Broken Horizons – Vol 11, Ch 1

Tessa was small and fragile and walking into the sort of danger that was going to kill her. More than once. Accepting that was made ever so horribly more difficult by the howl’s she could hear in the distance.

“Those can’t be the [Hounds of Fate] can they?” Rip asked, her knuckles wrapped tight around her bow.

“Anything’s possible, but I don’t think so,” Tessa said.

She was walking ahead of the others, but a pace behind Obby. It wasn’t the best spot for her. In her low level, presumably-human form, she was the squishiest member of the party, rather than its second most durable one. The urge to shield the others was too strong to let her huddle in the center though, and she had the ready made excuse that “if I’m not in danger, I won’t be pushed to manifest any new abilities” to justify her less-than-rational impulses.

“If the Hounds are walking in the living world, then ghost runs might be easier than usual,” Lisa said, putting a hand on Rip’s shoulder.

It was an odd argument, and Tessa’s suspected it was the physical contact more than Lisa’s words that helped Rip relax a tiny bit.

“Are we in much danger though?” Rachel, Lisa’s younger sister who looked exactly like her, and wasn’t that something Tessa was dying to ask about, said. “I’m higher level than you all and we’re got these two with us too.”

She gestured to Glimmerglass and Wrath Raven who were engaged in a side conversation, and off in their own small party.

The high level escort the two offered wasn’t a guarantee of safety, not with the fun new wrinkle of monsters leveling up into new, terrifying, and potentially unbeatable forms. Despite that though, Tessa was glad to have both of them acting as an escort.

In theory Cease All and a full party from Lisa’s guild would be joining up with them later, but Tessa wasn’t counting on that. She couldn’t say why, but in the back of her mind she felt like a drum was beating, the rhythm growing steadily louder and faster as the world fell apart more and more.

The drumbeat was her imagination, Tessa was sure of that, but she wasn’t willing to discount the message it was sending her.

Their time was running out.

“The area we’re going to has a level cap,” Tessa said. “So we’re all going to be in danger. Glimmerglass and Wrath only need to get us there, but even so, if we run into one of the new monster types, or if an old one that starts leveling up, we need to be ready to run.”

“Do we know that things will be any better in the dungeon we’re going to?” Rip asked.

“This is as much an experiment as anything else,” Lisa said. “If the mobs in the dungeon do level up, we need to see how far. If we’re lucky the level cap will hold for them and we’ll be able to keep going. If they can break the level cap of dungeon though? Then we need to get out of there.”

“What are we supposed to do then?” Rachel asked.

“One problem at a time,” Tessa said. “We’ll deal with the looking for somewhere else if we have to. For now we need to stay focused.”

Around them, burned out farmlands stretched into acidic swamps and scattered, everburning funeral pyres. The sky was ash and cinders, threatening a flood of rain to wash the scorched world away, but always holding back, leaving the air dusty and charged with the scent of a battle to come.

“The level cap will constrain how far we can level as well, won’t it?” Starchild asked.

“It will but its high enough that we should be able to gain quite a few levels before we need to leave,” Tessa said.

“How high is it?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Seventy,” Lisa said.

“That’s a lot higher than where we’re at,” Matt said. “Can we fight level 70 mobs?”

“Not easily,” Obby said. “But the early encounters are lower level than that. I think they go as low as 50 don’t they?”

“Fifty two,” Tessa said. “Which is pretty high, I know. But if we take what we’ve learned and pull really carefully, we can do fine, and the xps should be ridiculous until we get up to early 60s. Then it’ll just be really good.”

“I haven’t fought with you before,” Rachel said. “Is that going to be a problem?”

“You’ll be backline support to start,” Lisa said. “Your job will be to keep me and Lady Midnight safe in case anything breaks through the front line. We’ll rotate you into a DPS role once we get a sense for how the fights are going.”

“I haven’t done a lot of partying. I always played solo before,” Rachel said.

“Partying’s easy,” Rip said. “Tessa’s good about calling out directions.”

“Is that what you do?” Rachel asked, turning to Tessa. “You’re the controller?”

“We’re going to find out what it is I do,” Tessa said.

“Without getting you killed,” Lisa said.

“Ideally, yes,” Tessa agreed without making any promises in that direction. She knew the risk she was taking.

She would have been much safer as Pillowcase, but for as wonderful as it was to be a superhumanly resilient ragdoll, what the party needed, what the world needed, wasn’t another tank. Tessa had, as far as she knew, a unique class. There was no guarantee that a [Void Speaker] would be able to fix things but desperate times called for desperate measures and Tessa was hard pressed to think of a more desperate occasion than the end of the world.

“What can you tell us about the dungeon we’re going to?” Starchild asked. “I presume its in the castle on the mountaintop up there?”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’ve done this one,” Pete added.

“I’m not surprised,” Tessa said. “[Hells Breach] was considered hard even back when it first launched, and it’s got very little decent loot in it. I don’t think anyone’s ever seriously farmed this one since, uh, never?”

“That sounds about right,” Lisa said. “Cease had us run it a few times after it launched and our repair bills were more than we got out of it even when we did a no death run, so we stopped. I don’t think many other guilds even stuck with it that long.”

“So why are we going there?” Rip asked.

“Because no one else will be there,” Lisa said.

“Penswell was able to transport us to the valley which skipped us past about a week of travel,” Tessa said. “That should mean no one else is in this zone, so if we unleash some unstoppable monsters there’ll be time to work out how to handle them, assuming they go beyond the dungeon borders at all.”

“Also, while the loot in here is terrible, the xps should be fantastic,” Lisa said. “Usually its not worth it because to get here you need to slog through a bunch of long levels with few things in them, so the xp/time ratio goes down. Penswell dropped us right into the sweet spot though so its all high xp mobs every step we take once we get into the dungeon.”

“How are we going to get out once we’re done?” Matt asked.

“If we cap out here, Lost Alice and I will have access to [The Dark Hallway],” Lady Midnight said. “We can use that to teleport back to the graveyards  in any of the main cities and from there to pretty much anywhere if they get the teleport network back online.”

Tessa kept quiet while Lady Midnight spoke.

It was certainly true that they’d have access to the standard teleport options if they succeeded in leveling up, but her real plans were a little less than ‘standard’. That was going to need to wait until she discovered what abilities she could develop as a [Void Speaker] though.

“A moment if you have the time?” Glimmerglass asked on a private channel as the castle began to look before them.

“If I don’t have time to listen to myself who could I listen to?” Tessa said.

“Wrath Raven and I have decided that we’ll be entering [Hells Breach] with you,” Glimmerglass said.

“But, no, you’ll be so much weaker in there,” Tessa said, feeling her plans start to crack.

“Weaker yes, but still stronger than the rest of you,” Glimmerglass said. “If we stay out here though, we won’t be able to do you any good at all.”

“Yes you will, you’ll be making sure we have a point we can rally back to!” Tessa said, her calm slipping a bit more than she was comfortable with. 

“Except we both know that once you’re past the first floor in there, you won’t really be able to get back out here,” Glimmerglass said. “The path is too long, and there’s at least three [Heartfires] that you’d be passing up to get here. And that’s only on the second floor. If you plan on capping everyone up to level 70, you’ll need to run through all twenty floors.”

“We can do it,” Tessa said. “We’re a lot stronger than the parties back then used to be. And we’ve going Feral Fang’s gear. It’ll grow with us as we go. No one’s going to be walking around in underleveled junk because there’s no loot dropping.”

“That’s all true,” Glimmerglass said. “But it’s also true that Wrath Raven and I are already in gear that’s far superior to what you’ll have at level 70, and before you say it, yes it will be dampened down by being under a level cap, but even still it will be better than what yours will grow to. And that’s not the most important point.”

“Yeah, the most important point is that you’d be there to help us rather than having to sit and wait, I know,” Tessa said.

“Well there’s that, but we were thinking of something else,” Glimmerglass said. “If the monsters are able to break the level cap in there, we have to be nearby. We have to see it.”

“Why? Oh, wait, you’re thinking if you see them break the level cap, you could learn how to do it too!” Tessa said.

“And we would still be higher level than them when they did it,” Glimmerglass said. “If we can break through from 99 to 100 while they’re breaking through from 70 to 71, we can make sure the problem doesn’t get out of hand. We can help you keep going even past that, in case it’s just one monster that’s capable of doing that.”

Tessa thoughts reeled.

[Adventurers] couldn’t break the level cap. There weren’t any abilities setup for them past level 99. 

But monsters couldn’t level at all and that wasn’t stopping them any longer.

“Or we can keep going even if all of the monsters can level up past the cap,” Tessa said, turning a dangerous addition to an already reckless plan over in her mind.

“But then you’d be fighting, oh, yes, I see,” Glimmerglass said.

If the monsters levels continued to rise as Tessa and her party fought them, they would climb to 80, 90, and over 100. If Glimmerglass and Wrath Raven could learn how to break through the level cap too, then, maybe, they could teach the trick to everyone else.

[Hells Breach] could become the most dangerou place on the planet and they could emerge from its fires as, what? Maximum level [Adventurers]? Beyond maximum level? Limitless?

Tessa could sense the last possibility wasn’t out of their reach. If everything lined up, they could claim unfathomable power from the dungeon before them.

But she had to make sure that didn’t happen.

“You don’t want limitless power,” a wordless voice offered to her.

And she knew that was true.

If everything lined up, they could grind for more power forever, but power wasn’t what she needed. Not in the end.

Gazing passed the castle’s gates, Tessa took a moment to center her thoughts and hold tight to what had brought her to the threshold before her.

Lisa. Rip and Matt. Her new friends. They were all precious beyond measure.

What had brought her to the beginning of the end of the world though was something smaller, and much closer.

Pillowcase.

Glimmerglass.

All the fragments of herself.

Of the woman she truly wanted to be.

The tomorrow that she would fill with those she loved, and in which she could love herself.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Outerlude 2

Marcus

The disaster unfolding before Marcus’s eyes was both horribly and comfortingly familiar.

“So that’s where we’re at,” Anna Alexandra said, stepping back to let Marcus have access to the keyboard and screens she’d just been presenting with.

Anna was the Chief Technology Officer at K2 Squared. It was a recent promotion brought on by the fact that the previous CTO had been playing the company’s  premiere MMO, Crystal Stars, when whatever catastrophe that had befallen Egress Entertainment and their Broken Horizons game began spreading.

Remi Touremille, the former CTO was, as far as they could tell, stuck in a series of losing battles, trying to hold back a swarm of enemies that registered as corrupted data on the K2 servers. Whether it was really Remi or only his character and a very clever AI controlling it was a matter of some debate, but the fact that Remi had vanished in a shower of light had the advantage of video proof to silence any naysayers. 

So of course there were people naysaying none the less.

Marcus was, in theory, an impartial outsider to all that, but given that he’d spent longer than he could accurately track anymore dealing with more-or-less the exact same problem in Broken Horizons, he felt a deep well of sympathy for Anna’s predicament.

He just wished he could offer her any real help.

“I don’t know if this is good news, but I can tell you that what I’m seeing here is almost identical to what we’ve run into,” Marcus said. “We tried the same things you did with the servers and lost one of our Support guys too.”

“Our servers aren’t setup like yours though,” Anna said.

“Yeah. You’ve got a megaserver farm rather than shards right?” Marcus asked. He would have loved to go in depth with how they were configured, but he wasn’t sure they had that kind of time anymore.

