Tessa wasn’t a broken mess. Or at least Pillowcase’s body wasn’t. The jury was still out on the rest of her.
“I wonder if they forgot to stock this area with mobs?” she asked herself as she crept down a long corridor which seemed to have carved from the bones of some incredibly vast creature.
Her fall from the demon’s lair in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] to the Sunless Deeps had plunged her through a lake of lava and onto an obsidian landing disk which, somehow, hadn’t shattered under the impact. That Pillowcase’s body was also undamaged, Tessa took as a sign that the “fall” was really more of a visual effect than a literal descendant from the floating land of the [High Beyond].
The obsidian disk she arrived on was the only spot of black on the whole subterranean area. Above her head, a swirling vortex of red light leaked down. For all that the droplets of light looked like bits of molten lava dripping from the lake above, Tessa saw the familiar shimmering quality sparkling within them to indicate the presence of an active portal effect.
She could return to the demon’s lair, potentially even without dying.
So that was a good thing.
What would be a better thing, she decided was to complete the mission she’d idiotically jumped into all alone.
Was that you? she asked, trying to distance herself from what she knew was her own foolish impulses.
Yes, Pillowcase replied.
Because, of course, Pillowcase was her.
I get it, she said and shook her head.
She was delaying because she knew what a phenomenally bad idea exploring on her own was. Even if she’d been a [Rogue] or a [Shadow Dancer] with actual stealth skills, exploring a brand new dungeon was likely to be a death sentence.
I don’t really want to die.
On the one hand, admitting that to herself was comforting. The actions she’d been taking over the last several hours had left the matter somewhat in doubt. On the other hand, the honest admission had served to dispel the thick layer of denial she’d been working to build up.
They’d been lucky with the [Hounds of Fate] so far, but even beyond that there was the issue she’d been refusing to consider deeply.
I died getting here? Didn’t I?
Melting into a shower of light? Streaking across the universe faster than light could follow? Arriving in a new dimension, or plain of existence, or whatever, where the rules of reality worked completely differently, and where she was someone else, or even something else? How was that not an afterlife?
We still hurt, and bleed, Pillowcase said. And love, and grow. We’re more now than we were before, both these two sides of us, and our team. Isn’t that living?
Tessa paused as she continued down one of the hallways which lead out of the arrival chamber.
It is, she said. So what was it I was doing before?
Empty days grinding away on tasks which didn’t matter, for people whose understanding of her began and ended with her employee ID number? Empty nights with no one to come home to because she’d been a terrible girlfriend?
Was that a life?
“Find anything yet?” Lisa asked over their private channel.
“No sign of mobs here yet, but I’m moving slowly and carefully,” Tessa said. “I’ve got a straight shot back to the entrance if something shows up.”
“Good,” Lisa said. “What’s the landing site like?”
“It’s fun,” Tessa said. “There’s a short period of darkness while you pass through the lava lake and the landing is so fast you’d like it would break every bone in your body, but transport system cancels out all the damage. I think it was down for a while though. There’s big empty pools in the chamber where the lava light was starting to gather. I think it drained away after the demons shot down the portal, but it’s flowing again now that I broke the barrier they had in place.”
“Ok, first, Lava Lake? Second, the lava is flowing into room you’re in?” Lisa sounded less upset than Tessa had guessed she would be. There was also the faint sound of air gusting behind her.
“The lava’s not in this area. You kind of phase though it,” Tessa said. “What’s falling into the room is more like lava-inspired liquid light.”
“Oh, well that’s good,” Lisa said, her voice colored by an odd element of hurried relief.
“Where are you now?” Tessa asked, a suspicion growing in the back of her mind.
“I just landed,” Lisa said.
“Wait, you’re here too? Why? That’s not safe!”
“Oh good, you’re aware that its dangerous down here. Just apparently not aware enough to keep you from jumping in without any of the rest of us!”
The anger Tessa had been expecting to hear came flooding back into Lisa’s voice. If they hadn’t been speaking telepathicallly, Tessa was certain Lisa would have been yelling loudly enough to bring the whole dungeon down on them.
Except Lisa wouldn’t do that.
She was too experienced and too collected to make a rookie mistake like that.
“I’m supposed to keep you safe,” Tessa said.
“Yeah and can’t do that if you die for real!” Lisa’s anger wasn’t diminishing.
“Better me than any of you,” Tessa said.
“It’s my job, isn’t it? The Tank’s gotta take the hits so other people don’t.”
“Come back to the entry. We’re leaving.”
“I can’t,” Tessa said. “We need Yawlorna and her crew on our side and this is the only thing I can think of that’ll convince them to work with us.”
“Congratulations then. You succeeded. They’re working with us now,” Lisa said. “So get back here, or I’m going to drag you back.”
“What do you mean ‘they’re working with us’?”, Tessa asked.
“There’s an attack on [Sky’s Edge],” Lisa said. “They’re going along with our team to check it out and evacuate the people there.”
“What? Why did you call me?”
“Because I knew you would put up a fight,” Lisa said. “I’m heading towards you now.”
