Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 22

Vixali felt the world moving, and as always, it was moving against her.

“The [Faceless Watchers] have returned,” Qiki said, gliding silently to the edge of the precipice Vixali was dangling her legs over.

“That was quick. I take it the daylighters didn’t put up much of a fight? Did the invaders lose any of their forces?” Vixali asked. 

She wasn’t tempted to jump. The bottomless darkness below her was a mystery, and mysteries were delightful things, but she wasn’t tempted to jump. The impact at the bottom would be disastrous. Shattered bones, jellified organs, and, worst of all, precious blood splattered everywhere. It was far too great a cost for an uncertain return. So she wasn’t tempted to jump. Even if it would take her away from the headache of herding the swarm of chaotic evil drama lamas that was her coterie.

“Ok, maybe I’m a little tempted,” she mumbled, probably too low for Qiki to hear.

“I could give you a shove if that would help?” Qiki offered – because of course her vampiric senses were just as good as Vixali’s. 

Vixali suppressed a grumble. Self sabotage seemed like such a waste when there were plenty of others willing to do that work for her. 

“Before I overthrow you and claim all your power and glory for my own, mwahaha, you’ll want to hear this though,” Qiki said. ”The invaders didn’t lose some of their forces. They lost them all!”

“What!” Vixali was on her feet and peering into Qiki blood red eyes in an instant. It was usually easy to tell when a vampire was lying. All you had to listen for was when their mouths made noise, but Qiki, Vixali had to admit, wasn’t exactly like the others. Vixali couldn’t trust her completely, but that was because Vixali couldn’t trust anyone completely. With Qiki, she could rest comfortable in the knowledge that if Qiki tried to kill her, Qiki would do the job right. It would be quick, it would be final, and Vixali would never see it coming. For a [Vampire Queen] that wasn’t a bad end to look forward too.

“They’re gone,” Qiki said. “According to the [Faceless Watchers] none of them survived.”

“I can’t believe the daylighter’s defended their town,” Vixali said. “How many of theirs were lost? And who pulled their defense together? It had to be someone we missed right?”

“Well, see, that’s the thing,” Qiki said, shrugging, “They didn’t. [Sky’s Edge] is gone. Like ashes and dust, burned to the ground if it’s not still on fire, levels of gone.”

“They killed themselves?” Vixali asked, knowing that didn’t sound right at all. Daylighters were sensitive about the whole ‘death’ thing, even the ones who could pop back from it easier than a vampire could.

“Nope. A [Servant of Fire] showed up,” Qiki said.

Vixali fixed her with an incredulous glare. “Explain.”

Qiki, seeing that she’d pushed her queen about as far as she could in terms of dribbling out information, broke into a longer tale, explaining the fighting that had occurred in [Sky’s Edge], the reasonably valiant but obviously doomed effort that had been made to defend the town, and the unforeseen arrival of a creature that was far beyond any monster which roamed the overlands near [Sky’s Edge].

“It seems like the daylighters were working with the [Servant of Fire]. Thanks to its arrival the last defenders in the town were able to escape and join the rest of the inhabitants.”

“And where did they go?” Vixali asked, willing to wager the last drop of her immortal blood that she could guess the answer.

“Here,” Qiki said. “They’re here. All of them.”

“In the old [Star Spawn] camp?” The [Star Spawn] had been an ad hoc gathering of quasi-octopodal creatures from beyond the stars who had come in search of fresh victims to sacrifice to their strange appetites. They’d enjoyed a brief period of dominance over a minor portion of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] but then Vixali’s coterie had needed a place to settle.

Vixali missed the [Star Spawns]. They’d been delicious. Almost like sea food and with none of the vague guilt that came from eating someone who looked like a person.

“Of course.”

“And the others know about this?”

“Officially no. The [Faceless Watchers] reported to me directly, and I came straight to you.”

“But they all overheard.” Vixali didn’t need to guess. It was what happened every time the [Faceless Watchers] returned from the field because the [Faceless Watchers] always returned with interesting news and if there was one thing a pack of vampires isolated in a dungeon craved more than blood, it was information. “How many of them have violated the boundaries to ‘get a peek’ at our new neighbors?”

“At this point?”

“Right. All of them. Of course.”

Vixali had tried stabbing her subjects when they upset her. Vampires had a different relationship with mortal wounds that most other creatures did, but a sword through the face was unpleasant no matter how well you could regenerate from it. She’d eventually given up the practice once it became clear that she was spending more time cleaning her clothes than her subjects were spending regretting the choices they’d made which lead to their impalement.

Tossing them off the precipice was tempting too, except that creatures who could shapeshift into bats tended to suffer fatal falls only rarely.

Descending as a bat was an option for Vixali as well of course, except she knew her own luck. If there was anywhere a magic-canceling portal was going to be hiding, somewhere down in the stygian depths below her was a prime candidate. Her predecessor had been lost when he forgot that the world hated him and was determined to see him properly dead not matter how unlikely or absurd the tools it was forced to use to bring that about.

“Is there any chance they’ll limit themselves to ‘just peeking’?” Vixali asked.

“Probably. For a little while at least. There’s a lot of daylighters there, and they did survive a fight with the invaders, and they do, apparently, know a [Servant of Fire]. So all of that should give your subjects at least a little pause,” Qiki said. “Say five minutes or so?”

“When you put it like that, I’m tempted to wait another six minutes before we join them.”

“In six minutes, there’s the outside chance that you won’t have any subjects left,” Qiki said. “Well aside from me.”

“I know. Delightful isn’t it?”

“I feel compelled to point out that without subjects, you will have a derth of expendable meat shields to place between your self and those looking to drive a stake through your everything.”

“And I do so enjoy being unpunctured. Very well, I accept your wise council my dear [Castellan].”

“So shall we go ‘peek’ too then?” Qiki asked.

“Most certainly not,” Vixali said. “A [Queen] must arrive in style.”

***

Tessa felt Pillowcase’s hand reach her weapon, but fought the urge back, despite the small army of apex predators which stood before her. It wasn’t an easy urge to quash though. When faced with several dozen long fanged, and red eyed people all dressed as though competing for the title of “More Goth Than Thou”, it would have been only natural to be on edge. What pushed on Tessa’s buttons with particular force though were the sounds the vampires were making.

They were hungry. And angry.

That didn’t get better when they saw Pillowcase and Lost Alice appear.

“These must be the leaders they spoke of,” a small but particularly deadly looking one said. 

“Indeed.” 

Tessa turned to glance at the vampire who spoke and felt a vice lock around her gaze. The [Vampire Queen] didn’t look much different than the rest of her subjects. It was only in her posture and her eyes. 

Where her subjects had crimson eyes of liquid hate, the [Queen’s] were the doorway to immortality. Pillowcase was shield against enchantments, but the force of the [Vampire Queen’s] gaze acted on a deeper level than any simple spell. In her, some older and less tamed power lay.

Power such as Tessa had always needed.

Power, intimacy, and connection to a greater whole. What Tessa had always craved.

Power she could have with just a sip, just a taste, just a kiss.

“Ok, enough of that,” Lisa said, stepping slightly forward.

Her words fractured the fascination that had gripped Tessa. It was a strangely sad experience. The promise in the [Vampire Queen’s] eyes had been so compelling, that it’s loss was like waking from a wonderful dream into a dismal reality.

“How curious,” Vixali said. “Another [Queen]? Or, no. You’re something else?”

“You could say that,” Lost Alice, and it was definitely Lost Alice rather than Lisa, said.

“How disappointing,” Vixali said peering at Alice with a sort of puzzled fascination. “I can’t make you one of mine.”

“And I won’t have you as mine,” Lost Alice said, her smile a promise of mayhem under restraint.

Vixali’s eyes narrowed as she evaluated the rogue vampire standing before her.

“No, you won’t. That bond is already taken, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps.”

“I take it we’re not fighting?” Rip asked, indelicately disrupting the oblique dance of smug knowingness the two seemed to be enjoying.

“Fighting?” Vixali asked and several of her coterie tensed. To Tessa’s eyes they were a bit too eager to hear the answer. “That was certainly not our intention in greeting you. We merely seek to welcome you and learn if the invaders will be pursuing you to this fastness?”

And to eat them if Tessa and the others were too weak to prevent it. It didn’t need to be said. It also seemed clear that that the inverse was true though and that so long as the refuges from [Sky’s Edge] had sufficient protection, the vampires would leave them in peace. That didn’t fit with vampire legends, but it did make sense for a predator species. For all their toughness, vampires weren’t not completely immortal and a determined group of humans could end them permanently. Predators do not persist when faced with opposition like that. They need weakness in their prey or the odds will catch up with them sooner rather than later.

“I’m sure our leader will be delighted to discuss things with you,” Alice said. Except her voice had shifted back and as she glanced over to Tessa, Tessa knew Lisa had been quite serious as to her threat.

“Is this not one of the invaders?” Vixali asked.

“No,” Tessa said. “I’m rather definitely not with them.”

“Fascinating. No blood in you at all, and yet there is life there, and something else as well,” Vixali said. “You are quite an enigma.”

“Thank you,” Tessa said. She knew she couldn’t play the mystery game as well as Lost Alice could, but taking care with the information she volunteered seemed wise.

“Perhaps you can clear up another enigma for me then?” Vixali asked. “We couldn’t help but notice that the town near here seems to be…missing? Or burning. It’s hard to tell.”

“Oh, it’s pretty much gone,” Tessa said. “For now. We’re still deciding if and where we’ll rebuild.”

Tessa had no idea if the future of [Sky’s Edge] had been discussed at all but it seemed a safe claim to make.

“And what destroyed it?” Vixali asked. “Was it the invaders?”

“No, that was our friend Darren,” Tessa said. “He was targeting the Consortium’s forces but he’s a bit indiscriminate when he’s drowning things in lava.”

That drowning in lava would probably be enough to permanently kill a vampire was something that occurred to Tessa before she included that detail.

“You have powerful friends,” Vixali said.

“This is a good place to have allies,” Tessa said. “Especially with the [Consortium of Pain] looking to conquer or enslave anyone with interesting abilities.”

“Or valuable body parts,” Lost Alice said.

Pillowcase knew that [Vampire Blood] was a potent [Alchemy] material, while [Vampire Fangs] were essential in several [Bonecrafting] creations, and [Vampire Hearts] were part of several very useful [Enchantments]. 

When view as threats, the vampires in front of her were a significant problem. Far more than she or her team could manage on their own. Except, they weren’t alone, and when viewed as a collection of salable components, the vampires began to look very lucrative to find indeed.

Vixali seemed to come to the same understanding as a look of concern passed over her face.

“Perhaps we should ally together then,” she said.

“I imagine that will be agreeable,” Tessa said. “We seem to be collecting allies at the moment.”

“In that case there is another you may want to collect as well,” Vixali said. “Have your heard of the [Lord of Storms] whose [Cloud Castle] is near here?”

Pillowcase hadn’t but Tessa had.

The [Lord of Storms] wasn’t a [King] or a [Raid Boss], they were one of the [Gods] whose death had caused the [Fallen Kingdoms] to fall.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 21

Tessa felt divided. Not in the emotionally conflicted sense. She was far too steadfast in her repression of the several lines of thought she did not at all have time to process for her emotional conflicts to be bubbling to the top of her consciousness. Instead, her feeling of division stemmed from a strangely external source.

“I think I’m not fully here?” she said, massaging her temple although Pillowcase’s body felt no pain or discomfort.

“You jumped into a bottomless pit because some demons vaguely suggested it was a good idea,” Lisa said. “I think we’re well past making judgement calls on your sanity.”

“You’re funny, you know that?” Tessa said.

“I do,” Lisa said. “Doesn’t mean I wrong though.”

“We got out of there ok.”

“Says the one who isn’t covered in blood still.”

“We saved a town though!”

“By unleashing a lava monster on it, which has burned it to the ground by now. You get where there might be some issues with all of that right?”

Tessa sighed. Lisa wasn’t wrong, and behind the banter Tessa remembered the concern that had seemed to tear a hole in Lisa’s heart. Tessa wasn’t sure how to interpret that. It was how she would have reacted to someone she loved hurling themselves into mortal danger but as her breakup with Crystal had shown her, other people saw things very differently from her. 

“We’re safe for now at least?” Tessa phrased it as much as a question as the statement of fact it theoretically was.

Inside the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave], the adventurers and the townsfolk of [Sky’s Edge] had found an odd sort of refuge. The caverns still teemed with monsters, but by focusing their efforts along a single narrow path, they’d been able to reach a broad room which was both defensible and held no inhabitants. Even better, there was a clear stream running into a pool at the back of the room which provided for the townfolks’ most immediate need, leaving the adventurers to provide food and materials to construct shelters from.

As fledgling players, the assembled adventurers didn’t have the depth of resources they might have possessed, but Obby was able to break out a fair amount of specialty food from her inventory. It was “store bought” in the sense of being purchased from the game’s cash shop, which was sadly no longer accessible, but filling enough to sustain an entire family with a single portion, and Obby had a seemingly endless supply.

Tessa didn’t bother with the food herself. Pillowcase could consume food and gain any mystical benefits it might possess but she didn’t have any actual need for material sustenance.

Unlike Lost Alice.

