Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 4

If Tessa wanted to point to the precise moment when she lost control of her life, well the correct answer would have been “conception”. Seeing the error message which hung in the air after she pushed the Logout button though was certainly a moment where she was fully aware of that fact.

“It’s complaining that I haven’t finished the tutorial yet?” she asked, feeling a path around those words as she tried to work out what ‘You have a quest still pending’ could possibly mean. As she asked the question though she knew the answer to it was ‘No’. Everyone was being affected by this and the people who were playing their existing characters wouldn’t have been required to do the tutorial.

“I’m getting the same message I think,” Lost Alice said, since she couldn’t see the one being displayed to Tessa. “But we had different tutorial quests. And mine’s done. I think?”

“Ours too,” Rip Shot said. Tessa saw both of the kids had tried their logout buttons too, though only after she’d proved that the buttons weren’t going to send them home.

“It’s not the tutorial,” BT said. “We don’t know which quest it is. Not yet.”

“My quest log is empty,” Alice said. “I didn’t pick any up because I was going to get power leveled but our resident farmer wasn’t able to log in tonight.”

“It could be an invisible quest,” BT said. The [Angelic Armor] she wore made it impossible to see her expressions but her tone held a clear apology.

“What’s an invisible quest?” Rip Shot asked.

“A bugged one,” Alice said, scowling. Unlike BT, her expression was all too easy to notice.

“No,” BT said, waving her hands in an animation that Tessa wasn’t sure was actually part of the game. “ I mean, it could be bugged, but one of the things they were trying with this expansion was adding in quests the players could be on that they weren’t notified of. So no entry in the quest log, no reward screen when you complete a milestone.”

“What was the point supposed to be?” Tessa asked. 

“It was an experiment. The developers wanted to see if they could make parts of the world feel more responsive by having them change based on things you weren’t entirely aware you were doing.”

“That sounds like terrible game design,” Alice said. “What’s the point of putting in something no one is going to notice?”

“The idea was that you would notice the effects, just not have a clear line to what caused them beyond a general sense from the narrative if you were paying attention.” BT said.

“So the devs were desperate for people to pay attention to all the lore they wrote up and this was their idea to force us to read all of it?” Tessa asked. “It still seems a bit weak. People always figure out systems like that and once its posted up on a wiki somewhere everyone else will just follow guides to get what they want.”

“Well, the idea was to have the quests and the rewards change over time, and be specific to each character, so that there’d always be some surprises. It was just a test though.”

“Can they tell us what the quests are now so we don’t mess them up?” Rip Shot asked.

“Does it matter?” Alice asked. “I don’t think a buggy line of code is responsible for yanking us into a video game.”

“It seems like it’s gotta be more than that doesn’t it?” Tessa agreed. “I think the devs need to spill on any and all ‘surprises’ they had in mind though anyways. If the Wraithwing attack wasn’t supposed to happen, we need to know if anything else we run into isn’t supposed to be part of the game either. Otherwise we might as well just stay here.”

“Oh, wait!” Alice said. “All the players that got dragged off by the Wraithwings! Somebody should reach out to them. If they’re going trying to get through the special dungeon the Wraithwings dragged them to, there’s a great chance they’ll die there instead of someplace safe like we did.”

Tessa almost laughed at the idea of their being safe. Safe was home, in bed, with the doors locked. Being a ghost in the [Dead Lands] version of a [Heart Fire] chapel was a momentary pause in the mayhem at best.

“At least if they die, they can ghost walk back to somewhere better,” she said.

“Can they?” Alice asked. “The [Hounds of Fate] don’t seem to be acting normal either.”

That thought was a chilling one. Tessa had felt protected by the walls of the chapel but it was true that they could still hear the chuffing and pacing of the spectral hounds just outside.

“What’s happening with the [Hounds of Fate]?” BT asked. “There weren’t supposed to be any changes to them with this release.”

“They seem more aggressive,” Tessa said. “Can you hear them out there?”

