Tessa descended one hand hold at a time into darkness, keenly aware of the dangers which lurked below her and blissfully ignorant of the far greater forces moving across the two worlds she was a part of.
“Couldn’t we just fall to the bottom?” Rip asked. “I mean, we have healers with us right?”
“Apart from not enjoying the idea of breaking my legs, we also need to test the ropes in case we need to use them to exit quickly,” Tessa said.
“Obby didn’t break anything though,” Rip said. She was climbing down the same rope Tessa was on, and was strangely eager to reach the bottom and start fighting again.
Good call there on going down before Rip, Lisa said on their private channel. It was still tempting for Tessa to call her Lost Alice, but that was only force of habit. Strangely, once they’d announced their real names to each other, the text chat that appeared in the corner of Tessa’s vision had updated to reflect “Lisa” as the speaker when they were communicating privately, though it still showed “Lost Alice” when she spoke aloud.
I think she’d leap from where she is if she thought it was a straight fall to the bottom. Lisa added.
You don’t think her arms are getting tired do you? Tessa asked.
She looks like she’s doing fine from here, Lisa said. Can you catch her if she loses her grip?
I think so. Pillowcase was built pretty strong from someone made of cloth and stuffing. How are you doing though?
Turns out Vampires are pretty strong too, Lisa said with a note of pride in her voice.
“If you folks want to jump, we can catch you,” Obby said.
“That seems like a great idea for breaking two people instead of one,” Lost Alice said.
“We won’t know unless we try!” Rip said.
Tessa was correct that Pillowcase was strong enough to catch and hold a falling elf. Where Pillowcase fell short though was in being just a bit too slow get a handhold on Rip before she fell out of arm’s reach..
“Wheee!” Rip yelled, though only on their group channel. In terms of externally audible qualities, her fall was more silent than a whisper.
“[Lesser Impact Absorption],” Obby said, invoking a [Guardian] skill which was more traditionally used as a damage shield while fighting tough opponents.
“Oof,” Rip gasped into the party channel and added “it worked!” after catching her breath.
“Well, that’ll save time,” Matt said and let go of his rope as well.
This time Tessa didn’t even try to grab him. As a [Metal Mechanoid], Matt was a lot heavier than Rip and also a lot more inherently durable. In battle, Rip might have the edge in survivability due to her better armor and evasiveness, but for random environmental damage being a walking suit of plate armor was something of an advantage. Which was good because Tessa was pretty sure the [Lesser Impact Absorption] which Oblivion’s Daughter had used had been exhausted soaking the damage from Rip’s fall.
“[Grasping Vines],” Starchild called out as she shoved Obby and Rip aside.
Even with the insulation provided by six feet of vines sprouting up to cushion his fall, Matt still hit the ground fairly hard. Fortunately not hard enough to break anything but Matt did let out a small “oww” before getting to his feet.
“Ok, that was kind of…not bright,” he said. “I think I fell a hundred feet there.”
“Yeah! And walked away from it without a scratch!” Rip said. “I kind of want to climb up and do it again.”
“I will literally bite you if you come back up here,” Alice said as she and Tessa continued to descend.
Tessa was reasonably sure she was joking, but [Tabbywiles] like Rip were full of yummy blood to a vampire and Lisa had complained about feeling hungry several times already.
“I said ‘I kind of want to’, I’m not going to do it,” Rip said. “I know we’re on a time crunch here.”
‘Time crunches’ gave Tessa a brief flashback to her workplace. According to the clock in her heads up display, she should have been at work hours ago. Had anyone noticed she wasn’t in yet? Were they calling to find out where she was? Had they fired her already?
Losing her job shouldn’t have been able to crack the Top 500 list of Tessa’s primary worries given the situation she was in but it managed to hit home nonetheless. For as believable as everything around her felt, and looked, and sounded, the sense of being cast out and abandoned by her employers was too real for her to ignore.
Wait, that’s not me is it? Tessa probed the edges of her fear while lowering herself down the rope. I’m not worried about losing my job. It sucks. If they fire me and I have all this to work with instead that’s my dream come true.
Correct. This is your dream. Your memory merely touched on my nightmare, Pillowcase said. When my unit lost, when I fell after the battle, all of the meaning I’d been give crumbled. I was no longer what I was supposed to be. I was nothing.
Tessa felt the existential dread Pillowcase spoke of. She remembered it. Knew it as her own. Pillowcase’s despair and fading light was unique to her life as a construct for the [Consortium of Pain] but it spoke in the same voice as the emptiness and misery in Tessa’s memories.
You ok? Lisa asked.
Tessa had paused her descent as she wrestled with the overlapping sensations from two lives.
Yeah, she said, taking a slow breath to center herself. Just a bit of work related stress catching up to me.
You do a lot of rope climbing at work? Lisa asked.
Well, I do now it seems, Tessa said. I was just thinking about being fired.
You know you’re weird right? Lisa asked.
It’s been noted before, Tessa said.
But it’s a cute kind of weird, Lisa said which made Tessa’s heart do all sorts of wrong fluttering.
They finished their climb to find the others had drawn up a small map on the ground using bits of the vines which Starchild had summoned.
