Tessa sagged against the [Heart Fire] and let her face fall into her hands. Her body was in perfect condition, restored from near total obliteration to a state of ideal health she’d probably never had it in at any point during her life on Earth. Her heart, her lungs, her muscles and bones? All flawless.
Which meant the imperfection that was responsible for her failure lay in something deeper. In something essential to who she was.
“Hey, how are you doing?” Lisa asked on their private channel. Her telepathic voice was all soft concern, which somehow just hurt all the more.
“I’m okay,” Tessa said, fighting to allow only the weariness in her spirit to show, and not even all of that.
She wasn’t okay though. She knew that. Whether she viewed things as Tessa or as Pillowcase, she was lost in sea of failure.
She’d been training with [Demons] for hours. Lots of hours. They’d tried different battle tactics, from solo encounters, to bringing in the entire team, to having some of the [Demons] join their side. Tessa had tried switching to Pillowcase’s form. She’d tried battling on nothing but instinct, and she’d tried analyzing every moment while under the effect of Starchild’s best acceleration spell. At each turn though, she’d been met with death.
Death and the absolute impenetrability of the level cap effect that was in place and limiting them.
Tears of rage and frustration rolled down Tessa’s face as she got to her feet. She could still feel the ocean of possibility waiting inside her. No matter how she called to it through, it refused to crystalize into an ability that let her break the level cap.
At first she’d imagined it as an ability that could reshape the world, removing the level 99 cap for everyone. Then she’d narrowed her vision to a power that she could bestow on her party members. It had hurt to give that up, but she’d pressed on, striving for something she could use to break the limit for herself at least. When even that proved impossible, she turned to her last hope – a gift she could bestow to one other person. If she couldn’t be the one to transcend the world’s level limit, then maybe it would be enough to empower someone else, to give up what made her special in order to make someone else a star?
The idea sounded terrible, but when it came to saving the world, it wasn’t important that she be the one to get the glory. She just wanted the world to be saved, and if she had to sacrifice for that, being someone boring and average wasn’t that hard a sacrifice to make really.
Except even that wasn’t enough.
Or it wasn’t the right approach to take.
Or the level cap just couldn’t be broken.
“Snowcap says our [Demon] friends could use a ten minute break before we continue,” Lisa said.
Tessa wiped her face, and drew in a breath before exiting the [Heart Fire] chamber.
“That’s okay,” she said. “I think this was the last one.”
It felt terrible to give up. A part of her hated quitting anything this important. Hated the confirmation that she was a loser. Strangely, turning to Pillowcase’s perspective was worse than Tessa’s. Tessa’s fear of failure hadn’t been hardwired into her to quite the same degree as Pillowcase’s. The extremity of Pillowcase’s revulsion hit like a punch to the nose – sharp and stinging and entirely out of proportion to the source of the pain.
“Hey,” Lost Alice said as Tessa exited the [Heart Fire] chamber. Without needing to be asked she wrapped Tessa into a cool, refreshing hug and just held her.
The others, even the [Demons], were still outside in the arena, which left the two of them alone enough that Tessa stopped trying to hide her tears.
“Was it bad that time?” LIsa asked.
“No,” Tessa said. Being obliterated was fine, as deaths went almost preferable in fact. Hard to notice any pain when your body evaporated in an instant. “I just don’t think I can do it.”
“You have done it though,” Lisa said. “Not the level cap thing. We knew that was a long shot. But us. This team. We’re ready now.”
Tessa blinked, drying her tears as she snuggled close to Lost Alice and asked, “What do you mean?”
“Do you remember what we set out to do?” Lisa asked. “Not coming here, I meant at the start of all this?”
“We wanted to level up so that we’d be safer,” Tessa said.
“Sure, but that was a side-effect. We wanted to build a party into a team. One that we’d be comfortable with. One that would fight how we wanted to fight. We…I didn’t want to be alone,” Lisa said, her arms squeezing Tessa a bit extra as she finished speaking.
“Oh yeah, I remember that,” Tessa said, allowing herself to crack a smile. “I recall being pretty terrified that this awesome woman I’d just met was going to come to her senses and ditch me for a better opportunity in a heartbeat.”
“Well it’s a good thing my heart beats only for you then,” Lost Alice said.
It was the cheesiest line all on it’s own but what really pushed it over the top was hearing Lost Alice make her heart beat with a quick bum-dum-bump rhythm to underscore the joke. Tessa couldn’t hold back her smile anymore or resist the urge to hug Lost Alice even tighter and whisper, “You are wonderful.”
“And I’m never going to get tired of hearing that,” Lisa said. “But we should let the others know the bloodbath is over. When you’re ready. If you want to take a few minutes, no one will notice or mind.”
“If the world wasn’t ending, I could think of something I’d like to take a few hours, or days, maybe weeks, doing, but no, I think I’m good,” Tessa said, the cloud of failure not exactly lifting off her shoulders, but growing lighter nonetheless.
“We’ll need to figure out what we’re going to do next then,” Lisa said. “Apart from report to Penswell and let her know what we’ve discovered.”
“That the level cap is either unbreakable or that I’m just not good enough to break it,” Tessa said in acknowledgement.
