Author Archives: dreamfarer

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 14

Obsidian shatters. When a mace is swung with sufficient force it doesn’t dent obsidian armor. Instead, like a pain of glass, the plates of armor which make up a [Lava Drinker’s] body will explode. Pillowcase found that to be vaguely satisfying. 

What was less pleasing was how the creature’s molten innards clung to the mace’s head as Pillowcase drew the weapon back to fend off another attacker. Target rich environments had their advantages but getting your weapon bound up by one attacker could fatal when you had dozens more around you.

Dozens in total but we only have six foes left in front of us. Tessa felt herself dissociating. It wasn’t against her will though. It was more a matter of stepping back and allowing her instincts and Pillowcase’s inborn experience to handle the moment to moment details of the fight she was engaged in. That left her free to evaluate the battle dispassionately, noting and tracking the number, position and strength of their foes.

Unfortunately the values she had for those were “too many”, “everywhere” and “possibly more than she could handle”.

A [Lava Drinker] jumped over the corpse of its comrade as Pillowcase struggled to hold off another one which had tried to drop from the ceiling onto her. 

She whirled a full power blow with the mace at the new arrivals sparsely defended underside, but three of its feet brushed the blow aside.

On Tessa’s tactical display the [Lava Drinker’s] health dropped only a smidge, The abdomen was a sensitive spot for [Lava Drinkers] – the same as it was on humans – but the creature’s defense had been enough to deflect most of Tessa’s swing.

Its counterattack came with such speed that Pillowcase was only able to avoid it because Tessa had given her “warrior spirit” free rein move as she needed to stay safe.

Well, almost free rein.

Keeping Lisa safe was a higher priority than saving herself.

Tessa didn’t stop to think about that.

There wasn’t time to wonder if she was stepping over a line, or allowing her feelings to taint her reasoning.

A [Lava Drinker] bit into her leg and her health plummeted.

“[Heart Killer’s Curse]”, Pillowcase called, targeting the one which was trying to tear her leg off. The ability lashed out at the monster, ripping back some of the health the creature had stolen from Pillowcase. The ability couldn’t save her life by itself, but it offset enough of the damage that Alice’s health spell was able to repair the rest.

Until another [Lava Drinker] sank its fangs into Pillowcase’s  weapon arm.

They’re level 12. Tessa observed. And Minion class.

It was good news. 

It didn’t mean she or Alice were going to survive though. 

That would have been wildly incredible news. 

Instead it meant that the area they’d fallen into was mirroring the sort of level design the [Broken Horizons] devs typically followed. With level 12 for common mobs like the [Lava Drinkers], it was plausible that a group who’d started at the abandoned farm house and worked their way down through portion of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] which lay beneath it would be capable of taking on the challenges in this next area they could reach.

Pillowcase adjusted her stance, stepping forward into the jaws of a [Lava Drinker] and using her shield to drive it into the bone floor. Another approached but it failed to land a blow before she hammered it back with blow after blow from her mace.

“Another patrol’s incoming!” Lisa called out.

That made five total groups of monsters which had gathered on them.

“Follow me,” Pillowcase said, her voice flat and uninflected. It wasn’t an order as much as a tactical advisement. If Lost Alice chose to do something else, Pillowcase would assume it was because Alice was had noticed something Tessa had missed. Or was pursuing an alternate goal as sometimes happened in battle.

There were too many [Lava Drinkers] for them to fight, and no option of out running the monsters, but that didn’t mean moving away was a lost cause.

Redoubling her offensive cost Pillowcase. Her health dropped into the critical range and stayed there for an agonizing second and a half. Almost an eternity in battle. What her pain bought them however was the position Pillowcase needed.

By slamming one [Lava Drinker] into the wall and crushing another one under her boot, Pillowcase was able to open a path for Alice and herself to step through to the far side of the growing [Lava Drinker] hoard.

Tactical advantage achieved, Pillowcase noted internally, her emotionless voice nonetheless singing with triumph.

“[Casting spell: Counter Death]”, Alice said, wrapping Pillowcase in a protective barrier before racing as far down the tunnel as she could while remaining in spell casting range. 

Pillowcase switched back to a fully defensive stance, giving ground to every attack the horde threw at her. With the corridor clogged with [Lava Drinkers], the ones in the back tried scuttling up the walls and onto the ceiling. Their pounce attacks required Pillowcase to brace carefully, but as long as she was ready for them, the damage was greatly reduced by her shield and the [Lava Drinkers] were easily hurled back into the horde which had gathered, tripping up their fellows and preventing a surge of such attacks from literally burying Pillowcase in enemies.

“[Casting spell: Minor Blood Channel],” Lisa chanted and added, “I don’t think this corridor is going back to the entrance.”

While she was casting her best healing spell, Lost Alice couldn’t move, but she’d run back far enough that Pillowcase’s fighting retreat allowed plenty of time for the healing spell to repair her injuries. They weren’t defeating the [Lava Drinkers] fast enough to win the battle, but they were facing off against superior foes and surviving for far longer than they should have been able to. Despite the terror of an impending death by devouring lava bugs, Tessa felt a fierce surge of pride at the victory each additional second represented.

She wondered if she was losing her mind, but since each moment of survival meant more of the dungeon mapped for later use, Pillowcase found the prospect of inevitably being overrun by the [Lava Drinkers] acceptable. 

When they returned with the rest of their party, the contest would have a very different outcome.

“All of the halls are curving,” Tessa said. “When I try to picture this place in my head it feels like a weird, distorted spider web?”

“And all paths lead towards the big monster in the center. Yeah that fits,” Lisa said.

“Let’s see if we can hang on long enough to find out what it is,” Tessa said.

“The boss has got to be some kind of major flame monster,” Lisa said. “These things are fire based, but they couldn’t have taken out the dead people we’ve seen. Not that quick at least.”

Pillowcase noted that the temperature around them was rising, the further they followed the tunnel.

“We’re definitely heading inwards,” Tessa said. “We could try for another branch?”

“Let’s follow this in to the center,” Lisa said. “The bosses are usually the worst part of these dungeons. If we can get a sense of what its basic attacks are like we’ll know we’ll be up against next time.”

“I’m game,” Tessa said. With her shield, Pillowcase caught a thin stream of a super heated substance which was probably supposed to look like lava despite the two sharing no actual physical properties beyond being exceptionally hot.

With a quick shake of her arm, Pillowcase splashed the liquid material from the shield onto one of the [Lava Drinkers], who ignored its presence.

Ok. Obsidian doesn’t burn, Tessa observed. It wasn’t surprising to find fireproof creatures in the [Sunless Deeps]. Anything which regularly encountered lava and thermal vents tended to live longer if temperature extremes didn’t bother it.

Pillowcase parried, blocked, and fell back further and further as Tessa pondered their best plan of action.

A flight back to the entrance as ghosts would allow them to use the column of falling lava as the teleporter it was so obviously meant to be. Getting back to the demon’s lair wasn’t the end of their troubles though. They would still need to find a [Heart Fire] before the [Hounds of Fate] caught them.

She was blocking out the idea that the hounds might trap them inside the corridors she was fighting in. There was no good answer for that and Pillowcase, at least, was built with enough wisdom to know insolvable problems weren’t worth any worries when there were plenty of others to work on.

Also, maneuvering down the hallway was an exercise in brutality, which was more than enough to keep Tessa was spiraling too far into herself.

Each time she got close to Alice, Alice would break her healing spell and race away before resuming the cast. Those second while Alice ran to max range demanded that Pillowcase react to every attack and have all of her own healing working to offset the endless sea of stabs and burns the skittering bugs assaulted her with. 

“I am so glad you followed me,” Tessa said, as Alice planted her feet and resumed her healing spell. “Which is horrible and selfish, I know.”

“Horrible and selfish was coming down here alone in the first place,” Lisa said. “I’m just glad you didn’t run into trouble before I got here. I was afraid I was going to find Pillowcase torn about and your ghost being gobbled up by the death puppies.”

 “Would have served me right, I suppose,” Tessa said.

“Don’t say that,” Lisa said. “Just. Don’t.”

“Ok,” Tessa said. “Bad time to joke about getting eaten. Though, listen, when I drop run. Don’t try to save me. I know it probably won’t help, but who knows what kind of stuff is down here. Maybe you’ll find something that can eat them for you.”

“Don’t think I’m going to have that chance,” Lisa said. “Those things are pretty fast. Also, unrelated note, I’m running really low on mana.”

“These damn corridors are endless,” Tessa grumbled. “If we can just make it to one more interesting spot we can call it quits and death run back.”

“We’ve got another intersection behind us,” Lisa said. “Or, wait? It might be more than an intersection.”

“Are we at the boss room?” Tessa asked, hope flaring within her that they’d found something truly important in their mapping run.

“I can’t tell from here,” Lisa said. “The lighting’s different in there though and its a lot hotter here than it was where you’re standing. And, wait, I’m getting a call.”

Pillowcase wasn’t sure that waiting was much of an option. The [Lava Drinkers] were driving her back no matter how hard she tried to hold the line against them. Her choices were mostly around how much damage she was willing to suffer to keep the pace slow and and how thin a buffer of health she was willing to risk fighting with.

“The next time we move, go ahead and run out of casting range,” Tessa said after a moment. “I’ll hold out for as long as I can so you’ll have time to make it there and find out what we’ve got to work with.”

“I’m not letting you die,” Lisa said, a new urgency gripping her voice..

“You’re almost out of mana,” Tessa said. “You’re not letting me die. This is the two of us spending our resources as best we can.”

“You’re not a resource! Let me worry about my mana.”

“It’ll be ok,” Tessa said.

“We don’t know that!” Lisa said. “Cease All just called me. The players in the regular zones are getting slaughtered. The Consortium is attacking everywhere! She says they lost Novalux and Grin-Dy. Lost as in their ghosts are gone too. The hounds are getting them all!”

The grief in Lisa’s voice cut through Tessa worse than any of the [Lava Drinkers] had managed too.

“Ok,” she said. “Then we stay together. And we make it out of here. Together.”

“Together.” Lisa echoed, with an iron resolve Tessa wasn’t entirely sure was her own.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 13

When you can’t go back, and you can’t stay where you are, you’ve got to go forward. Pillowcase hated that.

“We’re being herded,” Tessa said, as she retreated away from the scuttling monsters who were still out of sight. She had her shield raised, her mace drawn and no doubt her mind thanks to Pillowcase’s tactical analysis that the monsters generating the red glow could catch them whenever they wanted.

“Towards the level boss?” Lisa asked. She was watching the direction they were moving, since retreating into unknown territory was guaranteed to result in encountering something you weren’t expecting.

“That or a better kill zone,” Tessa said.

“So, we’re in mapping mode then,” Lisa said. “Great. I hate mapping dungeons.”

[Broken Horizons] had changed over the years. Modern dungeons were designed with the entertainment of the players in mind. Venturing into one was meant to take fifteen minutes to an hour to complete. Paths were clearly laid out, puzzles relatively simple to deduce, and a premium placed on never putting the players in a position where they were lost and uncertain what to do next.

That hadn’t been true of the original dungeons though.

The original dungeons hadn’t been focused on entertainment. They’d been been designed as sieves, brutal tests meant to separate the “elite” from the less worthy masses of “noobs”.

When Tessa had joined, [Broken Horizons] had been three years old and just beginning to grow beyond its original adolescent mentality. The developers had learned the hard lesson that their tests were costing them a sizable portion of their playerbase. They’d moved in to more accessible designs but they’d left the old dungeons in the game for those who enjoyed that sort of challenge. There was enough desirable loot in the old dungeons that Tessa had wound up running them each many times before venturing on to newer, and more lucrative, content. She hadn’t anticipated ever being in a similar environment again, but the “real” [Fallen Kingdoms] she found herself in didn’t seem as interested in being a themepark for her enjoyment.

“I remember mapping a whole lot better than I wish I did,” she said, thankful in one sense that, though she’d loathed doing it, she could remember each of the dungeons she’d “mapped” back when that was a requirement to progress at all.

Part of the dealing with the largest dungeons of the old game – misery dungeons as her old guild had called them – was knowing what awaited you. Some of that knowledge was easy to acquire. There were wiki’s and forums which spilled the difficult secrets – thereby largely invalidating the developers “tests” – but there were elements of familiarity which couldn’t be gained by reading web pages. The foremost of which was unlocking the in-game maps for the dungeons.

With teleportation and secret door detection as a critical aspect of navigating the original dungeons, characters who had explored areas of the dungeon were at a significant advantage to ones who were groping around blindly for the first time. 

A group of newbies in a dungeon would not only be forced to travel through it via the longest possible path, missing out on opportunities to skip forward to later areas via unlocked teleportation circles, they would also be unable to even access some of the most lucrative areas until they’d managed to discover the hidden paths which lead to them (which was generally accomplished by walking back and forth in an area until the game decided the character had “noticed an irregularity” and would chose to display the secret door or concealed tunnel so that the player could click on them and proceed forward.

