Rose wanted to murder someone. Not anyone in specific, and not the first person she could get her hands on. Just the first person who deserved it that she could find. Fortunately for her, a demon was leading her right towards such an individual. As well as probably a hundred or more similar individuals.
“This is the fastest route to the outerlands,” Illuthiz said. “If we need to retreat, this will not be the path we take to return.”
“Why’s that?” Rose asked, speaking a Rip Shot so that everyone could hear.
“It’s not defensible enough,” Illuthiz said. “My people will seal this passage up once we are through it.”
“That’s good thinking,” Obby said.
They and the rest of Rose’s party were jogging down a wide tunnel which slanted upwards. The black rock floor was carved into long steps, as though meant to aid giant’s three times Rip’s height, but with half the ability to lift their legs. The walls weren’t natural either, being carved with intricate pictograms depicting stylized people and distorted geometric patterns.
If Rose had the time she might have spent it puzzling over the images looking for hidden meanings or clues to some deeper mystery, but time was of the essence, and the images flew past in a blue.
Being at the head of the pack of adventurers left Rose with the odd feeling that she’d wound up in charge after Pillowcase dove into the pit to the [Sunless Deeps] and Lost Alice had stayed behind to bring her home. She brushed that idea aside though. Obby was also at the front along with the demon Illuthiz. If anyone was going to be their leader now, the higher level tank character definitely made the most sense.
“How fast can we get to [Sky’s Edge]?” Rip asked, as Rose started doing the mental math on how much time they would have to convince people to flee to the “safety” of an active dungeon area.
“It depends if the apparatus is working out not,” Illuthiz said. Despite being a demon, she didn’t seem to possess supernatural stamina. Rose guessed that might be because she was a low level demon, but she wondered if it spoke to something more specific too. Illuthiz had been patrolling and seemed to know how to fight, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t also this world’s equivalent of a coach potato, or a bookworm.
“What apparatus?” Lady Midnight asked.
Rose was glad they had a healer along with them, but it already felt weird that it wasn’t Lost Alice filling that role. They hadn’t been together long, Alice, Pillowcase, her and Jamal but they had all died together so that meant something didn’t it?
Rose wasn’t sure. It might have been more a matter that Pillow and Alice took them in, immediately and without question. With that and the things they’d already been through, Rose felt like she could trust Pillow and Alice more than she could usually afford to trust anyone except Jamal.
“Outside the main gates there’s a mystic circle. If I can get the machinery around it to fire up, and if there’s enough ambient mana collected in it, we should be able to teleport just outside of your town,” Illuthiz said.
“I don’t remember seeing any mystic circles outside of [Sky’s Edge],” Lady Midnight said. “Is the destination concealed, or is this a one-way trip?”
Obby chuckled at that.
“It’ll definitely be a one-way trip,” she said. “I mean, when would the developers ever make thing easy on the players, right?”
“I’m afraid she’s right,” Illuthiz said. “When we experimented with the portal, we did so at night and still were almost discovered. If there’s a return portal, it’s not near the arrival spot. Our warriors had to return through the path which I will lead you back once we are ready to flee the city.”
“Not all of us will be able to join you on that path,” Starchild said. “As your [Commander] said, we cannot bring the residents of [Sky’s Edge] back to your abode.”
“We’ll need to send someone back,” Rip said. “Just so Lost Alice doesn’t wind up having to play the telephone game to relay everything we see and decide to do.”
“We’re the best setup for that,” Pete said through Starchild’s voice. “If you four can lead the people in town to the ruins you’ll have all the team roles covered, and Starchild can handle any solo encounters we run into following Illuthiz back to her home.”
“There’s no guarantee encounters you run into will be solo encounters,” Lady Midnight said. “Let’s not plan on breaking up at all until we know what we’re facing.”
Rose saw the wisdom in that and that had another flash of insight from Rip.
“Illuthiz, would you be willing to follow us to the part of the dungeon we’re planning to relocate the people from [Sky’s Edge] to?” she asked. “We don’t need or want that to be a secret from your people.”
That’s going to be more dangerous for her though, Jamal said, speaking on their private chat channel.
I know, and I think she does too, it’s why I’m asking now rather that later, Rose said.
“I will evaluate the situation when we arrive in your town as well,” Illuthiz said. “I do not rule out that course of action yet though.”
That’s about the best we could have hope for, Rose said to Jamal.
They came to the end of the tunnel where two doors stood ajar. From their scale and the emptiness of the cavernous space at the end of the tunnel, Rose felt like she was standing in an aircraft hanger. Through the door a thin crescent of moonlight bathed the air in a silvery light with enough illumination that Rose could see the squad of a half dozen demons who were camped near the entrance.
“Are they coming with us?” she asked.
“No. They will remain here to guard this approach to our base,” Illuthiz said. “They will not let anyone back in until our [Commander] gives her approval.”
“Not even you?” Jamal asked as Matt Painting.
“Especially not me,” Illuthiz said.
Rose began to raise her hand in confusion, but stopped.
Yawlorna ordered Illuthiz to return via another route, Rip said, piecing together the reason behind Illuthiz’s words, The only reason Illuthiz would be at this door would be if she was a fake or was being coerced.
