The problem with having a million questions was that they could lead to a million answers you didn’t want to hear.
“Who…” Alice’s voice cut off as she choked back her anger.
Tessa knew the question Alice wanted to ask, and knew they needed the answer, but was reasonably certain it wouldn’t help.
“Who gave us the quest?” she asked for Alice.
“It looks like you picked it up for yourself,” Mogwin said. He was staring at Tessa like he was reading something written on the inside of her skin. It was chilling to think that might be exactly what he was doing, but wearing Pillowcase’s body provided a sense of insulation which was comforting.
“Was it when we came here?” Rip Shot asked. “The voice that spoke to us. It asked us things. Was that the one who gave us the quest?”
“I don’t know who you talked to,” Mogwin said. “You’d have to ask them yourself. All I can see is that you’re at the beginning of one of the [Nightmare Queen]’s quest lines.”
“We didn’t ask for this,” Alice said, still quietly seething.
“Sounds like a bug then,” Mogwin said, the twitching of his head standing in for shrugging shoulders he didn’t possess.
“Fill us in on what a bug is,” Tessa asked. The terminology was the same but someone inside a program would have to see errors in the code differently from how a programmer would.
“They’re where the fabric of the world breaks down a bit,” Mogwin said. “Most of them are harmless but annoying. Stay away from them if you run into any though, because sometimes even the tiny ones can be deadly.”
“How so?” Matt asked.
“Well, a bug comes from reality not being set quite right. Say a board that’s supposed to be solid just isn’t for some reason. Probably that won’t do you any harm. But what if it’s something that is only occasionally solid? You try to step through the ghost-board and it turns into a fully material one while its plunged through your chest. That kind of thing can ruin anyone’s day.”
“How can reality not be set right?” Rip asked.
“Magic,” Mogwin said, as though that explained everything. When he saw that none of his audience seemed to understand he continued on. “Sometimes when spells backfire, they mess up more than the caster. Take when someone really botches a levitation spell. Maybe the magic does more than shred them, maybe it shreds force of gravity around the caster too.”
“Magic can do that?” Matt asked, carely rubbing his hands together like they were loaded weapons and he was looking for a safety switch on them.
“I mean, not often,” Mogwin said. “And not on purpose I think. I can’t think of any spell casters who’ve tried to blow themselves up and managed to do anything more than that.”
“How do the bugs get fixed?” Tessa asked, wondering what the different version releases and expansions looked like from inside the world.
“The ripples tend to smooth them out,” Mogwin said.
“Ripples?” Tessa asked.
“Yeah, magic isn’t stagnant. It flows constantly, just like the weather, and people, and everything. Over time anything that “is” can become something that “was”, even bugs.”
“So they just get better on their own?” Tessa asked. “There’s no grand event where they all disappear.”
“Well, sure, that’s what a ripple is,” Mogwin said. “The world changes at different rates, and sometimes a lot of changes all sweep through together. That’s a ripple. The worst bugs are usually fixed by those.”
“Was there a ripple recently?” Tessa asked.
“Tons of them,” Mogwin said. “That’s to be expected though. The [Consortium of Pain]’s incursion is causing all sorts of problems. Problems you will hopefully be able to help fix.”
“Why would we?” Alice asked. She wasn’t looking any happier with anything she’d heard so far.
“I don’t know,” Mogwin said. “It seems like a rotten gig to me, but then I’m just a [Guide]. I leave the heroing stuff to you folks.”
“Why’s it rotten?” Rip asked, jerking up sharply with a defensive look in her eyes. That wasn’t the narrative she expected or wanted to hear.
“Because most of us are going to fail,” Alice said and turned back to Mogwin. “Isn’t that right?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” he said. “Or maybe not fail, just give up. Most of the people I’ve acted as a guide for just lose their inspiration and settle down after a while. Usually when the road starts getting harder or when they folks they adventure with lose their inspiration. One day they’re great heroes doing great things and the next, they’re not. They just coast through life not really aspiring to much more than getting through the day.”
Tessa felt the words slash across her like a dull knife. “Lose their inspiration”, meant to quit logging in, especially after their friends stopped logging in? That described her perfectly six years ago and she wasn’t sure it didn’t still fit who she was.
Would she have continued playing Broken Horizons much past the early part of the new expansion? Would it have mattered if she quit? It wasn’t like she had friends she would have been leaving behind if things had gone differently. If the world had remained sensible and real rather than whatever cybertech fairy tale was built up all around her.
That wasn’t what she was worried about though. She could feel the grip of the past slipping away as her present problems rose up to drown the old ones out.
It wasn’t the “might have beens” that concerned her so much as the “might well be”. Everything in her experience told her that Mogwin was correct. She had a party now, but they were all strangers. What was the chance that they’d stick together when things got rough? Would they follow her into a dungeon again and again because defeats were typical when you were learning a fight’s mechanics? Should they? Was she really the right one to lead them?
“Can you tell us what the next step in [Nightmare Queen]’s quest is?” she asked.
Tessa knew the voices of doubt and uncertainty that plagued her. They were old friends at this point. She knew she couldn’t shout them down or argue herself out of listening to them. Her only real choice was to move forward.
“Sure. The next step is to visit [Horizon’s Edge]. You’ll need to be at least level 10 to access the [Halls of the Fallen] though.” Mogwin said, a pleased flutter in his wingtips.
“Do either of those places sound familiar?” Tessa asked Alice.
“No. They must be new to the expansion,” Alice said.
“Can you tell us where we need to go?” Rip asked.
“You’ve got a lot of options. If you want to level up, you can check out the [Fields of the Wasted]. If you want to focus on making money though you’d be better off…oh wait, I’m being called away. Sorry. Been nice chatting with you but a [Guide]’s work is never done.”