Lisa seemed more relaxed and in control of herself since…the incident, in the [Sunless Deeps]. Tessa knew it was something they should talk about, but she was hoping Lisa would be the one to begin that discussion.

“I’m sorry,” Lisa said. “You had a real concern there, didn’t you?”

She shifted to sit back against the wall in the small alcove where they’d brought Pillowcase to rest while Tessa was unconscious. It was a nice, tiny space. Big enough to not feel claustrophobic but limited enough that Pillowcase didn’t have to be at the highest level of alert to feel sure nothing was lurking nearby and waiting to ambush them.

“It’s probably nothing,” Tessa said, regretting the idea of casting another burden on Lisa’s shoulders.

“Was it related to why you passed out?” Lisa asked, her voice gentler than it had been.

“Yeah, but it’s nothing I can be sure of,” Tessa said.

“You said you don’t think you’re all here? Where did you go? It didn’t sound like back home.”

“Its hard to explain.”

“We’re going to be cooped up here for a bit,” Lisa said. “Got anything else you’d like to do?”

Tessa knew there were other things she should be doing. She thought of Rip and Matt, who were coordinating the defense of the refuge by virtue of being the only two other adventurers to have been this deep into the dungeon. She thought of Mister Pendant, who was offering whatever upgrades he had available to any adventurers who could use them. She thought of several dozen responsibilities she could take on.

Instead of any of that though, she leaned back against the opposite wall from Lisa and offered her a small smile.

“I don’t think I went anywhere. Not exactly. It was more like I was already there? Or maybe that someone I knew really well was there? Like I was more of an observer but with strong focal point.”

“Interesting. What did you see?”

“A ship. Like a space ship type ship. Except…did you ever run the [Luna Crash] raid? You know how it was sort of scifi themed but still had the [Broken Horizons] aesthetic? That’s how this place looked.”

“I take it you could tell you weren’t just dreaming somehow?” Lisa asked.

“It seemed a little too solid and sequential to be a dream. The team I was with was fighting through the ship and I followed them step by step. Like I said though, it wasn’t like I was actually there. It was like watching a play almost? Like the action was separate from me but I could yell at the people on the stage if I wanted to. It would be distracting and kind of rude, but I wasn’t completely separate from them.”

“Could you feel this body?” Lisa gestured at Pillowcase’s torso.

“I think so. I was so caught up in the fighting that was going on I sort of forgot about everything else for a while. Which now that I think about seems really weird. So maybe I was dreaming a little bit?”

“Maybe. I think there’s a more important question though; is it going to happen again?”

Tessa inhaled and brought her steepled hands to her lips. It was a gesture she was used to making in her own body but it served the same purpose in Pillowcase’s.

“I might wind up like that again if I let it happen, but I think it’ll be my choice,” she said. “I think it was this time too. The sense of connection and need hit me so suddenly that I instinctively jumped at it and sort of fell into it for a while. I’m sorry, I know the timing was terrible.”

“Yeah. Timing,” Lisa said and glanced away.

“How are you doing though?” Tessa asked. “I mean aside from the whole ‘covered in blood’ thing?”

Lisa rolled her eyes and smiled.

“Great. I am just great.”

“Not exactly how you’d planned on spending launch day?” Tessa asked, mirroring Lisa’s smile.

“Is it still launch day? It feels like we’ve been here for months now.”

“I’d guess it depends on your timezone, but I don’t think it’s been twenty four hours back on Earth yet. At least not since I logged in.”

“That’s right, you just started up again right?”

“Seemed like a good time to get back into the game. Sometimes my instincts are shockingly wrong.”

“Or shockingly right,” Lisa said. “I mean, it sucks that you’re trapped in here but I’m glad I ran into someone like you when all of this started happening.” She waved her hand at the whole world around them.

“Thanks. I glad you were here too. I…Having you here has meant a lot to me. I didn’t want anyone else to get hurt in the [Sunless Deeps] but I can’t tell you how happy I was when you showed up.” Tessa regretted her honesty as she spoke. She could hear herself both placing a future burden on Lisa and admitting to feelings that she knew she shouldn’t have. It had been a rough day though and repression had its limits.

Lisa buried her face in hands before running her palms up her face and her fingers through her hair. After a moment, Tessa felt the urge to reach out rising but she fought it back. The last thing she needed was for Lisa to slap her hand away for crossing a boundary. 

When Lisa raised her head after another moment, her smile had changed, gaining a faint rueful tinge.

“Timing,” she said before shaking her head. When she spoke, the weight had left her voice, either cast aside or packed away for later. “You might have been seeing one of the raiding teams that launched the counter-offensive against the Consortium. Cease All said Niminay called on the high level players to teleport up to their ships and bring the fight to the Consortium directly. I think they would have been fighting just about the time you passed out.”

“That would fit,” Tessa said, letting the space between them breathe with the change of topic. “The team was fighting like they were raiding a dungeon. When I woke they were talking about heading back to their home base before returning to try tackling the [Captain] on the bridge.”

“Do you think you could go back there if you wanted? Or make contact again I guess? That could be a good backup channel for information since Cease All and the others seem to pretty busy with the whole invasion going on.”

“She’s at least been more responsive than BT,” Tessa said. “Not that either one is really in a position to help us.”

“We’ve been lucky so far, aside from a few exceptions we haven’t run into anything tht’s been badly outleveled for us,” Lisa said.

“The Consortium troops looked like more of a fight than we could have handled.”

“Yeah, they’re one of the exceptions. And probably going to be an even bigger problem going forward.”

“It depends on their [Commander],” Tessa said. “The Consortium doctrine on well defended targets has a lot of flexibility. Some times they’ll make an example out of the stronghold and pound it to dust. Or, they might leave us alone as a poor investment of the resources.”

“If they do come back, they’re going to send something that can deal with Darren in all his lava monster glory.”

“Yeah, we’ll want to make sure he stays hidden after he finishes up with the troops they sent in this wave.”

Lisa laughed.

“Is it weird that I’m worried about a giant serpent made out of magical fire rock far more than the people he’s burning to death?”

“I don’t think so,” Tessa said. “Darren turned out to be pretty personable.”

“I think me eating his captor helped our case there.” Lisa said the words in jest, but it was a hollow sort of joke.

“Yeah, that was an interesting thing to see,” Tessa said. “Kind of stupid of Mikonnel to go on about the power of his blood in front of a clearly hungry vampire.”

“On the upside, it’s not a mistake he’ll make again!” Lisa said with even more forced levity.

“You know it was his mistake though right? Everything that happened down there. What you did, none of that was a bad move on your part.”

“I don’t know about that. I think it might have felt too good to not be pretty evil.”

“Evil or just scary?” Tessa asked. “It looked like you lost control for a moment, and under the circumstances I can’t imagine that being anything but a delicious relief.”

Lisa sighed and tipped her head back.

“God, it really was. He was just such an ass, and I was so incredibly hungry.”

She let her head tip forward and hang down till her gaze was focused on the floor in front of her.

“But I still think I went too far,” she added in a whisper.

This time Tessa did reach out to place a hand on Lisa’s arm.

“Maybe you went too far for you, but what you did was fine for the situation we were in, and I know some part of you knew that.”

Lisa looked up, her smile reaching her eyes.

“I should really get cleaned up, shouldn’t I?”

“If it’d make you feel better,” Tessa said. “As it is you’ve got that ‘you do not want to mess with me’ look going that is definitely not out of place in the middle of a dungeon. I think between showing up on Darren’s back and your badass Queen of Blood look, the rest of the adventurers are going to make you our de facto leader whether you ask for the position or not.”

“Oh, wow, I really need to get cleaned up then. Maybe change into something really nerdy.”

“What? You think nerd gear would slow down a bunch of mmo players? Forget leader, they’ll elect you to godhood if you go far enough with that.”

“If they make me leader, I am passing the buck immediately to you,” Lisa said. “Everyone knows it’s supposed to be the tank that everyone else follows.”

“That feels vaguely unfair,” Tessa said.

“Consider it a punishment for worrying me like you did,” Lisa said, but her smile had returned.

“I’m not sure that’s how leadership is supposed to work?” Tessa said.

“You two ready for another crisis?” Rip asked skidding into the opening of the small room. “Cause we could really use someone responsible looking to handle our new visitors.  You know, before they slaughter everyone here.”

“Come on,” Lisa said. “You’re punishment awaits!”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 20

Glimmerglass wiped bone chunks and blood off her staff as she paused to catch her breath.

“I really need to put together a better set of melee gear,” she said accepting Cambrell’s hand to help her stand.

“I have to admit your defense was pretty damn impressive and it’s not that often I’ve seen a [Healing Staff] used to split someone’s head one,” Cambrell said. “Is that why it’s got the pointy bits on the end?”

“No,” Glimmerglass said, casting a minor [Mending] spell to repair the slash which had cut through her sleeve. “Those are supposed to be decorative. A symbol that the [Dawn’s Light Staff] will do no harm.”

“You sure about that?” Cambrell asked. “The sun rays coming out of it seem awfully sharp for a symbol of peace.”

“Sorry you had to use it like that at all,” Damnazon said. “Wasn’t expecting the crew to swarm us. Stupid [Aura of Boiling Vengeance] was on cooldown after the last fight.”

“It’s ok,” Glimmerglass said. “We’re all running low on resources.”

“It’s a hell of a dungeon,” Mellisandra said, gesturing vaguely around at the ruins of the engine room they stood in, as she caught her breath too.

Overhead, four stories worth of equipment and machinery stood with vast rents torn through it. Sparks flew from some of the units. Oils, and acids, and more toxic liquids spurted from other bits of broken wreckage. Completely absent though was the sound of any of the systems still working. 

“Where do we go from here?” Cambrel asked.

“From the schematics we found, it seems like the bridge is as heavily defended as the engine room was,” Damnazon said.

“Got any more of those potions?” Cambrell asked the assembled group, glancing over to the group of adventurers who’d first picked him up.

“We don’t need more potions,” Glimmerglass said.

“I took a bolt of energy straight through my right lung,” Cambrell said. “And that was with your shield in place to diminish it. I’d really like to have another bandolier of healing magic before we try to repeat our last go at these guys.”

“I mean we shouldn’t need much more healing. Niminay said to treat this like a dungeon,” Glimmerglass said. “Unless anyone objects, I say we do that and pull back. We’re too far down on our resources to move forward and we’ve gathered a lot of information on how their defenses work.”

“If we pull back, we’ll be giving them a chance to arrange a much worse reception for us the next time we return,” Mellisandra said.

“We haven’t gotten any good loot yet either,” Damnazon said.

“Yeah, but we haven’t died yet either,” Cambrell said.

“The lack of loot is pretty typical,” Glimmerglass said. “I mean we collected the weapons and armor from the fallen, and sure, it’s subpar compared to what we already have but there’s plenty of lower level adventurers we can give it to.”

“Trash mobs dropping trash loot,” Mellisandra said. “That does sound like a typical dungeon.”

“Should we try to find out if the [Captain’s] the equivalent of a raid boss?” Damnazon asked.

“Seems like it’d be a safe bet they are,” Cambrell said.

“Safe bet they’ll kick our butts too,” Mellisandra said. “I mean look at the trouble we had with the cleaning staff we ran into.”

“Janitors really should not be packing guns that can melt through reinforced bulkheads,” Cambrell said. “That’s just unreasonable in general and particularly on a ship where breeching the walls is a really bad idea!”

Mellisandra had explained to the group the dangers they were likely to face if the ship suffered a hull breech. She’d also covered which of their magics would be able to counteract the effects of exposure to the vacuum of space the best. The apparent eagerness with which the crew had seemed determined to cause such a breech had been an unpleasant surprise they’d had to work around in every fight they’d been in since they left the [Field Carrier’s] [Portal Room].

“That’s why we need to get back,” Glimmerglass said. “If we’re going to raid this place properly we need the right supplies and we need to let everyone know what we’ve discovered.”

“She’s got a good point,” Mellisandra said. “This is the first time I was the first one in a raid in, well, ever.”

“Yeah, me too,” Damnazon said. “We always went in with a pretty good preview of what the strategy should be.”

“I…wasn’t much for raiding,” Cambrell said.

“That’s right, you’re an NPC aren’t you?” Damnazon asked.

“I’m an [Assassin]. There’s not much reason for me to be crawling down into a dungeon,” Cambrell said.

“Until now,” Glimmerglass said. “Like Niminay said, at this point we all need to act like heroes, and sometimes being a hero means making it back with the information people need so that the others can make it back too.”

“It’s a shame the shared inventory spaces are blocked by the [Consortium Fleet’s] disruptors,” Damnazon said. “It’d be a lot easier to restock here if we had someone back home filling our packs for us.”

“I’d settle for the comm channels being accessible,” Cambrell said. “Glimmer’s right about needing to get info back to our homebase. Even if we have to go back in person I’d feel a lot better if we could pass on what we know as soon as possible.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Mellisandra said. “I’ve got that angle covered.”

***

Brendan was missing classes but he didn’t care. His live stream was getting more views than he’d ever had before. But he didn’t care about that either.

The FBI agents in his house though? That he cared about.

“How is your character speaking like that?” Agent Jackson asked, watching the dialog between Mellisandra and the characters on the screen scroll past on its own.

“I told you. She’s alive. She’s real,” Brendan said. “You can talk to her if you want. If they get into a fight though, I’ve got to help her out.”

