Author Archives: dreamfarer

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 15

That it was all going to fall apart didn’t bother Azma. Disasters are frightening when they are uncertain, when they trouble they will create can only be imagined wildly. Asthma didn’t need to imagine what was going to happen. The data showed her clearly when and to what extent her plans were going to come to ruin.

“Report in from the [Arcanotechs],” Grenslaw said in the quiet of the emptied bridge.

“Relay it to my desk and tell them that we have heard their request and authorize deployment of the restraining devices at rapid overload levels,” Asthma said. Grenslaw and Ryschild both looked her with a faint questioning air. She hadn’t read the techs’ report but she knew exactly what it would contain and what course of action they would request to pursue.

The containment devices for a [Formless Hunger] were built, or in this case hastily cobbled together, with the intent of generating regions of massive energy density. The key to their success lay in focusing enough energy into a sphere around the target that the laws of physics within reverted to a primordial, and more malleable, state.  Things like the [Formless Hunger] were dangerous because of the inherent violation of physical reality they represented. If one had control of reality though, then trapping a [Formless Hunger] became as simple as dictating that everything within the sphere be converted to some other form. It didn’t matter what form was chosen, the mere fact that the [Formless Hunger] was no longer “formless” would leave it pliable to the other tools the Consortium could deploy to inflict unquestioning loyalty on the beast.

Of course the trick in that strategy was generating a reality liquifying level of power in the direct vicinity of a creature whose only defined trait was an endless and mindless desire to consume said power.

It could happen. Properly setup containment devices would either generate the transmutation field with enough speed that the subject was altered before it could fight against the effect, or, in the more usual cases, the machine would succeed in a partial liquefaction of the local physical laws and would slowly turn the trapped entity into another state while the entity struggled against the transformation and attempted to consume the machines themselves.

Azma’s order had been an allowance for the [Arcanotechs] to try the safest, but far less likely to work, strategy of overwhelming the [Formless Hunger] with a syncronized assault and converting it instantly to some more malleable form. The machine could be programmed to handle the particulars of the operation once they were calibrated to account for the local conditions and the scope of their target.

Since direct observation of the [Formless Hunger] provided psionic connections to it which it had been able to use to suborn three ships already, correctly estimating the size of their opponent was something of a problem for the [Arcanotechs]. The initial, indirect, measures of the static field suggested it was limited to the borders of a small town which had been the gathering point for a number of natives. 

The techs weren’t thrilled with that since “a small town sized monster” was still “town sized”. In the short time they’d had available though, they’d cobbled together or repurposed enough gear to believe they had at least a coin’s flip chance at achieving their objective.

They didn’t.

Azma didn’t doubt their math, or their prowess in assembling the containment devices. She just knew that something in their initial assumptions would be wrong. There were too many variables for the techs to guess each of them correctly, and too much hostility from the universe in general for Azma to be granted a stroke of unearned good fortune like that. 

In ten minutes the last of the techs would finish rigging up their containment device. The area was far from pacified, but Azma’s ground forces had managed to chase away or slaughter enough of the locals that the devices weren’t likely to be sabotaged before they could fire.

And they would fire. Five minutes after the last tech armed the final device. Azma was certain of that part too.

It wouldn’t be a flawless firing. Something would go wrong with one or more of the devices as they waited. With the techs scrambling to reach a minimum safe distance though no one would be able to address the issue.

That was fine however. Redundancy was a part of the system. Even with a few failures or a couple of devices lost to sabotage, the overall network would still fire. Singular heroics could no more prevent that from happening than they could ensure that the devices functioned successfully. Massive operations came down to planning and numbers, and Azma watched all of the numbers as they turned against her.

The key was making sure they were turned against her in the right direction.

Azma didn’t fear failure, because failure was as much a weapon as success was, if somewhat more challenging to wield.

“After the field fails to contain the [Formless Hunger], we will depart,” Azma said.

“We’re fleeing?” Ryschild asked.

“Exactly,” Azma said. “The Xeno division will be landing shortly and if I have to deal with them in person, I am likely to send them each out every one of the airlocks on the ship. Better to be engaged in some hands-on-management in the field for the next bit.”

“Should I call for the bridge crew to return to their posts?” Grenslaw asked.

Azma gazed around the empty bridge. She’d assigned the personnel she’d trusted to work the closest to her to positions throughout the ship and across the fleet. Automated systems and her two senior assistants had been more than sufficient to manage the actual running of the command ship’s main bridge, despite Consortium regulations to the contrary.

When the head of Applied Xenobiology arrived, he would expect to be greeted on the bridge, and when he inevitably staged his coup, he would replace all of the personnel with his own attendants. Assuming there was anyone to be replaced.

“No, they can stay where they are,” Azma said. “The secondary control rooms can handle the needs for this ship while we’re gone. I’ll set this bridge into [Invasion Lockdown Protocol] while we’re out.”

The protocol would render the bridge unbreachable until Azma was relieved of her position. That would be only a transitory irritation for her usurper, but Azma wasn’t above digging her knives in a little deeper and twisting when the opportunity presented itself.

“What will our destination be?” Ryschild asked.

“The satellite moon,” Azma said. “After the failure of the first attempt at containing such a valuable specimen, a manager with subject matter expertise will be required to oversee the second attempt.”

“Will there be a second attempt?” Grenslaw asked.

“Of course,” Azma said. “It won’t be the one I’m traveling to oversee of course. The coup should be completed well before then, and the Xenos will be rather eager to do the work themselves so they snatch the last shred of victory from my hands.”

“Should I order a troop detachment to muster into our shuttle?” Ryschild asked.

“It is tempting, but I don’t think so,” Azma said. “Wouldn’t want to frighten our incoming guests away from making their play to wrest control of the operation from me.”

“Sergeant Kremmer’s troop is currently unaccounted for on the battlefield,” Grenslaw said, her tone encompassing a world of caution. “No word from them yet via private channels either.”

“Not unexpected, but not comforting either,” Azma said. “Perhaps a detachment of troops would be advisable. See what sort of elites can be assembled in the next ten minutes.”

“Understood,” Ryschild nodded and got to work. They weren’t blessed with an abundance of time, but organizational talent helped mitigate that to a large extent.

“Send a message to Captain Pirell,” Azma said, glancing to Grenslaw. “Tell him to send a squad to investigate the whereabouts of Kreemer’s Razers. Explain that they have been given a special assignment but have failed to report in yet, so care should be taken with the value of the troops sent to retrieve them.”

For many other commanders, the order would be interpreted as a directive to send the most expendable troops they had to complete the task. Pirell was just smart enough to work out that if the Razer’s had accepted a special mission that it would involve a lucrative payout. A payout which they were unlikely to share with any of their fellow soldiers. A payout which had probably left them significantly weakened if they were incapable of reporting in on time.

Pirell was willing to sacrifice his troops, but sacrificing a shot at unearned wealth was not in his nature. He would scramble the most loyal troops under his command to retrieve the Razers’ bodies. If the Razers had to be converted to being bodies first, that was a sacrifice Pirell was willing for them to make. At least as long as whatever special trove they’d been sent to retrieve was brought back as well.

His troops wouldn’t return of course. The Razers hadn’t been sent after a special treasure. They’d been sent after a special foe – the lava creature which had wrecked the town and destroyed the first Consortium attack wave. 

Azma knew they’d played around for a while on the surface, killing and re-killing the locals until Kremmer got bored. They’d found some lead to their quarry in the process. If they hadn’t they’d still be ignoring their mission objectives and playing with the locals.

Kremmer and his team weren’t likely to be dead, or even seriously wounded, Azma knew. Their dereliction of duty was as predictable as the impending disaster. The prospect of an interesting battle and the lure of treasure had been just enough to ensure that they would leave the killing grounds on the surface before Azma’s arrival. 

They wouldn’t stay away long, but Azma didn’t need a wide window to facilitate their demise. Not if her suppositions about the [Formless Hunger] were true.

And if they wrong, then she would need to rely on even more drastic means than murder. She might need to actually pay them. 

Glancing down at the tactical readout from the forces still engaged on the planet’s surface, Azma felt a smile drift across her lips. She dearly wanted to see the look on the enemy tactician’s face in response to the orders her troops were following.

From an external perspective, the areas the Consortium had ceded and the ones they’d redoubled their efforts to conquer or retain would have seemed like madness.

Azma had been forced to make disastrous moves in the grand game of their war, at least in terms of her original goal.

How long, she wondered, would it take for the enemy to understand that Azma’s goals had shifted?

Could they imagine the complexity of navigating the Consortium’s internal politics while also trying to accomplish anything of real value? 

It would be so simple to chalk up the Consortium’s moves to a fractured mind, pushed beyond the brink by the successes the locals had achieved. The initial assault had been dreadful but as the danger passed and the tide turned in the local’s favor, the shock and awe would fade, replaced by the certainty that the first assault had been lucky. That Azma was no great and terrible foe, but merely a desperate one who’d chanced upon a strategy they weren’t quite prepared for.

Would Azma’s opposite number on the defender’s side perceive the traps Azma was laying? Would they understand which of the traps were aimed at the locals and which were repurposed to spring back on the next person to take charge of the invasion?

Azma hoped so.

Her opposite number was a worthy foe. After a day of battle, Azma knew them well enough to yearn for them to be something more. She had so many foes, and so few actual challenges. Playing the great game of life against lesser opponents taught her almost nothing. Only someone who could rise to her level, someone who could see through her stratagems and deceits could teach her how to be something more than she was.

Across the display in front of Azma, the signal came that the containment devices had been set to fire.

And five minutes later, they failed spectacularly.

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 14

Things didn’t work out quite as expected. Tessa didn’t know why that surprised her, not after everything else that had happened but as she tried to pick herself up off the dusty floor several important things occurred to her.

First, she was laying face first on a floor which was made of rough, purple-black earth rather than the pristine and polished white construction of the finished areas of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. Before she could work out how she’d been displaced from the [Heart Fire] her team had been gathered around, or where she’d been displaced to, she noticed a more immediate bit of information.

She couldn’t get up.

She wasn’t paralyzed, there was simply a human sized body sprawled over her back.

A somehow chilled body. 

It didn’t take conscious processing for Tessa to understand that bodies weren’t meant to be cold like that. Not if they were still living at any rate. The thought made Tessa flinch and then flinch again harder when the body let out a groan and started to move.

Some part of her knew she should be able to throw an attacker off with relative ease since body weight didn’t increase with level and she wasn’t being specifically grappled. Even as a relatively low level [Clothwork], she possessed the ability to lift significantly more than her own body weight.

Except, of course, she wasn’t a [Clothwork].

She was human.

As human as she’d ever been on Earth.

But she was very definitely in the [Fallen Kingdoms].

“Oh, hey, my leg’s back,” Lost Alice said as she rolled off of Tessa and looked around the room they were in.

The double take that she did when she saw Tessa laying there in the flesh instead of Pillowcase was far briefer than Tessa’s.

“Tessa?” Lisa asked. “Are you ok?”

“My health’s full,” Tessa said. “Probably.”

She was seeing the [Fallen Kingdoms] only as they were. There were no special overlays or informational elements in her vision. When she pinched herself it felt like the mild pinch it should have. When she breathed in, a faint aroma of mint mixed with the scent of freshly turned loam. 

Living up in Pillowcase’s body had been unfathomably different but since it was what Pillowcase was familiar with, the experience hadn’t seemed strange or unnatural. Feeling the air of the [Forgotten Kingdoms] filling her ordinary human lungs though brought with it a powerful sense of disorientation.

“You look like you’re healthy from what I can see,” Lost Alice said. “You’re, wait, what’s a [Void Speaker]?”

Tessa had turned and sat up without thinking about it, but as Lost Alice eyed her carefully, she noticed how close they still were.

She was lost, on an alien world, with a vampire.

That should have been scary, but the last piece of that was unexpectedly reassuring.

Memory battered Tessa like a club and she jerked her gaze down to check Lost Alice’s leg.

Her perfectly normal, perfectly healed leg.

Tessa let out a breath Glimmerglass had been holding since they found Alice and Pillowcase desperately struggling to survive the [Formless Hunger].

“I think [Void Speaker] is my new class,” Tessa said. “I think I leveled in it too.”

She didn’t have the heads-up display to check but intuitively she knew it was true.

“I thought you were a [Soul Knight],” Lost Alice said confusion and worry tussling in the background of her gaze.

“That’s Pillowcase,” Tessa said.

“How did you change back to human?” Lisa asked.

“And can you still switch like you were doing a minute ago?” Lost Alice added.

“I don’t know,” Tessa said, and then Pillowcase spoke through her, “And I don’t think we can change back. At least not at will.”

“You were switching so freely though?” Lost Alice said.

“We were holding something which could break the laws of this reality,” Pillowcase said. “I think it was responding to our memories and personalities directly.”

“What about the other one? Glimmerglass?” Lost Alice asked.

