While a party of two suited Tessa just fine under the circumstances, she was forced to admit that it did present some issues.
In theory those were manageable though. The numerical advantage the monster spawns were likely to have could be mitigated by simply avoiding the encounter for example.
With neither of them wearing heavy armor, the detection radius of hostile creatures was a small as possible and with only two of them in the area there wasn’t supposed to be any penalty to their natural ability to move silently (and also very slowly). Lost Alice also had vision and hearing which were sharper than any creature which had any business being in a low level dungeon like the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. Coupling that with the mini-map in the heads-up display, and the chance of anything sneaking up on them should have been effectively zero.
The glitch in that plan had come from Tessa. Tessa and her all too human eyes and ears and (most importantly) sense of balance.
In hindsight, she wasn’t even sure she’d tripped over anything more than her own two feet. One moment she was sneaking forward at her best speed though and the next she tumbled forwards, convinced for some reason that her foot had struck some kind of gelatinous slime.
The scream of surprise was a mistake. She admitted that immediately. An understandable mistake she felt, but still not the brightest move when one was attempting to get through an area which likely contained monsters in significant number who were also significantly stronger than she was.
“What happened?” Lisa asked silently on their private channel as she drew Tessa into one of the alcoves in the ornately carved walls.
“I tripped. Can you see anything there? It felt like I stepped into one of those little slime creatures.”
The hallway they were walking down was leading them away from where the others were supposed to be waiting for them. They’d picked it because it also looked like it would lead them around the area the [Formless Hunger] had invaded, and seemed to be clear of large concentrations of monsters.
Tessa had been intrigued by the work that had gone into the simple passageway. The whole thing was lit by a soft atmospheric glow that had the strength of a series of small candles despite there being no visible source for the illumination. Each alcove received a little more of the light than the stretches of hallway between them.
With the amount of detail put into the miniature tableaus carved into the alcoves, Tessa was hard pressed to imagine the lighting designer hadn’t worked hand in hand with the crafters who created the carving. The scenes seemed to tell the story of the world’s creation, with each small patch capturing a unique event and each alcove being a single day containing hundreds of important moments.
From the alcoves they’d passed so far, it seemed that rather than seven days, the creation of the [Fallen Kingdoms] had taken years of incredible effort and been the work of far more than a single creator.
And then, at some point, everything had fallen apart, and the beautiful carved hallways had become home to monsters.
“I don’t see anything,” Lisa said. “Can slimes phase through floors?”
“Not any of the normal ones,” Tessa said. She blinked trying to see more in the dim candlelight but as far as she could tell there was no sign of anything like one of the low level slimes she’d thought she was stepping on.
“It did feel like a slime,” Pillowcase said. “No acid burn or paralytic numbing to it though, so it would have to have been one of the lowest levels of slimes.”
“If you foot wet at all?” Lisa asked.
“No. The shoes are as dry as when I put them on,” Tessa said, surprised that her hand wasn’t covered in goop.
“We’ve got two choices then; move on and hope this was some kind of random glitch or we search around and see what we can find,” Lisa said.
“If we move on, we’ll have a better chance of getting to Rip and Matt before trouble finds them,” Tessa said, keeping a wary eye on the spot where she’d tripped. “But…”
“But if there is some kind of weird monster involved, we would be leading it right back to them.” Lisa sighed in a frustration which was all too familiar to Tessa.
Nothing was ever easy or simple.
“Can you see anything special about that spot?” Tessa asked, moving away from Lost Alice’s embrace to get a closer look.
“It’s just a normal, flat, section of…wait!” Despite Lost Alice’s vampiric reflexes, she still wasn’t fast enough to yank Tessa back before the portal formed in the air in front of her.
“Ok, this feels weird,” Tessa said with half of her body sticking through the rectangular of scintillating purple light which hung in the hallway in front of them.
“Are you ok!” Lisa asked, not letting go of the arm she’d grabbed onto.
“Yeah,” Tessa said, pulling herself back onto the near side of the portal and checking that her fingers and toes still seemed to be functional. “That just tingled. A lot.”
“What’s on the other side? Could you feel anything?” Lisa asked.
“It doesn’t go anywhere,” Tessa said, certain that was the truth, and completely unsure of where that certainty came from. “Not yet anyways.”
“What do you mean? Can you see something in it?” Lisa asked.
“No. It’s not in position. Here, let me do this.” Tessa reached out and push on the edge of the portal. Part of her expected her hand to pass through as it had before, but another part wasn’t surprised when the portal moved instead.
With a gentle shove from Tessa, the plane of purple light swung away from her like a door opening until it made contact with the wall in between two of the alcoves.
The first thing Tessa noticed in the room which appeared beyond the portal was the little tear drop shaped slime which was waiting for them. Then she noticed the books.
The endless shelves of books.
And the pot of steaming coffee which was waiting for them.
Snakes and blood drinking moths. Not exactly the kind of thing Rose would have guessed she would have been happy to be surrounded by. A lifetime ago, back before she logged in [Broken Horizons], Rose would have counted being swarmed by both sorts of creatures as the definition of a bad day.
Rip Shot didn’t try to suppress the giggle that escaped her lips. The old Rose had such a quaint and amusing idea of what a bad day was.
“Bipedal friend Rose, you may leave these to us,” Silkscrin said. Silkscrin was speaking in [Storm Tongue] so her words sounded like lightning tearing through clouds, but the meaning was crystal clear to Rose nonetheless.