“Mapping runs” were one of the methods lower tier guilds like Tessa’s had used to unlock those telepoint and discover the secret areas since they lacked the offensive might to simply carve a path through dungeon within the allowed time limits (since many of the early dungeons also had time limits for the maximum duration you can spend within one on any given run).

Instead they’d been forced to race through the dungeons, time and again, with monsters hot on their heels, trying to reach new areas or discover new paths before they were inevitably torn to shred. As the party’s healer, Glimmerglass had been one of the last to fall usually, though that only meant that time she drowned in monsters she’d watched as other party members fell and she was helpless to save them.

Tessa had all of the early dungeons fully detailed in no small part because she’d been willing to die hundreds of times with Glimmerglass to reach the odd corners and discover the hidden doors that held each dungeons most useful secrets. In retrospect it seemed like a questionable method of “having fun” but at the time it had seemed completely worth it.

Tessa felt like she might need to show a similar commitment with the dungeon she was in, except that dying a hundred times to map it wasn’t going to be an option. Not with the [Hounds of Fate] in play.

“We’ve passed a lot of branching corridors,” Tessa said. “We might be able to use one of those to break through and get back to the entrance.”

“It’s a plan,” Lisa said. She didn’t have to add that it wasn’t a good plan. Tessa was well aware of that. “We should see as much as we can before we branch off though.”

“That’ll make it harder to get back to a [Heart Fire],” Tessa said. As ghosts they could move fast enough to cover in a few seconds the ground they’d crept down over the course of a few minutes. Tessa wasn’t worried about the distance so much as the presence of the [Hounds of Fate]. 

On the one hand, in [Broken Horizons], the hounds didn’t appear within dungeons. Since the walls constrained the ghosts the same as they did the player’s bodies, the devs didn’t need to implement a system to handle players wandering off course. On the other hand, Tessa knew she wasn’t in the game version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] and if the hounds were here, it was going to be next to impossible to avoid them.

“There wasn’t a [Heart Fire] at the entrance,” Lisa said. “This place might be incomplete, but there should still be one here somewhere. They’re usually one of the first things put in.”

“You’ve seen the early dungeon designs?” Tessa asked.

“The devs have thrown  some of them up on the test servers for special pre-order sneak peeks,” Lisa said. 

“Did they offer anything like that for this one?” Tessa asked, thinking that even if Lisa wasn’t familiar with it, they might be able to reach out to someone in her guild who was or who could look up information on it.”

“Nope,” Lisa said. “I shot a message over to Cease All, but she hadn’t heard about the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] either.”

“So either this is all new and unique to this version of the [Fallen Kingdoms], or its based on something the devs weren’t planning to release with the launch at all?” Tessa asked.

“Pretty much,” Lisa said. “It does look like their design though. I mean these hallways and junctions? They don’t seem to serve a natural purpose. They look like the other dungeons were it’s all about channeling the players to interesting fights. So the there should be a [Heart Fire] hear. It would probably be the first quest objective if this was a finished location.”

“We could break and look for it now?” Tessa offered.

“They’re going to chase us and catch us if we do that,” Lisa said, sounding strangely certain.

Almost as though it was Lost Alice who was speaking from experience. 

But Lisa didn’t have a second persona to draw on. She hadn’t made up a backstory for Lost Alice.

Unless a backstory wasn’t what had created Pillowcase?

“That’ll happen no matter what at this point,” Tessa said. “If we run now, we can at least avoid fighting them where they want to fight us. Best case we can take them by surprise.”

“We won’t surprise them,” Lisa said. “They’re predators. They know how to handle prey that tries to flee, and prey that tries to fight back.”

“Do you know what these things are?” Tessa asked.

“No.” Lisa shook her head. “Or yes. I think I do. I just don’t know how. The red light, and the skittering. I’ve seen that before. I’ve heard it. Except I know I haven’t?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tessa said. “It’s probably like your spellcasting, just something this world gave you.”

It sounded reasonable to Tessa’s ears as she spoke, but a deeper part of her guessed that Lisa’s knowledge of dungeon dwellers came from somewhere, or perhaps someone, else.

“I think they’re [Lava Drinkers],” Lisa said. “They’re a kind of parasite if I’m right. Made out of obsidian and filled with lava. So, easy to break, but doing so is a bad idea.”

“Good to know,” Tessa said, contemplating if the mace in her hand was at all the weapon she wanted to be wielding. “At the next passage, we’ll break and try to find another turn to take us back towards the entrance room. If there’s a [Heart Fire] it shouldn’t be to far from where we came in.”

“Pick a path and I’ll follow you,” Lisa said. “And if this doesn’t work out, stick with me ok? We’ll make it back together more easily than if split up and try to find it alone.”

Tessa knew that wasn’t strictly true, but she had no interest in being alone, as a vulnerable ghost, in what could easily be described as Hell.

The next side passage wasn’t far, but before they reached it, they found more bodies. The burns on them were worse that the first batch, as though whatever had slain them had grown hotter and stronger with each kill. 

Tessa didn’t take time to examine them, though Pillowcase was certain she could determine a fair amount about their attacker if she’d been able to make a careful inspection of the corpses. 

“Ok, run!” Tessa said as she turned and dashed down the corridor to her left.

She couldn’t resist looking back to make sure Lost Alice was following her but that also meant she got to see just how close the [Lava Drinkers] were too.

The obsidian armored things were roughly similar to beetles. If a beetle was the size of a small pony and bled bright, glowing rivulets of orange lava from the seems on its body.

They’d both been right.

Lisa had correctly identified their pursuers and Pillowcase had been been correct in saying they couldn’t be outrun.

What Tessa did managed to do though, was clear the next corner and pull Lost Alice around behind her before the wave of [Lava Drinkers] crashed into them.

At first she expected to be obliterated, like she had been at the farmhouse, but the [Lava Drinkers] tearing mandibles weren’t able to strike past her shield with enough force to penetrate her armor. Or At least not often enough that Lost Alice wasn’t able to keep up with repairing the damage.

Pillowcase swung her mace, shattering the nearest [Lava Drinker’s] armored shell. A jet of molten rock splashed towards Pillowcase but she side stepped it, suffering burns only on her upper arms and chest.

Another swing burst the [Lava Drinker] like a balloon, but Pillowcase had been wise enough to ensure the blow send the create stumbling backwards, which left it to spewing lava on several of its fellows.

Another patrol showed up a few seconds later, after Tessa and the [Lava Drinkers] behind them had exchanged substantial helpings of pain.

“We’re boxed in,” Lisa said.

Of course they were. That had been the [Lava Drinkers] plan all along. Surround and conquer. 

Another group appeared behind the first, as [Lava Drinkers] from all over began to converge on their position.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 12

Tessa wasn’t a broken mess. Or at least Pillowcase’s body wasn’t. The jury was still out on the rest of her.

“I wonder if they forgot to stock this area with mobs?” she asked herself as she crept down a long corridor which seemed to have carved from the bones of some incredibly vast creature.

Her fall from the demon’s lair in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] to the Sunless Deeps had plunged her through a lake of lava and onto an obsidian landing disk which, somehow, hadn’t shattered under the impact. That Pillowcase’s body was also undamaged, Tessa took as a sign that the “fall” was really more of a visual effect than a literal descendant from the floating land of the [High Beyond].

The obsidian disk she arrived on was the only spot of black on the whole subterranean area. Above her head, a swirling vortex of red light leaked down. For all that the droplets of light looked like bits of molten lava dripping from the lake above, Tessa saw the familiar shimmering quality sparkling within them to indicate the presence of an active portal effect.

She could return to the demon’s lair, potentially even without dying.

So that was a good thing.

What would be a better thing, she decided was to complete the mission she’d idiotically jumped into all alone.

Was that you? she asked, trying to distance herself from what she knew was her own foolish impulses.

Yes, Pillowcase replied.

Because, of course, Pillowcase was her.

 I get it, she said and shook her head.

She was delaying because she knew what a phenomenally bad idea exploring on her own was. Even if she’d been a [Rogue] or a [Shadow Dancer] with actual stealth skills, exploring a brand new dungeon was likely to be a death sentence. 

I don’t really want to die. 

On the one hand, admitting that to herself was comforting. The actions she’d been taking over the last several hours had left the matter somewhat in doubt. On the other hand, the honest admission had served to dispel the thick layer of denial she’d been working to build up. 

They’d been lucky with the [Hounds of Fate] so far, but even beyond that there was the issue she’d been refusing to consider deeply.

I died getting here? Didn’t I?

Melting into a shower of light? Streaking across the universe faster than light could follow? Arriving in a new dimension, or plain of existence, or whatever, where the rules of reality worked completely differently, and where she was someone else, or even something else? How was that not an afterlife?

We still hurt, and bleed, Pillowcase said. And love, and grow. We’re more now than we were before, both these two sides of us, and our team. Isn’t that living?

Tessa paused as she continued down one of the hallways which lead out of the arrival chamber.

It is, she said. So what was it I was doing before?

Empty days grinding away on tasks which didn’t matter, for people whose understanding of her began and ended with her employee ID number? Empty nights with no one to come home to because she’d been a terrible girlfriend? 

Was that a life?

“Find anything yet?” Lisa asked over their private channel.

“No sign of mobs here yet, but I’m moving slowly and carefully,” Tessa said. “I’ve got a straight shot back to the entrance if something shows up.”

“Good,” Lisa said. “What’s the landing site like?”

“It’s fun,” Tessa said. “There’s a short period of darkness while you pass through the lava lake and the landing is so fast you’d like it would break every bone in your body, but transport system cancels out all the damage. I think it was down for a while though. There’s big empty pools in the chamber where the lava light was starting to gather. I think it drained away after the demons shot down the portal, but it’s flowing again now that I broke the barrier they had in place.”

“Ok, first, Lava Lake? Second, the lava is flowing into room you’re in?” Lisa sounded less upset than Tessa had guessed she would be. There was also the faint sound of air gusting behind her.

“The lava’s not in this area. You kind of phase though it,” Tessa said. “What’s falling into the room is more like lava-inspired liquid light.”

“Oh, well that’s good,” Lisa said, her voice colored by an odd element of hurried relief.

“Where are you now?” Tessa asked, a suspicion growing in the back of her mind.

“I just landed,” Lisa said.

“Wait, you’re here too? Why? That’s not safe!”

“Oh good, you’re aware that its dangerous down here. Just apparently not aware enough to keep you from jumping in without any of the rest of us!”

The anger Tessa had been expecting to hear came flooding back into Lisa’s voice. If they hadn’t been speaking telepathicallly, Tessa was certain Lisa would have been yelling loudly enough to bring the whole dungeon down on them.

Except Lisa wouldn’t do that.

She was too experienced and too collected to make a rookie mistake like that.

“I’m supposed to keep you safe,” Tessa said. 

“Yeah and can’t do that if you die for real!” Lisa’s anger wasn’t diminishing.

“Better me than any of you,” Tessa said.

“What?”

“It’s my job, isn’t it? The Tank’s gotta take the hits so other people don’t.”

“Come back to the entry. We’re leaving.”

“I can’t,” Tessa said. “We need Yawlorna and her crew on our side and this is the only thing I can think of that’ll convince them to work with us.”

“Congratulations then. You succeeded. They’re working with us now,” Lisa said. “So get back here, or I’m going to drag you back.”

“What do you mean ‘they’re working with us’?”, Tessa asked.

“There’s an attack on [Sky’s Edge],” Lisa said. “They’re going along with our team to check it out and evacuate the people there.”

“What? Why did you call me?”

“Because I knew you would put up a fight,” Lisa said. “I’m heading towards you now.”

“I’m not putting up a fight,” Tessa said. “But there’s another reason we have to make this work.”

“Farming for experience?” Lisa asked.

“No! This could be our way home too!” Tessa said. “Yawlorna said their ship could travel to other worlds. If it can travel to here from their home world, it might be our best shot at traveling back to Earth too.”

“That’s…”

Tessa saw Lost Alice pause as she rounded the corner.

“She did say that, didn’t she?” Lisa asked, her anger cooling as she laid eyes on Pillowcase.

“Yeah, I mean it’s still a long shot, but if it works it could fix everything,” Tessa said. “All the people who really can’t afford to be trapped here? It’s only been about half a day so far of Earth time. If Yawlorna’s ship can get people back then there have to be other ships that could do the same. If the stars aligned, we could get everyone back before any real tragedies happen.”

Lost Alice breathed in and released her breath in a long sigh.

“It was still stupid coming here alone.”

“I know,” Tessa said. “I’m sorry. I saw what needed to happen and I didn’t think what it would mean you and Rip and Matt.”

Lost Alice turned away and wiped her arm across her eyes.

“They’re on the mission to [Sky’s Edge],” she said.

“Rip and Matt? Wait, are they going to get there before the attack arrives?”

“I don’t think so,” Lisa said. “They’re with Obby and Lady Midnight, and they’re supposed to be careful, but you’ve seen Rip.”

