Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 17

Tessa was dead. It wasn’t the best feeling. What really stung though was knowing that she’d failed.

“Well, that sucked,” Alice said, her ghost appearing in the [Deadlands] above the ground where she’d fallen. She rose, dusting herself off although none of the wispy grey smoke which blanketed the land clung to her.

Tessa hadn’t had time to peer into the living world but she could easily guess how things had gone.

The [Chaos Lasher]’s special [Explosion] move had been more than enough to shred a her, and once she was down the boss monster was free to eat the next person on its hate list, which was Alice thanks to all the healing she’d done. 

Surprising neither Tessa nor Alice, Rip and Matt appeared in ghost form a moment later. Once the healer was down there was basically nothing preventing the Lasher from turning them into confetti, so of course it had. 

“Hey, we’re alive!” Matt said, patting his once-again-human body. Or rather the ghost of his human body. “Well, maybe not alive.”

“That was as bad as the [Wraithwings],” Rip said . She looked less thrilled at having been knocked in a ghostly state, but also less surprised. Tessa’s first inclination was to correct that point, but there was a more important matter to deal with at the moment.

“We need to move,” Tessa said. “Back to the chapel.”

“But I don’t hear any of the wolves.” Matt had his head cocked, listening intently.

As if on cue, the howling of the [Hounds of Fate] echoed in the distance.

“At least we don’t have to go far,” Rip said as they ran from the farmhouse back into [Sky’s Edge].

They didn’t sprint the whole distance, but it was still a much faster jog than Tessa could have sustained in her normal body. Apparently despite looking like her human form, her ghost body wasn’t bound by the same limitations. Judging from how well the others kept up, the same seemed to be true for them as well.

For as convenient as being an untiring ghost might have seemed though, Tessa had no desire to remain in her ghost state any longer than necessary. With each step closer to the Chapel, the baying of the hounds seemed to draw three steps closer. Without discussion the party picked up their collective pace until they were outpacing the best sprint Tessa’d ever run in her life.

“How do they know we’re here?” Rip asked, scowling at the injustice of being chased after they’d already lost the battle.

“Maybe they can smell us?” Matt offered. He couldn’t shrug with how fast they running but the sense of one was there.

Tessa wasn’t immediately concerned with how they’d been detected, only with whether they would make it to safety of the chapel before the hounds arrived. She relaxed her pace a bit when they entered [Sky’s Edge] with time to spare, but then she caught sight of the other ghosts.

“Who are you? Where are we?” a tall and exceptionally thin man asked. Over his head a nameplate reading “Count MeIn” floated. Around him, five other people were clustered, with the same stamp of disbelief and bewildering punched into their faces.

“I’ll get them, you all get to the chapel,” Tessa said to her team. She wasn’t really a Tank, and she wasn’t a leader either, but sometimes circumstances make demands anyways.

Alice broke her stride and seemed to wrestle with following the order. After brief moment, and a glance at Rip and Matt though, her hesitation broke and she took off with them, shouting a quick “don’t waste time,” to Tessa as she left.

“What’s happening?” Count MeIn asked. He didn’t look like a leader either, but he was talking and the people around him were listening for a moment so Tessa jumped on the opening.

“You’re in the game, or somewhere that looks a lot like it. That howling means we need to get into the chapel over there for safety. Follow me.”

She didn’t wait to see if they would or not. Staying behind to answer questions or debate the issue would do nothing but get them turned into ghost doggie kibble. If the crowd was sensible enough to survive here then they’d follow her to safety. If not, then she wasn’t going to do anyone any good getting eaten with them.

Unsurprisingly, the new ghosts followed her, people being generally receptive to the idea of fleeing to a place of obvious safety when the world around them turns into a nightmare.

Inside the chapel, Tessa found all three of her teammates waiting for her. That gave her a brief ping of happiness. They could just as easily (and reasonably) have respawned within the chapel. They didn’t have to wait for her, and doing so was on some level a show of solidarity which Tessa wasn’t sure she’d earned yet.

“Ok, first, what the hell, second, no seriously, what the hell?” a woman named ‘Allwin’ asked.

“You were just playing Broken Horizons and your character died right?” Tessa asked. A chorus of affirmative responses answered her. “Let me bring you up to speed on what we know so far then.”

It didn’t take all that long, since there wasn’t that much Tessa could tell the new arrivals, but that didn’t stop them from asking a million and one questions anyways. A few dozen answers in, Alice whispered to Tessa telepathically to let her know she was going to take Rip and Matt into the living world to look for some things in [Sky’s Edge].

Sounds good, Tessa said. I’ll join you there once this bunch settles down.

We’ll plan our next move then, Alice whispered back.

“So, you said there’s a way back to Earth,” Allwin asked. “We just need to complete a quest?”

“That’s what my class guide said. Or that the quest would let us talk to someone who might be able to get us back. The quest requires access to a much higher level zone though, and there’s no guarantee that we can go back even if we finish it,” Tessa said.

“And communications with the support team are down?” Count MeIn said. “But we can messager each other?”

“Yeah, give it a try. We’re all telepathic now,” Tessa said.

There was a long moment of silence while the crowd around Tessa tried out their new abilities to communicate.

“Uh, I can’t do that,” a man named ‘Sly Blue’ said, tapping at the air in front of him as he tried to work his virtual keyboard.

Tessa was about to explain in more detail when she saw him stiffen, blink, and then nod.

“Oh, got it,” he said, responding audibly to instructions Tessa was sure had been provided telepathically.

From there the conversation grew much quieter as people discussed things privately with only the occasional question for clarification from Tessa. In the end she saw them come to a consensus when Allwin and Count Let MeIn nodded and turned back to her.

“This seems ridiculous,” Allwin said. “But hard to say its not real too. We’re going to respawn and take some time to get a lay of the land here.”

“We’d like to add you and your team as friends though, if that’s ok?” Count MeIn asked.

“Sure,” Tessa said. “Well, add me anyways. You’ll need to check with Alice and the others if they want to do that. I’m happy to act as a liaison in any case though.”

“Are you heading back out there?” Allwin asked.

“Eventually, yeah,” Tessa said.”We had a setback in the last fight though, so I need to see how the others want to handle it.”

“What happened?” Count MeIn asked. He seemed to be conscious of his size and took care to stand a little farther away to not be overbearing.

Tessa described the farmhouse battle and the [Chaos Lasher] which had all but ambushed them.

“Then it exploded and that was it for us,” she said. “We made it back here just before hounds caught up to us.”

“Oh, I don’t know that they were chasing you,” Allwin said. “Our party got taken out by a [Void Dragon] and we heard the hounds the whole time we were running back to town.”

“You fought a dragon! Where?” Tessa asked.

“There’s an invisible bridge about ten minutes north of town,” Count MeIn said. “We thought it was a glitch, but it took us into a new zone.”

“Fortunately when we died, we popped up outside the dungeon,” Allwin said. “I don’t remember seeing a [Heart Fire] inside it, so maybe we couldn’t? Anyways, we kind of panicked and all followed Sly back to town but then we had no idea what to do.”

“Have you played Broken Horizons before?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, most of us have,” Allwin said. “I think we were just in shock.”

“Take some time to catch your breaths then,” Tessa said. “I’m thinking we might be in this for the long haul.”

“I can’t see how we wouldn’t be,” Count MeIn said. “Let us know if you need anything ok? We’re all low level nobodies, but we might be able to help you out with something.”

“Yeah, we’re in the same boat, so you call if you run into anything too. Worst case, we can at least keep each other in the loop on what’s happening in the world.”

With that, they each respawned, Tessa going first and leaving the chapel once she was embodied in Pillowcase’s cloth-like flesh again, with a mission to find her team as her next objective. Fortunately, [Sky’s Edge] wasn’t a large town, so it wasn’t an epic quest to discover their location. They were gathered at Mister Pendant’s store finishing up their transactions.

“When you’re ready to carry stronger gear, let me know,” Mister Pendant said. “And if you have any items you wish to sell I can handle placing them up for auction.”

“What cut do you take?” Alice said.

“Auction services include a 5%, non-refundable, listing fee, and a 10% cut of the final sales price, minus the listing fee,” Mister Pendant said, his voice as smooth and warm as honey.

“Interesting, I thought it was 20%?” Tessa said.

“They reduced it a couple expansions back,” Alice said. “Too many people weren’t bothering with the auction house and the population was starting to thin at the lower levels.”

“With more crafters available, merchants such as myself are able to get quality wares more consistently as well, so the need to hedge against a lack of availability has been greatly reduced,” Mister Pendant said, gesturing to the items on the counter.

“What did you get?” Tessa asked, not sure which of the items were part of the purchase.

“These to start with,” Alice said and passed Tessa an [Iron Sword] and a [Guard’s Shield]. 

“You bought gear for me?” Tessa flushed. Starting adventurers didn’t have much cash as a rule. She had a small pouch of gold coins she received as a subscriber benefit when making a new character but it was nothing compared to the loot a high level player could collect, and not terribly impressive compared to the cost of even basic gear.

“I sent some money over from my main character before I made Alice. So we’re all set there. This should help protect you a little better. I’d have gone for armor too but the weakest gear he sells is still too high level for us.”

“Why can’t we just put it on anyways?” Rip asked.

“You could,” Mister Pendant said. “It wouldn’t offer much protection though because you’re not able to empower it properly. And you wouldn’t be bound to it.”

“I understood none of that,” Matt said.

“Items such as the armor I carry derive their value from more than their material composition,” Mr Pendant said. “The clothes you are wearing now are every bit as protective as the [Chain Shirt] I have in stock, at least for you.”

“How is that possible?” Rip asked. “I’m wearing fabric. The armor is, like steel or something isn’t it?”

“The fabric you wear is reinforced with the magic you carry,” Mister Pendant said. “Against a weapon or creature unable to penetrate the charms woven into each thread, it would stop even a spear thrust from an Ogre.”

“Except that Ogre’s have inherent magic too,” Alice said.

“Ok, but it’d still be good to have it for when we do reach a high enough level right?” Matt asked.

“It would, except there’s decent odds that we can find better gear if we defeat the right monsters,” Alice said. “No sense buying something we’ll never wind up equipping.”

“What about Bows and Staves?” Tessa asked. “Did they have anything for the rest of you?”

“For me and Matt, yes,” Alice said. “For Rip?” She gestured to the new bow Rip was proudly holding in her hands.

“I got this in my inventory when we were fighting!” she said, holding out the weapon for Tessa to see.

“Oh yeah!” Tessa said, remembering the treasure which dropped from a centipede during the fight. “You must have been the last one standing?” Otherwise the treasure pool would have fallen to Matt.

“Yeah, I was a little farther from the Lasher,” Rip said, a ripple of guilt sweeping across her face.

“She was protecting us from the centipedes,” Matt said. “I tried to buy time against the Lasher but I don’t think two seconds helped much.

“That’s ok,” Alice said. “We’ll do better next time.”

“Next time?” Rip asked.

“Yeah. Unless there’s something else you need to get, I say we head back to the farm and murder that [Chaos Lasher] properly this time.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 16

Walls of four-inch thick, solid wood don’t break easily. But they can break. Pillowcase watched her health plummet to a tiny sliver as she picked herself up and marveled at the hit she’d taken. She was outside the farmhouse. A moment prior, she’d been inside the farmhouse and now there was a new hole in the wall just a few feet to the right of where the door was.

“Destructible environments? Huh, that’s new,” she said, rising back to her feet and readying the half of her shield which remained on her arm.

“Destructible gear too it looks like,” Alice said as she renewed the [Minor Blood Channel] spell.

She’d broken the link when she fled from the farmhouse’s doorway. Pillowcase had been concerned about that, given that she’d charged inwards to hold back the [Chain Lasher] while the others retreated to stay way from the razor scythes on the end of the cables which made up the greater portion of the creature’s body. Tactically it hadn’t been the worst maneuver, but it did put Pillowcase out of line of sight from Alice, who therefor couldn’t provide any of the healing support Pillowcase so desperately needed.

The [Chain Lasher] had solved that problem by slamming Pillowcase through the farmhouse’s wall, and in the process confirmed itself a much deadlier threat than the [Chaos Centipedes] had been.

“What do we do? Run?” Matt asked. His attention was locked on the unearthly mass of chains and sinew which rolled out of the farmhouse.

“No!” Pillowcase rolled away from the Lasher’s next trio of attacks, vectoring away from her group. The Lasher remained focused on her, despite the distance she put between them, but Pillowcase knew that was as much the result of no one else attacking it as any enmity she’d managed to accumulate. “We can take this thing.”

She wasn’t certain of that. Creatures frequently grew more deadly the more wounded they became, which meant they hadn’t seen any of the [Chain Lasher]’s more frightening abilities yet. Given that its attacks hadn’t invoked the “One Shot” code which prevented higher level monsters from killing a player with a single blow though, Pillowcase was reasonably sure the Lasher was somewhere near their level, which meant as a team they should be able to take it down.

