When escape isn’t an option, some choices become much simpler.
“It’s going to catch us,” Pillowcase said, readying her shield and mace.
Fighting was foolish. She couldn’t beat the [Formless Hunger]. So that wasn’t an objective for this combat. It was possible that she could buy time for Lost Alice to escape though.
“What? No! We. Just. Talked. About. This!” Lisa tugged at Pillowcase’s arm trying to hurry her towards the second exit from the garden.
“We did,” Pillowcase said. “Then we were flanked. That changes things.”
She dodged away from a tentacle of static and watched as two more began whipping themselves closer.
“No! It. Changes. Nothing. Move!” It was Lost Alice’s growl this time and the [Vampire] had plenty of strength to enforce her demand, even compared to Pillowcase’s sturdy frame.
Pillowcase saw the next attack coming and switched from resisting Lost Alice’s pull to moving with it. The sudden change sent Lost Alice off balance, but Pillowcase was able to scoop her up before they both tumbled to floor of the garden.
“We can’t go into that corridor,” Pillowcase said, gesturing to the one at the top of the second staircase.
“Why not! You promised!”
“Look at the wisps,” Pillowcase said. “They’re already moving away from it. The Hunger has that corridor sealed off too.”
Lost Alice looked where Pillowcase was pointing as they both got moving again. Pillowcase didn’t lead them towards the stairs. Instead she tried to remember the map and plot which areas it would have been the most difficult for the Hunger to have reached. The drawback to that approach was that “most difficult” didn’t mean “hadn’t already done so”. Pillowcase had no idea how fast the hunger could grow or how much of the dungeon it had already infiltrated.
“Over there then,” Lisa said, gesturing to another entrance a few hundred yards away.
The wisps were the only guide they had and the ones near the distant exit didn’t seem to be as perturbed as the ones which were being consumed by the static tentacles around them.
It was too far for them to run, but Pillowcase saw she wasn’t going to have any option except to try, so she let Lost Alice lead her onwards.
“No. Dying.” Lost Alice’s eyes were solid pools of red when she glanced back at Pillowcase.
“It set this trap for me,” Pillowcase said.
Standard battle doctrine was clear on the occasional necessity of sacrificing units, especially during an ambush. Pillowcase didn’t expect Lost Alice to conform to the Consortium’s Manual of Approved Combat Practices, but under the circumstances it was pretty that Pillowcase was at best a liability who could be turned into a useful asset if used properly.
Of course “used” in this context meant being fed to the [Formless Hunger], so Pillowcase wasn’t entirely resistant to seeking a better option. She remembered what being struck by the [Disjoined] felt like though and predicted that the [Formless Hungers] blows would be far, far worse.
Possibly even permanent.
That wasn’t something she could allow to happen to Lost Alice.
Tessa would kill her if she did.
“Sucks to be the [Formless Hunger] then,” Lisa said. “It can’t have you.”
“It may contest that point,” Pillowcase said.
She glanced over her shoulder and then yanked Lost Alice off the path they were running down.
The [Ice Lillies] shattered into motes of brilliant white as Lost Alice crashed through them, but Pillowcase couldn’t appreciate the beauty.
She had to block.
The static tentacle struck her with [Formless Ripper]. It had caught up too quickly and Pillowcase had spent too much time, at least a dozen milliseconds, ensuring that Lost Alice was clear and it could only strike at her. Dodging was impossible.
So instead she put her terribly fragile, low level shield in the path of the blow.
The [Formless Ripper] effect reached out to strip apart the subatomic particles which made up Pillowcase’s shield, her armor and her arm. The [Formless Hunger] had consumed entire battleships with that technique.
[Transdimensional Integrity] invoked.
The tentacle smashed into the raised shield and staggered backward, propelled by an angry flash of light. Pillowcase felt the force of the impact and watched her shield shudder under the impact but its fundamental structure held together where the Consortium’s battlships hadn’t.
Tessa might have had a quip, or a cheer. She might have taken a moment to reflect on how fortunate it was that her earlier encounter with the [Formless Hunger] had left her with an ability which inoculated her against the worst of its attacks. She might even have had some great revelation about how to fight the things.
All Pillowcase had was focus and determination.
More tentacles were racing to surround them.
Their route to the seemingly clear exit was shrinking every second.
Another tentacle shot up from the ground directly beneath Pillowcase’s feet.
It should have pierced her body and disintegrated the majority of her torso. Instead it simply knocked her back and inflicted a bit of minor damage from the semi-physical spikes along its edges.
“Pillowcase!” Lost Alice scrambled back to her feet, the haze of the shattered [Frost Lillies] wreathing her in a luminous outline as she started casting. “[Counter Death]. [Casting spell: Lesser Blood Channel].”
“I’m fine,” Pillowcase said, bracing for the next tentacles attack and snapping off a quick hit to place a [Taunt] effect on the one that had tried to sneak beneath her.
Healing flowed into her from the [Lesser Blood Channel]. More than she needed in fact. Lost Alice wasn’t being sensible. [Lesser Blood Channel] wasn’t as efficient a spell as the [Minor] variant of it, but Alice didn’t seem to care. Or she wasn’t looking at this as a long term fight, which struck Pillowcase as disturbingly likely.
“We have to keep moving! Go! I’ll follow you.” It was a nice sentiment but Pillowcase knew that Lost Alice didn’t mean it.
[Lesser Blood Channel] restricted the caster’s movement the same as the [Minor] version did.. Lost Alice was going to keep it active until Pillowcase made it out of the spell’s range.
