Rose knew she was supposed to be paying attention, knew the spooky, shadowed land around them actually was full of monsters who wanted to eat them, knew she might be the only one who could sense the predators who were laying in wait for them, but despite all that, she couldn’t help getting lost in her thoughts.
“So what do you think really happened to Pillow?” Jamal asked on their private channel.
They were back to marching again, carefully covering the remaining distance between the former [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] and the outcropping which led to the hidden realm where the [Lord of Storms] was supposedly hanging out.
Rose wasn’t bored with the trip. Even with Rip Shot’s experience to fall back on, her body was alive with electricity at the thought of the peril they were daring. Her distraction came from the question Jamal had posed. The question she’d been pondering ever since the horror at [Sky’s Edge] had been driven back.
“I think she saved us,” Rose said. “Again.”
“Yeah. But how.” Jamal’s voice held the same repressed dread that suffused Rose’s heart.
Ahead of them Pillowcase and Lost Alice had taken their usual place at the front of the informal marching order. Even watching them from behind though, Rose could see that things weren’t the same.
Pillowcase wasn’t the same, and whatever connection Pillow and Lost Alice had formed before had changed. There was a distance between them that had nothing to do with the physical space they occupied or how careful they were to maintain it.
Pillowcase moved with mechanical precision. She kept to her side of the path, careful to provide Lost Alice with a constant buffer of space. It was a form of defensive positioning. Rip Shot read the spacing and flow of the movement as steps in some unseen combat, though whether Lost Alice was a foe to be evaded or an ally Pillowcase was giving a clear field around was something neither Rose nor Rip’s perspective could determine.
From how they were walking, Rose wasn’t sure Pillowcase or Lost Alice could have answered the question either though.
“She said she cast a spell on whatever that thing was. The [Formless Hunger],” Rose said, not convinced by the words she was saying any more than she’d been when she’d been listening to them.
“I tried to do that too,” Jamal said. “It didn’t work. I mean I couldn’t cast anything. The magic didn’t have anything to interact with. I wanted to, I tried, but it I couldn’t. It just didn’t work. I tried though.”
Warning bells went off in Rose’s head.
“I know,” she said. “I tried too. [Flame Shot], [Multi-Burst], even [Mark Target] wouldn’t work. Whatever that thing was, we couldn’t affect it.”
“But she did. And it hurt her.”
“It was a glitch though, right?” Rose asked, scrambling to keep Jamal from tumbling over the edge of sorrow and despair she felt lurking in front of her. “It makes sense that it wouldn’t be consistent from one of us to the next.”
“Yeah. I’m just kind of freaked out I think. This has been a lot of take in, and we haven’t taken much of a break at all yet.”
“Do you think we should?” Rose asked. “Maybe before we go into the [Lord of Storms] place?”
“Can we?” Jamal asked. “I mean, I know we could stop and rest, but if we do that what else is going to go wrong?”
Rose could hear an old fear lurking in Jamal’s voice. He was used to being the one blamed for everything that went wrong. No matter how hard he tried.
That couldn’t happen here.
This was a new start.
It had to better than their old life.
“Probably the same stuff that’ll go wrong if we proceed onwards,” Rose said. “I mean what’s happening here isn’t about us. There have been hundreds of thousands of people effected. What we’re doing now? We’re pretty far into ‘above and beyond the call of duty’.”
“Cause we’re in the sky?” Jamal forced some levity into his voice. Rose took it as a good sign, but knew she didn’t have him convinced yet.
“Because we don’t have to be here,” she said. “We could sit all this out and no one would blame us. They know we’re kids. They can hear our voices and they’ve seen our ghost forms. Everybody expects us to just hide away and be protected.”
“Should we be though? I mean what if Pillow got hurt because she was fighting every hard to defend us?”
“Okay, I know we haven’t known her long, but does Pillow seem like the kind of person to *not* fight hard to defend whoever’s under her care?” Rose asked.
That brought a small chuckle from Jamal. “Yeah, I guess that’s true.”
“Her instincts are all ‘I hurl myself into the wheat thresher so no one else has to’, of course she was going to fight hard enough to break herself if that’s what it took.”
“Yeah, but if we were stronger, she wouldn’t have to do that right?”
“Nope,” Rose said. “Strength wasn’t going to help there. And I can prove it.”
“Obby,” Rose said. “She’s the highest level of any of us. If strength was enough to fix what was going on with the [Formless Hunger] then she would have been the one to stop it.”
“Okay, that’s fair,” Jamal said. “Still feels like we’re in over our heads though.”
“Oh, we are. We definitely are,” Rose said. “If we were still just Rose and Jamal, then no way should we be here. Even as Rip and Matt, we’re totally not ready for any of this. You can see it in how everyone who knows the game is talking about things. But that’s the thing, isn’t it?”
Rose waited a moment as Jamal considered her words.
“We’re all not ready,” he said.
“Yeah, exactly,” Rose said. “Everyone who’s with us has two strikes against them. First, we’re all low level nobodies. None of us can take on the things the real players are handling. But then, second, maybe neither can the real players. I mean we’re all a mishmash of who we were on Earth and who our characters were, and that’s not what playing the game could have been like for anyone. And we know there are things here that are outside of the game too. So no one really knows what they’re doing.”
