Trusting an enemy agent was foolish. Lisa routinely screamed at characters who left themselves open to that kind of betrayal and pain, but then she routinely screamed at herself even more, so when it came to the question of whether Pillowcase should stay or go there was really only answer.
“We need you to stay with us,” she said, speaking for the group even though she didn’t feel she had any right too. “Even if you’re not fully yourself, you’re still one of the strongest tanks we have available.”
“Should we head back and tell the others what’s happened?” Lady Midnight asked.
It was a sensible question and a sensible course of action. Their original destination had been the [Castle] of the [Lord of Storms], but given what a mess [Sky’s Edge] had turned out to be, falling back and regrouping was clearly the safest option.
“We can warn them about the [Formless Hunger] by telepathy,” Pillowcase said. “I think we need to press forward though.”
Lisa resisted the urge to strangle her.
Oh sure, this was the new ‘tactically smart’ version, with 100% less impulsive, self-sacrificing Tessa-influence. Except that was exactly what Tessa would have said.
Lisa shook her head. She’d known Tessa for what, half a day? Where had she picked up such a clear picture of the woman who’d stolen her cold, undead heart?
She could see it though. If there was something that would help people, Tessa would leap at it. If it meant personal danger, so much the better! Extreme personal danger? Why that was the best of all!
“What if we run into something worse than this at the [Lord of Storms] place?” Matt asked.
“Then we withdraw,” Pillowcase said. “And we’ll know of two areas which people can’t risk approaching.”
“I thought you killed whatever was here?” Rip asked. “And what’s a [Formless Hunger]?”
“It’s what the thing in the static is now,” Obby said. “And sadly it’s not dead. It doesn’t know how to be yet.”
Lisa felt a question bubble up in her mind.
How did Obby know that?
Before could rise to consciousness though, Pillowcase spoke again.
“Hitting it with the [Lesser Spirit Drain] pulled the thing more into our world. The Consortium has records on something like this.”
“Yeah. [Formless Hungers] are a class of entity the Consortium has encountered before,” Matt said. “They’re usually native to the world though. Whatever this thing is, I don’t think it was part of the [Fallen Kingdoms] before this.”
“It looks like a bad data disk sector,” Pete said. “I mean that’s all random noise there right? Like the rendering engine for the world could read the textures for [Sky’s Edge] so it decided to show a smear of ones and zeroes inside.”
“But there was something in there,” Rip said. “I could feel it, and I don’t feel it now. Are we sure it’s not dead? It would be awful nice if it was dead.”
“Pillow and I were closest, so I think it tried to pull us in first and we got the best look inside the static,” Obby said. “When Pillow hurt it, it wasn’t just that she did some damage to it. She introduced it to the concept of pain. That’s not the kind of thing anybody shakes off quickly, but it will recover. Teaching something like that to die would take a whole lot more than any group of lowbies would have on hand.”
“We picked such a bad time to suck,” Rip said.
“Hey!” Obby objected. “No badmouthing the badasses here, yourself included.”
Rip looked away but was smiling shyly as she did so.
“If this thing does wake up, is it going to get bigger?” Matt asked. “Or will its influence spread farther out? I mean, we weren’t even in the static field and it mind whammied us. If that grows larger, how far will we need to run to stay safe?”
“I don’t know,” Obby said. “I don’t know if that even can be known yet. I’m afraid we’re going to need to wait and see what sort of capabilities this [Formless Hunger] has when it starts using them.”
“If we leave it alone, will it just stay as it is?” Lady Midnight asked.
“That’s one possibility,” Obby said. “Or it could start expanding exponentially.”
“We should come up with a plan to get everyone off the [High Beyond] then,” Lisa said. “If it starts growing that fast, there may not be much time between it beginning to move and it swallowing all of [High Beyond]. Unless, Pillowcase, can you beat it again if it tries anything?”
“I doubt it,” Pillowcase said. “I didn’t so much beat it last time as survive it, and that required a sacrifice I don’t think I’m capable of making anymore.”
“Perhaps the [Lord of Storms] will have an answer we can use,” Starchild said. “They are, or at least were, divine. If any would know how a corrupted spark of divine essence could be reclaimed, they would be our best candidate, no?”
“Assuming they aren’t the source of the [Disjoined] and this thing,” Lady Midnight said.
“That would also be useful information to acquire,” Pillowcase said.
“Well, we’re pretty much all healed up and recovered for magic, so we might as well head out,” Lisa said.
You should really be the one saying that, Lisa sent to her private channel with Tessa but it vanished into the void like the rest of her words.
Hey there, how goes the whole vampire thing? Cease All said, her private message arriving with just the right timing to strike a spark of hope that Tessa was responding before the true sender registered in Lisa’s mind.
Oh things are just great up here. We didn’t have to fight the vamp. We did have to fight some creepy de-rezzing freaks. The starter city was erased from the map. Somehow I got elected to be the party’s cat herder. Oh, and one of our party members suffered a traumatic identity trauma. How are things with you?
Woah, Cease All said. I thought you were still level 5 or something? How did you get swept up in all that? And, I’m sorry, did you say the starting city was erased? What does that even mean?
