She was magic. And fire. And starlight. Tessa had spoken to the cosmos and the cosmos had listened to her. She held the power to the change worlds. She knew that and yet, it seemed so very distant.
So very unreal.
With her noodly human arms, and her sadly ignored physique, Tessa barely felt like she could move herself. The thought of being able to wield the kind of power she did in the Fallen Kingdoms sounded wonderful, but on Earth she just wasn’t that special.
Well, except for having you with me, she said inside, speaking to the other fragment of her own consciousness.
Uh, you’re a lot more special than I am, Pillowcase said.
How? You’re a badass Soul Knight! You can fight gods and monsters and win! Tessa said, a flash of her Earthly battles against tyrannical bosses and rude coworkers seeming so paltry and meaningless by comparison.
I am a broken failure of a Soul Knight. I couldn’t even fight the standard troops of a mostly unprepared and technomagically inferior enemy, Pillowcase said. I was abandoned by my creators as a generic and expandable resource. Highly trained and respected analysts looked at me and determined that I literally had less than zero value.
And they were idiots, Tessa said, the echoes of Pillowcase’s self doubt ringing all too in synch with her own.
No. They weren’t, Pillowcase said. Without you, I was a husk. I had no drive, no purpose, and no imagination. I was a weapon that real people could point in a direction and unleash, except when they did, I broke and failed them.
But…Tessa began. Pillowcase cut her off though.
That’s what I was. It’s not what I am, she said. Just like you’re not what you were either. When I was the Consortium’s weapon, I was locked into one vision of what I could be. When they discarded me, I didn’t lose that. I was still trapped by it, still stuck thinking that what they wanted me to be was all that I could be. I’d broken and so that’s what I could do, was be broken and rot away.
Tessa saw Pillowcase’s memory play through their mind’s eye; the empty fields of the High Beyond where Pillowcase had collapsed swallowing them in darkness and eternal silence. Energy fading, fading, and fading as a dwindling spark that asymptotically approached oblivion.
Then you came, and you changed everything.
In their mind’s eye, it wasn’t that two sparks joined together. They weren’t two people after all, but rather two parts of the same person. They’d both been dimmed by loss and rejection, but from their first whisper thin contact, as Tessa logged into Broken Horizons and as awareness returned to Pillowcase, it was the single spark which united both of them which began to burn brighter.
I didn’t really do anything though, Tessa protested. All I did was start playing a game for fun.
It didn’t feel like that, Pillowcase said. To me it felt like you were taking a big step. Reclaiming something that had been lost to you for a long time. I thought it was me at first, me that you were redeeming. Except you were as surprised that I was real as I was surprised by you.
Tessa remembered hearing ‘Pillowcase’s voice’ for the first time and how it had been an impossible revelation and yet unquestionably right too. Pillowcase had been someone who couldn’t possible be real. Video game characters weren’t real. Tessa knew that.
And then, suddenly, Pillowcase wasn’t a video game character. She’d been the skin that Tessa was living inside and it was more impossible to doubt that she existed than it had been to believe in her.
When we met Glimmerglass, I thought she was the one you were reclaiming, Pillowcase said. Which would have made a lot more sense to be honest. Except that wasn’t it either.
It wasn’t, Tessa said, looking around at the others. Everyone was pondering the miracle of Starchild’s magic, and the miracles that they’d all seemingly worked and, for a moment, the whole group seemed to be speechless. I’d been away for a while. Climbing back into Glimmerglass’s skin didn’t seem right.
But it was only a game wasn’t it? Pillowcase’s tone was lightly teasing.
It was and it wasn’t. The events weren’t real, but the people were. I knew I hadn’t raised actually the dead, but when Glimmerglass raised BT that really meant something for Hailey. I changed her world, a tiny little bit, by helping her have some fun.
She remembered you after years apart, and crossed over to the Fallen Kingdoms to help you get home, Pillowcase said. It sounds like you changed her world by more than a little bit.
I think the little things just add up, Tessa said. At one point she was my best friend I think.
And then you lost that. But you came back anyways. You opened yourself to making another connection like the one that had hurt you so deeply. I don’t think that’s as trivial as you’re thinking it is.
Maybe not, but it’s not the kind of thing that’s on the level of wresting fire from the gods, Tessa said, the magic within her still as distant as the farthest stars.
“You look lost in thought,” Lisa said. “Coming up with any good ones?”
“I don’t know,” Tessa admitted. “Might be having an existential crisis? Or an epiphany? Or just navel gazing. My thoughts sometimes get away from me like that.”
“It is to be expected,” Azma said. “Your minds as remarkably plastic, but these events, and the ones which must follow, require stretching beyond your normal limitations, and so a degree of backlash is to be expected.”
“And how do you know that?” Claire asked. “You can’t have been in this kind of situation before?”
“Can’t I?” Azma asked. “I suppose that will remain to be seen. It’s possible that my experience does not align sufficiently with reality before us, and that my vision isn’t wide enough to encompass the threats Byron had arrayed against us.”
“You don’t sound upset about that?” Rose said.
“Why would I be?” Azma asked. “Being presented with the unexpected is an opportunity for growth and that can be a true delight.”
