Tessa was small and fragile and walking into the sort of danger that was going to kill her. More than once. Accepting that was made ever so horribly more difficult by the howl’s she could hear in the distance.
“Those can’t be the [Hounds of Fate] can they?” Rip asked, her knuckles wrapped tight around her bow.
“Anything’s possible, but I don’t think so,” Tessa said.
She was walking ahead of the others, but a pace behind Obby. It wasn’t the best spot for her. In her low level, presumably-human form, she was the squishiest member of the party, rather than its second most durable one. The urge to shield the others was too strong to let her huddle in the center though, and she had the ready made excuse that “if I’m not in danger, I won’t be pushed to manifest any new abilities” to justify her less-than-rational impulses.
“If the Hounds are walking in the living world, then ghost runs might be easier than usual,” Lisa said, putting a hand on Rip’s shoulder.
It was an odd argument, and Tessa’s suspected it was the physical contact more than Lisa’s words that helped Rip relax a tiny bit.
“Are we in much danger though?” Rachel, Lisa’s younger sister who looked exactly like her, and wasn’t that something Tessa was dying to ask about, said. “I’m higher level than you all and we’re got these two with us too.”
She gestured to Glimmerglass and Wrath Raven who were engaged in a side conversation, and off in their own small party.
The high level escort the two offered wasn’t a guarantee of safety, not with the fun new wrinkle of monsters leveling up into new, terrifying, and potentially unbeatable forms. Despite that though, Tessa was glad to have both of them acting as an escort.
In theory Cease All and a full party from Lisa’s guild would be joining up with them later, but Tessa wasn’t counting on that. She couldn’t say why, but in the back of her mind she felt like a drum was beating, the rhythm growing steadily louder and faster as the world fell apart more and more.
The drumbeat was her imagination, Tessa was sure of that, but she wasn’t willing to discount the message it was sending her.
Their time was running out.
“The area we’re going to has a level cap,” Tessa said. “So we’re all going to be in danger. Glimmerglass and Wrath only need to get us there, but even so, if we run into one of the new monster types, or if an old one that starts leveling up, we need to be ready to run.”
“Do we know that things will be any better in the dungeon we’re going to?” Rip asked.
“This is as much an experiment as anything else,” Lisa said. “If the mobs in the dungeon do level up, we need to see how far. If we’re lucky the level cap will hold for them and we’ll be able to keep going. If they can break the level cap of dungeon though? Then we need to get out of there.”
“What are we supposed to do then?” Rachel asked.
“One problem at a time,” Tessa said. “We’ll deal with the looking for somewhere else if we have to. For now we need to stay focused.”
Around them, burned out farmlands stretched into acidic swamps and scattered, everburning funeral pyres. The sky was ash and cinders, threatening a flood of rain to wash the scorched world away, but always holding back, leaving the air dusty and charged with the scent of a battle to come.
“The level cap will constrain how far we can level as well, won’t it?” Starchild asked.
“It will but its high enough that we should be able to gain quite a few levels before we need to leave,” Tessa said.
“How high is it?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Seventy,” Lisa said.
“That’s a lot higher than where we’re at,” Matt said. “Can we fight level 70 mobs?”
“Not easily,” Obby said. “But the early encounters are lower level than that. I think they go as low as 50 don’t they?”
“Fifty two,” Tessa said. “Which is pretty high, I know. But if we take what we’ve learned and pull really carefully, we can do fine, and the xps should be ridiculous until we get up to early 60s. Then it’ll just be really good.”
“I haven’t fought with you before,” Rachel said. “Is that going to be a problem?”
“You’ll be backline support to start,” Lisa said. “Your job will be to keep me and Lady Midnight safe in case anything breaks through the front line. We’ll rotate you into a DPS role once we get a sense for how the fights are going.”
“I haven’t done a lot of partying. I always played solo before,” Rachel said.
“Partying’s easy,” Rip said. “Tessa’s good about calling out directions.”
“Is that what you do?” Rachel asked, turning to Tessa. “You’re the controller?”
“We’re going to find out what it is I do,” Tessa said.
“Without getting you killed,” Lisa said.
“Ideally, yes,” Tessa agreed without making any promises in that direction. She knew the risk she was taking.
She would have been much safer as Pillowcase, but for as wonderful as it was to be a superhumanly resilient ragdoll, what the party needed, what the world needed, wasn’t another tank. Tessa had, as far as she knew, a unique class. There was no guarantee that a [Void Speaker] would be able to fix things but desperate times called for desperate measures and Tessa was hard pressed to think of a more desperate occasion than the end of the world.
“What can you tell us about the dungeon we’re going to?” Starchild asked. “I presume its in the castle on the mountaintop up there?”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ve done this one,” Pete added.
“I’m not surprised,” Tessa said. “[Hells Breach] was considered hard even back when it first launched, and it’s got very little decent loot in it. I don’t think anyone’s ever seriously farmed this one since, uh, never?”