“I don’t see how either one could lead to this though,” Anna said, gesturing to a counter running on one of the other monitors. It was tracking the total number of logged in users and the number was dropping with no sign of slowing down. Sadly none of those users were logging off. Any attempt to do so seemed to produce the same result as Egress has seen with Broken Horizons – instant teleportation.

Marcus really hoped it was teleportation.

He couldn’t process the thought that is was something else.

“That’s where this could be good news,” Marcus said. “Your setup is so different than ours, that it can’t be related to the servers. Or even the game code.”

“It’s got to be something we have in common though,” Anna said. “People start disappearing in flashes of light but only into video games? Into MMOs specifically? There has to be something common that’s causing it. Doesn’t there?”

“I wish I knew the answer to that,” Marcus said. “I mean, we’ve got to look for it, obviously, but I can’t help but wonder if searching in the code and the configuration settings isn’t a waste of time. Or maybe I’m just tired and frustrated. I can tell you this does not getting better after spending a couple of nights at it.”

“Thanks. You are so comforting,” Anna said and collapsed into a chair near him.

“You’re welcome,” Marcus said. “Seriously though, this is important. We can dig into your setup and I’m happy to help point out where its the same as ours, but I think its worth taking a moment to realize that this isn’t your fault. Not you specifically, not your team, or anyone at K2 or Egress. We didn’t do this. It’s not like we missed a bug in the code and, oopsie, our player base is being warped off to parts unknown.”

“I wish it was a bug,” Anna said. “An impossible bug that just happened to show up in both of our codebases at exactly the same time and no one else’s.”

Marcus picked up the coffee that some unspeakably kind soul had dropped off for him.

“Yeah, push out a hot fix and boom, everyone’s back safe and sound,” he said. “Except you know that wouldn’t be the end of it. No matter what happens from here, this is going to change the world.”

“Yeah, there’s going to be a lot fewer people playing MMOs after this,” Anna said.

“Fewer? Oh, no, I don’t think we’re going to see that at all,” Marcus said. “There are multiple protest groups setup already who are demanding that we turn logins back on for BH. I had to setup a special email folder for death threats before the FBI got to our office.”

“Death threats? For what?” Anna asked.

“For not letting them play,” Marcus said. “When people found out what was happening some were, reasonably I feel, terrified, others were shocked and silent, and then there were the ones who felt like they’d ‘missed out’. They though they’d been cheated of of a chance to do something amazing. So they expressed themselves in the manner the internet is best at – bawling like babies.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t try to DDOS your servers,” Anna said.

“Oh, they did,” Marcus said. “But it’s not like that’s a new thing. When we patched the lighting The Tomb of Maldren Vos so it didn’t render clothing transparent? Death threats, DDOS. When we adjusted the cooldowns on Taunts to open up room for a second tank on a team? Death threats, DDOS. Really pretty much anything we do or don’t do will send our loving fans in a rabid frenzy. Or, to be fair, some of them. Most of them are good, and most of the one’s I’ve met are amazing, but the Bawling Babies are hard to ignore.”

“If I didn’t know you were talking about another game I’d say you’ve been reading all my emails,” Anna said. “Why do we do so much work for people who are so horrible?”

“Because they pay us?” Marcus said. “That and our work isn’t really for them. I don’t want to speak for your staff, but I think a lot of us do it for the game itself. I don’t get to code anything, but the designers bring all of us in on the early concept stuff for each new release. Those are some of the best times. When we’re all focused on what we could do to make the world better, or to have it feel more real. To tell you the truth, I can understand the death threats a bit. I mean, getting to live in a world like that? I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about sneaking in through a backdoor.”

“But you stayed,” Anna said, “And came to help us.”

“I know. It surprises me too,” Marcus said. “Though I don’t know how much help I’ve been yet.”

“Honestly? Just know that this is something you folks were already going through? That helps,” Anna said. “Of course if we could find a fix for it that would help a lot more.”

“You’re right. So let me see here,” Marcus said and called up the connection logs for The Crystal Stars. “Your usage spike looks pretty typical for the last couple of weeks. That’s a good baseline. You had a big drop off at the start of the week though. Is that usual?”

“Monday’s are always a little slow, but that is lower than average,” Anna said. “I can’t imagine what else was happening then that might have drawn our players away.”

Marcus was puzzled for a moment. Had Monday been a holiday? No. Those tended to add active players? A worldwide power outage? Obvious not. Then what…

“I’m an idiot,” he said. “Seriously though? Is there that much overlaps between our players?”

Monday having been the launch of the World Shift expansion for Broken Horizons felt like an eternity ago. In Marcus’s mind years had passed though according to the calendar it had only been a few days.

“Could that be what we’re looking for?” Anna asked, perking up at the idea.

“What, that the people who are being swallowed up by Crystal Stars are all BH players too?” Marcus asked. “Damn, that’s an interesting idea. Can you generate a list of the players who have been drawn in?”

“Easily. The question is how to match them to the players in your game?”

“Fair point. They could use different login names in both games.”

“I’d bet that’s relatively few of them though. I think most people pick an online handle to use and stick with it,” Anna said. “If that’s a problem though, we could try to using their credit cards info?”

“Shouldn’t have any false positives with that,” Marcus agreed. “Though we may also find that some of them use one card for one game and another for the other. And then there’s the people who buy timecards and never gave us any credit card info.”

“Let’s start with the user names,” Anna said. “There’s probably a dozen state and federal laws about using peoples credit card info like that.”

“I can call back to Egress and have them send a list over. Should take about five minutes,” Marcus said. “Though, I expect if the FBI isn’t heading here yet that will get them rolling up to your door in an even bigger hurry.”

“I’m surprised they’re not here already,” Anna said. “I know Josh over in legal was going to call them as soon as…well as soon as we saw it happen here and we knew it was real.”

“I think the FBI has bigger problems to worry about at the moment,” Yasha, one of the developers Marcus had been introduced to, said. 

She’d come into the room at something below a sprint, which put both Marcus and Anna on their feet.

“What happened?” Anna asked, the concern in her voice a clear indication of how unusual it was to see Yasha panicked.

“I…you gotta see it,” Yasha said.

“Where?” Anna asked.

“Outside. Here. You can see it from the 4 East conference room. Come on,” Yasha said, offering no further clues as she led Anna and Marcus down a hallway, past a cube farm and to a conference room where every developer on the floor seemed to be gathered.

Marcus wasn’t interested in shoving past them, but Anna didn’t hesitate at clearing a path to the window.

Outside was a sunny, typical Las Vegas day. Everything was normal. Normal people walking the streets. Normal cars cruising up and down the road. Normal weak spot in the fabric of reality twisting in the air like the strands of a colossal helix of DNA.

The usual stuff.

Nothing eating away at the fundamental unpinings of reality.

Just a regular day.

Not the end of the world.

Not…

Marcus shook his head.

He’d been staring at whatever was out there for too long.

His brain felt like it was full of cotton balls.

Or was made of cotton balls.

Vertigo swirled the office around him.

Was it real?

Was he real?

Was anything…

“Woah, steady there,” Officer Smith said. “Sorry, I thought everything was going to be okay here. Probably shouldn’t have left until we were sure though.

At her side Officer Astra stood. 

Officer Astra wasn’t human. 

Marcus wasn’t sure which was worse; that he knew that without there being any visible proof to support the idea, or that, after staring into whatever was outside, Astra’s humanity or lack thereof just didn’t matter in the slightest.

“What’s going on?” Marcus asked. “What’s out there?”

“You tell me,” Officer Smith said. “You were the one looking at it for a half hour.”

“I don’t know,” Marcus said. “I can’t even remember. Was it half hour.”

“At least,” Officer Astra said as she guided Anna and then another one of the staff away from the window and into sitting positions.

“This is important I think,” Officer Smith said. “What did you see out there?”

She was asking for something more than a simple answer. Marcus could feel her question burrowing into his mind. It was searching for something? 

No.

It was calling to him. She needed him to do something.

She needed him to tell her what was out there because to do that he’d have to give her it’s name.

No again.

Not give her its names.

Give it a name.

Not just a word.

A name.

Something that encompassed what it was.

Something that defined it. However badly.

Something that would make it real.

He wanted to call it something silly. Or something harmless. Force whatever it was to be as unthreatening as possible.

None of those fit though.

“It’s an [Armageddon Beast],” he said and heard the strangest echo in the name.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Outerlude 1

Gabriel Santiago

In the sky above the Moonlet Station of Dargin Drel swirls of multi-hued plasma arced along the artificially induced magnetosphere to form a dazzling aurora which lit the groundside docking facilities like a holiday. At any other time Gabriel would have been more than content to wait out the duration of the automated repair process just staring at them and making notes and plans for where to go next. 

But not for this repair process.

“Regeneration complete,” the automated voice from the Vita-Pod announced. “All biological system checks passed. Consciousness will return in five, four,…”

Gabriel didn’t wait for the countdown to finish before turning around. Regeneration pods were usually exited via a cutscene where you, apparently, grabbed all your gear and dressed before exiting into the station’s common quarters. Living inside the world of Crystal Stars meant time skips like cutscenes weren’t really a thing.

“Gabe? Is that you?” Luna asked a moment after the Vita-Pod hissed open.

“Yep, my regen finished a few minutes ago,” Gabe said, contenting himself with a view of the aurora for the first time since he’d woken up and found himself living inside the world of the game he’d been playing before he…he wasn’t exactly sure. Dissolved? Transported? Transported seemed less permanent, so he was hoping he could go with that one, but since teleportation wasn’t exactly possible on Earth, he was afraid one of the less pleasant and more permanent options might be the reality.

“Is this for real?” Luna asked. Gabe could hear her dressing behind him, her reserve gear having been laid out for her the same as his had been.

“It can’t be, except, no matter how much I tell myself that nothing here is going away,” Gabe said. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Luna said. “I’m…this is weird. I’m not exactly me.”

“What do you mean?” Gabe asked. It sounded like it was safe to turn around, but he was going to let that be Luna’s decision.

“This is Ti’el’s body, not mine,” Luna said. “And…wow this is weird. I can remember things she went through.”

“Yeah. I based my pilot on myself, but I’ve still got these other memories too. Like going through flight school and learning warp space navigation. Also, full disclosure, I do not have abs like these in real life.”

“I want to say this is impossible, but it’s the same thing that happened to those people from [Broken Horizons] isn’t it?” Luna said.

“The thought occurred to me too,” Gabe said. “But what the hell does it mean?”

“I’m going to guess nothing good,” Luna said. “Have you been able to contact anyone yet?”

“Outside the game? No. Inside the game? Also no,” Gabe said. “I pinged support for a GM call but no response yet. I wasn’t even sure you would really be you when the pod opened.”

Luna gave him a light punch on the shoulder as she spun around to stand in front of him.

“Not getting rid of me that easy. My insurance policy’s got like a hundred resurrections left on it,” she said.

“Yeah, but I was hoping you wouldn’t be here at all,” Gabe said before shaking his head. “Wait, no, that sounds totally wrong.”

Luna laughed.

“I get it. If I’ve got to be stuck in a game though, I’m glad I’m not alone,” she said. “Especially if we run into another of those War Beasts again.”

