Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 20

The boundaries of Tessa’s world were fraying. The plains which stretched between the mountains where the entrance to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] had been and the abandoned farmhouse where the new members of her team were trapped should have been a broad, open field, but the wreckage from battles, both ancient and recent, which covered it blocked out the view in all directions, narrowing her world down to the small area around them. 

Somehow that helped though. There were enough problems close by without needing to consider the disaster which lay across the rest of the world.

“How bad is the hunger getting?” she asked Alice in their private channel.

“I can bear it,” Alice said. Her jogging was loose and easy, the same as the rest of them, but her eyes remained fixed on a spot on the ground a few paces ahead of her.

“Can I help?” Tessa asked. She could hear the determination in Alice’s voice, and knew from experience the kind of pain determination could be covering.

“How? Is there a lot of blood in your stuffing?” Alice asked irritation toppling into anger before she shook her head and reeled it back in. “Sorry, dammit. I didn’t mean to snap like that.”

“You should see what I’m like when I get hangry,” Tessa said, laughing off her momentary blip of panic at having said the wrong thing.

“I’ll be ok,” Alice said. “It’s my own stupid fault for picking [Graveborn] for my race.”

“I’m going to bet getting stuck living in Alice’s skin wasn’t exactly a factor in the selection process,” Tessa said.

Alice chuffed out the fragment of a laugh.

“She wasn’t supposed to be anything more than a one-off,” Alice said. “CeaseAll was supposed to come and power level me up to max and then I’d be able to prove that [Solar Priestess] are just as viable as [Grave Menders].”

“I’m sorry,” Tessa said, out of reflex but tinged with a measure of guilt too. Alice’s misfortune had turned out to be a windfall for Tessa, Rip and Matt, and that didn’t seem to be fair when it also came with an unslakeable thirst for blood.

“It’s not your fault. I’m just an idiot,” Alice said. “A hungry, cranky idiot. God, why am I getting twisted up about this of all things? Oh boohoo, I’m a cute vampire with magic and a huge pocketful of gold. Oh how dark is my life. Next I’m gonna start writing bleak poetry.”

“We’ve all gone through that phase,” Tessa said. “Well, maybe not the cute vampire part of it, or the gold, but if we get home I can show you a stack of bad poetry about twelve feet high. Or, you know, the ashes of it after I went and burned it all.”

Alice gave a more honest laugh at that.

“I’m sorry to hit you with that,” she said. “I think it’s just just starting to get to me.”

“Being here or being a vampire?” Tessa asked.

“Either? Both? All of it?” Alice said. “It’s…I don’t even know. If you’d told me about this a week ago I would have said ‘cool’ and been looking forward to it. If you’d told me about it ten years ago I would have sold body parts for it to be true. I should be so happy we’re here.”

“And with being a blood sucking undead?” Tessa asked. It wasn’t teasing, but she didn’t mean it seriously either. She just wanted to keep the smile on Alice’s face.

“That most of all!” Alice said. “Well, when I was a kid at least. I went through a hardcore fang phase. Nosferatu to Twilight. If it had fangs and an aversion to sunlight, I was so there for it.”

“Did you ever see Near Dark?” Tessa asked, remembering her own forays into vampire obsession.

“A classic,” Alice said. “I take it you were a fan too?”

“My first girl friend and I were entirely too into giving each other hickeys,” Tessa said. “It’s embarrassing to even think about it. I still can’t believe no one ever figured it out.”

“People are amazingly good at not seeing things they don’t want to,” Alice said. “Even when the reality is right there. Everyday.”

Her smile faded as she spoke, some private melancholy crowding out both the undead hunger and the brief moment of good cheer.

“What I see is someone who got stuck with a rotten deal and has been going above and beyond the call for a while now,” Tessa said. “We need to find a way for you to chow down like your body needs too.”

“I am not going to start killing random people and drinking them dry,” Alice said. “Tempting though that may be.”

“I was thinking more about collecting some blood from a monster. Or an animal. Or even a person if you don’t need that much.”

“There hasn’t been a lot of blood in the monsters we’ve fought,” Alice said. “Just ichor and bug guts. I’ve been watching for that.”

“It’s probably because of the T for Teen rating the game had,” Tessa said. “We’ll find you something though.”

“I’ll be okay,” Alice said. “We’ve got more important things to worry about at the moment.”

“More urgent maybe,” Tessa said. “You’re as important as the rest are though.”

Alice smiled.

“Everybody loves a healer, so long as no one ever dies.”

“Oh, I’ve been there too,” Tessa said, thinking back to the fickle mood of a party when she was playing Glimmerglass and things were well compared to the party’s mood if things turned against them. “But that’s not what I meant. Alice is great to have on the team, but you’re important too.”

“Thanks. It’s nice to hear that once in a while.” There was a surprising warmth in her voice. “My real name’s Lisa by the way, Lisa Chen. I don’t remember if I mentioned that yet or not.”

“Mine’s Tessa. Tessa Moore. I wanted to ask before, but we’d just met and…”

“And you didn’t want to feel weird?” Lisa asked. “Yeah, I kind of know the feeling.”

They ran on for a handful of breaths before Lisa spoke again.

“I haven’t asked the kids what their names are yet.”

“Me either,” Tessa said. “At first it was just the usual thing of ‘don’t ask under-age people personal info’, because this was all going to stop as quick as it started.”

“”Which is seeming less likely with every minute that goes by with no response from from the GMs,” Lisa said.

“Which I knew,” Tessa said. “I mean, there’s nothing their programmers are going to be able to do because there’s no way this has anything to do with coding, or the servers, or anything anyone in our world has any familiarity with.”

“Not even Russian Super Hackers?” Lisa asked. “That’s a theory that went around where CeaseAll is. She messaged me a little while ago to see how we were doing.”

“Please tell me no one took that seriously,” Tessa said.

“If by no one you mean about half the people at the bar Cease was at? Then, yeah.”

Tessa shook her head.

“This place has a terrible inclusion filter. The unfortunate and the stupid. And we’ve got a global crisis rolling in.”

“It sounds like people are working on that,” Lisa said. “Cease was saying that a lot of the high level players are being gathered together into an army like the one we saw in the intro video. Niminey’s out there calling everyone to join up.”

“Wait, like the actual Niminey? She’s alive in here too?”

“I think all the NPCs are,” Lisa said. “They’ve got Prince Brandoth, and Penswell, and a bunch of the Iconics leading the defenders.”

“Cease is still outside of the game though isn’t she?” Tessa asked. “Shouldn’t she be playing it safe?”

“Yeah, but my whole guild is there for the planning. Or you know everyone but me and the people who weren’t logged in. They don’t intend to fight on the front lines, but if the battle comes to them, everyone wants to be ready.”

“Oh wow. I wonder if EE can put a stop to any assault events they had planned? A big brawl in a major city like [Thaldinsforge] would be cool but so many people would get drawn in. I mean those things are deathfests under the best of circumstances.”

“I wish I could be there,” Lisa said.

“Me too. Even just as Pillowcase, though Glimmerglass would be a lot more useful.”

“It’s funny isn’t it?” Lisa asked. “What we’re doing here? These fights, and leveling up? It kind of doesn’t matter.”

Tessa wanted to object but she could picture the grand armies being deployed in the Fallen Kingdoms. She could see guilds banding together, people rallying behind characters with the power to challenge the gods themselves. She could see the whole world moving in a great tide of destiny while she was left on the shore. Too small and too far away to matter in the titanic struggle that was going to come.

“Maybe not,” she said and then brightened. “Maybe not, and maybe that’s a good thing.”

“How so?” Lisa asked, more intrigued than skeptical.

“If we’d been on our usual characters, we’d be swept up in the war with the [Consortium of Pain] right? But there’s hundreds of thousands of people fighting in that, so even if we had the best gear we’d still just be one small part of it, not all that important, and not able to choose our own destiny.”

“Whereas now, we can do whatever we want,” Lisa said, tasting the idea like hard candy.

“Yeah, what we’re doing now is happening because we chose to do it, and it matters because we’re the ones here to do it. I’m sure any of the other players could be the ones to rescue Starchild and her crew but none of them are here. That’s all on us.”

“Eventually we’ll out level this part of the [High Beyond] though and then we’ll be stuck down with the mid-levels in the older zones,” Lisa said.

“I hope so!” Tessa said. “Picture us warping down from the heavens to land somewhere like the [Pelgrathi Highlands]. You’ve got teams of mid-levels there who’s been staying in the taverns or running dungeons with the help of a bunch of high level players to keep them safe. Then we show up. Tell me any of them could handle the [Mind Crusher] fight we just went through? We’re going to be the most badass team of mid-level adventurers ever.”

“You paint a beautiful picture,” Lisa said. “But we’ll have to see how it turns out. I know a lot of groups who would snap up a tank like you in a heart beat.”

“We’re close to having a full group as it is,” Tessa said. “And I’d rather stick with you. PUGs were terrible when I wasn’t literally going to have my head chopped off thanks to people ignoring what I say.”

Lisa was silent for a moment which prompted Tessa to review her words in case she’d said something wrong.

“That’s just me though,” Tessa added. “You’ll have access to your guild once we’re back in the old zones. You can do a lot better than a PUG. Heck, you can probably have CeaseAll power level you then.”

Tessa could see the split that would happen. Lisa would take an invite as Lost Alice to a guild party and head off to shoot up to the level cap as quick as possible. Without a healer, Rip and Matt would have to leave the team to search for one who needed two more damage dealers. 

Tessa could try to stay with them, but when the inevitable offer for a team came it would doubtless be for one with only one openings, leaving her to choose between teaming with her young friends and advancing further to help keep them safe.

They’d walk away from her eventually.

They would have to. It was the only chance they’d have to improve.

It was what everyone else did after all.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Lisa said. “I think I’d rather stay with you.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 19

The fresh air of the overworld was better than sweet. It felt like a rebirth. Which, when Tessa paused to consider the idea, was somewhat appropriate as they’d just left the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].

“How long were we in there for?” Rip asked, cradling FOOF, her [Lil Gloom Drinker] pet as the party ran at a half jog away from the dungeon.

“A bit over an hour, I think,” Alice said.

“Is that usual?” Matt asked. “I mean that seemed pretty involved and intense for a beginners dungeon, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, that was definitely not a tutorial area,” Rip said. FOOF seemed content to cuddle into her arms and fearlessly observe the wide world the surrounded them. The moment fighting had broken out in the dungeon, the [Celestial Butterfly] had vanished back inside the black gem which had been at the heart of the egg it was birthed from.  It was a good move from Pillowcase’s point of view since a blow from more or less anything was likely to kill the fragile creature. 

Tessa wondered if the pet could be killed at all though. In the game at least, non-combat pets were simply immune to damage (and also unable to inflict any damage or draw any attention to themselves). There were many odd elements of the world like that which Tessa would have paid cold hard cash to know the answer to. In the case of Rip’s pet however she had no interest in experimenting to find out. Not with how much comfort they each seemed to be giving the other.

“The Ruins weren’t as complex as one of the old raids, but there was a lot more challenge to them than there should have been,” Tessa said.

“They did mention that the [High Beyond] dungeons were designed to be more interesting than the usual ‘walk through a few rooms of trash and then beat a big bag of hit points at the end’,” Alice said. “From what I remember the beta testers saying though, that involved more story elements and cutscenes, not ridiculous things like that [Mind Crusher].”

“My sister said the dungeon she ran wasn’t bad,” Pete said. “It was the same mobs as always, just a little harder fighting them when you can actually feel the flames.”

Tessa’s party of four had become a party of seven by combining with Starchild’s team. Thanks to party chat, the miles which still separated them weren’t a barrier to communication, only to Tessa’s crew providing Starchild’s team needed the help they needed.

“Why was your sister running a dungeon?” Alice asked. “I thought they closed them down in the normal realms?”

“They closed down the raids. They couldn’t close down the regular dungeons though,” Pete said. “Melissa or Feralfang, my sister, she was with a team that went to rescue a party that tried one of the new mid-level places, the [Crypts of Lost Flesh]. The mid-level folks got in trouble so a bunch of max level characters that had been hanging around fishing went in and crushed everything in the dungeon to get them out.”

“Why would anyone go into a place called the [Crypts of Lost Flesh]?” Rip asked.

“Maybe they don’t have any?” Matt offered, shrugging the metal shoulders of his entirely metal body.

“I don’t think they had even that good of a reason,” Pete said. “None of them had been drawn into the game before they went in. They just thought the warning message was a joke.”

“This catastrophe does sort of select for the unlucky and the monumentally stupid doesn’t it?” Alice asked.

“Given that we fell into a giant, obvious hole which one does that make us?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Don’t think of it as blundering into a big trap,” Obby said. “We’re explorers right? So what we did was discover a whole new dungeon using only our passive detection abilities.”

Tessa chuckled.

“I like how you think Obby,” she said. “Have you managed to find out anything about the place yet though?”

At a half jog, Tessa’s team was several minutes away from the abandoned farm, but the distance was falling away with each step and being ready for what faced them seemed like a novel enough idea that it just might be worth pursuing.

