Tessa felt divided. Not in the emotionally conflicted sense. She was far too steadfast in her repression of the several lines of thought she did not at all have time to process for her emotional conflicts to be bubbling to the top of her consciousness. Instead, her feeling of division stemmed from a strangely external source.
“I think I’m not fully here?” she said, massaging her temple although Pillowcase’s body felt no pain or discomfort.
“You jumped into a bottomless pit because some demons vaguely suggested it was a good idea,” Lisa said. “I think we’re well past making judgement calls on your sanity.”
“You’re funny, you know that?” Tessa said.
“I do,” Lisa said. “Doesn’t mean I wrong though.”
“We got out of there ok.”
“Says the one who isn’t covered in blood still.”
“We saved a town though!”
“By unleashing a lava monster on it, which has burned it to the ground by now. You get where there might be some issues with all of that right?”
Tessa sighed. Lisa wasn’t wrong, and behind the banter Tessa remembered the concern that had seemed to tear a hole in Lisa’s heart. Tessa wasn’t sure how to interpret that. It was how she would have reacted to someone she loved hurling themselves into mortal danger but as her breakup with Crystal had shown her, other people saw things very differently from her.
“We’re safe for now at least?” Tessa phrased it as much as a question as the statement of fact it theoretically was.
Inside the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave], the adventurers and the townsfolk of [Sky’s Edge] had found an odd sort of refuge. The caverns still teemed with monsters, but by focusing their efforts along a single narrow path, they’d been able to reach a broad room which was both defensible and held no inhabitants. Even better, there was a clear stream running into a pool at the back of the room which provided for the townfolks’ most immediate need, leaving the adventurers to provide food and materials to construct shelters from.
As fledgling players, the assembled adventurers didn’t have the depth of resources they might have possessed, but Obby was able to break out a fair amount of specialty food from her inventory. It was “store bought” in the sense of being purchased from the game’s cash shop, which was sadly no longer accessible, but filling enough to sustain an entire family with a single portion, and Obby had a seemingly endless supply.
Tessa didn’t bother with the food herself. Pillowcase could consume food and gain any mystical benefits it might possess but she didn’t have any actual need for material sustenance.
Unlike Lost Alice.
Lisa seemed more relaxed and in control of herself since…the incident, in the [Sunless Deeps]. Tessa knew it was something they should talk about, but she was hoping Lisa would be the one to begin that discussion.
“I’m sorry,” Lisa said. “You had a real concern there, didn’t you?”
She shifted to sit back against the wall in the small alcove where they’d brought Pillowcase to rest while Tessa was unconscious. It was a nice, tiny space. Big enough to not feel claustrophobic but limited enough that Pillowcase didn’t have to be at the highest level of alert to feel sure nothing was lurking nearby and waiting to ambush them.
“It’s probably nothing,” Tessa said, regretting the idea of casting another burden on Lisa’s shoulders.
“Was it related to why you passed out?” Lisa asked, her voice gentler than it had been.
“Yeah, but it’s nothing I can be sure of,” Tessa said.
“You said you don’t think you’re all here? Where did you go? It didn’t sound like back home.”
“Its hard to explain.”
“We’re going to be cooped up here for a bit,” Lisa said. “Got anything else you’d like to do?”
Tessa knew there were other things she should be doing. She thought of Rip and Matt, who were coordinating the defense of the refuge by virtue of being the only two other adventurers to have been this deep into the dungeon. She thought of Mister Pendant, who was offering whatever upgrades he had available to any adventurers who could use them. She thought of several dozen responsibilities she could take on.
Instead of any of that though, she leaned back against the opposite wall from Lisa and offered her a small smile.
“I don’t think I went anywhere. Not exactly. It was more like I was already there? Or maybe that someone I knew really well was there? Like I was more of an observer but with strong focal point.”
“Interesting. What did you see?”
“A ship. Like a space ship type ship. Except…did you ever run the [Luna Crash] raid? You know how it was sort of scifi themed but still had the [Broken Horizons] aesthetic? That’s how this place looked.”
“I take it you could tell you weren’t just dreaming somehow?” Lisa asked.
“It seemed a little too solid and sequential to be a dream. The team I was with was fighting through the ship and I followed them step by step. Like I said though, it wasn’t like I was actually there. It was like watching a play almost? Like the action was separate from me but I could yell at the people on the stage if I wanted to. It would be distracting and kind of rude, but I wasn’t completely separate from them.”
“Could you feel this body?” Lisa gestured at Pillowcase’s torso.
“I think so. I was so caught up in the fighting that was going on I sort of forgot about everything else for a while. Which now that I think about seems really weird. So maybe I was dreaming a little bit?”
“Maybe. I think there’s a more important question though; is it going to happen again?”
Tessa inhaled and brought her steepled hands to her lips. It was a gesture she was used to making in her own body but it served the same purpose in Pillowcase’s.
“I might wind up like that again if I let it happen, but I think it’ll be my choice,” she said. “I think it was this time too. The sense of connection and need hit me so suddenly that I instinctively jumped at it and sort of fell into it for a while. I’m sorry, I know the timing was terrible.”
“Yeah. Timing,” Lisa said and glanced away.
“How are you doing though?” Tessa asked. “I mean aside from the whole ‘covered in blood’ thing?”
Lisa rolled her eyes and smiled.