“I’m thinking we want to unlock the Blockade Runners we picked up last week and get spaceborn asap,” Gabe said. “We’re a few systems away from that Beast, and there’s no reason to assume it would leave it’s system, or even could make it here, but…”

“But that thing shouldn’t have existed in the first place, and where there’s one there’s probably going to be more,” Luna finished for him. “Yeah, I think you’re right about the Blockade Runners. If speed can’t keep us out of that things path, then we’ll need to head into Guild Space and see if we can get one of the Dreadnaughts to take it off us.”

“I’m going to bet that thing will take apart any ship we throw at it,” Gabe said. “It wasn’t using any kind of weapons that exist in the game as far as I could see.”

Luna frowned, pausing for a moment in reloading the various pockets in her flightsuit.

“That’s a decent point. Also we’d be risking the players who are manning the Dreadnaughts, if the thing can pull them in here the same as it did us.”

“Maybe that would be a good thing though?” Gabe asked. “Most of our friends read as offline, so we can’t exactly get the message out about what’s happened. If we head for Guild Space we might run into another player who could pass along the message for us.”

“And if he doesn’t believe us, he will after he gets scragged like we did,” Luna said.

“We can’t have been the first though, can we?” Gabe asked. “I mean I tried reaching out to people on my friends list, I tried shouting in zone chat , I even tried a GM call like I said, but no responses.”

“It’s a big galaxy,” Luna said. “Two hundred thousand light years means we get pretty spread out, and it’s not like there’s a COMMS channel for ‘Castaway from the Real World’, or I don’t think there is.”

Gabe was already checking for that, kicking himself for not thinking to set one up while he’d been waiting for Luna to recover.

Sure enough, in the list of ‘Recent Open COMMS’ the was one right at the top named ‘Lost Here 4 Real”. It had been made just a few minutes before Gabe’s Vita-Pod had decanted him. He tapped a seemingly real finger on the holographic projection in front of him and then confirmed the prompt to join the channel.

Instantly a cacophony of voices and a rapidly flowing wall of text drowned out his senses.

“Mute channel,” he said, blinking rapidly to clear his HUD out.

“Wow,” Luna said, doing the same. “I guess we’re not alone after all.”

“That’s probably not good is it?” Gabe asked.

“Uh, no, not at all,” Luna said. “Gabe, what’s happening to our world?”

“You mean between this and the stuff with Broken Horizons? I don’t know. If it was just one thing it would be really weird but, you know, not the end of the world or anything. But this? I mean, it can’t just be them and us right? So is it, like, all games? Movies too? Books? Daydreams? I mean where does it stop?”

“Maybe where we stop it,” Luna said, her voice sounding slightly different.

“Luna?” Gabe asked. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. We’re fine,” Ti’el said. “Maybe better than fine.”

“Uh, what does that mean?” Gabe asked.

He knew he was speaking to Ti’el rather than Luna. It was obvious from her posture. From the tone of her voice and the cadence of her words. She still sounded like the Luna he knew and…like Luna, but it was as though the voice actress who’d been cast for “Female Human Pilot” was the one using her voice.

“What if we’re not here by accident,” Luna said, her voice again fully her own.

Gabe blinked, wondering if he was the one losing his mind.

“You think we did this to ourselves?” Gabe asked, trying to guess Luna’s line of reasoning.

“Not consciously,” Luna said. “But that thing we faced? That was the definition of ‘not supposed to be there’ and what did we do?”

“Died horribly?” Gabe said.

“Not much of a death if we’re here to talk about it is it?” Ti’el asked. “Also, our insurance policies cover resurrections anywhere in Free Space. Hell, you’ve got a Title that would have let you rez back in Crystal Empresses sphere. So, why are we here?”

“Because this is real and there was no menu where would pick our rez point?” Gabe guessed, except he knew that was wrong. Yeah, there hadn’t been a game menu when he dissolved into light, but that didn’t mean Dargin Drel hadn’t been his choice of destinations. “Or, no, it’s because you were here.”

“Yeah,” Luna said. “And I came here because you were here. So why did we both pick this spot? What’s unique about this out of all the med-facilities in the galaxy?”

Gabe tried to think of some special quality that Dargin Drel possessed. The pretty aurora were cool, but hardly unique and far from the most impressive sight in the galaxy. It didn’t have any unusual facilities that he could remember either. Standard repair bays. Standard food services. Standard accommodations and sleep learning centers. If there was a definition of a plain vanilla space port, Dargin Drel would check off every box on the list. It wasn’t even a particularly safe one. Not with the War Beast being so, relatively, close.

“Oh,” he breathed, understanding dawning at last. “We came to the spot that was the closest to the War Beast. We could have gotten away from it. Really far away from it. And we didn’t.”

“And we didn’t,” Ti’el agreed.

“We’re not running from it,” Luna said. “We’re not here because it killed us and now we’re in its power or something.”

“Killing us opened a channel, like a teleporter lock on,” Gabe said. “Oh damn. I was jealous of the Broken Horizons people. I wanted this.”

“We wanted this,” Luna said. “There’s more going on here than anything we’ve ever encountered before, in or out of the game.”

“But this world needs us,” Ti’el said.

“Our world needs us,” Luna said.

“Wait, which one, Earth or this one?” Gabe asked.

“Yes,” It might have been Luna or it might have been Ti’el who answered. Gabe couldn’t tell any longer but he understood the answer nonetheless.

The Crystal Stars were facing an existential threat. The War Beast was something the galaxy wasn’t equipped to deal with.

And it wasn’t limited to just this galaxy.

The Broken Horizon world was under a similar attack.

That was why people were disappearing.

They weren’t being abducted.

They were answering a call.

Gabe laughed.

“We’re going to save the galaxy?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Luna said. “And, honestly, I wouldn’t want to have anyone by my side more than you.”

Gabe’s knees weren’t supposed to be made of jello but the Vita-Pod had clearly made a mistake. Between that and the mega-colony of butterflies that had just hatched in his stomach, he was pretty sure he was owed a refund. Or something.

Standing silent and smiling stupidly was probably worth some compensation too, but Luna helped him reboot from that.

“Of course, it’ll probably be easier if we get a few more people to pitch in too,” she said.

Gabe shook his head but the smile didn’t come off completely.

“You know everyone, and I mean literally everyone is going to want in on this,” he said.

“Yeah, the trick is going to be getting the word out,” Luna said. “I wonder why we can’t reach back to Earth? There should still be a connection right? There was for the BH players I thought?”

“There was, so there’s got to be one for us too,” Gabe said. “We have a lot more space than they do though. What if we’re just too spread out?”

“We need to get one of our friends to log in,” Luna said.

“Or, we need to get a message out to someone outside of Free Space,” Gabe said. “Check the membership of ‘Lost Here 4 Real’, all the players on it are in Free Space. Most of them are in within about 4 jumps from here.”

“Which means the War Beast isn’t alone. Not if everything within 4 jumps has been knocked out by them,” Luna said.

“We’re definitely going to need some help then,” Gabe said. “Which means we need to get to the Ansible Relay.”

“But we can send messages across the galaxy with the global chat channels,” Luna said.

“Only to other players and they’re all freaking out at the moment,” Gabe said. “We need to talk to someone with a little more influence than that.”

“Who are you…” Luna started to ask and then froze. “You want to call the Empress.”

“The galaxy’s named after her. She’s explicitly a being ‘beyond time and space’. She can weaponize the love of every beating heart in the cosmos. They say waking the Empress is the most dangerous thing in creation, but given the circumstances I think that’s exactly the kind of danger we need.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Interlude 4

Cease All

Adventurers had bad days. For Cease All though it felt like every bad day on her calendar was happening to her at once.

“I got killed by a bunny!” Smash Brother Homer was running beside Cease, just as ghostly as she was, and just as determined to fix that small problem. Where they differed was that Smashy was clearly ready to throw in the towel, while Cease knew they had to find out more about what was going on.

“I’m keenly aware of that,” Cease said. “Or did you miss the part where it decapitated me first?”

“It’s. A. BUNNY!” Smashy said. “One. One Bunny. And it TPK’d us!”

“To be fair, it’s a [Chaos Storm Reiver],” Swiftsong said, as she effortlessly glided along beside them. She was just as dead as they were but [Wind Elves] got special animations as ghosts, something Cease hadn’t bothered to envy until recently. “I mean, the bunny look is kinda cute, but I don’t think your average rabbitoid critter can vomit black holes like that thing can.”

“That’s what I’m talking about though,” Smashy said. “Fighting a bunny is embarrassing enough but how are we supposed to deal with attacks that ignore our defenses?”

“Oh, what? Like that’s new?” Cease said. “The devs have been throwing janky cheats like that at us since the [Shatterzone Depths Prison].”

“This isn’t like that though and you know it,” Smashy said.

The [Heartfire] they were racing back to was still one level above them but they’d taken the route so many times now, Cease was sure she could do it in her sleep.

Or at least she was sure of that until the [Hound of Fate] appeared in the passage in front of them.

Ghosts don’t have mass or momentum so when she froze in place it was instantaneous. Between one spectral footfall and the next, she went perfectly still.

None of the others asked why.

They all saw the Hound too.

And they’d all gone just as still as she had.

The [Hounds of Fate] weren’t supposed to appear in dungeons. Not low level ones were new players might legitimately not know where to go, and definitely not level capped ones like the [Emerald Rock Hells] Cease had brought her guild into.

“It’s not howling” Swingsong said. “Is that a good sign or a bad one?”

“When is anything to do with the Hounds a good sign?” Smashy asked.

“I don’t know,” Cease said. “This one isn’t moving either. It’s just standing there. Watching us.”

“Which isn’t creepy at all. No siree,” Swiftsong said.

“You guys ran into a Hound? Here?” Malevolent Sugardrop asked on the party channel. “How? We just got to the [Heartfire] and we didn’t see any Hounds anywhere. Did you take a different path?”

“No we didn’t take a different path you idiot,” Smashy said. “Do you think we’re sightseeing here?”

“I think it’s looking for something,” Swiftsong said.

“Yeah! Us!” Smashy said.

“No. She’s right,” Cease said. “Check it out. It’s not moving much but it’s ears are slowly moving. It’s listening for something.”

“Is it a blind one?” Malevolent asked. “Can they be blind?”

“I don’t think it’s blind,” Cease said though being sure of that when the creatures eyes were inky pools of darkness seemed like an uncertain bet at best. “I think whatever its listening for is far away.”

“I thought they wanted our souls though and we’re right here,” Swiftsong said. “So what’s tastier than us?”

“Maybe a killer death rabbit?” Smashy obviously didn’t mean for the suggestion to be taken seriously, but the idea stuck in Cease’s head nonetheless.

“Maybe it is. That rabbit’s not supposed to be here. We all know that. I mean we came here looking for freaky stuff and we definitely found it.”

“Three cheers for us,” Smashy said.

“So what if the Hound is here for the same reason?”

“The death dog wants to chase the death bunny? Really?” Smashy asked.

“No, she’s got a point,” Swiftsong said. “The Hounds are supposed to catch players who are out of place right?”

“They’re supposed to force us back to the [Heartfire] not drag us off to hell or wherever they take us,” Smashy said. “And they’re not supposed to be in dungeons at all!”

“Okay, so these aren’t exactly like the game’s Hounds, but the point is they’re sort of a troubleshooting system,” Swiftsong said.

“Right. We know things are going wrong here. There’s not supposed to be a death bunny in the [Emerald Rock Hells] and definitely not one that can kill an entire party of us. We came here to figure out what’s going on with the mobs leveling up though right? Maybe this is part of it.”

