Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 7

Glimmerglass could heal any injury, restore any lost body part, cure any status ailment, and even reverse death itself. Staring at the woman on the table in front of her though, she had no idea how to fix BT’s rapidly worsening condition.

“Does it hurt?” she asked, hating that she didn’t even know that much about whatever it was that was affecting BT.

“Surprisingly, no,” BT said. “The glitches don’t feel like anything, but I’m guessing they look pretty bad?”

“You flinch like someone’s stuck a flaming sword through your gut,” Glimmerglass said.

“I suppose you’ve literally seen that happen haven’t you?” BT turned her head and tried to offer Glimmerglass a playful smile. The glitch twitch in the middle of the smile made it less playful and more pained.

“More times than I can count. I guess that’s what it means to be a healer though,” Glimmerglass said. “You get to watch your friends suffer every horrible fate out there.”

“You can always patch us up though,” BT said.

“Not always,” Glimmerglass said.

“Don’t worry…” BT glitched for a long breath. “This isn’t the same. I chose this.”

“I know, you said that before.” Glimmerglass turned away. What else was there to say? BT was always the one to choose. Glimmerglass knew she would just have to deal with the fact that BT had chosen something that didn’t include her. There wasn’t anything surprising about that.

“I’m sorry,” BT said and reached her hand out to grasp Glimmerglass’s arm.

“Why?”

Did BT know what her leaving their guild had done to it? Had done to Glimmerglass?

“You don’t need this headache,” BT said. “Not on top of everything else you’ve had to deal with.”

Oh. No, it was just the business of the day. 

Sure it was the end of the world. A cataclysm from beyond the sky. And strange changes to adventurers and maybe even the fundamental nature of the world. 

But was that really important?

Glimmerglass wanted to smack herself. She wasn’t supposed to be selfish. She was a team player. The one who sorted out everyone else’s problems.

And the problem with BT was old. Long buried and long forgotten.

She’d had years to heal from the hurt.

Clinging to it was so…

Petty.

That wasn’t fair, but she couldn’t help but feel it was true. 

Still though, she was supposed to be better than that.

“It’s not a headache,” she said. “I just need more time to figure it out.”

“I don’t know if a spell’s going to be able fix this,” BT said.

“Maybe none of the existing ones,” Glimmerglass said. “I thought your condition might be one where the cleansing effect was limited to a fixed chance for success.”

“Like the [Demon Heart Plague]?” BT asked, rolling over to her side.

“Let’s hope not. You killed me so many times when we raiding that dungeons,” Glimmerglass said. It was the right thing to say. The right kind of friendly banter they’d been able to share without a second thought, but as the words left Glimmerglass’s mouth all she had was second thoughts.

BT sagged slightly at the emptiness in Glimmerglass’s smile.

“I don’t think this has a demonic corruption component to it,” BT said. “It’s more internal than that. So you should be safe.”

“That’s not a concern,” Glimmerglass said. “Damnazon and Mellisandra are waiting outside in case things get out of control here.”

“That’s good of them,” BT said, rolling onto her back again to stare at the ceiling of the treatment tent. “I’m sorry to drag any of you into this.”

“You didn’t,” Glimmerglass said. “We were in this well before you got here. All you did was give me something to take my mind off all that.” She waved a hand towards the world outside the tent.

“All that was why I came here,” BT said. “I know ‘All That’ needs you too though. If you need a break from this, from me, go ahead. I don’t know if what I’ve got can be cured.”

“Everything can be cured,” Glimmerglass said. “It just takes a while sometimes to find the spell or uncover the mechanic.”

“That takes me back so much,” BT said, her voice quiet but completely glitch free. “You made us keep going so many times through the most impossible things.”

Glimmerglass couldn’t help but hear that as a recrimination despite the fondness in BT’s voice.

“You were always free to leave,” she said. “All of you.”

“If we left though we knew we’d miss out,” BT said. “Epic loot doesn’t drop for the faint of heart.”

Glimmerglass felt her toes curling in anger. She wanted scream that BT had left. And the others had left with her. But that wasn’t completely true. And the scream was an old one. Easier to hold it in. Let it remain quiet and unspoken, where it couldn’t hurt anyone.

“That’s why they need you now though,” BT said. “You can inspire a group like this. So if you need to be with them, go ahead. You can leave me. I think I can hold the glitching together long enough to get the rest of the files transferred over to Penswell.”

A spike of anger broke free from Glimmerglass’s control.

“And what about after that?” She didn’t mean to growl the question out, but it felt right to do so.

“After the files are done?” BT asked.

“Yeah. After your job is over. What happens then? What if Penny has more questions? Or what if we need help with the next wave of Consortium forces? Are you just going to disappear on us? Is this all we get?”

“I…I don’t know Glim,” BT said and crossed her arms over her chest.

“Why!”

“Why what?”

“Why don’t you know? Why did you come here if this was going to happen? Why is any of this happening!”

“I don’t know Glim. Not why this is happening, and not why I’m glitching out like this or how to fix it. But I do know why I came here.” She sat up and put her hands on Glimmerglass’s shoulders. “I came back for you. And for everyone that we knew. And for Burnt Toast here. I needed to be her again. I’m not just the Burnt Toast you knew. She’s a part of who I am, but we’re more than that. More than Hailey, or ‘Sid F. Fries’, or ‘Orangutan Julie’ or any of my other characters. I’m all of those and more put together, and even with all those lives, you were the person I knew I had to see.”

“Why?” Glimmerglass asked, confusing moving like water pouring through the shattered cracks in the dam around her heart.

“Because…” but BT didn’t get to finish her thought before the tent flap was thrown open and Mellisandra stepped in.

“Glimmer, Penny needs to talk with you,” Mellisandra said, holding the flap open.

“I have the chat channel open,” Glimmerglass said.

“Not on chat. In person. She’s here.”

“What! But it’s not safe here!” Glimmerglass began collecting her gear without thinking about it. Her thoughts had been wrenched over to considerations on how and why the [Defense Coalitions] best strategist was paying her a personal visit.

“That’s one of the things she wants to talk about,” Mellisandra said.

“Does she want to meet with me?” BT asked.

“She didn’t ask for you,” Mellisandra said. “Just Glimmerglass, and this meeting is invite only. For now at least. She said she’d be holding other meetings once this one was done.”

“But…” Glimmerglass said, looking down at BT in time to see a brief glitch pass through BT’s left arm.

“Go,” BT said. “I’ll be fine.” Another glitch shot along her right arm but BT clasped her wrist and the multi-color static stopped at her the base of her hand. “Really. I’ll be here when you get back.”

“Promise?” Glimmerglass asked.

“Half share of my loot if I’m lying,” BT said and folded her arms behind her head as she lay back down.

“I’m going to hold you to that, even if the loot’s all epic drops,” Glimmerglass said, a weight lifting from her heart.

“For a healer, you’re pretty cruel,” BT said.

“Don’t make me show you cruel,” Glimmerglass said. “I might feel inspired to get creative.”

BT’s stunned laughter bubbled up as Glimmerglass walked away from the tent.

“Get creative?” Mellisandra asked.

“People tend to forget that healers aren’t limited in how much they can hurt you,” Glimmerglass said. “They think we’re nice and cheerful and peaceful because we tend to spend our time fixing things rather than stabbing.”

“You also don’t tend to roast people alive from the inside out,” Mellisandra said. “That probably gives people a better impression of you.”

“It’s a pretty common mistake,” Glimmerglass said. “Consider for a moment though that an [Elementalist] can kill you with a fireball precisely once. A healer though? Death doesn’t get you away from us.”

“Thats…that’s terrifying,” Mellisandra said.

“Yeah,” Glimmerglass said with a slightly manic smile. “It’s good that we’re all just so nice right?”

“Yes. Yes it is,” Mellisandra said, shifting a half pace away from Glimmerglass.

“So what does Penny want? And why is she here?”

“Because the Consortium has done something very strange,” Penny said, without letting her invisibility spell drop.

“How strange?”

“They gave up.”

“Here? Or the whole city?” Glimmerglass asked, trying not to stumble.

“The whole city, and several others,” Penny said.

“But that doesn’t make sense. Does it? Even if they were consolidating their forces they should have left a token group here to force us to keep our troops in place so the fortifications would be defended.”

“That is exactly what a sensible battle plan would be. This however is borderline random.”

“Is that why we’re meeting secretly like this?” Glimmerglass asked. “I mean I presume you have an anti-scrying field in effect already?”

“I do, it’s a part of my invisibility spell, and yes I wanted to meet with you and some of the other team leads privately before the official meeting in the city hall, since there’s no chance the city hall meeting won’t be monitored and at this point I’m concerned that our telepathic chat channels may be compromised as well.”

“Compromised? Can the Consortium do that? I thought those were sacrosanct?” Glimmerglass asked.

“They are. As far as we know. But this wild of a change of strategy this early in the conflict could be a turning point, so I want to make sure I’m getting the direct story from each of my key leaders.”

“But you’ve got hundreds of teams like mine?” Glimmerglass said.

“Technically tens of thousands, but of those only a thousand or so are in strategic hot spots like this one,” Penny said.

“That’s going to take forever to interview each of us isn’t it?” Glimmerglass asked.

“I’m having this same conversation about a hundred times in a hundred different places at this moment,” Penny said. “Three cheers for multi-plexing magics. Conversing and collecting the info is surprisingly easy. Integrating all of it is where the brain splitting migraines come into play.”

“Don’t let me waste your time then!” Glimmerglass said.

“Don’t worry, I’m not,” Penny said. “You’ve got some critical info both from the fight here and from what you can tell me about this ‘Burnt Toast’ person. Also, not to play favorites, but you are a lot nicer to talk to than the vast majority of the adventuring team leaders. I love what they can do for us but dear dead gods are some of them striving towards the peak of whiny, self-entitled, know-it-all status.”

“What do you need to know about ‘Burnt Toast’?” Glimmerglass asked, wondering how much she could really say about her old friend.

Assuming the woman she’d left behind really had much of her old friend left in her.

“She’s connected us to someone from another world who knows an unbelievable amount of information about our world and the Consortium. Thanks to this ‘Marcus’ I know how to fight back against the Consortium more effectively than I could have worked out if we’d battled them for a year.”

“That all sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?” Glimmerglass asked.

“It does. And it is,” Penny said. “The problem is this Burnt Toast. We’ve had reports of strange, warped adventurers. [Disjoined] their called. No one knows where they come from, or how they become [Disjoined]. All we know is that they don’t speak. Not really. And they are uniformly hostile.”

“Neither of those is true of BT thought?” Glimmerglass said.

“I know. But the analysis spell I cast on this area showed there was a [Disjoined] here and when I narrowed it down all my doubts were dispelled. BT is a [Disjoined]. Just one like we’ve never seen before.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 6

Azma had a keen sense of the forces she commanded, but seeing even a fraction of them rising from the planet’s surface to converge on the sentinel moon was still a bit awe inspiring.

“We have confirmation of the final assault party’s departure,” Grenslaw said. “Also the Arcanotech Division is reporting the modified reality stabilizers are in transit.”

“Good. What’s their estimate on final calibration once they’re in place?” Azma asked. She’d cleared the bridge and slaved most of the major systems to her own console. That Ryschild and Grenslaw were still present was a surprise, but a welcome one. 

They were going to kill her. Azma had to hold onto that belief because she knew it was too too likely, despite every sign to the contrary. Even holding to that certainly though, the extra aid the two provided was more than welcome.

She’d extended too far. The prize she’d sought to grab was too large, to valuable for someone like her to be allowed to keep. She should have known that. Should have anticipated that the worst of her enemies would strike against her.