“Oh god. She’s totally going to fight them. Maybe we should go back?”

“I wanted to,” Lisa said. “Letting them go seemed insane, but keeping them back would have been so much worse.”

Tessa tried to workout how that could be true. Subjecting the kids to monster attacks was one thing. There was nothing “human” about the monsters they fought, and the only people getting hurt were the ones on their team, who were fine as soon as they reached a [Heart Fire]. Seeing other people die though? People who might not be capable of coming back? And killing people who couldn’t respawn? That was a very different thing.

But Rip would know that. And Matt would too.

“She would have gone anyway,” Tessa said, understanding flowing through her as memories of being fourteen echoed in her mind.

“And she would have felt so betrayed that I didn’t trust her,” Lisa said. “I hate either of them being out there, this is more than any of us were built for dealing with, and they’ve been handling it as well as anyone we’ve met.”

“And better than most,” Tessa said.

“Better than me at least,” Lisa said.

Tessa didn’t bother to try hidden her surprise.

“You weren’t wrong. We do need this to convince Yawlorna’s people,” Lisa said. “And maybe to get home.”

That wasn’t what Lisa had meant, but Tessa could see her healer wasn’t interested in digging into things in that moment.

“This is only meant to be a scouting mission,” Tessa said. “All we need to do is get a sense of what the layout is like down here and what kind of enemies we might be facing. Once we’ve got that, no one will blame us for running back and joining the others.”

“We’re not splitting up,” Lisa said. “And no dying for me. We both get out of here. Okay?”

“I like that plan,” Tessa said, and began moving forward again.

Creeping about in armor wasn’t impossible, but it wasn’t exceptionally easy either. The illumination in the halls of bone seemed to come from everywhere so shadows to hide in were essentially nonexistent. Pillowcase’s leather boots didn’t clatter against the bone floor but the long curving hallways didn’t present many corners to creep up to and peer around, even at the few intersections they passed, where the corridor simply widened out into gently curving walls.

“Times like these make me wish turning into a bat was a racial power I could pick,” Lisa said.

“Times like these make me wish I’d logged in with my [Rogue],” Tessa said. “She was only in the mid 50’s but she’d unlocked the full stealth line of skills.”

“I’ve got one of those too,” Lisa said. “I only made it to 62 with her, and that was mostly because Cease All forced me to party with her when she needed to farm the [Drowned Grotto] for [Star Shells].”

“Oh god I hated that quest!” Tessa said. “That place was just littered with…”

She paused as they came to another, sharper intersection. 

An intersection which wasn’t empty.

“With death bodies,” Lisa said, her attention captured by the pile of corpses the same as Tessa’s had been.

“Zombies?” Tessa asked.

“I hope so,” Lisa said.

“Yeah. Zombies we can deal with.”

Tessa crept forward, mace and shield at the ready for the moment when the corpses lurched to life and decided to eat them. It wasn’t what corpses were supposed to do, but nine times out of ten you could count on them to try for a “surprise” attack.

Then there was the other possibility.

The corpses lay where they were.

The blood around them was long dried out.

The rotting fingers of decay had ravaged the creatures which had once been humanoid, though clearly not human. 

“They died without fighting,” Lisa said, pointing to the weapons they held which were still sheathed.

“They burned,” Tessa said, noting the ashed remains of clothes and the charring on what flesh remained.

“We are not ready to face something that can do this,” Lisa said.

“Probably not,” Tessa said. She turned back to the direction they’d come and saw red light pulsing around the long bend of the corridor.

“Something got behind us,” Lisa said, as Lost Alice gripped her staff tighter.

Tessa heard the sound of skittering legs on the bone floor. And the bone walls. And the bone ceiling.

They’d lost the way back.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 11

Rose wasn’t the team’s leader. No one had elected her and no one would listen to her. Why should they? She was just a noob. Just a low level nobody who was brand new to the world of [Broken Horizons]. Just a kid.

“We’ve gotta get in there.” She didn’t wait to see if anyone would follow her. She knew Jamal would and if the rest did too that would be great, but the call she felt was too strong to be ignored.

The teleport effect had dropped her party on the western side of [Sky’s Edge], where the land began to turn to barren, blasted hills before jutting upwards into the broken mountains which rose so far over head. The remnants of a mystic circle remained at the landing site, fragments of obsidian which crackled with rainbow lightning. If there’d once been a control system it had long since been scavenged or rotted away but the bank of the low hill which separated them from the town was drawn in an even enough curve that it could have been manufactured to contain the circle’s energies.

Rip was up and over the hill before she heard the first response to her declaration.

“What’s our priority here?” Lady Midnight asked.

“We need to get the townsfolk and the adventurers out,” Rose said, speaking as Rip Shot. Or maybe it was Rip who said it? Rose didn’t have the time to pay attention to the divisions in her psyche, but the urge to save people and the calm focus which swept over her felt like they came from a place of experience. 

“It looks like the Consortium portaled troops down to the north of the city,” Obby said. “They’re marching down the road now.”

“Why weren’t they portaled directly into the city?” Starchild asked as they reached the outskirts of [Sky’s Edge].

“They’re using [A7 Transports] for this assault,” Jamal said as Matt. “Those can only open portals slowly, so they have to open them far enough away that the defenders can’t wreck them or set an ambush.”

“How can you tell that?” Illuthiz asked.

“I can see them,” Jamal said, and pointed up to an open patch of sky. “They’re up there, well out of range of standard planetary defense systems.”

Rip reached the back of Mister Pendant’s shop and glanced around quickly, taking in the crowd of people who were racing around in the small town. Glancing up, all she could see in the sky above were stars.

Apparently I’ve got telescopic vision now too, Jamal said on their private channel when he saw her searching for the ships.

Good, if you wind up with any other super powers, use ‘em all, Rose said.

Are we going to fight? Jamal asked.

Yeah, Rip said, experiences Rose had never lived again guiding her. The people here are never going to get out on time and we need to make sure the attackers don’t feel like they’re free to wander away and hunt down the refugees.

Fighting these guys one on one is going to be a challenge and the Consortium will have sent at least a platoon to take this place, Matt said, or Rose guessed it was Matt since she heard the same certainty in Jamal’s voice that she felt from Rip.

If we need to ghost run, we ghost run to the ruins we cleared out, Rip said.

It wasn’t the plan Rose wanted to go with. By preference she would have run to the farm house, but Rip knew that if (or when) they were forced back into a ghostly state they wouldn’t be alone, and if the still breathing people were panicked, she couldn’t imagine their ghosts being any calmer. Especially not with the [Hounds of Fate] nipping at their heels.

In the central square of the town, Rose saw a pair of familiar faces.

“Aiemethia! Zibby!” she called out, getting the attention of the two older players.

“Rip Shot? Matt Painting? What are you two doing here?” Aiemethia asked.

“We need to evacuate the town,” Rose said. “You’ve got an army of Consortium troops coming from the north.”

“Yeah, we’ve seen them,” Aiemethia said. “The first wave of scouts were already through here.”

He gestured to the numerous fires which were burning around the town.

“How tough were they?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Don’t know,” Aiemethia said. “They didn’t stay around long enough for anyone to land a hit on them.”

“That doesn’t mean they’re weak,” Matt said. “A disruptive sorte like that is meant to breed confusion and chaos. From a profit perspective, the scouts are under orders to return without damage to keep the cost of operation as low as possible.”

“That’s not going to make evacuating people any easier,” Starchild said.

“Then we need to get started now!” Rip said. “Aie, Zibby, can you two help with that?”

“Sure, where are we supposed to evac to though?” Aiemethia asked.

“We cleared part of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. It’s got a [Heart Fire] that should still be set for for our use,” Rip said.

“We’re taking the kids and level 1’s here into a dungeon?” Zibby asked.

“It’s got multiple exits,” Rip said. “If the Consortium tries to chase us in there, we can flee and sic the mobs we haven’t taken care of on them.” 

Zibby sighed. “It’s probably better than putting them up against trained soldiers. Come on, let’s get the kids moving.”

She pulled Aiemethia away towards one of the buildings which was no longer on fire. From the clatter inside it, Rose guessed that it was where the various “young” players had been gathered.

She winced at that. A lot of people probably would have considered her and Jamal “young players”, but after adventuring with Pillowcase and Alice, she couldn’t think of herself like that anymore.

“How long till the Consortium’s forces are here?” she asked.

“No more than a couple of minutes,” Matt said. “They’ll send a sacrificial force in first to probe our defenses and inflict whatever casualties surprise aggression can get them.”

“Then we need to ready for them when they get here,” Rip said. “And we need to get everyone else out by then. Spread out and tell people to run south. We can collect them on the farside of town and cut southwest to stay away from the troops.”

No one argued, and in the press of the moment, Rose didn’t find that surprising. It wasn’t until she found herself running to the hastily assembled barricades to the north with Jamal by her side that she noticed everyone except him had followed her orders.

We need talk to everyone into leaving, she said.

Yeah, that includes the adventurers at the barricade, Jamal said. 

I can handle them, Rose said.

I know you can, Jamal said. I just don’t want to get separated in the fighting.

I was kind of hoping you’d lead the others away.

And leave you alone against the Consortium? Yeah, that’s not happening. If we have to ghost run to the [Heart Fire] then we’re ghost running together.

I love you, Rose said.

Same to you, Jamal said.

When we get out of this, I’ve got to find a nice girl to hook you up with.

I am all in favor of you playing wingman for me, but I’m betting we’re going to have bigger problems for a while than finding me a date.

Aren’t battlefield hookups a thing?  Rose asked.

That’s taking the whole “enemies to lovers” thing a little far isn’t it?

Before Rose could respond, one of the adventurers on the barricades hailed them.

“Hey guys! Reinforcements are here!” Kammie Anne Do shouted.

The seven other people crouched behind the ramshackle pile of carts and broken housing materials looked up, evaluating Rip and Matt with eyes filled with the shards of shattered hopes.

“We’re not,” Rip said. “We’re here to get you out, not to beat back the Consortium.”

“What do you mean?” Battler X asked. “Where can we go?”

“There’s a dungeon area that our team cleared out,” Rip said. “We can retreat to there. It’s much more defensible than this town is.”

“We can’t go into the dungeons around here!” Battler X said. “They’re filled with high level monsters! We’ll get slaughtered and have to come back here anyways.”

“There’s a [Heart Fire] in the dungeon we’re taking you to,” Rip said. “We can respawn there if we need.”

“And the monsters aren’t that bad,” Matt said. “We took on the area we’re going to lead you to with a party of four and made it through to one of the mini-bosses.”

“We’ll never get away though,” Battler X said.

“Not anymore! They’re here!” Kammie said, pointing up the road to where it rose to the top of a hill.

The [Clothworks] in the Consortium’s advance force moved like wraiths, silent except for the unearthly scream of their [Battlecry].

Rose felt a chill spread through her, freezing her down to the marrow of her bones.

“It’s a debuff,” Matt said. “Cleanse it off if you can.”

“[Multishot],” Rip called out. She could feel the debuff disrupting her aim but she loosed her shot anyways, striking two of the oncoming [Clothworks].

Around her the other defenders struggled to respond. Some had collapsed to the road, their strength completely stolen away by the [Battlecry]. Others, like Matt, seemed to be able to shake it off better than Rip had.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spectral Wounds].” Matt’s spell hit the lead [Clothwork] with enough force to send the [Soldier] tumbling face first into the dirt.

“[Flame Shot].” Rip didn’t waste the opportunity Matt had opened for her, pin cushioning the [Clothwork] to the ground through the head before it could rise.

Rather than dropping still though, the enemy twitched and writhed, agony screaming through each of its movements.

The spectacle distracted Rip enough that when her shoulder blossomed into a sea of pain and fire, she was at a loss for what could have happened.

“What the hell are those!” Battler X hit the ground next to her.

“[Plasma lancers],” Matt said. “We need better cover or more mobility.”

Around them, bolts of light were blasting the barricade into explosive and flaming fragments.

“Go mobile,” Rose said. “I’ll hold them back.”

“You’re down to critical health,” Matt said.

“Not for long,” Lady Midnight said. “[Casting spell: Minor Blood Channel]”

“We got the others on the move,” Starchild said. “Obby is leading them away.”

“How do we get out of here?” Kammie asked.

“As ghosts,” Rip said. “We’ve got to buy them time. Wait, are you still playing from Earth?”

“No,” Battler X said. “We all got killed in the first dungeon we tried.”

“Good,” Rip said, rising back to her feet and peering over the wall of vines Starchild was repeatedly conjuring to reinforce the remnants of the barricades. “We can buy time for the people who aren’t trapped here yet then.”

The [Plasma Lancers] were shredding Starchild’s conjured vines but the concealment they provided let Rip, Matt, and Kammie send back a continuous volley of return fire. More [Battlecries] rang out from the [Clothwork] but Rose felt Rip’s determination rise inside her. Elven hearts touched on eternity, and no supernaturally induced fear was going to sap her strength.

