Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 1

As a programmer, Tessa had spent weeks ‘working the bugs’ out of a system before. Never before though had she used a sword and shield to do it.

“Oh god, was that the final wave of them?” Rip asked, panting with exhaustion. 

While their adventuring bodies were tougher than their Earthly ones, they did still have limits. Tessa saw Rip’s stamina was all but completely tapped out and the rest of the team wasn’t looking in great shape either.

“It was at least the last wave for now,” Alice said. “I’d say we’ve got about five minutes until the next respawn happens.”

“We could wait for them and keep grinding, but I think it’d be better to pull back at this point,” Tessa said. “We could use the rest and the chance to review the levels we’ve gotten.”

“Can we sort through the gear too?” Matt asked. “I think I saw a new staff drop off one of those last centipedes.”

With no one opposed, the group pulled back to an outcropping of rocks which looked to be a safe distance from the farm house. Matt and Rip collapsed against one of the rocks as soon as they could. Tessa didn’t blame them. The fights with the [Chaos Centipedes] weren’t difficult, not since they’d leveled up a few times, but going through so many of them in a row was taxing, especially for the two who had to do most of the work in putting down the monsters.

“That was crazy,” Rip said as they got the gear which had dropped from the monsters divided up. “How were there so many centipedes hiding under the farm house? It’s like they’ve got an army down there.”

“They probably do,” Alice said. “But a smaller one than it looks.”

“So we killed all of them then?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, several times over,” Tessa said. “Somewhere in those tunnels there’s a [Heart Fire] for the centipedes. You saw how they derezzed a while after they died? That’s what it looks like when someone uses a [Heart Fire] to reincarnate.”

“Wait, how can monsters use a [Heart Fire]? Don’t you need to be able to think to do that?” Rip asked.

“Not exactly,” Alice said. “All you need are the right instincts.”

“So does that mean there’s no way to make the farm house safe again?” Matt asked.

“In the game there wasn’t,” Tessa said. “No matter how long you grinded out the mobs in any given spot, they’d always come back.”

“Which is good for us, in a sense,” Alice said. “We made a decent amount of progress on those things without having to travel very far. We can head back to [Sky’s Edge] now and repair our gear.”

“Yeah, that’s not a bad idea,” Tessa said. “The armor pieces we’ve picked up for me are around half strength now.”

“Let’s get them fixed then before you’re wandering around naked.” Alice said.

“I thought they changed that?” Tessa said. In truth characters whose armor had been completely trashed never appeared in the nude. Broken Horizon’s rating wouldn’t allow that. Running a dungeon in a character’s underwear was not unheard of though, especially if it was new and things were not going well. Tessa thought there’d been talk about allowing the players to at least retrain the appearance of wearing armor though.

“They tried, but there was a bug that took off the model’s skin instead, so they rolled back that change and just never bothered trying it again,” Alice said with a shrug.

Tessa sighed. She knew she shouldn’t throw stones at other developers. They were working under ridiculous deadlines and had to deal with code that was probably some form of black boxed quagmire of “clever ideas” strung together by people who’d never met each other and shared a visceral distrust of their predecessors’ programming styles. To just give up on fixing something so trivial as letting character’s retain their armor though? That was a terrible sign for the stability of the overall codebase.

Why who knows what kind of catastrophe code that broken could lead to? Maybe it would randomly start eating users. But that was just impossible. Code could never do that. Tessa suppressed a laugh at her own train of though. It wasn’t a happy laugh. There was still a bit of hysteria lurking inside her it seemed.

“Where are we going to go after that?” Rip asked as they set off back to [Sky’s Edge].

“Not home,” Matt said, not sounding at all bothered by that fact.

“Huh, homes,” Alice said, her gaze going distant for a moment.

“We’ve got a few options,” Tessa said. “We could hang around [Sky’s Edge] for a while and see what’s happening with the other players. It might be good to collect what info we can from them, especially if any of them have spoken with a GM in the last hour or two.”

As best as Tessa could tell, it was close to sunrise in her original, Earthly timezone. In the [High Beyond] the sky was still the radiant and roiling rainbow masterpiece of cosmic wonder it had been, so local time was difficult to guess at. 

Given the state of [Sky’s Edge] when they arrived, Tessa judged that whatever the hour was, it was late. No one was moving in the town square, and the damage from the [Wraithwing] attack had been hastily patched up, suggesting that people had done what little they could and were getting their rest for the long day of repair and rebuilding which awaited them.

Well, most people. A few buildings still had lights shining in front of them or through their partially repaired windows.

“Doesn’t seem like there’s a lot happening here does it?” Rip said.

“Yeah, but Mister Pendant’s place is still open,” Matt said, pointing to the light over the shops front door.

“Good, he should be able to fix up our armor and weapons,” Alice said. “And buy the extras we have off of us.”

The pile of loot they’d collected from the hoard of [Chaos Centipedes] had indeed included a new staff for Matt. In fact it had included several, most of which were inferior to the last one which had dropped into their shared treasure pool. Since no one else used offensive staves, the best option generally was to convert them into money instead of allowing them to clog up valuable inventory space.

“We might as well do that with all the extra gear,” Tessa said. “Unless anyone wants to work on their crafting skills?”

“I wanted to try [Leatherworking],” Rip said. “I heard it was good for [Archers] to be able to make their own armor.”

“It can be a huge expense,” Tessa said. “Or at least it used to be. I think I remember reading that a couple of expansions ago they did a major overhaul on the crafting system and people seemed pretty happy with it. But most people were already at the max skill level weren’t they?”

“Some people were,” Alice said. “Most hadn’t bothered to work on a crafting skill at all though, since the old system was ridiculous and awful.”

“How did it work?” Matt asked.

“It used to be that you had to gather components from higher level zones than the final items you wanted to make,” Tessa said. “So to make level 10 boots, you’d need ingredients from a level 20 zone. And then once you had them it was random exactly what they would make.”

“Or if they’d make anything at all,” Alice said.

“So, wait, you’d like go to sew a sweater and wind up with a sock or something?” Rip asked.

“Not quite that bad, but there’d be several different types of sweater, basically junk, normal, good, better, and so on. Oh and it was possible for the sweater to just explode in your hands as you crafted it, destroying some or all of the ingredients,” Tessa said.

“The best part was that some quests wanted particular things, so if you made a ‘Level 10 Sweater of Awesomeness’, the quest giver wouldn’t accept it because they wanted a ‘Level 10 Sweater of Mediocrity’. You can see why a lot of people didn’t bother with crafting much.”

“What’s the new system like?” Rip asked, not bothering to hide her dubious expression at the old one.

“The new one has you working with ingredients the same level as the item you want to make,” Alice said. “If you develop a Gathering skill, you can find the components you need in the wild, or you can work just with the crafting skill itself and rework existing pieces of gear in order to skill up.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Matt said. “Why don’t we get started on that now?”

“In the game, we’d need to check in with the Crafting Guild for the skill we want to pursue,” Alice said. “They give you a primer on it and basic training to get you started.”

“I don’t see any Crafting Guilds around here?” Rip said.

“There’s not,” Alice said. “I checked for that earlier. It’s pretty typical though. The intro cities aren’t meant to be where you hang out long term, and the Crafting guilds are one of the draws to pull players on to the major hubs for each region.”

“So we’ve got to wait on that then?” Matt asked.

“I don’t know,” Tessa said. “That was the game. We can do more than our characters could already. Maybe we can develop skills on our own too.”

“Does anyone here know any crafting skills in real life?” Alice asked. “Sewing, knitting, metal working?”

“I know a bit about carpentry,” Matt said. “Rip does too.”

“Oh yeah, from the play last year,” Rip said.

“[Woodworking] wouldn’t be bad for either or both of you to work on,” Alice said. “Matt could combine it with [Enchanting] to make better staves for himself or improve on the ones we find, and Rip can do the same for her bows.”

“Improve on them?” Tessa asked. It wasn’t something crafters had been able to do six years ago.

“That was added in too,” Alice said. “I’ve skipped doing it because my guild have a bunch of crafting freaks who take care of it for the rest of us, but since they’re on the other side of the world, it might be nice if we can find the guilds to unlock the skill enhancements. They let you do things like take a bow you’ve found and improve the damage it does, or its accuracy. The modifications aren’t much but it’s better than nothing, and at max level they can make a big difference.”

“I wonder if that’s what a lot of the low level players could do,” Tessa said. “Rather than going out and risking death, they can stay back in town and just work on their crafting skills to support the high level players.”

“That would work fine, if there were any high level players around,” Alice said. “Maybe back in the older zones that’s what the GMs are recommending to people, but until we get there, it looks like everyone is in the same boat that we are.”

“And we don’t really know that sitting at home and crafting is actually safe in the long run,” Rip said. Her brows were knit into a worried furrow, which Tessa misread for only a moment.

It took an aggressive puff of air from Rip for Tessa to see that she wasn’t concerned about being safe, she was concerned that the conversation was trending towards the topic of leaving her and Matt behind. 

It wasn’t an unreasonable concern. Part of Tessa still rebelled at the idea of bringing children into the kind of horrifically violent peril they’d already been through. Even against some of the lowest level mobs, Pillowcase had been incapable of keeping her party completely protected. But, reflecting on the short time they’d been together, Tessa knew thinking in terms of keeping the kids safe was coming at it from the wrong direction. 

Rip and Matt weren’t safe.

They would never be safe.

Not even if they were whisked back to Earth and the lives they’d left behind that very moment. 

Safety wasn’t a thing you had. It was something you created. Hiding away, refusing to engage with the world was one method of doing that, and maybe sometimes it was the best, or even the only option, but given where they were and what they’d accomplished already, Tessa knew her team could do better. They could be better.

There were risks out there, and mistakes they all were surely going to make, but it was better by far to stand together and face them than to leave anyone behind.

“Repairs and crafting sound good,” Tessa said. “But what do you say we go and take on that dungeon that’s waiting for us.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Interludes 4

Interlude – Brendan Reingold

The fate of the world hung in the balance, the gates to the Outer Chaos had been flung open, and Brandon Reingold rose to the challenge by reading a comic book.

It wasn’t a even terribly good comic. He’d picked it up because he liked the characters but the writer was a talentless hack whose idea of drama was to kill someone messily ever other page. Brandon would have pitched the series except he knew the current team was being switched out for a writer and artist who’d done much better work and who tended to redeem even the terrible storylines the people before them came up with.

Over on his desktop, his character, Mellisandra, looked like she could use a comic book of her own. She’d been standing idly in her personal house for the last two hours. Brandon hadn’t noticed her fidget routine, but it had been looping for roughly an hour and fifty five minutes of that time. That was typical for characters who didn’t receive any input from their players. Broken Horizons had them perform little actions like tapping their feet or yawning to prevent them from looking like creepy lifeless automatons.