It wasn’t too late though.

She could survive the coming debacle. Easily in fact. The operation was going to turn a phenomenal profit, regardless of what happened with the [Formless Hunger]. Applied Xenobiology would be massacred no matter she did, and that would leave a troublesome mark on her record. People and powers she relied on would lose some of their faith in her. Her enemies would see new weaknesses to press her with. These and a hundred other issues would arise but none of them were worse than the problems she’d already overcome to reach her current station. The important failures, the ones she couldn’t recover from so easily, those could all be avoided by simply relinquishing her position in the operation.

If she drew in “advisors” and ceded to them the glory and wealth of “opening” a new world – especially one with dual Arcanospheres and a link to another world – then the blame for the massacre and the other problems which would arise would be spread among everyone who was set to benefit from the conquest.

Alone she was a valuable scapegoat, but if she was but one of many then the failures would be recontextualized as necessary and expected shortfalls so that no one important needed to take responsibility for them. A junior office or two would likely be needed as a sacrifice. Someone to make an example of so that the underlings would remember that their jobs were ones where mistakes would not be tolerated. 

Ryschild and Grenslaw would be perfect for the role.

And she wasn’t going to do that.

Not because she cared about them. Caring about coworkers was akin to placing a plasma cutter on the side of one’s own throat and driving into the largest stretch of turbulence one could find. 

No, Azma wasn’t going to sacrifice her underlings for the same reason that she wasn’t going to abandon her position in the Operation. 

They were hers.

Her underlings. Her position. Her responsibility.

If she’d been capable of abandoning something she’d claimed ownership of when that ownership became inconvenient, she never would have advanced beyond the low ensign she’d began as. 

At every step of her career, there’d been someone telling Azma that she should be happy with what she was given. That if she was smart, she wouldn’t upset her betters.

Most of those “betters” were enjoying restful naps in shallow graves, but it certainly would have been easier to do as she was told. Easier, more sensible, and ultimately fatal to everything that made Azma what she was.

Gazing out at the starlit void beyond the view screen, Azma felt the calm, wordless core within her she’d always turned to for guidance. Death and worse lay before her. Both were old friends. She knew she should fear them, should struggle against them, but either reaction would have been a distraction and so she accepted them instead.

Let death come, she would remain who she was and greet it as an equal. Let ruin and wrath descend upon her. The Consortium could cage her body, bind her mind, and ensnare her soul but she would only grow more perilous with each thing they took from her.

This wasn’t a time to hide or flee. This was a time to set traps and sharpen knives. She’d be putting both to use much sooner than she preferred.

“The projection on the reality stabilizers is two hours after initial setup,” Grenslaw said. “The techs included an official notification that their estimation is based on purely favorable conditions and that initial setup will require a completely pacified region around the [Formless Hunger].”

Azma chuckled. “Admirable work covering themselves there. They’re going to have thirty minutes though and their preparations are almost certainly going to be interrupted by at least two local insurgent groups.”

“Should we communicate that to them?” Ryschild asked.

“Standard procedure would be to withhold that information to avoid jeopardizing morale,” Azma said. “Standard procedure was designed by idiots though so we will not being doing that.”

“Will it be a mark against us that we deviated from protocol?” Ryschild asked.

“One of many,” Azma said. “At this juncture however we have less need to worry about what an official inquiry will find than normal.”

“Because no inquiry will be called for if we’re dead?” Ryschild asked.

“There is that,” Azma said. “In this case though, we need to play as though we’re going to survive. Playing for our own destruction doesn’t give us sufficient incentive to win.”

“If we do ‘win’, will that also give us control of the inquiry hearing?” Grenslaw asked.

“No. The inquiry which will be called will be authorized by those intent on destroying us. We don’t need to concern ourselves with it because it will already have all of the evidence of wrong doing which is requires to assign any penalties it cares to place on us.”

“That seems similar to playing a game where this leads to our death,” Ryschild said.

“There is a crucial difference,” Azma said. “If we survive, and we will, we need to do so in position where we have the power to influence or buy off those can overrule the official inquiry. The hearings will be presented as justice for the lives and resources which have been lost, but justice is only inflicted on those too poor and weak to escape its clutches.”

Grenslaw flashed a small smile at Ryschild who nodded appreciatively in return, each seeming pleased with Azma’s reasoning. Or perhaps Azma was seeing what she wanted to see. They were going to kill her after all. She couldn’t forget that.

“Send this message to the Arcanotechs,” Azma said, considering the hell she was sending her troops into. “Non-optimal conditions are projected. Extreme security protocols should be observed. Armed support personnel will be present but enemies of unknown capacity are known to be active in the area and will likely interfere. Advise deployment of reality stabilization devices once configuration values allow for automated refinement. Priority is given to retrieval of personnel.”

Grenslaw sent the message and blinked as a response arrived a moment later.

“They sent back a smiley face?”

“Good. They understood then,” Azma said.

“Non-optimal conditions” was a warning that she was sending them into a disaster in the making. “Extreme security protocols” allowed for the use of whatever tactics or equipment the techs deemed necessary to have a chance of succeeding. “The unknown enemies” were expected by everyone but mentioning them in the context of “the armed security” was an acknowledgement that the troops being provided were expected to be insufficient to safeguard even themselves much less the techs. 

That might not be true of course. Azma was sending a possibly overwhelming force against the denizens of the [High Beyond] but given a [Formless Hunger] had already shown up there, Azma had little faith that worse wasn’t lurking in wait for the troops she was deploying.

What had brought the smiley face response though were the last two points. Advising “deployment once automated configuration could be enabled” and “prioritizing the retrieval of the personnel” meant the techs were free to do a roughshod setup of the kitbashed reality stabilization units they’d cobbled together and then allow the onboard systems to make the futile attempt to bring them into alignment while they (sensibly) fled as far away as they could possibly get.

In short, Azma was telling them that mission was doomed and they should make damn sure they survived it, if at all possible.

“A communique from the captain of the task force to the sentinel moon,” Grenslaw said. “He’s requesting confirmation of their landing coordinates, but he’s transmitted positional values for [Corsair’s Bay].”

“Amusing,” Azma said. “Pirell thinks this is a meaningless boondoggle and is trying to get back into a profitable work zone.”

“Should I send the correct coordinates?” Grenslaw asked.

“Send two sets of coordinates,” Azma said. “The correct ones and another set which will place in direct effect distance of the [Formless Hunger]. Specify that if the first coordinates are evaluated to be unworkable then they will be required to launch the operation from the backup location.”

“If they use that location they will be consumed by the [Formless Hunger],” Ryschild said. “Is Captain Pirell intelligent enough to understand that?”

“Pirell’s not the most imaginative of people, but he is very good when it comes to self-preservation,” Azma said. “It’s why I selected him to lead the task force.”

“Captain Pirell has replied with an affirmative and is continuing on the proper course,” Grenslaw said. “He has requested clarification on the mission orders though, specifically whether the retrieval of personnel applies to all members of the task force or just the Arcanotechs?”

“Inform him that all ground personnel have priority on retrieval. Ship-based personnel are expected to remain within the theater of operation until all personnel assets have been extracted,” Azma said. “Also specify that the penalty for early departure by any ship will be an assumption that the ship has been compromised by the [Formless Hunger].”

“We’ll destroy anyone who flies away early?” Ryschild asked.

“Warning shots first,” Azma said. “Without that threat though Pirell’s a little too likely to declare the ground troops “unrecoverable” and flee the moment things start going wrong.”

“Captain Pirell has replied with ‘Understood’, and nothing else,” Grenslaw said.

“Excellent. I’ll put him down as one of the people who will definitely be trying to kill me by this time tomorrow,” Azma said.

“We’ve given him some very nice ships to pursue that endeavor with,” Ryschild said.

“He’ll certainty think he has command of those ships,” Azma said. “But that’s a matter to worry about later.”

“He’s sent one additional report,” Grenslaw said. “Apparently Sergeant Kremmer’s squad was in range for a pickup when the transports were leaving [Corsair’s Bay], so they are reporting in for inclusion on the ground assault.”

Azma sighed and massaged the bridge of her nose.

Kremmer’s Razers were an elite unit, and, in a sense, Azma had been lucky to get them assigned to her forces. She’d worked with Kremmer before, which meant she knew exactly how to motivate them. They claimed all it took was money, but Azma knew there was more to their psychology than that. 

The Razers were motivated by mayhem as much as wealth. They despised honor, which was occasionally useful, but it meant care had to be taken in unleashing them. 

And Azma had no time left to be careful. 

“Which ship are the Razers on?” she asked.

“They transferred to Captain Pirell’s ship shortly after extraction,” Grenslaw said.

“Unfortunate,” Azma said. “That precludes detonating the ship for now.”

“Should we transmit an order that the Razers are not cleared to join the operation?” Grenslaw asked.

“It won’t matter,” Azma said. “They’re going to smell blood and it will draw them in. No what we need to do is give them a special mission. One that’s sure to appeal to their natural tendencies. And, ideally, one that kills them before they can join this list of people intent on killing me.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 4

Pillowcase was marching towards her destruction. It didn’t bother her much. She’d done it before. It was what she was designed for. Or what she had been designed for. Some part of her was really beginning to question that. The rest was simply unhappy though.

“We’d have a better chance of surviving this if we had a plan,” she said as Lost Alice led them down a winding stair crafted out of gold-inlaid white marble. 

The map Qiki had provided them detailed a far wider area of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] than they’d been able to map out on their own. The rough hewn stonework and natural caves they’d explored on their first foray turned out to be a small expansion section of a much larger structure. In place of the unfinished work areas Pillowcase’s party had seen, the rest of the Ruins put the most palatial of estates on Earth to shame, though they also showed evidence of the damage caused by the cataclysm which sent the [Fallen Kingdoms] plummeting to the world’s surface.

“The plan is to see what we’re dealing with and then get the hell out of there,” Lost Alice said. They didn’t need to talk on their private channel but they using it anyways because while there might appear to be no one close enough to overhear them, both Pillowcase and Alice were acutely aware of how misleading that appearance could be.

“Vixali and her people are going to object to that aren’t they?” Pillowcase asked.

“If they’re not eaten by the [Formless Hunger] first then we can explain that it’s changed since we fought it and the only option is flight,” Lost Alice said. “Vix won’t be happy, but she’s not going to be happy with any outcome from this, and having us  be the ones to say ‘you have to leave your comfy and safe home’ gives her the kind of deniability [Vampire] leaders crave.”

“And if the Hunger cuts off our avenues of escape?” Pillowcase asked. The creature had begun to show signs of intelligence so she had to assume it would act in a tactically sound manner. Blocking a foe’s path of retreat was about as tactically sound a move as Pillowcase could think of if she wanted to make sure she eradicated the foe in question and given their prior encounter with the Hunger, Pillowcase guessed that eradication was exactly what the Hunger would desire if their met again.

“I’m taking up towards one of the farthest points it was detected from the main body in [Sky’s Edge],” Lost Alice said. “The moment we catch sight of it, we can evaluate whether its still expanding. If it is, we run right then and there. It’s not a great plan, I admit. I’d send you away entirely, but if this thing is clever enough to get around us, then it might be clever enough to hunt you directly and I don’t want it to come surging out of a wall and catch you all alone. That..that would suck.”

Pillowcase had the sense of great and terrifying things stirring inside her but she didn’t have time for “feelings”. She was too struck by reevaluating her tactical considerations. She’d been strategizing around how they would defeat the [Formless Hunger], but Lost Alice hadn’t been focused on that at all. 

