Author Archives: dreamfarer

Broken Horizons – Vol 1, Ch 4

Tessa felt a jolt run through her as the world flashed white. Or maybe it was just the screen. She sat back and rubbed her eyes. Reading the new tutorial instructions had taken longer than she’d expected and according to the in-game clock, which had to be lying, it was a quarter to midnight already. That was nowhere near as late as she had stayed up playing Broken Horizons as a kid but also much later than she was used to hitting the sack as an adult.

On the screen, the white flash cleared to reveal Pillowcase glowing with a rapidly fading silver radiance. She was a [Soul Knight] at last, and new, yet oh so familiar, interface elements appeared to show the abilities she’d received for completing the first part of the tutorial.

Outside, a storm had blown in with the occasional flashes of distant lightning strobing through her closed curtains. As ambiance went, she couldn’t complain. The tempest matched the change in the atmosphere in Sky’s Edge where Pillowcase was standing.

“Looks like you’re not alone,” Mister Pendant said, gesturing to the fountain in Sky’s Edge’s central square.

The flash of light had covered not only the addition of the new user interface elements to the screen but also the transition from the solo instance of Sky’s Edge, where Pillowcase had started out, to the open world version when players could interact with each other.

Around the fountain, a thick sea of other players were congregated. Most were standing motionless, their players either away from the keyboard or chatting with each other via Discord or in-game /tells.

Tessa moved Pillowcase to join them, guessing that the next quest giver was probably somewhere at the center of the pack somewhere. She stopped when Mogwin landed on Pillowcase’s shoulder though, curious if the game was going to hand out another quest automatically to her.

“You’re going to want to get ready. Nasty things are coming,” Mogwin warned. The voice actor for Mogwin wasn’t familiar to Tessa, which was nice. She loved the voices from the old version of the game, especially Niminey’s, but a few of them got used for far more parts than they really should have.

It was one thing to hear a shopkeeper advertising their wares in a rich, smooth baritone. It was another to hear that same voice coming from three different farmers, the mayor, and the local horse thief. Eventually the world started to feel a bit unintentionally creepy when half the population all spoke in the exact same voice.

No dialog options came up in reply to Mogwin’s warning, and he didn’t gain any marker to indicate that he had a quest ready, so Tessa marched Pillowcase forward, passing through the crowd like they were ghosts. The lack of collision detection between player avatars was something that had generated a lot of debate early on, since it wasn’t particularly immersive to be able to move through other people like they weren’t there, but the gain in convenience and the elimination of an avenue for players to grief one another put the debate to rest. Eventually.

“Wrathwings!” a town cryer shouted. He was deep in the crush of adventurers but didn’t seem to be paying attention to the horde of people around him. Because he wasn’t. He had a couple of lines of dialog, a trigger for when he said them, and that was all the processing power he needed.

His message was enough to be interesting though even if his personality was basically non-existent. Tessa had been wondering if she’d get to see a Wrathwing attack. They were a new element that was being added with the World Shift expansion and she’d read a lot about them. That they were appearing so early in the game was an unexpected treat too. She’d thought they were limited only to the higher level zones, since they presented some new and unique challenges.

Originally, Broken Horizons had only static enemies. They would patrol around predetermined areas or just stand in place waiting for an adventuring to get close. Eventually the developers expanded on that to include “event style” enemies who would spawn in at intervals or in response to other quests being completed.  Those made the world seem somewhat more alive and responsive.

The Wrathwing Attacks were the next step in that process. Not only did they occur by their own pattern and with variable levels of intensity, they represented a real threat to areas they attacked. From what the beta-testers had reported, Wrathwings and the other “Dynamic Assaults” could do lasting damage to the towns and other player-friendly areas in the High Beyond.

If the Wrathwing’s killed the town Blacksmith for example, the blacksmith’s shop would be out of commission until the players repaired the shop and someone did the quest to recruit a new blacksmith for the town.

What was more exciting though was that the Wrathwing Dynamic Assaults could carry away more than just the non-player character [Villagers]. Any adventurers who didn’t put up enough of a fight to escape the Wrathwing talons would be dragged into the air and carried off to a new, and far more dangerous zone.

Tessa looked around, checking the skies to see if the event was starting but aside from some clouds that were rolling in, there wasn’t any sign of approaching giant birds. Looking around on the ground, about half the other players seemed to be “in the know” on what the town cryer’s “Wrathwings” warning might mean.

Some of them were scurrying inside the sturdier buildings, probably intending to wait out the event rather than struggle through what could be a tough fight with barely any skills or spells.

Others were taking the exact opposite approach, trying to form impromptu teams to meet the Wrathwings head on.

> BattlerX shouted: “Forming Event team. Looking for 6 members. Send tell for invite.”

Tessa considered replying, but hesitated. With six slots open on the potentially eight person team, BattlerX didn’t have much of a party assembled yet. Tactically speaking it would be better to join a full, or nearly full team since the more people they had, the more kills they’d get in the coming battle and the more overall rewards they’d earn.

Tessa’s hesitation wasn’t founded on tactical considerations though. Even the thought of teaming up filled her with dread. There was so much potential for drama and stress and headaches on a random group, and none of that was what she was looking for when she came back.

Plus, she was just a baby Tank. She didn’t have a hundredth of the toughness she’d eventually be able to offer a team. It felt far better to risk trying to solo the event and then spend some time working out how her new class played rather than to try to team up too soon. The last thing she wanted was to  get soured on the whole experience because a teammate decided to be an idiot, especially since the people playing at this point were either pretty hardcore, or as tired as she was, or both.

“Wrathwings! They’re coming!” the town cryer called out again.

> Kami Anne Do shouted: “Where are the Wrathwings? Is the event bugged?”

Tessa was willing to give decent odds that was the case, given the larger shutdown problem the game was having. It had clearly been rushed out to meet a deadline. Even so though, she knew there’d be plenty of other things to work. Simply exploring the new areas could lead to rich and rewarding surprises, and there were likely at least a few quests that weren’t horribly broken. If nothing else presented itself, she could even just mindlessly kill off enemies, providing she could find anything to fight.

“The Wrathwings are almost here,” Mogwin said. “If you look up you can see them.”

Tessa blinked. It almost seemed like Mogwin was responding to Kami Anne’s shout but it was more likely to just be fortuitous timing. Scanning the global chat channels for text cues was certainly possible but the processing required was far beyond any value that could have been derived from it.

Tessa panned the camera up again, searching the otherworldly sky for any sign of giant bird monsters but all she saw was the storm cloud which had almost reached the town.

The storm cloud which was breaking up into smaller, faster moving pieces.

Tessa blinked again.

That wasn’t a storm cloud.

It was a nearly solid wall of things out of a nightmare.

On a technical level, Tessa had to admit that the effort put into the Wrathwing design was impressive. Their models moved in the distinctly unnatural manner which suggested bones were breaking with every flap their wings took. Also they had human heads which were rotating in all directions, and their talons were a disturbing mix of human hands with long, curving metal blades jutting from the palm.

They didn’t scream or cry out as they approached, just moved in an eerie silence as all of the other game noises were muted out as well.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Tessa said to her empty apartment. “How the hell are a bunch of level 1s supposed to fight that?”

She had Pillowcase draw her [Rusty Knight’s Blade] anyways since it was better to go down fighting that to try to flee the town given the speed the Wrathwings were traveling at.

In the worst case, she hoped she’d be able to kill at least one or two of the Wrathwings and get some kind of armor or weapon reward from it. Given the literal trash level quality of her current equipment any new piece would easily be an upgrade.

> Buzz Fightyear shouted: “Damn, I didn’t know the game could spawn that many enemies! See ya all around the Heart Fire!”

Tessa cast a glance over towards the village’s tiny chapel, the one building that would never be destroyed no matter what force assaulted the town. She hadn’t been inside it, but she knew there would be a silver fire burning in a divinely inscribed brazier at its center. When the adventurers who were waiting to defend Sky’s Edge died – and that was going to be “all of them” and “very soon”, they’d respawn around that [Heart Fire] as [Wandering Souls].

From there they’d have the choice of trying to get back to their bodies and resurrect themselves in a mildly weakened state or reincarnating at the Heart Fire in a more significantly weakened state with some extra equipment damage thrown in on top.

Tessa guessed that most of the new players would opt for staying in the chapel until their weakness wore off but there were sure to be some who’d try to throw themselves back into the fray over and over since damage to worthless starter equipment wasn’t exactly a deterrent.

> BattlerX shouted: “Forming Event team. Looking for 4 members. Send tell for invite.”

Tessa admired Battler’s tenacity if nothing else, but knew he wasn’t going to get an answer in time. Before anyone could have typed a response, the first of the Wrathwings began to flood into the village square.

Pillowcase’s mobility (and Tessa’s old reflexes) saved her from the first telegraphed attack a Wrathwing made at her. Rather than standing in the red cone that appeared, Pillowcase side stepped out of it the instant it appeared, clearing the edge of cone only a half second before the Wrathwing belched out a spray of acidic blood that left the area sizzling and ruined.

Another tried to attack her with its palm blades, but missed as Pillowcase backed out of its range. With years of experience as a healer, she was used to keeping away from enemies who were rampaging at her until someone from her team could come deal with them.

Tessa wove Pillowcase around several piles of boxes and fence sections to confuse the Wrathwing’s pursuit tracking system before hiding in the shadow of a building’s porch pole for a moment to take stock of what was happening..

With a moment to breath, several things occurred to her as she scanned the battlefield. First, she had no team, so no one was going to take care of the Wrathwings who were still searching for her.

Second, even if she did have a team, it probably wouldn’t have helped because the low level adventurers were being completely overwhelmed by their attackers. As she watched, several adventurers were lifted above the fray, caught in the claws of the Wrathwings who were fleeing back to their nests already.

The third, and most important thing was that, Pillowcase wasn’t a healer.

She was a tank. The first line of defense. She wasn’t the one who ran from monsters. She was the one who ran to them, so that no one else would be in danger.