Mellisandra’s animations weren’t quite the normal ones anymore though. Instead of stretching occasionally, she had sat down on the floor into a cross legged pose and was pouring over a collection of spell books she’d accumulated in her travels.

At level 88, she was technically a high level character but in practice the gap between her and the actual top end of the player character power curve was far wider than the gap between her and a level 1 character. 

If Brandon had been playing her, she might have made some progress on closing that gap, but the GM he’d spoken with had been pretty clear on the need to both avoid combat encounters and to remain online. 

In theory, Mellisandra should have been left alone. It was late enough that dawn would destroy any chance at real sleep that Brandon had left. If it wasn’t his day off, he would have shut off his monitor hours ago rather than waiting fruitlessly for a notification from the GM staff that it was safe to shut down – or at least safe to go back to playing.

Brandon had been looking forward to the release of the World Shift expansion for months. Pulling an all-nighter seemed like a small price to pay for the chance to check out some of the new content early.

He knew he wasn’t going to get a “World’s First” or anything like that. He was a solo player primarily, so the raids in the new expansion weren’t anything he had a real hope of experiencing. He didn’t need those though. There was plenty of other content that came with each expansion. Content that might be considered too easy to brag about, but the story would still be cool. At least assuming the EE developers lived up to their past efforts.

Over on his desktop, Mellisandra had completed her spell review and was practicing some of her more advanced incantations. Not fully casting them of course. Her inn room only had so much space and filling it with fire would do no one any good. It was still a decent light show though.

Which was what attracted Brandon’s interest.

He stared for a few long minutes, watching the pyrotechnics in amazement. At first he was simply impressed by the depth and diversity of the new fidget animations. The farther Mellisandra went into her practice though the more clear it became that what she was doing wasn’t pre-scripted.

She was using the spells he’d selected for her. She was speaking dialog to herself. She was turning to stare at the computer screen.

“Brandon?” she asked, her face losing the generic expression it was usually animated with and taking on a confused look instead.

The comic dropped from Brandon’s hands.

She was real?

Interlude – The Pit Master

Nezzgrim had a simple life. In the [High Beyond] there were resources, and while his masters in the [Sunless Deeps] couldn’t ascend to the [High Beyond] in this age, they were still quite capable of creating servants who could. 

Some of the resources Nezzgrim had been tasked with collected were things like the [Magicrystals] which had long since been mined out of the lair he was overseeing. Magic was always useful, so long as it wasn’t tinged with the divine. Similarly the precious metals and gemstones in the [High Beyond]’s floating lands were quite useful to his masters’ ambitions. Mortals were both amazingly resistant to corruption and unbelievably willing to sell their principals for appallingly small amounts of wealth.

Which is what made them the best commodity of all.

As a [Pit Master], Nezzgrim was responsible for all of the wealth the motley force he’d been gifted with was able to assemble, but it was the tribute of mortals where he most often took a personal hand in the matter. He’d learned long ago that raising an army of supporters among the mortals was all well and good, but the outlay of effort and expense tended to make it a less than desirable avenue for pleasing his masters. It was far better, and far easier, to simply lure the expendable ones into environments where they could be safely captured, subdued, and then sent to the [Sunless Deeps] either alive or in bite sized chunks, depending on his mood and  the docket of orders he’d been given that week.

“A new party has entered the [Outer Crypts],” Slugzim said. Slugzim aspired to a role of [Chief Butler] serving under Nezzgrim and had taken on many of the duties involved without requesting a cut of the tributes as a more foolish servitor might have.

“Fascinating, Nezzgrim said. “I didn’t think we’d have another group so soon. Have the [Noxious Shamblers] regenerated from their last encounter yet?”

“No my lord,” Slugzim said. “They lie in ruin just inside the entrance.”

“And what is their projected recovery time?” Nezzgrim asked.

“They should possess the mana to reactivate within the next ten minutes,” Slugzim said. “They will await your orders for when to do so though.”

“Perfect. Let me see this new party then.”

A shimmering pool of red spun into the air between them and small figures appeared as the layout of the [Outer Crypts] rose around them.

The party was a larger one, with eight members, all clustered together for safety. Nezzgrim was familiar with their mindset. He’d watched too many earlier adventurers try to plumb the depth of his lair but watching this group brought new ideas bubbling into Nezzgrim’s mind.

“Order the zombies in the next corridor to remain inert for now,” he said, a new strategy unfolding in his thoughts.

The adventurers were surprised by this given how carefully they picked a path through the bodies littering the corridor ahead of them. 

“They’re coming up on the trapped door to the [Inner Crypt],” Slugzim said. “Should I engage the lock?”

“No, they’ve probably taken a key off of one of our earlier minions. Let’s alert the [Starborn Trolls] in the next room instead.”

“Should I have them attack now?” Slugzim asked. “They’ll be at a disadvantage fighting in the corridor.”

“Have one of them wait behind where the door will open,” Nezzgrim said. “Order it to slam the door shut the moment two of them are in the room. That is when the others will attack as well.”

“And the zombies too?” Slugzim asked.

“No, the zombies should animate just before the party reaches the door. I’ll give the signal.”

“And what about the traps?” slugzim asked. “If they go off they’ll damage the zombies as well.”

“Not if, when,” Nezzgrim said. “Order the zombie nearest the door to jump onto the pressure plate the moment someone approaches within five feet of them.:”

It was the an unfair sort of plan. Using the resources of several rooms against a single group was unreasonable, but it was exactly the kind of unreasonable which Nezzgrim felt confident would allow his to achieve his goal of collecting eight more treats for his masters.

It didn’t take long for his ideas to pan out. In the small projection, he watched a zombie surged to life as the party drew close to the door. Rather than attempting to devour them though, the zombie hit the pressure plate as commanded and scything blades slashed out across the corridor.

The result on the party was everything Nezzgrim could have hoped. The two in the lead raced to the door and found it open. The two in the back escaped the twirling blades with only minor injuries. The four caught inside the arcing blades screamed and tried to run as the swinging weapons cut deep into the health reserves.

The leaders raced into the room beyond, perhaps intending to hold the door for their friends, but they weren’t ready for the sheer force of a [Starborn Troll] slamming the door to block them in. They went down in a tangle of thrashing limbs as the rest of the trolls leapt on them, stripping away their weapons and binding them with scavenged ropes.

The ones outside the door didn’t fair any better.The four who’d been caught in the blades collapsed from their wounds and were collected by the zombies. The two who’d escaped the trap tried to fight the zombies, but in the face of the traps it was impossible, so they turned to flee.

Just not soon enough.

Nezzgrim saw one of the adventurer’s begging for their lives from the [Noxious Shambers] who had risen to cut off their escape. It was an odd image. The ones who made it into a dungeon like the crypts tended to made of sterner stuff.

Ah well, Nezzgrim thought, the wailing will just make them sweeter for my lords.

Interlude – The Nightmare Queen

Though she was master over all of the denizens of horror which stalked the [Fallen Kingdoms], the Nightmare Queen rarely received visitors.

True, an audience with her was the reward for a long and arduous quest line, but few saw that one through to its end, more was the pity. It wasn’t that she was lonely, her work was too consuming to allow her time for reflections like that, but some variety would have been appreciated.

At least on most days.

As dawn approached on a day like no other though, the Nightmare Queen was concerned and in no mood for new visitors.

Which was of course when they arrived.

“Hey,” a young woman said. Neither she nor her companion had been present in the Nightmare Queen’s  private study a moment earlier.

Except that they had been. Searching her memories, the Nightmare Queen discovered that they’d been announced and shown in with great deference but a complete lack of fanfare.

“Reality alteration?” she asked, knowing the answer as she did, her history rewriting itself to account as needed for the present circumstances. Probing the memories, they felt smooth and well aged. 

No one in the [Fallen Kingdoms] was supposed to have the power to overwrite her reality like that.

And yet the Nightmare Queen wasn’t afraid.

The lack of fear could have stemmed from the will of the one who changed reality on her, but the Nightmare Queen didn’t detect the incongruities an act like that might have left, or any compulsion to remain unafraid. The new arrival seemed to simply have no animosity towards her.

“You’ve got a bit of situation here  it looks like?” the other young woman said. She had chosen to be tall to contrast with the other’s shorter stature. And light of hair and feature to the other’s dark hair and eyes.

“Who are you?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“You guard the space between the real and the imaginary,” the first young woman, the dark haired one, said. “You know who we are.”

Her eyes drew the Nightmare Queen in, like a galaxy draws in planets and stars.

“My True Empress,” the Nightmare Queen breathed, awe feeling foreign for one such as herself.

“Yes, but not for the moment,” the young woman said. “For the moment we’re just travelers.”

“What has brought you here?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“You,” the light one said. “And what’s happening with you world.”

“We are under attack,” the Nightmare Queen said.

“By more than you know,” the dark one said.

“You can end the assault though,” the Nightmare Queen said. It wasn’t a guess, or even a request. The Nightmare Queen was to all intents and purposes a god above the gods of the Fallen Kingdoms and even she knew there were beings you did not make requests of.

“I don’t think we need to,” the dark one said.

“There’s more happening here than you know,” the light one said. “Other worlds effected and other forces at work.”

“What will you do then?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“Travel,” the light one said.

“We’ll walk in your world, bound by its limits, changing no more than anyone else might change there,” the dark one said.

“Why?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“So that we can understand it,” the light one said.

“We don’t want to destroy your world,” the dark one said, “but that might be what needs to happen.”

The Nightmare Queen knew down to the last joule of her power that her guests were not making idle threats and if they chose to erase what was, there was nothing she nor anyone else could do to stop them.

“How can we be spared?” she asked.

“That’s what we’re hoping to find out,” the light one said. “Wish us luck.”

Broken Horizons – Vol2, Interludes 3

Interlude – Cambrell

Most people in the Fallen Kingdoms expected goblins have names like “Rot Teeth” or “Gunk Nose”. That was because most people were not goblins.

Cambrell hurried down the rain soaked streets of [Thaldinforge] wishing he was not a goblin either. At least not for the next thirty to sixty minutes. 

[Thaldinforge] was not a goblin city. There were only a few of those. It was not a city which was friendly to goblins either. There were several of those but no where close to a significant percentage. It was, in fact, a city where being a goblin was punishable by immediate execution.

Cambrell hated working in cities where murdering him on sight was both allowed and encouraged but sometimes that was where the work was and so that was where he had to go.