“Eyes all around,” Alice said, speaking as much to Rip Shot as anyone else.

“Yeah, keep the area clear of the centipedes,” Pillowcase said as she struck the Lasher to force its attention to remain on her.

“There’s a lot of them around us,” Rip said. “Where do I start?”

“Wait for them to approach,” Alice said. “They may stay out of the fight until the Lasher summons them.”

“Hold your abilities till then, but free fire regular shots at this guy,” Pillowcase said. 

A scythe tip caught Pillowcase on the arm and nearly severed it at the shoulder. The loss of control over her sword left her open to two more attacks, both of which struck solidly.

“Turtle up if you can, I can’t keep you over half health,” Alice said.

With half a shield left and even that showing cracks running through it Pillowcase had no idea how well she could “turtle up” by switching to pure defense, but she tried anyways.

“Matt, you are free to cast as fast as you can. Burn this thing down,” she said, taking advantage of the open space outside the farmhouse to incorporate more movement into her defensive strategy.

The arm she’d nearly lost was good as new a few seconds later as Alice’s spell knit her tore clothy flesh back together. The moment she regained feeling in it, Pillowcase tumbled forward, snatched her dented sword up from the ground where it had fallen and rained a pair of blows in on the Lasher.

The dented sword achieved little with each hit. Metal on metal was never a good contest to engage in, but Pillowcase wasn’t looking to do much damage. All she needed were tiny knicks which her skill could amplify into a compulsion to keep the Lasher attacking her.

Bolts of magic began to pepper the monster as Pillowcase blocked, dodged, and occasionally received grievous wounds from the Lasher’s attacks. Matt was making an effort to kill their foes before it took Pillowcase down, but Pillowcase saw a problem forming right away.

As a ball of metal, muscle, and rage, the Lasher didn’t have much of a mind directing its rampage. There was some minor level of awareness within it, but the psychic damage Matt’s spells were designed to inflict found very little in terms of weak spots to disrupt. He could damage the Lasher but each spell had only a small fraction of its usual impact. 

“I’m running out of magic,” he said, nerves plain in his voice.

“Switch to attacks from your staff while your magic recovers,” Alice said. She was rooted to the spot again in order to keep her spell going but was otherwise able to keep an eye on things.

“How’s your magic doing?” Pillowcase asked. She trusted Alice to warn her when things were getting critical, any decent healer would do that, but in the long run it would be better if Pillowcase could keep intuitive track of that sort of thing without Alice having to waste time or brainpower on reporting it.

“Holding up so far,” Alice said. “Might need to have you kite without a heal if this fight goes on as long as it looks like it will.”

“I can manage that,” Pillowcase said. Better, she hoped, than she had with the [Wraithwings]. “I’ll try to take some of the load off you now too.”

The key was to buy herself some space, as space in turn provided time, and time could be spent for all sorts of things.

What about this? Tessa thought, and stepped forward allowing Pillowcase to complete a front snap kick which knocked the Lasher back by a good ten feet. Pillowcase followed the attack with a backwards flip which put her even farther from the Lasher and gave her plenty of time to cast without being interrupted.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain].” Lines of magic shot from her and began siphoning away energy from the Lasher, and restoring a little of Pillowcase’s health. It wouldn’t have been enough to save her from the Lasher if she’d been alone when she encountered it but added to Alice’s healing it meant her health was able to rise to a much higher and more comfortable level.

“We’ve got centipedes incoming.” Rip’s yell didn’t surprise Pillowcase. The centipedes and the Lasher had to have some kind of symbiotic relationship given the close proximity of their lairs in the farm house.

“Take them down,” Pillowcase said, closing with the Lasher again to make sure her control over its attention went unbroken.

Apart from her failing equipment, Pillowcase felt reasonably good about the battle. Matt’s hits were being resisted but he was making slow yet steady progress, and the secondary effect of his attacks, the slow, seemed to work just fine on the Lasher. Alice seemed to be doing fine on magic and giving her time to refill looked like it would be doable. Even Rip seemed to be doing her job well.

“They’re not dropping fast enough,” Rip said. “Four incoming. Might drop two before the others eat me.”

Ok, maybe Rip’s not quite up to this yet, Tessa thought. She saw the young girl firing wildly as the centipedes charged at her. None of the shots spent enough time to be properly empowered by her skills and so none of them did fatal damage to the centipedes. To her credit though, Rip kept firing. In the face of impending doom, she did what she could to keep helpping her team and Tessa was proud of her.

“Come to me,” Pillowcase said. “Drag them close and I’ll tank them too.”

“Can you hold that many?” Alice asked, no doubt thinking of hundreds or thousands of Tanks she’d met who bit off more than they could chew because they were convinced they could take on everything the world had offer. 

“Holding them won’t be the problem,” Pillowcase said. Alice’s spell was phenomenal, but it did have limits and several centipedes piled on top of the Lasher was on the borderline of exceeding those limits.

Rip raced by, firing arrows behind herself as she ran. Her expression was more than a little panicked but she handled the move well, brushing past Tessa by less than a finger length and continuing to run until she was at roughly half her max range. Far enough to be safe from melee attacks and have a headstart if Pillowcase lost the monster’s interest, but close enough that the rest of the group could still help her if new trouble arose.

Pillowcase didn’t try for another spell, despite how useful it would be. With five attackers to contend with the chance of her casting being uninterrupted was essentially zero. Later on she would gain various methods of dealing with that, assuming she survived that long. For the present though she needed to focus on what was reliable. Laying out a quick barrage of hits which switched rapidly from one to the other left her open to more attacks but she was fine with losing the endurance portion of the battle faster if it meant her team was safe.

Rip and Matt teamed up without prompting to capitalize on the effort Pillowcase was making. With spells and arrows they reduced the first of the centipedes to a quivering pile of good which was quickly left behind in the battle.

In the side of her vision, on one of the transparent screens which resembled the game’s interface, Pillowcase saw a small icon appear for a shared item dropping into the group’s treasure pool. Pillowcase ignored it, knowing they were better off dividing up the loot later, after they had dealt with all the threats around them.

The [Chain Lasher] noticed the death of the centipede too which triggered an instant alarm in Pillowcase’s mind. She tried to keep it from rolling over the fallen corpse but to no avail.

That’s when things started to go bad.

As the Lasher rolled over the centipede’s corpse, it screamed. Then it began to belch an ugly green smoke from vents in its chain tentacles.

“Stay away from that,” Alice said, although Pillowcase didn’t need the warning. Obviously poison gas was nothing she had any interest in messing around with even if her body was mostly cloth and shouldn’t, in theory, have been vulnerable to poisons of any variety.

The problem with that theory was that in a world steeped in magic, things had a tendency to take on magical properties in direct proportion to how much you’d prefer they didn’t. Something like chlorine  gas shouldn’t have had any affect on someone who didn’t need to breathe, but from the sparkles of light and the skulls which forming in the swirling green mists, Pillowcase was quite sure that whatever poison this was it could hurt her all too readily.

“Change targets,” Alice said. “Kill that metal thing before it powers up anymore.”

Pillowcase wasn’t sure that was the right call but she bowed to Alice’s greater experience as a battlefield commander.

It would have been better if she hadn’t.

The combined assault on the [Chain Lasher] was effective in dropping its health faster. From about seventy-five percent the Lasher’s health plummeted to around fifty percent over the course of a minute of solid fighting.

Pillowcase’s own health was hovering around a third of her maximum both from the extra damage from the three remaining centipedes and from the necessity of venturing into the poisonous mist around the Lasher to maintain her control over its attention.

As the Lasher’s health reached an even fifty percent though, the buzzsaws came out.

The motion shook the Lasher like it was vomiting the blades out of its skin but they deployed to deadly effect nonetheless.

Pillowcase dove away from their reach, losing the use of one leg in the process, but her troubles were only beginning there.

The [Chaos Centipedes] weren’t able to dodge the buzzsaws with anywhere near the dexterity Pillowcase possessed. They were sliced to ribbons in less than a second and scooped up by a hundred smaller cables. 

Gases of all sorts began to spew from the Lasher, mixing, reacting, and, in a searing flash, exploding.

Being one legged didn’t slow Pillowcase down much, but even at her fastest she couldn’t have outrun the blastwave that blew her into a dozen pieces.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 15

Tessa approached the shadow wrapped farmhouse but it was Pillowcase who first ventured inside.

“Centipedes, come out and play,” she sing-songed, keeping her sword low and her shield ready. Taunting the enemy without employing a specific skill to compel them to attack you wasn’t part of her creator’s design, which made Pillowcase even happier to do it.

Not that she intended to toss aside all of the knowledge she’d been constructed with. The tactical prowess she possessed was valuable no matter who had supplied it. The [Consortium of Pain] were deplorable monsters, but that didn’t change the value of the power they’d built into her. All that mattered was what she chose to do with it, and in her present circumstances that meant evaluating their environment to understand what her team was facing.

Neither Tessa nor Pillowcase were students of architecture. They couldn’t tell you which Earthly region’s wood working techniques had inspired the two story boxy edifice which lay open and deserted before them. To Pillowcase’s eyes it was a basic human dwelling. Large enough for an extended family and then some, which gave her a catalog of things she was likely to find inside.

Potentially. 

Given the state of the house it was likely that a fair amount of the interior was destroyed or missing. The walls were made from thick slabs of some wood which the shadows painted an unremarkable black but even in the dim lighting they showed signs of abuse and long neglect. From the few jagged spikes of glass and shards of wood which remained, it looked as though there had once been windows and shutters but neither had held off whatever catastrophe had come to visit the farm.

Pillowcase noted the contrast with the state of the walls. Where no windows seemed to remain, the damage to the walls was less severe. The small holes in the walls looked to be the result of decay while the one big hole on the second floor suggested a singular creature had smashed a path inside. It had to be a single creature, Pillowcase reasoned, because if there’d been more than one able to make a hole as tall as a human man in a wall as thick as the width of her palm, she was reasonably sure the house would no longer be standing.

Tactically then, the most important question was “did the creature break in and leave once it had what it wanted, or did it make a lair of the farmhouse”?

“Do you think there’s more of them in there?” Matt asked. He held the pre-casting charge of an attack spell in his hands just like Alice had instructed. 

The light from the arcane energies cast a rippling illumination inside the farmhouse’s kitchen but Pillowcase didn’t need it to see. Darkness was an encumbrance which could limit a warrior’s abilities so Pillowcase’s creators had given her eyes which weren’t limited by a need for light.

“Yes,” Pillowcase said, focusing her awareness on listening for the telltale signs of an approaching enemy. She’d never fought an invisible foe, but the threads of knowledge woven through her contained echoes of experience she could draw on. She knew what it was like to be stalked by something you couldn’t see, she knew how nocturnal creatures made use of shadows, and she knew how to punish those whose relied on stealth as a shield.

“Where are…?” Matt began to ask, but Pillowcase’s sword strike cut him off.

The [Chaos Centipede] was no bigger than the others, but a five foot long writhing worm of teeth and claws and eyes was jarring to find silently lurking on the wall over your head.

Having as many eyes as it did was a mistake though.

It gave Pillowcase so many vulnerable targets to strike at.

Matt raised his hands to cast the spell he was carrying but Pillowcase stopped him.

“Hold, wait for my mark,” she said and caught an attack from the centipede on the flimsy wooden shield she’d scavenged up.

The centipede dropped from the wall, gurgling a noise that was somewhere between a hiss and a bout of projectile vomiting. Pillowcase swept it away from her and Matt, casting it into the center of the room where it landed on the shattered remains of a large kitchen table.

Overhead, another pair of the centipedes woke and began scuttling across the high ceiling towards them.

Those were the threats for her team to deal with.

“Mark Prime”, she said casting a target over the nearest one and “Mark Secundus” to indicate a kill order for Matt. “[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain]”

Ribbons of light lashed out drawing raw energy from the centipedes. The weak Provoke effect on the spell centered all of their attention on her and slowed them long enough that Matt was able to unleash his attack.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spectral Wounds],” Matt said and unleashed a flare of pink light which pierced into the lead centipede.

The spell didn’t hit with any physical force but the convulsion it sent down the centipede’s body teamed up with gravity to send the creature plummeting onto the floor below.

Tessa wanted to hit it with a quick sword strike to make sure its attention stayed on her. She’d seen too many spellcasters be eaten by monsters, but Pillowcase knew better. The Provoke effect from the [Lesser Spirit Drain] wasn’t a long one but it was long enough to hold and she couldn’t afford to move out of position.

Damager dealers were always at risk in a fight, but even more important than protecting them was protecting the healers. A dead damage dealer could be revived. A dead healer meant the rest of the party would be joining them at the nearest chapel shortly.

As the first centipede rallied and lunged at her, Pillowcase stepped forward, into the attack and introduced the giant bug’s toothy maw to the broadside of her shield.

