Tessa didn’t black out. There was no gap in her consciousness. All the of the impossibility of what was happening to her crashed over her awareness as her world fractured and dissolved around her.
The moment of transition from one world to the next differed for each person, based mostly on their capacity to absorb and process it. Many did pass out, only to awaken with the lingering suspicion that they were in a dream, or a coma, or dead and stuck in some strange afterlife. Tessa didn’t have that luxury though. She watched her body dissolve into light but her stream of thoughts continued, apparently in spite of the lack of a body to house them in.
“I’m dying!” she said, as the sparks that made her up streaked across a sky filled with other streaking lights.
“Or I’m dead?” It sounded ridiculous to say, and instinctively she knew it wasn’t true. She wasn’t “going into the light”, she was the light, however that had happened.
She thought of moving her hand and the glowing outline of her arm moved just as she’d imagined. It was effortless, as was twisting around and curling up into a ball. All she couldn’t do was change direction.
In the vast starry sky there was a star, a drop of glittering crystal brilliance which called to her.
Or maybe she was calling to it?
There were currents moving within her Tessa couldn’t name, impulses she was only barely aware of but which sprang from a well of intuition that stretched well beyond her earthly knowledge. In the pit of her stomach, intangible though it might be, she knew the destination before her was the one place in all the multiverse where she absolutely had to be.
“If this is a psychotic break, it’s a really pretty one,” she said, admiring for a moment the tapestry of living light which flowed around her. No human before her had ever seen a sight to rival the cosmos wide panoply which sprawled out in every direction. No human could, their eyes weren’t built to capture infinity, and Tessa was glad to the point of tears that for one brief moment she was something other than human. Something which could see creation’s reaches and be one with its glories.
Then a planet hit her.
Traveling as fast as she had been, the crystal star that had been calling her went from a distant speck of light to filling the entirety of her vision in the blink of her immaterial eye. Landfall happened so shortly afterwards that Tessa was surprised that she didn’t leave a crater from the impact. That was the thing with ghosts though. Being bodiless meant colliding with a world at light speed wasn’t exactly going to scuff her up.
“What….the…” She wasn’t dead. She was a ghost, but she knew she wasn’t dead. Being a ghost was normal. And fixable.
Her mind reeled as the world swirled around her. This wasn’t making sense at all.
Except that she knew exactly what she had to do.
The was a [Heart Fire] brazier inside the chapel on the edge of the town square. She needed to take a spark from it. That would let her fix the whole “being a ghost issue”.
She heard a series of low howls in the distance. They sounded just like the sound file had.
Sound file? Tessa struggled to bring her thoughts together and make sense of what she was seeing.
Everything was disorienting, but it was all too familiar too.
“I’m inside the game?” she said, shaking her head as she stared at a perfect replica of [Sky’s Edge], the town Pillowcase had been fighting in. It was covered by the misty haze of the [Dead Lands], with all the color and most of the sound washed away but it was still easy to recognize the piles of boxes she’d spent several minutes carefully weaving around. She felt weightless, and insubstantial, but the world around her was solid. That was something to start with.
Part of Tessa wanted to go into immediate denial mode. “No, it’s not possible”, “I can’t be in the Fallen Kingdoms, Broken Horizons isn’t real”, “This is ridiculous, I must be dreaming”. It would have been easy to write everything off as a hallucination, but with each moment that passed her spinning thoughts were calming down and the solid blandness of the environment was seeping into confirm that, however strange it might be, the ground she stood on was real.
“I can’t even begin to believe this.” The woman who spoke was Tessa’s age. She was translucent, just like Tessa was, with the hint of a loose T-shirt and baggy sweatpants covering her ghostly frame. Tessa smiled. With all of the strangeness of seeing [Sky’s Edge], there was something fundamentally comforting about seeing someone who looked like a normal person rather than a hyper-exaggerated game model.
“I’m guessing you’ve got no idea what just happened either?” Tessa asked. Around them, beyond the ruins of the buildings of Sky’s Edge’s town square, the howls rose again.
“Yeah, not exactly,” the woman said. “I’ve got no idea how it happened, but it’s pretty obvious what it looks like has happened. We’re in Broken Horizons. Like, for real.” After a moment of sizing Tessa up, she added, “You’re Pillowcase, aren’t you?”
Wheels clicked into place in Tessa’s mind.
“Yeah. And you’re Lost Alice?”
“Yeah.” The howls were drawing closer. “We should get into the chapel.”
The [Hounds of Fate] were a game play element in Broken Horizon’s designed to keep the players from abusing the ghost form state. Tessa decided she had very little interest in discovering what function they might serve in a world where the Fallen Kingdoms were real.
“Wait for us!” a young girl called out. An even younger boy was trailing behind her.
Tessa blinked wondering where a pair of children could have come from. Broken Horizons, like most MMOs, didn’t have child characters around for events where people were being killed. Despite the immense amounts of casual violence in the setting, violence against innocents typically only occurred in backstories, never as an event the players could witness first hand.
“I’m Rip Shot,” the girl said. “This is Matt.”
The boy waved shyly.