Technically, Cambrell was an [Assassin], a role which cast him inline with every superstition people had about goblins. Possessing the skills required to be an assassin however did not mean that one was necessarily a killer for hire. Cambrell, for example, more often served as a covert body guard. Unsurprisingly perhaps, that role tended to involve substantially more killing than a straight forward assassination job.

As he hurried down a back alley behind a cargo holding building, Cambrell took stock of his remaining weapons; two poisoned daggers, a blowgun with half a dozen poisoned needles, and a clerical holy symbol infused with one, and only one, charge of divine radiance.

The last had been a special gift, and one he knew he had to reserve for his target.

“Ha! Try to stay dry kid!” a man called out from a rear loading door as Cambrell ran by. The man sounded delighted that a “kid” was suffering in the weather. Cambrell was tempted to run back and stab him on general principal, but forced himself to remain focused instead. Humans were the worst. They made it a point to slaughter goblins as often as they slaughtered themselves, but when it came time to talk peace, they always believed that they had the moral high ground. 

That wasn’t why Cambrell had become an [Assassin] but it did make some jobs easier. 

Not this one unfortunately though.

This time he was helping the evil human monsters by protecting their evil human city from an even worse monster.

Down in the depths of [Thaldinforge] there had been a plague of [Night Hungers] which grew with every victim they took. [Night Hungers] being somewhere between zombies and proper vampires meant that creating new ones was terrible easy and could end a town the size of Thaldinforge rather quickly.

Unless, of course, someone stepped in and slew the entire plague of them for the ungrateful humans who lived above the [Night Hungers] lair. Someone who didn’t want to see [Thaldinforge] have a reason to mobilize its armed forces, since those armed forces would not succeed in discovering why townsfolk by the dozen had gone missing, but would pay a visit to the nearby goblin villages and begin killing “the greenies” because “you might as well be sure it wasn’t them”.

Cambrell’s only problem as he cut over to another alley and began hoisting himself up a drain pipe was that having begun the job, he couldn’t leave it half finished. Wiping out the [Night Hungers] was all well and good. They were mindless husks driven only to consume. Easy pickings for someone as experienced as he was.

Their creator on the other hand though? He was problematic on a number of points.

First, as a [Plague Vampire], he could replace his loses far too easily. If Cambrell didn’t stop him, the vampire would have his lair repopulated within the week.

That would have been easier to achieve if the vampire wasn’t also the senior member of the [Thaldinforge] Executive Council though. Assassinating a vampire wasn’t impossible, especially not when armed with an item with divine radiance. Assassinating an Executive Council member wasn’t impossible either. Humans were generally predictable in their habits, which was an [Assassin]’s best weapon. The real difficulty lay in taking out a hard and important target without implicating any of the nearby goblin cities and undoing all of the benefit his work on the [Night Hungers] was intended to produce.

Fortunately, Cambrell had a plan for that!

Tensions within [Thaldinforge] had been running high since well before the disappearances had begun to occur. The [Executive Councilor]/[Vampire], Exarian Dreslun, had to die before the morning came, and his remains had to be discovered so that people would understand that the threat to their city had come from within and not from their goblin neighbors. His death though did not have to be attributed to a daring and skilled goblin. Not when it could instead be place at the feet of one of Dreslun’s fellow Executive Council members, all of whom would be delighted with his removal from the world.

Cambrell had already done the hard part of that work, infiltrating the house of the council member his intel indicated had suggested had the best ratio of animosity for Deslun and personal resources to arrange the vampire’s destruction.

Leaving one borrowed dagger at the scene would cast suspicion away from the goblins, and leave the whole mess as resolved as it was going to get, since humans never called their own rich and powerful to task for their misdeeds.

At the top of the drain pipe, Cambrell stopped and surveyed his surroundings. The multi-story house where Dreslun was staying as part of his masquerade of being human was within magically-assisted leaping distance. 

That was good. It would make tracking how he arrived and where he went afterwards more difficult, which would in turn give him a better chance of escaping the city before he stumbled on someone who would try to stab him.

With the cloud cover and the pouring rain, visibility was terrible. That was good too, not only because it made hiding easier but because it kept the streets open and free from witnesses.

Except for the ones who were huddled together on the rooftop.

That was bad.

“What is a kid doing up here?” one of the forms covered in a shapeless cloak asked another.

“How the hell am I supposed to know?” the other said. [Human] male. Big. [Warrior]. Armed. Armored. Skilled. More Skilled than Cambrell.

Those were the details Cambrell noticed, with the last observation raising his eyebrows.

They were adventurers. 

They had to be. No one else developed as much skill as Cambrell had. Cambrell revised his earlier assessment. The situation wasn’t bad. It was horrible. Basically as bad as things could get. He was dead. Probably.

On the plus side, it wouldn’t take long. 

Well, the run to the nearest goblin accessible [Heart Fire] would take a while. 

“Ask him what he needs,” a third figure said.

There were five of them, which was four more than they needed to send Cambrell to the [Dead Lands] and five more than he wanted to deal with.

“Ask him where we are?” a fourth figure asked. [Elf]. Female. [Archer]. Top tier weapons. More dangerous than the [Warrior]. 

Cambrell translated those observations into a simple conclusion; he couldn’t fight them and he couldn’t run. 

He was definitely, one hundred percent, dead.

Except, he didn’t feel mathematically crushing despair grip him. By every statistic he could think of, a fight was inevitable, and he simply could not win. He couldn’t even take one of them out with him. 

But he didn’t have to.

Something had happened, something Cambrell couldn’t identify. The version of him from a day ago would have thrown himself into battle for no better reason than even inflicting a scratch was better than dying without putting up a struggle. Those limited options still crowded his thinking but, in the moment of mortal peril the presence of high level adventurers always heralded for goblins, Cambrell found new paths opening before him.

“I’m sorry Sirs,” he said, trying his best approximation of a high pitched human child’s voice. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I’ll just go now.”

Why fight or run when he could just leave? It was so simple but it left his mind swimming. They hadn’t identified him as a threat and there was no reason for them ever to do so. Cambrell would simply find a different route to the vampire’s house and avoid encountering adventurer’s entirely!

“Wait!” the Archer said. “I’m sorry, but could you tell us where we are?”

Cambrell waited for the snappy one-liner indicating they were only playing with him. It would inevitably be followed by the gratuitously overpowered attack, but neither came.

“You’re on the roof of the [Melgin Dairy Depot],” Cambrell said, beginning to pick up on the profound confusion the party before him was gripped by.

How could anyone, even someone as fundamentally dim and clueless as a human not know where they were? 

For that matter why were they standing on a rooftop in the pouring rain? Cambrell hadn’t tried to offer an explanation for his presence because there weren’t any he could think of which sounded even slightly plausible. 

No one should be up in here, in this weather. So why are they? He wondered.

“The [Melgin Dairy Depot]?” the Warrior said. “In [Thaldinforge]? In the [Fallen Kingdoms]?”

His questions grew more soaked with disbelief as he uttered them.

“Dude, how are you doing that with your voice?” a male human, the first speaker asked. Wizard. Top tier gear. Powerful wards active. Most fragile member of the party. Priority kill target. 

Cambrell dismissed all of those observations, clearing his mind to put on a better show of being non-hostile. True, they couldn’t see him well at all, but adventurers had all sorts of unexpected abilities and Cambrell had no interest in triggering any [Danger Senses] or [Psychic Alarms]. 

“Doing what with my voice?” the Warrior asked.

“That [Thaldinforge] thing,” the Wizard said. “Oh my god. I did it too. [Thaldinforge]. [Melgin Dairy Depot]. [Fallen Kingdoms]. Oh that is so weird!”

Cambrell was lost. It sounded like the adventurers were discovering basic speech, which given humans’ generally low intelligence would have made for a good joke but under the circumstances seemed less than plausible.

“We can’t really be here though? Can we?” the Archer asked.

One of the ones who hadn’t spoke began hyper-ventilating and uttering the sort of nonsense noises that suggested their mind had snapped. 

Cambrell really wanted to leave. He turned to leave again, but, of course, the adventurers noticed the movement.

“No wait! Please! Stay!” the Warrior said. “I know it’s raining a lot, but, um, we can pay you?”

The urge to leap over the side of the building was only held in place by the certain knowledge that the [Archer] could make her arrows follow practically anything.

“Ok,” Cambrell said. “For what though?”

“We, uh, we need a guide,” the Warrior said, the uncertainty in his voice painting a clear picture of his sincerity. 

Cambrell shook his head. Nothing about them made sense, and now they were offering him money to get involved in their madness? Adventurers were renowned for being wealthy – at least the very experienced ones – but there was literally no amount of gold in the world, including all of it, which could tempt Cambrell to remain on the roof and risk discovery for a minute longer.

“I’m supposed to get back to my family,” he said, casting around for the kind of excuse a human child might use when confronted by a handful of strangers in an equally strange situation.

“Oh, yeah,” the Warrior said, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

The Elf nodded in agreement but paused in mid-nod as her cursedly sharp eyes caught the glimpse of him which Cambrell had dearly wished to avoid.

“And where would that family be?” she asked and lest he try to prevaricate further added, “Goblin.”

It was Cambrell’s turn to drop his shoulders in defeat. The run back to the [Heart Fire] was going to suck.

“Does it matter?” he asked and turned to look the [Archer] in the eyes so she could at least see the weariness that filled him at the thought of what was to come.

“Holy…What…That’s a Goblin!” the Warrior said.

“They can talk!?” the Wizard said.

“I can dance, pay taxes, and cook a halfway decent steak too,” Cambrell said for no other reason than educating the ignorant gave him a fleeting sense of superiority.

“Oh My God! It’s a People!’ the Wizard said, in what Cambrell was reasonably certain was grammatically incorrect on a number of levels.

“He, unless I miss my guess?” the Archer said. “And why wouldn’t he be? Goblin’s are a playable race too.”

Cambrell blinked. Goblins were a what now?

“Ok, ok, ok,” the Warrior said, struggling to grapple his wits back under control. “He’s a person. [Thaldinforge] isn’t a Goblin town though.”

Cambrell saw the other shoe beginning to drop as the obvious questions arose in their mind. He expected said shoe to squash him like a bug, but it landed on an altogether unexpected thought instead.

“Yeah, it’s not a goblin town, which means if he’s here, he must know his way around it pretty well,” the Archer said. “So I’m thinking he’s perfect for a local guide. Uh, if you’re willing to help us, Mr…?”

The [Archer] was smiling. So was the [Warrior]. So were all the rest of them. They were happy to meet a goblin on a dark and stormy night.

