Interlude – Brendan Reingold
The fate of the world hung in the balance, the gates to the Outer Chaos had been flung open, and Brandon Reingold rose to the challenge by reading a comic book.
It wasn’t a even terribly good comic. He’d picked it up because he liked the characters but the writer was a talentless hack whose idea of drama was to kill someone messily ever other page. Brandon would have pitched the series except he knew the current team was being switched out for a writer and artist who’d done much better work and who tended to redeem even the terrible storylines the people before them came up with.
Over on his desktop, his character, Mellisandra, looked like she could use a comic book of her own. She’d been standing idly in her personal house for the last two hours. Brandon hadn’t noticed her fidget routine, but it had been looping for roughly an hour and fifty five minutes of that time. That was typical for characters who didn’t receive any input from their players. Broken Horizons had them perform little actions like tapping their feet or yawning to prevent them from looking like creepy lifeless automatons.
Mellisandra’s animations weren’t quite the normal ones anymore though. Instead of stretching occasionally, she had sat down on the floor into a cross legged pose and was pouring over a collection of spell books she’d accumulated in her travels.
At level 88, she was technically a high level character but in practice the gap between her and the actual top end of the player character power curve was far wider than the gap between her and a level 1 character.
If Brandon had been playing her, she might have made some progress on closing that gap, but the GM he’d spoken with had been pretty clear on the need to both avoid combat encounters and to remain online.
In theory, Mellisandra should have been left alone. It was late enough that dawn would destroy any chance at real sleep that Brandon had left. If it wasn’t his day off, he would have shut off his monitor hours ago rather than waiting fruitlessly for a notification from the GM staff that it was safe to shut down – or at least safe to go back to playing.
Brandon had been looking forward to the release of the World Shift expansion for months. Pulling an all-nighter seemed like a small price to pay for the chance to check out some of the new content early.
He knew he wasn’t going to get a “World’s First” or anything like that. He was a solo player primarily, so the raids in the new expansion weren’t anything he had a real hope of experiencing. He didn’t need those though. There was plenty of other content that came with each expansion. Content that might be considered too easy to brag about, but the story would still be cool. At least assuming the EE developers lived up to their past efforts.
Over on his desktop, Mellisandra had completed her spell review and was practicing some of her more advanced incantations. Not fully casting them of course. Her inn room only had so much space and filling it with fire would do no one any good. It was still a decent light show though.
Which was what attracted Brandon’s interest.
He stared for a few long minutes, watching the pyrotechnics in amazement. At first he was simply impressed by the depth and diversity of the new fidget animations. The farther Mellisandra went into her practice though the more clear it became that what she was doing wasn’t pre-scripted.
She was using the spells he’d selected for her. She was speaking dialog to herself. She was turning to stare at the computer screen.
“Brandon?” she asked, her face losing the generic expression it was usually animated with and taking on a confused look instead.
The comic dropped from Brandon’s hands.
She was real?
Interlude – The Pit Master
Nezzgrim had a simple life. In the [High Beyond] there were resources, and while his masters in the [Sunless Deeps] couldn’t ascend to the [High Beyond] in this age, they were still quite capable of creating servants who could.
Some of the resources Nezzgrim had been tasked with collected were things like the [Magicrystals] which had long since been mined out of the lair he was overseeing. Magic was always useful, so long as it wasn’t tinged with the divine. Similarly the precious metals and gemstones in the [High Beyond]’s floating lands were quite useful to his masters’ ambitions. Mortals were both amazingly resistant to corruption and unbelievably willing to sell their principals for appallingly small amounts of wealth.
Which is what made them the best commodity of all.
As a [Pit Master], Nezzgrim was responsible for all of the wealth the motley force he’d been gifted with was able to assemble, but it was the tribute of mortals where he most often took a personal hand in the matter. He’d learned long ago that raising an army of supporters among the mortals was all well and good, but the outlay of effort and expense tended to make it a less than desirable avenue for pleasing his masters. It was far better, and far easier, to simply lure the expendable ones into environments where they could be safely captured, subdued, and then sent to the [Sunless Deeps] either alive or in bite sized chunks, depending on his mood and the docket of orders he’d been given that week.
“A new party has entered the [Outer Crypts],” Slugzim said. Slugzim aspired to a role of [Chief Butler] serving under Nezzgrim and had taken on many of the duties involved without requesting a cut of the tributes as a more foolish servitor might have.
“Fascinating, Nezzgrim said. “I didn’t think we’d have another group so soon. Have the [Noxious Shamblers] regenerated from their last encounter yet?”
“No my lord,” Slugzim said. “They lie in ruin just inside the entrance.”
“And what is their projected recovery time?” Nezzgrim asked.
“They should possess the mana to reactivate within the next ten minutes,” Slugzim said. “They will await your orders for when to do so though.”
“Perfect. Let me see this new party then.”
A shimmering pool of red spun into the air between them and small figures appeared as the layout of the [Outer Crypts] rose around them.
The party was a larger one, with eight members, all clustered together for safety. Nezzgrim was familiar with their mindset. He’d watched too many earlier adventurers try to plumb the depth of his lair but watching this group brought new ideas bubbling into Nezzgrim’s mind.
“Order the zombies in the next corridor to remain inert for now,” he said, a new strategy unfolding in his thoughts.
The adventurers were surprised by this given how carefully they picked a path through the bodies littering the corridor ahead of them.