Tessa paused and called out to her other self.

Tessa? You’re still there! Thank the gods! Glimmerglass said. Where are you?

I don’t know, Tessa said, but we’re with Lost Alice and Lisa. Where are you?

Speaking telepathically came intuitively. It wasn’t surprising in a sense. Tessa had been ‘speaking’ like that for…how long? A day? That seemed impossible but it sounded vaguely correct too.

Deep in this dungeon somewhere, Glimmerglass said. Starchild is with me. I don’t know where the others are though.

We should check the party’s chat line, Pillowcase said. Hopefully, destroying the god soul didn’t scatter any of them into the [Formless Hunger].

It hadn’t. Tessa wasn’t sure why she knew that, but she did. It was like she could still the party list and the status of the people on it.

“Glimmerglass is still here in the [High Beyond],” Tessa said, “but she’s back in her own body. Have any of the others contacted you yet?”

“No, but that blast may have knocked them senseless still, let me check,” Lost Alice said.

Less than a moment later, Tessa heard Rip’s voice speaking in her mind on what she knew was the party’s chat channel.

“We’re ok, Jamal got knocked around but he’s still in one piece and Lady Midnight took a bit of damage but she’s healing herself up now,” Rip said.

Tessa noted that ‘Jamal’ was most likely Matt Painting’s real name but chose not to bring attention to it. The slip up was a sign of how concerned Rip was and until they were back together and Tessa could see for herself that Rip was okay, she had no interest in worrying the girl more.

“Check your maps and see if you can find common areas, or areas we’ve been through,” Starchild said. “We need to find how spread out we are.”

“What shape is Alice in?” Rip asked, ignoring Starchild’s words for the moment. “Is her leg okay?”

“I’m fully recovered,” Lost Alice said. “No more unhealable injury, no more pain, and I’m not even hungry. I think I gained a level or two in there too.”

“Thank god.” Rip’s relief was palpable despite the entirely cerebral nature of the conversation.

“No one else if hurt, right?” Obby asked. “I think I got blown into my own little area. I’m not seeing anything familiar or any of you on the map.”

“Are you still in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]?” Matt asked.

“I don’t think so,” Obby said. “The location tag is calling this the [Oubliette of Quiet Thoughts], but it’s not very oubliette-ish. Lots of elbow room and I’m not alone here.”

“What’s there with you?” Rip asked.

“I’m not sure,” Obby said. “I’ll let you know when I find out.”

“Can you solo them though?” Rip asked.

“I mean it’s that or die trying right?” Obby asked.

“Don’t die!” Rip objected.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got better things to do here than die for good,” Obby said. “I’ll catch up with the rest of you in a bit.”

“We can keep an eye out for an entrance to the Oubliette,” Lost Alice said.

“Can I ask what exactly happened there?” Lady Midnight. “And, Tess? Pillowcase? What was that gold thing in your hand?”

“One of my friends, BT, is connected to someone who was a game master in your world,” Glimmerglass said. “When she came here, I think the world tried to give her something like the soul of a god since it was the closest thing to the game master capabilities my world could come up with.”

“BT was glitching like one of the [Disjoined], so I broke the god soul off from her since it was more than anything that was a part of the world could handle,” Tessa said.

“But you were able to control it,” Lady Midnight said.

“Barely and not for long,” Tessa said.

“How did you save me with it then?” Lost Alice asked.

“I told you there was risk right?” Tessa asked.

“You did,” Lost Alice said, pulling herself up from her slouch to a proper sitting position.

“The [Unstable Rent] was consuming all the magic we could throw at it and dumping the power out, I guessed, somewhere beyond the world,” Tessa said. “I happened to need to return the god soul to somewhere outside the bounds of the [Fallen Kingdoms] and it seemed like something big enough to plug even a rent in the fabric of reality.”

“So you smashed it and let the energy of a god close a wound about twelve inches square?” Lost Alice asked.

“More or less?” Tessa said.

Vampires move quickly. Tessa knew that but hadn’t appreciated that it meant their hugs were essentially unavoidable.

Not that she had any interest in dodging.

Cold skin or not, Alice’s embrace still melted a fear that had frozen Tessa’s heart the moment she knew Alice had been hurt.

She couldn’t hug Alice back with superhuman strength so she settled for clinging to Alice as tightly as she could. 

“Thank you,” Lisa said. “Thank you so much.”

Tessa could hear how much the wound had hurt, how frightened Lisa had been. The damage it had done wasn’t just to Lost Alice’s body. It had been eating away at both of them, and if they’d died, Tessa wasn’t at all sure either would have left a ghost to respawn at the [Heart Fire].

Pulling back enough to meet Lost Alice’s gaze, Tessa wanted so very badly to admit the feelings which were hammering away inside her chest. There were three tiny words that would have done the job, but about a million more that clamored to come along too. From “I know your already involved with someone” to “you don’t owe me anything” to “please don’t leave if this is too much, I so happy just being with you.”

Tessa thought, or hoped, or imagined, she could see the echo of those words in Lost Alice’s eyes too, but before any of them could be spoken the spinning world kept spinning.

“I think I see where we are,” Starchild said. “We were blown deeper into the dungeon but we’re still in the area we’d been exploring before, just a few levels below the one’s we’d reached yet. We can probably head back and meet up with the other adventurers.”

“We’ll be safe enough,” Glimmerglass said. “This area looks like it caps out around level 20, so I can tank and dps everything we run across.”

“We’ll be okay too,” Rip said. “We don’t have a tank, but Lady Midnight can keep Matt and I healed while we blast everything from range.”

“No!” Tessa said. “Let us come to you. If you run into anything tough it’ll get to you before you can bring it down and if it goes for Lady Midnight she won’t be able to heal anyone.”

“Ok but are you a tank too?” Rip asked. “The party menu says you’re ‘Tessa’, not ‘Pillowcase’.”

Tessa paused, and was forced to consider the limitations of her newly returned human body. She certainly couldn’t withstand a beating like Pillowcase, and even with a new class, she wasn’t going to holding aggro and self healing and staying tactically calm and aware like a proper tank had to.

And she was still much lower level than the rest, so even if she did everything right, the math underlying the cosmos wasn’t in her corner.

“Wait for us anyways,” Lost Alice said. “Worst case I can help Lady Midnight heal and we can trade off heal-tanking the mobs.”

“And maybe I’ll be able to work out how to get Pillowcase back by then,” Tessa said.

Or perhaps I can lend you my skills? Pillowcase suggested.

Do you know how to do that again? Glimmerglass asked. Because if so I could lend some of my spells too.

I don’t yet, Pillowcase said, but it’s giving me something to work on.

“Ok,” Rip said. “But if monsters come we’ll have to fight them.”

“In that case, unleash the wrath of heaven on them,” Obby said.

“Agreed,” Tess said. “Anything messes with, do whatever you have to.”

“Unless it’s the [Formless Hunger],” Lost Alice said. “Then run. As fast and as far as you can.”

“Is that thing still here?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Yeah, and it’s still growing,” Tessa said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 13

Whatever Tessa had expected, the outcome of using [Fracture] was not it.

Rather than BT’s body being engulfed by static, it was Tessa’s vision which was lost in the sparkling haze.

What did you do? Glimmerglass asked, the terror in her voice a response to the sudden blindness rather than ignorance of what Tessa’s intention or action had been.

Hang on. I’ve got this, Tessa said, despite the deep certainty that she did not, in fact, have control of anything, much less the static which enveloped them.

You called the static, Pillowcase said, it’s yours. Make it work.

Right.

Fixing BT and Hailey was the goal.

Focus on the goal.

The static wasn’t real. It was a manifestation of something that dissolved reality, and unwrote existence. 

Tessa stood on the knife edge of oblivion and saw it was a blade she’d already wielded. She’d slice herself apart to save Pillowcase and the rest of her team. Doing that same for someone else didn’t seem hard at all by comparison. 

The static cleared. The hissing melted away to a pure, soundless tone.

And she struck. Without movement, without breath, she cracked the bonds which shackled the soul of *GM Burnt Toast* to Hailey and BT.

In the medical tent, Tessa stepped away from BT, whose eyes flew open.

“What did you do?” Everyone in the tent wondered that, and any of them might have asked the question.

“That’s…” BT said, her gaze riveted on Tessa’s hand though the rest of her body was frozen.

“Not allowed here,” Tessa said. In her hand, a sigil burned, morphing through the shapes of a language older than the creation of the universe. 

If she could read it, Tessa knew it would speak to her in the language of the gods. It was real enough but it wasn’t something which the [Fallen Kingdoms] was designed to endure the presence of.

Everyone else in the tent had gone perfectly silent in the light of the god soul Tessa was holding. Or not just the tent. The city? The world? It felt like the whole universe was holding its breath, Tessa couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just herself. 

Grasping the god soul was no more possible than allowing it to exist in the [Fallen Kingdoms] in the first place. But it was her job. She was the only one who could.

Just not for long.

“Tessa…” BT said, reaching out a tentative hand.

“There’s no time,” Tessa said, shaking her head.

She had to drop the god soul. Cast it out beyond the borders of the [Fallen Kingdoms].

But first she needed to use it.

Can I do that? Is it ok? she asked.

No, Glimmerglass said, this is dangerous and more than we can control. But it’s for Lisa, so do it anyways. I’m onboard.

Hurry! Pillowcase said.

Tessa tightened her grip, her hand merging with the edges of the god soul as she invoked its command protocols.

***

In the [Garden Hall of Deep Winter], Pillowcase stood over Lost Alice’s fallen form, her shield raised high and light flaring in a dome around them.

The ice flowers were gone. The wisps of light consumed.

Everywhere around them the [Formless Hunger] roared, searching for some gap in Pillowcase’s defenses it could slip in through.

“How are you doing that?” Lost Alice asked, gasping the words out through gritted teeth.

“[Transdimensional Redoubt],” Pillowcase said. “I leveled.”

“That’s fantastic,” Lost Alice said, struggling more with each word. “How long does it last?”

“Long enough,” Pillowcase said.

“Does it…” Lost Alice paused to catch her breath. “Does it let you move?”

“It doesn’t.”

“Dammit. You should go then,” Alice said. “But I don’t want you to.”

Pillowcase heard the desperation in Alice’s voice. It was driven by more than pain. There was a unspoken current of despair that was growing stronger behind Alice’s eyes.

“No,” Alice said, fighting back against herself. “That’s not…not right. I can’t say that. Go, just go. You have to. You promised you’d live.”

“She will,” Tessa said.

All around Pillowcase’s left hand a orrery of golden light swirled and her eyes shone with light in every color imaginable.

Or were they her eyes? Pillowcase’s form wasn’t solid anymore. As some unseen wave rippled through Pillowcase, Lost Alice saw hints of other people standing in her place instead.

Glimmerglass, we need you here, Tessa said.

“[Casting spell: True Form Restoration],” Glimmerglass said.

Pillowcase bent down and Lost Alice watched as she shifted from the form of a [Clothwork] to that of a beautiful [Elven] woman. 

Glimmerglass, kneeling where Pillowcase had been an instant before, focused the spell on the stump of Lost Alice’s missing leg, trying to direct the healing energy into the seething ring of static which prevented the wound from closing. 

For a high level adventurer, the spell should have restored any bodily impairments in just under three seconds. For a low level adventurer, the time between near death and flawless health should have been effectively instantaneous. Lost Alice enjoyed neither of those results, but her health did fill back up and her pain lessened substantially.

“Much better,” she said. “But it still hurts.”

“The [Unstable Rent] is fighting me,” Glimmerglass said.

“Let me deal with that,” Tessa said.

Lost Alice watched as the [Elven] shift against, taking on the appearance of a rather bedraggled young human woman she’d only previously seen as a ghost.

“Sorry, this might hurt,” Tessa said and pressed her hand to Lost Alice’s wound. “[Fracture].”

Lost Alice howled in pain. Her eyes blazed a brilliant red and her fangs grew an extra inch.

But the [Fracture] didn’t fix the [Unstable Rift].

“Sorry sorry sorry,” Tessa said as she pulled back.

Around them the [Transdimensional Redoubt] flickered.

“No,” Lost Alice panted. “It’s ok.” She struggled for another breath. “That sucked, but I’m glad you tried.”

“You should leave me,” Lisa said. “Really Tessa. I am so happy you came back, but not to this. Don’t stay here.”

“She’s right,” Pillowcase said, as the [Clothwork] form briefly appeared before Tessa’s human one took hold again. “Ok. We need to leave.” Tessa held up her left hand where the golden orrery was still spinning. “All of us.”

With a twist of her wrist, the orrery flared again.

***

Rose made it to the [Heart Fire] before any of the rest of her team, but only by a little bit. She was holding back, her nerves were torn between rushing to Pillow and Alice’s aid and not charging into something deadly on her own. She knew she was going to be the one to jump across the level capping zone line and make contact with Pillow and Alice – no one else was going to take that particular risk – but she wasn’t adverse to have people close enough nearby to pull her out of the fire if it turned the [Formless Hunger] was waiting for them.

