Tessa was back in her own body, her very human, very fragile body, and she wasn’t the only one.
“Is your planet normally like this?” a shockingly tall and heavily muscled woman asked in a voice that couldn’t have been anyone other than Yawlorna.
“Only on really bad days.” Lisa’s human form wasn’t a surprise to Tessa. Every time they’d been dead it was the shape Lisa had worn. That fact did absolutely nothing to prevent Tessa’s breath from catching in her throat though. “Come on, we need to get out of this stuff before it chokes us out.”
They were on a sidewalk with a noticeable incline. Worryingly, the smoke seemed to be flowing downhill. Tessa wasn’t an expert on fire safety but she was pretty sure smoke usually went in the opposite direction, so she was delighted when Lisa began leading them uphill from where they’d arrived. Her breath had caught in her throat though because Tessa had a lot more to be delighted about.
Lost Alice was gorgeous, because of course she was. Her appearance was based on a video game character’s, with only mild alterations for individuality and the expression of her personality. Lisa by contrast didn’t have the perfected proportions of her Fallen Kingdoms counterpart or Lost Alice’s flawless skin and amazing hair. What she did have were all the flaws and unique quirks that real people have and in that instant Tessa loved every single one of them.
Her world was burning, they were running both from and towards disaster, and for a single moment, Tessa felt only a stillness within her and the warmth of Lisa’s hand in hers.
“Please take inventory,” Azma said. She didn’t look anything like her Fallen Kingdoms form either, but she was unmistakable nonetheless. “I don’t believe any of the capabilities you possessed have been lost, but their accessibility may be limited.”
“She’s right,” Obby said. “My 99 levels as a Guardian are offline for now. I think the same will be true for all the rest of you, except maybe for Tessa?”
Tessa had never been able to see her heads up display while in her “human” form so she didn’t have an easy reference to see if her levels were still in effect but when she tried to invoke one her Void Speaker shields, she couldn’t feel anything moving through her.
“Nope. Back to being a regular human here too,” Tessa said, trying to work out where they’d arrived.
The thick smoke made it hard to pick out landmarks but the shape of skyscrapers in the distance at least confirmed that they were some kind of large city.
“Well this sucks,” said a teenage girl who had to be Rip Shot.
“I’m just glad we all showed up in the same place, not back at our computers,” a teenage boy, obviously Matt Painting from how close he stood to Rip, said.
“That’s a good point. Anybody know where we are?” a middle aged woman with Lady Midnight’s voice asked.
“Somewhere new,” Starchild said.
Beside her jogged a middle aged guy who looked almost as befuddled as she did.
“Oh, how interesting,” Azma said. “I would so dearly enjoy…no, not the time for curiosity. You have a global communication network. We need to access it.”
“Not a problem,” Hailey said. Unlike most of the others, she wasn’t in casual, ‘just playing around on the computer’ clothes. She was wearing a logo’d polo shirt for Egress Entertainment and with black jeans which more or less screamed ‘Tech Support Rep’, but the important part of the ensemble were the pockets in her jeans. Pockets that held that most holy of modern objects, Hailey’s cell phone. “Or maybe it’s a small problem.”
“No charge?” Tessa guessed.
“No service,” Hailey said. “I getting 4 bars, but it’s not downloading anything.”
“Is it broken?” Rachel asked. In real life she looked nothing like her sister, but as the only other Chinese American girl present, both her voice and the process of elimination made it easy to identify her.
“Probably not,” Lady Midnight said. “Whatever’s happening here probably has the circuits clogged. Pretty standard disaster scenario. Getting out of the city might help but no promises there.”
“Unfortunate,” Azma said. “Not unexpected however. What options can you see for transportation?”
“It’s a city, there’s gotta be cars around her somewhere right?” Rip asked.
Tessa blinked at the incongruity of that. They were definitely in a city. Except they were alone as far as she could tell. No people. No cars. There were alarms blaring but no flashing lights.
