The path was clear, and it was quiet. No monsters assailed them. No traps delayed them.
Tessa wasn’t the first to reach the [Vampire Queen’s] Throne Room. Oblivion’s Daughter had led the charge, venturing ahead of the refugees and the dungeon dwellers to ensure the [Hungry Shadows] weren’t lying in wait for them.
But none had been.
Only emptiness filled the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].
At least until a stream of hundreds began to filter into the massive space.
“The windows are how we left them,” Lisa said. “Do you still think you’ll be able to turn one into a portal?”
Tessa searched the shining, stained glass windows and tried to call forth whatever gifts she’d been given.
“I’m pretty sure I can use my skills to make us more resilient,” Pillowcase said.
“And I’m not going to let any part of us get hurt if I can help it,” Glimmerglass said.
Glimmerglass wasn’t a part of their private channel but she didn’t need to be. Not anymore than Pillowcase did. Not given their close close physical proximity.
“I think I can do this,” Tessa said.
Lost Alice was holding her hand and gave it a soft squeeze.
“You’re a blessing,” Lost Alice said.
“I haven’t gotten us out of here yet.”
“We’re here at all,” Lost Alice said. ‘That’s substantially better than I thought we’d be doing at this point.”
Tessa squeezed Lost Alice’s hand back, unbothered by the chill of the [Vampire’s] touch.
People continued to flow into the room. Yawlorna’s crew came in escorting a large contingent of children. More than had been in Sky’s Edge? As the crowd continued to filter in that became a certainty.
“Did we pick up extra refugees?” Tessa asked.
“Yeah, there were other towns that needed to evacuate,” Buzz Fightyear said. “Some of the lower level adventurers went out and helped them gather up.”
“Some of the dungeon’s inhabitants too,” Balegritz said, joining the conversation as the end of the Yawlorna’s party filtered into the [Throne Room]. “We didn’t know any of them were non-hostile, but I guess the threat of the Consortium and that Hunger thing was enough to convince they play nice.”
“I think everyone’s still shook up from the [Hungry Shadow] attack,” Rip said. “Almost nobody was talking after that.”
“The wounded are even being quiet,” Lady Midnight said. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing though.”
“It’s probably not,” Tessa said. “The [Hungry Shadows] leaving after they got a bite of just a few people is not at all in character for the Hunger.”
“Think it’s like a zombie bite?” Lisa asked.
“What, like they’re going to rise up as those shadow things?” Matt asked.
“”It wouldn’t be the first time there’s been something like that in the game,” Tessa said.
“Or the hundredth,” Glimmerglass added.
“The is a common answer to that sort of problem,” Lost Alice said.
“Head shots for everyone?” Rip asked.
“What?” Matt said.
“She’s right,” Lady Midnight said. “When you’ve got a spreading, lethal menace you contain it. Whatever it takes.”
“We can do better than that though,” Tessa said. “And we don’t know they’re a spreading menace. Not yet.”
“We’re not going to have a lot of time to determine what their state is,” Lady Midnight said.
“How about the three of us, Lost Alice, you and me, do an evaluation of one of them while Tessa works out how she can get us all out of here,” Glimmerglass said.
“We’re not level capped here right?” Lost Alice said. “Are we going to be any help to you?”
“I think so,” Glimmerglass said. “You’re both [Grave Menders] so you’ve got access to different spells and skills than I do.”
“Someone should watch over Tessa though,” Lisa said.
“We’ve got that covered,” Matt said.
“No one will harm her in my domain,” Vixali said. She didn’t appear out of nowhere, but until the moment she spoke, her presence had been no more noticeable than a thin mist.
Tessa had noticed her, which was puzzling because she had the sense that she shouldn’t have been able to, but she couldn’t pin down either why she felt that should be true, or why she’d been aware of the inconspicuous [Vampire Queen].
“Well, nothing that can’t obliterate us in one hit anyways,” Qiki said. “If we’d known about level capping, we would have picked a better spot to setup court.”
“Nothing can stand against the [Formless Hunger]. No battlefield will avail us if it ventures to find us here,” Gray-of-Endless-Mist said. The [Shadowed Starstalker] surprised everyone who was present, even Vixali and Qiki who reacted with the iron calm which proved that though they were predators, they were sapient ones.
“Oh, sorry Gray, I forgot to tell you,” Obby said. “Those [Hungry Shadows] we fought earlier? Those are what’s left of the [Formless Hunger].”
“That’s…I’m sorry what?”
Tessa had never heard an Eldritch-Creature-of-Realms-Beyond-the-Ken-of-Humanity be gobsmacked before. She suspected no one had. Gray-of-Endless-Mists however was beyond perplexed and into thoroughly bamboozled.
“The [Formless Hunger] isn’t what it used to be,” Obby said. “It’s become something new. Something significantly more material. At least to the extent that you can call a shadow ‘material’ I suppose.”
This was old news to Tessa but even Rip and Matt seemed surprised by the revelation.
“I thought that [Hungry Shadow] thing was something it did to the Consortium troops it caught?” Rip said.
“They were its farthest appendages so they were the first to go,” Obby said. “Things like that don’t have a lot of resistance being made more real though. Everything and everyone here are setup to be a part of this reality. There’s a pressure we all exert to have the things we experience be real too.”
“I do not understand that at all,” Matt said.
