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Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 20

Glimmerglass wiped bone chunks and blood off her staff as she paused to catch her breath.

“I really need to put together a better set of melee gear,” she said accepting Cambrell’s hand to help her stand.

“I have to admit your defense was pretty damn impressive and it’s not that often I’ve seen a [Healing Staff] used to split someone’s head one,” Cambrell said. “Is that why it’s got the pointy bits on the end?”

“No,” Glimmerglass said, casting a minor [Mending] spell to repair the slash which had cut through her sleeve. “Those are supposed to be decorative. A symbol that the [Dawn’s Light Staff] will do no harm.”

“You sure about that?” Cambrell asked. “The sun rays coming out of it seem awfully sharp for a symbol of peace.”

“Sorry you had to use it like that at all,” Damnazon said. “Wasn’t expecting the crew to swarm us. Stupid [Aura of Boiling Vengeance] was on cooldown after the last fight.”

“It’s ok,” Glimmerglass said. “We’re all running low on resources.”

“It’s a hell of a dungeon,” Mellisandra said, gesturing vaguely around at the ruins of the engine room they stood in, as she caught her breath too.

Overhead, four stories worth of equipment and machinery stood with vast rents torn through it. Sparks flew from some of the units. Oils, and acids, and more toxic liquids spurted from other bits of broken wreckage. Completely absent though was the sound of any of the systems still working. 

“Where do we go from here?” Cambrel asked.

“From the schematics we found, it seems like the bridge is as heavily defended as the engine room was,” Damnazon said.

“Got any more of those potions?” Cambrell asked the assembled group, glancing over to the group of adventurers who’d first picked him up.

“We don’t need more potions,” Glimmerglass said.

“I took a bolt of energy straight through my right lung,” Cambrell said. “And that was with your shield in place to diminish it. I’d really like to have another bandolier of healing magic before we try to repeat our last go at these guys.”

“I mean we shouldn’t need much more healing. Niminay said to treat this like a dungeon,” Glimmerglass said. “Unless anyone objects, I say we do that and pull back. We’re too far down on our resources to move forward and we’ve gathered a lot of information on how their defenses work.”

“If we pull back, we’ll be giving them a chance to arrange a much worse reception for us the next time we return,” Mellisandra said.

“We haven’t gotten any good loot yet either,” Damnazon said.

“Yeah, but we haven’t died yet either,” Cambrell said.

“The lack of loot is pretty typical,” Glimmerglass said. “I mean we collected the weapons and armor from the fallen, and sure, it’s subpar compared to what we already have but there’s plenty of lower level adventurers we can give it to.”

“Trash mobs dropping trash loot,” Mellisandra said. “That does sound like a typical dungeon.”

“Should we try to find out if the [Captain’s] the equivalent of a raid boss?” Damnazon asked.

“Seems like it’d be a safe bet they are,” Cambrell said.

“Safe bet they’ll kick our butts too,” Mellisandra said. “I mean look at the trouble we had with the cleaning staff we ran into.”

“Janitors really should not be packing guns that can melt through reinforced bulkheads,” Cambrell said. “That’s just unreasonable in general and particularly on a ship where breeching the walls is a really bad idea!”

Mellisandra had explained to the group the dangers they were likely to face if the ship suffered a hull breech. She’d also covered which of their magics would be able to counteract the effects of exposure to the vacuum of space the best. The apparent eagerness with which the crew had seemed determined to cause such a breech had been an unpleasant surprise they’d had to work around in every fight they’d been in since they left the [Field Carrier’s] [Portal Room].

“That’s why we need to get back,” Glimmerglass said. “If we’re going to raid this place properly we need the right supplies and we need to let everyone know what we’ve discovered.”

“She’s got a good point,” Mellisandra said. “This is the first time I was the first one in a raid in, well, ever.”

“Yeah, me too,” Damnazon said. “We always went in with a pretty good preview of what the strategy should be.”

“I…wasn’t much for raiding,” Cambrell said.