That along should have been enough warning to send Cambrell running for the edges of town, [Perfect Seeking Arrows] be damned, but the thing about madness is that it’s highly contagious in the right circumstances, and Cambrell really hated long runs in the [Dead Lands]. 

So he smiled back.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Interludes 2

Interlude – Niminay

The world was falling apart, but in Niminay’s experience that was it natural state.

“We’re seeing incursions in the [Pelgrathi Highlands] that are hitting at the same time as the Consortium is sending strikes against  the [Aquanoids] and the [Rishell Silvermines],” General Aurelite said, as she pushed a series of force markers across the map in the tactical planning room.

Niminay half listened. She’d been the one to deliver two thirds of the intel which Aurelite was working from and as the highest level person in the room she knew she was going to draw the short straw on sorting out whichever problem area was deemed the worst by the collective wisdom of the [Strategists] and [Generals].

“I can see why they’d attack the silver mines, but what do the Aquanoids have that’s worth assaulting them for?” Prince Brandoth asked.

He wasn’t dim, but given the company assembled to wrestle with the problem of the [Consortium of Pain], he looked duller by comparison than usual.

“The Aquanoids don’t build cities, or collect wealth,” Strategist Penswell said, adjusting her glasses as she studied the newest intrusions in light of the previous ones. “A raid on them wouldn’t be predicated on obtaining resources.”

“And yet they attacked both the Highlands and the Silvermines, which are resource rich areas,” General Aurelite said. “Different factions within the same organization perhaps?”

“That would explain why they’re striking so far apart, right?” Brandoth asked. “I mean the highlands are a thousand miles or more from the silver mines.”

“The distance doesn’t matter to them,” Penswell said. 

Niminay could see Penny was ticking through some evaluation and only had perhaps ten percent of her attention to spare for answering questions. Feeling charitable, Niminay decided to help her friend out.

“Their [Breacher Ships] are world jumpers,” she said. “That they can get here at all means they can land anywhere on the world they want, at any time they want.”

“But that means we’re in danger everywhere,” Brandoth said.

Give the boy a cookie, Niminay thought, with perhaps a little less charity that she should have felt.

“That’s on the first page of my report, in the first paragraph,” Niminay said. “It’s why we have to treat this as a global crisis. Not one which any single Kingdom can be expected to manage on its own.”

“And would it be so bad to leave the unworthy nations to fall before the invaders might?” General Nalunker asked. “It could clear up a few long standing problems we’ve had.”

He was speaking of the Goblin city of Toothache. Everyone knew what he meant too. The goblins had arisen to power only a few years ago. In that short time though, they’d tried to over turn the delicate balance of power between every nation around them. 

Niminay could see the temptation flickering in the Generals’ eyes. Allowing the Consortium to eliminate the goblins without any of the Fallen Kingdoms needing to extend themselves could allow the old status quo to return. No more goblin meant the old borderlines would be respected. It meant the dangerous inter-kingdom squabbling could be replaced with a chance to solidify their hold on territories which had grown unruly despite being nowhere near the goblin’s lands. It meant  they could get off the field of battle for a season and just enjoy themselves.

They were idiots. Excepting of course Penny, and Penny wouldn’t have called the others that. She was far more diplomatic. Niminay had been too, but then what felt like several lifetimes worth of calamities had come and gone and rub away all the awe and instinctive respect she’d had for people in high places. 

It was hard to be impressed by Kings and Generals when you’d spoken with literal gods. Harder still when you’d had to beat those same gods back into the underworld where they belonged. Niminay smiled. Those were good times. Good times.

“Yes, it would be fine to allow the Consortium to scour own world clean,” Penswell said. “There’s just the small problem that they’re not locusts. They have a plan, and allowing them any victories means allowing them to advance their plans.”

“And if their plans are to run us to the far corners of the world so we’re too spread out to resist their main attack?” General Nalunker asked. 

“Then we should respond accordingly,” Penswell said. She reached over and took the stick from Aurelite, pushing pieces from where they were to new locations on the map.

“If we keep our army together, can’t we just beat them again, like when they showed up the first time?” Brandoth asked.

Niminay had been a part of that battle, the first major encounter with the Consortium’s forces. It hadn’t been pretty, or easy, and if it hadn’t been for some truly astounding diplomacy to bring together an almost unprecedented alliance, she was reasonably certain the forces of the Fallen Kingdoms wouldn’t have seen the next dawn. 

The stronger adventurer’s would have escaped of course, respawning and fleeing outwards as the Consortium established beachhold. That would have been a massive problem for the Consortium but being able to get revenge for a destroyed village is a far, far lesser thing than being able to protect it.

“The army is no longer assembled,” Penswell said, as the door to the tactical room opened to admit a new participant. “We lost some of its strongest units immediately following the battle, and the adventurers who came when we called for aid are not at all guaranteed to aid us again.”

“They may not, but there are still plenty of us who will,” Glimmerglass said.

“I thought you adventurers tended to rest and recover your ‘Inspiration’ for fighting for months after battle’s like that?” General Nalunker said.

“Usually yeah,” Glimmerglass said. “Something’s changed though. I don’t feel the touch of the divine we normally feel, but I am ready to fight.” She went to the window of the tactical room and opened the shutters to reveal the courtyard which was already thronging with the brightly decorated, motley armor of a dozen adventuring companies. “And so are a lot of others.”

Interlude – Zibby

In the valley below, two young boys were running for their lives. They were supposed to be adventurers. Brave. Strong. Powerful.

But this was also supposed to only be a game. 

This wasn’t supposed to be a scenario where monster could actually eat you. 

The [Rust Raptor] which pursued them hadn’t been given that memo though, or, at fifteen feet tall, armed with a mouth full of serrated metal death, it had simply eaten the memo bearer too.

“They’re going to be below us in about ten seconds, are you ready for this?” Aiemethia asked. He had his weapons ready, but was doing his best to only glance over the edge of the long fall occasionally.

“I have to be,” Zibby said. No way was a child being hurt on her watch.

Their plan wasn’t a complex one. When faced with a fifteen foot tall robo-dinosaur, the best idea, usually, was ‘run’. The kids were trying that though and it wasn’t working since the [Rust Raptor] could run at least twice as fast as they could. That left them with the next best option; smack the monster hard enough that it stopped trying to eat the kids.

Zibby would have had a hard time imagining herself jumping onto the back of a dinosaur, robotic or otherwise, with the intent to kill the thing if possible, but as the moment approached a fire she’d carried inside all her life lit up and made it so simple.

The kids running and screaming in terror could have been her kids, but they didn’t have to be. She would have protected them because, despite the adventurers’ bodies they wore, they were scared, and small, and they needed her. 

“Here we go,” Aiemethia said, leaping off the cliff despite the terror the heights certainly gripped him with.

Zibby felt anger fill her. Not wild and uncontrolled. Not when she had a purpose and a use for it. At other times, it felt like a burning brand, one she didn’t want to wield but couldn’t let go of. Facing down a monster though, it was just the tool she needed.

Aiemethia’s fall was cushioned, to a certain extent, but landing on the robo-raptor’s head and slamming his sword through its neck. On any fleshly creature it would have been a mortal wound but the [Rust Raptor] ran on different systems than a purely organic dinosaur.

Zibby landed directly on its back therefor and plunged her staff into the glowing power module affixed to its side. Even as a low level, mostly protection based, caster, she had a few offensive spells.

And, as a [Mathemagician], she could do all sorts of basic mathematical things with her spells.

“[Force Multiplication][Combinatorial Strike],” she said, outer calm masking the focused rush of channeling almost all of her magic into the single strike.

The [Rust Raptor] exploded.

Picking herself up from the scraps of its remains, she dusted off her robes and turned to the children were were staring back at her, speechless.

Some days were tougher than others, but then some were still pretty good too.

Interlude – Kevin McConnel / Roadkiller

Waiting for the raids to come back online made for a boring night, even if it was Kevin’s last one.

He didn’t know it was his last of course. Sitting in his dorm room, the last thing Kevin McConnel could imagine was that his time could be counted in minutes rather than years or decades.

“Hey, I just heard somebody else say they gotten drawn into the game,” Teddy Jacobs said. Teddy was the raid’s main healer, and while the raid was a no-go because EE had shutdown the zones for some reason, everyone who’d signed up was still hanging out in Discord chatting and waiting for a notice that it was safe to log off.

Kevin didn’t have classes in the morning, only suckers and nerds took early morning classes, so staying up till the stupid hours of the morning wasn’t a problem, but he’d been jazzed to shoot for “World’s First” on at least one of the raids tonight.

His team wouldn’t get it. He knew that before he logged in. They were fine, but kind of losers too. None of them were as good as he was. He basically carried their worthless butts through all the other content they’d done, and in return they didn’t complain much when he snagged the loot he needed first.

“That can’t be real,” he said. “It’s some bored little whiner babies who want attention because we’re all stuck here.”

“I don’t know,” Teddy said. “The people at the tavern I’m in are talking in the local chat channel. They’re passing on things from a Game Master.”

“Can you see the Game Master?” Kevin asked, knowing the answer and wondering how stupid Teddy could be.

“No, they already left,” Teddy said. “But everyone here says there was a GM here about ten minutes ago, so we just missed them.”

“Yeah, right, how would that even be possible?” Kevin asked, but a part of him started to entertain the idea.

It was ridiculous of course. The kind of thing a two year old would come up with. 

But it would be cool.

“They said it happens if you try to logoff, or if your character dies in the game. That’s why the zones are closed and they’re keeping us online.”

There were at least ten million reasons that were more realistic and likely but Kevin was intrigued by the idea anyways.

“So why don’t we just do it then?” he asked.

“Do what?”

“Log off,” Kevin said. “See if it happens.”

“Uh, cause then we’d be stuck as our characters?” Teddy said.

“Like that wouldn’t be sick? Come on, we’d be so badass. It would be awesome! What could be bad about it?”

“Dude, think about this place,” Teddy said. “Do you really want a dragon to rip you to pieces and then roast those pieces to ash? Cause we’ve seen that happen in cutscenes.”

“Pff, that’s not gonna happen. Come on, let’s do it.”

“No way man. Even if they’re wrong, what if it scrambles our hard drives. Or worse, deletes our characters?”

“That’s stupid. They’d just roll everything back then. Come on. I’m gonna do it.”

“Don’t! Dude. Don’t do it. If you wreck your account, it’s gonna take forever for someone to gear up another tank for us.”

“Too late man. I’m doing it.” Kevin said and clicked the ‘Logout’ button.

The usual countdown began and Kevin felt a little thrill tingle across his fingers. He knew nothing was going to happen, but it was fun to imagine.