With that Mogwin leapt from Tessa’s shoulder and took flight, vanishing as quickly as he appeared.
“I’m surprised we got that long with him,” Alice said.
“There was a lot more we could have asked him,” Matt said. “Should we call him back? Or call one of our guides?”
“It wouldn’t hurt, but I’m betting they’re going to be pretty busy for a while,” Tessa said. “We could wait for one to show up, but I don’t think being this low level is going to be safe for too much longer.”
“You want to try fighting then?” Alice asked.
“Yeah. Let’s see what [Fields of the Wasted] look like. I think that’s where I started, so I’m guessing we’ll have [Radioactive Goo Rats] and stuff like that to work with.”
“We should see if there’s any quests here in town too,” Alice said. “I heard back from Cease All, and according to her, none of their characters can travel to the [High Beyond] until they complete a dungeon quest. They need to [Quest: Open the Path to the Stars] or something like that.”
“Figures,” Tessa said. “That restriction wasn’t in effect during the beta test, but the devs warned that they were going to enable it once the game went live. At least from what I read.”
“Why would they bother?” Rip asked. “Don’t they want people to play together?”
“Sure, but if they make it easier to start up a new character than to get an existing high level one here, then people will play through all the new low level content they designed,” Tessa said.
“That also means that no one can come power level us, so we’ve got to do things the hard way,” Alice said.
“Power level?” Matt asked.
“Basically do all the work killing things while partied up with us so that we get a ton of levels without having to take any risks,” Tessa said. “It’s safer and usually hundreds of times faster than leveling on your own, but you don’t really learn what your skills and spells can do.”
“Well that’s not going to be a problem for us,” Alice said, glancing around the town at the people who were picking up the debris and beginning to repair their buildings.
“You want to see if you can find any simple quests for us?” Tessa asked Alice. “I’ll go and see if there’s anyone else who wants to join us.”
“You’re not going to invite the people who survived the attack are you?” Alice asked. “They’re still safe back on Earth.”
“And hopefully they’ll stay like that. I’ll let them know what BT said, and suggest they just walk away from their computers for now. There were some other folks who managed to escape the battle though. I want to see if they’re still around and whether they survived or not. In either case we can coordinate what we’re doing with them.”
“Ok.” Alice bit her lip which showcased the tiny fang hiding on that side of her mouth. As vampire’s went, she wasn’t particularly terrifying. Alice had chosen an appearance that was on the “ less monstrous” end of the spectrum. Aside from dusky grey skin and a slight red gleam to her eyes, she could have passed for a typical human woman.
Tessa wondered which of the [Graveborne] subtypes Alice had chosen. There were, predictably, several different options which were basically “vampire with this special ability” or “vampire with that unique twist”. Before her team got into their first battle, Tessa knew she should sit the whole party down and find out what their characters were capable of. She wasn’t a master strategist by any means, but knowing what their strengths and weaknesses were was critical in selecting the proper foes to tangle with.
“What should we do?” Rip asked, eager fires alight within her.
“You’re both ranged damage dealers, we probably can’t fight in town – there’s usually suppression fields in effect which keep minor monsters away – but in case we can, find all of the places you can get to that will keep you away from enemies but still within range to hit them,” Tessa said.
“Like on the top of a roof?” Matt asked.
“Yep. While I’m out collecting info, your job is to evaluate this area for the positions you should be fighting from,” Tessa said. “You found a geometry glitch before, which was great, but you can’t rely on those, and can’t even risk them in some cases.”
“Yeah. We kind of fell into it and then couldn’t get out,” Rip said.
“Imagine how much worse it would have been if the [Wraithwings] could get in there too,” Tessa said.
“They sort of did.” Matt grimaced at the memory.
“They sprayed us with that acid after you dropped,” Rip said. “It got in through the hole we stepped through and didn’t take long to do the job. One tick and we wound up here.”
“Consider that in evaluating the places you find then,” Tessa said. “You want spots which will provide good cover from cone attacks, and that you can run away from. If you’ve got questions about one you find, just check in. I’m not going to go far and Alice can give you some pointers too if you’re unsure of a spot.”
“What do we do once we find a place that works?” Rip asked.
“Find another,” Tessa said. “Assume any area you start fighting from is going to be covered in fire about ten seconds into the fight and that you’ll have to move to another. Picture needing to move every ten seconds for about ten minutes and see if you can work out a path that will keep you safe and let you keep attacking every other second.”
“That seems like a lot,” Matt said.
“It’s slow and short,” Alice said. “My guild’s not a top end one and our damage dealers get off two attacks per second usually. A good fight will go five minutes but on a new dungeon they can run up to a half an hour or more while we figure out the mechanics and doing that is a lot easier when people aren’t standing in place and dying all the time.”
Matt nodded and stepped away with Rip to hunt for good spots to attack from.
“Can you handle watching them for a bit?” Tessa asked.
“Yeah, it’s not a problem. They’re not the first newbies I’ve wrangled,” Alice said. “Listen, do you think your GM friend would be able to do me a favor?”
“Yeah, definitely,” Tessa said, figuring that despite their years apart BT seemed willing to pick up their friendship where they’d left it off. “What do you need?”
“I need her to make a call for me,” Alice said. “In the real world.”
“Who to?” Tessa asked, wondering why Alice hadn’t brought the question up sooner.
“My girlfriend,” Alice said. “It’s the middle of the night where we’re at, so I know she’ll still be asleep, but we had a fight before she went to bed and if she wakes up and I’m not there…”
“She’s not going to know what to think,” Tessa said, understanding where some of Alice’s rage had been coming from. “Let me put in the call to BT right away.”
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