Involuntary body alterations had their own section in the Research Protocols that Balegritz and the others had signed off on when they began their expedition.
“But does it count as a body alteration if I can make it go away?” Hermeziz asked, closing the third eye that stared out from his forehead.
Balegritz was tempted to say that, no, closing your eyes to a problem did not make it go away – except in this case, it seemed like it did.
“It’s not there at all,” Illuthiz said, passing her forefinger over the middle of Hermeziz’s forehead. “There’s not even a bump of scar tissue as if it healed over quickly.”
“Can you bring it back out?” Balegritz asked.
“Not if you’re going to throw me into quarantine for it,” Hermeziz said.
“I didn’t say I was going to throw you into quarantine,” Balegritz corrected him. “I said you should go to quarantine till we understood what was happening.”
“What’s happening is we’re playing with forces that we lack even the most basic of understandings about,” Hermeziz said and then cooled to added in a calmer, more reasonable tone, “I know the protocols are there for a reason. I know quarantining can be the only answer to stop the spread of biological contaminants.”
“But you also know that this isn’t the result of microbial life,” Illuthiz said.
“And that it’s not communicable,” Balegritz admitted. “At least not in the same sense as a disease.”
“That raises and important point,” Illuthiz said.
“Whether we spread this to any of the others?” Hermeziz guessed.
“There is a danger to it,” Balegritz said. “So far these abilities have all been ones we could control, but even a simple one like the [Hellfire Breath] I have could do a lot of unintentional damage.”
“For what it’s worth, the abilities that [Adventurers] get usually start off relatively low power and build up from there,” Hammy Burglar said. “The same could be true for you as well.”
“So my [Hellfire Breath] might get hotter?” Balegritz asked.
“Hotter, stronger, it might even transform into an advanced form – though [Hellfire] is already an advanced form of [Fire]. And it might spawn off whole knew abilities, like [Fireball].”
“So I’m going to become more dangerous over time?” Balegritz asked.
“That is the point of leveling up,” Vinyard said. “But you’lll also gain more control and proficiency, so you can be destructive to the degree that you want to be.”
“But there are some [Adventurers] who don’t want to level up?” Hermeziz asked.
“Yeah. Not everyone is cut out for stabbing people in the face,” Vinyard said. “In fact I’m pretty sure the vast majority of the players weren’t into real world violence at all, and had never even held a sword, much less ‘developed their martial prowess’ or anything out there like that.”
“But we’ve seen you [Adventurers] fighting. You all seem to be adept at it. No matter your level, you all just pitch yourselves right into battle like it doesn’t even matter,” Hermeziz said.
“Maybe because it doesn’t?” Illuthiz said. “They can’t die after all. Not really.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Hammy said. “When our bodies are mortally injured or destroyed we can repair them or create new ones, but we have to reach a [Heart Fire] and there are things that hunt us when we’re ghosts. Each time we die, there’s a chance we’re gone for real.”
“That’s not the only reason not to level though,” Vinyard said.
“You don’t like fighting.” Balegritz wasn’t asking a question, or making an accusation. He understood the sentiment too well to ever condemn it.
“Never have,” Vinyard said. “Which is kind of stupid since this was like my favorite game ever.”
“It’s different when it’s real though,” Hermeziz said, quite understanding plain in his voice too.
“It’s real for everyone though? Isn’t it?” Illuthiz asked.
“Sure, but [Adventurers] have two different personas, or maybe two sides of the same persona? I guess it varies from person to person,” Vinyard said. “For a lot of them though there’s the person they were in this world. The person that belongs to the body they’re in.”
“Ah, and that side of them is used to fighting and bloodshed?” Illuthiz asked.
“At least more that the Earthling part is,” Vinyard said. “Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s probably smarter and safer than doing like me and refusing to fight, since my approach just gets us eaten as soon as something big and dangerous comes along.”
“Hey,” Balegritz said, kneeling down beside Vinyard, “I’m something big and dangerous and I say that’s not stupid. It’s brave.”
“Not fighting is brave?”
“Holding onto your beliefs when its difficult?” Illuthiz said. “Yes. That’s very brave.”
“I don’t like fighting either. I hate it in fact, but I’m afraid not to do it. I want to believe there are better answers out there, but when push comes to shove, I’ve never been able to take that risk.”
“From a species survival standpoint, you’re both necessary,” Illuthiz said. “Not that we’re the same species, but if we were all invested in the same response to stress, we would fair poorly the moment that became the wrong response.”
“Maybe that’s a good reason for you to share what you’ve learned then?” Hammy suggested.
“So that our people who choose violence will more adept at practicing it?” Hermeziz asked.
“No,” Hammy said. “So that you’re people will have more responses available to them when problems arise.”
“Oh, yeah, I see what you mean,” Vinyard said and continued when he saw the puzzled looks lon the faces of the [Gothmorns]. “The abilities you’ve developed so far range from a primarily combat focused ability, to a defensive and general purpose ability, to a pure utility power. You’re the perfect example of how knowing that this is possible expands the options of what you can do. Expands the choices you can make that will let you do things other than fighting. If you want.”
“Those choices might not be particularly good ones,” Illuthiz said.
