Exploding zombies wasn’t supposed to be fun. Taking zombies lightly was always a precursor to getting bit, turning into one, and ruining everyone’s day.
But Rose knew some amazing healers.
Not only could Lost Alice, or Lady Midnight, or Glimmerglass purge the zombie plague debuff the monsters could inflict, turning the problem with getting bitten into a far more manageable one, Lost Alice had cast a [Vaccine] enchantment on them, to prevent the problem in the first place.
“I didn’t have long term buffs like this earlier or I would have been loading you up from the moment we met,” Lost Alice had explained before seeing Rose’s mini-party off. “If you’re out long enough for it and the shielding buffs I’ve got on you to start wearing off, just give a yell. I can come out and refresh them on you without joining your party, so your xps will be fine.”
Rose hadn’t expected that. Not the long term buffs, which seemed to be set to last a day and some change, nor the confidence and support Lost Alice offered.
The thought of sneaking away from town and telling noone where they were going had seemed terribly tempting at first, especially when Rose imagined the adults they normally partied with forbidding them to go.
What stopped her from hiding what they were doing wasn’t any worry that they’d get caught, it was something harder to explain than that. It came in a moment when she pictured explaining why they were sneaking away to Aegis and Makes. She was struck by the image her actions would paint of who Tessa and Lisa were.
Believing that anyone else would believe in her was simply a non-starter, but suggesting that Tessa and Lisa were as small minded and untrustworthy as the people she knew on Earth was unacceptable.
And so she’d called back, marshalling arguments though hers were never listened to, and resigning herself to modifications of her plan or a flat refusal.
But the pushback she’d expected never came.
It wasn’t that Tessa and Lisa weren’t interested either. Both had practically exploded with excitement at the idea. There had been some modifications to Rose’s original idea, but those had all come from her in response to questions about things she hadn’t considered, or been aware of.
And in the end, they’d more than ‘let her go’, they’d cheered her on, and let her set the terms of how involved they’d be.
“We are here if you need us,” Pillowcase said. “I know you will do fine, but there are always surprises in battle. Remember that we can be a positive one, should the need arise.”
Rose’s heart sang as another zombie blossomed into a shower of angry sparks in front of her. It had gotten within ten feet of her because she’d wanted it to be that close.
Pillowcase had been right.
That felt good.
Pillowcase, and Tessa, and Lisa, they’d all believed in her.
That felt better.
“It’s getting easier to see what’s going on,” Aegis said. “I think I’m figuring this out.”
“Yeah, you let that last one walk in and hit it right when it started its lunge, right?” Makes said.
“Yep. Could you tell why?” Rose asked.
“It leaves itself wide open then? When it’s arms go up there’s nothing covering its body?” Makes said.
“That’s true,” Rose said. “I was also watching what Matt’s doing though.”
“Oh, he had one transformed into a sheep, and it was right next to the one you blew up!” Aegis said.
“Where is it?” Makes asked as Rose blew up two other zombies and Jamal reduced one to sparkling sludge that evaporate into burning gem fragments.
“It got blown up with the one she shot,” Aegis said.
“I get it, you set them up for a two-for-one,” Makes said.
“With a horde like this one, it’s a good trick to look for,” Rose said. “We’re keeping them at a distance, and they’re not sapient enough to figure out they should stop attacking, but they’re still dangerous since they just won’t stop.”
“Getting overrun sucks too,” Jamal said. “We were fighting a lot more than this the other night when we were out with our usual team and we pulled in a few too many a couple of times. I tell you I am literally not built for close quarters fighting.”
“How did you survive? Or did you die?” Aegis asked.
“We survived,” Rose said. “We had Glimmerglass with us, so the first time it happened she basically nuked the whole battlefield. Like obliterated about a hundred of them.”
“We had to wait for ten minutes before they started to respawn from the ground like these are doing,” Jamal said.
“Wow. I thought you two were pretty powerful,” Makes said. “That sounds like a whole other level.”
“More than sixty other levels in fact,” Rose said. “The thing is though, unlike on Earth we can all get there. It just takes putting in the time and effort.”
“I think I want to do it,” Aegis said. Rose glanced back to see Aegis drawing her sword.
“You’ve gained a lot of levels since started, but these things are still a lot higher than you,” Rose said. “For now, don’t try to tank them. You’ll take too much damage, too fast from what Pillowcase said.”
“What should I do then?” Aegis asked.
“Support Matt,” Rose said. “His abilities are more focused on controlling the bad guys than detonating them like mine are. Once he’s landed a spell on them and has them locked up, he can send you in and you can help finish them off.”
“Can I help too or is it bad to have too much of an advantage over a foe like that?” Makes asked.
“You can absolutely help,” Matt said.
“Yeah. Never fight fair,” Rose said. “Only your friends are worth a fair fight, and you shouldn’t fight them in the first place.”
“I’m going to remind you of that next time you disagree with me,” Jamal said.
“Disagreements aren’t fight,” Rose said.
“And neither is this.”
Rip began to dodge the instant the voice began speaking from behind her.
She didn’t know how an enemy had appeared right beside her but as she spun to face him, she saw two things were true.
First, the frozen corpse was far too close for her to get her bow up and aimed properly.