Looking over the battlefield again, she saw that the hastily formed teams had been shattered by the onslaught. No one knew how to work together, or at least no one was bothering to try, with characters running around and being picked off one by one no matter where they tried to hide.

The general helplessness wasn’t complete though. One group seemed to have the right idea and had huddled together behind a Metal Mechanoid player, “Buzz Fightyear” from the nameplate over his head, who’d chosen the Guardian class. That team had given up trying to outfight the Wrathwing horde and were making a fighting withdrawal. Tessa wasn’t sure if it was proving to be effective because they had enough firepower to back it up or because there were so many other targets for the Wrathwings to attack instead. In either case, she considered joining them, until she saw someone moving in exactly the same manner she’d just been.

Behind the pale skinned woman, a trio of Wrathwings had formed up and with the village square emptying out there were fewer and fewer places and people the woman could use to distract her pursuers.

Feeling a surge of [Healer] solidarity, Tessa sent the Pillowcase charging out from the shadow she’d been hiding in. The [Soul Knight] rushed across the small square and crashed into the Wrathwings. When her presence alone wasn’t enough to draw their attention away from their quarry, Pillowcase started laying into them with the basic attacks the tutorial had shown her.

That got the Wrathwings attention nice and quick.

The problem was, Tessa had no idea what to do with it.

Broken Horizons – Vol 1, Ch 3

Getting beaten to a pulp wasn’t supposed to hurt, at least not in Tessa’s experience.

“The beta-testers weren’t kidding when they said the tutorial needed some work I guess,” Tessa said, rubbing her temples.

On the screen in front of her, Pillowcase was waiting tucked into a small niche in a broken wall while her health ticked back up to full. At her feet, the body of the tutorial’s first regular monsters, a trio of [Radioactive Goo Rats] lay waiting for her to finish harvesting their body parts.

The typical strategy in MMO tutorials was to dial the game’s normal difficulty down so that even brand new players would be able to win the first few fights with ease. The idea was to give neophytes a chance to grasp the mechanics of moving around and fighting before any real level of mastery was required of them. Broken Horizons had taken a different approach however.  

Instead of cheating openly in the characters’ favor by presenting them with fragile, soft hitting enemies, they gave the players real, dungeon-scale foes and then placed a series of special buffs on their characters so that as they fell closer to being defeated qualities like the rate they regenerated health, and how protective their starting armor was grew to proportions that even extremely well equipped max level players would have a hard time replicating.

The net result was that the early combats felt difficult while also giving players the sense that they were snatching victory from the jaws of defeat as they rapidly learned the basics of attacking, positioning, and when to use their limited powers. It was an effective illusion unless, like Tessa, the player was already familiar with the basics of combat and had an well honed sense of how durable characters typically were.

After six years of playing Glimmerglass and watching how well everyone she played with withstood damage so that she could tell when they were in need of healing, Tessa could almost see the exact numbers behind the scaling buffs as Pillowcase was driven back by the onslaught of a trio of rats the size of small bears. That the rats were glowing green and made of what appeared to be radioactive sludge didn’t seem out of place. Fledgling characters in many games were given quests to slay rats, and the little extra added to the ones in the World Shift tutorial was only there to fit the “strange and otherworldly” aesthetic the expansion hoped to evoke.

Appearance aside though, the rats were really no different than the thousands of other vermin Tessa had exterminated over the years so the outcome of the fight was never really in doubt. She defeated them one after the other but they got their licks in too. As the battle music faded, Pillowcase was left with just a sliver of health, apparently no more than a heartbeat away from death’s door. That was all well and good for creating a tense and exciting fight, but the aftermath promised to be rather boring. Since Pillowcase was too new to have any healing potions available, Tessa assumed her only recourse was to have Pillowcase hide away until her natural healing could bring her back to full health.

In what might have been intended as a teaching moment to showcase one of the Clothwork’s inherent traits though, Tessa turned out to be wrong about the enforced downtime. As she watched, Pillowcase’s health regenerated faster than any other character she’d ever played. It was one of the reasons the beta-testers had reported that Clothwork’s made good tanks for a group, but seeing the effect in action still exceeded Tessa’s expectations in a pleasant way.

Leaning back on her chair, Tessa wished her actual body could borrow some of Pillowcase’s vitality. Sometime during the fight with the rats, Tessa had started feeling sore. Not in any one area but all over and without obvious reason.

“I am going to make myself sick if I keep going like this,” she said, trying out the idea to see if hearing it aloud would motivate her to take a different course of action.

If any responsible part of her was still hoping that she might get to bed sooner in response to her declining health it would have been sorely disappointed by the first thought which followed the declaration.

“If I’m sick, I guess I’ll just have to call into work tomorrow for a day off!”

Time off was a limited and highly supervised resource. Vacation requests were routinely refused due to “staffing needs during a busy period”. And, of course, they were always in “a busy period”. The only days someone like Tessa could take off without prior approval were her allotted sick days and she had so little of them that she never spent them unless she absolutely had to. If she was legitimately sick though? And if that just so happened to buy her more time to play? Well, one day away wouldn’t really hurt that much. She’d have twice the work to do when she got back but she’d get it done twice as fast if she wasn’t exhausted and dead inside from stress.

With the thought of not needing to wake up before the break of dawn seeming like a plausible reality, Tessa felt a surge of relief wash through her. Her hands found the keyboard and the mouse and she put the residual aches she was feeling out of her mind.

It was play time. She could do this all night if she wanted to.

[System Message: ALERT!]

[Please do not logout or otherwise exit the game!]

[If you must leave, please set your character for “No Auto Logout” in “Settings > General” and leave the the game and your computer running or irretrievable corruption may occur.]

“What the hell?” Tessa blinked and read the message again.

As a rule, new expansions always have bugs. It wasn’t surprising – all code has bugs. No one could think of every scenario that might come up or cover every possible configuration someone might have their computer setup with. In the case of a major expansion to a game it was even less likely that all of the issues would be caught since there was no chance that a quality assurance staff of, at most, a few dozen people were going to replicate all of the odd behaviors a few million players might attempt.

That didn’t stop Tessa from being puzzled about the system message though. The thing with bugs, in her experience, was that they either fell into the category of “annoying but not game breaking”, in which case the players could be allowed to continue playing while a fix for the problem was created or the bugs were “game breaking” ones which had to patched immediately.

In the worst case, a game breaking bug might corrupt the data which defined the characters. Levels, items, and even personal information could be erased or compromised such that the only fix was “rollback” the data to an early backup. Rollbacks meant erasing all of the playtime the players had put in, including striping them of any valuable items and experience their character had gained, so development studios were exceptionally loath to let things get that far out of hand.

The problem with the system message was that, for serious bugs, one of the first tools to contain them was to bring the game servers down and force people to stop playing. That would at least prevent any damage the bug did from spreading too far. The system message was weird because Tessa had never heard of bug that required players to stay logged in.

As she brought Pillowcase into a battle with another nest of [Radioactive Goo Rats], she couldn’t help but try to piece together what might be happening in Egress Entertainment’s development wing.

If logging out was causing problems, then the issue either involved the log out code itself, or the final save routines which ran to disconnect the user from the server. If it was a server related issue though it would be reasonably simple for the EE devs to force a clean shutdown directly. There might be some data loss but better to suffer that sooner than later.

Which meant it wasn’t a server issue. The EE devs made mistakes but their were professionals and had always shown a reasonable level of competency.

“How could they screw up the client shutdown?” Tessa wondered aloud as Pillowcase looted a single [Glowing Rat Tail] from her defeated foes. Why between three rats there was only one tail was something she’d long ago learned not to question.

It was more fun to think about the programming issue EE was facing too.

As far as Tessa knew, there wasn’t a lot that happened during the shutdown sequence. The game client was closed, the memory it used was returned to the available pool, and the temporary files the game made were cleaned up. Of those none of them could have permanent or worrisome affects.

“Unless the game’s cleaning up more than just it’s temporary files?”

That shouldn’t have been possible, applications weren’t supposed to have access to other applications files, but buggy code could do all sorts of things it wasn’t supposed to and Tessa remembered she had run Broken Horizons in administrator mode to get it to work. That would have given it far greater ability to wreck things than it should otherwise have.

She tried to picture what the worst case scenario there would look like. A program running amuck could access all kinds of things, with the most legally dangerous being any personal information which was also on the computer, especially if it transmitted that information anywhere else.

Stealing personal information seemed unlikely though. If the bug was intentionally malicious code it could have stolen everything on the computer without alerting anyone. Stolen credit card numbers were a lot more useful if people didn’t know you had them so subtlety was usually the plan there.

A more likely problem would be if the shutdown caused a full drive wipe. For some people that would irreversibly disastrous. The image of hundreds of thousand users with computers that had been turned into worthless bricks drifted through Tessa’s mind. A lovely class-action suit would be sure to follow an event like that, probably on a scale sufficient to bankrupt EE if the case went poorly for them.

The odds of the problem actually being that bad were microscopic though. The most likely scenario was that someone had discovered a really unlikely sequence of events that could lead to something like a full drive wipe and the developers were being overly careful in an effort to make sure if something did happen to one or two people it wouldn’t be the game studio’s fault.

The warning was still there though, and still something she had to respect, or at least something she had a few self serving reasons for why she would choose to respect it.

“Oh no, what a shame, guess I have no choice but to keep playing then,” she said, delighted to have the decision to continue on and take the next day off reinforced a bit further.

The actual problem with the code didn’t concern her much. If she was correct and it was a scenario which could lead to an erased hard drive she wasn’t in any real danger. Aside from Broken Horizons and a copy of her company’s current project (which she wasn’t technically supposed to have on a personal machine), there wasn’t anything on Tessa’s computer that she cared about. She just hoped that whatever patch they rolled out wouldn’t eat into her day that much. It always sucked to have time off that she couldn’t do anything with.

For the time being though, the game was still up and she was definitely awake enough to continue.

Pillowcase returned with the [3 Glowing Rat Tail] to the quest giver who’d asked for them and waited for an animation to play out wherein “Mister Pendant”, a Skeletal Mage in a top hat and coat tails, added them into a bubbling cauldron to produce a [Vial of Soul Ink].

