Tessa wanted to talk. Later. So it was about more than the weather. Lisa tried to think of all the things that might be on Tessa’s mind that would warrant a private conversation but weren’t pressing enough to require immediate attention.
There were a lot of possibilities. Some of them terrifying and wonderful.
And some of them just terrifying.
The more Lisa thought about the more dreadful ideas floated into her imagination.
Had their latest crisis pushed Tessa into discarding some other portion of her humanity? Was she going to tell Lisa that her time was running out? Or that she’d been infected by the [Formless Hunger]? Or that she had to leave because she couldn’t keep getting hurt for Lisa’s sake?
The last thought was ridiculous and Lisa discarded it with a shake of her head. If she was going to worry about things, they were at least going to be sensible things, grounded in a semblance of reality.
“I’m sorry, I really want to stay and help, but I think I broke something back there. Every time I think about fighting, I start shaking and feel like I’m going to throw up,” the phantom Tessa in Lisa’s imagination said. “I’d keep going but I’ve been hurt so much coming this far that I think this whole thing might have been a big mistake.”
“She’s not going to say that,” Lost Alice said as she handled racing down the corridor just behind Tessa. “You know that’s not how she feels.”
“I know. I know. It’s just so easy to picture though.”
“She’s not Kelly,” Lost Alice said. “From everything we’ve seen so far, she’s more than willing to give as much to you as you give to her.”
“I know!” Lisa shouted, though only to herself. She felt like an idiot but the promised conversation was raising her hopes too high and her experience with high hopes was that they led to the worst disappointments.
“My heart’s too dead to break,” Lost Alice said and Lisa laughed at herself, a chuckle escaping the safe confines of her lips.
“Happy thoughts?” the real Tessa asked on their private channel.
“Don’t mind me, just losing my mind back here,” Lisa said.
“But it’s been such a stress free day so far,” Tessa said, playing into Lisa’s joking tone.
“I don’t suppose we’ve have any luck reaching the folks at the refuge?” Lisa asked.
“Not a peep,” Tessa said. “Lady Midnight’s been trying too. She says the static is the same they were getting when they tried to reach us.”
“So it’s the Hunger? Has it gotten to them already?” That wasn’t one of the terrible conversation options Lisa had thought to worry about, but the omission wasn’t surprising. There were just too many vectors for terrible events to remain consciously aware of them all.
“No. They’re farther away from it’s center than we were. And it was searching for me. And dealing with the Consortium trying to do whatever they were doing to it. We’ve gotta have a little time left before it starts moving on a random group of people like that.”
It sounded like Tessa was trying to convince herself as much as Lisa, but the logic was at least somewhat sound, and Lisa needed to believe it just as badly as Tessa did.
“We could send Rip ahead,” Lisa said. “She seems to have picked up some kind of long distance movement power.”
“You know if we even breath a whisper of that idea she’ll be off like a bullet,” Tessa said.
Lisa groaned inwardly.
“With no backup and no plan. Yeah, that’s not a great idea.”
“Maybe not at the moment, but if we work with her a bit?” Tessa suggested.
“We could turn her into a more effective child soldier?”
“If we manage to get out of here, I’m treating us all to a few years of therapy,” Tessa said. “Well, if I’ve got a job still. For all I know, they’ve fired me already. It’s been like two days now? Or just one? I’ve lost track.”
“I think we’ve been going for more than 24 hours but less than 48 now,” Lisa said. “Next time we hear from a GM we should check though.”
“I could try BT again, but there’s been static there too,” Tessa said. “I think there must be some membrane from the Hunger that’s in between us. Good news though; Obby, Glimmerglass and Starchild don’t seem to be cutoff. Lady Midnight said they’re making their best speed back too.”
“We were pretty luck with the people we’ve run into here,” Lisa said and added, “I’ve been pretty luck.”
It was sounded awkward and weird when she said it but Tessa seemed to understand what she meant.
“Was that what passes for subtle on Earth?” Lost Alice asked.
“You have my memories don’t you?” Lisa asked. “I mean, you are me, aren’t you?”
“Are you under the impression that you’re lacking in sarcasm?” Lost Alice asked.
“Yeah, but I don’t use it on myself!” Lisa knew it was a lie, but yelling back at Lost Alice was easier than considering the implications of what she was tormenting herself about.
“You know if you and I are all divided like this, we’re that much more likely to flub something up in our next fight and let Tessa get hurt again.” Lost Alice was teasing her, but that didn’t mean the barb was any less sharp.
“Maybe I should just be dead and heartless then right?” Lisa said, casting a barb back.
“That would be for the best,” Lost Alice said. It was meant as a joke, the whole exchange an attempt to refocus Lisa’s thoughts away from the terror that had gripped her while Tessa was fighting for their lives and violating various of the local laws of physics.
Sometimes though casual teasing can strike nerves that should have been long dead.
There was a sadness behind Lost Alice’s words and a flicker of another woman.
Lost Alice’s heart wasn’t beating but that didn’t prevent it from seizing up at the memory.
Once upon a time, she hadn’t been lost. Once upon a time, there’d been someone she’d loved literally more than life itself.