For Alice the question wasn’t how to beat the enemy but rather how to protect Pillowcase.

Which seemed wrong.

Pillowcase wasn’t “protected”. She was the one who gave protection to others. That was her purpose.

She raised a hand to make that argument, but the words died on her lips.

If she spoke could she change Lost Alice’s mind?

Did she want to?

It felt fundamentally wrong to want to be safe when someone else was in danger, but her traitorous heart craved it anyways.

“I know you might be able to respawn still,” Lost Alice said. “We are not going to test that though. Do you understand? Whatever it takes, you are absolutely forbidden from dying. Leave me behind, using the [Vampires] as expandable body shields, [Fracture] off your class and your levels. Whatever. It. Takes.”

Pillowcase blinked. She definitely was not going to do any of that.

But Lost Alice had stopped and was glaring directly into her eyes.

[Vampires] couldn’t detect lies? Could they? Pillowcase’s memory glitched a little under the weight of Lost Alice’s gaze. For some reason focusing on anything other than the eyes in front of her wasn’t a priority.

[Mesmerism]? Yes. Not with any particular supernatural force behind it. Those eyes didn’t need magic to be captivating.

“I’m sorry, what?” Pillowcase asked, shaking her head in a struggle to bring her thoughts back from wherever they were straying off to.

“You. Survive. Right?”

“Yes. I will do that,” Pillowcase said.

“Good,” Lost Alice said and flashed her a dangerous smile. “Now we might be getting close. If the map Qiki gave us is accurate there should be something called the [Garden Hall of Deep Winter] ahead of us and beyond that is the [Path of Ice Roses] where one of the Vix’s watchers was lost.”

“If the Hunger is still expanding it may be in the Garden already,” Pillowcase said.

“That’s my thinking,” Lost Alice said. “If it’s not, we’ll double and triple check because a garden sounds like an excellent place to hide.”

“And if we find it, we run?” Pillowcase asked.

“Yeah. Best speed out of here,” Lost Alice said. “There should be several exits from the Garden so if it blocks one we take one of the others.”

“Unless it blocks all of the exits except one,” Pillowcase said.

Lost Alice paused to consider for a moment before nodding in agreement.

“Yeah, in that case we try to break through whatever it’s sealing this path with.”

“Maybe you should let me go first,” Pillowcase said. 

“No,” Lost Alice said. “I know you think that’s your job, but my sense are better. If there are any traps waiting for us, I’ve got a better chance of spotting them than you do.”

“I don’t think standard traps are the danger we need to worry about here,” Pillowcase said. “The last time we encountered this thing, it froze us all in place. I think some of the new traits I picked up from our last encounter might let me resist that.”

“Good,” Lost Alice said. “Then that’s all the more reason for you to stay behind me.”

“But you’ll be paralyzed,” Pillowcase said. “Or worse.”

“Yeah, but I’ll have you to drag me out of there,” Lost Alice said. “If I suddenly freeze up in front of you, you’ll know that something’s wrong. If I freeze up behind you…”

“I could keep walking into the Hunger’s presence without noticing,” Pillowcase said. “I guess the same is true in reverse if my new traits make me more vulnerable though.”

“Here,” Lost Alice said, offering her hand to Pillowcase. “We’ll go in together. If either one of us freezes up, the other drags them out asap.”

“Agreed,” Pillowcase said, noticing the cool softness of Lost Alice’s grip.

Hand-in-hand they marched forward into the garden to meet their destiny, all too aware that their destiny was probably all too ready to meet them too.

***

Rose was clenching her fist hard enough that she was surprised sparks weren’t flying out from between her fingers.

“What. Exactly. Do you mean, we can’t reach them?” She had no particular reason to growl at Lady Midnight. It wasn’t like Rose hadn’t tried to reach both Alice and Pillow herself a dozen time already too. 

And Lady Midnight certainly had no deeper insight into the metaphysics related to telepathy than anyone else.

But Lady Midnight was there.

And Rose was worried.

Which was ridiculous.

She didn’t know Alice and Pillow.

Not really.

They couldn’t be so important to her that only fires of barely repressed rage were keeping the tears from Rose’s eyes.

They were just some people she met.

Just her friends.

Who respected her.

Who were trying to save her.

Who had saved her already.

Jamal put a hand on her shoulder and didn’t say a word. He knew. Words wouldn’t do any good.

“It might be a good sign,” Pete said, and Rose fought back the urge to slug Starchild. It wouldn’t hurt Pete (she thought) and Starchild didn’t deserve the abuse. Also she was curious how Alice and Pillow vanishing could possibly be good. “One of the things that cut off social communications in the game was being in a PvP [Tournament Arena]. We know roughly where they were when they dropped off the party chat line, so we can guess where to find them. If that turns out to actually be a [Tournament Arena] then we might be in luck. Those are frequently level capped, especially if its accessible from a starting area like this.”

“That’s a pretty big ‘if’,” Rose said but the panic that had been tearing through the concrete walls of her heart began to recede. Slightly.

“So do we head there to join them?” Lady Midnight asked.

Rose stared at her. How was that even a question?

“Yes! Of course!” she said and began marching off.

She wasn’t going the right way, and she knew that, but she didn’t care. 

They’d come to a stop as they discussed what to do about the danger the expanding [Formless Hunger] posed and inaction was turning into a toxin in Rip’s veins.

“Woah! Hold on there!” Obby said.

“What! What’s to wait for now?” Rose rounded on the party.

“If we charge in there and get caught again, you know Pillowcase will sacrifice whatever she has to in order to save us,” Obby said. “Let’s not put that burden on her. Not when we can confirm if they’re in a [Tournament Arena] or not with a few calls.”

Rose shivered with frustration but she couldn’t say that Obby was wrong. Pillowcase absolutely would do something stupid if that’s what it took to keep them safe. They’d been together for less than a day and Rose already had multiple examples of that to draw on.

“What about the [Heart Fire Shrines],” Jamal asked the group as Matt. “Based on where they went could we safely head to the shrine that’d be closest to them?”

“Why would…” Rose started to ask but the answer was obvious enough to club a path through her anxiety addled brain.

Because a shrine was where they would head if they got killed. 

Assuming Pillow could still use them with the magic injuries she’s suffered.

Rose shut down that thought like she was stomping a bug. Pillowcase could totally respawn still.

Pillowcase had to be able to do that. The alternative was unacceptable. And Rose would definitely be there to help call Pillow back if that was what was needed.

“That’s a good idea,” Starchild said. “If they encounter trouble and find us waiting for them, they may be willing to respawn sooner rather than trying to ghost run the entire distance back here.”

“We could try stepping into the [Tournament Arena] too,” Lady Midnight said. “There’s usually a shrine right outside them. If one of us tiptoes across the line to the Arena, we should be able to talk to Alice and Pillow easily enough if they’re still inside.”

“Alice sent a copy of the map Qiki gave them,” Obby said and turned to Lady Midnight. “If none of the beta testers made it to the area where Alice and Pillow are going then maybe we can get the map to the developers and find out what they had planned for it?”

“I heard back from Pete’s sister,” Lady Midnight said. “The dev team is editing a wiki, throwing out all of the design documents they had, concept art, everything.”

“Melissa answered your call?” Pete said with a huff. “She said she was drowning in requests and told me to call her back in a half hour!”

“I hooked her up with my mother,” Lady Midnight said. “Mom’s a librarian, so data handling is kind of her thing. With the devs opening up their archives, we should know everything we could possibly want to know about this place in about an hour, tops.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 3

Pillowcase wasn’t filled with dread. She was filled with magical stuffing. She wasn’t overwhelmed with dread either. She’d been crafted such that no threat would make her composure fall apart. Falling  apart did no good on a battlefield after all, and a complete cessation of emotion wasn’t the same as being overwhelmed. Was it?

“It is very clearly time to flee,” Vixali said. A perfectly rational response, delivered in a perfectly calm and rational tone of voice. 

The members of her coterie were as silent as only the dead could be. The quiet vacuum persisted for the space of two absent heartbeats before the room erupted in chaos and outcries of all types.

“This is suboptimal,” Pillowcase said, observing the swirling mass of bodies which seemed to be trying to flee in all directions at once.

At her side, Lost Alice cut off a short giggle. Pillowcase wondered what she was amused by. The situation seemed to lack humorous agents.

“For what it’s worth, we beat the [Formless Hunger] once already,” Lost Alice spoke at a normal volume, but the words somehow landed in Vixali’s ears despite the cacophonous din the other [Vampires] were raising.

“Silence,” Vixalie commanded. “And stillness.”

The chaos of the court vanished as quickly as it had erupted, but Pillowcase could see it was a fragile peace – like a thin wafer of ice waiting for a sharp blow or the inevitable rays of the sun to shatter it.

“What is your price?” Vixali asked.

Because no offer of help could be given freely. Everything had to be an exchange to a [Vampire]. Compassion was a weakness experienced by lesser beings and the mark of fools.

“I don’t believe I will set one for this,” Lost Alice said.

“It will be a favor to be repaid later?” Vixali asked.

“No. No price,” Lost Alice said. “We don’t need to charge one.”

Pillowcase wasn’t sure but that sounded like either an insult or a power play.

“It’s both,” Lost Alice said privately, when Pillowcase asked her. 

“Is it wise to antagonize the leader of a large group of creatures who are already biased towards hostilities?” Pillowcase asked also on their private channel.

“It depends on the antagonism,” Lost Alice said. “Vix isn’t going to declare war on us for trying to help her. She’ll try to go for a more subtle revenge. She has to or she’ll risk losing the coterie to me.”

“You can take leadership of them from her?” Pillowcase asked, strangely uncertain how she felt about that prospect. Her emotions were thawing after being bludgeoned into insensibility by the terror of discovering that the [Formless Hunger] was both active and aware enough to form plans.

“In theory, sure,” Lost Alice said. “Leadership among [Vampires] is primary gained through shows of strength, with treachery being seen as the ultimate sort of strength. In practice that means that I would have to beat more than just Vix to take the throne though. Qiki would support her because familiarity makes treachery easier to plan for.”

“That doesn’t seem a particularly sort of relationship,” Pillowcase said.

“It’s not,” Lost Alice said. “Intentionally so. A leader needs to work to keep their position or their underlings will devour them. Sometimes literally. Which is why you couldn’t drag me to that throne with wild [Hell Stallions].”

“You are an unusual [Vampire]?” Pillowcase asked.

“You’re not the first one to notice that,” Lost Alice said and glanced over to flash a quick smile at her.

“I hope they appreciated you too,” Pillowcase said.

She didn’t see the flash of pain and longing that swept across Lost Alice’s face. Whether it belonged to Lost Alice or Lisa was something they themselves perhaps couldn’t have said either.

“Tell us what you require then, if no price will be asked, to vanquish this foe,” Vixali said.

“A map,” Lost Alice said. “Specifically of where it has focused its incursions. Or at least where you can be sure its struck against your watchers. Also any of the other dungeon dwellers who are in those areas.”

“That is a significant store of secrets,” Vixali said.

“They were secrets,” Lost Alice said. “Now they’re food for a cosmic monster. If we’re going to make sure it stops advancing, we need to know where it’s advancing currently, and what it chose to strike out against first.”

“And if we give you this information, how will you be able to use it to prevent this [Formless Hunger] from advancing?” Vixali asked.

“Now that is a secret,” Lost Alice said. “What would you be willing to pay in exchange for that?”

She made a point of eyeing the throne Vixali was still seated on, and for a moment Pillowcase wondered if the [Vampire Queen] would agree to transfer her crown to Lost Alice’s head. The moment passed swiftly though as Vixali’s laughter filled the hall.