“I keep offering to charge in and find out but for some reason the idea of being swarmed by demons doesn’t seem appealing to my compatriots here.”

“Sounds like a target rich environment to me,” Rip said, her smile sparkled around the edges of her words.

“See, and I’m hearing ‘torn apart by wild animals’,” Matt said.

“That’s the spirit!” Obby said. ”Oh, wait, we’re not the wild animals in that scenario are we?”

“That depends,” Pillowcase said. “What level demons have you seen?”

“Mostly level 5s,” Obby said, her words were slowed a bit as though they had to wade through a pool of curiosity. “There have been a few level 15s though, and we definitely haven’t seen all of the ones that are in here yet.”

Tessa wondered what she’d said that had intrigued Obby so much, but shrugged it off. It was a lot easier to work out that kind of thing out in person. For all Tessa knew, Obby had noticed some odd feature of the dungeon she was in and her curiosity had nothing to do with Tessa.

“Have any of them seen you yet?” Alice asked.

“Strangely, no,” Lady Midnight said. “We fell into a room which overlooks a much deeper cavern. Picture something like an opera box, but a lot bigger. We can see demons wandering about down below and we can hear ones moving back and forth outside the door to the room we’re in, but they’re not in a good position to see us.”

“Good. It sounds like you’re safe for now then,” Alice said. “Is the entrance to the room narrow?”

“It is. If they try to push in, it’ll be pretty simple for me to bottle them up there,” Obby said.

“The downside is that there’s definitely not enough room for a tank and a melee damage dealer to fight at the entrance,” Starchild said. “Rip and Matt, I believe your talents are better suited to this than mine are.”

“No worries,” Rip said. “We got your back!”

Tessa could feel the delight at being needed and important radiating from Rip. On reflection, getting a chance to actually save someone felt pretty incredible to her too.

Talking to the other team made all the difference too. Back in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] when Lady Midnight had called and Tessa had been given a live feed to what sounded like a brutal murder, all of her thoughts had been panic. Tessa’s desperation wouldn’t have made a difference in the outcome of Lady Midnight’s fight but it had still felt proper. Like a lesser, more reasonable, response would have been left her culpable for Midnight’s fate.

Pillowcase had been pragmatic though, a cool, calculating voice, untouched by the agony Tessa had heard. To someone crafted for war, the sound of someone dying couldn’t be a blow to the psyche. 

I envy that it can be for you, Pillowcase said. As I was made, I could not form the bonds you have forged so quickly.

And I couldn’t have survived to make them if you weren’t there, Tessa said. But, you’re me.

We are each other, Pillowcase said. You have my memories, and I have yours.

Did you exists before I came here though?

Did either of us?

In other words are we a Boltzmann brain? Tessa asked.

Tessa had read about the idea of Boltzmann brains when she was fifteen and the idea had always intrigued her. Put simply, the idea was that everything we remember, all of our experiences, could be the result of a random ordering of matter and energy in the instant which we think of as the present. We could be nothing more than a transitory brain which winked into existence in an empty void complete with every memory and sense impression we believe we’ve ever had.

I don’t think that’s something we can worry about since it’s both unprovable and offers us nothing to act on, Tessa said. Acting as though there’s no world outside ourselves has a best case scenario of rendering everything meaningless and a worst case of devolving us into the worst monsters the world has ever seen. Better in every case to assume other people exist and that they matter.

Without you I wouldn’t have understood that, Pillowcase said. Without you I wouldn’t even have thought to ask the question.

But you’ve always had me right? I mean, you still feel like me. I don’t feel like I’m talking to someone else. I feel like I’m mulling over an idea in my head and writing both sides of a discussion around it.

Maybe that’s because while we have two lives worth of memories, and two points of view, there is only one will within us?

In other words, you want the same things I want, so there’s no conflict there like there can be with other people?

Perhaps more than that, Pillowcase said. My memories include being given a will which was then shackled to the will of my masters. That is not what we have. Our will is the same. We are one person, with two lives.

How could that work though? I made you up. Like an hour ago…wait, no, it’s been longer than that. How long have we been playing?

I woke many hours ago. It’s been at least half a day now. Before that I was not fully myself but I still remember both what I did and what was done to me.

If it’s been half a day since I created you, how could you be real? How can I see all these memories you have?

Because you were there. You are me. You always have been.

That’s not possible though. All I did was make some selections in a character creator.

You also dreamed up a backstory for me.

Yeah, one that just happens to match what you lived through? What are the odds of that happening?

What are the odds that we would be here at all?

Zero. Going by any rational statistical model, the odds that Tessa would find herself drawn into a video game she was playing were zero because there were too many basic laws of physics violated in the process. 

We need to understand the metaphysics then, don’t we?

Yes. We definitely do.

It was a tall order. Neither one had been a researcher by trade, but Tessa understood systems. She knew how to piece together their workings and discover what they were really doing from years of debugging code which could charitably be called sanity wreckingly bad.

If we can find a good setting for some quiet conversations, we should talk to the others about what they’re experiencing, Tess said. That’ll give us more data points to work from and it might help us pick out people who are having worse problems integrating than we did.

Starchild and Pete are an interesting case, Pillowcase said. They seem to be completely separate people, but they’re still harmonious with each other.

Yeah, it sounds like they’re as adjusted to this as we are, Tessa said. Is it weird that I’m thinking of you as a separate person now that we’re talking about how we’re both basically me?

If we had a connection back to your world that would let us read up on it, it might help to study the mental health issues people on your world have had with identity, but I don’t see anything in your memories which fits what we’re experiencing exactly. 

Also, whatever we have, or are, it isn’t causing problems so far, Tess said. If anything it’s solving them. If we have any kind of mental health issue then we probably fall into the ‘high functioning’ end of whatever diagnosis we’d be given.

I wonder what that means for the people who don’t have both their character and player halves fully responsive? Pillowcase asked. Alice, for example, said that she’s only herself and not her character at all.

That’s a good question, Tessa said noticing that Alice was staring down at the ground as they ran.

“How are you feeling?” Tessa asked Alice on a private channel for the two of them.

“Hungry”, was Alice’s reply.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 18

Tessa was done. She had nothing left. They’d fought the [Mind Crusher] till it was down to the last sliver of its health. She’d endured every attack it possessed, many, many times over. The fight however was still going.

“Just DIE!” she screamed, casting aside battle training, experience, and even basic tactics.

“[Multi-Burst] will be ready again in twenty seconds,” Rip said. “We’ve got this.”

“I’m out of magic, maybe fifteen seconds before I’ve got enough for another Spectral,” Matt said.

Both continued to attack as best they could, Rip firing regular arrows from her never emptying quiver and Matt directing a bolt of lightning from the end of his staff.

“I can get [Minor Blood Channel] up in ten seconds too,” Alice said. “Turtle up and we’ll keep fighting through.”

“Can’t! It’s regenerating too fast!” Tessa said. “We need another DPS.”

“No magic left to conjure one of those,” Alice said, her tone light. They were perhaps moments away from losing the fight despite pressing it to the very end, but Alice was able to view it with experienced eyes and that comforted Tessa more than anything else could have.

“Guess it’s time to do something stupid then,” Tessa said as she watched the [Mind Crusher’s] health ticking back up faster than her team could inflict wounds on it until it regained 10% of its health..

They’d been through this cycle seven times already, with each pass through hinging on the hope that they could save up enough resources to finally deliver a burst of damage sufficient to end the monster which was mindlessly tearing pieces out of Pillowcase as it had been doing for more than a half hour.

“Do it. I’ve got your back,” Alice said.

“[Soul Render].” Tessa invoked the skill she’d earned at 9th level and felt her wounds scream in pain as her durability plummeted.

Along with the pain however came an unholy amount of strength. Her tired and weary frame felt so much lighter and faster as violet shadows flickered to life like flames around her head and shoulders.

The seemingly untiring [Mind Crusher] contracted into itself for another [Death Spasm] but rather than avoid the attack, Pillowcase stepped into it smashing the monster away with a fantastic [Shield Bash]. The move cost her the use of her left leg when the [Death Spasm] fired but it was worth it to see the chunk of its health disappear faster than the monster could heal.

One blow wasn’t enough to end the fight though. With more work to be done, Pillowcase jumped off her right leg, and sailed through the air to land on the [Mind Crusher] sword first and began hacking away. 

Throughout thew fight, her blows had done little more than annoy the [Mind Crusher]. The damage she’d inflicted was akin to tiny paper cuts which her skills then dunked in lemon juice and salt. 

[Soul Render] changed that.

Where normally a [Soul Knight] was built for tanking, the class did have the option to switch to a more offensive mode. [Soul Render] cost the [Soul Knight] a large portion of the reinforcement magics they held, making them far more vulnerable to damage than normal. In exchange, Pillowcase’s blows hacked through the [Mind Crusher] tearing deep wounds into its endlessly regenerating flesh. 

The [Mind Crusher] tried to light her on fire again, but the flames didn’t diminish Pillowcase’s assault. They hurt worse than any previous attack, but Tessa noticed the pain was still somehow distant. It was present enough to alert her to the danger, but muffled, as though Pillowcase’s capacity to feel injury was less than a tenth of her own.

Another [Death Spasm] erupted from the [Mind Crusher], costing Pillowcase the use of her left arm. 

“Die! DIE!” Tessa pushed the irrelevant pain out of her mind. It was nothing more than distraction. Alice would heal her. She’d be fine. 

Except the [Mind Cusher] stabbed her in the right shoulder, severing the cords which gave her right arm vitality and motion.

As her sword and shield tumbled from her nerveless arms, Tessa knew that she was out of options. She couldn’t dodge or block the next [Death Spasm] and once she fell, everyone else was going to drop within seconds.

She readied herself to leap away nonetheless, but as she did she stumbled and went falling backwards to the ground.

She watched the [Mind Crusher] compress itself again but before its final [Death Spasm] could fire, Alice was there, standing as a shield in front of Tessa.

Tessa watched the spikes tear into the vampire and drop Alice to the ground as a bloody mess. That one attack had wiped out the entirety of Alice’s health bar save for a single point and the next would finish her.

“[Multi-Burst][Flame Shot],” Rip yelled.

“[Lesser Spectral Wounds],” Matt added.

And like that, the [Mind Crusher] was no more. The spell and the barrage of arrows tore through the tiny bit of health which Tessa’s attacks hadn’t been able to remove. 

Tessa felt Pillowcase’s innate healing abilities rally, though weaker than normal. She canceled the [Soul Render] stance to bring them back to their proper level and dragged herself over to Alice’s prone body.

There was less blood than there should have been given the horrible brutality of Alice’s wounds. It was a good sign, although the shape Alice was in looked from good.

“Glad…” Alice started to say and then had to pause to forcibly draw in a breath. “Glad I don’t need air to survive as a vampire.”

“That was incredible. Are you ok? Or, I mean, will you be?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah. I just need to rest a bit. Once my magic is back up to full I can fix all this.”

“Sorry you needed to do that,” Tessa said, pulling Alice up to a seating position so that the blood which was still flowing from her wounds wouldn’t pool around her face.

“I’m not,” Alice said, too weary from both the long fight and her critical wounds to keep her eyes open.

“That was amazing! We did it!” Rip didn’t so much walk over to them as bounce.

Matt was more sedate, showing the same weariness as Alice. “I’m sorry I ran out of magic there. I should have been more careful with it, then we would have had enough to take him down a lot sooner.”

“It’s not your fault,” Alice said, content to rest against Pillowcase for support while her magic recovered.

“We were under-leveled for that fight, and at half strength for a dungeon team,” Tessa said. “You two did the work of at least four people in that fight, maybe six depending on the team’s composition.”

“Without what you did though we never would have gotten through it,” Rip said.

“That’s our dear tank,” Alice said and slumped against Pillowcase. “Wow, you really do live up to your name.”

“I think you get the tanking credit this time,” Tessa said. “Body shielding as a healer? That takes some real guts. And look, I can see them, over there and over there, and over there.”

Alice laughed weakly.

“When I say no one’s gonna die, I mean No. One. Is. Going. To. Die. No matter what.”

***

Obby liked her newfriends and she sincerely hoped she wasn’t going to have to obliterate them. 

“That’s level 10 for us,” Pete said. “I think we can go through a few more until Lady Midnight reaches 10 and then we’ll be getting nothing for the [Chaos Centipedes].”

“An end to bug guts and green goo! Can it ever come!” Lady Midnight’s complaint was more in jest than serious but Obby could see Midnight’s humor was a bit forced around the edges.

“We could always try the [Chain Lasher] if you’d prefer?” Obby teased.

“You know what? I’m ok with that,” Midnight said. “We’re well past the level when Alice’s team fought that thing. Let’s see how we do. Worst case we run back to town as ghosts and respawn there instead of here.”

Strictly speaking, that wasn’t the worst case outcome, but Obby had no intention of squashing Lady Midnight’s enthusiasm. 

“”We’re ready for it whenever you are,” Starchild said, nodding her agreement to Obby.

