The singing blood in her ears was Tessa’s battle music – which was odd since Pillowcase didn’t exactly have blood. The lack of a human circulatory system did nothing to remove the pounding in her ears though. She wasn’t deafened by the tumult – [Artifax] combat units weren’t built with frailties like senses that could be overwhelmed by typical battle conditions. The Consortium’s belief was that if the theater of combat was going to prove to have noise in excess of what an [Artifax’s] sound sensors could withstand then they would simply send in units which were deaf by design. It wasn’t like deaf or blind units weren’t superior options in some cases, and the Consortium was adept at turning all of its resources into a weapon.
Tessa wished she didn’t have to be grateful to to the Consortium for being so efficiently awful, but it was handy that Pillowcase was able to retain her focus despite the [Flying Poison Creepers] that swarmed around them.
There were more than eight targets in front of her.
With four more on each side.
That was untenable.
Her team was behind her.
Three Creepers dove on her.
She could have parried and blocked them.
She had to stay in motion and she had to prevent the ones that were getting around her from reaching Matt and Lady Midnight.
Abilities and spells tumbled from her lips without thought or planning. Pillowcase was handling all that. What Tessa needed to do was stay aware of the fight.
The three attackers slammed into her back.
Her armor was strong but not strong enough to resist the impacts completely.
Fortunately their undead resilience wasn’t enough to without the impact of her mace.
A solid blow to one that had almost reached Matt not only dropped a quarter of its health bar away, but also knocked it back over the edge of the ledge they were on.
Matt attacked. The injured Creeper was reduced to a bloody mess.
A still functioning bloody mess though.
Pillowcase’s magics grasped it.
It was a still functioning bloody mess but it was focused on her.
She didn’t need to care about it anymore.
It and four others clamped their jaws onto her.
She didn’t need to care about them either.
A kick against one on her other side did little damage.
But the strike enthralled it so that it could focus on no one but Pillowcase.
Pain tore through her leg.
The armor at the knees was weaker than the rest.
Weak enough that undead fangs could pierce it.
Poison surged into her system.
It did nothing.
She was a [Tank]. Status effects like the [Poison Condition] were for less durable people.
Lifting her leg, Tessa used it as an anvil to hammer the Creeper that was attached to the inside of her knee. The instant its fangs left her leg, the injury healed, thanks to both her own abilities and to Lady Midnight pouring healing magic into her.
The injury still carried a cost though.
She’d had to focus on herself for more than a second. That had left Matt open.
As a [Metal Mechanoid], he enjoyed some of the same Consortium built resilience that Pillowcase did. As a caster though, he didn’t have much to back that up.
Tessa started to shout for Lady Midnight to save Matt rather than her, but healing wasn’t a new role for Lady Midnight. Matt’s health yoyo’d slightly but crept steadily upwards despite the two Creepers that had latched onto him.
To his credit, Matt didn’t let the pain of the injuries break his focus any more than Pillowcase had. With a Creeper hanging on his right arm, he turned the staff he carried in a one handed grip and began blasting the creature at point black range.
Tessa smacked the creatures anyways, tearing their attention to herself.
It wasn’t a fun plan, not when she had to endure their attacks personally, rather than merely through the interface of a digital avatar, but it was what Pillowcase was built for.
“Hold out down there!” Lisa called out. “We’ll get down to you.”
Tessa spent a fraction of a second glancing at the party roster in Pillowcase’s heads up display. Obby was in fine shape, as were the others who were up top. Tessa couldn’t tell if that was because more of the Creepers were coming down to attack her party, or if having four team members rather than three made the difference, or if Obby was just a better tank than she was.
“We’re good,” Tessa said, willing it to be true.
The number of Creepers who were fastened onto her, trying with varying degrees of success to tear through her armor had risen to at least a dozen, with more beyond that struggling to find an opening.
Matt was trying his best to blast them away but his magics weren’t ideal for destroying the undead.
What they really needed was a [Paladin].
Or Glimmerglass. She’d work great too.
Since they didn’t have either of those, Tessa fell back on what they did have,
“[Casting Spell: Corrosive Spirit Drain].”
In leveling up, her abilities had improved too and this was her first opportunity to try her new [Spirit Drain] spell out.
The swarm of [Flying Poison Creepers] were packed in so tightly around her, that Tessa’s spell engulfed them all.
The creatures went mad as it burned through them.
All their rage belonged to Tessa but, as the spell stole their life force away, tick by tick, the strength that fueled their rage dissolved as well.
The battle had turned against the Creepers.
But it wasn’t over.
Tessa saw the Creeper that got past her.
It flew in from the side, just outside the range of her spell.
It wasn’t interested in her and she couldn’t take command of its attention in time.
With the same scream that the others were shrieking, the lone Creeper buried its fangs in Lady Midnight’s arm.
Her healing spell faltered and broke under the damage but that was okay. Matt was in good shape and Tessa didn’t need help given how many Creepers she was in the process of draining to death.
The damage Lady Midnight took wasn’t the problem.
It was the poison.
Tessa watched it course up Lady Midnight’s arm, pulsing veins of purple light spreading across her neck and face.
For a moment, Tessa was afraid the poison was going to to something violent like dissolve Lady Midnight from the inside, but its true purpose was far worse.
“Out of magic,” Lady Midnight said, as Matt blasted the Creeper off her and reduced it to ash.
She drank a [Mana Potion].
It didn’t help.
Which was impossible.
