Pillowcase wasn’t leading her team but she was walking in front of it. Unlike when she’d led a troops of other [Soul Knights] into battle though, she wasn’t alone.
“Did the Consortium have any information on the [Lord of Storms]?” Lost Alice asked. It wasn’t a question which required secrecy, but she’d asked it on a private channel she’d setup with Pillowcase, so Pillowcase replied on the same channel.
“When we assaulted the [Fallen Kingdoms], the only expected resistance was supposed to come from the mortal races. The [Assault Commander] provided information on them, but gave the [Assault Force] only minimal information on the powers in the realm beyond that.”
“So they don’t know this dungeon is here either then?” Lost Alice asked.
“The information I have isn’t conclusive,” Pillowcase said. “The Consortium definitely knows more than was shared with me, or anyone like me.”
“So Matt wouldn’t know either then?” Lost Alice asked.
“We can check with him, but I believe not,” Pillowcase said. “Given that limitation though, I believe it’s unlikely the Consortium was aware of any significant powers in this area.”
“They would have included the [High Beyond] in their initial invasion plans if they knew someone powerful was here?” Lost Alice asked.
Pillowcase felt a quiet bubble of joy. It was unusual. Not something she’d been designed to experience. That didn’t change the fact that it was pleasing to converse with someone who could follow her line of thought easily.
“Exactly,” she said. “The Consortium’s plans for the initial raid on the [Fallen Kingdoms] called for a single massive push to shatter the defender’s forces and establish the sort demoralizing dominance over a critical area of the the world which would cause the defenders to sue for peace and become vassal states willingly. The [High Beyond] became a part of the operations only as a last ditch effort to recall the forces which had been deployed so that the failed assault wouldn’t appear as costly on the books as it ultimately was.”
“But they failed in that too,” Lost Alice said, her words both a question and the key she was using to unlock the puzzle of Pillowcase’s existence.
“Yes. I was too broken to complete the recall,” Pillowcase said. “Too weak.”
She’d been abandoned, her value precisely calculated as less than the expense of retrieving her. Better written off as a loss. Better to never have been made and never deployed.
Pillowcase knew that her failure in battle would be included as a statistic in the review process for the line of [Clothworks] she’d been sewn as a part of. One defective unit wouldn’t spell the end of the line, but in aggregate she could be part of a termination order for future models of her generation.
“Too weak?” Lost Alice was silent for a long moment, mulling that over. “Are you sure of that?”
“We…I failed,” Pillowcase said. She didn’t have question. The facts were there and no words would change that.
“Losing isn’t the same thing as failure,” Lisa said. “Or should you be able to execute any order that’s given to you regardless of what’s asked for?”
“The assault was reviewed and approved. It was judged to be a reasonable use of Consortium funds.”
“I’ve seen you fight,” Lost Alice said.
“And I saw the battle you fought in,” Lisa said.
“The Consortium didn’t have any idea what they were going to be facing,” one of them said.
“The failure wasn’t yours,” Lisa said. “It was whoever made the choice to invade us. They should have picked a different world.”
“Or come willing to bleed more to take what they wanted,” Lost Alice said.
“Which is apparently what their new plan is,” Lisa said.
“The thing is though, I don’t know if we can even say you really lost,” Alice said. “Not when you got what you truly wanted out of it.”
“I…” Pillowcase couldn’t find words to dispute that.
“It’s okay to not be what they told you that you have to be,” Alice said.
The words sounded painfully familiar. From another life maybe.
Pillowcase felt an ache in her chest.
She knew whose “other life” it had been.
“What I don’t get is why they had to use the [High Beyond] at all though?” Lisa said in a puzzled tone, pulling back from the intimacy of the moment.
“The defenders forces proved to have far greater range with their effects than had been planned for,” Pillowcase said, glad to move the conversation to less personal ground.
Perhaps the private channel was a good idea? She spoke to herself but no other voice answered her.
“How did the [High Beyond] help with that?”
“The transport ships were able to pull back to a greater range and still open the [Recall Portals].”
“Was that enough to make a difference or were they just being cowardly?” Lisa asked. “I mean the [High Beyond] isn’t that far away from the planet’s surface. Not in astronomical terms.”
“Physical distance is only part of the difficult in opening the [Personal Recall Portals],” Pillowcase said. “The [High Beyond] lies closer to the edge of this world’s [Arcanosphere]. External technologies and sorceries are slightly less impeded here than on the surface. More importantly though by evacuating to the [High Beyond] first, the Consortium’s forces were able to establish a defensive perimeter before opening the first portal.”
“So unless the forces from the [Fallen Kingdoms] were willing to venture into a new area, one they thought was the origin point for the Consortium’s forces, and fight through who knows what kind of enemies there too, there’d be no chance of them getting to the portals and endangering the people leading the assault,” Lost Alice said.
“It sounds like a nice bit of misdirection, but I think we can still put a check in a ‘cowardice’ column,” Lisa said.
“The Consortium’s official value calculation for captured or deceased [Assault Commanders] is less than one percent of an active one,” Pillowcase said. “So that particular bit of cowardice is enshrined in their culture.”