“Ok then!” Obby cheered. “Let’s take the fight right to that thing!”

“There are [Chaos Centipedes] inside too right?” Midnight asked.

“Yep! Lots of them!” Obby said. There was a good chance the foes in the abandoned farm house would test her beyond her limits. There was a good chance her small team would fail and suffer an ignominious defeat. Obby wasn’t interested in self-destruction, but the prospect of being in that serious of a battle thrilled her to the tips of her toes.

Lady Midnight hefted the new [Staff of Scorching] she’d claimed from the last treasure horde. “Good. Let’s do this then!”

Obby gave her best war cry as she charged into the farmhouse. She was still level limited so that the others could earn experience but that seemed like a terrible reason to avoid waking up every creature in the area that she could.

***

Tessa didn’t mind supporting Alice. It was quite comfortable. Even to a Artifax body’s limited sense of touch, Alice still felt warm and solid and maybe a little too comfortable to have resting against her.

“We should divide up the loot,” Tessa suggested, not wanting to push Alice away but acutely aware that the temptation that was growing in Pillowcase’s breast was entirely one-sided given the fact that Alice was already taken.

“Hmm, yeah, I suppose we should,” Alice said, sitting up and stretching as the last of her magic returned. “Still more dungeon to go.”

“At least we hit level 10 though!” Rip said.

Level 10 had always been a noteworthy low level accomplishment in the game and they’d all gained class-defining abilities to go along with it. 

For Pillowcase’s reward, Tessa had been able to select [Knight’s Devotion], a unique ability which charged up based on the damage she took and then expended the stored energy for a variety of effects. The basic version granted a special damage shield with a limited duration but which could absorb twice as much damage as it had been charged up by. 

It took careful planning and timing to use [Knight’s Devotion] well, but from what Tessa had seen as Glimmerglass, a talented [Soul Knight] could turn an entire encounter around even with only the basic version of the ability as they rallied from the edge of death to be virtually unkillable as the rest of the party recovered. 

“Should we reach out to Starchild and her team?” Matt asked. “I mean, we could use some more damage dealers right?”

“We’ll need to backtrack a ways to meet up with them, but it might be worth it,” Alice said as she selected a pair of [Embroidered Bracers of the Arcane] from the treasure horde and glanced to the others for permission to claim them.

Tessa nodded her agreement (the more magic Alice had the better in Tessa’s view). 

“What about the problem with bigger parties running into tougher spawns?” Rip asked.

“That’s still a danger,” Tessa said. “I’m betting the [Mind Crusher] would have had minions spawning every few minutes if we had a full party for example.”

“So having them with us might make things harder?” Matt asked.

“Yes and no,” Tessa said. “We’d be facing more foes, but gaining more experience too.”

“More foes and tougher ones,” Alice said. “But, our ability to deal with them would be higher. With another healer and another tank, we’d have more flexibility and a bigger safety net to work with.”

“But we didn’t want to invite them before right?” Rip asked.

“I don’t think we were ready before,” Tessa said. “There’s a lot more to fighting that just throwing numbers at a problem. We’re still not as skillful as a great dungeon team should be in terms of coordination, but I don’t think we would have gotten through the [Mind Crusher] if we didn’t have the basics down.”

“What if they suck?” Rip asked.

“Then we split up again,” Alice said. “Some parties just don’t work out, even when the people in them are individually good.”

“Will it mean less treasure?” Matt asked.

“At this level? Not really,” Alice said. “We’re not getting Rare-Tier drops yet, just basic equipment and gatherables, and those drop for everyone. If we have seven in the party we’ll just get three extra drop chances per defeat.”

“Which means a lot more chances for the item you need to drop,” Tessa said. “We’ll just need work out how we handle items that multiple people can make use of.”

“We can probably just go with random rolls and then alternate when it matters,” Alice said.

“That’s what my guild used to do too,” Tessa said, struck for a moment at how similar her party was to one of the ad hoc groups her old friends would throw together. A shiver of old pain came along with that thought. No. This isn’t the same. They’re not going to leave me alone here.

“Do you think they’ll still be interested?” Rip asked.

Before Tessa could venture a guess, a telepathic ping arrived and she accepted it.

Oh hi! Tessa? This is Pete again, I hate to be a bother, but is there any chance you folks might want to team up for bit?

Funny you should ask, we were just talking about that, Tess said.

I’m regretting that we didn’t stay with you folks for the [Soul Blight] battle, Pete said.

No worries, Tessa said. I think we needed to get through that on our own and get our teamwork down. At this point what we could use is some [Druid] melee power though.

That’s wonderful! And Starchild is totally onboard for providing that. We just have one little problem.

Tessa raised one of Pillowcase’s eyebrows. “Little problems” were never little in her experience.

And that would be? she asked.

Well, it turns out that there’s a dungeon beneath the abandoned farm house you went to and we don’t have enough rope to climb out. Also, there’s a lot of monsters down here.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 17

Just because she’d survived the [Mind Crusher’s] pulsed [Death Spasm] move didn’t mean Pillowcase was going to live to see the end of the fight.

“If I drop, fall back out of this room,” Tessa said. “We’re doing well enough on this run that we can regroup for a second without you all risking another death.”

“You’re not going to die,” Alice said through gritted teeth.

They’d been fighting the [Mind Crusher] for twenty minutes. Sitting at a keyboard for that long wasn’t an unreasonable commitment while battling a single tough foe. Big boss monsters could easily take that long, though typically the fights were concluded in half that time or less. Enduring all-out combat for that duration in person though was a very different story from guiding a character on a screen. 

Pillowcase’s body was designed for battle. The magics which supported her existence were highly efficient – beyond capabilities of even the best [Artificers] in the [Fallen Kingdoms] – but everything had limits and the weariness Pillowcase felt was no different from the exhaustion Tessa was familiar with from the few foolish times she’d tried to start an intense workout routine.

For all that Alice had replenished Pillowcase’s health to full, Tessa was still struggling to retain the sharpness of her reflexes and the vigor of her sword arm. To let either falter would be the same as handing victory to the [Mind Crusher]. 

“[Heart Killer’s Curse]”, she said, renewing the invocation on her most important personal buff.

Glancing over at Alice, Tessa saw her healer’s magic points were almost entirely drained. 

“You need to keep some magic in case this thing comes after you,” Tessa said, trying to ignore the fact that Alice was probably already below the level where she could throw heals on Rip, Matt, and herself if they had to flee.

“I don’t if it never comes us,” Alice said. She was out of breath purely from the drain of casting almost all her energy into healing effects.

“Let me go lower then,” Tessa offered, knowing that spacing out the healing they provided was one of the few option low level healers had for conserving magic in long fights.

“I can’t, it’s got too many hard hitting moves,” Alice said.

She was right, and they both knew it. 

The team had dropped the [Mind Crusher] to less than twenty percent of its total hit points and in the process weathered a trio of special abilities it possessed. [Death Spasm] had been the first, where its body bent and twisted into a writhing mass before compressing into a ball and then exploding outwards in an array of spikes in every direction.

It had done that for the first time at seventy five percent health and the damage had driven Pillowcase’s health so long that her entire bar had looked empty. Below twenty percent health the [Mind Crusher] seemed to be able to execute that ability as often and as quickly as it wanted.

The only time it didn’t do that was when it was levitating Pillowcase off the ground in rings of mental force using its [Psychic Crush] ability, or when it was lighting her on fire with [Lesser Pyrokinesis].

Overall it wasn’t the most enjoyable battle Pillowcase had ever fought, though she could remember ones which had been far worse.

“You could let it come for me,” Matt said, as he fired another [Lesser Spectral Wounds] into the creature. It was perhaps the one hundredth time he’d shredded the [Mind Crusher] with his magic and while it was his best spell, in a sense, twenty minutes had made it clear that neither he nor Rip were capable of ending the fight in an instant, no matter how well their attacks landed.

“No! I’m a better target,” Rip said. “We talked about kiting. Let me try that. I can use my [Rapid Step] to stay away from it.”

It wasn’t a bad idea. Pillowcase started working out how they might handle switching the monster’s attention cleanly between them, but Tessa cast that thought aside.

“We can’t risk it,” she said. “This thing can teleport. You won’t be able to outpace it, and if we lose you it’ll take twice as long to finish it off.”

“If you fall then,” Rip said. Even knowing she’s probably being able to rez after the battle if she got clipped, it was still brave offer on Rip’s part. Being torn to pieces by a winged nightmare might be something she could recover from but the experience was far from a pleasant one, and the hounds were always a possibility.

The [Mind Crusher] released another [Death Spasm] which Pillowcase caught entirely on her shield. She’d been expecting the move since the [Mind Crusher] could use it freely in its current state and seemed to be cycling back to it at regular intervals.

“[Casting spell: Counter Death],” Alice said, reapplying a fairly costly buff to Pillowcase and glaring at the rest of the party as if daring any of them to object.

Tactically Pillowcase knew that the move wasn’t optimal from a total party survival perspective, but had to concede that it was the best method of keeping one person on their feet. For a fairly limited duration, any single hit which was strong enough to knock Pillowcase to zero health would be prevented, but only the portion which would have killed her. 

Against normal hits, the spell was laughably underpowered since it’s cost compared to a small hit was a bad trade, especially compared to a [Grave Mender’s] other healing spells. As the hits scaled up in damage though, [Counter Death] began to shine as it was capable of eliminating far more damage than any cure of a comparable level could heal. Also, and most critically, it bought the healer time. Even if Alice had a healing spell large enough to undo the damage a large hit carried, it wouldn’t matter if it landed after the blow killed Pillowcase since heals generally had no effect on corpses. Even the extra second or two [Counter Death] could buy where Pillowcase would be lingering at a single hit point might be all the opportunity Alice needed to turn the fight around.

“Fine,” Tessa said, suppressing a smile, “No dying then.”

She bashed the [Mind Crusher] as it tried to focus on a [Lesser Pyrokinesis] effect to light her on fire, breaking its concentration and sending it back into the air for what felt like the ten billionth time.

“Except for him,” she added. “I freaking hate flying things.”

“[Flame Shot],” Rip called out, blasting off one of the [Mind Crusher’s] wings for the ten billionth and first time. “I don’t know, that’s not getting old any time soon,” she added as the monster crashed to the ground again in front of Pillowcase.

***

Oblivion’s Daughter, or Obby, was never going to get tired from what Claire could see.

“Ha! Three more incoming!” Obby cheered, waving her sword like a pennant flag.

Around them, the bodies of [Chaos Centipedes] were piled into a continuously de-rezzing wall. As fast as one body vanished in a sparkle of light, another two were added to the pile.

“Are they ever going to stop?” Pete asked.

“Doesn’t really look like it,” Obby said. “What a great spot! Why did Pillowcase’s crew ever leave?”

“Maybe they had to rest to recover their magic?” Claire asked, steading herself with her hands on her knees before beginning her next spell.

“Are you holding up ok?” Obby asked. “You look a little tapped out there.”

“I could use a minute if we can catch a break from these things,” Claire said.

“Don’t worry about these three,” Starchild said. “I can support Obby, while you recover.”

The good news was that the slaughterfest outside the abandoned farm house had boosted them both up to 7th level. The downside was that the combat had been so constant, Clair hadn’t been select any new spells since 5th level, and there were a bunch of items in the group treasure pool that would have helped her but they hadn’t had a chance to divvy them up with the constant press of giant bugs attacking them.

You probably think the only thing you have to be afraid of is some bugs.

The words bounced around her head sending chills down her spine. 

The fighting with the [Chaos Centipedes] was normal. They were monsters, clearly not human. Violence against them didn’t strike Claire as fundamentally wrong in any sense. They were gross, they were dangerous, and they weren’t people. 

The Player Killers though?

They were like broken dolls. Things cast in the image of people, but warped into something else. Something horrifying and wrong.

The worst part though was the suspicion crawling under Claire’s skin that something in them had once been a person.  She couldn’t allow that to be true. That sort of violation wasn’t something she could process and thinking about it was going to get her and her new friends killed.

So she pushed it down.

Into the dark.

Deep under her skin.

You probably think.

The words wouldn’t leave her.

But she could ignore them.

For a while at least.

“I’ll take the two on the left, just hold off the one on the right okay?” Obby asked as she stepped forward to lure both her targets to attack her.

Claire appreciated the gesture on both Obby and Starchild’s parts. Fighting without a healer was dangerous and painful, but, based on how they’d been managing the centipedes, something both of them were capable of handling.

Unless more centipedes showed up.

 Which of course they did.

“Do you need help?”

“Nah, we’ve still got this,” Obby said. “Rest up to full. I’ll be a little battered once you’re ready but you can patch me up then. None of these things hit hard enough to drop me before you’re done.”

“I won’t last that as long as Obby, but neither will our enemies,” Starchild said and smote the centipede nearest her with green fire that reduced it to a cloud of ash.

“Nice Shot!” Obby’s glee was infectious and left Claire wishing she’d taken a class with some damage dealing potential so she could join in the fun.

“I killed one in the time you killed four,” Starchild said. “I believe the credit is all yours.”

