Convincing Aiemethia and Zibby of what was going on proved to be both easier and less fraught with opportunity for disaster than Tessa’s similar conversation with the players stuck inside the Cathedral had been.
> Aimethia said: “What happens if our computers lose power?”
Rip and Matt joined the small group which had formed around the stables, playful smiles on their face as they mock rough housed to be the first to join the circle. Tessa hadn’t seen either one as unguarded as that before but once the attention of the people who were gathered turned to them, their playfulness fell away into self-conscious silence.
“If you have a power outage or try to force a shutdown, you’ll probably get sucked in here the same as us,” Alice said, tapping the air in front of her as she looked at responses to the requests she sent to the rest of her guild.
“It’s not so bad,” Rip said. “We’re only level 2 but we get to be our characters here, and it’s pretty awesome.”
She and Matt claimed they’d found the defensive positions Tessa had tasked them with looking for and were ready for a real battle, especially now that Tessa had proven the local monsters weren’t all as disturbingly overpowered as the [Wraithwings] had been.
> Aiemethia said: “Knew I should have made an elf like I’d been planning to. Could have lived forever.”
“Do you think we’d get their immortality if we did that?” Matt asked, apparently enough of a student of the game’s lore to have caught the meaning behind the Elven racial trait “[Children of the Undying]”.
“We might be immortal already,” Rip said. “I mean, if we die we can just respawn right?”
Tessa was going to point out the issue with the [Hounds of Fate] and people disappearing forever but she wasn’t sure how to broach the subject right.
Zibby said: “You said you four have already done that? What was it like?”
“Mind blowing,” Tessa said, feeling more comfortable on that point than any involving real mortality. “Your body turns to light and you get called here from what feels like the other side of the universe.”
“The ‘being dead’ part isn’t that a big of a deal though,” Rip said. “It doesn’t hurt or anything and respawning even feels kind of nice.”
Matt nodded in agreement, but refrained from speaking. He was watching Aiemethia and Zibby closely. Tessa could guess what he had noticed. The characters who were controlled by players who were outside of the game looked superficially similar to the other people who were walking around [Sky’s Edge] but their movements were off. Not creepy or alien thankfully, just simplified.
Broken Horizons had a variety of “resting animations” for characters based on body style, class, and a user configurable “demeanor” setting. Where a [Paladin] like Aiemethia might stand straight and tall, looking dignified and commanding by default, a [Mathemagician] like Zibby had an idle animation of playing with numbers and formulae as though she were practicing her spell casting during quiet moments.
Those motions were a nice touch of extra detail work which did a lot to bring a character to life within the limited vision of the world the game provided. Standing with the characters in a richer and more immersive environment though made it quickly apparent how pre-programmed those motions were. Rather than making the characters seem real, they gave them the sense of being well sculpted animatronics, like Tessa was on a very strange theme park ride.
By comparison, Rip and Matt were in almost constant motion, fidgeting while otherwise still, waving their hands when speaking and shifting their position and balance as though they were adjusting their bodies like a set of clothes which was draped over their unfamiliar bones. Even Alice, who was generally preternaturally still due to her vampiric nature, moved in unique ways each time she turned or cast a glance somewhere, rather than with exactly the same motions, over and over.
Zibby said: “It’s nice that the experience wasn’t too bad but I see where staying here for now makes sense.”
Aiemethia said: “It does, but we’re level 7 already so we should be able to help them out somehow shouldn’t we?”
“Maybe you can tell us about the dungeon you found?” Alice said. “What kind of things are in there? How long did it take you? Are there any special requirements to get in? That sort of thing.”
> Aiemethia said: “We can fill you in on that or we could just lead you through it. I mean we made it through once with just the two of us. It should be even easier with six. Or eight. If there’s anyone else around in the area we could make a full party of it.”
“That’s not a great idea,” Alice said. “Full parties will cause dungeons to spawn tougher mobs. And if you’re with us, we’ll either get less experience because it’ll be based on how difficult the monsters are for you, or you’d have to exemplar back down to our level which would put you in the same danger we’d be in.”
“Yeah, I know there used to be a cut over at five party members for when the higher tiers of enemies started to spawn,” Tessa said. “We should be good with four but any more than that and we risk running into Boss class encounters.”
“Some of the new content throws Elite Bosses in at low levels too,” Alice said. “If we see one of those we’re going to have to run for now.”
“Why, are they really tough?” Matt asked.
“They almost always come with some special mechanics to deal with,” Alice said. “The simplest ones are things like ‘create three copies of themselves’, or ‘breath a stream of spiders onto you that you need to stand in lava to wash off’. Fun stuff like that.”
“I’m all for avoiding the spider-lava bosses,” Rip said.
“Fights like that are always doable,” Tessa said, “but Alice is right, we want to have a lot more experience fighting like we are now and as a team before we intentionally tangle with anything that complicated.”
“Sounds to me like you might want to check out the abandoned farm we passed about two miles back then,” Helda Birgen said.
Tessa blinked. She’d forgotten about the family they’d helped rescue despite the fact that they were all sitting in the stables so the family’s cart could be repaired. Helda, the mother, had been watching them, but this was the first time any of the family had ventured to join the conversation.
Tessa tried to form a reply but found her brain stuck in place. She’d slipped into thinking of the family as “NPCs” – non-player characters. Essentially mannequins who would, at the most, act as quest dispensing machines. Granted, Helda’s comment bordered on that, but the trepidation in her voice and the natural pause in the conversation she’d inserted her suggestion into was far beyond what the mindless simulacrums in the game could have managed.