“Wait. Dude. If you get sucked in, what do we tell people?” Teddy asked.

“Tell ‘em to make a character and come join us,” Kevin said. “This is going to be awesome.”

The logout countdown hit zero and for a moment, just as he expected, nothing happened.

Then the world and his body dissolved.

When things started making sense again, Kevin saw that nothing made sense.

He was in the [Dead Lands]. In the [Fallen Kingdoms]. As himself.

That didn’t matter though. He’d just go over to the chapel and respawn as Roadkiller and then start going to town on everything.

Behind him, he heard a howl that was absolutely not from a dog, and not from a wolf.

They might have been called the [Hounds of Fate] but the last thing Kevin thought before his story ended was that they were something he should never have met.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Interludes 1

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

Some days seem like they’re never going to end, and Hailey was beginning to doubt if this one possibly could.

“Do we have anything yet on the team that went into Elberth’s Crypts?” Marcus called out over the din of the support center. The answer was ‘no’ but Hailey wasn’t going to be the one to say it. Not when she had fifty two other groups that she was responsible for monitoring.

When she’d taken the job on the Broken Horizon’s support team, Hailey had thought she was carving an “in” for herself to her dream career. After years of playing the game, being part of the team behind the scenes had seemed like it would be heavenly. Those dreams had been smashed pretty thoroughly by the reality of being in customer service though, and from the glimpses she got of the working conditions the development team labored under.

None of that however had prepared her for how much worse being on the front lines of a disaster management team the likes of which no one had ever foreseen, much less planned for, would be.

“We’re still getting heavy pings on the help queue,” Elizabeth Banner, Hailey’s workstation mate, said. 

The support team – or “Game Masters” as they were referred to by the players – were situated in a large ‘open office’ plan, where workstations were clustered together in pods of three stations per large cube. In theory it was to allow them to work together better, bouncing questions off each other in they ran into unusual problems or troublesome players. In practice it meant a complete lack of privacy and more unfiltered noise than was at all necessary. The only bright side to it was that most GM-to-player interactions were done through the in-game chat system or via email so there wasn’t a constant stream of chatter or crosstalk. 

“New players or repeats?” Marcus asked. Even with the request turned off, the system was still monitoring who tried to access the request for help function, and Marcus was trying to use the numbers to work out how many people were in true distress.

“Half and half,” Elizabeth said, as she typed an answer frantically back to one of the team’s she was assigned to manage. Meaning at least half the people trying to call for help knew there was no one listening but were desperate enough to try anyways. 

Hailey could parse that data with no problem. 

They were doomed.

Typically the vast majority, 99% or better, of players had no interaction with the support team, and even when support was requested the interactions were usually brief. Egress Entertainment had developed their staffing plan around that reality, employing just enough low paid support reps to make sure that the workload wouldn’t yield too many customers lost to dissatisfaction. It wasn’t a practice peculiar to the Broken Horizons team, paying for support staff was something few businesses enjoyed doing, and to EE’s credit, they did keep enough people online around the clock every day of the year that support request from players were answered in no more than a couple of minutes typically. 

Unfortunately, that level of capacity was orders of magnitude below what was required when every player who was logged into the game needed detailed and elaborate help at once.

Not that Hailey, Marcus, or anyone else was really able to help them.

If Hailey hadn’t seen her coworker Asad vanish right in front of her, believing that the same thing was happening to tens of thousands of people around the world might have been impossible.

Or it might not have been. Weird calls could always be part of some prank, but weird calls from everyone in the game? If it was a prank, it was one with enough player cooperation that even real magic would have a hard time pulling off.

More than that though, there was Glimmerglass. Or Tessa. Hailey didn’t think of herself as “Burnt Toast” primarily, but it was hard not to think of her online friends as their main characters, even when she knew their real names.

Assuming Tessa still considers me a friend, Hailey thought. They’d drifted apart after their guild split up, and Tessa had dropped out entirely a little while after that, but Hailey still remembered her fondly. Glimmerglass had always been so damn positive. More often than not, Glimmerglass had been the one patch things up when an encounter went pear shaped, taking each party wipe in stride, offering ideas on what they could try next, or even just sharing encouragement or groans at the unfairness of what was before them. Whatever it took to keep people going, Glimmerglass was usually the one you could count on to see it get done.

In any other circumstance, Hailey would have been so glad to see Glimmerglass log in, even if she hadn’t been able to reach out to her. Just to know that Tessa was doing ok, would have given Hailey a warm little glow in her heart.

Instead, she’d been praying that her manually hacked together search query for her old guildmates would turn up empty and, of course, it hadn’t.

The one day Glimmerglass could have chosen to come back and it had to be the one when the world turned into the Twilight Zone. Hailey wanted to blame her for it all, but after talking with her, Hailey could see it had come as too much of a surprise to all of them for that to be true.

Not that that made it any easier. The conversation they’d had still tugged at Hailey’s heart. She’d promised to be there for Tessa, to keep her in the loop but against the tide of calls the support team had to handle, there just wasn’t time.

Hailey’s desk was proof of that. She had ten screens open, with chat clients in each so that she could communicate to the players who were “Most in Danger” based on their levels and location. She’d managed to talk a dozen of her fifty-two assignments back to safe locations already but everyone had so many questions before they were willing to comply with direct and simple instructions that Hailey was tempted to let them suffer the fates they were so aggressively courting.

Except that wasn’t fair and she knew it. No one could reasonably expect a game like Broken Horizons to suddenly become a matter of life and death, and spending a little time talking each group through what they knew was a small price if it meant some of them could be saved. 

And Hailey had to save them. It was the only way to make up for not thinking of Tessa when there was still time to warn her. 

Well, almost the only way.

Hailey’s finger hovered over her mouse button as her cursor waited on the Broken Horizons icon on her desktop. 

She’d taken “*GM Burnt Toast*” as her handle when she joined the support staff in part so that old friends might recognize her, but that didn’t mean she’d given up her original account.

Waiting just a click away was her other self. As a Game Master, she was limited in what she could do within Broken Horizons, especially with her admin privileges locked out, but if she logged in as the original “Burnt Toast”? What might she accomplish then?

Interlude – Azma

Azma sensed the shift by noting the clarity in her thoughts. The world had changed and that wasn’t often a good sign. Worse, it appeared she’d changed with it.

“Well, isn’t this tiresome,” she sighed. The wine she was swirling in her glass held an aroma which spoke of the clear, bright fields where it had been grown, harvested, and subsequently stolen from. 

A moment earlier, it had simply been wine. No expressive bouquet, no noteworthy history, just a glass of red to go with an otherwise unremarkable meal. Between one tick of the clock and the next though, her meal had become a dinner of fine cuisine.

She didn’t mind the dinner, good food was always a delight, but its presence did suggest certain alterations which were typically problematic.

“Sir!” Ensign Three-Three came to attention as he entered her room. Exactly according to protocol. Just as he was configured to act.

“Go on,” Azma said. She could have made him wait till she was done eating. As a [Commander] in the [Consortium of Pain]’s primary acquisition wing, Azma was given a fairly wide latitude in how she carried out the objectives assigned to her, and how she managed to resources which had been placed under her.

Waiting for bad news rarely made it better though, and while many [Commanders] would have been inclined to take out any irritation at having their repast interrupted on the poor messenger assigned to do so, Azma saw little value in that. 

There were so many better methods of relieving irritation than penalizing one’s own crew. Better to save the punishments for when they were deserved so as to retain their value in training and indoctrination.

“We have crossed into an uncharted Arcanosphere around the planet,” Ensign Three Three said. “Navigation wanted you informed that it appears to stretch half a local astronomical unit around the planet, and that readings indicate a second, richer Arcanosphere lies ahead at 0.005 AUs from the planet.”

Arcanosphere’s were a typical problem the Consortium faced when opening new worlds. It was why worlds such as her objective, “The Fallen Kingdoms”, were considered so valuable. Any place with deep reserves of mystical energy was a prize. Any place with deep reserves of mystical energy and no inherent defenses for those reserves was a prize to be claimed with the greatest of urgency.

Which was why the Consortium had sent Azma. 

The initial effort to open the world had been botched by that idiot Gernal, proving once again that nepotism could raise any fool to a position they didn’t deserve. 

Azma would make no claim that nepotism hadn’t raised her to a position she didn’t deserve, her only correction to any such claim would be that in her case nepotism had placed her in a position far beneath her true talents. More than one would-be-contender for her position had perished trying to prove that assertion incorrect, which was quite a bother. If any of the fools could manage to show they were worthy of the role she held, her superiors might finally be willing to elevate her to a more appropriate rank.

They wouldn’t of course. If she ever rose in rank again, she would devour the next person above her, and then continue rising. Everyone involved knew it, but it was still polite to adhere to the fiction that she had simply more time in service to log before being worthy of a promotion.

“Take a command to the Communications team,” Azma said. “Go through Gernal’s sealed communiques. I suspect this is something new, but if it’s not even a simpleton like Gernal should have been able to notice two Arcanosphere’s which weren’t supposed to be here.”

“Yes sir!” Ensign Three Three said and turned to leave.

“One moment,” Azma said. “Did the navigation team say which sort of Arcanosphere’s we’re looking at?”

The [Mystic Barriers] world’s erected where like additional laws of physics which prevailed within their spheres of influence. Each one was unique in theory, but in practice there was a great deal of similarity to be found.

“Oh, yes sir!” Ensign Three Three said. “The Arcanosphere we’re in now is an Incarnation sphere and the one closer to the planet is a Twinned sphere.”

“Thank you, Ensign,” Azma said, and frowned.

“Is that bad sir?” Ensign Three Three asked, breaking protocol in the process.

“I’m no expert on Arcanosphere dynamics,” Azma said, which was technically true. Experts were official trained, or constructed with their knowledge. Azma had picked hers up on her own. She preferred learning from the unredacted sources the Consortium didn’t typically allow people to see. Those tended to be more accurate, especially when one occasionally needed to do things one’s superiors might disagree with. “The Incarnation sphere is fairly common. Many planets with mystical potential will raise a sphere in that family. It makes their laws more ‘real’ for lack of a better term.”

“Will that be a problem?” Ensign Three Three asked. He should have left to deliver the message already but Azma found thinking aloud helpful and so she didn’t shoe him away.

“Not particularly,” she said. “It means the defenders of these ‘Fallen Kingdoms’ will be able to fight us on the fields they know, and we’ll have to adapt to the limitations of their reality. For a disappointment like Gernal, that would present a serious hurdle to overcome but any decent Consortium [Commander] should be adaptable enough to adjust to the demands of a foreign battlefield.”