“Bah!” Obby said. “It doesn’t matter how good we are in comparison to anyone except who we were, and what the situation we’re in calls for.”

“Says the tank who’s out damaging all of the dps in our previous party put together,” Claire said.

“Well, that doesn’t sound all that hard,” Obby said. “I mean, dead people don’t do a lot of damage normally. Uh, undead excluded there obviously. Seriously though, I think if you folks had come here first, you probably would have had a lot better time of it. I started off in [Starwatch Fort] and there were some really great areas around there for low leveling soloing.”

“Any of them viable for a party of three?” Pete asked.

“Yeah, probably, though a dungeon would probably be better,” Obby said. “I didn’t have to practice any tactics or mechanics at all.”

“It doesn’t look like you needed the practice,” Claire said.

“Eh, this stuff is still pretty easy so far,” Obby said. “And I’ve fought in a lot of other places beside this.” She punctuated her last statement by beheading the last centipede that was assaulting them.

Claire glanced around and saw they’d somehow earned a brief respite from the constant attacks.

From Obby’s hand a pulse of pink light caught her attention.

“Oh! Sorry, that’s my wife, I should take this,” Obby said and placed her hand to ear, apparently beginning a private call.

“We should divide up the treasure and equip the good pieces,” Starchild said.

“Will Obby need any?” Claire asked.

“Nope, I had a holiday starter pack,” Obby said, taking her hand from her ear. “It had a nice set of level 15 gear in it, so I’m good for a while.”

“Nice!” Pete said. “The rest should be easy to split up then. Would you like to take all the magical stuff and I’ll take the physical pieces?”

“No, you should grab some of the magical pieces too,” Claire said. “You’re still using a lot of spells when you fight.”

“True, I just wanted to make sure you had what you need,” Pete said.

“It looks like it won’t be a problem. There’s a lot more in the pool than I remember seeing drop but we went through so many of those things I’m not surprised. I think there’s plenty here for both of us.”

“That should give us a big boost,” Pete said. “We’re still wearing some level 1 pieces.”

“Same here,” Claire said. “And I’m feeling a bit better about our chances as a team too. Maybe even enough to head back to the dungeon if you two are up for it.”

That fighting also kept her from being able to think about whatever the hell the Player Killers were was something she wasn’t sure she was ready to share with anyone. She’d had traumatic shocks before. Distractions and waiting a bit weren’t a perfect answer but it was how she’d muddled through before.

Certainly it couldn’t cause any problems this time.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 16

The [Mind Crusher] did not care that Pillowcase stood before it with a restrained killing intent in her eyes. It did not care that others were arrayed against it, each wielding lethal power and a burning desire to live despite the battle wounds they carried. All the [Mind Crusher] cared about was the agony of starvation and how the party who had breeched the seal on its domain must inevitably slake its all consuming hunger.

From the [Perching Throne] it rested upon, the construct of madness and shattered psyches spread wings of balefire which cast its domain into murky shadows only creatures of darkness could see through.

“I lost him,” Rip called out. “I can’t see anything in here now.”

“I’ve still got him,” Matt said, the [Revealing Insight] spell he’d acquired blazing on the end of staff as he waited for Pillowcase’s sign that it was safe to begin combat. Matt wasn’t especially dark-aspected but, like Pillowcase, his [Artifax] body was designed better than to let a little thing like the absence of light diminish his visual acuity. 

“Rip, wait for his spell to hit and target on that,” Alice said. She was tucked off to the side of the two ranged damage dealers and well behind Pillowcase.

“This one doesn’t look like he’s going to be chatty,” Pillowcase said, her hand drifting to the sword she’d left sheathed as she’d tried to make peaceful overtures to the dungeon boss they’d discovered after fighting through a half dozen trash encounters.

The [Mind Crusher] flailed its tentacles in a silent roar. It didn’t understand the words Pillowcase spoke. It couldn’t, despite possessing excellent hearing and a mind which was an amalgamation of several formerly sentient creatures. The problem was the “former” part of that equation. The [Mind Crusher] wasn’t a failed experiment. It wasn’t even specifically evil. It was simply a horror. Something with an existence bounded by an overwhelming need to destroy and gifted with the capacity to do so against the lesser creatures it was set down amidst. The [Mind Crusher] held no will of its own to understand the evil its creators had constructed it for. It was simply deadly in the same manner as a virus.

“I’m still glad we tried talking first,” Alice said.

“I can keep trying?” Pillowcase suggested, though her fingers itched for the safety of a naked blade in her hand.

The [Mind Crusher] had seen enough.

The things in front of it were prey.

Delicious.

It sprang from the throne it drew sustenance from, intent on reaping the psyches of meals in front of it.  Choosing its target wasn’t hard either. They all spoke, so they all had minds which could be devoured but it was the one with the bow who seemed the most delicious, burning bright with intellect and yet showing all the signs of blind and helpless prey.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain]”

The [Mind Crusher] wanted to make Rip its first target but even before it left its roost, its attention was violently refocused to the one with the sword and shield as thread of spellcraft ripped away bits of its life.

It had to destroy her first. It knew this without questioning why or how it held that knowledge.

With claws dripping an elixir of distilled pain, it slashed at Pillowcase, frustration and rage rising at the claws skipped off the shield the [Soul Knight] interposed between them.

“No more talking! Fight!” Alice said, beginning the incantation for a healing spell.

“Mark Prime,” Pillowcase said as she slashed the [Mind Crusher] across the knuckles.

It was the worst wound the [Mind Crusher] had ever felt. The pain was irrelevant. It was the sheer insult that came with the blows. They had to be answered with blood. Nothing else would suffice.

“[Revealing Insight]” Matt said, loosing his newest spell.

The magic struck the [Mind Crusher] and it felt no pain. The spell had done no damage of its own. It had only left the [Mind Crusher] feeling…exposed?

If the [Mind Crusher] had been sentient, and capable of tactical thinking in that moment, it would have worried about a spell which appeared to do nothing. 

No one cast spells which have no effect.

Spells could be resisted of course, so there was never a guarantee that a spell would achieve its desired effect, but the one that had hit the [Mind Crusher] hadn’t missed its mark or been thrown off by the [Mind Crusher’s] own magic.

“I see it!” Rip said and loosed her first arrow.

The pain the [Mind Crusher] had expected arrived with the arrow shaft. It was a more debilitating shot that the sword slices Pillowcase was inflicting but it was only pain, and not a substantial amount of that even. The [Archer’s] arrow wasn’t anywhere near as infuriating at the constant nicks the [Soul Knight] was inflicting.

Fanning it’s vast wings, the [Mind Crusher] blasted Pillowcase back into the nearby cave wall, stunning her for a brief moment.

Bulky and ponderous though it might have appeared, the [Mind Crusher] wasn’t slow to follow up on the opportunity it had created. Twisting its body, it shot its right arm forward impossibly far and speared Pillowcase through the shoulder with its talons.

Then it began to drink.

“[Casting spell: Torment]” Matt’s invocation ripped into the [Mind Crusher] and sent shards of the proto-minds within it slicing through its body. The damage was unreasonable for such a low tier spell but the [Torment] spell wasn’t acting alone. It was guided to hit the weakest points of the [Mind Crusher’s] psyche by the [Revealing Insight] debuff Matt had placed on it.

“[Flame Shot],” Rip shouted, targeting the [Mind Crusher’s] elongated elbow. The arrow converted to pure flame as it flew, blazing hot enough that it burned a quarter-size hole directly through the outstretched arm.

The [Mind Crusher] withdrew its injured limb and took to the air, wrapping its wings around its body as its regenerative capabilities mended its wounds.

“Thanks,” Pillowcase said. “I think it was pulling more out of me than health.”

“Probably draining your mental stats,” Alice said. “We’ll have to interrupt any channeled abilities like that.”

“Well, since we’re not trying to be friendly anymore…” Pillowcase said. “[Heart Killer’s Curse].”

Without warning the [Mind Crusher] warped down to stand beside Pillowcase and stabbed the tentacles which rimmed its head straight towards her face.

Pillowcase reacted quickly, pulling away and using her shield to bash the much larger creature to make even more space between them. For as fast as she moved though, the [Mind Crusher’s] head tentacles moved faster, each elongating like the creature’s arms had.

Most were blocked by her helmet and one was sliced off entirely as she parried with her sword but three others struck through.

And triggered the [Heart Killer’s Curse].

The terrible punctures in her cheek and throat closed as fast they were made. The curse ripped the [Mind Crusher’s] life away, damaging it and restoring Pillowcase in the process. Had it been capable of learning, it might have appreciated the dangers of fighting a [Soul Knight] but that was not part of its design. 

Despite Pillowcase’s defenses though the fight was far from over. Her party had barely taken off more than ten percent of the bosses health and hadn’t seen any of its more powerful abilities. Nonetheless a vicious smile crossed the [Soul Knight’s] face. 

Her team was solid and there wasn’t anything else in the world Pillowcase cared to ask for.

***

Elsewhere, the abandoned farm was exactly as occupied as the team of three adventurers who’d survived a player killer ambush had been promised. Oblivion’s Daughter was delighted to see the, in her view minor, horde of monsters that waited for them. Her companions however seemed less certain.

“Are you sure you’re going to get anything out of this?” Lady Midnight asked. “You’re 15th level now right? Aren’t these things too weak for you?”

“It’s no problem,” Obby said. “I’ll sync down to you and we’ll be on an even playing field.”

Artificially lowering one’s level was an option in parties but one that was typically only used by friends who were looking to play together. Under the circumstances, Obby knew it was a little odd to offer the same to perfect strangers, but she had goals that went beyond simple leveling.

“If any more of those player killer’s show up you can break the sync immediately,” Pete said, grateful for the offer and aware of what it might cost Obby. “It takes a minute to wear off, but we stalled them for about that long last time.”

“I don’t think we’ll have any problem with the ones we fought,” Obby said. “Something about how they died seemed pretty final.”

“Yeah. I’m still freaked out by that,” Midnight said with a shudder.

They’d finished the fight with the player killer squad in fairly bad shape, but they had finished the fight. At the end all three of them had been standing and none of the player killers were anything more than dissipated angry static on the wind.

“That makes three of us,” Starchild said. “Counting Pete and myself. I don’t mean to speak for you Oblivion’s Daughter. You seemed quite at ease with the battle.”

“To be honest, they were more than I’d expected,” Obby said, stretching her left arm across her chest with her right one. “It’s good you two were there, or I might have bit off more than I could chew.”

“If we hadn’t been there you probably could have avoided them,” Midnight said.

“Could have, probably wouldn’t have though,” Obby said and flashed a cheesy grin at her companions. “I’ve leveled up solo pretty quickly, but aside from the things I was grinding on I haven’t seen much of this place yet. Slowing down a bit is, I’m thinking, a great idea before I run into something I regret tangling with.”

“It sounds like if we go too close to the house, there’s some kind of chain monster that would fall into that category,” Pete said.

“Probably good to save that for later,” Obby said. “Though if Pillowcase and her team were able to handle it, I’d love to see how we can do once you two level up a bit.”

“I think I might have had enough dying and close calls today,” Midnight said.

“That’s fine too,” Obby said. “We’ll see how we can do with the the [Chaos Centipedes] first. I’ll be careful not to pull anything worse until we’re sure it won’t be a problem.”

“We may want to keep our excursion relatively short too,” Starchild said. “Alice extended the offer to join them once we feel comfortable going back to the dungeon.”

“There’s downsides to that though,” Midnight said. “Like we saw with the other party, as soon as we hit five members, the mob spawns scaled up a lot.”

“All the more glory for us!” Obby said and then shrugged. “If we feel up for it. There was also talk about meeting back at town for a broader planning session right?”

“Yeah,” Pete said. “We still have no idea what was up with those…things. I mean maybe those PKers were players like us but if so something went really really wrong when they got pulled over here.”

“Well, we’ve at least warned Pillow’s team,” Midnight said. “So we should be able to spread the word to the other players we run into in the field twice as fast.”

“I just wish the folks back in town we talked to sounded like they were taking this as seriously as Pillow’s team was,” Pete said. “They seemed to be stuck on the idea that they were safe because they were in town, but if those things could attack us without a PvP flag set, I don’t see why the town’s aura would slow them down either.”

“Our best bet is to grow stronger,” Starchild said. “If we’d been 15th level like Oblivion’s Daughter, they wouldn’t have presented any more danger to us than they did to her.”

“You can call me Obby, Starchild. I picked ‘Oblivions Daughter’ for sentimental reasons, but I know it’s a mouthful. Oh, and those things were dangerous to me too. I think they were closer to being event monsters rather than the usual variety.”

“The more I think about them, the creepier they get,” Midnight said. “Let’s go kick some butt. I don’t know I’m going to feel safe until we’re at the level cap.”

“Or back home,” Pete suggested.

“I’d rather be at the level cap,” Midnight said. “Or do you want to gamble on those things not being able to follow us back home too?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 15

Sometimes running towards trouble just happens. Sometimes the sound of another, terrified and in pain, is all it takes to force feet into motion. Sometimes though there’s no hope at all of making it in time.

