A vampire was waiting for them when Pillowcase and her team returned to their home.
“Greeting brave travellers, my [Queen] would converse with you at your soonest convenience,” Qiki said from the entrance to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].
Pillowcase didn’t groan. That was a response Tessa would have made. The [Vampire Queen’s] request was instead added to a list of priorities which was impractically unstable. In any operation there would always be some reordering of tasks. It was to be expected and accounted for according to the experience her makers has sewn into Pillowcase. Even with that though, she had to question the the value of trying to assign a task order to what was more or less pure chaos.
Past a certain point, further interruptions made the idea of forming long term plans into an exercise in absurdity.
“We have not had a great day,” Lost Alice said. “Did your [Queen] explain why she wanted to see us?”
“She is concerned,” Qiki said. “She did instruct me not to rush you, but that time was likely of the essence. So…”
“So one or more of us should go with you now before whatever new catastrophe has a chance to get rolling?” Pillowcase asked. She didn’t need to sleep. Not like a human did. And her stamina was enhanced by both her magical nature and the levels she’d attained. Despite all that though she was still tired.
“Except we won’t be doing that,” Lost Alice said.
“We wont?” Rip asked. She had her bow ready but stood with the same exhausted posture the rest of the team displayed.
“No splitting the party,” Lost Alice said.
“In that case I am instructed to venture along with you for a far as you will allow my company,” Qiki said. “Oh, and I am to render any aid you should require if the creatures in the dungeon prove to be more than you can easily handle.”
Pillowcase didn’t need Lost Alice to translate that from [Vampire]. Qiki would be evaluating their strength every moment she was with them. If they proved to be weaker than the [Vampires] expected then it would lead to complications later on.
“You’re free to tag along as far as you want,” Lost Alice said. “Just remember our people are off limits. Anyone’s fangs touch them and we’ll have a discussion about it.”
A discussion? Pillowcase asked on their private channel.
Direct threats are considered a sign of weakness in vampires, Lost Alice said. By ‘discussion’ I mean I will personally rip the [Queen’s] tongue from her throat, and Qiki there understands it.
Do you think they know that you’re a healer? Pillowcase asked. She hadn’t been sewn with a sense of humor, but the thought was a mirthful one anyways.
Perhaps she really was more than she’d been crafted to be?
If they do they’ll understand that means I can hurt them, heal them, and then hurt them again just as badly, Lost Alice said.
Remind me not to anger you, Pillowcase said, seeing possibilities she hadn’t considered before.
You’ve done more or less the opposite of that so far, Lost Alice said.
Pillowcase wanted a moment to process that but, as seemed to always be the case, no moments of peace were allocated to her.
“Perhaps as we travel, I might ask a few questions?” Qiki said. “There are matters which will just possibly be relevant sooner rather than later.”
“Matters such as?” Lost Alice asked.
“A few of our minions have gone missing,” Qiki said. “They normally quite hard to kill – quite hard to even detect in fact – and yet the vanished without a trace.”
“Were they in or around the ruins of [Sky’s Edge]?” Pillowcase asked.
“Some of them, yes,” Qiki said. “Others were watching some of the deeper passages in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] though, and all seem to have suffered the same fate.”
Pillowcase paused. She’d been leading them back to the camp where the resident’s of [Sky’s Edge] and the adventurers had setup accommodations after the Consortium and Darren-the-Servant-of-Fire had wiped the town off the map. It was supposed to have been as safe a place as they could find. Possibly that was still true, but “safe as they could find” was clearly not the same as “safe”. Not if her guess was correct.
“Did they all disappear at the same time?” she asked.
“The ones in the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] did,” Qiki said. “The one’s watching the lower passages in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] vanished later.”
Tessa would have cursed. Pillowcase remained silent, processing the new information.
“That’s not good, is it?” Rip asked.
“No, not if it means what I think it means,” Starchild said.
“How long did it take for the watchers to vanish?” Pillowcase asked.
“We’re not sure,” Qiki said. “They don’t have a regular check-in schedule.”
“Do you have a rough estimate? And was there anything different about their loss than the ones in the [Sky’s Edge],” Pillowcase asked.
“You should probably talk to [Queen] Vixali about that,” Qiki said.
“We will,” Lost Alice said. “But we’re still going to see what shape our people are in.”
“They’re still quite edible,” Qiki said. “And uneaten,” she added at Lost Alice’s sharp look. “We’re better neighbors than you might imagine us to be.”
“Oh, I imagine you to be the best of neighbors,” Lost Alice said. “You seem quite intelligent after all.”
Was that meant to be subtle? I’m not good at speaking [Vampire] yet, Pillowcase asked Lost Alice privately.
Not especially. I mean I could have slapped her if I wanted to be less subtle but as [Vampires] go she doesn’t seem too bad, Lost Alice said.
Which means we can trust her?
Yes. Her betrayal should be very predictable.
Is that…a good thing?
With a [Vampire] it’s pretty much as close as you get, Lost Alice said.
Present company excepted? Pillowcase asked.
I think you can get a little closer with me, Lost Alice said. When we have time for that.
Had she been aware of it, Pillowcase could have taken comfort in the fact that even if Tessa hadn’t been fractured from her, their gestalt still would have missed the implications of what Lost Alice was saying at least nine times out of ten.
That sounds good, Pillowcase replied, not consciously aware of how her words might be received.
