Pillowcase wasn’t filled with dread. She was filled with magical stuffing. She wasn’t overwhelmed with dread either. She’d been crafted such that no threat would make her composure fall apart. Falling apart did no good on a battlefield after all, and a complete cessation of emotion wasn’t the same as being overwhelmed. Was it?
“It is very clearly time to flee,” Vixali said. A perfectly rational response, delivered in a perfectly calm and rational tone of voice.
The members of her coterie were as silent as only the dead could be. The quiet vacuum persisted for the space of two absent heartbeats before the room erupted in chaos and outcries of all types.
“This is suboptimal,” Pillowcase said, observing the swirling mass of bodies which seemed to be trying to flee in all directions at once.
At her side, Lost Alice cut off a short giggle. Pillowcase wondered what she was amused by. The situation seemed to lack humorous agents.
“For what it’s worth, we beat the [Formless Hunger] once already,” Lost Alice spoke at a normal volume, but the words somehow landed in Vixali’s ears despite the cacophonous din the other [Vampires] were raising.
“Silence,” Vixalie commanded. “And stillness.”
The chaos of the court vanished as quickly as it had erupted, but Pillowcase could see it was a fragile peace – like a thin wafer of ice waiting for a sharp blow or the inevitable rays of the sun to shatter it.
“What is your price?” Vixali asked.
Because no offer of help could be given freely. Everything had to be an exchange to a [Vampire]. Compassion was a weakness experienced by lesser beings and the mark of fools.
“I don’t believe I will set one for this,” Lost Alice said.
“It will be a favor to be repaid later?” Vixali asked.
“No. No price,” Lost Alice said. “We don’t need to charge one.”
Pillowcase wasn’t sure but that sounded like either an insult or a power play.
“It’s both,” Lost Alice said privately, when Pillowcase asked her.
“Is it wise to antagonize the leader of a large group of creatures who are already biased towards hostilities?” Pillowcase asked also on their private channel.
“It depends on the antagonism,” Lost Alice said. “Vix isn’t going to declare war on us for trying to help her. She’ll try to go for a more subtle revenge. She has to or she’ll risk losing the coterie to me.”
“You can take leadership of them from her?” Pillowcase asked, strangely uncertain how she felt about that prospect. Her emotions were thawing after being bludgeoned into insensibility by the terror of discovering that the [Formless Hunger] was both active and aware enough to form plans.
“In theory, sure,” Lost Alice said. “Leadership among [Vampires] is primary gained through shows of strength, with treachery being seen as the ultimate sort of strength. In practice that means that I would have to beat more than just Vix to take the throne though. Qiki would support her because familiarity makes treachery easier to plan for.”
“That doesn’t seem a particularly sort of relationship,” Pillowcase said.
“It’s not,” Lost Alice said. “Intentionally so. A leader needs to work to keep their position or their underlings will devour them. Sometimes literally. Which is why you couldn’t drag me to that throne with wild [Hell Stallions].”
“You are an unusual [Vampire]?” Pillowcase asked.
“You’re not the first one to notice that,” Lost Alice said and glanced over to flash a quick smile at her.
“I hope they appreciated you too,” Pillowcase said.
She didn’t see the flash of pain and longing that swept across Lost Alice’s face. Whether it belonged to Lost Alice or Lisa was something they themselves perhaps couldn’t have said either.
“Tell us what you require then, if no price will be asked, to vanquish this foe,” Vixali said.
“A map,” Lost Alice said. “Specifically of where it has focused its incursions. Or at least where you can be sure its struck against your watchers. Also any of the other dungeon dwellers who are in those areas.”
“That is a significant store of secrets,” Vixali said.
“They were secrets,” Lost Alice said. “Now they’re food for a cosmic monster. If we’re going to make sure it stops advancing, we need to know where it’s advancing currently, and what it chose to strike out against first.”
“And if we give you this information, how will you be able to use it to prevent this [Formless Hunger] from advancing?” Vixali asked.
“Now that is a secret,” Lost Alice said. “What would you be willing to pay in exchange for that?”
She made a point of eyeing the throne Vixali was still seated on, and for a moment Pillowcase wondered if the [Vampire Queen] would agree to transfer her crown to Lost Alice’s head. The moment passed swiftly though as Vixali’s laughter filled the hall.
“We shall see, perhaps, once it’s been determined that your boasts are more than empty words,” Vixali said. “As we are generous though, your request will be met. [Castellan] arrange for a map to drawn up which highlights the information they require.”
“Of course my [Queen],” Qiki said.
“That went well,” Pillowcase said on their private channel.
“It wasn’t a complete disaster,” Lost Alice said. “But we do have a problem before us now.”
“Would that be ‘how are we going to stop the [Formless Hunger]’?” Pillowcase asked. She’d been wondering about that probably more than Vixali had since Vixali only knew that the [Formless Hunger] was contained on the surface but wasn’t aware of the price Pillowcase had already paid to escape it’s clutches.
“Yeah, that would be the problem,” Lost Alice said.
Rose’s problems were multiplying, but that suited her just fine. Jamal was running by her side, FOOF was flying just over her shoulder, and at her back were people she was beginning to suspect she might be able to trust to at least a some small degree.
