Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 6

“Fight” or “Flight” works for humans. For [Artifax], who are constructed for no other purpose than warfare however there is only “Fight” and “Fight Harder”. That was why Pillowcase’s words in the face of the effect which had overrun the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] were so unsettling.

We need to run away, she said as the static field which covered the former area of the town crackled in front of them. Her voice was suffused with the serenity which lies beyond the deepest of fear at the sight, despite the fact that nothing was moving in the perfectly leveled field.. 

Tessa could have challenged Pillowcase’s declaration. They’d escaped the destructive wave when it swept through over the town. The distorted, crackling space which remained behind couldn’t hurt them. It was just visual static and weirdly looping white noise. 

It brewed terror in her soul.

But she couldn’t say why.

Just seeing something couldn’t hurt you.

She was wrong about that. Neither Tessa nor Pillowcase’s memories could come up with how she was wrong, but a deeper part of her psyche, one which underlay them both, understood that the thing before her was something she wasn’t ever supposed to see. It was broken, and it could break her.

Tessa could have argued against that with herself but Pillowcase’s fear was far from unfounded. The [Clothwork] [Soul Knight] had better command of the senses the Consortium had woven into her body than Tessa did. They were one mind, driven by one subconscious, which meant Pillowcase’s terror was Tessa’s terror, but through Pillowcase she understood where that terror can from.

The static wasn’t harmless. It wasn’t just a weird light show. There was something living within it. Neither Tessa nor Pillowcase could see it directly. It wasn’t the kind of thing that even could be seen. Its existence was a violation of too many fundamental properties of reality.

“Yes. Keep running. Now,” Tessa said, agreeing with herself and offering orders to her team. 

Orders she found it impossible to obey.

“I…I can’t,” Lisa said, her voice wavering on the same precipice of hopelessness Tessa teetered on

Tessa wanted to look at Lisa, wanted to reassure herself that everyone had made it out of the town safely, but she couldn’t tear her gaze away from the field of distorted space in front of her. Before her eyes it flowed and rippled and at the end of each chaotic wave was the promise of something glorious.

This is ridiculous, she said fighting for control of her thoughts by talking them out with her other self.

We need to run away, Pillowcase said, breathless and mono-focused.

How are you afraid of this? Tessa asked. You’re unstoppable. You literally don’t know fear.

Everything knows fear, Pillowcase said. [Artifax] are designed to never be overwhelmed by it.

Then what’s happening here?

This is wrong. More wrong than I can process. We need to run away.

Tessa tried to pull herself away but nothing moved. Her arms were locked, her legs were frozen in place, and her eyes couldn’t stop drinking in the static. Like they’d all gone numb.

Or like they weren’t hers anymore.

I don’t think we can, Tessa said, even her terror feeling like it was being consumed by the thing in the static.

How could she turn away from this? It wasn’t a question she’d asked herself but the idea was waiting for her there behind her eyes. A part of her, but not her.

Possession? Was the thing in the static reaching out beyond the borders of the town? Had it hit her with some enchantment or mind whammy that she had to shake off?

Tessa felt something alien moving in her thoughts. Something that was neither her, nor Pillowcase, nor any other part of her. 

Weaponized doubt bit deep fangs into the center of her brain and pumped its venom into everything she knew.

Had she really escaped the town at all? Was what she was seeing real? How could it be when the static in front of her couldn’t be any part of a real world. Not Tessa’s Earth and not Pillowcase’s [Fallen Kingdoms]. 

There was no voice asking the questions, but there was an external will. Something unfathomable that lurked beyond the static which remained of [Sky’s Edge].

Beyond the static? No. Within it. 

Whatever it was, it wasn’t distant. Not any longer. Maybe once it had been kept where things that couldn’t be were able to exist. Some unreal land with no border on any realm world. 

Tessa imagined a malevolent force peering into the world, but held back on the other side of a mirror, or beyond the veil of dreams. 

Whatever was within the static now was that sort of horror. Something whose essential nature unwrote the bindings of reality.

Was air a thing she needed to breath? In the presence of the thing within the static, air might never have existed. Or it might change to razer blades.  Or fire. Or become solid. And not just air. Blood. Electrical signals. The strong and weak nuclear forces. Time. 

Any of those might fail or be distorted into something unrecognizable, and the thing was no more than a literal stone’s throw away.

Tessa felt her thoughts crumbling as unnameable fears formed from one memory attaching to another 

Or wasn’t it closer than that?

Was the static in the town, or, since she was seeing it plainly, wasn’t it inside her eyes?

With each little flicker and pop wasn’t the static crawling inside her? 

It was in her mind already wasn’t it? With all that she was thinking about?

Wasn’t that why she couldn’t look away? Because she wasn’t really herself. She was just more noise in static and how could she look away from the static, when it was a part of her, when it was her? 

Could she look away from herself?

Should she even try to hold herself apart from it?

She’d been made for war. She’d had a purpose. She was so empty without that. Why not fizz away into the static?

Maybe she already had.

“Tessa,” Obby called out. No instruction, no request. Just that word.

Just that name.

Tessa drew in a sharp breath and grasped Pillowcase’s thoughts. Pillowcase was hers. No one else got to play her. No one else got to write her story. 

Anger crashed over her. Anger from within the static. From the thing that existed in the hisses and the pops and the hungry flickering of the light.

Tessa should have run. With Pillowcase’s thoughts collected with her own, she could move her body again. She could even pull her gaze away from the static, and be wholly herself once more. 

What she couldn’t be was brave or defiant. The thing she was facing was beyond that. It wasn’t behind any walls any more. It was right where she was. To face it was to be destroyed. it didn’t merely kill heroes, it wasn’t that kind or that limited. If Tessa tried to be a hero, to meet its anger with her own, it would pour through her and turn each particle within her into itself. 

All she could do was run, and all that would do is put off the time before it eventually caught her. There was no escape from something which could unmake every barrier, and unravel even the concept of distance and time. It projected the certainty of its victory with absolute force.

It was too much. Tessa couldn’t summon her courage against something so overwhelming. She couldn’t deny that it would destroy her.

But she couldn’t forget who she was either. 

The thing in the static wanted her identity to vanish into the noise it would fill everything with. It wanted nothing to exist that was not a part of itself. No reality but a void filled with seething, meaninglessness.

Tessa wasn’t having any part of that.

Beyond fear, beyond hope, there is an island where the survival instinct falls away and all that remains are the primal forces that form a psyche.

Tessa choose Hunger and Spite from all the aspects which made her up. 

Did this thing want to eat her? Fine! Let it try!

A terrible laughter rang within her. 

She had no hope, but that didn’t mean she had to leave the thing in the static with any either.

Humans were omnivores, she’d show this thing just what that meant.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain]”

It was a small spell. Just a tiny bit of magic. A simple bit of spellcraft to pull away a bit of an enemy’s life and use it to strengthen the caster. 

The thing in the static had no spirit. Nothing for the spell to effect. It should have sputtered out without a valid target. 

<Don’t Care>

<Not gonna let it fail>

Was it Tessa speaking? Pillowcase? 

<Not important>

<Destruction>

<Do It!>

It would mean consuming a portion of something that was not meant to exist. It was a supernova scaled bad idea.

<DO IT!>

It would…

DO IT!

The [Formless Hunger] within the static paused.

Something was wrong.

It was wrong.

And not in the sense of being wrong for the reality it would feast on.

It felt something in itself be ripped away.

The warrior of cloth had stolen something from it.

It was missing a piece of what it was.

It began to shake. Not for the loss. It hadn’t lost much. Just a single flicker. A infinitesimal spark.

But it wasn’t supposed to have a spark to lose.

It wasn’t supposed to have a self at all.

And it definitely wasn’t supposed to have a name.

The [Formless Hunger] backpedaled. It scrambled to escape, but there was no escape for it. It had a name now. It could never go back to the anonymity of unbeing.

It howled but only the laughter of the warrior of cloth answered it.

***

>> [Lesser Spirit Drain] morphed to [Primal Devouring]!

>> [Major Corruption Resistance] gained!

>> [Transdimensional Integrity] gained!

>> Condition: [A Monster Grows Within] gained!

NO.

>> Condition removed.

>> Aspect: [Disjoined] gained.

NO!

>> WARNING: Definition Error detected

>> Replace “Aspect: [Disjoined]” with “Aspect: [Fractured]” Y/N?

Ok.

>> Aspect: [Fractured] gained! 

>> Choose Primary Identity: __________

What?

>> [Soul Knight] Level 12, [Fractured] is missing an identity.

>> Choose Primary Identity: __________

Pillowcase

>> Identity accepted.

>> Level Up! 

>> Level 13 attained!

***

Pillowcase opened her eyes to see a read out of her level 13 improvements waiting for her. The expected mix of stat increases were coupled with an additional spell point and an upgrade to fraction of health which [Heart Killer’s Curse] would return.

All was in order.

Except it wasn’t.

“I’m [Fractured]?” she said as she sat up.

At her side, Lost Alice and the others were gathered. Rip Shot and Matt Painting were both close by as well. They seemed concerned.

“[Fractured]?” Rip Shot asked. “What kind of status condition is that? Can we fix it?”

“I don’t know,” Lady Midnight said. “None of my spells say anything about removing something like that.”

“It’s not a status effect,” Lost Alice said. There was pain in her eyes.

Pillowcase blinked at that. Empathy wasn’t a trait she’d been woven with. It tended to interfere with processing orders efficiently.

But she could feel an echo of the pain she saw in Lost Alice’s eyes.

It felt right. Like understanding a language she hadn’t been able to speak before. She tried to think when and where and how she’d developed [Empathy]…no, just empathy, as a skill, but her mind was strangely empty. Like she was still waking up from a long nap and the post-dreaming disorientation hadn’t quite passed yet.

“How can you tell?” Matt Painting asked.

“Call up an info on her and you’ll see,” Lost Alice said. “It’s an [Aspect]. Like our racial traits.”

“What does it mean?” Rip asked.

“It means I don’t think this Pillowcase is the one we’ve known so far,” Lost Alice said. “Are you?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 5

The race to the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] was lost before it began. Tessa felt Pillowcase’s untiring legs eat up the distance to the smouldering and collapsed buildings. She ran further and faster than she could have ever run as a human, only holding back her speed to make sure she wasn’t leaving the slower members of the party behind. Even if she’d run all out though, it wouldn’t have mattered. She couldn’t outrun a ghost.

The first of the respawned [Disjoined] hit her at the outskirts of the ruins.

It burst through a waist high wall of ash and charred wood.

It had been waiting for them.

“Die doll die doll die doll,” it singsonged like a record with a scratch in its soul.

The [Disjoined] wasn’t holding any weapon but as it swung its arm, a blade of static light materialized in its grip.

Pillowcase got her shield in place in time to deflect the blow in a shower of sparks, but the shield was cut through in an ugly, uneven track as long as Pillowcase’s hand.

“My doll die doll kill doll killed my,” the [Disjoined] was wild with glee.

Until a [Flame Shot] from Rip blasted it to a spray of dark chunks.

“I think you got that one last time,” Obby said. 

“It was hunting me then?” Tessa asked, and immediately saw the problem with that. “Everyone group up tight. Damage dealers make sure we can block for you.”

“They’re holding aggro across death?” Lisa asked.

“Or they respawn aggro’d on whoever killed them,” Obby said.

“How do we kill them for good?” Rip asked.

“We’ve got to find the remains of the [Heart Fire],” Tessa said. “That has to be what they’re using to respawn.”

Two more leapt up from the ashes where they’d hurriedly buried themselves, only to be shattered by Starchild’s staff and a shield bash from Obby.

“This is going to get a lot harder as we get closer to the [Heart Fire],” Lisa said.

“Yeah, they’re stupid enough to trickle back here rather than grouping up, but the closer we get to their spawn point the less that’ll happen,” Lady Midnight said.

“We beat them when they were all together, is it really going to be a problem if we have to do that again?” Rip asked.

“We had a terrain advantage there,” Tessa said. “Plenty of room and we were able to engage with you at range. We don’t want to let them get…”

She was cut off by one of the [Disjoined] pulling Rip into a pit just off the path she’d been walking on.

Matt didn’t miss a beat, diving to grab hold of her arms before she could fall out of view.

Rip had a different solution though, firing an exploding arrow directly beneath herself and letting the knockback from the explosion blow her clear.

