Mellisandra looked into the night sky above the [Astrologos Observatory], searching for the tiny point in the darkness from which all of their troubles began.
“Are you sure you’re ok with this?” she asked, whispering to herself and knowing that her inspiration would hear her words no matter how quiet they were.
“Absolutely,” Brendan said.
“If I die, we’ll be stuck together,” Mellisandra said. “Or at least that’s what seems to be what’s happened with the others we’ve talked to.”
“I know,” Brendan said. “That’s why I’ve got to be with you while you do this. We got the players who are little kids, or people with family’s to take care of sitting out the fights, but you saw the attack. If we don’t stop the Consortium, there’s not going to be any sidelines.”
“It doesn’t seem fair,” Mellisandra said. “You’re risking your life and your world and all I’m risking is a visit to the [Heart Fire].”
Brendan laughed and Mellisandra heard real joy in his voice.
“You’re facing possible death, capture, or worse, and you’re still worried about me where the worst that can happen if everything goes wrong is that I get to live in the game I love the most.”
“My world isn’t a game though,” Mellisandra said. “It won’t be how you imagine. And you would be trapped together with me.”
“That’s the only part I’d feel bad about,” Brendan said. “Not being ‘trapped’ with you, but you being stuck with me. I mean, you’re a powerful wizard. You’ve done incredible things and mastered skills I can literally only dream of. Meanwhile, my version of a heroic day is getting to class, doing the grocery shopping and running a load of laundry.”
“You’re world sounds like a blessed one,” Mellisandra said. “I suspect mine could use a taste of the peace you speak of.”
“I don’t know,” Brendan said. “We can be pretty awful too. The Consortium wouldn’t be out of place at all on Wall Street.”
“In that case, you’re welcome to them,” Mellisandra said. “Perhaps when we kick them out we can return them to your world if they belong there.”
“That sounds fair,” Brendan said. “Though I wonder if their ships would even work here?”
“Oh, I was thinking we would return their bodies to your world in coffins. Their ships we’ll just burn. The only thing we leave unbroken is their spirits and the [Hounds of Fate] can have those, if the ghost pups even want the stinking things.”
The murmor of the crowds quieted as Niminay rose to address them. Mellisandra moved to stand with the group she’d joined and the others who’d be accompanying them as Niminay laid out the very simple strategy they’d be following.
Simple seemed good. When you were outnumbered by enemies and fighting on strange ground, there were quit enough forces making your life complicated, the last thing you needed was for your leaders to be one of them.
“We’re the twenty first group to go,” Glimmerglass said. “Niminay’s team is leading the charge.”
“Will we be assaulting the ship she’s going to?” Cambrell, the goblin assassin, asked.
“No, we’ve got our own target,” Glimmerglass said. “One of the smaller carriers. It’s up to us to get on board, disable the ships weapons and, ideally, take control of the helm.”
“After killing everyone on board?” Cambrell asked.
“We’re treating it like a dungeon,” Glimmerglass said. “If it’s hostile, we kill it. If it’s not hostile, we make sure it won’t kill us the second our backs are turned.”
“How are we getting back?” Mellisandra asked.
“Their ships have portal generators,” Glimmerglass said. “We don’t want to wreck those. If we do, they can try to recall us from the Observatory here, but we’ll be near the range limit so targeting might take a while to lock onto us.”
“Looks like we’re up next,” Damnazon said, gesturing to the transport circle which was flashing groups out as fast as they could assemble on it.
Mellisandra took another look at the sky as she stepped onto the portal and saw the whole world turn to sparks of light.
An explosion cast Rose’s world into darkness. Below her, Jamal scream in surprise as the building she’d been standing on came tumbling down onto him.
“They have aerial support too!” she yelled in broadcast, in case anyone was confused at what had shot the building out from under her.
[Sky’s Edge] hadn’t been a large town before any of its recent problems. By the time Rip Shot wiped her eyes clear, more than half of it had been leveled and soldiers from the [Consortium of Pain] were advancing through the rubble from the north and south.
A stroke of purple-pink lightning ripped from under the collapsed building, blasting Matt Painting free and lancing through one of the three [Recon Skiffs] the Consortium forces from the south had sent ahead to soften up the remaining defenders.
Rose shielded her eyes and flinched away from the explosion in the sky above her, but Rip Shot looked past her hand and spied the other two skifs as they banked to flee back to the south.
“[Multishot],” she said, loosing a trio of arrows which each carried enough force to punch through a reinforced suit of platemail. Two of the arrows missed as the skiff juked downwards. The one which struck home lunched straight through the vessel, but hit nothing vital.
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Battler X said, sniping at the approaching Consortium forces with a bow he lacked any special skills with.
“They’ve setup a perimeter,” Rose said, recalling the layout of the forces she’d seen from top of the building. “The main forces are advancing from the north and south but we’ve got units flanking us on all sides.”
“Did Obby get the townsfolk out?” Jamal asked.
“Yeah, you bought us just enough time,” Oblivion’s Daughter said over the party channel. “We’re behind some of the hills and moving away to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].”
“They’ll send a tracking squad to follow you,” Jamal said. “Be careful about killing them, that sends a signal back to their base team.”
“Noted,” Obby said. “Can you escape? I can peel off and come back to help at this point.”
“Stay with the townsfolk,” Rose said. “You’d have to fight through half the Consortium’s forces to get to us.”
“Does that mean we have to fight through half their forces to get out of here?” Lady Midnight asked.
“If that’s what’s required,” Starchild said.
“I’ve got a few more of Mister Pendant’s dragon breath potions left,” Rose said. “If we use those we can punch a hole in their formation and make a break through that. And if that doesn’t work, then we ghost run it to the ruins and respawn there.”