“That’s right, you’re an NPC aren’t you?” Damnazon asked.

“I’m an [Assassin]. There’s not much reason for me to be crawling down into a dungeon,” Cambrell said.

“Until now,” Glimmerglass said. “Like Niminay said, at this point we all need to act like heroes, and sometimes being a hero means making it back with the information people need so that the others can make it back too.”

“It’s a shame the shared inventory spaces are blocked by the [Consortium Fleet’s] disruptors,” Damnazon said. “It’d be a lot easier to restock here if we had someone back home filling our packs for us.”

“I’d settle for the comm channels being accessible,” Cambrell said. “Glimmer’s right about needing to get info back to our homebase. Even if we have to go back in person I’d feel a lot better if we could pass on what we know as soon as possible.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Mellisandra said. “I’ve got that angle covered.”

***

Brendan was missing classes but he didn’t care. His live stream was getting more views than he’d ever had before. But he didn’t care about that either.

The FBI agents in his house though? That he cared about.

“How is your character speaking like that?” Agent Jackson asked, watching the dialog between Mellisandra and the characters on the screen scroll past on its own.

“I told you. She’s alive. She’s real,” Brendan said. “You can talk to her if you want. If they get into a fight though, I’ve got to help her out.”

“He’s right Agent Jackson,” Mellisandra said, speaking in a whisper, on a private channel to herself. “The things we’re fighting in here are too tough for me to do alone.”

“How does she know my name?” Agent Jackson asked.

“Because she can hear what I’m saying? What we’re saying.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Mellisandra replied and waved, though not towards the screen, since Brendan had the camera positioned behind her to approximate her field of view.

“Who are you waving at?” Glimmerglass asked, her question rolling up as the next line of text on the screen.

“We’re not as along as you might think,” Mellisandra said.

“This so far above my pay grade,” Jackson said.

“I think it’s above everybody’s pay grade sir,” Brendan said. “I mean, this shouldn’t be possible but you’ve seen the other streams right? I mean we’ve got footage of someone literally vanishing into thin air the second their character died. And then appearing in the game like ten seconds later.”

“Yeah, as a ghost. That’s….”

“Science fiction? Something out of the Twilight Zone?” Brendan suggested.

“Not within our usual jurisdiction,” Agent Turner said. 

Brendan had been terrified when the two FBI agents showed up at his door. Letting them in hadn’t seemed like an actual choice under the circumstances between their badges, their (still holstered) guns, and the fact that Agent Jackson had at least six inched of height and eighty pounds of muscle on Brendan.

By that measure Agent Turner should have been the more comforting of the two. She had a calm, gentle voice and was smaller and lighter than Brendan. It took him all of two minutes to work out that he’d slotted them two of them into the wrong mental categories.

Turner was calm because she knew she could destroy him, legally, physically, emotionally, and probably spiritually, and was rather clinically deciding if any of those were warranted or not. Jackson was her junior and was as blown away by the current events as Brendan was.

“Why  did you get called in?” Brendan asked. By which he meant ‘why are you here, in my house’, but that exact question seemed unwise to ask.

“When people start disappearing, and it extends across state lines, it falls on us to look into it,” Jackson said.

“This is international though,” Brendan said.

“Still our job to sort it out,” Turner said. “At least the part that pertains to US citizens.”

“Brendan, how’s the information transfer going. Have the people connected with the ones back at the Observatory seen what we had to fight through so far?” The text from Mellisandra scrolled up as a whisper to herself.

“Yeah Melli. The live stream had a lot of people tune in. Some of the top end players who weren’t logged in are going over the different streams and coming up with recommendations for things to look out for, or try next time.” Brendan spoke into the microphone on his desk and said a silent ‘thank you’ that Agent Turner had been willing to let him leave it on.

He suspected it wasn’t entirely altruistic. Anything he said almost certainly would be used against him in a court of law if he ever wound up there, but under the circumstances he was willing to risk it. Whatever their connection was, even if they were nothing more than strangers who’d been bumped together by fate or a random number generator, Mellisandra was facing a life and death struggle, and Brendan couldn’t imagine letting her face it alone.