“Pillowcase! Wait! Where are you going!” Alice called out, racing after Tessa as Tessa sprinted to reach the dungeon’s exit.

“Midnight! Starchild!” Tessa yelled. She didn’t have to. Party chat didn’t need volume to be audible anywhere in the world. “They’re being killed.”

“Where are they?” Rip asked. She was behind Alice and Tessa, running with a bewildered Matt at her side.

A moment earlier they’d finished off a group of [Star Spored Drinkers], wandering monsters who were apparently the result of the [Violet Shambler Mound] mini-boss they’d defeated in the room Tessa was sprinting out of on her quest to reach Lady Midnight’s party.

“I don’t know,” Tessa said. “Heading toward the farmhouse with the [Chaos Centipedes] I think.”

“What’s attacking them?” Alice asked.

“Player killers,” Tessa said. “Ones who can hurt them even without the PvP flag being set.”

“What?” Alice said. “That’s impossible.”

“She said their weapons are hurting them too.”

“Hurting them?” Rip asked, confused as to when weapons wouldn’t hurt.

“Yeah. Worse the the [Soul Blights],” Tessa said, her voice growing frantic. “This is someone who was killed multiple times by those scorpion things and she’s screaming about what the PKer’s are doing to her! We’ve got to help!”

Alice caught Pillowcase’s arm and pulled to slow her down.

“We can’t,” she said and added softly, “we’re too far away.” She held on as they came to a slow stop. “We’re just too far away.” 

Pillowcase’s eyes were distant, as though she could see through the hundreds of yards of stone in the dungeon’s walls and across the fields to where Lady Midnight and Starchild were fighting for their lives.

“The best we could do is run right into the PKers after they’ve already killed Midnight and Starchild,” Alice said. “We’re better off heading back to [Sky’s Edge] and meeting Midnight and Star at the [Heart Fire] there. We can find out what we’re up against and go after them all together.”

Pillowcase hadn’t moved and wasn’t turning to face Alice.

“We can probably meet them in Sky’s Edge if we leave now,” Alice offered.

“Hold on a second,” Tessa said. “They’re not alone anymore.”

***

The golden haired knight waited only long enough for player killer squad’s leader to turn to face her.

He tried to raise his sword in time. He tried to dodge as well. Neither worked.

“Oops. They’re not quite as tough as I thought they were,” the knight said as the leader, who as a [Hill Giant], stood a good three feet taller than her, lost an arm in a shower of static sparkles.

Starchild didn’t waste the opportunity. Seven player killer’s remained, three were still near her and four were crowding around Lady Midnight.

“[Casting Spell: Oaken Armor].” It was one of the two [Druid] spells she have available and Starchild knew it wasn’t going to block much damage but under the circumstances every extra second mattered.

Lady Midnight leapt backwards, in a move Pete had seen [Archers] use frequently. As a [Grave Mender] Lady Midnight didn’t get very far, but the distance gave her the room to bring her staff to bear as a spear against the three player killer’s she’d managed to put in her front arc. 

That still left one with a clear shot on her back, a fact Starchild knew fell to her to remedy.

Except it didn’t.

All seven player killers turned, interrupting their attacks with a movement that looked like glass shattering, to face Oblivion’s Daughter, the golden haired knight who [Provoked] them all.

Their howl was the sound of teeth being extracted with a bandsaw.

The knight’s laughter in answer was the warmth of a a carefree summer day.

She struck the leader again and plunged her sword through his torso, releasing a hiss of garbled feedback.

“What the hell are these things?” Claire demanded as she rammed the narrow end of her staff through the throat of the one that had stabbed her in the arm.

“Enemies!” Oblivion’s Daughter said with a cheerful smile as she kicked one into two others.

Starchild wasn’t feeling in top form after being punctured through the chest, but she had enough strength left to swing her staff through the head of one of the player killers closest to her. The green flames of her [Gaia’s Rage] spell reduced not only the head to ash but roared brighter than Starchild had ever seen, devouring the creature’s entire body in a rush of heat that forced everyone back a step from the spot where the creature was immolated.

Normally that level of damage dealing would have attracted far more attention than Starchild was equipped to deal with, but Oblivion’s [Provoke] was still in effect. That was exactly what Starchild needed, but it wasn’t with out cost for Oblivion.

“Oof, not so tough but still nasty,” the knight said as the enemies around her began landing blows past her shield. Starchild saw the knight’s health dropping precariously fast, though still much slower than her own had plummeted when the leader had skewered her.

“Hang on! We’ll help!” Lady Midnight said. “[Casting spell: Minor Blood Channel].”

Starchild debated whether casting another [Oaken Armor], this time targeted at Oblivion’s Daughter who was outside the party and hadn’t benefited from the first one, would be worth it.

With the speed born from her years of training in her grove, she opted instead to renew the [Gaia’s Rage] enchantment on her staff. Protecting their rescuer from a blow or two wasn’t anywhere near as good as thinning the herd that surrounded her and preemptively negating all of the attacks the player killers could make.

Shouldn’t the [Gaia’s Rage] still be running? Pete asked. It’s duration is supposed to be five minutes.

It is, Starchild said. It’s also not usually capable of reducing a foe entirely to ash.

These things are not right at all, are they?

No. They’re not.

Starchild swung again, targeting the one nearest Lady Midnight in case the [Provoke] wore off early. True to Oblivion’s claim, the player killer’s weren’t exceptionally tough and Starchild’s target exploded the same as her first had, with the same terrible wail.

Oblivion’s Daughter was fighting five of the player killers, though the leader was badly enough wounded that it seemed unfair to count him as a viable combatant. Except for the part where he didn’t seem capable of abandoning the fight.

“How…How….You think,” the leader cackled. “How cute…they think…we’re…afraid.”

“You really shouldn’t be like that should you?” Oblivion asked, pushing away a player killer that leapt over the heads of his fellows and tried to bear her to the ground.

“What the hell is wrong with them?” Lady Midnight asked, keeping her concentration focused on the healing she was channeling to the knight.

“Don’t know,” Oblivion said. “But it’s sure not pretty.”

She sliced one of the other player killers across the face and he vomited a noise like an ancient modem connecting at her.

***

Tessa swayed on her feet. Relief crashing into disbelief and disorientation. 

The relief came from hearing Lady Midnight’s words, words Tessa couldn’t believe.

We’re fighting back, Midnight said, and winning I think! They got the PKers off me so I’ve got a healing spell on the player who showed up to help.

Disbelief followed that. Another player had shown up? From nowhere? Right in the nick of time? That sounded more like a game event than an actual occurrence.

Which, in turn,  is what led to the disorientation.

Neither as Pillowcase nor as Tessa could she process the sudden whiplash of emotion from the terror of hearing someone dying in agony as they spoke to her to the unbelievable surge of joy at salvation appearing from out of the blue. Both sides of her were waiting for the other shoe to drop. For this new rescuer to turn out to be worse than the player killers. Or for something terrible to come crawling out of the rock walls around her own team, in a sort of “conservation of misery”.

But nothing came.

“What happened?” Alice asked, the question a gentle caress rather than an insistent nudge. “Are they…?”

“No, I think they’re ok,” Tessa said. “Someone showed up to help them. It sounds like the  newcomer turned the fight around.”

“I don’t get it,” Matt said.”Why would anyone be player killing now? Don’t they know what that could do to someone?”

“That’s people for you,” Rip said.

“Yeah, they can be jerks,” Tessa said, forcing a laugh into her voice. “I don’t know what special trick or ability these guys found though. Even if they’re irredeemable scumbags, how could they attack someone without getting them to flag for PvP?”

“Maybe there’s a glitch?” Alice said. “Or maybe something Midnight or Starchild did counted as flagging?”

“Even with that though, what kind of weapons do they have that can cause real, unmitigated pain?” Tessa asked.

“Could be anything right?” Rip asked. “I mean when the [Soul Blight] killed us, it didn’t exactly tickle.”

“Maybe, but Midnight sounded worse than that,” Tessa said. “Maybe it’s because I’m a tank, or a [Clothwork], or both, but even fatal blows don’t feel as bad as they probably should. It’s like they’re muted or something? Sort of the echo of pain rather than the pain itself? Or is that just me?”

“No, it’s not just you,” Alice said. “That’s basically how I would describe it too. What about you though Rip? You’re the closest to a baseline human that we have here.”

“I mean, losing heath sucks, but I guess you’re right. I think getting my arms sliced off would probably feel a lot worse than it did when the [Soul Blights] chopped me up if that happened in the real world.”

“What Midnight described sounded even worse than that. Like it hurt more than she thought was possible,” Tessa said.

“That might be more of the lore coming into play,” Alice said. “[Assassins] are supposed to have all sorts of blades which inflict suffering. Could be a poison, or just the property of the blade, or a side effect of a skill?”

“Those would make sense. She just sounded so terrified,” Tessa released a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.

Alice nodded.

“We usually get to pick our battles,” she said. “PvP is unsettling because it’s someone else getting to pick the battle with us, which usually means they think we’re going to lose.”

Tessa shook out her hands and forced a few more steady breaths out to try to center herself.

“So, what do we do now?” Rip asked.

“Yeah, we could still go to them right?” Matt asked. “In case there are other player killers around?”

Tessa wasn’t sure if he meant it as ‘so that we can protect them’ or ‘so that we’ll be safer with them’. In practice, she supposed, he could easily have meant both.

“We’ve made good progress on this dungeon so far,” Alice said. “Enough that we could call it a day and head back to town. Taking dungeons in stages is pretty typical, especially once you reach the raid tier ones.”

“Yeah, we got some nice loot out of it too,” Rip said, showing off the [Leather Bracers of Precision] she’d picked up from the treasure pool of their last set of trash mobs.

“I got a new spell too,” Matt said. “I, uh, guess I could practice it in town to see how well it works.”

We’re ok! Lady Midnight said. Sorry for the scare. But we beat them! Or, well, our new friend did, but we helped!

Oh thank god! Tessa said. Can you [Coalition] us together? I think we all want to know as much as possible about what happened there.

Sure, Lady Midnight said. Let me just see if Oblivion’s Daughter wants to join us, then she can be in the conversation too.

Ok. I’ll let my party know too, Tessa said.

“They’re ok,” Alice wasn’t asking a question but did look happy at the her statement.

“Yeah, I asked them to [Coalition] with us so we could all chat on one line,” Tessa sound.

“Sounds good to me,” Rip said. “We need to know what to look for.”

“So will we head back to link up with them?” Alice asked.

Tessa paused, and considered that for a moment as she brought her thoughts back together. 

“It’s up to you all, but I’m going to suggest we don’t now,” she said after a moment. “You’re right about how good we’re doing with this dungeon, and if you all are game for it, I’d like to see if we can make it through to the end. There’s more loot that can help us out and more levels to earn. We’re all 8th level now right? Let’s see if we can make it to 10th by the time we leave.”

“10th? That’s ambitious,” Alice said.

“It is, but wouldn’t it be nice to be the ones who swoop in and save the next set of people rather than being stuck as the ones who need rescuing?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 14

Neither in her new form as Lady Midnight or in her old one, did Claire O’Connor need fighting experience to know that she was dead. The eight ‘adventurers’ who’d surrounded her and Starchild were too obviously bad news for there to be any doubt what their intent was.

“We’re not flagged for PvP,” Starchild said, taking a relaxed pose. 

Her voice sounded feminine as she spoke in the [General Chat] channel where regular, non-telepathic speech occurred. Despite how Starchild sounded though, Claire guessed it was Pete who was speaking. Starchild seemed to use direct game related references less and naturalistic, in-world explanations for game mechanics more, whereas Pete spoke like most gamers Claire knew, herself included.

“And do you think we care about that anymore?” the [Half-Giant] leader of the player killing squad asked.

“Didn’t give it much thought,” Starchild said. “Have you tried it already, or are we your first test subjects?”

Pete sounded calm and collected on the outside but Claire could see Starchild arranging her fingers in the starting position of one of her spells.

“We’ve been farming noobs for hours now,” the leader said.

“Are you still playing through the game client or are you here for real?” Claire asked, confused for a moment on exactly what form of idiocy they were dealing with.

“A game client? Oh, isn’t that cute,” the leader said. “She thinks the only thing she needs to be afraid of out here is some bugs.”

Claire felt a chill run through her. There was something wrong with the [Half Giant].

“What else is out here beside bugs?” Starchild asked, her tone low and careful as though she’d caught onto the same bad vibe that ran through Claire.

“All kinds of bad things,” the leader said. “Things you’d never want to meet.”

“Things like you?” Starchild asked.

She was one word away from unleashing her magic but Claire didn’t think it was going to help. The only time eight on two odds worked out in the favor of the two was when the eight were very bad, the two were very good, or there was a noticeable gap in levels between the opposing groups.

They could fight, and would if no better option appeared, but even if all eight players avoided her to focus on Starchild there was no chance that her healing spells could keep up with the brutality a full party could unleash on a single defender. The option where some of them targeted her was even worse though.

