Burning up was supposed to hurt. As the flames spread down Tessa’s arms though she felt no pain at all.
“Are you okay?” Lisa asked, catching her hand back as she instinctively reached for Tessa.
“Yeah. Wow,” Tessa found it hard to focus or form words. “I think this is good. Maybe?”
The flames had spread to her shoulders and were licking the side of her head as the spread down her body as well somehow.
That wasn’t how flames usually traveled.
Was she supposed to stop, drop, and roll?
That was the right thing when you were on fire, right?
She gasped as the flames wrapped around her face and the world turned a brilliant white before her.
The flames weren’t white though.
Why was she seeing white?
Did she care?
The flames were working. That was what was important.
But what work were they doing?
Healing her? Except she wasn’t damaged.
Transforming her? That was what she wanted right? To go back to being Pillowcase. To be able to protect everyone.
Except that hurt.
She’d died doing that.
More than once.
And more than died.
Her thoughts started to fly apart when that idea struck them like a hammer against the anvil of her memories.
The flames were everywhere.
She wasn’t herself anymore.
She wasn’t Tessa.
She hadn’t been Tessa for a while.
Was she anything? Really?
The seems of the world were frayed and coming undone.
She could see the wounds it bore.
And beyond the rents in the fabric of time and space, she another world. It was bleeding too. Both worlds were falling apart. Being devoured.
Like she had been.
The cloth she was cut from was too frail.
It always had been.
Memories battered her as words tried to reach through the flames, but the memories were stronger. Sharper.
The failures of her past tore through her, slice the threads of sanity she clutched to veil away the truth.
She’d been convenient for Crystal for a while too, someone who could support her and didn’t ask for much. But Crystal had seen through her. Had seen that the support Tessa offered could go only so far. That Tessa couldn’t socialize like a normal person. Like a real person. All Tessa had was a few interests and a nebulous idea what she wanted out of life.
Crystal had needed more, and Lisa would too. In time.
That was why she was running away into being Pillowcase wasn’t it?
It wasn’t about protecting the team, it wasn’t about giving anything to anyone else, it was about hiding from her own inadequacies.
Both worlds that Tessa knew were crumbling, but she was going to crumble before either one of them could manage to because, as so many people had told her, that was the kind of failure she was.
No we’re not.
A montage of memories danced past her, each armed with the blades of her failures to cut through that denial.
Who is doing this?
We’re are. I am.
Should we stop then maybe?
I don’t know. Doesn’t this look right?
The memory dancers were like windows into the past, human shaped cutouts in space through which played one painful scene after another, each on infinite repeat, none lose their edge, no matter how many times they spun past.
Of course. We wouldn’t be afraid if these weren’t believable. It doesn’t mean they’re right though.
Aren’t we just hiding from something we don’t want to admit if we deny them though?
We don’t have to hide. This isn’t who we are. It’s what we’ve done. And what was done to us.
Then why does it feel so much more real than all the rest?
Because we don’t feel safe and we want to know why and need to believe there’s something we can do to avoid the pain we remember. So we get lost in these memories hoping to spot what we can do differently, because that lets us feel in control.
Just another sort of weakness then.
Yes. An important one.
Being weak isn’t something to be ashamed of. Everyone is weak. What’s dangerous is refusing to acknowledge that. Refusing to admit what we fear. Refusing to understand what our fears are trying to tell us.
Our fears don’t hate us.
They want more than anything to protect us.
But it’s not their job to figure out how.
So we’re afraid of something and we need to work it out?
Yes, but more urgently, we’re on fire and probably coming apart at the seams.
We should stop that.
Yes, we should.
Is it weird that I feel better now? After talking with myself?
Yes. Very weird. Now let’s go be the kind of weirdo we’ve always wanted to be.
Tessa felt the flames drawing within her. Not burning her away but filling her up. The blazing light in her eyes cleared as blessed clarity returned.
“TESSA!” Lisa was shaking her by the shoulders.
That was probably a bad sign.
How long had she been in the transformation fugue?
“Pillowcase! Can you talk!” Lisa said, still shaking Tessa’s shoulders.
No. Pillowcase’s shoulders!
“It worked!” Tessa said.
“Oh thank god,” Lisa said, sagging in relief. “My heart doesn’t even beat and you gave me a heart attack.”
“Oh, sorry, did it look that bad?” Tessa asked.
“You were writhing and engulfed in flames. It looked unpleasant,” Sister Acroghast said.
“Were you okay?” Lisa asked. She’d stopped shaking Tessa but hadn’t let her go.
Tessa wasn’t sure she ever wanted her to either.
“I was,” she said. “It was a little freaky, but the introspection helped I think?”
“Introspection?” Lisa asked.
“After the flames got to my, uh, eyes, I couldn’t really see anything and then it reached my brain my thoughts went a little whacky. This is sounding really bad isn’t it?”
“Do I need to answer that?” Lisa said, incredulity dripping from every syllable.