It crashed back to the ground, stunned for a moment, and providing a golden opportunity to attack. Pillowcase passed up her chance though, taking advantage of the free moment to switch her target indicators between the two centipedes she’d marked.

Matt understood the reason for the change and fired again, sending the third centipede crashing to the ground as well.

With the fight reduced to two dimensions rather than three, the tactical options seemed to condense to a more manageable set of choices. Pillowcase didn’t make that mistake either though.

“Rip, eyes up,” she said. “There’s a second floor. Expect more to come from above. Call out any that show up and engage them at will.”

“I can hear them moving already,” Rip said.

“Good. Let’s see what path they take to get to us,” Pillowcase said.

That was all the time they had for tactics. Even with the slow effects from the spells they’d been hit with, the Centipedes were still able to close the distance to Pillowcase from where they’d fallen.

Pillowcase was pushed onto her back foot, retreating a pace to make sure she was positioned between the centipedes and the rest of the party.

Unlike the earlier fight where she’d had plenty of room to move and dance around her foes, fighting inside the door to the farmhouse meant Pillowcase had to hold her ground. There was no exploiting the mindless hunger of the centipedes with tricky moves to leave them straining to attack when they were just out of range. Here she simply needed to withstand their assault.

It wasn’t easy, or especially pleasant. There were too many teeth and too many claws. For all her focus on blocking blows and parrying bites, many slipped through.

Tears in her cloth skin weren’t like tears through flesh though. There wasn’t the same burning sensation and the loss of her health didn’t come with human foibles like the weakness and mental fog which accompanies blood loss. 

It still hurt though.

Pain can be a great motivator, and an important part of learning to fight. Those weren’t the only reasons the [Consortium of Pain] had designed a capacity to suffer into their constructs of course but they were the only reasons Pillowcase was willing to accept any longer. 

[Casting spell: Lesser Spi…],” she began to say but was cut off when one on the centipedes dove below her shield to bite onto her knee.

She forced it off with a blow from the edge of her shield while parrying another bite from a second centipede.

“You’re at half,” Alice said. “Going to start refilling you. [Casting spell: Minor Blood Channel].”

Because she was safely in the back row, Alice’s spell went off unhindered and Pillowcase felt her pain subside as her wounds knit back together with mystically enhanced speed.

The third centipede chose that moment to leap over its nest mates and try for the juicy prize that was Pillowcase’s face. To its great detriment though, it was the one which Pillowcase had marked for primary fire and Matt’s next spell was ready.

The [Lesser Spectral Wounds] caught it full in its maw and exploded down the length of its entire wounded body.

On death, spells and elemental damage in general can have special added effects. In the game, it was simply a matter of providing a little extra pizazz to the event, but in person watching a five foot long centipede explode into a shower of pink sparks was a bit more exciting.

“YES!” Rip shouted, throwing a fist up in celebration.

Even Pillowcase felt renewed by the light show. She hadn’t had any doubts they would win of course. Doubts were a weakness. But her morale did feel a bit higher.

“Should we push in?” Alice asked.

It was a sound idea. Typical dungeon clearing strategy did call for pressing inwards faster than an alarm could be spread. Being able to engage foes who were unprepared was an unequaled tactical advantage.

Tessa held back.

“No, this is a good, defensible spot,” she said. “Let’s use it as a choke point and get them to funnel to us here.”

“Sounds good,” Alice said. “No point overextending.”

Pillowcase shook her head, clearing away the idea of rushing onwards. Where had that come from? In the game you could never take monsters or anything ‘unprepared’. Creatures were instantly ready for battle and would fight to the death no matter what kind of force was arrayed against them.

She was thinking like this was real.

Which it was now.

She missed a parry and had to hit the centipede on her left with a snap kick to force it back.

Wait, since when was kicking an option? Especially kicking with knock back?

It doesn’t matter, Tessa thought, we’ll figure it out later.

And that was the right idea.

With her focus restored, Pillowcase still suffered claw wounds and a couple of bites but she was able to squeeze in another [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell and easily kept the centipedes focused on her while Matt burned them to the ground.

“They’re coming out of the roof!” Rip said and Pillowcase heard her charging up an arrow.

“Pull back outside,” Pillowcase said as four more centipedes swarmed through the door on the far side of the room.

“We’ve got four coming from above too,” Alice said.

“Make that three,” Rip said, unleashing her [Charged Shot].

“Nope, still four,” Alice said as Rip’s shot damaged but did not instantly kill her target.

“Are you kidding?” Rip said, knocking another arrow.

“Regular shots to finish it off,” Pillowcase said and cast another [Lesser Spirit Drain]. “This is an endurance battle. They’re not strong enough to one shot us but they can whittle us down so spent your resources carefully.”

“Magic is good here,” Matt said, bringing another spell online as Pillowcase began marking targets. 

She put primary fire on the one’s scuttling down the outside of the house, knowing she could keep the other four pinned in the kitchen if she simply remained in the doorway. Having eight focused on her wasn’t going to be thrilling but the [Minor Blood Channel] would probably be able to keep up with it. If not, she had her own reserves to draw on.

“We’ve got this right?” Rip asked, loosing a normal arrow which nonetheless managed to send the injured centipede crashing to the ground as a corpse.

Pillowcase considered saying yes, but before she could make a warning of being overconfident, the floor of the kitchen exploded.

Rising from the basement, a mass of long metal claws bound together by wrought iron cables and stitched with the sinews of many different creatures pulled itself forward and screamed in rage against its own existence and the existence of the world.

Pillowcase knew how it felt so she screamed right back.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 14

Tessa knew what she had to do, and, as a welcome change, it was something she was able to look forward to putting in the work it required.

“We have to become a team,” she said, casting her gaze towards the farmhouse which waited, dark and foreboding off on the distance. It stood there, a silent and deadly challenge that a part of her couldn’t wait to tackle, while a smarter part reminded her not to try tackling it alone.

“I thought we already accepted your invites?” Rip said. “I can see you on my party window.”

“Yeah, we’re a party now,” Tessa said. “Anyone can be part of a party though. Just accept the invite. Just show up. Just stand around. Being part of a team takes a bit more. Team’s work together. They know each other’s moves. They have plans and they have each other’s backs.”

“We’ve got your back,” Matt said, ernest seriousness writ clearly on his metal face.

“Not yet you don’t,” Tessa said. “We don’t know each other’s abilities well enough. We don’t know what each other’s limits are. We don’t know how to maximize what we can do collectively so that the four of us can accomplish more than four times what any one of us could do alone. We’re are a party, but we need work to become a team.”

Rip looked like she was going to argue but Alice cut her off gently before she could speak.

“She’s right, and it applies to all of us.”

“But you’re a veteran, you know this game like the back of your hand don’t you?” Rip asked.

“Yeah, I can carry us to some extent,” Alice said. “But Pillowcase is right. There’s a huge difference between a group where one skilled player is handling all the problems and a group where everyone is working together.”

“Well, we’re trying,” Rip said.

“Good,” Tessa said. “That makes four of us then. Alice has the most experience here, but as a healer she needs to be nearly precognitive, and she can’t do that without knowing us really well. She needs to know how we fight, when we’re likely to take damage, and how dangerous it is to leave us partially healed.”

“I’ve got a a bit of a learning curve to deal with too. My class, [Grave Mender],is a new one, so I’m sure there are some surprises or optimizations I’ll need to work out,” Alice said. “And, even beyond that,  I’m not used to being this low level, or fighting immersively like this.”

“So how do we become a team then?” Rip asked.

“We march in there,” Tessa pointed to the farmhouse. The dark wood which made up its walls seemed to swallow the abundant moon and starlight which lit the High Beyond’s night. In places where the thatching on the roof had caved in though the darkness took on a seemingly tangible quality. “It’s not a dungeon, but it’ll help us get ready for one. Before we do that though, let’s go over what we can do now.”

Tessa went first, describing what a [Soul Knight] could do and what her role in the party was meant to be. For Rip and Matt’s sake, she described the basic mechanics of tanking in the Fallen Kingdoms, how tanks had significantly more durability than any other class and how different tanks were setup to achieve their enhanced survivability, from being able to simply shrug off blows, to possessing preternatural reflexes which allowed them to dodge heavy hits, to (in the case of [Soul Knights]) being able to recover health which they’d lost by stealing it from their foes.

She also covered the general rules for “hate management” or controlling who a monster was going to attack. From the specific [Provoke] effects which forced a monster to attack the one who provoked them, to the more complicated [Emnity] calculations which monsters used to determine who was the biggest threat based on things like damage done, conditions inflicted, and distance.

“Hate shouldn’t be a problem for us right away,” Tessa explained. “I’ve got a couple of abilities that should let me drag mobs away from you even when you go all out. I want to hold off on using them though because I want you both to learn how to pace yourselves so that, once your abilities can outstrip the tools I have, you’ll already have a sense of when it’s safe to burst something down to the ground and when you need to hold back and let me keep whatever it is focused on me.”

For Alice, Tessa went on and explained some of the mechanics of the personal healing she had access too, both in terms of how strong it was and the limitations on each ability.

“I’ll try to keep from topping you off then unless we’re fighting something hellacious,” Alice said. “I have a passive skill which boosts my healing on injured targets, so I’ll be a lot more efficient if I’m healing you when you’re below at least three quarters of your max health. If you can fill up the rest, I should be able to space out the heals even more to make sure I don’t run out of magic mid-fight.”

From there, Tessa took her turn, describing the healing role [Grave Menders] played. She offered contrasts with her main class, [Solar Priestess] too, noting how her new class lacked the ability to convert damage she healed into spells which inflicted damage back on the enemy. In exchange [Grave Menders] had some of the strongest group healing in the game. 

“I don’t have [Mass Life Return] yet but the beta-testers were calling it required for raids going forward,” Alice said, sounding less than entirely thrilled with the idea.

“When does that show up?” Tessa asked.

“Level 60,” Alice said. “So, not really a factor for us.”

“How long will it take us to level up that much?” Rip asked.

“If we were being power leveled?” Alice said. “We could probably make it to 60 in a couple of hours. On our own though it’s going to take longer. A lot longer.”

“A few days longer, or like a week?” Rip asked.

“When I leveled up my first character the level cap was still 60 and it took me about ten months to make to 60,” Tessa said.

“It’s gotten easier and quicker since then,” Alice said. “But that’s in the game where we can take all kinds of risks. We’ll have to see how things go here before we can really say what our leveling speed is going to look like.”

“I wonder if we’ll even be here that long,” Matt said. Tessa thought he sounded unhappy at the prospect that they might not be, but he was able to keep his metal features schooled into a neutral expression.

“My suggestion is we act like we will be,” Tessa said and glanced over to Alice. “I’m not saying we have to commit to being a team from now till then, but right now it doesn’t look like there’s an option for getting back and making plans around that is like building a sand castle on a cloud. If we can keep up contact with the folks back home, we can use that to keep our option open, but for now I think we need to make sure we can survive and prosper here if we need too.”

Matt nodded, his voice mute but the tension in his body eloquently expressive. He was more than happy to make sure he and Rip had a stable life here, which told Tessa everything she needed to know about what his life was like back on Earth.

“If we can find a portal back to the regular zones, I can get you all invites to [AOL], the guild my main character is in,” Alice said. “They’re idiots, but they’re a good bunch, and they can handle most of the stuff this game throws at us.”

“I’d be glad to sign up,” Tessa said, “but shouldn’t most of them still be on the other side of the monitor?”

“Hopefully,” Alice said, though her expression indicated it was probably a hope which was unlikely to be fulfilled. “That’ll limit what they can do for us, but for low level quests, it’s probably safe for them to help out, and Cease All is a full crafter so she can make whatever we need, equipment-wise.”

“They’d take us even though we’re low level?” Rip asked.

“Yeah,” Alice said, “We take in fresh blood whenever we find people who are worth playing with. It’s how we’ve kept the guild going for this long.”

“That’s good,” Rip said. “I was just worried we wouldn’t be able to do enough.”

“Right now, we’re in a weird position,” Tessa said. “We’re incredibly weak because we’re so low level, but we’re also free to try things that the players who haven’t been drawn in yet can’t risk.”

“In level shifted areas there’s plenty that you can do already too,” Alice said, and began to break down the role and abilities of Rip Shot’s [Archer] class.

Tessa had always like good archers. Unlike melee fighters, they tended to be out of the range of wide area spells and effects which boss monsters unleashed. As a wise man once said “the best defense is not to be there”, and for a healer that meant not having to worry about healing [Archers] at all most of the time. 

On the other hand though, when an [Archer] did manage to draw the monster’s hate off the tank, things could get ugly very fast. Unlike Pillowcase, Rip Shot’s defenses were roughly the equivalent of tissue paper and even once she was higher level they wouldn’t be improving by very much. 

