Tessa earned her leadership role the old fashioned way. Not through trial by combat. Not through bribery and extortion. No, this was the oldest, most primal path to leadership.
She didn’t say no fast enough when no one else wanted it.
She couldn’t blame the townsfolk of [Sky’s Edge] for not wanting the job. Trying to keep a group of adventurers under control was similar to trying to keep a forest fire under control with shot glass full of water.
That the other adventurers hadn’t stepped forward either wasn’t a surprise either. It loot was on the table people might be motivated to state their opinions, but when it came to dealing with a horde of over leveled undead, letting someone else handle it seemed like a fine idea apparently.
Also, for a lot of them, their first exposure to Pillowcase had been seeing her riding a gigantic serpent of lava, or hearing tales of it second hand. It wasn’t as impossible as it sounded. Darren was a pretty chill guy for a creature of lava the size of a tall building, and she and Lost Alice had done him a solid favor.
As a “monster”, Darren seemed to be outside the telepathic network which mirrored the game’s communication system, but Tessa did want to touch base with him before too much time passed. All she knew was that after he’d incinerated the Consortium’s troops and burned [Sky’s Edge] to the ground, he’d returned back to the unfinished dungeon in the [Sunless Deeps] to begin fortifying it as a proper refuge against another one of their incursions.
“We shall take our leave of you now,” Vixali said. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you all, and I’m sure we look forward to our next encounter.”
Tessa suspected the Vampire Queen meant her words literally, but circumstance and her demeanor gave each one a sinister turn.
“Let’s hope our next encounter is under more pleasant conditions than this one,” Lost Alice said. Tessa marveled at how even so simple a phrase could carry menacing connotations. Was it a threat to Vixali not to allow her vampires to appear before them so hungry and riled up again? Was it a wish that the next encounter would see the adventurers in a position to harvest the vampire’s oh-so-valuable body parts? Or was it a genuine expression meant to convey exactly what the words sounded like they were meant to convey? As near as Tessa could tell the answer was “yes, all of the above”.
Vixali didn’t seem distressed by the layered meanings of the response. Intrigued, or perhaps even appreciative, was a better description and with an enigmatic smile of her own, turned and took her coterie away with her.
“Well that was exciting,” Rip said. She had her bow in her hands and an arrow waiting to be knocked. Beside her Matt was not-very-casually, passing his staff from one hand to the other.
“Oh that’s just round 1,” Lisa said, her voice distinctly different from Lost Alice’s, at least to Tessa’s ears.
“They’ll be back?” Matt asked.
“They’re not really leaving,” Lisa said.
“They’re invisible? Or like turned to mist?” Rip asked.
“No,” Tessa said, drawing on Pillowcase’s knowledge. “They’re senses are good enough that they can move away pretty far and still know exactly what we’re doing.”
“Should we be talking out loud then?” Rip asked.
“Yeah, we should,” Lisa said. “Wouldn’t them to forget that some of us have senses that are just as good as theirs so we can hear and smell them even as they try to crawl up onto the ceiling and wait in the corridors we might need to use.”
Lisa wasn’t at all subtle and Tessa caught a few distant a muffled curses along with the sound of the vampires moving farther off.
“We should talk privately too though,” she said on the team channel so that only their immediate party could hear it.
Tessa checked and found that Starchild, Lady Midnight and Obby were still partied up with them though the three were off helping the townsfolk get settled in.
“We can join you for a group discussion if you want,” Lady Midnight said. “People need to gather water and some of those edible mushrooms so we’re guarding the villagers as they collect the stuff they need for their families.”
“Oh! Have you found any more monsters?” Rip asked.
“None yet,” Obby said. “It looks like the place isn’t respawning while we’re here. If it does though we don’t want to learn that by losing any of the villagers.”
“Escort quests are so fun,” Pete, Starchild’s player, said. Tessa thought she could recognize his voice fairly easily too.
It was strange because the distinction between Pillowcase’s voice and her own had faded. It wasn’t that Pillowcase was gone. Tessa could still feel the memories of her time as a Consortium Automata.
She could even talk to herself with the inflection and artificial resonance of her [Clothwork] body if it helped.
It was the sense of “otherness” which had diminished in the wake of the long and losing battle in the [Sunless Deeps]. It was as though the fight had pushed her so far the line between “Tessa’s knowledge” and “Pillowcase’s skill” had been erased and without that, she was able to see that both women we different sides of who she truly was.
But she still thought of herself as “Tessa”, so maybe that process wasn’t quite as complete as it could be? Whatever the case was, she felt more comfortable in her own skin, even if fabric rather than human skin that her body was wrapped in.
“Do you need any help?” Rip asked, addressing Pete but sending the question on the Alliance channel all of the adventurers in the area were a part of.
“I think we’re good,” Cammie Anne Do said. “My teams was talking about doing a sweep to see if we have any other interesting neighbors like the vampires. If you think that’s ok?”
“That’s probably a good idea,” Tessa said. “Stay in contact though. If there are trap areas those could take out a team in a blink. Oh, and let’s have a team stand guard around the [Heart Fire]. As long as there’s any chance we might die in here, we need to keep that operational and attuned to our side.”
