The shift in perspective was easier for Lisa to follow than it had been in the past. When she’d been talking with Tessa in the hallways, she’d been almost fully herself as ‘Lisa’. Lost Alice was still there, but somewhat like a mask Lisa had pushed up onto her head.
When the first shot was fired though, all that had changed.
Despite Lost Alice’s vampiric speed, Tessa had reacted faster, pure human terror surpassing the monstrous reflexes at Lost Alice’s command. Lost Alice hadn’t wasted time worrying about that. There was violence and danger and that was her world, not Lisa’s. One mask came down as the other rose up.
Beside her, she saw Tessa’s posture shift as well, going from a a timid pose to one which was ready to spring into the sort of action which would be ill conceived for a very breakable human who was unused to life and death combat.
An ill conceived posture for a human, but not an unfamiliar one.
Lost Alice knew where she’s seen the expression Tessa was wearing.
“Pillowcase?” she asked, puzzled by how clearly the other side of Tessa was present in Tessa’s eyes and mouth and grin.
“More or less,” Pillowcase answered.
Lost Alice could have contemplated the ramifications of that, could have wondered if the shift was similar to her own, where “Lisa” now felt like a mask pushed up on her head rather than any sort of “more real personality” who’d been hidden beneath a “Lost Alice” mask.
“Can you use your skills? Or access your equipment?” Lost Alice asked, seeing many possibilities where Pillowcase in Tessa’s body could go wrong..
The puppeted Consortium soldiers would come for them. Lost Alice knew that. The Hunger had directed the soldiers this far, it wasn’t going to leave them firing uselessly in all directions. How long it would need to reassert a degree of control after bursting into a spasm of rage was anyone’s guess but Alice was willing to bet it wouldn’t be long.
“My equipment seems to be stuck with my body. Wherever that is,” Pillowcase said. “I might be able to use some of my abilities though. I hope.”
“I don’t like that,” Lost Alice said. “Their weapons are strong enough for one shot kills if they land an accurate shot.”
“Not one shot,” Pillowcase said. “They’ll need at least two, unless there’s an ongoing damage element to the burns?”
“There seems to be,” Lost Alice said, thinking back to what Tessa’s leg injury was doing to her health until it had been healed. “It’s neutralized when the major damage is repaired but there may be no window for healing between the first shot and the fatal tick of damage which follows.”
“I’ll have to make sure I don’t take a hit like that then,” Pillowcase said, and offered Lost Alice the barest hint of a smile, as though her face was still woven of a fabric which could never properly express the joyful spirit within it.
While seeing Tessa’s human form was all sort of delicious, for a variety of reasons, both vampiric and non-, Lost Alice found herself missing the far more durable body Pillowcase normally wore.
“There must be a level cap effect in place here,” Pillowcase said. “Otherwise that shot would have blown my leg off or vaporized me completely. I think Tessa’s still below it as a [Void Speaker] though.”
Lost Alice glanced at her own stats. She hadn’t seen a level cap in effect before but apparently one had descended on them with the start of hostilities.
“We’re down to level 10 here,” she said, surprised that it was so low. The previous capped zone they’d been in was 20 and even that had been surprisingly limited for a spot which lore claimed to have been the home of the gods. A moment’s thought produced the obvious reason though. “I guess the gods who set this place up didn’t want anyone wrecking it if a brawl got out of control.”
“No danger of that,” Pillowcase said. “Those plasma rifles they have don’t seem to be able to damage anything but flesh and blood.”
Lisa could think of several advantages to that, especially for troops which might need to fight on space ships where casual holes in the walls could be taken as a bad thing by default.
“When they come close, let me try to pull their attention,” Pillowcase said. “I don’t have any specific [Skills] for disarming people, but the combat training that was stitched into me has a decent set of hand-to-hand techniques so I should at least be able to get in close enough that I can use one of them as a shield and make this a melee rather than gun battle.”
“If all five of them pile on you, that’s still not going to be good for us,” Lost Alice said. “I’m still higher level than you. My strength and speed can substitute for skill well enough.”
“If you get tied up in a grapple though, casting spells is going to get tricky,” Pillowcase said. “Also, I’m the one those guys want, probably, so they might not stick with you anyways.”
“I’ll take ‘might not kill me’ in place of ‘will definitely kill you’, thank you,” Lost Alice said. Not for the first time, she wished she had an immobilization spell which could be cast on party members.
“I’m not a fan of dying either,” Pillowcase said. “It’s easier to see that through Tessa’s eyes. And with your help. But , trust me, I’m not being foolish here. This is best option I can see for both of us surviving.”
“I don’t need a guarantee of survival if it means putting you in jeopardy though!” Lost Alice said, aggravated that Pillowcase couldn’t see how important it was to keep Tessa’s body safe and sound.
If the woman in front of her died, or even just had to disappear again, Lost Alice wasn’t sure how well she’d handle it. The mere thought of it froze her undead heart.
“And I’m not going to avoid jeopardy when there’s a chance I can keep you safe from being being eaten by the [Hounds of Fate],” Pillowcase said. “I know we’ve had good luck with them so far, but we also know there are a lot of adventurers who haven’t and I…” She faltered for a second, and took a deliberate breath before finishing. “I can’t let that happen to you.”