“Eh, it’s all kinda fluffy,” Obby said. “The short form, is that what Tessa did to the converted Consortium soldiers, she did to the [Formless Hunger] too, since they were all part of a greater whole.”
“Then we can fight it?” Gray-of-Endless-Mist asked.
“I wouldn’t recommend that,” Ironborn said. “We fought those creatures in a level restricted area and they were using abilities no other level 20 mob has. In an uncapped area there’s no predicting what they could hit us with.”
“How are you holding up with your new identity?” Tessa asked him, looking for any signs of the glitching which might suggest Ironborn was going [Disjoined] on them.
“So far so good,” Ashad said. “Ironborn was always basically just me in a suit of armor, so we’re basically thinking the same on everything.”
“Give a yell if you start having problems,” Tessa said. “I might be able to fix it if I have time to see what’s happening.”
“You can fix broken people?” Olwina asked. The [Sky’s Edge] [Blacksmith] clearly had other concerns on her mind but was trying to join the conversation around Tessa as gracefully as possible.
“Not in general,” Tessa said. “But I think I might be able to help the [Disjoined]. At least if I can get to them soon enough. I don’t know what happens if someone’s in that state for too long, or even how long ‘too long’ necessarily is.”
“Speaking of ‘too long’, how long will it take you to get us out of her?” Olwina asked. “And more importantly where do these windows lead? People are starting to get worried another attack might be coming.”
“I’m trying to figure that out now,” Tessa said. “Do you notice how the lighting changes in the windows when they’re closed? I think the location they’re drawing from slides from place to place while the window is closed. When they’re open though, like those two are, the scene stays static.”
“So if we don’t like a spot we can just close the window and pick a new one?” Olwina asked.
“The catch is we’re probably only going to get one chance at where a portal opens,” Tessa said.
“Anywhere would be better than here, wouldn’t it?” Vixali asked.
“Not necessarily,” Tessa said. “If we pick a spot which doesn’t have a portal setup to receive us, we may not be able to close the gate on this side.”
“Which would mean that the [Hungry Shadows] could just follow up through it too, right?” Rip asked.
“That’s one of the worries,” Tessa said. “The other is that, without a receiver, we can’t be sure where exactly in the location we’ll end up. We’ve got a lot of people to send through and if they wind up scattered over a few square miles that could be bad all around.”
We should send people through together,” Balegritz said. “Some who can fight to guard those who can’t.”
“Are you volunteering to act as bodyguards?” Vixali asked.
“Um, no, I was hoping some of the adventurers would come through with us,” Balegritz said.
“I will see about organizing that,” Starchild said. “Even if we have to send the adventurers through solo to guard the groups of people, we can stay in contact via the [Alliance] chat.”
“Thanks Starchild. See if Kamie and Battler can help with that. They’ve been acting as a liaison with people since this place started filling up,” Tessa said.
“I think the injured are safe to move,” Lisa said on her private channel with Tessa.
“Thanks. I’ve been kind of stalling till we found out what the answer was there,” Tessa said.
It wasn’t good strategy. There were so many people gathered in the [Throne Room], and delaying their departure at all could have had catastrophic consequences.
There were decisions Tessa did not want to force people to make unless they were completely necessary though, and leaving behind a loved one was at the top of that list.
With a sigh of relief that at least one nightmare situation had been avoided, she brought Kralt out of her inventory again.
“If you hurt me…!” the slime began but faltered. He didn’t have any viable threats to make and had managed to absorb a tiny understanding that making threats carried consequences all of their own.
“This won’t hurt,” Tessa said, scanning around the room for a window until she found one that had just changed.
Pushing through the crowd of people, she opened it before the scene behind it could change and was rewarded with the sight she’d hoped for. A the image of village shrouded in night lay on the other side of the window. A blue white glow pulsed from a ring of standing stones in the central square.
It was the blue pulse she would claim she’d been looking for, but the darkness of the night was important as well. Between the [Vampires] and the [Shadowed Starwalkers] and the other dungeon denizens who were traveling with them, Tessa wanted to both be careful that their arrival didn’t spark a panic and that the dungeon’s peoples didn’t burst into flame the moment they reached the other side of the portal.
“Ok, this won’t hurt,” Tessa repeated, “but it might feel kind of weird.”
With that, she placed her hand against the slime and then reached inside it. She didn’t pierce the slime’s skin. Her hand moved out of phase with the creature and from it’s center drew forth and back into corporeal reality as sputtered ball of light, somewhere between a spark and a flame.
The slime dropped from her hand, not dead but transforming, it’s teardrop shaped body reconfiguring into the shape of a beared and bewildered human man.
Tessa was unconcerned about Kralt’s return to humanity. The god soul she held was blazing brighter than the sun in her vision. Looking inside it should have burned her eyes out but through the light she saw a vast, breathtaking darkness – a night sky of endless depth, with uncountable sparks filling it with quiet radiance.
In her hand, she held not a key like Ashad had said, but the entirety of the world she stood on. Though the god soul was a broken, failing thing, it still help the raw power of creation. Authority over all that is, and was, and could be.
Tessa felt cold fingers slide into her free hand and the world came back to her.
She wasn’t a god. She wasn’t the architect of the world.
She was a part of it.
Just a woman.
With people who needed her.
Glancing over to drink in Lost Alice’s warm nod of support, Tessa thrust the god soul into the proto-portal and opened the path to their better tomorrow.