To his credit Ensign Three Three didn’t ask Azma if she fell into the latter category. If anything, she guessed he was curious how far beyond ‘decent’ she was. She had no interest in demonstrating her full capabilities but she knew a small taste via an easy victory or two should bolster the crew’s already solid morale and loyalty.

“What about the Twinned sphere?” Ensign Three Three asked instead.

“That’s a fascinating one,” Azma said. “Very rare. It says that our target is linked to another world, and they’re sharing resources.”

“So we might have to beat two world rather than one?” Ensign Three Three asked.

“Open. The term we use is open. It means the same thing as conquer, except conquered worlds have at least a theoretical chance to revolt, and the Consortium simply does not allow that,” Azma said. “As for having to fight two worlds? That might be the best news we’ve had all day. Two worlds to fight, means two worlds to defeat, and two worlds we can sell for a very tidy profit once we’re done with them.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 20

Being dead wasn’t any more fun the third time, Tessa decided. The gray mist, which had felt so wonderfully creepy when she’d first seen it, struck her as annoying obstacle and (most likely) a cheap hack by the level designers to cut down on the amount of work they had to do.

“Are you folks ok?” she asked on the party’s chat channel. Being dead was irksome but being able to continue communicating with her team made it slightly more bearable.

“Yeah,” Alice said “That was a hell of a flip. I didn’t know tanks could move like that?”

“It seems easier to move Pillowcase now that I’m inside her skin,” Tessa said, and frowned at her ghostly and all too human appearing form. She probably didn’t need to be reminded of what she’d looked like before, especially since she definitely wasn’t a human in her current state. It was a bit of extra salt in the wound, a reminder that she wasn’t really the badass [Soul Knight] Pillowcase appeared to be. All she really was could be summed up in the body of Tessa Moore, who’s most badass accomplishment was getting up for work after two hours of sleep one night. 

On the plus side though, her team was safe. She knew any number of tanks who would have counted that as a win.

“Uh, speaking of moving around in Pillowcase’s body,” Rip said. “You’re kind of…”

“Blown to bits,” Alice said when Rip seemed unable to find the right words.

“Yeah, I pretty much expected that,” Tessa said. “I don’t hear the [Hounds of Fate] yet, but I should probably get going back to town to revive before they show up. Will you folks be ok while I’m gone?”

Tessa wasn’t looking forward to the run, but she was looking forward to getting eaten by ghost dogs even less.

“Probably, but hold up a sec,” Alice said. Tessa caught a glimpse of Alice through the gray, searching for something in her pack. A moment later, a piercing blue light broke through the mist, revealing Alice’s pale hand holding a gem which blazed with light.

Tessa knew exactly what she was looking at and reached for it without hesitation.

The sensation of the light flowing into caught her breath in her throat. 

She was warm. 

So deliciously warm. 

In her veins, life burned with the flames fury, casting the misty gray aside to reveal a kaleidoscope of color. The memory of the pains she’d suffered rolled backwards, not being forgotten but transforming from the onset of agony to it’s relief. Strength and vitality beyond any she’d ever felt before pulsed through her body as each mote of light coalesced into a new, fully restored form. 

When her vision cleared she was standing beside Alice, her hand resting where Alice had been holding the [Heart Fire Gem] a moment earlier.

“Woah! What are you a phoenix now?” Matt asked.

“Aww, I wish,” Tessa said. “I’d get killed all the time if so. That felt great!”

“Huh, interesting,” Alice said. “The lore never mentions what using a gem feels like.”

“Can I try?” Rip asked.

“You’d have to die wouldn’t you?” Matt asked.

“It’s not really dying if you can come right back from it,” Rip said.

“No, but it is expensive,” Tessa said. “I’m hoping you got that gem as a subscriber bonus?”

“Yeah. They start you off with a stack of them if you’ve been on as long as I have,” Alice said. “They’re not super expensive either, but probably best not to waste them. It didn’t look like [Sky’s Egde] had any in stock.”

“Thanks for using it on me,” Tessa said, noticing that her equipment was all stowed in its normal places on her, despite having been blown in every direction across the field.

“Thank you for being a convenient test subject,” Alice said, with a smirk. “Looks like the binding magics on your gear works too.”

“The what now?” Matt asked.

“There’s a whole lot of simple charms people use in the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Tessa said. “One of the basic ones is a small binding enchantment which keeps your gear with you. So as soon as I rezzed all the things that I have marked as being in my inventory came back to me.”

“So no one can ever steal anything here?” Rip asked.

“Not exactly,” Alice said.

“Yeah, there’s limits on how much you can have in your inventory so anything else you’ve got isn’t covered,” Tessa said.

“Also, the bindings aren’t that hard to break,” Alice said. “And there’s the superhuman level of skill people can develop to consider. A good thief can snatch a twenty pound sword off your back and you won’t notice till you go to draw it.”

“Stealing things out of your pack is a bit tougher though,” Tessa said. “You’re the only one who can access the stuff in there.”

“Most of the time,” Alice corrected her.

“True, if someone kills you they gain limited access to your pack, so you can lose stuff you’ve got stored. That’s why you put all the really valuable stuff in the bank.”

“I didn’t see a bank in [Sky’s Edge],” Rip said.

“It’s too small of a town,” Alice said. “Lowbies like us don’t have anything that qualifies as ‘really valuable’.”

“On that note, did we get any good items from the Lasher?” Tessa asked.

“Some gold from it and the bugs,” Alice said. “Oh, and check the treasure pool.”

Tessa opened the temporary extension of her pack’s inventory space which held the valuables the party had looted from the bodies of their fallen foes. Items within the treasure pool could be claimed by anyone on the team and transferred to their personal storage, with conflicting claims being resolved via a random roll.

Most of the items waiting in the pool were the typical filler pieces from the monsters they fought. There were several doses of a weak poison from the Centipedes, a few assorted body parts similar to the [Rat Tails] Pillowcase had to collect for her intro quest, and, down towards the end of the list, a [Chain Shirt] and a pair of [Iron Leggings].

They weren’t phenomenal armor but they were definitely preferable to the complete lack of armor Pillowcase had to work with in the fights she’d been in.

“Nice! Anyone mind I claim those two?” she asked. No one else was set up to use either piece but years of party etiquette had drilled into Tessa head the importance of checking with her team anyways.

“Nope, go ahead,” Alice said. “The tougher you are the better it is for all of us.”

“Yeah,” Rip said. “Imagine how things would have gone if there’d been a second Lasher there?”

“There will be,” Alice said. “That thing gave us trouble, but it was basically nothing compared to the kind of things we’ll wind up fighting if we continue on.”

Tessa watched the two younger party members to see how they reacted to the news now that they had a sense of what fighting was actually like.

“How much worse does it get?” Matt asked.

“We had one Total Party Kill here where we all died,” Alice said. “On a typical night for a new raid at max level you can expect to TPK at least a dozen times an hour until you work out all the mechanics.”

Tessa wasn’t sure if Alice was exaggerating or not. Her experience with max level raiding tended to be with groups who weren’t at the forefront of tackling hard content. Her groups were usually a raid or two back behind the leaders, working to implement strategies that other people had already worked out before them. Even that could be brutally hard and lead to repeated deaths but within more reasonable limits than every five minutes.

“Can you get enough of those [Heart Fire Gems] to cover that many deaths?” Rip asked.

“By the time you get to an end game raid? Yeah. They’re pretty plentiful by that point,” Alice said.

“That doesn’t sound too bad then,” Matt said.

“We’ve got a long way to go before we need to worry about that,” Tessa said. “And the difficulty should ramp up in stages as we go.”

“Maybe,” Alice said. “Even the actual game wasn’t always great about making sure the challenge fit the characters who were undertaking it though and we’ve seen there’s either bugs with this expansion or the mobs just don’t act the same as they did in terms of sticking to level appropriate places.”

“Factoring that in will probably mean more deaths, but we can hedge against that too,” Tessa said. “Take this field for example. In the game we probably would have bypassed it and headed on to the dungeon we heard about. The Centipedes aren’t worth much experience at this point and the items they drop don’t have much value.”

“But they’re not particularly objectionable to fight, or dangerous. Yeah, we might as well just farm them, shouldn’t we?” Alice said.

“If this was a brand new game, I’d say trading speed for safety might be a mistake, but there’s so many people who are at the level cap now that I don’t think we gain anything by rushing at this point,” Tessa said.

“So, we keep fighting bugs?” Rip asked. “What do we do when we need to train up?”

“Train?” Tessa asked and checked her character screen.

[Soul Knight Level 3 Achieved!]

[Strength Improved!]

[Endurance Improved!]

[Artifax Trait: Regeneration gained!]

[Trait: Forged Soulbond gained!]

[Skill: Jumping gained!]

Tessa turned to look at the others and saw they’d all leveled too.

“What is this ‘Forged Soulbond’ thing?” Matt asked.

“Must be something new?” Alice said. “Did anyone else get something like that?”

“Yeah,” Tessa said, her mind racing. “That wasn’t in the class write-ups from the beta. Rip did you get something like that?”

“No. I just got Archer stuff, and some improvements to Dexterity, Agility, and Perception.”

“Perception?” Alice asked.

“Yeah, it says [Skill: Combat Perception] gained. Isn’t that an Archer thing too?”

“Not typically,” Tessa said. “I’ve never heard of the [Jumping] skill I got either.”

“That’s not a great sign,” Alice said. “One of our big advantages was supposed to be that we know the game system here.”

“We still do,” Tessa said. “I got the Strength and Endurance stat increases I was expecting at level 3, so it’s not all different. There’s just more to it.”

“Could it have been another new system that the developers put in to the new release?” Rip asked. ‘Like that stuff with the hidden quests?”

“I think they would have tried to sell it more,” Tessa said. “The hidden quests thing my GM friend talked about are something you want to keep secret by its very nature, but this is something people would notice almost immediately.”

“Think we can get in touch with your friend to check?” Alice asked.

“Worth a shot,” Tessa said and sent a message to *GM Burnt Toast*.

The reply came back immediately. The GM’s were still experiencing higher than normal request volume and so petitions for their attention “are shut down until further notice”, which Tessa took to mean “shut down forever” given the circumstances.

“We’re still on our own,” she said.

“Yeah,” Alice said, looking back at the team. “I checked with Cease All and the dungeons to give access to the [High Beyond] are still offline. They can’t get here until they figure out another option.”

“Can’t just fly up here on gryphons I guess,” Tessa said. Flying mounts had been added about halfway through her time in the game, but had come with numerous restrictions to save development time.