The Creepers around Pillowcase were growing so feeble that her simplest blows were knocking them away.
In a minute or less they’d no longer be a threat.
She wanted to rush over to inspect Lady Midnight’s injuries but held back. Even as weak as the Creepers were, they would still be a threat to squishy targets like Matt and Lady Midnight.
She had to wait.
“What’s wrong down there?” Starchild asked, the concern in her voice matching the impatience that was gnawing at Tessa.
“Lady Midnight is poisoned,” Tessa said.
“I’m fine,” Lady Midnight added quickly.
“She’s not. It’s blocking her magic recovery,” Tessa said. “Are you done with the ones up there?”
“Just dropped the last of them,” Rip said.
“We’ll be down to you in a sec,” Obby said.
“Don’t rush it,” Tessa said. “We can’t afford any falls into the pit.”
“Might clear this poison out though,” Lady Midnight said, her frown stiff and tight.
“Is it doing any damage at this point?” Tessa asked. The last Creeper lost its hold on her and she bashed three times to ensure it wouldn’t be getting back up unexpectedly.
“No. My healthbar’s stable,” Lady Midnight said. “It’s not terribly pleasant though.”
“Do you have any [Antidotes]?” Pete asked.
“Already tried one,” Lady Midnight said.
Tessa stopping searching in her bag for the [Antidotes] she was carrying.
“Wait till we get down there before trying another one then,” Lisa said.
“I have a [Bear’s Endurance] spell which grants resistance to [Poisons],” Starchild said.
“We’ll try combining our effects,” Lisa said. “I have a bad feeling though.”
“Me too,” Lady Midnight said.
“What? Why?” Rip asked. “What is the poison doing to her?”
“It’s not what it’s doing to her,” Lisa said. “It’s what it is. Meaning, it may not be a poison at all.”
“What is it then?” Rip asked, her words rushing faster than her footsteps as she leapt from mushroom to mushroom and vine to vine to reach Tessa and her part of the party.
“A dungeon mechanic,” Lisa said. “Maybe.”
“I’m willing to bet it is,” Lady Midnight said. “I don’t know of any poisons that block magic recovery completely like this.”
“They can’t,” Tessa said. “[Assassins] can copy poisons from mobs and this one would completely shut casters out of PvP..”
“So, what, poisons just act differently because we’re in a dungeon?” Rip asked, landing on the ledge with Tessa and scrambling over to see Lady Midnight.
Lady Midnight gave Rip a weak smile but the pulsing of purple glow through her veins told a different story.
“The good news is that if it is a mechanic, then there’ll be something in here that can remove the effect,” Lisa said, as she climbed with care from one mushroom to the next.
“I didn’t know this was going to happen!” Rip burst out with, answering a private conversation aloud. From her instantaneous flinch, Tessa knew that had been unintentional. Matt had caught himself as he reached out to her, providing a solid clue who she’d been talking too.
“That’s something you’ll want to remember,” Obby said. “Dungeons are built to surprise you. And they’re not fair on who they target.”
“You’ve got to make sure your party is ready before you do something that could trigger an encounter,” Lisa said as she finally reached the ledge. She was joyously unscathed, though that prompted several different twinges of guilt in Tessa.
“I’m so sorry,” Rip said, kneeling beside Lady Midnight.
“We all mess up,” Lady Midnight said. “And we came through this one comparatively okay.”
“We did?” Matt asked.
“Yeah, could be everyone was tapped out of magick, instead of just the backup healer,” Lady Midnight said.
“You’re not the backup healer,” Lisa said. “You heal as much as I do.”
“Not at the moment I don’t,” Lady Midnight said.
“That raises the question of what we do now?” Obby asked. “Do we call this run here and start over?”
“I’m not sure we can,” Tessa said. “We don’t know where the exit is, and even if it was nearby, we don’t know if Lady Midnight’s magic cap will wear off once we leave.”
“I agree,” Starchild said. “I think we have to press on. We need to find the mechanism to make her well.”
“In that case do we bring her with us or do we split up again?” Obby said.
“I’ll definitely slow you down,” Lady Midnight said. “I don’t know if the poison specifically affected my other stats, but I definitely feel weaker than normal.”
“Then we’ll go slower,” Starchild said.
“It’s going to be hard to protect me if I’m like this,” Lady Midnight said.
“I’ll do a better next time,” Tessa said. Lady Midnight’s plight was as much her fault as it was Rip’s, and Rip had the excuse of being new to dungeon running.
“Shut up, you did fine,” Lady Midnight said. “I was standing too far away, and I knew it. I should have been close enough for your aggro aura to pick up the strays, but I didn’t feel like cleaning off the goo when you splatted those things with your mace.”
Tessa turned, ever so slowly, as stared at Lady Midnight.
To the best of Tessa’s knowledge, Lady Midnight wasn’t a first timer either.
She was an experienced gamer.
Years of play under her belt.
She’d been in probably countless dungeons.
She wasn’t turning into the biggest blame throwing baby in the world when something went wrong through no fault of her own?
Was that allowed?
Did Tessa really not need to feel guilty and apologize for being less than the literal best in the world?
It wasn’t that she hadn’t known her team was better than that.
It wasn’t that it should really be a surprise at all.
It was simply that even after all her years away, and after all the good experiences she’d had with them so far, Tessa finally noticed that she’d still been bracing for things to fall apart into acrimony and drama.
With a slowly widening smile, she released a breath that she’d been holding for over six years.