Lady Midnight was still a low level [Grave Mender]. She didn’t have anywhere near her full compliment of skills and spells yet. On thing in particular she was missing was any method of healing while she was under attack. Her [Minor Blood Channel]  spell was her most powerful healing tool but any damage she took, or movement she made was enough to disrupt it. That was fine when they were fighting mindless foes, or ones the party’s tank could compel to focus on themselves. Against intelligent foes though (assuming other players could justly be described as intelligent) anything interruptible was almost useless.

“You don’t think we’re bad things?” the leader asked. “Oh, isn’t that cute. She thinks the only thing she needs to be afraid of out here is some bugs.”

Claire took a half step backward before she could stop herself. Acting like prey wasn’t the right move, but she was rapidly coming to the belief that the ‘adventurer’ in front of her wasn’t human on the inside and possibly never had been.

“I’m sure you’re plenty bad,” Pete said, the cadence of his voice Claire’s tip off that he was speaking rather than Starchild. “I’m just wondering if you’re the worst there is?”

It was phrased as a challenge, or a taunt. Claire couldn’t tell what Pete’s play was exactly but, since he seemed to have one, she took a moment to look around at the other Player Killers who were arrayed around them.

None of them were moving. Not ‘they weren’t advancing’, they weren’t moving at all.

Each one had stopped and frozen in place, caught in the middle of a motion which seemed oddly unnatural the more Claire tried to make it out. 

They weren’t posing. There was no theatricality to the position of their arms and legs. They were simply motionless with their body dynamics all wrong.

Claire thought of puppets, if there were ones whose control had been given to a machine. 

In the eyes of the one directly to her left, she saw a wild, twisting thing. Something inside the frozen figure was turning and screaming, though the eyes were unfocused and unmoving.

“We’re bad,” the leader said. “We’re Bad. we’re Bad.”

“But are you the worst? Aren’t there things out here that are badder than you?” Pete said, an edge of madness creeping into Starchild’s voice as he egged the leader on.

As a strategy, it seemed like a pretty dreadful one to Claire, but it was keeping the leader talking and the rest of the kill squad frozen, and that was better than several of the alternatives.

What’s the chance that they’re faster than we are? She sent the question telepathically, but saw the player killer nearest to her twitch when she did.

I can’t see their level, Pete replied. They shouldn’t have any movement skills at this point, but I’ll bet one or more of them can slow us. 

PvP experience is trash isn’t it though? Claire asked. Could they have leveled up as much as we have just beating other players?

Neither she nor Starchild had leveled much of course, but even as a Level 5 [Grave Mender] and a Level 6 [Druid], they were noticeably stronger than they’d been at Level 1.

I don’t think there are that many new players around here for them to have fought yet, Pete said. But when I said I can’t see their levels, I mean they don’t seem to have any.

Claire blinked. Those words didn’t compute. Everything in [Broken Horizons] had a level. Even the little incidental fauna like rabbits and mice were technically “Level 0”. Or almost everything. Some “special” monsters, like the [Wraithwings] didn’t. But those were monsters. One’s programmed for events. Not things that could talk.

Staring directly at the [Half Giant] seemed like a great method of provoking him into something unfortunate, but Claire couldn’t help herself. The spot next to his name which was supposed to display his level was simply empty.

What the hell are these things? She couldn’t help but take another step backwards.

The player kill squad responded by taking two unnaturally quick and jerky steps forward.

I don’t know and I’m not sure I want to, Pete said.

“Isn’t that cute,” the leader said. “They probably think. Think.”

He’d appeared with his sword in hand and, as he twitched , the blade caught fire, burning with a deep violet light.

That’s not a low level ability, Pete said. Or at least not one I’ve ever seen in the game before.

Denial, being one of the few options available to her, seemed like a great idea to Claire.

Maybe it’s new? Maybe this is one of the PvP specs  for a class from [World Shift] and these guys are just putting on an act to scare us?

It’s working if so, Pete said.

I’m adding the leader to my blacklist. That should take move us to a different layer than him and the rest of his crew, Claire said.

It was a strategy she’d used a many times in the game when someone was being obnoxious. Generally that wasn’t due to PvP concerns, since fighting players outside of PvP zones and arenas was only possible if both sides were open to PvP.

Sadly, it didn’t work this time.

> Add to blacklist command failed. Invalid target.

The words appeared in the virtual chat log before her.

It didn’t work, she said, her sense of the world being out of kilter growing stronger with each passing second. He’s not a valid target.

Oh wow. That means he’s not a player then.

But he has a player’s class, and he looks like one of the player models. Sort of.

All of the members of the player killing squad looked like they derived from the same basic templates as the rest of the player characters, but there were differences to them. Nothing simple to quantify like their bones being too long, or their skin being too pale. Those traits were mundane and whatever was wrong with the kill squad went much deeper than physical changes.

“Do you want to…kill me?” the leader asked, his head twisting much too far to the side as his voice rose a whisper to a hopeful squeak.

“We’re not here for you,” Starchild said.

“How cute.” The leader raised his blade and began stalking forward. The other members of the kill squad stayed where they were though, paused mid-motion.

Don’t fight them, Claire said. So far we haven’t flagged for PvP. Maybe they can attack us anyways, but if so we need to be able to report that.

Reporting this is a great idea. Can you see if Pillowcase or Alice is available? We should tell them about this, in case… Pete trailed off as the leader of the player killers closed into melee range.

In case there are real consequences to this fight, Claire thought. She’d been willing to risk “death” in the dungeon they’d delved into mostly because she’d already “died” here and gotten better without a problem.

The player killer squad though didn’t seem like the monsters she’d fought so far, and she’d never been a fan of PvP under the best of circumstances.

Pillowcase? Hi, this is Lady Midnight, Claire sent the telepathic message out hoping she wasn’t contacting the [Clothwork] tank at a bad moment.

Lady Midnight? What’s up? You sound scared? Pillowcase asked.

Starchild and I ran into some player killers, but they’re not normal. There’s something wrong with them, Claire kicked herself for not having the right words to convey what was going on succinctly.

“You think, probably” the leader said. “You think, you’re safe if you don’t fight back?”

He coughed out a deep giggle and held his burning sword beside Starchild’s face.

Claire wasn’t sure if Starchild flinched back out of reflex or pain from the flames. Her health hadn’t taken a hit but she hadn’t let the flames get terribly close either.

We just finished off a pretty weird pack of trash mobs, Pillowcase said. Let’s [Coalition] so we can all chat freely?

In a minute, Claire said, I think they’re about to attack now.

Don’t flag for PvP! They can’t attack you if you’re not set for it! Pillowcase said.

We’re not flagged, Claire said. That doesn’t seem to be stopping them.

What? Pillowcase’s surprise and outrage was a mirror of Claire’s own feelings.

I tried Blacklisting them too, but I don’t think they’re players anymore.

WHAT!?

They’re, I don’t know how to describe it. Glitching? They move like something out of a horror movie. And their leader is repeating himself. Little phrases of dialog. Like an NPC.

Pillowcase cursed.

“Time’s almost up,” the leader said. “Fight or flight? Which will it be?

“Neither,” Starchild said. “We’re not here for you. Go find someone who wants to play with you.”

The leader stabbed her.

One moment he was creeping around Starchild, the next Claire saw his blade burst from her back in a shower of blood. Less than an instant later it disappeared as he pulled it back for another strike.

“Wrong, wrong, Wrong choice!” The leader’s grin was feral as the other player killers came to life, skittering inwards like a tide of frenzied beetles.

It was over. They were done for. All Claire had left to decide was how she was going to meet this death, and the choice was easy.

Like a healer.

“[Casting spell: Minor Blood Channel]” she said and sent a telepathic cry out after the spell finished casting. They can attack us! PvP flags do not apply!

She thought it would be her last message before she was kicked over into ghost form (or worse, though she was resolutely not considering that possibility). The healing she was able to dump into Starchild prevented the torso wound from being fatal by cutting off the [Bleed] damage and repairing a chunk of the health Starchild had lost before the wound closed. It wasn’t going to be enough to see them through a two on eight fight, but it bought Starchild a chance to cast the spell she’d been holding.

The burning violet sword met a flaming green staff as the player killer leader tried for a second strike. As a [Half Giant] he should have been stronger than Starchild but the [Druid] fought with a power beyond what her simple frame suggested she should have. 

It was enough that the two were stalemated for a brief instant.

Then the other player killers joined the fray.

One slammed a short sword into Lady Midnight’s arm and Claire screamed, losing her spell. The pain was unreal. Or perhaps all too real. It hurt far worse than even the brutal killing blows from the [Soul Blights].

This is bad, Pete said.

Something’s wrong. Their weapons hurt too much! Claire sent to Pillowcase. She didn’t know what was going to happen but she had to make sure someone else knew so that they could stop it from happening again.

Hang on! Run away! Stall for time! We’ll come to you! Pillowcase said.

Claire wished for that more than anything in the world, but Pillowcase and her team were too far away. Only a miracle could save them.

“Hey!” a woman’s voice boomed across the battlefield, commanding the attention of the player killer squad.

Claire felt the edges of a skill wash over her. That single word had been a [Provoke] and the golden haired [Guardian] who uttered the command followed it by leaping from the highest rock in the area to land in a perfect (and impossible in the real world) three point landing. Rising, she drew her sword and pointed it at the player killer leader.

“They said to find someone who wants to play with you, well here I am.” 

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 13

Starchild was walking into mortal peril. She knew that people had died at the destination she sought, ripped apart by steel and fangs for no greater sin than because they’d been unwary. 

“This should be a cakewalk according to Pillowcase,” Pete said.

Starchild agreed.

“There were four of them though,” Lady Midnight said. “We’ll want to be careful that we don’t get overrun.”

“It sounds like if we stick to the outskirts of the farm, the [Chaos Centipedes] should be the only thing we face. The [Chain Lasher], if it’s respawned, shouldn’t be a problem if we stay away from the house,” Pete said. 

“Worst case we end up back at the [Heart Fire] right?” Midnight offered with a shrug.

Things could go considerably worse than that from what Starchild knew but she wasn’t about to worry her new friend with thoughts about what the [Hounds of Fate] might do to them if they were too slow to reach safety after dying. 

They would probably be fine anyways.

She hoped.

Pillowcase and her team had managed to recover from a Total Party Kill without incident, so it clearly wasn’t impossible.

It had been their first deaths of the day though (not counting the one that brought them to the [Fallen Kingdoms]). Starchild had never seen proof that multiple deaths made it more likely that you’d get caught by the hounds, but it stood to reason that if one death drew the hounds closer, then each subsequent one would amplify that effect. Probably until the hounds just waited around you in the [Dead Lands] knowing that you’d be back in a minute two based on your past performance.

“It sounds like the [Chaos Centipedes] should be fine for the two of us too,” Starchild said. “There were two other adventurers, Aiemethia and Zibby, who were leveling on them, and they were both lower than we are now when they did it.”

Starchild flexed her hand and felt the fraction of her strength that had returned. Once she’d been empowered by the grove to which she’d been bound through her [Druidic Initiation]. Together with so many others, throughout both the [High Beyond] and the [Fallen Kingdoms] which lay below them, she’d tended to the spirits and creatures who were part of ever-flowing [River of Life] from which all [Druidic] power flowed.

It had been so easy then. Spells and miracles came effortless to hand thanks to the connection the grove supplied.

Then the [Consortium of Pain] had come.

Starchild’s hand tightened on her staff as the memory of the black ash which remained of her home swept over her. She could feel it’s grit and smell the choking fumes.

And she knew it had been her fault.

That’s absolutely not true, Pete said.

I ran. I left my grove to die and I fled, Starchild said.

I saw what attacked your grove, Pete said, referring to the “cutscene” he’d mentioned earlier. You saved as much of your grove as you could have.

I only saved myself.

I stand by what I said. Nothing you could have done would have changed what happened there. Not then. The war machines they unleashed on you were orders of magnitude more than were necessary for victory. They were like something from my world, except also able to negate your magics.

That should make me feel better, Starchild said. But it still feels like I failed them.

I think the ones who fell would be overjoyed that some of their order survived. Wouldn’t you be if it had been someone else who made it out?

I’m not sure, Starchild said. My happiness for them might be a small thing compared to my anger at what the Consortium did.

That’s why we’re going to reach the level cap and do unto the Consortium as they did unto you. Pete said. Beating them won’t be enough. I’m thinking eradication via overwhelming force.

That’s not what my order preached, Starchild said.

I know, and I’m open to however you want to handle it, Pete said. If you want to look for a non-violent solution, I’m not going to push you to kill them all.

I said that’s not what they preached, I didn’t say I disagreed with you, Starchild said.

“Thats an interesting thing you do where you speak in two different voices,” Midnight said. “It all shows up in the same chat though.”

Starchild wondered for a moment if Lady Midnight was able to overhear her and Pete’s private conversation, but then she saw in the chat log that she had been the last one to speak to Midnight after Pete had been answering Midnight’s previous questions.