“Good,” Mellisandra said. “We’re getting out of here. If they can have some tactics worked up and a restocking package put together, we can head right back as soon as we’ve recovered and resupplied.”

“You’re going to raid the ship again?” Brendan asked, his quiet joy at the thought of Mellisandra escaping to safety evaporating under the promise of a return to the Field Carrier / raid dungeon.

“It’s not the most fun plan I’ve ever been a part of, but Niminay is right. We treat this like a raid until we’ve beaten them back, and that means we keep hammering at them, trying new strategies and upgrading our gear with each run until they break and run, or we reach the end boss and cut their head off.”

“That’s got to be worth at least a conspiracy charge,” Jackson said. “Or it would be if this wasn’t a video game.”

“You know, technically, I think the State Department should be the one handling this,” Turner said.

“Really?” Jackson asked, a brief flicker of relief crossing his face.

“No. Or maybe. I don’t know,” Turner said. “We haven’t exactly recognized these Fallen Whatever places as foreign nations. For all I know it’s the Post Office that’s got jurisdiction here.”

“You’re going to make me call this one in, aren’t you?” Jackson asked.

“You did forget to pick up coffee this morning,” Turner said.

“I bet the team at Egress is having a real fun time too,” Jackson said.

“There’s an FBI team at the game’s headquarters?” Brendan asked. “What are they going to do there?”

“Investigating,” Turner said, clearly not willing to discuss official business with someone who wasn’t part of her chain of command.

***

The IT staff at Egress had the door to the server room barricaded like a scene out of Les Miserable by the time the FBI team arrived. Hailey was impressed. It was probably the fastest they’d responded to any issue in the entire team she’d been a part of the Egress Entertainment team.

“This really isn’t necessary,” Agent Limner said, rolling his eyes at the collection of office furniture which was stacked on the far side of the server room’s door. “If we want to, we could simply cut your cable outside the building.”

“Good luck with that,” Hailey said. “The fiber connections are all buried. You’d need a backhoe to get at them. And the IT guys said they were hooking up a backup wireless connection.”

The first part of what she said was true as far as Hailey knew, although if she’d been forced to tell the complete truth she would have been compelled to add that the cables were all accessible from a substation about a quarter mile away and could be easily disconnected from there. 

The bit about the wireless backup was a complete fiction in terms of feasibility. There was no wireless network in the area that could have supported the bandwidth needs to run an MMO server farm. That the servers were located within Egress’s headquarters was only a partial truth as well. Only a few of the shards were still hosted locally, and those were mostly used for testing purposes. 

Dropping them would pull in close to a thousand players, but the majority were connected to data centers around the world, a fact which Agent Limner seemed more or less incapable of comprehending.

Fortunately he had bought the line about “calling for expert assistance in cybernetics” to evaluate the situation. That had given Hailey some hope, but she knew things could still go horribly awry if even one person with too much authority got the wrong idea stuck in their head.

The only hope of preventing that she could see was for the right people to speak up and speak up loudly enough to be heard. However tempting it might have been, checking out was simply not an option any longer.

***

Tessa found herself laying on the floor of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] staring up in to the face of a vampire.

“Huh, red eyes can be pretty,” she said before the haze of unconsciousness passed and she saw who she was speaking too.

“Thanks,” Lisa said. “You feeling any better now?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Tessa said, pushing herself up to a sitting position. “What happened?”

“You blacked out,” Lisa said. “Just as we got here. You said something about ‘she needs me’ and then you kind of faceplanted into the ground.”

“Huh. That’s weird.”

“Yeah, what’s weirder is that you were talking in your sleep. Were you in the Navy in real life?”

“No? Why?”

“Cause it sounded like you were assaulting some kind of ship.”

“Why would I do that?” Tessa asked.

“It sounded like Niminay told you to.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 13

When you can’t go back, and you can’t stay where you are, you’ve got to go forward. Pillowcase hated that.

