Climbing down into a lightless pit of giant mushrooms and writhing vines wasn’t how Tessa had expected her day to go, but as she descended from one spongy mushroom top to the next, the smile she’d been wearing only grew deeper.
Part of her joy came from Pillowcase’s wonderful physicality. As Tessa, a twenty foot leap from a mushroom top to one of the stone ledges below would probably have killed her. As Pillowcase though, she landed easily, her body feeling no heavier than goose down.
“I was never that strong as a kid,” Lady Midnight said, “but I’ve got to say that even being poisoned, I still feel stronger here than I ever did back on Earth.”
“We are stronger,” Lisa said. “A lot stronger than we should be.”
“I’m not complaining,” Tessa said, helping steady Matt as he caught up to her on the ledge.
“Your stats just keep going up the higher you level, right?” Rip asked. “Strength, and speed and all that?”
“Those and our mental stats,” Obby said. She’d opted for wrangling the vines rather than hopscotching down the mushroom caps. In the game version of the dungeon that would have required playing a mini-game that tested the player’s reflexes, but Obby managed to make descending from one vine to the next look more or less effortless.
“I’ve tested how much stronger we’re getting,” Lisa said. “I don’t know if I feel much smarter though?”
“We’ve got more skills though,” Rip said. “Maybe that’s what having better mental stats means? That we get more access to what both sides of us have learned?”
“I haven’t noticed anything ‘coming online’ like that when I leveled up,” Tessa said. “I can still remember all the coding stuff from my work on Earth, and the combat disciplines that were sewn into me as Pillowcase. But maybe that’s because Pillowcase’s skills are literally built in?”
“It’s been the same for us,” Starchild said. “I’m as aware of Pete’s memories as he is of mine.”
“Same for me,” Lisa said. “Lost Alice knows a lot about the world that Lisa had never paid attention too, but I know all it now.”
“So what’s the point of having huge brain stats then?” Rip asked.
“Magic,” Obby said. “A caster’s magic pool is tied to their prime mental stat. For everyone else, it’s probably how we can learn all these incredible techniques in the space of an afternoon or less.”
“Also ‘mental stats’ don’t tell you as much about someone as people like to think,” Lady Midnight said. “Someone with a high IQ can still be an absolute knucklehead, or even objectively bad at mental tasks outside the area the standardized test covers.”
“I should try arm wrestling with Glimmerglass,” Tessa said, picking a mushroom top two levels down to aim for. “If I remember her stats correctly she should be able to crush my Pillowcase-level strength, but the game didn’t play that up much in the narrative.”
Dropping down forty feet was exhilarating and put Tessa in the lead of the pack just as quickly as it raised cries of concern.
“Hey!” Lisa called out. “Careful about dropping too quickly. We don’t know what’s down at the bottom.”
“Or if there’s more of the Creepers waiting as we descend,” Obby said.
“That’s a fair point,” Tessa admitted.
On reflection, it also occurred to her that testing out her physique was all well and good but so was setting a good example for the impressionable kids that were following them.
As if in confirmation of that, she saw Rip dive off the mushroom cap she was on, do a summersault in midair and then stick a perfect three point ‘super hero landing’ right beside her. As a [Tabbywile], it wasn’t terribly surprising that Rip had catlike grace and could handle falls like a champ but it still wasn’t a great idea to go plummeting into danger if it wasn’t required.
“I’m not going any further!” Rip said, seeing the warning that Tessa was about to give her. “I’ll let Pillowcase lead. I just wanted to see if I could do what she did.”
Tessa grimaced and saw an emoji from Lisa pop up in their chat. The ‘glare’ icon wasn’t anymore complicated than it was in the game but it still communicated disapproval perfectly well.
“We’ll let the others catch up a bit first,” Tessa said, biding her time as the rest of the team dropped and swung down to meet them.
Her team wasn’t going to fall apart into senseless drama, but that didn’t mean she had a free pass to do stupid things. Tessa found she could accept that, especially when no one raised any further fuss about it.
The rest of the journey down the pit was conducted at a more sensible pace. Tessa had been concerned about Lady Midnight at first, but it seemed that the Creeper’s poison had only locked away her magic without reducing her physical attributes at all.
“We’ll have to hope the poison antidote is right at the bottom,” she said once they started getting close enough to hear the running water that awaited them.
“It has to be,” Lisa said. “This is supposed to be a low level dungeon. This kind of mechanic would be considered mean in an end game raid. They can’t expect new players to not wind up discouraged and hating the game if their spells are turned off for all that long.”
“This version of the dungeon doesn’t match what the beta-testers went through though, does it?” Obby asked.
“No. Not at all,” Tessa said. “This was supposed to be a pretty standard set of encounters. The only special mechanics are supposed to be at the mid-boss and the end-boss and even those are just special damage amplifiers to make the fight easier.”
“Why is it different?” Rip asked. “A lot of other stuff we’ve seen is the same as it was in the game. What makes this place special?”
“It’s new,” Starchild said, her voice distant and soft.
“Was that true in the lore?” Lisa asked.
“In the lore, it’s been here for a while, but was rediscovered just recently,” Tessa said. “There were supposedly hints that it had been a base of operations for the [Fellblood Ravagers] years ago. The rare drops from the final boss were a set of clues to that and were meant to tie it into a new chapter in the [Ravager Wars] out in [Storm Kettle].”
“Who are those people?” Rip asked.
