The plan had been derailed. Because that was what happened to plans in Lisa’s experience. You made them so someone else could wreck them. Normally that didn’t bother her. Okay that was a lie. Normally that made her want to stab someone, but she’d had an exemplary stabbing-free record for long enough that she didn’t think she was in much danger of falling off the wagon.
Not that stabbing someone was likely to help under the present circumstances.
“I thought we weren’t going to split the party?” Pillowcase asked on their private channel.
“Sometimes you go with the least terrible idea available,” Lisa said.
They were running, but telepathy wasn’t interrupted by a need for breath. Not that either of them technically needed to breath. Lisa was a bit concerned about their stamina though. Despite their superhuman constitutions, they couldn’t run at full speed forever and arriving at a [Vampire Coeterie’s] lair exhausted and unable to run further wasn’t an optimal strategy even if the [Vampires] in question where, theoretically, on their side for the moment.
“If the [Formless Hunger] is expanding downwards, we should warn Yawlorna and her people as well,” Pillowcase said. “And maybe Darren too?”
“Darren should be…no, you know what, you’re right. Monsters aren’t supposed to be able to cross between zones, but even if that’s still true, the [Formless Hunger] exists specifically to break rules right?”
“I believe so,” Pillowcase said. “We also can’t be sure how much divine power it absorbed from the [Heart Fire], so the world may be fine with it moving around like a god would.”
“I called Yawlorna already and warned her to keep an eye out,” Lisa said. “Do you want to give Darren a shout? Wait, we can’t can we?”
“Not directly,” Pillowcase said. “But maybe Yawlorna can send a messenger?”
“We’re here!” Qiki said, pulling up to a stop at an iron portcullis. “I’ll let Queen Vixali know you’ve arrived, one moment please.”
Turning, Qiki walked through the portcullis, her body passing through it like a cloud of mist before reforming on the other side.
“Can you do that?” Pillowcase asked privately.
“Not yet,” Lisa said. “It’s one of the higher level racial abilities for the [Graveborne].”
“Does that mean Qiki is a danger to us?” Pillowcase asked.
“Qiki’s a danger to us because of who and what she is,” Lisa said, though it might have been Lost Alice’s sentiment more than her own. “[Vampires] are predators who feed on apex predators. Qiki and Vixali may be entirely on the level. It’s possible that they can see that they need us if they want to survive. There’s all kinds of arguments to back that up and that’s exactly the sort of situation where their prey is going to be the most inclined to trust them, and so it’s also exactly the sort of situation where they’ll stand to gain the most if they turn on us at just the right time.”
“Would they have any reason to turn on either of us though?” Pillowcase asked. “I can’t nourish them. Would your blood be of any value to them?”
“In general [Vampires] can’t feed on other [Vampires]. The blood is lacking the vitality needed to be proper food,” Lost Alice said. “My case is slightly different though. I can’t feed on any of them except maybe Qiki and Vixali but any of them could feed on me.”
“That seems unbalanced,” Pillowcase said. “What makes your blood different? Your levels?”
“Both my levels and even more so the class I have levels in,” Lost Alice said. “The healing magic I carry can substitute for a living person’s vitality. I’m told I am quite tasty.”
Lisa groaned at the double entendre in Lost Alice’s last statement, but Pillowcase didn’t seem to notice it.
“You can regenerate your magic without taking the vitality from your blood though, correct?” Pillowcase asked.
“Of course,” Lost Alice said. “I recover magic the same as any caster would.”
Lisa could feel the hum of magic which surrounded her and knew that if she wasn’t already at her limit, she could pull in the ambient energy to refill herself easily.
“Could a mana potion serve in place of blood for you then?” Pillowcase asked.
Lost Alice was about to scoff at the idea, but Lisa caught herself.
Mana potions weren’t blood, but there was a chain of logic to Pillowcase’s thoughts. At least in the case of a [Vampire] with healing abilities.
Lost Alice wasn’t pleased with the idea of drinking a mana potion as some kind of artificial, diet blood substitute. Real blood quenched more than a physical thirst. Lisa was able to tear her thoughts away from that though and appreciate the idea that she might not have to tear people apart just to keep her appetite in check.
“You may enter, freely and of your own will,” Qiki said as she swirled up from the floor in a cloud of mist. Producing a key from thin air, she unlocked the portcullis and lifted it lightly with one hand.
Show off, Lisa thought, ignoring the matching thought that she should be using her enhanced strength for similar feats.
Pillowcase advanced forward immediately, making sure to shield Lost Alice in case an ambush was about to fall on them.
No ambush appeared though, so Lisa ventured in before Pillowcase could get too far away.
Qiki led them through a number of cavern rooms, up several natural stairs, and down even more sloping passages.
“Are they trying to confuse us?” Pillowcase asked privately.
“I’m sure they would be delighted if they could but this is probably more to impress us with the amount of area they control,” Lost Alice said. “Each of these caverns should have monsters spawning in them, but Vixali’s control of the area is strong enough to be recognized by the dungeon itself. These areas have basically been ceded to her and her crew.”
“It would be more impressive if they fortified the area somehow,” Pillowcase said. “They have space but its not offering them any benefit in defending it.”
