Tessa had a theory, but it wasn’t a theory she was particularly happy with, even if it promised to be the answer to one of the problems facing them.
Call up a map of this place please, she asked Lisa on their private channel.
I tried already, Lisa said. It says ‘no map found’.
In the game version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] which Tessa was familiar with, various areas existed without the in-game maps which the players could call up to get a reference to where they were. In some cases it was because the locations were tiny and no map was needed, in others it was because they were considered to be under a “fog of war” (though that mostly applied to specialized PvP zones), and then there were the places where the developers denied the players in-game maps to create a sense of ‘mysterious’ and provide ‘immersion’.
In theory the latter case was there to encourage exploration and discovery. It was meant to draw the players in and force them to navigate through a dungeon (typically) as their characters had to. Because the developers were sadists at heart, the locations without maps would also typically include such things are randomly reconfiguring mazes or series of isolated sub areas with interacting and random teleporters.
Tessa had never found that sort of thing fun, especially when she was faced with the potential of a running battle through new terrain against an enemy of unknown capabilities.
The lead demon just said this place is called the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grace], Tessa said.
Wait, we were just in there, Lisa said. It’s a low level dungeon. It can’t be this sprawling.
The devs did promise a ‘deep lore dive’ for the [World Shift] expansion, Tessa said. What if they meant that literally?
Lisa cursed and Tessa could only agree.
“We can stand here talking if you like,” she said, turning her attention back to the demons in front of her, “or we can go chat with your commanders, or we can head out, or we can fight. I’d rather not do the last one since it gains neither of us anything, and if you can talk then you’re not the xps we’re looking for.”
“XPs?” Illuthiz asked. Pillowcase was heartened to see that she’d shifted to a more casual stance, even if Hermeziz was still on high alert.
“Wow, you are from a different world,” Obby said.
“Adventurers in this world grow stronger through winning battles,” Tessa said. “There’s a point system related to how strong the foes are.”
“And you have points for us?” Hermeziz asked, wrinkling his nose in disgust.
“There are points for everything here,” Obby said.
“Monsters,” Hermeziz said. “You’re a bunch of blood thirsty killers.”
“Yeah, most of us,” Obby said. “You can take Pillowcase at her word though. We don’t want to fight you.”
“Or anyone who we can talk to instead,” Tessa said. “We need to be stronger because there are threats in this world which are far greater than anything we can survive now, and because it might be the only way for us to get home.”
“What do you mean?” Balegritz asked.
“We’re lost here too,” Matt said.
“You want to go back to the Consortium?” Illuthiz asked.
“No. Our world isn’t one where the Consortium has ever been. Or maybe even ever can be,” Tessa said.
“You’re a Consortium soldier!” Hermeziz shouted. “One of their elites. How could you come from a world where they’ve never been?”
“We’re each more than we appear to be,” Obby said. “And you should probably call your commanders in for the rest. They’ll want to hear it too.”
“And what will you do if we don’t?” Balegritz asked.
“Wait here until you do I suppose,” Obby said.
“Or just leave,” Tessa said. “Chatting like this is nice, and if we can form a working relationship it would be better for both of us, but we’re not the only adventurers out there, and they’ll get too far ahead of us if wait forever.”
“And what if we try to stop you from leaving?: Balegritz asked.
“Then we’ll fight, and no matter how things turn out, neither of us will win,” Tessa said.
“You think you can beat us?” Hemeziz asked.
“There’s seven of us, and three of you,” Matt said. “And we seem to know how this world works better than you do.”
“You have miscounted,” a new demon said.
It was good that the room they were speaking in had a high ceiling. When the new demon appeared behind Pillowcase, her invisibility melted away to reveal someone who’s horns could easily scrape the top of the tall room.
[Elite Boss] class, was Pillowcase’s analysis. Significant threat. Durable and hard hitting. Also resistant to most crowd control effects and will possess a minimum of two special moves. Standard tactical response; engage with a full squad and expect casualties.
The presence of a major foe was almost enough to distract Tessa from the dozen other demons who appeared flying outside the giant opera box they were standing in.
“Drop your weapons,” the Elite demon said.
It was a tempting command. Tessa wasn’t sure that the seven people in her party put together would be enough to take on an Elite, who were typically level 20 and higher, much less an Elite backed by more than twice her team’s number in support troops.
“No,” Pillowcase said.
“You are in a poor bargaining position,” the Elite said.
“That’s not a problem. We’re not bargaining,” Pillowcase said.
“Curious. We will destroy you, you realize that do you not?” the Elite said.
“You may try to destroy us,” Pillowcase said. “As I said though, it’s not in your best interests.”
“You think you can tell tell [Commander] Yawlorna where our interests lie?” Balegritz said.
“Yes. I do.” Pillowcase nodded. “You are ignorant of who we are and the goals we seek. As are we of you. It’s in no one’s interest for this to turn to bloodshed, least of all yours. If you slay us, we will recover. If we slay you, you will, apparently, stay dead.”
“Maybe we should test that idea,” Hermeziz said.
“No,” the demon [Commander] said, carefully scrutinizing Pillowcase. “I don’t think that would be wise.”