“We shall see, perhaps, once it’s been determined that your boasts are more than empty words,” Vixali said. “As we are generous though, your request will be met. [Castellan] arrange for a map to drawn up which highlights the information they require.”

“Of course my [Queen],” Qiki said.

“That went well,” Pillowcase said on their private channel.

“It wasn’t a complete disaster,” Lost Alice said. “But we do have a problem before us now.”

“Would that be ‘how are we going to stop the [Formless Hunger]’?” Pillowcase asked. She’d been wondering about that probably more than Vixali had since Vixali only knew that the [Formless Hunger] was contained on the surface but wasn’t aware of the price Pillowcase had already paid to escape it’s clutches.

“Yeah, that would be the problem,” Lost Alice said.

***

Rose’s problems were multiplying, but that suited her just fine. Jamal was running by her side, FOOF was flying just over her shoulder, and at her back were people she was beginning to suspect she might be able to trust to at least a some small degree.

“So, the [Vampires] were able to confirm that the [Formless Hunger] is expanding. Do we have people start evacuating now or is it too late to even run?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Where could we exacuate them to?” Jamal asked as Matt Painting. 

“The surface?” Lady Midnight suggested. “Or maybe that pocket dungeon that Pillow and Alice found?”

“Do we know the [Formless Hunger] wouldn’t be able to follow us there? Or that there’s any method of exiting the dungeon?” Starchild asked.

“We don’t,” Jamal said. “Pillow and Alice said they weren’t able to find an exit while they were there and if a gate works for us, it’s probably smart to assume it would work for that thing too. So we’d basically be stuffing ourselves into a hole with no way out.”

“I’m open to ideas that don’t suck,” Lady Midnight said.

“We could fight the thing,” Rose said.

She felt everyone’s gaze burrowing into her.

“No, seriously,” she said. “I know when it caught us last time, it was all kinds of wrong, but Pillowcase has new skills, and if we’re expecting it, we can, I don’t know, brace for it?”

“That thing reached into my mind and was ready to take me apart,” Jamal said. “How do we brace for that?”

“Like Pillowcase did,” Rose said.

“She paid a high price for that,” Starchild said. “I’m disinclined to lose any of the rest of us as we lost Pillowcase’s other half.”

“What if we ambushed it?” Rose said. “Last time the thing got the drop on us. Most of us are ranged damage dealers though. Maybe we could out distance it?”

“We saw it take out a spaceship,” Pete said, speaking with Starchild’s voice. “I’m guessing it’s got us beat in the maximum range department.”

“There’s got to be some way to beat it though right?” Rose asked. “I mean, it was this weird cosmic thing but now it’s trapped in a game, so it’s gottable be beatable.”

“Does it?” Jamal asked. “It doesn’t seem to be playing by the rules all that much.”

“You know, I think she’s right,” Obby said. “Being here is going to change it. Just the fact that it has a name now means that the [Formless Hunger] isn’t what it once was. Maybe it could be slain?”

Obby seemed to be talking to herself as much as any of the rest of them, but Rose liked where her thoughts were going.

“Does that mean we could beat it with the right strategy?” Rose asked, hoping to nudge Obby’s musings into a more productive direction.

“What? Oh, no, probably not,” Obby said. “We’ve still got a problem of scale to work against.”

“It’s too big too shoot?” Rose asked.

“Sort of,” Obby said. “It’s size is just a reflection of its overall power though. The real problem is that when something that’s essentially infinite gets translated into the constraints of this world, it’s going to be set at the max available level unless it chooses to be something else.”

“The maximum level for players is 99,” Lady Midnight said. “But the highest level monster is level 150.”

“Can we even scratch a level 150?” Rose asked.

“In the game we couldn’t,” Lady Midnight said. “There were floors on a character’s chance to hit and the damage they could do, but if the level gap was too large, the hit chance was set to always fail and damage was set to zero no matter what. It saved the devs from having to deal with weird rounding errors supposedly.”

“That sucks,” Rose said. “There’s got to be something we can do!”

“Level up, like a like?” Jamal said.

“Even with a power leveler and the perfect mix of enemies, we wouldn’t hit the level cap fast enough,” Pete said.

“And we’d be stuck with worthless gear if we did,” Lady Midnight said.

“Wait wait wait!” Rose said. “Oh! Wait? Could this work?”

“I don’t think we’re going to know unless you use some real words to tell us what you’re talking about,” Jamal said.

“The [Formless Hunger] has a level now right?” Rose asked.

“Yeah, probably level eleventy billion or something,” Jamal said.

“So what if rather than trying to get to its level, we bring it down to ours?” Rose asked. She’d done her research and felt a thrill of victory as it paid off.

Not that it was a victory yet.

It was just a chance at victory.

And she’d thought of it!

“Bring it down to…?” Lady Midnight asked as the gears started turning in her head too.

“Wait, she’s right,” Pete said. “Do they have any of those here though?”

“Any of those what?” Jamal asked.

“Level locked zones,” Rose said, practically skipping as she ran. “They’re usually PvP areas, but the idea is that anyone or anything who goes into them gets scaled down so that noobs like us don’t get crushed by high level griefers.”

“Would that work?” Lady Midnight asked. The party had come to a stunned halt, their trek back to the encampment momentarily forgotten.

“I…yes, yes it would!” Obby said. She gave Rip an affectionate slug on the shoulder. “You are brilliant! No matter what the creature is, the scaling algorithm can refactor its stats to be level appropriate for whatever cap its limited to. And even better, each ability the creature has comes with a minimum level. If a creature is locked below that minimum level, the ability isn’t available anymore. Which for the [Formless Hunger] would probably be all of them!”

“You know, I don’t even know why I was worried,” Jamal said, clear relief sounding in his voice. “Not when I got my girl Rip here.”

“We do have some problems to overcome still though,” Starchild said. “First is the matter of finding a level locked zone in time. I don’t think we’ve run across any so far.”

“I can handle that,” Lady Midnight said. “Let me get in touch with the people who are still on Earth. They’ve got to be able to find out where the lowbie PvP zone was in the Beta.”

“Then there’s the larger problem,” Starchild said. “Pillowcase just contacted me. They’re heading out to save Vixali’s [Vampires] by fighting the [Formless Hunger] by themselves.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 2

The plan had been derailed. Because that was what happened to plans in Lisa’s experience. You made them so someone else could wreck them. Normally that didn’t bother her. Okay that was a lie. Normally that made her want to stab someone, but she’d had an exemplary stabbing-free record for long enough that she didn’t think she was in much danger of falling off the wagon. 

Not that stabbing someone was likely to help under the present circumstances.

“I thought we weren’t going to split the party?” Pillowcase asked on their private channel.

“Sometimes you go with the least terrible idea available,” Lisa said.

They were running, but telepathy wasn’t interrupted by a need for breath. Not that either of them technically needed to breath. Lisa was a bit concerned about their stamina though. Despite their superhuman constitutions, they couldn’t run at full speed forever and arriving at a [Vampire Coeterie’s] lair exhausted and unable to run further wasn’t an optimal strategy even if the [Vampires] in question where, theoretically, on their side for the moment.

“If the [Formless Hunger] is expanding downwards, we should warn Yawlorna and her people as well,” Pillowcase said. “And maybe Darren too?”

“Darren should be…no, you know what, you’re right. Monsters aren’t supposed to be able to cross between zones, but even if that’s still true, the [Formless Hunger] exists specifically to break rules right?”

“I believe so,” Pillowcase said. “We also can’t be sure how much divine power it absorbed from the [Heart Fire], so the world may be fine with it moving around like a god would.”

“I called Yawlorna already and warned her to keep an eye out,” Lisa said. “Do you want to give Darren a shout? Wait, we can’t can we?” 

“Not directly,” Pillowcase said. “But maybe Yawlorna can send a messenger?”

“We’re here!” Qiki said, pulling up to a stop at an iron portcullis. “I’ll let Queen Vixali know you’ve arrived, one moment please.”

Turning, Qiki walked through the portcullis, her body passing through it like a cloud of mist before reforming on the other side.

“Can you do that?” Pillowcase asked privately.

“Not yet,” Lisa said. “It’s one of the higher level racial abilities for the [Graveborne].”

“Does that mean Qiki is a danger to us?” Pillowcase asked.

“Qiki’s a danger to us because of who and what she is,” Lisa said, though it might have been Lost Alice’s sentiment more than her own. “[Vampires] are predators who feed on apex predators. Qiki and Vixali may be entirely on the level. It’s possible that they can see that they need us if they want to survive. There’s all kinds of arguments to back that up and that’s exactly the sort of situation where their prey is going to be the most inclined to trust them, and so it’s also exactly the sort of situation where they’ll stand to gain the most if they turn on us at just the right time.”

“Would they have any reason to turn on either of us though?” Pillowcase asked. “I can’t nourish them. Would your blood be of any value to them?”

“In general [Vampires] can’t feed on other [Vampires]. The blood is lacking the vitality needed to be proper food,” Lost Alice said. “My case is slightly different though. I can’t feed on any of them except maybe Qiki and Vixali but any of them could feed on me.”

“That seems unbalanced,” Pillowcase said. “What makes your blood different? Your levels?”

“Both my levels and even more so the class I have levels in,” Lost Alice said. “The healing magic I carry can substitute for a living person’s vitality. I’m told I am quite tasty.”

Lisa groaned at the double entendre in Lost Alice’s last statement, but Pillowcase didn’t seem to notice it.

“You can regenerate your magic without taking the vitality from your blood though, correct?” Pillowcase asked.

“Of course,” Lost Alice said. “I recover magic the same as any caster would.”

Lisa could feel the hum of magic which surrounded her and knew that if she wasn’t already at her limit, she could pull in the ambient energy to refill herself easily.

“Could a mana potion serve in place of blood for you then?” Pillowcase asked.

Lost Alice was about to scoff at the idea, but Lisa caught herself.

Mana potions weren’t blood, but there was a chain of logic to Pillowcase’s thoughts. At least in the case of a [Vampire] with healing abilities.

Lost Alice wasn’t pleased with the idea of drinking a mana potion as some kind of artificial, diet blood substitute. Real blood quenched more than a physical thirst. Lisa was able to tear her thoughts away from that though and appreciate the idea that she might not have to tear people apart just to keep her appetite in check.

“You may enter, freely and of your own will,” Qiki said as she swirled up from the floor in a cloud of mist. Producing a key from thin air, she unlocked the portcullis and lifted it lightly with one hand.

Show off, Lisa thought, ignoring the matching thought that she should be using her enhanced strength for similar feats.

Pillowcase advanced forward immediately, making sure to shield Lost Alice in case an ambush was about to fall on them.

No ambush appeared though, so Lisa ventured in before Pillowcase could get too far away.

Qiki led them through a number of cavern rooms, up several natural stairs, and down even more sloping passages.

“Are they trying to confuse us?” Pillowcase asked privately.

“I’m sure they would be delighted if they could but this is probably more to impress us with the amount of area they control,” Lost Alice said. “Each of these caverns should have monsters spawning in them, but Vixali’s control of the area is strong enough to be recognized by the dungeon itself. These areas have basically been ceded to her and her crew.”

“It would be more impressive if they fortified the area somehow,” Pillowcase said. “They have space but its not offering them any benefit in defending it.”

“[Vampires] typically can either destroy an attackers easily, or will turn and flee,” Lost Alice said. “When your prey is is either surprised and helpless or forewarned and incredibly deadly with little middle ground between the two, there’s usually little to be gained by opting for a standup fight you’re not certain you can win.”