Tessa turned to see if Rip needed help but spun back forward as another [Disjoined] raced over the pile of rubble beside her and tried to bowl Pillowcase over.

“More incoming!” Obby said.

Tessa felt a pulse of magic almost identical to adrenaline race down Pillowcase’s limbs. The snarling monster in front of her was twisting inside its skin in a manner no living creature possibly could. Tessa was sure she could deal with it, but putting the monster down before the rest arrived appeared unlikely.

So she didn’t try.

One of the requirements for playing well had always been being aware of what you were and were not capable of. Overextending might occasionally win an unexpected victory but more often than not it covered the party in failure rather than glory.

Pillowcase’s job was to tank the mobs. Beating them solo was nice too, but if she didn’t cover the bases the team was relying on her to handle, then no amount of personal glory would pay for the cost of falling short.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain],” Tessa said, feeling the wave of magic pour through her. She was Pillowcase enough to handle directing it without much conscious though, but also Tessa enough to be conscious of how amazing it was that she could cast spells now. The feeling might get old at some point, but Tessa suspected that would be a long time coming.

The spell landed on a handful of [Disjoined] who were charging the party in a rough clusters. Four of the [Disjoined] writhed as the magic drained their lives away and fed it to Pillowcase. The last [Disjoined] though wasn’t affected by the spell.

Tessa watched the strand of magic going to that [Disjoined] bend and fracture, the end of it hissing away as bits of staticky light tore it apart.

“Watch out, they have some weird magic resistance,” she said and jumped forward to slam a heavy blow into the forehead of the one the [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell missed.

“Is that new?” Matt asked. “I didn’t have any trouble with them before.”

“They ate our spells when we fought them the first time,” Starchild said.

Obby swore.

“They’re not leveling like we are but they’re growing worse,” she said. “If their respawning as [Disjoined], there’s not enough left of them to come back, so each time they’re disintegrating a bit further.”

“Do we stop killing them then?” Rip asked, holding her fire at the group of [Disjoined] Pillowcase had provoked.

“It’d be nice if that was an option but I don’t think it is,” Obby said.

“She’s right,” Lisa said. “The damage they do is going up, and taking off that weird status effect they inflict is taking a lot of magic.”

“Should we fall back?” Matt asked, blasting one of the [Disjoined] near Pillowcase with a bolt of lightning from his staff.

“If we do, the problem’s going to get worse,” Tessa said. “We need to get to the [Heart Fire], or whatever’s left of it.”

“We’ve got enough magic to hold up for a bit,” Lady Midnight said. “Do we rush it now?”

“Maybe after this wave?” Lisa said. Tessa could see she was handling the status removal spells and letting Lady Midnight take the less demanding task of rotating healing spells between the party’s two tank at a steady rate.

Before Tessa could answer, another half dozen [Disjoined] appeared, rising directly from the ground around them.

She hurled another [Lesser Spirit Drain] at the newcomers who were in range, trusting Obby to pick up the others. The bright side was that she drew the monsters attention away from the healers and the ranged damage dealer, but it was at the cost of being dropped to the ground as her arms and legs all suffered the deadly numbing hits.

In a purely objective sense, she remained in decent shape. Her health bars dipped to the 50% range but between Lady Midnight’s healing and Pillowcase’s spells and own regenerative ability she was regaining what health she’d lost slightly faster than the [Disjoined] who were gathered around her could tear it away.

Subjectively though, the pain was unbearable. Being blown to bits by the [Chain Lasher] had been unpleasant, but the small cuts the [Disjoined] were making was a thousand times worse. 

Tessa felt like something was reaching inside Pillowcase’s body and stabbing her right in the soul. 

The world swam around her, maybe from the pain, although Pillowcase didn’t think that was the case. 

Lisa landed purification spell after purification spell on her, and Tessa shot back to her feet, smashing one of the [Disjoined] in the neck in the process.

“Mine. Should have been mine. Mine. Should have. Mine,” the Disjoined said, knocking its head to the side to push the head of Tessa’s mace through itself in a disturbing fountain of flames.

Pillowcase didn’t have time to be either impressed or disturbed by the display, especially not when another eight [Disjoined] stepped out of the smoke which was blowing through the [Ruins of Sky’s Egde].

“Is there any end to these jerks?” Matt asked.

Tessa struck out with a wide shield bash, knocking the nearby [Disjoined] away so buy herself a moment to think.

“My doll die doll kill doll killed my,” another [Disjoined] said as it rose from the ground in front of her.

As nonsensical as they were, the words were familiar.

“Didn’t I just kill you?” Tessa asked.

It had seemed plausible that the other [Disjoined] had been rising up from hiding places they’d prepared after respawning, but Tessa saw that  wasn’t what had been happening at all.

“They’re spawning on us!” she said.

“But there’s no bodies to revive in,” Lady Midnight said.

“They don’t need bodies,” Obby said, slashing one in half.

As the gobs of light fell from the [Disjoined’s] exploding corpse, the ground began to sizzle where they landed, stone de-rezzing in the same unnatural manner the [Disjoined] did. Immediately another, or maybe the same, Disjoined rose from the spot where the first had fallen.

“They’re not trickling anymore!” Tessa said. “They’ve figure out how to respawn at a distance.”

“That’s not possible,” Lady Midnight said.

“It shouldn’t be,” Obby said. “But it looks like that’s what they’re doing.”

Tessa felt the hairs on her neck – specifically the human hairs on her human neck – stand up as more [Disjoined] rose from the ruins.

“I think this place might be lost already,” Matt said, his metallic voice carrying the preternatural calm which told Tessa that Matt-Painting-the-Artifax was probably handling things at the moment rather than the boy from Earth. 

“I could go search for the [Heart Fire],” Rip said without pausing the barrage she was laying out.

“I think I’ve already had my lesson for why splitting the party is bad,” Tessa said. “If they’re spawning on us though, there’s no reason not to rush the chapel where [Heart Fire] was.”

“Yeah, we need to get there now,” Obby said.

Tessa wasn’t sure which of them started running first. It didn’t matter sense they both hard to slam a path through the [Disjoined] around them. Tessa cast another [Lesser Spirit Drain] to make sure all of the ones she was facing stayed interested in her, but apart from that she relied on her speed to avoid attacks from ost of the [Disjoined].

[Sky’s Edge] hadn’t been a big town, so crashing through the ruins and the ever more spectral [Disjoined] which rose to stop them wasn’t a long process.

“Rip, Matt, Star, head in and see if you can find the remains of the [Heart Fire], the rest of us will stay here and hold off those guys.” Tessa gestured to the horde they’d only barely outrun.

“If we had our level 99s, this would be a hell of a lot easier,” Lisa said.

“Maybe. I’m kind of terrified to think what these things would look like if they made of level 99 adventurers though,” Tessa said and she spun and shattered two of the Disjoined with one cleaving blow.

“Any luck with the [Heart Fire]?” Obby asked, directing her comment to the three inside the shell of the [Chapel].

“Sort of…” Matt said.

“Not. Sort of not,” Rip said.

“This isn’t right,” Starchild said.

“What is it,” Lisa said, gritting her teeth to maintain her spells as a [Disjoined] appeared behind her and tagged her on the arm.

“We found the [Heart Fire],” Rip said. “Except it’s not a [Heart Fire] any more. What we’re seeing says it’s a [Null Sec Corrupted Flame] and it hurts to even look at it.”

“Leave it alone,” Obby said. “We need to get out of here.”

“Can’t we destroy it somehow?” Tessa asked.

“We don’t have the power for that,” Obby said. “Not as we are now.”

“Then we’re out of here,” Tessa said. “Let’s cut a path to the north. We can flee towards the [Lord of Storms] dungeon.”

“That sounds good, cause the thing now says its an [Unstable Null Sec Corrupted Flame],” Rip said.

“Run!” Obby screamed, unleashing a furious slash that destroyed all of the [Disjoined] in a wide arc in front of her.

They reached the former limit of town, where [Sky’s Edge] status as a [Town] came into effect, when the wave of destruction erupted behind them.

For a moment Tessa’s mind went completely blank, noise in indescribable tones chewing away every thought. It was her mind though and neither she nor Pillowcase was willing to let some alien anti-voice try to change that.

As she blinked her eyes clear though, Tessa saw the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge] had been able to make the same choice.

Where the ruins of a town had once stood, only a field of crackling black and white static remained, it’s hiss carrying the wordless voice of something far more alien to the [Fallen Kingdoms] than she ever could be.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 4

A part of Tessa was relieved when they stepped out of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] onto the open sharp hills which led to the edge of the worldlet they were on. Dangers untold might lay in wait for them, and an unimaginable danger was their destination, but dealing with external threats like that seemed so much simpler than managing the townsfolk and adventurers they were leaving behind. 

“Those of with exceptional senses should keep them peeled,” Lisa said in the party’s chat channel. “We know [Sky’s Edge] has changed its classification from a [Town] to a [Ruin] and that’s definitely going to mean more trouble than usual will be lurking around here.”

“Has that ever happened in the game version of this place before?” Matt asked. 

He and Rip were protecting the party’s right flank, which Obby and Pillowcase took the lead and Starchild guarded their left flank. Both of the healers, Lost Alice and Lady Midnight were in the center, guarded by all the rest while also able to reach any of them with their healing magics. It wasn’t quite a raid layout, but Pillowcase’s tactical evaluation approved it given their circumstances.

“They did change one of the starting zones for the [Goblins] back in the [Dark Tide] expansion,” Lady Midnight said. “It went from an area with level 1 monsters to one of the end game zones for that release.”

“I remember that!” Tessa said. “The level cap went up to 70 then right? [Goblin] starting characters were spawned into an instance version of [The Goblin Deeps] and their starter quests played through the [Shadow Surge] washing over their home and driving them all out.”

“So when a zone changes, it doesn’t stay the same level?” Rip asked.

“With the game, the devs could do whatever they wanted,” Lisa said. “We’ll have to see if things as as fluid here.”

“Yeah, if the wandering monsters are all suddenly level 100, then we’re in a lot of trouble,” Tessa said. “But the question would be where they all came from? So far this place seems to follow its own sort-of-reasonable logic.”

“I wish we could see whether the place was teeming with [Hounds of Fate] over in the ghost world,” Lady Midnight said.

“We saved most of the people from [Sky’s Edge] right?” Rip said. “Maybe that’ll keep them away?”

“Yeah, and it sounds like they should be pretty busy down on the surface world, if that place is getting wrecked as bad as people are saying,” Matt said.

Tessa didn’t want to picture that, but images came to her anyways. The memory of a city burning was so clear for a moment that she could smell the woodfire and hear the hiss of acid as it melted through solid stone. Pillowcase glanced around quickly but the hills they were descending were barren, with the only signs of life being the strange grasses and shrubs which covered the ground in rough patches.

“We’ve never known where the [Hounds of Fate] come from or what the extent of their numbers may be,” Starchild said. “One belief is that when each person’s soul is shaped, their [Hound] is fashioned as well. After we die, our [Hounds] come to take us to our eternal rest, but as adventurers we can draw on our bond with a higher power to stay ahead of them and revivify our bodies before we’re caught and carried away.”

“Some of us aren’t religious though,” Rip said. “So what higher power are we supposed to be praying to?”

“It’s not a question of prayer,” Starchild said. “We don’t pray to our [Inspirations]. We invite them into our lives.”

“Your [Inspirations]?” Tessa asked. She’d heard that before. Somewhere. Somewhere far away? A ripple of confusion flitted across her mind. The memories of the burning town and the talk about [Inspirations], they weren’t Tessa’s memories or Pillowcase’s. 

So whose were they? And why were they in Tessa’s head?

“Yes. You. And Pete. All the people who inspire us to leave our regular lives behind and walk the road of adventure,” Starchild said. “You have Lore and mythology about our world, but we have the same for you.”

To be fair, I only had that for a little bit in my life before we woke up together, Pillowcase said. When I was a Consortium soldier I never felt particularly inspired to be anything. I was trapped inside their spells too strongly. When I woke up here though I could feel what Starchild is describing.

Tessa could feel it as well. The sense of being apart from herself as Pillowcase. Laying broken on the field of battle only for awareness to return, bringing with it the sense of being part of something so much greater than what she had been.

“You see it now too, don’t you?” Starchild asked.

“Yeah,” Tessa said, slowing her march as she took in the rush of experience.