“It didn’t hurt at all though,” Tessa said. “In fact it felt kind of fantastic. But in the middle of the transformation I started getting hit with all these doubts, and weird visions. I think I was doing it to myself though. Basically I was hesitating on whether I wanted to change back into Pillowcase and I had to work that out before the transformation would complete. It’s like a checksum on certainty or something.”
“A what?” Lisa asked.
“Sorry, that’s a computer thing. When you want to make sure a bunch of data is correct you include a checksum with it, basically if the datas right when you add each bit of it together you’ll come out with the same number as the checksum. This was kind of like that. I had to be certain that changing was what I wanted, or what I needed. If I wasn’t sure, I think I would have lost the flame and been left just as I was.”
Lisa regarded her with a narrowed, calculating gaze.
“You see the world in such an interesting way,” she said and it seemed to be both a simple compliment and an observation of something far deeper.
“I like things to make sense,” Tessa said, not wanting to suggest that her clumsy metaphors were particularly insightful or meaningful.
“Perhaps you can help me understand exactly what happened here then?” Sister Acroghast said.
“It’s complicated and not something we can really prove,” Tessa said, “but the short form is; I and a lot of the other [Adventurers] are two people in one. Some weird stuff happened to me and the end result was that I wound up in my body from the other world I come from. Or at least something similar to it.”
“Other worlds are covered in the second year of the [Sisters of Steel] curriculum,” Sister Acroghast said. “We’re familiar with several dozen of them. Why one was your other self from? Or is this the self from another world?”
“It’s sort of both,” Tessa said. “The body I was wearing before comes from a world we call Earth. This body was manufactured by the [Consortium of Pain] and doesn’t really have a homeworld,” Tessa said. “Important point, I am not with the Consortium at all. They abandoned me after the first failed incursion. Without their interference I was able to break the last of the binding spells they had on me. You’ll find a bunch of [Clothwork] and [Metal Mechanoids] in the group at the [Great Hall] who have the same story. We’re all different now, but I believe we all hate the Consortium with enough fury to burn it to ash if we’re ever given the chance.”
Sister Acroghast was taken aback for moment but she’d been around the block enough times and swung her axe against the [Fallen Kingdoms] enemies for long enough that Tessa’s story barely raised one an eyebrow.
“I don’t think we’ve catalogued an ‘Earth’ yet,” she said. “Is that also where the Consortium come from? We’ve heard a bit about them from our other chapter houses.”
“No. Earth has nothing like the Consortium,” Tessa said. “No magic either. We don’t understand how any of this happened.”
“It was probably a [Wizard]. [Wizards] are trying to figure out what they ‘could’ do without bothering to ask if they ‘should’.”
“We know a few max level [Wizards],” Lisa said. “They’re all as stumped as the rest of us.”
“If I may ask, why did you wish to return to this body?” Sister Acroghast was appraising Pillowcase’s form with a look that said she had certain suspicions about Pillowcase’s capabilities.
“This body is better adapted to this world,” Tessa said, restraining her joy at having a proper heads up display again. She still planned to return to being Tessa a fair portion of the time, but for all the advantages a human body help, she knew she’d always miss having a live stream of data in her vision explaining critical things about what she was seeing.
“It looks like you might know how to fight in this one?” Sister Acroghast asked.
“I’ve swung my mace a few times,” Tessa said.
Looking down some finally noticed one of the more obvious changes she’d undergone, namely that it wasn’t just her body which had transformed. Her gear was different too!
“Though not this particular mace,” she said, drawing the weapon off the ring on her belt.
It hummed with power in hands. A [Crusher] enchantment unless she missed her guess.
Oh, and she no longer needed to guess!
[Meteor Mace of Crushing]. Level 15. Her level. The [Meteor] property meant it’s impact damage was matched with a flame burst of equal intensity. The [Crushing] enchantment was a later addition. It would send a portion of the impact, and the flame, through solid armor.
It was rare to see [Meteor] weapons at low levels, and almost no one bothered with enchantments on lowbie gear.
And it matched her level.
The gear she’d been using in the [High Beyond] hadn’t. It wasn’t terribly obsolete but it had been lagging by a few levels, as was typical when relying on random loot from monsters.
“Still in [Heirloom] gear,” Lisa said. “That’s interesting.”
“Sounds like you’d do well to test out your kit if it’s new to you,” Sister Acroghast said.
“That is not a bad idea,” Tessa said. “Are there any low level monsters around here that you know of?”
“Sparring would be a bit safer,” Sister Acroghast said. “We finished up our midday spar a little while ago, but the afternoon spar will be starting before too long.”
“You let outsiders join in?” Tessa asked, somewhat less than interested in being drafted into an order of militant nuns.
“Of course! We’re open to all of honor and good faith!”
“Before you do that,” Lisa said. “I’ve got the baseline data from your other body. We should really see how Pillowcase’s compares.”
Tessa looked down at her magically reinforced cloth body and sighed. Lisa had a good and valid point, but without the lure of ‘playing doctor’ the prospect of endless pushups and stomach crunches was a lot less appealing.