Tessa had accepted the world as real, but accepting that the people were too sent so many of her long held assumptions into disarray that she found she needed a moment to process it all.
“Abandoned farm?” Alice asked, stepping in with a response.
“Yeah. We’ve never stopped there, but it looked prosperous enough last month when we came by,” Helda said. “This time though it looked like it had been destroyed years ago and there were a mess of those [Chaos Centipedes] roaming around it.”
“I think that’s where they caught our trail,” Jurgen Bergin, the father of the family, said. “They didn’t notice us right away but when the wind shifted it must have carried our scent to them because they came running after us in a hurry.”
“Is that how your cart wheel broke?” Tessa asked. “You tried to get away and pushed it too hard?”
“More or less,” Jurgen said, casting his eyes down to inspect the top of his boots.
“Running would have worked, except someone was too busy looking behind to notice the rut in the road before we hit it at full speed,” Helda said.
“I was trying to make sure they wouldn’t catch up,” Jurgen said, folding his arms with a scowl.
“Next time, just listen to me and believe when I tell you I have it covered,” Helda said.
“I’m hoping there won’t be a next time,” Jurgen said. “But if there is, then yes, I will trust you to cover our backs.”
“We can make sure the path’s safe! Right?” Rip asked.
“Maybe,” Alice said.
“Aww, you’re not going to leave us behind are you?” Rip asked.
“No, not that,” Alice said. “You two won’t level up if you’re back here in town. No, what I mean is even if we clear the [Chaos Centipedes] out, they might respawn in a month when the Birgens come through with their next delivery.”
“A month, a week, hell they might respawn in five minutes,” Tessa said. “In fact, it might be good if they did.”
“You want a lair of [Chaos Centipedes] to stay there?” Helda asked.
“Not exactly?” Tessa said. “It’s just that we can grow stronger by fighting them, so if they do respawn quickly, we can focus on killing them until they grow too weak to teach us anything new. If they don’t respawn, we’ll need to hunt far and wide for things we can handle, and it’s easy to stumble on stuff you don’t want to deal with when you’re roaming.”
“That’s true. If those things respawn at anything like a realistic rate, the players on the server will hunt them to extinction,” Alice said. “We might not be able to level up at all if areas can be cleared out permanently.”
“Players? Server?” Jurgen asked.
“We’re not from here,” Tessa said. “What we know of your world, we learned by looking at a copy of it on another world. Players are people like us, adventurers basically, and a server is one of the copies of your world that we’re used to interacting with.”
Tessa expected to be met with questions or disbelief. What she didn’t expect was a shrug and a knowing nod.
“That’s not surprising to hear given that you fight like you do, you’d have to be from another world” Jurgen said.
“Not just how you fight, but where we are too,” Helda added. “We make this our trade route because fewer merchants are willing to. Lots of strange and unusual things come to our world from the [High Beyond].”
“You look surprised,” Jurgen said, glancing at Tessa and Alica. “Honestly, it’s just nice to meet someone from another world who’s friendly for a change. Those [Consortium of Pain] types can be real trouble.”
> Aimethia said: “You’re actually conversing with them, aren’t you?”
“Yep,” Tessa said.
> Aimethia said: “You know, I’d only half believed what you said before, but that? That’s pretty convincing.”
Tessa could see why. It would be possible to fake that kind of interaction, especially if the support team was in on it, but the flow of the conversation had been too unscripted for that scenario to feel likely.
Zibby stood up from where she’d finished healing the [Giant Spotted Gecko]’s injuries. [Mathemagicians] were a support class that had been added after Tessa stopped playing, so Zibby had the [Healing Touch] skill already and was able to put it to good use.
“I guess we will stay here then. If you need us though, you have to promise to call,” she said, sounding far more maternal than Tessa had expected.
Both Aiemethia and Zibby had chosen to style their avatars as older characters, an unusual choice in Tessa’s experience, and their voices seemed to match their appearance. She was willing to hazard a guess that Zibby had practiced those maternal instincts on children and grandchildren in her time and her concern was her true self showing through the mask her avatar presented to the world.
“We will,” Tessa said. “If you’ll promise to be careful too. We don’t really know anything about what’s going on yet, and it could be really important to have someone we can talk to who’s still in…” Tessa paused, she wanted to say ‘the real world’ but with Helda and Jurgen listening in and responding, could she claim the Earth she knew was any more real than the Fallen Kingdoms she was standing in?
“…in our world,” she decided.
A thought dinged into her head and Tessa remembered as she spoke that they’d been looking for someone just like Zibby less than half and hour ago.
Do you want to try giving Zibby your contact info so she can call your girlfriend? Tessa whispered telepathically to Alice.
No. I’ve changed my mind, Alice whispered back.
You want to wait for BT to get back to us, or you don’t want anyone to contact your girlfriend for you? Tessa asked.
I…I had some one from my guild do it, she said, but the hitch in her whisper and the incongruity of her statements left Tessa with the distinct impression that Alice’s claim was far from true.
She wanted to push for more details. Was Alice giving up on her girlfriend? Did she have someone else she was working through? How bad had their fight been?
None of that matters and none of it’s my business, she told herself.
Normally it wasn’t easy to let something like that go, but Tessa had something much more pressing to deal with.
A dungeon was waiting for them, and she needed to be ready for it.