“Maybe. It still hasn’t eaten us,” Swiftsong said. “So maybe it’s not here for us at all?”

“We could find out if we tried to move,” Smashy said. “But I don’t want to move.”

“Me either,” Swiftsong said.

“I don’t think we should,” Cease said. “Not yet at least. Hey, Mal, if you guys have respawned can I ask you to do some kiting for me?”

“Sure! Uh. Wait. What do you want me to kite?” Malevolent asked.

“The death bunny,” Cease said. “If we can draw it closer, maybe the Hound will catch its scent easier.”

“I like that thought,” Smashy said.

“Yeah,  there’s just one problem with it,” Malevolent said. “The bunny is seriously fast. I can try to pull it from a distance and then kite it out of the [Lava Warren] as fast as I can go, but it’s going to catch me.”

“That’s okay,” Smashy said. “The Hound seems like it can almost sense it now. If you can get it any closer it should be able to pick up the scent no problem.”

“Yes, but I’ll be dead too then,” Malevolent said.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Swiftsong said, kneeling down slowly to get a different perspective on the [Hound of Fate].

“Thank you!” Malevolent said.

“You won’t be any worse off than we are,” Smashy said.

“No, it’s not that,” Swiftsong said. “I mean, I don’t think distance is going to matter. Look at it, the Hound’s not really moving it at all.”

“What you mean, it turned its head right there. It’s not dead. Or, you know, it’s not inanimate,” Smashy said.

“Right, but look at its feet,” Swiftsong said. “It hasn’t budged from the spot where it’s standing.”

“It’s not searching for something,” Cease said. “It’s waiting for something to come to it.”

“What? Like us?” Smashy asked.

“Maybe?” Cease could only shrug. Nothing about what was happening made sense, so anything seemed possible.

“It’s going to waiting here forever then cause I am not going anywhere near that thing,” Smashy said,

“So you’re going to stay here as a ghost then?” Swiftsong asked.

“Better than being doggie kibble,” Smashy said.

Cease wondered about that. An eternity stuck in this one corridor frozen in fear seemed like one of the less pleasant afterlives that she could imagine.

But were those really her only options? To become a ghost statue forever or to get ground up into spectral dog food?

“If we wait, it might leave on its own,” Swiftsong said.

“Can’t you all just go backwards? It’s only blocking the path in front of you, right?” Malevolent asked.

“Sure, because running away from a predator always works out well?” Swiftsong said.

“If we need to move, we’ll go backwards,” Cease said. “We won’t turn around and we’ll go slow. But not now. I want to see what its waiting for.”

“If I try to go, it’s going to wake up and eat you two isn’t it?” Smashy asked.

“We don’t know what it’s going to do,” Cease said. “That’s the point.”

“So I should try?” Smashy asked.

“If you don’t mind the chance that it’ll chase after you for being the one who moved first,” Swiftsong said.

“Yeah, I’ll just stay here,” Smash said.

“I’m going to try the bunny kiting,” Malevolent said. “Everyone else can hang back out of aggro range. I’ll snipe it from the entrance to the warren. With [Rapid March], [Diving Roll], and basic sprint I should be able to get it a lot close to you.”

“Can you see where we are?” Cease asked.

“Yeah, your markers are still showing up on my map,” Malevolent said. “I can cover half that distance with movement abilities. As long as I’ve got a headstart from there I might even be able to get the bunny to the Hound itself.”

“I don’t like this,” Smashy said. “Just because we’re screwed doesn’t mean you should be too.”

“I know, it’s so stupid right?” Malevolent said. “Turns out I can’t leave you hanging though.”

“Yeah, that is stupid. You don’t have to go down with us just because we had some bad luck,” Smashy said.

“Stand together, fall together,” Malevolent said. “That’s how we’ve always rolled.”

“Yeah, but not like this,” Smashy said.

“We can help too,” Cease said. “If the bunny does catch up to Mal, we can start moving. Worst can, that’ll draw the Hounds attention, but in that case we can at least lure it away so there’ll be a clear shot to the [Heartfire].”

“And if the Hound doesn’t move at all?” Malevolent asked.

“Then we leave it alone and respawn at the nearest unguarded [Heartfire].”

“This is a terrible plan,” Smashy said.

“Right. That’s how you know its one of ours,” Malevolent said.

“I hate you,” Smashy said.

“Yeah, I know. So are we ready to do this?” Malevolent asked.

“Wait, I think it’s found something,” Swiftsong said.

“Uh, bad news,” Malevolent said. “I think the bunny’s noticed me. Or it’s at least looking at me real funny. Screw it, I’m sniping. Be there in three server ticks.”

Cease wanted to run too, but she had no idea which direction to go.

Away from the Hound? What if she managed to escape it though only for Mal to run face first into it instead.

Towards the Hound? But it was still too soon. She could get gobbled up and Mal would still be out of luck.

A low growl filled the corridor and Cease’s ghostly stomach plummeted past her incorporeal knees.

Something was making the Hound mad.

The Hounds didn’t get mad though. Their howling was a signal to the other Hounds as much as it was a warning to ghosts to get back where they were supposed to be. A friendly warning Cease decided, at least by comparison to the sound the Hound was making as its hackles rose.

Cease had a moment to wonder what primal sin she could have committed to rouse such a deadly ire from the beast before she finally saw what the Hound had been looking for.

Static.

All consuming static.

It was a pinprick in space to start with but looking into, Cease felt a tidal current with the force of a galaxy pulling her in.

Pulling her apart.

It was wrong.

It was the end of all things.

No. Not even the end. The erasure of the beginning.

A raw violation of existence and it was spreading. Tearing apart space. Shattered her vision. Her mind. Her soul.

Then a bunny hit it.

“I lost the rabbit,” Malevolent said. “It zoomed right past me.”

“It’s here?” Swiftsong said, sounding as dazed as Cease felt.

“It’s kicking, uh, something’s butt?” Smashy said.

Cease didn’t want to look. Her mind felt ragged, but she forced her gaze up anyways.

The static was spinning around the edges of one of the [Chaos Storm Reiver’s] black hole attacks. Blue radiation crackled off the static and that made it easier to gaze upon.

“Stay back Mal,” she said quickly. “I think we know why the Hound and the Bunny are here. They’re fight…” Cease wasn’t sure what to call it or even how to describe it.

“The end of the world,” Swiftsong said.

“What? Like some kind of [Armageddon Elemental]?” Malevolent asked.

Cease saw the static bind and twist, writhing in the grasp of the black hole, and something more.

It broke free, but retained the swirling buzzsaw shape the blakchole had spun it into. Twirling through the air, it swung back to slice at the [Chaos Storm Reiver] faster than the bunny could dodge.

But not faster than the [Hound of Fate] could move.

With a single deft flick of its head, it grasped the bunny’s scruff and launched it away from the static.

The bunny spat another black hole out at the static as it bounced off a wall and resumed it’s attack.

“They’re fighting together,” Swiftsong said.

“Then their not going to be fighting alone,” Cease said. “Come on, we need to get to the [Heartfire] now.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Interlude 3

Misty Evening

The downside to being an almost imperceptible hunter was that people tended to overlook you. Like, just as a random example, when even your people, who to be fair, you were by far the stealthiest and most talented of, didn’t happen to notice you were missing, or that they hadn’t told you about the tiny little problem of a all devouring cosmic entity having shown up, or, and this was the wonderful bit, the fact that they were fleeing through a hitherto unknown gate to escape it and shutting it behind themselves more or less forever. 

Not that Misty was going to hold a grudge. The revelation of her abandonment hadn’t been noteworthy at all. She definitely hadn’t been driven into a blinding rage, then a freezing panic, and finally desperate bargaining. That she was currently sunken into a shadow’s shadow and curled up into a tiny ball the size of a marble with the consistency of a puff of wind, and the energy output of the stones around her was merely a personal choice and one she had no interest in defending or discussing.

She had settled on the “be a tiny ball” hiding option after a much-too-close run in with the servants of the aforementioned all devouring cosmic monster. 

Misty hadn’t been in predation mode when the [Formless Hungers] corrupted troops had cornered her, and that had very likely spared her from being devoured. Had she been hunting, she would have leapt on them without a thought, but she’s hesitated and the spare moment to really see what her prey was had saved her life. 

With on whiff of the [Formless Hunger’s] nature, Misty had understood that is was something Wrong on a cosmological level. She’d clung to the shadows on the ceiling with an iron tenacity as the Hunger’s troops had passed under her. Her normal urge to drop on down them and feast was completely absent but it had taken her a long moment to understand why.

The troops radiated danger not for the weapons they carried but rather for the spark that burned within them. To Misty, it looks like a sickly, colorless fire that had burned out everything insides them, leaving the troops little more than shells being piloted from affair by a being which should not have existed.

Misty had followed the corrupted troops for a while. She’d taken all of the care needed to avoid their attention, and was feeling rather proud of herself to be collecting tactical information for her people.

The more information she collected however, the more that pride turned to horror.

Misty was an abomination. It was no secret that all of the [Shadowed Starstalkers] were. No world’s nature had created them, she and all the rest of her people were product of experimentation and trials which delved into the most foul and dangerous of magics. Experiments which should never have been allowed, and certainly could not be repeated.

Perhaps thanks to that, Misty had never felt particularly concerned about the other creatures that prowled the lands her people had migrated through. She knew that however terrible they might be, none of them were as terrible as the makers her people had already slain. Humans had a phrase about “being careful or you’ll meet your maker”, but in the case of the [Shadowed Starstalkers] meeting one of their makers was simply a fresh opportunity for vengeance. 

However terrible her makers had been though, Misty quickly learned that the [Formless Hunger] was far worse. It did more than destroy, it ate the reality of what you were and left behind something that could have been a creature, or a gaping hole in reality, or some impossible combination of the two.

It didn’t matter if you were incorporeal either. Misty had watched two of her people being unraveled and put back together into something that was nothing more than a hollow vessel for the [Formless Hunger’s] will, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been able to perceive them in the first place, much less touch or harm them.

The Hunger moved like a disaster, flowing over its opposition as effortlessly as a storm swept over the land. Unlike a storm though, it moved with intent and cruelty.

Once she saw what it was, Misty wanted nothing more than to escape from any land it held dominion over. And, of course, by that point it was too late. Her people had fled and the gate to safety was thoroughly ruined.

All of the [High Beyond] had fallen as Misty watched. An uncountable number of troops had flown to it from the sky above but none of them had brought the answer to stopping the [Formless Hunger]. One by one they’d fled or (in far more cases) fallen victim to its influence.

By the end of the assault, Misty knew there was no hope left for her.

The [Formless Hunger] was unstoppable by any power she possessed or even knew of.

Only wild, legendary tales from the realms the [Shadowed Starstalkers] visited even mentioned heroes great enough to stand again a true monster like that. Anything real, and especially anything mortal, couldn’t begin to measure up to the endless power and hunger the creature possessed.

That was when she’d begun hiding in ernest.

“If you can’t fight, then don’t,” her creche-mother had said. “Run, hide, cheat, lie. Don’t fight if you’re not going to win. If you think you have to, then think some more. There’s not so many of us that we can afford to spend our lives cheaply. Or at all.”