Finally! Tesa said, venting her frustration to Lisa.
Finally? Lisa asked.
The big one seems to be ready to talk. I mean really talk, Tessa said.
That’s good, Lisa said, concern etching into her voice. When the small army back there showed up I thought things weren’t going so well.
They could be going better, Tessa said. I take it you’ve been keeping things under control with Rip, Starchild and Lady Midnight?
Sort of, Lisa said. Lady Midnight’s been giving commentary on how tough the demons are and assuring Rip that we’re fine. Pete and Starchild have been pretty quiet. I think they’re talking things over between themselves.
“We cannot leave this passageway open though,” [Commander] Yawlorna said and turned to one of the flying demons. “Hazgromonde, fetch a crew. We need structural work done here. I want the top and bottom of that hole sealed within a half hour.”
“We are going to need to leave at some point,” Obby said.
“There are other exits,” Yawlorna said. “When we are done, you will be escorted out one of the minor ones. You have my word on that.”
Tessa wasn’t sure how much the word of a demon was worth, and Pillowcase had no solid suggestions, aside from noting that they didn’t have much room to protest if they still wished to avoid a fight.
“Before we go, one question,” Pillowcase said. “It was mentioned that the name of this place is the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. How do you know that?”
“There’s a library a few levels down. Most of it is ruined but we’ve managed to piece together a few maps of the area from what was left,” Yawlorna said. “Why do you ask?”
“We came here from what we thought was an entirely different set of caverns and they bore the same name,” Tessa said.
“Is it common to reuse names on this world?” Yawlorna asked.
“No. Not at all,” Tessa said. “In fact it strongly suggests that the caverns we were in are connected to this area somehow.”
“Maybe that’s where the pit leads?” Illuthiz said.
“I don’t think so,” Obby said. “That pit leads to the [Sunless Deeps].”
There was a collective intake of breath among the demons.
“How do you know that?” Yawlorna asked. “Have you been there?”
Obby seemed at a loss for words for moment, and Tessa thought she could guess why.
“We have access to fairly broad information about the world,” Tessa said. “It’s not complete, but it does cover most things that any other adventurer has discovered.”
“Sounds like a Consortium hive mind,” Hermeziz muttered loud enough for everyone to hear.
“A Consortium hive mind would never be willing to give information freely,” Pillowcase said. “At best they would sell it to you.”
That brought another pause, followed by a few nods and shrugs of agreement. The demons hadn’t exactly warmed to the adventurers but they seemed to at least accept that the adventurers were behaving too out of character to be affiliated with that particularly enemy.
“Come,” Yawlorna said. “We will gather so that all may question you equally.”
Tessa wasn’t sure what to expect from that but it turned out to be exactly what it sounded like.
Yawlorna lead the group of demons and adventurers down into the central hall, passing word as they traveled to various smaller demons to alert those who were not presently on duty to join them.
By the time they got to the central hall, it looked like several hundred demons had assembled there.
“I think there are more demons here than I have arrows in my quiver,” Rip said on the party channel.
“Isn’t your quiver endless?” Matt asked.
“Yeah, so?” Rip asked.
A squad of demons emerged from one of the side rooms, carrying thirty or so chairs. They arranged them in two groups in the center of the hall but well removed from the barricaded pit in the middle of the hall’s length.
The first group of chairs were plain seats, comfortable enough but without adornment. Those were placed in a group of seven and set to face the remaining chairs which were placed haphazardly in a half circle in front of the seven.
Tessa and the others in her group were escorted to the seven chairs.
“Starchild and Obby, take the outer edges, Pillow, you take the center, Midnight and I will flank you and Rip and Matt can take the wing seats,” Alice said, solving the problem of who would sit where before they could stumble around looking foolish.
Pillowcase liked the arrangement from a tactical standpoint, but Tessa was praying that tactical concerns weren’t going to be an issue.
Opposite them, the demons seemed to take a much more free approach to seating with two or more demons sprawling together on the same chairs, while others stood empty. Yawlorna and Balegritz either by station or inclination, had chairs to themselves, while Hermeziz and Illuthiz shared one near them.
“You spoke of a working relationship between us,” Yawlorna began. “What do you envision that to mean.”
“As much or as little as each side is comfortable with,” Tessa said.
It puzzled her how speaking to a eight foot tall demon woman with horns like a bull and muscles as solid as a semi-truck could seem natural.
Why aren’t I freaking out here? she wondered. How is this natural? Shouldn’t my heart be beating out of my chest?
[Clothwork] hearts are designed better than that, Pillowcase replied.
“We’d be comfortable if you weren’t here,” Hermeziz said.
Illuthiz ground a knuckle into his cheek.
“Questions now,” she said. “Whining never.”
“He’s not wrong to worry,” Pillowcase said. “This isn’t a safe world. We mean you harm, but you don’t know us yet, and trust can only be earned through time.”
“You would be willing to earn our trust then?” Yawlorna said.
“Possibly,” Tessa said. “What did you have in mind?”
“You said you have wide knowledge of this world?” Yawlorna said. “If so then perhaps you can aid us in our quest to leave this world.”