“We’re being herded,” Tessa said, as she retreated away from the scuttling monsters who were still out of sight. She had her shield raised, her mace drawn and no doubt her mind thanks to Pillowcase’s tactical analysis that the monsters generating the red glow could catch them whenever they wanted.

“Towards the level boss?” Lisa asked. She was watching the direction they were moving, since retreating into unknown territory was guaranteed to result in encountering something you weren’t expecting.

“That or a better kill zone,” Tessa said.

“So, we’re in mapping mode then,” Lisa said. “Great. I hate mapping dungeons.”

[Broken Horizons] had changed over the years. Modern dungeons were designed with the entertainment of the players in mind. Venturing into one was meant to take fifteen minutes to an hour to complete. Paths were clearly laid out, puzzles relatively simple to deduce, and a premium placed on never putting the players in a position where they were lost and uncertain what to do next.

That hadn’t been true of the original dungeons though.

The original dungeons hadn’t been focused on entertainment. They’d been been designed as sieves, brutal tests meant to separate the “elite” from the less worthy masses of “noobs”.

When Tessa had joined, [Broken Horizons] had been three years old and just beginning to grow beyond its original adolescent mentality. The developers had learned the hard lesson that their tests were costing them a sizable portion of their playerbase. They’d moved in to more accessible designs but they’d left the old dungeons in the game for those who enjoyed that sort of challenge. There was enough desirable loot in the old dungeons that Tessa had wound up running them each many times before venturing on to newer, and more lucrative, content. She hadn’t anticipated ever being in a similar environment again, but the “real” [Fallen Kingdoms] she found herself in didn’t seem as interested in being a themepark for her enjoyment.

“I remember mapping a whole lot better than I wish I did,” she said, thankful in one sense that, though she’d loathed doing it, she could remember each of the dungeons she’d “mapped” back when that was a requirement to progress at all.

Part of the dealing with the largest dungeons of the old game – misery dungeons as her old guild had called them – was knowing what awaited you. Some of that knowledge was easy to acquire. There were wiki’s and forums which spilled the difficult secrets – thereby largely invalidating the developers “tests” – but there were elements of familiarity which couldn’t be gained by reading web pages. The foremost of which was unlocking the in-game maps for the dungeons.

With teleportation and secret door detection as a critical aspect of navigating the original dungeons, characters who had explored areas of the dungeon were at a significant advantage to ones who were groping around blindly for the first time. 

A group of newbies in a dungeon would not only be forced to travel through it via the longest possible path, missing out on opportunities to skip forward to later areas via unlocked teleportation circles, they would also be unable to even access some of the most lucrative areas until they’d managed to discover the hidden paths which lead to them (which was generally accomplished by walking back and forth in an area until the game decided the character had “noticed an irregularity” and would chose to display the secret door or concealed tunnel so that the player could click on them and proceed forward.

“Mapping runs” were one of the methods lower tier guilds like Tessa’s had used to unlock those telepoint and discover the secret areas since they lacked the offensive might to simply carve a path through dungeon within the allowed time limits (since many of the early dungeons also had time limits for the maximum duration you can spend within one on any given run).

Instead they’d been forced to race through the dungeons, time and again, with monsters hot on their heels, trying to reach new areas or discover new paths before they were inevitably torn to shred. As the party’s healer, Glimmerglass had been one of the last to fall usually, though that only meant that time she drowned in monsters she’d watched as other party members fell and she was helpless to save them.

Tessa had all of the early dungeons fully detailed in no small part because she’d been willing to die hundreds of times with Glimmerglass to reach the odd corners and discover the hidden doors that held each dungeons most useful secrets. In retrospect it seemed like a questionable method of “having fun” but at the time it had seemed completely worth it.

Tessa felt like she might need to show a similar commitment with the dungeon she was in, except that dying a hundred times to map it wasn’t going to be an option. Not with the [Hounds of Fate] in play.