At her best speed, Pillowcase could possibly the reach the open exit. She’d need to block some attacks which hadn’t been part of the equation previously, and she would take enough hits that the healing Lost Alice was providing would be vital, but with everything added together she could make it.
Lost Alice however couldn’t possibly do the same.
Without [Transdimensional Integrity], even the first hit from a tentacle could be devastating, and Alice couldn’t supply herself with healing like she could with Pillowcase. She was going to take hits, and each one would slow her down. And she would die.
Or at least her body would be destroyed. The nearest [Heart Fire Shrine] wasn’t that far away. As ghost runs went, Lost Alice wasn’t that bad off. The chances that she would encounter the [Hounds of Fate], or be unable to outrun them, seemed slim.
Tactical doctrine was therefore clear.
Sometimes units had to be sacrificed for the good of the rest of the squad.
Pillowcase felt her instincts take hold as her feet shifted and her eyes began to pick out a course that would provide as much cover as possible from the rapidly growing number of static tentacles.
Then she looked at Lost Alice.
Lost Alice who was desperate for Pillowcase to leave, to run, to live.
Lost Alice cared about her.
Sentimentality was absolutely not part of Pillowcase’s make up.
There were threads woven into her specifically to avoid such irrational attachments from developing and clouding the effectiveness of a unit.
Harsh, pragmatic logic and obedience to orders were the only things that could be relied on in the heat of battle.
Pillowcase felt herself being swept away by that programming, felt her weight shifting as she turned to run, and slammed into a wall of emotion that couldn’t have been her own.
She didn’t have a heart after all.
Without pausing to block, she rolled off her front foot, smashing two tentacles with her mace and [Shield Bashing] a third to make sure everything was focused on her.
“No!” Lost Alice screamed.
“I’m not leaving you here,” Pillowcase said as the “minor” attacks from the static tentacles bashed and battered her driving her health perilously low faster than the healing spell could keep up with.
A new tentacle whipped down from overhead and Pillowcase overextended to catch its attack on her shield rather than allowing it to strike Lost Alice’s unprotected head. The move made her stumble for a step and wind up crouched down under her shield right beside Lost Alice.
“You’re an idiot,” Lost Alice said, her eyes shining with tears.
“Yes, now let me take care of you,” Pillowcase said, rising to fend off the growing cluster of static tentacles.
Behind her, Lost Alice whispered something inaudible and rose as well.
“I don’t think we can make it to the exit together,” she said.
“If we could thin out the tentacles we’d have a better chance,” Pillowcase said. “My attacks are barely scratching them though.”
“Mine won’t do any better,” Lost Alice said. “We need Rip and Matt here.”
“I doubt I can hold the [Formless Hunger] off long enough for them to join us,” Pillowcase said.
“And I wouldn’t want them to anyways,” Lost Alice said. “None of our friends should have to face this.”
“Agreed. It’s why we came here,” Pillowcase said. “So they wouldn’t have to.”
Lost Alice gave a harsh, bitter laugh.
“I thought we were doing this to keep you safe,” she said. “Guess I’m an idiot too.”
“I’ll make it out of this,” Pillowcase said. “I swear.”
“You better,” Lisa said. “And you better have an idea how we’re going to do that soon.”
“I think I do,” Pillowcase said. “But I don’t think you’ll like it.”
“You want me to drop the healing spell,” Lost Alice said.
“That’s the start of it. We can’t move while you’re anchored in place.”
“It gets worse from there?” Lost Alice asked.
“We need to split up,” Pillowcase said. “And you need to let me act as bait.”
“I’m not saying we move out of range for your heals,” Pillowcase said. “Let me create a front line that we can retreat from.”
“You can do that with me beside you,” Lost Alice said.
“If I lose aggro on one of them, I’ll need some leeway to get it back,” Pillowcase said. “And they might have area attacks they’re holding reserve.”
Pillowcase heard the silence which followed as a thousand unvoiced objections from Lost Alice. She could only pay it so much attention though as all four tentacles were flailing around on her.
The [Formless Hunger] didn’t seem to be capable of learning. It struck over and over with the [Formless Ripper] effect, as though convinced it should be able to shatter Pillowcase’s defenses despite the mounting evidence to the contrary.
“Fine,” Lost Alice said at last. “Three quarters max casting range. I’m not taking a chance on knockback messing that up.”
“Agreed, and thank you,” Pillowcase said. “Take the path that curves to the left. More ice trees to run the tentacles through.”
“Is that a good thing?” Lost Alice asked as she started moving away down the path Pillowcase indicated.
“They seem to slow down and grow more solid with each thing they absorb,” Pillowcase said. “Makes them hit a little harder, but also makes it easier to dodge and parry them.”
Not that dodging and parrying the tentacles was easy.
But it was probably easier than it should have been Pillowcase noted.
The [Formless Hunger] was far more powerful than she was. Even its farthest reaching tentacles should have reflected that. The hits she was taking were heavy ones, but she was so far away from the level cap that the fact she was surviving them at all meant the attacks would be unnoticeable for a max level character, even one of the squishy ones.
With a blink, she called up her stats page and saw the familiar chain-link icon next to her current level display.
The garden was a level locked zone.
The [Formless Hunger] wasn’t attacking them with obliterating force because it didn’t have obliterating force to call on. It was limited to a tiny chunk of a its real power.
A static tentacle hit Pillowcase square in the chest, sending her sprawling through one of the [Frost Oaks].
The [Formless Hunger’s] “limited power” was still more than she could deal with.
That was made even more clear a moment later when a new tentacle surged out up from the ground. Unlike the previous ambush though, this one didn’t bounce off of Pillowcase’s armor.
Because it didn’t target Pillowcase.