“Great. I am just great.”
“Not exactly how you’d planned on spending launch day?” Tessa asked, mirroring Lisa’s smile.
“Is it still launch day? It feels like we’ve been here for months now.”
“I’d guess it depends on your timezone, but I don’t think it’s been twenty four hours back on Earth yet. At least not since I logged in.”
“That’s right, you just started up again right?”
“Seemed like a good time to get back into the game. Sometimes my instincts are shockingly wrong.”
“Or shockingly right,” Lisa said. “I mean, it sucks that you’re trapped in here but I’m glad I ran into someone like you when all of this started happening.” She waved her hand at the whole world around them.
“Thanks. I glad you were here too. I…Having you here has meant a lot to me. I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt in the [Sunless Deeps] but I can’t tell you how happy I was when you showed up.” Tessa regretted her honesty as she spoke. She could hear herself both placing a future burden on Lisa and admitting to feelings that she knew she shouldn’t have. It had been a rough day though and repression had its limits.
Lisa buried her face in hands before running her palms up her face and her fingers through her hair. After a moment, Tessa felt the urge to reach out rising but she fought it back. The last thing she needed was for Lisa to slap her hand away for crossing a boundary.
When Lisa raised her head after another moment, her smile had changed, gaining a faint rueful tinge.
“Timing,” she said before shaking her head. When she spoke, the weight had left her voice, either cast aside or packed away for later. “You might have been seeing one of the raiding teams that launched the counter-offensive against the Consortium. Cease All said Niminay called on the high level players to teleport up to their ships and bring the fight to the Consortium directly. I think they would have been fighting just about the time you passed out.”
“That would fit,” Tessa said, letting the space between them breathe with the change of topic. “The team was fighting like they were raiding a dungeon. When I woke they were talking about heading back to their home base before returning to try tackling the [Captain] on the bridge.”
“Do you think you could go back there if you wanted? Or make contact again I guess? That could be a good backup channel for information since Cease All and the others seem to pretty busy with the whole invasion going on.”
“She’s at least been more responsive than BT,” Tessa said. “Not that either one is really in a position to help us.”
“We’ve been lucky so far, aside from a few exceptions we haven’t run into anything tht’s been badly outleveled for us,” Lisa said.
“The Consortium troops looked like more of a fight than we could have handled.”
“Yeah, they’re one of the exceptions. And probably going to be an even bigger problem going forward.”
“It depends on their [Commander],” Tessa said. “The Consortium doctrine on well defended targets has a lot of flexibility. Some times they’ll make an example out of the stronghold and pound it to dust. Or, they might leave us alone as a poor investment of the resources.”
“If they do come back, they’re going to send something that can deal with Darren in all his lava monster glory.”
“Yeah, we’ll want to make sure he stays hidden after he finishes up with the troops they sent in this wave.”
“Is it weird that I’m worried about a giant serpent made out of magical fire rock far more than the people he’s burning to death?”
“I don’t think so,” Tessa said. “Darren turned out to be pretty personable.”
“I think me eating his captor helped our case there.” Lisa said the words in jest, but it was a hollow sort of joke.
“Yeah, that was an interesting thing to see,” Tessa said. “Kind of stupid of Mikonnel to go on about the power of his blood in front of a clearly hungry vampire.”
“On the upside, it’s not a mistake he’ll make again!” Lisa said with even more forced levity.
“You know it was his mistake though right? Everything that happened down there. What you did, none of that was a bad move on your part.”
“I don’t know about that. I think it might have felt too good to not be pretty evil.”
“Evil or just scary?” Tessa asked. “It looked like you lost control for a moment, and under the circumstances I can’t imagine that being anything but a delicious relief.”
Lisa sighed and tipped her head back.
“God, it really was. He was just such an ass, and I was so incredibly hungry.”
She let her head tip forward and hang down till her gaze was focused on the floor in front of her.
“But I still think I went too far,” she added in a whisper.
This time Tessa did reach out to place a hand on Lisa’s arm.
“Maybe you went too far for you, but what you did was fine for the situation we were in, and I know some part of you knew that.”
Lisa looked up, her smile reaching her eyes.
“I should really get cleaned up, shouldn’t I?”
“If it’d make you feel better,” Tessa said. “As it is you’ve got that ‘you do not want to mess with me’ look going that is definitely not out of place in the middle of a dungeon. I think between showing up on Darren’s back and your badass Queen of Blood look, the rest of the adventurers are going to make you our de facto leader whether you ask for the position or not.”
“Oh, wow, I really need to get cleaned up then. Maybe change into something really nerdy.”
“What? You think nerd gear would slow down a bunch of mmo players? Forget leader, they’ll elect you to godhood if you go far enough with that.”
“If they make me leader, I am passing the buck immediately to you,” Lisa said. “Everyone knows it’s supposed to be the tank that everyone else follows.”
“That feels vaguely unfair,” Tessa said.
“Consider it a punishment for worrying me like you did,” Lisa said, but her smile had returned.
“I’m not sure that’s how leadership is supposed to work?” Tessa said.
“You two ready for another crisis?” Rip asked skidding into the opening of the small room. “Cause we could really use someone responsible looking to handle our new visitors. You know, before they slaughter everyone here.”
“Come on,” Lisa said. “You’re punishment awaits!”