“We’ve passed a lot of branching corridors,” Tessa said. “We might be able to use one of those to break through and get back to the entrance.”

“It’s a plan,” Lisa said. She didn’t have to add that it wasn’t a good plan. Tessa was well aware of that. “We should see as much as we can before we branch off though.”

“That’ll make it harder to get back to a [Heart Fire],” Tessa said. As ghosts they could move fast enough to cover in a few seconds the ground they’d crept down over the course of a few minutes. Tessa wasn’t worried about the distance so much as the presence of the [Hounds of Fate]. 

On the one hand, in [Broken Horizons], the hounds didn’t appear within dungeons. Since the walls constrained the ghosts the same as they did the player’s bodies, the devs didn’t need to implement a system to handle players wandering off course. On the other hand, Tessa knew she wasn’t in the game version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] and if the hounds were here, it was going to be next to impossible to avoid them.

“There wasn’t a [Heart Fire] at the entrance,” Lisa said. “This place might be incomplete, but there should still be one here somewhere. They’re usually one of the first things put in.”

“You’ve seen the early dungeon designs?” Tessa asked.

“The devs have thrown  some of them up on the test servers for special pre-order sneak peeks,” Lisa said. 

“Did they offer anything like that for this one?” Tessa asked, thinking that even if Lisa wasn’t familiar with it, they might be able to reach out to someone in her guild who was or who could look up information on it.”

“Nope,” Lisa said. “I shot a message over to Cease All, but she hadn’t heard about the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] either.”

“So either this is all new and unique to this version of the [Fallen Kingdoms], or its based on something the devs weren’t planning to release with the launch at all?” Tessa asked.

“Pretty much,” Lisa said. “It does look like their design though. I mean these hallways and junctions? They don’t seem to serve a natural purpose. They look like the other dungeons were it’s all about channeling the players to interesting fights. So the there should be a [Heart Fire] hear. It would probably be the first quest objective if this was a finished location.”

“We could break and look for it now?” Tessa offered.

“They’re going to chase us and catch us if we do that,” Lisa said, sounding strangely certain.

Almost as though it was Lost Alice who was speaking from experience. 

But Lisa didn’t have a second persona to draw on. She hadn’t made up a backstory for Lost Alice.

Unless a backstory wasn’t what had created Pillowcase?

“That’ll happen no matter what at this point,” Tessa said. “If we run now, we can at least avoid fighting them where they want to fight us. Best case we can take them by surprise.”

“We won’t surprise them,” Lisa said. “They’re predators. They know how to handle prey that tries to flee, and prey that tries to fight back.”

“Do you know what these things are?” Tessa asked.

“No.” Lisa shook her head. “Or yes. I think I do. I just don’t know how. The red light, and the skittering. I’ve seen that before. I’ve heard it. Except I know I haven’t?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tessa said. “It’s probably like your spellcasting, just something this world gave you.”

It sounded reasonable to Tessa’s ears as she spoke, but a deeper part of her guessed that Lisa’s knowledge of dungeon dwellers came from somewhere, or perhaps someone, else.

“I think they’re [Lava Drinkers],” Lisa said. “They’re a kind of parasite if I’m right. Made out of obsidian and filled with lava. So, easy to break, but doing so is a bad idea.”

“Good to know,” Tessa said, contemplating if the mace in her hand was at all the weapon she wanted to be wielding. “At the next passage, we’ll break and try to find another turn to take us back towards the entrance room. If there’s a [Heart Fire] it shouldn’t be to far from where we came in.”

“Pick a path and I’ll follow you,” Lisa said. “And if this doesn’t work out, stick with me ok? We’ll make it back together more easily than if split up and try to find it alone.”

Tessa knew that wasn’t strictly true, but she had no interest in being alone, as a vulnerable ghost, in what could easily be described as Hell.

The next side passage wasn’t far, but before they reached it, they found more bodies. The burns on them were worse that the first batch, as though whatever had slain them had grown hotter and stronger with each kill. 