Good positioning could help a lot there, and [Archers] did get movement related abilities which helped keep them away from things that wanted to squish them. Additionally in a duel against other ranged characters they had some nice tricks like short hops of instantaneous teleportation and even the ability to snatch projectiles aimed at them out of the air, but those were all much farther down the line for Rip. 

For the time being her strengths were simple. She could shoot things and make them dead.

“That leaves you as the one who we’ll eventually want to have keeping an eye on the overall battlefield,” Tessa said. “There a lots of fights where additional monsters are scripted to spawn in during the battle and being surprised by them sucks horribly.”

“I can do that now though can’t I?” Rip asked.

“It’s something to practice now,” Tessa said. “When we go into the house, I’m going to want you to hang back and be the last one in. It’ll be your job to tell us if anything is coming in from the surrounding area. More importantly though, I need you to follow the kill order I setup. We need to make sure we can coordinate and focus down the right enemies or we’re going to get torn apart by some of the tougher ones.”

“What about me?” Matt asked. “What will I be doing?”

“You’re our controller,” Alice said. “Rip’s all damage, all the time, but your spells do damage and have other effects.”

She and Tessa took the most time running down how the various conditions in the game worked, from [Paralyzation] (which randomly locked up movement and blocked ability usage), to [Sleep] (which temporarily incapicitated the target but left them in a state where a single tick of damage would wake them), to [Mystic Breach] (which left the target vulnerable to magical damage of all types). 

Matt’s class, [Dream Spinner], was an illusion-based caster. His early spells were simple damage dealing ones, though they also slowed the targets abilities and inflicted their damage through psychic channels where few things had much resistance.  Later on he would get ones which summoned illusionary figures or even incapacitated his target, but for the time being he was essentially a weaker ranged damage dealer than an [Archer] but with a few added perks in terms of slowing the monsters they were fighting and making them more vulnerable overall.

“I want you to be focused on what we’re fighting,” Tessa said. “Different enemies will throw off the effects of what you do faster or slower. You need to learn to pick out when one of the effects fade, or eve better when it’s about to fade, so you can renew it. Just casting things randomly means you’ll run out of magic really fast and not deal anywhere near as much damage as if cast the right spells at the right time.”

“I can do that!” Matt said, an excitement kindling in his eyes which warmed Tessa’s heart to see.

“Good,” she said. “Then let’s make like real adventurers, find the scariest place around, and go kick its butt!”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 13

Tessa collapsed. With the battle finished, she couldn’t do anything else. 

It wasn’t that her body was tired. It wasn’t that she was injured. It wasn’t even that she was sickened by the carnage around them.

“Are you ok?” Alice demanded, her blood red eyes flaring wide in concern.

“Probably not.” Tessa’s short laugh wasn’t a sign of an impending breakdown into madness, but she wasn’t entirely sure if that was because she was managing to hold things together or because her psyche had already fractured. In either case though, Alice’s hands on her shoulders felt really nice.

“What happened?” Alice asked, the concern locking her jaw relaxing by a hair’s breadth. Behind Rip and Matt had come to a halt a few feet away and were watching with worry writ large on their faces as well. To their credit though, they were also keeping an eye on their environs as Alice had been teaching them.

“I’m not sure,” Tessa said. “Just wasn’t feeling like myself there for a bit, then once the fight was done everything kind of snapped back.”

“What about now?” Alice asked, searching in Tessa’s eyes for…what? Signs of a concussion? Or a stroke? Could Clothworks have strokes?

“I’m all me,” Tessa said. “I think it comes on when I’m fighting.”

“That sucks. We can’t have you collapse in the middle of a fight. Maybe we should head back,” Alice said.

“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” Tessa said. “I’m not falling apart when it happens. If anything it seems to make me stronger. Like this is all old hat. Like I was built to fight like that.”

Alice narrowed her eyes, searching for understanding but it was Rip who asked the question which showed she already did.

“Is it like you’re becoming Pillowcase?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Tessa said, knowing how ridiculous that sounded. “Except it’s not like a transformation, or like she’s taking over my mind. It’s more like she’s already there. Already ‘me’, and hearing her voice is just hearing another side of myself.” Tessa paused, searching for words that were hidden behind a veil of personal experience. “I don’t know if that makes any sense? Did any of you feel anything like that?”

“No,” Alice said and released her hold on Tessa, backing away to give Tessa room to rise.

“Yeah,” Rip said, meeting Tessa’s eyes and nodding.

“N-No,” Matt said, tripping over the word and leaving Tessa to wonder why he was lying.

“You felt like that too?” Tessa asked, ignoring Matt for the moment to focus on Rip.

“Yeah. It felt like Rip Shot was the one doing the fighting. She sounded just like she does in the stories I wrote about her too.”

“You’ve written fanfic about the character you just started playing?” Alice asked.

“I started playing her here because I’d already written about her,” Rip said, a spark of indignation heating her words.

“How about you?” Tessa asked, looking to Matt. “Are you a writer too?”

“Oh? Me? Nah. I just thought the name was funny,” Matt said, which was Tessa had expected. 

‘Matt Painting’ was a nice play on words  for an illusion casting character like a [Dream Spinner]. If anything was surprising, it was that the name had still been available given how many illusion using classes there were and how many players had made characters on the server in the last fifteen years.

“You could have taken Gallaway,” Rip said.

“Gallaway?” Alice asked.

“He’s a character in her stories,” Matt said. “Rip’s best friend, in the stories she writes I mean,” he turned to face Rip, “which would have been cool, but Gallaway is your character. I can’t play as him.”

“But you were the inspiration for him!” Rip said, and Tessa could tell they were drifting into well worn discussion territory between the two.

“I think we’re drifting off course here,” Alice said. “So you’re turning into your characters? Is that dangerous? What are they like?”

“It’’s fine,” Rip said. “Rip Shot’s cool. I mean, the one I wrote. I guess this one is pretty much the same?”

“Yeah, I think we’ll be ok,” Tessa lied before backing it up with the truth as she saw it. “Pillowcase isn’t more like a part of me. I’m not going to turn into a Team Killing berserker or anything like that. I just might be a little more…” she sought for a word that wouldn’t terrifying the three people around her and had to settle for, “…intense. During a fight. Once the battle music faded, Pillowcase was done. I don’t think she makes sense for calm moments like this.”

“Is that what it’s like for you too?” Alice asked Rip.

“Yeah, sort of,” Rip said. “It’s not like a light switch or anything though. It’s more like, wait are you a writer?”

“No,” Alice said. “I mean not anymore. I wrote some stuff when I was kid but it was garbage, so, no.”

“How about you?” Rip asked Tessa.

“Not really. I used to make up backstories for my characters, and I did a bit of fanfic back when I was playing, but that was a while ago.”

“How about for Pillowcase?” Rip asked. “Did you make a backstory for her?”

“I didn’t write anything down, but, yeah, I kind of had one in my head. Why?”

“Maybe that’s why we can feel our characters?” Rip said. “We gave them voices before we came here, so they became real when this place did.”

“Ok. Maybe. But where did their battle knowledge come from?” Tessa said. “It’s not like I had a lifetime of fight experience to draw on, so did it just pop up out of nowhere?”

“It could have,” Rip said. “The town, and the monsters, and everything else here looks a lot more detailed than the models in the game. Maybe this place took what was in the game and fleshed it out with what missing.”

“Including us?” Matt asked.

“Sure,” Rip said. “Maybe we were drawn in because the characters needed souls and since we were controlling them, that made us their souls?”

“One problem with that idea,” Alice said. “If you had your character’s experience, why was the fight so hard for you? We need to go over a bunch of things you two did back there before we get into another battle.”

“We won though didn’t we?” Matt asked, his unsteadiness suggesting he wasn’t sure if that was true despite the mound of bug corpses which attested to his assertion.

“Pillowcase was right,” Tessa said. “That fight wasn’t about winning. It was about practicing how to fight the right way.”

“Pillowcase was right?” Alice asked. “Can your Mr. Hyde talk through you too?”

“Pillowcase isn’t my evil other half,” Tessa said. “It’s all me, just not the me I was back on Earth I think, so, yeah she can talk. It’s just me talking, but with a head full of different perspectives. You don’t feel like that at all?”

“No. I just feel hungry,” Alice said.

Tessa was ready to brush that off as a minor complaint but then she considered which race Alice had chosen and saw the concern the healer was holding back.

“Hungry like you want some more rations?” Tessa asked, hoping that her guess was wrong.

“If by ‘rations’ you mean an extra bloody steak, hold the steak, then sure,” Alice said.

“Oh. Oh wow. That’s not great. Is it going to be a problem?” Tessa asked.

“We’ll see,” Alice said. “I don’t think so. The game lore and the mechanics say that [Bloodborn] characters can get by fine without blood. We’re just not superhumanly strong without it, and some of the racial passives which I don’t have yet are only active if I’ve fed recently.”

“We are kind of a mess aren’t we?” Matt said.

Tessa could see his mistakes from the battle burrowing into him. They were a mirror of the ones she’d made as a beginner that had left her feeling like an idiot long after she’d outgrown them.

“Of course we are,” she said. “This was literally our first fight. The whole point was to find out what we need to work on with as few trips to the Chapel as possible.”

Alice cast a glance at Tessa and softened her expression.

“She’s right. There were some things we could do better, but overall this was a solid win,” Alice said. “No one died. No one needed an emergency heal. You even listened when I gave instructions.”

“Yeah, but I messed them up,” Matt said. “I didn’t mean to shoot those guys, but the spell went off when I tried to focus on another target.”

“We’ll work on it then,” Alice said. “Don’t sweat a mistake like that. You can practice that kind of thing away easy.”

“Some of that’s on me too,” Tessa said. “Giving tactics in the middle of a fight is inevitable for some things but the general strategies are things we can work out before hand.”

“I was tempted to do that, but I thought it would be a bit easier to do after we’d seen what an actual battle looks like here,” Alice said. “It’s a lot harder to keep track of things in three dimensions than it was on the monitor.”

“Some of that could just be that we’re more used to parsing what was happening on screen,” Tessa said. “I remember when I started playing how confusing all the battle messages and effects were. After a while all that just drifts away though and your eyes start automatically picking out the bits that you need to look for.”

“So,” Matt asked. “You’ll keep going with us?”

Tessa titled her head trying to parse what he meant for a moment before her conversation with Alice in the town square came back to her.

“Yeah, you’re doing fine so far,” Tessa said.

“And if we don’t?” Rip asked.

“If you can’t handle this stuff, we’ll make sure to get you some place safe,” Alice said. “The worse thing you can do with a party is try to drag along people who don’t want to be there, or want it but can’t cope with the challenges your tackling. It’s not fair to them and no one has fun.”

“Is fun a consideration any more?” Matt asked. “Don’t we need levels to survive?”

The question rang a bell in Tessa’s mind, sending her thoughts tumbling back down the years.

If you’re not having fun, then you’re doing it wrong and you should do something else. It had been her mantra when she was playing, but it was more complicated than it sounded.

To Tessa, the game didn’t have be pulse pounding fun every minute of play. There was plenty of room for quiet moments, or even mindless ones where she could zone out while performing some trivial task. What she drew the line was at continuing to engage with the game when it had clearly become something the player hated. 

When all that was left was disappointment and discontentment, continuing on seemed like an exercise in masochism, when in reality it was more likely that change was simply too scary for the player to face. 

It was ugly, and led to the worst behavior, and it happened far too often. She’d seen too many people who couldn’t let go and take the chance on searching for something new. 

Even in herself?

She thought of her job. 

When had she forgotten how important it was to love what you did?

Not that the real world accomodated that kind of sentimentality very well. Leaving a job was a lot harder than leaving a game.

Normally.

Under the present circumstances the reverse was kind of true. Where leaving the game was impossible and leaving her job was going to be effortless. Probably.

And that was fine. If they got in a few hours then maybe things could go back to how they’d been, but Tessa knew that wasn’t going to happen. She was going to lose her job.

She laughed, and felt a stirring of agreement from Pillowcase at the thought that rose within her.

Whatever programming work was on her desk didn’t matter. She had much more interesting bugs to squash now. The pay check that she was waiting for was just as irrelevant too. The bag of starting gold on her hip could buy her boss five times over. 

For all the danger that awaited them, for all the uncertainty over what their fate might be, Tessa felt her younger self screaming a memory back into her awareness.

“We have to have fun,” she said. “We have to love this world. Otherwise we’re just killing ourselves by being here.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 12

There was an upside to being covered in stinky bug guts Tessa decided. She might be horribly grossed out by the slime she was covered in, but in a world where violence was not only an answer but a requirement, she felt no emotional turmoil over the slaughter she was engaged in. In that sense, the [Chaos Centipedes] which were swarming from the abandoned farm house made the perfect foes.

“Oh god, is there a setting to disable my nose,” Rip asked as she knocked an arrow and paused to charge it with energy.

“Not in the normal interface,” Alice said. In her hands she held the [Minor Blood Channel] spell as it pulsed a steady stream of healing into Pillowcase’s body. “We’ve got two coming in from the east, keep an eye out.”