“Do we know if the [Heart Fire] in [Sky’s Edge] survived?” Cammie asked.
“Pretty sure it’s toast,” Lisa said. “The Consortium couldn’t use them last time they invaded, but even if that’s as true here as it was in the game, we can’t be sure they haven’t figured out how to take them over in the interim.”
“Does anyone know how to rebuild them?” Matt asked.
“The devs?” Lisa said. “I don’t remember the lore on who set them up originally.”
“They were a last gift from the gods before the [Fallen Kingdoms] fell wasn’t it?” Tessa said, searching her human memories since Pillowcase’s were contained only tactical info on the [Fallen Kingdoms] and were rather lacking in historical context.
“Some existed before [The Fall],” Obby said. “During [The Fall] though is when most of the fires were lit, which kind of makes sense given that fires are all sparks of divine power.”
“So, we need a god to rebuild them?” Matt asked.
“Not exactly,” Obby said. “The [Heart Fire Braziers] were constructed by mortals to allow clear access to the divine spark. In theory if we had the right skills capped out, and the proper materials, we could build one. We’d just need a divine spark to put inside it.”
“Those don’t sound like they’re easy to come by,” Rip said.
“I mean, if you can call up a god, it’s probably pretty simple,” Obby said. “In this case we probably wouldn’t even need that though.”
“Why?” Tessa asked, wondering how deep of a Lore Nerd Obby was.
“The [Heart Fire Brazier] in [Sky’s Edge] may have been melted by the [Servant of Fire] but even a big old guy like that can’t exactly burn a spark of divine fire out right?” Obby said. “The spark’s probably still there. All we’d need to do is rebuild the brazier to hold it again. You know, if we were paragon tier craftsman and had the rarest of building materials to work with.”
“Feel like grinding up your crafting skills in a cave with a pile of scraps?” she asked.
“Sure, I’ll get right on that,” Obby said with a laugh to match Lisa’s.
“Do you think the Consortium knows that the spark is still there?” Rip asked.
Tessa considered that for a moment. [Heart Fires] weren’t part of the Consortium’s standard tool kit (since the metaphysics which allowed them to function in the [Fallen Kingdoms] wasn’t common across other realm), but they were aware of the [Heart Fires] existence in general.
“It’s possible they don’t know about it yet,” Tessa said, testing the validity of the idea as she spoke the words. “They have sensors that can pick up on things like that, and they know to look for things like the [Heart Fires] but with the strike force eliminated, they may not have been able to send any of the scan data back to the fleet.”
“They wouldn’t have had enough bandwidth?” Rip asked.
“Not for a full local scan,” Tessa said. “Whether their carrier did a remote scan is a separate question.”
“I don’t think they would have,” Matt said. “With..uh…Darren’s arrival they should have returned to their carrier.”
“They were up in space though weren’t they?” Rip asked.
“Yeah, but they’re used to dealing with planetary defenses that can blow up things like the moon,” Matt said. “It’s just not smart to mess around when something shows up you weren’t expecting and it wipers out all of your forces in about two seconds.”
“That’s fair,” Rip said. “But it also means they might come back and get the spark then right?”
“Not ‘might’. Will. They’ll definitely be sending another force. The only question is when and what it’ll be composed of.” Tessa said.
“They’ll be able to read that Darren is gone, right?” Lisa asked.
“They’ll be able to tell that their sensors aren’t picking him up,” Tessa said. “Depending on who they have commanding this invasion that will either mean that they send a strike force capable of defeating two of him or they send one capable of capturing him.”
“Assuming they have that kind of force left,” Lisa said. “I’ve heard from my friend Cease All. She was part of the counter raid they did. It sounds like the raid teams did a lot of damage and the Consortium forces who are on the ground zones are fortifying the cities they’ve already taken.”
“Huh, that’s odd.” Tessa said. “Most Consortium [Commanders] would have ordered another attack. They tend to have really fragile egos and not a lot of patience for protracted engagements. When they come into a world like this they want to strip mine it as fast as they can, even if it means burning everything to cinder and packing up the ashes to take home as their loot.”
“So, are we happy that this one’s not doing that?” Rip asked.
“Maybe?” Tessa said. “Patient and measured is great in an ally. In a foe it means they’re not going to make a lot of obvious and easy to exploit mistakes.”
“But they still can make mistakes,” Matt said. “Like giving us time to recruit allies.”
“Yeah, uh, nice work with the stuff in the [Sunless Deeps],” Rip said. “And thanks for coming back for us.”
“In hindsight I should have taken you with me,” Tessa said, offering Lisa a nod of recognition. “If Alice hadn’t jumped in after me, I would have been a ghost a few minutes in. I think together we would have had a much better chance.”
“Thank you,” Lisa said on a private channel between the two of them.
“So does that mean you’ll take us along when we go to talk with out next recruit?” Rip asked.
“Yeah, about that, anyone think going to visit a dead god is a good idea?” Tessa asked.
“Definitely going to get us killed.”
“But we’re going to do it anyways, right?” Tessa asked.
“Like you’ve even got to ask?”