Tessa didn’t take time to examine them, though Pillowcase was certain she could determine a fair amount about their attacker if she’d been able to make a careful inspection of the corpses. 

“Ok, run!” Tessa said as she turned and dashed down the corridor to her left.

She couldn’t resist looking back to make sure Lost Alice was following her but that also meant she got to see just how close the [Lava Drinkers] were too.

The obsidian armored things were roughly similar to beetles. If a beetle was the size of a small pony and bled bright, glowing rivulets of orange lava from the seems on its body.

They’d both been right.

Lisa had correctly identified their pursuers and Pillowcase had been been correct in saying they couldn’t be outrun.

What Tessa did managed to do though, was clear the next corner and pull Lost Alice around behind her before the wave of [Lava Drinkers] crashed into them.

At first she expected to be obliterated, like she had been at the farmhouse, but the [Lava Drinkers] tearing mandibles weren’t able to strike past her shield with enough force to penetrate her armor. Or At least not often enough that Lost Alice wasn’t able to keep up with repairing the damage.

Pillowcase swung her mace, shattering the nearest [Lava Drinker’s] armored shell. A jet of molten rock splashed towards Pillowcase but she side stepped it, suffering burns only on her upper arms and chest.

Another swing burst the [Lava Drinker] like a balloon, but Pillowcase had been wise enough to ensure the blow send the create stumbling backwards, which left it to spewing lava on several of its fellows.

Another patrol showed up a few seconds later, after Tessa and the [Lava Drinkers] behind them had exchanged substantial helpings of pain.

“We’re boxed in,” Lisa said.

Of course they were. That had been the [Lava Drinkers] plan all along. Surround and conquer. 

Another group appeared behind the first, as [Lava Drinkers] from all over began to converge on their position.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 12

Tessa wasn’t a broken mess. Or at least Pillowcase’s body wasn’t. The jury was still out on the rest of her.

“I wonder if they forgot to stock this area with mobs?” she asked herself as she crept down a long corridor which seemed to have carved from the bones of some incredibly vast creature.

Her fall from the demon’s lair in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] to the Sunless Deeps had plunged her through a lake of lava and onto an obsidian landing disk which, somehow, hadn’t shattered under the impact. That Pillowcase’s body was also undamaged, Tessa took as a sign that the “fall” was really more of a visual effect than a literal descendant from the floating land of the [High Beyond].

The obsidian disk she arrived on was the only spot of black on the whole subterranean area. Above her head, a swirling vortex of red light leaked down. For all that the droplets of light looked like bits of molten lava dripping from the lake above, Tessa saw the familiar shimmering quality sparkling within them to indicate the presence of an active portal effect.

She could return to the demon’s lair, potentially even without dying.

So that was a good thing.

What would be a better thing, she decided was to complete the mission she’d idiotically jumped into all alone.

Was that you? she asked, trying to distance herself from what she knew was her own foolish impulses.

Yes, Pillowcase replied.

Because, of course, Pillowcase was her.

 I get it, she said and shook her head.

She was delaying because she knew what a phenomenally bad idea exploring on her own was. Even if she’d been a [Rogue] or a [Shadow Dancer] with actual stealth skills, exploring a brand new dungeon was likely to be a death sentence. 

I don’t really want to die. 

On the one hand, admitting that to herself was comforting. The actions she’d been taking over the last several hours had left the matter somewhat in doubt. On the other hand, the honest admission had served to dispel the thick layer of denial she’d been working to build up. 

They’d been lucky with the [Hounds of Fate] so far, but even beyond that there was the issue she’d been refusing to consider deeply.

I died getting here? Didn’t I?

Melting into a shower of light? Streaking across the universe faster than light could follow? Arriving in a new dimension, or plain of existence, or whatever, where the rules of reality worked completely differently, and where she was someone else, or even something else? How was that not an afterlife?

We still hurt, and bleed, Pillowcase said. And love, and grow. We’re more now than we were before, both these two sides of us, and our team. Isn’t that living?