“How the escape going?” she asked on the party channel, without taking her eyes off the incoming advanced force.

“We’re still in town but I think we have everyone,” Obby said. “Some of the adventurers managed to pick up a few levels too. I’ve got them on the flanks to watch for monster attacks.”

“Good. We’ll catch up to you as soon as there’s an opening for us to flee,” Rip said.

“I’d tell you to stay safe, but that’s be a waste wouldn’t it?” Obby asked.

“I don’t think we’ve been in the same zip code as safety in a long time,” Rose said.

“Give ‘em hell then! And Rose, if you ever need me, just give a yell. My real name’s Way, and if you ever call for help, I’ll be there.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 10

Rose wanted to murder someone. Not anyone in specific, and not the first person she could get her hands on. Just the first person who deserved it that she could find. Fortunately for her, a demon was leading her right towards such an individual. As well as probably a hundred or more similar individuals.

“This is the fastest route to the outerlands,” Illuthiz said. “If we need to retreat, this will not be the path we take to return.”

“Why’s that?” Rose asked, speaking a Rip Shot so that everyone could hear.

“It’s not defensible enough,” Illuthiz said. “My people will seal this passage up once we are through it.”

“That’s good thinking,” Obby said.

They and the rest of Rose’s party were jogging down a wide tunnel which slanted upwards. The black rock floor was carved into long steps, as though meant to aid giant’s three times Rip’s height, but with half the ability to lift their legs. The walls weren’t natural either, being carved with intricate pictograms depicting stylized people and distorted geometric patterns.

If Rose had the time she might have spent it puzzling over the images looking for hidden meanings or clues to some deeper mystery, but time was of the essence, and the images flew past in a blue.

Being at the head of the pack of adventurers left Rose with the odd feeling that she’d wound up in charge after Pillowcase dove into the pit to the [Sunless Deeps] and Lost Alice had stayed behind to bring her home. She brushed that idea aside though. Obby was also at the front along with the demon Illuthiz. If anyone was going to be their leader now, the higher level tank character definitely made the most sense.

“How fast can we get to [Sky’s Edge]?” Rip asked, as Rose started doing the mental math on how much time they would have to convince people to flee to the “safety” of an active dungeon area.

“It depends if the apparatus is working out not,” Illuthiz said. Despite being a demon, she didn’t seem to possess supernatural stamina. Rose guessed that might be because she was a low level demon, but she wondered if it spoke to something more specific too. Illuthiz had been patrolling and seemed to know how to fight, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t also this world’s equivalent of a coach potato, or a bookworm.

“What apparatus?” Lady Midnight asked.

Rose was glad they had a healer along with them, but it already felt weird that it wasn’t Lost Alice filling that role. They hadn’t been together long, Alice, Pillowcase, her and Jamal but they had all died together so that meant something didn’t it?

Rose wasn’t sure. It might have been more a matter that Pillow and Alice took them in, immediately and without question. With that and the things they’d already been through, Rose felt like she could trust Pillow and Alice more than she could usually afford to trust anyone except Jamal.

“Outside the main gates there’s a mystic circle. If I can get the machinery around it to fire up, and if there’s enough ambient mana collected in it, we should be able to teleport just outside of your town,” Illuthiz said.

“I don’t remember seeing any mystic circles outside of [Sky’s Edge],” Lady Midnight said. “Is the destination concealed, or is this a one-way trip?”

Obby chuckled at that.

“It’ll definitely be a one-way trip,” she said. “I mean, when would the developers ever make thing easy on the players, right?”

“I’m afraid she’s right,” Illuthiz said. “When we experimented with the portal, we did so at night and still were almost discovered. If there’s a return portal, it’s not near the arrival spot. Our warriors had to return through the path which I will lead you back once we are ready to flee the city.”

“Not all of us will be able to join you on that path,” Starchild said. “As your [Commander] said, we cannot bring the residents of [Sky’s Edge] back to your abode.”

“We’ll need to send someone back,” Rip said. “Just so Lost Alice doesn’t wind up having to play the telephone game to relay everything we see and decide to do.”

“We’re the best setup for that,” Pete said through Starchild’s voice. “If you four can lead the people in town to the ruins you’ll have all the team roles covered, and Starchild can handle any solo encounters we run into following Illuthiz back to her home.”

“There’s no guarantee encounters you run into will be solo encounters,” Lady Midnight said. “Let’s not plan on breaking up at all until we know what we’re facing.”

Rose saw the wisdom in that and that had another flash of insight from Rip.

“Illuthiz, would you be willing to follow us to the part of the dungeon we’re planning to relocate the people from [Sky’s Edge] to?” she asked. “We don’t need or want that to be a secret from your people.”

That’s going to be more dangerous for her though, Jamal said, speaking on their private chat channel.

 I know, and I think she does too, it’s why I’m asking now rather that later, Rose said.

“I will evaluate the situation when we arrive in your town as well,” Illuthiz said. “I do not rule out that course of action yet though.”

That’s about the best we could have hope for, Rose said to Jamal.

They came to the end of the tunnel where two doors stood ajar. From their scale and the emptiness of the cavernous space at the end of the tunnel, Rose felt like she was standing in an aircraft hanger. Through the door a thin crescent of moonlight bathed the air in a silvery light with enough illumination that Rose could see the squad of a half dozen demons who were camped near the entrance.

“Are they coming with us?” she asked.

“No. They will remain here to guard this approach to our base,” Illuthiz said. “They will not let anyone back in until our [Commander] gives her approval.”

“Not even you?” Jamal asked as Matt Painting. 

“Especially not me,” Illuthiz said.

Rose began to raise her hand in confusion, but stopped.

Yawlorna ordered Illuthiz to return via another route, Rip said, piecing together the reason behind Illuthiz’s words, The only reason Illuthiz would be at this door would be if she was a fake or was being coerced.

Rose savored the words as they rolled around her mind. She knew Rip was right. She knew she was right. For everything else that was wrong and terrifying about what had happened to her and Jamal, there was something intoxicating about getting to actually be someone like Rip.

As her thoughts and Rip’s blended together…except it wasn’t even really a blending. Rip was her. She was Rip. As much as she was Rose. It didn’t feel like two different paints swirling together to make a new color. It felt like those colors had always been there, voiceless, inside her and that living in Rip’s body was bringing an awareness of each side to the other.

“If they see anyone coming towards the gate who’s not wearing Consortium insignia, can you have those guards give you a shout?” Rose asked. “If it’s other players, and you can give us their names, we should be able to contact them and tell them where to go. Otherwise they might try to bash the doors down and that’s not going to do anyone any good.”

“Would they be able to?” Illuthiz asked.

“No, but that’s never stopped players from trying anything before,” Obby said.

“I’ll let them know then,” Illuthiz said.

Rose saw her hail the guard squad as they got closer while gesturing for the rest of them to continue on. Since neither Rose nor anyone else in the party was interested in wasting time, they passed through the ten-foot wide “narrow gap” between the two doors without slowing their jogging pace at all.

Outside the tunnel, the brilliant panoply of stars and nebula and stellar nurseries in all colors and brightnesses spread over their heads, while on the group a dark cluster of machines sat around a circle which occasionally emitted purple and blue sparks.

Beside the mystic circle, and up to the main gates, ran a road wide and flat enough to serve as a modern highway to Rose’s eyes. 

The [High Beyond] was, in essence a floating rock. It’s features were irregular, with [Star’s Edge] sitting near to one of the edges which formed a sheer cliff  to drop to the [Fallen Kingdoms] far below. It was an odd placement but not a particularly questionable one given the [High Beyond’s] available geography. 

The exit from the demon’s base though spoke to a different chapter of the [High Beyond’s] history. The wide road was clearly intended to run for miles as a major thoroughfare, perhaps through many lands. 

And perhaps it once had.

Rose looked out over it though and found it shattered less than a quarter mile from the gate. Below it’s jagged edge lay the same precipice as the one beyond [Sky’s Edge].

Something terrible had once happened here and Rose found her exhilaration at being Rip muted in the face of the certainty that something terrible was going to happen again. 

“I can get this working,” Jamal said as Matt Painting to the group.

“You can?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Caster class [Artifax] in the Consortium are given a lot of basic arcane knowledge when they’re constructed,” Jamal said. “I’m not a full mechanic or anything but this system was designed to pretty simple I think.”

“It won’t work if there hasn’t been enough mana collected by its power grid,” Illuthiz said, catching up to them.

“That’s not going to be a problem,” Jamal said. “There’s a main feed line for it here.” He held up a cable which ran from the machinery for a few dozen yards to the stone wall of the cliff  they would have to scale if the mystic circle didn’t work.

“We think that must have been severed,” Illuthiz said. “We’ve never been able to detect a mana flow from it.”

“I’m pretty sure you’re right,” Jamal said. “I’m not seeing any active mana passing through it at the moment.”

You can see magic? Rose asked.

Yeah, I guess so? Jamal said. I think this body can do a lot of things. And I’m having these weird flashes.

What kind of flashes? Rose asked. Like memories? Or like new insights?

I don’t know, Jamal said, I don’t want to really look at them too much.

Why? What’s wrong with them? Rose asked.

I shouldn’t know this stuff, Jamal said.

Wait, why not?

Why should I? I mean, when did I learn how to cast spells for real? Or what a [Caustic Coercive Mana Flow] was? Or how to talk to demons?

That’s all stuff Matt knows though right?

But Matt’s not real. It’s just me. Isn’t it? I mean, I’m still real right? I’m still me?

Jamal Michael Clark. How long have I known you? Since we were too little to know our own names, right? Do you think some imposter could fool me? Do you think I don’t know my best friend in the whole world when I see him? Do you think putting on a metal body and learning a few new skills could possibly turn you into someone who wasn’t still the best guy I have ever known?

Okay, okay, don’t go getting all sappy on me, Jamal said.

I’ll get as sappy as I need to, Rose said. Seriously, I know this is different. We’re different. But we’re still ourselves. Or maybe ourselves and a bit more than that?

Like we’re older? Yeah, I guess I could work with that.

Good. Cause you’ve got work to do, and we’ve got people to save!

Rose saw Matt’s head shake a bit as Jamal cleared out his doubts.

“There’s no mana in here now, but it’s still a viable conduit to pass power into the [Transit Generator],” Jamal said.

“Sounds like it’s time for us to all get in the circle then,” Obby said.

The small party clustered together in the center of the circle leaving enough room that several dozen more bodies could have joined them if anyone else was coming.

It’s just us, Rose thought and watched as Jamal released the energy of a partially cast spell to power up the teleportation effect.

Motes of blue light rose from the circle and began to swirl around them, flaring and changing until a rainbow engulfed them and then vanished, leaving them at the outskirts of [Sky’s Edge].

Which was burning.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 9

Tessa fell, the air around her burning as she passed from a mystical land high above the world, to the [Sunless Deeps] far below it. Her day wasn’t going quite how she’d expected it to, but it was still better than the one most of the rest of the world was experiencing.

“Are you goddamn insane!” Lisa didn’t limit her question to their private channel. She didn’t even limit it to the party only channel.

“The plasma sheath around me suggests the answer is probably yes,” Tessa said. She had to respond on their party’s channel since speaking aloud was effectively impossible with the wind whipping by her at mach speeds.

Shouldn’t we be, you know, incinerated by this? she wondered to herself.

The pit we leapt into seems to have been a transit portal, Pillowcase replied. I don’t think we’re passing through this space in a purely physical manner.

Then why are we covered in fire? Tessa asked, finding that she wasn’t as emotionally invested in the question as she’d imagined she would be.

“What the hell! We can’t see your health bar while you’re zoning. What is happening!” Lisa sounded ready to leap into the pit after Tessa but cooler heads were likely holding her back.

“I’m ok,” Tessa said. “There’s some kind of energy field around me, so the fire’s not roasting me. If this was still the game, I’d say the devs had setup a really nice light show for the return to the regular zones, but I think this might be something new. I mean, normally we can’t talk while zoning right?”

“You had better survive this so I can kill you myself,” Lisa said.

“Thanks, I love you too,” Tessa said. She’d meant the words as a sarcastic quip but instantly regretted letting them tumble out of her lips. 

They weren’t true of course. 

She just had a little crush.

And, the sarcasm would make it clear it was a joke.

Wouldn’t it?

Wasn’t it?

Tessa crashed into a lake of lava and then into something mercifully hard and unyielding.

***

Lisa had to check that she wasn’t breathing literal streams of fire when she exhaled.

Of all the stupid…

Splitting up the party was monumentally idiotic. Nothing was more likely to guarantee a total party kill than that, except, maybe, for jumping into a part of the dungeon that contained enemies of unknown level, ability, and aggressiveness.

How the hell could she!

People were edging slowly away from her. It didn’t bother Lisa. People should move away from bombs that were ready to explode.