“So we suck, but so does everyone, so we’re no worse than they are?” Jamal asked.
“It’s all relative is what I’m saying. It’s been less than a day so far and we’re already a lot stronger than we used to be. And if Alice is right, maybe we’ll wind up stronger than anyone else since we’re doing all our leveling here, where it’s like for real?”
“Yeah…” Jamal was considering the idea as much as agreeing with it, but added another “Yeah!” once it won him over.
“Hey there Rip, got a minute?” Obby asked, speaking on a private channel for the two of them.
“Yeah! What can I help you with?” Rip asked, a little thrill shooting through her.
Obby knew she was a kid, but she always treated her like Rip rather Rose and that felt better than Rose had words to explain.
“It’s about Pillowcase,” Obby said. “There’s some things I’d like you to keep an eye out for okay?”
“Sure, like what?”
“I know you haven’t know her long – you just met in the game after the [World Shift] right?” Obby asked.
“Yeah. It was after the bugged event that hit [Sky’s Edge],” Rip said and explained the desperate fight they’d tried to manage against the [Wraithwings] and how everything had fallen apart.
“I am really impressed that pulled off as much as did,” Obby said. “Hiding in a geometry glitch is clever and trying to fight a horde of things above your level is gutsy.”
“You can call it stupid, it’s okay,” Rip said.
“Don’t start thinking it’s stupid because it didn’t work,” Obby said. “Sure in some worlds you’d know exactly what you were capable of and what your foes could do and all the math would be laid out telling you exactly how everything would go. Most places aren’t like that though, and definitely not this place.”
“In hindsight, we could have done better though,” Rip said.
“Good! That says you’re learning! Figuring things out when they don’t come together how you want is the key to getting better.”
“Yeah, but some things are just impossible right?
“Those are the best things,” Obby said. “What’s impossible today is waiting for a sufficiently clever or determined person to come up with an answer to tomorrow.”
“Umm…is that what Pillowcase did?” Rose asked.
“Yeah. That’s exactly what she did. So, it doesn’t always work out great, but if we asked her, she’d tell use that even knowing what the outcome would be, she’d still do what she did.”
“I still don’t get what she did exactly?”
“The [Formless Hunger] wasn’t even that when [Sky’s Edge] turned all ‘staticky’,” Obby said. “I know [Formless Hunger] sounds pretty abstract and ill-defined but what it was before that wouldn’t even fit into a word exactly.”
“I kind of get that. Jamal and I were talking about how our spells and abilities just didn’t seem to work on whatever it was,” Rose said. “So why did Pillow’s?”
“The short form?” Obby asked. “She did the impossible. She took something that wasn’t quite real and turned it into something, granted a very weird and dangerous something, but still a ‘something’ that was part of this world.”
“With her spell?” Rose asked.
“The spell was the conduit, or the metaphor…the tool basically,” Obby said.
“Could our spells and stuff have done the same?” Rose asked.
“That’s a complicated question,” Obby said. “No, in the sense that magic from this world can’t reach that far beyond it. Also ‘no’ in the sense that it wasn’t really the spell that brought the [Formless Hunger] into being real. And then there’s the ‘no’ in the sense that you’re not Pillowcase. Or Tessa. Or any other part of her.”
“So she’s special then?” Rose asked.
“Of course,” Obby said. “Everyone is. That’s the most obvious and overlooked secret there is.”
“But she’s got, like, special ‘fight unreal things’ powers or something? Like, is she the Chosen One?”
“Neither Pillowcase, nor Tessa, had special powers related to what they did,” Obby said. “You won’t find ‘Instantiate Unbeing’ on her character sheet or anything like that. What was special about her was that when that test came, she was where she was, with the motivations she had, and was willing to make the choices she did.”
“Is she going to be okay?” Rose asked. “She seems different now.”
“That’s what I wanted to ask you about,” Obby said. “The Pillowcase who’s with us now is only part of the person we knew before. I guess that’s pretty obvious with the [Fractured] condition she talked about. What’s important though is that she’s not exactly even the Pillowcase that we knew. When she pulled the [Formless Hunger] into this world, she pulled a bit of it into herself as well.”
Rose almost tripped over her own feet.
“Wait, so she has a monster or something growing in her?” she asked.
“Again, complicated,” Obby said. “I mean, it’s not like there’s a literal monster gestating in her chest or something. It’s more that she’s got access to powers now that are outside the normal scope of this world. You can think of it like the [Formless Hunger] became real and a little bit of Pillowcase became unreal in exchange.”
“What’s going to happen with that? Is she going to turn into a [Formless Hunger] too or something?”
“No. She’s too much of herself to become something so devoid of history or identity,” Obby said. “Beyond that though I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. A lot of it comes down to her. The little bit of strangeness inside her might become part of the natural world on its own as the world grows to include her. Or she might force it to expand and become steadily less what she was and more something that could never be.”
“Can we help her?” Rose asked.
“Yeah. I think we can,” Obby said. “All she needs, all we can really do, is let her know there are people who care for her. That’s the beacon she can use to find a path back home when she gets lost.”