Second, he’d begun swinging as he spoke which meant his blade was at most an inch from her neck.
Xardrak was not quite what Yawlorna had pictured. For one thing the fact that he was walking around freely seemed somewhat disturbing from the stories she’d been told of his rampages. Any sense of dread however was undercut by the exceedingly fuzzy pink bunny slippers on his feet.
“Visitors? Huh. Didn’t think I was do for one of those for another ten years,” Xardrak said. “Wait. has it been ten years? No? I haven’t lost track of that much time. Have I?”
“It hasn’t been ten years yet Xardrak,” Glimmerglass said.
“That’s a relief,” the curiously young human said as he continued to stir a cup of coa with roughly a thousand marshmallows crammed into its top. “I think they’ll be disappointed if I don’t have a [Soul Jar] or [Mind Swapper] setup by then.”
“Those are both terrible plans you know,” Glimmerglass said.
“I’m reasonably aware of that,” Xardrak said. “I can only pray that whoever shows up here then is too. It’d be dreadful is whatever I came up with actually worked.”
Yawlorna had a hundred questions related to her research, but rather than broaching one of those, her brain was flooded with two hundred questions about what, exactly, was going on with the odd man in front of them.
“Huh, you’re new,” Xardrak said. “We’ve never fought have we?”
“No,” Yawlorna said, casting a glance to Glimmerglass as a plea for some guidance.
“That’s a shame. I had some truly wonderful treasures, but I gather the newer [Adventurers] have set their sights on shinier trinkets.”
“I still wear the [Polaris Earrings] from your hoard,” Glimmerglass said, holding a hand to her ear where a star briefly shone.
Xardrak’s face lit up with a giant smile of genuine delight.
“I was so proud of those!” he said.
“And stingy with them,” Glimmerglass said.
“Well they were quite nice,” Xardrak said. “Can’t give away the best stuff each time you’re murdered.”
“That’s fair,” Glimmerglass said.
“You were…?” Yawlorna wasn’t sure how to form the question, but fortunately her expression spoke for her.
“Yes. Murdered. Thousands of times? Tens of thousands? Maybe a million? Something like that,” Xardrak said.”Allow me to assure you that however terrifying you might imagine it to be, that sensation only last for the few hundred or so times. After that its often just tedious. Though it’s not the most tedious thing.”
“Uh, there’s something more tedious than dying a million times over?” Yawlorna asked.
“Yes. Winning. I cannot tell you how much I dreaded the times when an entire raid would just fall over dead in front of me,” Xardrak said. “The worst were the ones where I wasn’t even really a part of it. Can you imagine how dull it is to be ready and focused and properly riled up for an epic battle only to have your foes run right into the lava in front of you?”
“No. No I cannot,” Yawlorna said, baffled but beginning to understand the shape of the absurdity which she’d stumbled into.
She looked to Glimmerglass again who merely shrugged.
This was apparently what working with one of the worst threats the world had ever faced was going to be like.
Hailey didn’t like the gleam that had entered Tessa’s eyes. She wasn’t used to seeing her old friend in person, but she was keenly aware of when Glimmerglass would step in as the party’s tactician and layout a wild scheme to deal with whatever seemingly impossible challenge faced them.
“Please explain,” Penny said, which was infinitely more worrisome.
Tessa having one of her signature “ideas” was always fun but often just as much of a disaster as the failures that preceded it. The thought of the world’s premiere tactician entertaining it spoke knee shaking volumes about how bad of a situation they were in.
“When we first encountered the [Hungry Shadow] it wasn’t anything,” Tessa said. “I don’t mean that in the abstract. I mean it wasn’t a thing with quality, it was an absence of qualities. I know this may be a bad metaphor, but if I was looking at this as a programmer, which I should have been long before now, I’d saw the original version of a [Hungry Shadow] was a reference to a null object. Not a reference to zero, or the empty set, a reference to something that cannot be resolved. An error in reality essentially.”
“And then it became something,” Penny said, proving that metaphors from another world were no problem for her to follow given the proper context.
“Yes. I took something away from it, tore a tiny piece off and that blew me apart,” Tessa said. “For a while the only part of me that was here was Pillowcase. Well, and Glimmerglass, but we weren’t aware of each other then.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you did,” Penny said.
“I don’t think I do either,” Tessa said. “Not the exact details, but if I step back and look at it there’s one really obvious thing that stands out.”
“How do you rip off a piece of nothing?” Hailey asked, following along as best she could.
“”You can subtract from zero, but this is closer to subtracting from something that can have no representation if I’m correct,” Penny said.
“You are, and that’s what’s at the heart of the idea I have,” Tessa said. “To hurt the thing the [Hungry Shadow] was I had to have been able to make it a thing in the first place. To tear off a piece of it, it had to first be made into a thing that could have pieces.”
“You changed its fundamental nature,” Penny said.
“I gave it a fundamental nature,” Tessa said. “Or the start of one. We saw before we left that it continued to change all on its own. The version of it we fought as we fled the [High Beyond]? That was nothing like the earlier versions.”
“That’s why you want to give it a health bar,” Penny said.
“We’re not going to beat it by destroying it,” Tessa said. “Destroying things is its game and we’re not going to win playing by its rules. We need to make it play by ours. We need to make it a part of this world.”