“Apparently not, though they did try that,” Alice said. “I guess the air starts getting realistically thin far below where we’re at. They didn’t even get close before they had to turn back. ”

“So still no rescue from other corners, meaning we’re on our own for a while more,” Tessa said.

“Sounds fine to me,” Matt said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 19

The second battle with the [Chain Lasher] did not go as planned. No battle ever did though, so Pillowcase wasn’t surprised.

“There are definitely more [Chaos Centipedes] above ground now,” Rip said as the farmhouse came into view.

The field which lay between the road and the house wasn’t precisely swarming with giant centipedes, but there were enough that Pillowcase didn’t think her team could cross it without attracting a significant amount of attention. 

“Where’s the Lasher?” Matt asked. He had his staff raised in one hand and a spell at the ready in his other.

“No sign of it,” Alice said. “It might have retreated to its lair. That would be typical reset behavior.”

“We should be ready when we engage the centipedes,” Pillowcase said. “It hasn’t been that long so it could still be waiting for us.”

“Doesn’t it think we’re dead?” Matt asked.

“It is was intelligent it might,” Alice said, “but, if its smart enough, it’ll know that adventurer’s come back more than once, and if it only has animal level intelligence it will simply remain agitated for a while. Our deaths would only fool it if it’s intelligence is in a pretty narrow range.”

“So we have to assume we’re not fooling anyone then,” Pillowcase said. “So start with taking a look around. Were are some good spots for fighting?”

She put the question to Rip and Matt as one final test before the battle began again.

“The best spot nearby is about a hundred yards back up the road,” Rip said, “but we wouldn’t be at a good range to shoot things from there.”

“What spaces around here would work then?” Pillowcase asked.

“We could setup behind the wagon up there,” Matt said, pointing a long abandoned cart just inside the split rail fencing around the farm’s fields.

Pillowcase looked at Alice, who shrugged. It wasn’t a great spot, but the broad flat fields didn’t offer much in terms of perfect sniping locations.

“I’ll setup out on the road leading into the farm then,” Alice said. “Maybe about twenty feed back from the gate?”

“The fence won’t hold the centipedes back but it might help channel them to me,” Pillowcase said. “I’ll start the fight just inside the gate, so about twenty feet away from each of you. As we get more centipedes joining in, I’ll pull back and hold them there.”

“Don’t pull back too far,” Alice said. “I’m more or less immobile, so I can’t adjust where I’m at while I’m casting, if you back the fight up over me, things are going to get ugly fast.”

“Right, I’ll be careful when I’m backing up, and when we’re ready to move forward, we’ll do that slowly too,” Pillowcase said. “The last time the Chain Lasher waited until there was fighting inside the house before it came up from its lair. It got pretty beat up in the first fight, so hopefully it will do the same this time.”

“And if it’s out for blood?” Rip asked.

“We don’t want to bring it to half health with the centipedes around,” Pillowcase said. “Those are the first priority to remove.”

“But it was able to eat the dead one’s right? So how do we stop that?” Matt asked.

“When one falls, use your staff’s basic attack on it,” Alice said. “A couple seconds of that will give the corpse the [Immolated] status and reduce it to ash. It’ll mean we can’t loot the body, but these things don’t carry much anyways.”

Plan in place, they marched forward, alert for danger and expecting trouble.

Unfortunately, trouble was also alert and expecting them.

“I’m going to pull the three that are in front of you,” Pillowcase said, advancing forward and gesturing to a trio centipedes around one of the giant holes in the field. “[Casting spell: Lesser…”

She didn’t get to finish the incantation before a razor tipped chain flew past her face. It missed spearing her through the skull only because she reflexively dodged in time.

From a hole which had seemed empty, or at least devoid of centipedes, the [Chain Lasher] emerged, retracting the the chain tentacle it had fired.

“Take down the centipedes! Don’t let them close with the Lasher!” Pillowcase shouted the orders as she braced for the Lasher’s impact.

Unlike the flimsy wooden shield she’d been carrying, the new one Alice had bought for her held firm against the Lasher’s onslaught.

Sparing a glance for Rip and Matt was tricky with the number of attacks she had to block from the Lasher, but from what little she could make out, they weren’t doing too badly. 

Between the slowing effect of Matt’s [Lesser Spectral Wounds] and the overall damage the two of them could dish out, none of the three centipedes got anywhere close to them.

“More centipedes on your left!” Alice’s cry caught their attention while Matt was still burning the first of their fallen foes.

“I got them,” Rip said, all confidence and certainty.

Pillowcase wasn’t sure how much of that was warranted but the Lasher was trying to climb over her, so evaluating other people’s problems couldn’t be a priority.

“Don’t think so,” she taunted the Lasher using her sword and shield to hurl in back onto a broken wheelbarrow.

She was pretty sure Alice’s healing spell could stretch a bit farther, so she leaped after the Lasher, hacking with the edges of both her blade and shield to keep it off balance. Against a human foe that would have worked well, but monsters made of anger, steel, and exposed muscle tissue don’t really have an “off balance” state.

Six chains flailed around, two deflecting off Pillowcase’s sword and shield as she parried and stepped back but the other four punctured through her legs and torso.

[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain],” she said through gritted teeth.

The Lasher stabbed her again, right where Tessa’s heart would have been, but Pillowcase wasn’t built with such simple weak points.

“I’m going to enjoy carving you apart,” she said, jamming her sword through one of the muscle patches which bound the Lasher together. It didn’t penetrated deeply or take off much of the creature’s health, but the Lasher’s snarl of pain was exhilarating nonetheless.

Pillowcase wasn’t sure where the dark pleasure at hurting the creature rose from. Battle frenzy was useful for ignoring wounds until healing could be applied, but sadism was a waste of energy. As with other concerns though, that was a worry for some moment when a chain monster wasn’t trying to tear her to pieces.

“Pillow, go defensive,” Alice said, and a moment later the stream of healing she’d been feeding to Pillowcase dwindled to nothing.

The lose of the healing spell was puzzling until Pillowcase heard Rip groaning.

“Status!” she called out.

“We’re fine!” Rip called back.

That was true though Pillowcase knew it had been a close call. Rip Shot’s health had been down in the single digit percentages before Alice had caught her with a healing spell. That was what a good healer did though. Alice was still lacking a lot of the healing options she needed to handle a full party but she was able to make a big difference in a fight simply because she was always aware of the party’s health and who needed her support at each moment.

The [Chain Lasher] tried to capitalize on Pillowcase’s lack of support, but the [Lesser Soul Drain] combined with Pillowcase shifting away from an offensive footing greatly diminished the impact of the attacks which did get through. It was still an endurance battle, one which Pillowcase couldn’t win on her own, but she didn’t need to. All she needed to do was lose slowly enough for the others to bring in the win. Because that was how a team worked.

“Ok, we’re ready to start on the Lasher,” Rip said. “Can we open fire yet?”

“Affirmative,” Pillowcase said. “Burn him down.”

“What about when we get him close to half?” Matt asked.

“Keep pushing,” Pillowcase said. “I’ll start kiting it then to stay away from the buzzsaws.”

“Just keep it away from us or any of the centipedes,” Alice said. She was stating the obvious, but Pillowcase didn’t mind. The team was new, and even experience teams benefited from making sure no one forgot obvious things.

It was a good plan, and more importantly a simple one.

Rip’s arrows and Matt’s spells proved vastly more effective at damaging the Lasher than Pillowcase’s sword, mostly because they were backed by special skills and magic where her strikes were no more damaging than an actual sword swing would be.

Together they drove the Lasher to half health, only this time Pillowcase put some distance between herself and the Lasher before the flurry of buzzsaw blades erupted from the creature. 

“Ok, we’re in a new phase of the fight,” Alice said as the cloud of buzzsaws gave chase to Pillowcase.

“What do we now?” Matt asked.

“Keep firing,” Pillowcase said, backpedaling from the Lasher and watching the attack pattern of its new weapons.

“What else can this thing do?” Rip asked.

“Probably nothing,” Alice said. “It’s a low level boss monster. They don’t have a wide range of abilities. Between this and the gas attack it did, that’s probably the limit of the tricks it has at its disposal.”

“Watch at quarter health too though,” Pillowcase said, standing firm again. She’d positioned herself on the opposite side of the Lasher from her team, which gave them unobstructed shots at its back. 

Buzzsaws tried to tear into her but since they needed to avoid running into each other, their attack pattern was simple to predict. Even better, while sword strikes against the chains which held the sawblades weren’t able to slice through the metal links, they were able to slice apart the weird muscle groups which were powering the saw’s spinning. 

The fight to get the Lasher down to a quarter health was tense but also perfectly controlled. Rip’s shots and Matt’s spell landed in a steady rhythm while Pillowcase’s strikes knocked out one buzzsaw after another.

“Brace for something new,” she said as the Lasher crossed the twenty five percent line. 

Surprisingly no new problems arose. As Alice had predicted the Lasher fought on like the murder machine it was, but without deploying any new tricks. Pillowcase was almost disappointed. Wasn’t she meant to fight greater foes than this?

The answer that came to her wasn’t pleasant. 

She wasn’t meant to fight monsters at all. She’d been designed to fight the defenders of the [Fallen Kingdoms].

The [Consortium of Pain] had designed their Clothwork Artifax as powerful troopers to send against the strongest armies the [Fallen Kingdom]’s could musters. Pillowcase wasn’t exceptional in that. She hadn’t been one of the Elites woven of special mystical threads with the intent of slaying the powerful heroes among the defenders. She was just a normal soldier, though that meant she was intended to outfight a large number human foes, each of whom might possess a far wider range of abilities than the simple alchemical cast off in front of her.

So why was she so much weaker than she had been?

Defeat had cost her the [Soul Spark] the Consortium had animated her with. She had lost everything she was, apart from her body and the ghost of her memories.

Lost everything, but gained the one thing she’d never known she needed more that the rest.

“Uh, I think it’s doing something new now!” Rip called out the warning without slowing her shots.

Pillowcase shook her head, clearing out the distracting thoughts and saw they’d pushed the Lasher down to less than five percent of its health.

It wasn’t going to go out gracefully though.

Huge shudders ran through the things form and the round central mass started to warp and bulge.

Pillowcase was leaping the moment she heard the first cable inside the monster snap.

As Tessa she never could have made a standing long jump over the Lasher’s body to land behind it and interpose herself between it and the rest of her party.

As Pillowcase she just barely managed it before the Lashers body detonated, the constraints on its central cable’s shattering and sending razor edged lengths of metal spewing across the battlefield for more than a dozen yards in every direction.

To create a shadow which would cover both Alice and the kids, Pillowcase’s only choice was to land close to the Lasher. That she was able to do with no problem. 