“Tactically sensible,” Pillowcase said, nodding in satisfaction.

Lisa was sure Pillowcase could see the crowd which was beginning to follow them. In ones and two, [Vampires] were tagging along in their wake as Qiki lead them to Vixali’s…throne room?

The [Vampire Queen’s] room was carved into clean, polished lines. Almost certainly by hands both familiar with stonework and possessed of far more patience than any of the queen’s minions had.

Unlike the natural caverns which had risen no higher than an office hallway, the ceiling of the [Throne Room] soared, dropping no closer than one hundred feet to the floor. 

The most unexpected bit of architecture though were the stained glass windows. Given how far they were below ground, windows of any kind were an impractical choice. By all rights the stained glass should have been dark, mounted against a wall of stone, but the ones which adorned the walls of the [Throne Room] were brilliantly lit.

“Magic?” Pillowcase asked privately.

“Or a truly ridiculous amount of engineering,” Lisa said.

Pillowcase nodded towards the windows running down the left side of the Throne Room.

The ones that were open.

With a cool breeze wafting in which carried the scent of pine trees.

“Right. Magic then,” Lisa said. Lost Alice made sure nothing more than an amused wrinkle of a smile ghosted across her lips. 

They were not in a place were being overawed was healthy or wise.

Vixali was watching them from the throne which was perched atop three platforms, each ten feet high.

That is the definition of impractical, Lisa thought and considered how silly Vixali would look putting on mountain climbing gear just to sit in a fancy chair.

Points for dramatic effect though, Lost Alice thought.

“The [Adventurers] Lost Alice and Pillowcase are here in answer to your summons, my [Queen],” Qiki said.

Her what? Lost Alice wasn’t willing to start a fight over the slight, but it did set the tenor of the meeting differently than what she had anticipated it to be.

“You have information we need,” Pillowcase said. “Tell us where you’ve lost your spies.”

Lost Alice suppressed a chuckle. Blunt, to the point, and completely oblivious to the social dynamics at play, Pillowcase was the delight Lost Alice had never knew she’d been missing.

“This is our court,” Vixali said. “A measure of civility is requisite in any petitioners who appear before the throne.”

“That’s interesting information. Not what I asked, but I will remember it if we need to petition you for anything,” Pillowcase said.

Lost Alice couldn’t hold back her smile at that, but the warning bells in her head helped pull it back before it lingered too long. Vixali had a significant number of [Vampires] she had to keep under control. Undermining her authority was fun, but ultimately counterproductive if they were going to be working together.

“In this case, your [Castellan] informed us that there was an opportunity for a mutual beneficial arrangement,” Lost Alice said. “We came at greatest haste because we have information which indicates that arrangement may need to be consummated immediately, hence my partner’s insistence.”

“New information?” Vixali asked.

It was like catnip for [Vampires], and Lost Alice could see the rest of the Coterie hanging on her next words.

“[Castellan] Qiki informed us that some of your servants have gone missing,” Lost Alice said. Most of the coterie reacted as though this was stunning news, but few were good enough actors to hide the fact that it was already well known. “We were at the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge]. We know what happened there and what lies there still.”

This news produced a less dramatic effect on the coterie. They simply became quiet. And still. Predators observing information on which life and death turned. 

“We have long since sworn off contact with the daylighter town,” Vixali said. “What about its destruction brings you here in such haste?”

“Have you encountered a [Formless Hunger] before?” Pillowcase asked.

“No. What is this thing?” Vixali asked.

“Nothing,” Lost Alice. “Weaponized nothing. You’ve seen the troop transport the [Consortium of Pain] has sent against the surface world?”

“We are aware of the surface dweller’s woes,” Vixali said.

“The [Formless Hunger] pulled it into itself and took it apart. Atom by atom,” Lisa said.

“That sounds formidable, but it’s immobile is it not?”

“That’s why we came here as fast as we could,” Lisa said. “The tunnels we came through seem to lead back towards [Sky’s Edge]. From what we can see the [Formless Hunger] isn’t expanding beyond the borders of [Sky’s Edge] but it’s not clear where the lower border of the town is.”

“Meaning, the [Formless Hunger] could be expanding in this direction, choosing to move through the dungeon rather than where it would be exposed,” Pillowcase said.

“It seems a simple enough thing to determine,” Vixali said. “We have other watchers and this [Formless Hunger] doesn’t appear to be subtle or difficult to spot.”

“Check with them now,” Pillowcase said. “Please. If the [Formless Hunger] is expanding then we will need to act without delay.”

“I..umm…have some bad news,” Qiki said. “The watchers are gone too. So, either an existing dungeon dweller took them out while they were in hiding without giving them a chance to raise the alarm, or…”

“Or the [Formless Hunger] is growing, and advancing on us,” Pillowcase said.

Lisa felt her unbeaten heart ice over.

“It’s worse than that,” she said. “It took out your watchers? Watchers who were setup to be able to observe each other I’m guessing.”

“Yes, of course,” Vixali said.

“Then it’s not just growing,” Lisa said. “It’s intelligent.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 1

A vampire was waiting for them when Pillowcase and her team returned to their home.

“Greeting brave travellers, my [Queen] would converse with you at your soonest convenience,” Qiki said from the entrance to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. 

Pillowcase didn’t groan. That was a response Tessa would have made. The [Vampire Queen’s] request was instead added to a list of priorities which was impractically unstable. In any operation there would always be some reordering of tasks. It was to be expected and accounted for according to the experience her makers has sewn into Pillowcase. Even with that though, she had to question the the value of trying to assign a task order to what was more or less pure chaos. 

Past a certain point, further interruptions made the idea of forming long term plans into an exercise in absurdity.

“We have not had a great day,” Lost Alice said. “Did your [Queen] explain why she wanted to see us?”

“She is concerned,” Qiki said. “She did instruct me not to rush you, but that time was likely of the essence. So…”

“So one or more of us should go with you now before whatever new catastrophe has a chance to get rolling?” Pillowcase asked. She didn’t need to sleep. Not like a human did. And her stamina was enhanced by both her magical nature and the levels she’d attained. Despite all that though she was still tired.

“Except we won’t be doing that,” Lost Alice said.

“We wont?” Rip asked. She had her bow ready but stood with the same exhausted posture the rest of the team displayed.

“No splitting the party,” Lost Alice said.

“In that case I am instructed to venture along with you for a far as you will allow my company,” Qiki said. “Oh, and I am to render any aid you should require if the creatures in the dungeon prove to be more than you can easily handle.”

Pillowcase didn’t need Lost Alice to translate that from [Vampire]. Qiki would be evaluating their strength every moment she was with them. If they proved to be weaker than the [Vampires] expected then it would lead to complications later on.

“You’re free to tag along as far as you want,” Lost Alice said. “Just remember our people are off limits. Anyone’s fangs touch them and we’ll have a discussion about it.”

A discussion? Pillowcase asked on their private channel.

Direct threats are considered a sign of weakness in vampires, Lost Alice said. By ‘discussion’ I mean I will personally rip the [Queen’s] tongue from her throat, and Qiki there understands it.

Do you think they know that you’re a healer? Pillowcase asked. She hadn’t been sewn  with a sense of humor, but the thought was a mirthful one anyways. 

Perhaps she really was more than she’d been crafted to be?

If they do they’ll understand that means I can hurt them, heal them, and then hurt them again just as badly, Lost Alice said.

Remind me not to anger you, Pillowcase said, seeing possibilities she hadn’t considered before.

You’ve done more or less the opposite of that so far, Lost Alice said.

Pillowcase wanted a moment to process that but, as seemed to always be the case, no moments of peace were allocated to her.

“Perhaps as we travel, I might ask a few questions?” Qiki said. “There are matters which will just possibly be relevant sooner rather than later.”

“Matters such as?” Lost Alice asked.

“A few of our minions have gone missing,” Qiki said. “They normally quite hard to kill – quite hard to even detect in fact – and yet the vanished without a trace.”

“Were they in or around the ruins of [Sky’s Edge]?” Pillowcase asked.

“Some of them, yes,” Qiki said. “Others were watching some of the deeper passages in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] though, and all seem to have suffered the same fate.”

Pillowcase paused. She’d been leading them back to the camp where the resident’s of [Sky’s Edge] and the adventurers had setup accommodations after the Consortium and Darren-the-Servant-of-Fire had wiped the town off the map. It was supposed to have been as safe a place as they could find. Possibly that was still true, but “safe as they could find” was clearly not the same as “safe”. Not if her guess was correct.

“Did they all disappear at the same time?” she asked.

“The ones in the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] did,” Qiki said. “The one’s watching the lower passages in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] vanished later.”

Tessa would have cursed. Pillowcase remained silent, processing the new information.

“That’s not good, is it?” Rip asked.

“No, not if it means what I think it means,” Starchild said.

“How long did it take for the watchers to vanish?” Pillowcase asked.

“We’re not sure,” Qiki said. “They don’t have a regular check-in schedule.”

“Do you have a rough estimate? And was there anything different about their loss than the ones in the [Sky’s Edge],” Pillowcase asked.

“You should probably talk to [Queen] Vixali about that,” Qiki said.

“We will,” Lost Alice said. “But we’re still going to see what shape our people are in.”

“They’re still quite edible,” Qiki said. “And uneaten,” she added at Lost Alice’s sharp look. “We’re better neighbors than you might imagine us to be.”

“Oh, I imagine you to be the best of neighbors,” Lost Alice said. “You seem quite intelligent after all.”

Was that meant to be subtle? I’m not good at speaking [Vampire] yet, Pillowcase asked Lost Alice privately.

Not especially. I mean I could have slapped her if I wanted to be less subtle but as [Vampires] go she doesn’t seem too bad, Lost Alice said.

Which means we can trust her?

Yes. Her betrayal should be very predictable.

Is that…a good thing?

With a [Vampire] it’s pretty much as close as you get, Lost Alice said.

Present company excepted? Pillowcase asked.

I think you can get a little closer with me, Lost Alice said. When we have time for that.

Had she been aware of it, Pillowcase could have taken comfort in the fact that even if Tessa hadn’t been fractured from her, their gestalt still would have missed the implications of what Lost Alice was saying at least nine times out of ten.

That sounds good, Pillowcase replied, not consciously aware of how her words might be received.

“I don’t know if this is related,” Lady Midnight said. “But Cammie just let me know that one of the other teams ran into more of the [Disjoined].”

Lost Alice cursed, and then glanced over at Rip and Matt and apologized.

“Any losses?” Pillowcase asked.

“No. From what she said, the [Disjoined] were really fragile, and self-destructive? Let me ask about that,” Lady Midnight said.

“I wonder if we’re the only ones running into these things?” Rip asked.

“I can check with Cease All on that,” Lisa said. “If the [Disjoined] are popping up in the regular realms then maybe someone’s figured out how to keep them from eating towns.”

“That might have been a unique scenario,” Pillowcase said. “[Sky’s Edge] lost it’s [Heart Fire Shrine]. That was what gave the [Disjoined] access to the [God Spark] at its heart.”

“From what my sister’s told me, the regular zones have been hit even harder than we were,” Pete said. “I can’t image the Consortium didn’t target the [Heart Fire Shrines] there too. Adventurers are just too strong if those are still in play.”

“This sucks!” Rip said. “I never even got to see those places and now they’re all wrecked?”

“Weren’t they supposed to be really pretty?” Matt asked. “I read about how well they held up even compared to modern games.”

“Huh, you know, that’s true,” Lady Midnight said. “Everyone used to talk about that. How the artists had really gone above and beyond what the tech at the time could usually do. I wonder…”

“Wonder what?” Pillowcase asked.