This isn’t what it’s supposed to look like, is it? Pillowcase asked, her silent voice as clear as ever in Tessa’s mind.
You’re still here! Tessa said, a weight lifting from her shoulders with each word.
Sort of, Pillowcase said. I don’t have any of my Soul Knight abilities though, and there’s a lot of other things that seem to be broken. I can’t hear the team’s party line at all.
No telepathy on Earth, Tessa said.
Not going to be much help then I guess, Pillowcase said. Still glad to be here though, I was wondering if we’d be split apart and I’d be left back there alone.
I think we’re in this for the long haul, Tessa said, and I think you may be a lot more help than you know.
You’re a lot more than your magic spells. I’ve never been brave enough to really stand up for myself.
Hate to tell you, but I was specifically engineered to not be able to stand up for myself.
Maybe, but look at what we’ve accomplished together? Trust me there’s zero chance I could have done that on my own.
So you’re saying we’re stronger when we’re more fully ourselves?
The results kinda speak for themselves don’t they?
I guess that’ll depend on whether we survive this or not, Pillowcase said with a rueful mirth they both shared.
“Intersection up ahead,” Lisa said. “We should be able to see the street names at least.”
“Even better, I see a hospital sign,” Lady Midnight said. “If there’s anyone left here, we should be able to find some of them there.”
“There likely will be,” Azma said. “We will be endangering them if we attempt to contact them however.”
“Endangering them how?” Lady Midnight asked.
“Byron either knows of our arrival or will be aware of it shortly,” Azma said. “It’s doubtful he’ll risk a direct confrontation, but he will have disposable minions to dispatch against us.”
“Wait, but we don’t have any powers here,” Rip said.
“And we can’t respawn,” Matt said.
“That’s not entirely true,” Starchild said and held out her hand with a glowing ball of green flame in it.
“Huh?” Obby said. “How did…oh, OH! I see! Clever!”
“Could you fill us in on whatever you just noticed?” Lisa asked.
“As I said, you’re capabilities are not lost, they are simply not easily accessible,” Azma said. “This is typical when moving between Arcanospheres with different fundamental parameters.”
“She’s doing magic here though. That’s not a thing that happens on Earth,” Rachel said.
“Huh, no, I think I get it,” Hailey said.
“You do?” Rachel asked.
“Yeah. We’re not on Earth are we?” Hailey said. “Or, we’re on Earth, but it’s not exactly the Earth we left.”
“It’s mostly the Earth you left,” Obby said.
“Mostly?” Lisa asked.
“Yeah,” Hailey said. “Okay, magic doesn’t exist on Earth right. I mean the wizards throwing fireballs kind of magic.”
“Depends who you talk to but, sure, I’d say that’s a fair statement. Or at least it was before I saw someone literally holding a fireball they were ready to throw,” Lisa said.
“And that’s exactly it! It was a fair statement but it’s not anymore. Think about it. Have you ever personally cast a magic spell on Earth?” Hailey asked.
“No, and not for a lack of trying,” Lisa said. “Lost Alice has been wracking our brain trying to come up with some method of drawing in the mana we need but this body is basically as non-magical as you can get.”
Tessa dearly wanted to disagree with that assessment but it didn’t seem the time or the place to bring the conversation in that direction.
I’ll add it to the ‘demonstrate to her later’ list, Pillowcase whispered to her.
“Is it?” Hailey said, and Tessa saw the mischievous grin that she’d only heard so many times before. “Do you think casting yourself to another world because a distant part of your soul was in peril is a totally normal and mundane sort of action? No magic involved at all?”
“No, but I wasn’t the one who did that,” Lisa said. “Was I?”
“You tell me,” Hailey said. “Lost Alice may have been the one to call, but who was it who answered?”
“We did,” Tessa said, the obviousness of the answer leaving her feeling a little stunned. “When we got there, do you remember we talked about how we could ever trust the person who was responsible for dragging us into a world where we had to fight to survive?”