He was the end of the initial chain of quests she’d been given at the start of the game.

After the opening cinematic had played, showing Pillowcase’s reanimation, the game had given Tessa control of her character and set her to a few simple tasks. Move around, talk to some people, and fight a training dummy were typical basics any tutorial would run new players though since it was impossible to play at all unless you knew how to do them. In case of the World Shift tutorial these tasks came with introduction of a friendly character named Mogwin.

Mogwin was a crow, or rather Mogwin had been a crow. His translucent body and the gently pulsing aura of purple light which highlighted his edges marked him as having moved beyond his mortal form.

“Looks like you’re here now?” Mogwin had said when Pillowcase woke up. “Or almost here I guess,” as Pillowcase took her first faltering steps. “Well, you’re moving around and that’s what counts. Looking a bit run down though and that ain’t gonna help either of us. We should see about getting you back in fighting shape, cause we both know there’s going to be a lot of fighting to do, and probably a lot sooner than you’d expect.”

The intro area had seemed like an odd place for a battle to break out. Pillowcase rose where she’d fallen, on the lowest plains of the High Beyond. All around her were the remains of other warriors who’d fallen in service of the Consortium of Pain, her former masters.

Her former masters who’d betrayed and abandoned her.

The Consortium had held back the support their battleships could have contributed to the fight with the Fallen Kingdoms’ signature heroes because the raid Pillowcase had been a part of was merely an expeditionary thrust. She hadn’t been created to win, or even to survive. All that was expected of her was to force the defenders of the Fallen Kingdoms to reveal the sort of abilities they possessed.

The Consortium had reclaimed what minions they could and had allowed the rest to lay where they fell, having no use for creations which couldn’t materially advance their aims.

Pillowcase and Mogwin had been alone on the empty and silent field, which had given Tessa time to refamiliarize herself with Broken Horizon’s control scheme. She’d been worried that after six year away from the game she would feel clumsy trying to manipulate her character with a new mouse and a new keyboard. If anything though it was like the six year gap had never occurred. From the moment she took control of Pillowcase, all of her old reflexes came right back.  When it came time to square off against the stationary husk of a fallen Metal Mechanoid, Tessa had felt like she could dance Pillowcase around the goliath with more grace than she’d ever managed with Glimmerglass.

Some of that was probably due to the various improvements in animation handling and overall control which the developers had added to the game over the years, but Tessa was tempted to take part of the credit too. There was no reason to believe her reflexes were better than they had been, but it was nice to imagine anyways.

Once Tessa had proven that she had control of Pillowcase’s basic motor functions, and that she understood other characters in the world could be communicated with, Mogwin had sent her to scavenge a basic weapon and some starter armor from the fallen warriors around her.

With a [Rusty Sword] and [Cracked Shield] in hand, Pillowcase had ventured towards a nearby village which she could just make out in perpetual gloom of the High Beyond’s lowest level. The wondrous sky of alien stars and swirling light from the main cinematic was visible overhead but the rest of the environment was shrouded in an inky blackness which seemed to flow like water over shapes in the distance.

Before Pillowcase had reached the village she’d run into her first scripted battles. The minion of the Consortium had existed for no other reason than to showcase the [Stealth Kill] option available if you could sneak up on certain enemy types. As a Soul Knight, Pillowcase’s sneaking capability would be abysmal once she was properly geared up in heavy armor, but the more lightly armored classes could make good use of it when the situation allowed.

From the minion, Pillowcase had retrieved a pouch of Astral Coins, the new currency in the High Beyond, invented so that existing players with billions of gold pieces couldn’t rush in on the first day and buy every interesting thing that was for sale at once.

For Pillowcase the coins served as her ticket into the shop of Mister Pendant, the primary quest giver for starting Soul Knights. His white top hat and tails gave him an air that was slightly off kilter with dark and shadowy pallet the rest of the starter area was painted in, but it had the upside of making him very easy to find for people who might otherwise be lost as to where to go or who to talk to.

And he was definitely someone new players wanted to talk to thanks to his offerings of a variety of starter items like low level potions and the all-important [Basic Adventuring Bag].

The game walked Pillowcase through acquiring the bag as the first item she purchased in order to introduce Tessa to the idea that she had a magical inventory with oddly limited space constraints. A thousand arrows would count as one item, but a pair of rings would count as two. Tessa understood the programmatic limitations which made a bag like that seem reasonable but she’d always been bugged that the game lore never offered an in game suggestion as to how and why adventuring packs worked like they did. In the end, it was a ubiquitous enough system across different games that everyone pretty much just accepted it and moved on.

Once she’d spent the last of the coins she’d received on the bag, and a healing potion, Mister Pendant revealed his true purpose.

“It looks like you used to be something other than you are now,” he said. “Soul Knight. Yeah, you could be one of those. But you’ve got no [Soul Mark], no way to call on the powers you’re supposed to have. Well, we’re just going to have to fix that right up then, aren’t we?”

From there, Pillowcase had been sent on a number of fetch quests – errands to procure the various components Mister Pendant needed for the [vial of Soul Ink]. The quests had introduced Tessa to Sky’s Edge village, the starting city for all of the characters created as part of the High Beyond.

Or at least her own personal version of it. Until she completed the basic elements of the tutorial, the game kept Pillowcase in her own private instance of the town so that Tessa wouldn’t be distracted by other players while she was learning how to play. The enforced isolation usually made Tessa skip the tutorial when she made a new character but with her current mood a little “alone time” to start things off hadn’t seemed so bad, even if she didn’t really need to learn anything that the game was trying to teach her.

She’d visited the Blacksmith shop where she was told how her weapons and armor could be repaired, upgraded or deconstructed when they broke, grew too weak, or were replaced by a better item. She’d stopped by the Night’s Over tavern where she received a free meal for being new and was introduced to the idea that food increased your attributes, including ones like “chance to critically hit” which wouldn’t seem to be something you could influence by the meal you chose.

In short order she’d visited half a dozen places and developed a sense of the layout of the small village in the process of collecting the ingredients Mister Pendant needed to craft the [Vial of Soul Ink].

“This’ll start you off,” he said as he drew a complex design where Pillowcase’s heart would have been had she been human. “This ink will never come off and it’s never gonna fade, but your [Soul Mark] is going to stay small and weak unless you feed it. Gotta have soul to be a [Soul Knight]. That’s all on you though. It’s nothing I or anyone else can do for you. Just remember this, because it’s important, you’re not an empty doll. Your bosses? Maybe they used you up and tossed you away, but that’s not who your are. You are who you chose to be. So choose well.”

For a moment, Tessa felt a weird swirl of vertigo pass through her. Mister Pendant’s dialog was clearly referencing Pillowcase’s origin video but “empty doll used up by her bosses” hit disturbingly close to home for Tessa too, and, with how the shot of Mister Pendant was framed, it looked like the glowing blue orbs in his skeletal eye sockets were staring right out of the screen at her.

Broken Horizons – Vol 1, Ch 2

The world was melting into darkness and blood. Every moment saw another vestige of the light swept away, all color and vibrancy lost to a rolling Stygian emptiness. It was more or less what Tessa had expected.

[BROKEN HORIZONS]

[World Shift]

The titles slammed into view, their gold rimmed letters burning away the darkness to reveal the new expansion’s splash screen for a moment before the intro cinematic began to play.

Tessa had to give the development team credit. They were working with an older engine but the animations were still on par with the best the industry had to offer. It had to have cost them some long days, but the results were evident in Broken Horizon’s still be around after fifteen years when so many of their competitors had gone under.

As Niminey, one of the game’s signature heroines, appeared on the screen, Tessa was glad to see that they’d kept the principal art team on the job for her new look. Gone were the soft brown leathers and velvety green cloak from the original box art for Broken Horizons and in their place she wore an ornate mithril chain shirt and the sigil inscribed sky blue “Cloak of the Celestials” which had been one of the ultimate rewards from the previous expansion. The new look took Tessa by surprise but it wasn’t the first time Niminey’s iconic look had been updated. As the game’s storyline had progressed so too had the stories of its principal characters, with their armor and weapons changing to reflect their expanded history (and to sell more merchandise).

In Niminey’s case there had been more changes than most. The Niminey of World Shift was no longer the neophyte who had been menaced by a trio of goblins in the original box art and drawn in millions of subscribers. In the intervening fifteen years, she had traveled to all corners of the Fallen Kingdoms and been at least a side character in every major event  that occurred (that was when she wasn’t cast as one of the pivotal actors, as she appeared to have been for the first time in a while with the World Shift expansion).

Tessa watched as Niminey passed through a portal of ice and shadows to arrive in a landscape unlike any that had appeared in the game before. Gravity seemed to be a vague suggestion at best and the sky was an immeasurably dense mass of red stars against a swirling blue and vibrant purple backdrop.

The High Beyond was a new area that had been added with the expansion and, at least from the cutscene, it looked gorgeous. Freed from the need to evoke a sense of connection to any realistic historical setting, the animators had chosen a palette that evoked fantastic cosmic scenery and vista that could never be seen in Earth. Tessa knew the in-game areas wouldn’t look quite as appealing – the animation possibilities for pre-rendered cutscenes always exceeded those which a desktop computer could managed to replicate on the fly. Despite that however, she felt her pulse quickening at the thought of getting to play in an area that was so vibrant and colorful. It was beautiful, especially in light of what she’d learned to expect from the Fallen Kingdoms of six year ago.

Well, beautiful and creepy, if she was being fair.

For all that the High Beyond evoked the grandeur of a place beyond space and time, it was also intended to carry a sense of dread as well. The shadow shrouded landscape which lay beyond the neon dappled valley Niminey moved through wasn’t empty, and from the viewpoint of the camera that followed her, shapes could be scene moving just outside of her field of vision.

The attack, because in an intro scene there inevitably was going to be an attack, came when Niminey bent to investigate a single gently glowing pink flower.

The camera went into slow motion, showing the bright sparkles of light which dropped from the flower freeze in the air as time stood still.

