It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Despite the heavy slowness which gripped her, Pillowcase knew that all she had to do was keep going forward. The domain of a dead god lay ahead – it wasn’t far off anymore – and once they were reached it, all of her problems would narrow to simple tactics.
If I was thinking tactically, I wouldn’t be venturing onto terrain where everything vastly out leveled myself and my group.
No other presence answered. No alternate perspective with a kind voice offered an opinion. Within the confines of her mystically reinforced skull, Pillowcase was alone.
That’s how it should be. It’s how I was designed.
Pillowcase didn’t believe either of those were true, or would matter if they were.
It had been nice having Tessa’s voice and guidance. Pillowcase was able to admit that easily. What she couldn’t understand was why being bonded to someone who’d never been in a real fight in her life should make her feel so much stronger.
It wasn’t as though Tessa had offered tactical analysis which Pillowcase lacked. Or provided a bulwark of unshakable courage against the the various anxieties facing danger produced.
Not that the Consortium had crafted Pillowcase with anxieties. She was woven to be a weapon and weapons had nothing to fear except failing their masters or never being used at all.
That’s not right.
It wasn’t right. It was what the Consortium had stitched into the folds of her mind. Over and over reinforcing the idea that her value was measurable and calculated. They knew exactly how much they’d expended in creating her, and they knew exactly how much use their models projected they could expect out of her.
A good [Clothwork] would meet expectations, delivering value in excess of her creation cost. A truly worthy [Clothwork] would exceed those expectations, and being disassembled to determine which deviations from the standard model had created the excess capability so that it could be replicated in future generations.
That was Pillowcase’s ultimate goal. To be good enough that her makers unmade her.
It was the closest she could get to immortality – to be imperfectly duplicated as the next revision of the [Clothwork] template for [Soul Knights].
Can you be immortal if you never live in the first place?
Before she marched in the vanguard against the defenders of the [Fallen Kingdoms], Pillowcase couldn’t have conceived of the question, much less formed an answer to it.
I was always alive. I just didn’t know it until I met my better self.
Tessa didn’t have a vast library of combat skills, or the ability to shape magic with a whim, or superhuman senses, or an impossibly resilient body.
But she was still Pillowcase’s better self.
Pillowcase laughed quietly to herself.
Tessa would never have accepted that description. There was so much Pillowcase couldn’t remember of her, so many shared memories that were no longer a part of her, but the sense of who Tessa was? That was clear as crystal.
It was through that crystal that Pillowcase was able to look back at her own past and see all the things the Consortium had prevented her from understanding. Tessa was gone, but at least that much of her impact on Pillowcase remained.
I was always more than the Consortium told me I was. More than they would let me be.
She couldn’t have believed that on her own. The Consortium’s conditioning ran far too deep. They’d been her whole world, and even the glimpses she’d seen of places and times their influence didn’t cover hadn’t suggested that their understanding of her was anything other than absolute.
She was a doll and a possession and not a person, and it had taken two seconds of experiencing herself from Tessa’s perspective to shatter all of those lies.
But being a weapon is what I’m good at.
In part that was why she had pressed for the team to continue on to the [Lord of Storms Castle]. There were strategic reasons to investigate it to be sure, but it was also the sort of environment where Pillowcase knew she could be useful. Where she could understand how she was supposed to live.
By killing others.
It was what she was designed for.
But not what I chose to do.
But if not that, what use did she have?
I’m a tank. And I don’t mind being that. I like what it means.
She wasn’t a killer.
She was a protector.
Who, admittedly, also killed sometimes.
It wasn’t a perfect metaphor. As much as Pillowcase wanted to embrace a life that was the complete antithesis of what the Consortium had planned for her, there were people right behind her who needed her. And who she needed.
She didn’t know what her life was, or what she wanted it to be, but she’d already learned that keeping people around her safe from the sort of things she had once been felt pretty good and as reasons to live went, seemed as good a starting place as anywhere else.
But how is that fundamentally any different from what the Consortium was asking of you? Aren’t you still basing your value around the service you provide to others?
No. The Consortium compelled my service whether it brought me any joy or not. I was told that I should feel happy to be doing what they commanded and if I didn’t that I was flawed. Defective. Worthless.
Pillowcase wasn’t sure who she was arguing with. Herself? There wasn’t anyone else in her head, and the thoughts on both sides were definitely her own. Could she disagree with herself though? Question her own choices and decisions? Was that something people did?
From a distance beyond the reaches of the loudest sound, Pillowcase thought she heard the whisper of a mirthful chuckle.
There are things I can do. Things only I’m in a position to do. If I chose to do them that makes all the difference.
Because my choices define me. If I have no choices, then my life is not my own.
“Hey, do you have a moment?” Lisa asked on a private channel.
“I do,” Pillowcase said. She was sure she hadn’t bumped into Lost Alice. She’d been very careful to maintain the distance the other woman seemed to prefer.
“We’re about to do something very stupid aren’t we?” Lisa asked.