She’d been a coursing river flowing through Pillowcase, filling the former Consortium soldier with energy, and drive, and purpose. 

Tessa shook her head. When had she ever had any of those things in her own life? 

She thought back to her apartment. Her messy, but still so empty apartment. And her job. The one that offered her nothing but a paycheck. 

For herself, she’d never been able to summon up the fire or courage to try for something great. For others though? And when the playing field was at least close to level? All that ambition to be more had burst free. It was what she loved about gaming and it had all channelled into Pillowcase.

“Umm, I think we have trouble incoming,” Rip said, gesturing ahead and to the right of them where a group of figures were standing.

Standing and yet getting closer each time Tessa blinked.

“Yeah, that’s not good,” Lisa said.

No one in the group seemed to disagree as they all readied themselves for battle.

The figures, humans maybe, advanced without any apparent awareness of the response they were provoking. As they got within bow shot range, Tessa saw that they moving via a series of short teleports. 

Short and painful looking teleports.

Each figure was torn apart in strips of staticky light and reassembled a few feet closer.

“What the hell is that?” Pete asked, speaking clearly through Starchild’s voice.

“A problem,” Obby said, in a tone more concerned and serious than Tessa had yet heard her take. 

“Pillow, if they attack, fight defensively. We tangled with something like this before. They’re not regular monsters,” Starchild said.

“They’re adventurers,” Obby said. “Or they were.”

“What happened to them?” Rip’s voice carried an uncharacteristic note of concern as well.

Tessa didn’t blame her being freaked out. Pillowcase’s inbuilt battle wisdom was screaming all sorts of warnings that these things were Wrong with a capital W.

“I don’t know,” Obby said.

“How do we fix them?” Lisa asked.

“We kill them,” Obby said. “Death and respawning will give them a chance to stabilize. If there’s anything left in them to recover.”

“Do we have to fight them at all?” Matt asked.

“Maybe not, but be ready to,” Obby said. “The last batch wasn’t big on conversation.”

Tessa remembered hearing the beginning of that fight, when Starchild and Lady Midnight had been ambushed and out of range for her to help.

“Be careful,” Lady Midnight said. “The wounds they make are different. They hurt too much. It’s…it’s bad.”

“Anyone mind I start shooting them now?” Rip asked.

“Hold for a moment,” Tessa said. “Let me intercept them. If I can’t talk them down, I at least want them far enough away that they can’t get to the rest of you easily.”

“Don’t try to fight these guys alone,” Lisa sent on their private channel.

“I’ll stay in range for heals. I promise,” Tessa replied.

Walking forward, she found Obby at her side.

“If this gets bad, fall back,” Obby said on a private channel. “I’ve got a few levels on you still and the team will need at least one tank if they have to wait out here for some of us to get back.”

It was a valid argument and sound tactics. It was also not at all Obby’s reason for wanting to face the threat by herself if things went poorly. Tessa wasn’t sure how she knew that but the knowledge settled into her with a certainty.

“Raise…Flag…?” When the first of the [Disjoined] spoke it’s voice sounded like glass being squeezed through the creature’s throat.

“Give loot..dRoP lOOt!” the second said.

“Yousuckyousuckyousuckyousuckyousuck,” the next said.

Tessa glanced over Obby who’s eyes had gone hard and cold.

“Don’t think they’re going to be much good for talking,” Tessa said.

“You want to talk?” the first one asked, snapping into sharp focus with a crack. “What would you talk? What could you know? We see! We see it all! We know and you are still broken. You are still thinking, while we, we are knowing!”

Obby stabbed the Disjoined in the face and his entire body shattered, fallen in fragments of static that sizzled out of existence before they reached the ground.

“That wasn’t going anywhere good,” she said as the rest of [Disjoined] shrieked and leap towards her.

Tessa stepped forward, grabbing the attention of the nearest three. She hadn’t been able to get a good count of their numbers but she knew there had to be at least twenty of them.

As she worked out how she was going to keep ten of them focused on herself and not die in the process, one of the [Disjoined] clipped her on her shield arm and the arm went instantly numb.

The two [Disjoined] who moved in to take advantage of the opening went down, blasted back by an arrow from Rip’s bow and a bolt of lightning from Matt’s [Mage’s Staff].

“I’ve got that status effect,” Lisa said and Tessa felt the numbness in her arm vanish. “Be careful of it though, it looks like it leaves you open for a while.”

“Yeah, I don’t want to know what happens if they hit my head with that,” Tessa said, slashing at two of the [Disjoined] to drive them back while blocking the blows from two others.

“Probably nothing good,” Lisa said. “Maybe an [Instant KO] effect?”

“I’ll have to dodge as best I can then,” Tessa said. “I don’t get resistance to those for a while still.”

Dancing among the [Disjoined] wasn’t easy. Tessa felt clumsy, especially compared to Obby who moved like she’d choreographed the battle and practiced it for a month. More than once, Tessa stumbled, taking numbing hits that she’d overlooked or been too slow to react to. Lisa was there for her each time though, and Rip and Matt kept up such a consistent level of pressure that none of the [Disjoined] who managed to escape Pillowcase’s taunts managed to even get close to the rest of the party.

In the end the fight wasn’t pretty, and Pillowcase’s body was throbbing in unfamiliar agony, but the [Disjoined] were dispatched. 

“I hate to say this, but did that seem kind of easy?” Rip asked once they’d regrouped.

“We threw out a fair amount of spell power there,” Lady Midnight said.

“Yeah, but they went down about as easy as those giant bugs that we fought did,” Matt said.

“A little easier I think,” Lisa said. “They had more tricks, but I don’t think they were even as resilient as the [Chaos Centipedes].”

“I don’t think they ever got to level,” Obby said. “I think those things were all still level 1. I tried to check them but their information was hidden, or non-existent I guess.”

“The important thing is that they’re dead now,” Pete said as Starchild turned her face towards to sky to meditate and regain the magic she’d expended.

Something bothered Tessa about that.

“Wait,” she said. “If they’re dead then where are they going to respawn?”

The party looked from one person to another.

“The nearest [Heart Fire] to here is back in the dungeon,” Lady Midnight said.

“No,” Lisa said. “There’s one closer.”

“In the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge],” Tessa said. “What happens if they get to it before we do?”

“We don’t want to find out,” Obby said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 3

Preparations always took longer than expected. Tessa knew that. She also knew that past a certain point, plans existed just to trips themselves up.

“A lot of this is really about helping people settle down,” Lisa said on their private channel.

They were observing the hustle and bustle in [The Lair]. Tessa wasn’t sure when the wide cavern they’d picked had become [The Lair] but when she turned the title over in her mind she found that no other name fit it as well. It wasn’t New Sky’s Edge or The Stone Fortress or even The Refuge. None of those had the right resonance to them. Somehow [the Lair] had become the accepted name for their base of operations by more than just the people holed up in it. The world itself seemed to recognize the name on some level.

“I guess they’ve been through a lot,” Tessa said, watching a family of five trying to setup a little stand to hold the tools they’d brought from their house. She wasn’t sure how much call there would be a silversmith’s expertise in a cave, but applying existing skills to new challenges and/or developing new skills seemed to the order of the day.

“We’ve all been through a lot,” Lisa said. “I can’t believe everyone’s holding it together as well as they seem to be. I thought it was going to be a lot worse than this.”

“I know,” Tessa said. “I feel like we’re seeing a filtered list.”

“How so?” Lisa asked. She was leaning against Pillowcase’s shoulder on the rocky ledge they were using as a bench. 

To the outside world, it probably looked like two people silently resting together after a long day Tessa imagined. Thanks to the wonders of the telepathy network all adventurers shared in though, each of them had been busy chatting and coordinating people both inside their group of refugees and across the world where they had contacts available. There was a limit to that as well though. People needed a chance to execute plans, news needed time to develop, and unless they were intent on micromanaging the work people were doing, they needed to sit back and take a moment for themselves once in a while.

“I don’t mean to knock anyone’s bravery, but I was talking with Cammie just now and she’s terrified of what’s going to happen next,” Tessa said. “And I completely understand that. We’ve been fighting things. I never fought anyone before, much less anything.”

“You’ve been doing pretty damn good for a newbie,” Lisa said. “I know we were losing the fight against the horde down in the [Sunless Deeps], but frankly you were amazing.”

“I was terrified there too,” Tessa said.

“You kept it together though,” Lisa said. “I’ve seen high level tanks who would have lost their cool and buckled in a situation like that, and that’s was when it was all a game. Seriously, you saved us down there.”

“I didn’t do it alone though,” Tessa said.

“Neither of us did,” Lisa said. “I don’t think we’re anywhere close to soloing spawns like that.”

“I mean, I didn’t hold it together alone. Any fighting skill I have is thanks to Pillowcase. Who…I mean she’s me too, but not a part of me I’m too familiar with yet? If that makes any sense?”

“I think I understand it a little better now,” Lisa said, her voice quiet and distant.

“You’ve been more Lost Alice than Lisa a few times, haven’t you?” Tessa asked. It wasn’t an accusation, though Tessa worried it might be taken as one. 

“Yeah,” Lisa said, staring straight ahead at an empty spot on the floor as recollections swirled her away into the recent past.

“What’s she like? From the inside I mean,” Tessa asked.

Lisa took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly.

“Cold. Heartless. Quiet,” Lisa said. “We talked about this before right? Just this morning? God that was like twelve hours ago? Less? This is all so unreal.”

Tessa reached her arm around Lisa’s shoulder for a supportive hug. She did it without thinking and felt immensely guilty a moment later when she remember she was stepping over a boundary. Lisa leaned into the hug before Tessa could pull away though so Tessa left her arm where it was.

“You told me about how Pillowcase was almost a separate person from you,” Lisa said. “It sounded so weird at the time, but I should have seen the same thing was happening with me.”

“It’s ok, I think we’re all adapting differently,” Tessa said, her feelings more tender than her words. “That’s what I meant about there being a filter.”

“Like we’re only seeing part of these other people inside us?” Lisa asked.

“More like we’re all processing the new data that’s been dumped on us, or into us, in different ways,” Tessa said. “For me, Pillowcase was really close to the surface and present almost right away. Maybe that was because I’d invented a backstory for her, or maybe it was because she was closer to someone I wanted to be. Whatever the reason though, I got to hear her ‘voice’ early. And now she just sounds like a more collected version of me.

Switching to Pillowcase’s voice wasn’t hard. Tessa didn’t have to mimic anything. She just let Pillowcase talk. That part of her, the focused, driven part, the one which only emerged rarely in her Earthly life, was so much easier to fade into while she was living within Pillowcase’s skin, but it had always been just that…a part of her. One which was easily drowned in fear and uncertainty, but still a true element of who she was. Still a facet of who she could be.

“That’s not…” Whatever Lisa had intended to say, she stopped herself, breathing for half a heartbeat before continuing. “That’s not what it’s been like for me.”

“Maybe it will be? In time? Or maybe not,” Tessa said. “Lost Alice may be fundamentally different from what Pillowcase is to me. It sounds like she’s more the things you’re not rather than the things you’d like to be.”

Lisa leaned in a little closer.

“She’s dangerous,” Lisa said.

“Under the circumstances, that’s not a bad thing necessarily,” Tessa said.

“I don’t mean how she ate that guy,” Lisa said. “Or maybe I do. But it’s more than that. She’s…I’m…I could hurt you. In fact I probably will.”

“Same,” Tessa said.

“What?”

“I’ll probably hurt you too. I mean I’m not planning too, but what’s the chance I’m not going to mess up and get you killed at least one more time? I almost managed it in the [Sunless Deeps].”

“I don’t mean like that,” Lisa said. “That was just a mistake. You were trying to keep the rest of us safe. I get that.”

“So you’d be hurting me on purpose?” Tessa asked, knowing it wasn’t going to happen.

“No. It’s just…what if I lose it? I can feel Alice waiting. She’s a predator. And she’s so damn selfish.”

Tessa wanted to kiss away the uncertainty and doubt from Lisa’s voice, but that wasn’t what Lisa needed.

“Does it feel like she’s fighting you for control?” Tessa asked. “Or is she just waiting for you to give it to her?”

“I don’t know?” Lisa said. “She’s just there. Like this other person who can hear everything I think and who’s not scared of anything. I don’t think she’s controlling my mind at all, except, when we’re in a fight. Things feel different then. My awareness is sharper and everything seems clearer. It’s only when I’m able to calm down and chat with you that all my old thoughts seem to roll back in like the tide.”