Lost Alice was a perceptive woman. [Vampires] had to be. She hadn’t been able to read Pillowcase all that well before in part because of the artificial constraints on a [Clothwork’s] face and in part because Lisa hadn’t been ready to.
Seeing the heart wrenching concern in Tessa’s eyes though made denying the other feelings which were swirling there difficult indeed though.
Time was not on Azma’s side. Nor were fate, luck, or the vast majority of the [Consortium of Pain].
So it was a fairly typical day for her.
What irritated her weren’t the numerous forces stacked against her, but rather the missed opportunity.
She’d encountered someone in the opposition who seemed like they approached her level of strategic acumen. She didn’t know who her foe was directly, but the indirect portrait the moves of their game had painted was delightful. The enemy commander was compassionate and cautious with her forces, but hadn’t refrained from sending them into battles Azma had been convinced were already lost by the defenders, only to see the battles turn around thanks to the precision of the defender’s attacks.
It had been better than winning. It had been fun.
And Azma had far too little fun in her life.
As she keyed in the final codes to put her current plan in action, she looked for that sort of challenge in the task before her.
To be certain, turning around the disaster the operation had become was setting an even higher bar for herself than simply conquering the planet. Even with the brilliance of her opponent, and the frankly unreasonable power of the special forces the defenders had assembled, the conquest of the [Fallen Kingdoms] was never truly in doubt in Azma’s mind. She’d reformed the task force she’d been given into one which was more than sufficient for the operation while also being on the bleeding edge between understaffed and economical. In the unlikely event the defenders were able to significantly outperform their observed metrics, she had plenty of budgetary room to bring in an even larger armada, with even more specialized units.
But that would have spoiled the game with her opponent.
And cost her standing with the Consortium.
But mostly she’d been continued limiting herself once the defenders started doing well because she wished to preserve the balance of the conflict rather than winning through the bludgeon of superior resources.
With those resources cut off, and an even more challenging task before her though, Azma didn’t feel the same fulfilling excitement.
The [Formless Hunger] was a more deadly foe and cunning to a degree but its power made it blunt and, ultimately, uninteresting as an opponent. She already knew what would happen when the containment units began to surge out of control.
The Hunger would move towards #7, slowly at first, wary of another assault like the one it had repelled, and then swiftly, throwing the wariness aside, as it sensed the feast which had been laid before it.
As it gorged itself, Azma’s wayward tech crew would flee their positions, drawing its attention.
Then containment unit #3 would fire up, forcing the Hunger to chose between the paltry reward of pursuing a crew who was somewhat warded against it or enjoying yet another meal.
The rest of her forces, the one’s still pinned down within the Hunger’s expanded area of influence, would see this and begin streaming in the opposite direction, taking advantage of the short window the Hunger’s distraction afford them.
The crew from containment unit #7 would be swept up in the tide and would begin explaining what happened, as all techs seemed to feel compelled to do. That would plant the seeds in everyone’s mind that someone had been responsible for their salvation, and by not appearing before them and claiming credit, Azma would ensure that they didn’t reject that salvation as a stratagem from someone compromised by the Hunger’s mind devouring capabilities.
From there it would be a race. The Hunger would grow, it’s appetite growing with it, and her forces would flee, seeking to escape it’s ever growing zone of influence.
As the Hunger surged back to collected its fleeing prey, Azma would have her chance to strike.
She couldn’t give orders to the personnel of her fleet anymore, but the Director of Xenobiology wouldn’t have had enough time to uncover all of her backdoors into the system controls for the ships themselves.
Blowing up a capital ship was an expensive proposition. Blowing up her own capital ship was even worse since she was directly responsible for its full value. The other twenty ships she would need to detonate to render the [Formless Hunger] sessile would have amounted to a catastrophic loss and an immediate termination in any other operation.
In this case though, the honor of bringing in a fully preserved Transdimensional Entity made the action viable.
Especially since all of the important data from the ships would be preserved when the crew was allowed to escape on the life pods.
And there was the small fact that, since the Director of Xenobiology was officially in the command of the operation (something which she would acknowledge in the shuttle’s records for use as evidence later), he would be the one to bear the overall liability for the lost ships, since all of the flight control systems would nominally be under his control.
Azma doubted the Director would be found personally liable. Accountability was not something people above a certain level in the Consortium typically had to deal with. At best, she imagined, it would be just another negative mark on his somewhat precarious overall record.
Really, the only tricky part about her plan involved setting the proper navigation patterns into the ships she planned to use.
Translight jumps near a planet were risky under the best of circumstances, with a full crew to execute them.
She needs to plot all of their trajectories to insure that the twenty one ships de-warped simultaneously within, ideally, inches of the Hunger’s primary body and with the ship’s power plants ready to undergo an unrestrained [Nova Reaction] within no more than four nanoseconds of arrival in [Standard Space]. A mistake would either feed the Hunger more fuel or, more likely, erase the atomic integrity of the satellite moon, the planet, and everything else within several astronomical units.
Fortunately, Azma did not make mistakes.
In the distance, she heard containment unit #7 roar to life and smiled.
The die was cast.
All she had to do was sit back and win.