“How did you get so fast?” Jamal asked. “I thought we all ran at the same speed?”

“I got a class ability that speeds me up,” Rose said.

“Cool. Wait, when did you level?”

“I didn’t. I just sort of switched classes.”

“You did what?” Jamal asked as he, Starchild, Lady Midnight, and Obby caught up to her at the [Heart Fire].

She was interrupted from answering by an explosion of light. It wasn’t merely bright though. The light had a physical force and despite reactions which were several times better than her human ones, Rip wasn’t able to avoid much of the blast.

“Sorry,” Pillowcase said. She was kneeling over the fallen form of Lost Alice.

The fallen and badly injured form of Lost Alice.

“What happened?” Rose asked. She was at their side before she was even aware she was getting up. 

“The [Formless Hunger] was waiting for us,” Pillowcase said. “It set a trap.”

“Lady Midnight! Alice needs healing!” Rose yelled it much louder than she needed to.

“I’m working on that,” Glimmerglass said.

Rose turned to look at who was speaking and leapt across the chamber when she saw that an [Elven] woman she’d never met was standing where Pillowcase had been a moment before.

“Who…” she started to ask before Obby placed a hand on Rose’s arm.

“Are healing spells being disrupted by the [Unstable Rent]?” Obby asked.

“Yeah,” Glimmerglass said. “They seem to be doing some good, but they’re not removing the damage-over-time effect.”

“It’s a lot better than it was,” Lost Alice said, but she sounded so weakened that Rose couldn’t see how that could be true.

“Can I help?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Yes please,” Glimmerglass said. “I think we can hold the wound where it is with healing but I need to be able to look into other options.”

“Understood,” Lady Midnight said and cast [Minor Blood Channel].

“Thats…that’s almost as good,” Lost Alice lied.

“If..if…if..if your health starts dropping I can switch back in,” Glimmerglass said, twitching as static played over her.

Everyone present recognized the vocal tick as more than a simple stutter.

“Are you…?” Rose couldn’t bring herself to say the word.

“[Disjoined]?” Glimmerglass asked. “No. Or not yet.”

“I’m something a little unusual at the moment,” Pillowcase said as her body shift from [Elven] to [Clothwork].

Tessa appeared as she shifted to human form once more and raised her left hand to show the god soul she was carrying.

“Oh, that’s a bit dangerous,” Obby said.

“Yes. It’s doing it’s best to tear us apart,” Pillowcase said, the golden light fading as human shifted to [Clothwork]. “We’re managing for now though.”

“Getting rid of it would be for the best,” Obby said.

“Working on how to do that,” Tessa said, as the [Clothwork] returned to human.

“Is everyone else seeing what I am?” Starchild asked.

“Pillowcase is turning into other people?” Jamal said. “Yeah, I’m seeing that too.”

“We’re not exactly other people,” Glimmerglass said.

“And this isn’t working,” Tessa added.

“None of our sensory capabilities can encompass that wound,” Pillowcase said. “We need another avenue of attack.”

“What does that thing in your hand do?” Rose asked.

“It’s basically a set of GM powers from the game,” Tessa said. “We pulled it off…off…a…a friend because it was doing this to them too.”

“GM Powers? What can you do with those?” Jamal asked, excitement and awe mixing in his voice.

“What can’t you do!” Rose said, similar awe sweeping through her.

Then she considered one of the less pleasant possibilities.

“You can’t send us home right?” she asked.

“No. GMs could ban players but I can’t dare try that now. I have no idea what would happen,” Tessa said.

“Can you fix her wound with it?” Lady Midnight asked.

“GMs didn’t have a ‘heal player’ function, at least not as far as I know,” Tessa said. “I was able to teleport us away from the [Formless Hunger], but that’s one of the simplest functions the GMs had.”

She glitched out again, switching back to the Pillowcase in the process, which seemed to drive the static away.

“If we had time we could work out more of the god soul’s functions, but it’s growing more unstable every second,” Pillowcase said.

“It’s potentially as much of a problem as the [Formless Hunger] is,” Obby said. “But it would give you god-like power if you could master it.”

“I had a discussion about god-like power already,” Tessa said. “I think things like this can cause bigger problems than they solve.”

“If its hurting you, get rid of it,” Lost Alice said.

Tessa knelt down beside her.

“This might be the only thing that can close that rift in your leg,” she said.

“I can manage without a leg,” Lost Alice said. “Probably have someone forge me a magical prosthetic one that shoots lightning bolts or something.”

“I know, you would be totally badass,” Tessa said. “The rift isn’t going to stop damaging you though. It’s a permanent effect. If we can’t remove it, then as soon as the healing stops, you’ll start dying again.”

“We can hold that off with healing spells,” Lisa said. “You don’t have to keep glitching like that. It looks like it’s going to destroy you.”

“I think there’s a way I can do both,” Tessa said. “If I’m wrong though, I think we both wind up getting erased. And one way or the other, there’s no second chance.”

“I hate it,” Lost Alice said. “But I trust you.”

“In this together then?” Tessa asked, offering Lost Alice her free hand.

Lisa looked at the offered hand, and then up to Tessa’s eyes, before Lost Alice closed her eyes and nodded.

“Definitely.” she said as she took Tessa’s right hand.

Holding on to Lost Alice, Tessa brought her left hand up, bathing them both in the radiance of the god soul.

Then she shattered it and light bloomed everywhere.

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 12

Tessa woke with a scream. It wasn’t surprising. She’d been focused on the scream, following it back from beyond the boundaries of the world. It was her beacon and her motivation. She could feel its pull on her heart even though more than light years separated her from its source. What did surprise her though was who turned out to be screaming.

“No! BT! Fight it off! Stay with me!” Glimmerglass’s words were clearer as Tessa ‘woke up’ once more, but the sense of desperation was the same.

Glimmerglass was fighting to keep BT on a medical cot while the other woman writhed, twisted, and worst of all, glitched out into brief clouds of static.

Cold purpose ran through Tessa.

She knew what the static was.

How long has she been like this? Tessa asked Glimmerglass. She didn’t need to use the world’s telepathic channels. She and Glimmerglass were two parts of a greater whole. They could talk to each other as easily as Tessa could talk to herself, which is effectively what she was doing.

What? Who… Glimmerglass started to ask, but understanding rushed in as fast as she could form the question. Tessa? Tessa! I know you! 

It’s been a long time, Tessa said. Sorry.

Sorry? Oh! You’re my [Inspiration]! You’re timing is excellent! Glimmerglass didn’t give any sense of admonition for Tessa abandoning her years ago. She was too joyful to be reunited in a moment when a problem wholly outside of her experience threatened to destroy someone she’d once loved.

Did I love BT? Tessa wondered.

Of course she had. In hindsight it was blindingly clear. They’d never met, so there’d never been anything physical between them, but the long night’s they’d spent chatting away about everything and nothing? Maybe BT had held onto her heart, but Tessa hadn’t been in a position to hold back anything. BT hadn’t been Tessa’s first girlfriend but she had been special in a way Tessa had never consciously put a name to.

And she was dying.

Or worse?

“Wow, that is not fun at all,” BT said, her body rigid with tension but at least solid once more.

“We’ll fix you,” Glimmerglass said. “I don’t know how yet, but we can do it, I’m sure.”

She relaxed her death grip on BT’s shoulders and gathered up BT’s hands in her own.

“It wasn’t hurting before,” BT said. “I’d be fine with going back to that. At least until we can finish the file transfers to Penswell.”

“You’re still doing those?” Glimmerglass stared at BT in bewilderment.

“The fight against the Consortium’s not won yet,” BT said, her smile weak as she slumped back and sagged into the cot.

“We’ll be a lot better off if you don’t literally work yourself to death,” Mellisandra said. 

“Yeah, let Glimmerglass heal you,” Damnazon said. “Like you said, this will be a long fight. We’ll need you helping at the end as much as we need you now.”

Tessa felt Glimmerglass’s memories suffusing into her consciousness. She knew who Mellisandra and Damnazon were and how all of them had arrived at the library they were encamped in front of.

What didn’t make any sense was how BT had arrived there.

She dropped in like a meteor? How did she managed that? It’s not one of the usual teleportation effects. Tessa asked.

That’s an excellent question I’ve been meaning to get back to, Glimmerglass said.

“Does it feel like you’re going to glitch again?” she asked aloud to BT.

“No, but there’s not a lot of warning for it either,” BT said. “Why is there something you can try?”

“I’ve tried all the healing spells I know,” Glimmerglass said. “You’re not injured or suffering from a status effect that we have spells to treat.”

“Sounds like I just need to deal with this then?” BT said.

“Maybe not,” Glimmerglass said. “We’ve run into a lot of things which aren’t covered by standard healing magic. Maladies and curses that can only be undone by specific rituals.”

BT gave a low chuckle. “I don’t think this is the start of a quest chain.”

“Maybe not, but maybe knowing more about it will point us in the right direction,” Glimmerglass said. “When did it start? Was it after you came here? Or were you glitching out before then?”

“Oh it was definitely when I came here,” BT said. “Before then I was on Earth and we don’t have magic problems like this there.”

“You were on Earth?” Tessa asked, speaking with Glimmerglass’s voice.

“Yeah, it’s where Marcus is. The place where this is all a game,” BT said, searching Glimmerglass’s eyes for why she was having to explain that again.

“I know what Earth is,” Tessa said. “But that means you’re Hailey? But Hailey’s a GM and there’s no GMs in this world?”

“Wait, Tessa? I thought you’d logged in with your new character? Did you figure out how to log out?” BT rose on the cot again, energy surging back in her.

“No. It’s…it’s a lot more complicated than that,” Tessa said. “How did you get here though? What did you do to yourself?”

“Who are Tessa and Hailey?” Damnazon asked, glancing between the two women holding each other’s forearms.

“Their [Inspirations],” Mellisandra said. “Though it sounds like it’s not quite that simple.”

“Yeah,” BT said and spent a half second vibrating in a staticy glitch. “I was able to get my regular account running before they locked down the login servers.”

“And BT got killed by something?” Tessa asked.

“She didn’t need to,” Hailey said. “The people we are here and the people we were there are connected. It doesn’t take death to unite us, just an awareness and the desire to bridge the gap.”

Tessa dismissed the idea. It was ridiculous. She’d felt the transition occur. She remembered transforming into light. She remembered the journey beyond space. She knew what it took to crossover.

Didn’t she?

She poked her memory for evidence to the contrary. She tried to turn away from the idea. Neither approach worked well. She could hold her curiosity at bay but the idea and its ramifications were feeding a host of new thoughts.

“So you chose to come here? I mean right here?” Tessa asked, still struggling to process the implications of what Hailey had said.

“More or less? I knew I needed to be here, and BT had a sense of who was in charge of the [Defense Coalition],” Hailey said. “We decided it together I guess? It just felt right. And, you know, you were here. Sort of.”

“[Me]?” Glimmerglass and Tessa both asked the question which, despite the fact that they were speaking with one voice, gave it a strange echoing quality.

“I was surprised to find Glimmerglass,” Hailey said. “I didn’t think she would be active if you weren’t playing her.”

“That sounds vaguely insulting,” Damnazon said.

“The last few days have been kind of a big deal,” Glimmerglass said. “A lot of us are picking up our gear again, even without our old [Inspiration].”

Tessa marveled at that too. She’d known Glimmerglass was active since the Coalition’s assault on the Consortium’s support ships. The implications of that were broader than she was ready to engage with too.

Especially when someone was still screaming for her.

Pillowcase! she recognized the wordless voice. Then she knew why the scream had rung out. LISA!

What’s wrong? Glimmerglass asked.

We need to leave! I need to leave! Tessa said. Pillowcase is in trouble. Lisa’s hurt. We’ve got to leave here. We’ve got to help them!

But BT needs our help too, Glimmerglass said.

It was Tessa’s turn to cry out. Too much was going wrong. She could handle it. Couldn’t fix any of it. 

Any moment, people were going to start screaming at her rather than for her.

Let them, Pillowcase said.

What? It was Tessa or Glimmerglass or maybe both who asked the question, but neither needed the answer. Both felt Pillowcase’s steely resolve spread through them.

Crisis here. Do what we can.

Two simple, clear directives.

They didn’t banish Tessa’s fear or uncertainty but they gave her back the focus she needed.

How’s Lisa? she asked as she scrolled through Glimmerglass’s spell list and checked the status’s BT was carrying.

She took a hit from the [Formless Hunger], Pillowcase said. She’s down and she’s in intense pain. It took off her leg, so she can’t move, but the damage is worse than that.

Worse how? Glimmerglass asked.

She can’t heal the wound, Pillowcase said. And it left a damage-over-time effect on her.

Is she bleeding or is it an elemental effect? Glimmerglass asked.