“Can you talk to her now?” Tessa asked.

“That feels weird,” Lisa said. “I think I like talking to you better.”

“Ok,” Tessa said and swallowed silently. 

It was far too easy to read more encouragement into that than she should. She knew that. But she so wanted to anyways.

“But I know I shouldn’t be wasting time like this,” Lisa said, pulling away a little.

Tessa fought the urge to hold her tighter. They were acquaintances. Maybe friends. Friends did not cling to their friends. Even if they wanted to be more than friends. Especially if they wanted to be more than friends.

“It’s not a waste of time,” she said, giving Lisa her space. “If talking through this stuff helps at all, then its worth it. Our bodies can be healed with magic, but I think the only way we keep our minds healthy is talking with each other. And it’s nice getting to know you better.”

 Lisa gave a mirthless little laugh.

“I can give you a long list of people who would tell you what a bad idea that is.”

“You literally jumped into hell after me,” Tessa said. “I think I get to decide for myself how cool you are.”

Lisa was quiet for a long moment after that, a succession of private thoughts flickering across her eyes before she finally spoke.

“I wonder if that was Alice?” she asked. “I wanted to be there for you, but regular old Lisa? Would she have been able to do that? I never did anything like in the real world.”

Tessa turned and tried to peer into the depths of Lisa’s turmoil.

“If it was Alice, then I’d say Alice isn’t all bad,” Tessa said. “But if Alice is like Pillowcase, then yes, regular old Lisa would definitely have done that. Because you did it. I think we’re still who we were, and we’re something more too.”

“What if that more isn’t good though?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t know, can slivers of who we are be good or bad? Alice can be violent, but you haven’t done violence to anyone who didn’t deserve it. You said Alice can be cold, and selfish, but you’ve been giving a lot of yourself, supporting all of us emotionally as much as healing us physically. Is being able to get some distance and taking what you need to have to keep going a bad thing?”

“Maybe not,” Lisa said, offering Tessa the smile she’d been hoping to see.

“It’s scary too though, right?” Tessa asked. “Even with Pillowcase, it felt weird at first, thinking of her as another part of me. I knew right away it was true, but knowing something is true comes a lot faster than feeling that it’s true.”

Lisa laughed again, but with more honest good humor this time.

“Ugh, feelings are awful,” she said. “Alice is horrifying, but I need her, and I think I’m as scared that I’m like you and she really is a part of me as I am that she’s some completely separate being. It’s like either I’m bonded to some hideous vampire spirit or I’m the one who’s really hideous after all.”

“You’re not hideous,” Tessa said with absolute conviction. 

If ever there was a moment for a spontaneous kiss, Tessa felt like that was the one.

But Lisa was already in a relationship.

And there wasn’t any consent involved.

And Pillowcase’s lips were silk and thread, not warm flesh and blood.

The perfect moment…wasn’t.

And so it passed.

“I think we’re ready to head out,” Rip called over their party chat. “Aie and Zimmy are going to escort some of the lowbies into the safer spots and wait for the respawns.”

“It looks [The Lair] has at least a few days worth of supplies gathered up too,” Matt said. “A few of the [Hunters] are going to keep watch at the entrance for the Consortium coming back and to see if they can pick up any game so we can have more than [Cash Shop] food to work with.”

“Sounds good,” Tessa said, standing and helping Lisa get to her feet too. “If we’re all set to go, let’s meet at the [Heart Fire]. It’s time to fulfill the dream of philosophers across the centuries and have a talk with god, and maybe punch ‘em in the face too.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 2

An adventurer traveling to a dead city was about as unusual as a businessman traveling to a Starbucks. There might be something interesting to it, but it happened so often most people barely paid it any attention. Most dead cities, however, did not have what was likely to be the ghost of a long deceased deity lingering in them. 

Or at least Tessa hoped with all her embroidered cotton heart that the dead deity was a ghost. The alternative range through variety of horrifying and deadly alternatives from Still-Alive-And-Hungry-for-Souls to Aberration-Which-Warps-the-Fabric-of-Reality.  The latter possibility particularly worried her since it might possibly explain how her two worlds have become cojoined.

“Is this a good time for you to leave us?” Cammie Anne Do asked. She and her party had returned from a water supply run and looked ready to settle in for some down time.

“No. It’s a terrible one,” Tessa said. “We still have a ridiculous amount of the dungeon unexplored, we’re going to see respawns in several of the rooms that we went through, and then there’s the vampires!”

She raised her voice for the last point to make it clear to the members of Vixali’s coterie that she knew they were still lurking nearby.

“The good news is that we have a simple solution if any of those get out of hand. Just give Darren a call.”

“Darren?” Cammie asked.

“The [Servant of Fire],” Tessa said. “He can basically teleport through rock and he said he’d keep an eye out for us.”

It was a lie. Darren was still reasonably well disposed towards Alice and Pillowcase, but he didn’t know any of the other adventurers or townsfolk. He also couldn’t teleport through rock, at least as far as Tessa knew, and was more concerned with ensuring the Consortium couldn’t recapture him with the same trick their agent had used the first time.

Darren wasn’t going to come and save anyone. If Tessa’s guess was correct, they’re next interaction would probably involve saving him again as his presence was sure to act as a lighting rod for the Consortium’s return strike.

It was a lie but the vampire’s didn’t know that. Tessa prayed that would remain true. 

“How do we get in touch with Darren if something comes up?” Cammie asked on a private channel no one but the two of them could hear.

“You can’t,” Tessa said, replying on the same channel. “He’s not looking out for anybody. The idea of him just makes for a threat the vamps can’t ignore. Lava would sort of permanently ruining their aesthetic.”

“We can’t hold them back if that doesn’t work,” Cammie said, her words short short and tight.

“I know, but even if the seven people on my team were here, we wouldn’t be able to stand against all of the vampires if they were serious. Not yet anyways.”

“Why not stay here and level up on the respawns then?” Cammie asked.

“Well, first, the stuff here is a little low  at this point to be efficient for us to xp on,” Tessa said. “Second, and more importantly, getting the [Heart Fire] back and not letting it fall into the Consortium’s hands is critical. If we lose those, our best chance to stand against them is gone.”

“That makes sense, but it’s just a quick trip to the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge],” Cammie said. “You said you’d be gone a lot longer than that.”

Tessa noticed the weird sound in Cammie’s voice when she said “the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge]”. That hadn’t been the name of the area before, but it was an accurate description of its current state.

Tessa chewed on the idea and turned it over, trying to decipher why some of the words and phrases they used felt like there was more too them. With the mathematical precision of a Consortium [Artifax], she snipped that thread of curiosity though. She had several more important missions, and getting distracted by things that were letting frightening was going to get people killed through her negligence.

“We need to go past [Sky’s Edge],” Tessa said. “You all heard the lead vampire talk about meeting the [Lord of Storms]. We need to make contact with them before the Consortium does.”

“I heard that, but I thought it was obviously a trap,” Cammie said. “I mean even if the vamp was telling the truth, sending someone to poke a god seems like a great method getting them killed or erased from existence entirely.”

“That thought had occurred to me too,” Tessa said. “But we’ve still got to go. Even if he was meant to be the end boss for the whole expansion, if we can get him to join our side, even temporarily, we can make a real dent in the Consortium’s forces and maybe even seal them out of the [Fallen Kingdoms] entirely.”

“High risk, high reward? Can we play like that anymore?” Cammie asked. “I mean we can die here, and we can die for real here. Shouldn’t we be finding someplace safer we can get to?”

“I don’t think so,” Tessa said. “I could be wrong, disastrously wrong, so I’m not asking anyone to follow me who feels differently,  but trying to hide from the world hasn’t help us yet. [Sky’s Edge] was supposed to be a safe zone and look what happened to it.”

“Yeah, it was a wreck even before you showed up with Darren. We couldn’t begin to defend it for real. All we did was buy a little time against their advance scouting forces,” Cammie said. “So, what can we do now? How can my team help?”

“Ignore the vampires, act like you’re certain they’re not a threat so they buy into the threat of Darren. Don’t let the townsfolk wander into unprotected territory though. Even if Vixali isn’t interested in provoking us into a Return of the Lava Monster, individual vampires may decide that they might be able to get away with a little opportunistic feeding. Making sure everyone keeps their distance will keep everything a lot less murdery. I think. I hope.”

“That should be pretty easy,” Cammie said. “The townsfolk don’t have any interest in going anywhere near the vampires. Heck they don’t want to go anywhere without us. It’s like this whole thing is one neverending Escort Quest.”

“Ugh. That’s a got to a be a layer of hell somewhere,” Tessa said. “I suppose you can get a break if you take turns hunting for the respawning monsters that are level appropriate for the teams. I know the [Gloom Drinkers] at the entrance are pretty low level.”

“That’s good, cause we have some players who are still level 1, so they can’t handle anything more than what a townsperson could,” Cammie said.

“Might be good to have mix in a higher level adventurer with them,” Tessa said. “I know we’re all feeble lowbies here, but even a few levels really adds to your strength so a level 5 can make a big difference in a party of level 1s.”

“It’ll make for slower xps, but I don’t think the lowbies will mind it in exchange for having the extra safety net,” Cammie said. “The rest of us can scout out a bit further and see if there’s any other mobs we can handle. It’s nice that the respawns aren’t super fast so we’re not in danger of getting overwhelmed, but we’ll run out of mobs to fight before people are done leveling on them pretty quick I think.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Tessa said. “Be careful though. We’ve run into some nasty things in here. Including stuff with mechanics you’d usually find in much higher level content.”

“Isn’t it weird that things here even have mechanics?” Cammie asked. “I mean this isn’t the game. Things here act like they’re real. Like those vampires. In the game they never would have talked to us. They wouldn’t have been able to. So why are there ‘boss monsters’, and especially ones who have some kind of predictable routines that we have to account for?”

“I wish I knew the answer to that,” Tessa said. “The code monkey in me would love to know if there is some kind of underlying logic to all this or if it’s really as messy and chaotic as it appears to be. I know this looks like [Broken Horizons] but there’s details filled in the game didn’t have that might make it all hang together? Boss monsters for example are just ones who were strong enough to attract a following and gain extra power and skills from it. And the ‘mechanics’ we saw were mostly a matter of the boss having a set of abilities with a cool down on their reuse. The worst one we fought tried to use their abilities as good as it could, but it wasn’t smart enough to break out of the cycle of throwing things at us as they became available.”

“It’s scary to think of fighting something that is smart enough to use its abilities well,” Cammie said. “Like those vampires.”

“Alice and I fought an actual person down in the [Sunless Deeps],” Tessa said. “He wasn’t too high level, but the Consortium had given him some special tricks and he’d made a lot of henchmen. He was theoretically smart, but he underestimated us which is the kind of stupid mistake anyone can make.”

“How did you beat him?” Cammie asked.

“He thought his own binding spell was enough to hold us, but it wasn’t. We let him go on and on for a while, monologing about how he’d sold the [Fallen Kingdoms] out to the Consortium. Then Alice ate him.”

“What?”

“He deserved it,” Tessa said. “And that was the only option for freeing Darren too, so it was kind of perk that the guy was an evil jerk. That said though, I think it was important that we talked with him first. It’s really tempting to kill all of the monsters we run into in order to feel safe but if they’re ‘people’ enough that we can communicate with them then we really have to try to. We need more allies and the Consortium is everyone’s enemy.”

“True but we’re still pretty low level,” Cammie said. “I’m not sure we can handle all of the things in here.”

“If you run into anything too bad, pull back,” Tessa said. “My team doesn’t have that many levels yet, but if you run into something overleveled and we all go out as a full raid team then we may be able to get through it. Hopefully.”

Cammie was silent for a moment.

“How do you do it?” she asked at last. “Were you a soldier or something in the real world?”

“No,” Tessa said, the restrained desperation in Cammie’s mental voice coming as a complete surprise. Cammie had seemed so confident and laid back that Tessa had assumed she’d had some combat experience in the real world. “I was just a programmer. I never served anywhere.”

“Oh,” Cammie said with a note of puzzlement. “Wait, do you see the code or something then? Can you hack the system?”

“I don’t have Matrix-vision or anything like that. I’m not ‘The One’, or anybody special at all.”

“Are you just naturally this fearless then?”

Tessa stifled a chuckle. 