Lisa gave her guildmate a quick run down to catch her up, switching her main communication channel to send private messages to Cease. She tried to downplay how vastly out of their depth she felt her team was but even presenting the plainest, least exaggerated facts failed to disguise how precarious their position was.
“Damn Alice, I wish we’d known. Maybe we could have tried to get up to you without going through the official dungeon route.”
“It’s ok.” It wasn’t. Lisa really wanted her guild to be with her. But she also would have killed them if they’d tried to ‘pull a Tessa’ on her. “You’ve been up to your neck in it down there from the sounds of it.”
“Yeah, you could say that.” Cease was playing it cool and casual. That screamed to Lisa how bad her guild was having it.
“Is everyone ok?” she asked, not wanting to know the answer, and not able to live without knowing.
“Not really,” Cease admitted. “I mean, we’re doing ok with this assignment. We’re taking back [Crystal Bower], and we’re kicking ass, but there’ve been…problems.”
“How many have we lost?” Lisa asked.
“Two, both in the initial battle,” Cease All said. “We’ve been good since then. Careful.”
“I can’t believe it,” Lisa said. “How are you holding up? Hell, how are you still fighting?”
“I don’t know Alice,” Cease said. “I think it’s because we don’t have much other choice, but it feels like we’ve been here before. Like…I know how this is going to sound, but it feels like our characters are real too.”
“Yeah, I’ve run into that too,” Lost Alice said.
As Lisa’s party marched across the terrain from the former environs of [Sky’s Edge] to the [Celestial Bridge] to the [Lord of Storms’ Castle], Lisa let her voice flow back and forth between her own and Lost Alice’s as she explained what she and Tessa had discovered about the identities they held within them.
“God I’m glad I talked to you about this,” Cease said. “I think we’re all experiencing it, but it looks like most people are afraid to come right out and say ‘I’m hearing the voice of my fictional alter ego in my head and I’m pretty sure they’re real’.”
“I think I would have kept it to myself forever, and maybe kept Lost Alice buried too if Tessa hadn’t started telling me about what was going on with her and Pillowcase.”
“It sounds like Tessa is a pretty incredible lady,” Cease said.
“She’s goddamn amazing,” Lisa said. “I can’t even explain it. It’s like I wished on a star and the whole sky said ‘yeah, we got you covered’.”
Lisa heard Cease laughing.
“What?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” Cease said. “It’s just so nice to hear you happy. If we weren’t about to get attacked by an army of nightmare dolls and magic terminators, I’d say this whole thing was worth it just to hear you being happy again.”
“But…I’m not happy,” Lisa said, struggling to see where Cease could have gotten that idea. “And Tessa’s gone now.”
“Yeah, that sucks,” Cease said. “If Pillowcase is still there, there’s got to be some way to get Tessa back though, right?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have any idea what [Fractured] might mean. There was nothing like it in the game.”
“Well, it’s not [Destroyed] or [Annihilated] or [Erased], so she’s still got to be out there somewhere, and I know you’ll find her,” Cease said. “I mean when was the last time you gave up on someone you loved?”
“I don’t…I’m not…I mean, I’m still with Kelly,” Lisa protested.
“Oh, oh my dear, that’s exactly what I mean,” Cease said. “How many times have you broken up in the last six months?”
“Twice,” Lisa said, her pace faltering.
“What about yesterday?” Cease asked.
“At least three times,” Cease said. “And it probably should have been more than that. A lot more. You haven’t been happy since at least last Christmas.”
Lisa had thought Lost Alice’s heart was too cold to freeze and too dead to feel pain. The emotional icicle Cease’s words staked her with told her she was wrong.
Christmas hadn’t been good.
Even ten months later she couldn’t think back on it without a dark wave of disappointment threatening to carry her under.
Think about eating someone, Lost Alice said, that always takes my mind off things.
It was a silly comment, but combined with the distance of perspective Lost Alice provided, the still raw pain was pushed down to manageable levels.
“It wasn’t all bad,” Lisa said, the defense sounding as feeble to her as she was sure it sounded to Cease.
It was true though. Even after the huge blow up fight which had taken the place of the proposal Lisa had been hoping for, she and Kelly had managed to salvage enough of their relationship to stay together. At least until it became economically feasible for them to live apart.
She couldn’t look back at those months without seeing that it really was “that bad”.
Kelly wasn’t evil, she wasn’t abusive, she wasn’t even entirely wrong.
They just weren’t right for each other. Lisa had known that even before Christmas. She thought some part of her had always known that.
“I asked my sister to try calling her,” Cease said. “I know you said not to, but I thought she might be worried about you, especially since you hadn’t parted on good terms.”
“She said she’d be leaving today,” Lisa said. “Did you manage to get through to her?”
“My sister did,” Cease said. “She didn’t have anything to say. No message. No apology. Not even a good bye. She didn’t want to hear anything at all.”
Lisa’s breath caught in her throat. It should have been a relief. An unwanted tether falling away. Freedom when freedom was what her heart desired most.
It should have been joyous, but it still hurt.
She didn’t love Kelly. Not anymore. But some past part of her had, and that part of her felt like she was dying.
A warm hand rested on her shoulder.
“Are you ok?” Pillowcase asked. “I didn’t think to ask if you’d been hurt back there. We can rest if you need. We’re safe here.”