“Which way is east?” Matt asked. He had a spell ready but he was turned in the wrong direction to see the monsters which were wiggling forward under the cover of the [High Beyond]’s version of night.

“Over here,” Tessa said, rolling away from the trio of centipedes she’d been dancing around to pick up the two new arrivals. “Look at the bar at the top of your interface. It shows which direction you’re facing. Eventually you’ll know where you are on the map with just a glance but until then you’ll need to make a conscious effort to keep track.”

One of the centipedes sank its fangs into her leg, taking advantage of the opening Tessa’s instruction had provided. She stabbed in it return, and cursed for wasting the chance to spread her attacks around more.

The Tanks Tessa had worked with had always made the basic parts of their job look easy but the reality was far more complicated, with so many things to remember, and pay attention to, and react properly against that Tessa was left wondering what had ever possessed her to be roll a Tank character rather than her comfortable favorite, a Healer.

“Casting Spell: [Lesser Spirit Drain]”, she said the moment she was in range of the two [Chaos Centipedes].

Everything after that happened automatically, as though her words had set an array of machinery within her to work, one which she could only observe from a distance.

The first stage of the spell was to touch on the power which would fuel it. Tessa felt her Clothwork skin sing as a voice within her called to the magic and found it waiting, wrapped around her hands like a coil of lightning.

The voice that called for the magic become the lungs which drew in the power, flooding her with a formless, boundless energy. Even the tiny spell she’d cast came as a river far wider than she could hold within herself, but before she could let it pass through her and return to its source, she had to shape it. Give the ethereal sparks of creation both form and function, intent and purpose.

It all happened in the blink of an eye but Tessa felt herself burn like a kiln as whatever internal machine held the correct pattern forged the energy she’d drawn forth into the shape of the spell she needed.

Then, at last, there was the release. 

It was gloriously complex, like pouring molten glass from her bare hands  and having it drip into the shape of a perfect crystal goblet. Even as the one who’d lived inside those hands, who’d called the magic together, and done every bit of shaping to transform it from immaterial desire to solidified enchantment, even with being part of the entire process, Tessa still couldn’t comprehend exactly how she’d cast the spell she’d incanted.

It was as though someone else was the crafter who Tessa had set the task of weaving the magic she needed, and it bothered her that the metaphor might be quite literal.

Whether she shared the Clothwork body with someone, or something, else was a problem for when she and her new friends weren’t in danger of being devoured by giant blobs of hunger and teeth though.

The [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell pulsed out from her, passing harmlessly over those she considered allies, and lancing into those she’d deemed to be enemies.

The [Chaos Centipedes] affected by the spell faltered briefly in their rampage, their speed sapped by the spell and their attentions forcefully rerouted to focus on Tessa.

As spells went, it wasn’t that impressive. A small movement speed penalty and a reasonably strong Provoke effect made it as useful tool for a Tank who was looking to protect a team. Pillowcase’s melee attacks could inflict a similar Provoke effect but lacked the range of the spell, and using both in conjunction gave Tessa a shot at retaining control of the monsters even when her damage dealers stopped holding back.

Not that the latter seemed to be problem she’d have to deal with all too soon.

“Keep up your attacks,” Alice called out, as she scanned the area to the best of her ability given the spell she was maintaining.

“I’m almost out of magic points,” Matt said, holding a spell at the ready.

“These are just trash mobs,” Alice said. “Cast till your empty, then switch to basic attacks until you’ve got enough to drop a target in one round of casting.”

“What about me?” Rip asked as she fired another in a steady stream of arrows, killing one of the two new centipedes before it could reach Tessa.

“Just keep firing,” Alice said. “Hold your abilities though. We don’t want to pull hate off of Pillowcase and you’re our answer if something unexpected happens.”

Tessa felt a warm glow of gratitude fill her chest. Teaching new players wasn’t hard exactly, but it was nice to have someone else who was willing to help with it, and who had good advice to give.

“I’m going to see if I can mark these guys,” Tessa said. 

Interacting with the menu system when she was sitting on the other side of the monitor had been too slow in general and so Tessa, like most players, had relied on the in-game macros to make executing certain functions faster. Marking targets in combat definitely fell into that category, though as a Healer she’d never been the one tasked with that since it was typically the Tanks responsibility to determine what was the highest priority to fight. 

Mark First! She focused on one of the [Chaos Centipedes] and subvocalized the command. At first nothing happened and Tessa had to fight the urge to open the menu interface and search for the exact text of the first marker. It would tell her if she was using an inexact wording but the distraction would open more than enough gaps in her defenses for the bugs to eat her, and then rampage over the rest of the party.

Like a memory surfacing from the back of her mind, Tessa felt the right answer bubble up into her awareness.

Mark Prime! Pillowcase said, whispering the words as the thrill of battle danced down her arms and called her blade to life.

A [Chaos Centipede], not the one she’d marked, slithered past her parries and rammed a claw into her left leg as it’s many fanged mouth clomped onto her hip. The extra weight of the creature slowed Pillowcase’s dodging and allowed two others to inflict additional puncture wounds.

She fought back a laugh as Alice’s [Minor Blood Channel] replenished her health to full. The bugs wouldn’t have had a chance if she’d been alone. As it was she wished she could call for more. The small horde that had poured out of the farm house was almost an insult.

From where her team was stationed, Pillowcase heard a shout and felt the impact of Rip Shot’s ability enhanced arrow as it blasted the centipede away that was biting into Pillowcase’s hip.

“Save your abilities!” Alice repeated, more than a little frustration showing in her voice.

“Kill the one I marked,” Pillowcase said, seeing that neither Rip nor Matt were targeting the creature she’d indicated they should focus on.

“But it was chewing on her!” Rip said.

“I’ve got it covered,” Alice said. “More coming from the east. Keep your eyes open. Call them out when you see them.”

“Should I cast on those?” Matt asked as he fired off the spell he was holding at the three [Chaos Centipedes] which had slithered up from a different tunnel than the one the original pair had emerged from.

“No!” Alice couldn’t hold back the growl the followed. It seemed reasonable.

Not, perhaps, necessary. The boy would be eaten for his mistake, which would be a learning experience, and those were always valuable. 

He’ll learn more if he gets a chance to keep practicing, Tessa thought.

“Casting Spell: [Lesser Spirit Drain],” Pillowcase said again, with an eye towards her own magic reserves. The spell was a more effective Provoke than her sword attacks, but it did draw on a limited resource, which was worth factoring into each of its uses. 

In this case though, Pillowcase could see she had the reserves to spare. She went through the same internal transformation of magic into enchantment, but was less aware of it. That was proper. It was supposed to be a seamless, subconscious process so that the caster could stay focused on what was happening in the battle around them.

That’s why Matt’s having trouble, Tessa thought. All of his attacks are doing this to him. He’s getting too caught up in them.

“Don’t worry about this fight,” Pillowcase said. “Slow down. Do one thing, but do it well. Just kill the one I’ve marked.”

“I can kill those though!” Rip said, gesturing to the new arrivals. Despite that, she fired at the ones near Pillowcase but didn’t hit the one which had the marking icon hanging over it.”

“Don’t.” Alice was gritting her teeth loud enough that Pillowcase could heard it from a dozen meters away.

They need a softer touch than that, Tessa thought.

“Yes, you can kill them, you’re already strong enough for that,” Pillowcase said. “That’s not what we’re here to practice though. Practice doing it right on the easy stuff.”

“Ok,” Rip said.

The next shot took marked target in one of its main eyes. Pillowcase marked a second target and a third.

“I can’t get a shot at the marked one,” Matt said. Despite the solidity of his metal frame, Tessa could feel him shaking. He was too new. To the game? To life? To conflict? The fight was overwhelming him.

He could do it though. All it took was training. Anyone could weaponize themselves if honed properly. Tessa felt metal certainty spread through her, affirming that truth.

“If you think [Assist: Pillowcase] you’ll lock in on the target she selected,” Rip said, her voice calm, and supportive, and apparently exactly what Matt needed to hear. His shaking calmed.

“Good,” Pillowcase said. “We’ll move into the house once this wave is dead.”

Dancing around the remaining centipedes was amusing, or at least better than waiting around and not fighting. If they’d been tougher foes, it might have presented a modicum of challenge, but they weren’t, so the whole fight was really just a matter of waiting. The centipedes couldn’t kill Pillowcase, not with her defenses and the combined healing she and Alice brought to the table. If they’d been sapient foes, they might have worked that out, but they were bugs. Hungry murder machines. They had ever opportunity to run, to escape their fate, and none of them would take it because they were too greedy for a taste of Pillowcase’s Clothwork flesh.

The perfect enemies for the fledgling who were with her. Killing sapients could come later.

What?

Tessa didn’t know where that thought had come from and it left her sicker than the centipedes ever could have.The last thing she expected was an answer to her question, but one rose in her mind anyways.

The [Consortium of Pain].

Alice had been right about the need to be careful in who they fought. The mass murder of any creature or people would come with a price none of them should ever be willing to pay.

That didn’t change the fact that there were people who would do horrible, unspeakable things to them.

Could she kill them though?

Yes.

Of course she could. In self-defense. In the defense of others. In revenge, if it came to that. Could she find a better answer than that though?

I don’t know.

She ran her blade through the last of the [Chaos Centipedes] and imagined it being a human. The [Consortium of Pain] were inhuman, in action and biologically, but it wasn’t impossible that her party would stumble across humans who were just as bad. Tessa didn’t know how she would handle foes like that, but she decided one thing in that moment.

She would be the one to deal with them. Whatever else happened, she would not let that be a price that Rip, or Matt, or even Alice had to pay. 

She was their Tank, so she would protect them.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 11

Convincing Aiemethia and Zibby of what was going on proved to be both easier and less fraught with opportunity for disaster than Tessa’s similar conversation with the players stuck inside the Cathedral had been.

> Aimethia said: “What happens if our computers lose power?” 

Rip and Matt joined the small group which had formed around the stables, playful smiles on their face as they mock rough housed to be the first to join the circle. Tessa hadn’t seen either one as unguarded as that before but once the attention of the people who were gathered turned to them, their playfulness fell away into self-conscious silence.

“If you have a power outage or try to force a shutdown, you’ll probably get sucked in here the same as us,” Alice said, tapping the air in front of her as she looked at responses to the requests she sent to the rest of her guild.

“It’s not so bad,” Rip said. “We’re only level 2 but we get to be our characters here, and it’s pretty awesome.”

She and Matt claimed they’d found the defensive positions Tessa had tasked them with looking for and were ready for a real battle, especially now that Tessa had proven the local monsters weren’t all as disturbingly overpowered as the [Wraithwings] had been.

> Aiemethia said: “Knew I should have made an elf like I’d been planning to. Could have lived forever.”

“Do you think we’d get their immortality if we did that?” Matt asked, apparently enough of a student of the game’s lore to have caught the meaning behind the Elven racial trait “[Children of the Undying]”.

“We might be immortal already,” Rip said. “I mean, if we die we can just respawn right?”

Tessa was going to point out the issue with the [Hounds of Fate] and people disappearing forever but she wasn’t sure how to broach the subject right.

Zibby said: “You said you four have already done that? What was it like?” 

“Mind blowing,” Tessa said, feeling more comfortable on that point than any involving real mortality. “Your body turns to light and you get called here from what feels like the other side of the universe.”

“The ‘being dead’ part isn’t that a big of a deal though,” Rip said. “It doesn’t hurt or anything and respawning even feels kind of nice.”

Matt nodded in agreement, but refrained from speaking. He was watching Aiemethia and Zibby closely. Tessa could guess what he had noticed. The characters who were controlled by players who were outside of the game looked superficially similar to the other people who were walking around [Sky’s Edge] but their movements were off. Not creepy or alien thankfully, just simplified.

Broken Horizons had a variety of “resting animations” for characters based on body style, class, and a user configurable “demeanor” setting. Where a [Paladin] like Aiemethia might stand straight and tall, looking dignified and commanding by default, a [Mathemagician] like Zibby had an idle animation of playing with numbers and formulae as though she were practicing her spell casting during quiet moments.

Those motions were a nice touch of extra detail work which did a lot to bring a character to life within the limited vision of the world the game provided. Standing with the characters in a richer and more immersive environment though made it quickly apparent how pre-programmed those motions were. Rather than making the characters seem real, they gave them the sense of being well sculpted animatronics, like Tessa was on a very strange theme park ride.

By comparison, Rip and Matt were in almost constant motion, fidgeting while otherwise still, waving their hands when speaking and shifting their position and balance as though they were adjusting their bodies like a set of clothes which was draped over their unfamiliar bones. Even Alice, who was generally preternaturally still due to her vampiric nature, moved in unique ways each time she turned or cast a glance somewhere, rather than with exactly the same motions, over and over.

