Gail Merriden had never been Tessa’s friend. Tessa knew that. The [Nightmare Queen] wasn’t a comforting, friendly entity. Tessa knew that too. She was able to rationally assert both statements with her big, rational mind. Her heart however had other ideas.
“What do we need to do next?” she asked, a hope rising in her that she hadn’t known she’d been missing since she arrived in the [Fallen Kingdoms].
She wasn’t friends with Gail or with the [Nightmare Queen], but as a fairly unhappy teen, she’d latched onto the stories of Gail Merriden’s work on [Broken Horizons] and elevated her to a position of near-sainthood. It was neither reasonable, nor healthy, and the dozen years that had passed since then had done a fair job of giving her the maturity to see that, but the fourteen year old inside her still cheered at the prospect of meeting one of her oldest hero figures.
“I have no idea,” the [Nightmare Queen] said. “She must know though.” A nod towards Obby indicating the ‘she’ in question.
Tessa blinked at that? Obby? Why would the [Nightmare Queen] defer to Obby?
Because Obby had destroyed Gulini Prime’s Oblivion Remnants and left the man himself a shatter, and purely mortal wreck, whimpering at the foot of the stairs to the [Nightmare Queen’s] throne.
Tessa’s mind went fuzzy when she tried to connect more of the details and probe that idea deeper.
“Sorry there,” Obby said, and the fuzziness diminished. “She’s right that I could get us back to Earth, but I don’t think I have to here.”
“What do you mean?” Rip asked. She was shaking her head to clear away the last wisps of fuzziness.
“Oh, I see,” the [Nightmare Queen] said. “She’s right.”
“Gail? Could you dial back the cryptic to about a 3? Or maybe a 2? This has been a really hard sixty eight hour day so far,” Marcus said.
“Sorry Marcus,” the [Nightmare Queen] said. “You being here has opened a new pathway beyond the [Fallen Kingdoms]. It was something I had envisioned long ago, back when we were first laying out the original quest trees.”
“You were going to put in a quest where the characters traveled to Earth?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Not specifically. It was more an idea for what the final quest of the whole game could be,” the [Nightmare Queen] said. She gestured and the ruins of her throne room began to slide and fly back into place, each broken bit of rubble fitting itself neatly into the walls and columns it had fallen from.
As the floor was swept clean a tableau appeared in the dark mirror of its surface.
“I thought that if we ever wanted to move the players onto a new generation of the game, we should give them a quest to bring their characters from the old world to the new one. Nobody wanted to put in the effort to do that of course. Why bother planning for a sequel when you don’t even have the original released and no one is sure if it’ll even be good enough to get out of beta testing in the first place.”
Tessa knew why though.
“You loved this place even then, didn’t you?” she asked. “And you knew we would too.”
“I hoped,” Gail said. “In the end, it was all I really had left to hope for.”
Playing “Ask Me Anything” with a cosmic entity who was also her favorite game designer of all time seemed delightful to Lisa. As with so many other desires though,she had to crush the urge down. For as much as she would like to, she couldn’t ignore the ticking clock of the world’s end.
“We can access the final quest path then and direct it towards Earth? Where does it start?” Lisa asked.
“Wait, before we ask that, if it’s the ‘Final Quest Path’, does that mean we wouldn’t be able to come back here if we take it?” Rip asked.
“Coming back to the [Fallen Kingdoms] would be impossible,” the [Nightmare Queen] said. “Or that’s what the quest was supposed to tell you. It’s a path though. If you can travel it in one direction you can travel it in the other.”
“There’s a catch though,” Obby said. “The [Fallen Kingdoms] are ending as we speak. Gulini Prime wasn’t kidding when he said he unleashed a thousand apocalypses on it. If we leave here, there probably won’t be a [Fallen Kingdoms] to come back to.”
“And if we don’t leave here?” Tessa asked. “Byron’s gone to Earth. Will we be safe here if we don’t stop him there?”
“No,” Obby said. “Definitely not. If Earth falls every world connected it is going to fall along with it.”
“Not much of a choice then,” Lisa said. “There’s a lot of other [Adventurers] fighting for the [Fallen Kingdoms]. We’re the only ones here.”
Tessa took Lisa’s hand and laced their fingers together.
“She’s right,” Tessa said and Lisa could feel her gathering her strength. “But there’s a lot of danger if we go back. We’ve been fighting here because we knew we couldn’t really die. If we go back to Earth though?”
“There’s no [Heart Fires] back on Earth,” Hailey said. “No respawning if we die.”
“And we don’t know who or what we’ll even be if we can get there,” Tessa said. “We might be stuck in our Earthling bodies. Maybe with only our Earthling minds too. We might not have anything more to fight with there than any regular person would. In fact, that might be all that we are there. Just regular people.”
“But you’re still going,” Rip said. It wasn’t a question at all.
Tessa glanced to Lisa and met her gaze. A quiet resolve lay in Tessa’s eyes. She knew what they needed to do. Lisa did too. Tessa wasn’t looking for permission. She didn’t need it. She was simply honoring a commitment she’d made. She’d promised Lisa that she wouldn’t run off on her own. Wouldn’t hurl herself into danger alone. The soft, lingering gaze was the fulfillment of that promise. Tessa had to go, but she wasn’t going to leave.
Love was too easy a response to that. Lisa knew she was already hopelessly drowning in a sea of love for Tessa. Somehow though there was still room for new emotions to rise up in her, and in this case, that turned out to be pride.