From the shadows, moving in a blur, despite time being slowed to a crawl, two bodiless wraiths shot forward. Their forms trailed behind them like purple smoke caught in a gale and, from their nebulous hands, claws of bloodied steel emerged.

The camera cut back to Niminey as she gazed in wonder at the flower, seemingly unaware of the peril she was in.

If Tessa hadn’t played through the earlier expansions, and kept up to date on the later ones, she might have been concerned that the studio was going to kill off one of their major characters to make a splash for their 15th anniversary. From a purely economic viewpoint though Tessa knew that Egress Entertainment was unlikely to give up such a marketable figure, and within the lore of the game world it wouldn’t make sense either.

Niminey rarely saved the day on her own, that was the player’s job after all, but as the maximum level the players could reach had risen, so too had Niminey’s prowess. If she could be taken down by two simple opponents, it would signal to the players that their hard earned strength was going to be completely overshadowed in the new areas, and that was not an impression that was likely to draw in new players or convince lapsed ones to return.

In a far more economic and narratively plausible stroke therefore, the two wraiths got no closer to Niminey’s back than the length of her sword before a flash of blue light cut them in two. The camera turned from their dissolving forms to show Niminey with her blade “Clarity” drawn and scanning the terrain for other enemies.

True to form, the camera pulled back to show the shadows come alive as though a nightmare factory had belched forth an army of abominations.

The scene cut away from impending battle after showing Niminey bringing Clarity to a ready position, a small smirk appearing on her lips.

Tessa knew she being sucked in as much by the rising orchestral music as anything else, but the scene brought her back to her childhood nonetheless. That moment. That little smile. That was what she wanted.

She remembered moments like that. Encounters when things could have gone terribly awry but she’d been the one to hold things to together. It had been wonderful to feel like she was defying not only the expectations of the other players but even fate itself when she refused to let her party members fall and had instead seen them through to a hard fought victory.

Defying fate had felt so right then, but somehow she’d never had the chance to do the same in her real life. Fights there carried too high a cost, and winning together was a foreign concept for too many people.

The cinematic wasn’t done when it departed from Niminey. Her involvement spoke to the existing characters discovering new foes and challenges to face in the new areas. For the fresh characters who were natives to the High Beyond, a signature character of their own was introduced.

Tessa had seen concept art and the final designs for Silken Black, the assassin who served as the player stand-in for the promotional images that preceded World Shift’s launch. For as much as the fourteen year old Tessa had wanted to be the Elven Niminey, the twenty six year old Tessa had to admit the idea of having a job which allowed her to stab people was terribly appealing. Being a vampire would be a plus too, but primarily because it would mean she could stay up all night and sleep all day.

Silken was revealed in close-up at first, the camera focusing on her glowing red eyes and fangs before she pulled up the mask which covered her mouth and nose. When the camera moved, it swung around showing the tableau she was a part of.

In the distance, Niminey’s battle against the shadow horde raged on, but Silken made no move to either aid or attack Niminey. Instead, she began to climb a tall spire of rock covered in strange, alien reliefs.

Near the top, a pair of giant iron statues moved to block Silken’s entrance through a door which led into a twisted structure that soared up through the clouds.

Rather than showing the fight, the animation jumped forward in time, showing a slightly scuffed Silken standing before an altar with a basin in the center of it. In the background, the steaming remains of the two iron statues were just barely visible.

Using a chalice that waited on the altar, Silken scooped up some of the boiling black liquid from the basin and drank it down in a single gulp. The camera pulled away as her body began to stretch and change, showing first her shadow twisting far outside its natural proportions and then an exterior shot of the temple with her screams reaching even the camera’s distant position.

The cinematic concluded with Niminey returning back through the portal, glowing pink flower in hand, and looking only somewhat battle damaged. Waiting on the other side of the portal, a small crowd congratulated her on her safe return while a Dwarven herbalist took the flower and quickly brewed a potion to give to a child in a bed just behind the crowd.

The child was facing away from the camera, but as they turned to take hold of the potion their face was revealed to be half human skin and half tough green scales. They drank the potion down and then smiled in wonder as their scaled half morphed back to being fully human.

Neminey’s mission was a success, but outside the room a shot of the city showed many other people suffering from similar or worse conditions, as generic adventurers set off on similar quests to aid them.

The camera trailed over several of them, showing off a few of the new expansions different armor sets before it focused on a figure in the background as they moved through the crowd. The woman looked like a non-descript, black haired extra until the camera pushed in on her and her eyes flashed red for just a moment.

Tessa wondered if people would get that the “normal peasant woman with the red eyes” was Silken’s new form, or if they would see the significance in the signature character for the new faction’s actions.

Tessa knew she was cheating a little in that regard, given that she’d read developer interviews and kept up with the beta-test commentary but she still thought the opening cinematic did a good job explaining that the new characters could be part of a whole new faction, unallied with any of the ones previously in the game, and that while they weren’t in league with the High Beyond’s bad guys, their goals and motivations didn’t line up with the existing character factions either.

The bit Tessa found important though was that it not only looked like she’d be able to have Pillowcase travel to the original areas (as Silken had done) but that she could obtain a disguise to move around there unhindered by the bad reputation the World Shift native characters should possess with all of the rest of the factors. Disguises meant new looks, and Tessa was willing to bet the cash shop would have more than a few options for what those disguise potions might allow you to look like.

Granted the transformation looked like it was meant to be agonizing but the nice thing about being on the other side of the keyboard from her character was that Pillowcase could suffer all sorts of abuse and the only damage Tessa would take was the fatigue from staying up far too late.

Glancing over at the clock, she saw she was only about a half hour past her normal bedtime. A wave of lightheadedness which swept over her as the game finally connected and began loading her into a play zone, which seemed a little odd. It was true that she hadn’t been getting decent sleep lately, but a half hour shouldn’t have been enough to take that much out of her.

As the personalized cutscene began to play, she considered whether turning in really would be the best idea. The initial rush of rebellion had faded, and she could already feel how miserable she’d be in the morning. The responsible voice in her mind promised she would feel better if she got what sleep she could, and noted that the game would still be there the next night, or even on the weekend.

Weekend’s could fill up with work too though, and given the deadlines that were looming at her work it seemed as likely that she’d lose as big a chunk of the coming weekend as she had the previous one. Add to that all the basic chores that got put off because of how busy her weekdays were and it felt like she was doomed to have no time that could be dedicated to anything she’d want to call a life.

On the screen, the next cinematic finished loading and captured her attention. Where the first had introduced the new expansion, this one was tailored just for the new characters. The cutscene showed Pillowcase being stitched together with magical thread. She was a Clothwork, so her construction was the obvious starting point for her story.

As a construct though, she’d been built for a purpose, and that purpose was war. From the assembly line where Pillowcase was built she was marched away and fitted with a suit of impractically bulky black armor before being given a sword that looked like it’s crafter was morally opposed to straight lines and simple curves.

Watching the intro video required less energy than figuring out how to stop it, and so that won out, with Tessa promising herself she’d stop before it got too late. Worst case, she decided, she could try to sneak a fifteen minute nap in the restroom during her lunch break. It wasn’t a practical idea, but it didn’t need to be practical to sound like a valid excuse to stay up under the circumstances.

On the screen, Tessa watched Pillowcase being marshalled with an army of other Soul Knights. They were dispatched from a vast flying castle which was shaped like a starfish and covered in glowing violet nodules. The invaders from the High Beyond had come to the Fallen Kingdoms and Pillowcase was one of their shock troopers.

The Soul Knight army landed on the Plain of the Rolling Winds, a familiar spot to any Broken Horizons player because it was one of the low level areas they all passed through from the original release. The Soul Knight assault left it unrecognizable though. Their assault burned buildings that had stood for fifteen years of real time and killed characters who’d been repeating the same dialog for just as long. Throughout the fighting the camera switched between scenes of the overall chaos and close ups of Pillowcase’s hollow eyed helmet as she pushed through the generic defenders of the Fallen Kingdoms.

Tessa wondered if the expansion was going to permanently rework all of the base game’s starter zones, perhaps changing them into areas controlled by the forces of the High Beyond, until the scene shifted to show the signature characters of the Fallen Kingdoms arrive with fresh armies to reinforce the low level defenders of the Rolling Winds.

With the recognizable heroes and characters meant to represent the high level existing players joining the fray, the battle quickly turned against the Soul Knight army. Tessa watched as the High Beyond’s forces suffered loss after loss until they were in full retreat. When the camera focused on Pillowcase again she was staggering back through one of the hundreds of portals that had opened to the High Beyond, her armor shattered and her ridiculous sword abandoned on the battlefield.

Pillowcase was the last to make it through the portal she used before it sputtered closed, but her strength failed a few steps later as she sank to the ground, the spark of magic in the mystical threads that animated her fading away.

A wind blew over the battlefield, its passing a stand in for the passage of weeks or maybe months. As it blew, dust covered Pillowcase’s inert form and in its wake the world (and the background music) went silent.

The camera shifted to the sky which had grown dark and empty. Sitting in her lightless apartment, Tessa didn’t notice that everything had gone silent around her as well.

[Come hero.]

The text appeared as a voiceless subtitle while a drop pattern of thin lines began to glow on the screen in sky above. In Tessa’s headphone’s, faint notes of a new song began to play.

[This age is not yours.]

The lines connected to form a circle with a triangle in its center and an ever-increasingly complex set of geometric shapes around its circumference. The song grew louder, picking up horns to go with its drums.

[This world is not yours.]

The shape in the sky began to pulse with a slow but accelerating heartbeat of light. Each beat shifted the color of the light through the various hues of the rainbow. Stringed instruments joined the song as it gained momentum.

[But it needs you.]

The pulsing light sped up until it was a solid glare of white. Voices joined the song in a chorus that spoke with no need for language, their tones simply another marvelous instrument blending into the whole.

[Will you answer it’s plea?]

[Will you forge a new tomorrow?]

[Will you RISE.]