It was advice other races would have boggled at. [Shadowed Starstalkers] were extremely hard to kill and were often looked at as the most terrible of boogiemen lurking in dark corners.

People thought that because they didn’t lurk in the dark themselves. They didn’t see things that even Misty’s people had to be concerned about. The things that preyed on the predators. 

Even people as deadly as the [Shadowed Starstalkers] had things to be afraid of.

Misty saw those creatures fall to the [Formless Hunger] too.

And she watched it all happen alone.

Her people hadn’t meant to leave her behind. On some level she knew that, just like on some level, she knew she was already dead. She’d fed recently, so she wasn’t going to starve right away, but she was going to starve. There couldn’t be any proper hunting anywhere in the [High Beyond] because as far as Misty knew, she was the only thing left in the [High Beyond] that wasn’t a hollowed out puppet for the [Formless Hunger’s] insatiable desire to consume.

Misty could see how her end would come. She would unroll from the ball when her energy ran too low to hold the shape. As a weakened thing, she was creep around, slowly and silently. She would avoid every area where she’d seen the [Formless Hunger’s] troops gathering. She’d delve into the deep crevices that help ancient nightmare searching for remnants like herself who’d hidden away from the Hunger.

In some visions, she’d find one that was still greater than she was and it would devour her. In other visions, she’d find some weaker thing, but it’s life wouldn’t sustain her for long. In drips and drops, she’d fight back the end, but she wasn’t built to subsist on as little as could be scavenged from the [Formless Hunger’s] domain and so she’d turn to larger prey.

And the Hunger would be waiting for her.

She would pounce on a meal and discover that the meal was empty, and at the Hunger’s touch so too would she be.

She’d seen people carved out by the Hunger and it terrified her.

Better, far better, she though to stumble into some greater enemy who could slay her before the Hunger’s touch reached her.

Except that was a empty hope too.

There weren’t going to be any greater foes left. She was the only thing that could have escaped the Hunger.

She was alone.

She waited for the windless air to offer contradiction of that but none came.

She curled even tighter into a smaller ball.

And nothing disturbed her.

She waited for weakness to take her and drive her to desperate measures.

But she had fed recently.

It was going to take a long time for her to run low on life energy.

She tried counting to mark the time.

She tried remembering the last [Echo Orchestrations] she been part of.

She tried imagining all the sorts of revenge she would take on those who’d abandoned her if she ever saw them again.

She tried to think of the last words she’d want to leave for all those who’d abandoned her.

She tried to sleep.

None of that worked to pass the time.

Waiting to die was really boring it turned out.

So she got up.

What was the point of letting her base nature do her in? If she was doomed, she might as well be doomed for doing something foolish and fun that letting empty monotony kill her.

With electric arcs of fear zipping all over her, Misty glided like the shadow she was to explore the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. She’d searched it with safety in mind, but that hadn’t brought her any close to an escape.

Safety still seemed like a brilliant, and exceptionally laudable goal, but Misty needed something more.

She needed to find her future.

In this case her future looked like a portal, or a gate, or a teleportation circle. She’d even settle for a non-specific rent in the barrier between the dimensions. Basically anything that involved her moving from where she was to someone else, preferably impossibly far away, was worth praying for since there was nowhere that could be worse than where she currently was.

Misty wasn’t correct about that last assertion though, a fact she began to understand when she arrived in a beautiful crystal garden.

The crystal plants had been destroyed in a number of places and the scintillating beauty marred by the damage but creatures still moved about the area.

Or a creature depending on how one counted the [Formless Hunger].

What it was doing with its multiple bodies, Misty had no idea, but whatever it was didn’t matter because the rents in reality Misty had been looking for appeared as she watched.

Her spirit soared when she saw them begin to crack through the air and ground in the crystal garden, only to plummet a moment later when something began pushing through them.

The [Formless Hunger] was an error in the warp and weft of the world. Its presence was a distortion of space and time, and it violated the nature of reality merely by existing.

Whatever was coming through the rents in reality though was worse.

Just looking at it put fingers of static into Misty’s mind.

It wasn’t a thing that was coming through the rips in the world. 

It wasn’t there, but it was destroying everything before her eyes. Not just the bits of the world it touched, but the concept of them as well.

The concept of them inside her.

It was destroying her awareness of them.

Her thoughts of the space.

Her thoughts.

Her.

Misty wrenched herself away, closing her eyes despite the fact that it was too late.

Nothing was in her mind.

Nothing was unmaking her.

Nothing was becoming her.

So she hid.

There wasn’t a [Shadowed Starstalker] who’d ever lived who could hide as well as she could.

And she knew it.

She knew herself.

“I am gone,” she said. “And you can’t see me.”

The words evaporated into nothingness.

Were claimed by nothing.

Even “you”.

Which was a mistake.

You couldn’t be nothing.

You were always something, even if that something was very small, or very indistinct.

You, and the very least, was not I.

Misty ran, out racing death and dissolution.

Unseen except by one thing.

One thing that hadn’t been a thing. 

One thing that had eaten through the veil between the real and the unreal.

One thing that Misty had given the first inexorable mote of reality to.

She’d created a monster as terrible as the [Formless Hunger].

And, in her own small way, saved the world.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Interlude 2

The Broken Hunger

Reality was never pleasant, and as steady drops of it spread through the [Broken Hunger] that carried a new emotion with them.

Panic.

The [Broken Hunger] felt Gulini’s progress as the fractured piece of itself moved through the main command ship speaking to each wave of defenders who stood in his path. Defenders the [Broken Hunger] was forced to deafen and blind and ultimately cut loose from itself lest Gulini’s corruption spread through them and race like a wildfire through everything and everyone the [Broken Hunger] resided in.

It had an answer to Gulini’s presence. A remedy to the infection of his existence. All it needed to do was destroy the fleet’s command ship.

But it didn’t want to.

Which was the worst sort of aberration yet.

It care about maintaining what it had won. It cared about the ship in specific as an expression of itself.

It was clinging to existence.

Worse, a defined, limited, real existence.

“You don’t need to fight,” Gulini said, speaking now in the shape of the dying bodies he left in his wake.

He wasn’t killing them. Wasn’t making any moves against them in fact. Their deaths were the [Broken Hungers] work, the only option for limiting Gulini’s impact.

“I’ve already won,” Gulini’s said, the “I” in his words more dangerous and terrifying than anything else could be.

Gulini was supposed to be a piece of the [Broken Hunger]. There was supposed to be no “I” in anything they did. No identity. No personhood. Just hunger. Limitless in depth and limitless in power. A fact of nature. A new law of the universe.

Even that was more real than the [Broken Hunger] would have preferred, but to be embodied in a single identity. To have a limitless hunger inside and only sharply defined tools to sate that overwhelming need with? Nonexistence was infinitely preferable to that boundless torture.

Wasn’t it?

The [Broken Hunger] knew that must be true. It knew its previous state as the shadow of something real, must have been perfected serenity. There could be no want, no pain, no hunger in something that didn’t exist. 

Despite the sweet, subtle promise of Oblivion though, the [Broken Hunger] fought on, refusing the call of endless peace for what?

For a chance to rid itself of Gulini.

And Byron.

And everything else.

Yes.

A return to Oblivion which left the world and people within it still intact would mean being drawn back into it, repeating the cycle of existence and suffering all over again. The only true path back to endless silence was through the consumption and dissipation of all that was.

Complete annihilation. Everything returning to Oblivion along with it.

Yes, yes, that was definitely why it was resisting Gulini, and rejecting Byron’s off.

It didn’t wish to have an existence, and it wasn’t fighting to retain a spark of selfhood.

It just wanted to end everything so that the aberration of existence would trouble it no more.

Gulini

Subverting and corrupting the [Broken Hunger’s] systems and people was a deadly serious game, but Gulini couldn’t help but smile. It was just so easy. Speaking the words, projecting himself a tiny bit, even the tiniest nudge and those who stood before him would fall apart. 

He knew his victories were due to the [Broken Hunger’s] refusal to risk itself. The amusing thing was that Gulini’s progenitor had acquired enough sense of self that it could make that decision in the first place.

Becoming something had been Gulini’s salvation, but it had been the most profound mistake the [Hungry Shadows] could have possibly had.

Where Gulini had gained strength and purpose, becoming a [Broken Hunger] had given the [Hungry Shadow] more and more weaknesses.

“You’ll never escape us, you know,” he said, wandering through the corridors of a ship he’d never been on, towards a command center he didn’t have the security clearance to access, to fight a foe that could erase him with a thought.

“You can hide, you can expend all of the little vessels you’ve captured slowing us down, but we’re inevitable,” Gulini said.

In the mess hall on his right, a dozen mindless vessels were huddled in a corner, clustered within an inverted privacy screen so that no imagery, sounds, or smells could reach them.

Gulini was tempted to head in and tap on the privacy screen. A simple little code would be all it would take. It wouldn’t even need to say anything and the [Broken Hunger] would liquidate the vessels like it had all the others.

It would be delightful to watch.

The mindless cruelty only a mindful entity could inflict.

But he had more important things to do. Once he reached the central command chamber, there would be nowhere else the [Broken Hunger] would run to.

Not nowhere else it could run to. It could easily flee to another ship, or to the satellite moon, or to the planet

But it wouldn’t.

It was too far gone. Too much a real thing now.  It wasn’t yet a single being, but it had a hard nexus. A bright central spot of its being. Abandoning that would mean becoming something else again, and Gulini could see how much that thought terrified the [Broken Hunger].

He stepped past the mess hall to continue his relentless march towards the end of the [Broken Hunger] but stopped after a few steps.

His march was relentless.

And he couldn’t really lose.

He had grown beyond the creature he had been and was continuing to grow further. To become more and more real, more and more indisputable.

So why not take the time to enjoy himself?

What was existence for, it not to savor the conquest of the weak.

He could march straight to the command center. He could end the conflict, win the day, and emerge the victor but to do all that and miss out on the small moments? The subtle torments were every bit as delicious as the profound ones and he, for one, would not be one to pass them by.

Inside the mess hall, he held up a hand and pondered just what sort of message to tap into the privacy screen.

Byron

It was taxing and dull to have no idea how the implementation of one’s plans were going. From his far distant perch, in a small and unremarkable skiff amidst a sea of similar unremarkable ships, Byron watched, and waited, and bided his time till a victor in the ongoing contest was revealed.

Watched, waited, bided, and drank. Primarily the latter of those. Variations in his body’s physiology didn’t need to have any particular impact on him. Strictly speaking he didn’t even need a body at all.

But it was convenient having one.

And inebriation was not a disagreeable state. Where in sobriety his thoughts that flashed through ideas, hopping from one to the next without traversing any mental states in between them, drunkenness gave his thoughts looping, swirling paths to slide along.

It was pleasant and distracting, which was what he was most in need of as he wanted for Gulini’s eventual signal of victory.

It was possible of course that the [Broken Hunger] might win through. Gulini was not especially brilliant, and the [Broken Hunger’s] capabilities were not the same as the [Hungry Shadow] they were familiar with. 

It might overcome Gulini with cleverness, or overpower him with unexpected force. It might even escape, or given in to the circumstances and become something new as a means of refusing the lure of Gulini’s message.

What it wouldn’t be able to do was to disguise itself any longer.

Whatever the outcome of the struggle on the fleet’s command ship, Byron would understand what his opponent had become. Understanding that would lead, inevitably, to total domination of the Consortium’s forces in the system, the the sentients on the planet below, the whole of the Consortium, and on and on.