So many fears had been nibbling away at Lisa’s heart but in the face of Tessa’s calm courage, Lisa felt pride crush them all. Tessa was right that they had to go, and Lisa was going to follow her no matter where their path lead. Her expression seemed to convey enough of that to Tessa but Lisa added a quiet nod just to make it certain.
“Yeah. We’re both going,” Tessa said, squeezing Lost Alice’s hand.
“You’re wrong,” Rip said, shaking her head. “About being normal people, and about why we’ve been fighting.”
“Not being able to die for real was nice,” Matt said. “But all the times you lead us into battle it was because it was the right thing to do. Even those first bugs we took on. You fought those because you knew Rose and me needed to be stronger to safe here and you didn’t want us to really get hurt.”
“You’ve always cared about us, so don’t you think for a second that we’re not coming with you,” Rip said.
“And you’re also wrong about us only being able to fight like normal people there,” Marcus said. “I dragged Byron back here once already and I bet that’s something he’s going to remember real well. Especially if he used up his last ticket back to Earth already.”
A part of Jamal wished Rose had argued against going back. A part of him had no interest in returning to Earth, ever. And a part of him didn’t want to die and absolutely did not want to see Rose die.
Plus there was Matt Painting.
I have to admit I’m curious if I’ll get to come along for the ride, Matt said internally.
I really hope so, Jamal said. I need you man.
Need? Nah I don’t think so, Matt said. I think you’re a lot stronger than I am. But that doesn’t mean you should have to face anything alone, and I will definitely be there for you if I can be.
“I wish to join you as well,” Starchild said. “If that proves to be possible.”
“What will happen with her and Pete?” Tessa asked turning to Obby.
Obby paused for a moment, staring out into the middle distance.
“I don’t know? Neat!” she said after a quick blink to refocus on the group.
“Seriously?” Tessa asked and Jamal had an inkling of why she was having a hard time believing that.
Obby had removed all the monsters that had been waiting for them, all on her own. She’d claimed that it was because she didn’t have to hold back ‘out here’. For just the barest instant too, Jamal had caught a glimpse of what Obby really was.
All of that should have been mind blowingly important.
But it wasn’t.
Obby was strong. Okay. Fine. He already knew that. He could feel a subtle pressure directing his thoughts away from questioning too much deeper into that. It wasn’t mind control though. When he focused on the question of who, or maybe more importantly what, Obby really was, he saw the holes in his knowledge, but was also able to put together a picture of her that held enough of the important truths about her that the rest didn’t matter as much.
She was their friend. She would fight for them. She was funny, and kind, and she loved being who she was. She was also keeping things from them, but Jamal had the sense that even that was being done out of love.
“Yeah,” Obby said. “There are a ton of possible outcomes, and I can’t tell which one will become real. Heh, Jin is going to be so jealous. This is a rare delight!”
“Uh, the world is still ending right?” Rose asked.
“Oh, yeah, right. Sorry,” Obby said. “I think they’ll be okay, for a wide variety of possible ‘okays’. I think that’ll probably be true for all of us.”
She nodded to Jamal and he had to wonder if she’d heard the private conversation he’d had with Matt Painting?
They were going back to Earth. Rose could see the path starting to form at the end of the hall, past the starscape that blazed on the floor below them.
That meant it was time. Any longer and her voice wouldn’t be able to reach far enough.
“Uh, Your Majesty?” Rose said, unsure what the proper title for the supreme being of the [Nightmare Realm] might be.
“Yes?” the [Nightmare Queen] said, turning to Rip without really looking at her, Obby having engulfed most of her awareness with Marcus occupying the majority of the remainder.
“I think I brought someone for you,” Rose said.
“Something? For me?” the [Nightmare Queen] asked, carving off a thin slice of awareness for her.
“Someone,” Rose corrected her. “They’re dead but I don’t think that’s a problem here.”
“Rose?” Jamal asked, concern and confusion warring in his voice.
Rose couldn’t blame him. She told him about the [Lightning Archer] class she’d developed. She’d explained the link she felt to the [Lord of Storms] and how she hoped that her belief could serve as an anchor to bring the dead god back to life. Listening to her theorize about resurrecting a deity was one thing though. Watching her do so was something else entirely.
“Who is this someone?” the [Nightmare Queen] asked, far more of her attention falling on Rose.
“I think they can help,” Rose said. “You know them right? They were on your team when you built this place.”
“Who?” the [Nightmare Queen] asked and the world seemed to drop away leaving only the Queen and Rose within it.
Except Rose wasn’t alone before the [Nightmare Queen].
“It’s time,” Rose said. “We need you now.”
She didn’t scream the words. She didn’t whisper them. She simply spoke them with every ounce of truth inside her and with each one she felt the world expanding around her as the words reached out, seeking their destination, seeking to the edge of the sky, to the stars, and out, far beyond the edges of reality, across a gulf of light, calling to someone she carried in her heart and who was worlds away.
From beyond the farthest reaches, from the world she’d once called home, a voice, surprised, afraid, and yet awoken to the destiny Rose summoned them to answered.
“I AM CALLED BY MY FAITHFUL,” the [Lord of Storms] said, manifesting as a bolt of golden electricity. “LET THE REFUGE OF DEATH SHELTER ME NO MORE! I LIVE AGAIN!”
The [Nightmare Queen] stared at the god before her and took a long moment drinking in the sight of them.
“Samantha? Is that you?” the [Nightmare Queen] asked.
“It’s just Sam now. Wait. Gail?” the [Lord of Storms] said and then kneeled before her. “Or should I say ‘My Queen’! Either way, I am yours!”