“Yes,” Tessa whispered, swept up the moment and not caring because there was no one to hear the fourteen year old in her come out for a moment.

A single drop of light fell from portal and landed with gentle hesitation on the fallen form of Pillowcase, as the music paused for a single heartbeat.

Where the Clothworks eyes should have been, two fresh sparks surged to life, bringing the song rushing back in with them.

Broken Horizons – Vol 1, Ch 1

[Click “Play” to begin.]

Tessa saw the familiar dialog appear on the screen and drew in a long breath. All it had taken before was that one click and her life had changed forever.

In her mind, she’d followed the glowing cursor across the border to another world. One where she’d been someone so much closer to the person she’d wanted to be than her fourteen year old self ever could have been.

For a while the journey had been intoxicating. She’d formed friendships within the game that were deeper and dearer to her than any she’d found elsewhere. Sure, none of their trials and achievements offered any real rewards, but the joy of playing together, of being a team, and being a part of each lives despite the vast distances that separated them was more than real enough.

Or at least Tessa had thought so.

Twenty six was a long way from fourteen though, and as she looked at the old, familiar login screen beckoning her once again, Tessa felt the weight of the six years she’d been away from Broken Horizons, the game that defined her teenage years, weighing down on her.

“This is a mistake,” she said, speaking to the empty walls around her.

There should have been posters there, but those were back in the old apartment. With Crystal. It still hurt to think of her name, but it was getting better each day. Tessa told herself that and most of the time she could even pretend she believed it.

Most of the time, but not quite at that moment.

She needed a distraction. She knew herself well enough to know that. Something to break the spiralling chain of thoughts that were leading her nowhere useful or good.

The good news was, she had one. Right in front of her. Only it held its own share of broken promises.

Sighing at her own foolishness, Tessa got up, leaving the login screen behind her.

There was laundry to do. She knew she should probably do that rather than let the computer suck her in. Dishes too. The sink wasn’t too full, but she hadn’t cleaned the bowl she’d used for breakfast. She could take care of those and claim to be a responsible adult and no one would think she couldn’t hold herself together.

Except no one would think that no matter what she did. There wasn’t anyone around to judge her anymore.

“This is ridiculous,” she said, as she poured herself a glass of water. She would have preferred tea, but tea required effort and after a thirteen hour work day, hacking away at code that no one really cared about and would probably be deleted when the next feature change came in, she didn’t have that sort of energy left at all.

No energy for personal maintenance chores, at least not on a weekday, and not for stuff that could be put off.  Playing games was a whole different sort of thing though. Or at least it used to be.

She sighed again as she sat back down at the computer, and then scowled at herself. She knew she was hesitating, and she knew why, but she also knew that she’d already spent a decent chunk of her limited spending money picking up the 15th Anniversary expansion pack for Broken Horizons. The game wasn’t going to be anything like what it was when she’d left it six years ago. Everything and everyone would be different and new, and that was as much the problem as it was the promise of the new expansion.

Gazing at the screen, she warred over the idea of slipping back into the shoes of Glimmerglass, her beloved Elven healer. She thought back to earlier expansions and the wild joy of  exploring the new sights and progressing to new heights of power. Going it alone would be rough, but it was possible some of the people she’d known might still be playing, or might be coming back for the new “World Shift” expansion like she was.

That was almost enough to convince her to shut the program down entirely.

They’d been her friends, and her confidants, and the ones who’d supported her. Right up until they weren’t.

Turning away would be the easiest thing in the world. Did she really even want to do this? She had to be at work in less than ten hours. An hour of play wouldn’t be satisfying and a responsible adult wouldn’t let herself have more than that or, and she could hear the words in her manager’s voice, “it would hurt her productivity”.

She clicked the “Play” button and felt both the thrill of rebellion and an echo of old loss ring through her heart as the first familiar notes of the intro to Broken Horizon’s anthem boomed through the headphone speakers.

[Select Character] or [Create New Character] the game prompted her.

Without thinking her hand swung the mouse over to the Select Character option, as she’d done thousands of times before. Glimmerglass awaited just a click away, but for all the wonderful memories attached to her, there were so many painful ones too.

The kind of drama that wrecks friendships and destroys guilds doesn’t usually come from nowhere. It grows from one problem layered on top of another. It lives in hurtful words and unkind choices and it dies in apathy and regrets.

Tessa needed more than that. She thought about where she was in life, and how well she’d be able to handle running into her old guildmates. Even if there was only silence between them, it would be like a knife twisting in her old memories of when she believed that what they had together mattered to them as much as it had to her.

It didn’t take much reflection to see that she couldn’t go back into the morass of memory and broken relationships Glimmerglass represented. She loved Glimmerglass but she couldn’t be her anymore.

[Create New Character]

It was the simplest of choices. The past was the problem so the solution was straight forward- leave it behind. The new expansion for the game meant a new start for the world with a fresh storyline, and new character options to pick from, so why not make it a clean start entirely?

Even if she’d been playing consistently, Tessa knew she probably would have created an alternate character for the “World Shift” expansion, the same as she had for the “Dark Tide” and “Scourge of Dragons” expansions that had launched while she played. New characters were great for exploring the new storylines that got introduced since the character quests and the expansion storyline tended to be woven together. Also, it wasn’t as though a new characters required deleting her existing ones. Glimmerglass would still be the next time she logged in and, if she was in more of a mood to risk running into people next time, then she could always switch back.

[Select Race]

The first choice Tessa had to make was which of the five new races she wanted to try out. The theme of the “World Shift” expansion was “creatures from beyond time and space”, but somehow that had translated into “halloween town people” for the new player choices, with the options skewing towards being cute and marketable enough that Tessa wasn’t surprised “Chainsaw Teddybear” had made the list.

Apart from their appearance though, the different races did have a fair bit of mechanical complexity to them, which meant the choice between them was one that required careful consideration. Happily, Tessa was already well armed in that regards.

Though her interest in playing Broken Horizons had been crushed by the loss of her guild, Tessa’s interest in the game itself had remained strong enough that she stayed in the loop on the general developments that occurred around it. She had a sense of what each race brought to the game thanks to reading the forums and following wiki posts from the beta testers after “World Shift” hit the public test servers, so weeding out a few of them was easy enough.

With a potential choice already in mind, she clicked on the Artifax race choice first, curious to see the options available for what was supposed to be the best casting race among the new selections. The Crystal Artifax subrace choice came with a number of special features Tessa would have murdered a million monsters to get on Glimmerglass back in the day. They had limitations as well, but it wasn’t the limits which made Tessa pause.

In general the art director for Broken Horizons did a good job with setting a distinctive style for the game while managing to evoke a good deal of reality in how the characters looked and moved. The digital art wasn’t photo-realistic in any sense, but it was easy to imagine it belonging to a real and consistent environment.

Sadly that art director had apparently been on vacation for the six months or so when the Crystal Artifax were being developed because they had wound up looking just as terrible as the beta-testers had complained they did.

Instead of polished work which would have been in line with the rest of Broken Horizon’s offerings, all Tessa found as options for the Crystal Constructs were off-putting, overly-sexualized proportions, jagged, overlapping bits of geometry in the models, and sample animations that utterly failed to convey any sort of weight or fluidity to the character’s movements.

With a groan, she clicked back to consider the other options. She knew there were a few other choices which would make decent healers, but before she left the Artifax race she noticed one of the other subraces.

The Clothworks were similar to the Crystal Constructs in that both followed the general Artifax motif of being people who were constructed from non-living matter. Where the Crystal Constructs were built from gemstones though, the Clothwork were living rag dolls.

They made terrible healers in general as their recovery powers were largely self focused, but the beta-testers had reported that they made surprisingly good, if unusual, tanks.

Tessa clicked to follow the Clothwork build path, mulling over the idea of focusing on a different role than healing for a change.

“It’s supposed to be a fresh start right?” she asked herself as she began playing around with the different appearance options available for a Clothwork girl.

Where the Crystal Construct art development had been relegated to the interns (or designed by the marketing department more likely), the Clothworks showed the characteristic style and craftsmanship of the Broken Horizon’s more talented art team members.

Tessa found a variety of pre-set appearances which ranged from near-human to full blown nightmare. She opted for something towards the human end of the scale but with decidedly inhuman elements, and tweaked each to bring out the qualities she was looking for.

When she was fourteen she’d wanted to be beautiful and amazing. Between the break-up with Crystal and the grind of her unrewarding job though, Tessa found the urge to go just a bit feral hard to resist.

Picking a class for her fledgling character was easier than picking her race had been. Clothworks had access to three of the professions that could make viable Tanks.

Guardians were the plain vanilla, plate armor wearing, sword and shield wielding, walls of muscle and steel that people first thought of when the question of who was going to stand in front of the boss monster and get punched in the face repeatedly came up. They had a few interesting tricks, but were also intentionally one of the simplest classes to play since they tended to attract a lot of new players. That said, they were also arguably the best of the Tanking classes as well, since their durability was simply unmatched by anyone else.

Tessa would have considered going with one except their principal advantage – the armor related skills they gained – didn’t mesh well with the Clothwork’s inherent abilities.

A better choice would have been the Shadow Caster, which focused on surviving the damage their enemies did by simply not being there when the blow landed. Shadow Caster’s had enjoyed an excellent (or overblown depending on who you asked) reputation when Tessa had been playing, but a series of “adjustments” from the developers had stripped away a lot of their more potent (or abusive) powers and left them in a questionable state for the launch of the “World Shift” expansion.

Also, one of Tessa’s worst experiences healing had been with an incredibly arrogant Shadow Caster and she still wanted nothing to do with him or his stupid class.

That left the Soul Knight class. Where Guardian’s resisted damage, and Shadow Caster’s avoided it, Soul Knight’s took the approach that if they were missing health then they would simply steal it right back.

In Glimmerglass’s heyday, accepting a Soul Knight into the party had been considered a serious gamble. Good ones could do amazing things, supposedly, but finding a good one was roughly as difficult as finding a unicorn. In the real world.