Tessa paused as she continued down one of the hallways which lead out of the arrival chamber.

It is, she said. So what was it I was doing before?

Empty days grinding away on tasks which didn’t matter, for people whose understanding of her began and ended with her employee ID number? Empty nights with no one to come home to because she’d been a terrible girlfriend? 

Was that a life?

“Find anything yet?” Lisa asked over their private channel.

“No sign of mobs here yet, but I’m moving slowly and carefully,” Tessa said. “I’ve got a straight shot back to the entrance if something shows up.”

“Good,” Lisa said. “What’s the landing site like?”

“It’s fun,” Tessa said. “There’s a short period of darkness while you pass through the lava lake and the landing is so fast you’d like it would break every bone in your body, but transport system cancels out all the damage. I think it was down for a while though. There’s big empty pools in the chamber where the lava light was starting to gather. I think it drained away after the demons shot down the portal, but it’s flowing again now that I broke the barrier they had in place.”

“Ok, first, Lava Lake? Second, the lava is flowing into room you’re in?” Lisa sounded less upset than Tessa had guessed she would be. There was also the faint sound of air gusting behind her.

“The lava’s not in this area. You kind of phase though it,” Tessa said. “What’s falling into the room is more like lava-inspired liquid light.”

“Oh, well that’s good,” Lisa said, her voice colored by an odd element of hurried relief.

“Where are you now?” Tessa asked, a suspicion growing in the back of her mind.

“I just landed,” Lisa said.

“Wait, you’re here too? Why? That’s not safe!”

“Oh good, you’re aware that its dangerous down here. Just apparently not aware enough to keep you from jumping in without any of the rest of us!”

The anger Tessa had been expecting to hear came flooding back into Lisa’s voice. If they hadn’t been speaking telepathicallly, Tessa was certain Lisa would have been yelling loudly enough to bring the whole dungeon down on them.

Except Lisa wouldn’t do that.

She was too experienced and too collected to make a rookie mistake like that.

“I’m supposed to keep you safe,” Tessa said. 

“Yeah and can’t do that if you die for real!” Lisa’s anger wasn’t diminishing.

“Better me than any of you,” Tessa said.

“What?”

“It’s my job, isn’t it? The Tank’s gotta take the hits so other people don’t.”

“Come back to the entry. We’re leaving.”

“I can’t,” Tessa said. “We need Yawlorna and her crew on our side and this is the only thing I can think of that’ll convince them to work with us.”

“Congratulations then. You succeeded. They’re working with us now,” Lisa said. “So get back here, or I’m going to drag you back.”

“What do you mean ‘they’re working with us’?”, Tessa asked.

“There’s an attack on [Sky’s Edge],” Lisa said. “They’re going along with our team to check it out and evacuate the people there.”

“What? Why did you call me?”

“Because I knew you would put up a fight,” Lisa said. “I’m heading towards you now.”

“I’m not putting up a fight,” Tessa said. “But there’s another reason we have to make this work.”

“Farming for experience?” Lisa asked.

“No! This could be our way home too!” Tessa said. “Yawlorna said their ship could travel to other worlds. If it can travel to here from their home world, it might be our best shot at traveling back to Earth too.”

“That’s…”

Tessa saw Lost Alice pause as she rounded the corner.

“She did say that, didn’t she?” Lisa asked, her anger cooling as she laid eyes on Pillowcase.

“Yeah, I mean it’s still a long shot, but if it works it could fix everything,” Tessa said. “All the people who really can’t afford to be trapped here? It’s only been about half a day so far of Earth time. If Yawlorna’s ship can get people back then there have to be other ships that could do the same. If the stars aligned, we could get everyone back before any real tragedies happen.”

Lost Alice breathed in and released her breath in a long sigh.

“It was still stupid coming here alone.”

“I know,” Tessa said. “I’m sorry. I saw what needed to happen and I didn’t think what it would mean you and Rip and Matt.”

Lost Alice turned away and wiped her arm across her eyes.