“He’s right Agent Jackson,” Mellisandra said, speaking in a whisper, on a private channel to herself. “The things we’re fighting in here are too tough for me to do alone.”

“How does she know my name?” Agent Jackson asked.

“Because she can hear what I’m saying? What we’re saying.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Mellisandra replied and waved, though not towards the screen, since Brendan had the camera positioned behind her to approximate her field of view.

“Who are you waving at?” Glimmerglass asked, her question rolling up as the next line of text on the screen.

“We’re not as along as you might think,” Mellisandra said.

“This so far above my pay grade,” Jackson said.

“I think it’s above everybody’s pay grade sir,” Brendan said. “I mean, this shouldn’t be possible but you’ve seen the other streams right? I mean we’ve got footage of someone literally vanishing into thin air the second their character died. And then appearing in the game like ten seconds later.”

“Yeah, as a ghost. That’s….”

“Science fiction? Something out of the Twilight Zone?” Brendan suggested.

“Not within our usual jurisdiction,” Agent Turner said. 

Brendan had been terrified when the two FBI agents showed up at his door. Letting them in hadn’t seemed like an actual choice under the circumstances between their badges, their (still holstered) guns, and the fact that Agent Jackson had at least six inched of height and eighty pounds of muscle on Brendan.

By that measure Agent Turner should have been the more comforting of the two. She had a calm, gentle voice and was smaller and lighter than Brendan. It took him all of two minutes to work out that he’d slotted them two of them into the wrong mental categories.

Turner was calm because she knew she could destroy him, legally, physically, emotionally, and probably spiritually, and was rather clinically deciding if any of those were warranted or not. Jackson was her junior and was as blown away by the current events as Brendan was.

“Why  did you get called in?” Brendan asked. By which he meant ‘why are you here, in my house’, but that exact question seemed unwise to ask.

“When people start disappearing, and it extends across state lines, it falls on us to look into it,” Jackson said.

“This is international though,” Brendan said.

“Still our job to sort it out,” Turner said. “At least the part that pertains to US citizens.”

“Brendan, how’s the information transfer going. Have the people connected with the ones back at the Observatory seen what we had to fight through so far?” The text from Mellisandra scrolled up as a whisper to herself.

“Yeah Melli. The live stream had a lot of people tune in. Some of the top end players who weren’t logged in are going over the different streams and coming up with recommendations for things to look out for, or try next time.” Brendan spoke into the microphone on his desk and said a silent ‘thank you’ that Agent Turner had been willing to let him leave it on.

He suspected it wasn’t entirely altruistic. Anything he said almost certainly would be used against him in a court of law if he ever wound up there, but under the circumstances he was willing to risk it. Whatever their connection was, even if they were nothing more than strangers who’d been bumped together by fate or a random number generator, Mellisandra was facing a life and death struggle, and Brendan couldn’t imagine letting her face it alone.

“Good,” Mellisandra said. “We’re getting out of here. If they can have some tactics worked up and a restocking package put together, we can head right back as soon as we’ve recovered and resupplied.”

“You’re going to raid the ship again?” Brendan asked, his quiet joy at the thought of Mellisandra escaping to safety evaporating under the promise of a return to the Field Carrier / raid dungeon.

“It’s not the most fun plan I’ve ever been a part of, but Niminay is right. We treat this like a raid until we’ve beaten them back, and that means we keep hammering at them, trying new strategies and upgrading our gear with each run until they break and run, or we reach the end boss and cut their head off.”

“That’s got to be worth at least a conspiracy charge,” Jackson said. “Or it would be if this wasn’t a video game.”

“You know, technically, I think the State Department should be the one handling this,” Turner said.

“Really?” Jackson asked, a brief flicker of relief crossing his face.

“No. Or maybe. I don’t know,” Turner said. “We haven’t exactly recognized these Fallen Whatever places as foreign nations. For all I know it’s the Post Office that’s got jurisdiction here.”

“You’re going to make me call this one in, aren’t you?” Jackson asked.

“You did forget to pick up coffee this morning,” Turner said.

“I bet the team at Egress is having a real fun time too,” Jackson said.

“There’s an FBI team at the game’s headquarters?” Brendan asked. “What are they going to do there?”

“Investigating,” Turner said, clearly not willing to discuss official business with someone who wasn’t part of her chain of command.

***

The IT staff at Egress had the door to the server room barricaded like a scene out of Les Miserable by the time the FBI team arrived. Hailey was impressed. It was probably the fastest they’d responded to any issue in the entire team she’d been a part of the Egress Entertainment team.

“This really isn’t necessary,” Agent Limner said, rolling his eyes at the collection of office furniture which was stacked on the far side of the server room’s door. “If we want to, we could simply cut your cable outside the building.”

“Good luck with that,” Hailey said. “The fiber connections are all buried. You’d need a backhoe to get at them. And the IT guys said they were hooking up a backup wireless connection.”

The first part of what she said was true as far as Hailey knew, although if she’d been forced to tell the complete truth she would have been compelled to add that the cables were all accessible from a substation about a quarter mile away and could be easily disconnected from there. 

The bit about the wireless backup was a complete fiction in terms of feasibility. There was no wireless network in the area that could have supported the bandwidth needs to run an MMO server farm. That the servers were located within Egress’s headquarters was only a partial truth as well. Only a few of the shards were still hosted locally, and those were mostly used for testing purposes. 

Dropping them would pull in close to a thousand players, but the majority were connected to data centers around the world, a fact which Agent Limner seemed more or less incapable of comprehending.

Fortunately he had bought the line about “calling for expert assistance in cybernetics” to evaluate the situation. That had given Hailey some hope, but she knew things could still go horribly awry if even one person with too much authority got the wrong idea stuck in their head.

The only hope of preventing that she could see was for the right people to speak up and speak up loudly enough to be heard. However tempting it might have been, checking out was simply not an option any longer.

***

Tessa found herself laying on the floor of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] staring up in to the face of a vampire.

“Huh, red eyes can be pretty,” she said before the haze of unconsciousness passed and she saw who she was speaking too.

“Thanks,” Lisa said. “You feeling any better now?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Tessa said, pushing herself up to a sitting position. “What happened?”

“You blacked out,” Lisa said. “Just as we got here. You said something about ‘she needs me’ and then you kind of faceplanted into the ground.”

“Huh. That’s weird.”

“Yeah, what’s weirder is that you were talking in your sleep. Were you in the Navy in real life?”

“No? Why?”

“Cause it sounded like you were assaulting some kind of ship.”

“Why would I do that?” Tessa asked.

“It sounded like Niminay told you to.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 19

Glimmerglass was trapped, frozen in a moment of crystallized time, just like the rest of her raid team.

And that was what saved her.

“Come on people! Push through it!” Mellisandra called out over the team’s mental link. “[Eternal Warmth]. Use it if you got it, call for one if you don’t. Let’s get free before they figure out their trap didn’t work.”

“How did you use it?” Damnazon asked. Glimmerglass couldn’t see or hear the tall warrior – she couldn’t see or hear anything for that matter – but she could sense Damnazon’s nearness with some other awareness that she’d never bothered to name. 

“What the hell is an [Eternal Warmth]?” Cambrell asked. The goblin was farther away and, if Glimmerglass’s guess was right, just as immobilized as the rest of their team. Despite the distance though, the team’s link made his irritation at being denied an apparently necessary piece of gear all too clear.

Glimmerglass knew the answer to both Cambrell and Damnazon’s questions as well as why Cambrell wouldn’t have picked up the [Soul Mark] but being frozen in time made it a trifle difficult to answer.

Except she wasn’t completely frozen. The trap had left her with an awareness of her surroundings. Her mind…or maybe her ghost?…some part of her was still connected to the flow of time.

“It’s a permanent enchantment, a [Soul Mark].” She forced the words out onto the team’s telepathic chat channel, feeling fatigue bear down harder as she formed each one. “It was a reward. From beating the sub-bosses in [Unhallowed Halls].”

A wave of exhaustion rolled over her and Glimmerglass began fading away, her spirit not frozen in time like her body was but forgotten and left to be reclaimed by the shadows.

“I know it’s hard to invoke it,” Mellisandra said. “The [Deep Paralysis] effect hits more than just our muscles. It’s leeching all of our stats away. You need to reach out to your [Inspirations]. We always had them with us when we were raiding so it was never a problem before now.”

Glimmerglass wanted so badly to sleep. Were they on an enemy vessel? Was their world depending on them? Was her team depending on her? Did it matter? Did she even care?

Yes.

It wasn’t a word, and it wasn’t spoken in her voice, not exactly, but Glimmerglass heard it nonetheless. Someone, somewhere remembered her. Believed in her. 

Was her.

For just a moment, Glimmerglass felt the familiar flicker of her [Inspiration] touch her heart. Her other self was there. The one who never gave up. Who burned with wonder and joy so bright and real at the marvels they’d beheld that the sun was a pale candle by comparison.

In the frozen darkness, color bloomed and from one hand to another, the torch of hope was passed.

[Eternal Warmth] flared through Glimmerglass’s body and the [Stasis Web] shattered like spun glass.

“Who else needs a status cleanse?” she asked, whirling to take in their surroundings.

The [Astrologos Observatory’s] portal had deposited them with fine precision onto the portal ring inside the [Field Carrier] they’d been assigned to commandeer. The security team they’d been warned about was there too, as predicted, waiting for them with weapons ready.

“[Greater Shield Empowerment] [Casting spell: Aegis Wall]!” Glimmerglass called out, gambling and winning her bet that her reactions would be fast enough to get the enhanced version of the spell off before the guards could react.

In the fight at [Doom Crag], her defensive spells had been overwhelmed in seconds. Those had been precious seconds and had allowed her team to mount a defense which let most of them to flee the town without making a ghost run, but Glimmerglass had still been unhappy since it meant her spells simply weren’t potent enough to engage in a battle like that.

Against the [Field Carrier’s] security team though she fared significantly better.

You got this!

Again, it was more of a wordless feeling than a distinct message, but it sent Glimmerglass’s spirit soaring.

“Here you go Cambrell,” she said as she strode through the [Stasis Web] reducing it to dust in her wake. When she touched the frozen Goblin, a portion of the warmth she carried flowed into him and he came to life with a gleeful look of mayhem in his eyes.

***

Azma saw the problems arising as early as anyone else in the fleet’s command structure did. Reports began screaming up towards her through the ranks but she could see all too clearly what had happened without them.

The [Stasis Webs] had failed. The defender had access to some countermeasure. For a system built specifically to deny the activation of countermeasures. 

Because of course they did.

Azma had planned for the eventuality that the defenders would escape, but she was far from happy that she had to enact those plans. Especially when they began so close to home and were accompanied by the inevitable loss of otherwise proficient senior staff members.

To her left, the Reginald Humphries, the [Manager of Strategic Interfaces], rose silent as a whisper. His [Neural Disruptor] was already in his hand. The fact that the bridge had triple security checks to prevent unregulated weapons from being brought onto it at all meant it should have been the perfect surprise attack in Azma’s moment of weakness.

It also spoke to the sort of price which had been placed on her head by her coworkers.

A proper assassin would have chosen either a [Plasma Caster] to incinerate her beyond the repair of the Consortium’s best facilities, or (if damage to the ship was an issue) a [Neural Annihilator] to ensure Azma’s synaptic resources were thoroughly obliterated.

The choice of the much less deadly [Neural Disruptor] signalled that the highest bidder for Azma’s head wished her to be taken alive.

It was a not a comforting thought.

The only reasons someone of her rank wished to keep an enemy alive and sentient was to extract information, or watch them suffer the most spectacular agonies their captor could devise. Or both. Azma strongly suspected most of her enemies were looking for both results from her overthrow.

She had her own [Plasma Caster] unholstered and was sweeping it around to aim it in Humphries general direction (it was all that was required with a [Plasma Caster]) when the [Manager of Strategic Interfaces] chest imploded.

To Azma’s right, Kordo Banns, the [Manager of Fleet Fuel Supplies] screamed as the lower half of his body evaporated in a shower of sparks. In his right hand, he’d also been holding a [Plasma Disruptor] and trying to bring it into position to fire at Azma.

Behind Azma, Grenslaw and Ryschild stood calmly, each holding their own weapons, carefully pointed away from Azma and each other.

“There is a rather large, if unofficial, bounty of my head,” Azma said, eyeing her two newest recruits with curiosity.

“Several promotion opportunities as well,” Grenslaw said.

“To unsupported positions, endowed with with no ability to retain the proferred wealth,” Ryschild said.

“I find my current career track more satisfying,” Grenslaw said.

“And more educational,” Ryschild said. “I understand the [Plasma Caster] but I am at a loss to understand the ring?”

Azma smiled at Ryschild and glanced at the green band on her right hand. The one which had been pointing at the center of Kordo Banns forehead.

“A [Necrosis Beam Projector],” Azma said. “Expensive and not tremendously practical but amusing enough to justify its cost.”

“My apologies for my presumption,” Ryschild said, nodding to the remains of the [Manager of Fleet Fuel Supplies]. “And for the mess.”