“It could be an odd coincidence, or maybe that’s why it was [Broken Horizons] this all happened too,” Lisa said.

“Or maybe this place is why [Broken Horizons] was as amazing as it turned out to be,” Lady Midnight said.

“How would that work?” Matt asked.

“Oh, I see,” Lisa said. “You’re thinking this world might have been some kind of muse for the developers?”

“Yeah, like it inspired them via, I don’t know, dreams or something,” Lady Midnight said.

“Interesting idea,” Obby said. “Kind of a shame we can’t grill the original developers for where they got their inspiration from.”

“There are a whole lot of questions I can think of putting them over a grill to get answers to,” Lost Alice said.

“I thought [Vampires] like their meals uncooked?” Rip asked.

“Generally, but we’ll take what we can get,” Qiki said. “Not that we would eat people of course. That would be wrong.”

Lost Alice didn’t dignify the sarcasm with any answer or reaction. 

“Can’t we though?” Pete asked. “Not the grill thing, or eating them, but doesn’t someone have a connection to the support staff? I mean it’s been…a day?…I don’t even know how long now. They have to have some answers at this point right?”

“We had a line that was supposed to give direct access to one of the [GMs] but it was blocked the last several times we tried to access it,” Pillowcase said. 

The idea of a [GM] or [Game Master] hadn’t been included in Pillowcase’s stitching, but she could still recall exactly what *GM Burnt Toast’s* role and capabilities had been. 

She also knew how close Tessa had believe herself and BT to be. 

How do I remember that? she wondered. Tessa’s memories weren’t part of her anymore. They’d been lost when she [Fractured]. 

Hadn’t they?

“That can’t be the only option for communicating with them though can it?” Pete asked.

“It’s not,” Lisa said. “If we can get word to one of the players who’s still on Earth, they could pick up the telephone, or even have someone drive there I guess, assuming anyone we can reach is close enough.”

“The problem is the concurrent login count,” Lady Midnight said.

“Several hundred thousand players,” Lisa said. “EE’s always been cagey about exact numbers but we know it’s at least that high.”

“A fair portion of those are in the Asia-Pacific or European regions though and those are handled by local call centers,” Pete said. “The HQ we’d want would only be dealing with North American players. Or people who play on the NA servers.”

“That’s still easily over a hundred thousand players,” Lisa said. “They probably don’t have the support staff to handle even one percent of that. Maybe not even a tenth of a percent.”

“Excuse me, but, if I might be so bold as to ask, what are you all talking about?” Qiki asked.

“We’re not from here,” Rip said.

“An explaining more than that would take more time than we have,” Lost Alice said. “What you can pass along to your [Queen] is that we have some idea what happened to your spies. We weren’t involved of course, and we will be happy to provide her with all of the details we know.”

“She will be delighted to hear that,” Qiki said. “From you. In person.”

“Wait, you said the spies in the lower passages were lost?” Lisa asked. “How much lower?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question,” Qiki said.

“There are links between the [High Beyond] and the [Sunless Deeps], how far down were those lower passages? Were they still in the [High Beyond]?”

“Oh, uh, yes, of course,” Qiki said. “We haven’t risked venturing out of the [High Beyond]. A few of our predecessors tried it and came to rather unpleasant ends.”

“That means the spies were still fairly close by right?” Lisa asked.

“Well, the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] is dangerous on its own too,” Qiki said.

“More so than you know,” Lisa said. “Call Vixali, if you can. She needs to make for our camp right now. No delay.”

“What are you thinking?” Pillowcase asked.

“Not thinking. Fearing,” Lisa said. “If I’m right, then I’m giving up on rational thought.”

“Oh no,” Starchild said, apparently grasping the idea Lisa had come upon as well.

“What?” Rip asked.

“We didn’t see the [Formless Hunger] expanding right?” Lisa asked.

“Yeah, it was staying within the town’s borders,” Rip said.

“Was it?” Lisa asked. “Or was it expanding downwards rather than outwards?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Outerlude

Tessa: What the heck is an “Outerlude”?

Beth: It’s basically a chapter outside of the normal narrative. The usual rules don’t apply here since this isn’t, technically, part of the story.

Tessa: And you would be?

Beth: A traveler. Technically a “World Walker”, which at this point you are too. Also the main character of Hidden Pages, which dealt with this kind of “hidden out of view of the story” thing as its central theme.

Tessa: Huh, that’s neat how you spoke in a hyperlink. It sounded kinda funky. Is that like how when we’re saying things like the [Broken Kingdoms] it sounds weird too?

Beth: Same idea. The callout there is to things which might have help text links associated with them.

Tessa: Why are they just in brackets then? Shouldn’t there be an actual link there?

Beth: It’s more of a conceptual link. I think we’re just supposed to imagine that there are wiki pages relating to a lot of this stuff, or some other kind of documentation behind it.

Tessa: You’d think that would get explained somewhere.

Beth: Eh, it’s not that important and the narrative doesn’t support someone turning to the reader and going “hey, you, here’s what this means”.

Tessa: It’d sure be nice if it did sometimes though. I mean there’s enough plot threads going at the moment that I need a scorecard some days. I don’t even get how they’re all going to come together.

Beth: Maybe they won’t? Your thread is pretty central, but the other ones are there in part to flesh out the world.

Tessa: Is that why we’ve got place names for locations that have never appeared?

Beth: Yeah, in a long running MMO, you should have tons of active locations, and if you add on the idea that even old areas will still have their NPCs as living, breathing people then the world gets a lot more crowded.

Tessa: We stayed in [Sky’s Edge] for a long time though. It seemed like that was a pretty central spot until it got nuked off the map.

Beth: I was kind of surprised by that too. I would have liked to see a side thread to build that place up a bit more. It had some interesting characters in it.

Tessa: I suppose the characters are all in the caves now, so no loss there necessarily.

Beth: Speaking of the caves, was there a spark of romance there between you and Lisa?

Tessa: What? I mean…I…I can’t talk about that. Spoilers and all that.

Beth: Really? You think that’s supposed to be a secret at this point?

Tessa: No. But. I mean.

Beth: Ah, you’re still at that stage of the relationship. Gotcha.

Tessa: What stage? We’re not at a stage. She’s got a girl already. And I’d like to point out that I’m trapped out here in sleepy hyperspace or wherever this is.

Beth: That’s not all that likely to be permanent though is it?

Tessa: I don’t know. I was out of most of the last volume. Or all of it? I don’t even remember anymore. Time has no meaning and everything’s terrible.

Beth: Hey. It’ll be okay. These things tend to happen for a reason. You’re offstage now, but that’s to give other characters time to grow. 

Tessa: It was kind of neat to see Pillowcase trying to deal with things on her own.

Beth: Plus the loss of you gave her some unusual new abilities.

Tessa: Not that we’ve seen how those will play out.

Beth: Give it time.

Tessa: Is that really all it’s going to take though. Obby stuck a moratorium on using the [Primal Devouring] skill and the others look like they’re both passive and exotic.

Beth: Those could be the most powerful ones you have though. Situationally useful abilities can be like silver bullets when the narrative throws weird problems at you.

Tessa: Speaking of bullets, I had a question there: if we’re in a ‘more real’ version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] and the [Consortium of Pain] comes from outside this reality, why aren’t they using things like guns and bombs?

Beth: From what we’ve seen so far, it seems like despite being technomagically advanced, they’re still stuck with fitting into the overall fantasy aesthetic of [Broken Horizons]. I’m sure in the narrative there’s some explanation for guns and bombs not working based on the [Arcanospheres] idea, but it’s one of those things that hasn’t come up explicitly yet, so the final answer is a bit nebulous.

Tessa: You know there have to be some Earthlings who are trying to invent them in the [Fallen Kingdoms] though right? People are so convinced that modern military munitions are the be-all-end-all of warfare.

Beth: Can you blame them? It’s what they’re familiar with and it’s what movies and TV have preached from the beginning. The gun is mighty. Fear the gun. Love the gun.

Tessa: I wonder what the stats for a gun in the [Fallen Kingdoms] would even be?

Beth: It’s ultimately just something that accelerates a tiny mass to a high speed. They’re not that complicated. And they can be used by level 1 nobodies.

Tessa: Oh wow, and they don’t even insta-kill level 1 nobodies, outside of critical hits.

Beth: Right. You’re primarily looking at the equivalent of multi-round bleed damage which actually scores the kill. 

Tessa: And since they can be equipped by level 1s, their stats would probably be pitiful. Minor damage, and a minor DOT is all it takes to kill a lowbie who doesn’t have access to magical healing.

Beth: So that is probably why the Consortium isn’t using guns. Bombs are likely in the same category but they can do structural damage, so they’d have to have better stats than a gun.

Tessa: I know Glimmerglass got blasted through a six foot thick wall of stone in one of the old cutscenes, and we started that fight off at nearly full health, so maybe even a city wrecking bomb is something an adventurer could shake off?

Beth: I’m not going to suggest that you step in front of one to find out, but if you can live up to the things your characters have done in the game then, yeah, you’re probably more superhuman than usually gets made apparent.

Tessa: Except for all the times we get knocked out.

Beth: As narrative crutched go, I’ve always found that to be an annoying one.

Tessa: So, do you think we’ll ever get back to Earth? Or is that going to be something that just slips away as a goal as the plot rolls on?

Beth: I did read ahead a bit, so I know where some of this is going, but that’s something I am not going to spoiler.

Tessa: Oh come on! There’ve been all these chapters set on Earth. There’s got to be something going on there.

Beth: Oh, it’s not spoilery at all to say that there’ll be more event on Earth. I mean Hailey left in this chapter – and didn’t that take forever to get too! I thought she was going to hop over back a long time ago – but you’ve still got Marcus there, and several other characters.

Tessa: Yeah, including Brendan, Mellisandra’s player. What’s up with him and Pete?

Beth: They’re meant to reflect how a lot of players will have characters of a different gender and how it’s nothing particularly remarkable.

Tessa: Then you’ve got player’s like Pete’s sister though right?

Beth: Yeah Feralfang, or Melissa. I’m kind of hoping the story gets to her sometime soon. Pete’s mentioned, sort of obliquely, that Melissa’s trans and that falling into Feralfang’s body was something she took to like a fish to water. So that perspective is an interesting one, especially in contrast to her brother, who’s character, Starchild, does not match his own gender. Beyond that though, Melissa is one of the few crafters that we’ve heard of so far, so that’s another perspective we haven’t really seen yet.

Tessa: It’s interesting that there’s such a generally positive reception to discovering yourself in a foreign body, even when the genders match, but more so when dysmorphia is a real thing that’s even been mentioned in the story.

Beth: Yeah, we’ve seen a little exploration of that in Pete and Starchild’s chapters where they seem to still be very separate people. On the other hand, your chapters with Pillowcase have stressed repeatedly how you and Pillowcase are really just aspect of the same person.

Tessa: Then there’s Lisa who thought there wasn’t a Lost Alice at all, only it turns out Lost Alice was, what, sleeping?

Beth: Not exactly sleeping, more like Lisa wasn’t trying to connect with her. She was still thinking of Lost Alice as just an icon or a pawn she moved around the board. Once she started to connect though, she found that their relationship was a lot like yours and Pillowcases. In fact talking to you was probably what made her subconsciously start reach out like that.

Tessa: I’m glad she did. I know it’s weird, but I like having Pillowcase in my head.

Beth: I don’t think that’s weird at all. You made Pillowcase as someone you’d like and so the real version of her is likable. I think it’d be weirder if you didn’t like your character on some level at least.

