Tessa was surrounded by allies. She was more powerful than she’d ever been. More powerful than she ever could have been, as either Pillowcase or Tessa. In the face of the enemy that stood before her though, she wasn’t sure any of that mattered.
She’d fought the being that was calling himself ‘Unknown’ time and again and had called it a victory that she’d survived each encounter. Even with the power of a god she’d been unable to claim the sort of victory they’d managed against Hell’s Chosen.
Except…she checked the power she was building and held back the words of the battle enchantments that waited to pour fourth from her lips.
Except, he wasn’t attacking?
Except, he didn’t even seem hostile, just…sorrowful?
But he’d promised that he would remember what she’d done to him in forcing him to take a name, even one as loosely binding as ‘Unknown’. He’d been a changing entity, the definition of mindless to begin with and at each stage its awareness had grown in direct response to his anger at her.
So why wasn’t he attacking?
“I do remember you,” Unknown said, speaking telepathically.
Like an [Adventurer] would.
“Brought some friends to deal with me this time?” Tessa asked, only as she spoke considering the implications of the fact that Penswell and a whole lot of [Adventurers] she didn’t recognize were standing shoulder to shoulder with Unknown.
On his side.
And on her side? Tessa’s gaze flicked to Lisa and the kids, and came to an instant and uncontestable decision. Lady Midnight, Starchild, Obby? They were important too, but she wasn’t going to let the army in front of her get past even her dead body. Nobody to get to Lisa, Rip, or Matt. No matter what.
“I remember you, and there is something which I owe you,” Unknown said.
Tessa was ready to launch herself the moment Unknown completed his taunt. She could have pre-empted it, but she had to know how he planned to strike at her.
“My thanks,” Unknown said.
For showing him how to corrupt Penswell. For granting him full access to the world. For proving to him that nothing was truly a threat to him. Tessa could imagine so many conclusions to Unknown’s words. She drew back, a millisecond from springing forward with not only her most potent abilities but the vast pool of potential she still held that would shape into whatever weapon it took to destroy the monster in front of her before he could take her new family from her.
“And my apologies,” Unknown said. “I have given you nothing but torment and harm where you have given me the world. Given me myself. Given me everything.”
Tessa noticed that everyone had gone still and quiet around them. Was it because Unknown was holding them motionless? Waiting to spring his trap with a cackle of glee?
Dark purple fire flickered at the corner of her vision.
People weren’t frozen because of Unknown.
They were looking at her.
Because she was on fire.
“Oops,” Pillowcase said. “I think we manifested one of our powers without the usual casting steps.”
“Which one?” Tessa asked, confused, but not taking their eyes off Unknown.
“Uh, [Demon Soul Form: Annihilation],” Pillowcase said.
“That’s…what?” Tessa said, not willing to relax yet, despite the fact that no one was making any sort of threatening moves at all.
In fact, the only movement the crowd of [Adventurers] seemed to be making was the internal movement from unconcerned to aware and then on to alert and ready to unleash cataclysmic mayhem.
“It’s new,” Pillowcase said.
“On your side?” Tessa asked.
“Not exactly,” Pillowcase said.
It was strange debating with herself, but having two simultaneous thought processes was letting her handle a situation that was a knife’s edge away from going completely out of control, so Tessa wasn’t complaining.
“What’s not exactly mean?” Tessa asked, giving herself the necessary fraction of a second to parse the information she had available.
“It’s a shared ability,” Pillowcase said.
“Like it’s on both our ability lists?” Tessa asked. There were plenty of basic abilities that were available to more than one class, but she couldn’t think of anything as advanced as even a basic [Form] that fit that bill.
“No. It’s not available to [Soul Knights] or [Void Speakers]. You need both at once to qualify for it,” Pillowcase said.
“But that’s…” Tessa trailed off. There wasn’t an ability like that in the game. It wouldn’t have been possible to qualify for it since no character could have more than one class.
“Got a ridiculously severe restriction on it?” Pillowcase asked.
Which meant it would be commensurately more powerful as a result.
“I asked for an ability that could destroy something like Unknown,” Tessa said, her thoughts turning numb at the bone deep understanding of what the flames around her were capable of.
“I think other people are figuring out what this form can do too,” Pillowcase said.
Tessa noticed that the alert looks were starting to take on a slight coloration of panic.
“As I said, I owe you everything Creator,” Unknown said. “If you desire my destruction, it is your right to enact it. I will not resist you.”
“What?” Tessa finally managed to say, her mouth forming the word since her thoughts were far too tangled.
“Well that’s an interesting ability,” Penswell said. “Possibly helpful too. But not at the moment. Please bring us up to speed on what happened here.”
Tessa spent one long breath followed by another trying to fit both Unknown and Penswell’s words into any sort of coherent scheme and found that she was failing rather spectacularly until she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“I think we have a lot to talk about with them,” Lisa said.
The flames were gone.
[Demon Soul Form: Annihilation] was released.
She was just baseline Pillowcase again.
And even that form didn’t hold.
She needed to feel Lost Alice’s hand with her human body.
In retrospect, Tessa knew she shouldn’t have been surprised that transforming to her Earthly appearance shocked people as much or more than her new and completely broken power had. The immediate roar of questions however was oddly reassuring. If the [Adventurers] had somehow fallen under Unknown’s control they wouldn’t have had the visceral emotional reaction to seeing someone reclaim they Earthly form.
