rip.
“Yeah. It felt like Rip Shot was the one doing the fighting. She sounded just like she does in the stories I wrote about her too.”
“You’ve written fanfic about the character you just started playing?” Alice asked.
“I started playing her here because I’d already written about her,” Rip said, a spark of indignation heating her words.
“How about you?” Tessa asked, looking to Matt. “Are you a writer too?”
“Oh? Me? Nah. I just thought the name was funny,” Matt said, which was Tessa had expected.
‘Matt Painting’ was a nice play on words for an illusion casting character like a [Dream Spinner]. If anything was surprising, it was that the name had still been available given how many illusion using classes there were and how many players had made characters on the server in the last fifteen years.
“You could have taken Gallaway,” Rip said.
“Gallaway?” Alice asked.
“He’s a character in her stories,” Matt said. “Rip’s best friend, in the stories she writes I mean,” he turned to face Rip, “which would have been cool, but Gallaway is your character. I can’t play as him.”
“But you were the inspiration for him!” Rip said, and Tessa could tell they were drifting into well worn discussion territory between the two.
“I think we’re drifting off course here,” Alice said. “So you’re turning into your characters? Is that dangerous? What are they like?”
“It’’s fine,” Rip said. “Rip Shot’s cool. I mean, the one I wrote. I guess this one is pretty much the same?”
“Yeah, I think we’ll be ok,” Tessa lied before backing it up with the truth as she saw it. “Pillowcase isn’t more like a part of me. I’m not going to turn into a Team Killing berserker or anything like that. I just might be a little more…” she sought for a word that wouldn’t terrifying the three people around her and had to settle for, “…intense. During a fight. Once the battle music faded, Pillowcase was done. I don’t think she makes sense for calm moments like this.”
“Is that what it’s like for you too?” Alice asked Rip.
“Yeah, sort of,” Rip said. “It’s not like a light switch or anything though. It’s more like, wait are you a writer?”
“No,” Alice said. “I mean not anymore. I wrote some stuff when I was kid but it was garbage, so, no.”
“How about you?” Rip asked Tessa.
“Not really. I used to make up backstories for my characters, and I did a bit of fanfic back when I was playing, but that was a while ago.”
“How about for Pillowcase?” Rip asked. “Did you make a backstory for her?”
“I didn’t write anything down, but, yeah, I kind of had one in my head. Why?”
“Maybe that’s why we can feel our characters?” Rip said. “We gave them voices before we came here, so they became real when this place did.”
“Ok. Maybe. But where did their battle knowledge come from?” Tessa said. “It’s not like I had a lifetime of fight experience to draw on, so did it just pop up out of nowhere?”
“It could have,” Rip said. “The town, and the monsters, and everything else here looks a lot more detailed than the models in the game. Maybe this place took what was in the game and fleshed it out with what missing.”
“Including us?” Matt asked.
“Sure,” Rip said. “Maybe we were drawn in because the characters needed souls and since we were controlling them, that made us their souls?”
“One problem with that idea,” Alice said. “If you had your character’s experience, why was the fight so hard for you? We need to go over a bunch of things you two did back there before we get into another battle.”
“We won though didn’t we?” Matt asked, his unsteadiness suggesting he wasn’t sure if that was true despite the mound of bug corpses which attested to his assertion.
“Pillowcase was right,” Tessa said. “That fight wasn’t about winning. It was about practicing how to fight the right way.”
“Pillowcase was right?” Alice asked. “Can your Mr. Hyde talk through you too?”
“Pillowcase isn’t my evil other half,” Tessa said. “It’s all me, just not the me I was back on Earth I think, so, yeah she can talk. It’s just me talking, but with a head full of different perspectives. You don’t feel like that at all?”
“No. I just feel hungry,” Alice said.
Tessa was ready to brush that off as a minor complaint but then she considered which race Alice had chosen and saw the concern the healer was holding back.
“Hungry like you want some more rations?” Tessa asked, hoping that her guess was wrong.
“If by ‘rations’ you mean an extra bloody steak, hold the steak, then sure,” Alice said.
