Tessa woke to the sound of battle. Flames raged over her head and people were dying in several different directions.
Pillowcase rose from their resting place, Tessa’s body not responding quite like a [Clothworks] would but of the two, Pillowcase had far more familiarity with responding instantly to battle than Tessa did. She was ready before her eyes even finished focusing on the attacks that would surely be heading in her direction.
It was Tessa who spotted the most important element of their surroundings though.
Not weird, creepy, inhuman laughter. Actual, joyful mirth spilling out from people she recognized.
“Oh wow, [Grave Menders] do not make good meleers!” Lisa said, amusement spilling from every word.
“Oh come on! I got a hit in at least!” Lady Midnight said over the party’s chat line.
Because she was dead.
Pillowcase shook her head and stepped back, allowing Tessa to take the lead. This sort of weirdness was outside of her stitching as a [Clothwork] so turning things over to her stranger self was unquestionably the proper choice.
“What in the [Burning Nethers] is going on here?” Tessa asked. She felt surprisingly good, which worried her deeply. How long had she been out? And what sort of madness had she missed out on participating in.
“You’re up!” Lisa said and threw a hug around Tessa that did nothing to diminish her confusion, but was wonderfully distracting.
“We’ll get you a turn in the rotation as soon as this round ends,” Rip said.
“The what now?” Tessa said, glancing around trying to make some sense of what was going on.
Her bedding area had been setup in a small balcony area. Over the railing she saw a few rows of seats leading down to an arena of spikes and burning sand.
“Oh, we’re on level 14? When did we get here?” she asked.
“About two hours ago,” Lisa said.
[Hells Breach] was divided up into twenty levels, each with their own special challenges and themes. Level 14 was the “arena level”, where rather than venturing down dark corridors and fighting room after room of monster, the party found itself in a shifting Roman-style arena where wave after wave of monsters came to them.
In the game version of [Hells Breach] it had been considered one of the worst levels to deal with since it offered no opportunity to regroup and restore lost resources between the fights. As Tessa watched though, she saw Matt refastening some of the bolts in his elbow as his opponents, a [Demon Blood Ogre] did warm up stretches about twenty feet away from him.
“Okay, I know I didn’t hit my head hard enough to be hallucinating this and my dreams weren’t this kind of weird, so I’m going to ask again, what the heck is happening here?”
“Nope,” Lisa said, Lost Alice’s offering a smile of both delight and torment.
“Nope? What do you mean ‘nope’?” Tessa asked not able to follow Lisa’s meaning at all.
“I mean, you do not get any answers to anything Miss ‘I’m going to pass out before I can explain what lunacy I pulled’,” Lisa said.
Tessa tried to protest but her mouth was stuck open like a gaping fish.
It closed as the full realization of what she’s done settled in, especially the part where she saw how it had probably looked from Lisa’s point of view.
“Uh, did I do that?” she asked, knowing for one hundred percent certain that she’d absolutely done that.
Lisa did not justify the question with a response. She just smile-glared at Tessa and waited.
“Okay, I can explain,” Tessa said. “But it’s not as bad as it’s going to sound.”
That, unfortunately, got everyone’s attention. Rip was the closest, but Starchild put down the staff she was enchanting, Lady Midnight strolled up at a brisk trot back from the nearby [Heart Fire], and even Matt held up his hand to his opponent to indicate they needed to pause their impending battle for this.
All of that didn’t surprise Tessa too much. They were her party, her friends, of course they wanted to know what she’d done to herself. It was the monsters, and there were a lot of them, who gathered around and seemed to be giving her their rapt attention, that was the audience which both surprised and unnerved her.
“Uh, should I stick to party speech for this?” she asked on their party line.
“Oh not at all,” Lisa said out loud. “Everyone here has been just dying to here this story.”
There was a chuckle from the audience at that, which left Tessa sure she was missing part of the joke, but she filed that concern for later.
“Well, you know how the demons tried to parlay with us?” she began. Lisa nodded encouragingly and Tessa began to wonder at which point, exactly, Lisa was going to strangle here because Lost Alice had been wearing the same smile for long enough to be worrisome.
Reasoning that delaying the story any further wasn’t going to improve Lisa’s mood, Tessa went through it as quickly as she could, explaining how seeing the chains had filled her with a seething rage, and how breaking them had given her another handful of divine power to work with.
Lisa and their other party members didn’t interrupt the tale at that point but Tessa could hear the demons and monsters around them whispering in disbelief.
She explained a bit about how hard the divine power was to work with, then, with some trepidation, launched into an explanation of what she’d attempted to do to the [Hungry Shadow] and how that had resulted in “Unknown” eventually choosing their name.
The mood shifted as she talked through what she’d done, with even her teammates losing their air of experienced amusement in favor of somewhat awestruck bewilderment.
Except for Obby.
Tessa remembered snippets of her dreams and was struck by the ones where Obby had been talking to her. She couldn’t remember everything they’d said, but there’d been an unusual degree of clarity in those dreams. Clarity enough that it was hard to believe they hadn’t been real.
“So, you could have become a god, but you chose to come back to us?” Lisa asked, once Tessa was done talking.
“Yeah. That wouldn’t have been me as a god, I would have been burned up and something inspired by me would have been left behind, and I didn’t want to leave you,” Tessa said, emphasizing with her eyes that the ‘you’ in question most definitely included and was centered on Lisa.
