Rocks, typically, do not explode. Nor do they scream. Nor are they soft, and cuddly, and weirdly cute. The wings and antennae were decidedly non-rock-like too.
“Kill it with fire,” Alice ordered, tugging on Matt’s sleeve.
“What? No!” Rip objected, spinning around to place herself between the rest of the party and the creature which had hatched from the “inert” [Gloom Stone].
“My staff doesn’t do fire anymore,” Matt said, looking from his best friend to the voice of experience he’d come to rely on.
“Lightning will be just fine,” Alice said, her fingers twitching in a gesture Tessa recognized as the beginning of a healing spell.
“No!” Rip said. “Don’t hurt it. It’s just a baby.”
“I don’t think that’s what it is,” Tessa said as she angled to get a better look at the fuzzy thing that was huddling in Rip’s sheltering embrace.
“Right. It’s a monster baby,” Alice said. “Those are always bad news.”
“I don’t think that’s what it is either,” Tessa said, holding up her hands in a peaceful gesture. “Think about it. It didn’t hatch from the monster’s corpse. It’s a creature which was released by a specific set of actions by the players. And it’s not attacking. And it’s cute.”
Alice frowned as she followed the path Tessa’s words led her down.
“Oh no. No no no,” Alice said.
“It’ll be fine!” Tessa said. “We don’t have to worry about lag issues anymore.”
“What are you talking about?” Rip asked, still guarding her new [Lil Gloom Drinker].
“It’s a freaking pet!” Alice said, the urge to vomit resounding from every word.
“Ok, and that’s bad why?” Matt asked. He’d switched from terrified to confused. Neither was a great look on him, but Tessa could understand where each was coming from.
“Pet’s are a rare drop from certain encounters,” she said.
“So, no, you can’t have one too,” Alice interjected.
Tessa ignored her and continued on as though she hadn’t been interrupted.
“They tend to be unbearably popular, even the really ugly ones,” Tessa said.
“Especially the really ugly ones, and the cute ones, and the boring ones,” Alice said. “People ‘just gotta catch ‘em all’ or something. It’s like a disease.”
“So?” Matt asked.
“So, that usually means when a new pet is released, guilds will spend almost forever grinding out whatever content drops them,” Tessa said. “Even when I was playing there were people who were sick to death of being dragged into endless boss battles for pets that never seemed to drop.”
“But we don’t have to do that,” Matt said.
“That’s right,” Tessa said. “Unless someone collects pets?” She looked at Alice and wondered if Alice might be a former pet hoarder. Glimmerglass had far too many of the things, and Tessa had never been one of the really serious pet catcher types.
“No!” Alice said, but from how her eyes kept darting to the Rip’s fuzzy celestial butterfly pet, Tessa felt the answer was more ‘Not anymore’.
“So we’re good then?” Matt asked.
“I think we are,” Tessa said, focusing her gaze on Alice.
“Yeah, we’re fine,” Alice said, a picture of reluctant acceptance as she let her hands go still.
“What was that about lag?” Rip asked, without relaxing her guard of her pet.
“It’s the biggest problem with pets,” Tessa said. “In the game, even really good computers could be taxed beyond their graphics capacity by big groups like what you find in a raid battle. Add in everyone having a pet tagging along and now the computer has twice as many ‘characters’ to animate, and since the pets don’t know anything about being in battle, they’d just continue doing whatever animations they normally did, including ones that take up even more processing time and ones that obscure parts of the battlefield.”
“Those goddamn [Ice Dancer Pixies],” Alice said. “We eventually instituted a policy to automatically kick from the guild for anyone who pulled one of those things out during a raid.”
“Why?” Matt asked.
“One of their animations was to conjure a small ice puddle which they would skate around on,” Tessa said. “Except ‘small’ in this context was about twenty feet wide. Also the ice puddle was raised up a bit so it wouldn’t clip through uneven terrain too much.”
“That sounds kinda neat,” Matt said.
“Yeah, very,” Alice said. “Everyone loved them. Except for the part where the ice puddles obscured all of the warning signs that would be displayed on the ground when a boss was about to do something.”
“Picture trying to fight in an arena where you’re meant to see telltale hints about where to stand to survive instant-kill attacks but instead all you can see is overlapping sheets of ice,” Tessa said.
“Now imagine trying to heal all those idiots,” Alice grumbled. “Guild kicks were too good for them.”
“It was less than fun,” Tessa said. “On the upside though, I don’t think they released any other pets with animations that big afterwards, right?”
“The [Gas Bubbles] had green farts that were technically smaller, but did pretty much the same thing,” Alice said. “Then there were the [Phoenix Guardians] which were independently targetable for god knows what reason and would block their masters about 110% of the time.”
“FOOF isn’t that big though,” Rip said. “She’s not going to block me.”
“FOOF?” Tessa asked, more to be sure Rip was certain of the name than out of any confusion as to who Rip was referring to.
“Please tell me that is the name you’re giving it and not the one it came with?” Alice said.
“What? I thought it fit,” Rip said.
“God I hope not,” Matt said.