“I’m still sitting at my computer,” BT said. “All I can head is the [Dead Lands] part of the soundtrack playing.”

“You can’t hear us talking?” Rip Shot asked, throwing a puzzled glance over to Tessa.

“I see you typing in chat,” BT said. “Just like when we were whispering. Explain what ‘more aggressive’ means though?”

“They’re waiting just outside the chapel. Circling in fact. Like they know we’re in here and they’re just waiting for us to step out of line,” Tessa said.

“Isn’t there something in the lore about their being able to smell lost souls or something like that?” Alice asked. 

“Yeah, that’s the justification for why they pounce on us when we try to move too far away, or do too much ghost scouting,” Tessa said. 

From the [Dead Lands], players couldn’t see the people or creatures in the living world except in brief flashes. For an experienced team though, even those tiny bits of information could be a gold mine. Not to mention the invaluable opportunities being dead offered for working out the geometry of new areas. More than once Tessa had paced out an upcoming arena as a ghost in order to see where she would be able to stand to keep herself as far from the Tank and the environmental hazards as possible while still close enough to react to anyone on the team taking damage or needing negative conditions removed.

“Let me double check on the reincarnating thing,” BT said. “I don’t like the idea of something weird happening to you while you’re ghosts.”

The [Angelic Armor] dimmed and slumped in place. BT had set it to “Away from Keyboard” status but it continued a breathing animation which looked more than a little creepy under the circumstances.

“Well that’s great,” Alice said. “We’re stuck in a game, everything is buggy, and we’re going to be eaten by ghosts.”

“So, does this make it into the Top 3 worst launch day events, or only Top 10 do you think?” Tessa asked. 

Alice didn’t seem to be in the mood for levity and Rip and Matt didn’t seem to get that she was joking. 

“I should check in with my guild,” Alice said and moved away, leaving Tessa feeling deflated.

“Do you two have anyone you can contact?” Tessa asked, turning to Rip and Matt.

“I don’t think so,” Matt said.

“We don’t know anyone else who plays this game,” Rip said.

“The new expansion got you to give it a chance?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah,” Rip said. “We wanted to play it for a while but we had to wait till….umm…Matt could get a computer that could handle it.”

Tessa heard the pause and knew it for the mental substitution process it was. After a while it became second nature to refer to people in game by their character’s names but early on there was often a bit of work to remember that no one would know who “Charlie” or “Alex” was, not when the person standing in front of them was named “Axe Thundershaker” or “Zap Blaster”.

Tessa was tempted to give the kids her real name, but thought the better of it. Granted their current situation wasn’t a typical case of “meeting a stranger on the internet” but encouraging kids to give out their personal info online was never something Tessa wanted any part of.

“You can add me as friend if you like,” she said instead. “I don’t know where we’ll wind up going from here, but if we’re separated and you run into any trouble feel free to message me. It seems like the normal chat functions are still working.”

Thank you! Rip Shot said. Tessa heard the sound reverberate in her head without ever touching her ears.

Wow! Telepathic whispers are really telepathic now? It wasn’t hard to respond to Rip’s message. All she had to do was picture speaking to the young girl and think about projecting her internal voice. 

Yeah, Matt and I were trying it out. Rip said. It seems pretty simple.

Definitely a lot easier than typing. Tessa couldn’t suppress a laugh before adding, “Hey, looks like we don’t need to use the virtual keyboard.”

“What do you mean?” Alice asked as she typed away on the empty air in front of her.

We’re not just ghosts, we’re telepathic ghosts I guess, Tessa whispered to Alice. She waited a moment, watching as Alice immediately stopped typing and blinked in puzzlement.

Oh. Ok. We’re actually magical now, aren’t we? Alice’s mental voice carried pitch and tone the same as her voice, and thus far more information than a simple text message could have.

She was worried. No. She was terrified and holding it together only through a facade of willpower. With each new bit of pressure though, more cracks were starting to form. 