“Not if the world ends,” Jamal said.
“If the world ends, I shall leave behind a very disappointed ghost,” Azma said. “And I have no intention of doing that.”
“I hope not, because I’m going to leave behind a really pissed off ghost,” Claire said.
“We should decide what our next course of action will be,” Starchild said. “My mana reserves are full once more, so if my talents can of any use, name what you need me to do.”
“At present, nothing,” Azma said. “It is worth noting too that each use you make of you abilities sends up a signal flare for Byron to see. Perfect obfuscation of our position or goals is impractical, but the fewer data points we provide our enemies, the better. Obviously in a case such as the one we were faced with, do not hesitate to use your abilities though. This world is likely more hostile to reviving the dead than yours was, and none of you are expendable.”
“If Byron might know where we are, then shouldn’t we get moving?” Lisa asked.
“Byron is not the only one who might have noticed the magical surge from Starchild’s invocation,” Azma said. “Fleeing from his approach might delay our reckoning with him by a meager amount of time, but it would also make it more difficult for our allies to locate us.”
“Allies?” Tessa asked. “Who do we have here as allies?”
She didn’t even know what city they were in, and no matter where on Earth they were she couldn’t think of a roster of people they’d be able to call on for aide against the Apocalypse.
“That might be us?” a woman said, stepping into the backroom of the deli through its brand new gaping bomb hole. “Sorry, all I heard there was ‘allies’ and, well, you’re not a giant building destroying robot, so I’m guessing we’re on the same side.
The woman was dark skinned, and older than Tessa. Her voice had an odd lilt to it, and Tessa wasn’t sure if the woman was speaking English, or if that’s just how the words sounded after some translation effect ran on them.
Is that you turning what she’s saying into English? Tessa asked Pillowcase.
Nope. I think I could if we needed, but that’s coming in pre-translated.
She’s not speaking English though, is she?
No she is not. I’m not sure what she’s speaking in fact. I can hear the original words, I think, and they’re not in any of the languages the Consortium stitched into me.
Behind the woman, a lighter skinned man stood close by with a small squad of people in ultratech body armor who were, for some reason, holding crossbows at the ready.
“You expected them?” Lisa asked, pure disbelief framing every word.
“In specific? No,” Azma said. “I have a frightful lack of data concerning this world. Despite rather intensive scanning efforts I must note. In general though? Yes, though I must admit their arrival is more timely than I would have planned for.”
“Does that mean you know what’s going on here?” the woman asked.
“Apart from a general disaster,” the man beside her said.
“We do,” Azma said. “In the broad strokes. My companions can provide a summary and fill you in any details relevant to your capabilities or interests. For now however, we should seek a more defensible position.”
“We saw some other people gathered around a medical building,” the woman said.
“I thought there would be,” Claire said.
“Let’s get going then,” Lisa said. “Maybe we’ll run into Obby and Rachel. Didn’t they head in that direction?”
“If we are very lucky we will not see Oblivion’s Daughter before this matter is fully resolved,” Azma said.
“Why? What’s wrong with Obby?” Tessa asked.
“Nothing. Nothing at all. I believe we have much to thank her for,” Azma said. “Unless my understanding of her is wrong however, she has far more important things to deal with and if we see her again it will be because our situation has become so dire that she will feel the need to intervene directly.”
“Intervene? Like a god or something?” Rose asked.
“Nothing so small as that,” Azma said. “Though the consequences may be similarly severe.”
“This sounds like our kind of mission, doesn’t it?” the woman said, speaking to the man beside her.
“Unfortunately,” he said.
“When does it not Guardian?” one of the women in the squad behind them said.
“We have more of the Void Walkers incoming,” a blue holographic woman said, appearing beside the woman who was leading the squad.
“Right. Time to move then. Would one of you take point with me? Preferably someone who can fill us in on what’s going on here,” the woman said.
“I’d like to chat with the anima caster too,” the blue hologram woman said.
Tessa wasn’t familiar with the term ‘anima caster’ but she was pretty sure who the hologram woman was talking about.
“Starchild, I think that’s you, and I can give them the details on the worlds that are ending here,” Tessa said.
She reached over for Lisa’s hand and found that Lissa was already reaching for her. They shared a quick nod and then started moving out of the deli and back towards the hospital.
Leadership sometimes involves inspiring speeches, or making difficult decisions. Other times it’s literally a matter of moving forward and setting a pace for others to follow. Tessa didn’t understand how she’d wound up in any kind of leadership role at all, but she knew the people with her had gotten used to looking at their tank to set the pace for them, and she wasn’t going to fail them at this point. Pillowcase had shown her that she was better than that.
“My name’s Tessa,” she said as the squad’s leader fell in step beside her. “Though you might hear people call me Pillowcase too. I’m her as well. You’re ‘Guardian’?”
“That’s my title, you can call me Mel though. Now let’s make some better time, shall we?” Mel said. “Darius, if you would please?”
Darius, the man jogging along beside them nodded and cast a hand forth. From it a blue light blossomed and spread around everyone in the group.
Power flooded through Tessa’s body. Strength and speed and glorious freedom, as their jog became a world blurring surge forward.