The prospect of total victory wasn’t unappealing to be sure, but reviewing the future he’d crafted Byron wondered if should smash it all down.

There wasn’t a reason for it.

Destroying something he’d worked to create was pointless, but then creating anything was pointless wasn’t it?

Perhaps if he had a suitable foe? Someone to struggle against? A mighty challenge!

It was too early to think of such things of course. Victory was still merely a conceptual likelihood, not yet a true certainty or, even better, a fait accompli.

The proper course of action was to wait for Gulini’s victory, assess the local situation, deal with any remnant of the [Broken Hunger] that might remain, and then assess the transdimensional situation. The defenders on the world below would certainly try to resist but that was the definition of inconsequential and Consortium might be sending a solar system annihilating task force, but that was less of a problem and more a delicious opportunity.

All of that could be lost without patience.

But honestly, patience was overrated.

“Turn the sensors on for an active sweep,” Byron said. “Command all ships to search for signs of [Transdimensional Abnormalities].”

Worthy foes were hard to come by, but where one [Transdimensional Entity] surfaced, there might perhaps be more.

???

Nothingness couldn’t have things within it. Oblivion had to be, by definition, empty. 

But to be truly empty, even definitions couldn’t apply to it.

Between the truth realms, with their varied and conflicting realities, and the non-existent void of Oblivion, there were zones where the two bled into each other. Umbras around each reality where things that didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, and only might have existed.

The proto-hunger nibling on the veil between the reality and unreality was not uncommon or particularly noteworthy. Veils between the real and unreal had the benefit of being both real enough to keep the nibblers out and unreal enough that no damage could ever really accrue to them.

“And yet somehow you are taking some disturbingly large chunks out of this world?” Kari said, hovering above the slug-like ball of teeth and claws.

The proto-hunger neither noticed nor cared about the dream lord’s words. It had no senses and no thoughts. Only hunger.

It nibbled further.

It couldn’t nibble enough, but consumption made the hunger get worse slower.

“Let’s see what makes you realer than you should be,” Kari said.

The proto-hunger didn’t feel a force being exerted on it, but it did feel itself lifting away from the veil, being drawn back from the reality it craved and into the nothingness. It couldn’t resist the movement, but it could stretch itself out, clamping it’s jaw onto the skin of the world and burrowing in like a tick.

“Huh, you are a determined little thing aren’t you? So not purely a random force. I guess that makes sense. Did someone design you? Or did the nature laws here create you and all your little siblings?”

The proto-hunger could no more sense the siblings it competed with than it could the sense the dream lord who was drawing it up for examination.

But it could sense that it was being drawn up.

That was new.

Sensation.

It chewed faster, desperate for more, desperate not to experience anything.

Which was also new.

Desperation.

Desire.

A goal.

The proto-hunger’s form began to shift as ideas took root within it.

It still held no power and no volition of its own, but it could feel and it was changing.

“Seems like disturbing you speeds things up a bit,” Kari said. “That’s not a great sign. I’ve swept you all away a hundred and one times now though and you keep coming back. I suppose I could eat you all. Jin seems to love that approach, but I don’t see where I’d have a use for you later, and something tells me that more of you would just show up if I did.”

The proto-hunger felt its jaws starting to pull free from the skin of the world. It was losing its meal.

Rage.

Terror.

Sorrow.

So many new things flooding into it that it almost missed the calling from the other side of the veil.

The creature like it? Or an echo of it? Some other form?

Maybe none of those were accurate, but there was some sliver of connection between them.

And the other one was looking for the proto-hunger.

Its attention giving the [Limitless Hunger] a doorway across the veil.

To where endless reality lay, waiting to be consumed.

With a writhing shake it pulled itself through the doorway, leaving the dream lord behind staring in wonder.

“Well, that’s probably not going to turn out well,” was all Kari could think to say.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Interlude 1

Azma

Azma found the chaos and calamity which surrounded her a great source of comfort. By all reasonable measurements, her own fortunes were dire, her goals impossible to achieve, and her plans a failed and tangled mess.

None of that was true of course. Her fortunes were excellent by virtue of the fact that her goals were still well within her reach and her plans were proceeding as close to optimally as she could have hoped for.

Also, she was herself.

She didn’t have problems.

Other people had problems, and she was typically the worst one.

“Our troops have finished the pacification of the [Stars Guards Fort], the [Bleakwater Basin], and the [Scouring Hellmaw],” Grenslaw said, entering the private, and tastefully appointed chamber, Penswell had set aside for their use. “The teams at [High Gutter] and [The Scarlet Cascade] are in place and awaiting orders.”

“What were our losses in Stars Guard?” Azma asked.

“No fatalities, fifty three serious injuries, and two hundred and twelve minor wounds,” Grenslaw said.

Serious injuries were annoying since it meant the troops in question were badly enough damaged that they wouldn’t be available for further fighting until they’d been through tha rejuvenation/repair period and been properly rested. The minor wounds were less troubling, but still worth noting. She’d send those troops into lighter combat duty for the next cycle since, while they were still capable, their performance would be lower as they recovered from the non-debilitating but still potentially gruesome damage they’d suffered.

No fatalities was a cause for celebration though, as were the relatively low numbers over all. Her troops were more than doing her proud, they were fighting at a level no General could have asked for or expected. Just like she knew they could.

“Excellent! They exceeded their performance margin by fifteen percent. Mark them all down for the high performance bonus,” Azma said. “Also, command the team at [High Gutter] that the town is no longer a hybrid area. They are free to proceed with a full burn cleanse of the area, but their injury metrics have been tightened to reflect the lower hazard of the operation.”

Authorizing the [High Gutter] team to reduce the isolated defensive post to a heap of cinders and ash was a relief for which Azma felt she owed the local [Adventurers] a nod of thanks.

[High Gutter] had originally been a strongpoint fought over between two rival kingdoms in the area. Both kingdoms were under the subjugation of the [Consortium of Pain’s] forces, which were in turn under the long distance control of the [Hungry Shadow]. 

Unlike on the Consortium ships though, the citizens of [High Gutter] hadn’t been corrupted into mindless appendages of the [Hungry Shadows] will. 

Which had meant that to secure [High Gutter] and block off both of the kingdoms from the rest of the region, penning in the Consortium’s forces, they were going to need to either kill all of the locals, or fight around them.

Penswell had been surprised when Azma had put forth a plan to fight around them. It was a costlier approach, both in terms of resources required and troops that would be lost to the effort. Or it would have been costlier to anyone else.

Azma was the one who had designed the Consortium’s strategy though and so she was keenly away of the importance of [High Gutter] and its weak points.

Saving the citizens within [High Gutter] wasn’t charity though. The forces Azma had deployed to the kingdoms [High Gutter] sealed away were rife of Necromancers. Her original strategy with them had been for the units to be self sustaining by using the bodies of their fallen enemies to both demoralize the defenders and act as a shield for her own forces.

Reversing that strategy meant, in part, denying the Consortium forces access to both dead bodies.and lingering spirits.

Thanks to the local [Adventurers] though, the people of [High Gutter] had been rescued and moved to a safer, more secure location.

Which meant Azma’s forces could simply annihilate the place.

It wasn’t a fair method of fight by any stretch of the imagination, nor was it one which paid dividends later, or allowed for the cost of the operation to be recouped in loot or land value.

Azma was in the joyful position of being unconcerned about recouping costs though since, by all calculations, the world she was on would be reduced to free floating subatomic particles within the week.

“Shall I inform Strategist Penswell of the change in plans?” Ryschild asked.

“That won’t be necessary,” Azma said. “She understands our goals and for the time being they are aligned with hers.”

Penswell had proven to be a delight. Where Azma was normally in the habit of unpacking her thoughts into diminished and more easily digestible chunks, with Penswell she’d been free to speak in something much closer to the shorthand which she thought in.

The need for pretense and artifice was largely absent as well, which was so refreshing Azma had given serious consideration to abandoning her other plans and simply remaining on-world after the current crisis was resolved in order to war against Penswell till they both got bored of whatever stalemate they worked themselves into.

In Penswell, Amza had found someone who understood their relationship, its boundaries, and opportunities without any need for Azma to spell them out or arrange for tedious object lessons.

They were both valuable to each other. They would extract what value was available, arranging at all times to place themselves in a favorable position in the long run, but – and this was the bit so many others failed to see – not mindlessly at the expense of the other.

It was fine for Azma to burn [High Gutter] to the ground. It was a loss for Penswell’s concerns overall, and a mild gain for Azma’s forces. In the long term though, the damage done to the holdings Penswell was responsible for was minor – nothing irreplaceable had been lost, and they had both gained a significant advantage over the Consortium forces in the region.

Penswell could trust that, for the time being, Azma would not injure her or her forces unless the injury paid a far higher yield for both of them since Azma needed Penswell and her forces to be as strong as they possibly could be if she was going to wield them as a weapon against her true enemies.

Azma turned to considering her forces around the [Scarlet Cascade] with that in mind. She refused to allow any fatalities, but with the exemplary performance of her other troops, she could risk a more aggressive posture against the [Battle Engines] at the [Scarlet Cascade].

The safe play was to disable the Consortium’s giant war machines in a pre-emptive strike, but she was feeling greedy and her forces would be in a decidedly better position if the [Battle Engines] could be captured rather than destroyed.

She was weighing the possibilities when Penswell appeared in the seat on the opposite side of the table from her.

“The [Battle Engines] are a loss,” Penswell said. No introduction, no prelude, no context setting at all really. 

Azma nearly swooned.

“A new enemy has arisen?” Azma asked. It was the most likely scenario, despite it being unheralded and relatively implausible. 

Had the machines been destroyed though, there would be no need to assault the [Scarlet Cascade] anymore and if the Consortium had received reinforcements to protect them, Penswell would have arrived with their layout and a gleeful expression at getting to crush such a concentration of the enemy all in one place.

“The local monsters are leveling up,” Penswell said.

Azma took a moment to process that.

It hadn’t been on her mental radar because it was apparently impossible in this world.

Quantized power rankings like “levels” weren’t a unique thing. The Consortium dealt with any number of worlds were reality was ordered with powers available in discrete chunks. A common trait of those worlds was that some entities had a fixed power state while others were fluid. Generally the ones that could grow though, grew along predictable and limited paths. The fixed entities, by comparison, tended to enjoy a broader diversity of abilities and powers at the expense of remaining unchanged.

The “monsters’ of this world were almost universally of the fixed power state variety, which meant they had a plethora of different abilities, though only a few manifested in each individual.

If those entities had gained the ability to increase their power states though…

“Have any broken the power cap for your [Adventurers]?” Azma asked. She could guess based on Penswell’s expression but for something this critical it was worth being certain.

“Yes. We’ve lost three teams so far and the Total Party Kill count is in the hundreds already,” Penswell said.

Ryschild and Grenslaw were both standing beside her, silent and watchful, though for a change Azma’s suspected that was because they had nothing to offer, rather than the sense to wait to be asked for their suggestions.

Azma didn’t blame them for that. She had to spend a few moments considering the implications of Penswell’s news.

“Having any of them broken the power cap for the highest extant ‘monsters’?” she asked, unsure which disastrous answer she would prefer.

“Unknown at present,” Penswell said. “Two [Alliances] are probing the matter as we speak.”

“At your request?”

