Tessa knew what Alice’s answer was going to be. The healer didn’t have any reason to join three level 1 strangers to form a party. Not when she had an active guild to call on and could be joined by a pantheon of near god level players who could escort her to the heights of power easily.
Standing in the [Sky’s Edge] town square waiting for an answer, Tessa felt a familiar dread clawing through her veins.
Why would anyone want her? Especially when she was pathetic compared to the alternatives.
Alice was a healer and healers had some of the easiest times finding parties. Too few people wanted to play them, so the ones who did were always in high demand. It had been a wonderful advantage for Tessa when she played Glimmerglass. She’d been able to find an invite for any dungeon or team she cared to join in seconds usually. For Alice, it meant that she could have her pick of teams to work with, and with a guild to back her up, she’d be able to work with people she knew and who were setup to completely overpower the foes she would need to fight. She could have safety and good company and a quick path to the level cap rather than rolling the dice on all of those with a bunch of strangers.
“Ok,” Alice said. “Send me an invite.”
Tessa started to launch into her resigned acceptance – “that’s cool, give us a shout if you learn anything important” and other bridge building phrases – but stopped herself on the first word as she processed what Alice had actually said.
“That’s…ok, umm, invite coming,” Tessa said. She couldn’t quite understand Alice’s answer but she wasn’t about to question it too deeply under the circumstances.
“Us too please!” Rip Shot said. Beside her Matt nodded in agreement.
Tessa called up the user interface and looked for the party management menu. She had to fiddle with it for a bit, in part because it had been years since she’d seen it, and in part because the menus had been updated a couple of times, but mostly because in the past it had been rare for her to be the one to assemble a team.
As she sent the party invites out, a voice in her head was chattering away trying to figure out why Alice had decided to join them.
She’s got better options than us, Tessa told herself. We’re not even a full team. I’m sure she could get one of those in a heartbeat if her guild is holding off on doing end game content.
She glanced over to where Alice stood, interacting with the invisible interface in front of her to accept the team invite. Whether it was because Alice was in a vampire’s body and didn’t need to breathe or because she was naturally reserved, Tessa noticed that Alice was rigid to the point of being motionless aside from her fingers navigating the unnecessarily complex menus.
“What are we going to do first?” Rip asked, her voice sounding slightly different – clearer and closer than it should have, possibly because she was speaking in the “party” chat channel, the private line they had setup which would allow them to communicate no matter where they were in the world.
Tessa cast her gaze around [Sky’s Edge], taking stock of the environment as she considered her answer.
Good teams weren’t dictatorships, but they tended to fall apart quickly if no one stepped up to act as a leader. Tessa hadn’t meant to attempt to fill that role. In theory, it should have fallen to Alice since she had more experience both recent and overall, but willingness to try counted for as much or more than experience some times.
I just hope that’s not a mark against us, Tessa thought, since her willingness was driven by circumstance more than natural inclination or talent. Over the years she’d played Broken Horizons, Tessa had gravitated towards playing healers even when she wasn’t playing Glimmerglass because in part because she didn’t naturally seek the limelight, or feel comfortable telling people what to do.
As a Tank though, she knew people would naturally slot her into that role, and she’d watched enough good Tanks to at least be sure she knew what not to do under normal circumstances.
“Let’s see who else is around here still and whether they’re stuck in the game yet or not,” she said.
“There are some folks still in the chapel,” Alice said. “Your friend told them to stay there.”
“That’s probably smart,” Tessa said. “If they survived the [Wraithwing] attack, then they may still be outside the game. Worst case, they can leave their characters parked there with their computers running and go on with their lives until we find some solution to this.”
“There’s some people coming out of the other buildings too,” Matt said.
[Sky’s Edge] had been scarred by the Wraithwing attack but the damage was relatively minor considering the destructive power of the [Wraithwings] [Acid Spittle] and other attacks. From the damaged buildings, Tessa saw people who looked like high resolution versions of the town’s [Non-Player Characters] emerging to inspect the aftermath. They weren’t moving like pre-programmed characters and the expressions on their faces were deeper and more pained than any Tessa had seen the developers bother to animate for generic townsfolk.
“You made it!” Mogwin said as the ghost crow landed on Tessa’s shoulder, his attention focused on the town rather than her. “And you’re complete. A [Soul Knight] with a [Soul]. Good job!”
[Quest: Basic Survival – COMPLETED!]
[Soul Knight Level 2 Achieved!]
[Minor Spellcasting Gained – 1 Unspent Spell Research Point Available!]