Neither, I haven’t see the status effect before. It says [Unstable Rent].

Tessa focused on the words [Unstable Rent] and a description unrolled before her.

[Unstable Rent] – A [Rift] based injury which destabilizes the target’s core integrity and causes their health to drain away based on the size of the rent. The damage is said to be able to slay even the mightiest defenders as it attacks the targets on all levels of their being. Duration: Permanent.

The phrase “all levels of their being” bothered Tessa. She had a terrible sense the injury might be even worse than they thought.

Lost Alice took the hit, how is Lisa doing? Tessa asked.

She says it’s hurting her like hell too. Separate from the damage Alice took, Pillowcase reported.

Can she cast any channeled healing spells? Glimmerglass asked.

No. The damage from the wound is breaking her concentration before she even gets the spell off.

Can we share a healing spell with Pillowcase? Tessa asked. Like she shared the [Heart Killer’s Curse] with you?

I don’t know how we did that, Glimmerglass said, but I’m willing to try.

I may not be able to cast it, Pillowcase said. The [Formless Hunger] is still attacking. I’m standing over Lost Alice, and as long as I’m here it can’t get to her, but if I drop my guard to cast a spell it might take us both out.

On the medical cot, BT was wracked by another spasm of glitches. The static wreathed her whole body and within it, Glimmerglass and Tessa saw a new shape begin to emerge. It was humanoid, it was BT’s size, and it was laughing a staticky laugh which had nothing whatsoever to do with sanity.

How long can you hold off the [Formless Hunger], Tessa asked Pillowcase.

Not forever, Pillowcase said, but I’m not going to fall that easily either.

Is there anywhere safe you can withdraw to? Glimmerglass asked.

No, Pillowcase said, we’re fully engulfed by the Hunger. Only my new defense is holding it back.

We can’t send backup then, Tessa said. This is on us to fix.

We need something to damage the Hunger with, Pillowcase said.

And something to fix BT with, Glimmerglass said.

Because one impossible problem wasn’t enough. Life just had to be its own punishment after all. Tessa began to regret passing up the opportunity to wave her hand and make all her problems disappear. Having that kind of power might cause problems but it wielding unfettered might still sounded pretty appealing to her gamerly soul.

Unfettered might.

Tessa turned her gaze back to BT.

Could it be that simple?

“Hailey,” she asked tentatively. The last wave of glitching had been harsh but Tessa was more trepidatious about the answer to her question. “Were you still logged into your GM account when you joined up with BT?”

“Uh, yeah? We weren’t allowed to log out of those or we’d vanish. Why?” Hailey asked.

Is that why she’s glitching? Glimmerglass asked.

We can’t use that though, Pillowcase said, can we?

“Do you trust me?” Tessa asked Hailey, trying to suppress the tremor in Glimmerglass’s hands.

“Of course,” Hailey said. “You always had my back. And we’re still friends, right?”

“Always,” Tessa said. She didn’t think. Didn’t let worry or fear stop her. She simply placed the index and middle fingers of her left hand on the middle of BT’s forehead and spoke a single word.

[Fracture]

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 11

The world wasn’t right. In a phenomenal, gut-wrenching, cosmos encompassing sense, the world was not right, and as much as Tessa wanted to keep sleeping, that wasn’t an option anymore.

“You’ll want to be careful with what you do next.”

The woman who was speaking sounded young. Not a child, but something closer to Tessa’s age. With each word though Tessa heard the walls of creation echo back from eternity.

“Careful with what?” Tessa asked, trying to grapple some idea of where she was into her consciousness. 

It wasn’t so much that she couldn’t see anything, but rather a question of if she even had anything like eyes, or a body in general, to see with.

“With yourself,” the woman said. “Things could go very differently based on what you chose to do next.”

“I don’t know if I can do anything,” Tessa said.”Where am I?”

“Nowhere,” the woman said. “This isn’t so much a ‘here’. You could change that but the price for doing so is pretty high.”

Despite her lack of vision, Tessa wasn’t floating in a lightless, empty void. She was a sighted person, so she conceived of her world as built out of color and images and those hadn’t left her. The sky above her wasn’t blue, but there was blue within her which suffused her breath and joined hands with the idea of the sky.

Beneath her the grey of concrete and the green of fresh cut grass mixed and played with muddy browns, and glistening silver splashes of water. The ground offered no substance and no support but it also imposed no restrictions, serving only to give Tessa a point of internal reference.

“Who are you?” Tessa asked, casting around for the woman who spoke to her.

All of the colors and fragments of imagery were a projection shown on the inside of her skin, and a reflection not of a world around her but rather the one she carried within. In that inner light, she saw no trace of the woman who spoke.

At least not until she felt  a warm hand rest on her forearm.

“I have a lot of names,” the woman said, appearing beside Tessa as their stories overlapped for a moment. “Most of them wouldn’t mean much to you, but I know how irritating it is to have nothing to call someone, so you can use ‘Jin’ if you need. It’s very possible you won’t though.”

“Why’s that?” Tessa asked.

“Because none of this, myself included, are strictly speaking real,” Jin said.

“But we’re talking right now, aren’t we?” Tessa asked.

“I don’t know,” Jin said. “Is a conversation in a dream a real conversation or something that never happened?”

“Oh, am I dreaming then?” Tessa asked.

“Maybe,” Jin said.

“As answers go…” Tessa said.

“It’s not terribly helpful, yeah, I know,” Jin answered. “Like I said, you need to be careful with yourself. You have a choice to make and while I can help make sure it’s an informed one, I can’t tell you everything about what will happen, in part because that information would corrupt your ability to chose.” 

“That sounds really weird,” Tessa said.

“It is,” Jin said. “Weirder than you can imagine, but that’s kind of where we’re at. Welcome to the Wide World of the Weird.”

‘“Is that what it’s called?” Tessa asked.

“No. It doesn’t really have a name. Names aren’t exactly important here, where nothing’s real. But at the same time they’re also all that really matters. Stay here long enough and that won’t even seem like a contradiction. Not that that’s necessarily a good thing.”

“So how do I take care of myself?” Tessa asked. She wasn’t sure she could trust the person she was with, but by the same token she wasn’t sure she could trust herself either. It had been her own brilliant idea for dealing with the Formless Hunger that had left her in Weird World.

Hadn’t it?

She remembered speaking to…what had she been speaking to before she wound up wherever she was? And had the voice she’d spoken with been her own? It hadn’t been Pillowcase’s, and something told her it hadn’t been Tessa’s either. But it had been hers.

Was she not who she thought she was?

“The big thing is to ask yourself what you really want,” Jin said.

Tessa bit back her first answer. “For everything to just go back to how it was” had one tiny problem – it was a lie.

Fighting monsters and running into horrors from beyond time and space sucked. She could do without that kind of stress completely. Her old life though? Could she even call it a life? All she did was work, eat, and sleep. She was surviving but was that what she really wanted?

And what about Lost Alice, and Rip, and Matt, and all the rest? Did she really want to leave them behind? Would being strangers on the other side of a monitor feel right at all?

A horrible wave of greed crashed over her and receded leaving Tessa feeling ashamed. She might be in a low spot in her life, but how could she question letting the others get back to their lives? Was she going to throw Rip and Matt into life threatening danger because she had a crappy job she didn’t want to go back to? Or Lisa? Would she let Lisa be killed…

Lisa.

Tessa felt a flash of horror tear through her chest.

Something was wrong with Lisa.

She’d been hurt.

Tessa fought to open her eyes, thrashing like a wildcat.

“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” Jin said.

“What’s happening!” Tessa asked.

“A lot,” Jin said. “In your absence the world’s falling apart. Don’t worry though, it’s been falling apart for a while now.”

“What’s happening with Lisa!” Tessa asked.

“The Formless Hunger ambushed you and her,” Jin said. “It scored a hit on her and that’s kind of bad.”

“How do I fix that?” Tessa asked.

“That’s what you’ve got to chose,” Jin said. “If you want, you could brush all the problems of the world away with a wave of your hand. The problem there is that’s not a real solution so you wouldn’t wind up being real afterwards. And there’s a decent chance the world wouldn’t be either. The dream of it would be perfect though.”

“That sounds kind of worthless,” Tessa said. “What’s my other choice?”

“You can go back. Wake up, but as yourself,” Jin said.

“Can I save her if I do that?”

“There’s a chance, but it’s only ever a chance,” Jin said. “Going back as yourself means you can change the world, but only if you put in the work to do so. And there’s no guarantee that the changes will stick, or be for the better.”

“That’s a rotten deal,” Tessa said. 

“Yeah, it is,” Jin said, offering Tessa a shrug.

“What about you?” Tessa asked. “Could you save them?”

“What do you think I’m trying to do now?” Jin asked.

“So you can’t just wave your hand and make everything better either then?” Tessa asked.

“Not yet,” Jin said.

“Yet? What do you need to wait for?” Tessa asked.

“Your universes are in a delicate state, for lack of a better description,” Jin said. “I’m pretty sure it’s going to get worse before it gets better, but I think there’s still hope you’ll be able to patch things up. The alternative is that everything topples over the brink and I have to erase all of it.”

“Erase all it? What does that mean?” Tessa asked.

“Exactly what it sounds like,” Jin said. “I want your worlds to survive and prosper. They look pretty fun. I’m here in case that’s not an option.”

“Like you would destroy them or something?”

“Or something pretty much covers it,” Jin said.

“What are you?” Tessa wanted to pull her arm away but she was afraid to lose the friendly contact between them. Jin wasn’t destroying the world yet and maybe she wouldn’t as long as Tessa stayed with her.

“Mostly benevolent?” Jin said. “Like I said, I’m rooting for you to win here. I’m just a safety net in case you don’t.”

“How is destroying the world a safety net?” Tessa asked and her own memories answered her. “Oh, wait, I see. The Formless Hunger. There are a lot of things like that, aren’t there?”

“And worse. Much worse. They’re my problem to worry about though,” Jin said.

“Could you at least get rid of the Formless Hunger then?” Tessa asked. “That things a living nightmare. We can’t fight it at all.”

“Yeah, funny story there,” Jin said. “You’re not wrong about anything you said there, except for where you actually did fight it. That…well, it’s nice to run into surprises once in a while.”

“I didn’t do anything to it though,” Tessa said. “I just cast a spell on it and then it blasted me out here. To Weird World.”

“That’s not exactly what happened,” Jin said. 

“I tore a tiny little piece of it too I guess,” Tessa said.

“Which is incredible as a note, but the surprising thing was how you made it so the Formless Hunger had pieces to be torn off in the first place,” Jin said. “What your were originally snared by essentially didn’t exist. Not as far as your reality was concerned. You managed to change that. You forced it to become real and bounded, at least somewhat, by what is real to you. I can’t explain just how amazing that is. And how dangerous.”

“Thank you?”

“You’re welcome. And I’m sorry,” Jin said. “This is one of those ‘you break it, you fix it’ sort of deals. By pulling the Formless Hunger into your world, you made it real enough that it’s a real problem, not one of the ones I can resolve without consequences.”

“So it’s my fault Lisa got hurt?” Tessa asked.

“Nope. Just because you’re part of a chain of events doesn’t mean you’re responsible for the actions other people in the chain take,” Jin said. “You get to own your actions, not anyone else’s.”

Tessa felt Jin’s words wash away the clods of guilt that had been piling up. It shouldn’t have been that easy. Tessa’s guilt was tied up with fear, and repressed hopes, and defensive anger. 

None of that was going to help Lisa though.

And none of it was fair to Pillowcase, who would feel as much of the guilt as Tessa tried to carry on her shoulders.

“So how do I get back there for real then?” she asked. “Click my heels three times?”

“It’s not quite that easy,” Jin said. “The two big problems are that you can’t go back alone and that you chose this exile to resolve a point of impossibility with the world. For the first, you’d need to listen for a call to bring you back, and, oh, what’s that I hear now?”

From an infinitely far distance, Tessa heard a note of pure desperation rise from Pillowcase’s heartless chest.

“I can hear it too! How do I get there!”

“You don’t,” Jin said. “Not as who you were. Not as someone who’s just a regular human. To return, you have to become someone new. Some thing new.”

“Yes! Yes! Whatever it takes! I can feel it. She’s dying!”

“I have to get there!”

“Whatever it takes!”

Tessa reached out. She couldn’t touch the stars. They were too far. But she had to reach so far beyond them.

“This is all on you,” Jin said. “You sent yourself here. The person you were couldn’t send you back, so let her go. Become someone who can.”

It was gibberish. Meaningless words that offered no insight or direction.

She was reaching as far as she could and it was nowhere near far enough.

It will be.

But it’s impossible.

No. Jin’s right. I did this once. I can do it again.

There was a price. 

This is the price. I was asleep. I was at peace. Living is the price we pay for being alive. And I. Want. To. Live.

Understood.

New Class Created.

Welcome [Void Speaker] Level 1!

