Protecting someone from their own foolishness wasn’t something healers were capable of. Lisa knew that. She also knew that fighting opponents who were level capped at 10 when Tessa was at best 6 or 7 and not a melee fighter was a recipe for a quick party wipe. The two of them were going to die, quickly and painfully, and neither of them knew where the nearest [Heart Fire] was.
None of that changed what Lisa needed to do though.
Not given what she knew.
Tessa wasn’t fighting to win. Despite the odds against them though, she wasn’t being foolish or naive. She was trying to save Lisa.
Just like she had before.
Lisa choked back a bitter laugh.
They’d been together for less than two days was it? How was it possible there could have been so many chances for Tessa to put herself in danger? And why was she so often doing it for Lisa’s sake?
Lisa could have guessed the answer to that question but trusting her guess? That was something she’d never been good at.
“[Minor Provoking Strikes],” Pillowcase said, causing Tessa’s hands to glow briefly with a violet pulse of light.
“Don’t keep them on you!” Lisa said on their private channel, maintaining her healing spell to restore the damage Tessa was enduring.
Being capped at a low level was saving them for a variety of reasons, since not only did it mean the Consortium soldiers couldn’t obliterate Tessa with each punch they threw, it also placed the fight in a realm where the healing Lost Alice’s spells provided was still overbearingly strong in comparison to Tessa’s health pool. Even strong magic had its limits though and five on one were well beyond what Lisa knew she could manage to mitigate for long.
“I have to tank them,” Pillowcase said. “If they go after you, we’re sunk.”
It was a lovely, protective sentiment, but Lost Alice could also see the tactical sense of it, even if Lisa didn’t want to consider Tessa’s loss as any part of a viable strategy.
Pillowcase threw one of the zombies into his fellow with enough force to send them both sprawling down the hallway. That left her with three foes for a moment, which she capitalized on by vaulting over the shoulders of one of them to place him between herself and the remaining forces.
Lisa wondered if she was going to use the zombie as a shield and almost dropped her spell when Pillowcase instead crouched to take the zombie down with a leg sweep.
The Hunger-Zombies seemed to be strong and very difficult to damage but coordination and rapid responses were not in their wheelhouse. They managed to land solid hits and cause serious injuries to Tessa but Lost Alice’s spell wasn’t about to let those linger for more than an instant.
Grabbing the zombie’s leg swept before it could hit the ground, Tessa hoisted the flailing thing up and closed ranks with the two she’d knocked away.
She turned the zombie into a battering ram as it tried to bring an overly ornate sidearm to bear for a shot. The space pistol flew out of the things grasp as Tessa slammed the zombie’s head into into the knee of one of its fellows.
It was an amazing show of force, spoiled only by two other zombies colliding with Pillowcase from either side, knocking her away from the injured zombies and bearing her back and down to the ground.
Pillowcase fought to escape the two as best she could, but they had a mass and strength advantage on her.
A static hiss of triumph rang from each of the zombies, but it was victory celebrated too soon. One the ground and overwhelmed, Pillowcase kept her head and used the advantages she still had at her disposal.
The zombies were strong and tough, but they were essentially mindless. With the Hunger directly controlling them, they could only react with brute force. They didn’t understand the body mechanics involved in wrestling or how their greater strength wasn’t great enough to withstand attacks at their joints.
Pillowcase broke three fingers on one of the hands that had grabbed her, which freed her to launch a crushing elbow into the face of the other zombie who was holding her. The physical trauma of the blow let her get both hands around the zombie’s head.
Tessa would have hesitated then. She would have wondered if the zombies could be reclaimed from the [Formless Hunger] and her natural reticence against violence would have made her look for some of the option.
Pillowcase shattered the thing’s neck, twisting its head a full 180 degrees in one explosive jerk.
Lisa sucked in a breath, but Lost Alice held onto her spell. This wasn’t a fight they could afford to lose, and the zombies were doing everything in the Hunger’s power to kill them.
And the snapped neck wasn’t enough to stop them.
Pillowcase kicked free from the two injured zombies and rolled back to her feet, in time to see all five of them swarm towards her.
There was a nice long open corridor behind her, but instead of fleeing, Pillowcase braced her feet against the wall and rocketed off from it, slamming into the zombies who were charging her.
They all went feel into a pile again with the most disturbing element being the inhuman growling.
Which Pillowcase was making.
Lisa wanted to call out. Wanted to ask if Pillowcase, if Tessa, was okay. Wanted to offer a better strategy. Some method they could use to escape.
No words came to her though.
She couldn’t interrupt Pillowcase. Couldn’t distract her. Not when every fraction of a second was filled with critical moves and countermoves.
Pillowcase surged up from the pile of bodies, her hand rising into the shape of knife before she slammed it back into the zombies.
Lisa expected to see it to emerge covered in blood and perhaps holding a still beating heart, but what Tessa pulled from zombie she speared was even worse.
Around her hand, quickly eating away at it, liquid static hissed in a rage to match Pillowcase’s own.