“Okay,” Lisa said, her gaze darting back and forth as she tried to take in the story Tessa had woven, “And this is for real? You really did that?”
“I know it’s ridiculous. God light is, I can’t even explain it, but it just kind of poured into me when I broke that chain,” Tessa said.
“No, that part…yeah…our new friends, you know the actual [Angels]? They confirmed that part. It’s just…that’s not…wow.” Lisa leaned back against the railing and seemed to drift away into a storm of internal thoughts.
“We should probably tell you what we’ve been doing I guess?” Rip said before the silence dragged on long enough to feel strange.
“You freed us,” one of the demons said.
Tessa looked over at him and couldn’t see how that could be true.
“Did I? You don’t look…” but she stopped when she really look at him.
He wasn’t chained.
In fact, he wasn’t really a demon.
“You’re shape changed aren’t you?” she asked.
“Do you like it?” the demon asked. “It’s not the form I got stuck in originally. I made a few improvements to it.”
“Wait, you’re the one I broke the chains on first, aren’t you?” Tessa asked.
“A deed for which I will be eternally grateful,” the Angel in disguise said.
“But…why?” Tessa asked, trying to figure out if the reversion to demonic form was more comfortable? Or a masochistic thing? Or who knew what?
“Because this form is one you can battle,” the Angel-in-disguise said.
“Battle?” Tessa asked, perplexed for a heartbeat before understanding clicked in her head. “Oh! Wait! You’re helping us level up?” She looked at the arena full of monsters. “All of you?”
“We’re helping each other,” Obby said. “It turns out when you free a castle full of [Angels] you get a castle full of people who’d rather like to help stop the world from ending.”
“We did help build it after all,” the Angel-in-disguise said.
“But why would you need to level up?” Tessa asked. “Oh, wait, no, oh, that would suck! They didn’t did they?”
“If by that, you mean to ask if our former masters stripped us of our celestial rights and privileges before imprisoning us in our demonic forms, then, yes, that is exactly what they did.”
“So, as [Angels] they can’t really do much,” Rip said. “But as [Demons] they kick all kinds of butt.”
“And they can respawn the same as we can,” Lady Midnight said.
“So we’ve been experimenting,” Rachel said. Lisa’s sister was supposed to look the same as Lost Alice since they’d been made with identical features, but somehow Tessa found it trivially easy to tell the two apart.
“We were doing team battles before, but people wanted to see if we could grow out characters beyond the regular limits of our class,” Rip said.
“And perhaps beyond the bounds of the level cap,” Glimmerglass said.
Tessa smiled to see her other self. The sight of Glimmerglass stirred a memory of seeing even more of the scattered pieces who were a part of her.
They were fighting too. It hurt her heart to think of them fighting alone, or even being alone, but she knew she wasn’t in a position to break down those barriers. Not at the moment. She’d let the god light go and, without that, shattering the limits of the world was a teensy bit more than she could manage.
“I have to say, I don’t understand how a mortal could have held the power you did,” the Angel-in-disguise – he insisted they call him Joe – said. “On the other hand I can’t see how you could have done the things we observed without being able to hold the power.”
“I have no idea either,” Tessa said. “I can tell you that I didn’t hold it for very long, and I didn’t try to use it on myself. Maybe those helped? It felt like I was burning up, but I knew as long as I let the power go quickly enough, I could stay ‘me’, for lack of a better way to describe it. So that’s what I did.”
“That and quite a bit more,” Joe the Angel said.
“We should think about what the aftereffects of Tessa’s excursion will be,” Obby said. “If the [Hungry Shadow] isn’t hungry anymore, that’s going to change a lot of things.”
“It may not be hungry anymore, but it’s definitely still mad,” Tessa said.
“In the ‘we’re all mad here’ sense or the ‘raging ball of fire’ sense?” Lady Midnight asked.
“In the ‘hates me with the passion of a thousand suns’ sense,” Tessa said. “I think the next time we meet things may not be what you’d call ‘pleasant’.”
“We should tell Penswell about this,” Glimmerglass said. “The fighting on the ground is still ongoing and I think by this point they’ll be launching attacks against the fleet in space. She needs to know that the nature of their foe has changed drastically.”
“That’s an excellent point,” Tessa said. “Can you take care of it? I can talk to her if she needs any details, but you know pretty much everything I do and she’s used to working with you.”
Glimmerglass nodded and looked away as she dialed up an internal chat line with Penswell.
“Even if that’s taken care of, we know there are other, rather cataclysmic, problems that are developing still,” Pete said, his voice only on the party line rather than through Starchild’s mouth. “So we probably want to keep working on the leveling while we can.”
“Yeah, we need to catch Tessa up on levels since she missed out while she was sleeping,” Rip said.
“Not that much,” Wrath Raven said. “Look at what her level is.”
“What is it?” Tessa asked, still lacking the game-like overlay the others enjoyed.
“Wow, I hadn’t noticed that. You’re up to level 64 [Void Speaker] now,” Rip said.
“I guess soloing the main expansion boss was worth a few xps,” Rachel said.
“Yeah, I guess?” Tessa said, stunned at the jump in power.
Single battles in the mid-levels weren’t supposed to award more than one tenth of a level worth of experience. Almost ten full levels worth was unheard of.
Inside she felt the well of untapped potential she carried from her earlier level ups had swelled to an ocean.
Below her, the arena beckoned.
“Let’s go find out what I can really do,” she said as she conjured her wand into her hand.