An adventurer traveling to a dead city was about as unusual as a businessman traveling to a Starbucks. There might be something interesting to it, but it happened so often most people barely paid it any attention. Most dead cities, however, did not have what was likely to be the ghost of a long deceased deity lingering in them.
Or at least Tessa hoped with all her embroidered cotton heart that the dead deity was a ghost. The alternative range through variety of horrifying and deadly alternatives from Still-Alive-And-Hungry-for-Souls to Aberration-Which-Warps-the-Fabric-of-Reality. The latter possibility particularly worried her since it might possibly explain how her two worlds have become cojoined.
“Is this a good time for you to leave us?” Cammie Anne Do asked. She and her party had returned from a water supply run and looked ready to settle in for some down time.
“No. It’s a terrible one,” Tessa said. “We still have a ridiculous amount of the dungeon unexplored, we’re going to see respawns in several of the rooms that we went through, and then there’s the vampires!”
She raised her voice for the last point to make it clear to the members of Vixali’s coterie that she knew they were still lurking nearby.
“The good news is that we have a simple solution if any of those get out of hand. Just give Darren a call.”
“Darren?” Cammie asked.
“The [Servant of Fire],” Tessa said. “He can basically teleport through rock and he said he’d keep an eye out for us.”
It was a lie. Darren was still reasonably well disposed towards Alice and Pillowcase, but he didn’t know any of the other adventurers or townsfolk. He also couldn’t teleport through rock, at least as far as Tessa knew, and was more concerned with ensuring the Consortium couldn’t recapture him with the same trick their agent had used the first time.
Darren wasn’t going to come and save anyone. If Tessa’s guess was correct, they’re next interaction would probably involve saving him again as his presence was sure to act as a lighting rod for the Consortium’s return strike.
It was a lie but the vampire’s didn’t know that. Tessa prayed that would remain true.
“How do we get in touch with Darren if something comes up?” Cammie asked on a private channel no one but the two of them could hear.
“You can’t,” Tessa said, replying on the same channel. “He’s not looking out for anybody. The idea of him just makes for a threat the vamps can’t ignore. Lava would sort of permanently ruining their aesthetic.”
“We can’t hold them back if that doesn’t work,” Cammie said, her words short short and tight.
“I know, but even if the seven people on my team were here, we wouldn’t be able to stand against all of the vampires if they were serious. Not yet anyways.”
“Why not stay here and level up on the respawns then?” Cammie asked.
“Well, first, the stuff here is a little low at this point to be efficient for us to xp on,” Tessa said. “Second, and more importantly, getting the [Heart Fire] back and not letting it fall into the Consortium’s hands is critical. If we lose those, our best chance to stand against them is gone.”
“That makes sense, but it’s just a quick trip to the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge],” Cammie said. “You said you’d be gone a lot longer than that.”
Tessa noticed the weird sound in Cammie’s voice when she said “the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge]”. That hadn’t been the name of the area before, but it was an accurate description of its current state.
Tessa chewed on the idea and turned it over, trying to decipher why some of the words and phrases they used felt like there was more too them. With the mathematical precision of a Consortium [Artifax], she snipped that thread of curiosity though. She had several more important missions, and getting distracted by things that were letting frightening was going to get people killed through her negligence.
“We need to go past [Sky’s Edge],” Tessa said. “You all heard the lead vampire talk about meeting the [Lord of Storms]. We need to make contact with them before the Consortium does.”
“I heard that, but I thought it was obviously a trap,” Cammie said. “I mean even if the vamp was telling the truth, sending someone to poke a god seems like a great method getting them killed or erased from existence entirely.”
“That thought had occurred to me too,” Tessa said. “But we’ve still got to go. Even if he was meant to be the end boss for the whole expansion, if we can get him to join our side, even temporarily, we can make a real dent in the Consortium’s forces and maybe even seal them out of the [Fallen Kingdoms] entirely.”
“High risk, high reward? Can we play like that anymore?” Cammie asked. “I mean we can die here, and we can die for real here. Shouldn’t we be finding someplace safer we can get to?”
“I don’t think so,” Tessa said. “I could be wrong, disastrously wrong, so I’m not asking anyone to follow me who feels differently, but trying to hide from the world hasn’t help us yet. [Sky’s Edge] was supposed to be a safe zone and look what happened to it.”
“Yeah, it was a wreck even before you showed up with Darren. We couldn’t begin to defend it for real. All we did was buy a little time against their advance scouting forces,” Cammie said. “So, what can we do now? How can my team help?”
“Ignore the vampires, act like you’re certain they’re not a threat so they buy into the threat of Darren. Don’t let the townsfolk wander into unprotected territory though. Even if Vixali isn’t interested in provoking us into a Return of the Lava Monster, individual vampires may decide that they might be able to get away with a little opportunistic feeding. Making sure everyone keeps their distance will keep everything a lot less murdery. I think. I hope.”