Surviving the razor bomb however was another matter.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 18

There was a monster and monsters needed to die. Tessa knew both of those statements were true. What concerned her was whether she was the monster in question.

“Rip, Matt, keep yours eyes peeled,” she said.

“What should we look for?” Rip asked. She’d already been focusing on their surroundings, her bow at the ready. Being killed had put an edge on everyone, so they were all more aware than they’d been on their first trip out of [Sky’s Edge], but Rip was taking her job as the team’s lookout seriously.

“Check for wandering monsters. They’re supposed to be pretty weak, but that was true when the areas were all segregated into level appropriate encounters. With what we’ve seen so far, assume anything we run into out here will vary from stronger than us to stronger than a demigod,” Tessa said. “The more warning we get of the things we run across, the more time we’ll have to evaluate where they fall on that spectrum.”

“Look for good fighting spots too, like you did in town,” Alice said. “If we do run into something a lot stronger than we are, we might still be able to beat it if we can fallback and stay out of its range.”

“Call out the places you see, and how you’d get to them,” Tessa said.

“And what could make you abandon them,” Alice said.

Thanks, Tessa said privately to Alice. Can you chat while we walk?

Sure, what don’t you want them to hear though? Alice asked.

I just wanted to check in on how your doing? Tessa asked.

Dying sucked, but it wasn’t your fault, Alice said. You’re doing fine for a lowbie tank.

Thanks, but I was wondering more about how you’re doing with the fighting, Tessa asked. We knew fighting like this was going to be different than anything we knew back on Earth. It kind of can’t help but change us.

And you’re worried that I’m going to crack? Alice asked.

Tessa felt words of denial rush to her inner voice. ‘No, you’re fine’, ‘I just wanted to make sure’, ‘I’m sorry’. Her life had shown her that you couldn’t push people too far, or make things too uncomfortable for them. If you did, they would leave you.

That wasn’t what life had taught Pillowcase though. The Clothwork Artifax had learned that; following the rules those in authority imposed on you, got you used up and discarded. Staying silent was a tool of oppression you wielded against yourself.

Tessa didn’t think she’d lived Pillowcase’s made-up life, but the echo of those memories were there. They didn’t give her courage, but the perspective they provided was enough to push Tessa past her natural reserve to express the concern which was eating away at her.

You said we’re going to ‘murder the Lasher properly’. I’m not saying I disagree, I’m saying it worries me that I’m fine with that idea.

There was a longer moment of silence than Tessa had been expected. 

“That one would offer some cover,” Rip said, pointing a gnarled and withered tree which stood alone about twenty feet off the road.

“Real easy for something like that Lasher to charge up on you though,” Matt said. “We’d be better off getting up on those bounders.

The rocks by the side of the road where rough and irregular. The one Matt pointed out was about ten feet high and sloped strongly enough that ascending it was more a matter of climbing than walking or running.

I don’t know about that, Alice said, privately, though for a moment Tessa wondered if she was talking about the boulder. I mean, I don’t know if I am cracking, but maybe I am? I hadn’t noticed the bloodlust. It was just kind of there after we lost.

You said you didn’t have a backstory laid out for Alice, Tessa said, searching for where Alice’s bloodlust could have originated and landing on ‘she’s a vampire’ as a reasonable first guess. Could she have one that you don’t know about?

Again silence as they walked on. The party wasn’t making bad time getting back to the farm house, despite the shared concern over what they would find when they got there.

“So we need to make sure the Lasher doesn’t eat any of the centipedes this time, right?” Matt asked.

“That seems to be what triggered its explosive move last time,” Tessa said. “But the explosion might be something it does once it’s wounded enough, so it’s possible it’s unpreventable and we need to do something else to avoid being caught in it. Unless we run into someone else who’s already fought a [Chaos Lasher] we’re stuck figuring out its abilities on our own.”

I don’t think so, Alice said, again forcing Tessa to context switch. I don’t think Alice is her own person, with her own history. I think it’s just me. I said I was worried about what killing people would do to us but maybe I was just worried about what it would do to other people. I’ve had too many people say they wanted to kill me in the real world. In a place like this where there’s nothing to hold them back? I can only imagine what the players are going to descend to.

You’re thinking we’re going to go all Lord of Flies? Tess asked.

Or worse, Alice said.

Want to call this off? Tessa asked, despite the growling hunger in her hands for both revenge and an aching desire to prove herself.

Yes, Alice said, I want to call this all off, I want to go home, I want to run away from all of this and I want be back with Kelly.

Were your friends able to reach her? Tessa asked, remembering the claim Alice had made that her guildmates were taking care of contacting the girlfriend Alice had left behind.

What? Alice said and then recovered quickly. Oh, I haven’t heard from them. So. No.

“Hey Rip, Matt, hold up a second,” Tessa said, pulling off her pack to cover the delay.

Backpacks in the Fallen Kingdoms were almost universally magical. Every adventurer got a [Storage Pack] which took up a small area on their character model, usually around the size of a belt pouch unless the character was wearing a purely cosmetic outfit of some kind.  Despite their size [Storage Pack]s could hold hundreds of pounds of gear and handled organizing their contents without input from the player.

We can tell them we’re changing the plan, Tessa said. Head for some other monsters to fight or even go back to town.

Alice sent a weary sigh over their private channel.

I wish we could. She caught Tessa’s gaze with a glance. I think we need to do this though. That Lasher is tough but in a few levels it’ll be trivial. Now’s the right time to learn to deal with harder foes. We need it as a team, and we need to get stronger if we’re going to survive the people I was worried about.

Ok, Tessa said. I’m onboard with that, but I don’t want any of us losing ourselves to this. We’re going to get home. We don’t want to be unrecognizable when we get back there.

As she said those words though, Tessa felt the lie inside them.

What did she have to go back to? Why did she want to stay like she was? Did she really like who she was that much? Did she really like who she was at all?

A cold certainty that those were questions for another time and a safer place settled over her.

“Here, take some of this,” she said, handing Rip a strip of something that bore a slight resemblance to beef jerky, and Matt something that was very definitely a cookie.

“I’m not really hungry,” Rip said, eyeing the beef-esque ‘treat’ before her with deep suspicion.

“It’s not for appetite,” Tessa said. “Food improves your stats. Or at least it did in the game. Chow down and see if it does anything for you here.”

“You’re not eating anything?” Matt asked, looking guilty for getting a tasty cookie when his friend had to suffer with mystery meat.

“Pendant’s shop didn’t have any good tank or healer food than I saw,” Tessa said.

“He had some drinks, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be quite the lush my main character was while leveling,” Alice said.

“Drinks help? Can we have those?” Rip asked.

“Sorry, wrong buffs for an Archer,” Tessa said. “Matt might be able to use some of the higher level ones, but we’ll have to see what other effects they have on us here. Being a Drunken Master of Fireballs is great when it doesn’t come with a massive hangover afterwards or impaired judgement when you’re targeting your spells.”

“I can’t drink,” Matt said, eyes cast downwards.

The first thought that occurred to Tessa was ‘but he’s too young to be an alcoholic’, but she knew that was both wrong and far from the only reason Matt might choose to avoid alcohol.

“Right, I’m sorry,” Rip said, wincing. 

“Muslim?” Alice asked.

“My grandmother is,” Matt said. “My mom converted, but…”

But probably not for reasons that worked out so well for Matt if Tessa’s guess was correct. 

“I got on pretty well with my gran too,” Tessa said.

“I dated a Muslim girl for a while,” Alice said. “If you need anything, like a place to pray, just let us know ok?”

“Thanks,” Matt said, looking up with renewed spirits. “The cookie is good.”

“And this stuff is worse than a shoe,” Rip said, scowling at the jerky. “Uck. The stats better be worth it.”

“They’re not going to be a make-or-break thing,” Tessa said. “Food’s there to give you an edge but the fight still mostly comes down to your skills and how well you use them.”

“Speaking of that, we should talk strategy,” Alice said. 

“Can Pillow get the Lasher to chase her like she did with the [Wraithwings],” Rip asked.

“It’s a little faster than I am,” Tessa said. “I think I can kite it for short periods, but I need to stay in range to keep aggro on it or it’ll go for you folks.”

“Also, if she’s running around she’s likely to run into more of the centipedes,” Alice said.

“Can we clear them out first?” Matt asked. “Make sure there won’t be any for the Lasher to pick up once we start fighting it.”

“Clearing them out may be impossible. I suspect there’s a ton hiding in the tunnels we saw,” Tessa said. “Thinning their numbers out should be doable though. It we can create a clear space away from the tunnels that’ll at least give you time to snipe any that try to come in and join the fun.”

“Speaking of that, I want to try switching things up,” Alice said. “Matt, you’re with me on centipede duty, and Rip will work with Pillow on burning down the Lasher.”

“No, it’s ok, I can handle the centipedes,” Rip said. Tessa could see her pleading for a second chance to ‘do her job right’.

“I know,” Alice said. “You did fine with them before. The Lasher’s mostly metal though and monsters like that resist Matt’s psychic damage a lot. Your arrows are equal opportunity damage, not super strong or super weak against most things. Bird-types being a notable exception. You get to shoot those all day long.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” Matt said. “My spells will slow the centipedes too so they can’t get to the Lasher as fast.”

“Can you slow the Lasher?” Rip asked. “That would let Pillow dodge more easily right?”

“It would,” Tessa said. “And since we want that thing dead as fast as possible, we could start with both of you dumping pain into it.”

“Can you hold aggro if they go all out?” Alice asked.

“Yeah. I just need to use [Lesser Soul Drain],” Tessa said. “That puts me well above their best damage for now.”

“And if you get interrupted?” Alice asked.

“That’s a good point,” Tessa said and turned to her two younger teammates. “If I go to cast and the Lasher clips me, then you stop attacking ok? Both of you. That’ll let me buy some distance and cast again.”

“What about the centipedes though?” Matt asked.

“I’m stuck maintaining the channel so I can keep an eye out for them,” Alice said. “If I see one incoming, I’ll call out it’s position.”

“That’ll be a sign for Matt to break off and take it out,” Tessa said.

“If we start getting swarmed, I’ll call for you to break off too Rip,” Alice said. 

“Who will take out the Lasher then?” Rip asked.

“Once the centipedes are cleared, both of you can turn back to the Lasher,” Alice said.

“Will Pillow be ok?” Matt asked.

“I’ll have to be.” Pillowcase answered.

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What cut do you take?” Alice said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I understood none of that,” Matt said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Next time?” Rip asked.

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when things started to go bad.

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

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

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

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

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

It would have been better if she hadn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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