“That sounds about right,” Lisa said. “Cease had us run it a few times after it launched and our repair bills were more than we got out of it even when we did a no death run, so we stopped. I don’t think many other guilds even stuck with it that long.”
“So why are we going there?” Rip asked.
“Because no one else will be there,” Lisa said.
“Penswell was able to transport us to the valley which skipped us past about a week of travel,” Tessa said. “That should mean no one else is in this zone, so if we unleash some unstoppable monsters there’ll be time to work out how to handle them, assuming they go beyond the dungeon borders at all.”
“Also, while the loot in here is terrible, the xps should be fantastic,” Lisa said. “Usually its not worth it because to get here you need to slog through a bunch of long levels with few things in them, so the xp/time ratio goes down. Penswell dropped us right into the sweet spot though so its all high xp mobs every step we take once we get into the dungeon.”
“How are we going to get out once we’re done?” Matt asked.
“If we cap out here, Lost Alice and I will have access to [The Dark Hallway],” Lady Midnight said. “We can use that to teleport back to the graveyards in any of the main cities and from there to pretty much anywhere if they get the teleport network back online.”
Tessa kept quiet while Lady Midnight spoke.
It was certainly true that they’d have access to the standard teleport options if they succeeded in leveling up, but her real plans were a little less than ‘standard’. That was going to need to wait until she discovered what abilities she could develop as a [Void Speaker] though.
“A moment if you have the time?” Glimmerglass asked on a private channel as the castle began to look before them.
“If I don’t have time to listen to myself who could I listen to?” Tessa said.
“Wrath Raven and I have decided that we’ll be entering [Hells Breach] with you,” Glimmerglass said.
“But, no, you’ll be so much weaker in there,” Tessa said, feeling her plans start to crack.
“Weaker yes, but still stronger than the rest of you,” Glimmerglass said. “If we stay out here though, we won’t be able to do you any good at all.”
“Yes you will, you’ll be making sure we have a point we can rally back to!” Tessa said, her calm slipping a bit more than she was comfortable with.
“Except we both know that once you’re past the first floor in there, you won’t really be able to get back out here,” Glimmerglass said. “The path is too long, and there’s at least three [Heartfires] that you’d be passing up to get here. And that’s only on the second floor. If you plan on capping everyone up to level 70, you’ll need to run through all twenty floors.”
“We can do it,” Tessa said. “We’re a lot stronger than the parties back then used to be. And we’ve going Feral Fang’s gear. It’ll grow with us as we go. No one’s going to be walking around in underleveled junk because there’s no loot dropping.”
“That’s all true,” Glimmerglass said. “But it’s also true that Wrath Raven and I are already in gear that’s far superior to what you’ll have at level 70, and before you say it, yes it will be dampened down by being under a level cap, but even still it will be better than what yours will grow to. And that’s not the most important point.”
“Yeah, the most important point is that you’d be there to help us rather than having to sit and wait, I know,” Tessa said.
“Well there’s that, but we were thinking of something else,” Glimmerglass said. “If the monsters are able to break the level cap in there, we have to be nearby. We have to see it.”
“Why? Oh, wait, you’re thinking if you see them break the level cap, you could learn how to do it too!” Tessa said.
“And we would still be higher level than them when they did it,” Glimmerglass said. “If we can break through from 99 to 100 while they’re breaking through from 70 to 71, we can make sure the problem doesn’t get out of hand. We can help you keep going even past that, in case it’s just one monster that’s capable of doing that.”
Tessa thoughts reeled.
[Adventurers] couldn’t break the level cap. There weren’t any abilities setup for them past level 99.
But monsters couldn’t level at all and that wasn’t stopping them any longer.
“Or we can keep going even if all of the monsters can level up past the cap,” Tessa said, turning a dangerous addition to an already reckless plan over in her mind.
“But then you’d be fighting, oh, yes, I see,” Glimmerglass said.
If the monsters levels continued to rise as Tessa and her party fought them, they would climb to 80, 90, and over 100. If Glimmerglass and Wrath Raven could learn how to break through the level cap too, then, maybe, they could teach the trick to everyone else.
[Hells Breach] could become the most dangerou place on the planet and they could emerge from its fires as, what? Maximum level [Adventurers]? Beyond maximum level? Limitless?
Tessa could sense the last possibility wasn’t out of their reach. If everything lined up, they could claim unfathomable power from the dungeon before them.
But she had to make sure that didn’t happen.
“You don’t want limitless power,” a wordless voice offered to her.
And she knew that was true.
If everything lined up, they could grind for more power forever, but power wasn’t what she needed. Not in the end.
Gazing passed the castle’s gates, Tessa took a moment to center her thoughts and hold tight to what had brought her to the threshold before her.
Lisa. Rip and Matt. Her new friends. They were all precious beyond measure.
What had brought her to the beginning of the end of the world though was something smaller, and much closer.
All the fragments of herself.
Of the woman she truly wanted to be.
The tomorrow that she would fill with those she loved, and in which she could love herself.