There was a monster and monsters needed to die. Tessa knew both of those statements were true. What concerned her was whether she was the monster in question.
“Rip, Matt, keep yours eyes peeled,” she said.
“What should we look for?” Rip asked. She’d already been focusing on their surroundings, her bow at the ready. Being killed had put an edge on everyone, so they were all more aware than they’d been on their first trip out of [Sky’s Edge], but Rip was taking her job as the team’s lookout seriously.
“Check for wandering monsters. They’re supposed to be pretty weak, but that was true when the areas were all segregated into level appropriate encounters. With what we’ve seen so far, assume anything we run into out here will vary from stronger than us to stronger than a demigod,” Tessa said. “The more warning we get of the things we run across, the more time we’ll have to evaluate where they fall on that spectrum.”
“Look for good fighting spots too, like you did in town,” Alice said. “If we do run into something a lot stronger than we are, we might still be able to beat it if we can fallback and stay out of its range.”
“Call out the places you see, and how you’d get to them,” Tessa said.
“And what could make you abandon them,” Alice said.
Thanks, Tessa said privately to Alice. Can you chat while we walk?
Sure, what don’t you want them to hear though? Alice asked.
I just wanted to check in on how your doing? Tessa asked.
Dying sucked, but it wasn’t your fault, Alice said. You’re doing fine for a lowbie tank.
Thanks, but I was wondering more about how you’re doing with the fighting, Tessa asked. We knew fighting like this was going to be different than anything we knew back on Earth. It kind of can’t help but change us.
And you’re worried that I’m going to crack? Alice asked.
Tessa felt words of denial rush to her inner voice. ‘No, you’re fine’, ‘I just wanted to make sure’, ‘I’m sorry’. Her life had shown her that you couldn’t push people too far, or make things too uncomfortable for them. If you did, they would leave you.
That wasn’t what life had taught Pillowcase though. The Clothwork Artifax had learned that; following the rules those in authority imposed on you, got you used up and discarded. Staying silent was a tool of oppression you wielded against yourself.
Tessa didn’t think she’d lived Pillowcase’s made-up life, but the echo of those memories were there. They didn’t give her courage, but the perspective they provided was enough to push Tessa past her natural reserve to express the concern which was eating away at her.
You said we’re going to ‘murder the Lasher properly’. I’m not saying I disagree, I’m saying it worries me that I’m fine with that idea.
There was a longer moment of silence than Tessa had been expected.
“That one would offer some cover,” Rip said, pointing a gnarled and withered tree which stood alone about twenty feet off the road.
“Real easy for something like that Lasher to charge up on you though,” Matt said. “We’d be better off getting up on those bounders.
The rocks by the side of the road where rough and irregular. The one Matt pointed out was about ten feet high and sloped strongly enough that ascending it was more a matter of climbing than walking or running.
I don’t know about that, Alice said, privately, though for a moment Tessa wondered if she was talking about the boulder. I mean, I don’t know if I am cracking, but maybe I am? I hadn’t noticed the bloodlust. It was just kind of there after we lost.
You said you didn’t have a backstory laid out for Alice, Tessa said, searching for where Alice’s bloodlust could have originated and landing on ‘she’s a vampire’ as a reasonable first guess. Could she have one that you don’t know about?
Again silence as they walked on. The party wasn’t making bad time getting back to the farm house, despite the shared concern over what they would find when they got there.
“So we need to make sure the Lasher doesn’t eat any of the centipedes this time, right?” Matt asked.
“That seems to be what triggered its explosive move last time,” Tessa said. “But the explosion might be something it does once it’s wounded enough, so it’s possible it’s unpreventable and we need to do something else to avoid being caught in it. Unless we run into someone else who’s already fought a [Chaos Lasher] we’re stuck figuring out its abilities on our own.”
I don’t think so, Alice said, again forcing Tessa to context switch. I don’t think Alice is her own person, with her own history. I think it’s just me. I said I was worried about what killing people would do to us but maybe I was just worried about what it would do to other people. I’ve had too many people say they wanted to kill me in the real world. In a place like this where there’s nothing to hold them back? I can only imagine what the players are going to descend to.
You’re thinking we’re going to go all Lord of Flies? Tess asked.
Or worse, Alice said.
Want to call this off? Tessa asked, despite the growling hunger in her hands for both revenge and an aching desire to prove herself.
Yes, Alice said, I want to call this all off, I want to go home, I want to run away from all of this and I want be back with Kelly.
Were your friends able to reach her? Tessa asked, remembering the claim Alice had made that her guildmates were taking care of contacting the girlfriend Alice had left behind.
What? Alice said and then recovered quickly. Oh, I haven’t heard from them. So. No.
“Hey Rip, Matt, hold up a second,” Tessa said, pulling off her pack to cover the delay.
Backpacks in the Fallen Kingdoms were almost universally magical. Every adventurer got a [Storage Pack] which took up a small area on their character model, usually around the size of a belt pouch unless the character was wearing a purely cosmetic outfit of some kind. Despite their size [Storage Pack]s could hold hundreds of pounds of gear and handled organizing their contents without input from the player.
We can tell them we’re changing the plan, Tessa said. Head for some other monsters to fight or even go back to town.
Alice sent a weary sigh over their private channel.