[Blade Skill – Minor Life Stealing – Rank 2 Achieved!]
[Passive Skill – Minor Provoking Strikes – Rank 2 Achieved!]
[Heavy Armor Proficiency Unlocked!]
Tessa felt a surge of energy pass through her and for a second she swore her skin glowed with barely constrained power.
“What the hell!” Alice said, looking at her own hands with the same incredulity Tessa was feeling. “I didn’t have a Basic Survival quest. My quest log was empty?”
Tessa was certain she hadn’t either, and the implication of that hit both women at the same time.
You still have a quest in progress
Tessa didn’t grumble at the sight of the error message after she tried the logout button again. She knew it wasn’t going to be that simple, but it was worth the test nonetheless.
“Why did we just level up?” Rip Shot asked. “We didn’t survive the event?”
Tessa was curious about that herself and was ready to offer the theories that sprang to mind but was interrupted before she could speak.
“The [Wraithwing] event gives out experience for the duration of time you manage to survive it,” Mogwin said. “Honestly, you were all cheated out of what you really should have gotten from it. You would have earned a ton more but you can’t jump up more than one level at a time. I’d file a complaint but I don’t think it would do a lot of good.”
Tessa’s eyes went wide. That was absolutely not how a system controlled character normally spoke. Not that a system character would ever speak in response to chat within a party, but if one did, that was not how official game messages were formatted. They would never sounds so…conversational?”
“You…you can talk?” Alice asked, looking as shocked as Tessa felt.
“I know, it’s weird because I’m a bird right?” Mogwin said. “You ground pounders are always shocked by that, but there are plenty of us talking birds in the world.”
“That’s…that’s not it,” Tessa stammered. It made sense Mogwin would be real if the rest of the world was, but talking to something that definitely was not human took a bit more for Tessa to accept that she’d imagined it would.
“Oh, it’s because I’m a ghost then?” Mogwin asked. “I mean, you all were just ghosts a few minutes ago right? I’m not saying that’s a double standard, but it kinda is.”
“Who are you?” Rip Shot asked, her expression neutral as she stepping slightly in front of Matt to shield him.
“Sorry, right, you’re not all [Soul Knights]. My name’s Mogwin. I’m a [Guide]. I was watching Pillowcase here after she started to reintegrate, and just wanted to offer some encouragement. I mean most of the time I’m more of a [Cheerleader] than a proper [Guide] if you know what I mean.”
“Can you only guide [Soul Knights]?” Alice asked.
“No? I mean, they’re usually the ones I feel a pull towards, but it’s not like I can’t talk to anyone else. Obviously, right?”
“Can you tell us how to get home?” Alice asked.
“Probably. Where do you live?” Mogwin asked.
“On Earth,” Alice said.
“What’s an Earth?” Mogwin asked and Alice’s shoulder’s slumped.
“I should have known,” she said.
“Let me try,” Tessa said. “Mogwin, we’re not from here.”
“I know, you were manufactured by the [Consortium of Pain],” Mogwin said. “Or at least your body was.”
“No, I mean, our…ghosts I guess? Those didn’t come from the [Fallen Kingdoms] or the [High Beyond]. We came from another world, and we’d like to get back there.”
“Ouch. That sucks. It kind of fits with the [Consortium of Pain] though. I mean, it’s not like they’re from around here either right?”
“Do you know how we can get back?” Tessa asked.
“I’m sorry. The [Consortium of Pain] is a bit beyond me. I know a bit about the [High Beyond] but monsters from outside time and space are above my pay grade.”
“Do you know why the Logout button isn’t working?” Alice asked. The disdain in her voice made it clear that she didn’t expect an answer. Mogwin seemed too integrated into the world for something as meta-physical as a logout button to have any meaning to him.
“You probably still have a quest to finish.”
Tessa turned slowly to look at the ghostly bird on her shoulder.
“What?” Alice spoke first, her voice low and deadly, and Tessa could guess why. If Mogwin understand game related concepts, it meant he might be related to whoever had brought them all to the Broken Kingdoms.
“Well, logging out is when you surrender the spark of exceptional inspiration and let yourselves rest right?” Mogwin said. “But if you’ve got a quest that’s calling you on – a real quest I mean, not just one of the chores you can do for people, but something that’s important – you’ll hang onto that inspiration until you either give up or get it done.”
Tessa tried to fit his words into a sensible pattern and came up with nothing when she looked at it from the perspective of a developer. When she turned things around and thought about how someone inside a game world might see things though it started to make a lot more sense.