“Oh, a lot more than that,” Lisa said. “You freed a bunch of [Demons] and turned them into [Angels]. You went all godmode and fundamentally changed our primary adversary. Oh, and we’re also all level capped now. So she can include us in the lineup of the whatever groups she’s sending against our remaining big bads.”
Then shook her head.
“I’m sorry. What did you just say?” she asked, staring at Lisa as though English had become a foreign language.
“Which part wasn’t clear? The [Demons] bit, the godmode one, or the level cap?” Lisa asked.
“That last one. Oh, wait, you mean we got to the level cap here But, is 70 enough to hit the front lines?” Tessa asked, confusion still spiraling around her thoughts.
“70? What do you…oh my god! You’re in human form still! You don’t have a HUD! I forgot about that!” Lisa said, stepping back to hold Tessa at arms length and gaze into Tessa’s potentially-not-human-but-close-enough eyes.
“Why does that matter?” Tessa asked. She was feeling dreadfully slow, perhaps from the hundreds of recent deaths.
“Here. Let’s go back into the [Heart Fire] chamber. You need to see this,” Lisa said.
Tessa allowed herself to be led back to the room that was starting to feel like her home away from home.
“Do your magic and switch back to Pillowcase’s body.”
“Okay?” Tessa said and held her hand out to the [Heart Fire]. Converting between her two forms had become effortless thanks to all the practice she’d had. She still needed the [Heart Fire] to invoke the change, but a single touch of the flame was enough to let her slide from flesh and blood to fabric and stitching.
Pillowcase opened her eyes and saw the world as she was familiar with perceiving it. Multiple vision channels overlaid each other carrying images from different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum as well as more esoteric sources. Atop the sight images, her Heads-Up Display showed the usual readouts and information tracking graphs.
“What am I looking for?” Pillowcase asked. “Wait. My level is blue. Why is it blue?”
“Tap it,” Lost Alice said.
Pillowcase felt a pang of concern that she’d gone out of spec somewhere in the process of attempting to break the limit cap in [Hells Breach]. She hesitated for a second, the thought of her level indicator somehow crumbling away and leaving her back at level 1 danced through her mind, carrying a conga line of terror in its wake.
“It’s okay. You’ve kept up on so much of the rest of the game, it didn’t occur to me that you might be thinking things still worked like they used to,” Lisa said.
A thought bubbled up from Tessa’s mind, a small item from a patch note that she’d read close to five years prior.
Pillowcase touched the level indicator and, rather than anything malfunctioning or falling apart, a small dialog popped up next to the blue number “70”.
Combat Level: 70
Character Level: 99
The contents were simple enough, but the jolt of understanding that came with them was overwhelming.
“We were leveling in there that whole time!” Pillowcase shook with very non-[Clothwork] tremors of excitement.
“Yeah,” Lisa said. “We couldn’t break the cap, so we’re still stuck fighting at 70 in here, but a while back the devs changed level capped zones so that you still earned xps in them. The rate sucks, and it’s about ten times easier to level anywhere else, but they didn’t want people to feel like old quests and stuff that forced you into level cap areas were a complete waste of time.”
“But, but how?” Tessa asked.
“Do you have any idea how many [Demons] you’ve killed over the last several hours?” Lisa asked. “Yeah, we were getting fractional xp on each one, but the formula is based off what their actual level is not the level cap, so we were still doing okay. I’m so sorry! I thought you knew and that’s why you kept pressing on.”
“That’s why you wanted to swap people in to help me!” Tessa said. “You wanted to make sure they were getting real experience too as they leveled!”
“I mean, that was nice, but mostly it was because I was hoping something would break the cap so you could stop dying so much. As your healer, watching your health hit zero kinda sucked, and knowing that my…that you were really getting hurt each time? I stuck with it because I never want to have to see you go through that again.”
Pillowcase collapsed to the floor like a ragdoll. The irony wasn’t lost on her.
“We did it,” she said, giggling as Tessa’s perspective came to the fore.
[Clothworks] weren’t designed to process emotions through any mechanism apart from absolute suppression and the relief and giddiness Tessa was feeling, while overwhelming, was something she had no desire to suppress at all.
“We did,” Lost Alice said, sitting down beside Pillowcase. “You did.”
“Not alone,” Tessa said, turning so that she was nose-to-nose with Lost Alice. “Not anymore.”
More than the ten minutes of the [Demon’s] break passed before they broke off the kiss they shared.
“Not anymore,” Lost Alice agreed.
Feeling lighter and truly refreshed at last, Tessa bounced to her feet and gave Lost Alice another quick peck, marveling at how soft and gentle Lost Alice could be while also being literally stronger than steel.
Except, Pillowcase’s body wasn’t really setup to notice things like how wonderful lips touching felt.
And Pillowcase’s body came with vision that including thermographic imaging and the heads-up display.
Tessa looked at her hands.
Pillowcase looked at Tessa’s hands.
They were human hands.
Lisa seemed to notice the incongruity as well.
“You touched the [Heart Fire] again?” she asked, curious but not concerned.
“No,” Tessa said.
She hadn’t needed to.