“[Vampires] typically can either destroy an attackers easily, or will turn and flee,” Lost Alice said. “When your prey is is either surprised and helpless or forewarned and incredibly deadly with little middle ground between the two, there’s usually little to be gained by opting for a standup fight you’re not certain you can win.”
“Tactically sensible,” Pillowcase said, nodding in satisfaction.
Lisa was sure Pillowcase could see the crowd which was beginning to follow them. In ones and two, [Vampires] were tagging along in their wake as Qiki lead them to Vixali’s…throne room?
The [Vampire Queen’s] room was carved into clean, polished lines. Almost certainly by hands both familiar with stonework and possessed of far more patience than any of the queen’s minions had.
Unlike the natural caverns which had risen no higher than an office hallway, the ceiling of the [Throne Room] soared, dropping no closer than one hundred feet to the floor.
The most unexpected bit of architecture though were the stained glass windows. Given how far they were below ground, windows of any kind were an impractical choice. By all rights the stained glass should have been dark, mounted against a wall of stone, but the ones which adorned the walls of the [Throne Room] were brilliantly lit.
“Magic?” Pillowcase asked privately.
“Or a truly ridiculous amount of engineering,” Lisa said.
Pillowcase nodded towards the windows running down the left side of the Throne Room.
The ones that were open.
With a cool breeze wafting in which carried the scent of pine trees.
“Right. Magic then,” Lisa said. Lost Alice made sure nothing more than an amused wrinkle of a smile ghosted across her lips.
They were not in a place were being overawed was healthy or wise.
Vixali was watching them from the throne which was perched atop three platforms, each ten feet high.
That is the definition of impractical, Lisa thought and considered how silly Vixali would look putting on mountain climbing gear just to sit in a fancy chair.
Points for dramatic effect though, Lost Alice thought.
“The [Adventurers] Lost Alice and Pillowcase are here in answer to your summons, my [Queen],” Qiki said.
Her what? Lost Alice wasn’t willing to start a fight over the slight, but it did set the tenor of the meeting differently than what she had anticipated it to be.
“You have information we need,” Pillowcase said. “Tell us where you’ve lost your spies.”
Lost Alice suppressed a chuckle. Blunt, to the point, and completely oblivious to the social dynamics at play, Pillowcase was the delight Lost Alice had never knew she’d been missing.
“This is our court,” Vixali said. “A measure of civility is requisite in any petitioners who appear before the throne.”
“That’s interesting information. Not what I asked, but I will remember it if we need to petition you for anything,” Pillowcase said.
Lost Alice couldn’t hold back her smile at that, but the warning bells in her head helped pull it back before it lingered too long. Vixali had a significant number of [Vampires] she had to keep under control. Undermining her authority was fun, but ultimately counterproductive if they were going to be working together.
“In this case, your [Castellan] informed us that there was an opportunity for a mutual beneficial arrangement,” Lost Alice said. “We came at greatest haste because we have information which indicates that arrangement may need to be consummated immediately, hence my partner’s insistence.”
“New information?” Vixali asked.
It was like catnip for [Vampires], and Lost Alice could see the rest of the Coterie hanging on her next words.
“[Castellan] Qiki informed us that some of your servants have gone missing,” Lost Alice said. Most of the coterie reacted as though this was stunning news, but few were good enough actors to hide the fact that it was already well known. “We were at the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge]. We know what happened there and what lies there still.”
This news produced a less dramatic effect on the coterie. They simply became quiet. And still. Predators observing information on which life and death turned.
“We have long since sworn off contact with the daylighter town,” Vixali said. “What about its destruction brings you here in such haste?”
“Have you encountered a [Formless Hunger] before?” Pillowcase asked.
“No. What is this thing?” Vixali asked.
“Nothing,” Lost Alice. “Weaponized nothing. You’ve seen the troop transport the [Consortium of Pain] has sent against the surface world?”
“We are aware of the surface dweller’s woes,” Vixali said.
“The [Formless Hunger] pulled it into itself and took it apart. Atom by atom,” Lisa said.
“That sounds formidable, but it’s immobile is it not?”
“That’s why we came here as fast as we could,” Lisa said. “The tunnels we came through seem to lead back towards [Sky’s Edge]. From what we can see the [Formless Hunger] isn’t expanding beyond the borders of [Sky’s Edge] but it’s not clear where the lower border of the town is.”
“Meaning, the [Formless Hunger] could be expanding in this direction, choosing to move through the dungeon rather than where it would be exposed,” Pillowcase said.
“It seems a simple enough thing to determine,” Vixali said. “We have other watchers and this [Formless Hunger] doesn’t appear to be subtle or difficult to spot.”
“Check with them now,” Pillowcase said. “Please. If the [Formless Hunger] is expanding then we will need to act without delay.”
“I..umm…have some bad news,” Qiki said. “The watchers are gone too. So, either an existing dungeon dweller took them out while they were in hiding without giving them a chance to raise the alarm, or…”
“Or the [Formless Hunger] is growing, and advancing on us,” Pillowcase said.
Lisa felt her unbeaten heart ice over.
“It’s worse than that,” she said. “It took out your watchers? Watchers who were setup to be able to observe each other I’m guessing.”
“Yes, of course,” Vixali said.
“Then it’s not just growing,” Lisa said. “It’s intelligent.”