I wish we could. She caught Tessa’s gaze with a glance. I think we need to do this though. That Lasher is tough but in a few levels it’ll be trivial. Now’s the right time to learn to deal with harder foes. We need it as a team, and we need to get stronger if we’re going to survive the people I was worried about.
Ok, Tessa said. I’m onboard with that, but I don’t want any of us losing ourselves to this. We’re going to get home. We don’t want to be unrecognizable when we get back there.
As she said those words though, Tessa felt the lie inside them.
What did she have to go back to? Why did she want to stay like she was? Did she really like who she was that much? Did she really like who she was at all?
A cold certainty that those were questions for another time and a safer place settled over her.
“Here, take some of this,” she said, handing Rip a strip of something that bore a slight resemblance to beef jerky, and Matt something that was very definitely a cookie.
“I’m not really hungry,” Rip said, eyeing the beef-esque ‘treat’ before her with deep suspicion.
“It’s not for appetite,” Tessa said. “Food improves your stats. Or at least it did in the game. Chow down and see if it does anything for you here.”
“You’re not eating anything?” Matt asked, looking guilty for getting a tasty cookie when his friend had to suffer with mystery meat.
“Pendant’s shop didn’t have any good tank or healer food than I saw,” Tessa said.
“He had some drinks, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be quite the lush my main character was while leveling,” Alice said.
“Drinks help? Can we have those?” Rip asked.
“Sorry, wrong buffs for an Archer,” Tessa said. “Matt might be able to use some of the higher level ones, but we’ll have to see what other effects they have on us here. Being a Drunken Master of Fireballs is great when it doesn’t come with a massive hangover afterwards or impaired judgement when you’re targeting your spells.”
“I can’t drink,” Matt said, eyes cast downwards.
The first thought that occurred to Tessa was ‘but he’s too young to be an alcoholic’, but she knew that was both wrong and far from the only reason Matt might choose to avoid alcohol.
“Right, I’m sorry,” Rip said, wincing.
“Muslim?” Alice asked.
“My grandmother is,” Matt said. “My mom converted, but…”
But probably not for reasons that worked out so well for Matt if Tessa’s guess was correct.
“I got on pretty well with my gran too,” Tessa said.
“I dated a Muslim girl for a while,” Alice said. “If you need anything, like a place to pray, just let us know ok?”
“Thanks,” Matt said, looking up with renewed spirits. “The cookie is good.”
“And this stuff is worse than a shoe,” Rip said, scowling at the jerky. “Uck. The stats better be worth it.”
“They’re not going to be a make-or-break thing,” Tessa said. “Food’s there to give you an edge but the fight still mostly comes down to your skills and how well you use them.”
“Speaking of that, we should talk strategy,” Alice said.
“Can Pillow get the Lasher to chase her like she did with the [Wraithwings],” Rip asked.
“It’s a little faster than I am,” Tessa said. “I think I can kite it for short periods, but I need to stay in range to keep aggro on it or it’ll go for you folks.”
“Also, if she’s running around she’s likely to run into more of the centipedes,” Alice said.
“Can we clear them out first?” Matt asked. “Make sure there won’t be any for the Lasher to pick up once we start fighting it.”
“Clearing them out may be impossible. I suspect there’s a ton hiding in the tunnels we saw,” Tessa said. “Thinning their numbers out should be doable though. It we can create a clear space away from the tunnels that’ll at least give you time to snipe any that try to come in and join the fun.”
“Speaking of that, I want to try switching things up,” Alice said. “Matt, you’re with me on centipede duty, and Rip will work with Pillow on burning down the Lasher.”
“No, it’s ok, I can handle the centipedes,” Rip said. Tessa could see her pleading for a second chance to ‘do her job right’.
“I know,” Alice said. “You did fine with them before. The Lasher’s mostly metal though and monsters like that resist Matt’s psychic damage a lot. Your arrows are equal opportunity damage, not super strong or super weak against most things. Bird-types being a notable exception. You get to shoot those all day long.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” Matt said. “My spells will slow the centipedes too so they can’t get to the Lasher as fast.”
“Can you slow the Lasher?” Rip asked. “That would let Pillow dodge more easily right?”
“It would,” Tessa said. “And since we want that thing dead as fast as possible, we could start with both of you dumping pain into it.”
“Can you hold aggro if they go all out?” Alice asked.
“Yeah. I just need to use [Lesser Soul Drain],” Tessa said. “That puts me well above their best damage for now.”
“And if you get interrupted?” Alice asked.
“That’s a good point,” Tessa said and turned to her two younger teammates. “If I go to cast and the Lasher clips me, then you stop attacking ok? Both of you. That’ll let me buy some distance and cast again.”
“What about the centipedes though?” Matt asked.
“I’m stuck maintaining the channel so I can keep an eye out for them,” Alice said. “If I see one incoming, I’ll call out it’s position.”
“That’ll be a sign for Matt to break off and take it out,” Tessa said.
“If we start getting swarmed, I’ll call for you to break off too Rip,” Alice said.
“Who will take out the Lasher then?” Rip asked.
“Once the centipedes are cleared, both of you can turn back to the Lasher,” Alice said.
“Will Pillow be ok?” Matt asked.
“I’ll have to be.” Pillowcase answered.