“So, the [Vampires] were able to confirm that the [Formless Hunger] is expanding. Do we have people start evacuating now or is it too late to even run?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Where could we exacuate them to?” Jamal asked as Matt Painting.
“The surface?” Lady Midnight suggested. “Or maybe that pocket dungeon that Pillow and Alice found?”
“Do we know the [Formless Hunger] wouldn’t be able to follow us there? Or that there’s any method of exiting the dungeon?” Starchild asked.
“We don’t,” Jamal said. “Pillow and Alice said they weren’t able to find an exit while they were there and if a gate works for us, it’s probably smart to assume it would work for that thing too. So we’d basically be stuffing ourselves into a hole with no way out.”
“I’m open to ideas that don’t suck,” Lady Midnight said.
“We could fight the thing,” Rose said.
She felt everyone’s gaze burrowing into her.
“No, seriously,” she said. “I know when it caught us last time, it was all kinds of wrong, but Pillowcase has new skills, and if we’re expecting it, we can, I don’t know, brace for it?”
“That thing reached into my mind and was ready to take me apart,” Jamal said. “How do we brace for that?”
“Like Pillowcase did,” Rose said.
“She paid a high price for that,” Starchild said. “I’m disinclined to lose any of the rest of us as we lost Pillowcase’s other half.”
“What if we ambushed it?” Rose said. “Last time the thing got the drop on us. Most of us are ranged damage dealers though. Maybe we could out distance it?”
“We saw it take out a spaceship,” Pete said, speaking with Starchild’s voice. “I’m guessing it’s got us beat in the maximum range department.”
“There’s got to be some way to beat it though right?” Rose asked. “I mean, it was this weird cosmic thing but now it’s trapped in a game, so it’s gottable be beatable.”
“Does it?” Jamal asked. “It doesn’t seem to be playing by the rules all that much.”
“You know, I think she’s right,” Obby said. “Being here is going to change it. Just the fact that it has a name now means that the [Formless Hunger] isn’t what it once was. Maybe it could be slain?”
Obby seemed to be talking to herself as much as any of the rest of them, but Rose liked where her thoughts were going.
“Does that mean we could beat it with the right strategy?” Rose asked, hoping to nudge Obby’s musings into a more productive direction.
“What? Oh, no, probably not,” Obby said. “We’ve still got a problem of scale to work against.”
“It’s too big too shoot?” Rose asked.
“Sort of,” Obby said. “It’s size is just a reflection of its overall power though. The real problem is that when something that’s essentially infinite gets translated into the constraints of this world, it’s going to be set at the max available level unless it chooses to be something else.”
“The maximum level for players is 99,” Lady Midnight said. “But the highest level monster is level 150.”
“Can we even scratch a level 150?” Rose asked.
“In the game we couldn’t,” Lady Midnight said. “There were floors on a character’s chance to hit and the damage they could do, but if the level gap was too large, the hit chance was set to always fail and damage was set to zero no matter what. It saved the devs from having to deal with weird rounding errors supposedly.”
“That sucks,” Rose said. “There’s got to be something we can do!”
“Level up, like a like?” Jamal said.
“Even with a power leveler and the perfect mix of enemies, we wouldn’t hit the level cap fast enough,” Pete said.
“And we’d be stuck with worthless gear if we did,” Lady Midnight said.
“Wait wait wait!” Rose said. “Oh! Wait? Could this work?”
“I don’t think we’re going to know unless you use some real words to tell us what you’re talking about,” Jamal said.
“The [Formless Hunger] has a level now right?” Rose asked.
“Yeah, probably level eleventy billion or something,” Jamal said.
“So what if rather than trying to get to its level, we bring it down to ours?” Rose asked. She’d done her research and felt a thrill of victory as it paid off.
Not that it was a victory yet.
It was just a chance at victory.
And she’d thought of it!
“Bring it down to…?” Lady Midnight asked as the gears started turning in her head too.
“Wait, she’s right,” Pete said. “Do they have any of those here though?”
“Any of those what?” Jamal asked.
“Level locked zones,” Rose said, practically skipping as she ran. “They’re usually PvP areas, but the idea is that anyone or anything who goes into them gets scaled down so that noobs like us don’t get crushed by high level griefers.”
“Would that work?” Lady Midnight asked. The party had come to a stunned halt, their trek back to the encampment momentarily forgotten.
“I…yes, yes it would!” Obby said. She gave Rip an affectionate slug on the shoulder. “You are brilliant! No matter what the creature is, the scaling algorithm can refactor its stats to be level appropriate for whatever cap its limited to. And even better, each ability the creature has comes with a minimum level. If a creature is locked below that minimum level, the ability isn’t available anymore. Which for the [Formless Hunger] would probably be all of them!”
“You know, I don’t even know why I was worried,” Jamal said, clear relief sounding in his voice. “Not when I got my girl Rip here.”
“We do have some problems to overcome still though,” Starchild said. “First is the matter of finding a level locked zone in time. I don’t think we’ve run across any so far.”
“I can handle that,” Lady Midnight said. “Let me get in touch with the people who are still on Earth. They’ve got to be able to find out where the lowbie PvP zone was in the Beta.”
“Then there’s the larger problem,” Starchild said. “Pillowcase just contacted me. They’re heading out to save Vixali’s [Vampires] by fighting the [Formless Hunger] by themselves.”