Tessa fell, the air around her burning as she passed from a mystical land high above the world, to the [Sunless Deeps] far below it. Her day wasn’t going quite how she’d expected it to, but it was still better than the one most of the rest of the world was experiencing.
“Are you goddamn insane!” Lisa didn’t limit her question to their private channel. She didn’t even limit it to the party only channel.
“The plasma sheath around me suggests the answer is probably yes,” Tessa said. She had to respond on their party’s channel since speaking aloud was effectively impossible with the wind whipping by her at mach speeds.
Shouldn’t we be, you know, incinerated by this? she wondered to herself.
The pit we leapt into seems to have been a transit portal, Pillowcase replied. I don’t think we’re passing through this space in a purely physical manner.
Then why are we covered in fire? Tessa asked, finding that she wasn’t as emotionally invested in the question as she’d imagined she would be.
“What the hell! We can’t see your health bar while you’re zoning. What is happening!” Lisa sounded ready to leap into the pit after Tessa but cooler heads were likely holding her back.
“I’m ok,” Tessa said. “There’s some kind of energy field around me, so the fire’s not roasting me. If this was still the game, I’d say the devs had setup a really nice light show for the return to the regular zones, but I think this might be something new. I mean, normally we can’t talk while zoning right?”
“You had better survive this so I can kill you myself,” Lisa said.
“Thanks, I love you too,” Tessa said. She’d meant the words as a sarcastic quip but instantly regretted letting them tumble out of her lips.
They weren’t true of course.
She just had a little crush.
And, the sarcasm would make it clear it was a joke.
Tessa crashed into a lake of lava and then into something mercifully hard and unyielding.
Lisa had to check that she wasn’t breathing literal streams of fire when she exhaled.
Of all the stupid…
Splitting up the party was monumentally idiotic. Nothing was more likely to guarantee a total party kill than that, except, maybe, for jumping into a part of the dungeon that contained enemies of unknown level, ability, and aggressiveness.
How the hell could she!
People were edging slowly away from her. It didn’t bother Lisa. People should move away from bombs that were ready to explode.
Though if she was being fair – which she did not at all feel like being – she could kind of see what Tessa had been thinking.
“What has your leader done?” Yawlorna asked, rising to her full demonic height in concern.
“Jumped into the pit,” Rip said, pointing out the obvious, and buying time for Lisa to put her head together.
“She is suicidal?” Yawlorna asked.
Probably! Lisa thought but kept that observation to herself.
“She’s doing reconnaissance,” she answered as Lost Alice. “It’s risky but less so for her than if we all went.”
Less risky. The words felt like poison in her mouth. She could die. For real. Her heart felt like a ball of barbwire emotions. How could she leave?
Lisa forced herself to breathe. Technically as a vampire she didn’t need to. Sort of. She couldn’t remember all of the lore on [Broken Horizons] various species of vampire, but the act of forcing air in and out of her lungs in slow, deliberate breaths, seemed to produce the same calming effect that it did with her human body.
“We have not agreed to anything yet though,” Yawlorna said, the tension around her eyes radiating down into stiff shoulders and clenched fists.
“She knows you don’t trust us,” Obby said. “This is her giving you a reason to.”
“Proof by deeds not words,” Matt said, nodding in agreement.
“Maybe we should join her?” Rip asked.
“No,” Lisa said. “If we all went and what’s down there is too high level for us, we’d have even less chance to escaping without being noticed.”
“So, we’re just going to sit around here and wait for her to get back?” Rip asked, and for a moment Lisa wanted to smack her.
Then she noticed how Rip was almost hovering over her chair, muscles tensed with barely restrained nervous energy, eyes locked on the pit in the center of the room. She was ready, eager even, to follow Pillowcase to hell. Matt was ready too. One word and the two of them would be over the side. Just like Lisa would be. They were in this together.
“We can do better than that,” Lisa said and turned her gaze to Yawlorna. “You’ve got monster problems up here too, right? We’ll clean those up while Pillowcase scouts.”
“Why would you do this?” Yawlorna asked, not hiding her look of bafflement.
“Because Pillowcase is right,” Lisa said, hating that it was true, but knowing that if they didn’t commit to the plan fully it could all fall apart. “We’re better off if we work together. The Consortium has attacked this world once already, but that was just a small taste of what they’re going to send against us.”