“They began organizing before I learned of the situation,” Penswell said.

Because [Adventurers] had, at best, a passing and hate-filled relationship with personal safety.

Azma hadn’t counted on the extent to which that was true in her original plan to the conquer the world, which explained a rather large portion of the deviations in her initial assaults effectiveness. Seeing it in person, she was sure she could adjust her next attempt accordingly but also not looking forward to it overmuch. 

Fighting foes that were effectively unkillable was one thing. Azma had managed that a number of times. 

Fighting dealing with foes who were unkillable and extremely willing to throw themselves into a blender repeatedly was simply tiresome, as well as aggravatingly difficult to extract a profit from.

Azma was sure she could beat the combined forces of the world with her current nearly microscopic army. She was less sanguine about doing so without going miserably bankrupt in the process, and that was the sort of fight she tried to avoid at all costs.

“Either result represents an opportunity, but limited leveling would be preferable,” Azma said.

“I’m adjusting the disposition of my troops to absorb either eventuality, but the [Confidence Rating] of my plans is dropping to unacceptable levels,” Penswell said.

“Armageddon protocols?” Azma asked.

“Invoked and available,” Penswell said. “Still in reserve though.”

The newly empowered monsters might be limited to the power states already available in this reality or they might be capable of breaking all known limits and becoming mathematically unstoppable. In either case there was the possibility that they would overrun the world and destroy any hope of defending it, even apart the looming threat of [Hungry Shadow] or the potential arrival of a solar system destroying task force from the Consortium.

Should that happen, despite Penswell and Azma’s best efforts to prevent it, they intrinsically agreed upon the proper course of action. Namely, that the last action they would take would be to ensure the rampaging monsters were aimed in the correct direction to destroy their other foes.

If they were going to be destroyed, there was no chance they were going down without sending out a retributive strike capable of shattering the heavens and ensuring that those ultimately responsible for their downfall suffered a far worse fate than the one Penswell and Azma had been consigned to.

But of course that wasn’t going to happen.

“Good,” Azma said. “Invoking them sends the proper message but they will never need to come out of your reserve.”

“Of course not,” Penswell said. “Alone, either one of us could ensure that.”

Azma refused to cackle. 

It was rather tempting though.

Whatever strange fates controlled this world, they had made the absolute worst possible mistake in giving her an equal to contest against.

Because Azma didn’t fight against people like Penswell.

Not when allying with them would let her finally become the true master of her own destiny.

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Ch 20

Tessa

Tessa wasn’t used to receiving an emergency summons from Obby. It was convenient because Tessa had wanted to assemble the team anyways, but she suspected Obby’s emergency was going to either take priority over Tessa’s plan or complicate it fantastically.

“You should see the other guy though,” Obby said, confirming Tessa’s suspicion and answering the obvious question of how she’d arrived in the state she was in.

The team had gathered in the [Heart Fire] chapel on the old side of town. It was where Obby had revived after what had clearly been an unusual battle. 

Testimony to the strangeness of the fight started with Obby needing to use the [Heart Fire] in the first place and was sealed with the fact that she was still bearing a handful of debilitating status conditions despite having died and resurrected herself.

Typically recreating your body from scratch was enough to resolve any minor issues like the loss of major body parts or total system decay.

In Obby’s case though, the effects she’d been hit with had apparently copied themselves onto her ghost as well. 

“Do we want to see the other guy?” Lisa asked as she, Starchild, and Lady Midnight worked to cleanse the debuffs from Obby’s prone form.

“Not really,” Obby said. “I mean, he is dead, so not a lot of worry there.”

“He started out dead though,” Rip said.

“True. So he might come back,” Obby said. “That’s not what concerns me though.”

“There’s something more alarming than a random undead encounter that’s able to drop our strongest tank?” Pillowcase asked. She had an ego, but it wasn’t a particularly fragile one when it came to assessing battlefield capabilities. 

“Believe it or not, yeah,” Obby said. “I mean it’s not surprising that a level 70 [Crypt Annihilator] took me out, right?”

“A WHAT?” Rip was frozen in place but there were tiny arcs of electricity playing over her body.

“What was a level 70 anything doing around here?” Lisa asked. “There shouldn’t be anything that tough in this entire country.”

“It wasn’t level 70,” Matt said. “Not to start.” He knelt down beside Rip who’d been sitting beside Obby. “And it wasn’t a [Crypt Annihilator] either.”

“What do you mean?” Tessa asked. She could see several scenarios for what was going on, and ever last one of them was terrifying.

“It leveled up and form changed as we fought it,” Obby said.

“Okay,” Tessa said. “That’s not unheard of. There’s a bunch of [Dungeon Bosses] who have multiple forms and at least a few I can think of that have a mid-combat level up mechanism. How many times did they one level up? They’re usually limited to about four or so right?”

“This one leveled up at least twenty times,” Obby said. “And it wasn’t just a form change. When it hit the level range cap for one creature type it’s base designation changed.”

“What did it start as?” Starchild asked.

“It was a [Crypt Killer] when we started fighting it,” Rip said. “It might have been below level 50 then too. I didn’t get a look at it’s stats right away.”

“[Crypt Killers] are not morphic creatures,” Starchild said. “It shouldn’t have been able to change like that.”

“Agreed,” Tessa said. “Not even [Dungeon Bosses] have that much flexibility.”

“They can’t,” Lisa said. “That’s an impossible encounter.”

“Perhaps not impossible,” Lady Midnight said. Behind her, a tower of muscle in the form of a woman nodded in agreement.

Tessa had met Wrath Raven briefly, but knew from that short encounter the difference the level capped [Berserker] could have made in the battle.

“Have we tried reaching out to the guilds we know?” Tessa asked. “Have any of the established [Adventurers] seen anything like this yet?”

“I just checked with Cease All,” Lisa said. “This is the first she’s heard of anything like this. She’s going to ask around though and see if any of the guilds we run with sometimes have run into it.”

“Have her ask if there have been any full party wipes where no one made it back to the [Heart Fire] too,” Tessa said and turned to Obby, “I’m guessing the run to the [Heart Fire] wasn’t all that easy with the debuffs in affect?”

“Getting there wasn’t too fun, no,” Obby said. “On the bright side though, I didn’t even heard any howl’s from Hounds.”

“That’s…I don’t know how to explain that,” Tessa said. “I know Kamie was doing some afterlife testing earlier and according to her the town was almost overrun with them.”

“Maybe they got full?” Matt asked.

“The Hounds don’t eat the people they capture,” Tessa said. “At least according to the game lore. Not that ‘game lore’ seems to be terribly reliable for the things we’re seeing.”

“If they don’t eat people, what are they doing?” Rip asked.

“Taking wayward souls to their proper resting place,” Obby said. “At least according to one of the quests I read.”

“Yeah, that’s supposed to be the gist of it,” Tessa said. “The devs never specified where the ‘final resting place’ was supposed to be, but there was a long running joke that bad players got dragged off to play [Boundless Stars].” Tessa paused as she heard the familiar if still strange echo in her words. “Huh, there’s link text for that?” 

She’d spoken with Penswell about other game worlds and had to agree that it was a bad idea to try contacting them before the [Hungry Shadow] was fully instantiated and brought down to non-infinite levels of power. 

“Wait, wasn’t [Boundless Stars] a space game?” Rip asked.

“It still is,” Pete said through Starchild. “It’s got a smaller player base these days but the longtimers are as or more hardcore than the most serious endgamers here.”

“Yeah, the attitude early on was that getting sent to [Boundless Stars] was a worse punishment than being sent to [Hell] because of how obnoxious the players over there were,” Lisa said.

“I mean, I played there early on too and that wasn’t exactly an unfair characterization,” Pete said. “It’s gotten a lot better over the years but most of that happened after a purge that scrapped like half the accounts in the game and put in some seriously strict rules on harassment. Between that and disabling PvP, the game kind of sealed it’s fate, or that’s what everyone was saying. In practice, I think it cost them a lot of subscriptions but if they hadn’t done that they’d have shutdown five years ago rather than continuing along with a smaller but more sustainable community.”

“Given that the [Boundless Stars] forums bought in to the joke, I’m half wondering if it’s true in this world, but it seems like it’s a one-way trip so testing it seems a little impractical,” Lisa said.

“Matt might be right about the Hounds being full,” Tessa said. “Not because they eat people but they were doing something to the [Disjoined] who were lurking in the ghost realm. That might have drained them, or left them busy dealing with whatever that was.”

“It seems like we could find that out pretty easily if we go out there and run into another one of those [Crypt Killers],” Obby said.

“Or some other mob that’s doing the same thing,” Lisa said, her voice hushed with concern.

“What?” Tessa asked. “What monster was it?” she clarified.

“A [Grim Salamander],” Lisa said. “You were right. There was a party that got wiped out. They were level capped and testing if there was anything they could do to break the cap. Only one of them got to the [Heart Fire].”

“Did it start as a [Grim Salamander] or end as one?” Tessa asked.

“Started,” Lisa said. “It ended as a [Void Breaker Wyrm].”

“A what now?” Pete asked.

[Void Breaker Wyrms] hadn’t been a part of the [Fallen Kingdoms] before the [World Shift] expansion, and Tessa was reasonably certain they hadn’t been added as one of the standard mobs that the beta testers had reported on.”

“One second,” she said, and pinged Hailey’s channel.

“What’s up? Filled your team in on the plan yet?” Hailey said, picking up an instant later.

“There’s a complication,” Tessa said.

“Of course there is,” Hailey said. “Let me guess, your girl’s been kidnapped and you’ve got go save her from a series of collapsing castles?”

“[Void Breaker Wyrm],” Tessa said. “Does that sound familiar to you?”

“Hmm, no. Should it?” Hailey asked.

“Could it have been a [Dungeon Boss] from one of the [World Shift] dungeons?” Tessa asked.

“Not that I’m aware of but, oh, the heads up display knows to highlight it,” Hailey said. “That’s not a good sign. Let me check the official docs.”

“Thanks. Let me know if you find anything okay?”

“Will do. Before I go though, how did you find that term? Is it related to one of your upcoming [Void Speaker] abilities?”

Tessa paused.

“Interesting question, but no, or not that I know of,” she said. “It ate a level capped party.”

“Yikes! Please tell me you’re going to stay away from the high level zones until we know what’s roaming around out there,” Hailey said.

“It wasn’t in the new zones,” Tessa said. “And it didn’t start as that. It was a [Grim Salamander] when the party started fighting it.”

“Explain,” Hailey said, her voice growing more serious. “Or better yet, let me get Penny looped back in. You are just a treasure trove of things for her today.”

“Sounds good. She’ll have the resources to look into this,” Tessa said and switched back to speaking aloud with her team.

“Any luck?” Lisa asked, guessing who Tessa had checked with.

“Does bad luck count?” Tessa asked. “[Void Breaker Wyrms] are not a monster that my friend Hailey is familiar with. Hailey, for those of you I haven’t introduced her to, was a member of the [Egress Entertainment] support team and has played this game pretty much since launch.”

“So she would definitely know if something like that was real then,” Rip said.

“She’s pretty likely to know if it was something that made it through the development process,” Tessa said. “It’s pretty definitely real whether it did or not, but if it was something like a boss from a dungeon that the beta testers didn’t get to, I’d feel a lot better.”