It was nice to have Patrons who provided helpful gifts.
“It’s ok,” Rose said as the [Lightning Serpents] closed ranks to protect her from the swarm of [Gloom Drinkers] which descended on her party. “I’ve got this.”
As a [Lightning Archer], Rip had acquired a few new skills which were perfect for dealing with a large number of weak creatures. Unlike Matt and Lady Midnight, Rip didn’t need intense concentration to use her abilities either. She was perfectly capable of shooting arrows even with deadly moths swirling around her.
But Rose had a better idea.
“FOOF! Can you talk to these things?” Rose asked as she called her pet from the protective orb it had retreated to in response to the various terrors that had befallen them.
Unlike the [Lightning Serpents], FOOF could not communicate verbally. Rose guessed FOOF was as smart as a very clever animal but not quite fully sapient. Even lacking words though, FOOF was quite capable of commanding the attention of the attacking [Gloom Drinkers], first by emitting a high pitched whine that Rip’s [Tabbywile] ears could hear far better than Rose’s human ones could ever have managed.
[Gloom Drinkers] didn’t have the sort of facial structure to display confusion, but the sudden transformation of their high speed flight patterns into mostly stationary hovering spoke to the sort of puzzlement Rose had grown terrible used to since arrived in the [Fallen Kingdoms].
“What’s happening?” Lady Midnight asked, sounding as puzzled as the [Gloom Drinkers] were.
“FOOF is talking to them,” Rose said. “We don’t need to fight them.”
“She got a pet a little while ago,” Jamal said. “It’s like a baby [Gloom Drinker].”
“They’re listening to a baby?” Lady Midnight asked.
“FOOF is very persuasive,” Rose said.
She knew FOOF was persuasive, in part, because FOOF’s level was linked to her own. Rose had noticed that the first time she’d leveled and wondered why a non-combat pet would have levels. It occurred to her that Pillowcase and Lost Alice had described the behavior of non-combat pets, but they hadn’t said specifically that [Lil Gloom Drinkers] couldn’t fight.
Whether that was a change due to being in the game world for real or if even [Broken Horizons] had FOOF flagged as combat capable, Rose wasn’t sure, but what she did know was that since the [Gloom Drinkers] were all below level 5 and FOOF was ten levels higher than them, her pet could very likely solo the entire swarm.
Which also made FOOF’s commands a little more persuasive as far as the [Gloom Drinkers] were concerned.
“Hostilities have ceased?” Silkscrin asked.
Rose chirped at FOOF, who responded with an acknowledging flutter as the [Gloom Drinkers] settled down on the various nooks and crannies of the rough corridor which could act as perches for them.
“Yeah, I think we’re good,” Rose said and then watched FOOF perform a rather intricate pantomime of wing flutters and body bobs.
It wasn’t exactly a language but it managed to convey a fairly detailed narrative none the less.
At least to Rose and Rip.
Everyone else looked baffled.
“FOOF says they’re running from the [Formless Hunger] too,” Rose said, acting as translator. “It’s taken one of the exits out, but they could hear it coming and escaped to hear before it could follow them. They thought we were more of the [Disjoined].”
“They know what the [Disjoined] are?” Jamal asked. He believed her, because he was awesome, but he was still struggling to accept a reality he didn’t seem to have any connection to.
“Not as [Disjoined] exactly,” Rose said. “I’m translating a bit there. FOOF basically called them ‘Wrong Scratchy Ones’, but I know that’s the same as the [Disjoined Ones] we’ve seen.”
“Do they know where the [Disjoined] ones came from?” Lady Midnight asked. “Is the [Formless Hunger] burping them out or is it calling to them?
There was an exchange of ultrasonic screeches between FOOF and a few of the [Gloom Drinkers] before FOOF reported back to Rose.
“FOOF says the [Disjoined] are being drawn to the [Formless Hunger]. The [Gloom Drinkers] saw enough to ‘fill a tunnel’, which I think is a dozen or so?”
“And they’re definitely working with the Hunger?” Jamal asked. “Cause last time we saw them, they were kind of in a ‘destroy all the things’ mode.”
FOOF bobbed a few times in answer to the question.
“It seems like they are,” Rose said. “The Hunger had stopped growing before it met the [Disjoined]. Then it sounds like it gave them orders and pulled back?”
“Orders?” Jamal said. “How does something like that give orders? And how do things like the [Disjoined] take orders?”
“They’re related,” Lady Midnight said, a note of creeping dread entering her voice. “We saw that in [Sky’s Edge]. They might even be the same thing.”
“That would be good then, right?” Jamal asked. “I mean we beat the [Disjoined] before, so if the Hunger’s made of the same stuff then we should be able to beat it too?”
“Yeah, maybe,” Lady Midnight said, her gaze distant as a terrible thought grew behind her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Rose asked.
“Why would the Hunger stop growing?” Lady Midnight asked. “What was it afraid of?”
“Can that thing even be afraid?” Jamal asked.
Lady Midnight’s terrible though began to grow inside Rose too.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s afraid of the person who stood up to it. The one it couldn’t kill.”
“And now it’s got minions to send after Tessa,” Lady Midnight said, giving voice to the eight worst words Rose had heard since she’d arrived in the [Fallen Kingdoms].