“Maybe not,” Balegritz said, but Vunyard’s words were resonating in just the right corners of his mind. “Probably not even. We’re all a bunch of traumatized junior researchers who are in this far beyond our depth.”
“But for every mistake we make,” Hermeziz said, seeing where Balegritz’s thoughts were leading with perfect clarity.
“We’ll learn something new,” Illuthiz said.
They sent the invitation out to their people together. Yawlorna might skin them for not consulting with her, but Balegritz had the feeling she would haven been more likely to skin them for not sharing their discovery with literally everyone for even a minute longer.
If anyone had approached Claire in her role as a medical professional with the plans she was currently concocting for herself, she would have sat them down and made sure to stay with them until they got the counseling they so clearly needed.
“Are you certain this is what you want to do?” Wrath Raven asked. “I can step in but if I miss even one enemy, they will slay you before you can blink.”
“I know how dangerous these things are,” Claire said.
“And we know what our own resiliency levels are,” Lady Midnight added. “You’re right that we have no chance of winning a battle against a flight of [Scourging Razorbeaks] but we should be able to last long enough for Claire’s plan to work.”
“This seem wrong though,” Wrath Raven said. “You’re risking your life and there no loot involved!”
“Not true,” Claire said. “There’s the best loot of all if this goes right. Allies.”
Across chasm in front of them, the night-black [Scourging Razorbeaks] began to stir. Wrath Raven had flown the two of them to the [Monastery of the Silent Sands] because it was the nearest location with an easily accessible [Heart Fire], monsters that could easily tear Lady Midnight to shreds, and, most importantly, enough distance from her friends that they wouldn’t see her status switch from living to dead and wind up panicking and doing something foolish.
“You could have simply told them,” Lady Midnight said.
“But then they would have stopped me,” Claire said.
“And that doesn’t strike you as a good reason not to do this?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Do you want to back out?” Claire asked.
“Not at all, I’m just amused by how practiced I am at self-delusion,” Lady Midnight said.
“We all have to have talents somewhere,” Claire said and added for Wrath’s sake, “Okay, I’m going to poke one of them. If more come over, they’re all yours.”
Wrath was ready for an onslaught of foes. If a nest of [Scourging Razorbeaks] was roused, they could darken the skies with their wings, but the spell Lady Midnight cast succeeded in drawing the attention of only one of the creatures.
A big one of the creatures.
Not that size mattered. Even the little ones were much too powerful for her survive, much less overcome.
As her doom descended on her Claire reached out like Wrath Raven had said.
She thought of Halo, pictured Halo’s robes, and lightsaber. Her ship and her friends. Everything that connected her to that world.
For the barest instant she caught a glimpse – a real look – at a desert planet through Halo’s eyes and then the image was swirled away, like Claire was trying to gaze through a maelstrom at what lay beyond.
Even the minimal contact was terrifying. It felt like she was being dragged out of her body. Torn to pieces before the Razorbeak’s claws could even reach her.
Before she could be swept away though, Lady Midnight caught hold of her.
And someone else caught hold of Lady Midnight.
Claire turned, expecting to see Wrath Raven in the mindspace she’d been drawn into, but that wasn’t who was holding Lady Midnight’s other hand.
“Whisper Drop?” Claire asked, blinking at the sight of her other max level alt.
And holding onto Whisper Drop’s hand was Pell Mell, and Please Blossom, and at least a dozen other people, all of whom she’d been, all of whom were pieces of who she was.
They were all connected and, at last, they all knew it.
Vixali couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow. The younger Alice sister was distraught beyond all measure over something that simply wasn’t, well, anything.
“Rachel,” Lisa said, walking over to kneel at her sister’s side. “Calm down. It’s okay. I got better. I’m…okay, well, ‘alive’ is somewhat debatable, but Lost Alice isn’t dead. She’s a vampire. And, gah, this stupid. Listen, the other people I’ve been with? They’ve been killed the same as I have, and they’re fine now too. Alive, and well. Warm flesh and tasty blood. All that stuff.”
“But if you’ve died, you can’t come back to Earth,” Rachel said.
“Explain?” Lisa asked. It was less a demand than a mote of curiosity given voice.
“The gateway in the Beta server? The one I’ve used? It can’t create or destroy anything. If you die in the game, then your soul is severed from your body on earth. You die here and you die there. The [Daemon] who operates the gate was crystal clear about that.”
“[Daemon]? Oh there is a lot we need to go over, but you’ve got something wrong. My body’s not back on Earth,” Lisa said.
“Uh, what?” Rachel asked, her tears blocked behind affronted confusion.
“I didn’t come here through a gate. None of us did. I watched my body fizz away into a stream of light,” Lisa said. “Lost Alice was already here when I arrived. We’re sort of cohabitating in this body, and sort of not, since she’s me and I’m her and…wait, why am I explaining this? Don’t you and Deadly Alice have a similar arrangement?”
“Deadly? No. There’s no Deadly Alice. It’s just me,” Rachel said.
“You don’t have any memories of being here? Of the Deadly Alice’s backstory?”
“Of course not, she’s not real,” Rachel said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Lisa said. “I think so.”
“We should perhaps compare notes though,” Lost Alice said. “I believe you might be something new.”