“One of the factions from an earlier expansion,” Lisa said. “The [Ravager Wars] are a recurring event that started with the expansion that added the [Storm Kettle] zone. That’d be one path we could take in the 40s to keep leveling.”
“Did they have undead spiders or whatever those Creeper things were as pets?” Matt asked.
“Nope,” Obby said. “The [Fellblood Ravagers] are alchemically enhanced humans. The undead factions are more into necromancy.”
“So what happened? The undead things kicked the Ravagers out?” Rip asked.
“I don’t think so,” Starchild said, kneeling down on the mushroom top and carefully poking its surface.
“What are you seeing?” Lady Midnight asked, kneeling at her side.
“This is new,” Starchild said. “I mean it did not grow to this size as a mushroom should. It is too young. It’s like it was created in the exact form we see it in now.”
“So, by magic?” Rip asked.
“Are there [Druid] spells or abilities that could do that?” Lisa asked.
“Not like this,” Starchild said. “I can make vines grow, but they life is accelerated when I do. The vines that remain after the spell are all as old as any vines their size would be. These mushrooms aren’t like that. And the vines aren’t either. They’re unnatural.”
No one made the obvious comment about the entire dungeon being an artificial structure that was clearly oozing with supernatural menace. The more Starchild spoke, the more Tessa could feel the subtle traces of something skewed around them.
“I’m not sure this even is a mushroom,” Starchild said. “It’s reacting to the simple magics I’ve been trying, but too slowly.”
“Like there’s lag?” Lisa asked.
“No, lag would be slowing everything down,” Pete said. “When she’s casting, it’s like the mushroom has to look up what the answer to the spell should be before the spell can take affect on it.”
“If it’s not a real mushroom, can you tell what it actually is?” Obby asked.
“I don’t know,” Starchild said. “I can’t picture how something else could fake being a mushroom like this one has. It could be that whatever they are is outside the domain of my magic entirely.”
“That makes this place more dangerous then,” Lisa said. “Does anyone want to turn back at this point?”
“How would we get out if we did?” Matt asked.
“We’d have to climb, but it would be doable,” Tessa said.
“Climb to what though?” Rip asked.
“If I’m right, the first room magically reset itself when we left,” Lisa said. “There might be a puzzle to open the door, but now that we’re grouped back up, we could try to figure it out.”
“We could see if the poison effect fades when we leave if we try that,” Lady Midnight said.
“It won’t,” Starchild said. “We tried all of our healing on you already and it did nothing. What your suffering under isn’t natural either.”
“Do we know that there’s even an antidote for it in here then?” Rip asked.
“We won’t know until we find one,” Lisa said. “Leaving is a viable test too though.”
“I don’t think we should,” Starchild said. “If we have to come back in, we risk encountering another swarm of the Creepers and we might wind up with more people poisoned.”
“I don’t mind going forward either,” Lady Midnight said. “I just didn’t want to be a burden on you all.”
“You’re not,” Lisa said.
“You’re more than your healing spells,” Tessa said.
“We’re probably going to have a lot of times when one or more of us is out of commission,” Matt said. “This is good practice for that.”
“Sounds like we press then,” Obby said.
She was peering over the edge of the mushroom as though something had caught her attention.
Tessa joined her there and looked down into the dark abyss below them.
Pillowcase’s eyes adjusted instantly, the shadows evaporating like smoke. They were close enough at last that Tessa could see the partially flooded cavern that awaited them.
A fiercely flowing stream gushed from an cleft in the north face of the cavern and flowed into the western half of the room where it gathered in a pool that took up almost half the room before it drained away into another stream which flowed into a broad tunnel to the south of the room.
Around the pond, beds of dark flowers seemed to have been planted into neatly ordered rows. Though she couldn’t feel any breeze in the pit, Tessa thought the flowers were swaying in an oddly blustery wind.
“I don’t see any monsters down there,” Obby said.
“Me neither,” Tessa said.
“Great. That means they’re invisible,” Lisa said.
“Should I try shooting them?” Rip asked. “Unless they can fly I could just bombard them until we were sure they were dead.”
“If the antidote’s down there, that would probably destroy it,” Obby said. “To be safe, we should probably engage whatever monster’s there so that we can control it and use focus fire rather than area blasts.”
“Not that ‘safe’ is a great description of that strategy,” Lisa said.
“Maybe we can split the difference,” Tessa said, narrowing her eyes as she gauged the distance between the lowest mushroom top and the bottom of the cavern. “If we gather up on those,” she pointed to the mushroom caps two levels down from where they were at, “we can have one tank go in while the rest of us hang back, which should keep all the squishies out of trouble.”
“And the other tank hangs back in case the monster or monsters can fly?” Obby said.
“That was my thought,” Tessa said. “And if we see that it can’t fly then the other tank can drop down too.”
“I will as well,” Starchild said. “I am more effective in melee than from range.”
Tessa turned to Lisa who nodded. “It looks like we’ll be in range to heal the tank no matter where they are in the cavern. If the mob uses some kind of isolation effect, we’d have to move anyway, but at least with this there’s less chance that it isolates the healers.”
“What will our signal to start firing be?” Rip asked.
“As soon as the tank strikes and gets a taunt on it, you’re good to go,” Tessa said.
“If there’s more than one though, let me get a hit on all of them,” Obby said.
“You want to be first in?” Tessa asked.
“Either of us would work,” Obby said. “I just figured if we needed to switch plans after the fight starts it’d be good to have our strategist in a position where she could see the whole battle.”
Tessa blinked, and shook her head.