“I don’t know if this is related,” Lady Midnight said. “But Cammie just let me know that one of the other teams ran into more of the [Disjoined].”
Lost Alice cursed, and then glanced over at Rip and Matt and apologized.
“Any losses?” Pillowcase asked.
“No. From what she said, the [Disjoined] were really fragile, and self-destructive? Let me ask about that,” Lady Midnight said.
“I wonder if we’re the only ones running into these things?” Rip asked.
“I can check with Cease All on that,” Lisa said. “If the [Disjoined] are popping up in the regular realms then maybe someone’s figured out how to keep them from eating towns.”
“That might have been a unique scenario,” Pillowcase said. “[Sky’s Edge] lost it’s [Heart Fire Shrine]. That was what gave the [Disjoined] access to the [God Spark] at its heart.”
“From what my sister’s told me, the regular zones have been hit even harder than we were,” Pete said. “I can’t image the Consortium didn’t target the [Heart Fire Shrines] there too. Adventurers are just too strong if those are still in play.”
“This sucks!” Rip said. “I never even got to see those places and now they’re all wrecked?”
“Weren’t they supposed to be really pretty?” Matt asked. “I read about how well they held up even compared to modern games.”
“Huh, you know, that’s true,” Lady Midnight said. “Everyone used to talk about that. How the artists had really gone above and beyond what the tech at the time could usually do. I wonder…”
“Wonder what?” Pillowcase asked.
“It could be an odd coincidence, or maybe that’s why it was [Broken Horizons] this all happened too,” Lisa said.
“Or maybe this place is why [Broken Horizons] was as amazing as it turned out to be,” Lady Midnight said.
“How would that work?” Matt asked.
“Oh, I see,” Lisa said. “You’re thinking this world might have been some kind of muse for the developers?”
“Yeah, like it inspired them via, I don’t know, dreams or something,” Lady Midnight said.
“Interesting idea,” Obby said. “Kind of a shame we can’t grill the original developers for where they got their inspiration from.”
“There are a whole lot of questions I can think of putting them over a grill to get answers to,” Lost Alice said.
“I thought [Vampires] like their meals uncooked?” Rip asked.
“Generally, but we’ll take what we can get,” Qiki said. “Not that we would eat people of course. That would be wrong.”
Lost Alice didn’t dignify the sarcasm with any answer or reaction.
“Can’t we though?” Pete asked. “Not the grill thing, or eating them, but doesn’t someone have a connection to the support staff? I mean it’s been…a day?…I don’t even know how long now. They have to have some answers at this point right?”
“We had a line that was supposed to give direct access to one of the [GMs] but it was blocked the last several times we tried to access it,” Pillowcase said.
The idea of a [GM] or [Game Master] hadn’t been included in Pillowcase’s stitching, but she could still recall exactly what *GM Burnt Toast’s* role and capabilities had been.
She also knew how close Tessa had believe herself and BT to be.
How do I remember that? she wondered. Tessa’s memories weren’t part of her anymore. They’d been lost when she [Fractured].
“That can’t be the only option for communicating with them though can it?” Pete asked.
“It’s not,” Lisa said. “If we can get word to one of the players who’s still on Earth, they could pick up the telephone, or even have someone drive there I guess, assuming anyone we can reach is close enough.”
“The problem is the concurrent login count,” Lady Midnight said.
“Several hundred thousand players,” Lisa said. “EE’s always been cagey about exact numbers but we know it’s at least that high.”
“A fair portion of those are in the Asia-Pacific or European regions though and those are handled by local call centers,” Pete said. “The HQ we’d want would only be dealing with North American players. Or people who play on the NA servers.”
“That’s still easily over a hundred thousand players,” Lisa said. “They probably don’t have the support staff to handle even one percent of that. Maybe not even a tenth of a percent.”
“Excuse me, but, if I might be so bold as to ask, what are you all talking about?” Qiki asked.
“We’re not from here,” Rip said.
“An explaining more than that would take more time than we have,” Lost Alice said. “What you can pass along to your [Queen] is that we have some idea what happened to your spies. We weren’t involved of course, and we will be happy to provide her with all of the details we know.”
“She will be delighted to hear that,” Qiki said. “From you. In person.”
“Wait, you said the spies in the lower passages were lost?” Lisa asked. “How much lower?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question,” Qiki said.
“There are links between the [High Beyond] and the [Sunless Deeps], how far down were those lower passages? Were they still in the [High Beyond]?”
“Oh, uh, yes, of course,” Qiki said. “We haven’t risked venturing out of the [High Beyond]. A few of our predecessors tried it and came to rather unpleasant ends.”
“That means the spies were still fairly close by right?” Lisa asked.
“Well, the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] is dangerous on its own too,” Qiki said.
“More so than you know,” Lisa said. “Call Vixali, if you can. She needs to make for our camp right now. No delay.”
“What are you thinking?” Pillowcase asked.
“Not thinking. Fearing,” Lisa said. “If I’m right, then I’m giving up on rational thought.”
“Oh no,” Starchild said, apparently grasping the idea Lisa had come upon as well.
“What?” Rip asked.
“We didn’t see the [Formless Hunger] expanding right?” Lisa asked.
“Yeah, it was staying within the town’s borders,” Rip said.
“Was it?” Lisa asked. “Or was it expanding downwards rather than outwards?”