“I am definitely not fearless,” she said. “This stuff is terrifying.”

“But you’re still doing things,” Cammie said. “You’re risking death again and you’ve risked it before. I mean, some of us have gone out there and some are pretending that the stuff we’re fighting is no big deal, but I don’t think anyone really wants to be doing this. Not once we heard that people are getting eaten by the [Hounds of Fate]. More than before people are pulling back, but it’s like nothing stops you.”

“Ask Lost Alice about that and she’ll explain, in detail if you want, why I probably should be stopped,” Tessa said. “The thing is though? I’m not doing this stuff because I’m brave. All the things I’ve done? It’s all been because my team needed me to. I can’t be brave for myself very easily, but being brave for them? For the people who need me? That’s a lot easier somehow.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 5, Ch 1

Tessa earned her leadership role the old fashioned way. Not through trial by combat. Not through bribery and extortion. No, this was the oldest, most primal path to leadership. 

She didn’t say no fast enough when no one else wanted it.

She couldn’t blame the townsfolk of [Sky’s Edge] for not wanting the job. Trying to keep a group of adventurers under control was similar to trying to keep a forest fire under control with shot glass full of water. 

That the other adventurers hadn’t stepped forward either wasn’t a surprise either. It loot was on the table people might be motivated to state their opinions, but when it came to dealing with a horde of over leveled undead, letting someone else handle it seemed like a fine idea apparently.

Also, for a lot of them, their first exposure to Pillowcase had been seeing her riding a gigantic serpent of lava, or hearing tales of it second hand. It wasn’t as impossible as it sounded. Darren was a pretty chill guy for a creature of lava the size of a tall building, and she and Lost Alice had done him a solid favor. 

As a “monster”, Darren seemed to be outside the telepathic network which mirrored the game’s communication system, but Tessa did want to touch base with him before too much time passed. All she knew was that after he’d incinerated the Consortium’s troops and burned [Sky’s Edge] to the ground, he’d returned back to the unfinished dungeon in the [Sunless Deeps] to begin fortifying it as a proper refuge against another one of their incursions.

“We shall take our leave of you now,” Vixali said. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you all, and I’m sure we look forward to our next encounter.”

Tessa suspected the Vampire Queen meant her words literally, but circumstance and her demeanor gave each one a sinister turn.

“Let’s hope our next encounter is under more pleasant conditions than this one,” Lost Alice said. Tessa marveled at how even so simple a phrase could carry menacing connotations. Was it a threat to Vixali not to allow her vampires to appear before them so hungry and riled up again? Was it a wish that the next encounter would see the adventurers in a position to harvest the vampire’s oh-so-valuable body parts? Or was it a genuine expression meant to convey exactly what the words sounded like they were meant to convey? As near as Tessa could tell the answer was “yes, all of the above”.

Vixali didn’t seem distressed by the layered meanings of the response. Intrigued, or perhaps even appreciative, was a better description and with an enigmatic smile of her own, turned and took her coterie away with her.

“Well that was exciting,” Rip said. She had her bow in her hands and an arrow waiting to be knocked. Beside her Matt was not-very-casually, passing his staff from one hand to the other.

“Oh that’s just round 1,” Lisa said, her voice distinctly different from Lost Alice’s, at least to Tessa’s ears.

“They’ll be back?” Matt asked.

“They’re not really leaving,” Lisa said.

“They’re invisible? Or like turned to mist?” Rip asked.

“No,” Tessa said, drawing on Pillowcase’s knowledge. “They’re senses are good enough that they can move away pretty far and still know exactly what we’re doing.”

“Should we be talking out loud then?” Rip asked.

“Yeah, we should,” Lisa said. “Wouldn’t them to forget that some of us have senses that are just as good as theirs so we can hear and smell them even as they try to crawl up onto the ceiling and wait in the corridors we might need to use.”

Lisa wasn’t at all subtle and Tessa caught a few distant a muffled curses along with the sound of the vampires moving farther off.

“We should talk privately too though,” she said on the team channel so that only their immediate party could hear it.

Tessa checked and found that Starchild, Lady Midnight and Obby were still partied up with them though the three were off helping the townsfolk get settled in.

“We can join you for a group discussion if you want,” Lady Midnight said. “People need to gather water and some of those edible mushrooms so we’re guarding the villagers as they collect the stuff they need for their families.”

“Oh! Have you found any more monsters?” Rip asked.

“None yet,” Obby said. “It looks like the place isn’t respawning while we’re here. If it does though we don’t want to learn that by losing any of the villagers.”

“Escort quests are so fun,” Pete, Starchild’s player, said. Tessa thought she could recognize his voice fairly easily too. 

It was strange because the distinction between Pillowcase’s voice and her own had faded. It wasn’t that Pillowcase was gone. Tessa could still feel the memories of her time as a Consortium Automata. 

She could even talk to herself with the inflection and artificial resonance of her [Clothwork] body if it helped.

It was the sense of “otherness” which had diminished in the wake of the long and losing battle in the [Sunless Deeps]. It was as though the fight had pushed her so far the line between “Tessa’s knowledge” and “Pillowcase’s skill” had been erased and without that, she was able to see that both women we different sides of who she truly was.

But she still thought of herself as “Tessa”, so maybe that process wasn’t quite as complete as it could be? Whatever the case was, she felt more comfortable in her own skin, even if fabric rather than human skin that her body was wrapped in.

“Do you need any help?” Rip asked, addressing Pete but sending the question on the Alliance channel all of the adventurers in the area were a part of.

“I think we’re good,” Cammie Anne Do said. “My teams was talking about doing a sweep to see if we have any other interesting neighbors like the vampires. If you think that’s ok?”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Tessa said. “Stay in contact though. If there are trap areas those could take out a team in a blink. Oh, and let’s have a team stand guard around the [Heart Fire]. As long as there’s any chance we might die in here, we need to keep that operational and attuned to our side.”

“Do we know if the [Heart Fire] in [Sky’s Edge] survived?” Cammie asked.

“Pretty sure it’s toast,” Lisa said. “The Consortium couldn’t use them last time they invaded, but even if that’s as true here as it was in the game, we can’t be sure they haven’t figured out how to take them over in the interim.”

“Does anyone know how to rebuild them?” Matt asked.

“The devs?” Lisa said. “I don’t remember the lore on who set them up originally.”

“They were a last gift from the gods before the [Fallen Kingdoms] fell wasn’t it?” Tessa said, searching her human memories since Pillowcase’s were contained only tactical info on the [Fallen Kingdoms] and were rather lacking in historical context.

“Some existed before [The Fall],” Obby said. “During [The Fall] though is when most of the fires were lit, which kind of makes sense given that fires are all sparks of divine power.”

“So, we need a god to rebuild them?” Matt asked.

“Not exactly,” Obby said. “The [Heart Fire Braziers] were constructed by mortals to allow clear access to the divine spark. In theory if we had the right skills capped out, and the proper materials, we could build one. We’d just need a divine spark to put inside it.”

“Those don’t sound like they’re easy to come by,” Rip said.

“I mean, if you can call up a god, it’s probably pretty simple,” Obby said. “In this case we probably wouldn’t even need that though.”

“Why?” Tessa asked, wondering how deep of a Lore Nerd Obby was.

“The [Heart Fire Brazier] in [Sky’s Edge] may have been melted by the [Servant of Fire] but even a big old guy like that can’t exactly burn a spark of divine fire out right?” Obby said. “The spark’s probably still there. All we’d need to do is rebuild the brazier to hold it again. You know, if we were paragon tier craftsman and had the rarest of building materials to work with.”

Lisa laughed.

“Feel like grinding up your crafting skills in a cave with a pile of scraps?” she asked.

“Sure, I’ll get right on that,” Obby said with a laugh to match Lisa’s.

“Do you think the Consortium knows that the spark is still there?” Rip asked.

Tessa considered that for a moment. [Heart Fires] weren’t part of the Consortium’s standard tool kit (since the metaphysics which allowed them to function in the [Fallen Kingdoms] wasn’t common across other realm), but they were aware of the [Heart Fires] existence in general.

“It’s possible they don’t know about it yet,” Tessa said, testing the validity of the idea as she spoke the words. “They have sensors that can pick up on things like that, and they know to look for things like the [Heart Fires] but with the strike force eliminated, they may not have been able to send any of the scan data back to the fleet.”

“They wouldn’t have had enough bandwidth?” Rip asked.

“Not for a full local scan,” Tessa said. “Whether their carrier did a remote scan is a separate question.”

“I don’t think they would have,” Matt said. “With..uh…Darren’s arrival they should have returned to their carrier.”

“They were up in space though weren’t they?” Rip asked.

“Yeah, but they’re used to dealing with planetary defenses that can blow up things like the moon,” Matt said. “It’s just not smart to mess around when something shows up you weren’t expecting and it wipers out all of your forces in about two seconds.”

“That’s fair,” Rip said. “But it also means they might come back and get the spark then right?”

“Not ‘might’. Will. They’ll definitely be sending another force. The only question is when and what it’ll be composed of.” Tessa said.

“They’ll be able to read that Darren is gone, right?” Lisa asked.

“They’ll be able to tell that their sensors aren’t picking him up,” Tessa said. “Depending on who they have commanding this invasion that will either mean that they send a strike force capable of defeating two of him or they send one capable of capturing him.”

“Assuming they have that kind of force left,” Lisa said. “I’ve heard from my friend Cease All. She was part of the counter raid they did. It sounds like the raid teams did a lot of damage and the Consortium forces who are on the ground zones are fortifying the cities they’ve already taken.”

“Huh, that’s odd.” Tessa said. “Most Consortium [Commanders] would have ordered another attack. They tend to have really fragile egos and not a lot of patience for protracted engagements. When they come into a world like this they want to strip mine it as fast as they can, even if it means burning everything to cinder and packing up the ashes to take home as their loot.”

“So, are we happy that this one’s not doing that?” Rip asked.

“Maybe?” Tessa said. “Patient and measured is great in an ally. In a foe it means they’re not going to make a lot of obvious and easy to exploit mistakes.”

“But they still can make mistakes,” Matt said. “Like giving us time to recruit allies.”

“Yeah, uh, nice work with the stuff in the [Sunless Deeps],” Rip said. “And thanks for coming back for us.”

“In hindsight I should have taken you with me,” Tessa said, offering Lisa a nod of recognition. “If Alice hadn’t jumped in after me, I would have been a ghost a few minutes in. I think together we would have had a much better chance.”

“Thank you,” Lisa said on a private channel between the two of them.

“So does that mean you’ll take us along when we go to talk with out next recruit?” Rip asked.

“Yeah, about that, anyone think going to visit a dead god is a good idea?” Tessa asked.

“Nope.”

“Probably not.”

“Definitely going to get us killed.”

“But we’re going to do it anyways, right?” Tessa asked.

“Yep.”

“Of course.”

“Like you’ve even got to ask?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Interlude 4

Interlude – Whiteweather

As with all things, action could only be taken at the proper time if success was to be ensured. Whiteweather gazed at the report on Azma’s fleet deployments and could almost feel numbers winding around her neck. The thought of pulling on that noose gave him a joy few other things could.

He was going to destroy her. It was for the good of the Consortium, of course, but primarily it was because he simply couldn’t tolerate her anymore. She had what he deserved.

“Sir, I have the analysis you requested from the New Expansions Analytics team,” one of Whiteweather’s underlings said.

Whiteweather took the report and scanned to the bottom line. The boys in Analytics liked to ramble on, when all that mattered was the final number to answer the question “had the expense of Azma’s strategy proven that she was a liability to the Consortium yet”.

The answer to the question was obvious and inarguable.

But the boys in Analytics got it wrong.

“Task Force Commander Azma is operating within acceptable expense parameters when both projected and immediate returns are weighed against the resources which have been expended and the one which are currently engaged.”

In short, Azma was doing a good job.

Whiteweather shot his underling. That would go against his bottom line but he wasn’t the one waging a prestigious campaign which had absorbed funding from the next five largest initiatives in their division, so he had more leeway for waste.

Whiteweather flipped back to the beginning of the report.

The bottomline was meaningless. A useless statistic used by the cheap under performers to hide their negligence until it was too late to do anything about it.

The breakdown of the overall project to open the new market was divided into broad areas of accountability. From transportation rates, to supple costs, to administrative fees, the overall cost of the war effort (Whiteweather didn’t bother trying to label it as anything other than what it was, one of the few traits he shared with Azma) was categorized into neat buckets to allow for consistent evaluation between wildly different operations.

