The trip to the dungeon wasn’t a long one and that was a problem. Rose wasn’t worried about following Pillowcase and Lost Alice into it. Beating a dungeon sounded awesome to her, and beating it with them sounded wonderful. She just wasn’t sure if Jamal was ready for it.
I’m betting we run into nothing but low level stuff in there, she whispered to Jamal. Technically she sent the message to his character, ‘Matt Painting’, but she had a hard time remembering to call him that even though Matt, as a Metal Mechanoid, looked nothing like Jamal. There was just something about how he moved, from the little way he ducked his head when he spoke, even silently via telepathy, to how he tended to keep his hands in close to his body.
They’d been friends for a long time, so Rose didn’t find it at all surprising that she’d know him no matter what body he wore. It just felt right.
Well, yeah, that’s all there better be, Jamal said. Everything here is supposed to be low level, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be lower than us.
Familiarity meant Jamal didn’t hold back or censor himself with Rose as much as he normally did with other people. People he trusted less. The others hadn’t gotten to see Matt and Rip get into one of their epic debates yet, and probably wouldn’t for a long time if Rose’s guess was correct, but at least the two of them could at least continue their usual repartee telepathically.
We’re not that bad off anymore, Rip said. Anyways, this is a video game. We’re setup to win from the start.
Cause we got off to such a good start with those [Wraithwings]? Jamal said.
That was a fluke. Some kind of weird glitch.
This whole thing is a weird glitch. Jamal said. He was walking with his new staff held in front of his body, rather than using it like a walking stick.
Rose was doing the same with her bow, but that was because Rip Shot had indicated that it was better to keep it ready in case of a surprise attack. Apparently the time to unsling a bow, knock an arrow and fire it could mean the difference between getting in a clean shot and needing to parry with the bow instead. And bows were not meant for parrying. Rip Shot was very clear on that.
The fact that Rip Shot was clear on anything at all was something she hadn’t told the others. Jamal was open about “Matt Painting” having an existence beyond some flavor text in his backstory notes, but Rose wasn’t quite willing to divulge the same about Rip.
It was silly. She knew that.
But Rip was special.
She had to share Rip with the others because, obviously, they could all see Rip, and hear her. Rip Shot was a mask that wouldn’t come off. And that was fine. Better than fine. The idea of people thinking of her as Rip Shot rather than the disaster-that-was-Rose-Marsden was something Rose had literally prayed for.
Maybe it’s not a glitch, she said.
How is us being here not a glitch? Jamal asked. Do you think someone actually coded ‘AbductPlayersToGameWorld.exe’ and added it to the expansion without anyone noticing?
Rose rolled her eyes. She loved Jamal. Really she did. And he was smart. Except when he was being stupid.
I’m not saying one of the developers was a wizard. I’m saying that us being here by accident seems a lot less likely than us being here because someone intended for us to be here.
Jamal paused for a step, considering that and then caught up with a few quick strides to bring himself back by Rose’s side. The party didn’t have a special ‘marching order’ like in Dungeons and Dragons. They just let Pillowcase take the lead so that anything that jumped out would try to eat her first and the rest sort of wandered behind her.
Although, Rose noticed that Lost Alice wasn’t really ‘wandering behind’ so much as ‘walking with’ Pillowcase.
Were they conferencing like she and Jamal were?
Ok, yeah, we talked about that before, Jamal said, bringing Rose back to the conversation they were having before she could get lost in speculation. Somebody might have brought us here on purpose. Or maybe they brought someone specific here on purpose and the rest of us just got dragged along for the ride.
Yeah but why? Rose could feel on some fundamental level that her coming to the [Fallen Kingdoms] hadn’t been an accident.
Maybe the world needs it’s ‘Chosen One!’ or something like that? Jamal said and Rose noticed that ‘Chosen One’ didn’t have the odd aural quality words with specific meanings in the [Fallen Kingdoms] tended have.
Huh, that’s interesting, she said to no one but herself, pondering how likely it was for a fantasy story not have a ‘Chosen’ hero or main character.
The trip to dungeon wasn’t a long one though, and she really wanted to settle Jamal’s nerves though, so she packed away her thoughts on the absence of a Chosen One to continue her conversation with him.
I meant, why would it be someone else? Why couldn’t we be the ones who were supposed to come over here?
Because we have no idea what we’re doing? Jamal said.
I shoot things with arrows and you blast them with spells, Rose said, it’s not that hard to figure out. And you heard Pillow and Alice. We’re doing fine so far!
We’re doing fine for new players, Jamal said. Look at Alice, she’s had years of experience and she’s still worried about being here.
She’s not worried, Rose said. She’s worried about us maybe, but you saw her in those fights. She was perfectly calm the whole time. She’s probably fought like that a million times or something.
I don’t think anyone’s fought like this before, Jamal said. I mean nobody has right? Forgot virtual goggles, this is like being in a VR body suit or something.
Yeah, but she still knows what to expect. And she’s so strong.