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 10

When escape isn’t an option, some choices become much simpler.

“It’s going to catch us,” Pillowcase said, readying her shield and mace.

Fighting was foolish. She couldn’t beat the [Formless Hunger]. So that wasn’t an objective for this combat. It was possible that she could buy time for Lost Alice to escape though.

“What? No! We. Just. Talked. About. This!” Lisa tugged at Pillowcase’s arm trying to hurry her towards the second exit from the garden.

“We did,” Pillowcase said. “Then we were flanked. That changes things.”

She dodged away from a tentacle of static and watched as two more began whipping themselves closer.

“No! It. Changes. Nothing. Move!” It was Lost Alice’s growl this time and the [Vampire] had plenty of strength to enforce her demand, even compared to Pillowcase’s sturdy frame.

Pillowcase saw the next attack coming and switched from resisting Lost Alice’s pull to moving with it. The sudden change sent Lost Alice off balance, but Pillowcase was able to scoop her up before they both tumbled to floor of the garden.

“We can’t go into that corridor,” Pillowcase said, gesturing to the one at the top of the second staircase.

“Why not! You promised!”

“Look at the wisps,” Pillowcase said. “They’re already moving away from it. The Hunger has that corridor sealed off too.”

Lost Alice looked where Pillowcase was pointing as they both got moving again. Pillowcase didn’t lead them towards the stairs. Instead she tried to remember the map and plot which areas it would have been the most difficult for the Hunger to have reached. The drawback to that approach was that “most difficult” didn’t mean “hadn’t already done so”. Pillowcase had no idea how fast the hunger could grow or how much of the dungeon it had already infiltrated.

“Over there then,” Lisa said, gesturing to another entrance a few hundred yards away.

The wisps were the only guide they had and the ones near the distant exit didn’t seem to be as perturbed as the ones which were being consumed by the static tentacles around them.

It was too far for them to run, but Pillowcase saw she wasn’t going to have any option except to try, so she let Lost Alice lead her onwards.

“No. Dying.” Lost Alice’s eyes were solid pools of red when she glanced back at Pillowcase.

“It set this trap for me,” Pillowcase said.

Standard battle doctrine was clear on the occasional necessity of sacrificing units, especially during an ambush. Pillowcase didn’t expect Lost Alice to conform to the Consortium’s Manual of Approved Combat Practices, but under the circumstances it was pretty that Pillowcase was at best a liability who could be turned into a useful asset if used properly.

Of course “used” in this context meant being fed to the [Formless Hunger], so Pillowcase wasn’t entirely resistant to seeking a better option. She remembered what being struck by the [Disjoined] felt like though and predicted that the [Formless Hungers] blows would be far, far worse.

Possibly even permanent.

That wasn’t something she could allow to happen to Lost Alice.

Tessa would kill her if she did.

“Sucks to be the [Formless Hunger] then,” Lisa said. “It can’t have you.”

“It may contest that point,” Pillowcase said.

She glanced over her shoulder and then yanked Lost Alice off the path they were running down.

The [Ice Lillies] shattered into motes of brilliant white as Lost Alice crashed through them, but Pillowcase couldn’t appreciate the beauty.

She had to block.

The static tentacle struck her with [Formless Ripper]. It had caught up too quickly and Pillowcase had spent too much time, at least a dozen milliseconds, ensuring that Lost Alice was clear and it could only strike at her. Dodging was impossible.

So instead she put her terribly fragile, low level shield in the path of the blow.

The [Formless Ripper] effect reached out to strip apart the subatomic particles which made up Pillowcase’s shield, her armor and her arm. The [Formless Hunger] had consumed entire battleships with that technique.

[Transdimensional Integrity] invoked.

The tentacle smashed into the raised shield and staggered backward, propelled by an angry flash of light. Pillowcase felt the force of the impact and watched her shield shudder under the impact but its fundamental structure held together where the Consortium’s battlships hadn’t.

Tessa might have had a quip, or a cheer. She might have taken a moment to reflect on how fortunate it was that her earlier encounter with the [Formless Hunger] had left her with an ability which inoculated her against the worst of its attacks. She might even have had some great revelation about how to fight the things.

All Pillowcase had was focus and determination.

More tentacles were racing to surround them. 

Their route to the seemingly clear exit was shrinking every second.

Another tentacle shot up from the ground directly beneath Pillowcase’s feet.

It should have pierced her body and disintegrated the majority of her torso. Instead it simply knocked her back and inflicted a bit of minor damage from the semi-physical spikes along its edges.

“Pillowcase!” Lost Alice scrambled back to her feet, the haze of the shattered [Frost Lillies] wreathing her in a luminous outline as she started casting. “[Counter Death]. [Casting spell: Lesser Blood Channel].”

“I’m fine,” Pillowcase said, bracing for the next tentacles attack and snapping off a quick hit to place a [Taunt] effect on the one that had tried to sneak beneath her.

Healing flowed into her from the [Lesser Blood Channel]. More than she needed in fact. Lost Alice wasn’t being sensible. [Lesser Blood Channel] wasn’t as efficient a spell as the [Minor] variant of it, but Alice didn’t seem to care. Or she wasn’t looking at this as a long term fight, which struck Pillowcase as disturbingly likely. 

“We have to keep moving! Go! I’ll follow you.” It was a nice sentiment but Pillowcase knew that Lost Alice didn’t mean it.

[Lesser Blood Channel] restricted the caster’s movement the same as the [Minor] version did.. Lost Alice was going to keep it active until Pillowcase made it out of the spell’s range. 

At her best speed, Pillowcase could possibly the reach the open exit. She’d need to block some attacks which hadn’t been part of the equation previously, and she would take enough hits that the healing Lost Alice was providing would be vital, but with everything added together she could make it.

Probably.

Lost Alice however couldn’t possibly do the same.

Without [Transdimensional Integrity], even the first hit from a tentacle could be devastating, and Alice couldn’t supply herself with healing like she could with Pillowcase. She was going to take hits, and each one would slow her down. And she would die. 

Or at least her body would be destroyed. The nearest [Heart Fire Shrine] wasn’t that far away. As ghost runs went, Lost Alice wasn’t that bad off. The chances that she would encounter the [Hounds of Fate], or be unable to outrun them, seemed slim. 

Tactical doctrine was therefore clear.

Sometimes units had to be sacrificed for the good of the rest of the squad.

Pillowcase felt her instincts take hold as her feet shifted and her eyes began to pick out a course that would provide as much cover as possible from the rapidly growing number of static tentacles.

Then she looked at Lost Alice.

Lost Alice who was desperate for Pillowcase to leave, to run, to live.

Lost Alice cared about her.

Sentimentality was absolutely not part of Pillowcase’s make up. 

There were threads woven into her specifically to avoid such irrational attachments from developing and clouding the effectiveness of a unit.

Harsh, pragmatic logic and obedience to orders were the only things that could be relied on in the heat of battle. 

Pillowcase felt herself being swept away by that programming, felt her weight shifting as she turned to run, and slammed into a wall of emotion that couldn’t have been her own.

She didn’t have a heart after all.

Right?

Without pausing to block, she rolled off her front foot, smashing two tentacles with her mace and [Shield Bashing] a third to make sure everything was focused on her.

“No!” Lost Alice screamed.

“I’m not leaving you here,” Pillowcase said as the “minor” attacks from the static tentacles bashed and battered her driving her health perilously low faster than the healing spell could keep up with.

A new tentacle whipped down from overhead and Pillowcase overextended to catch its attack on her shield rather than allowing it to strike Lost Alice’s unprotected head. The move made her stumble for a step and wind up crouched down under her shield right beside Lost Alice.

“You’re an idiot,” Lost Alice said, her eyes shining with tears.

“Yes, now let me take care of you,” Pillowcase said, rising to fend off the growing cluster of static tentacles.

Behind her, Lost Alice whispered something inaudible and rose as well.

“I don’t think we can make it to the exit together,” she said.

“If we could thin out the tentacles we’d have a better chance,” Pillowcase said. “My attacks are barely scratching them though.”

“Mine won’t do any better,” Lost Alice said. “We need Rip and Matt here.”

“I doubt I can hold the [Formless Hunger] off long enough for them to join us,” Pillowcase said.

“And I wouldn’t want them to anyways,” Lost Alice said. “None of our friends should have to face this.”

“Agreed. It’s why we came here,” Pillowcase said. “So they wouldn’t have to.”

Lost Alice gave a harsh, bitter laugh.

“I thought we were doing this to keep you safe,” she said. “Guess I’m an idiot too.”

“I’ll make it out of this,” Pillowcase said. “I swear.”

“You better,” Lisa said. “And you better have an idea how we’re going to do that soon.”

“I think I do,” Pillowcase said. “But I don’t think you’ll like it.”

“You want me to drop the healing spell,” Lost Alice said.

“That’s the start of it. We can’t move while you’re anchored in place.”

“It gets worse from there?” Lost Alice asked.

“We need to split up,” Pillowcase said. “And you need to let me act as bait.”

“Absolutely not.”

“I’m not saying we move out of range for your heals,” Pillowcase said. “Let me create a front line that we can retreat from.”

“You can do that with me beside you,” Lost Alice said.

“If I lose aggro on one of them, I’ll need some leeway to get it back,” Pillowcase said. “And they might have area attacks they’re holding reserve.”

Pillowcase heard the silence which followed as a thousand unvoiced objections from Lost Alice. She could only pay it so much attention though as all four tentacles were flailing around on her.

The [Formless Hunger] didn’t seem to be capable of learning. It struck over and over with the [Formless Ripper] effect, as though convinced it should be able to shatter Pillowcase’s defenses despite the mounting evidence to the contrary.

“Fine,” Lost Alice said at last. “Three quarters max casting range. I’m not taking a chance on knockback messing that up.”

“Agreed, and thank you,” Pillowcase said. “Take the path that curves to the left. More ice trees to run the tentacles through.”

“Is that a good thing?” Lost Alice asked as she started moving away down the path Pillowcase indicated.

“They seem to slow down and grow more solid with each thing they absorb,” Pillowcase said. “Makes them hit a little harder, but also makes it easier to dodge and parry them.”

Not that dodging and parrying the tentacles was easy.

But it was probably easier than it should have been Pillowcase noted.

The [Formless Hunger] was far more powerful than she was. Even its farthest reaching tentacles should have reflected that. The hits she was taking were heavy ones, but she was so far away from the level cap that the fact she was surviving them at all meant the attacks would be unnoticeable for a max level character, even one of the squishy ones.

With a blink, she called up her stats page and saw the familiar chain-link icon next to her current level display.

The garden was a level locked zone.

The [Formless Hunger] wasn’t attacking them with obliterating force because it didn’t have obliterating force to call on. It was limited to a tiny chunk of a its real power.

A static tentacle hit Pillowcase square in the chest, sending her sprawling through one of the [Frost Oaks].

The [Formless Hunger’s] “limited power” was still more than she could deal with.

That was made even more clear a moment later when a new tentacle surged out up from the ground. Unlike the previous ambush though, this one didn’t bounce off of Pillowcase’s armor.

Because it didn’t target Pillowcase.

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 9

The [Garden Hall of Deep Winter] was spectacular enough that even Pillowcase’s tactically stitched together heart was moved by the sight of it.

From the entrance they arrived at, the garden seemed to extend to infinity, soaring overhead into a bright, scintillating cloud with the only clear view being onwards, the garden spreading out ahead of them until the view was blocked by a sparkling mist which spread along the floor and rose almost to the top of the twenty foot high stairs Pillowcase and Lost Alice stood on.

Around them, adorning every wall, frozen filigrees of crystal spread out in three dimensions forming graceful spirals and incomplete lattice works which stood in place of the hanging plants and soaring trees which would have filled a more traditional garden.

Both Pillowcase and Lost Alice had eyes which were adapted to seeing in darkness, but the ancient architect who had designed the garden clearly felt that proper lighting was a requisite part of the experience and had placed thousands of softly glowing wisps floating through the cavern.

“There’s divinity here,” Pillowcase said, her voice barely more than a whisper on her private channel with Lost Alice.

“This couldn’t have been in the game,” Lisa said. “There’s too much detail. It’s too beautiful.”

“Yes,” Pillowcase said, her breath deep and awed. “I am speaking literally though. No mortal hand worked this, and those wisps are not a part of the natural world.”

Lost Alice paused. They hadn’t walked forward down the stairs yet, but she froze in place, taking on a predator’s stillness as she looked beyond the wonder before them.

The nearest wisps moved lazily in a non-existent breeze, unhurried but not undirected. Each other was chasing another. Not following. They weren’t tracing identical paths, they were moving always towards joining with the one they sought, deviating from the best course to move around the crystal structures they floated amongst and pushed off the quickest path by some unseen force they appeared to struggle against.

It wasn’t a fast chase. More a stately, methodical waltz.

