Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Ch 10

A monster was attacking. Because that’s what monsters do. Tessa knew she should fight it. Because that’s what adventurers do. Seeing one in person, rather than on the other side of a monitor, made that a whole lot harder than she’d imagined it would be though.

Tess had charged into battle with monsters an uncountable number of times in the Fallen Kingdoms, but when faced with a five foot tall [Chaos Centipede], she found her feet skidding to an unwilling halt.

The thing had so many legs.

And eyes.

And there was more than one of them.

Undulating in a wave of pulsing flesh at least a half dozen of the monsters were converging on a cart with a small family gathered around it.

The cart was a two wheeled platform hooked to a tame [Giant Spotted Gecko]. Had both wheels still been attached, the lizard probably could have pulled the cart into the safety of [Sky’s Edge]’s domain. As it was though, with one wheel broken into pieces across the road and the other twisted at a bad angle, Tessa could see there was no chance they would outrun the centipede.

“Help!” the family’s oldest son called when he saw Tessa. His father and mother were scrambling to unhitch the gecko, probably hoping it could serve as a transport for their three children. It was a noble effort but one that was doomed to failure. The [Chaos Centipedes] were too close.

Part of Tessa wanted to look away, and she hated herself for it.

There wasn’t time to dwell on that though. Her brief pause had been only a handful of seconds but that were seconds the family didn’t have. 

Move, something inside her urged and the shackles of her fear fell away. She felt light, and almost outside of her body. Since it wasn’t quite her body, it seemed oddly appropriate.

Drawing her [Rusty Sword], a touch of madness danced like fireworks along the edges of Tessa’s mind. What did death matter in a world where she couldn’t really die? What was pain when all injuries could be healed.

Tessa wasn’t a berserker, and Pillowcase wasn’t either, but as she charged towards the coming horde of monsters, the light in her eyes which swept her fear aside drew on some primal component of her being which had no connection to any sense of self preservation.

“[Minor Life Stealing]”, she said and saw the blade swinging in her hand become rimmed with an edge of hungry red light. 

The [Chaos Centipedes] moved with the mindless urgency of creatures driven only to consume, and though Pillowcase was far faster than Tessa had ever been, the centipedes were even faster and closer still to their target. As her feet flew down the open hill, she knew couldn’t reach them in time.

But Tessa wasn’t alone.

“[Divine Smite!]”

From over the small rise behind the cart, two figures appeared and, without hesitation, plowed into the oncoming swarm of [Chaos Centipedes]. The first was clearly a Paladin, one of the knightly classes which had been available from when the game launched. He slammed into the nearest centipede, his sword crackling with holy radiance as he cleaved it the giant bug into two goey halves.

His companion took a more sensible position, imposing herself between the rest of the oncoming centipedes and the family. In her hands, her staff glowed as it became surrounded by swirling numbers and equations.

“[Psychic Barrier]”, she said, sending the swirling numbers out into a wide bubble which enveloped the family, herself, and even the gecko.

It had been a while since Tessa coordinated with a [Paladin], and she wasn’t quite sure which class the other adventurer had since a number of the caster classes had the option to start with [Psychic Barrier]. Despite that, and despite having no time to think or process what she knew, her old playing skills left her instinctively aware of a few things.

First, the [Chaos Centipedes] had to be a more reasonable foe than the [Wraithwings] had been. [Divine Smite!] from a low level [Paladin] was a good attack, though not one they could use frequently, but it would have barely scratched something like a [Wraithwing]. That it killed the centipede in one hit made Tessa feel a lot better about their odds.

That said, she still didn’t like their tactical position. The [Psychic Barrier] had bought precious seconds and might be the power that really saved the day, but it wasn’t endlessly resilient. From a low level caster, it would be lucky to stand up to more than a couple of hits.

From how the two players had engaged the mob though, without hesitation and with an almost pre-rehearsed level of coordination, Tessa could tell they both had a lot of experience playing in general and a lot of experience playing together. That would count for a lot and meant she didn’t have to worry about taking care of them too.

With only brief impressions of those observations flying through her mind, Tessa altered her course, heading to the side of the horde of centipedes rather than trying to intercept them.

The ones she ran towards detected the incoming threat she posed and peeled away from the others to both defend themselves and get the first bite in on a new meal.

That wasn’t good enough for Tessa.

A tank’s job wasn’t to annoy a few of the enemy, it was to demand the attention of as many foes as they could withstand. Without Lost Alice, or another healer, present, Tessa knew her durability would be significantly lower than it would be in a typical encounter. Wounds she took weren’t going to vanish in the blink of an eye like they had when she was fighting the [Wraithwings]. The question she had to answer was would they close fast enough with only her own powers to rely on?

A strike with her [Rusty Sword] put a vicious gash into the first [Chaos Centipede] as she leapt over it to plunge deeper into the swarm. Like it or not, the fight was on.

A wildfire of madness sparked along the hills and valley of her thoughts, daring the monsters to do their worse. The things they could manage were nothing compared to what she’d faced already, or even what she’d been designed for. This was her realm. She was crafted for war and battle. 

