A part of Tessa was relieved when they stepped out of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] onto the open sharp hills which led to the edge of the worldlet they were on. Dangers untold might lay in wait for them, and an unimaginable danger was their destination, but dealing with external threats like that seemed so much simpler than managing the townsfolk and adventurers they were leaving behind.
“Those of with exceptional senses should keep them peeled,” Lisa said in the party’s chat channel. “We know [Sky’s Edge] has changed its classification from a [Town] to a [Ruin] and that’s definitely going to mean more trouble than usual will be lurking around here.”
“Has that ever happened in the game version of this place before?” Matt asked.
He and Rip were protecting the party’s right flank, which Obby and Pillowcase took the lead and Starchild guarded their left flank. Both of the healers, Lost Alice and Lady Midnight were in the center, guarded by all the rest while also able to reach any of them with their healing magics. It wasn’t quite a raid layout, but Pillowcase’s tactical evaluation approved it given their circumstances.
“They did change one of the starting zones for the [Goblins] back in the [Dark Tide] expansion,” Lady Midnight said. “It went from an area with level 1 monsters to one of the end game zones for that release.”
“I remember that!” Tessa said. “The level cap went up to 70 then right? [Goblin] starting characters were spawned into an instance version of [The Goblin Deeps] and their starter quests played through the [Shadow Surge] washing over their home and driving them all out.”
“So when a zone changes, it doesn’t stay the same level?” Rip asked.
“With the game, the devs could do whatever they wanted,” Lisa said. “We’ll have to see if things as as fluid here.”
“Yeah, if the wandering monsters are all suddenly level 100, then we’re in a lot of trouble,” Tessa said. “But the question would be where they all came from? So far this place seems to follow its own sort-of-reasonable logic.”
“I wish we could see whether the place was teeming with [Hounds of Fate] over in the ghost world,” Lady Midnight said.
“We saved most of the people from [Sky’s Edge] right?” Rip said. “Maybe that’ll keep them away?”
“Yeah, and it sounds like they should be pretty busy down on the surface world, if that place is getting wrecked as bad as people are saying,” Matt said.
Tessa didn’t want to picture that, but images came to her anyways. The memory of a city burning was so clear for a moment that she could smell the woodfire and hear the hiss of acid as it melted through solid stone. Pillowcase glanced around quickly but the hills they were descending were barren, with the only signs of life being the strange grasses and shrubs which covered the ground in rough patches.
“We’ve never known where the [Hounds of Fate] come from or what the extent of their numbers may be,” Starchild said. “One belief is that when each person’s soul is shaped, their [Hound] is fashioned as well. After we die, our [Hounds] come to take us to our eternal rest, but as adventurers we can draw on our bond with a higher power to stay ahead of them and revivify our bodies before we’re caught and carried away.”
“Some of us aren’t religious though,” Rip said. “So what higher power are we supposed to be praying to?”
“It’s not a question of prayer,” Starchild said. “We don’t pray to our [Inspirations]. We invite them into our lives.”
“Your [Inspirations]?” Tessa asked. She’d heard that before. Somewhere. Somewhere far away? A ripple of confusion flitted across her mind. The memories of the burning town and the talk about [Inspirations], they weren’t Tessa’s memories or Pillowcase’s.
So whose were they? And why were they in Tessa’s head?
“Yes. You. And Pete. All the people who inspire us to leave our regular lives behind and walk the road of adventure,” Starchild said. “You have Lore and mythology about our world, but we have the same for you.”
To be fair, I only had that for a little bit in my life before we woke up together, Pillowcase said. When I was a Consortium soldier I never felt particularly inspired to be anything. I was trapped inside their spells too strongly. When I woke up here though I could feel what Starchild is describing.
Tessa could feel it as well. The sense of being apart from herself as Pillowcase. Laying broken on the field of battle only for awareness to return, bringing with it the sense of being part of something so much greater than what she had been.
“You see it now too, don’t you?” Starchild asked.
“Yeah,” Tessa said, slowing her march as she took in the rush of experience.
She’d been a coursing river flowing through Pillowcase, filling the former Consortium soldier with energy, and drive, and purpose.
Tessa shook her head. When had she ever had any of those things in her own life?
She thought back to her apartment. Her messy, but still so empty apartment. And her job. The one that offered her nothing but a paycheck.
For herself, she’d never been able to summon up the fire or courage to try for something great. For others though? And when the playing field was at least close to level? All that ambition to be more had burst free. It was what she loved about gaming and it had all channelled into Pillowcase.
“Umm, I think we have trouble incoming,” Rip said, gesturing ahead and to the right of them where a group of figures were standing.
Standing and yet getting closer each time Tessa blinked.
“Yeah, that’s not good,” Lisa said.
No one in the group seemed to disagree as they all readied themselves for battle.
The figures, humans maybe, advanced without any apparent awareness of the response they were provoking. As they got within bow shot range, Tessa saw that they moving via a series of short teleports.
Short and painful looking teleports.
Each figure was torn apart in strips of staticky light and reassembled a few feet closer.
“What the hell is that?” Pete asked, speaking clearly through Starchild’s voice.