It was captivating though. Even to Pillowcase’s untrained and, usually, unappreciative eyes.

She didn’t have a parasympathetic system to relax out of a Flight-or-Flight response. Her body was woven for either Fight-or-Fight-Harder. Rest was something that was a fight all on its own, a hard, measured scramble to reclaim as much lost energy as possible so that you could be battle ready as soon as possible.

Despite all that, Pillowcase still felt tension drift away from her..

It was winter.

Time for things to lie fallow.

Time for long nights and deep rest.

Before her, a starry sky had descended to touch the earth, so that she could rest surrounded by beauty.

Pillowcase turned to glance at Lost Alice.

The wisps were playing around both of them, illuminating Alice’s features in a warm radiance. Pillowcase’s breath caught in her throat. 

Lost Alice turned to Pillowcase and a million points of light were reflected in her eyes. And behind them, a gentle hunger which had nothing to do with blood.

Surrounded by beauty indeed.

“This place is dangerous,” Lost Alice said after a long steadying breath.

Pillowcase wanted to step closer to her, but that was irrational. They were already shoulder-to-shoulder and holding hands.

“The mist,” Pillowcase said. “It’s affecting my mind. That shouldn’t be possible.”

“Mine too, and same here, not like this anyways,” Lost Alice said. “It’s not a direct influence though.”

“That might be why its affecting me,” Pillowcase said. “It’s only amplifying what’s already present, and adding additional awareness of what’s around us.”

“Divinity you said, right?” Lost Alice asked. “It’s like the lights and the mist are setup so you can…or have to, see the grandeur of the garden.”

“And other things,” Pillowcase murmured, forcing her gaze back to inspecting the garden.

She could see so much of it, so clearly, despite the glittering mist. Even the areas the mist kept hidden seemed to be obscured for a purpose. The distant reaches of the garden cloaked by the mist promised vistas which gave a reason to explore the area in person rather than lingering forever on the steps to drink in the wonder from their current, perfect vantage point. 

“No sign of the [Formless Hunger] so far,” Lost Alice said after a quick shake to clear her head. “We should head in carefully, right?”

“Right,” Pillowcase said. “Like you said, there’s a lot places it could be hiding in here if it’s still growing.”

“Keep an eye on our exits,” Lost Alice said. “Seems like there’s a pretty clear path to this one, but we’ve also got that staircase over there.” She pointed to their right where a second crystal staircase lead down to the garden floor from a passageway on the same level as the one they’d traveled along. “According to the map, that route should join up with the one we were on about five hundred yards back after twisting around a little.”

“It would be good if we could tell the others about this,” Pillowcase said.

“I haven’t had any luck with the group channel,” Lisa said. “I think we must be in a special area.”

“This seems to qualify as that,” Pillowcase said as they descended with slow, deliberate steps down the stairs carved into the solid block of crystal beneath them.

A wisp drifted in front of Pillowcase’s eyes and then blew away, as though scurrying from her presence. Another wisp followed, moving faster than the others but not quite catching the one it sought.

They couldn’t be afraid. They weren’t any more than puffs of light.

But none of them were going near the exits from the room.

“Probably a part of the spell so they don’t clutter up the dungeon,” Pillowcase said.

“How the wisps are traveling?” Lost Alice asked. “Yeah, I noticed that too. It’s weird though, they’re staying farther away from the entrances on this side than the ones farther away.”

“That seems like an odd choice on the architect’s part,” Pillowcase said.

“I don’t think it was,” Lost Alice said. “Be ready to run.”

“Understood,” Pillowcase said, positioning herself slightly ahead of Lost Alice.

Pillowcase was a [Soul Knight]. A tank. She took the hits so her team didn’t have to. Lost Alice was a healer. She was the last person who should be taking damage. Pillowcase agreed with the idea that she should try to survive, and that running was infinitely preferable to a stand-up fight against a threat as far beyond them as the [Formless Hunger] was, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to do her job. 

At the base of the stairs, frost fronds curled over them creating a short, transparent tunnel into the rest of the garden.

“It should be colder in here with all this ice shouldn’t it?” Lisa asked.

“Divinity,” Pillowcase said. “The natural laws are suspended here.”

“The more I think about that, the less I like it,” Lost Alice said.

They walked past a row of translucent roses, the vibrant red they suggested muted to a paler shade by the soft haze of frost on the ice which formed them.

“I wonder what the Consortium will do with this place?” Pillowcase wondered.

“Destroy it?” Lost Alice suggested.

“Possibly. Depending on the mission objectives, this could be deemed an acceptable loss. I suspect if they know it’s here though, they’ll try to extract the entire area for transport to a private collection.”

“They’ll what?” Lisa asked.

“Places like this are rare, and rare is valuable,” Pillowcase said. “Damaging a site like this could exceed the total value of an entire squad. I would probably be liquidated for even stepping foot in it since that would adjust the risk profile of whatever team I was assigned to.”

Lost Alice chuckled.

“It’s so easy to think of the Consortium as being ‘alien’ and ‘unfathomable’ but I’m sure Vixali has some serious penalties in place for anyone in her coterie who messes with this place too, for pretty much the same reasons as what you described,” she said. “Maybe comparing the Consortium to dungeon dwelling [Vampires] still doesn’t frame them in a terribly positive light though?”

“I’m not sure the Consortium ever could be framed in a positive light,” Pillowcase said.

“Well, I know of at least one ex-Consortium soldier I’m feeling pretty positive about,” Lost Alice said. 

Pillowcase guessed Alice was speaking of her. Contextually it fit. Beyond that, parsing the meaning of the phrase was difficult. 

“The “ex” part is important I think,” Pillowcase said, feeling like she was missing something.

“Speaking of ‘ex’s’…” Lost Alice started to say before Pillowcase knocked her to ground.

“It’s here!” Pillowcase said as she pulled Lost Alice to her and rolled them both farther away.

Above them a pulsing tentacles of harsh static light speared through the air, searching for the target it had only barely missed.

They could have debated.

They could have worked out strategy.

They could have cursed and yelled battle cries.

Or broken out one-liners to bolster each others courage.

They didn’t have the time for any of that.

Lost Alice took less than a second to process what Pillowcase had said, and did nothing to prevent Pillowcase from moving them both out of the tentacles path of destruction.

Where the [Formless Hunger’s] sharpened pseudopod smashed into the flowers, the ice fizzed away in a shower of multi-colored sparks.

Pillowcase rose to her feet and felt Alice rise with her, moving in tandem without any further prompting.

Together they wove back through the frozen, many-hued ice sculptures, wisps parting and swirling in new patterns as Pillowcase and Lost Alice passed through them.

The passageway they’d entered the room from wasn’t an option for retreat. The [Formless Hunger’s] arm was already blocking their path.

Then Pillowcase noticed something far worse.

More of the Hunger’s body was spilling through the passageway.

“Flanked,” she said, to ensure Lost Alice was aware and saw the briefest nod of confirmation in return.

Everything was wrong with how the scenario was unfolding. 

The attack had been too sudden to be anything except a trap and the presence of the [Formless Hunger’s] body blocking the corridor they’d traveled down said it was a trap set for them. 

The Hunger hadn’t been waiting for whoever would come by. It wasn’t still expanding, or at least this wasn’t the outmost limit of its expansion.

It had grown well past the garden, phasing through the stone structure of the dungeon with no more difficulty that it would have in passing through water, or air, or the void of space.

It had grown, and then it had waited, leaving the passages open so that the unsuspecting would walk into an area from which they couldn’t escape.

“No choice,” Lost Alice said, glancing towards the other stairs. There were more exits, but their chance of making it to one before the tentacles which were rising throughout the garden penned them in was mathematically similar to zero.

Pillowcase watched as the nearest tentacle lashed through a trio of wisps. The floating sparks flared and tried to escape the tentacles approach but they were too slow. In a moment they were swept up and vanished, the tentacle gaining a strange solidity as they vanished.

“Divinity,” Lost Alice said and Pillowcase knew exactly what she meant.

In the [Ruins of Sky’s Edge], the [Formless Hunger] had been called forth from the spark of divine power which had once been the [Heart Fire Shrine]. That it had an appetite for divine energy wasn’t surprising, that it had a ready source of such energy was worrisome, and that it had waited, denying itself the opportunity to consume the divine power around them, all so that it could catch Pillowcase in its trap was terrifying.

Pillowcase wasn’t built to be moved by fear, but her tactical evaluation of the situation gave her a sense of what true panic would feel like.

The [Formless Hunger] wanted her more than it want to feast on a god’s power.

How could she possibly escape from that?

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 8

Kamie Anne Do was looking at her death and she did not like it one bit.

“That is a lot of ships. Like far too many ships. Did the Consortium send everything they have here?” she asked. 

Beside her a wall of iron strode forward. Buzz Fightyear. Her party’s tank. A new friend. Also, someone else who was scared out of his boots.

“My friends say they’re still fighting the Consortium in the old zones,” Buzz said. “This can’t be real. Where would they get that many ships?”

In truth it was only three hundred ships. Just as small portion of the force the Consortium had brought to pacify the world. Small compared to the overall effort but grouped together and pulling in close to Kamie’s position they did look rather imposing.

“Good new is we can’t possibly fight that,” Kamie said.

“What if they’re all Level 1?” Battler X asked.

“We’re not that high level yet,” Grail Force said. She clutched her staff tighter and cast a glance at Kamie. 

Kamie was a melee fighter. She ran out of fighting power when she ran out of hit points and dropped dead. Fighting through an endless horde of lowbies was, at least theoretically, doable, though in practice piles of bodies did tend to raise their own problems.

As a caster Grail was more limited when it came to endurance battles since she’d run out of magic long before they carved through a horde that could fill three hundred ships. If they were higher level, the area effect spells [Elementalists] get might have tipped the balance. Raining down building sized explosions of fire and lightning was in the purview of a high level [Elementalist] but Grail was nowhere near the level to do that yet.

Nor was she ever likely to be, Kamie observed.

“If these guys were fighting the troops down on the surface, then they are definitely not level 1,” Kamie said. 

She could see where the lead transports were angling to land. It was in a wide open field well to the south of where the [Formless Hunger] lay. The next twenty transports veered off, taking a long, curving detour towards a spot north of the Hunger. Behind them came bulky ships which were replete with sensor arrays and communication towers.

“They are going to kill that thing in [Sky’s Edge], aren’t they?” Buzz said. 

“Let’s hope that’s all they’re going to do,” Kamie said. She had [Enchanted Knuckles]. They could punch through stone and knock body-sized dents into hardened steel. She was also pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to scratch the troops that were starting to emerge from the ships which had landed.

“Imagine the xps we’d get for taking on this many bad guys though?” Battle X said.

Kamie could do that calculation. A force this size would put them at the level cap. All of them, and everyone else back in the [Stone Refuge] as her team was calling it.

Defeating the incoming army would mean never having to fight again, but then attempting to fight the army would mean the same thing just for much less pleasant reasons.

“We can’t let them even see us,” she said, wishing she was back on her rolling chair, safe in her dorm room, head buried in any one of her text books like normal. Her exams were killer, but nothing like this.

Her fighting spirit balked at that, unwilling to admit defeat quite that easily, but her sensible side won out, as it always did.

Kamie had studied Mixed Martial Arts for close to ten years and while it hadn’t done anything to give her the physique she wanted it had given her a bone deep understanding that she could fight as well as a better sense of when fighting was a very bad idea.

That [Tactical Sense] was screaming at her to run. She ignored it not because she was brave but because she knew some fights were ones you had to be ready to lose.

“They’re sending out [Scouts],” Buzz said. He was peering around a rock, trying to remain as still as possible. As [Scouts] went he wasn’t particularly well suited to the job but Kamie admired his investment in pulling off the role as well as he could.

“If any come here, we’re going to have to hide or evade them,” Kamie said. “Do you see a level on them?”

“They don’t have one,” Battler X said. “They’re like [Event Mobs], probably auto-scaling to the zone.”

“We’re not going to be that lucky,” Kamie said.

It wasn’t rocket science to figure out that the Consortium wasn’t going to sacrifice a bunch of their own forces by sending them to take over a lowbie zone. Granted they’d sent enough forces to completely depopulate the [High Beyond] but that was what gave it away.

If the scene before her had still been part of the video game, then the devs wouldn’t have sent such an overwhelming force against the players. With troops spilling out of three hundred ships, the game would had lagged to the point of locking up for all but the players on the newest and fastest of machine. A special event would have instead become a powder keg of frustration and rage.

Watching the scene play out live, Kamie felt frustration and rage but with no lag rending her unable to interact with the world, that rage was instead directed at the overall unfairness of the cosmos she was a part of.

The [Enchanted Knuckles] grew hot to her touch as her anger filled them with unreleased force, but she had to keep it unreleased or literally thousands of troops would descend on them and obliterate their current bodies.