“The janitorial staff will have their work cut out for them today,” Azma said. “As will our [Strategic Interfaces] and [Fuel Supplies] teams. [Manager] Grenslaw, [Strategic Interfaces] is yours for today. [Manager] Ryschild, [Fuel Services] is yours for the same time period. These are temporary promotions of course but for the duration you have the full authority the roles provide.”

Azma knew that rewarding two junio officers who’d dispassionately murdered their senior officers with those senior officers positions was teaching the sort of lesson which lead to more complications rather than fewer in the future.

A fundamental part of the Consortium’s corporate culture was predicated on advancing those with the greatest hunger for power and the least compunctions about doing whatever was required to amass it. Azma had benefited from that at every step up the corporate ladder and didn’t disagree with the general sentiment. Ambition was a critical ingredient to success in her view.

Where she differed from the Consortium was in the belief that ambition required tempering. The Consortium’s [Senior Executive Committee] tended to encourage a system where raw, almost mindless, lust for power was rewarded as being the height of value in an employee. Azma tended to view any “mindless” quality as being ultimately self-defeating. 

It was true that mindless workers with only a single motivation were easy to control (which was why upper management preferred the culture as it was) but the corpses her two ex-Managers lain at Azma’s feet showed the cost of it.

Not in terms of lives lost. Azma had no fondness for Humphries or Banns, nor any regrets at their passing. What appalled her was all of the investment in them which was oozing out over her floor. And the ripple of disruption filling their positions would cause.

Azma won by having her people perform far beyond what her peers could manage and, shockingly, death was something of a performance inhibitor.

One of her screens blared at her.

A security team had been dispatched. Entirely. [Field Carrier] [ABP77G-K-71-CA512] was defenseless.

“[Supreme Commander],” Ryschild asked, pausing to see if Azma could spare any attention before continuing. “The fuel cells on the [Field Carrier] which just fell to the invaders are ready for detonation. Shall I confirm?”

“No,” Azma said and waited for the inevitable backtalk, the citing of the Consortium’s [Code on Hostile Appropriations of Corporate Assets]. 

Official policy was that if the Consortium couldn’t have it, no one else was allowed to either. In some fleets, the ships were rigged with self-destruct devices which would annihilate the ship and all on board if a continuous feed from the [Captain] wasn’t maintained. 

Azma had removed that nonsense from the ship in her fleet, in part because accidental self-destructs were far too common and costly to risk and in part because the loss of a ship would result in the loss of her head regardless of whether the vessel was destroyed or not.

As junior officers under her command, Grenslaw and Ryschild had no authority to countermand Azma’s decree but that wouldn’t save them from liquidation once the battle results were reviewed.

Neither spoke, nor questioned her though. Instead both were listening intently, waiting for her to explain, if she chose to.

“Direct the monitor teams to continue an active scan for life signs on board,” she said. “I want termination times for crew members and all the observational data that we can assemble. Feed it to the analyst corp.”

“I have a projection on profit under runs from the loss of the ship and each crew member,” Grenslaw said.

“Thank you,” Azma said, genuinely pleased with the useful initiative Grenslaw had taken. “Match that to a cost analysis for converting unknown defenses to partially known quantities, and add in the cost benefit for the breakthrough in [Stasis Web] research they’ve provided us.”

Grenslaw’s eyes lit up.

“On it [Commander]!”

Azma has no reason to believe the [Stasis Webs] would fail, or that her plan of luring local specimens on board to be caged and sold to the highest bidder would go badly. No reason except a long familiarity with watching meticulous plans go horribly awry when applied to the real world.

According to the reports appearing on her console, three other [Field Carriers] had been lost and more than a dozen others were experiencing significant resistance from the “helpless” defenders who’d been trapped aboard them. 

Things weren’t going to look good for the Consortium, but Azma wasn’t concerned. Her real plan was always the same.

She was going to crush those who stood before her, and she was going to do it through a mix of overwhelming force and understanding them better than they understood themselves. If she had to sacrifice a few ships to accomplish that, so be it. There was only one thing Azma would never sacrifice and that was herself. Everything and everyone else were negotiable.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 18

Tessa had a vampire clinging to her neck and a giant monster of lava beneath her. A ruin towned lay around her, the screams of the dying filled her ears, and everything was on fire. All things considered, her day wasn’t going too badly.

“Pillowcase? What the…how the…what the?” Rip’s babbling was at least more than any of the other adventurers in [Sky’s Edge] were able to manage.

“This is our stop Darren!” Pillowcase said. “We’ll get all the non-Consortium folks out of the area so you can let loose.”

“EXCELLENT. COME VISIT LATER,” the enormous [Servant of Fire] named Darren said. “AND PERHAPS BRING A MOP.”

“We’ll see you soon,” Alice said. “And we’ll get your labyrinth cleaned up. Sorry about the mess I left.”

“I ONLY WISH IT HAD BEEN LARGER AND THAT MY CAPTOR HAD SUFFERED LONGER,” Darren said.

“Stay safe!” Tessa said as she gathered Lost Alice in her arms and leapt from the top of the [Servant of Fire]’s head to land in the huddled crowd of adventurers. “Hi folks, got any objections to leaving,” she glanced over as Darren swept down onto the advanced [Ground Claimers] and melted them to slag, “Like now?”

“No, nope, not at all,” Kammie said.

“Leaving sounds like a great idea to me too!” Battler X said.

Lady Midnight, Starchild, Matt, and Rip didn’t even bother responding. They just got moving.

“You owe us a story later,” Rip said as the assembled party ran for one of the holes that had formed in the Consortium’s ranks.

“Good job bringing her back to us,” Matt said to Alice.

“Yeah!” Rip said and then did a quick double take. “Should I ask why you’re covered in blood?”

“Probably not,” Alice said but her smile had a bit of a feral gleam that dared for the question to be asked anyways.

Despite the devastation Darren-the-living-lava-river was causing, some of the Consortium’s forces remained alert enough to notice the adventurers’ attempted escape.

Pillowcase’s shield snapped into place , blocking a barrage of shots targeted on Alice before anyone else noticed they were under attack.

“[Plasma Lancers]! Everybody down!” Tessa shouted, of course not taking her own advice. She instead relied on the enchantment on her shield to allow it to withstand the super heated bolts of energy the Consortium soldiers were firing at her.

A part of her considered the physics involved and how the heat from the bolts should have eventually turned her shield to slag. With magic in the mix though, physics was left to whimper over in a corner by itself.

“Nope. We gotta leave,” Rip said and knocked an arrow. To her credit she did use Pillowcase as partial cover, though she didn’t warn her newly arrived teammates of what was to follow. “[Flame Shot].”

The explosion was mostly channelled away from them, again thanks to the physics-defying effects of the [Oil of Dragon’s Breath]’s enchantments. ‘Mostly’ was not the same as ‘completely’ though and the blastwave which hit them easily knocked the party off their feet, except for Alice and Rip who were both nimble enough that they landed gracefully and remained standing. Where they’d been blown back though, the Consortium squad had been been blown away. Visible particles of dust remained of them but that was about all.

“That was not a [Flame Shot]!” Tessa objected as she picked herself up and scanned for any remaining threats..

“Mister Pendant gave me a little something extra,” Rip said. “Watch out!’

Her warning was enough for Pillowcase to get her shield in place against a crushing mace blow which hit with far more damaging potential than the plasma lances had.

“Rogue [Clothwork] Unit, [Command Override: Shutdown],” the enemy [Clothwork] said as she identified Pillowcase.

Tessa felt a jolt run through Pillowcase but when it tried to cross into the uniquely “Tessa” parts of their shared consciousness, Tessa shook command off like it was no more than a rude comment.

The temptation to taunt the enemy was powerful. The temptation to give an enemy as little information as possible was stronger though and so Tessa used the small moment when the command should have processed and the opening it held to put a boot into the enemy [Clothwork]’s chest.

She’s dangerous.Tessa didn’t feel the same divide between herself and Pillowcase that had been there before. She could move as Pillowcase and Pillowcase had her insights into the world. The evaluation of the soldier before them could have come from either side but the suggestion that followed was somehow the clearest combination of both their perspectives that they’d yet experienced. I should save her.

“That got the attention back on us,” Matt said. “We should keep running.”

“Yes! Go!” Tessa said. ”I’ll deal with her.”

“We’ll deal with her,” Alice said, magic flaring in her hands.

Tessa considered the battlefield before her. There were a lot of dead Consortium troops. There was a giant lava serpent wrecking havoc on the ones that remained. The [Clothwork] in front of her was a [Defense] model, the same as Pillowcase had been, but she wasn’t unique or special.

Except they all were.

All of the Consortium’s [Artifax] were individuals, despite being stamped into identical molds and wrapped in bonds of conformity.

If I could break her control threads, she’d be free.

The enemy [Clothwork] spun low, forcing Pillowcase to dodge back and allow her enemy to kick back up to her feet.

A searing beam of purple-pink energy screamed past Tessa’s shoulder, but the Consortium soldier deflected it with her shield.

“I’ll keep her pinned, attack her from the other side,” Matt said as he continued to fire the stream of arcane energy from his staff.

This isn’t right. We shouldn’t be killing slaves! The thought was a chilling one but the crushing barrage of blows as the enemy stepped in to keep Pillowcase between herself and the rest of Tessa’s team left Tessa no time to reflect on it.

Can’t do the best thing now. Gotta survive. Tessa thought as she matched her enemy blow for blow.

Their fight lasted only a moment longer. Tessa saw the exact second when the order to retreat arrived, carried on a channel Pillowcase no longer had access to since being abandoned by the Consortium.

One moment she and her opposite number were wailing away on each other, vying for the better tactical position and the next the enemy [Clothwork] was leaping backwards dozens of yards, evading the fire sent in her direction by the other members of Tessa’s team.

“We’ll meet again.” The enemy [Clothwork] hadn’t said those words. There wasn’t time for her to have, but they still echoed inside Tessa’s mind.

***

Glimmerglass felt the teleportation effect take hold and hurl her across thousands of miles, out into the abyss of the night, to land on an enemy warship.

And right in the middle of their arrival she felt another sensation.

Confinement.

As the transport bay of the [Field Carrier] [ABP77G-K-71-CA512] came into view, Glimmerglass felt crimson bands of force bind around her throat, arms, and legs, rendering her completely immobile and helpless.

With even words denied to her by the globe of silence that formed around her head, she was left with nothing more than casting a plea from her heart for salvation out into the cosmos.

***

Azma watched as the lead ships in her carefully assembled fleet came under the most chaotic of attacks.

“We have reports of spatial breeches on all of the forward ships which are approaching bombardment range of the planetary surface,” [Comms Officer] Clarisse, reported in the dispassionate tone it usually took new comms personnel at least a few invasions to get down.

“Excellent. Forward all of the security reports to my station. No aggregation delay,” Azma said. 

Opening a new market (i.e. invading a new world) was usually a chaotic enough affair that [Commanders] preferred to work primarily off briefs assembled once all the relevant parties had reported in. It wasn’t a sign of laziness. The most important aspect to making command decisions was to distill the data from the various battles into information which showed the full scope of the conflict. Getting bogged down in the moment to moment details and trying to micromanage an entire war was a proven recipe for missing vital intelligence in a torrent of trivia.

A wise [Commander] knew to rely on the assistance of the people who were there to coordinate things on a fine scale. Conflicts weren’t won by single individuals, no matter how surpassing of all others their greatness was, but rather by the ordinary greatness of everyone within a command structure, from the lowliest grunts who executed to simplest of orders to the analysts closest to the central command. 

Harness that to the proper yoke and all the worlds you ever desire will be yours for the taking, Azma wistfully reminded herself, as the security reports began to stream in from the forward ships in her fleet.

Her analysts were combing through them as well, concentrating the data into clear and succinct summaries, which Azma would also review. She wasn’t trying to do their jobs for them after all. To the extent that she’d reviewed their past work, or knew who had trained them, she trusted the output they provided her.

The security reports which filled the screens on her station weren’t for second guessing her analysts, or for micro-managing her security teams. They were for her enjoyment.

It was something too many of her colleagues missed.

True, grand conflicts like the one below her were as deadly serious as it was possible to get. Well, short of a personal feud. Within the bounds of the current campaign, Azma had a wide degree of freedom to be merciful and reasonable, should either of those approaches be desirable. When one of her coworkers (and it was always a coworker) made things personal though? For those unlucky sinners, there could be no mercy and no reason. The [Consortium of Pain] was not an organization where insults of a sufficiently personal nature could be allowed to go unanswered, and the answer always had to be overwhelming, lest she be tainted by the hint of weakness. Sometimes one gruesomely spectacular punishment could save the lives of so many other slightly wiser coworkers.

Outside of such dire circumstances as intra-office squabbles though, there was always room to enjoy a project’s successes. In fact, reveling in them did more for morale than any course of beatings or dispersal of gift coupons to the underlings could ever manage. 

“It looks like the teams who worked on the [Stasis Webs] are due some significant commendations,” she said, fully intending that the nearby bridge crew should overhear her musings. After the battle, word would leak out of her appreciation well in advance of any official recognition, bolstering morale not only for the security teams but for everyone who had done their jobs well since they would all have the impression that their efforts were being observed and recognized.

For Azma, the joy came not only from the delayed sense that her organization would work a little more smoothly and her people perform at a slightly higher level. Those were nice, but more immediately she had the joy of envisioning the effect of the [Stasis Webs] with a wealth of detail to paint clear and lovely pictures in her mind’s eye.