Tessa: Is that what happened with those [Disjoined] guys? Did they have some kind of violent, negative reaction between the player and the character?

Beth: That was the hypothesis, and until more data emerges it seems reasonable. Picture the most toxic, over-entitled player you know and then imagine how their character relates to the people in the world. There’s kindness and humility built into the game version of [Broken Horizons] characters that some of the real people behind them would find abhorrent.

Tessa: I’m glad I hooked up with the party that I did then.

Beth: I think that’s meant to reflect that there are a lot of good people out there, and that if you’re not an abusive ass you’ll kind of be drawn together.

Tessa: Which I’d like to point out is why I’m not hitting on Lisa. The last thing I want to do is try to mess up the relationship she’s already in.

Beth: But you saw in this volume that she’s really kind of broken up already.

Tessa: I know! Wasn’t that wonderful! Oh, wait, damn, I’m a horrible person. I should not be cheering for her misery.  Plus, I’m not going to remember any of this if I ever get back to her am I?

Beth: This chapter? Nope. Not a word of it. What happens outside of time and space, doesn’t really happen in any meaningful sense.

Tessa: Huh. So you don’t really have to worry about spoilers then do you?

Beth: Not for you, but they’re still dangerous.

Tessa: Give me a little one at least. What’s up with Rose and Jamal?

Beth: Really nothing to spoil there. Rose is asexual, and loves Jamal, just not romantically. Jamal is not asexual, and loves Rose, also without an eye towards romance because he knows Rose just isn’t into that. 

Tessa: Yeah, but where’s their story going? Tell me nothing bad is going to happen to them. I’ve got to know at least that. If the kids are going to get killed or worse then I’ll just burn this place to the ground right now.

Beth: Woah, woah, woah. Ok, spoiler territory here then: <spoiler> Rose and Jamal are going to be fine. Their story does not end in misery or horror. They’ll have to fight for their happy ending, and it may not look like a typical happy ending for a girl and a boy, but they’ll get there. </spoiler> 

Tessa: And me and Lisa? How about us? Do we wind up together? Or at least get to kiss!

Beth: Now for that you’re just going to have to keep reading won’t you?

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Interlude 4

Interlude – Marcus

Marcus felt like the center of a vast storm. Around him, the Egress Entertainment office was entering it’s six millionth hour of absolute chaos (Or was it only twenty four? It couldn’t have only been one day could it? Had he slept? Had he eaten? Did any of that matter with the literal fate of an world hanging on his shoulders?).

“Any luck getting the scenario designers online?” Hailey asked.

No. Not Hailey. Burnt Toast. Or BT.

Marcus could recognize elements of Hailey’s voice in BT’s. They used the same words and had the same inflections, but BT’s voice was scratchier. And older. She sounded like someone who’d walked a whole lot of bad roads and made the things that lived there regret all their life choices.

“Yeah, the FBI agreed to spare one of them. We’ll have an agent along as oversight,” Marcus wasn’t happy about the last bit. The chance that the agent would understand even half of what he was hearing was remote, while the chance that he might get spooked by some of the game jargon and decide they were all some kind of terrorist cell seemed uncomfortably high.

“I know these people aren’t Seers, but you’ll forgive me if I plan around their input as though they were,” Penswell said.

Marcus was willing to forgive Penswell more or less anything, mostly because she wasn’t supposed to be real.

No. The Penswell from the game wasn’t real. Whatever was happening, this Penswell was a living, breathing person. Marcus loved the idea of true A.I.’s, and as a result had a reasonably good layman’s understanding of what crafting a convincing A.I. required. Building an A.I. that could emote as clearly and with the complexity Penswell had shown in their conversation so far was even less plausible than there being an alternate universe out there which just so happened to resemble the game he was working on.

As he pondered how he’d gotten to a place where “alternate universe” was a plausible explanation for anything, Marcus sent off one email after another through the Broken Horizon’s game client. As far as his machine knew, “@BurntToast” was a viable delivery address while “@Penswell” didn’t exist. BT’s mail queue on the other hand was more than happy to forward on the chunked up bits of the server logs which revealed all the information Marcus could find about the Consortium’s invasion force.

It seemed like a ridiculous thing to be doing by hand. In a movie, Marcus imagined his character would be arguing strategy directly with Penswell. There’d be a sizzling undercurrent of sexual tension as they yelled random military-sounding things at one another, and in the end he’d either die while heroically inspiring the protagonists to carry on, or his advice would prove to have the one, secret insight the protagonist was able to apply at the last possible second to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Marcus chuckled at that thought. His reality was that he had no applicable experience for ordering armies around, Penswell was literally superhuman in terms of tactical genius, and he’d shipped her with Niminay since the first time the two characters were in the same room together.

All he could do was give her and the rest of the Fallen Kingdoms Defense Force the information they needed to make the best decisions they could with the resources they had.

“We should probably put the devs we’re bring in to the test before you go relying on what they’d been developing for a storyline for the World Shift event,” Marcus said, thinking that the only thing worse than no information was wrong information. “Even if our lore matched your world’s actual history before, that might have changed once this disaster happened.”

“It’s funny, we think of very different things when ‘this disaster’ is mentioned,” Penswell said. “For my people, the Consortium invasion is the disaster and the presence of so many [Inspired Adventurers] is a blessing, where for you this was all supposed to be an idle diversion?”

“It was more than just a diversion,” BT said. “The game, Broken Horizons, was how thousands of people interacted with their friends and loved ones. Before this happened, I wasn’t ‘really’ BT, in the sense that I’d never been in a fight in my life, or earned even one magic item, but in another sense I was her. To a lot of people, BT was the person they knew, the one who would have their back when they were trying something hard. I had friends I only ever knew here, and while the world may not have been ‘real’, what we had was probably more real than I knew at the time.”

“The people in the Fallen Kingdoms were meaningful to us too,” Marcus said. “You had stories and a presence somewhere we spent a lot of our time. When you and Niminay got together, it was Pride month here and we had players in tears when they got to that cutscene.”

“What?” Penswell asked. “I know that became common knowledge, but no one seemed to notice it much here.”

“That might be a difference between your world and our game,” Marcus said. “Or it might be that we didn’t have the other characters react much.”

“If you can see, and possibly script, even simple moments of our lives, it’s seems impossible that you couldn’t write the Consortium completely away,” Penswell said.

“I wish we could,” Marcus said. “I would do it in a heartbeat. Ever since the World Shift expansion launched though and changes we try to make with any sort of administrator level privileges erases the person trying to make them and the change they tried to create.”

“Whoever made this happen obviously doesn’t want us to have ‘god mode’ powers too work with,” BT said. “Using the information stream that exists between the two worlds didn’t seem to have problem though, and I figured if we only had it for a limited time, we had to make it count.”

“There is good news there,” Penswell said. “This information is definitely going to count. I have every answer I need to plan our counter offensive except one.”

“What are you missing?” BT asked.

“I can see our enemies, but the mind behind them is elusive,” Penswell said. “They have kept their true goals hidden so well that I fear even this could be a trick.”

“Oh, is that all?” Marcus asked. “The leader of the enemy forces is named ‘Azma’, let me send you the full Lore sheets on her backstory and her character write-up which has all of her personal capabilities.”

Interlude – Ryschild

Ryschild could see that things were starting to fall apart. Azma’s careful plans had hit the one pitfall she hadn’t accounted for; someone trying to kill her by supporting what she did.

Well not perhaps supporting. More like applying pressure in a direction that she was used to receiving nothing but resistance from.

It was fascinating to watch her scramble to limit the damage inflicted by a few bits of information which put her in a better light that she desired. So much of her attention was devoted to fending off the deeper repercussions of the wheels of corporate bureaucracy changing direction that she’d left her two subordinates largely unattended.

It was the perfect time to strike.

Ryschild didn’t bother glancing at Grenslaw. They both knew the opportunity which lay before them, and they both knew neither was going to avail themselves of it.

There would be subtle directives arriving from their backers shortly. Hints that they were free to fulfill their contracted agreements. Those would be followed by riskier and less obtuse directions to complete the assignment and, finally, by unambiguous orders to get the job done immediately.

Not that Grenslaw’s “orders” would ever arrive. Ryschild had arranged for the liquidation of Grenslaw’s principal backer as a courtesy move, since it was to be taken for granted that Grenslaw had already provided the same service for Ryschild.

People spoke of relationships being taxing and difficult but Ryschild had never quite understood why. There seemed to be almost always be a simple (if occasionally bloody) method of improving your opposite number’s day. So long as each person in the relationship was willing to step up and do the work there really wasn’t much to angst about.

“Twelve hours,” Azma said, looking up from the numbers which were spread before her. “This whole enterprise will fall apart in twelve hours.”

“That would be an hour after the arrival of the [Director of Applied Xenobiology]?” Grenslaw asked.

“Three hours,” Azma said. “The official itinerary notice lists is a smoke screen. Durger Wenfall maybe the most cowardly director in the Consortium but he’s got the quarterly review coming up and his division hasn’t produced anything in the last two months.”

“How much damage will he do?” Ryschild asked.

“In theory, very little,” Azma said. “He’s assuming direct authority over the processing of the [Formless Hunger] but the rest of the operation remains with this office. As far as the oversight committee is concerned, we’ll be offloading an extraneous portion of the operation onto more appropriate hands which should be a net boon to achieving the operation’s original objectives. They’ll likely hit us with a surcharge for any aid Applied Xenobiology provides with the natives, but beyond that no one will see Wenfall’s meddling as a burden.”

“But he will meddle,” Grenslaw said. It wasn’t a question. It was barely even a statement. Each of the people in the room knew the kind of impact uninvited managers could have on a project.

“He is going to do more than meddle,” Azma said. “I have filed an official report as to the current state of the [Formless Hunger]. It explains clearly that we do not have control over it, and that it still represents a significant threat. Unfortunately, Wenfall has already read the report, as well as a leak indicating that we need time to solidify the third party deal, and so he has decided that the official report is overstating the case and expects to arrive to find his new “asset” ready for delivery.

“And when it’s not?” Ryschild asked.

“He will see that he  has been duped, be unable to accept any personal responsibility, and turn the issue around with a statement enumerating a comprehensive list of my failings,” Azma said.

“Does he have the clout to give that list any teeth?” Grenslaw asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Azma said. “He is on shaky ground from a performance standpoint, so no one will support him if the board brings him to task for that, but he’s also generally well liked by the oversight committee so they will side with him in an issue such as this where there is any chance they would be opposing the board or risking their solidity of their positions.”

“Can he be removed?” Rychild asked.

“It would be inconvenient to do so,” Azma said. “He’s weak and easily manipulated under most circumstances, while his successor has a particular grudge against me and is more protected than I would prefer.”

“An accident for both?” Grenslaw asked.

“That would be the simplest solution, but thanks to the leaks this has spread beyond the office of Xenobiology,” Azma said. “There are several other divisions who are looking at the [Formless Hunger] as an already acquired asset and have begin using the resources associated with it as collateral for their own projects.”

“Can we accelerate the time table on the [Formless Hunger’s] capture?” Ryschild asked.

“That appears to be the only option open to us,” Azma said. “Which means it’s going to fail.”

“Whoever created the leak will have accounted for that,” Grenslaw said, understanding Azma’s train of thought.

“Properly capturing the [Formless Hunger] is  a plan with a low probably of success to begin with, and it’s one which we cannot eliminate the possibility of sabotage from,” Azma said. “So there will definitely be sabotage, and it will come a moment before it appears we have succeeded.”