Though if she was being fair – which she did not at all feel like being – she could kind of see what Tessa had been thinking.

“What has your leader done?” Yawlorna asked, rising to her full demonic height in concern.

“Jumped into the pit,” Rip said, pointing out the obvious, and buying time for Lisa to put her head together.

“She is suicidal?” Yawlorna asked.

Probably! Lisa thought but kept that observation to herself.

“She’s doing reconnaissance,” she answered as Lost Alice. “It’s risky but less so for her than if we all went.”

Less risky. The words felt like poison in her mouth. She could die. For real. Her heart felt like a ball of barbwire emotions. How could she leave?

Lisa forced herself to breathe. Technically as a vampire she didn’t need to. Sort of. She couldn’t remember all of the lore on [Broken Horizons] various species of vampire, but the act of forcing air in and out of her lungs in slow, deliberate breaths, seemed to produce the same calming effect that it did with her human body.

“We have not agreed to anything yet though,” Yawlorna said, the tension around her eyes radiating down into stiff shoulders and clenched fists.

“She knows you don’t trust us,” Obby said. “This is her giving you a reason to.”

“Proof by deeds not words,” Matt said, nodding in agreement.

“Maybe we should join her?” Rip asked.

“No,” Lisa said. “If we all went and what’s down there is too high level for us, we’d have even less chance to escaping without being noticed.”

“So, we’re just going to sit around here and wait for her to get back?” Rip asked, and for a moment Lisa wanted to smack her.

Then she noticed how Rip was almost hovering over her chair, muscles tensed with barely restrained nervous energy, eyes locked on the pit in the center of the room. She was ready, eager even, to follow Pillowcase to hell. Matt was ready too. One word and the two of them would be over the side. Just like Lisa would be. They were in this together.

“We can do better than that,” Lisa said and turned her gaze to Yawlorna. “You’ve got monster problems up here too, right? We’ll clean those up while Pillowcase scouts.”

“Why would you do this?” Yawlorna asked, not hiding her look of bafflement.

“Because Pillowcase is right,” Lisa said, hating that it was true, but knowing that if they didn’t commit to the plan fully it could all fall apart. “We’re better off if we work together. The Consortium has attacked this world once already, but that was just a small taste of what they’re going to send against us.”

“It was?” Rip asked on the private party channel.

“The attack in the opening cinematic for the expansion? That was a teaser for the new events that were supposed to come along,” Lisa said.

“Didn’t the GM we talked to say they’d turned off the game events though?” Matt asked.

“That’s probably not going to stop the Consortium who are here from launching attacks on their own,” Obby said.

“Why wouldn’t they get rid of the Consortium entirely if they were turning off the events?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Probably for the same reason they didn’t remove the rest of the mobs from the game,” Rip said. “Didn’t they lose a GM when he tried to use his admin powers?”

“This is so messed up,” Lady Midnight said.

“Welcome to life, virtual or otherwise,” Lisa said.

“We can’t fight the Consortium for you,” Yawlorna said. “We couldn’t before we came here and there are even fewer of us now.”

“We don’t need you to fight the Consortium,” Starchild said. “Not directly.”

“Depending what sort of troops they send, we probably can’t fight them either,” Matt said and looked over to Rip. “Remember the [Wraithwings]?”

“Yeah, we’ve already run into an attack that we couldn’t begin to handle,” Rip said.

“Then what do you want from us?” Yawlorna said.

“Intelligence,” Lisa said. “Tell us what you know about the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. Share what you learn going forward, and let us know if you do see any Consortium forces dropping in. No one said they’ll attack openly again. They could just as easily send in secret strike teams to take out the adventuring parties who opposed them last time.”

Lisa knew they’d be better off integrating the demons in with the adventurers who were based out of [Sky’s Edge] but that would take a leap of faith neither side seemed ready to make.

Yawlorna turned to confer with Balegritz, Hermeziz and Illuthiz. 

“Doing some monster clearing here may be good for us,” Pete said on the private team chat. “We can get back to leveling while we wait for Pillowcase to return.”

“That’s true,” Obby said. “The creatures here shouldn’t be too dangerous for us. Not if the demons are able to hold them off.”

Lisa had volunteered the idea mostly because it was what they’d talked about earlier. The more she thought about it though, the less she wanted to try fighting without her tank. As a bigger group they had more firepower to take down monsters with, and Obby was, in theory at least, a stronger tank than Pillowcase, but in practice those factors tended to matter less than having teammates you could rely on, and the party, as it stood, was split 50/50 between people she knew and people she hadn’t fought with yet.

She was just about to suggest they split into two smaller teams when Illuthiz broke away from the huddled conference the senior demons were in.

“So they’re still debating but I’m guessing we’re out of time for that,” she said, moving to stand in front of Lost Alice as though Lisa was the new leader of the party.

“What’s happened?” Lisa asked, her cold, undead stomache turning at the thought of Tessa having been eaten by some new horror that would rise up and consume them all.

“Your town,” Illuthiz said. “It’s under attack.”

Lisa’s thoughts whipped around hard enough to give her a moment of mental whiplash.

My town? The Earth’s under attack now too? What the hell am I supposed to do about that?

“[Sky’s Edge]?” Obby asked, and the dominoes began to fall into place for Lisa as her thoughts shifted in the correct direction.

“Yes. There’s fighting there now. It looks like the town threw up some barricades and there’s some people like you there,” Illuthiz said.

“Who or what are they fighting?” Lisa asked, cursing because she was sure she could guess the answer.

“We’re not sure,” Illuthiz said. “Our [Far Seer] can scry the town, but whatever’s attacking it is shield from their remote eyes.”

“It’s the Consortium,” Matt said without a hint of uncertainty.

“Their troops have cloaking devices?” Rip asked.

“Sort of,” Matt said. “Each [Squad Leader] carries an [Uplink Beacon]. It allows the Consortium’s [Central Command] to monitor the status of the units in real time and it broadcasts a disruption wave to make remote tracking of them by others impossible.”

“Not impossible,” Obby said. “That’s the propaganda they feed to their grunts. It’s just more difficult. There’s plenty of [Seers] in the [Fallen Kingdoms] who can see them remotely just fine.”

“How do you know this?” Yawlorna asked.

“Matt Painting, this body, it was manufactured by the Consortium,” Matt said. “When I claimed it, I got all the data they built into it.”

Illuthiz looked confused.

“I know what this unit used to know,” Matt said.

“Even its loyalty to its masters?” Illuthiz asked.

“I remember that clearly,” Matt said. “Fun fact, the spirit that originally used to animate this body? They absolutely hated their ‘masters’. The Consortium had to rope them in with chains of lightning to ensure the spirit did what they wanted. The spirit was in more or less constant pain, which is why [Metal Mechanoids] are so willing to serve as shock troops and fight to the death. So, yeah, I remember hating the Consortium with ever tiny fiber of my being, and I’m pretty sure if I don’t try real hard, I’m going to spell-murder every last one of them I see, even though I’ve never met one them before.”

Lisa heard the passionate sincerity in Matt’s words and felt her heart freeze in a new direction. Dragging kids into a situation where violence was the only answer wasn’t going to do anything good for them, no matter how justified it might be. She knew she should do everything she could to make sure Matt never came near the Consortium’s troops. Except that wasn’t going to be an option.

The people in [Sky’s Edge] needed them. 

“Urrrggh!” Lisa stiffled the curse she want to release, sublimating it into a groan of pure frustration. “We need to get them out of there.”

“We do?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Yeah, we do,” Matt said. “They’re all low level, I mean even lower than us.”

“Oh yeah, and some of them haven’t been sucked in here yet,” Rip said. “Wait, is the [Heart Fire] chapel safe from an invasion?”

“Not necessarily,” Obby said. “It’s warded against hostile spirits, so the [Hounds of Fate] can’t bother people or spirits near it, but on a physical level it only has whatever defenses the people around it can muster.”

“Dammit. That’s why they’re attacking [Sky’s Edge] first. It’s the one [Heart Fire] that shows up on the map by default,” Lisa said.

“They are trying to cut off our ability to respawn,” Starchild said. “Which means they will eventually come for all of the cities where [Heart Fire] chapels can be found.”

“I don’t know if we can help the other cities here in the [High Beyond], we haven’t managed to make it to any of them yet,” Lady Midnight said.

“If the Consortium is attacking, they won’t be safe either,” Matt said. “But there is a place the Consortium won’t think to look.”

He gestured to the area around them.

“You will bring the Consortium to us if you lead the overland people here,” Yawlorna said.

“We don’t have to lead them here,” Lisa said. “We can bring them into the dungeon we’ve already cleared. If the Consortium tries to chase us into it, they’ll either be fighting on our terms or they’ll be fighting the monsters we avoided.”

“If the Consortium is already attacking the town, it’s going to be a fight to get anyone out of there,” Obby said, a hopeful note rising in her voice.

“Matt, what kind of troops would the Consortium send after a small town like [Sky’s Edge] and, Illuthiz is it?, are the defenders holding out or have they been overrun already?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t know exactly what troops would be there,” Matt said. “Standard Consortium doctrine is to send in troops one to three grades above the rank of suspect hostiles based on the value of the target.”

“What does that translate to in levels?” Rip asked.

“Five to fifteen levels above the defenders,” Obby said. “Usually with a two to one number advantage and long range support if possible. Some [Commanders] will go below that to save costs though.”

“From what our [Far Seer] said, it looked like things had stalemated but there are whispers in the air which suggest more forces are inbound,” Illuthiz said.

Lisa sighed. She cast a glance to the pit.

If we leave…what happens if…

She couldn’t think about that.

But she’s all alone.

“If we’re going to go, it must be now,” Starchild said.

“I’m ready,” Rip said.

“Same here,” Matt said.

“We can climb back up to the farm, unless there’s a faster exit you can show us?” Lisa asked.

“We can do this,” Yawlorna said. “And we will send someone with you to determine if it truly is the Consortium who is attacking.”

“Good,” said Rip. “But we’re not all going.”

“What do you mean?” Yawlorna asked.

“She’s staying,” Rip said, pointing to Lost Alice.

“No. I can’t,” Lisa said, looking around for support but everyone else in her party seemed to be nodding along with Rip.

“You have to,” Rip said, reaching out for Alice’s hand. “You need to make sure she comes back to us.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 8

[Doom Crag] had fallen, [Highroost] was burning, but Niminay was not going to let [Eastrun] suffer their fates. [Eastrun] would hold.

“[Starfire Heartseeker Arrow]”, she said, as she had been saying every 10.2 seconds since the battle was joined.

From her bow leapt an arrow crafted from the hottest fire in the sun. It punched through the plate armor of the [Metal Mechanoid] [Guardian] who was leading the squad before her. On the side facing her, the starfire bolt made a hole the size of her fist. On the squad leader’s back, it exited and took the entire rear portion of the torso with it.

“[Hellfire Rain]”, she called, conjuring rather than shooting arrows too numerous to count, to burn through the squad of Consortium soldiers who were advancing on the temporary hospital [Eastrun’s] defenders had set up.

“We have more portals opening in the River Gate quarter,” Penny said. “I’m dispatching the Frozen Cabal to deal with it, but they won’t be able to hold.”

“How long can they buy us?” Niminay asked, trying to recall the levels of the adventurers who made up thew Frozen Cabal.

“If the portals release regular forces? They should be able to hold for fifteen minutes. Maybe twenty,” Penny said. “If the portals bring in [Boss] gangs? We’ll be lucky if they last for two minutes.”

“I can be there in five,” Niminay said. “Without using a portal. Should I go?”

Thanks to the magical transportation networks which had been constructed throughout the [Fallen Kingdoms] moving from point to point was faster than it had ever been, but in the face of worldwide warfare, those networks were being strained to the breaking point. Niminay was willing to strain them further but they were a resource and she was loath to spend any of the resources she had unless the need was great enough.

“No, hold off,” Penny said. “If the Consortium sends a [Boss] gang in I’ll need you to coordinate with one of the other teams. We’ll stop them at the wall to the Traveler’s quarter. Until  then, can you link up with the Revengers of Midgard Company and clear out the Granary district?”

“I thought we had the granaries emptied?” Niminay asked. She was moving across the roof tops as she spoke, soaring in long flying leaps towards the southeastern edge of the city where the giant granaries stood, trusting Penny’s wisdom implicitly.

“We got the grain out,” Penny said. “Then I had the store houses packed full of [Abyss Salamanders]. I’d like to keep that a surprise for as long as we can.”

“Uh, last I checked [Abyss Salamanders] only lived in the [Brimstone Deeps], how did you get them here?” Niminay asked, leaving the more pressing question of ‘why would you bring in a horde of creatures who could burn this entire country to ash’ unstated. 

Some questions had obvious answers when the world itself was under siege.

“I asked nicely,” Penny said. “If you could please make sure none of the forces inside the district make it to the granaries or make it out alive, that should send exactly the message that needs to be sent.”

Niminay chuckled as she landed on the top of a five story merchant house.