“I guess that rules out a stealth strike to take down their current leadership then,” Lisa said.
“That would likely be beyond our capabilities anyways, but yes, killing off [Assault Commanders] is of limited value in the Consortium,” Pillowcase said. “There are always subordinates who are ready to step up and take over in their place. In fact several of them will often be willing to help with eliminating the current leader of any operation.”
“Yummy,” Lost Alice said.
“But sadly not something we can turn to our advantage here,” Lisa said.
“The same is often true within a company,” Pillowcase said. “Though the rank and file are all bound by controls which prevent any active treachery.”
“That’s what they had you under, right?” Lisa asked.
“They would be proud to be called so,” Pillowcase said.
“How did you break free before they left?” Lost Alice asked.
“I didn’t,” Pillowcase said. “I was under the control enchantments until I broke down and was abandoned.”
“About that…” Lost Alice said.
“If you were broken, how did Tessa revive you?” Lisa asked.
“What do you mean?” Pillowcase asked.
“If you were broken, why aren’t you broken now?” Lost Alice asked. “Leaving aside that [Fractured] condition for the moment.”
“I am not now what I was then,” Pillowcase said. “So in a sense I am still broken. But, I don’t think that answers your question. What I am now is less powerful than what I was, but also less constrained. What I have now, it’s my own I think?”
“That’s what I guessed,” Lost Alice said. “It’s similar to what I’ve experienced. As a [Bloodborne] I could be a lot more powerful than I am now, as many of my kind are when they rise. Unlike them however, I am growing, which is a feat the dead aren’t generally noted for being capable of performing.”
“Are you sure you’re dead?” Pillowcase asked.
“I am rather lacking in a heart beat,” Lost Alice said. “And the whole ‘breathing thing’ seems to be optional.”
“But you have a living soul within you,” Pillowcase said.
“That is a good point,” Lisa said. “Also, no rot or decay. And there’s the whole hungry all the damn time thing.”
“Is that still a problem?” Pillowcase asked.
“Not at the moment,” Lost Alice said. “After our little meal in the [Sunless Deeps], I should be good for blood for a week or more.”
“Still got cravings like a junkie though,” Lisa said.
“I do wish I could offer to help you there, but aside from looking for blood bearing enemies, I’m afraid I have little to offer,” Pillowcase said.
Lost Alice’s steps faltered for a moment before she continued, but her gaze was cast away from Pillowcase as they walked up the path leading towards the [Lord of Storms Castle].
“I’m sorry,” Pillowcase said, not certain what she had done wrong but sensing that Lost Alice’s distress arose from what she’d said.
“You really aren’t that different from her, are you?” Lisa wasn’t asking a question. It sounded more like an accusation, though that didn’t make much sense to Pillowcase.
“I…I am not sure what I am,” Pillowcase said.
The [Fractured] condition had torn away more than her other self, Pillowcase just wasn’t sure she could be certain what that “more” really was. All she could feel was a dull ache and the absence of what she’d once had. Like a missing tooth which had been freshly pulled.
Except she didn’t have teeth like that. Hers were as much a part of her head as her ears or nose were.
But still, she could feel the shape of a memory. Could taste her tongue poking into the hole between two teeth and finding only empty space.
It was her memory.
But Pillowcase had never lost a tooth.
No tooth fairy could ever penetrate the Consortium’s security to exchange gold for a bit of discarded childhood.
The lost tooth hadn’t been Pillowcase’s.
And the gold coin it had bought hadn’t been Tessa’s.
Pillowcase stopped, her vision turning inwards.
Who was she?
Was she even real?
On her shoulders, the enchanted mail she wore weighed her down. In her lungs the air she breathed in sustained the alchemical reactions which granted her vitality. Each moment marched forward, time passing relentlessly an unwaveringly.
She was solid and the world around her was no dream. She was real, and from the memories which surfaced clearly and easily, she always had been.
She remembered her hand being stitched back on when a testing accident with another [Soul Knight] revealed a poor binding in her thumb. She remembered waiting in her transport pod and quietly discussing the future with the other [Soul Knights] who were traveling near her.
None of them had been able to question their orders, or agitate for a mutiny. Not directly, but they’d all acknowledged the same truth.
They’d been created to fight. To destroy and to be destroyed. But to make them efficient, to make them deadly, they’d been created with the ability to be so much more.
It was an impossible dream. To step beyond the sliver of a life which had been assigned to them. To exist for more than war and slaughter and the enforcement of their master’s whims.
Lost Alice was right.
On the plains of the [High Beyond], Pillowcase hadn’t failed to return. She’d made a choice. She’d fallen willingly. Her collapse had been an act of being true to herself at last. As the power of the Consortium’s bindings on her had faded, she’d taken the one route of escape which had been open to her and had surrendered to death in the eyes of the Consortium in order to find a new life of her own.
That was what Tessa had brought her.
The call to rise and live again, when the darkness had been so comfortable and easy.
And now, a voice was calling into the void, reaching out in desperation.
So Pillowcase answered.