“It was?” Rip asked on the private party channel.
“The attack in the opening cinematic for the expansion? That was a teaser for the new events that were supposed to come along,” Lisa said.
“Didn’t the GM we talked to say they’d turned off the game events though?” Matt asked.
“That’s probably not going to stop the Consortium who are here from launching attacks on their own,” Obby said.
“Why wouldn’t they get rid of the Consortium entirely if they were turning off the events?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Probably for the same reason they didn’t remove the rest of the mobs from the game,” Rip said. “Didn’t they lose a GM when he tried to use his admin powers?”
“This is so messed up,” Lady Midnight said.
“Welcome to life, virtual or otherwise,” Lisa said.
“We can’t fight the Consortium for you,” Yawlorna said. “We couldn’t before we came here and there are even fewer of us now.”
“We don’t need you to fight the Consortium,” Starchild said. “Not directly.”
“Depending what sort of troops they send, we probably can’t fight them either,” Matt said and looked over to Rip. “Remember the [Wraithwings]?”
“Yeah, we’ve already run into an attack that we couldn’t begin to handle,” Rip said.
“Then what do you want from us?” Yawlorna said.
“Intelligence,” Lisa said. “Tell us what you know about the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. Share what you learn going forward, and let us know if you do see any Consortium forces dropping in. No one said they’ll attack openly again. They could just as easily send in secret strike teams to take out the adventuring parties who opposed them last time.”
Lisa knew they’d be better off integrating the demons in with the adventurers who were based out of [Sky’s Edge] but that would take a leap of faith neither side seemed ready to make.
Yawlorna turned to confer with Balegritz, Hermeziz and Illuthiz.
“Doing some monster clearing here may be good for us,” Pete said on the private team chat. “We can get back to leveling while we wait for Pillowcase to return.”
“That’s true,” Obby said. “The creatures here shouldn’t be too dangerous for us. Not if the demons are able to hold them off.”
Lisa had volunteered the idea mostly because it was what they’d talked about earlier. The more she thought about it though, the less she wanted to try fighting without her tank. As a bigger group they had more firepower to take down monsters with, and Obby was, in theory at least, a stronger tank than Pillowcase, but in practice those factors tended to matter less than having teammates you could rely on, and the party, as it stood, was split 50/50 between people she knew and people she hadn’t fought with yet.
She was just about to suggest they split into two smaller teams when Illuthiz broke away from the huddled conference the senior demons were in.
“So they’re still debating but I’m guessing we’re out of time for that,” she said, moving to stand in front of Lost Alice as though Lisa was the new leader of the party.
“What’s happened?” Lisa asked, her cold, undead stomache turning at the thought of Tessa having been eaten by some new horror that would rise up and consume them all.
“Your town,” Illuthiz said. “It’s under attack.”
Lisa’s thoughts whipped around hard enough to give her a moment of mental whiplash.
My town? The Earth’s under attack now too? What the hell am I supposed to do about that?
“[Sky’s Edge]?” Obby asked, and the dominoes began to fall into place for Lisa as her thoughts shifted in the correct direction.
“Yes. There’s fighting there now. It looks like the town threw up some barricades and there’s some people like you there,” Illuthiz said.
“Who or what are they fighting?” Lisa asked, cursing because she was sure she could guess the answer.
“We’re not sure,” Illuthiz said. “Our [Far Seer] can scry the town, but whatever’s attacking it is shield from their remote eyes.”
“It’s the Consortium,” Matt said without a hint of uncertainty.
“Their troops have cloaking devices?” Rip asked.
“Sort of,” Matt said. “Each [Squad Leader] carries an [Uplink Beacon]. It allows the Consortium’s [Central Command] to monitor the status of the units in real time and it broadcasts a disruption wave to make remote tracking of them by others impossible.”
“Not impossible,” Obby said. “That’s the propaganda they feed to their grunts. It’s just more difficult. There’s plenty of [Seers] in the [Fallen Kingdoms] who can see them remotely just fine.”
“How do you know this?” Yawlorna asked.