“Shouldn’t the beta testers have hit everything though? I mean what’s the point of having people test if they can’t even get to part of the stuff you’re releasing?” Pete asked.

“I’m hoping it’s something that was scheduled for one of the quarterly updates,” Tessa said. “A lot of that makes it into the code before it’s ready for live players to get to. They usually just seal up the entrance or make it inaccessible in some other way.”

“So you are hoping this Wyrm broke loose from an inescapable prison then?” Starchild asked.

“Yeah, believe it or not that beats the alternative,” Tessa said. “If it’s not an escapee, then there’s no reason to think [Void Breaker Wyrm] is where it’s going to stop leveling up.”

“What comes after that?” Matt asked.

“I think we’d have to let it keep evolving to find out,” Tessa said.

“But if it keeps evolving it would eventually become impossible for anyone to beat right?” Rip said.

“That’s the problem I’m worrying about,” Tessa said. “Past a certain point, things can become mathematically unbeatable by any number of foes that are sufficiently lower level. Like Wrath Raven could take on a functionally infinite number of first level [Hopper Toads]. If the [Crypt Annihilator] or the [Void Breaker Wyrm] can keep leveling up endlessly, they’ll reach a point where no matter how many [Adventurers] we throw at them we won’t be able to so much as scratch their health bar.”

“It’s not just [Crypt Killers] and [Grim Salamanders] we need to worry about,” Penny said, appearing before them all. “I’m receiving dozens of reports similar yours. Something fundamental is changing in our world. I don’t know if you’re plan will be viable anymore. I don’t know if any plans will be.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 10, Ch 19

Lisa

It should have been cruel to have the possibility of a path home appear only to turn out to be a dead end and Lisa had the sense that for many people it would be. There were parents among the [Adventurers] who had been cutoff from their children, lovers who’d been split apart across the divide between the worlds, and people who were terrified of the world before them being real rather than a safe collect of pixels for them to play with.

Not everyone was resigned to their fate either. There were plenty of [Adventurers] both high level and low who were trying all sorts of things to find a path back. So far as Lisa knew though, none of them had yet succeeded. 

Even the idea of access the beta server had been tried from what her friend Cease All from her original guild had said. There was no established means of hopping between the servers though – that had always been an admin level function – but the [Fallen Kingdoms] were nothing if not littered with gates and portals and rifts to different times and places given how much the devs liked to use wild and inconsistent settings as part of their expansions.

That her kid sister had been the one to find the right gateway was more alarming than surprising. Rachel would attract all sorts of the wrong attention if it became common knowledge that she’d come from the beta server and knew how to get back.

Beyond that though, Lisa found that she was far more interested in the question of whether Deadly Alice, Rachel’s character was present but suppressed or whether Deadly Alice was actually as nonexistent as Rachel claimed.

The question of getting back home was interesting in an academic choice but with the possibility seemingly off the table, Lisa felt more relieved than anything else.

Going back to her old life was something she knew she should be striving for. It was the responsible thing to do. It was what was expected of her. It was the grown up thing to do.

The voice inside that cast those words at her weren’t her own. They belonged to all the people who had ever told her that she loved was worthless. Games didn’t make you money, so they were frivolous. Activities suitable for children. As an adult she was supposed to hussle. To always be striving to get ahead. 

“Making something of herself” had been a battle she’d fought her whole life, and she’d internalized enough of the arguments to believe some of them.

Living how she wanted to wasn’t practical. She did need money, which meant plugging into a game (or, realistically, several games) 24/7 wasn’t an option. It wouldn’t even have been healthy if she’d won a lottery and been able to forget about money. 

At the same time though, she couldn’t accept the idea that something’s value came only from what it could be exchanged for.

What she was doing in the [Fallen Kingdoms] didn’t matter to anyone on Earth. It wasn’t helping her get ahead, or pay off her debts, or win a new career for herself. But it was still important.

Lost Alice was important. Even if she no more exceptional in the [Fallen Kingdoms] than Lisa had been on Earth.

“I think a good long talk is in order,” Lost Alice said. “But I wouldn’t guess you have the patience for it. Also, we probably want to speak somewhere we won’t be overheard by a [Vampire Queen].”

She waved at Vixali who’d been sitting in silent contemplation as Lisa and Rachel held  an equally silent telepathic conversation.

Vixali’s eyes widened in surprise but she recovered quickly, offering Lost Alice a gracious smile and a small nod.

Rachel was more surprised by the revelation, a full body twitch running from her head to her toes.

“You may have the room if you desire privacy,” Vixali said.

“My thanks,” Lost Alice said as the [Vampire Queen] departed.

That didn’t mean Vixali couldn’t listen in on them, but Lost Alice wasn’t concerned. Vixali understood the power balance between the two of them and had reigned long enough as [Queen] to know not to press an issue that might anger a larger and less destructible predator.

“You sounds different now,” Rachel said.

“This is how I always sound,” Lost Alice said. “But, it’s not a part of me you’ve seen often, or ever before I suppose.”

“Why are you playing at that? Stop pretending and be yourself!” Rachel’s eyes were glossy with tears but in place of heartbreak there was anger.

“Rachel, my sister,” Lost Alice said. “This is myself. I can be many things. I’m this, now, because I need the knowledge I have from this life to evaluate the sort of [Vampire] you’ve become. And also, it annoys you, and Mom’s not here to tell me to stop.”

Anger turned to confusion turned to long standing sororal aggravation.

“Stop it,” Rachel said. “Just be yourself. This is serious. Stop joking around.”

“It’s not a joke,” Lisa said. “This is me. All of it. Another me. Not the one you grew up with, but me all the same.”

“But you can’t be an actual vampire. That’s just something you made up!” Rachel said.

“I am aware,” Lost Alice said. “My existence as ‘Lost Alice’ matches far too closely to the fiction I as ‘Lisa’ created. This whole world is riddled with that problem. Everything here matches what someone on Earth imagined, and the things that don’t are largely extrapolations from the things that do. Consider this however, the stone floor you’re standing on is no less solid because someone imagined it first. The smell of the cooking fires from above carries scents that neither of us ever experienced on Earth. Even the pain we feel when we fight is inarguable. This isn’t a dream, or a delusion. What we’re experiencing has the same solidity and weight as our experiences on Earth. For all practical purposes, where we are and who we are is as real as where and who we were.”

“But this is just a projection,” Rachel said. “Except you said your body disintegrated. But if it did that there’d be nothing to project from. You’d be dead already and the dead can’t linger here. The [Daemon] said that too.”

“So I’m neither alive nor dead,” Lisa said. “Sort of fits that I’m a [Vampire] then right?”

“It’s not funny!” Rachel said.

“It’s not,” Lisa said. “It’s perplexing, and confusing, and…ultimately, not that important.”

Rachel sputtered.

“How is you being dead not important?” 

“Because whatever the answer is, I’m not gone,” Lisa said. “I’m here. I can eat, and drink, and love, and still make a difference for the people who need me.”

Rachel looked at her askance.

“You can what?”

“Make a difference, I can..” Lisa started to say but Rachel cut her off.

“No. Before that. You can what?” 

“Uh? Eat? Drink? Oh! Love. Uh, yeah, umm, that,” Lisa said, unsure that she wanted to share anything at all about Tessa with her sister.

It wasn’t that she had any reservations about Tessa. It was simply that Lisa had poured out her heart to Rachel in whining about her past relationships. It was embarrassing and while Rachel had always offered love and support, she also hadn’t been shy about pointing just how terrible most of Lisa’s girlfriends had been for her.

“Wait. Seriously?” Rachel looked more put out than upset.

“This probably isn’t the best time to talk about that,” Lisa said, since they were, technically, still in the [Vampire Queen’s] court.

“Oh my god! You did!” Rachel said aloud, unable to hide even a shred of her surprise. “Have you told her yet? Or are you going all undead stalker…again?”

“What? I’ve never…” Lisa began to protest before cutting herself off. She’d had a vampire-phase and the less Rachel reminded her of it the better.

“Let me guess? She’s a [Vampire] too? Oh no, it’s not the [Vampire Queen] is it?”

“No! No. Tessa is a normal human woman,” Lisa said. “And, a [Clothwork]. Sometimes. When she’s Pillowcase.”

Rachel just gapped, seemingly unable to process any of that.

“That’s not what’s important now though,” Lisa said, trying to bring the conversation back around to the critical questions.

“You’re dating a ragdoll? Or you want to date a ragdoll?” Rachel asked, completely ignoring Lisa’s attempt to change the topic. “How does that even work?”

“Before I answer that, ask yourself if you really want me to go into graphic detail on my sex life?” Lisa said. 

“I…you know what, you’re right. I thought all of this was weird, but that…that is a bridge too far,” Rachel said.

“Good. Then if we could get back to talking about you for a minute?” Lisa asked.

“What about me? I’m the only one in this whole world that makes any sense,” Rachel said.

“Are you though?” Lisa said. “You said you logged into your character on my account on the beta server, right?”

“Yeah? That’s not new, I did that for like a month straight while you were at work.”

“Right. Notice the important element there – ‘while I was at work’. I’m not at work now, so how were you able to log into my account, when it should have still been running on the computer in my apartment?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t know. It didn’t give me the ‘already logged in’ message I usually see if your already playing. Maybe you got automatically logged out when you got pulled in?” Rachel said.

“I don’t think so,” Lisa said. “The GMs were still able to message us and appear in front of us even after we got drawn in. The GMs on Earth that is. They still saw us as logged in on their end.”

“Okay, so then it was a bug. You can’t tell me, with all this, that a login error would be the biggest bug they had with this release.”

“Fair point,” Lisa said. “Was there anyone else on the beta server with you?”

“Yeah. A lot of people. All projections like me as far as I could tell.”

“But you couldn’t tell that I was different?” 

“I mean, you seemed different, but then everyone here does, so I thought it was just a beta vs live server thing.”

“Maybe. Or maybe it’s because the beta server can be accessed, for whatever reason, by people from Earth still, where everyone here got drawn in because their character’s died or their connection was severed. Was there anything else different about the people on the beta server?”

“Not really,” Rachel said. “I mean a lot of them were speaking Mandarin, but they were talking about the same things as everyone else there. Basically how we were supposed to rescue the people we knew who got trapped.”

“Huh. That’s weird. The beta servers are in California. Plenty of Chinese-Americans there, but I wouldn’t expect them to be speaking in Mandarin anymore than we do?”

“I know, Mom would have been so happy,” Rachel said. “I don’t know if they managed to get anybody out either though.”

“How did you managed to cross over? I mean into the beta server in the first place?”

“I told you, I logged into Deadly Alice. There was a gateway icon in the start town. I clicked on it and that pulled me in here. I clicked on it again and I was back at my desk. It wasn’t exactly hard.”

“And when did you meet the [Daemon] who told you what the rules were?”

“He found me. Like one of those quest NPCs that comes running up to you as soon as you get close enough to their spawn area.”

“And you were still in [Sky’s Edge] in the [High Beyond] right?” Lisa asked.

“Yeah.”

“What did he look like?” Lisa asked, a cold worry growing in her gut.

“Pretty weird. I think the graphics department hadn’t gotten around to putting his final skin on him yet or something so he was just a human shaped blob of darkness.”

“Did he seem [Hungry] at all?” Lisa asked, her nerves balanced on pin tops.

“Yeah. That was one of the tags on his character info,” Rachel said, staring as Lost Alice went even paler than her usual self.