“This is how it sounds when I’m talking, me, the former-player,” Pete said. “The other voice you’ve heard is Starchild’s. She’s basically my other half I guess?”

“Wait, so are you two people or one?” Midnight asked.

“Two, at least as far as we can tell,” Pete said.

“I have my own set of memories which seem to be wholly distinct from his,” Starchild said.

Lady Midnight stopped walking and stared at them, tipping her head in one direction and then the other. 

“You’re serious?” she asked.

“It’s not the kind of thing I would joke about,” Pete said.

“Ok. Do you have a history of…hearing voices?” Midnight asked.

“Not at all,” Pete said with a shrug. “I haven’t looked into Multiple Personality, or Dissociative Identity, but I don’t think that’s what we’re experiencing.”

“We’re both here at every moment and both in control,” Starchild said.

“How does that work? What if one of you wants to go left and the other one wants to go right?”

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Pete said.

“I think it would be like when you see two things you want,” Starchild said. “We’d pause and share why we want go in each direction, then pick the one that sounds better.”

“Wow,” Midnight blinked and shook her head. “That’s hard to imagine. Not the deciding which way to go, but the whole thing. Being two people at once.”

“We’re not entirely separate. I think Pete described it as a fusion before. How are your two sides arranged though?” Starchild asked.

“I don’t think I have two sides?” Midnight said. “I’m just me.”

“Do you remember learning to cast the spells you know?” Pete asked.

“I mean, not for real? If I think about it, I can kind of daydream about what happened but isn’t that like just making it up?” Midnight asked.

“How about fighting?” Pete asked. “I’m basically letting Starchild take care of all of that because I’ve never fought before and fighting for real is freaking terrifying.”

“I’m able to stay towards the back and things don’t attack me. Well most of the time,” Midnight said. “But yeah, I don’t know if I could jump on the front lines. Huh. Maybe if I was playing my main character, I’d be in the same boat you’re in?”

“I don’t know,” Pete said. “I asked Alice and she said her party is all different too. I think she’s more like you.”

“It’s kind of strange thinking that I’ve got two party members, but by comparison to the rest of today, I guess that’s not even in the Top 100 for ‘Weird Stuff I Didn’t Expect to Run Into’.”

“I feel like I have an advantage over you both,” Starchild said. “Something like Pete and my circumstance isn’t exactly common here but it’s not as beyond the pale as it seems to be on your homeworld.”

“Yeah, the whole ‘magic is real’ thing is pretty big change,” Pete said. “Not to mention, ‘this fictional world is completely real’. I still don’t get how this place can be so close to the game. Was one of the developers a wizard from here or something?”

“Sounds as plausible as anything else,” Midnight said. “I just hope I’m able to keep up with you.”

“That’s not going to be a problem,” Starchild said. 

“Yeah, it’s the nice part about a duo,” Pete said. “We can make sure we go at each other’s speed.”

“That and we’ve seen how good of a healer Lady Midnight is,” Starchild said. “She was doing fine with five people to watch after on her own. If she’s able to focus on just me, we’ll be basically invincible so long as we’re fighting things that are reasonable for our level.”

“[Grave Mender] does seem to be a pretty good class,” Midnight said. “At least for pure healing. I was dreading trying to solo with it. I’ve got basically nothing for damage output.”

“This is such a good fit then. I feel like I capped my Luck stat when I came here,” Pete said. “Between being compatible with Starchild and then running into you, I don’t think I’d have dared to ask for all the good thing I’ve got now even if I wishing on a nice genie.”

“Well, we ran into that other group first,” Midnight said. “I’m not sure that I’m counting that in the ‘win’ column.”

“I’m willing to call that one a ‘learning experience’,” Pete said. “Plus we did get some xps from the [Gloom Drinkers] and we made contact with another, apparently more capable, adventuring party if we ever need to call on someone.”

“I wonder how they got that good so quickly?” Midnight asked.

“They’re probably all veterans,” Pete said. “I mean, I’ve played for a while but I was never much of a raider. If they got through those bosses, I’m guessing their mains are all in one of the guilds that raids like five days a week.”

“Maybe I can ask their healer for some pointers?” Midnight said. “I took a long break from the game and I only came back a few months ago, so I’m pretty rusty still. And my main is an [Archer] so there’s probably healer stuff I’m not even thinking about.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Pete said. “We’re almost at the farm house though so let’s see how we do first. That may give us a better idea what questions to ask.”

“Yeah, I’m sure they’d prefer not to have carry two noobs,” Midnight said. “And we do know something about the game, so we should be able to work out the basic stuff.”

“Maybe we should compare notes on what we can do, before we take on our first [Chaos Centipede],” Starchild suggested.

“That’s a good point,” Pete said. “The melee build I had Starchild develop is a weird one for a [Druid] but with the changes they made with [World Shift] it’s supposed to be kind of broken, in a good way. Everyone was expecting that it would be nerfed in the first patch, but, well, no more patches I’m guessing.”

“I’m wishing I’d read up more on the [Grave Mender] spells now,” Midnight said. “I usually piece my builds together from reading different guides, but I figured it didn’t matter early on because I would respec once they fixed the bugs and rebalanced the powers in a month or so.”

“Do you have any real life friends who are still on?” Pete asked.

“No. The guild I usually play with can only make Wednesdays and the weekend,” Midnight said. “Some of them talked about logging in tonight, but I didn’t see them on. That’s why I rerolled a [World Shift] character. I figured it was going to be solo time anyways.”

“Solo time and you rolled a healer?” Pete asked.

“Well, ‘solo’ as in my guild’s not here,” Midnight said. “Teaming is a lot better for xps and healers usually get teams fast.”

“And hopefully a team of two will work out ok in this case,” Pete said.

“I think it should,” Starchild said. “With my build I’m almost a hybrid between a DPS and a Tank. If Lady Midnight can keep me on my feet, we should be able to grind through centipede for as long as her magic holds out.”

“I’ll warn you when I start getting low,” Midnight said.

“Aww, isn’t that cute, they think the only thing they need to be afraid of out here is some bugs,” a [Half-Giant] in mismatched, bloody armor said as he stepped out from behind one boulders along the edge of the road to the farm house.

Starchild’s hand tightened on her staff as her limited selection of spells leapt to her lips. A quick glance around her left her questioning if they would be anywhere near enough. 

From the shadows, seven other players emerged, the names above their heads shining with the ugly red light of someone marked as a Player Killer.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 12

Starchild was supposed to be peaceful. She was supposed to be in harmony with the natural world around her. She was supposed to be supportive and caring for her fellow party members. 

“I’m pretty sure she’s going to start swinging any second now,” Peter said, speaking on a private channel to Lost Alice. “I’m guessing if they’re lucky, she’s stop while there’s still enough left of their corpses to respawn in place.”

“So you’re saying your character is a wholly separate person and that she’s talking to you?” Alice asked.

“More or less?” Peter said. It was beyond strange to be sharing a body with someone he’d made up, but given that he’d disintegrated into a glowing ball of light and then shot god knows how far across the cosmos, his capacity for being overwhelmed had run dry.

Plus he liked Starchild.

“So what are you then? A ghost who’s possessing her body?” Alice asked.

Peter envied her. Alice and Tessa and the two younger kids were still back in the dungeon that Starchild’s party had fled from. The four of them had apparently taken down the bosses who had crushed Starchild’s party repeatedly. 

We should have stayed with them, Starchild whispered in Pete’s mind.

You’re not wrong. We probably still could? Pete was ambivalent about abandoning their party and if Starchild pushed for it, he wasn’t going to torture her to refusing to leave.

Might not be safe, and we don’t know if they have room. They’ve already got three spell casters, and their setup lets them keep only their tank on the front line. Everyone else is safe at ranged.

Starchild was her own person,  Pete knew that, but he could hear echoes of himself in her words just the same. Every doubt framed as a rationale was one he would have rushed to convince himself of. Seeing them in Starchild didn’t make them any easier to cast aside though. If either of them had the courage to manage that, they were both more interested in saving it for some future calamity.

“I’m not really possessing her,” Pete said, speaking externally and yet silently since Alice was miles distant. “We’re more co-piloting? I’m not sure how to explain it exactly. It’s like whatever we are now is a fusion of what we were, without losing what we were. Isn’t that what it’s like for you?”

“No, I’m just hungry,” Alice said. “Some of my teammates though are experiencing something similar to what you described. You should compare notes with Pillowcase when we’re somewhere safer.”

“Not a bad idea,” Pete said. “I’m guessing everyone’s having a different experience, but there’s probably patterns that might gives us clues about what’s going on.”

“And warnings,” Alice said. “These other personas might be ok for you two, but I can’t believe everyone will get along well with their characters like that.”

That depends on how we’re related, Starchild said.

“I think I got lucky there,” Pete said. “Star and I are pretty copacetic.”

“And being in a woman’s body isn’t a problem?” Alice asked.

“It totally should be. I know that. I’ve seen the pain dysmorphia can cause,” Pete said. “My sister went through hell up until recently, when things started getting better. Then this hits and those problems went away for her. Now she’s got bigger fish to fry. Literally since she’s a max rank Fisher and apparently fishing up monsters in the city is giving people something safe-ish to do.”

Maybe it’s not bothering you because we’re in this together? Starchild asked.

Maybe? It’s only been a few hours though, so who knows what this will be like for us if we’re together long term? Pete said.

I can picture a year with you a lot more easily than I can picture another hour with these idiots, Starchild said, indicating the sullen party that was walking ahead of her.

We can leave, Pete offered. Even if we don’t connect up with Alice and Pillowcase’s group, we could go off and do something else.

What else is there for a soloist to do though? We’d never advance on our own.

Eh, we could. It would be slow, though not slower than this to be fair. Pete was still ambivalent about the idea, but he was growing more willing to be talked into leaving.

We should stay, Starchild said, her inner voice fatigued but resolute. They’re sort of terrible, but that’s mostly just their skill. They’ve been good so far as people. If they would just start listening and working together we’d be fine.

“It looks like we’re coming up on a trash mob, we’ll touch base as we go,” Alice said.

Pete knew he could keep sending to her but that she would almost certainly miss what he was saying in the rush of battle. Given that it was fairly rude to interrupt someone when they were fighting for their lives, Pete opted to not even send back an “Ok” acknowledgement.

“So where are we going to go?” Brick Spithouse was, perhaps, the most sullen member of Starchild’s party. And, Pete guessed, the youngest.

“Some place easy,” Lady Midnight, the party’s healer voted.

“We could go back to town?” Fire Falls, the party’s [Elementalist] suggested. “Our gear is pretty trashed and there might be people there we can talk to about better hunting spots.”

“And a better party.” Brick mumbled the words but they were clear as day in the party’s chat log.

Predictably, that spawned yet another heated argument.

“If you don’t want to be with us…”

“It’s not my fault, we just weren’t doing enough damage…”

“If people had just listened…”

“I don’t see why we couldn’t keep trying…”

“I don’t see why anyone thinks we’ll do better anywhere else…”

“Well, it’s not my problem that you all suck…”

“You’re the one who died the most! We all see who sucks here…”

“I see you both sucking…”

Maybe I’m wrong about staying because they need us, Starchild said as she and Pete stayed quietly in the back.

I could try to step in and cool things down before they go too far? Pete said.

It looks like we’re past that point already, Starchild said. I’d guess we were past that point the moment we gave up on the bosses.

***

The party that finally made it back to [Sky’s Edge] hadn’t lost any members but that was largely due to the very real fear of encountering monsters in before they reached the relative safety of the town.

“I’m going to check in at the Chapel,” Lady Midnight said, though no one seemed to have any illusions that they would remain together as a group.

Pete could see the simmering anger which lay behind the unhappy expressions most of the adventurer’s wore. Their beating had done more than bruised their egos. The loss had stripped away the paper thin belief that they’d landed in some kind of fun arcade romp.

They weren’t the Grand Heroes of the Realm, summoned to a magical world to wield fantastic powers and win all the loot. They were nobodies. Even with more strength than they’d ever had before and actual magic, they were still unimportant. Weak. Failures.

Should we let them go off believing that? Starchild asked. I mean, it’s not true. We just hit a bad break and didn’t manage to figure out the secret puzzle of how to kill one set of bosses.

I know, Pete said. For a good team, a setback like that shouldn’t be a big deal. I bet Alice and Pillowcase will be laughing over it tonight when they’re back here.

If they come back here, Starchild said.

I think they’ll be fine, Pete said. If they’re smart enough to figure out the [Soul Blights], then they’re probably smart enough not to mess with anything too fair beyond them too.

True, but if they beat the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave], why would they come back here?

Pete paused to ponder that. He’d played [Broken Horizons] for long enough that the idea of there being a leveling path where you went from a Level 1 village, to a Level 10 one and so on was so ingrained that he was sure something like that had to exist, even though he hadn’t kept up with the Beta Test information enough to know its name.

We should decide where we’re going to go too, Starchild said, gazing as the party she’d been part of split up one by one.

[Sky’s Edge] had grown more populated since they’d left. The townsfolk were out and generally hard at work repairing the damage from the previous night’s attack. They weren’t alone though. At each building there were anywhere from two to ten adventurers pitching in to help with the repairs.