“We’re taking a risk. We do have some capabilities which mitigate it though,” Pillowcase said.
“That’s one of the things I’m concerned about,” Lisa said. “You’re planning to try tanking anything we run into there aren’t you?”
“I’m happy to share the load with Oblivion’s Daughter,” Pillowcase said. “But, yes, better that I draw the enemy attacks in. It’s what I was built for.”
“Were you built to come back from the dead though?” Lisa asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Every time we’ve had to do a corpse run so far, our ghosts are shaped like our human forms,” Lisa said. “Do you know for sure that, if we get killed in there, you’ll be able to respawn like the rest of us can?”
The [Lord of Storms Castle] looked a lot closer than it had a moment earlier. The distance to it was still the same, but the time before they reached it had become far more precious.
“I don’t know,” Pillowcase admitted, her memories and training being entirely lacking in answers to the question of whether [Clothwork] soldiers left ghosts behind. “I suspect so though. The divine spark in the [Heart Fire] should be able to work on any body which has a connection to it, and this body has been proven to have one.”
Lisa grumbled. “I don’t know if that’s good enough.”
“It is an extra concern,” Pillowcase said. “And a difficult one to test.”
“Yeah, we can’t exactly pre-kill you and see if you can make it back,” Lisa said.
“Well, we could,” Pillowcase said.
“What? No! No we can’t! Not when the question is ‘can she come back from the dead’. What if the answer is ‘no’?”
“It would mean I wouldn’t be a distraction for you if an unwinnable fight broke out?”
Pillowcase had no interest in dying to test a theory, but her analytical side demanded she be honest about the options before them.
“You would let Obby chop your head off just so I wouldn’t be distracted in a fight?” Lisa’s words boiled with incredulity.
“That would not be my first choice,” Pillowcase said. “But neither would letting the rest of the team face what’s inside the castle without being able to protect them.”
“Of the two, you had better know which option we will be selecting,” Lisa said.
“The one which allows me to pursue the life I’ve chosen to live?” Pillowcase said.
“The one that involves you actually having a damn life!” Lisa wasn’t shouting but that was only because they were on a silent, telepathic channel.
“Can I live if I can’t be who I am?” Pillowcase asked.
“In this case? Yes! Yes you can!” Lisa said. “There’s no need to throw your life away just to prove something. You can be a tank just fine without tackling every impossible challenge thrown in front of you.”
“How?” Pillowcase asked. “Being a tank means facing danger so others don’t have to. If I run from this because it’s too dangerous, then how would I ever face any other danger?”
“Because you just said it yourself – this is too dangerous,” Lisa said. “Listen, training is something I know how to do. When someone comes in looking to start to build their strength we don’t say ‘here’s the heaviest weights we’ve got, if they crush you that’s too bad’. We can work up your strength the same way. But only if you’re alive to put in the work. And maybe that means you won’t be able to tank the most deadly foes out there but you can still be a tank and still do a lot of good by focusing on the battles that you can survive.”
Pillowcase blinked and felt a liquid on her face.
“I’m crying?” she said.
“Why?” Lisa asked.
“How?” Pillowcase asked. “[Clothworks] can’t cry. It’s not part of our design.”
“Hey are you doing ok?” Obby asked, stepping up to Pillowcase’s side as Pillowcase stumbled to a halt.
“I’m at full health,” Pillowcase said.
“Yeah, but you don’t look so good,” Rip said, appearing at Pillowcase’s side and helping her sit down on a small boulder beside the path they were following.
“No. No. I’m fine,” Pillowcase said, trying to stand, but Lost Alice’s gentle touch kept her pinned on her seat. “I’m okay. I’m just…”
“Adjusting,” Obby said. “You lost a literal part of yourself and you’ve been pressing on like nothing changed. You can’t do that. You need time to rest.”
“We all do,” Matt said.
“No. I’ll be fine. We can keep going. We need to find out if the [Lord of Storms] will be able to help us. If the Consortium attacks again…”
“I don’t think that will be a problem any time soon,” Obby said, gesturing back in the direction they’d come.
Pillowcase saw the [Formless Hunger] which had replaced [Sky’s Edge] tearing a Consortium warship apart molecule by molecule. The sight was horrifying and fascinating and captured everyone’s attention for several long moments until it was done.
Other warships were in orbit but something about its first meal seemed to disagree with the [Formless Hunger]. The random pulses of light in the static couldn’t express any real meaning, but something in them suggested to Pillowcase that the Hunger was afraid. Of what, Pillowcase had no idea, and on reflection was not at all sure how she was supposed to feel about something that could terrifying a formless eldritch abomination.
“Look,” she said. “My eyes are better now. No unexplained leakage. I’m ready to continue on.”
“The [Lord of Storms Castle],” Pillowcase said, turning to point at the portal to the castle’s domain, which was no longer visible at all.
“My apologies,” the Lord of Storms said. “I’m just in the process of moving. Did we have an appointment?”