Tessa reevaluated her guess as to their ages, trying to take into account how kids looked younger than she remembered when she was their age. At first Rip Shot looked like an early middle schooler but, with the lens of an old lady of six and twenty years in place, Tessa guessed Rip was more likely a freshman in High School and Matt Painting was probably the same age, just slow to hit his growth spurt.
“Get inside,” Lost Alice said, gesturing to the closed door of the chapel.
In theory the [Hounds of Fate] wouldn’t be an issue if the ghosts didn’t stray too far away from their bodies or the direct path between the bodies and the [Heart Fire] but no one seemed thrilled to test that in the face of the ever approaching howls.
Rip Shot moved through the door first, stepping through without opening it after her hand passed through the door handle. Matt went second, nodding gratefully to Tessa and Alice.
“After you,” Tessa said, stepping to the side and scanning the town square to see if there were any signs of approaching danger.
Apart from the grey fog which covered everything in a thin sheet and gave the [Dead Lands] their uniquely haunted look though nothing move. The “all lifeless and grey” aesthetic had seemed creepy to Tessa when she first saw it, but over time she found the soft lighting and gentle silence strangely peaceful. However bad things were going, and whatever disaster was befalling the party she was with, a trip to the [Dead Lands] meant at least a few moments of peace to collect her thoughts and calm down before heading back to the fray.
Inside the chapel, Alice, Rip, and Matt were waiting for her. Tessa could see flickers of other people as well but the images were never more than flashes.
“So there’s at least a few people hiding out in here,” Alice said, pointing to one of the flickering images nearest to the [Heart Fire].
Tessa knew those might be the players who’d fled to huddle in the chapel before the Wraithwings showed up.
“How do we get back to being alive?” Rip Shot asked, as she warmed her hand near the [Heart Fire].
“Probably the same as in the game,” Alice said. “Just got to take a spark of flame back to our bodies or we should be able to reincarnate here.”
“How do you do that though?” Rip Shot asked. “We’re new here. We just started playing today.”
A sinking feeling plunged through the bottom of Tessa’s intangible stomach. They were newbies?
Getting drawn into the Fallen Kingdoms had been a dream of Tessa’s for years, and while she was old enough to know that the reality wasn’t going to be as fun as playing the game had been, part of the dream had always been predicated on the idea that the mastery and skill she’d spent years developing would come along with her.
She had no idea if any of the skills she’d once had were really going to transfer over, but the sense of familiarity with the world she was seeing around her, ghostly and strange though it might be, felt like it was going a long way towards keeping her sane for the moment.
New players though? They wouldn’t have any of that. If Tessa’s guess about their ages was right, then this was probably their first massively multi-player online world. There was going to be so much they didn’t understand, and so much they would have to learn the hard way.
What would burning to death because you didn’t know to move out of the path of a fireball feel like in this world? Or crumbling to dust because you didn’t remember to bring a [Counter-Curse Charm] when you fought a [Mummy]?
The Fallen Kingdoms were home to wonders beyond count, but there were so many horrors waiting to devour the unwary too.
“Maybe you shouldn’t,” Lost Alice said, her thoughts apparently running on a parallel track to Tessa’s.
“What…?” Rip Shot asked as she quickly pulled her hand away from the [Heart Fire].
“It might be safer to stay like this,” Tessa said. “There’s nothing in the [Dead Lands] that can hurt us. If you go back for your body, the Wraithwings will still be out there waiting for you.”
Tessa paused when she finished speaking. Something about “[Dead Lands]” had sounded strange but she couldn’t quite place what it was.
“What about the howling?” Matt Painting asked. “What are those things?”
“That’s the [Hounds of Fate],” Alice said. “They hang out and keep ghosts from wandering around too far. As long as you stay inside the chapel, they shouldn’t bother you.”
“I read about them,” Rip Shot said. “But how do we know they’ll still act like that? I mean this isn’t really the game is it? Everything looks too real.”
Tessa had to give her that point. Even with the best monitor and video card on the planet, there wasn’t a game that had ever been made that could match the clarity of the world around her. The mist that shrouded everything was thinner inside the chapel and the detail work on the pews and altar was easy to make out through it.
Tessa brushed her hand over the top of the small desk where coin offerings were collected to confirm that it wasn’t a simple model with a wood texture painted on it. Looking closely, it had the richness of minor blemishes and details which no game could or would bother to deliver.
“I think we have to assume that everything is real,” Alice said. “It doesn’t make sense, and we don’t know how or why we got her, but if we try to pretend this isn’t happening, we’re going to get eaten by something unpleasant. I’m just hoping that since whatever this is went to all the trouble to look like BH that it’s going to follow BH’s normal rules.”
“If it’s following the normal rules, shouldn’t we be able to log out?” Matt asked.
“We’d have to be able to bring up the menu for that and I don’t see any game interface to…work…with?” Tessa’s voice trailed off. She was wrong. The moment she thought of the interface for the game it had appeared before her, hovering in the air with its usual icons and menu options.
And at the bottom, looking the same as it ever did, the [Logout] option was waiting.