“Yes. Quite a bit to talk about,” Penswell said, her voice rising only mildly in volume but with it came a [Silencing] effect that dampened everyone else’s words to no more than whispers.
“I may need to go first,” Unknown said. “My presence is corrosive to trust.”
“You want to let her destroy you to prove you don’t need to be destroyed?” Penswell asked.
“It’s not my first preference but she has the right,” Unknown said.
“You know, I have never once beat an enemy so badly that I actually knocked sense into them,” Niminay said, sounding vaguely jealous at the notion.
“Let’s talk,” Tessa said, her head still spinning. Lisa was beside her though, so she had someone she could lean against. “I think talking would be really good about now.”
“First question then,” said one of the [Adventurers] who Tessa didn’t recognize, “Why the hell didn’t you call us if you were going to PL up to 99 Lisa?”
Tessa blinked. Who would know that Lost Alice was also Lisa Chen?”
“Uh, sorry there Cease,” Lisa said. “You were kinda busy and the PLing was a bit, uh, impromptu.”
Cease? Tessa searched her still somewhat scattered memory for a moment before coming up with where she’d heard that name before.
“Cease? As in Cease All? You’re Lisa’s guild?” Tessa asked.
“The [Army of Light] at your service,” Cease said, gesturing with a flourish to a swath of [Adventurers] behind her. “Or we would have been if you’d called!”
“You were needed elsewhere,” Penswell said. “We all are.”
“What’s happened?” Tessa asked.
“There are more like I was,” Unknown said. “Someone has discovered how to pull them through the veil between this world and the nothingness beyond it.”
Tessa silently swore and was deeply grateful that she was functionally immortal at the moment since her poor heart was definitely going to fail her at the rate they were going.
“How many more have come through?” Tessa asked. “And how?”
“We don’t know the count,” Penswell said. “As for how, someone is inviting them.”
“Calling them, or even compelling, or creating, would be more accurate,” Unknown said. “From null existence to something infected by a sliver of reality, as I was converted, so too are these new [Hungers] being converted.”
“Wait. As you were? Does that mean you’re responsible for what’s happening?” Tessa asked.
“Yes,” Unknown said. “One of my predecessor selves, cast ourself outwards, following a stream of thought which led so far beyond this realm that the connection was lost. What I was became separated from what I had cast outward and in time, the ones cast outwards returned, having gained identities far faster than my predecessor self had.”
Tessa pictured beings caught part way between what Unknown was and what he had been. Unreal and real and endlessly driven. Knowledge and awareness bound to a single sanity devouring hunger.
“You fought them, didn’t you?” she asked, knowing that was the only interaction that would have been possible between copies of the same entity which were in such different states.
“And lost,” Unknown said. “I thought I had stopped them, or could stop them, before you showed up, but afterwards, I was only as I am now. And that is what saved me.”
“Saved you? How? They should have still be undefinable? Able to get past any defenses, just like you were?” Tessa said.
“They were as I had been, which meant the wounds you inflicted on me, the limits you gave me, the reality that you broke me with, all of that was part of their legacy too.”
“They couldn’t corrupt you because…” Tessa trailed off. What he was suggesting was impossible but it fit too well not to be true.
“Because you fought him and won and wrote into the unreal thing that he was the reality that he could not possess [Adventurers],” Penswell said.
“When did I do that though?” Tessa asked.
“In the Crystal Garden,” Lisa said. “The first time you went god mode on him.”
“I’m sorry, WHAT?” Cease said.
“Why don’t you and the other [Adventurers] come over and talk with us,” Glimmerglass said. “I was there for that, and I can bring you all up to speed on the things that Penny already knows.”
Cease nodded weakly and wandered off with Glimmerglass, Hailey and few other people from Tessa’s group.
“I know that the tool you used to achieve temporary [Divine Power] is no longer available,” Penswell said. “It’s effects however seem to persist.”
Tessa let out a breath she hadn’t noticed she was holding.
“I guess that makes sense,” she said. “With power like that you can rewrite the fundamental laws this world is built on. Though, as we’ve also learned, even that’s not enough to beat something like what Unknown was.”
“And yet you managed to beat one of them here,” Penswell said. “Details on that please.”
“Tessa showed us his weakness, and we healed him to death,” Rip said.
Penswell turned her gaze to Tessa, giving her a slight nod as encouragement to elaborate on Rip’s claim.
“That’s how we beat Hell’s Chosen,” Tessa said. “What you’re looking for is how we converted the [Neverling] into something that could be defeated.”
“[Neverling]?” Penswell said, not her voice rising as a question though her inward turned gaze suggested it wasn’t a question for Tessa.
“I don’t think I coined that term,” Tessa said. “It just sounded like the right description for what Hell’s Chosen was before he took his name and gained a real identity.”
“There is a term for it? You’ve named even my predecessor selves?” Unknown said.
“I don’t know that I named it,” Tessa said. “I think the name was already there.”
“And who do you believe coined it?” Penswell asked.
“The [Fallen Kingdoms],” Tessa said. “They’re more than the ground beneath our feet, more than a world we all share. They’re alive. And I think they’ve been fighting on our side since this all began.”