When players were logged in, their characters would look like they were driven to adventure with a zeal few could match. With a player to guide them, the characters could progress to incredible heights of power and accomplish legendary deeds. On their own though, the characters didn’t change.
If Tessa imagined Pillowcase existing in the time when she’d was logged off then it might very well look like Pillowcase had simply lost her drive for adventure and decided to relax for a while instead of throwing herself into battle after battle with monsters of all types.
“How the hell do we give up then!” Alice looked ready to rip Mogwin off Tessa’s shoulders, and possibly rip him to pieces, but Tessa’s insight showed her why Mogwin’s answers weren’t actually overlapping with Alice’s questions.
“Wait,” Tessa said, feeling like she should confirm her guess before correcting Alice. “Mogwin, what do you think we are?”
“You’re an Artifax,” he said. “She’s a Graveborn, and you’ve got a Beastkin and another Artifax in your party.”
It was exactly the answer Tessa had expected. Mogwin saw them as though the characters they were embodied in were real. Which led to the next obvious question.
“And is this a game or is this real? Broken Horizons I mean,” Tessa asked.
“Uh, real?” Mogwin said, not bothering to hide his confusion. He pecked her and Tessa flinched away. Ghost or no, his beak hurt. “See, you’re not dreaming.”
“Point taken. What about our [Classes] and [Levels] and [Skills] and [Spells]?” she asked.
“Those are things you have?” Mogwin said, even more confused where the questions could be leading. “Oh, congrats on unlocking spell casting! Did you need some info on what your choices are? I can make suggestions too if you have a particular goal in mind.”
So this was a world where the fundamental mechanics were a bit more arbitrary and exposed than the real world, Tessa decided. That might have implications she’d need to think through – weird limits, or exploitable opportunities where Broken Horizons rules didn’t quite line up with physics and biology in a manner that Earthly physical laws would be happy with. For the time being though, that was a secondary concern. The important take-away was that to Mogwin, everything around them was natural and normal – even talk of coming from another world.
“This is worthless,” Alice said. “He doesn’t know how to help us get back.”
Tessa shrugged. Alice wasn’t wrong, and Tessa couldn’t think of any words that would make things seem better. There were things they could learn from Mogwin, but the most important questions would be just as far beyond him as they were beyond Burnt Toast and the other support staff members.
“Why is he the only one here?” Rip Shot asked. “Shouldn’t we all have guides?”
“You do,” Mogwin said. “I was just stopping in. If you need yours for something just give them a call and they’ll be by as soon as they can. Us [Guides] are getting a bit of a work out at the moment. A lot of newly inspired folks are rising up, probably in response to the Consortium making a new push to grab land.”
Tessa translated that one easily. With the launch of the [World Shift] expansion, there were tens of thousands of new characters being created. Even with the players being split across dozens of servers, each with their own version of Mogwin presumably, the [Guide] would still be extremely busy.
“Why would the Consortium conquering things matter?” Matt asked. “I mean how does that bring more ‘inspired’ into the world?”
Tessa wasn’t sure if he was simply phrasing the question in a manner Mogwin would be able to answer or if he really didn’t see the connection to the expansion’s release. In either case, she was curious what Mogwin’s answer would be.
“Honestly, I don’t know. I mean it’s great from my perspective. You all are like a fresh wave of antibodies the [Fallen Kingdoms] has called up to destroy the infection the Consortium is spreading. I am just a simple, and dead, bird though, so the cosmic stuff is not exactly my area of expertise.”
“Who do you report to?” Alice asked. “Who gives you your orders?”
“[The Queen of Nightmares]”, Mogwin said. “She’s the one you’d want to ask about this Earth place I think.”
“And how do we talk to her?” Alice asked, ceasing on the lead with a barely restrained fury.
Tessa expected Mogwin to be offer some evasive or non-committal answer but again she was surprised.
“You’ve got a couple basic options,” he said. “If she wants to talk to you, she’ll initiate a conversation. Easiest way to make that happen is to have something that catches her interest, just saw it three times before you go to sleep and she’ll turn up in your dreams and chat with you about it.”
“That seems pretty simple,” Tessa said, knowing there’s zero chance that it would be.
“Yeah, but it’s got low odds of working. The Queen’s always busy and the things that attract her interest are basically impossible to predict. Fortunately there is a more reliable option. If you definitely want a chance to talk to the Queen, all you have to do is finish the [Quest: Bridge to a New Horizon].”
“What do we have to do to start that one?” Alice asked, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
Intuition told Tessa what the answer would be even as the words tumbled from Mogwin’s beak.
“From what I can see? It looks like you already have.”