It had been so easy to bait her enemies into attacking her. 

They’d held back surprises, because of course they’d held back something in the hopes of unleashing their best efforts when a target was in sight where their best would do the most good. Azma was sure they had stepped across the starless void between their world and her vessels intent on raining an unimaginable amount of destruction upon her.

But they’d been caught.

Full body paralysis generators and the best communication jamming techniques the Consortium had access to. So rare for those to be installed on an invasion ship and yet such a wonderful payoff in test subjects they’d provided.

Azma could picture her opponents squirrming, everything but their minds frozen so that they were as completely aware of their plight as they were helpless to remedy it.

***

Brendan Reingold stared at his screen in horror. He couldn’t imagine a worse outcome. Mellisandra was motionless in front of him. The raid had failed.

“Brendan! Can you still hear me?” Mellisandra asked, her voice reaching through Brendan’s headphones like a lightning bolt.

“YES!”

“Good!” She didn’t seem anywhere near as overwhelmed by the terror of the moment as he was. “What kind of mezz did they hit us with?”

Brendan blinked. Everyone was frozen on his screen, but, as he looked at the background he saw the machinery behind them was still rolling and oscillating and pistoning as normal. 

The game wasn’t frozen. It was just the raiders.

“It’s a new icon,” Brendan said, looking at the system display. “No time limit given, but the info on it says it’s a ‘Deep Paralysis’ effect? Wait, isn’t that what King Noggrad used in the Unhallowed Halls raid?”

Brendan heard Mellisandra’s laughter ring out with a gleeful tone.

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“You’ve still got the Eternal Warmth counter charms for that right?” he asked, unsure in the moment how a raid he hadn’t run in two years had turned out the last time he played through it.

“I do. Just like everyone who beat [King Noggrad] does. Give me a second to invoke it and then be ready to help me move and cast like never before ok?”

“Absolutely!”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 17

Mellisandra looked into the night sky above the [Astrologos Observatory], searching for the tiny point in the darkness from which all of their troubles began.

“Are you sure you’re ok with this?” she asked, whispering to herself and knowing that her inspiration would hear her words no matter how quiet they were.

“Absolutely,” Brendan said.

“If I die, we’ll be stuck together,” Mellisandra said. “Or at least that’s what seems to be what’s happened with the others we’ve talked to.”

“I know,” Brendan said. “That’s why I’ve got to be with you while you do this. We got the players who are little kids, or people with family’s to take care of sitting out the fights, but you saw the attack. If we don’t stop the Consortium, there’s not going to be any sidelines.”

“It doesn’t seem fair,” Mellisandra said. “You’re risking your life and your world and all I’m risking is a visit to the [Heart Fire].”

Brendan laughed and Mellisandra heard real joy in his voice.

“You’re facing possible death, capture, or worse, and you’re still worried about me where the worst that can happen if everything goes wrong is that I get to live in the game I love the most.”

“My world isn’t a game though,” Mellisandra said. “It won’t be how you imagine. And you would be trapped together with me.”

“That’s the only part I’d feel bad about,” Brendan said. “Not being ‘trapped’ with you, but you being stuck with me. I mean, you’re a powerful wizard. You’ve done incredible things and mastered skills I can literally only dream of. Meanwhile, my version of a heroic day is getting to class, doing the grocery shopping and running a load of laundry.”

“You’re world sounds like a blessed one,” Mellisandra said. “I suspect mine could use a taste of the peace you speak of.”

“I don’t know,” Brendan said. “We can be pretty awful too. The Consortium wouldn’t be out of place at all on Wall Street.”

“In that case, you’re welcome to them,” Mellisandra said. “Perhaps when we kick them out we can return them to your world if they belong there.”

“That sounds fair,” Brendan said. “Though I wonder if their ships would even work here?”

“Oh, I was thinking we would return their bodies to your world in coffins. Their ships we’ll just burn. The only thing we leave unbroken is their spirits and the [Hounds of Fate] can have those, if the ghost pups even want the stinking things.”

The murmor of the crowds quieted as Niminay rose to address them. Mellisandra moved to stand with the group she’d joined and the others who’d be accompanying them as Niminay laid out the very simple strategy they’d be following.

Simple seemed good. When you were outnumbered by enemies and fighting on strange ground, there were quit enough forces making your life complicated, the last thing you needed was for your leaders to be one of them.

“We’re the twenty first group to go,” Glimmerglass said. “Niminay’s team is leading the charge.”

“Will we be assaulting the ship she’s going to?” Cambrell, the goblin assassin, asked.

“No, we’ve got our own target,” Glimmerglass said. “One of the smaller carriers. It’s up to us to get on board, disable the ships weapons and, ideally, take control of the helm.”

“After killing everyone on board?” Cambrell asked.

“We’re treating it like a dungeon,” Glimmerglass said. “If it’s hostile, we kill it. If it’s not hostile, we make sure it won’t kill us the second our backs are turned.”

“How are we getting back?” Mellisandra asked.

“Their ships have portal generators,” Glimmerglass said. “We don’t want to wreck those. If we do, they can try to recall us from the Observatory here, but we’ll be near the range limit so targeting might take a while to lock onto us.”

“Looks like we’re up next,” Damnazon said, gesturing to the transport circle which was flashing groups out as fast as they could assemble on it.

Mellisandra took another look at the sky as she stepped onto the portal and saw the whole world turn to sparks of light.

***

An explosion cast Rose’s world into darkness. Below her, Jamal scream in surprise as the building she’d been standing on came tumbling down onto him.

“They have aerial support too!” she yelled in broadcast, in case anyone was confused at what had shot the building out from under her.

[Sky’s Edge] hadn’t been a large town before any of its recent problems. By the time Rip Shot wiped her eyes clear, more than half of it had been leveled and soldiers from the [Consortium of Pain] were advancing through the rubble from the north and south.

A stroke of purple-pink lightning ripped from under the collapsed building, blasting Matt Painting free and lancing through one of the three [Recon Skiffs] the Consortium forces from the south had sent ahead to soften up the remaining defenders.

Rose shielded her eyes and flinched away from the explosion in the sky above her, but Rip Shot looked past her hand and spied the other two skifs as they banked to flee back to the south.

“[Multishot],” she said, loosing a trio of arrows which each carried enough force to punch through a reinforced suit of platemail. Two of the arrows missed as the skiff juked downwards. The one which struck home lunched straight through the vessel, but hit nothing vital.

“We’ve got to get out of here!” Battler X said, sniping at the approaching Consortium forces with a bow he lacked any special skills with.

“They’ve setup a perimeter,” Rose said, recalling the layout of the forces she’d seen from top of the building. “The main forces are advancing from the north and south but we’ve got units flanking us on all sides.”

“Did Obby get the townsfolk out?” Jamal asked.

“Yeah, you bought us just enough time,” Oblivion’s Daughter said over the party channel. “We’re behind some of the hills and moving away to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].”

“They’ll send a tracking squad to follow you,” Jamal said. “Be careful about killing them, that sends a signal back to their base team.”

“Noted,” Obby said. “Can you escape? I can peel off and come back to help at this point.”

“Stay with the townsfolk,” Rose said. “You’d have to fight through half the Consortium’s forces to get to us.”

“Does that mean we have to fight through half their forces to get out of here?” Lady Midnight asked.

“If that’s what’s required,” Starchild said.

“I’ve got a few more of Mister Pendant’s dragon breath potions left,” Rose said. “If we use those we can punch a hole in their formation and make a break through that. And if that doesn’t work, then we ghost run it to the ruins and respawn there.”

“I don’t know that we want to rely on making a long ghost run,” Kammie Anne Do said. “I’ve got some guildmates in the regular zones who were saying the [Hounds of Fate] are out in force at the moment. We’ve lost contact with one of our guildmates but other guilds are missing entirely.”

“I don’t think the Consortium’s going to give us a choice there,” Jamal said.

Rip Shot scampered over to the collapsed wall he was standing behind and peered through the holes in it to see that Consortium’s heavy units had rolled up to the battle at last.

“We have to move,” Rose said, pointing to one of the few remaining buildings that was standing.

She’d been thinking to use it for concealment since nothing in the town seemed adequate in terms of providing real cover.

“Good idea,” Mister Pendant said. Alone of the townsfolk he’d stayed behind. He’d claimed it was out of revenge for his destroyed store, but Rose had noticed that Pendant was for more focused on the adventurers than the ruin his town was turning into. “There’s a basement we can take shelter in there.”

Basements weren’t Rose’s favorite place, and the prospect of descending into one seemed less like taking shelter and more like stepping into a cage.

“We can’t get trapped,” she said.

“Yeah, if we go into a basement, they’ll drop the whole building on us,” Jamal said.

“Not this basement,” Pendant said. “It connects to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. At least if you have the right key. Which of course I do.”

“Wait, do you know how to navigate those ruins?” Rose asked as a thousand other questions tried to tumble out.

Before she could ask or Pendant could answer though, the Consortium’s [Ground Claimers] opened fire. It wasn’t all that different from a dozen main battle tanks unleashing a salvo. What was left of [Sky’s Edge] exploded into a cloud of shrapnel. 

“Go now!” Rose called out, unable to see anything in the cloud of dust and debris the attack had kicked up and willing to gamble that the Consortium was temporarily blinded too.

“How are we alive?” Battle X asked. “That kind of explosion should have torn us apart.”

“Question it later, move now,” Rose said.

“It’s because we’ve gained a few levels,” Lady Midnight said. “Look at our health bars. They all dropped but only by about 20%.”

“I’m stuck,” Kammie said.

“On what?” Jamal asked, appearing out of the mist by Rip Shot’s side.

“Brick wall,” Kammie said. “Whole thing toppled over onto me.”

“We’ve got to get her out,” Battle X said.

“No! Rip Shot’s right. You all need to run. Just leave me here. I’ll tell you when the Consortium picks up your trail.”

There was a instant of quiet.

The Consortium had stopped firing, pausing to access the effect of their volley and the adventurers were frozen between the slim window of opportunity for escape and the horror of abandoning someone to an unknown fate.

“Screw that,” Rose said. “Find Kammie on your maps. Form up on her.”

“They are going to kill you!” Kammie said. “For real!”

“We might be dead already for all we know,” Rose said. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is I’m not leaving you or anyone to die alone.” Something feral twisted inside her. Rage surging out where she hadn’t expected it. “Nobody gets abandoned!”

“Yeah,” Jamal said. “Who’s afraid of some ghost dogs. Let’s do this!”

They weren’t alone when they reached Kammie’s position. Starchild, Lady Midnight, Battler X, and the last standing member of his team, Cpt Hatorade were all there heaving on the brick wall that had Kammie pinned. Only Mister Pendant was missing.

Rose called for him, but no answer came back. As an NPC in the game, he wasn’t someone she could have added to their team, and some part of her had been thinking of him like that even with the world having become real in every other way.

“There’s too much stuff on the wall,” Lady Midnight said, gesturing to the ten foot high pile of debris that had landed on mostly intact brick wall.

“We need to clear it off without crushing her further,” Starchild said.

“Midnight, can you keep her healed in case we mess it up?” Rose asked.

“Yeah, but we don’t have much time,” Lady Midnight said.

“I’m counting on that,” Rose said as she dipped the tiniest bit of the [Oil of Dragon’s Breath] that she could onto her arrow.

“What are you doing?” Battle X asked, clearly all to aware of exactly what Rose had planned.

“We don’t have time to clear a building off her,” Rose said and drew back her arrow. “The rest of you should move.”

Her ad hoc party didn’t need to be told twice.

“Hey, kid,” Kammie said. “However this goes, thank you!”

“It’s going to fine,” Rose said. “Because Rip Shot…”, she release the arrow, “…doesn’t miss!”

The resulting explosion was smaller than the building destroying one she’d fired previously. This one only blew her back about five feet to what Jamal caught her in Matt Painting’s metal arms.

“Get her out of there!” Rose called as a new round of artillery rained down on the town. 

It had been a miscalculation.

She saw that as her team surged forward.

Lady Midnight and Starchild were both pouring healing magic into Kammie, who’s health was topping off just fine. Rip Shot had indeed placed her arrow just right to direct the blast as she wanted. The debris on the wall had been swept off and the wall cracked enough that the others were hauling giant pieces of it off Kammie. That part of the rescue had been perfect.

The problem was Rip’s blast had given the Consortium the exact coordinates they needed to strike at to eliminate the remaining defenders in [Sky’s Edge].

Rose heard the incoming whistle of the Consortium’s targeted munitions and knew she was standing at ground zero for where they would land.

Before she could process anything else she felt a burning wave of heat and was pitched off her feet. She waited for the pain to either get worse or vanish entirely as she switched to ghost form, but neither happened.

Blinking, she opened her eyes to find a vast column of lava and flame rising like an impenetrable wall between her team and the Consortium’s [Ground Claimers] to the north.

No. Not a column. A Creature.

A [Servant of Fire] if her heads up display was reading it properly.

“Level 12 Tank and Healer looking for group,” Pillowcase said. “Oh, and we’ve got a Raid Boss who’d like to pitch in too!”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 16

The shackles which bound Tessa’s arms and legs were made of tissue paper. A glance over to her side showed that the ones on Lost Alice were no different. With a simple flex, either of them could shatter the effect which was holding them in place, but neither of them did. They both wanted to see what the fool in front of them had to say.