“That should be pretty easy,” Cammie said. “The townsfolk don’t have any interest in going anywhere near the vampires. Heck they don’t want to go anywhere without us. It’s like this whole thing is one neverending Escort Quest.”
“Ugh. That’s a got to a be a layer of hell somewhere,” Tessa said. “I suppose you can get a break if you take turns hunting for the respawning monsters that are level appropriate for the teams. I know the [Gloom Drinkers] at the entrance are pretty low level.”
“That’s good, cause we have some players who are still level 1, so they can’t handle anything more than what a townsperson could,” Cammie said.
“Might be good to have mix in a higher level adventurer with them,” Tessa said. “I know we’re all feeble lowbies here, but even a few levels really adds to your strength so a level 5 can make a big difference in a party of level 1s.”
“It’ll make for slower xps, but I don’t think the lowbies will mind it in exchange for having the extra safety net,” Cammie said. “The rest of us can scout out a bit further and see if there’s any other mobs we can handle. It’s nice that the respawns aren’t super fast so we’re not in danger of getting overwhelmed, but we’ll run out of mobs to fight before people are done leveling on them pretty quick I think.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Tessa said. “Be careful though. We’ve run into some nasty things in here. Including stuff with mechanics you’d usually find in much higher level content.”
“Isn’t it weird that things here even have mechanics?” Cammie asked. “I mean this isn’t the game. Things here act like they’re real. Like those vampires. In the game they never would have talked to us. They wouldn’t have been able to. So why are there ‘boss monsters’, and especially ones who have some kind of predictable routines that we have to account for?”
“I wish I knew the answer to that,” Tessa said. “The code monkey in me would love to know if there is some kind of underlying logic to all this or if it’s really as messy and chaotic as it appears to be. I know this looks like [Broken Horizons] but there’s details filled in the game didn’t have that might make it all hang together? Boss monsters for example are just ones who were strong enough to attract a following and gain extra power and skills from it. And the ‘mechanics’ we saw were mostly a matter of the boss having a set of abilities with a cool down on their reuse. The worst one we fought tried to use their abilities as good as it could, but it wasn’t smart enough to break out of the cycle of throwing things at us as they became available.”
“It’s scary to think of fighting something that is smart enough to use its abilities well,” Cammie said. “Like those vampires.”
“Alice and I fought an actual person down in the [Sunless Deeps],” Tessa said. “He wasn’t too high level, but the Consortium had given him some special tricks and he’d made a lot of henchmen. He was theoretically smart, but he underestimated us which is the kind of stupid mistake anyone can make.”
“How did you beat him?” Cammie asked.
“He thought his own binding spell was enough to hold us, but it wasn’t. We let him go on and on for a while, monologing about how he’d sold the [Fallen Kingdoms] out to the Consortium. Then Alice ate him.”
“He deserved it,” Tessa said. “And that was the only option for freeing Darren too, so it was kind of perk that the guy was an evil jerk. That said though, I think it was important that we talked with him first. It’s really tempting to kill all of the monsters we run into in order to feel safe but if they’re ‘people’ enough that we can communicate with them then we really have to try to. We need more allies and the Consortium is everyone’s enemy.”
“True but we’re still pretty low level,” Cammie said. “I’m not sure we can handle all of the things in here.”
“If you run into anything too bad, pull back,” Tessa said. “My team doesn’t have that many levels yet, but if you run into something overleveled and we all go out as a full raid team then we may be able to get through it. Hopefully.”
Cammie was silent for a moment.
“How do you do it?” she asked at last. “Were you a soldier or something in the real world?”
“No,” Tessa said, the restrained desperation in Cammie’s mental voice coming as a complete surprise. Cammie had seemed so confident and laid back that Tessa had assumed she’d had some combat experience in the real world. “I was just a programmer. I never served anywhere.”
“Oh,” Cammie said with a note of puzzlement. “Wait, do you see the code or something then? Can you hack the system?”
“I don’t have Matrix-vision or anything like that. I’m not ‘The One’, or anybody special at all.”
“Are you just naturally this fearless then?”
Tessa stifled a chuckle.
“I am definitely not fearless,” she said. “This stuff is terrifying.”
“But you’re still doing things,” Cammie said. “You’re risking death again and you’ve risked it before. I mean, some of us have gone out there and some are pretending that the stuff we’re fighting is no big deal, but I don’t think anyone really wants to be doing this. Not once we heard that people are getting eaten by the [Hounds of Fate]. More than before people are pulling back, but it’s like nothing stops you.”
“Ask Lost Alice about that and she’ll explain, in detail if you want, why I probably should be stopped,” Tessa said. “The thing is though? I’m not doing this stuff because I’m brave. All the things I’ve done? It’s all been because my team needed me to. I can’t be brave for myself very easily, but being brave for them? For the people who need me? That’s a lot easier somehow.”