“That seems like it was a thousand years ago, but yeah, I do,” Lisa said. “And, yeah, I can see how that turned out alright for us, but why would we have done that.
“Because the Fallen Kingdoms needed us,” Hailey said.
“Oh, wait, it’s a lot more than that,” Tessa said. “You heard what Marcus said. The Earth was being attacked by these things and he dragged Byron away to the Fallen Kingdoms. That’s why we answered the call. That’s our quest! It’s not Save the World. It’s the Save the Worlds! We weren’t forced to go to the Fallen Kingdoms. We chose to. To save both worlds!”
“How could we have done that though? I can’t do magic,” Lisa said.
“Of course you can,” Azma said. “You’ve cast countless spells before we arrived here.”
“But that was in the Fallen Kingdoms,” Lisa said. “Wait, Starchild, where are you getting the magic for that from? Lost Alice can’t find any of it.”
“I can feel the soul of the natural world here just as strongly as I could feel it on my world,” Starchild said.
“That’s so weird,” Rip said. “I mean we’ve got plants and stuff here, but we’ve got lightning too and I can’t feel any of the Lord of Storm’s power inside me at all. It doesn’t even sound different when I say Lord of Storms.”
“I can still here Matt’s voice,” Matt or rather his teenage human alter-ego said.
“Yes, that’s typical as well,” Azma said.
“Since you’ve got experience with this, can you tell us how we find our way back to the power we need for our spells?” Lisa asked.
“It differs in each world,” Azma said. “I can provide some possibilities, but your current status is acting as a cloaking mechanism of sorts.”
“From Byron?” Tessa asked.
“And from everything else he’s brought to this world,” Azma said. “Creatures such as he are drawn to power. That was true when he was no more than a man and has grown only more central to his identity since he devolved into something less.”
“So either we stay powerless and can’t do anything against him, or we figure out the ‘One Weird Trick’ to making magic work on Earth and then a billion monsters come and squish us?” Rip asked.
“I never figured out that trick at all,” Rachel said. “I was only supposed to be temporarily logged in. I have no idea what happened to me at all or how I did it.”
“Really?” Obby said, turning her full attention on Lisa’s sister.
“Uh, yeah, I was able to go back and forth from the Beta server to Earth a few times,” Rachel said. “It wasn’t until I went to the live servers that I got stuck. I think.”
“I think…can I take you to meet someone?” Obby asked.
“Sure, I guess? Is it going to help?” Rachel asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe your situation is unique, but even if it is, I think you might be one of the keys we need to fixing all of this,” Obby said, practically bouncing on her toes.
“We who?” Lisa asked.
“Some friends who’ve been working this problem from a different angle,” Obby said.
“Don’t we still need to find the other original developers though?” Rip asked.
“Yes, but please, do as she says,” Azma said. “The rest of us will take care of the issues that are within our domain to address.”
Tessa glanced to Lisa who offered a shrug. Obby seemed to know what she was doing and they both remembered her essentially soloing a throne room full of Remnants. Tessa missed their private telepathic channel but the shared glance was able to communicate most of what needed to pass between them.
“Be careful ok!” Rip shouted as Obby led Rachel off at a run into the swirling smoke.
“We still need to connect to the communication network, and to find transportation,” Azma said. “And also to deal with that.”
Tessa followed Azma’s gaze to the ten foot tall mecha that came silently striding around the corner.
No machine that big should have been able to move without making a noise.
No machine of any size should have disintegrated the edge of the building as it walked through it either.
“Robot!” Matt’s warning was somewhat ironic given his former body but it was Pete who’s words truly chilled Tessa.
“Oh no,” Pete said. “I know what that is. It’s not a bot. That’s a Gray Walker. It’s a nanite swarm.”
“What can it do?” Yawlorna asked.
“Take us apart at a molecular level,” Pete said.
“And how do we stop it?” Starchild asked.