Whiteweather passed by the top level summaries. Obviously they were distractions, having barely any more data than the bottom line cost. No, he was going to dig into the costs item-by-iterm and determine just where Azma was failing.

At his request, his terminal began loading the full itemized report of Azma’s little vanity project. 

Whiteweather waited.

He could have had the original report delivered digitally. The paper version was an affectation meant to display his thoroughness. Also it showed the underlings where they ranked.

A scrubber drone was demonstrating that reality as well by cleaning up the remains of the one who’d brought in the initial report.

Whiteweather smiled. The scrubber drones had it right. They did they job, gave no backtalk and never asked for recognition or praise they didn’t merit.

Unlike Azma. 

She’d demanded recognition for everything she did. 

And when she didn’t get it, people “mysteriously” tended to turn up dead.

Which was why Whiteweather wasn’t going to go against her directly.

He could.

He was smart enough, and vital to the Consortium. She couldn’t touch him.

But still direct action was wasteful, even if it posed no danger at all to him. 

No danger whatsoever.

Whiteweather scanned his office for bugs and found only the expected oversight devices Upper Management installed in every critical employees office.

Azma didn’t have him bugged.

She didn’t even know he was building a case against her.

Why was the report taking so long though?

Did she have the data stream monitored?

Whiteweather scrambled for the cancel button but saw that the report was simply still downloading.

The item by item breakdown couldn’t be that large could it?

Fifteen minutes later he discovered that, yes, it both could be and was.

He returned to the top level breakdowns. The item-by-item review was a trap. Too easy to hide critical information in the sea of data. You needed a broad perspective to catch the errors Azma was making. A perspective only someone like Whiteweather could have.

He was going to catch her.

And he was going to destroy her.

And she would never see it coming.

He was sure.

Interlude – The Nightmare Queen

There was an existential threat to the realm. A force from outside the boundaries of the world’s reality was making war upon the [Fallen Kingdoms]. The Nightmare Queen was unhappy with that, and, usually, things she was unhappy with tended to disappear, eaten by hungry shadows and excreted into the slime pools in the lowest depths of the [Sunless Deeps] if they were very very luck. Despite the Nightmare Queen’s displeasure though, the [Consortium of Pain’s] forces were able to proceed with their conquest without restraint.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t stop them.

The moment the Consortium’s ships had passed into the arcanosphere which defined her universe, they fell within the Nightmare Queen’s dominion.

It was both her right and her responsibility to remove such parasites but she stayed her hand in the face of the ever more grave disruptions the Consortium’s forces wrought in the battles.

She wasn’t afraid. Not of the Consortium at least. Her Empress however had made a passing comment about allowing events to play out without interference, and so she took no action, a passing comment from the True Empress being essentially a mandate written into the structure of the cosmos.

“Hey, how are things going here?” Jin asked, appearing in the Nightmare Queen’s throne room with only an after image of the pomp and ceremony which should have accompanied the arrival of any visitor, and especially one as august as her.

“My realm is under assault by forces from without who are even now conspiring with those within the realm to wide the scope of the incursion, my Empress,” the Nightmare Q ueen said.

“How are you holding up though?” Jin asked. She could have taken the Queen’s throne without even a gesture, but she chose instead to wander to the sides of the room where the Nightmare Queen kept souvenirs from other incursions she had dealt with.

The pieces functioned as deeply alien objects d’art, serving to unsettle those who came into her presence as much as they acted as cheerful reminders of the victories she’d won in the past.

“How am I…?” The Nightmare Queen wasn’t sure she could parse that question. She understood the words and the intent, but it was something which had never been asked of her before, not even by herself.

She glanced around the room, as though an answer might be lurking in dark corners of her grand hall. When those proved to be empty, the Nightmare Queen looked inside herself instead.

“I…am well?” she said. 

“Cool,” Jin said, picking up a Klein bottle made of shards of congealed space time.

“Have you come to a decision about this realm?” the Nightmare Queen asked. She could have said “about destroying this realm” but uttering those words would make them too real.

“Not yet,” Jin said. “Everything is still in flux, so its possible all of the worlds involved are still salvageable. That you’re still in good shape is a positive sign, though I’m sad to say it’s not conclusive.”

“Is there anything I can do to be in better shape?” the Nightmare Queen asked. Her own existence wasn’t completely tied to the state of her realm, but if the [Fallen Kingdoms] were lost then what remained of her wouldn’t be the Queen of anything.

“I don’t think so?” Jin said. “I’ll let you know if I find anything that could help, but the instability we’re looking into isn’t in you.”

“Is it something the invaders have done?” the Nightmare Queen asked. She transacted with reality on a deeper level than the inhabitants of her realm. Even the gods, when they’d been alive, couldn’t match her authority over what was and what could not be.

With a thought, she could sense the state of the material world, reads the hearts of those who lived within it, and follow the strands of fate which lead from each action as they split into the variety of outcomes which could occur. The vast depth of her vision showed her one thing clearly though; she was not omniscient.

When her True Empress spoke of the world being unstable, the Nightmare Queen held no doubt that it was true. She could find no instability anywhere she looked, but the effects of one were plain to seen.

More troubling though, was the sense that she herself had changed as well. Perhaps as a result of the attack?

“This goes well beyond anything like the Consortium,” Jin said. “Left to their own devices, they could have made it here, and they might have been able to conquer the realm, assuming you didn’t interfere. Even at their most dire though, they couldn’t inflict the kind of damage that brought us here. I’m not sure even you could, unless things changed drastically.”

The Nightmare Queen felt a chill. She could rewrite all life in the [Fallen Kingdoms]. She could change the fundamental rules of the world if she wished. What sort of destruction could be beyond even her?

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / Burnt Toast

More experts had been called in to answer the impossible question of “what is going on here”. Hailey didn’t envy any of them.

“You look like you’re waiting for something,” Marcus said. He’d joined her in the support center breakroom, as eager to escape the pointless babble that kept spewing from Agent Limner’s mouth as she was.

“Waiting?” she asked. The only thing she was waiting for was her courage to gather up enough, and she’d thought she’d been hiding that fairly well.

“Yeah, maybe for us all to wake up and this to blow over?” Marcus said. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but none of this feels real. Or, no, maybe it feels too real. Like this can’t be happening to us, you know?”

Marcus was Hailey’s manager but that hadn’t kept them from developing a friendship based on mutual appreciation and respect. On Marcus’s part, all he’d had to do was treat her like a person and value the contributions Hailey made to the team, and on hers, Hailey had simply had to be willing to challenge him when the need arose without degrading him. 

“I kept trying to tell myself that too,” Hailey said. “We’re support reps. We’re only important in an imaginary game. We’re nobody really. It would be so nice to believe that, but here we are, and this is all happening.”

“I just wish there was something we could do,” Marcus said. “I mean beside collecting information and coordinating things as much as we can. I know that’s helping, but, I don’t know, it just seems like so little. I mean, we’ve got kids who were playing this game who are honest-to-god risking their lives against evil space aliens.”

Hailey started to reply and caught herself.

Did she want to bring Marcus in on her plan? Did she want to make it that real? What if she decided to back out? Wouldn’t it be easier if no one knew?

“There is something more we can do,” Hailey said, putting her feet on the path she’d chosen before she was consciously aware she’d made her choice at last.

“Talk to the FBI?” Marcus said. “We both tried that and you saw how that worked out.”

“No. Not the FBI. They’re not on the front lines of this,” Hailey said. “But we can be.”

Marcus looked like he was about to make a flippant comment, but he stopped when he saw the look in Hailey’s eyes.

“What do you mean? We can’t use our GM accounts for anything. We saw what happened. It was bad.”

“That’s not our only option. Or it’s not my only option.”

“You can’t login into your old account though. We locked those out.”

“We did. After we knew what was going on for sure. But we didn’t terminate any accounts that were still logged in.”

“Wait. You were logged into your personal account?” Marcus asked. “You’ve been logged in this whole time?”

“Yeah. This whole time. Just waiting.”

“For what?”

“For her to be ready.”

“Who?”

“The other me,” Hailey said as luminous sparks rose from her hands and she became pure light.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Interlude 3

Interlude – Peter Kilkarney

The monitor was off. It was unplugged. It had neither power nor connection to a computer, and yet its  screen still glowed with a soft mother-of-pearl glow.

“They’re both like this,” Peter said, gesturing towards his son’s room.

“Do they have batteries?” Officer Melissa Astra asked.

“No.” Peter wanted to say more, but not screaming was important and he didn’t think he could do both.

“Do you know what time your children disappeared last night?” Officer Beth Smith asked.

“They were here at 11:00,” Peter said. “I checked on them and told them to close up what they were doing before midnight.”

“That’s late for a school night isn’t it?” Smith asked.

“Yeah. They’re normally supposed to be in bed by 10:30. It was launch night though and they’d both been waiting for it for months, so, we made an exception.”

Intellectually, Peter knew the exception wasn’t what had made the difference. He’d seen the videos. He knew story people were passing around. It wasn’t his fault and it wasn’t  Samantha’s or John’s fault. He believe that, on some level, but the knowledge did absolutely nothing to hold back the waves of guilt that poured over him.

“Did your wife see them after that?” Astra asked.

“No, she went to bed early. She was supposed to have an early meeting this morning,” Peter said, running his hand through his hair. For weeks, Krissy had been worried about losing funding for the library. She and Peter had gone over projections and she’s used him as a sounding board for her speech a dozen times. Neither of them had ever imagined that when the day for the budget meeting came it would be the least important thing on anyone’s mind.

“This isn’t a typical missing persons case,” Smith said. “And that’s good and bad.”

The call to the police had been made the instant Krissy and Peter understand that their teenage children weren’t playing a trick on them. It could have gone out hours earlier and been too late though. If what the people online were saying was true, it was already too late when Peter said good night to them.

“Is someone…” Peter wasn’t sure what he wanted to ask. Words refused to lock together into sentences much less complete thoughts. “Is someone fixing this?”

The two officers turned to look at each other as though weighing who was required to answer. When Officer Smith spoke, it was with a shake of her head to cast off the bland party-line they were expected to spout.

“The official story is that all options are being pursued and all available experts are being brought in on it,” Smith said. “I don’t know what kind of experts there are on this kind of thing though. What I can tell you is that we’re going to do everything we can here.”

“How…what can you do?” Peter asked.

“We’re setting up a special channel with the National Runaway Switchboard,” Astra said. “These cases aren’t typical runaway or abduction cases but if the people who are missing are able to make it back we want to make sure we can reunite them with their families no matter where they show up.”

“”That’s good. That sounds really good.”

“We’re also coordinating with the people who are still logged into the game but haven’t been abducted yet,” Smith said. “I don’t have the details but many of them have agreed to pass communications into and out of this game world where the abductees are being taken.”

“The communications will be monitored though,” Astra said. “I guess people still aren’t certain that the people inside the game are actually people.”

“How do we get into that?” Peter’s hand shook as he asked the question. He’d imagined losing his children many times. It seemed like something all parents did. The reality of it though was so alien and unfathomable though.

He’d only been living with it for a couple hours. Or maybe it was six? Or eight?  His time sense had crumbled under stress and nothing seemed quite real, despite the fact that he couldn’t deny that Sam and John were gone.

It was afternoon? It seemed like they should be getting home. Maybe it wasn’t yet time for that yet. Peter couldn’t be sure without checking a clock and couldn’t focus enough to handle that at the moment. 

The house was empty of children a lot these days. Sam and John had activities and school and friends. Somehow that was different though. The silence that had swallowed the house since the morning had weight and substance. It pressed down on him like a mountain and ran sharp edges through him every time he stopped to notice it. 

Smith and Astra shared another conspiratorial glance.

“Technically, we’re supposed to take down your information, including the account and character names that your children were playing,” Smith said. “When we get back to the station we can enter it into the database and then one of the coordinators will reach out to you to setup a special mailbox you can send to.”

“They’ll tell you about message size limites and the frequency you can expect them to be processed in,” Astra said, before looking over at Smith and nodding.

“We’ll do that, but I think you’ll want this too,” Smith said and handed Peter an iPhone with an enchanting mermaid design on its cases.

“What is this?” Peter asked.

“It’s my personal phone,” Smith said. “I’ve got the communication app already installed on it. Check the entry under your name.”