“Matt Painting, this body, it was manufactured by the Consortium,” Matt said. “When I claimed it, I got all the data they built into it.”
Illuthiz looked confused.
“I know what this unit used to know,” Matt said.
“Even its loyalty to its masters?” Illuthiz asked.
“I remember that clearly,” Matt said. “Fun fact, the spirit that originally used to animate this body? They absolutely hated their ‘masters’. The Consortium had to rope them in with chains of lightning to ensure the spirit did what they wanted. The spirit was in more or less constant pain, which is why [Metal Mechanoids] are so willing to serve as shock troops and fight to the death. So, yeah, I remember hating the Consortium with ever tiny fiber of my being, and I’m pretty sure if I don’t try real hard, I’m going to spell-murder every last one of them I see, even though I’ve never met one them before.”
Lisa heard the passionate sincerity in Matt’s words and felt her heart freeze in a new direction. Dragging kids into a situation where violence was the only answer wasn’t going to do anything good for them, no matter how justified it might be. She knew she should do everything she could to make sure Matt never came near the Consortium’s troops. Except that wasn’t going to be an option.
The people in [Sky’s Edge] needed them.
“Urrrggh!” Lisa stiffled the curse she want to release, sublimating it into a groan of pure frustration. “We need to get them out of there.”
“We do?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Yeah, we do,” Matt said. “They’re all low level, I mean even lower than us.”
“Oh yeah, and some of them haven’t been sucked in here yet,” Rip said. “Wait, is the [Heart Fire] chapel safe from an invasion?”
“Not necessarily,” Obby said. “It’s warded against hostile spirits, so the [Hounds of Fate] can’t bother people or spirits near it, but on a physical level it only has whatever defenses the people around it can muster.”
“Dammit. That’s why they’re attacking [Sky’s Edge] first. It’s the one [Heart Fire] that shows up on the map by default,” Lisa said.
“They are trying to cut off our ability to respawn,” Starchild said. “Which means they will eventually come for all of the cities where [Heart Fire] chapels can be found.”
“I don’t know if we can help the other cities here in the [High Beyond], we haven’t managed to make it to any of them yet,” Lady Midnight said.
“If the Consortium is attacking, they won’t be safe either,” Matt said. “But there is a place the Consortium won’t think to look.”
He gestured to the area around them.
“You will bring the Consortium to us if you lead the overland people here,” Yawlorna said.
“We don’t have to lead them here,” Lisa said. “We can bring them into the dungeon we’ve already cleared. If the Consortium tries to chase us into it, they’ll either be fighting on our terms or they’ll be fighting the monsters we avoided.”
“If the Consortium is already attacking the town, it’s going to be a fight to get anyone out of there,” Obby said, a hopeful note rising in her voice.
“Matt, what kind of troops would the Consortium send after a small town like [Sky’s Edge] and, Illuthiz is it?, are the defenders holding out or have they been overrun already?” Lisa asked.
“I don’t know exactly what troops would be there,” Matt said. “Standard Consortium doctrine is to send in troops one to three grades above the rank of suspect hostiles based on the value of the target.”
“What does that translate to in levels?” Rip asked.
“Five to fifteen levels above the defenders,” Obby said. “Usually with a two to one number advantage and long range support if possible. Some [Commanders] will go below that to save costs though.”
“From what our [Far Seer] said, it looked like things had stalemated but there are whispers in the air which suggest more forces are inbound,” Illuthiz said.
Lisa sighed. She cast a glance to the pit.
If we leave…what happens if…
She couldn’t think about that.
But she’s all alone.
“If we’re going to go, it must be now,” Starchild said.
“I’m ready,” Rip said.
“Same here,” Matt said.
“We can climb back up to the farm, unless there’s a faster exit you can show us?” Lisa asked.
“We can do this,” Yawlorna said. “And we will send someone with you to determine if it truly is the Consortium who is attacking.”
“Good,” said Rip. “But we’re not all going.”
“What do you mean?” Yawlorna asked.
“She’s staying,” Rip said, pointing to Lost Alice.
“No. I can’t,” Lisa said, looking around for support but everyone else in her party seemed to be nodding along with Rip.
“You have to,” Rip said, reaching out for Alice’s hand. “You need to make sure she comes back to us.”