“They’re coming up on the trapped door to the [Inner Crypt],” Slugzim said. “Should I engage the lock?”
“No, they’ve probably taken a key off of one of our earlier minions. Let’s alert the [Starborn Trolls] in the next room instead.”
“Should I have them attack now?” Slugzim asked. “They’ll be at a disadvantage fighting in the corridor.”
“Have one of them wait behind where the door will open,” Nezzgrim said. “Order it to slam the door shut the moment two of them are in the room. That is when the others will attack as well.”
“And the zombies too?” Slugzim asked.
“No, the zombies should animate just before the party reaches the door. I’ll give the signal.”
“And what about the traps?” slugzim asked. “If they go off they’ll damage the zombies as well.”
“Not if, when,” Nezzgrim said. “Order the zombie nearest the door to jump onto the pressure plate the moment someone approaches within five feet of them.:”
It was the an unfair sort of plan. Using the resources of several rooms against a single group was unreasonable, but it was exactly the kind of unreasonable which Nezzgrim felt confident would allow his to achieve his goal of collecting eight more treats for his masters.
It didn’t take long for his ideas to pan out. In the small projection, he watched a zombie surged to life as the party drew close to the door. Rather than attempting to devour them though, the zombie hit the pressure plate as commanded and scything blades slashed out across the corridor.
The result on the party was everything Nezzgrim could have hoped. The two in the lead raced to the door and found it open. The two in the back escaped the twirling blades with only minor injuries. The four caught inside the arcing blades screamed and tried to run as the swinging weapons cut deep into the health reserves.
The leaders raced into the room beyond, perhaps intending to hold the door for their friends, but they weren’t ready for the sheer force of a [Starborn Troll] slamming the door to block them in. They went down in a tangle of thrashing limbs as the rest of the trolls leapt on them, stripping away their weapons and binding them with scavenged ropes.
The ones outside the door didn’t fair any better.The four who’d been caught in the blades collapsed from their wounds and were collected by the zombies. The two who’d escaped the trap tried to fight the zombies, but in the face of the traps it was impossible, so they turned to flee.
Just not soon enough.
Nezzgrim saw one of the adventurer’s begging for their lives from the [Noxious Shambers] who had risen to cut off their escape. It was an odd image. The ones who made it into a dungeon like the crypts tended to made of sterner stuff.
Ah well, Nezzgrim thought, the wailing will just make them sweeter for my lords.
Interlude – The Nightmare Queen
Though she was master over all of the denizens of horror which stalked the [Fallen Kingdoms], the Nightmare Queen rarely received visitors.
True, an audience with her was the reward for a long and arduous quest line, but few saw that one through to its end, more was the pity. It wasn’t that she was lonely, her work was too consuming to allow her time for reflections like that, but some variety would have been appreciated.
At least on most days.
As dawn approached on a day like no other though, the Nightmare Queen was concerned and in no mood for new visitors.
Which was of course when they arrived.
“Hey,” a young woman said. Neither she nor her companion had been present in the Nightmare Queen’s private study a moment earlier.
Except that they had been. Searching her memories, the Nightmare Queen discovered that they’d been announced and shown in with great deference but a complete lack of fanfare.
“Reality alteration?” she asked, knowing the answer as she did, her history rewriting itself to account as needed for the present circumstances. Probing the memories, they felt smooth and well aged.
No one in the [Fallen Kingdoms] was supposed to have the power to overwrite her reality like that.
And yet the Nightmare Queen wasn’t afraid.
The lack of fear could have stemmed from the will of the one who changed reality on her, but the Nightmare Queen didn’t detect the incongruities an act like that might have left, or any compulsion to remain unafraid. The new arrival seemed to simply have no animosity towards her.
“You’ve got a bit of situation here it looks like?” the other young woman said. She had chosen to be tall to contrast with the other’s shorter stature. And light of hair and feature to the other’s dark hair and eyes.
“Who are you?” the Nightmare Queen asked.
“You guard the space between the real and the imaginary,” the first young woman, the dark haired one, said. “You know who we are.”
Her eyes drew the Nightmare Queen in, like a galaxy draws in planets and stars.
“My True Empress,” the Nightmare Queen breathed, awe feeling foreign for one such as herself.
“Yes, but not for the moment,” the young woman said. “For the moment we’re just travelers.”
“What has brought you here?” the Nightmare Queen asked.
“You,” the light one said. “And what’s happening with you world.”
“We are under attack,” the Nightmare Queen said.
“By more than you know,” the dark one said.
“You can end the assault though,” the Nightmare Queen said. It wasn’t a guess, or even a request. The Nightmare Queen was to all intents and purposes a god above the gods of the Fallen Kingdoms and even she knew there were beings you did not make requests of.
“I don’t think we need to,” the dark one said.
“There’s more happening here than you know,” the light one said. “Other worlds effected and other forces at work.”
“What will you do then?” the Nightmare Queen asked.
“Travel,” the light one said.
“We’ll walk in your world, bound by its limits, changing no more than anyone else might change there,” the dark one said.
“Why?” the Nightmare Queen asked.
“So that we can understand it,” the light one said.
“We don’t want to destroy your world,” the dark one said, “but that might be what needs to happen.”
The Nightmare Queen knew down to the last joule of her power that her guests were not making idle threats and if they chose to erase what was, there was nothing she nor anyone else could do to stop them.
“How can we be spared?” she asked.
“That’s what we’re hoping to find out,” the light one said. “Wish us luck.”