Peter scrolled through a list of “K” family names until he found a joint entry for “Kristina and Peter Kilkarney”.

There was already a message waiting for him from Sam.

“Mom/Dad – John and I are fine. We’re safe and with our guildmates. People are figuring out what happened here and looking for a way home. I don’t know how how quick that’ll be, but we will work it out and get back to you, ok? Just don’t worry. John’s afraid you’re going to be going crazy, but I told him you know the kind of kids you raised. We can handle this, and we’ll see you again soon. I can’t wait to show you the real magic I can do now! Love -Sam”

It was only words, only letters on a screen, but Peter could hear Sam’s voice behind them.

Literally hear her voice.

The tears that rolled down his face were an alloy of joy and wonder.

The world had turned into something it wasn’t supposed to be, and then it had turned into something more than he could have dreamed.

Interlude – The Reverend Gerald Cook

Reverend Gerald Cook, and he required people to use his proper title, waited for the signal that the cameras had started rolling. The key to great fortune was projecting the right image to the masses and an appearance on a well rated cable news show to discuss the inexplicable wave of abductions was the perfect moment to land a mighty fortune indeed.

The key, he knew, wasn’t to fan the fears of the masses. The news would do that just fine on its own. Being part of the fear meant being behind the curve. He needed to be out in front of things. To lead the easily swayed. Especially those with cash they would part with in exchange for offers he would never have to deliver on.

It didn’t occur to Gerry Cook that he might be facing a true apocalypse. The world wasn’t going to end because it hadn’t ever ended before, but it sure was profitable that people thought it was going to.

“On the air in 10…9….8…” one of the techs said.

Gerry waited for the host of the news segment to introduce him and ask his opinion on the “unimaginable tragedy that was taking place”.

“Well, the LORD SAYS…” Gerry began and stopped.

He’d had words to say. He’d had a fiery and sound bite rich speech prepared, all set to grab onto those who were terrified of the events unfolding around them and willing to pay any price for security.

He’d had that but then a massive stroke took it all away. 

It was the subject of much debate later. The perhaps-not-so-Reverend Gerald Cook had began to speak for the All Mighty and had been struck down. Or a man of moderately advanced age, and poor health habits had succumbed to a common medical ailment at a moment of excitement which stressed his body.

In theory there was nothing noteworthy about the stroke, and it offered no actual evidence that a higher power was listening and displeased with Cook’s blasphemy in presuming to speak for the divine. That he wasn’t the only person to attempt to rally people into religious hysteria who suffered permanently debilitating bodily collapses though was a statistically significant anomaly. One which the mathematically inclined silently agreed to overlook unless they were give no other choice.

Interlude – Firemaw

Being a giant dragon with an enormous treasure pile and a home in an active volcano wasn’t quite as wonderful as Firemaw had hoped it would be.

“Is there a mode of address which is pleasing to you?” the representative of the [Consortium of Pain] asked.

Visitors were high on Firemaw’s list of unpleasant aspects of his current him.

In an ideal world, his lair would be tucked away in some lost little plane where only the end of the world could reach him. He guessed that would keep the incoming queue of unwanted trespassers down to a few per day rather than every twenty to thirty minutes as it usually was.

“I am not interested in being addressed,” Firemaw said. “I am however inclined to eat you. You seem to be new. I’m not sure what your species will taste like.”

“If you wish to devour me, the [Consortium of Pain] will offer me freely,” the representative said. “If I am disagreeable, we will send another ambassador of a different species.”

Firemaw blinked. That was not how the banter was supposed to go.

“Why?” he asked. “Why would you do this?”

“The Consortium recognizes your might and value,” the representative said. “We wish to negotiate a mutually equitable arrangement with you to further both of our interests. If the consumption of some of our employees is needed to seal the deal, then that is a price we are willing to pay.”

It was madness. And likely a bluff. So Firemaw ate the representative.

Ten minutes later another one was at the entrance to his lair.

“Was your meal satisfactory?” the new representative asked.

“He was somewhat bland,” Firemaw said.

“I am afraid that is likely true for myself and most of my coworkers,” the representative said. “We could come prepared with flavor enhancers if you would be willing to provide a list of acceptable condiments?”

“I’ve always found fear to be a delicious seasoning,” Firemaw said.

“Oh. I am afraid. So afraid,” the representative said in a sad attempt to mimic genuine terror.

Firemaw ate him anyways, but he tasted even blander than the first one somehow.

Ten minutes later the next representative appeared.

“I believe I may be of better service,” he said. “I am in a constant state of abject terror.”

Firemaw raised an eyebrow. The representatives body was shaking like someone caught in the grip of mortal terror but the whole tenure of his voice and the expression on his face was all wrong.

He ate the representative anyways, the ten minutes of peace was worth it if nothing else, but this one was the worst of the lot. The artificial fear was sour and cloying, a mockery of what made people worth eating in the first place.

“We have refined the recipe further,” the next representative said. “I should be 5% more tasteful than my predecessor.”

“Enough. Enough! Just, what do you want?” Firemaw asked, weary with disappointment.

“Why, to offer you a job of course!” the last representative said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Interlude 2

Interlude – Jenny Hendricks / Ghost Touch

The battle had been a desperate one, and Jenny knew she had no business being part of it. On the screen in front of her, Ghost Touch had her hands on her knees and was busy catching her breath – something which was not part of an animation Jenny had ever seen Ghost Touch do before.

The last fourteen hours had been full of things Jenny hadn’t ever seen before though. The new dungeons had been expected. Sort of. The new range of motion the characters displayed had not been though. And seeing someone on a live stream vanish in a shower of brilliant sparks? That was ridiculous. Real too. She knew that from how everyone else in the game was talking, but still just ridiculous.

“We should probably sit the next one out,” she told Ghost Touch.

“Agreed. That was too damn close,” Ghost Touch responded. Her words scrolling up the screen as she stood back up and looked around the adventurers who’d regrouped at the Astralogos Observatory.

Almost everyone had made it back, but more than a few hadn’t made it back alive. They were the lucky ones though. From the whispers going around, there were a few raid teams still unaccounted for.

Captives. The word haunted every conservation that was going on. Facing death was easy for most of the adventurers. Injuries didn’t hurt that much (supposedly, Jenny assumed there was a lot of bravado going on there) and death just meant you needed to respawn and try again. Unless the Hounds of Fate caught you, but nobody was really afraid of that (Jenny assumed they were all afraid of it but no one wanted to show it).

“Sorry,” Ghost Touch said. “We’ve danced through so many raids now without taking any damage, I forgot how bad new ones can be. Or how much I had to lose if I messed it up.”

“Hey! You did awesome!” Jenny said. “I was slow on the potions, but your dodging was perfect.”

“I had to,” Ghost Touch said. “You deserve to keep the life you have.”

Jenny felt like she could feel the wry grin in Ghost Touch’s words. 

Would living as a ghost in Ghost Touch’s head really be so bad? Maybe not, though Jenny had to admit it was nice to be facing things like Raging Space Janitors with Laser Chainsaws from the other side of a computer screen rather than up close an personal like Ghost Touch had to.

“Jenny…Jenny!” her father called. “You’re not playing that computer game of yours up there are you?”

“No Dad!” Jenny lied. She was supposed to be “sick” and recuperating. She’d set the excuse up the night before to make sure she’d have the whole first full day of the World Shift expansion’s launch free to explore the new zones and be ready for her guild’s raids.

“Get down here then,” her father shouted.

“I’ve got to take care of something here,” she typed to Ghost Touch. “Stay safe till I get back ok?”

“Will do,” Ghost Touch said and added after a second, “be careful with your father. Don’t want him to ban you from your computer.”

“That would suck,” Jenny replied. 

She turned off her monitor and the the backlighting on her keyboard before heading downstairs, knowing that if anyone else looked in and saw any part of the computer turned on they’d think she was wasting electricity, but if everything was dark, they’d assume the computer had to be “off”, thereby preserving her secret.

“Jenny get down here!” her father shouted again.

“Ok, ok!” she said and stomped down the stairs to show her displeasure at the arbitrary summons.

“Did you see this?” her father said gesturing at the TV where some random talking head guy was interviewing a “Dean of Computer Science”.

“Like I watch the news?” Jenny said. “I’m supposed to be resting today right?”

“Well listen,” her father said. “There’s some big thing with those computer games. They just said there’s a dangerous one out there. People are getting kidnapped if they play it or something.”

Jenny tried to hide her flinch. It really should have occurred to her that her parents would find out about what was going on. The whole world seemed to either know or was waking up to it. 

“You don’t play it though do you? The dangerous one? Fallen Angels or some demonic crap like that?” her father asked.

“Fallen Angels? No, I don’t play that.” Jenny retreated into the lie as deeply as she could. It was at least technically true that she did not play a game called “Fallen Angels”. Explaining that he was talking about a game called “Broken Horizons” and that there was nothing demonic about it wasn’t going to be something he could process though, so Jenny chose the path of least stress and stuck top her story.

“Good. Good,” her father said. “You should be careful though. If one of them is bad, they’re probably all bad. I should just take the that thing away to be safe.”

“I don’t play that much Dad,” Jenny said, panic surging through her veins. “And you know I need my computer for school work too.”

“Is everything ok?” the calming words were whispers in her ears, and the concern that came with them did make Jenny feel a bit braver, but also left her questioning her sanity. 

She couldn’t be hearing Ghost Touch. That wasn’t possible. Unless Ghost Touch had died? But then Jenny would have been sucked into the Fallen Kingdoms?

Wouldn’t she? Unless, did she need to be at the screen? Was she too far away? Had Ghost Touch been killed because Jenny wasn’t there for her and now their link was gone?

The thought brought a weird stab of agony into Jenny’s heart. She felt like she’d lost a limb, except the limb was her head. 

“I’m fine!” Ghost Touch said. “What’s wrong though. What’s terrifying you?”

Jenny wasn’t sure how she could answer, but it didn’t matter.

Her father had seen her panic.

“You’re hiding something,” he said, getting up off his couch with narrowed eyes. “Aren’t you?”

“No! I’m just…I’m just not feeling good,” she said.

“I can see that,” her father said. “You should go back to your room. Come on, get up there.”

Jenny’s mind raced in every direction it could. It flew back to her room where she would…what? Pretend to be resting? Could she afford to leave Ghost Touch without her help for that long? But if she tried to play, she would totally be caught, and then Ghost Touch might be without her forever.

Her thoughts raced out her door and down the street. Could she run away? Take her computer with her? It was heavy but…but she could carry it, just not without losing her internet connection.

What if she ran and, when they went out looking for her, she snuck back inside and…maybe she could slot in a USB wifi card? And a UPS. That would let her move the computer without losing her connection. Not that she had the money to get a wifi card or a UPS, but that didn’t stop the idea from screaming out to her as her one best hope.

“Why don’t you go back to laying down,” her father said as he followed her into her bedroom. “I’m just going to take this out for now. You can have it back for your homework once all this nonsense is over.”

Jenny turned, whirling in what felt like slow motion as she saw her father yanking on her computer’s power supply. 

“No…” She got only the smallest word out before sparks of brilliant light began to rise from her skin and her body blazed away.

Interlude – Beijing

It was a committee who acted. No one person was at fault. A Western company was responsible for several thousand disappearances and there had to be a response. Others might question if it was a good response, or even a wise one in the face of no good choices, but those others were not people the committee had to answer to.

At 6:20pm UTC, 2:20am local time in Beijing, “the Great Firewall of China” descended on the connections to Egress Entertainment’s foreign server cluster and their partner company inside the People’s Republic of China was disconnected from the network as well.

Also at 2:20am local time in Beijing, just shy of forty thousand people vanished in showers of brilliant light. 

News of the event was immediately restricted, but videos from hundreds of sources began appearing on foreign video hosting sites minutes thereafter.

At the highest levels of the government liaisons were being made, and the powerful scrambled looking for any options to save face.

On the ground though, over forty thousand Chinese families began the fight to save their loved ones and the world.

Interlude – Beth Myers

The call had come at two in the morning. Beth had finished a twelve hour shift and was less than two hours into a deep and dreamless sleep which she desperately needed. 

But the call had come.