“They are going to send one hell of a force to capture our precious, precious grain aren’t they?” she asked.

“They’re going to send one hell of a force to capture the secret weapon which we hid in our precious, precious grain stores,” Penny said. “Whoever is commanding this invasion is smart. They’re striking low value targets with weaker forces, and hammering us with heavy units in areas that we have no choice but to defend.”

“Can we use that predictability against them?” Niminay asked.

“Hopefully. That’s what the salamanders are for,” Penny said. “This war isn’t going to turn on a single battle or one good trick though. The Consortium commander is definitely going to be prepared for things like this and have resources to cover the losses they’ll take.”

“It almost sounds like you admire them,” Niminay teased.

“That’s concern and fear, not admiration,” Penny said. “Mostly fear. I hate opponents who are this well provisioned and are clever enough to use what they have well.”

“We’ll get through this,” Niminay said. “I’ll clear the granary district myself if I have to.”

“I know,” Penny said, her voice over their private channel tinged with sadness. “Really though Nim, this could get bad. We’re going to need to take the fight to them and I don’t know if that’s a fight we can win.”

“We’ve seen bad,” Niminsay said. “More often than we’ve seen good. We’ll win the fight, beat the head boss and we’ll get through this.”

“I’m going to hold you to that,” Penny said. “If I run out of ideas, you need to wave a magic wand and make it all better, right?”

“Does my bow count as a magic wand?” Niminay asked.

Penny gave a chuckle of forced mirth.

“With all the enchantments you have on it? Sure, that’ll work just fine,” Penny said.

“Almost at the granary district,” Niminay said. “I think I see the Revengers too. I’ll let you know if the Consortium troops here are packing any special tricks. Just give me a heads up when reinforcements start to arrive, and let me know if you need me to move over to the River Quarter.”

Penny didn’t reply. She could see Niminay drop from the air into streets which were painted red with blood. Niminay knew Penny wouldn’t want to distract her, but hearing her voice would have been nice anyways. 

“[Hellfire Rain]”, Niminay called out as she fell, obliterating the three squads of [Skeleton Wrath Chargers] that raced up towards the defenders of the gate into the Granary district.

“You’re here!”

“Oh thank god!”

“Keep it together and stay on defense!” 

The cacophony of voices that rose at Niminay’s appearance was both flattering and somewhat disturbing. So many of the adventurer’s knew her, and yet she was certain she’d never met more than few of them.

Worse they had the most amazing expectations of her – as though she could single handedly drive back the tens of thousands of enemies who were assailing [Eastrun]. Or magic up a shield to keep them all safe and secure. And even the ones who had more reasonable expectations of her were still immediately willing to turn to her for guidance.

Niminay felt like shaking them all and shouting “what do you think I can do that you can’t?”

She was only an adventurer too, just like the rest of them. She had a lot of experience, but so did the people she stood shoulder to shoulder with. They’d fought many of the same terrible beasts that she’d fought. They’d ventured into many of the same deep and deadly forgotten corners of the world and come back with the same sort of treasures which had been lost for ages. She was not the mightiest of them, or the wisest.

So why were they looking to her for leadership?

Why did they seem like all their hard won skill and experience had been washed away and nothing but fledglings surrounded her?

It wasn’t a question Niminay could answer. It wasn’t one she could even ask. In the face of Armageddon, if they needed her to lead the charge, then at the front of the charge was where she was going to be.

***

Azma was winning, her forces were where they needed to be, holding the targets they needed to hold and harrying the ones they needed to distract, and she wasn’t happy.

“This is wrong,” she said, inspecting the projected globe and the points of conflict represented on it.

“Wrong how, sir?” [Commander] Grenslaw asked.

Azma blinked. Her command staff crew rarely interrupted her musings. They were content to execute her orders and leave her to do the thinking for the fleet.

Grenslaw and Ryschild were different though. They’d been quiet during the initial stage of the invasion, but Azma had noticed the keen interest they’d taken in the fine details of the invasion. 

“We’re winning,” she said.

“Are the locals reserving some of their forces against a later wave of the invasion?” Ryschild asked.

Azma smiled. It was a delight to work with someone sharp enough to make at least simple leaps of logic. The rest of her staff would have made some inane comment wondering how winning could be a bad thing, or, if they were struck by a complete lack of self-preservation would have objected to their [Supreme Commander] sabotaging the fleet with plans of failure.

It wasn’t a wise or sensible accusation to make, but still it happened. Over and over it happened. So many bodies jettisoned out of so many airlocks. At first it had been cathartic to throw the offenders to the merciless void of space, but after enough repetitions even the charm of that wore thin.

“No, the local forces are fully committed,” Azma said. “Even more so than they were against our original assault. In the intervening time they’ve had the chance to prepare their defenses as well. We’re sending our troops into heavily fortified positions defended by enemies with unpredictable and, in some cases, uncounterable abilities.”

“And we’re winning,” Grenslaw said, clearly seeing the problem as well. “Did our initial strike cut off their communications, or capture a key leader?”

“We have taps into the general communication network,” Azma said. “From those we can tell that the defenders are still being organized and none of the leaders we saw on the field of the first battle have been reported taken or dispatched.”

“Are they trying to lure us in further?” Ryschild asked. “Perhaps baiting a trap?”

“If so then the bait they are using is more valuable than the prize they hope to catch,” Azma said. “They’ve suffered losses of areas which will be vital to any counter-offensive they try to muster. Look at these cities here,” she gestured to the globe where the dot representing [Doom Crag] flipped color to show it had fallen wholly under the control of the Consortium’s forces. As they watched, builder troops where dispatched by the thousands to refortify the city and cement the Consortium’s hold over it.

“Could they be planning a different counter-assault?” Grenslaw asked.

“A direct assault on our ships?” Azma asked. “Doubtlessly they are.”

“Perhaps they’ve reserved their best forces for that?” Ryschild asked.

“They’re gathering some forces,” Azma said. “You can tell from the battles which are being abandoned. That doesn’t explain their overall level of performance though. If I didn’t know better I would say we’re facing very well equipped troops who are nevertheless quite unused to mass scale combat.”

“Is that possible? Could these be new recruits given mass produced relics? Perhaps that’s how they managed to swell their ranks beyond what we encountered on the first sorte?” Ryschild asked.

“That is what the evidence would suggest, but I mistrust that evaluation too,” Azma said. “There is real strategy in their response to our attacks, and some of the battles we have lost are turning against us on unlikely chances. It’s a puzzle.”

She ran her hand through her hair and suppressed a wolf-ish smile. Part of her was delighted at the prospect of a real challenge or a true surprise. Another part, a very tiny part, was concerned that the surprise might, however improbable it sounded, be something she wasn’t prepared to deal with.

She’d sunk a fair bit of her capital into gaining uncontested command of this operation. Even a fraction of the potential payoff from victory would see her investment rewarded many times over but defeat would be costly far beyond the loss of the money and political influence she’d sunk into the venture. Anything beside victory would show a chink in her otherwise flawless armor and there were so many enemies who had waited so very long to find that.

“Sir, the heavy reinforcements sent to [Eastrun] are reporting 97% casualties in the Granary district,” one of her comm’s techs reported, drawing her attention of the one of the urgent dispatches on her screen.

“Lava monsters ate our reinforcements? Very nice,” she said, reviewing the report from her obliterated troops. “That’s more in keeping with what I expected. Helm, alter trajectory, I want to make it seem like we’re going to bombard that city once we’re in range.”

“We are staying out of range though, right sir?” Grenslaw asked.

“Yes. Out of our apparent weapon range that is,” Azma said. “We’ll drift just within the range of their long range teleportation circles. Let’s see if we can catch some live subjects with a little bait of our own.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 7

 Glimmerglass had been given command of one hundred adventurers and she was going to get each and every one of them killed. It wasn’t what she wanted, but it also wasn’t what scared her.

“Portals are opening within the city. Hundreds of them,” Damnazon said. The half-giant tank and her team were among the adventurers who had been assigned to Glimmerglass and she’d chosen them as a sort of personal guard. 

It was extravagant having a full team acting as her support when she was standing in one of the most heavily shielded rooms within the city of [Doom Crag]. Together the nine adventurers could have turned the tide of any of the battles being fought in the city. Glimmerglass had to hope they would be enough to hold the [Central Command Station], though a part of her was sure they wouldn’t be.

“Get the Chaos Incorporated team to the forges. We have five portals opening there,” Glimmerglass said, watching as a real time holographic map updated with the intel from over a dozen adventuring teams who were stationed along the city’s outer walls.

“They’ll need backup,” Mellisandra said. “From the reports, each portal is dispensing multiple [Boss] class enemies.”

“Call [Eastrun] and [Highroost], we can portal in reinforcements of our own,” Glimmerglass said. She wasn’t officially a [Tactician] but when she’d been active she’d been one of the main planners for the raids her guild attempted. 

Watching the invasion play out before her in miniature shifted Glimmerglass deep into her healer mentality. Unlike what others might have guessed though, that made her neither more compassionate, nor more merciful.

A healer’s job was to help the party win at any cost. Ideally, they did so by keeping everyone on their feet since a party with everyone still standing was far more functional that one with a bunch of corpses who weren’t doing any work. Sometimes however letting people drop so others could stay in the fight was the only option available.

As the Consortium’s forces spread out from their points of arrival, Glimmerglass could see that exact situation developing in front of her.

“The Society of Enlightenment is engaging with the invaders in the palace district,” Mellisandra said, tapping the display to highlight the green dots which represented the eight defenders who stood between the two portals which had opened already.

“What are they seeing?” Glimmerglass asked.

“Light troops,” Mellisandra said, zooming in the view of the Palace district so that the dots of the Consortium’s forces resolved into individual combatants.”

“[Clothwork], [Metal Mechanoids], and [Human] [Pyromancers]?” Glimmerglass asked, identifying each of the troops as her gaze swept the battle field. “There are no [Boss] class mobs in this group at all?”

“Maybe they need something from the forges so they concentrated their better forces there?” Damnazon asked.

“All of the other groups are coming into engagement range now as well,” Mellisandra said. “Reports are scattered of what they’re seeing though.”

“This is strange,” Glimmerglass said. “The last time they attacked it was as a single force and their troops were segregated by function.”

“Maybe they learned from us?” Damnazon suggested. “Split their forces into teams like we did with the adventurers?”

“They’re the first to do so if that’s true,” Mellisandra said. “None of the other invasions have been heterogeneous. It’s always waves of basically identical foes with more serious threats showing up late in the battle.”

“Yeah, that’s what they tried the first time they showed up,” Damnazon said. 

“They’ve apparently decided to try  some new tricks,” Glimmerglass said as the analytical part of her mind chewed away at the idea.

The “wave of faceless minions, all alike, with giant bruisers to finish things off” was a strategy which made the coordination of huge forces practical. When the tools an army had to work with were interchangeable, tactical questions could be boiled down to simple equations of raw might applied to crush the defender’s forces. 

Saving the specialized troops for later in the battle was also tactically sound. Faceless minions were by definition expendable and if used properly could draw out the defenders more devastating attacks. With the defenders’ forces diminished by initial horde, the high value units could be deployed to greatest effect. 

Glimmerglass considered how that held true on a smaller scale on some teams she’d run with, where a lower level or less well geared member would be allowed to soak up a boss’s special attack, getting obliterated in the process, in order to ensure that the stronger adventures would survive to be able to keep fighting.

Looking at the city map of [Doom Crag] before her, she tried to peer past the dots and numbers, past the movement of the figures, and past the avalanche of cries for help which were pouring into the [Central Command Station].

“Who are you?” she asked, trying to visualize the one behind the attack. She saw only waves of chaos everywhere she looked, as though as madman’s folly had set the battle’s pieces against her. From the efficacy of the attack though, it was a terribly effective folly, if any part of it was truly mad.

“We’re getting reports in from [Eastrun] and [Highroost],” Mellisandra said. “Well, not reports. Calls for aid. They’re being hit as hard as we are.”

“It’s more than just them,” Damnazon said. “The major cities are being hit too. All of them.”

“Some of those have to be illusions,” she said. “When they assaulted us the first time, they brought close to a hundred thousand troops. If everywhere is being hit like we are they would need over two million soldiers to deploy.”

“Probably closer to three million,” Penwise said as she finished teleporting into the room. “For this wave.”

A series of containment bands solidified around her before a trio of magical scans confirmed who she was. Given the enemy’s capabilities, the Coalition wasn’t taking chances with look-alikes or forged orders, which was why Penwise had to appear in person to deliver major directives.

Glimmerglass felt a sinking pit form in her stomach at the thought of what Penny’s ‘major directive was likely to be.

“What do you mean?” Mellisandra asked.

“Our deep scrying has turned up the source of the portals. There are ships the size of small moons above us, out farther than the [High Beyond]. We can’t see inside them from this distance, but we can see the weapons which cover their hull.They don’t seem to be in range to use those weapons yet, but they are approaching, slowly. We expect they’ll be within range to begin bombardment within twenty four hours.”