Tessa had enjoyed playing with even the bad ones though since a bad Soul Knight required her to be right at the top of her game when it came to healing their shattered carcasses up. Nothing let her show off her prowess like keeping someone alive who was ping ponging against death’s door during every encounter in dungeon.

With her race, her appearance, and her class decided, Tessa’s new character was almost complete, staring back at her from the monitor and missing only one thing.

A name.

“Ok, something cloth related that’s also protective,” she said. Coming up with names for new characters was something she dreaded. Not because she was bad at it though.

Silk Knightgown

She typed the name in, delighted at the pun.

[Name already in use.]

Silk Knightgoon, she tried, the idea of being a bit “goon-ish” seeming appealing too.

[Name already in use.]

She sighed, unsurprised. Broken Horizons was an old game, which meant there’d been 15 years for people to come up with all the clever puns and cool, badass names for characters already.

Twenty minutes passed as she tried variations on her original idea as well as various branching ideas for other “Knight” related possibilities, all to no avail.

“Cloth and protective”, she said, rubbing her temples. Her hour of free time had already passed and the clock said it was time to get to bed. She knew she should close everything down and come back tomorrow. She make the choices she’d spent an hour agonizing over in just a few minutes and be able to get in the rest of the hour as regular play time.

She glanced over at the bed in the opposite corner of the small two room apartment.

All that lay on the other side of that bed was another work day where no one knew what they were doing or why they were being asked to do it.

Pillowcase, she tried as a wry smile played across her lips. It was cloth, and sort of protective. And it was silly. She felt ok with silly. Silly was what she wanted. Silly like she remembered. Staying up late like a fourteen year old silly.

[Name accepted! Begin Tutorial?]

Her doubts and responsibilities lost their hold on her. All it took was that one final click.

Click Play to Begin.

The one click she could never take back.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 12 – Act 4

The Second Chance Club Cruise had been Val’s idea, but she hadn’t come up with it alone. Chartering the world’s largest luxury vessel had been surprisingly easy and finding staff for it had been as simple as turning to the Club’s many direct members and asking if anyone wanted to join them on an impromptu vacation. As it turned out they’d been overwhelmed with offers, and in the end it wasn’t just a singular cruise which had taken off for a vacation, it had been a fleet of cruise ships, together holding a few tens of thousands people the Club had helped and who had helped others through it in turn.

The Club’s associates who were busy getting back to their lives or building new ones had sent their well wishes along, and those seemed to amplify the party atmosphere even more than the Pacific’s warm breezes and bright blue waters could account for.

All of the noise and bright lights and commotion felt wonderfully far away from Val though as she drifted in a pool she had all to herself on the lead yacht’s main deck.

The water had been warmed by the constant sunshine to where it melted the tension out of her muscles with each slosh of the waves from one side of the pool to the other. With her eyes closed, and the refreshing breeze blowing over her face, Val felt like she could drift for all eternity and be perfectly content.

“But then who would keep me company,” a soft voice whispered in her ear.

Val opened her eyes slowly, to find Aranea kneeling in the pool beside her.

“You’ve got a lot of friends now,” Val said sleepily, as she reached up to draw the Spider Goddess into an embrace. Aranea leaned into Val’s arms, and met her lips with a soft but unrelenting kiss.

“Yes, but I’m allowed to play favorites,” Aranea said when the broke apart at last. She added a quick kiss on the tip of Val’s nose to emphasize her point.

“Good,” Val said. “I like being your favorite.”

“Hey, we’re going to pass over the deepest part of the Marianas Trench in a few minutes,” Jimmy B said. “You wanted a heads up when we were getting close right?”

Val looked at Aranea with questioning expression, but Aranea just smiled at Jimmy.

“Thank you,” she said, and offered no further explanation.

Val’s chance to probe Aranea on her newfound maritime interests was cut short when Tam and Cynthia arrived on the man deck. Val was happy to see them in normal clothes rather than the sequined fishnets and top hats which were part and parcel of the shows Tam put on.

The cruise was meant to be a vacation, but for Tam that meant time off from doing arcane magic in favor of getting to try out a new series of stage magic effects on a captive audience. Not that anyone on any of the ships in the armada was going to pass up the chance to see a world renowned magician practice her craft live in front of them. Val was still holding out hope that Tam would take some real time off, but she had to concede that everyone recharged their batteries in different ways and, in Tam’s case, entertaining a room of excited fans seemed to do the trick as well as anything else possibly could.

“Wait,” Val said as she noticed the one detail that was out of place, “Jimmy B, are you still playing event coordinator?”

Jimmy shrugged with a “what are you going to do” expression.

“This is supposed to be your vacation too!” Tam said.

“Yeah, but I like it when things run smoothly. It’s what I do,” he said.

“You know, you could make a fortune doing that kind of thing,” Cynthia said, as she wrapped Tam in an embrace from behind.

“I have a fortune,” he said. “Charlene left all of us pretty well off. Like never work for a few lifetimes level of ‘well off’, but what would I do with all that time? I’ll tell you what I’d do. This. This is what I’d do.”

“We are lucky to have you with us,” Anna said as she and Zoe climbed up to the main deck.

“Yes we are,” JB said, following along behind them.

“I do still wish I could hire you both away,” Zoe said. “Establishing contacts and connections among the new worlds we have as neighbors is going to take the best people we’ve got and you’ve proved that’s what you are.”

“Some of us are just normal folk,” Jim said.

Zoe shook her head. “You built one of the Earth’s first interdimensional transports. There is nothing ‘just normal’ about any of you.”

“Probably not,” Val said. “I’m guessing Jimmy B isn’t the only one who won’t be retiring now that we’ve saved the world?”

“We’re definitely not,” Connie said as she led Sarah and Jen up to join the gathering on the main deck.

“Yeah, we talked it over and we’re going to stick together as a team,” Sarah said.

“What about the work you’re doing with helping people who get lost on the borders of the world?” Tam asked.

“I’ll have time for that too,” Sarah said. “We’ve got so many people who are willing to help now that each volunteer is only need for a few shifts a week. If that was all I did, I think I’d get pretty bored.”

“We figure there’s still going to be a need for a team of general troubleshooters,” Connie said.

“Especially since it’s not like the world is going to stay saved,” Jen said.

“I’ve been meaning to talk with about that,” Anna said. “I think we can expect…”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Val cut in. “No working. We all agreed. We can talk shop. We can tell stories, but the moment anyone breaks out a slideshow they’re going right over the side of the ship.”

“What do your plans look like then?” Tam asked.

“One of the reasons I joined the Army was to see more of the world,” Val said. “The Club did a better job of giving me that than the Army ever could have, but I think that’s still calling to me.”

“Where will you go?” Anna asked.

“Wherever my feet take me I guess,” Val said. “I mean there’s so many world out there. I think if I head outwards I’ll find the kind of things I couldn’t even imagine looking for now.”

“If you wish to stay in touch with us, I believe I will be able to help with that,” James said. He was bundled up in a light robe with a wide brimmed straw hat and plenty of sunscreen but Val still felt like he could be better sheltered raw daylight.

“I thought you hated crowds?” Connie asked.

“I do,” James said. “But I am rather fond of you all, and I didn’t want to miss what might be our last outing together.”

“Oh, I’m not planning to go away forever,” Val said. “And I’ll definitely be there if you ever need me.”

“I am sure we will,” Anna said. “But it’s good that you’ll be exploring our new neighbors. I think we’re going to see a lot of people doing that, and having at least a few of us out there with them gives us a better chance of catching the next mad god who decides we’re an affront to him by merely existing.”

“A few of us? Will you be traveling too?” Val asked.

“Earth doesn’t have any official representatives to the other worlds,” Anna said. “But in an unofficial capacity? Yes. We’ll be spending a lot of time off world.” She threaded her fingers through Zoe’s who returned the gesture with a small squeeze and a sharp smile. Despite the rings they both wore, the vows they’d pledges, and the framed marriage certificate hanging in their bedroom, the two were still every bit the rivals they’d ever been. At least in some arenas.

If Anna was focused on deepening the peaceful relations with the worlds who’d stoof with the Earth and Zoe pursued opportunities to build mutually beneficial (and profitable) ventures then the difference in their objectives was slight enough to allow each to measure their results against the other while at the same time allowing both to declare victory according to their own goals.

“I guess that leaves me to mind the home front then,” Tam said. “Which, to be fair, is going to make it a lot easier to start scheduling shows again.”

“I thought I heard that more and more people were learning how to use real magic?” Jim asked. “Are you still going to get the crowds you used to?”

“It looks like she’ll need to play bigger arenas,” Cynthia said.

“There’s a lot more Earthlings than there used to be, and we’ve got tourists from so many worlds to draw in too,” Tam said.

“Even the ones who can do magic on their own may still show up to watch a true master perform,” James said.

“Believe it or not, the real trick for a show has nothing to do with magic. It’s part of why I don’t use anything mystical in the act. Even now with magic being so much more reliable, a clever spell isn’t what’s going to keep the crowds entertained. They want the presentation and th mystery. If anything real magic makes a good show harder. Anyone can believe that a spell can do something extraordinary. My job is to make them see that even the perfectly mundane can be extraordinary.”

“Will you keep helping her with the act?” Val asked, looking over to Cynthia.

“She has a horde of professionals lining up to work with her,” Cynthia said. “I can pitch in here because I’m off duty but once we get back I’ll let the performers do their job. She makes it look so much easier than it really is.”

“You’ve done fantastic!” Tam said. “But the work you’re doing with helping people adapt to the different environments of the Earthly realms is mind blowing too. Do you know what she discovered? Go ahead, tell them!”

Cynthia blushed but spoke up when Tam nudged her in the ribs.

“We know there’s a lot of less pleasant realms out there,” Cynthia said. “More than a few get mistaken for being Hell. Well, it turns out that some of them at least are just places with a whole lot of fire and brimstone and the people there are quite friendly when you give them half a chance to explain they’re not trying to drag you into a river of lava but that the lava is in fact quite refreshing and breathable. So helping people find methods of adapting to their environments is what I’m going to be doing.”