“Does it surprise you?” Mikonnel said. “Certainly you did not come to this place thinking to find the future [Lord] of the [Fallen Kingdoms] standing before you. No, I imagine you are here as desperate rats fleeing the wrath of my allies. Tell me, how many of your kind has the Consortium slain? It must be hundreds by now.”

“You don’t look like part of the Consortium’s [Directorate],” Pillowcase said.

“He’s a local,” Lost Alice said.

Tessa saw that her eyes were riveted on the man who didn’t appear willing to come closer to them despite their apparently helplessness.

“Of course I’m a local,” Mikonnel said. “This world was far too well hidden for the [Consortium of Pain] to discover on their own. Someone need to reach out and invite them in.”

“And in exchange they said they’ll name you the ruler of the world?” Tessa asked.

“They had already given me this world,” Mikonnel said. “I am logged into the Omniversal Registry as the administrator of everything within this sphere and my place in the Consortium’s [Grand Hierarchy] has been secured.”

What’s the Omniversal Registry? Lisa asked.

A lie, Tessa said. The Consortium doesn’t have special book for recording ownership of the worlds they conquer. Officially, the worlds retain their sovereignty. The Consortium exercises control of a world through their ‘contractual agreements’ and those are traded between the portfolios of the upper management in whatever weird games they play.

But the [Grand Hierarchy] is a thing? Lisa asked.

It’s basically the Org Chart for the entire Consortium, Tessa said. Everyone’s got a spot in it and a number, from the [Executive Directorate] down to the [Disposable Interns].

[Disposable Interns]? Seriously?

Yep. It’s to set the right attitude in them from the start.

I guess this is a group that calls themselves the [Consortium of Pain]. What the hell were the devs thinking with that?

According to the Consortium’s internal propaganda, it’s supposed to be in commemoration of their founder, with the overlap of meaning in some languages being “unfortunate”. Tessa said. 

“…and that was how I, and I alone, was able to see past the paltry limitations…” Mikonnel was saying when Tessa turned her attention back to him.

If he can contact the Consortium does that mean he has some method of getting off this world? Lisa asked.

Not necessarily, Tessa said. The Consortium is able to pick up all sorts of transmissions. He might not be anything more than the equivalent of a ham radio operator who got lucky. We should find out though.

He’s still talking, Lisa said. This is like a unskippable cutscene.

We are in Hell, technically, Tessa said.

“…and using that knowledge, I was able to show my allies the path to arrive here, and thus they saw my worth and value. Not as some insignificant number or level but as a man of vision and genius. One who they would do well to court and treat as he deserved to be treated,” Mikonnel said.

Oh, the Consortium is definitely going to treat him how he deserves,Tessa said.

“I can’t help but notice that for all your power and importance to the Consortium, you’re hiding in one of the deepest, least accessible holes anywhere in the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Lost Alice said.

“I am not hiding,” Mikonnel said. “I have claimed this place as my [Sanctum].”

“How?” Tessa asked.

“I have gained many things from the Consortium,” Mikonnel said. “Secrets those on this world would consider most unnatural and impossible to believe.”

“It looks like you drew a binding trap on top of the maze over there and then lured the [Servant of Fire] into it,” Lost Alice said.

“How could you trap a boss in their own lair though?” Tessa asked. “It should be able to die and respawn here if that’s the only option for escaping the trap.”

“That creature doesn’t control this place,” Mikonnel said. “It was always an interloper. There were some few creatures here before it, but once it wormed itself in through the cracks at the center of the maze it slew them and tried to claim the area as its own. But I! I was too fast for it!”

Tessa didn’t want to interrupt the rant. Not before they had all the information they needed.

“Just like you, it did not foresee that there might be those with plans beyond its conception,” Mikonnel said. 

“It’s bindings seem to be different than ours,” Lost Alice said, her voice clearly different than usual.

Are you okay? Tessa asked.

No, Lisa said. Not at all.

Tessa could here the strain that Lisa had been hiding tearing through her voice. Lost Alice’s external demeanor never wavered though.

“Yes, well, the Consortium has given me many curious and profound abilities,” Mikonnel said. “You are not the equal of a Giant Wyrm of Flame, and so I am practicing..no, experimenting with a lesser effect to bind you to my will.”

He doesn’t know what its name is, Tessa said. What level is he?

His information is hidden, Lost Alice said, probably thanks to a trick his Consortium handlers gave him. He’s not high level though.

How can you tell? Tessa asked.

He smells weak, Lost Alice said. And he wouldn’t need to be high level to use a binding like the one he caught the [Servant of Fire] in. It’s an environmental effect so it’s drawing power from this place instead of from him.

That’s why the shackles on us are so weak then? Because he’s powering them himself.

I believe so, Lost Alice said. What would the Consortium have given him?

As little as they could to protect their investment, Tessa said. Recalling Pillowcase’s memories had grown easier at some point, a fact with Tessa felt a distant sort of concern about.

“But come, rise my new slaves,” Mikonnel said. “You’ve already met my most loyal servants, the [Lava Drinkers]. Show me the same devotion they do and I may grant you the liberty they possess – to hunt those who oppose me within the areas I have designated for you.”

“How do you control the [Lava Drinkers]?” Lost Alice asked. “There’s no sigils drawn on the walls or floors to hold them like there are here.”

“Oh it’s all the same,” Mikonnel said. “They, like the Great Wyrm of Fire, and you, are all bound to my will through the power of my blood. Given freely and transmuted via unimaginable rituals into the most potent of agents to carry my will.”

“Really?” Lost Alice’s eyes burned with an alien light as her lips caressed the word she spoke.

In a blink, Tessa saw the one word which Mikonnel shouldn’t have used, and in a blink it was over.

***

Rip Shot was terrified out of her mind and it felt good.

“You’re laughing,” Jamal said. “You shouldn’t be laughing.”

“Can’t help it,” Rose said. “This is what Rip Shot was born to do. [Multi-Burst].”

She leaned out from the corner of the building they’d retreated behind and loosed a hail of arrows at the incoming Consortium forces.

The Consortium troops who weren’t obviously inhuman, like the [Metal Mechanoids] and [Clothwork], favored heavy, identity concealing armor. It made shooting them so much easier. For all Rose knew the things inside the armor were squids made out of mucus and toenails. 

Unfortunately, they were well protected mucus toenail squids if so.

“Did that drop any?” Rose asked.

“Nope. Slowed them down though,” Jamal said as he cast a [Torment] spell on them.

Half of [Sky’s Edge] had been overrun but Rose, Jamal, and a few of the defenders were fighting a more successful delaying action than she’d thought would be possible.

To be fair, the arrival of Lady Midnight and Starchild had proven to be a crucial part of that, their healing abilities keeping the other defenders on their feet far longer than they would have managed on their own. 

“Here, this might be of some help,” Mister Pendant said, passing Rip Shot a case of vials.

He was the other reason they’d survived as long as they had. Rose had always thought of NPC shop keepers as little more than window dressing but in this version of the [Forgotten Kingdoms] it turned out that destroying one of their stores left the shop keeper in question more than a little annoyed and entirely willing to disperse his best supplies for free.

Rose had gone through a half dozen of Pendant’s healing potions already and was enjoying the permanent swiftness bonus one of Pendant’s enchantments had given to her bow. The vials were something new though.

“[Oil of Dragon’s Breath]?” she asked, not sure if she was supposed to drink the vial’s contents or throw it at the oncoming troops.

“Yes. For your arrows,” Pendant said. “Be sure to fire those at distant targets though.”

“Do you have any more mana potions?” Jamal asked.

“Yes, and let me draw this on you,” Pendant said, producing a a pen with a tip that glowed like burning steel.

“What’s that going to do?” Jamal asked.

“Give you more magic,” Pendant said. “Normally you could not carry this enchantment, but that is because a normal enchanter does not have my skill.”

“How long will it take?” Rose asked.

“I need one minute,” Pendant said. “No, half that. Now sit still.”

“It’s up to us to keep up the pressure then,” Kammie Anne Do said.

Rose was astounded at how well the players were working together. Something about having a specific enemy to point their efforts toward had given them all the focus and cooperative spirit that they needed.

“See if you can hold our flank down that road,” Rose said. “I’ll get to the roof and make sure they don’t try to dive bomb us again.”

“Sounds good,” Kammie said.

Rose had never done drugs, and after this she was certain she would never need to. Having people listen to her? Having them respect what she said? And follow her plans? In the middle of a crisis when it really mattered? Her body tingled from the tip of her toes to the top of her head. There wasn’t a drug in existence that could match the feeling.

“Stay within line of sight though!” Lady Midnight called out. “I can’t heal you if you go too far.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Rose said. “Stay safe. I’ll come back for healing. We can’t afford to lose you.”

“We can’t afford to lose any of us,” Pete said through Starchild’s voice.

“I thought the plan was we were going to lose all of us and then ghost run off to a hiding spot?” Battler X asked.

“New plan,” Rose said. “Let’s try to survive this. It may not be permanent but dying still sucks.”

“They’re getting more troops into the town every minute,” Battler X said.

“All we need to do is fall back quick enough and buy ourselves room to escape. [Flame Shot],” Rose said, launching an arrow that she’d dipped into the [Oil of Dragon’s Breath].

The fireball blew her off the top of the building she’d climbed up. 

It also flattened the building near the person she’d fired at, as well as caved in most of the two buildings to either side.

Jamal was up and caught her before Rose could hit the ground.

“Nice [Flame Shot],” he said.

“As I said, fire those at distant targets only,” Pendant said.

“Ok, forget about falling back then,” Rose said. “If you’ve got more stuff like that, we can push them back instead!”

“They’ve got a lot more troops than that though,” Jamal said.

“If we can push them back far enough it won’t matter,” Rose said.

“No, I mean they have more troops from the ship that came in. We should have seen them already unless they’re hanging back.”

“Why would they…” Rose trailed off as the same thought occurred to both her and Jamal.

Breathless they turned their gaze to the south.

One thing about having [Elven Eyes] was that they could make out details at far greater distances than Rose’s human eyes could. Details like the army which had landed well south of [Sky’s Edge] and was marching to catch the town’s remaining defenders in a classic pincer move.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 15

Glimmerglass wasn’t out of magic, she wasn’t out of health, but she was out of time. Above her, a projection of the world spun as a disconnected series of colored sparks in the [Astrologos Observatory]. The sparks were supposed to be a pale green, showing peace and stability. A few, on any other day, would have glowed a bright amber, indicating a local crisis or border skirmish.

The sparks hanging above Glimmerglass were a sickening mix of red for city’s like [Eastrun] where fighting continued unabated and purple where there was no fighting any longer because none of the [Fallen Kingdoms] defenders remained on the field.

Looking around the projected globe, Glimmerglass found a few sparks burning with a bright orange light. Those were where their hopes lay. The places where the defenders of the [Fallen Kingdoms] had been able to claim victory.

Then there was the [Astologos Observatory]. It wasn’t marked on the projection. Technically, it wasn’t part of the [Fallen Kingdoms], despite Glimmerglass being able to look out of the window beside her and see the burning plains which stretched away to the destroyed city of [Doom Crag] far to the east.

The city she hadn’t been able to hold.

No one blamed her. Mellisandra, Damnazon, not even Combrell, the goblin [Assassin] who’d been all but kidnapped and forced to join their party, none of them had spoken a harsh word to her. Holding out against the forces the Consortium had thrown against them had been an unreasonable hope.

But it was still one which Glimmerglass found hard to let die.

“You look like you’re mind is far away,” Cambrell said, dropping back from the crowd which had gathered in the observatory. “Looking forward to tomorrow’s worries or back towards [Doom Crag]?”

“A little bit of both,” Glimmerglass said, forcing a smile onto her face. “Mostly just looking for mistakes from there that we can avoid repeating here.”

“Always more fun to make new mistakes,” Cambrell said. “It sounds like we’re going to get paired up again.”

Glimmerglass looked up. She hadn’t been paying careful attention to the buzz of conversation in the room, preferring to wait for the official announcements. Or that was what she told herself. Wallowing in self-pity might have been a more accurate description a snide inner voice suggested. That wasn’t a fair accusation but it was true enough that Glimmerglass kicked herself for succumbing to that mindset when there was so much else she needed to do.

“I thought your party was full?” she asked. “Did someone not make it back?”

She was certain that all of the adventurers who’d been assigned to her guard detail had either made it to the [Heart Fire] with her or had escaped the town without dying at all. Hadn’t they?

“Oh, sorry, no worries there, all of them are still here,” Cambrell said. “We got lucky. I guess for this raid though we’ll be moving in [Alliances].”

For raids and other challenges that were beyond the power of a single party to deal with various other grouping structures existed. Glimmerglass was used to [Alliances] and [Full Raid Groups] but looking at the devastation which blanketed the land left her wondering how those could possibly be enough.

Everywhere she looked, the forces arrayed against them were overwhelming, crushing not only the defenders strength but their hope as well. Even the assemblage who’d gathered at the observatory had been brought together out of a desperate need to do something, or try anything.