Her [Minor Life Stealing Blade] lashed out and she felt vitality surging into her as claw wounds and bites faded away, healed by the life essences of the creatures which had inflicted the wounds.

The [Chaos Centipedes] turned to face her, the whole swarm reeling in place as the [Minor Provoking Strikes] passive Pillowcase possessed compelled them to recognize her as an existential threat to the lives they were barely aware they possessed. 

Yes! A centipede bit down onto Pillowcase’s arm but the fabric deformed easily under its jaws. She couldn’t use the arm for a moment, but her health points only dipped slightly and had recovered to full by the time she stabbed the creature in the head and pried its corpse off her. 

It felt so good to be in a fight again.

She hadn’t thought it would ever happen.

Not after the defeat they suffered. 

A small band of [Chaos Centipedes] wasn’t quite the gathered Armies of the Fallen Kingdoms of course, but it still felt glorious to move through the steps she’d be created to dance. 

Don’t stand still. You’re tough, but why let them have it easy. Circle instead, lead them around and around so that the whole pack scrambles over each other, fighting and biting for the chance to get their teeth into the one who’d driven them mad with anger and hunger. 

Pillowcase knew she could do better. Her footwork was sloppy. Far clumsier than it should have been. Some of her internal stitches hadn’t been rewoven and the reservoir of magic she had to draw on was different. Cleaner somehow but also so much smaller than when she’d marched in the armies of the [Consortium of Pain].

It didn’t matter though. She didn’t need to be at the top of her game. Not for foes who were little more than bugs with some overdeveloped growth hormones.

[Divine Smite!]

The Paladin was close to her, cleaving another of the centipedes to pieces as the cooldown time on his ability finished. 

Could he be an enemy too? Pillowcase didn’t know. He was human, but she didn’t find humans to be objectionable anymore. Not all of them at any rate. A wordless voice reminded her that even humans who were technically allies weren’t necessarily good people, or worthy of her trust.

Under the circumstances though, there were enough common enemies that PIllowcase was reasonably sure the Paladin wasn’t planning to complicate the fight by making it a three way battle, and, happily, her faith was rewarded. Within less than a minute the last of the [Chaos Centipedes] lay dead and lootable at her feet.

> Aiemethia said: “Good job herding.”

“Thanks,” Tessa said, pleased that someone had noticed the effort she put into it.

The transition in her thoughts wasn’t jarring and it wasn’t until the last of the centipedes was dead that she recognized it.

Surveying the battlefield for any other monsters in the vicinity, Tessa cast her thoughts back to the battle. To the thoughts that shouldn’t have been hers. 

But they had been.

She’d been thinking as Pillowcase, as someone who wasn’t human and never had been. Someone who’d been manufactured by evil space tyrants and it had seemed perfectly natural. 

But it hadn’t been someone else thinking those thoughts. She’d been herself all along, with no moments where her thoughts grew fuzzy or were replaced by anything that felt disconnected or alien to her. Her memories were clear and seamless and entirely hers. 

She’d been in the driver’s seat all along, but when she’d needed it, she’d become someone, or something, more than just “Tessa the programmer”.

> Aiemethia said: “Did you just log in?”

Tessa blinked and saw the usual interface elements appear around the [Paladin]. He was already level 7 and his gear reflected it. What worried her was that his voice had the distant, modulated quality of someone who was still on the right side of the monitor.

“No, I’ve been on for a while. Have you gotten any system messages yet? There’s a…” what could she say that a random stranger might believe? “…a problem with the game and they need all the players who haven’t run into it to move their characters to a safe spot and leave them there. You don’t want to be out here where its still dangerous.”

After a long pause, just enough Tessa decided for someone to read what she’d said, he responded.

> Aiemethia said: “No, no messages yet. We were in a dungeon though, so maybe it didn’t come through.”

“There’s a low level dungeon near here?” Tessa asked. “When were you able to get into it? Is it still open?”

Dungeons were a far more efficient source of experience than hunting random monsters in the wild, so the part of Tessa that yearned to be at the level cap hungered to know more. From what she’d read about the Beta test, one of the (many) complaints had been that the early experience didn’t offer any sort of organized, group based content. Most people thought it wouldn’t be a significant issue since new players tended to solo a lot and more experienced ones were often power leveled out of the low levels so they could play with more of a new character’s abilities sooner.

It BT was available Tessa would have been demanding to know exactly what “extras” the developers had added in the final patch that went out, but she already suspected the answer would not include “a brand new dungeon which would take hundreds of development  hours at a minimum”.

A more urgent question than the drive for experience occurred to her though.

“Have you died at all yet? Or tried to disconnect?” She had to confirm if they were still in the real world. 

Aiemethia said: “No, we got through the whole dungeon just fine. How are you typing so fast though?”

Because of course everything Tessa said was coming up on his screen as fast as she spoke it.

“Let’s get the NPCs back to town,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to tell you.”

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