“How about you Aranea? What do your plans look like?” Tam asked.

“I have something I’ve been meaning to do for a while,” Aranea said and turned to Val.

With a gentle, loving smile, she placed her hands on Val’s shoulders and everything else but her face fell away from Val’s gaze.

There were words held just behind Aranae’s lips but she hesitated, visibly gathering her courage and resolve before continuing.

“If you’re going to ask me to marry you, the answer’s definitely yes,” Val said. It was a joke, since she knew as a mortal she couldn’t actually marry a goddess, but as she said the words, she knew she meant them with utter sincerity too.

She’d had plenty of relationship and plenty of people she’d been close to. To say none of them measured up to a goddess was as obvious as it was foolish. Looking into the eyes of the woman who loved her, Val knew that it wasn’t the goddess she’d fallen for. Val accepted the divine part of the woman in front of her, but it was the part which had grown into someone far more complex and down to earth who’d captured her heart.

She respected Aranae’s station, just like she would any difficult and important position someone she cared for might hold, but it was the person who made sure she had coffee waiting each morning, who tutored young kids in zoology, and who refused to go to sleep if they were reaching the end of a binge-watch of a new series, that she would do anything for.

“Do you trust me?” Aranea asked.

“With my life,” Val said.

“Good,” Aranea said with a quick smile and grasped Val’s arms tighter.

“Wait, what? Blaaaa..” Val shouted as Aranea hurled her off the deck into the bright blue Pacific waters.

She walked over to Tam next.

“May I?” she asked.

“Umm, sure?” Tam said an instant before being launched similarly overboard.

“And do you consent as well?” Aranea asked Anna.

Anna narrowed her eyes.

“Must you?” she asked.

“I’m afraid so,” Aranea said.

“Fine,” Anna said, her voice all resignation before she was pitched soundlessly to sploosh down beside Val and Tam.

The ocean swirled around the three and rose under Tam’s command, depositing them back on the deck in a thoroughly soaked state.

“What was that all about!” Val shouted, throwing her hands up in disbelief.

“I’ve told you, I must be true to my word,” Aranea said. “Before I met you I had sworn to cast the three of you into the abyss. I hadn’t sworn myself to a particular time limit so there was no rush, but it was something I could not change. Eventually I had to cast you down, just as I had said I would. Fortunately, I never said anything about which abyss I would cast you into, or what it might be full of.”

“Ok, but why now?” Val asked.

“Because I wanted to make sure you knew how serious I am when I make a vow,” Aranea said. “Or rather how much it would mean to me to exchange vows with you.”

In her hand she held a ring that glittered with a literal spec of starlight shining where the gemstone would normally have been.

For a long moment Val, and by extension everyone else, was shocked into silence. Val had witnessed the rebirth of the world, fought gods with her bare hands, and seen more strange sights than she could ever have imagined but somehow she still couldn’t catch her breath to answer. Not until Tam and Anna placed their hands on her shoulders and nodded for her to move forward.

When she moved though, it was away from everyone. Silently she walked over to the deck chair she’d commandeered and opened up the pack of sunscreen and essentially she’d brought to pull forth a small box.

“I didn’t think I was ever going to get to use this,” she said, handing the box to Aranea with only a slight tremble in her hands as she took the ring Aranea offered. Inside the box, Aranea found a simple silver band with a small but beautifully cut gem in the center. “This belonged to me great grandmother, and my grandmother, and my mother. I didn’t think you could…”

She broke off.

“It is unusual for a god to marry a mortal,” James said. “Will you be able to make such a vow without losing the greater portion of yourself?”

“Formal vows with a mortal would require me to give away much of what I am,” Aranea said. “You all have seen first hand the true face of the creator though. You have restored yourselves and your world from the ashes of death. You carry within you a message of hope you each spread in your own ways. So tell me, what makes you think any of you are still mortal?”

Her smile was the smile of someone who had been keeping a secret for a long time and had finally been able to reveal it.

The others, by contrast, had joined Val in her stunned silence.

“You know what Charlene Potestates was,” Aranea said. “She didn’t want the Earth to be under the dominion of an angel who would interfere with your choices as a parent might protect an infant, but she also wasn’t about to leave world without her angels to protect it from the choices other worlds might make. You made a second chance for yourselves, and for all of us, to become part of a better world, and the thing about second chances is that, if you embrace them, they will change you more than anything else ever can.”

– Finis –

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 12 – Act 3

Val stood on a street that looked like the street where she’d grown up, it had the same houses, the same streetlights, and the same fire hydrant. The road under her feet had almost all the pieces she remembered it having, but it was completely different nonetheless.

“We didn’t know if we’d be seeing you any time soon?” Elena, Val’s sister said.

“It’s too easy to stay busy these days,” Val said. “I figured I’d better make some time to swing by before Mom makes surviving the wrath of god look like a walk in the park.”

“Depending on the sort of park your walking in and which god is feeling wrathful there may not be much difference between the two,” Aranea said.

“Wow, you are much taller in person,” Elena said, holding out her hands for a welcoming embrace, which Aranea obliged her with. “Skype doesn’t do you justice.”

“Your hair looks fantastic,” Aranea said. “Did you have it done before the End of the World?”

“Nah, I was chickening out till the last minute,” Elena said. “But then when we came back? Well, I decided if I was going to have a new me, it might as well be a new me I want to be.”

“I take it that explains the arm band tattoo?” Val asked with a raised eyebrow. The artwork of the band which encircled her sister’s bicep was lovely, but the thought of how their mother must have reacted to it left Val glad that she’d had a few things to take care of before heading home.

“I had the design for that one ready beforehand,” Elena said. “I even showed it to Mom, but she wanted me to do all this research before getting it done, so I kinda hadn’t gotten around to that either.”

“It looks nice!” Connie said. “What do the symbols within the band mean though?”

“They’re charms of protection. Each one’s supposed to keep me safe from something,” Elena said. “I don’t think they do anything, but having them there helps me remember the people I can turn too.”

“You left space for more it looks like?” Val asked.

“Yeah, I wanted to be able add ones to it,” Elena said. “You know, in case any new problems come up.”

“Maybe I?” Aranea asked, holding an outstretched finger over a blank spot in the band as though she was going to poke Elena in the bicep.

“Sure?” Elena said and held her arm out for Aranea to get a closer look at.

“<Protected>,” Aranea said in a voice that echoed against some impossibly distant sky which had drawn instantly near. When she pulled her finger back, a new symbol had been added to the band, a tiny eight legged spider in exquisite detail.

Elena managed not to stumble back but still stuttered her words when she said “Thank you!”

“You are dear to one who is dear to me,” Aranea said. “Also, I like our video chats.”

“You have helped me a ton with those,” Elena said. “If you hadn’t studied with me for my Comparative Biology exam, I would have died.”

“Join the club,” Val said. “Without Aranea around, we’d all be gone now.”

“I did very little,” Aranea said. “But I am glad it was enough.”

“You saved us at the End of the World too?” Elena asked.

“No, you saved yourselves,” Aranea said. “I did nothing more than ensure the one responsible was fully committed to destroying the world.”

“And that helped how?” Elena asked.

“If the guy responsible for everything had pulled back we’d have been toast. He could have held onto his strength and wrecked us all even if we recovered from his final attack,” Val said. “It was only because he grossly overcommitted himself that we had enough power available to bring everyone back, and that he wasn’t strong enough to stop us. And the reason he made that mistake is that Aranea wrapped him up in the truth’s he wanted to believed and made him believe he was destined to win.”

“It’s not as though it took an exceptional amount of effort,” Aranea said. “Like any goodl little bug, the High One did all the worked of tangling himself up. All I need to do was put the proper strings in places to trap him.”

“That still seems like a lot,” Elena said. “How do we ever say thank you enough for that?”

“You don’t have to,” Aranea said. “I owe you just as many thanks. If you, everyone, hadn’t managed to return, the High One would have destroyed me the moment he was confident I was the last denizen of Earth who remained in existence. And only the ploy I perpetrated on him would have kept me alive that long.”

“I still think it’s pretty cool though,” Elena said, smiling as she turned to lead them into Val’s mother’s home.

***

Connie sat on the steps outside Val’s home, enjoying the night breeze and the sounds of a city teeming with life around her. Dinner and drinks had left her in a mellow, and contemplative enough mood that she didn’t jump at all when the door opened behind her.

“We’re going to make a run for ice cream and klarg in a little bit,” Val said. “Want to come along?”

“Sure. What’s klarg though?”

“It’s a new thing,” Val said. “Sort of like fried dough, but savory and a bit bitter. There’s an apartment building that was empty for about thirty years, that came back bright and shiny clean, so a refugee group from Greenglim put down roots there. Literally in about half the cases since they’re tree people. I guess there was a block party to welcome them and they brought this vegetable dish that everyone says goes perfect with ice cream. I’m still reserving judgment though.”

“That sounds like the whole world now,” Connie said. “So many new people, so many new ideas and customs and traditions.”

“It’s what we were fighting for,” Val said, sitting down on the step beside Connie. “I don’t know if that makes it any easier to believe we succeeded though..”

“It does feel kind of weird doesn’t it?” Connie asked. “I mean there’s just so much out there now and everything’s so different. It’s like I don’t even know where to start.”

“I’m going to suggest with ice cream,” Val said. “And maybe the klarg.”

“I am a fan of dessert,” Connie said. “But food only take you so far.”

“Yeah, but you know there’s going to be some kind of crisis coming at us soon enough,” Val said. “I say take the quiet, tasty moments when you can get them.”

“It’s certainly tempting,” Connie said. “The last few months were kind of unbelievable. I mean I thought I was an explorer before because I’d been to some old ruins and tangled with a few mystical forces, but in just the last couple weeks I’ve stood on the core of the Earth and walked on the surface of other worlds. Plural.”

“Imagine all of the people who are doing that right now?” Val said. “We’ve got Greenglim folks living about a block away and we’ve got Lafly family across the street who are renting their house out because they all packed up and moved off world to one of the islands on Castorvell.”