There was more to averting a tragedy than just glowering at it until the problem went away, but Yawlorna was impressed at how much effect a good glower could have. It helped of course that she happened to resemble a creature the former residents of [Sky’s Edge] believed to be far stronger than Yawlorna and her crew. That, coupled with an apparently genuine desire on the part of the [Vampires] to begin a peaceful coexistence with their potential food source, had bought time for a decent amount of dialog to take place.
Yawlorna was under no illusion that everyone was happy with the situation before them, or that the townsfolk held any deep trust or respect for either Yawlorna’s crew or the [Vampires] but there’d been progress where there could have been bloodshed.
“I can have my people work with the [Adventurers],” Vixali said. “If we setup combined patrols we can take advantage of their indestructibility and our heightened senses to make sure nothing gets the drop on the rest of us.”
“I like that,” Olwina the [Blacksmith] said. “We’ve got some materials we use to start creating defense works too, once we get the living quarters situation squared away.”
“I do like the sound of defense works,” Vixali said.
“We can help with those too,” Yawlorna offered. “We had some blood wards setup in our old camp. They weren’t enough to keep out the Consortium’s elite troops, but the regular riff raff stopped bothering us once we got them deployed.”
“Do they last long?” Olwina asked.
“A few weeks if they’re painted right,” Yawlorna said. “We can mix in silver dust if we need them to last longer.”
“I suspect we’ll need to supply you with some,” Olwina said. “We’re probably going to be here a while.”
That was, of course, the precise moment when a familiar band of [Adventurers] came barrelling into the cavern.
“We’ve got to go!” Tessa shouted, catching everyone’s attention and with four words undoing all of the calm that Yawlorna had worked so hard to build.
“Pardon me but, what?” Vixali said, her red eyes flashing with dangerous annoyance.
“We need to leave. Now,” Tessa said. “Pack up anything you can. We’ve got maybe ten minutes, tops.”
“Ten minutes before what?” Yawlorna asked, not bothering to hide her own grumpy annoyance.
“The thing that ate [Sky’s Edge]? It’s growing. It’s already taken over a lot of the dungeon above this area and it’s started spreading down fast.”
“The [Formless Hunger] is spreading?” Vixali asked, the annoyance in her eyes replaced with plain fear.
“Spreading and changing,” Lisa said. “It’s intelligent now.”
“What does that mean?” Olwina asked, Vixali’s fear jumping to her like a contagion.
“That we’re dead,” Vixali said.
“Aren’t you already…?” Yawlorna started to asked.
“In the colloquial sense,” Vixali added. “Are you certain of this? Certain enough to stake your life on it?”
“We already have,” Rip said. “We fought a bunch of them when we found Pillowcase and Lost Alice.”
“You…fought them? How?” Vixali asked.
“The Hunger took control of some of the Consortium forces,” Tessa said. “They changed into something else, [Hungry Shadows], while we were fighting them.”
“But you won, didn’t you?” Olwina asked. “Can’t we just stay here and fight them.”
“A lot of Consortium troops got converted,” Kamie Anne Do said, arriving with her team. “We found a few dozen and that was nothing compared to how many the Hunger got.”
“We ran into some too,” Obby said. Behind her, a small army of shadows crept along the walls. The [Shadowed Starwalkers] felt like predators to Yawlorna, but they were making no moves that could be interpreted as hostile, waiting patiently while Oblivion’s Daughter spoke for them. “The good news is they are beatable. The bad news is, they’re natural level seems to be well above 20, so outside of level capped areas they’re a nightmare, and there’s several tens of thousands already under the control of the central [Hungry Shadow]. So, yeah, we should leave.”
“Go where?” Olwina asked. “We just started setting up here because this was the safest place we could find. Where is left for us to run?”
“Deeper,” Vixali said. “The lowest reaches of the Ruins have always been unpassable. The creatures down there are powerful beyond reason.”
“That doesn’t sound like an improvement,” Yawlorna said. “Aren’t we just trading one death for another? I mean that might be fine for the [Adventurers] but the rest of us don’t do well once our major body parts start to go missing.”
“It is true,” one of the shadows said. “There are things in the lower reaches which even we fear.”
“They’re at least of this world, or this reality,” Vixali said. “We can reason with some of them. Offer payment for passage. In the worse case, we sneak past them and let the [Hungry Shadow] deal with them before they get to us.”
“It’s not going to be that simple,” Obby said.
“Of course not,” Yawlorna closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“We can flee deeper, but there’s no safety there either,” Obby said. “The high level creatures? They’re all gone.”
“They are what?” Vixali asked.
“Gone. Not there. They can’t fight the [Hungry Shadows] for us because they left a while ago. Just after the [Formless Hunger] showed up,” Obby said.
It didn’t occur to Yawlorna to ask how Obby knew this. [Adventurers] possessed such a weird and inexplicable assortment powers that knowledge of a dungeon’s inhabitants didn’t register as even vaguely strange.
“Then there’s nowhere for us,” Olwina said. “We have to stand here and fight and die.”
“No,” Tessa said. “No one’s dying here. We’re getting out of here.”
“Out to where?”
“The surface. The Hunger’s going to take the [High Beyond] but it’s not going to get any of us,” Tessa said. “We’re going to go where we can all get stronger. Then we’re going to come back and show that chump what we can really do.”