Rose savored the words as they rolled around her mind. She knew Rip was right. She knew she was right. For everything else that was wrong and terrifying about what had happened to her and Jamal, there was something intoxicating about getting to actually be someone like Rip.
As her thoughts and Rip’s blended together…except it wasn’t even really a blending. Rip was her. She was Rip. As much as she was Rose. It didn’t feel like two different paints swirling together to make a new color. It felt like those colors had always been there, voiceless, inside her and that living in Rip’s body was bringing an awareness of each side to the other.
“If they see anyone coming towards the gate who’s not wearing Consortium insignia, can you have those guards give you a shout?” Rose asked. “If it’s other players, and you can give us their names, we should be able to contact them and tell them where to go. Otherwise they might try to bash the doors down and that’s not going to do anyone any good.”
“Would they be able to?” Illuthiz asked.
“No, but that’s never stopped players from trying anything before,” Obby said.
“I’ll let them know then,” Illuthiz said.
Rose saw her hail the guard squad as they got closer while gesturing for the rest of them to continue on. Since neither Rose nor anyone else in the party was interested in wasting time, they passed through the ten-foot wide “narrow gap” between the two doors without slowing their jogging pace at all.
Outside the tunnel, the brilliant panoply of stars and nebula and stellar nurseries in all colors and brightnesses spread over their heads, while on the group a dark cluster of machines sat around a circle which occasionally emitted purple and blue sparks.
Beside the mystic circle, and up to the main gates, ran a road wide and flat enough to serve as a modern highway to Rose’s eyes.
The [High Beyond] was, in essence a floating rock. It’s features were irregular, with [Star’s Edge] sitting near to one of the edges which formed a sheer cliff to drop to the [Fallen Kingdoms] far below. It was an odd placement but not a particularly questionable one given the [High Beyond’s] available geography.
The exit from the demon’s base though spoke to a different chapter of the [High Beyond’s] history. The wide road was clearly intended to run for miles as a major thoroughfare, perhaps through many lands.
And perhaps it once had.
Rose looked out over it though and found it shattered less than a quarter mile from the gate. Below it’s jagged edge lay the same precipice as the one beyond [Sky’s Edge].
Something terrible had once happened here and Rose found her exhilaration at being Rip muted in the face of the certainty that something terrible was going to happen again.
“I can get this working,” Jamal said as Matt Painting to the group.
“You can?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Caster class [Artifax] in the Consortium are given a lot of basic arcane knowledge when they’re constructed,” Jamal said. “I’m not a full mechanic or anything but this system was designed to pretty simple I think.”
“It won’t work if there hasn’t been enough mana collected by its power grid,” Illuthiz said, catching up to them.
“That’s not going to be a problem,” Jamal said. “There’s a main feed line for it here.” He held up a cable which ran from the machinery for a few dozen yards to the stone wall of the cliff they would have to scale if the mystic circle didn’t work.
“We think that must have been severed,” Illuthiz said. “We’ve never been able to detect a mana flow from it.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re right,” Jamal said. “I’m not seeing any active mana passing through it at the moment.”
You can see magic? Rose asked.
Yeah, I guess so? Jamal said. I think this body can do a lot of things. And I’m having these weird flashes.
What kind of flashes? Rose asked. Like memories? Or like new insights?
I don’t know, Jamal said, I don’t want to really look at them too much.
Why? What’s wrong with them? Rose asked.
I shouldn’t know this stuff, Jamal said.
Wait, why not?
Why should I? I mean, when did I learn how to cast spells for real? Or what a [Caustic Coercive Mana Flow] was? Or how to talk to demons?
That’s all stuff Matt knows though right?
But Matt’s not real. It’s just me. Isn’t it? I mean, I’m still real right? I’m still me?
Jamal Michael Clark. How long have I known you? Since we were too little to know our own names, right? Do you think some imposter could fool me? Do you think I don’t know my best friend in the whole world when I see him? Do you think putting on a metal body and learning a few new skills could possibly turn you into someone who wasn’t still the best guy I have ever known?
Okay, okay, don’t go getting all sappy on me, Jamal said.
I’ll get as sappy as I need to, Rose said. Seriously, I know this is different. We’re different. But we’re still ourselves. Or maybe ourselves and a bit more than that?
Like we’re older? Yeah, I guess I could work with that.
Good. Cause you’ve got work to do, and we’ve got people to save!
Rose saw Matt’s head shake a bit as Jamal cleared out his doubts.
“There’s no mana in here now, but it’s still a viable conduit to pass power into the [Transit Generator],” Jamal said.
“Sounds like it’s time for us to all get in the circle then,” Obby said.
The small party clustered together in the center of the circle leaving enough room that several dozen more bodies could have joined them if anyone else was coming.
It’s just us, Rose thought and watched as Jamal released the energy of a partially cast spell to power up the teleportation effect.
Motes of blue light rose from the circle and began to swirl around them, flaring and changing until a rainbow engulfed them and then vanished, leaving them at the outskirts of [Sky’s Edge].
Which was burning.