Tessa searched around for the right words to say. The special, inspiring phrase that would make everyone rise to the challenge and overcome the shock and fear of being taken against their will to somewhere which offered no peace and little safety.

She didn’t find them.

I think so, she said instead.

Are we human at all anymore? Alice asked.

Yeah. I think we’re that too, Tessa said. I don’t know what happened to us, but I don’t feel like a badass adventurer. I just feel like myself. Pillowcase was created on an automation line.  She’s fearless in battle and built for war. Me, Tessa, I’m built for couch surfing and staring at a computer screen.”

Sharing her name with Alice didn’t have the same issues as with two teenagers, but Tessa wasn’t thinking in those terms. Alice stood with the stillness of someone on the edge of a precipice which had no bottom. For as amazing as it was to actually be in Broken Horizons, Tessa felt the same terror gnawing at her heart. They weren’t safe, and for all that they knew Broken Horizons, there was a real chance that they didn’t know this place, and weren’t in any way equipped to handle its challenges. Sharing something real about herself was felt like she was throwing out a lifeline, though whether it was for Alice or for herself she couldn’t say.

Same, Lost Alice said, releasing a breath which seemed to thaw some of the ice that had frozen her spine.

“It sounds like reincarnating might be a good idea,” BT said, her words tumbling out as the [Angelic Armor] hummed back to life.

“Here or back at our bodies?” Tessa asked. As level 1 characters the usual penalties associated with dying weren’t a factor but Tessa was absolutely certain that if she had to confront a world like Broken Horizons, she wanted to do so while wearing a body which could heal back from the brink of death in minutes and didn’t have pesky things like “internal organs” which might object to occasionally being perforated.

“If the [Hounds of Fate] are nearby, you’d be better off reincarnating here,” BT said.

“Why?” Alice asked, her eyes narrowing to dangerous slits. “Shouldn’t the hounds just bring us back here even if they do catch us?”

“Yes. They should. But we can’t reach some of the people who the combat logs marked as having died since this problem started,” BT said.

“Can’t reach? Like they’re not answering whispers?” Tessa asked.

“No. Like the whispers are coming back with ‘character name not found’ errors,” BT said.

“Like they’d been deleted?” Alice asked.

“That’s one path in the code which invokes that message,” BT said.

“So we’re trapped here, and we can die for real?” Rip Shot asked.

“We don’t know that,” BT said. “We just know we can’t contact some of the people who’ve died in game. We’re still working out whether there’s any commonality between how they died or whether they left the area around the [Heart Fire] shrine.”

“It sounds like if we respawn here, we’d at least have two chances then,” Matt said. “One with our living bodies and one with our ghosts.”

He was calm and reasonable despite his words sounding like the ravings of a madman. It was hard to discount them as ravings though when they were already standing around a [Heart Fire] as a quartet of ghosts.

“Yeah, that sounds reasonable,” Alice said.

“Good, then let me try it,” Rip Shot said and, without waiting, plunged her hand in the flames of the [Heart Fire]. Her ghostly body ignited in the normal blazing animation which played during a reincarnation but with this one, Tessa could feel the heat of the flames.

“Me next,” Matt said, not waiting a moment once he saw Rip consumed by the fire.

“Someone needs to watch over those newbies,” Alice said.

“Yeah,” Tessa couldn’t disagree but she was still far from sure that it was a job she should volunteer for.

Alice moved to touch the flames as well but paused with her hand outstretched.

“Hey, the hounds stopped moving didn’t they?” she asked.

Tessa turned an ear to listen and found the howling and pacing had disappeared.

“Is that a good sign?” Tessa asked.

“Better than them breaking down the door,” Alice said and reached for the flames.

Tessa made her decision then.

It was potentially a stupid decision, but with three of them chosing to reincarnate via the [Heart Fire], she wanted to see what the other choice would produce. If her game knowledge was going to mean anything, it should be the same outcome in either case, with the only difference being where they stood when they came back to life.

Tessa hoped that would be true as she snatched a handful of [Heart Fire] and dashed through the chapel’s door. 

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