We could do that, Pete said. It’d be a lot safer than going after monsters again.

Kind too, Starchild said. I’m sure the townsfolk will feel better just for having the extra help.

But they’d be even safer if there were people who could actually protect them when the next [Wraithwing Assault] occurs. They both knew it, but Pete felt the idea burning within him.

I feel it too, Starchild said. We’ve got too many reasons to keep going to give up now.

Do we? Pete asked. I mean, should we even try to be adventurers or are we just going to make things harder on people if we really die or have to get rescued?

He could hear the ever familiar doubts rising inside his words. Starchild stood her ground though.

Yes. We should try. Maybe you could be reunited with your sister if she can make it here, but it’s a lot more likely that we’ll be able to make it to her and that’s only going to happen if we level up.

Am I being unfair to you though? Dragging you into danger like that?

You’re not dragging me anywhere, Starchild said. I know, to you, I’m someone you made up. But I have a whole life and I don’t think you made up all of it. For as much as either one of us ‘really’ exists in this pace, I believe I’m real and I know that becoming an adventurer has always called to me. Yeah, there’s no guarantee that everything will turn out ok, but I have to try. To be myself, the me that I want to be, I can’t accept that this is my best. I can be more. And I think you can be too.

Pete choked back a breath at the fierce rush of emotion which accompanied Starchild’s words. 

Let’s do it, he said. Even if we have to solo our way up to the level cap. We can make it work. I know this game, and you’re a freaking badass.

Melee [Druid] for the win right? Starchild’s voice sounded playful and Pete was forced to reflect on the unusual build choice they’d started heading down.

Typically [Druids] were a healer class, though one focused on indirect support more than directly restoring the party’s health. They’d received a few odd buffs in the [World Shift] expansion which had led to Pete experimenting with rolling Starchild up. He wasn’t sure it had been a great idea, but it did mean they had a wider range of tools to draw on than a lot of other characters.

Yeah. We can do this. Pete said. All we need is some method of staying alive long enough to get our spells into play.

“Starchild, are you still there? It looks like it’s just the two of us left,” Lady Midnight said.

Pete glanced at the party roster and discovered it had dwindled down to just the two of them. 

“We can split up if you’d like,” Lady Midnight said. “I’m guessing you’ve got an offer to join that other party that was in the dungeon?”

“No, we’re not going to join up with them,” Starchild said, thinking faster than Pete could.

“Do you know what you’re going to do then?” Lady Midnight asked. “No one at the chapel wants to put together another party.”

“Maybe we don’t need another party,” Pete said. “We could try duo’ing things for a bit? It’d be a lot easier to coordinate things with just two of us. If you’re up for a working together still that is?”

“I…” Lady Midnight said, her relief almost palpable, “…would love to.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 11

Rocks, typically, do not explode. Nor do they scream. Nor are they soft, and cuddly, and weirdly cute. The wings and antennae were decidedly non-rock-like too.  

“Kill it with fire,” Alice ordered, tugging on Matt’s sleeve.

“What? No!” Rip objected, spinning around to place herself between the rest of the party and the creature which had hatched from the “inert” [Gloom Stone].

“My staff doesn’t do fire anymore,” Matt said, looking from his best friend to the voice of experience he’d come to rely on.

“Lightning will be just fine,” Alice said, her fingers twitching in a gesture Tessa recognized as the beginning of a healing spell.

“No!” Rip said. “Don’t hurt it. It’s just a baby.”

“I don’t think that’s what it is,” Tessa said as she angled to get a better look at the fuzzy thing that was huddling in Rip’s sheltering embrace.

“Right. It’s a monster baby,” Alice said. “Those are always bad news.”

“I don’t think that’s what it is either,” Tessa said, holding up her hands in a peaceful gesture. “Think about it. It didn’t hatch from the monster’s corpse. It’s a creature which was released by a specific set of actions by the players. And it’s not attacking. And it’s cute.”

Alice frowned as she followed the path Tessa’s words led her down.

“Oh no. No no no,” Alice said.

“It’ll be fine!” Tessa said. “We don’t have to worry about lag issues anymore.”

“What are you talking about?” Rip asked, still guarding her new [Lil Gloom Drinker].

“It’s a freaking pet!” Alice said, the urge to vomit resounding from every word.

“Ok, and that’s bad why?” Matt asked. He’d switched from terrified to confused. Neither was a great look on him, but Tessa could understand where each was coming from.

“Pet’s are a rare drop from certain encounters,” she said.

“So, no, you can’t have one too,” Alice interjected.

Tessa ignored her and continued on as though she hadn’t been interrupted.

“They tend to be unbearably popular, even the really ugly ones,” Tessa said.

“Especially the really ugly ones, and the cute ones, and the boring ones,” Alice said. “People ‘just gotta catch ‘em all’ or something. It’s like a disease.”

“So?” Matt asked.

“So, that usually means when a new pet is released, guilds will spend almost forever grinding out whatever content drops them,” Tessa said. “Even when I was playing there were people who were sick to death of being dragged into endless boss battles for pets that never seemed to drop.”

“But we don’t have to do that,” Matt said.

“That’s right,” Tessa said. “Unless someone collects pets?” She looked at Alice and wondered if Alice might be a former pet hoarder. Glimmerglass had far too many of the things, and Tessa had never been one of the really serious pet catcher types. 

“No!” Alice said, but from how her eyes kept darting to the Rip’s fuzzy celestial butterfly pet, Tessa felt the answer was more ‘Not anymore’.

“So we’re good then?” Matt asked.

“I think we are,” Tessa said, focusing her gaze on Alice.

“Yeah, we’re fine,” Alice said, a picture of reluctant acceptance as she let her hands go still.

“What was that about lag?” Rip asked, without relaxing her guard of her pet.

“It’s the biggest problem with pets,” Tessa said. “In the game, even really good computers could be taxed beyond their graphics capacity by big groups like what you find in a raid battle. Add in everyone having a pet tagging along and now the computer has twice as many ‘characters’ to animate, and since the pets don’t know anything about being in battle, they’d just continue doing whatever animations they normally did, including ones that take up even more processing time and ones that obscure parts of the battlefield.”

“Those goddamn [Ice Dancer Pixies],” Alice said. “We eventually instituted a policy to automatically kick from the guild for anyone who pulled one of those things out during a raid.”

“Why?” Matt asked.

“One of their animations was to conjure a small ice puddle which they would skate around on,” Tessa said. “Except ‘small’ in this context was about twenty feet wide. Also the ice puddle was raised up a bit so it wouldn’t clip through uneven terrain too much.”

“That sounds kinda neat,” Matt said.

“Yeah, very,” Alice said. “Everyone loved them. Except for the part where the ice puddles obscured all of the warning signs that would be displayed on the ground when a boss was about to do something.”

“Picture trying to fight in an arena where you’re meant to see telltale hints about where to stand to survive instant-kill attacks but instead all you can see is overlapping sheets of ice,” Tessa said.

“Now imagine trying to heal all those idiots,” Alice grumbled. “Guild kicks were too good for them.”

“It was less than fun,” Tessa said. “On the upside though, I don’t think they released any other pets with animations that big afterwards, right?”

“The [Gas Bubbles] had green farts that were technically smaller, but did pretty much the same thing,” Alice said. “Then there were the [Phoenix Guardians] which were independently targetable for god knows what reason and would block their masters about 110% of the time.”

“FOOF isn’t that big though,” Rip said. “She’s not going to block me.”

“FOOF?” Tessa asked, more to be sure Rip was certain of the name than out of any confusion as to who Rip was referring to.

“Please tell me that is the name you’re giving it and not the one it came with?” Alice said.

“What? I thought it fit,” Rip said.

“God I hope not,” Matt said.

It was Alice’s turn to glare at Tessa as though this was something Tessa had allowed to happen, or even somehow encouraged. Tessa replied with a shrug. Rip had found a pet. What were they going to do? Try to take it away? Tessa had seen what happened when people swiped a pet drop item that was supposed to go to someone else. It wasn’t pretty. Friendships had ended. Whole guilds had been torn apart. And that was for a bunch of ones and zeroes, not something that was actively cuddling with Rip and making the most adorable little cooing sounds.

“Fine,” Alice said. “Just know that you can put FOOF into your backpack. I know that seems weird, but pets are fine in there. In fact, it’s probably the safest place for them since area effect spells don’t spill into the bag’s interior.”

“What if the bag is stolen?” Rip asked.

“It’s attuned to you,” Alice said. “You wouldn’t be able to get into it but neither can anyone else.”

“And if you die and respawn at a [Heart Fire] all of your attuned gear respawns with you,” Tessa said.

“So there’s like no crime in this world is there?” Matt asked.

“Apart from all the players who are [Rogues] there’s plenty of [Bandits], [Thugs], and other criminal types,” Tessa said. “Not everything can be attuned after all. Or fit within a pack that’s attuned.”

“Still, it’s nice that some things can’t be just taken away from you,” Rip said, throwing a frown at Alice.

“That might be something we need to watch for,” Tessa said. “The game didn’t give players the ability to steal from one another because it would just make people unhappy and why bother spending developer time on a feature like that? Here though? Who knows if that’s something people will work out how to do?”

“I think I’m happier here in the dungeon than dealing with people like that,” Matt said.

“Speaking of which, if we’re all healed up here, we should probably move on,” Alice said.

“Think we should bring Starchild’s party up to speed on this?” Tessa asked, as she started walking toward the far end of the cavern room they were in. “They might be willing to come back and help with the rest of dungeon?”

“I don’t know, they did run away,” Rip said, following along with FOOF on her shoulder.

“We would have too though,” Matt said.

“Yeah, but we’ve got an awesome tank who showed us we could be better than that,” Rip said.

“That’s true,” Alice said, offering Tessa a nod and a small smile. “Also, if we assemble a larger group we’ll probably attract stronger foes.”

“I’m half tempted to experiment with that,” Tessa said. “It’d be interesting to know how much of the game’s finer details are present here too. Like If we were in the game, there’s a good chance an encounter with a pet drop in it would have been instanced right?”

“Usually. Open dungeons were too easy to just swarm through. The devs wanted the players to sweat a bit to get the new shinies,” Alice said.

“So my first question is; what, if anything, is instanced in this world? We know this room wasn’t but there’s got to be an end boss in here. Can we just zerg rush him?”

“I kind of hope we can’t,” Alice said.

“That’s when you just throw a ton of players at something right?” Rip asked.

“Yeah, a ton of expendable players,” Tessa said. “It was kind of silly fun sometimes in the game, but here I’m thinking it won’t be so pleasant to sprint into a meat grinder over and over.”

“Yeah, and boss monsters that need to deal with endless piles of players attacking them tend to be stupidly overpowered,” Alice said. “The last thing we need is for the best treasure in this place to be gated behind some hideous beast that it’s going to take a hundred players to get past.”

“I don’t know if we can even field a hundred players,” Tessa said. “We certainly haven’t run in to that many.”

“That’s weird isn’t it?” Rip asked. “I mean there were a lot of players on the servers when we logged in. Where did they all go?”

“Some of them got eaten by the [Wraithwings],” Alice said. 

“No, not eaten. Carried off,” Tessa said. “I wish we BT’s line was open. I’d love to know if they’ve managed to find those players. You know they must have gotten transported into the world the same as us.”

“Maybe they didn’t escape the hounds,” Matt offered.

“Yeah, that’s pretty possible,” Alice said. “If they were carried away to a higher level area, even if there were [Heart Fires] nearby they could use, they may not have been able to stay alive for very long.”

“That’s a bit horrifying,” Tessa said. “Although, maybe not. If there were [Heart Fires] they could get to after they died, their ghosts could probably have hung around the [Heart Fire]. The [Hounds of Fate] didn’t seem to be able to get into the chapel, so maybe they would have been safe there?”

“That’s possible too,” Alice said after considering it for a moment. “And ugly. They’d be trapped there, huffled around the [Heart Fire] in ghost form, maybe surrounded by endlessly baying hounds, until someone could make it out to them and clear away the [Wraithwings] and other mobs and escort them back to somewhere they can survive on their own.”

“Maybe that can be a quest we can take on once we’re powerful enough?” Rip said.

It struck Tessa as unfounded optimism at first, but the more she thought about it, the more reasonable it sounded.

She’d never been a hero. The real world had punished her enough just for trying to exist as a woman, much less as a lesbian. It had been all she could do to save herself as much as she had. The idea of rescuing someone else had always seemed like a nice fairytale – something that other stronger people, could manage.

She wasn’t strong yet. Measured against the top tier players, she probably never would be. But she was stronger. Stronger than she’d ever been as a human woman, and stronger than she’d been when she’d first arrived. 

It’s more than being higher level too. I brought us back here. And we beat those guys. The hard way and the smart way.

That wasn’t something the old Tessa could have done.

Why didn’t I run and hide when I got here? I could have stayed huddled around the [Heart Fire] too.

Because you’re more than you were, someone who spoke her own voice told Tessa.