Zibby said: “It’s nice that the experience wasn’t too bad but I see where staying here for now makes sense.”

Aiemethia said: “It does, but we’re level 7 already so we should be able to help them out somehow shouldn’t we?”

“Maybe you can tell us about the dungeon you found?” Alice said. “What kind of things are in there? How long did it take you? Are there any special requirements to get in? That sort of thing.”

> Aiemethia said: “We can fill you in on that or we could just lead you through it. I mean we made it through once with just the two of us. It should be even easier with six. Or eight. If there’s anyone else around in the area we could make a full party of it.”

“That’s not a great idea,” Alice said. “Full parties will cause dungeons to spawn tougher mobs. And if you’re with us, we’ll either get less experience because it’ll be based on how difficult the monsters are for you, or you’d have to exemplar back down to our level which would put you in the same danger we’d be in.”

“Yeah, I know there used to be a cut over at five party members for when the higher tiers of enemies started to spawn,” Tessa said. “We should be good with four but any more than that and we risk running into Boss class encounters.”

“Some of the new content throws Elite Bosses in at low levels too,” Alice said. “If we see one of those we’re going to have to run for now.”

“Why, are they really tough?” Matt asked.

“They almost always come with some special mechanics to deal with,” Alice said. “The simplest ones are things like ‘create three copies of themselves’, or ‘breath a stream of spiders onto you that you need to stand in lava to wash off’. Fun stuff like that.”

“I’m all for avoiding the spider-lava bosses,” Rip said.

“Fights like that are always doable,” Tessa said, “but Alice is right, we want to have a lot more experience fighting like we are now and as a team before we intentionally tangle with anything that complicated.”

“Sounds to me like you might want to check out the abandoned farm we passed about two miles back then,” Helda Birgen said. 

Tessa blinked. She’d forgotten about the family they’d helped rescue despite the fact that they were all sitting in the stables so the family’s cart could be repaired. Helda, the mother, had been watching them, but this was the first time any of the family had ventured to join the conversation.

Tessa tried to form a reply but found her brain stuck in place. She’d slipped into thinking of the family as “NPCs” – non-player characters. Essentially mannequins who would, at the most, act as quest dispensing machines. Granted, Helda’s comment bordered on that, but the trepidation in her voice and the natural pause in the conversation she’d inserted her suggestion into was far beyond what the mindless simulacrums in the game could have managed. 

Tessa had accepted the world as real, but accepting that the people were too sent so many of her long held assumptions into disarray that she found she needed a moment to process it all.

“Abandoned farm?” Alice asked, stepping in with a response. 

“Yeah. We’ve never stopped there, but it looked prosperous enough last month when we came by,” Helda said. “This time though it looked like it had been destroyed years ago and there were a mess of those [Chaos Centipedes] roaming around it.”

“I think that’s where they caught our trail,” Jurgen Bergin, the father of the family, said. “They didn’t notice us right away but when the wind shifted it must have carried our scent to them because they came running after us in a hurry.”

“Is that how your cart wheel broke?” Tessa asked. “You tried to get away and pushed it too hard?”

“More or less,” Jurgen said, casting his eyes down to inspect the top of his boots.

“Running would have worked, except someone was too busy looking behind to notice the rut in the road before we hit it at full speed,” Helda said.

“I was trying to make sure they wouldn’t catch up,” Jurgen said, folding his arms with a scowl.

“Next time, just listen to me and believe when I tell you I have it covered,” Helda said.

“I’m hoping there won’t be a next time,” Jurgen said. “But if there is, then yes, I will trust you to cover our backs.”

“We can make sure the path’s safe! Right?” Rip asked.

“Maybe,” Alice said.

“Aww, you’re not going to leave us behind are you?” Rip asked.

“No, not that,” Alice said. “You two won’t level up if you’re back here in town. No, what I mean is even if we clear the [Chaos Centipedes] out, they might respawn in a month when the Birgens come through with their next delivery.”

“A month, a week, hell they might respawn in five minutes,” Tessa said. “In fact, it might be good if they did.”

“You want a lair of [Chaos Centipedes] to stay there?” Helda asked.

“Not exactly?” Tessa said. “It’s just that we can grow stronger by fighting them, so if they do respawn quickly, we can focus on killing them until they grow too weak to teach us anything new. If they don’t respawn, we’ll need to hunt far and wide for things we can handle, and it’s easy to stumble on stuff you don’t want to deal with when you’re roaming.”

“That’s true. If those things respawn at anything like a realistic rate, the players on the server will hunt them to extinction,” Alice said. “We might not be able to level up at all if areas can be cleared out permanently.”

“Players? Server?” Jurgen asked.

“We’re not from here,” Tessa said. “What we know of your world, we learned by looking at a copy of it on another world. Players are people like us, adventurers basically, and a server is one of the copies of your world that we’re used to interacting with.”

Tessa expected to be met with questions or disbelief. What she didn’t expect was a shrug and a knowing nod.

“That’s not surprising to hear given that you fight like you do, you’d have to be from another world” Jurgen said. 

“Not just how you fight, but where we are too,” Helda added. “We make this our trade route because fewer merchants are willing to. Lots of strange and unusual things come to our world from the [High Beyond].”

“You look surprised,” Jurgen said, glancing at Tessa and Alica. “Honestly, it’s just nice to meet someone from another world who’s friendly for a change. Those [Consortium of Pain] types can be real trouble.”

> Aimethia said: “You’re actually conversing with them, aren’t you?”

“Yep,” Tessa said.

> Aimethia said: “You know, I’d only half believed what you said before, but that? That’s pretty convincing.”

Tessa could see why. It would be possible to fake that kind of interaction, especially if the support team was in on it, but the flow of the conversation had been too unscripted for that scenario to feel likely.

Zibby stood up from where she’d finished healing the [Giant Spotted Gecko]’s injuries. [Mathemagicians] were a support class that had been added after Tessa stopped playing, so Zibby had the [Healing Touch] skill already and was able to put it to good use.

“I guess we will stay here then. If you need us though, you have to promise to call,” she said, sounding far more maternal than Tessa had expected. 

Both Aiemethia and Zibby had chosen to style their avatars as older characters, an unusual choice in Tessa’s experience, and their voices seemed to match their appearance. She was willing to hazard a guess that Zibby had practiced those maternal instincts on children and grandchildren in her time and her concern was her true self showing through the mask her avatar presented to the world.

“We will,” Tessa said. “If you’ll promise to be careful too. We don’t really know anything about what’s going on yet, and it could be really important to have someone we can talk to who’s still in…” Tessa paused, she wanted to say ‘the real world’ but with Helda and Jurgen listening in and responding, could she claim the Earth she knew was any more real than the Fallen Kingdoms she was standing in? 

“…in our world,” she decided.

A thought dinged into her head and Tessa remembered as she spoke that they’d been looking for someone just like Zibby less than half and hour ago.

Do you want to try giving Zibby your contact info so she can call your girlfriend? Tessa whispered telepathically to Alice.

No. I’ve changed my mind, Alice whispered back.

You want to wait for BT to get back to us, or you don’t want anyone to contact your girlfriend for you? Tessa asked.

I…I had some one from my guild do it, she said, but the hitch in her whisper and the incongruity of her statements left Tessa with the distinct impression that Alice’s claim was far from true.

She wanted to push for more details. Was Alice giving up on her girlfriend? Did she have someone else she was working through? How bad had their fight been?

None of that matters and none of it’s my business, she told herself. 

Normally it wasn’t easy to let something like that go, but Tessa had something much more pressing to deal with.

A dungeon was waiting for them, and she needed to be ready for it.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 10

A monster was attacking. Because that’s what monsters do. Tessa knew she should fight it. Because that’s what adventurers do. Seeing one in person, rather than on the other side of a monitor, made that a whole lot harder than she’d imagined it would be though.

Tess had charged into battle with monsters an uncountable number of times in the Fallen Kingdoms, but when faced with a five foot tall [Chaos Centipede], she found her feet skidding to an unwilling halt.

The thing had so many legs.

And eyes.

And there was more than one of them.

Undulating in a wave of pulsing flesh at least a half dozen of the monsters were converging on a cart with a small family gathered around it.

The cart was a two wheeled platform hooked to a tame [Giant Spotted Gecko]. Had both wheels still been attached, the lizard probably could have pulled the cart into the safety of [Sky’s Edge]’s domain. As it was though, with one wheel broken into pieces across the road and the other twisted at a bad angle, Tessa could see there was no chance they would outrun the centipede.

“Help!” the family’s oldest son called when he saw Tessa. His father and mother were scrambling to unhitch the gecko, probably hoping it could serve as a transport for their three children. It was a noble effort but one that was doomed to failure. The [Chaos Centipedes] were too close.

Part of Tessa wanted to look away, and she hated herself for it.

There wasn’t time to dwell on that though. Her brief pause had been only a handful of seconds but that were seconds the family didn’t have. 

Move, something inside her urged and the shackles of her fear fell away. She felt light, and almost outside of her body. Since it wasn’t quite her body, it seemed oddly appropriate.

Drawing her [Rusty Sword], a touch of madness danced like fireworks along the edges of Tessa’s mind. What did death matter in a world where she couldn’t really die? What was pain when all injuries could be healed.

Tessa wasn’t a berserker, and Pillowcase wasn’t either, but as she charged towards the coming horde of monsters, the light in her eyes which swept her fear aside drew on some primal component of her being which had no connection to any sense of self preservation.

“[Minor Life Stealing]”, she said and saw the blade swinging in her hand become rimmed with an edge of hungry red light. 

The [Chaos Centipedes] moved with the mindless urgency of creatures driven only to consume, and though Pillowcase was far faster than Tessa had ever been, the centipedes were even faster and closer still to their target. As her feet flew down the open hill, she knew couldn’t reach them in time.

But Tessa wasn’t alone.

“[Divine Smite!]”

From over the small rise behind the cart, two figures appeared and, without hesitation, plowed into the oncoming swarm of [Chaos Centipedes]. The first was clearly a Paladin, one of the knightly classes which had been available from when the game launched. He slammed into the nearest centipede, his sword crackling with holy radiance as he cleaved it the giant bug into two goey halves.

His companion took a more sensible position, imposing herself between the rest of the oncoming centipedes and the family. In her hands, her staff glowed as it became surrounded by swirling numbers and equations.

“[Psychic Barrier]”, she said, sending the swirling numbers out into a wide bubble which enveloped the family, herself, and even the gecko.

It had been a while since Tessa coordinated with a [Paladin], and she wasn’t quite sure which class the other adventurer had since a number of the caster classes had the option to start with [Psychic Barrier]. Despite that, and despite having no time to think or process what she knew, her old playing skills left her instinctively aware of a few things.

First, the [Chaos Centipedes] had to be a more reasonable foe than the [Wraithwings] had been. [Divine Smite!] from a low level [Paladin] was a good attack, though not one they could use frequently, but it would have barely scratched something like a [Wraithwing]. That it killed the centipede in one hit made Tessa feel a lot better about their odds.

That said, she still didn’t like their tactical position. The [Psychic Barrier] had bought precious seconds and might be the power that really saved the day, but it wasn’t endlessly resilient. From a low level caster, it would be lucky to stand up to more than a couple of hits.

From how the two players had engaged the mob though, without hesitation and with an almost pre-rehearsed level of coordination, Tessa could tell they both had a lot of experience playing in general and a lot of experience playing together. That would count for a lot and meant she didn’t have to worry about taking care of them too.

With only brief impressions of those observations flying through her mind, Tessa altered her course, heading to the side of the horde of centipedes rather than trying to intercept them.

The ones she ran towards detected the incoming threat she posed and peeled away from the others to both defend themselves and get the first bite in on a new meal.

That wasn’t good enough for Tessa.

A tank’s job wasn’t to annoy a few of the enemy, it was to demand the attention of as many foes as they could withstand. Without Lost Alice, or another healer, present, Tessa knew her durability would be significantly lower than it would be in a typical encounter. Wounds she took weren’t going to vanish in the blink of an eye like they had when she was fighting the [Wraithwings]. The question she had to answer was would they close fast enough with only her own powers to rely on?

A strike with her [Rusty Sword] put a vicious gash into the first [Chaos Centipede] as she leapt over it to plunge deeper into the swarm. Like it or not, the fight was on.

A wildfire of madness sparked along the hills and valley of her thoughts, daring the monsters to do their worse. The things they could manage were nothing compared to what she’d faced already, or even what she’d been designed for. This was her realm. She was crafted for war and battle. 

Her [Minor Life Stealing Blade] lashed out and she felt vitality surging into her as claw wounds and bites faded away, healed by the life essences of the creatures which had inflicted the wounds.

The [Chaos Centipedes] turned to face her, the whole swarm reeling in place as the [Minor Provoking Strikes] passive Pillowcase possessed compelled them to recognize her as an existential threat to the lives they were barely aware they possessed. 

