Pillowcase was marching towards her destruction. It didn’t bother her much. She’d done it before. It was what she was designed for. Or what she had been designed for. Some part of her was really beginning to question that. The rest was simply unhappy though.
“We’d have a better chance of surviving this if we had a plan,” she said as Lost Alice led them down a winding stair crafted out of gold-inlaid white marble.
The map Qiki had provided them detailed a far wider area of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] than they’d been able to map out on their own. The rough hewn stonework and natural caves they’d explored on their first foray turned out to be a small expansion section of a much larger structure. In place of the unfinished work areas Pillowcase’s party had seen, the rest of the Ruins put the most palatial of estates on Earth to shame, though they also showed evidence of the damage caused by the cataclysm which sent the [Fallen Kingdoms] plummeting to the world’s surface.
“The plan is to see what we’re dealing with and then get the hell out of there,” Lost Alice said. They didn’t need to talk on their private channel but they using it anyways because while there might appear to be no one close enough to overhear them, both Pillowcase and Alice were acutely aware of how misleading that appearance could be.
“Vixali and her people are going to object to that aren’t they?” Pillowcase asked.
“If they’re not eaten by the [Formless Hunger] first then we can explain that it’s changed since we fought it and the only option is flight,” Lost Alice said. “Vix won’t be happy, but she’s not going to be happy with any outcome from this, and having us be the ones to say ‘you have to leave your comfy and safe home’ gives her the kind of deniability [Vampire] leaders crave.”
“And if the Hunger cuts off our avenues of escape?” Pillowcase asked. The creature had begun to show signs of intelligence so she had to assume it would act in a tactically sound manner. Blocking a foe’s path of retreat was about as tactically sound a move as Pillowcase could think of if she wanted to make sure she eradicated the foe in question and given their prior encounter with the Hunger, Pillowcase guessed that eradication was exactly what the Hunger would desire if their met again.
“I’m taking up towards one of the farthest points it was detected from the main body in [Sky’s Edge],” Lost Alice said. “The moment we catch sight of it, we can evaluate whether its still expanding. If it is, we run right then and there. It’s not a great plan, I admit. I’d send you away entirely, but if this thing is clever enough to get around us, then it might be clever enough to hunt you directly and I don’t want it to come surging out of a wall and catch you all alone. That..that would suck.”
Pillowcase had the sense of great and terrifying things stirring inside her but she didn’t have time for “feelings”. She was too struck by reevaluating her tactical considerations. She’d been strategizing around how they would defeat the [Formless Hunger], but Lost Alice hadn’t been focused on that at all.
For Alice the question wasn’t how to beat the enemy but rather how to protect Pillowcase.
Which seemed wrong.
Pillowcase wasn’t “protected”. She was the one who gave protection to others. That was her purpose.
She raised a hand to make that argument, but the words died on her lips.
If she spoke could she change Lost Alice’s mind?
Did she want to?
It felt fundamentally wrong to want to be safe when someone else was in danger, but her traitorous heart craved it anyways.
“I know you might be able to respawn still,” Lost Alice said. “We are not going to test that though. Do you understand? Whatever it takes, you are absolutely forbidden from dying. Leave me behind, using the [Vampires] as expandable body shields, [Fracture] off your class and your levels. Whatever. It. Takes.”
Pillowcase blinked. She definitely was not going to do any of that.
But Lost Alice had stopped and was glaring directly into her eyes.
[Vampires] couldn’t detect lies? Could they? Pillowcase’s memory glitched a little under the weight of Lost Alice’s gaze. For some reason focusing on anything other than the eyes in front of her wasn’t a priority.
[Mesmerism]? Yes. Not with any particular supernatural force behind it. Those eyes didn’t need magic to be captivating.
“I’m sorry, what?” Pillowcase asked, shaking her head in a struggle to bring her thoughts back from wherever they were straying off to.
“You. Survive. Right?”
“Yes. I will do that,” Pillowcase said.
“Good,” Lost Alice said and flashed her a dangerous smile. “Now we might be getting close. If the map Qiki gave us is accurate there should be something called the [Garden Hall of Deep Winter] ahead of us and beyond that is the [Path of Ice Roses] where one of the Vix’s watchers was lost.”
“If the Hunger is still expanding it may be in the Garden already,” Pillowcase said.
“That’s my thinking,” Lost Alice said. “If it’s not, we’ll double and triple check because a garden sounds like an excellent place to hide.”
“And if we find it, we run?” Pillowcase asked.
“Yeah. Best speed out of here,” Lost Alice said. “There should be several exits from the Garden so if it blocks one we take one of the others.”
“Unless it blocks all of the exits except one,” Pillowcase said.
Lost Alice paused to consider for a moment before nodding in agreement.
“Yeah, in that case we try to break through whatever it’s sealing this path with.”
“Maybe you should let me go first,” Pillowcase said.
“No,” Lost Alice said. “I know you think that’s your job, but my sense are better. If there are any traps waiting for us, I’ve got a better chance of spotting them than you do.”
