Getting a team to run somewhere could be an exercise in herding cats. Rather than simply following the plan, it was always a case where people didn’t listen, or wanted to go somewhere else, or were busy taking care of whatever had grabbed their attention three seconds ago. Despite all that though managing a team was still heavenly compared to getting a camp full of diverse factions to flee from a place of tentative safety and rush into the unknown because of a threat which they couldn’t yet see coming.
“We’re never going to make it,” Tessa said, her hands clenching and unclenching on their own. “They don’t want to leave.”
She was speaking privately to Lisa while trying to project a calm and certain expression so that people would continue to take her seriously.
Assuming they were taking her seriously at all to begin with.
Yawlorna seemed to be onboard, but Vixali looks like she was mostly interested in dinner, with Tessa as the main course. Neither of them presented the challenge Olwina did though.
“If we leave the [High Beyond], we’re never going to get our homes back,” Olwina said. It wasn’t an unreasonable point. The towns people had lost a lot. Tessa just knew they were going to lose a lot more if they stayed where they were.
“Maybe not,” Lost Alice said. “[Sky’s Edge] is already gone. Even if we can take back the [High Beyond] later, the land may not be able to support life for a while.”
“We need to get rid of the Consortium too,” Rip said. “As long as they’re around, you’ll be completely exposed here.”
“Why not go to one of the other cities though?” Olwina asked. “[Star Throne] or [Godston] have defenses. We could rally there couldn’t we?”
“The cities are still standing but their residents are all gone already,” Obby said.
“The Consortium?” Tessa asked.
“Nah, the major city areas had one-way gates setup to take them to the surface,” Obby said. “As soon as the Consortium showed up, the majority of the population bailed out through them. We’d probably find a few who stayed, but those would be the same people who thought a [Formless Hunger] was no big deal, or a hoax, or something equally ill-informed.”
“Wait, they have working gates that can take us to the surface? That’s great! That might make this even easier!” Tessa said.
“I’m sorry to rain on the parade, but the ‘had’ there was intentional. Once everyone who was going to flee was through the gates, the cities destroyed them. If they hadn’t the Consortium could have used them or, worse case, the Hunger could have.”
“Ok, shoulda seen that one coming. At least it’s sensible,” Tessa said. “And probably something we’ll need to do too.”
“You know where another gate is?” Rip asked.
“We do,” Tessa said. “Or at least something that can be turned into a gate.”
“How does one turn something into a gate?” Vixali asked. She was sitting on a small outcropping from the wall which she somehow managed to make look like a regal throne through nothing more than her posture.
“With this,” Tessa said and drew forth a slime from her inventory.
“You can’t treat me like this!” Kralt said, his teardrop shaped body vibrating with anger.
“They can and have,” Ashad said. He was sitting on a small ledge too, but as a slime didn’t have the same majesty the [Vampire Queen] did, so for him it was just a stone perch.
“You led them to me! This is all your fault!” Kralt said.
“You’d be being eaten by [Hungry Shadows] at the moment if he hadn’t,” Lost Alice said.
“Save your breath,” Tessa said. “He only cares about himself. Which is fine. It makes the rest of this a lot easier.”
“What…what do mean? What are you going to do to me?” Kralt asked. He was the size of a basketball and though he didn’t physically shrink at all, he did seem to grow smaller as his fear finally cracked out through the mantle of his planetary scale ego.
“He’s the key,” Tessa said. “Or he has one. It’s mostly worthless, but I think we can use it at least once.”
“A key requires a lock,” Vixali said, leaning forward with her gaze fixed on Tessa.
Being the subject of keen vampiric interest was unsettling. Tessa wasn’t sure she was human anymore, but whatever she was did not enjoy the idea of being devoured by a [Vampire].
Well, not by that [Vampire] at least.
Receiving that sort of attention from…
Tessa mentally slapped herself. Just because Lost Alice was inches away from her did not mean it was okay to drift off into happy day dreams.
“You showed us the lock in question,” she said, casting her gaze off in the general direction of Vixali’s lair. It was partially in answer to the question but also so she wouldn’t have to try to win a staring contest with someone whose powers probably included a magically mesmerizing gaze.
“We have no gates,” Vixali said.
“The windows?” Qiki asked. She was floating behind Vixali. Tessa couldn’t tell if she could actually levitate or if it was a combination of supremely good body control and superhuman strength. The [Vampiric Castellan] made it look effortlessly graceful in either case.
“Right,” Tessa said. ‘You have portals to other places there.”
“But they’re no more than a visual effect,” Vixali said. “You can’t pass through them.”
“You can if you have a god soul to work with,” Tessa said.
“Uh, aren’t those dangerous?” Matt Painting asked. He and Rip were standing close by to Lost Alice and Tessa. It should have looked like baby birds huddling near the mothers they’d imprinted on, but Tessa more had the sense of the two of them as some kind of honor guard. They’d certainly been ruthless when it came to fighting on her behalf, which in the back of her mind Tessa wondered about. She was endlessly grateful they’d come to help her, but it wasn’t the sort of thing two kids should have had to do, or the sort of thing she should be asking them to ever do again.