“The Consortium’s ships are in range,” Niminay said. “We’re going to start portaling up to them. Our strategy is simple. Treat this like a newly opened dungeon. Everything is an enemy and anything we find can be turned into loot. Hit them hard and get back out before you’re overwhelmed. If you run into something nasty, call for help. These people are used to thinking like a military. Let’s show them how heroes fight.”

***

Tessa fell to one knee, her lungs filled not with blood or air but the claws of a [Lava Drinker]. 

“You’re…you’re starting…to…to mildly annoy me,” she said as she rose to her feet and shoved further into the mass of biting, stabbing, burning monsters in front of her.

The dissociation was gone. She was no more able to passively observe the battle while Pillowcase fought for her than she was able to ignore the pain of her wounds. 

The [Lava Drinker] that had slipped past her shield and speared her through the chest screamed and vomited a stream of molten fire into her face. That should have been the end of Pillowcase. Head immolated. Health dropped to zero. No more fight left.

“[Casting spell: Counterdeath],” Lost Alice finished saying between the time when the [Lava Drinker] inhaled and when its fiery breath exploded outwards.

The [Lava Spew] hit the spell’s shield and burned it away, but not before being neutralized itself.

Tessa felt her [Heart Killer’s Curse] rip the life from [Lava Drinker] and seal the injuries in her chest as she smashed the creature into the horde of its brethren.

“Thanks for the save,” she said, leaping back from the horde rather than exploiting any of six easy openings the [Lava Drinkers] had left for her.

The monsters were eager to kill her, driven by an urge that might as well have been a directive written in code, but they were more than simple pixels controlled by a few lines of logic. Enemies in the game had never shown reluctance towards being hurt. They’d never hesitated, looking for a moment to strike when there would be no danger of reprisal. 

The [Lava Drinkers] weren’t intelligent from what Tessa could see but they were behaving somewhat reasonably for predators, eager to claim their prize but unwilling to suffer debilitating injuries to do so.

If Obby had been standing beside her as a co-tank, and Rip, Matt and the others had been able to unleash their attacks from the back line, Tessa knew they could have handled the entire hoard. 

As it was though both Pillowcase and Alice’s resources were running perilously low.

“Our next retreat will put us in the boss room,” Lisa said. “I don’t see any side passages either.”

“Pushing through here didn’t work,” Tessa said.

“We need to make it work,” Lisa said. “We’re in no shape for a boss battle.”

Tessa knew that would have been true even if they hadn’t encountered the [Lava Drinkers]. Duo’ing a boss was possible but generally only if your equipment was top notch and you were extremely good with your character. 

A [Lava Drinker] knocked her shield aside, but Tessa warded off the other two attackers who followed the first in, swinging her mace with another force to knock them all into a pile before springing back, losing more distance rather than gaining it.

“Wait,” she said. “They’re herding us.”

“Yeah, right to the boss.”

“Since when do trash mobs move you towards the end of the dungeon? They’re supposed to slow the party down.”

“There’s not even supposed to be trashed mobs here,” Lisa said. “This dungeon is supposed to be empty still.”

“What if it is?” Tessa asked.

“Those things would seem to disagree with that idea,” Lisa said.

“No, I mean, what if these weren’t what was supposed to be here. What if the dungeon was empty and then something else moved in.”

“How does that help us?” Lisa asked.

“Because there may not be a boss set up in that room,” Tessa said. “And since we haven’t been attacked from that direction yet I think we can say that there’s no [Lava Drinkers] in there.”

“Probably something worse,” Lisa said. “Do you have all your spells in place? How long can you hold out if I go check?”

“I’m good for at least a minute,” Tessa said. “Go. See what we’re up against. Maybe you’ll find this place’s [Heart Fire].”

“Doubt it, but I’ll check. No dying,” Lisa said and broke her healing spell as she moved.

Tessa felt the continuous stream of vitality peter out and began giving ground rapidly. The only thing that prevented her from making it a full retreat was the need to continue harrying the [Lava Drinkers] so that they wouldn’t decide to commit to simply overrunning her.

With rapid blows from her mace, she discouraged each of the [Lava Drinkers] that tried to leap forward and catch up to her. Swing after swing she drove them back gaining distance from the mass of obsidian bodies until she at last noticed that they weren’t following her anymore.

The [Lava Drinkers] didn’t disperse. They simply paused. Waiting tensed in the passageway of polished bone, unwilling to move past some invisible border outside the center of the spiraled spider’s web.

“Tessa, there’s a boss here, but…you should see this,” Lisa said.

She was standing just outside the edge of bosses room, peering in when Tessa caught up to her. It was a smart spot. The place where an experienced adventurer would stand. Just far enough to be able to see everything in the room, without crossing a threshold which might begin bringing things to life.

Tessa stopped just behind her, keeping an ear towards the horde that didn’t seem to be surging forward.

Yet.

Inside the room a vista awaited which made it spectacularly difficult to keep her attention divided.

“That’s really big,” she said, staring across a cavern with a diameter as large as a football. The path they stood up led down into a maze which resembled a complicated bit of celtic knotwork with walls which were carved out of the same polished bone as the corridors they’d been walking down.

Above the maze a layer of wispy clouds hung, only slightly obscuring the sigil painted in throbbing red across the top of the maze.

None of that was what captured Tessa’s attention though. What she couldn’t take her eyes off was the giant serpent of molten rock which was suspended far above the maze.

From how the [Servant of Fire] writhed, Tessa could see that it was still alive, despite the crimson spears which pierced it through.

“Think that’s what burned the bodies we saw in here?” Lisa asked.

“It looks like it would fit in the tunnels,” Tessa said. “And I can feel the heat its putting out from here.”

“What happened to it?” Lisa asked.

“A trap? Maybe those lances are some kind of defense mechanism for the maze?” Tessa guessed.

“Is that why the [Lava Drinkers] brought us here?” Lisa asked.

“No. They move according to my will,” a man with blemishless skin and a buzzcut said as he stepped from a crimson ripple in space in front of them.

“And who would you be?” Lost Alice asked, her voice lower and echoing with a dark undertone Tessa wasn’t used to hearing in it.

“I am Mikonnel, but you may address me as Supreme Overlord,” Mikonnel said.

“And why would I do that?” Lost Alice asked.

“Because this world will very shortly be mine,” Mikonnel said. “But come in, there’s no use cowering, I’ll find some use for you.”

He gestured and Tessa felt a telekinetic force hurl her forwards, across the threshold of the chamber. As she passed over it, she saw a crimson line at the entrance flare to life and felt shackles form around her wrists and ankles.

Glancing at her status bar she expected to see an endless array of debuffs dragging her capabilities down but the only one which was present was a fairly low tier “rooting” effect which prevented her from moving away from the position where Mikonnel’s telekinetic shove had thrown her.

“A vampire and a ragdoll? What an interesting pair. You’re not from the Consortium are you? They didn’t say they would be sending representatives and it would be unfortunate if they discovered this hideaway.”

“How do you know about the Consortium?” Tessa asked. Memory told her that the [Consortium of Pain] often worked with quislings when ‘opening’ a new world.

“Why who do you think summoned them here?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 14

Obsidian shatters. When a mace is swung with sufficient force it doesn’t dent obsidian armor. Instead, like a pain of glass, the plates of armor which make up a [Lava Drinker’s] body will explode. Pillowcase found that to be vaguely satisfying. 

What was less pleasing was how the creature’s molten innards clung to the mace’s head as Pillowcase drew the weapon back to fend off another attacker. Target rich environments had their advantages but getting your weapon bound up by one attacker could fatal when you had dozens more around you.

Dozens in total but we only have six foes left in front of us. Tessa felt herself dissociating. It wasn’t against her will though. It was more a matter of stepping back and allowing her instincts and Pillowcase’s inborn experience to handle the moment to moment details of the fight she was engaged in. That left her free to evaluate the battle dispassionately, noting and tracking the number, position and strength of their foes.

Unfortunately the values she had for those were “too many”, “everywhere” and “possibly more than she could handle”.

A [Lava Drinker] jumped over the corpse of its comrade as Pillowcase struggled to hold off another one which had tried to drop from the ceiling onto her. 

She whirled a full power blow with the mace at the new arrivals sparsely defended underside, but three of its feet brushed the blow aside.

On Tessa’s tactical display the [Lava Drinker’s] health dropped only a smidge, The abdomen was a sensitive spot for [Lava Drinkers] – the same as it was on humans – but the creature’s defense had been enough to deflect most of Tessa’s swing.

Its counterattack came with such speed that Pillowcase was only able to avoid it because Tessa had given her “warrior spirit” free rein move as she needed to stay safe.

Well, almost free rein.

Keeping Lisa safe was a higher priority than saving herself.

Tessa didn’t stop to think about that.

There wasn’t time to wonder if she was stepping over a line, or allowing her feelings to taint her reasoning.

A [Lava Drinker] bit into her leg and her health plummeted.

“[Heart Killer’s Curse]”, Pillowcase called, targeting the one which was trying to tear her leg off. The ability lashed out at the monster, ripping back some of the health the creature had stolen from Pillowcase. The ability couldn’t save her life by itself, but it offset enough of the damage that Alice’s health spell was able to repair the rest.

Until another [Lava Drinker] sank its fangs into Pillowcase’s  weapon arm.

They’re level 12. Tessa observed. And Minion class.

It was good news. 

It didn’t mean she or Alice were going to survive though. 

That would have been wildly incredible news. 

Instead it meant that the area they’d fallen into was mirroring the sort of level design the [Broken Horizons] devs typically followed. With level 12 for common mobs like the [Lava Drinkers], it was plausible that a group who’d started at the abandoned farm house and worked their way down through portion of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] which lay beneath it would be capable of taking on the challenges in this next area they could reach.

Pillowcase adjusted her stance, stepping forward into the jaws of a [Lava Drinker] and using her shield to drive it into the bone floor. Another approached but it failed to land a blow before she hammered it back with blow after blow from her mace.

“Another patrol’s incoming!” Lisa called out.

That made five total groups of monsters which had gathered on them.

“Follow me,” Pillowcase said, her voice flat and uninflected. It wasn’t an order as much as a tactical advisement. If Lost Alice chose to do something else, Pillowcase would assume it was because Alice was had noticed something Tessa had missed. Or was pursuing an alternate goal as sometimes happened in battle.

There were too many [Lava Drinkers] for them to fight, and no option of out running the monsters, but that didn’t mean moving away was a lost cause.

Redoubling her offensive cost Pillowcase. Her health dropped into the critical range and stayed there for an agonizing second and a half. Almost an eternity in battle. What her pain bought them however was the position Pillowcase needed.

By slamming one [Lava Drinker] into the wall and crushing another one under her boot, Pillowcase was able to open a path for Alice and herself to step through to the far side of the growing [Lava Drinker] hoard.

Tactical advantage achieved, Pillowcase noted internally, her emotionless voice nonetheless singing with triumph.

“[Casting spell: Counter Death]”, Alice said, wrapping Pillowcase in a protective barrier before racing as far down the tunnel as she could while remaining in spell casting range. 

Pillowcase switched back to a fully defensive stance, giving ground to every attack the horde threw at her. With the corridor clogged with [Lava Drinkers], the ones in the back tried scuttling up the walls and onto the ceiling. Their pounce attacks required Pillowcase to brace carefully, but as long as she was ready for them, the damage was greatly reduced by her shield and the [Lava Drinkers] were easily hurled back into the horde which had gathered, tripping up their fellows and preventing a surge of such attacks from literally burying Pillowcase in enemies.

“[Casting spell: Minor Blood Channel],” Lisa chanted and added, “I don’t think this corridor is going back to the entrance.”

While she was casting her best healing spell, Lost Alice couldn’t move, but she’d run back far enough that Pillowcase’s fighting retreat allowed plenty of time for the healing spell to repair her injuries. They weren’t defeating the [Lava Drinkers] fast enough to win the battle, but they were facing off against superior foes and surviving for far longer than they should have been able to. Despite the terror of an impending death by devouring lava bugs, Tessa felt a fierce surge of pride at the victory each additional second represented.

She wondered if she was losing her mind, but since each moment of survival meant more of the dungeon mapped for later use, Pillowcase found the prospect of inevitably being overrun by the [Lava Drinkers] acceptable. 

When they returned with the rest of their party, the contest would have a very different outcome.

“All of the halls are curving,” Tessa said. “When I try to picture this place in my head it feels like a weird, distorted spider web?”

“And all paths lead towards the big monster in the center. Yeah that fits,” Lisa said.

“Let’s see if we can hang on long enough to find out what it is,” Tessa said.

“The boss has got to be some kind of major flame monster,” Lisa said. “These things are fire based, but they couldn’t have taken out the dead people we’ve seen. Not that quick at least.”

Pillowcase noted that the temperature around them was rising, the further they followed the tunnel.

“We’re definitely heading inwards,” Tessa said. “We could try for another branch?”

“Let’s follow this in to the center,” Lisa said. “The bosses are usually the worst part of these dungeons. If we can get a sense of what its basic attacks are like we’ll know we’ll be up against next time.”

“I’m game,” Tessa said. With her shield, Pillowcase caught a thin stream of a super heated substance which was probably supposed to look like lava despite the two sharing no actual physical properties beyond being exceptionally hot.