But she used to being stronger, Jamal said. I think Pillow was too. Some of the things they talked about, it’s like they’re looking forward to the things they know we’re going to have to face.
Do you think that’s what they’re doing now? Rose asked.
Huh? Jamal asked.
They’re walking together, Rose said. They must be planning our strategy right?
Maybe? Wouldn’t they do that with us though?
That’s true, and I guess they have before.
Do you think they like each other? Jamal asked.
Uh, yeah, I mean they get along fine, right? Rose said, missing for a moment the implications of Jamal’s question.
It wasn’t surprising. Her relationship to romance was either ‘it’s complicated’ or ‘not applicable’ depending on a lot of factors.
It wasn’t that she didn’t understand it. She had characters that she liked seeing together in all kinds of media. Even people that she was happy to see couple up.
It just wasn’t for her.
Like with Jamal. She loved him. She’d told him that in 2nd Grade when some kids wouldn’t let him play kick ball with them. She’d meant it then and she still meant it.
But it wasn’t the kind of love that said ‘I want to date you’, or ‘I want to make out with you’. He was just nice to be around. Other kids called it ‘the Friend Zone’ but it wasn’t like Rose was locking him out of anything. She was more open and free with Jamal than she was with anyone else in her life. It was just that the things outside ‘the Friend Zone’ weren’t things she needed or wanted in her life.
At least not for herself. For other people romance and sex were fine, and did she remember Alice saying she had a girlfriend back home?
She turned a more discerning eye on her two party members.
I think they’re just talking about the dungeon, she said. They’re keeping some distance between themselves and it looks like they’re pretty serious.
You’re probably right, Jamal said. They’re probably talking about old dungeons they ran. You know, comparing notes to figure out what’s waiting for us.
Pillow was pretty gung ho, Rose said. I’m guessing she’s got a good general sense of how things are setup.
Yeah, that’s probably why she’s not worried. The same with Alice.
We’ll get like them in time, Rose said, picturing being as badass as either Pillowcase or Lost Alice.
She could do it. It had to be why she’d been brought here.
Rip Shot didn’t disagree, and that made Rose feel a little guilty.
At some point she would have to tell people about Rip. Explain that the she’d been borrowing Rip’s reserves of cool competence and skill to get through their fights.
Rip didn’t seem to mind letting Rose being in the drivers seat though, and was fine with Rose enjoying the praise for the work that Rip did. If anything Rip seemed happy to be able to focus just on the fighting and leave the rest to Rose. Like they were friends. Or partners.
It was how Rose had imagined, or at least hoped, they might be. Even though they were from different lives, and different worlds, when Rose had written up her short stories starring Rip Shot, she’d always imagined the [Elven] [Archer] as there in the room with her, helping craft the narrative and make it true.
We’re in this together, she said, whispering it unintentionally to Jamal.
Yeah. We are. And, seriously, that makes it a whole lot better, he said. I know I should probably say that I wish you weren’t stuck in here too, that you were back home safe and sound, but I’m glad your here.
Same, Rose said and then added, I’m kind of hoping we’ll be here for a good while.
Jamal was quiet for a second before responding.
Seems like a safe bet, he said, his telepathic voice quite and falsely calm.
I figure we should be stuck here for at least a month right? Rose didn’t think it would take that long necessarily, or rather, she was worried it wouldn’t take that long.
Could be a month, could be longer, Jamal said. It might be that we can never go back.
Or that we never chose to, Rose said. She’d give up their old lives in a heartbeat but it still felt dangerous to say it. Like she was promising too much too soon.
She expected Jamal to say that they should wait until the moment came, if it ever did, before they decided. Or that he couldn’t ask something like that of her. Basically something noble and stupid like usual.
That would be nice, he said instead and gave her a quick nod of his head, Metal Mechanoids not having exactly have the most expressive of faces.
The thought sent a thrill down her spine.
Getting to stay here forever? Getting to be Rip Shot, forever?
She didn’t deserve it, but like hell would she say no to it either.
Even if it turned out that the [Fallen Kingdoms] were miserable, a horror story from front to back, even if people found out that she really wasn’t Rip Shot, she’d still stay. She couldn’t ask Jamal to go back. He would be happy here, or at least happier, and that counted for a lot.
“I was wondering if we were going to have trouble finding the place,” Pillowcase said, coming to a stop as the path which was winding up into the mountains turned sharply around an outcropping.
“I don’t know,” Alice said. “Do you think that screams ‘I’m a dungeon, come inside me and die’ loudly enough?”
Around the corner, Rose saw what they were talking about. The path they’d been following ended at the mouth of a dark cave opening. Steam wafted from the entrance, curling in luminous green tendrils as though in walking into the cave you were walking into the maw of an ghostly octopus.
Worse though were the skulls which were mounted along the arch of the cave’s entrance. They came in all shapes and sizes, each bearing silent witness to the dangers within.
Time was up. They’d arrived.