Which was why she needed everyone to get through the gate.
“The last god soul was almost too dangerous,” Tessa said. “I’m just praying this one will be dangerous enough.”
They were going to get into a fight. Rose knew this because Rip knew it. Rip was low level still but she had battle experience, both from ones she’d participated in and from the many more she’d heard tales of. In none of them did an enemy who’d been stymied by a small party decide that they’d drop the matter there so everyone could live and let live. The Hunger was going to attack again, and it would do so at the worst time it could find.
“What do you think will happen if we can make it to the surface?” Jamal asked. He’d insisted on staying at her side as long as they (and all the rest of the [Adventurers]) were on guard duty for the caravan of people trying to reach Vixali’s throne room.
“More fighting,” Rip said. “The Consortium’s all over the place down there from what people have been saying.”
“Yeah, but aren’t they all like max level? We can’t even get close to that,” Jamal said.
“Not right away,” Rose said. “Lost Alice was talking about getting some of her guild mates to help level us up though.”
“Aren’t they all busy fighting the Consortium though?” Jamal asked.
“I guess they’ll take some time out for us?” Rose said.
“You don’t think they’ll try to ditch us somewhere ‘safe’, so that we don’t have to do any more fighting?” Jamal asked.
“I hope not,” Rose said. “They haven’t left us behind yet.”
“I know, but, I mean, what if we’re not good enough?” Jamal asked. “I was talking with Battler X and she has five other characters who are all max level. Leveling her up is smart cause she already knows what the high levels are like.”
“That’s why they need us though!” Rose said. “You remember what Pillowcase and Lost Alice were talking about right? How we’re going to develop different abilities than the usual high level ones because we’re actually living this? They need people who don’t know how the game worked so that we won’t limit our thinking to that.”
“You can find the bright side in anything can’t you?” Jamal asked, unable to keep the smile from his voice.
“I turned into an awesome catgirl [Archer], and then into a super lightning archer,” Rose said. “I know this is all ridiculously frightening and horrible, but it’s also deeply cool. You’ve got to admit that.”
“Hey, you were awesome before too,” Jamal said.
“But before I couldn’t hear creatures creeping up on us in the dark,” Rose said, her voice growing distant and wary.
“I’m not even going to question that,” Jamal said. “Where are they and how far?”
“There,” Rose said pointing down a side hallway the caravan of refugees didn’t need to pass down. “About a hundred yards away. They’re on the walls and ceiling too and they’re moving fast.”
“Incoming!” Obby said over the [Alliance] party line the [Adventurers] had put together.
When the [Hungry Shadows] hit, it became clear how much they’d changed from the zombies or the [Formless Hunger] they’d evolved from.
Gone was the disjointed movement and the unfocused meandering. When the [Hungry Shadows] arrived they flew forward guided by a single mind. There was no hesitation or confusion about what they were seeing.
Tentacles burst from the walls and floors, moving with them.
And the dying began.
Thanks to Rip’s perceptiveness, she and Matt Painting were able to start striking back the instant the [Hungry Shadows] turned the corner and came in range. From various other parts of the caravan chatter burst onto the party channel that the [Hungry Shadows] were attacking from all sides.
“We’ve got this side,” Rose called into the chaos while Matt slung spell after spell at the encroaching hoard of [Hungry Shadows].
Behind them the villagers from [Sky’s Edge] were crying out in alarm and huddling back away from the obvious threats.
The obvious threats who were actually being effected by [Lightning Shots] and [Lesser Spectral Wounds].
Rose hadn’t thought about it before. The [Formless Hunger] had been impervious to damage. Even looking at it had nearly fried her brain. These [Hungry Shadows] though? They weren’t going down quickly or easily, but they were dropping as she and Matt blasted damage into them. They were smarter and faster but they’d lost something.
That should have been reassuring, and it would have been, if the Shadows had been dropping quickly enough. For each one that fell though, the rest pushed farther forward.
“They’re going to be on us in about ten seconds,” Rip said. “We can’t hold them back.”
“You don’t have to,” Lost Alice said, stepping in front of them.
“Not alone,” Tessa said, stepping up to stand beside Lost Alice.
In her hands, she held Ashad’s slime body.
“Is this going to work?” Ashad asked.
“I was hoping we wouldn’t have to find out,” Tessa said. “Which one do you want to be?”
“Sizzleblam,” Ashad said. “No, wait, Ironborn, he’s just as geared up and we need a tank here.”
“I don’t know if I can switch you to any of the others later,” Tessa said.
“That’s fine. Do it!” Ashad said.
Rose saw a brief flash of rainbow light surround Tessa before she threw the slime at the far too close [Hungry Shadows].
The slime which was also wrapped in flashing light.
The slime which landed on the ground not as a teardrop blob but a tall man encased in an absurdly over-decorated suit of solid platemail.
“[Provoking Roar],” Ironborn bellowed, unleashing a skill which riveted the attention of the oncoming.
If Tessa couldn’t tank for the group, she’d apparently discovered a suitable alternative; summon a max level tank to handle the job for her.