Leslie was more than her best friend. They’d grown up together.since they were two years old. They’d faced the worst that their teenage years had to offer and stayed close as the frictions of adult life and diverging careers had struggled to tear them apart. Beth would jump on a grenade for any member of her squad, or anyone else in the service, well, almost anyone else, but there was no one in the world that she would get out of bed for at 2:00am in the damn morning and drive for three hours through the night for. 

Only for Leslie.

And for Trixie. 

“When’s mommy going to be back?” Trixie asked when, twelve hours later, Aunt Beth had finished reading her “How The Cheetah Got His Spots” for the seventh time. 

“She’s still out saving the world,” Beth said, having no better answer to give. 

It hadn’t been Leslie who’d called. It had been someone who’d never met Leslie in person. Someone who Beth had never met. An online friend of Leslie’s with the most impossible story. And an impossible to deny request.

“Is that gonna be before bed tonight?” Trixie asked.

“I think it’s going to take a bit longer than that munchkin,” Beth said, reaching for another book.

Trixie was quiet and curled up closer to Aunt Beth.

“Its gonna be scary when its dark,” she said. “We should turn the lights on.”

“Oh we will,” Beth said. “But it’s not going to scary at all. I’m going to be here with you, until your Mom gets back, and you know I’m soldier right. So I know all kinds of things to keep you safe.”

“No,” Trixie said. “I’m ok. I’m not scared.”

“Of course not,” Beth said. She’d never had kids of her own. She’d always been comfortable with the idea that Leslie had that taken care of for her. At least until Terry, Leslie’s husband had been killed in a car crash, leaving Leslie a single mother and reliant on pastimes that let her be at home when her daughter needed her.

Sitting down at a computer when Trixie was in bed wasn’t supposed to leave a little girl alone in their apartment with no one to care for her and Beth had violated the hell out of state and local speed limits to ensure that by the time Trixie woke someone was there to take care of her.

“But mommy. She might be scared. If it gets dark.”

“Oh, we’ll leave a light on, but I grew up with your mommy, and you know what secret I know about her?”

“No. What?” Trixie, eager and alert to learn something special about her mother.

“When I was your age? I used to be so scared of the dark I’d cry. I’m not scared anymore though and do you know why?”

“Cause you’re a soldier and you can karate chop bandits!” Trixie said, miming a decent karate chop.

“That I can, but I stopped being scared of the dark a long time before that and it was all because of your mommy.”

“My mommy? Can she chop bandits too?”

“Your mommy? She can do a lot more than that. Your mommy is so strong that it’s the things in the dark who are afraid of her.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Interlude 1

Interlude – Yawlorna

Yawlorna’s life had become a swirling vortex of chaos and confusion and, as a demon, she felt rather put out that she hadn’t been the cause of any of it.

“I think the pit’s finally starting to cool down,” Balegritz said, standing at still glowing edge of the pit to the underworld which Yawlorna’s forces had previously had sealed shut.

“And we are sure no one was injured in the passing of that…whatever that thing was?” Yawlorna asked. She was sitting down. Not in a particularly dignified pose, but it was better than sprawling on the ground or curling up in a corner, so she gave herself points for that. It had been that kind of day, which was saying something given how bad her people’s luck had been over the last few months.

“All present and accounted for,” Balegritz said. “There’s a new hole in the cliff face outside the main gate though, and, uh, it’s not exactly a small one.”

“The lava creature melted a path through the earth rather than simply climbing the cliff? Why?” Yawlorna asked, knowing the answer was likely nothing sensible.

“Maybe it likes digging?” Balegritz said. “It looked like it was long enough to scale the cliff without trying all that hard.”

“And the two who were riding it? The adventurers? Pillowcase and Lost Alice?” Yawlorna had been concerned about them to a small degree, and about what they might lure back to the surface if they returned to a larger degree. In hindsight, she judged that ‘concern’ was far too mild an outlook. Outright terror seemed appropriate, with perhaps a dash of unadulterated panic thrown in for good measure.

“They seem to be doing fine,” Balegritz said.

“That thing melted solid stone with its touch and burrowed through it faster than we can run. What sort of aberrations were those two that they weren’t reduced to cinders?”

“I don’t know if it was the thing’s touch that melted the stone,” Balegritz said. “It seemed to project some kind of field ahead of it.”

“It was made of lava,” Yawlorna said. “Glowing. Hot. Lava.”

“It’s head seemed to be stone though. Maybe that part wasn’t that hot?” Balegritz said.

“That’s…that’s not how heat works!” Yawlorna objected, finding herself on her feet without noticing she’d stood up. Before she did anything rash on the poor, undeserving Balegritz, she took a calming breath and composed herself. “Traveling through melting rock should have raised any number of fatal issues. Convection not being the least of them.”

“It…didn’t?” Balegritz offered. “You know we don’t understand everything about this world. Maybe convection works differently here?”

“No…that’s not…” Yawlorna paused and pinched the bridge of her nose.

The basics of heat exchange had to work the same on this unstable world as it did on the far more sensible one her people hailed from. If it didn’t, things like lighting one of the hundreds of torches they used wouldn’t have been possible. 

Once, Yawlorna would have been endlessly fascinated by the contradictions between the observable physical phenomena. She could have written countless thesis papers and applied for nearly infinite grants to study the underlying physics of the realm she was trapped in. The answers to the deepest mysteries of creation might well be visible in the cracks between the conflicting “laws” which defined the [Fallen Kingdoms].

That was Yawlorna-the-scientist though. Yawlorna-the-castaway and Yawlorna-the-commander-of-the-crash-survivors were not the woman she’d once been. In place of the scientific curiosity which had led her to the particular Hell she was currently residing in, Yawlorna had only an ever-growing yearning for home.

She shuddered as a terrible thought swept through her.

The yearning within her was strong. Strong enough that she was going to take the worse risk she could imagine. It was a choice she knew she should flee from, a choice that was more likely to lead to a spectacularly horrible fate, but in the end she wasn’t sure it was even a choice at all.

“Send a message to the adventurers,” she said, with the sensation that she was casting herself into an unknowable abyss. “Tell them they’ve proven their point. We should be allies.”

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

As Hailey had predicted the FBI’s “Cyber Security Expert” was every bit as clueless as everyone else when it came to understanding the “worldwide kidnapping event”.

“Clearly, something like this is unprecedented,” Special Agent Roger Marscom said as he reviewed the server logs Egress Entertainment’s IT staff had provided from inside their makeshift bunker.

“That’s why you can’t turn the servers off!” Martha Clark called out from the other side of the barricaded door.

“Yes, yes, clearly,” Marscom said. “We have no idea what that would do. We should…uh, we should…”

It was painful to watch the poor man flounder trying to absorb what he was seeing. Hailey had passed through denial, anger, bargaining, and despair but somehow had wound up on eagerness rather than acceptance.

She knew what her next step was, but it was sufficiently foolish that every instinct for self-preservation was holding her back.

For the moment.

She still had work to do where she was after all.

“We were thinking isolation would be the proper next step,” she offered. As a mid-tier support representative her words carried no authority or weight. As someone with a clear view of what was going on and intelligent contributions to make though, she felt qualified to speak nonetheless.

“I don’t know that’s been agreed too,” Agent Limner said, disagreeing with her on principal from what Hailey could see.

“It was what we discussed,” Marcus said. He was a manager, so his words should have carried some authority, but they were colored by the color of his skin and so Limner shook his head to shake them off as well.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Marscom said, grasping at any plausible suggestion regardless of its origin.

“We can’t disconnect the people who are already connected,” Hailey said, not caring that her words were going to fall on uncaring ears. She had to know she’d done what she could to make things right, before she took her next step. “What we can do though is limit their systems’ connections to other systems for time being. If whatever is behind this is spreading through the game client then we might be able to halt its spread if we lock down the game files.”

“But that’s ridiculous. Game files can’t be responsible for this. You must have installed some other whozamawhatsit,” Limner said waving his hands in dismissal of everything around him.

“There’s no harm in locking down the game files,” Marscom said. “We should see if we can lock the players who are still on out of the rest of the internet as well.”

“That’s more difficult,” Marcus said. “We know many of them have been frequenting message boards, and Discord servers, and streaming what’s going on.”

Also, Hailey thought, how do you lock them out of using another computer? Or their tablet? Or their phone? She suspected mass incarceration would be the obvious choice though she doubted that would work either.

“Yes, the news media is on fire with the story,” Marscom said.

“I’m impressed you got through the reporters outside,” Hailey said.

“Don’t worry about them,” Limner said. “We’ve got a cordone setup. And I’ve got agents interviewing some of those steamer guys.”

“Streamer,” Marscom corrected, saving Hailey the need of doing it herself.

“Those streams are being watched and rewatched by tens or hundreds of thousands of people,” Hailey said. “If you’re not getting reports of people vanishing after watching one, then they’re probably not a vector for whatever’s happening.”

“We can’t be sure of that. We just can’t be sure,” Limner said. 

Because, of course, Hailey couldn’t be right about anything.

“It’s too early to be sure of anything, but those streamers are providing an import service,” Marcus said.

“Stirring up panic? How is that a service?” Limner asked.

“They’re helping the players coordinate their efforts,” Hailey said. “You’ve seen the kind of things they’re fighting against. They need all the support they can get.”

No one else heard the declaration she was making, which was just as well since it meant no one would try to stop her.

Interlude – Azma

Things had not gone to plan. Azma was not unhappy with that. Things never to went to plan. If she allowed that to dictate her mood, she would be perpetually disgruntled. Instead she took joy in the victories she’d achieved and looked for opportunities to reverse her losses.

“What’s the status of the ships which we allowed to be invaded?” she asked. She’d been reviewing the footage from the first ship where the [Stasis Webs] had failed and hadn’t been keeping track of the final outcome of the various battles which had erupted.

“All exposed ships have been pulled back beyond the ‘apparent’ range of the defender’s teleportation portals,” Ryschild said.

“Two of the ships have live captives,” Grenslaw said. “Three others had corpses but the bodies have disintegrated.”

“How long did that take?” Azma asked, changing mental gears to process the new information.

“One minute from the time the last defender fell,” Grenslaw said.

“And did all of the bodies disintegrate at once?” Azma asked.

“No. There was a delay of eight seconds between the disintegration of the first body and the last.”

“And did that gap correspond to the times between their deaths?” Azma asked.

“No. They fell two minutes and twelve seconds apart,” Grenslaw said. “And they were not the first and last to fall.”

“Curious,” Azma said. “Likely a phenomena triggered by individual will rather than an automatic process. See if any of our sensors picked up unusual energy transmissions between the time of the first death and the last disintegration. Perhaps we can rig up a more comprehensive capture system next time.”

“Ground forces are reporting increased resistance as well,” Ryschild said. “They’re seeing movement by some of the greater powers we had been warned about.”

“Wonderful,” Azma said. “If they’re entering the fray already it means the primary defenders are extended well beyond their sustainable capacity.”

“We can begin recalling our forces for resupply whenever you give the order [Supreme Commander]” Grenslaw said.

“Leave the ones on the planet for now,” Azma said. “They need to push forward and raze more territory.”

“We have the complete list of secondary targets from our [Field Scouts]. What direction should we provide?” Grenslaw asked.

“Skip the secondary targets,” Azma said. “Those still possess some value. We don’t want to destroy the wealth we are trying to capture. Focus on tertiary areas. Place a high value on targets which are unlikely to have sentimental value. I want our adversaries to wonder what our aims are and I want them to understand there is a cost to diverting resources away from fighting our ground forces.”

“What about our forces on the satellite moon?” Grenslaw asked. “Do we send a new wave of troops in there.”

“No,” Azma said. “That’s not a particularly significant target yet. Our opponents would be using it as a staging platform if it was. Just have the troops we sent secure the area for now.”

“Apologies [Supreme Commander] but we have no forces in that area any longer,” Grenslaw said.

“What?” Azma had been so distracted by the fighting on her ships that she’d lost track of the fighting on the relatively less important [High Beyond]. Glancing at her console though she found a series of priority alerts, first signalling unexpected resistance, then overwhelming resistance, then confirmation on her strike forces obliteration. 

“I can have a platoon ready to transport directly there within twenty minutes,” Ryschild said.

“No,” Azma said, locking down any troop movement to the [High Beyond] from her console. “The answer to an unexpected loss is not to through more troops at it until the problem goes away. Something interesting is happening on the [High Beyond], and someone is fighting to protect it a lot harder than they should be. Let’s find out the answer to those mysteries first. Then we can deal with whoever thinks they can stand against us.”