“I took a look outside the door after the last patrol went by,” Obby said. “It looks like the hallway outside leads off in these directions. She pointing to a curving length of vine with a four way intersection to the left of the room they were in and a single side corridor to the right.
“Which way did the patrol go?” Alice asked.
“Towards the intersection,” Obby said. “From the sound of it, they turned right and went down some stairs or whatever’s over there.”
“Were they patrolling like an organized unit or just walking from one place to another?” Tessa asked.
“It was a patrol,” Starchild said. “They had weapons ready and they were being quiet and observant.”
“That’s a shame,” Tessa said. “This would have been a lot easier if the demons were mindless. Getting the drop on wary and alert mobs is a pain.”
“I think I see why you mentioned blood being a valuable piece of loot,” Lady Midnight said, getting a clear look at Lost Alice for the first time.
“It’s not my first choice of meal, believe me,” Alice said.
“[Demon blood] should be pretty filling, I’m hoping,” Tessa said. “It’s used in a ton of alchemy recipes and the lore has it as being saturated with magic, which is what vampires here are supposedly subsisting on primarily.”
“Wait, so vampires don’t need blood? They need magic?” Rip asked.
“Unfortunately the blood’s an important part of it,” Alice said.
“Think of it like you needing ‘carbon’ for food. Fundamentally that’s what most food is but it has to be in a very specific configuration. You can’t just chow down on a diamond,” Tessa said.
“That makes sense,” Rip said. “So how we do get their blood then? I mean apart from the whole hit them till they stop moving thing.”
“That’s pretty much how it’s done,” Tessa said. “The key it going to be working out how to hit them while not giving them the chance to hit us back very much.”
“We could use the side passages against them,” Obby said and went on to diagram her suggestion, putting small markers for each of them at various points along the vine.
With a map before them, everyone got in on the planning, one creative thought spurring another. It was Tessa’s favorite part of any dungeon run.
At least when the dungeon run had been a purely recreational activity.
With the outcome of their plans having potentially life threatening consequences, Tessa found the exercise a few degrees more stressful than usual. She took those feelings though, wrapped them up in a ball, and stuffed them down into the depths of her psyche. The last thing her team needed was someone taking away their optimism and confidence.
In what felt like a blink, they had a plan put together.
“So we don’t know exactly how strong these demons are, or what sort of special abilities they might have,” Alice said, going over the plan one final time. “Obby and Pillow will be the ones to engage with Lady M and me providing backup. You other three are going to start back at the ropes. If Obby or Pillow calls it out, you start climbing.”
“But they’ll only call for a retreat if they’re sure we can’t beat the demons right?” Rip asked.
“How will they get away if they’re holding the demons off though?” Matt asked.
“We can slow them,” Tessa said. “Then when we climb, we’ll pull the ropes up with us. No ropes, no demons following us.”
“And if we can take them?” Rip asked.
“Starchild will take lead on target selection, since she needs to get into melee anyways,” Tessa said.
“I’ll move to support whichever of you seems to have the tougher foe,” Starchild said. “Eliminate the biggest threat as fast as possible and our healers won’t run their magic dry trying to keep you two on your feet.”
“We appreciate that,” Lady Midnight said. “If we wind up with more mobs than the tanks can handle though we may need you to off tank any that get through.”
“With two tanks we should be fine, but good to have a third backup anyways. The demons are smart enough to peel off and try to wipe Lady M and me out first,” Alice said.
“If they’re that smart, can we talk to them?” Matt asked.
“Demons don’t speak,” Alice said. “At least in the game.”
“From the lore, most of them aren’t from the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Lady Midnight said. “So there’s no shared language there, and demons are always aggressive.”
“Yes. It’s hard to speak with a foe who tries to stab you the moment they lay eyes on you,” Starchild said.
“They’re supposed to be soulless monsters without any personality,” Tessa said. “That’s what makes them perfect for our needs.”
“I hope we’re ready for them then,” Rip said. “Because we’ve got another patrol headed down the hall outside.”
It was always tempting to take more time to plan, to consider more options, but Tessa knew that was a trap. At a certain point you just had to take the chance and the plan you have into motion.
“We’ll let them pass and engage them when they’re not facing us,” Tessa said.
“Yeah, the extra second or two should give us time to get aggro on the whole group,” Obby said, readying her sword.
“How many of them are there?” Tessa asked.
“Looked like three,” Rip said. “But I had to pull back from the door quick, so there might be more.”
“Three’s good,” Tessa said. “More’s doable too, so long as it’s not too many more.”
“They’re not going to know what hit ‘em,” Obby said.
Tessa prayed that would be true and went preternaturally still.
“We gonna check the overlooks?” a deep, and somewhat bored voice asked.
“Probably should,” another replied. “I haven’t looked in for a few days and the last thing we need is another nest of [Plague Rats] using them as a spawning den.”
Tessa’s mind whirled, wondering who she could be hearing. Demons didn’t speak English.
Except, apparently, for the ones who came strolling into the room with their axes and spears at the ready. The smallest of them was easily seven feet tall and they all looked just as built for war, and as deeply confused, as Pillowcase.