Yes! A centipede bit down onto Pillowcase’s arm but the fabric deformed easily under its jaws. She couldn’t use the arm for a moment, but her health points only dipped slightly and had recovered to full by the time she stabbed the creature in the head and pried its corpse off her. 

It felt so good to be in a fight again.

She hadn’t thought it would ever happen.

Not after the defeat they suffered. 

A small band of [Chaos Centipedes] wasn’t quite the gathered Armies of the Fallen Kingdoms of course, but it still felt glorious to move through the steps she’d be created to dance. 

Don’t stand still. You’re tough, but why let them have it easy. Circle instead, lead them around and around so that the whole pack scrambles over each other, fighting and biting for the chance to get their teeth into the one who’d driven them mad with anger and hunger. 

Pillowcase knew she could do better. Her footwork was sloppy. Far clumsier than it should have been. Some of her internal stitches hadn’t been rewoven and the reservoir of magic she had to draw on was different. Cleaner somehow but also so much smaller than when she’d marched in the armies of the [Consortium of Pain].

It didn’t matter though. She didn’t need to be at the top of her game. Not for foes who were little more than bugs with some overdeveloped growth hormones.

[Divine Smite!]

The Paladin was close to her, cleaving another of the centipedes to pieces as the cooldown time on his ability finished. 

Could he be an enemy too? Pillowcase didn’t know. He was human, but she didn’t find humans to be objectionable anymore. Not all of them at any rate. A wordless voice reminded her that even humans who were technically allies weren’t necessarily good people, or worthy of her trust.

Under the circumstances though, there were enough common enemies that PIllowcase was reasonably sure the Paladin wasn’t planning to complicate the fight by making it a three way battle, and, happily, her faith was rewarded. Within less than a minute the last of the [Chaos Centipedes] lay dead and lootable at her feet.

> Aiemethia said: “Good job herding.”

“Thanks,” Tessa said, pleased that someone had noticed the effort she put into it.

The transition in her thoughts wasn’t jarring and it wasn’t until the last of the centipedes was dead that she recognized it.

Surveying the battlefield for any other monsters in the vicinity, Tessa cast her thoughts back to the battle. To the thoughts that shouldn’t have been hers. 

But they had been.

She’d been thinking as Pillowcase, as someone who wasn’t human and never had been. Someone who’d been manufactured by evil space tyrants and it had seemed perfectly natural. 

But it hadn’t been someone else thinking those thoughts. She’d been herself all along, with no moments where her thoughts grew fuzzy or were replaced by anything that felt disconnected or alien to her. Her memories were clear and seamless and entirely hers. 

She’d been in the driver’s seat all along, but when she’d needed it, she’d become someone, or something, more than just “Tessa the programmer”.

> Aiemethia said: “Did you just log in?”

Tessa blinked and saw the usual interface elements appear around the [Paladin]. He was already level 7 and his gear reflected it. What worried her was that his voice had the distant, modulated quality of someone who was still on the right side of the monitor.

“No, I’ve been on for a while. Have you gotten any system messages yet? There’s a…” what could she say that a random stranger might believe? “…a problem with the game and they need all the players who haven’t run into it to move their characters to a safe spot and leave them there. You don’t want to be out here where its still dangerous.”

After a long pause, just enough Tessa decided for someone to read what she’d said, he responded.

> Aiemethia said: “No, no messages yet. We were in a dungeon though, so maybe it didn’t come through.”

“There’s a low level dungeon near here?” Tessa asked. “When were you able to get into it? Is it still open?”

Dungeons were a far more efficient source of experience than hunting random monsters in the wild, so the part of Tessa that yearned to be at the level cap hungered to know more. From what she’d read about the Beta test, one of the (many) complaints had been that the early experience didn’t offer any sort of organized, group based content. Most people thought it wouldn’t be a significant issue since new players tended to solo a lot and more experienced ones were often power leveled out of the low levels so they could play with more of a new character’s abilities sooner.

It BT was available Tessa would have been demanding to know exactly what “extras” the developers had added in the final patch that went out, but she already suspected the answer would not include “a brand new dungeon which would take hundreds of development  hours at a minimum”.

A more urgent question than the drive for experience occurred to her though.

“Have you died at all yet? Or tried to disconnect?” She had to confirm if they were still in the real world. 

Aiemethia said: “No, we got through the whole dungeon just fine. How are you typing so fast though?”

Because of course everything Tessa said was coming up on his screen as fast as she spoke it.

“Let’s get the NPCs back to town,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to tell you.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 9

Alice had not been overly joyful to hear that the support staff for Broken Horizons had become unreachable. Another person might have been described as apoplectic but Alice had a shade too much control to lose it like that. Not that Tessa would have blamed her if she did. BT was their one lifeline back to the real world and she was too busy to take their call?

A part of Tessa had to admit that it wasn’t unreasonable for BT to be a little overwhelmed and tied up with other problems. Tessa wasn’t sure how the Broken Horizons support team was divided up, but even if BT only had to deal with the people logged into the server Tessa was on, that was still thousands of calls coming in, many of whom were probably in far worse shape than anyone in [Sky’s Edge].

Alice looked unwilling to give much credit to that consideration, but she kept her complaints silent, the burning glare in her eyes and the hard set of her jaw the only hints of how much she longed to lash out.

“There might be another option to get you message out,” Tessa said. “Let’s go see the people in the chapel together. Maybe one of them can call your girlfriend for you. That’s more important than searching for quests here.”

Alice met Tessa’s gaze for a moment and then nodded in agreement.

“Did you meet any of them yet?” Tessa asked as she walked back to the chapel.

“Not really,” Alice said. ‘We respawned and then noticed that you were gone, so booked outside because it was obvious what you’d tried.”

“Ok. No telling what they’re like then,” Tessa said. “If you get a bad feeling about giving them your real world contact info, obviously you can skip it. There’s some other folks who might have survived too. I saw them retreating right as the event started. If nothing else got them, they should still be on the other side of the monitor and able to help us out.”

“You know, I don’t even know if I should reach out,” Alice said, reaching the chapel door before Tessa and opening it to allow Tessa to head in first. Tessa could think of a lot of reasons why that might be true, from the risk of any communication dragging Alice’s girlfriend into this mess too, to questions about how bad the fight they’d had really was. Whatever Alice’s primary concern was though, she didn’t chose to share it.

Inside the chapel, Tessa found things pretty much just as she’d expected them to be. The overall space and furnishings were the same as they’d been in the [Ghost Lands]. In the living world though everything had more color and vitality, especially the blue [Heart Fire] which defined and consecrated the chapel’s grounds.

In the fire light, Tessa saw a dozen people standing around, staring blankly ahead. A couple of them were human, but most of the players had chosen to make their new characters in one of the newly available races like Tessa and Alice had.

“Any one of you still here?” Alice asked, since it was impossible to tell whether the players were away from their keyboards or simply not moving their characters at the moment.

> Mugs Munny said: “Yeah. Is that GM coming back?”

Mugs was a [Void Goblin], with deep purple skin and bottomless black eyes which were filled with flickering points of light. He was standing a distance apart from the other people who were clustered near the back of the chapel, and from how his face was making small motions to track to different points in front of him, Tessa guessed he was inspecting something in his menu options – possibly looking for some other method of logging off.

“Not yet,” Tessa said. “They’re super busy.”

> Mugs Munny said: “Are we supposed to keep waiting? I need to hit the sack soon.”

“BT, the GM, she didn’t tell you what was going on did she?” Tessa asked.

>Mugs Munny said: “No. She booked out of here.”

>Mugs Munny said: “Said she’d fill us in when she got back.”

>Mugs Munny said: “I tried messaging her, but I’m getting bounce backs.”

“Yeah, the support system is overloaded,” Tessa said. 

“They don’t know,” Alice said. Her anger was submerged in weariness and an abject lack of surprise.

>Mugs Munny said: “Know what? And how are you typing that fast?”

Ten minutes later Mugs and the two other people who were still at their keyboards were lost in a debate over whether they believed the tale they’d been told and, if so, whether they wanted to try dying to get into the game, or use a log out to do it.

“Yeah, I’m not giving those idiots any info,” Alice said once they were back outside the chapel. 

Tessa knew she should have predicted the reaction they’d received. Faced with the prospect of going to work or literally living out her dream, she wasn’t sure she would have been much more rational after someone offered a modicum of proof that it was possible to dive into the [Fallen Kingdoms].

On the other hand giving out personal information to someone who’d asked Alice to jump so he could see if the “jiggle physics” had improved was never going to turn well.

On the plus side though, they had learned something new from the encounter. It turned out that blacklisting someone (in this case a Metal Mechanoid named “King Bong”) was possible with a simple mental command and resulted in that person vanishing from the world as far as Alice and Tessa were concerned. Once he was on the list, they could no longer see or hear him and he couldn’t see or hear them either. Mugs had helpfully confirmed that for them before adding King Bong to his own blacklist as well.

Tessa was happy to see that blacklisting still worked. It was easy and quick and held the answer to a lot of potential problems that could arise. There’d been a little warning screen that popped up which asked for confirmation (so she knew it wouldn’t happen by accident) and stated that once added, a person could not be removed for 24 hours. Tessa was still harboring faint hopes that the situation might be worked out in less than a day, but the realist in her knew that wasn’t going to happen.

“Want to go look for quests?” Tessa asked the dispirited Alice beside her. “I can search for the other party. Maybe they won’t be so bad.”

“Maybe.” Alice managed the word as a single grunt. “You know it’s not safe out there right?”

“Yeah,” Tessa said. “Outside of town it’s going to be all monsters, all the time.”

“No, I mean it’s worse than that,” Alice said. “It’s supposed to be low level stuff out there, probably nothing we couldn’t solo, but we can’t count on that being true.”

Tessa stopped walking.

“The [Wraithwings],” she said, as the implications of Alice’s words settled in.

“Right. They were ridiculously higher level that anything we should have fought. So either the game’s glitched, or someone’s trying to kill off players.”

“To get us into this world,” Tessa said as the pieces arranged themselves in her mind.

“Maybe not just that,” Alice said. “The voice over when we were sucked in, it talked about a hero. That’s not me, and probably not any of us. But if someone’s looking for a hero and they’ve got a bajillion possible candidates, what do you think they’re going to do?”

“Winnow out the good ones from the bad,” Tessa said, a fresh weight of dread descending on her.

“Or the strong from the weak,” Alice said. 

Tessa rubbed the bridge of her nose. It felt weird to do in Pillowcase’s body, which was somehow both squishier and more resilient than her human one.

“We should setup a game plan,” she said. “If we run into anything stupidly overpowered, we flee. If we all can’t flee, then you three flee and I’ll act as a rearguard. If none of us can flee then we move to as safe a spot as we can, together, and die there so we’ll have a chance to reclaim our bodies on a respawn.”

“Sounds like our basic raid encounter plan,” Alice said. “The trick is going to be getting the kids to go along with it.”

“They’ll need someone to lead them in the retreat,” Tessa said. “Are you up for it?”

“I’ll have to be until we get some more people in the group,” Alice said.

“After King Bong back there I’m not feeling too eager to go on a recruiting drive,” Tessa said.

“That works for me. Low odds we’d get people who would be willing to fight like the NPCs in this world are people too.”

“I used to know people who would,” Tessa said. “I should probably feel glad that they’re not in the game anymore.”

“Yeah, I should feel glad that my power leveler wasn’t able to log in tonight,” Alice said. “It kind of sucks though.”

“We’ll make it suck less,” Tessa said. “I’ll see about finding the other team and a decent hunting ground. And if BT gets back to me I’ll send her right over to you.”

Aliced nodded.

“Thanks. Sorry you got caught up in this too. Really thought I’d be able to keep you alive there during the event.”

“Can’t save me from my own stupidity,” Tessa said with a smile and a shrug.

She turned to head out of town in the same direction she’d seen the other party take but Alice grabbed her arm.

“Be careful. Seriously,” she said. “If anything comes up, at least give a shout in party chat. If you just disappear it’s going to be creepy as hell.”

“No worries,” Tessa said. “I am not a brave person. First sign of trouble, I am out there.”

Alice looked dubious of Tessa’s claim but that was fine. Tessa had every interest in avoiding peril, both at the moment and in general.

***

Outside of the town, Tessa felt the transition to the [Fields of the Wasted] as a palpable charge in the air. Her senses came to life and a nervous energy ran through her body which seemed to be waking up from a light slumber. 

The aura of peace which kept most monsters out of a town like [Sky’s Edge] apparently also had an effect on players who were within its boundaries as well. Whether that was a magical effect or just the result of the characters sensing that they could afford to relax was something Tessa couldn’t be sure of but the absence of that aura wasn’t entirely unwelcome either. 

Breathing slowing and carefully scanning her environment, Tessa felt more alive and alert than she had in years. Untold dangers waited for her in the gloom which shrouded the lands around the town, but her heart was singing with anticipation at the thought rather than shrinking away like she’d expected it would.