“Can we plan around that eventuality? Perhaps use the sabotage as an explanation of why the [Formless Hunger] is not ready?” Ryschild asked.

“Failure for even the most justifiable of reasons will still appear as failure to the oversight committee. They will only be concerned with the loss of the investments they’ve made in relation to this. The blame will fall to me because I am a more convenient target than someone at a Director’s level.”

“What will we do then?” Grenslaw asked.

Azma blinked and a ripple of confusion passed over her features.

It had been the perfect time to betray her. She had to expect that they would. Ryschild allowed a tiny smile. Surprising someone like Azma was no easy feat, even if she didn’t stay surprised for very long.

“We’re going to secure the [Formless Hunger],” Azma said. “Withdraw our forces from [Corsair’s Bay] entirely, and the troops we have stations around [Crystal Bower]. Redeploy all of them to the satellite moon. We’ll need the entire area pacified within the next two hours, so they are to destroy anything living they find there.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Interlude 3

Interlude – Grenslaw

Grenslaw’s job was a simple one. Act as the principal aide to an “Market Opening Operation’s” [Supreme Commander] and then, when directed, betray them. It was a fairly typical assignment as such things went in the Consortium. Management believed that cultivating a cut throat environment was the sort of filter any high performing organization required, especially when the cut throat angle was taken literally.

Ryschild, Grenslaw’s opposite number was employed under identical terms. Serve as a principal aide and kill Azma at the selected time. There wasn’t any particular ambiguity in the terms of their contract. The particular method of termination was left to their discretion, and in that each could be assumed to exercise personal initiative, but the wording around the outcome of their assassination attempts was quite iron clad. 

By contract, and to further their careers, Azma needed to die. Not metaphorically, not socially or politically. Any of those could be included but only a complete and permanent cessation of biological functions and the final termination of all mental activities would suffice. The meant no “briefly dead but resuscitated” or “bodily destroyed but the mind was uploaded to another substrate”. The Consortium was all too familiar with a wide variety of methods for escaping a death sentence and when it came to its internal dealings made sure to eliminate every loophole it had ever encountered.

Of course the reward for killing Azma would only be awarded to the one who could first submit quantifiable proof of having been responsible, which meant for Grenslaw to collect the bounty and the new position which came with it, Ryschild would likely need to die as well.

Not that any of that was going to happen.

Ryschild glanced over to the station where Grenslaw was working the numbers on the [Formless Hunger] and made eye contact. An wordless agreement passed between them with a simple nod.

The Consortium had taught them each many things. In addition to basic studies, they were each master [Assassins] and [Manipulators]. The first meant that killing someone wasn’t a problem for either one. The second meant they were more aware of the intent behind their contracts than the Consortium would likely have preferred.

Grenslaw returned to the numbers and played with a small smile. The most dangerous enemy in the world was the one who knew you best, and no one fit that category better than Ryschild. 

Long before either one would kill Azma, they would kill each other. 

It was sweet, or at least struck Grenslaw as so. Rychild was so dependable. They didn’t sabotage each other. They didn’t quarrel. They didn’t even generally avoid one another. On the contrary, they shared most meals together, had regularly helped one another with their classwork, and even more regularly eliminated the lesser annoyances which would have compromised their progress.

Grenslaw remembered a boy who’d tried to play the role of bully in their second year of schooling after they’d been inducted into the [Officer Corp]. The boy had been high born, and well connected. Grenslaw had become a target of his wrath quite accidentally. The boy had made it a matter of pride to then destroy Grenslaw’s chances for promotion to the next year’s classes.

They’d never actually found the boy’s body. Grenslaw only knew he was dead because Ryschild had made a gift of the boy’s personal accounts to Grenslaw on the next New Year’s Eve. The accounts had been given as recompense for the damage the boy had done, and as they were only unlocked because the life seal on them had lifted, Grenslaw had all the proof there would ever be as to his fate.

“This is disturbing,” Azma said, looking up from her station with undisguised concern on her face.

“New values from the [Formless Hunger]?” Ryschild asked.

“Much worse,” Azma said. “Our work is being praised.”

“By who?” Grenslaw asked. She could have asked how receiving praise could be a bad thing but Azma didn’t like answering obvious questions. She wanted her people to have their brains as engaged as hers was.

“It’s unattributed,” Azma said, her eyes narrowing into a hard cast.

“Meant to appear as a leak?” Ryschild asked.

“But not from within our ranks?” Grenslaw added, piecing together the problem as rapidly as Ryschild was.

“It’s meant to look like a leak from the oversight committee,” Azma said. “Or rather the sort of leak one might fake as being from the oversight committee if one was looking to call for extra funding for a project. It seems we have made unexpected and exceptional progress on the transdimensional entity and are to receive a commendation for the work we’ve done.”

“That is a very indirect play,” Ryschild said.

“Yes. Indirect but with many troublesome tendrils,” Azma said. “If we ask for additional funding now to exploit the [Formless Hunger], this leak becomes a time bomb waiting to be revealed as fake, especially if our efforts ultimately prove fruitless. If we argue against the leak, the oversight committee will leap to the assumption that we are either trying to drive up interest by calling attention to it, or that we have outside funding and have contracted away the rewards of this operation which weren’t explicitly called out in the original contract.”

“The latter part would be correct though, would it not?” Grenslaw asked.

“Of course. People would be appalled if we weren’t doing that. They’d trust us even less than they do now,” Azma said. “The problem is that either approach confirms the underlying reality of what the leak claims, namely that we have uncovered a valuable find as part of this operation.”

Grenslaw thought about that for a moment while Azma chewed through more of the correspondence.

“When it says we’ve made exception progress, is that exceptional compare to baseline expectations for finds like this, or is the leak suggesting that we have the [Formless Hunger] under control already?”

“It makes no distinction between the two in its brevity, but the wrong people are far more likely to read it as the second scenario,” Azma said.

“What will the wrong people do?” Ryschild asked.

A new message arrived addressed to the [Supreme Commander]. Azma opened it.

“This,” she said. “This is exactly what they will do.”

Grenslaw saw the text of the missive on their central screen.

With the transdimensional asset secured, control of the asset will be transferred to Applied Xenobiology.

Grenslaw blanched. The [Formless Hunger] was nowhere near secured, and Applied Xenobiology didn’t have anywhere near the firepower to change that.

Interlude – Penswell

Penny had had better days. It would, in fact, be accurate to say that she’d lived through better apocalypses.

“The news looks good from [Crystal Bower] and horrible from [Wagon Town] and [Thaldinforge],” Niminay said. “I can head to either one, but if I do I’m afraid [Corsair’s Bay] is going to see a lot of action.”

Niminay’s team were all max level and at the gear cap. Thankfully that didn’t make them unique among the forces Penny was coordinating. What Niminay had that the other adventurers seemed to lack was presence. Some of them were good leaders, some of them even had an impressive level of charisma and battle experience, but Niminay had an aura. When she called the townspeople to fight with them, normal citizens became something extraordinary. And adventurers? Adventurers became Heroes. Like the tales of old.

Penny wished she could bottle that quality and pass it out like healing potions. Barring that she was left with the far less enjoyable task of weaponizing the woman she loved. 

“I need more of you,” Penny said, entirely aware of the many different meanings that phrase could have and meaning pretty much every one of them. 

“Am I hearing an order in there to quit the field and carry you away from all this?” Niminay asked.

“Don’t you dare tempt me,” Penny said. Niminay had the willpower to overthrow the gods themselves. Penny knew herself to be far, far weaker than that. With that in mind she turned the conversation away from all the things she wanted to talk about and back to the matter at hand. “Do you have any of the adventuring guilds you trust to handle [Wagon Town]? I think we can shore up [Thaldinforge] if we the scouts can get us a sense of which Consortium forces are on the move and where they’re heading.”

“I’ve talked with one guild that’s all [Rogues],” Niminay said. “They’d make a decent supplement to your scouts, but they all seem pretty money hungry, so you’ll want to check if we can afford them. As for [Wagon Town]? Do we even know what we’re up against there?”

“Widespread societal prejudice and centuries of devaluation of the goblins as a people,” Penny said, stabbing her quill into on of the rejected requisition letters repeatedly. “Oh wait, you meant the Consortium’s force. How silly of me. It’d be so easy to think they were our allies with how eager everyone seems to be to see them eradicate all life from [Wagon Town].”

“It’s not that bad is it?” Niminay asked. “What about [Wolf’s Point]? They’ve been trading with [Wagon Town] for years.”

“Silence,” Penny said. “The world’s more or less divided into the bigots who want to see all of the goblins dead, and the cowards who are afraid to standup and say the goblins matter too.”

“Let me see what I can do then,” Niminay said. “I’ve met a couple of goblin heavy [Adventuring Guilds]. We’ve got a lull in the fighting now so I can reach out to them. I know the [Wagon Town Council] must be asking for all kinds of reinforcements. I’m sure the adventuring teams will step up, and they might even have some ideas the council won’t have thought of.”

“I could make a case for having you lead them,” Penny said. “It’s easier to get support to [Corsair’s Bay] if your absence does provoke an attack there.”

“I’ll help wherever you send me,” Niminay said. “I don’t think I should lead this one though. I don’t know what the [Wagon Town] forces are like. Or what fighting in the [Goblin Deeps] entails when you’re trying to save people rather than loot the place. Let me talk to the goblins I know and see if there’s a leader that the people in [Wagon Town] will unite behind. I can stand behind them for support if they want, or we can send them the burliest set of adventurers we can muster. Or both.”

“Talking with you always makes me feel better,” Penny said. “Ok, that’s a plan, and if we get on it right now, it might even work. Except, damn it, except we don’t know what kind of forces the Consortium has in reserve around [Wagon Town]. If we send you or a team of adventurers in there, you’ll be walking into what is absolutely a trap.”

“I’ve walked into traps before,” Niminay said.

“And you always walk out of them,” Penny said. “But the citizens of [Wagon Town] won’t. Right now the Consortium is waiting, so the fighting in the town is fairly light. They’re turtled up, and holding out while our forces gather against them.”

“That doesn’t seem like a winning play on their part.”

“It’s not. At the rate things are currently going, we’ll overwhelm them in the next three hours. That means they’re probably about two and a half hours from unleashing their counter offensive and based on their performance in other theaters, they’ll send enough troops to capture or destroy the total forces that we are currently capable of projecting into the area.”

“So…a trap, and a good one,” Niminay said. “But we still have to spring it or they’ll just roll right over everyone there and be able to extend even farther into the [Goblin Deeps].”

“Yeah, and that’s the other reason no one wants to help the goblins,” Penny said. “Nobody wants to see what kind of horrors the Consortium is waiting to unleash.”

A high priority message alert appeared before Penny.

“Huh, a message from one of the team leads in [Crystal Bower] just came in,” Penny said.

“Patch them in. If I need to redeploy there I’d rather know sooner than later,” Niminay said.

“Ok,” Penny said and joined Glimmerglass into the channel with Niminay.

“Hey, we had a…unexpected bit of good luck?” Glimmerglass said, picking her words carefully. 

“Do tell, I could really use some good luck about now,” Penny said.

“I think you’ll like this then. Let me patch in Burnt Toast and Marcus,” Glimmerglass said.

“Who?” Penny asked.

“Hi Penswell, you can call me BT. I’ll be your liaison to Marcus,” BT said.

“Marcus?”

“That would be me. I’m not a player. Not at the moment at any rate. I’m not in your world. But I do know a lot about it. In fact, from what the server logs are showing me, I think I can tell you where every Consortium force in all the [Fallen Kingdoms] are deployed and what capabilities each unit possesses. Would that be helpful?”