“They’re on the mission to [Sky’s Edge],” she said.

“Rip and Matt? Wait, are they going to get there before the attack arrives?”

“I don’t think so,” Lisa said. “They’re with Obby and Lady Midnight, and they’re supposed to be careful, but you’ve seen Rip.”

“Oh god. She’s totally going to fight them. Maybe we should go back?”

“I wanted to,” Lisa said. “Letting them go seemed insane, but keeping them back would have been so much worse.”

Tessa tried to workout how that could be true. Subjecting the kids to monster attacks was one thing. There was nothing “human” about the monsters they fought, and the only people getting hurt were the ones on their team, who were fine as soon as they reached a [Heart Fire]. Seeing other people die though? People who might not be capable of coming back? And killing people who couldn’t respawn? That was a very different thing.

But Rip would know that. And Matt would too.

“She would have gone anyway,” Tessa said, understanding flowing through her as memories of being fourteen echoed in her mind.

“And she would have felt so betrayed that I didn’t trust her,” Lisa said. “I hate either of them being out there, this is more than any of us were built for dealing with, and they’ve been handling it as well as anyone we’ve met.”

“And better than most,” Tessa said.

“Better than me at least,” Lisa said.

Tessa didn’t bother to try hidden her surprise.

“You weren’t wrong. We do need this to convince Yawlorna’s people,” Lisa said. “And maybe to get home.”

That wasn’t what Lisa had meant, but Tessa could see her healer wasn’t interested in digging into things in that moment.

“This is only meant to be a scouting mission,” Tessa said. “All we need to do is get a sense of what the layout is like down here and what kind of enemies we might be facing. Once we’ve got that, no one will blame us for running back and joining the others.”

“We’re not splitting up,” Lisa said. “And no dying for me. We both get out of here. Okay?”

“I like that plan,” Tessa said, and began moving forward again.

Creeping about in armor wasn’t impossible, but it wasn’t exceptionally easy either. The illumination in the halls of bone seemed to come from everywhere so shadows to hide in were essentially nonexistent. Pillowcase’s leather boots didn’t clatter against the bone floor but the long curving hallways didn’t present many corners to creep up to and peer around, even at the few intersections they passed, where the corridor simply widened out into gently curving walls.

“Times like these make me wish turning into a bat was a racial power I could pick,” Lisa said.

“Times like these make me wish I’d logged in with my [Rogue],” Tessa said. “She was only in the mid 50’s but she’d unlocked the full stealth line of skills.”

“I’ve got one of those too,” Lisa said. “I only made it to 62 with her, and that was mostly because Cease All forced me to party with her when she needed to farm the [Drowned Grotto] for [Star Shells].”

“Oh god I hated that quest!” Tessa said. “That place was just littered with…”

She paused as they came to another, sharper intersection. 

An intersection which wasn’t empty.

“With death bodies,” Lisa said, her attention captured by the pile of corpses the same as Tessa’s had been.

“Zombies?” Tessa asked.

“I hope so,” Lisa said.

“Yeah. Zombies we can deal with.”

Tessa crept forward, mace and shield at the ready for the moment when the corpses lurched to life and decided to eat them. It wasn’t what corpses were supposed to do, but nine times out of ten you could count on them to try for a “surprise” attack.

Then there was the other possibility.

The corpses lay where they were.

The blood around them was long dried out.

The rotting fingers of decay had ravaged the creatures which had once been humanoid, though clearly not human. 

“They died without fighting,” Lisa said, pointing to the weapons they held which were still sheathed.

“They burned,” Tessa said, noting the ashed remains of clothes and the charring on what flesh remained.

“We are not ready to face something that can do this,” Lisa said.

“Probably not,” Tessa said. She turned back to the direction they’d come and saw red light pulsing around the long bend of the corridor.

“Something got behind us,” Lisa said, as Lost Alice gripped her staff tighter.

Tessa heard the sound of skittering legs on the bone floor. And the bone walls. And the bone ceiling.

They’d lost the way back.