They hadn’t found Pillowcase or Lost Alice yet. That worried Jamal. The two teams were supposed to be moving towards a common meeting point. With the extra speed his team was pouring on, they should have run into the Pillowcase somewhere past the midpoint between them, but well before the point they’d reached so far. The only explanation seem to be that something had happened to Pillowcase, or Lost Alice, or both of them.
Jamal wasn’t gripped by worry though. He was well beyond worried and into terrified.
They should have had an easy method of determining what was going on with Pillowcase and Lost Alice. Their “team chat line” had kept them in touch with each other even when they were separated by miles of solid stone and the planet’s ionosphere.
Which each racing footfall, he waited for some response to the questions Rose and he had been spamming the chat line with with, but only silence answered them.
The same kind of silence as when Pillowcase and Lost Alice ran into the [Formless Hunger].
“We’re going to make it in time,” Rose said. She was struggling to stay with the group. Jamal could hear it in her voice. She was faster than the rest of them, thanks to her class change, and she wanted to unleash that speed more than anything else.
“I hope she’s right,” Matt Painting said, speaking only to Jamal inside the confines of their shared head space.
“She usually is,” Jamal said. Believing in her was easy. In himself not as much.
“It sounds like she inspires you the same as you do me?” Matt asked.
Jamal thought about that before replying.
“You know, I think she does?” he said. “She’s always been the braver of the two of us, but I never felt weird about that with her. I just wanted to live up to the kind of things she could see us doing.”
“I never had someone like that,” Matt said.
“You were always alone?” Jamal asked.
“No. I was constructed as part of a mass order. The others in my production lot were always with me, but we were locked down from the moment we gained self-awareness.”
“That’s unbearably evil.”
“I’m know that now,” Matt said. “The control spells they use kept us from being aware of it though. The pain we all felt then was something we assumed was a part of being alive. It wasn’t until you revived me that I understood what they’d done to us.”
“So, can I ask, why are you talking to me?” Jamal said. “I mean like why now and not before?”
“I didn’t understand what had happened at first,” Matt said. “When I woke up I thought you were another control program. I wasn’t being ordered to speak for myself, so I didn’t.”
“Hey, you can alway speak for yourself,” Jamal said. “I mean, I’m still not exactly clear on what’s happened here but I am not your controller.”
“I know. It’s part of why I wanted to speak up. We’re joined somehow, but it feels symbiotic. I never had to be brave before. The spells took care of making sure I could execute any orders given to me. I don’t know if I have any bravery of my own, but with us together like this I feel like I’m able to borrow some of yours.”
“Can you feel my emotions? Or read my thoughts? It sounded like that was a thing the others could do,” Jamal asked.
“I don’t think I can do either of those thing,” Matt said. “I know you can read some of mine though.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Jamal said. “When did I ever do that?”
“When you cast spells,” Matt said. “I can remember the verbalizations and the equations, but you’re the one who speaks the words and performs the gestures.”
“I thought that was something the game was doing for me,” Jamal said. “Now that you mention it though, it did feel like my head was going funny each time I cast something.”
“I felt more awake while we were casting too,” Matt said.
“Maybe that was you taking control of your body for a bit to finish the spell off right?” Jamal said.
“I don’t know. It felt more like I was talking with you. I think you did all the actual casting.”
“But I’ve never cast a spell before. I don’t think that’s even possible in my world.”
“You appear to have a talent for it in this one,” Matt said.
“What happens if you want to cast a spell though?”
“I supposed I’d have to be the one to speak?” Matt said.
“Sure, you’re not controlling me,” Matt said.
“But I’m running with your body now,” Jamal said. “Isn’t that like keeping you in prison?”
“It’s not like the one I was in before,” Matt said. “And I’m not sure you’re directing our actions. I think it’s both of us.”
Matt’s body slowed and fell back to the rear of the pack.
“We just chose that together, didn’t we?” Jamal asked.
“That’s what it felt like to me too,” Matt said. “Trying drifting to the left and I’ll see about the right.”
They continued on a straight course.
“Did you feel conflicted there too?” Jamal asked.
“I did. But I still can’t see your memories or read your thoughts,” Matt said.
“What are we then?” Jamal asked.
“Two people who need each other?” Matt said.
“You’d be fine with anyone though,” Jamal said. “You’re top of the line.”
“That’s not true,” Matt said. “I’m a refurbished unit. I failed the initial tests for being a viable combat caster. They made me a training target after they patched over the deficiencies they found. The only reason I was deployed into a combat zone was that [Supreme Commander Gernal] was attempting to keep costs low by using low value troops as disposable assets. I’m supposed to be so much stronger than I am.”
“You’re strong enough for me,” Jamal said. “All this has been a lot to take in. I think having our strength grow slowly has helped me keep a better handle on it.”
In the distance the sound of blaster fire echoing down the long stone corridors.
Together they quickened their pace to a full sprint, along with everyone else.
“Let’s hope I’m strong enough for them,” Matt said.