Kamie had died a few times already. It wasn’t particularly fun, and respawning had been terrifying since she couldn’t shake the feeling that this time it wouldn’t work for her.

It had each time, obviously, but the [Hounds of Fate] had been close each time. 

And that hadn’t bothered her.

She knew, intellectually, why people were concerned about the Hounds. If a Hound caught you that was it. You were never coming back. 

And that was a bad thing.

Kamie knew that. And had no desire to get perma-killed by anything.

But some part of her just wasn’t afraid of the Hounds.

They howled, and bayed, and tried to be all sorts of frightening but Kamie had grown up with dogs. As Grace Tillerman, she’d been born to a big family and dogs had been as plentiful as brothers and sisters. There were usually seven or eight of each around at any given time, more on holidays, and Grace had often preferred the company of the canine variety in place of her human siblings. Even at their most unruly she knew where she stood with her family’s pups, and somehow the same felt true with the [Hounds of Fate]. 

Petting the [Hounds of Fate] was a very bad idea though.

She knew that.

Didn’t stop her from wanting to try.

“The folks back at the [Stone Refuge] want to know if they need to move deeper in?” Battle X asked. “What do you folks think?”

“All I see if those ships puking up mobs left, right, and center,” Buzz said. “I’m thinking we just dive off the side of this rock if it comes to that.”

“That’s plan N,” Kamie said.

“N?” Battler X asked.

“Yeah, for ‘Nope, We’re Getting the Hell out of Here!’ Hopefully we don’t have to use it though,” Kamie said.

“Seems like if they’re all here then us being anywhere else would have to be better,” Buzz said. “Or do you think we can hold them in the corridors?”

“I’m sure we can’t,” Kamie said. “They’re [Event Mobs] but the open world doesn’t have a cap. They’ll be fighting here the same as they were on the surface.”

“They were wasting parties of level 99s down there,” Battler X said. “How is it vaguely fair that they can come up here too?”

“It’s not,” Kamie said. “Once this became real though, I think fairness went out the window.”

“Why not just jump over the edge then?” Battler X asked.

“The fall will kill us, which isn’t necessarily a problem except for two things,” Kamie said. “One, if we die in mid-air from re-entry friction we don’t know if we’ll even hit the ground before the Hounds get us.”

“I’m not sure we’d see the same kind of friction heating since we’d only be falling, not decelerating from orbital speeds,” Buzz said.

“I thought of that, but we know in game people who are teleported to space wind up with a plasma sheath when they fall back down, so that may just be how things work here. If we survive all this ridiculousness, I’d be delighted to science it but not when it would mean we all perma-die if we’re wrong.”

“You’re such a geek dude,” Battler X said.

“Guilty of one of those but not the other,” Kamie said.

“Huh?” Battler X asked.

“I’m a geek, but not a dude, not here or in real life,” Kamie said. It was a test. One which a depressing number of guys failed, but Kamie had been fighting with Battler and Buzz for long enough that she had some hope they wouldn’t immediately turn into lecherous jackasses. 

“Geek Girls unite!” Battler said, offering Kamie a fist bump. “Boy here, girl there. Geek pretty much everywhere.”

“Aww, I’m the odd man out then,” Buzz said. “I’m guess I’m dual classing as Dude/Dude.”

“Oh my god, Dual Classing?” Battler X said. “Well you’re at least definitely a geek too.”

“If that gets me a club card and a membership pin then I’m in,” Buzz said. “Though maybe a parachute would be more useful at the moment.”

“Even if we had those it wouldn’t fix our other problem,” Kamie said.

“What’s that?”

“There’s three hundred ships floating around the [High Beyond],” Kamie said. “If we could leaping to our doom, what’s the chance that the ships don’t start using us for targeting practice?”

“So we’d definitely be ghost running down from orbit then,” Battler X said.

“We would,” Kamie agreed, “but the towns folk would just be dead.”

“Good point,” Buzz said and added, “Buzz is definitely not a fan of that, which means I guess I’m not either.”

“If we can’t jump to safety, what can we do?” Battler X asked.

“Buy time,” Kamie said. “Some of my guildmates are trying to get up here. If we can hold out long enough for them and the other high levels to get up here they can take down these Consortium fools the same as they did on the surface.”

“Yeah, there’s just one problem with that,” Kremmer said as he cut his cloaking field.

The Consortium solder was covered in a full set of the Consortium’s best armor, micro-servos enhancing his strength enough that he could shatter even the otherwise unbreakable plates which protected his chest.

One by one, the rest of his squad flicked their cloaking fields off as well.

They had Kamie and her party surrounded.

“See, not only are we not fools, we’ve got these things called sensor drones and they can see you even when you hide behind great big rocks like this,” Kremmer said.

He pointed at the bounder Buzz was crouched near and it exploded into a shower of dust which dropped to the ground as though a magnet had claimed each spec of it.

“What do you want? Why are you here?” Kamie asked.

“Those are two different questions,” Kremmer said. “We’re here to kill you. I mean that really should be obvious shouldn’t it? What we want though is some fun. Maybe make it sporting. Get the old adrenaline flowing.”

Kamie couldn’t see his eyes through the face shield but she knew exactly what they would look like. He wasn’t going to give them a fair fight.  Guys like only wanted to deal out pain.

She felt her [Enchanted Knuckles] burning. 

She couldn’t hurt him. His armor would be impervious to her blows.

When she swung, it was a high punch. He pulled back effortlessly allowing her fist to swing down past his face as he raised his fist, charging it with a blast that would reduce her a cloudy of bloody gibbets.

She hadn’t missed though. Leaning into her punch, Kamie slammed it into the ground at Kremmer’s feet and obliterated a crater underneath him.

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 7

Glimmerglass didn’t want to see her old friend die, but as she entered the the treatment tent she felt an unfounded and irrational dread burrowing into her. There was a time when she would have killed or died for BT – she’d done both many times in fact – and despite the gulf the years had put between them, Glimmerglass knew that she still would do either one if the need arose. But, a poisonous whisper in her mind asked, could she really be sure the woman resting on the cot was Burnt Toast? Or was it something far more horrible simply wearing her friend’s skin?

“I think I’m getting a handle on this glitching thing,” BT said as Glimmerglass sat down beside her. “Watch this.”

BT’s body crackled with static, flexing and writhing in a manner that only a localized distortion of space could produce. It looked unbearably painful, as though BT were being shorn apart by a thousand grasping claws all at once. Once it passed though, BT lay before Glimmerglass looking unperturbed.

“I can trigger it with some concentration now,” BT said. “That seems to buy me a window of time where it doesn’t…”

She writhed again the clutches of a glitch, though only for a second.

“Ok, maybe I don’t have a handle on it yet,” BT said. “I thought I could manufacture periods of stability but its like the hiccups. I just can’t make it go away.”

“Is it getting worse?” Glimmerglass asked. She knew the answer. She’d had Damnazon keeping an eye on BT and recording the duration and frequency of the glitch episodes. Glimmerglass knew what the reality was, she just wanted to see how BT reported it.

“It’s more frequent, but not worse,” BT said, shifting so she was sitting up more and could meet Glimmerglass’s gaze directly.

“And how are the glitches coming more often not a sign of things getting worse?” Glimmerglass asked. She wished she had a spell to cure BT or at least diagnosis to share with her, but this glitching status effect wasn’t like any malady she’d encountered from any monster or environment.

“The glitches are disruptive but they haven’t erased me yet,” BT said.

“Erased you?” Penny asked as she joined them in the tent. 

Glimmerglass knew Penny had been listening in, but the plan had been for Glimmerglass to talk with BT for a while before Penny openly joined them. Glimmerglass wondered what was important enough about BT’s words to draw Penny in early.

“We lost one of the support reps when he tried to use his GM privileges,” BT said. “As far as we could tell, his account was erased entirely.”

“Was that something that could have happened to you?” Glimmerglass asked.

“I didn’t think it would, but it’s not like we’ve got the rules worked out for this yet,” BT said.

“That’s quite a lot to risk,” Penny said. “We appreciate the support you and Marcus Mashall have given us, but couldn’t you have sent the information without personal risk?”

“Probably?” BT said. “I left a message for Marcus to send the information over to you if my plan didn’t work out, but I thought there’d be a better chance of being able to do the direct file transfers with BT active to facilitate them.”

“Could you elaborate on ‘your plan’?” Penny asked.

“It was pretty simple. I just knew I needed to be here,” BT said. “Hailey wasn’t in a position to make much of a difference, but I knew BT could make sure the information EE had made it to where it could do the most good.”

“Why?” Penny asked. “Specifically why risk your life – all of your lives – to help us? More than one adventurer I’ve spoken to as explained that they feel like they come from another world, one where our world is only known as a myth or a story. Why risk so much for a fiction?”

“How could I think you’re a fiction when I’m as much a native her as I am a traveler from Earth?” BT asked.

“What does that mean? Exactly,” Glimmerglass asked. She suspected if she could understand the nature of what BT had done, and who this ‘Hailey’ person was, she could work out some method of fixing the damage the two had sustained.

“That’s hard to explain,” BT said. “I mean, I could say ‘I’m as much the Burnt Toast that you know as I am Hailey MacGilfoyle, not to mention all of the others, but that makes it seem like they’re each just fragments of me. Like BT wasn’t a complete person in her own right but just an aspect of Hailey being adventurous.”

“If this Hailey is as much of a person as you are, how they both be you?” Penny asked.

“I just am both of them?” BT said. “It’s easier to understand from the inside I think. Glim, you know what I’m talking about right?”

“No,” Glimmerglass said, shaking her head. “I’m just me.”

“Wait, what about Tessa?” BT asked, sitting up straighter.

“Who is Tessa?” Penny asked.

“Glim’s player,” BT said. “I know she’s here. I talked with her…” A look of dawning horror broke across BT’s face. “I talked with her before. When I was on my GM account. But she wasn’t playing as you. She’d rolled a new character. How are you here? How can you not be her?”

“I’m…I’m just not,” Glimmerglass said.

“Do you know who this Tessa is?” Penny asked.

“I think she’s my [Inspiration],” Glimmerglass said. “She helped me when we were on the Consortium ships. When we were caught in the stasis field.”

“But we only showed one account login for Tessa. I thought…wait, how would that have worked?” BT asked, her eyes darting left and right as she searched for an answer to a question she didn’t seem to be able to form.

“Why would it be surprising for both to be active here?” Penny asked. “You said that both of your selves are full beings. Wouldn’t it be more likely to have them acting independently than together?”

“It would. Sort of. But there’s problems,” BT said. “Two big ones. First, when I spoke with Tessa yesterday – my god how has it been that long? – I did a search for my friends and her new character was the only one who showed up. How long have you been active?”

“For several years now?” Glimmerglass said. “Oh wait, you mean when I started adventuring again? That’s more recent. The last few days I think?”

“About when the [World Shift] began?” BT asked.

“When the call went out for troops to repel the Consortium’s first attack, I knew I had to join them,” Glimmerglass said. 

“I wish we could tie that back to an event on Hailey’s world,” BT said. “But there’s a more important piece of data we need. From what the EE systems can see the players are logged in to only one account, so we assumed that the number of active adventurers was equal to the number of players who were logged in. We – Hailey and her team – assumed that the players who weren’t logged in couldn’t be in any trouble because their characters wouldn’t exist.”

“Oh,” Penny said, following BT’s concern faster than Glimmerglass could. “The disaster on the other world could be much worse than we understood. We need to compare a census of the adventurers who are taking part in the [Defense Coalition] to the list of players and characters Marcus has records of.”

“More than that – we need to check on the adventurers who opted out of joining the coalition,” BT said. “They’re could be the alts who weren’t being played, or whose players weren’t logged in. We especially need to know if any of them have died and respawned since the [World Shift] began.”

“Marcus will need provide us with his census records,” Penny said.

“That’ll be difficult,” BT said. “The user and characters tables aren’t stored in a flat file format. They’re kept in a database. He’d need to work with one of the developers to get the data exported if he was going to send it to you, and that might take some time. Or wind up with a developer getting eaten. We still don’t know what’s safe for them to do really.”

“That presents a problem then,” Penny said. “You’re asking for a comprehensive list on all of the leveled people we can possibly discover. I’d be inclined to trust you based on the assistance you’ve provided but this war is far from won, and the information you’ve requested would be enough to expose any and all of our true capabilities.”

“That’s not a problem though!” BT said. “We already know what your stats are.”

“But you don’t know exactly how many adventurers we have in reserve,” Penny said. “It would be one of the few plays which would be worth exposing the information you’ve provided so far.”

“If we waste time on this, people who think they’re safe will get pulled over here too, no matter what they do,” BT said.

“I am aware of this,” Penny said. “In that case we will care for them as best we can.”

“I don’t understand! Why can’t you trust…trust me?” BT sat forward, almost rising out bed as the strongest glitch yet shook her body. When it finished, she sat with her head hanging low. “Oh, right, that’s why.”