“I don’t know that we want to rely on making a long ghost run,” Kammie Anne Do said. “I’ve got some guildmates in the regular zones who were saying the [Hounds of Fate] are out in force at the moment. We’ve lost contact with one of our guildmates but other guilds are missing entirely.”
“I don’t think the Consortium’s going to give us a choice there,” Jamal said.
Rip Shot scampered over to the collapsed wall he was standing behind and peered through the holes in it to see that Consortium’s heavy units had rolled up to the battle at last.
“We have to move,” Rose said, pointing to one of the few remaining buildings that was standing.
She’d been thinking to use it for concealment since nothing in the town seemed adequate in terms of providing real cover.
“Good idea,” Mister Pendant said. Alone of the townsfolk he’d stayed behind. He’d claimed it was out of revenge for his destroyed store, but Rose had noticed that Pendant was for more focused on the adventurers than the ruin his town was turning into. “There’s a basement we can take shelter in there.”
Basements weren’t Rose’s favorite place, and the prospect of descending into one seemed less like taking shelter and more like stepping into a cage.
“We can’t get trapped,” she said.
“Yeah, if we go into a basement, they’ll drop the whole building on us,” Jamal said.
“Not this basement,” Pendant said. “It connects to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. At least if you have the right key. Which of course I do.”
“Wait, do you know how to navigate those ruins?” Rose asked as a thousand other questions tried to tumble out.
Before she could ask or Pendant could answer though, the Consortium’s [Ground Claimers] opened fire. It wasn’t all that different from a dozen main battle tanks unleashing a salvo. What was left of [Sky’s Edge] exploded into a cloud of shrapnel.
“Go now!” Rose called out, unable to see anything in the cloud of dust and debris the attack had kicked up and willing to gamble that the Consortium was temporarily blinded too.
“How are we alive?” Battle X asked. “That kind of explosion should have torn us apart.”
“Question it later, move now,” Rose said.
“It’s because we’ve gained a few levels,” Lady Midnight said. “Look at our health bars. They all dropped but only by about 20%.”
“I’m stuck,” Kammie said.
“On what?” Jamal asked, appearing out of the mist by Rip Shot’s side.
“Brick wall,” Kammie said. “Whole thing toppled over onto me.”
“We’ve got to get her out,” Battle X said.
“No! Rip Shot’s right. You all need to run. Just leave me here. I’ll tell you when the Consortium picks up your trail.”
There was a instant of quiet.
The Consortium had stopped firing, pausing to access the effect of their volley and the adventurers were frozen between the slim window of opportunity for escape and the horror of abandoning someone to an unknown fate.
“Screw that,” Rose said. “Find Kammie on your maps. Form up on her.”
“They are going to kill you!” Kammie said. “For real!”
“We might be dead already for all we know,” Rose said. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is I’m not leaving you or anyone to die alone.” Something feral twisted inside her. Rage surging out where she hadn’t expected it. “Nobody gets abandoned!”
“Yeah,” Jamal said. “Who’s afraid of some ghost dogs. Let’s do this!”
They weren’t alone when they reached Kammie’s position. Starchild, Lady Midnight, Battler X, and the last standing member of his team, Cpt Hatorade were all there heaving on the brick wall that had Kammie pinned. Only Mister Pendant was missing.
Rose called for him, but no answer came back. As an NPC in the game, he wasn’t someone she could have added to their team, and some part of her had been thinking of him like that even with the world having become real in every other way.
“There’s too much stuff on the wall,” Lady Midnight said, gesturing to the ten foot high pile of debris that had landed on mostly intact brick wall.
“We need to clear it off without crushing her further,” Starchild said.
“Midnight, can you keep her healed in case we mess it up?” Rose asked.
“Yeah, but we don’t have much time,” Lady Midnight said.
“I’m counting on that,” Rose said as she dipped the tiniest bit of the [Oil of Dragon’s Breath] that she could onto her arrow.
“What are you doing?” Battle X asked, clearly all to aware of exactly what Rose had planned.
“We don’t have time to clear a building off her,” Rose said and drew back her arrow. “The rest of you should move.”
Her ad hoc party didn’t need to be told twice.
“Hey, kid,” Kammie said. “However this goes, thank you!”
“It’s going to fine,” Rose said. “Because Rip Shot…”, she release the arrow, “…doesn’t miss!”
The resulting explosion was smaller than the building destroying one she’d fired previously. This one only blew her back about five feet to what Jamal caught her in Matt Painting’s metal arms.
“Get her out of there!” Rose called as a new round of artillery rained down on the town.
It had been a miscalculation.
She saw that as her team surged forward.
Lady Midnight and Starchild were both pouring healing magic into Kammie, who’s health was topping off just fine. Rip Shot had indeed placed her arrow just right to direct the blast as she wanted. The debris on the wall had been swept off and the wall cracked enough that the others were hauling giant pieces of it off Kammie. That part of the rescue had been perfect.
The problem was Rip’s blast had given the Consortium the exact coordinates they needed to strike at to eliminate the remaining defenders in [Sky’s Edge].
Rose heard the incoming whistle of the Consortium’s targeted munitions and knew she was standing at ground zero for where they would land.
Before she could process anything else she felt a burning wave of heat and was pitched off her feet. She waited for the pain to either get worse or vanish entirely as she switched to ghost form, but neither happened.
Blinking, she opened her eyes to find a vast column of lava and flame rising like an impenetrable wall between her team and the Consortium’s [Ground Claimers] to the north.
No. Not a column. A Creature.
A [Servant of Fire] if her heads up display was reading it properly.
“Level 12 Tank and Healer looking for group,” Pillowcase said. “Oh, and we’ve got a Raid Boss who’d like to pitch in too!”