“Why launch a ground attack ahead of that?” Damnazon asked.

“To soften up our defenses first and keep the ship’s safe,” Glimmerglass said, the awful scope of the enemy’s plan unrolling in front of her.

The events were following the standard invasion protocol, just on a far broader scope than she was used to. The difference was that the “expendable minions” weren’t being treated as expendable, and the more powerful fighters who were being kept in reserve until later in the battle were behemoth warships which had to be closer in difficulty to entire raid dungeons rather than individual bosses.

“How are we going to hold against that?” Glimmerglass asked, turning to Penwise, hoping the coalition’s chief strategist had some brilliance which would turn the tide.

“We’re not,” Penwise said. “Start packing up here and call your teams in. The regular forces will have to hold the city’s for now. We need the adventurers to coordinate an attack on those warships once they’re in range.”

“They’re not going to be able to hold out,” Glimmerglass said, whirling around to face Penwise.

“I know,” Penny said. “They’re going to have to buy time though.”

“We can help with that,” Glimmerglass said. “We can tie down the invaders a lot better than they can.”

“That seems to be the invaders plan,” Penny said. “They’ve ensured that we’re scattered and pinned down fighting a thousand battles at once. We need to come together, and rally against those ships before they burn the [Fallen Kingdoms] to ash.”

“But their ground assault is going to take everything if we do that,” Glimmerglass said.

“Yes. They will,” Penwise said. “Get your forces together and meet at the [Astrologos Observatory].”

And then she was gone teleporting to the next command center.

“Are we going to give up just like that?” Damnazon asked.

“Not just like that,” Glimmerglass said. “We can still fight as we withdraw. Bring civilians with us out of the line of fire.”

“Good! We’re ready to go!” Damnazon said, gesturing to the rest of her team who were already on high alert.

The wall beside the half-giant exploded inwards, spell wards arcing and screaming in alarm as an irresistible physical force shattered them.

“[Greater Shield Empowerment],” Glimmerglass said, mentally verifying that all of the friendly targets around her were within range and still breathing. “[Casting spell: Aegis Wall]”

Mystic barriers several thousand times stronger that steel enwrapped each member of her alliance as they regrouped calling out skills and spells to bring the battlefield back under the control.

The monsters facing them didn’t rest after their grand entrance though. 

“[Casting spell: Annihilation Cloud],” one of the hulking brutes said and Glimmerglass swore.

“Enemy casters!” she yelled before using an unvoiced skill to [Slip Step] to the other end of the ruined [Central Command Station], away from the health and mana draining cloud that rolled from the brute’s out stretched hands.

The center of the room became a zone of chaos, barrier spells and barrier bursters crashing together while other attacks flew and began shearing off disturbingly large chunks of her party’s health.

“Petrified”, Damnazon called out as one of the enemy’s spells converted her flesh into unliving stone. 

Glimmerglass reversed the effect with a low level status curing spell, but was otherwise focused feverishly on keeping her troops in the fight long enough for them to regain control of the battle.

“Burning,” another party member called out.

“Doom,” from another.

“Petrified.” from another.

The status effects and damage rolled in as fast as Glimmerglass could process them.

That wasn’t a problem. Mad chaos and problems rolling in faster than the eye could follow were typical for high end raids.

Not that Glimmerglass had planned to be in a high end raid, but the possibility of things going horribly awry had occurred to her. 

“Mark Prime,” Damnazon called out, placing a targeting mark over the head of one of the casting brutes.

“Mark Prime,” one of the brutes replied, placing a target over Glimmerglass’s head.

The rest of the party closed ranks around her, but Glimmerglass still watched her own health plummet as range attacks and spells found their mark. 

“This is like PvPing,” Mellisandra said as she physically dodged a fireball and replied in kind with a bolt of lightning. 

Glimmerglass didn’t have time to think about that, despite how correct the words felt.

The Brutes were huge and well armored, but where that usually indicated they would be little more than giant punching bags, these fought with the same cunning and tenacity which the adventurers brought to the melee.

On her left, the party’s [Archer] splattered over the ground in a pile of gore, a spiked club having caved in her torso.

“[Casting spell: Rise in Valor]”, Glimmerglass said, and watched as they elf floated back to her feet, her eyes blazing with divine power.

The [Archer’s] shots blasted the far end of the room with enough force that the building vaporized around them, changing the battlefield from a constrained fight inside a protective structure to one which began to roam over the ruins of the city the adventurer’s had been fighting to protect.

That gave the adventurers more room to move and the ability to use stronger spells without fear of backlash but it also allowed their opponents to do the same.

“[Casting spell: Cerberus Inferno],” one of the Brutes called out and a monster of primordial flame roared onto the battlefield.

Glimmerglass wanted to object. [Cerberus Inferno] was an [Incarnate] level ability, meaning one which only belonged to people like raid bosses. Even the strongest players couldn’t cast spells like that.

Her objections were silenced by flame as the beast of fire raked a trio of claws through her, shattering the shields she’d recast and incinerating her body with a touch.

As a ghost she ran. She didn’t have time to stop and evaluate the battlefield. With so many dead, the [Hounds of Fate] were out in force and the nearest safe [Heart Fire] wasn’t going to be found anywhere within the burning ruins of [Doom Crag].

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 6

Azma expected the defenders of the world below her to fall, but she knew they weren’t going to fall easily.

“It seems to me that this plan of yours exposes us to undo risk over the course of an unacceptably long time frame,” [Commander] Melsworth said. “It’s like it was concocted by a junior program manager, eager to show off all the little cleverness they always think they have.

Azma leaned back in her chair in smiled. She didn’t often look forward to meetings with the [Commanders] who had been placed under her. Typically they were the useless flotsam of nepotism and personal conceits from those above her in the Consortium’s organizational structure. Such flotsam generally fell into one of two categories; either they were sycophants who brought no new ideas to the table or, like Melsworth, they lacked an understanding of their role and believed themselves to be by some measure her equal.

Meetings were tiresome to Azma, but educational opportunities? Those were always entertaining.

“Tell me, [Commander] Melsworth. Did I request your opinion?” It wasn’t a question despite the phrasing.

To Melsworth’s side, [Commander] Ryshild paled and began measuring the distance between himself and Melsworth with his eyes. Evidently deciding it was insufficient, he leaned back in his seat and tried to slide it away from the doomed man beside him.

“A good [Commander]…” Melsworth began.

“Uh uh uh,” Azma said, silencing the man with a gesture. With any reasonable sapient being, the gesture would have sufficed on its own, but Azma knew who she was dealing with so the gesture also included the [Command] to Melsworth’s air passageways to fuse shut. “Your opinion. Did I request it?”

Melsworth tried to gasp for breath but with nose, mouth, and throat sealed shut, no options were open to him.

“You may nod or shake your head,” Azma informed him.

He stared at her, anger and confusion warring behind his eyes. The rest of the room, meanwhile, had gone sensibly silent.

Good, Azma thought. Perhaps the rest will pay attention this time.

“I can see you wish to say a great many things.” She stared into Melsworth’s eyes as his face flushed red with his struggle. “You doubtless wish to know how I dare to assault someone of your rank. You are perplexed perhaps on how so simple a [Command] could have penetrated your formidable defenses. You are possibly even thinking of those who back you and how you can call on them to bring me into line. ‘This will not be tolerated’, ‘do you know how important I am’, ‘you cannot do this’. Several phrases along those lines I’d wager?”

She looked at him and watched as the red flush began to shade over to purple.

“Now it is occurring to you to ask ‘how much air do I have left’, and ‘how far is she going to take this’, and ‘doesn’t she know she can’t do this’.”

She tilted her head and opened her eyes slightly wider, a questioning look to test if her guesses were on the mark. The panic on Melsworth face was confirmation enough for her to continue.

“The answer is simple. Your rank means nothing, and I can do this because I am charged with absolute authority over the prosecution of the initiative before us. In short, my decisions hold the lives of everyone on all of our ships in the balance, and that includes yours.”

Azma looked around to make sure each of her subordinate officers was grasping the simple message she was attempting to convey. Brevity was a valuable tool for successful communication, but the object lesson who had current shaded completely over to purple was more likely to drive the point home. Or so she hoped.

“As you began to say, a good [Commander] recognizes the value of construction feedback. No plan is ever perfect and they can all be improved. Where you went amiss however Melsworth was in presuming that your feedback offered any value whatsoever.”

Melsworth jerked up, his eyes pleading as his body started to thrash.

“You wish to make a case for leniency? Or perhaps you have other feedback? More useful feedback to provide?”

Melsworth began nodding his head vigorously and pounding on the table with one hand while gesturing to his mouth with the other.

“You labor under a misapprehension still,” Azma informed Melsworth, fixing her eyes upon him. “Did I ask for your opinion?”

Melsworth raged pounding the table with both hands as his knees began to sag.

“I believe this is important to understand,” Amza said, turning to the rest of her staff. “[Commander] Ryshild, what do you believe is happening here?”

Ryshild straightened up and focus his gaze directly ahead onto a patch of empty air over the middle of the table, perpendicular to where Azma was.

“Disciplinary action,” he said, his voice as firm and crisp as he could make it.

“Correct,” Azma said, allowing a small smile to flicker across her lips. 

Ryshild had been with her on a previous operation. He was as much the waste product of a nepotistic appointment as any of the others, but he had been tempered to some extent by his time under her command. A half dozen more such operations and he might rise to a level of at least bearable incompetence.

“And what is he being disciplined for?” Azma asked. It was too much to hope that one of the slack jawed fools before her might properly understand what Melsworth had done wrong, but history had shown that it was the perfect opportunity to weed out additional issues.

“He spoke back to a woman.” [Commander] Falcrest had whispered it sidewise to the woman sitting next to him. His next words would be something orbiting the idea that he was only joking.

Except his next words would never arrive.

Azma snapped her fingers and Falcrest froze into motionlessness in the wake of a wave of agony which erupted from his chest. Slowly, ever so slowly, the edges of his fingers began to crumble away to dust.

“Would anyone else care to guess?” Azma asked pleasantly.

Ryshild raised his hand, drawing a surprised and genuine smile from Azma. She nodded to him, intensely curious what answer the young man was willing to risk his life on.

“Was it Insubordination in Battle, sir?” he asked.

“Very good [Senior Commander] Ryshild,” Azma said, replacing the rank insignia on his lapels with [Senior Commander Wings] with a small wave of her hand.

Another hand rose.

“Yes [Commander] Grenslaw?” Azma asked, shocked and delighted at the unprecedented learning being displayed during the impromptu educational seminar she’d convened.

“Do all planning sessions count as battle conditions or is it because we’re inside the arcanosphere of a uncontracted global power?” Grenslaw asked.

“That is an excellent question [Commander],” Azma said with an appreciative nod. She felt like she should fan herself. Two intelligent responses in a single meeting? She didn’t remember choking out a Luck God recently, but such good fortune could result from little else. “In general planning sessions are not considered battle conditions, though special rules do apply regarding information security. Being within a hostile powers arcanosphere counts as being on [Full Alert] which carries less restrictions than [Battle Conditions].”

Two seats up from Grenslaw, [Commander] Falcrest was continuing to disintegrate slowly. Each mote of dust that fell from him carried a scream of pure crystallized agony. Azma filed a note to remind herself to have the air scrubbers cleaned and the dust collected from them. There were plenty of places that sort of thing could be sold for a tidy profit.

“So we’re not at [Battle Conditions] and you killed them anyways?” [Commander] Camden said.

Azma sighed and stared at him. The streak of intelligence had been so pleasant. It was really her own fault for thinking it could continue.

She tapped a finger on the table, waiting to see what Camden would do next. Grenslaw and Ryshild had brightened her day. She could give Camden one chance to save himself certainly.

“Well? Did you? I mean that’s pretty unprofessional isn’t it?” Camden said.

Azma looked across the room at the rest of the [Commanders]. Some were looking intently at her, as though eager to hear a serious response to the charge. Some were looking studiously at nothing whatsoever, likely wishing they could be anywhere else at all. Grenslaw and Ryshild were the only two shaking their heads with with their eyes closed.

“[Commander],” Azma began and gestured at him. Flames enveloped Camden and he leapt from his seat. “Were you under the belief that we were somehow equals?”

Camden ran screaming into the hallway, but Azma’s next gesture dragged him back to his seat where he continued to burn.

“Open question to the room,” Azma said. “Does it seem wise in light of what you’ve seen today to address the [Supreme Commander] of this operation with even the barest trace of disrespect?”

“No, sir!” several voices answered at once, and a tiny measure of Azma’s good mood returned. Killing them all might have saved time and aggravation, but it was nice to have at least a few potential candidates to mold into more permanent underlings.

Melsworth, still voiceless and breathless, thrashed, banging on the table to get her attention, before a great shudder went through him and he collapsed to the ground, consciousness finally fleeing.