“A problem,” Obby said, in a tone more concerned and serious than Tessa had yet heard her take.
“Pillow, if they attack, fight defensively. We tangled with something like this before. They’re not regular monsters,” Starchild said.
“They’re adventurers,” Obby said. “Or they were.”
“What happened to them?” Rip’s voice carried an uncharacteristic note of concern as well.
Tessa didn’t blame her being freaked out. Pillowcase’s inbuilt battle wisdom was screaming all sorts of warnings that these things were Wrong with a capital W.
“I don’t know,” Obby said.
“How do we fix them?” Lisa asked.
“We kill them,” Obby said. “Death and respawning will give them a chance to stabilize. If there’s anything left in them to recover.”
“Do we have to fight them at all?” Matt asked.
“Maybe not, but be ready to,” Obby said. “The last batch wasn’t big on conversation.”
Tessa remembered hearing the beginning of that fight, when Starchild and Lady Midnight had been ambushed and out of range for her to help.
“Be careful,” Lady Midnight said. “The wounds they make are different. They hurt too much. It’s…it’s bad.”
“Anyone mind I start shooting them now?” Rip asked.
“Hold for a moment,” Tessa said. “Let me intercept them. If I can’t talk them down, I at least want them far enough away that they can’t get to the rest of you easily.”
“Don’t try to fight these guys alone,” Lisa sent on their private channel.
“I’ll stay in range for heals. I promise,” Tessa replied.
Walking forward, she found Obby at her side.
“If this gets bad, fall back,” Obby said on a private channel. “I’ve got a few levels on you still and the team will need at least one tank if they have to wait out here for some of us to get back.”
It was a valid argument and sound tactics. It was also not at all Obby’s reason for wanting to face the threat by herself if things went poorly. Tessa wasn’t sure how she knew that but the knowledge settled into her with a certainty.
“Raise…Flag…?” When the first of the [Disjoined] spoke it’s voice sounded like glass being squeezed through the creature’s throat.
“Give loot..dRoP lOOt!” the second said.
“Yousuckyousuckyousuckyousuckyousuck,” the next said.
Tessa glanced over Obby who’s eyes had gone hard and cold.
“Don’t think they’re going to be much good for talking,” Tessa said.
“You want to talk?” the first one asked, snapping into sharp focus with a crack. “What would you talk? What could you know? We see! We see it all! We know and you are still broken. You are still thinking, while we, we are knowing!”
Obby stabbed the Disjoined in the face and his entire body shattered, fallen in fragments of static that sizzled out of existence before they reached the ground.
“That wasn’t going anywhere good,” she said as the rest of [Disjoined] shrieked and leap towards her.
Tessa stepped forward, grabbing the attention of the nearest three. She hadn’t been able to get a good count of their numbers but she knew there had to be at least twenty of them.
As she worked out how she was going to keep ten of them focused on herself and not die in the process, one of the [Disjoined] clipped her on her shield arm and the arm went instantly numb.
The two [Disjoined] who moved in to take advantage of the opening went down, blasted back by an arrow from Rip’s bow and a bolt of lightning from Matt’s [Mage’s Staff].
“I’ve got that status effect,” Lisa said and Tessa felt the numbness in her arm vanish. “Be careful of it though, it looks like it leaves you open for a while.”
“Yeah, I don’t want to know what happens if they hit my head with that,” Tessa said, slashing at two of the [Disjoined] to drive them back while blocking the blows from two others.
“Probably nothing good,” Lisa said. “Maybe an [Instant KO] effect?”
“I’ll have to dodge as best I can then,” Tessa said. “I don’t get resistance to those for a while still.”
Dancing among the [Disjoined] wasn’t easy. Tessa felt clumsy, especially compared to Obby who moved like she’d choreographed the battle and practiced it for a month. More than once, Tessa stumbled, taking numbing hits that she’d overlooked or been too slow to react to. Lisa was there for her each time though, and Rip and Matt kept up such a consistent level of pressure that none of the [Disjoined] who managed to escape Pillowcase’s taunts managed to even get close to the rest of the party.
In the end the fight wasn’t pretty, and Pillowcase’s body was throbbing in unfamiliar agony, but the [Disjoined] were dispatched.
“I hate to say this, but did that seem kind of easy?” Rip asked once they’d regrouped.
“We threw out a fair amount of spell power there,” Lady Midnight said.
“Yeah, but they went down about as easy as those giant bugs that we fought did,” Matt said.
“A little easier I think,” Lisa said. “They had more tricks, but I don’t think they were even as resilient as the [Chaos Centipedes].”
“I don’t think they ever got to level,” Obby said. “I think those things were all still level 1. I tried to check them but their information was hidden, or non-existent I guess.”
“The important thing is that they’re dead now,” Pete said as Starchild turned her face towards to sky to meditate and regain the magic she’d expended.
Something bothered Tessa about that.
“Wait,” she said. “If they’re dead then where are they going to respawn?”
The party looked from one person to another.
“The nearest [Heart Fire] to here is back in the dungeon,” Lady Midnight said.
“No,” Lisa said. “There’s one closer.”
“In the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge],” Tessa said. “What happens if they get to it before we do?”
“We don’t want to find out,” Obby said.