Biting back her rising excitement, Tessa forced reason to prevail. The first order of business was taking the lay of the land. Despite the shadows which covered the world, her Clothwork eyes could still pick out a lot of detail.

[Sky’s Edge] was named as it was because it stood on the edge of a mile high cliff which overlooked the [Low Beyond]. From most vantage points though, it looked like the town sat on the last piece of land before the end of the world and the beginning of the star strewn sky which encircled the heavens. 

It was a grand and glorious vista, even more so when experienced in person rather than through a computer monitor, but it did present Tessa with some challenges, the largest of which being the choice of where to go.

The cliff ran in an irregular north-south line bowing inwards where [Sky’s Edge] sat beside a swiftly flowing river which pitched over the edge of cliff to form a waterfall which never quite reached the ground of the [Low Beyond], dispersing instead into the glittering mist and rolling clouds which covered the base of the falls.

When Pillowcase had revived, she’d been just off to the southwest of [Sky’s Edge] at the edges of the [Fields of the Wasted]. That was also where Mister Pendant had sent her for the [Radioactive Goo Rats] quest, so she felt at least slightly familiar with the area.

The other party she’d seen during the [Wraithwing Assault] event though had looked like they were heading more northwest, which would have led them behind a few hills she hadn’t ventured over yet.

The tactical considerations of whether to further explore an area she was familiar with or seek out a group of unknown players in an area that was likely to hold an entirely different breed of monsters than the ones she’d run into so far warred in Tessa’s mind. 

If I’m going to lead this party, I need to make the smart calls, she told herself.

Then she heard the scream.

It was coming from the south.

She hadn’t been to the south.

She hadn’t seen any players heading to the south.

As it turned out, Clothworks could move pretty fast when they weren’t stopping to think about whether or not they should.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 8

The problem with having a million questions was that they could lead to a million answers you didn’t want to hear.

“Who…” Alice’s voice cut off as she choked back her anger. 

Tessa knew the question Alice wanted to ask, and knew they needed the answer, but was reasonably certain it wouldn’t help.

“Who gave us the quest?” she asked for Alice.

“It looks like you picked it up for yourself,” Mogwin said. He was staring at Tessa like he was reading something written on the inside of her skin. It was chilling to think that might be exactly what he was doing, but wearing Pillowcase’s body provided a sense of insulation which was comforting.

“Was it when we came here?” Rip Shot asked. “The voice that spoke to us. It asked us things. Was that the one who gave us the quest?”

“I don’t know who you talked to,” Mogwin said. “You’d have to ask them yourself. All I can see is that you’re at the beginning of one of the [Nightmare Queen]’s quest lines.”

“We didn’t ask for this,” Alice said, still quietly seething.

“Sounds like a bug then,” Mogwin said, the twitching of his head standing in for shrugging shoulders he didn’t possess.

“Fill us in on what a bug is,” Tessa asked. The terminology was the same but someone inside a program would have to see errors in the code differently from how a programmer would.

“They’re where the fabric of the world breaks down a bit,” Mogwin said. “Most of them are harmless but annoying. Stay away from them if you run into any though, because sometimes even the tiny ones can be deadly.”

“How so?” Matt asked.

“Well, a bug comes from reality not being set quite right. Say a board that’s supposed to be solid just isn’t for some reason. Probably that won’t do you any harm. But what if it’s something that is only occasionally solid? You try to step through the ghost-board and it turns into a fully material one while its plunged through your chest. That kind of thing can ruin anyone’s day.”

“How can reality not be set right?” Rip asked.

“Magic,” Mogwin said, as though that explained everything. When he saw that none of his audience seemed to understand he continued on. “Sometimes when spells backfire, they mess up more than the caster. Take when someone really botches a levitation spell. Maybe the magic does more than shred them, maybe it shreds force of gravity around the caster too.”

“Magic can do that?” Matt asked, carely rubbing his hands together like they were loaded weapons and he was looking for a safety switch on them.

“I mean, not often,” Mogwin said. “And not on purpose I think. I can’t think of any spell casters who’ve tried to blow themselves up and managed to do anything more than that.”

“How do the bugs get fixed?” Tessa asked, wondering what the different version releases and expansions looked like from inside the world.

“The ripples tend to smooth them out,” Mogwin said.

“Ripples?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, magic isn’t stagnant. It flows constantly, just like the weather, and people, and everything. Over time anything that “is” can become something that “was”, even bugs.”

“So they just get better on their own?” Tessa asked. “There’s no grand event where they all disappear.”

“Well, sure, that’s what a ripple is,” Mogwin said. “The world changes at different rates, and sometimes a lot of changes all sweep through together. That’s a ripple. The worst bugs are usually fixed by those.”

“Was there a ripple recently?” Tessa asked.

“Tons of them,” Mogwin said. “That’s to be expected though. The [Consortium of Pain]’s incursion is causing all sorts of problems. Problems you will hopefully be able to help fix.”

“Why would we?” Alice asked. She wasn’t looking any happier with anything she’d heard so far.

“I don’t know,” Mogwin said. “It seems like a rotten gig to me, but then I’m just a [Guide]. I leave the heroing stuff to you folks.”

“Why’s it rotten?” Rip asked, jerking up sharply with a defensive look in her eyes. That wasn’t the narrative she expected or wanted to hear.

“Because most of us are going to fail,” Alice said and turned back to Mogwin. “Isn’t that right?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” he said. “Or maybe not fail, just give up. Most of the people I’ve acted as a guide for just lose their inspiration and settle down after a while. Usually when the road starts getting harder or when they folks they adventure with lose their inspiration. One day they’re great heroes doing great things and the next, they’re not. They just coast through life not really aspiring to much more than getting through the day.”

Tessa felt the words slash across her like a dull knife. “Lose their inspiration”, meant to  quit logging in, especially after their friends stopped logging in? That described her perfectly six years ago and she wasn’t sure it didn’t still fit who she was. 

Would she have continued playing Broken Horizons much past the early part of the new expansion? Would it have mattered if she quit? It wasn’t like she had friends she would have been leaving behind if things had gone differently. If the world had remained sensible and real rather than whatever cybertech fairy tale was built up all around her.

That wasn’t what she was worried about though. She could feel the grip of the past slipping away as her present problems rose up to drown the old ones out. 

It wasn’t the “might have beens” that concerned her so much as the “might well be”. Everything in her experience told her that Mogwin was correct. She had a party now, but they were all strangers. What was the chance that they’d stick together when things got rough? Would they follow her into a dungeon again and again because defeats were typical when you were learning a fight’s mechanics? Should they? Was she really the right one to lead them?

“Can you tell us what the next step in [Nightmare Queen]’s quest is?” she asked.

Tessa knew the voices of doubt and uncertainty that plagued her. They were old friends at this point. She knew she couldn’t shout them down or argue herself out of listening to them. Her only real choice was to move forward.

“Sure. The next step is to visit [Horizon’s Edge]. You’ll need to be at least level 10 to access the [Halls of the Fallen] though.” Mogwin said, a pleased flutter in his wingtips.

“Do either of those places sound familiar?” Tessa asked Alice.

“No. They must be new to the expansion,” Alice said.

“Can you tell us where we need to go?” Rip asked.

“You’ve got a lot of options. If you want to level up, you can check out the [Fields of the Wasted]. If you want to focus on making money though you’d be better off…oh wait, I’m being called away. Sorry. Been nice chatting with you but a [Guide]’s work is never done.”

With that Mogwin leapt from Tessa’s shoulder and took flight, vanishing as quickly as he appeared.

“I’m surprised we got that long with him,” Alice said.

“There was a lot more we could have asked him,” Matt said. “Should we call him back? Or call one of our guides?”

“It wouldn’t hurt, but I’m betting they’re going to be pretty busy for a while,” Tessa said. “We could wait for one to show up, but I don’t think being this low level is going to be safe for too much longer.”

“You want to try fighting then?” Alice asked.

“Yeah. Let’s see what [Fields of the Wasted] look like. I think that’s where I started, so I’m guessing we’ll have [Radioactive Goo Rats] and stuff like that to work with.”

“We should see if there’s any quests here in town too,” Alice said. “I heard back from Cease All, and according to her, none of their characters can travel to the [High Beyond] until they complete a dungeon quest. They need to [Quest: Open the Path to the Stars] or something like that.”

“Figures,” Tessa said. “That restriction wasn’t in effect during the beta test, but the devs warned that they were going to enable it once the game went live. At least from what I read.”

“Why would they bother?” Rip asked. “Don’t they want people to play together?”

“Sure, but if they make it easier to start up a new character than to get an existing high level one here, then people will play through all the new low level content they designed,” Tessa said.

“That also means that no one can come power level us, so we’ve got to do things the hard way,” Alice said.

“Power level?” Matt asked.

“Basically do all the work killing things while partied up with us so that we get a ton of levels without having to take any risks,” Tessa said. “It’s safer and usually hundreds of times faster than leveling on your own, but you don’t really learn what your skills and spells can do.”

“Well that’s not going to be a problem for us,” Alice said, glancing around the town at the people who were picking up the debris and beginning to repair their buildings.

“You want to see if you can find any simple quests for us?” Tessa asked Alice. “I’ll go and see if there’s anyone else who wants to join us.”

“You’re not going to invite the people who survived the attack are you?” Alice asked. “They’re still safe back on Earth.”

“And hopefully they’ll stay like that. I’ll let them know what BT said, and suggest they just walk away from their computers for now. There were some other folks who managed to escape the battle though. I want to see if they’re still around and whether they survived or not. In either case we can coordinate what we’re doing with them.”

“Ok.” Alice bit her lip which showcased the tiny fang hiding on that side of her mouth. As vampire’s went, she wasn’t particularly terrifying. Alice had chosen an appearance that was on the “ less monstrous” end of the spectrum. Aside from dusky grey skin and a slight red gleam to her eyes, she could have passed for a typical human woman. 

Tessa wondered which of the [Graveborne] subtypes Alice had chosen. There were, predictably, several different options which were basically “vampire with this special ability” or “vampire with that unique twist”. Before her team got into their first battle, Tessa knew she should sit the whole party down and find out what their characters were capable of. She wasn’t a master strategist by any means, but knowing what their strengths and weaknesses were was critical in selecting the proper foes to tangle with.

“What should we do?” Rip asked, eager fires alight within her.

“You’re both ranged damage dealers, we probably can’t fight in town – there’s usually suppression fields in effect which keep minor monsters away – but in case we can, find all of the places you can get to that will keep you away from enemies but still within range to hit them,” Tessa said.

“Like on the top of a roof?” Matt asked.

“Yep. While I’m out collecting info, your job is to evaluate this area for the positions you should be fighting from,” Tessa said. “You found a geometry glitch before, which was great, but you can’t rely on those, and can’t even risk them in some cases.”

“Yeah. We kind of fell into it and then couldn’t get out,” Rip said.

“Imagine how much worse it would have been if the [Wraithwings] could get in there too,” Tessa said.

“They sort of did.” Matt grimaced at the memory.

“They sprayed us with that acid after you dropped,” Rip said. “It got in through the hole we stepped through and didn’t take long to do the job. One tick and we wound up here.”

“Consider that in evaluating the places you find then,” Tessa said. “You want spots which will provide good cover from cone attacks, and that you can run away from. If you’ve got questions about one you find, just check in. I’m not going to go far and Alice can give you some pointers too if you’re unsure of a spot.”

“What do we do once we find a place that works?” Rip asked.

“Find another,” Tessa said. “Assume any area you start fighting from is going to be covered in fire about ten seconds into the fight and that you’ll have to move to another. Picture needing to move every ten seconds for about ten minutes and see if you can work out a path that will keep you safe and let you keep attacking every other second.”

“That seems like a lot,” Matt said.

“It’s slow and short,” Alice said. “My guild’s not a top end one and our damage dealers get off two attacks per second usually. A good fight will go five minutes but on a new dungeon they can run up to a half an hour or more while we figure out the mechanics and doing that is a lot easier when people aren’t standing in place and dying all the time.”

Matt nodded and stepped away with Rip to hunt for good spots to attack from.

“Can you handle watching them for a bit?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, it’s not a problem. They’re not the first newbies I’ve wrangled,” Alice said. “Listen, do you think your GM friend would be able to do me a favor?”

“Yeah, definitely,” Tessa said, figuring that despite their years apart BT seemed willing to pick up their friendship where they’d left it off. “What do you need?”

“I need her to make a call for me,” Alice said. “In the real world.”

“Who to?” Tessa asked, wondering why Alice hadn’t brought the question up sooner.

“My girlfriend,” Alice said. “It’s the middle of the night where we’re at, so I know she’ll still be asleep, but we had a fight before she went to bed and if she wakes up and I’m not there…”

“She’s not going to know what to think,” Tessa said, understanding where some of Alice’s rage had been coming from. “Let me put in the call to BT right away.”

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