It was Alice’s turn to glare at Tessa as though this was something Tessa had allowed to happen, or even somehow encouraged. Tessa replied with a shrug. Rip had found a pet. What were they going to do? Try to take it away? Tessa had seen what happened when people swiped a pet drop item that was supposed to go to someone else. It wasn’t pretty. Friendships had ended. Whole guilds had been torn apart. And that was for a bunch of ones and zeroes, not something that was actively cuddling with Rip and making the most adorable little cooing sounds.
“Fine,” Alice said. “Just know that you can put FOOF into your backpack. I know that seems weird, but pets are fine in there. In fact, it’s probably the safest place for them since area effect spells don’t spill into the bag’s interior.”
“What if the bag is stolen?” Rip asked.
“It’s attuned to you,” Alice said. “You wouldn’t be able to get into it but neither can anyone else.”
“And if you die and respawn at a [Heart Fire] all of your attuned gear respawns with you,” Tessa said.
“So there’s like no crime in this world is there?” Matt asked.
“Apart from all the players who are [Rogues] there’s plenty of [Bandits], [Thugs], and other criminal types,” Tessa said. “Not everything can be attuned after all. Or fit within a pack that’s attuned.”
“Still, it’s nice that some things can’t be just taken away from you,” Rip said, throwing a frown at Alice.
“That might be something we need to watch for,” Tessa said. “The game didn’t give players the ability to steal from one another because it would just make people unhappy and why bother spending developer time on a feature like that? Here though? Who knows if that’s something people will work out how to do?”
“I think I’m happier here in the dungeon than dealing with people like that,” Matt said.
“Speaking of which, if we’re all healed up here, we should probably move on,” Alice said.
“Think we should bring Starchild’s party up to speed on this?” Tessa asked, as she started walking toward the far end of the cavern room they were in. “They might be willing to come back and help with the rest of dungeon?”
“I don’t know, they did run away,” Rip said, following along with FOOF on her shoulder.
“We would have too though,” Matt said.
“Yeah, but we’ve got an awesome tank who showed us we could be better than that,” Rip said.
“That’s true,” Alice said, offering Tessa a nod and a small smile. “Also, if we assemble a larger group we’ll probably attract stronger foes.”
“I’m half tempted to experiment with that,” Tessa said. “It’d be interesting to know how much of the game’s finer details are present here too. Like If we were in the game, there’s a good chance an encounter with a pet drop in it would have been instanced right?”
“Usually. Open dungeons were too easy to just swarm through. The devs wanted the players to sweat a bit to get the new shinies,” Alice said.
“So my first question is; what, if anything, is instanced in this world? We know this room wasn’t but there’s got to be an end boss in here. Can we just zerg rush him?”
“I kind of hope we can’t,” Alice said.
“That’s when you just throw a ton of players at something right?” Rip asked.
“Yeah, a ton of expendable players,” Tessa said. “It was kind of silly fun sometimes in the game, but here I’m thinking it won’t be so pleasant to sprint into a meat grinder over and over.”
“Yeah, and boss monsters that need to deal with endless piles of players attacking them tend to be stupidly overpowered,” Alice said. “The last thing we need is for the best treasure in this place to be gated behind some hideous beast that it’s going to take a hundred players to get past.”
“I don’t know if we can even field a hundred players,” Tessa said. “We certainly haven’t run in to that many.”
“That’s weird isn’t it?” Rip asked. “I mean there were a lot of players on the servers when we logged in. Where did they all go?”
“Some of them got eaten by the [Wraithwings],” Alice said.
“No, not eaten. Carried off,” Tessa said. “I wish we BT’s line was open. I’d love to know if they’ve managed to find those players. You know they must have gotten transported into the world the same as us.”
“Maybe they didn’t escape the hounds,” Matt offered.
“Yeah, that’s pretty possible,” Alice said. “If they were carried away to a higher level area, even if there were [Heart Fires] nearby they could use, they may not have been able to stay alive for very long.”
“That’s a bit horrifying,” Tessa said. “Although, maybe not. If there were [Heart Fires] they could get to after they died, their ghosts could probably have hung around the [Heart Fire]. The [Hounds of Fate] didn’t seem to be able to get into the chapel, so maybe they would have been safe there?”
“That’s possible too,” Alice said after considering it for a moment. “And ugly. They’d be trapped there, huffled around the [Heart Fire] in ghost form, maybe surrounded by endlessly baying hounds, until someone could make it out to them and clear away the [Wraithwings] and other mobs and escort them back to somewhere they can survive on their own.”
“Maybe that can be a quest we can take on once we’re powerful enough?” Rip said.
It struck Tessa as unfounded optimism at first, but the more she thought about it, the more reasonable it sounded.
She’d never been a hero. The real world had punished her enough just for trying to exist as a woman, much less as a lesbian. It had been all she could do to save herself as much as she had. The idea of rescuing someone else had always seemed like a nice fairytale – something that other stronger people, could manage.
She wasn’t strong yet. Measured against the top tier players, she probably never would be. But she was stronger. Stronger than she’d ever been as a human woman, and stronger than she’d been when she’d first arrived.
It’s more than being higher level too. I brought us back here. And we beat those guys. The hard way and the smart way.
That wasn’t something the old Tessa could have done.
Why didn’t I run and hide when I got here? I could have stayed huddled around the [Heart Fire] too.
Because you’re more than you were, someone who spoke her own voice told Tessa.