With a quick shake of her arm, Pillowcase splashed the liquid material from the shield onto one of the [Lava Drinkers], who ignored its presence.

Ok. Obsidian doesn’t burn, Tessa observed. It wasn’t surprising to find fireproof creatures in the [Sunless Deeps]. Anything which regularly encountered lava and thermal vents tended to live longer if temperature extremes didn’t bother it.

Pillowcase parried, blocked, and fell back further and further as Tessa pondered their best plan of action.

A flight back to the entrance as ghosts would allow them to use the column of falling lava as the teleporter it was so obviously meant to be. Getting back to the demon’s lair wasn’t the end of their troubles though. They would still need to find a [Heart Fire] before the [Hounds of Fate] caught them.

She was blocking out the idea that the hounds might trap them inside the corridors she was fighting in. There was no good answer for that and Pillowcase, at least, was built with enough wisdom to know insolvable problems weren’t worth any worries when there were plenty of others to work on.

Also, maneuvering down the hallway was an exercise in brutality, which was more than enough to keep Tessa was spiraling too far into herself.

Each time she got close to Alice, Alice would break her healing spell and race away before resuming the cast. Those second while Alice ran to max range demanded that Pillowcase react to every attack and have all of her own healing working to offset the endless sea of stabs and burns the skittering bugs assaulted her with. 

“I am so glad you followed me,” Tessa said, as Alice planted her feet and resumed her healing spell. “Which is horrible and selfish, I know.”

“Horrible and selfish was coming down here alone in the first place,” Lisa said. “I’m just glad you didn’t run into trouble before I got here. I was afraid I was going to find Pillowcase torn about and your ghost being gobbled up by the death puppies.”

 “Would have served me right, I suppose,” Tessa said.

“Don’t say that,” Lisa said. “Just. Don’t.”

“Ok,” Tessa said. “Bad time to joke about getting eaten. Though, listen, when I drop run. Don’t try to save me. I know it probably won’t help, but who knows what kind of stuff is down here. Maybe you’ll find something that can eat them for you.”

“Don’t think I’m going to have that chance,” Lisa said. “Those things are pretty fast. Also, unrelated note, I’m running really low on mana.”

“These damn corridors are endless,” Tessa grumbled. “If we can just make it to one more interesting spot we can call it quits and death run back.”

“We’ve got another intersection behind us,” Lisa said. “Or, wait? It might be more than an intersection.”

“Are we at the boss room?” Tessa asked, hope flaring within her that they’d found something truly important in their mapping run.

“I can’t tell from here,” Lisa said. “The lighting’s different in there though and its a lot hotter here than it was where you’re standing. And, wait, I’m getting a call.”

Pillowcase wasn’t sure that waiting was much of an option. The [Lava Drinkers] were driving her back no matter how hard she tried to hold the line against them. Her choices were mostly around how much damage she was willing to suffer to keep the pace slow and and how thin a buffer of health she was willing to risk fighting with.

“The next time we move, go ahead and run out of casting range,” Tessa said after a moment. “I’ll hold out for as long as I can so you’ll have time to make it there and find out what we’ve got to work with.”

“I’m not letting you die,” Lisa said, a new urgency gripping her voice..

“You’re almost out of mana,” Tessa said. “You’re not letting me die. This is the two of us spending our resources as best we can.”

“You’re not a resource! Let me worry about my mana.”

“It’ll be ok,” Tessa said.

“We don’t know that!” Lisa said. “Cease All just called me. The players in the regular zones are getting slaughtered. The Consortium is attacking everywhere! She says they lost Novalux and Grin-Dy. Lost as in their ghosts are gone too. The hounds are getting them all!”

The grief in Lisa’s voice cut through Tessa worse than any of the [Lava Drinkers] had managed too.

“Ok,” she said. “Then we stay together. And we make it out of here. Together.”

“Together.” Lisa echoed, with an iron resolve Tessa wasn’t entirely sure was her own.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 13

When you can’t go back, and you can’t stay where you are, you’ve got to go forward. Pillowcase hated that.

“We’re being herded,” Tessa said, as she retreated away from the scuttling monsters who were still out of sight. She had her shield raised, her mace drawn and no doubt her mind thanks to Pillowcase’s tactical analysis that the monsters generating the red glow could catch them whenever they wanted.

“Towards the level boss?” Lisa asked. She was watching the direction they were moving, since retreating into unknown territory was guaranteed to result in encountering something you weren’t expecting.

“That or a better kill zone,” Tessa said.

“So, we’re in mapping mode then,” Lisa said. “Great. I hate mapping dungeons.”

[Broken Horizons] had changed over the years. Modern dungeons were designed with the entertainment of the players in mind. Venturing into one was meant to take fifteen minutes to an hour to complete. Paths were clearly laid out, puzzles relatively simple to deduce, and a premium placed on never putting the players in a position where they were lost and uncertain what to do next.

That hadn’t been true of the original dungeons though.

The original dungeons hadn’t been focused on entertainment. They’d been been designed as sieves, brutal tests meant to separate the “elite” from the less worthy masses of “noobs”.

When Tessa had joined, [Broken Horizons] had been three years old and just beginning to grow beyond its original adolescent mentality. The developers had learned the hard lesson that their tests were costing them a sizable portion of their playerbase. They’d moved in to more accessible designs but they’d left the old dungeons in the game for those who enjoyed that sort of challenge. There was enough desirable loot in the old dungeons that Tessa had wound up running them each many times before venturing on to newer, and more lucrative, content. She hadn’t anticipated ever being in a similar environment again, but the “real” [Fallen Kingdoms] she found herself in didn’t seem as interested in being a themepark for her enjoyment.

“I remember mapping a whole lot better than I wish I did,” she said, thankful in one sense that, though she’d loathed doing it, she could remember each of the dungeons she’d “mapped” back when that was a requirement to progress at all.

Part of the dealing with the largest dungeons of the old game – misery dungeons as her old guild had called them – was knowing what awaited you. Some of that knowledge was easy to acquire. There were wiki’s and forums which spilled the difficult secrets – thereby largely invalidating the developers “tests” – but there were elements of familiarity which couldn’t be gained by reading web pages. The foremost of which was unlocking the in-game maps for the dungeons.

With teleportation and secret door detection as a critical aspect of navigating the original dungeons, characters who had explored areas of the dungeon were at a significant advantage to ones who were groping around blindly for the first time. 

A group of newbies in a dungeon would not only be forced to travel through it via the longest possible path, missing out on opportunities to skip forward to later areas via unlocked teleportation circles, they would also be unable to even access some of the most lucrative areas until they’d managed to discover the hidden paths which lead to them (which was generally accomplished by walking back and forth in an area until the game decided the character had “noticed an irregularity” and would chose to display the secret door or concealed tunnel so that the player could click on them and proceed forward.

“Mapping runs” were one of the methods lower tier guilds like Tessa’s had used to unlock those telepoint and discover the secret areas since they lacked the offensive might to simply carve a path through dungeon within the allowed time limits (since many of the early dungeons also had time limits for the maximum duration you can spend within one on any given run).

Instead they’d been forced to race through the dungeons, time and again, with monsters hot on their heels, trying to reach new areas or discover new paths before they were inevitably torn to shred. As the party’s healer, Glimmerglass had been one of the last to fall usually, though that only meant that time she drowned in monsters she’d watched as other party members fell and she was helpless to save them.

Tessa had all of the early dungeons fully detailed in no small part because she’d been willing to die hundreds of times with Glimmerglass to reach the odd corners and discover the hidden doors that held each dungeons most useful secrets. In retrospect it seemed like a questionable method of “having fun” but at the time it had seemed completely worth it.

Tessa felt like she might need to show a similar commitment with the dungeon she was in, except that dying a hundred times to map it wasn’t going to be an option. Not with the [Hounds of Fate] in play.

“We’ve passed a lot of branching corridors,” Tessa said. “We might be able to use one of those to break through and get back to the entrance.”

“It’s a plan,” Lisa said. She didn’t have to add that it wasn’t a good plan. Tessa was well aware of that. “We should see as much as we can before we branch off though.”

“That’ll make it harder to get back to a [Heart Fire],” Tessa said. As ghosts they could move fast enough to cover in a few seconds the ground they’d crept down over the course of a few minutes. Tessa wasn’t worried about the distance so much as the presence of the [Hounds of Fate]. 

On the one hand, in [Broken Horizons], the hounds didn’t appear within dungeons. Since the walls constrained the ghosts the same as they did the player’s bodies, the devs didn’t need to implement a system to handle players wandering off course. On the other hand, Tessa knew she wasn’t in the game version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] and if the hounds were here, it was going to be next to impossible to avoid them.

“There wasn’t a [Heart Fire] at the entrance,” Lisa said. “This place might be incomplete, but there should still be one here somewhere. They’re usually one of the first things put in.”

“You’ve seen the early dungeon designs?” Tessa asked.

“The devs have thrown  some of them up on the test servers for special pre-order sneak peeks,” Lisa said. 

“Did they offer anything like that for this one?” Tessa asked, thinking that even if Lisa wasn’t familiar with it, they might be able to reach out to someone in her guild who was or who could look up information on it.”

“Nope,” Lisa said. “I shot a message over to Cease All, but she hadn’t heard about the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] either.”

“So either this is all new and unique to this version of the [Fallen Kingdoms], or its based on something the devs weren’t planning to release with the launch at all?” Tessa asked.

“Pretty much,” Lisa said. “It does look like their design though. I mean these hallways and junctions? They don’t seem to serve a natural purpose. They look like the other dungeons were it’s all about channeling the players to interesting fights. So the there should be a [Heart Fire] hear. It would probably be the first quest objective if this was a finished location.”

“We could break and look for it now?” Tessa offered.

“They’re going to chase us and catch us if we do that,” Lisa said, sounding strangely certain.

Almost as though it was Lost Alice who was speaking from experience. 

But Lisa didn’t have a second persona to draw on. She hadn’t made up a backstory for Lost Alice.

Unless a backstory wasn’t what had created Pillowcase?

“That’ll happen no matter what at this point,” Tessa said. “If we run now, we can at least avoid fighting them where they want to fight us. Best case we can take them by surprise.”

“We won’t surprise them,” Lisa said. “They’re predators. They know how to handle prey that tries to flee, and prey that tries to fight back.”

“Do you know what these things are?” Tessa asked.

“No.” Lisa shook her head. “Or yes. I think I do. I just don’t know how. The red light, and the skittering. I’ve seen that before. I’ve heard it. Except I know I haven’t?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tessa said. “It’s probably like your spellcasting, just something this world gave you.”

It sounded reasonable to Tessa’s ears as she spoke, but a deeper part of her guessed that Lisa’s knowledge of dungeon dwellers came from somewhere, or perhaps someone, else.

“I think they’re [Lava Drinkers],” Lisa said. “They’re a kind of parasite if I’m right. Made out of obsidian and filled with lava. So, easy to break, but doing so is a bad idea.”

“Good to know,” Tessa said, contemplating if the mace in her hand was at all the weapon she wanted to be wielding. “At the next passage, we’ll break and try to find another turn to take us back towards the entrance room. If there’s a [Heart Fire] it shouldn’t be to far from where we came in.”

“Pick a path and I’ll follow you,” Lisa said. “And if this doesn’t work out, stick with me ok? We’ll make it back together more easily than if split up and try to find it alone.”

Tessa knew that wasn’t strictly true, but she had no interest in being alone, as a vulnerable ghost, in what could easily be described as Hell.

The next side passage wasn’t far, but before they reached it, they found more bodies. The burns on them were worse that the first batch, as though whatever had slain them had grown hotter and stronger with each kill. 

Tessa didn’t take time to examine them, though Pillowcase was certain she could determine a fair amount about their attacker if she’d been able to make a careful inspection of the corpses. 

“Ok, run!” Tessa said as she turned and dashed down the corridor to her left.

She couldn’t resist looking back to make sure Lost Alice was following her but that also meant she got to see just how close the [Lava Drinkers] were too.

The obsidian armored things were roughly similar to beetles. If a beetle was the size of a small pony and bled bright, glowing rivulets of orange lava from the seems on its body.

They’d both been right.

Lisa had correctly identified their pursuers and Pillowcase had been been correct in saying they couldn’t be outrun.

What Tessa did managed to do though, was clear the next corner and pull Lost Alice around behind her before the wave of [Lava Drinkers] crashed into them.

At first she expected to be obliterated, like she had been at the farmhouse, but the [Lava Drinkers] tearing mandibles weren’t able to strike past her shield with enough force to penetrate her armor. Or At least not often enough that Lost Alice wasn’t able to keep up with repairing the damage.

Pillowcase swung her mace, shattering the nearest [Lava Drinker’s] armored shell. A jet of molten rock splashed towards Pillowcase but she side stepped it, suffering burns only on her upper arms and chest.

Another swing burst the [Lava Drinker] like a balloon, but Pillowcase had been wise enough to ensure the blow send the create stumbling backwards, which left it to spewing lava on several of its fellows.

Another patrol showed up a few seconds later, after Tessa and the [Lava Drinkers] behind them had exchanged substantial helpings of pain.

“We’re boxed in,” Lisa said.

Of course they were. That had been the [Lava Drinkers] plan all along. Surround and conquer. 

Another group appeared behind the first, as [Lava Drinkers] from all over began to converge on their position.