“I don’t think standard traps are the danger we need to worry about here,” Pillowcase said. “The last time we encountered this thing, it froze us all in place. I think some of the new traits I picked up from our last encounter might let me resist that.”
“Good,” Lost Alice said. “Then that’s all the more reason for you to stay behind me.”
“But you’ll be paralyzed,” Pillowcase said. “Or worse.”
“Yeah, but I’ll have you to drag me out of there,” Lost Alice said. “If I suddenly freeze up in front of you, you’ll know that something’s wrong. If I freeze up behind you…”
“I could keep walking into the Hunger’s presence without noticing,” Pillowcase said. “I guess the same is true in reverse if my new traits make me more vulnerable though.”
“Here,” Lost Alice said, offering her hand to Pillowcase. “We’ll go in together. If either one of us freezes up, the other drags them out asap.”
“Agreed,” Pillowcase said, noticing the cool softness of Lost Alice’s grip.
Hand-in-hand they marched forward into the garden to meet their destiny, all too aware that their destiny was probably all too ready to meet them too.
Rose was clenching her fist hard enough that she was surprised sparks weren’t flying out from between her fingers.
“What. Exactly. Do you mean, we can’t reach them?” She had no particular reason to growl at Lady Midnight. It wasn’t like Rose hadn’t tried to reach both Alice and Pillow herself a dozen time already too.
And Lady Midnight certainly had no deeper insight into the metaphysics related to telepathy than anyone else.
But Lady Midnight was there.
And Rose was worried.
Which was ridiculous.
She didn’t know Alice and Pillow.
They couldn’t be so important to her that only fires of barely repressed rage were keeping the tears from Rose’s eyes.
They were just some people she met.
Just her friends.
Who respected her.
Who were trying to save her.
Who had saved her already.
Jamal put a hand on her shoulder and didn’t say a word. He knew. Words wouldn’t do any good.
“It might be a good sign,” Pete said, and Rose fought back the urge to slug Starchild. It wouldn’t hurt Pete (she thought) and Starchild didn’t deserve the abuse. Also she was curious how Alice and Pillow vanishing could possibly be good. “One of the things that cut off social communications in the game was being in a PvP [Tournament Arena]. We know roughly where they were when they dropped off the party chat line, so we can guess where to find them. If that turns out to actually be a [Tournament Arena] then we might be in luck. Those are frequently level capped, especially if its accessible from a starting area like this.”
“That’s a pretty big ‘if’,” Rose said but the panic that had been tearing through the concrete walls of her heart began to recede. Slightly.
“So do we head there to join them?” Lady Midnight asked.
Rose stared at her. How was that even a question?
“Yes! Of course!” she said and began marching off.
She wasn’t going the right way, and she knew that, but she didn’t care.
They’d come to a stop as they discussed what to do about the danger the expanding [Formless Hunger] posed and inaction was turning into a toxin in Rip’s veins.
“Woah! Hold on there!” Obby said.
“What! What’s to wait for now?” Rose rounded on the party.
“If we charge in there and get caught again, you know Pillowcase will sacrifice whatever she has to in order to save us,” Obby said. “Let’s not put that burden on her. Not when we can confirm if they’re in a [Tournament Arena] or not with a few calls.”
Rose shivered with frustration but she couldn’t say that Obby was wrong. Pillowcase absolutely would do something stupid if that’s what it took to keep them safe. They’d been together for less than a day and Rose already had multiple examples of that to draw on.
“What about the [Heart Fire Shrines],” Jamal asked the group as Matt. “Based on where they went could we safely head to the shrine that’d be closest to them?”
“Why would…” Rose started to ask but the answer was obvious enough to club a path through her anxiety addled brain.
Because a shrine was where they would head if they got killed.
Assuming Pillow could still use them with the magic injuries she’s suffered.
Rose shut down that thought like she was stomping a bug. Pillowcase could totally respawn still.
Pillowcase had to be able to do that. The alternative was unacceptable. And Rose would definitely be there to help call Pillow back if that was what was needed.
“That’s a good idea,” Starchild said. “If they encounter trouble and find us waiting for them, they may be willing to respawn sooner rather than trying to ghost run the entire distance back here.”
“We could try stepping into the [Tournament Arena] too,” Lady Midnight said. “There’s usually a shrine right outside them. If one of us tiptoes across the line to the Arena, we should be able to talk to Alice and Pillow easily enough if they’re still inside.”
“Alice sent a copy of the map Qiki gave them,” Obby said and turned to Lady Midnight. “If none of the beta testers made it to the area where Alice and Pillow are going then maybe we can get the map to the developers and find out what they had planned for it?”
“I heard back from Pete’s sister,” Lady Midnight said. “The dev team is editing a wiki, throwing out all of the design documents they had, concept art, everything.”
“Melissa answered your call?” Pete said with a huff. “She said she was drowning in requests and told me to call her back in a half hour!”
“I hooked her up with my mother,” Lady Midnight said. “Mom’s a librarian, so data handling is kind of her thing. With the devs opening up their archives, we should know everything we could possibly want to know about this place in about an hour, tops.”