“Excellent,” Azma said. “Now are there any questions?”

Usually the room was dead silent by this stage of the educational seminar. Once again though Azma was surprised as Grenslaw raised a hand.

“What is the current status of the fleet sir?”

“We are at [Battle Conditions],” Azma said. “The official notification was delivered to the fleet at the start of this meeting.”

“Shouldn’t we be out there leading our troops?” [Commander] Baris asked.

It was borderline, but Azma was feeling generous. Baris could live. At least until he decided to speak next.

“No,” Azma said. “You are, all of you, entirely unsuited to command. I have spoken with your command staff. They have their orders and are executing them as we speak. Frankly I should be monitoring their progress more directly, but the most valuable use of my time at the moment is keeping you all from interfering with their efforts.

“Aren’t our troops our responsibility though?” [Commander] Young asked.

Azma inhaled. It was a reasonable question, and it suggested a good mindset. It could have been phrased better, but she could work on that. Young had not intended it as an insult and so Azma would take the question for what it was.

“No,” she said. “They are my responsibility. Your commissions are as meaningless as your rank. The last thing this operation needs is someone striving for personal glory and promotion by changing a plan they don’t understand or are incapable of following.”

Grenslaw raised her hand and Azma nodded to acknowledge her.

“Is there a station from which we can watch the battle operations unfold?” Grenslaw asked.

“Yes, for those who care to,” Azma said. “Or you may return to your private quarters. Food and entertainment have been provided and are waiting for you there.”

Most of the [Commanders] looked all too eager to retreat to their rooms, but both Grenslaw and Ryshild waited behind as the others left. Apart from the three corpses, they were the only ones in the meeting room within a minute of Azma signaling that the other [Commanders] could leave.

“Only three deaths,” Azma said. “I seem to be getting soft in my old age.”

“Will there be any trouble relating to those sir?” Ryshild asked.

“No. They died under [Battle Conditions], so there will be a substantial payout to their surviving heirs, and their patrons within the ranks could not have thought very highly of them or they wouldn’t have been assigned to me.”

“Is there any special story we should use in explaining their absence to the troops?” Grenslaw asked.

“Only be sure to make it clear that I was the one who killed them,” Azma said. “In-fighting among [Commanders] is as common as it is terrible for the morale and discipline of the troops underneath them. I’ll fold the troops assigned to our three fallen comrades into the ones assigned to each of you. Please understand that this is a test. The other [Commanders] may object to the enlargement of your commands. Resolve it without sowing discord between the troops and you will receive a passing mark on the test.”

Neither one asked what the price of failure would be. 

As the troops began to descend onto the surface of the [Fallen Kingdoms] both Ryshild and Grenslaw could see that failure was not an option.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 5

When faced with an impossible task, normal people look for a more practical alternative. Over the years, Tessa had observed that players were definitely not normal people.

“If the area at the bottom of that pit is a a standard raid zone for the [Sunless Deeps], we might be able to have my guild clear it for us,” Alice said to her team and the demons.

“They won’t be able to get there,” Obby said. “At least assuming it’s still similar to what the beta-testers reported. According to them it’s a stand-alone area, without any active connections to the rest of the [Sunless Deeps] yet.”

“They also said it was empty though, didn’t they?” Lady Midnight said, leaning back and resting her chin in her hand as she nibbled on her lip.

“Something has clearly changed,” Starchild said.

“Even if it hasn’t, we do have another option. Possibly,” Alice said.

Tessa was pretty sure she could guess where Lisa’s thoughts were turning.

“You’re thinking we could [Recall] them into the area with us?” she asked.

“Yeah. Maybe. We’d have to see how removed that area is,” Alice said. She looked paler than Tessa remembered but there was a vitality in her eyes that could have been [Vampiric Mesmerism] if Tessa didn’t know that she’d always had a weakness for that look.

“What is this [Recall] thing?” Balegritz asked.

“One of the abilities we can learn is a teleportation effect,” Tessa said. “It’s got a whole bunch of limitations, but if someone is in the same zone, and they’re in our party, and the other conditions are right, we can pull them from where they are right to our side.”

“I don’t think any of us know that one yet though, do we?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Not yet,” Obby said. “If we level a bit we should be able to pick it up pretty quick though.”

“We can’t level here though,” Rip said. “Can we?”

“I’m betting there’s plenty of monsters our new friend have to contend with down here,” Alice said, looking over to Yawlorna who had been watching the conversation between Tessa’s party with calm, calculating ease.

“We do, but I’m curious how you know that?” Yawlorna asked.

“Deduction,” Alice said. “The first of your people we met was a patrol. People don’t tend to patrol inside their homes unless they expect to find problems fairly often. Or the problems they find are severe enough that they can’t let things linger or build nests. Also, dungeons like this tend have a medley of monsters in them.”

“How do you know so much about dungeons?” Hermeziz asked. “I thought you people were ‘low level’ and that most dungeons were too high for you?”

“Because I’m usually much higher level,” Alice said.

“You can change your levels?” Yawlorna asked.

“Not at will,” Tessa said. “Not anymore anyways.”

“We used to interact with this world remotely,” Starchild said, though Tessa guessed it was Pete who was speaking. “Since we were drawn into it, we can’t do some of the things we used to be able to. Like change to different characters.”

“Your ‘character’ is the body you wear in this world, correct?” Yawlorna asked. “What happened to the bodies you are no longer able to access?”

“We don’t know,” Tessa said. “They may not be here at all. Or they may be sleeping somewhere in a coma until we can reanimate them.”

“It sounds like you should be careful,” Illuthiz said. “Those extraneous bodies could be a liability. They would doubtless provide an excellent channel for curses and ensorcellments to be cast on you.”

It wasn’t a pleasant thought, but Tessa couldn’t deny that it sounded reasonable. If, in the real world, body parts like hair and fingernail clippings had the reputation for being ‘magical conduits’, then, clearly, having an entire body, bones, blood and all should be even more effective.

Tessa thought about Glimmerglass and imagined her poor, long unplayed character tied down to some evil wizard’s experimentation table like a scene out of Frankenstein. Maybe she should head back to where she’d last logged Glimmerglass out once her team got to older zones? If Glimmerglass was still there Tessa could figure out what to do with her.

Burn the body maybe? It was probably the smart move, but even the thought made Tessa’s stomache roll. She couldn’t do that, no matter what the risk was. Glimmerglass had meant too much to her for too long.

“That’s a problem we’ll tackle if it ever becomes an issue,” she said. “For all we know, our other characters, those ‘extra bodies’, they might be entirely virtual.”

“Virtual?” Balegritz asked.

“Imaginary,” Obby suggested.

“You lead very strange lives,” Yawlorna said.

For some reason, being told that by an eight foot tall, fire skinned, massive horned demon woman struck Tessa as hilarious. Pillowcase had the sense not to burst out laughing though.

“We have a couple of bigger problems than not having [Recall] yet,” Lady Midnight said. “First, we have no idea what level the stuff is down there, so we could be asking your guild to walk right into a meat grinder.”

“That’s possible,” Alice said. “Which is why we’d need to scout it first.”

“That will be extremely dangerous,” Starchild said. “If the area below is cut-off from the rest of the [Sunless Deeps] then it may not have access to a [Heart Fire] either.”

“We can always climb back up if we need to,” Obby said,

“That would be a long climb wouldn’t it?” Matt asked.

Tessa pictured trying to climb from the depths of planet to the aerial realm of the [High Beyond] with the baying of the [Hounds of Fate] getting closer every moment. 

We can’t let Rip and Matt go on this, she said to Lisa on their private line. Going down there is legit dangerous.

Yeah, I’m thinking, if we go at all, we send down just a scout or two first, Lisa said. And I’m not one hundred percent convinced we should go. Up till now the risks we’ve been taking have all been ones we can back away from. This one might not be.

Do you think we can win the demons over if we refuse to look for this ship? Tessa asked. And for that matter, do you think it’s worth winning them over in the first place? There could be problems with that too.

What, you mean being friendly with demons hasn’t worked out for people in the past? Lisa’s playfully teasing tone wrapped around her words like a hug.

You know, I’m not even sure ‘demon’ is a good name for them, Tessa said. They’re not acting like any classical demon I can think of, or the demon-ish things we run into in other parts of the game. I bet they have a name for themselves that we should be using instead.

We should, but it’s not going to change the conclusions other people jump to when they see us rolling around with an eight foot demon lady on our team.

I’ve got an idea for that, Tessa said. But it is contingent on Yawlorna’s group actually being on our side.

I think we can get them there, Lisa said. I mean, they’re talking with us, which is a lot more than I expected when we came in here. I thought they were going to be self-delivered fast food that had some loot drops in place of a toy surprise.

Some variant of that is probably how everyone here sees them, Tessa said. I think the only way around that is to take some of them with us back to [Sky’s Edge].

Huh, Lisa said and paused for a moment, considering the idea. I’m in. It could go bad, but you know what? Who cares. Yawlorna seems pretty reasonable. If people have a problem with her being who she is, then they’ll have to through me to get to her.

And nobody gets to you unless they go through me first, Tessa said. It’s the Number One Rule for tanks.

She cast a quick smile over to Lisa and turned her ear back to the conversation.

Yawlorna, Obby, Rip, and Starchild had been discussing how dead people could be hauled up from the [Sunless Deeps] the easiest. The demons had switched from their language to an accented version of what sounded like English to Tessa’s ears, which allowed the other members of her team to join in the conversation. 

“The portal to the [Sunless Deeps] probably isn’t as far down as it appears,” Obby said. “Those things mess with your perception all the time. It’s supposed to make them look cooler.”

“If the [Heart Fire] is just over in that room, then we wouldn’t have far to run once we hit the top,” Rip said. Her eagerness sent a pang through Tessa’s heart.

She’d pictured being a Mom from time to time. It was weird concept, something which she had a sense she was supposed to be, but which always felt too distant and removed to really apply to her. Rip and Matt should have been far too old to appear as her children too, and they certainly weren’t asking her to take care of them.

So why could she picture breaking heaven and earth if that’s what it took to keep them safe?

She’d known them for a few hours? A half a day at most? Why was she unable to think of them as anything but ‘her kids’?

We are meant to protect people and keep them safe, Pillowcase said. 

The words rattled around in Tessa’s mind awakening old memories in confirmation. She hadn’t felt safe as a kid. How much of her personality had grown out that? How much of who she’d become was a rejection of the examples other people had set for her?

We need to take a break just so I can get my head in order, Tessa said, though since she was addressing Pillowcase the words were, in multiple senses, only for her own benefit.

“Ok, leaving our safety aside for the moment, there’s another reason we may want to hold off on traveling down that pit,” Lady Midnight said and waited until she had everyone’s attention before continuing. “Notice how many entrances there are to the [Sunless Deeps] from here?”

“There’s only one,” Yawlorna said. “If there were others we would have been attacked through them already.”

“Right. And what have you done with the one entrance that’s available?” Lady Midnight asked.

Tessa rolled her eyes, feeling foolish for not having considered the point Lady Midnight had made.

“We’ve sealed it,” Yawlorna said. “The seal can be broken though.”

“It would have to be,” Lady Midnight said. “And even if you can remake it, you won’t be able to while we’re down there. So if we run into anything that’s beyond us – or if something just sneaks behind us – everyone here could come under attack again.”

“And if the creatures from the Deeps attack, it’s going to be more than snatch and grab raid,” Alice said. “They’ve seen your layout and they know what your troops are like. They’ll be ready for the fortifications this time.”

“Be that as it may,” Yawlorna said. “We need our ship back, and the longer we delay the less likely we are to be able to recover it.”

“Ah, they’re just stalling,” Hermeziz said. “They’re not able to help us. Or they just don’t want to.”

It was tempting to hear only the insult in Hermeziz’s words, but when Tessa pushed that aside and studied the ‘demon’, she saw something else before her.

He was afraid. Afraid and too desperate to allow even the hint of hope inside.

She could see it in how he held Illuthiz and Balegritz. She could see it in all the ‘demons’.

They were just as lost as she was, except for them the [Fallen Kingdoms] was an opaque and endlessly hostile mystery. 

And they only had one chance at surviving it.

“We do want to help you,” Tessa said, rising to her feet as certainty swept through. “Sometimes we talk too much, and sometimes we’re scared of what we have to do, but that doesn’t mean we’ll leave anyone behind, or to fend for themselves.”

She turned and began walking, and for a moment everyone was too confused and surprised to say anything.

Then her course became clear.

Where are you going? Lisa asked.

Where we need someone to go, Tessa said. Not the full team. Just a scout or two, right?

I didn’t mean you alone! Lisa said.

“Don’t follow me,” Pillowcase said. “More people means more risk and I can either tell you what I’m seeing or what’s down there isn’t anything we want any part of.”

Wait! Lisa shouted in their channel.

I can’t, Tessa said. They need to see who we are.

And with that she stepped over the edge of the pit and crashed through the wards holding it closed.