“I’m not putting up a fight,” Tessa said. “But there’s another reason we have to make this work.”
“Farming for experience?” Lisa asked.
“No! This could be our way home too!” Tessa said. “Yawlorna said their ship could travel to other worlds. If it can travel to here from their home world, it might be our best shot at traveling back to Earth too.”
Tessa saw Lost Alice pause as she rounded the corner.
“She did say that, didn’t she?” Lisa asked, her anger cooling as she laid eyes on Pillowcase.
“Yeah, I mean it’s still a long shot, but if it works it could fix everything,” Tessa said. “All the people who really can’t afford to be trapped here? It’s only been about half a day so far of Earth time. If Yawlorna’s ship can get people back then there have to be other ships that could do the same. If the stars aligned, we could get everyone back before any real tragedies happen.”
Lost Alice breathed in and released her breath in a long sigh.
“It was still stupid coming here alone.”
“I know,” Tessa said. “I’m sorry. I saw what needed to happen and I didn’t think what it would mean you and Rip and Matt.”
Lost Alice turned away and wiped her arm across her eyes.
“They’re on the mission to [Sky’s Edge],” she said.
“Rip and Matt? Wait, are they going to get there before the attack arrives?”
“I don’t think so,” Lisa said. “They’re with Obby and Lady Midnight, and they’re supposed to be careful, but you’ve seen Rip.”
“Oh god. She’s totally going to fight them. Maybe we should go back?”
“I wanted to,” Lisa said. “Letting them go seemed insane, but keeping them back would have been so much worse.”
Tessa tried to workout how that could be true. Subjecting the kids to monster attacks was one thing. There was nothing “human” about the monsters they fought, and the only people getting hurt were the ones on their team, who were fine as soon as they reached a [Heart Fire]. Seeing other people die though? People who might not be capable of coming back? And killing people who couldn’t respawn? That was a very different thing.
But Rip would know that. And Matt would too.
“She would have gone anyway,” Tessa said, understanding flowing through her as memories of being fourteen echoed in her mind.
“And she would have felt so betrayed that I didn’t trust her,” Lisa said. “I hate either of them being out there, this is more than any of us were built for dealing with, and they’ve been handling it as well as anyone we’ve met.”
“And better than most,” Tessa said.
“Better than me at least,” Lisa said.
Tessa didn’t bother to try hidden her surprise.
“You weren’t wrong. We do need this to convince Yawlorna’s people,” Lisa said. “And maybe to get home.”
That wasn’t what Lisa had meant, but Tessa could see her healer wasn’t interested in digging into things in that moment.
“This is only meant to be a scouting mission,” Tessa said. “All we need to do is get a sense of what the layout is like down here and what kind of enemies we might be facing. Once we’ve got that, no one will blame us for running back and joining the others.”
“We’re not splitting up,” Lisa said. “And no dying for me. We both get out of here. Okay?”
“I like that plan,” Tessa said, and began moving forward again.
Creeping about in armor wasn’t impossible, but it wasn’t exceptionally easy either. The illumination in the halls of bone seemed to come from everywhere so shadows to hide in were essentially nonexistent. Pillowcase’s leather boots didn’t clatter against the bone floor but the long curving hallways didn’t present many corners to creep up to and peer around, even at the few intersections they passed, where the corridor simply widened out into gently curving walls.
“Times like these make me wish turning into a bat was a racial power I could pick,” Lisa said.
“Times like these make me wish I’d logged in with my [Rogue],” Tessa said. “She was only in the mid 50’s but she’d unlocked the full stealth line of skills.”
“I’ve got one of those too,” Lisa said. “I only made it to 62 with her, and that was mostly because Cease All forced me to party with her when she needed to farm the [Drowned Grotto] for [Star Shells].”
“Oh god I hated that quest!” Tessa said. “That place was just littered with…”
She paused as they came to another, sharper intersection.
An intersection which wasn’t empty.
“With death bodies,” Lisa said, her attention captured by the pile of corpses the same as Tessa’s had been.
“Zombies?” Tessa asked.
“I hope so,” Lisa said.
“Yeah. Zombies we can deal with.”
Tessa crept forward, mace and shield at the ready for the moment when the corpses lurched to life and decided to eat them. It wasn’t what corpses were supposed to do, but nine times out of ten you could count on them to try for a “surprise” attack.
Then there was the other possibility.
The corpses lay where they were.
The blood around them was long dried out.
The rotting fingers of decay had ravaged the creatures which had once been humanoid, though clearly not human.
“They died without fighting,” Lisa said, pointing to the weapons they held which were still sheathed.
“They burned,” Tessa said, noting the ashed remains of clothes and the charring on what flesh remained.
“We are not ready to face something that can do this,” Lisa said.
“Probably not,” Tessa said. She turned back to the direction they’d come and saw red light pulsing around the long bend of the corridor.
“Something got behind us,” Lisa said, as Lost Alice gripped her staff tighter.
Tessa heard the sound of skittering legs on the bone floor. And the bone walls. And the bone ceiling.
They’d lost the way back.