“None of the other [Disjoined] have been as coherent as you,” Penny said. “None of them have been as peaceful either. I want to believe you are an ally, but I am playing a game against a terrifyingly thorough opponent.”

“There’s not a lot I can do or say to convince you that I’m not an agent of the Consortium is there?” BT asked. “An actual agent in my position would make every protest and offer everything imaginable to get a full census of the adventurers.”

“We could compare notes on our past,” Glimmerglass suggested. “Things only the real you would know?”

“That would be viable under other circumstances,” Penny said. “In this case though, the capabilities of the [Disjoined] aren’t fully understood. They might have complete access to their subjects memories.”

“Maybe Marcus could offer some proof?” BT said. “No, because what could he say that I couldn’t? You’d still be sending the census information out into the aether with no guarantee it wouldn’t eventually wind up in the enemy’s hands.”

“Exactly,” Penny said.

“How about this then,” BT said. “I’ll tell Marcus to get you the information on the full account and billing list and you respond with whether anyone on the ‘Not Logged’ in list is present and, if there are people like that, you find out if any have died and, if so, if they’ve been united with their [Inspirations]. Just those three answers, in general, not for specific characters or players. Once Marcus has that info, he can share it with the people in Hailey’s world who can get the right message out.”

“There is one thing we need to do first,” Penny said. “Win this war. In the heat of battle, census data is going to be impossible collect accurately.”

“The war may go on too long though,” BT said. “I know we’re making a lot more headway on it now, but the Consortium doesn’t give up easily. I know in the game scenario, they were going to be a continuing menace for the new few years. By then the damage will be done.”

“I wish there was another way,” Penny said.

“Maybe there is,” Glimmerglass said. “We don’t need a full census. All we need is a single datapoint which provides an answer to those questions. As soon as we have that, the other world will know what it needs to do.”

“Yeah, but how do we find those datapoints?” BT asked.

“Let the guilds spread the word,” Glimmerglass said. “Guilds chat constantly. Some of them almost certainly already know the answers we seek!”

“Glim! You’re brilliant! I could…could…arrghhh!” BT screamed as another glitch tore through her, this one drawing forth a scream of agony for the first time.

Broken Horizons – Vol 6, Ch 6

Glimmerglass could heal any injury, restore any lost body part, cure any status ailment, and even reverse death itself. Staring at the woman on the table in front of her though, she had no idea how to fix BT’s rapidly worsening condition.

“Does it hurt?” she asked, hating that she didn’t even know that much about whatever it was that was affecting BT.

“Surprisingly, no,” BT said. “The glitches don’t feel like anything, but I’m guessing they look pretty bad?”

“You flinch like someone’s stuck a flaming sword through your gut,” Glimmerglass said.

“I suppose you’ve literally seen that happen haven’t you?” BT turned her head and tried to offer Glimmerglass a playful smile. The glitch twitch in the middle of the smile made it less playful and more pained.

“More times than I can count. I guess that’s what it means to be a healer though,” Glimmerglass said. “You get to watch your friends suffer every horrible fate out there.”

“You can always patch us up though,” BT said.

“Not always,” Glimmerglass said.

“Don’t worry…” BT glitched for a long breath. “This isn’t the same. I chose this.”

“I know, you said that before.” Glimmerglass turned away. What else was there to say? BT was always the one to choose. Glimmerglass knew she would just have to deal with the fact that BT had chosen something that didn’t include her. There wasn’t anything surprising about that.

“I’m sorry,” BT said and reached her hand out to grasp Glimmerglass’s arm.

“Why?”

Did BT know what her leaving their guild had done to it? Had done to Glimmerglass?

“You don’t need this headache,” BT said. “Not on top of everything else you’ve had to deal with.”

Oh. No, it was just the business of the day. 

Sure it was the end of the world. A cataclysm from beyond the sky. And strange changes to adventurers and maybe even the fundamental nature of the world. 

But was that really important?

Glimmerglass wanted to smack herself. She wasn’t supposed to be selfish. She was a team player. The one who sorted out everyone else’s problems.

And the problem with BT was old. Long buried and long forgotten.

She’d had years to heal from the hurt.

Clinging to it was so…

Petty.

That wasn’t fair, but she couldn’t help but feel it was true. 

Still though, she was supposed to be better than that.

“It’s not a headache,” she said. “I just need more time to figure it out.”

“I don’t know if a spell’s going to be able fix this,” BT said.

“Maybe none of the existing ones,” Glimmerglass said. “I thought your condition might be one where the cleansing effect was limited to a fixed chance for success.”

“Like the [Demon Heart Plague]?” BT asked, rolling over to her side.

“Let’s hope not. You killed me so many times when we raiding that dungeons,” Glimmerglass said. It was the right thing to say. The right kind of friendly banter they’d been able to share without a second thought, but as the words left Glimmerglass’s mouth all she had was second thoughts.

BT sagged slightly at the emptiness in Glimmerglass’s smile.

“I don’t think this has a demonic corruption component to it,” BT said. “It’s more internal than that. So you should be safe.”

“That’s not a concern,” Glimmerglass said. “Damnazon and Mellisandra are waiting outside in case things get out of control here.”

“That’s good of them,” BT said, rolling onto her back again to stare at the ceiling of the treatment tent. “I’m sorry to drag any of you into this.”

“You didn’t,” Glimmerglass said. “We were in this well before you got here. All you did was give me something to take my mind off all that.” She waved a hand towards the world outside the tent.

“All that was why I came here,” BT said. “I know ‘All That’ needs you too though. If you need a break from this, from me, go ahead. I don’t know if what I’ve got can be cured.”

“Everything can be cured,” Glimmerglass said. “It just takes a while sometimes to find the spell or uncover the mechanic.”

“That takes me back so much,” BT said, her voice quiet but completely glitch free. “You made us keep going so many times through the most impossible things.”

Glimmerglass couldn’t help but hear that as a recrimination despite the fondness in BT’s voice.

“You were always free to leave,” she said. “All of you.”

“If we left though we knew we’d miss out,” BT said. “Epic loot doesn’t drop for the faint of heart.”

Glimmerglass felt her toes curling in anger. She wanted scream that BT had left. And the others had left with her. But that wasn’t completely true. And the scream was an old one. Easier to hold it in. Let it remain quiet and unspoken, where it couldn’t hurt anyone.

“That’s why they need you now though,” BT said. “You can inspire a group like this. So if you need to be with them, go ahead. You can leave me. I think I can hold the glitching together long enough to get the rest of the files transferred over to Penswell.”

A spike of anger broke free from Glimmerglass’s control.

“And what about after that?” She didn’t mean to growl the question out, but it felt right to do so.

“After the files are done?” BT asked.

“Yeah. After your job is over. What happens then? What if Penny has more questions? Or what if we need help with the next wave of Consortium forces? Are you just going to disappear on us? Is this all we get?”

“I…I don’t know Glim,” BT said and crossed her arms over her chest.

“Why!”

“Why what?”

“Why don’t you know? Why did you come here if this was going to happen? Why is any of this happening!”

“I don’t know Glim. Not why this is happening, and not why I’m glitching out like this or how to fix it. But I do know why I came here.” She sat up and put her hands on Glimmerglass’s shoulders. “I came back for you. And for everyone that we knew. And for Burnt Toast here. I needed to be her again. I’m not just the Burnt Toast you knew. She’s a part of who I am, but we’re more than that. More than Hailey, or ‘Sid F. Fries’, or ‘Orangutan Julie’ or any of my other characters. I’m all of those and more put together, and even with all those lives, you were the person I knew I had to see.”

“Why?” Glimmerglass asked, confusing moving like water pouring through the shattered cracks in the dam around her heart.

“Because…” but BT didn’t get to finish her thought before the tent flap was thrown open and Mellisandra stepped in.

“Glimmer, Penny needs to talk with you,” Mellisandra said, holding the flap open.

“I have the chat channel open,” Glimmerglass said.

“Not on chat. In person. She’s here.”

“What! But it’s not safe here!” Glimmerglass began collecting her gear without thinking about it. Her thoughts had been wrenched over to considerations on how and why the [Defense Coalitions] best strategist was paying her a personal visit.

“That’s one of the things she wants to talk about,” Mellisandra said.

“Does she want to meet with me?” BT asked.

“She didn’t ask for you,” Mellisandra said. “Just Glimmerglass, and this meeting is invite only. For now at least. She said she’d be holding other meetings once this one was done.”

“But…” Glimmerglass said, looking down at BT in time to see a brief glitch pass through BT’s left arm.

“Go,” BT said. “I’ll be fine.” Another glitch shot along her right arm but BT clasped her wrist and the multi-color static stopped at her the base of her hand. “Really. I’ll be here when you get back.”

“Promise?” Glimmerglass asked.

“Half share of my loot if I’m lying,” BT said and folded her arms behind her head as she lay back down.

“I’m going to hold you to that, even if the loot’s all epic drops,” Glimmerglass said, a weight lifting from her heart.

“For a healer, you’re pretty cruel,” BT said.

“Don’t make me show you cruel,” Glimmerglass said. “I might feel inspired to get creative.”

BT’s stunned laughter bubbled up as Glimmerglass walked away from the tent.

“Get creative?” Mellisandra asked.

“People tend to forget that healers aren’t limited in how much they can hurt you,” Glimmerglass said. “They think we’re nice and cheerful and peaceful because we tend to spend our time fixing things rather than stabbing.”

“You also don’t tend to roast people alive from the inside out,” Mellisandra said. “That probably gives people a better impression of you.”

“It’s a pretty common mistake,” Glimmerglass said. “Consider for a moment though that an [Elementalist] can kill you with a fireball precisely once. A healer though? Death doesn’t get you away from us.”

“Thats…that’s terrifying,” Mellisandra said.

“Yeah,” Glimmerglass said with a slightly manic smile. “It’s good that we’re all just so nice right?”

“Yes. Yes it is,” Mellisandra said, shifting a half pace away from Glimmerglass.

“So what does Penny want? And why is she here?”

“Because the Consortium has done something very strange,” Penny said, without letting her invisibility spell drop.

“How strange?”

“They gave up.”

“Here? Or the whole city?” Glimmerglass asked, trying not to stumble.

“The whole city, and several others,” Penny said.

“But that doesn’t make sense. Does it? Even if they were consolidating their forces they should have left a token group here to force us to keep our troops in place so the fortifications would be defended.”

“That is exactly what a sensible battle plan would be. This however is borderline random.”

“Is that why we’re meeting secretly like this?” Glimmerglass asked. “I mean I presume you have an anti-scrying field in effect already?”

“I do, it’s a part of my invisibility spell, and yes I wanted to meet with you and some of the other team leads privately before the official meeting in the city hall, since there’s no chance the city hall meeting won’t be monitored and at this point I’m concerned that our telepathic chat channels may be compromised as well.”

“Compromised? Can the Consortium do that? I thought those were sacrosanct?” Glimmerglass asked.

“They are. As far as we know. But this wild of a change of strategy this early in the conflict could be a turning point, so I want to make sure I’m getting the direct story from each of my key leaders.”

“But you’ve got hundreds of teams like mine?” Glimmerglass said.

“Technically tens of thousands, but of those only a thousand or so are in strategic hot spots like this one,” Penny said.

“That’s going to take forever to interview each of us isn’t it?” Glimmerglass asked.

“I’m having this same conversation about a hundred times in a hundred different places at this moment,” Penny said. “Three cheers for multi-plexing magics. Conversing and collecting the info is surprisingly easy. Integrating all of it is where the brain splitting migraines come into play.”

“Don’t let me waste your time then!” Glimmerglass said.

“Don’t worry, I’m not,” Penny said. “You’ve got some critical info both from the fight here and from what you can tell me about this ‘Burnt Toast’ person. Also, not to play favorites, but you are a lot nicer to talk to than the vast majority of the adventuring team leaders. I love what they can do for us but dear dead gods are some of them striving towards the peak of whiny, self-entitled, know-it-all status.”

“What do you need to know about ‘Burnt Toast’?” Glimmerglass asked, wondering how much she could really say about her old friend.

Assuming the woman she’d left behind really had much of her old friend left in her.

“She’s connected us to someone from another world who knows an unbelievable amount of information about our world and the Consortium. Thanks to this ‘Marcus’ I know how to fight back against the Consortium more effectively than I could have worked out if we’d battled them for a year.”

“That all sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?” Glimmerglass asked.

“It does. And it is,” Penny said. “The problem is this Burnt Toast. We’ve had reports of strange, warped adventurers. [Disjoined] their called. No one knows where they come from, or how they become [Disjoined]. All we know is that they don’t speak. Not really. And they are uniformly hostile.”

“Neither of those is true of BT thought?” Glimmerglass said.

“I know. But the analysis spell I cast on this area showed there was a [Disjoined] here and when I narrowed it down all my doubts were dispelled. BT is a [Disjoined]. Just one like we’ve never seen before.”