“Oh. Oh wow. That’s not great. Is it going to be a problem?” Tessa asked.
“We’ll see,” Alice said. “I don’t think so. The game lore and the mechanics say that [Bloodborn] characters can get by fine without blood. We’re just not superhumanly strong without it, and some of the racial passives which I don’t have yet are only active if I’ve fed recently.”
“We are kind of a mess aren’t we?” Matt said.
Tessa could see his mistakes from the battle burrowing into him. They were a mirror of the ones she’d made as a beginner that had left her feeling like an idiot long after she’d outgrown them.
“Of course we are,” she said. “This was literally our first fight. The whole point was to find out what we need to work on with as few trips to the Chapel as possible.”
Alice cast a glance at Tessa and softened her expression.
“She’s right. There were some things we could do better, but overall this was a solid win,” Alice said. “No one died. No one needed an emergency heal. You even listened when I gave instructions.”
“Yeah, but I messed them up,” Matt said. “I didn’t mean to shoot those guys, but the spell went off when I tried to focus on another target.”
“We’ll work on it then,” Alice said. “Don’t sweat a mistake like that. You can practice that kind of thing away easy.”
“Some of that’s on me too,” Tessa said. “Giving tactics in the middle of a fight is inevitable for some things but the general strategies are things we can work out before hand.”
“I was tempted to do that, but I thought it would be a bit easier to do after we’d seen what an actual battle looks like here,” Alice said. “It’s a lot harder to keep track of things in three dimensions than it was on the monitor.”
“Some of that could just be that we’re more used to parsing what was happening on screen,” Tessa said. “I remember when I started playing how confusing all the battle messages and effects were. After a while all that just drifts away though and your eyes start automatically picking out the bits that you need to look for.”
“So,” Matt asked. “You’ll keep going with us?”
Tessa titled her head trying to parse what he meant for a moment before her conversation with Alice in the town square came back to her.
“Yeah, you’re doing fine so far,” Tessa said.
“And if we don’t?” Rip asked.
“If you can’t handle this stuff, we’ll make sure to get you some place safe,” Alice said. “The worse thing you can do with a party is try to drag along people who don’t want to be there, or want it but can’t cope with the challenges your tackling. It’s not fair to them and no one has fun.”
“Is fun a consideration any more?” Matt asked. “Don’t we need levels to survive?”
The question rang a bell in Tessa’s mind, sending her thoughts tumbling back down the years.
If you’re not having fun, then you’re doing it wrong and you should do something else. It had been her mantra when she was playing, but it was more complicated than it sounded.
To Tessa, the game didn’t have be pulse pounding fun every minute of play. There was plenty of room for quiet moments, or even mindless ones where she could zone out while performing some trivial task. What she drew the line was at continuing to engage with the game when it had clearly become something the player hated.
When all that was left was disappointment and discontentment, continuing on seemed like an exercise in masochism, when in reality it was more likely that change was simply too scary for the player to face.
It was ugly, and led to the worst behavior, and it happened far too often. She’d seen too many people who couldn’t let go and take the chance on searching for something new.
Even in herself?
She thought of her job.
When had she forgotten how important it was to love what you did?
Not that the real world accomodated that kind of sentimentality very well. Leaving a job was a lot harder than leaving a game.
Under the present circumstances the reverse was kind of true. Where leaving the game was impossible and leaving her job was going to be effortless. Probably.
And that was fine. If they got in a few hours then maybe things could go back to how they’d been, but Tessa knew that wasn’t going to happen. She was going to lose her job.
She laughed, and felt a stirring of agreement from Pillowcase at the thought that rose within her.
Whatever programming work was on her desk didn’t matter. She had much more interesting bugs to squash now. The pay check that she was waiting for was just as irrelevant too. The bag of starting gold on her hip could buy her boss five times over.
For all the danger that awaited them, for all the uncertainty over what their fate might be, Tessa felt her younger self screaming a memory back into her awareness.
“We have to have fun,” she said. “We have to love this world. Otherwise we’re just killing ourselves by being here.”