“Does it feel like we should be managing all that somehow?” Connie asked. “Or that someone should?”

“I know Tam and Sarah are doing some work on that,” Val said. “I don’t know that the state we’re in now is one that anyone can ‘manage’ though. The world is too big and there’s too many different ways in and out of it. I’m sure that’ll have it’s own problems but I think it would take more that one group to sort those out.”

“I guess I’m just worried that we’re going to slide right back into a bunch of bad habits,” Connie said. “There’s some much potential in a fresh state.”

“Don’t worry, much of it will go to waste,” Aranea said, joining the other two on the steps. She offered each of them one of the drinks she was carrying. “Much but not all.”

“How can you tell?” Val asked,turning to bring Aranea into the conversation as she sat on a step above the one Connie and Val were sitting on.

“In part because of the klarg,” Aranea said. “However it tastes, it shows that there are already new ties forming between people. Also, we stand on a much wider stage now. Our actions are visible to far more people than they were before and the consequences for what we do are more lasting.”

“You’re saying people will be on better behavior because there are aliens watching us?” Val asked, grinning at the silliness of the question.

“To an extent, yes, but also because there seems to be a greater awareness of what it means to be a part of a larger whole.” Aranea said. “Those who have migrated to our world, enrich us, just as the Potestates, Charlene, claimed they would. There are those who reject that enrichment, who see only enemies and danger, but their words are being accepted less and less.”

“I think if anything, that’s the real miracle that occurred at the End of the World,” Val said. “Earthling’s kicking an invader’s butt? Sure, that’s what we do. Earthling’s agreeing on anything for more than a nanosecond? Are we sure we came back on the right planet?”

“I came back to the planet you are on, so I am content,” Aranea said. “Also this planet has ice cream and klarg.”

“Ok, now I have to try this stuff,” Connie said, and hopped up to her feet.

***

Val knew where they needed to go, so the other two let her lead. She didn’t take the most direct route, instead stopping in along the way to see new families who were settling in, to chat with solo travelers who’d fled a variety of different circumstances and all wound up in the nearby newly refurbished apartments, and to spend time with the people who were trying to reach out and forge ties between the newcomers and the people who had lived in the area for generations in some cases.

There were problems of course. Everyone seemed to have them, but so to did more than a usual number of people seem willing to pitch in to help with them.

One new family needed a special sort of rock powder to feed their infant. The child wouldn’t die without it – the rock dust acted more as a pacifier for the Gorgona’s digestive system – but in the middle of the night one of the locals was calling up a brother who worked at a quarry to see what sort of selection they would have available, and whether any could be delivered right away.

“I think I see what she did,” Val said, as they started to draw close to the ice cream shop which was thronged with people.

“Charlene? You mean how she saved the world?” Connie asked.

“Sort of,” Val said. “But even beyond that. When you think about the Second Chance Club overall, this organization she setup that was a lot bigger and older than I think any of us knew, it was really all about one thing.”

“I was under the impression that the Potestates tended to have many plans underway at once,” Aranea said. “Even in regards to the End of the World, she had doubtlessly planned for both its salvation and the position of prosperity and harmony we find it in now.”

“Yeah, it’s a lot to ask for, but that seems to fit with how she worked,” Connie said. “She liked to shoot for the best resolution to a problem, not necessarily the easiest one.”

“It’s how she did that though,” Val said. “Think about, did she ever ask us to do the impossible? Did she even really ask us to help other people?”

“Now that you mention in, she never really made direct requests like that,” Connie said.

“She didn’t have to,” Val said. “Her point, and the point of the Second Chance Club, is that people want to help each other. It feels good to make things better for someone else. We just need to believe that we can.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 12 – Act 2

Tam stood in the midst of a storm that was trying to tearing her in half but, though the gales blew and rain wracked down with endless force, she was in no danger. She knew where firm footing lay, and where the only place she wanted to be was.

“I think that’s the last of them,” Sarah said as she closed the thousand eyes of the seeking spell she’d cast. “Greenglim is now empty of all living creatures larger than bacteria.”

“Not bad,” Cynthia said looking up from the datalog she’d been recording the new arrivals on. “We made it with three days to spare.”

“We’ll have to let Greenglim’s world spirits know they can proceed with the cleansing sooner than expected,” Tam said, stepping through the portal she’d been holding open between Greenglim and one of the Earth’s ever green mystical realms.

“They’re going to be at it for a thousand years though aren’t they?” Cynthia asked. “Is a few days going to matter much?” She was partially covered in mud, with smoke streaks across her face and a hairstyle that could easily be mistaken for an overly large bird’s nest.

Tam felt her heart flutter across a beat, and suppressed a goofy smile at just how wonderful it still felt getting to spend their time together. An answering smile that wrinkled the corners of Cynthia’s eyes spoke volumes about how much trust it had taken to go through with a plan that had seen everyone on Earth spend at least a moment as nothing more than ash drifting in the breeze.

The only thing more beautiful than that sort of trust was the lingering knowledge that their faith in each other had been rewarded. Neither had left the other, they’d both made it back, each calling to the other even after their bodies had burned away.

Tam couldn’t say that they’d been the first two to wish each other back into the world. There were plenty of people around the world who either understand how to channel the divine power the High One had bathed the Earth in, or who simply loved someone else so stronlgy that their hearts demanded a miracle and in the presence of all that divine power had been able to make it happen.

With hundreds of billions of souls throughout all the Earthly realms, there were an uncountable number who’d chosen to retain their hold on the world and had called out to the others who’d been lost. From one voice to another, the call had risen. Earth and the realms of its imagination, be they dark or light, kind or cruel, solid or ephemeral, all of them had chosen to defy the fate the High One intended for them and to forge a new future.

It was an event unparalleled since the first burst of light created a realm of space and time for the Earth to occupy, and some small part of it still lived on inside everyone who had been part of it. In being recreated, each person had glimpsed the primal majesty which underlay all of creation. There were as many ways of processing that knowledge as there were people and the days they lived, but in so many cases it inspired hope and sparked a new kindness that Tam could believe she and her fellow Earthlings had become something more than they’d been before.

It hadn’t started with a kiss, and it wouldn’t end with one – because the whole point was that the Earth wasn’t going to end – but returning to find herself one of the first humans to draw breath again, and having that breath stolen away by Cynthia’s kiss had been a kind of magic that Tam knew no spell she ever cast would ever come close to equaling.

Repeating would have been nice of course, but, as usual, the moment they’d parted to drink in the sight of each other, duty had called and the billions of souls from distant and amazing worlds had needed tending to.

“I can handle the Greenglim folks,” Sarah said. “Both the World Spirits and our new friends here, if you two would like a little time off?”

“That would be wonderful!” Tam said. “But…”

Because there is always a “but”.

“But we’re already booked up for the rest of the day,” Cynthia said.

“Yeah, I told you teaching would be a tough gig,” Jim said, tossing each of them a set of keys.

Sara blinked as Tam jingled the key ring appreciatively.

“Do teachers normally drive DeLoreans or do you have some time traveling to do?” she asked.

“No time traveling with these,” Jim said, “But they do have an Oscillation Overthruster in them.”

“A what?” Sarah asked.

“Really? You get the Back to the Future reference but not Buckaroo Banzai?” Jim asked.

“Buck-a-who?” Sarah asked, looking to Tam and Cynthia for a clue.

“Next time you’re up for an old sci-fi film that’s over the top and really fun, let me know, cause you’ve got a great one to look forward to” Jim said. “The important reference point here though is that where back to the Future involved time travel and we do not want to uncork that genie from its bottle since it could, you know, destroy all of time and space, Buckaroo Banzai instead involved crossing over to parallel dimensions. Or as we call them, Earth’s different mystical realms, since ‘dimensions’ and the physics of the material world don’t really work like Hollywood needs them to.”

“And this is relevant to that pair of DeLoreans how?” Sarah asked, looking intrigued to hear the answer.

“Short form? Have a ton of free and self-renewing energy in the world solves a whole lot of problems, including offering technological solutions to things you could only do with magic before,” Jim said. “Things like traveling directly from one realm to another.”

“Wait, so you can drive back to the material world with these?” Sarah asked.

“You can drive anywhere with these,” Jim said, looking justifiably proud of himself before amending his statement. “Well, almost anywhere. And there are some places you can go that you probably shouldn’t. I tried to seal the interiors as well as I could but there’s still limits to the sort of environments they can withstand.

“So don’t drive them into one of the lava realms?” Tam said.

“Yeah, that would probably be a bad idea,” Jim said. “In fact anywhere without normal air? Probably not a great place to visit. The cars can survive brief exposure to almost anything but better to get back on solid ground and breathable air as soon as you can.”

“Two questions,” Sarah said. “Why do they need world walking cars and how do I get one?”

“It’s our teaching gigs,” Cynthia said.

“We have a lot of new people here, and they need help fitting in or helping us find a place where they can,” Tam said.

“But you can world walk on your own,” Sarah said. “I mean you just held a portal open that was large enough to pass a moon through.”

“Portals can cause problems,” Jim said. “According to James, there always a chance of unseen things passing through any portal that’s opened. Doesn’t even need to be malicious things to cause trouble either. Open a portal between Beijing and New York City and each side gets the others germs, which can be less than fun.”

“Also, these are meant to be for people who don’t have the magic casting skills we’ve developed,” Tam said. “It’s not enough that everyone came together to save the world, we either have to work on staying connected or we’re going to drift back into the kind of isolation that could have destroyed us.”

“Tam makes a good test pilot for one of the prototypes since if it breaks down, she’ll be able to get home without a problem,” Cynthia said.

“That makes sense, but what about you?” Sarah asked.

“She’s an even better test pilot since she doesn’t have any experience with spell casting, so her driving one proves out that the design isn’t drawing on the driver’s subconscious magical knowledge.”

“But what if she gets stuck somewhere?” Sarah asked.

“That’s not a problem,” Cynthia said.

“I can hear her no matter where she is, if she calls my name,” Tam said.

“Even across the realms?” Sarah asked,

“Across the everything,” Tam said.

“How?” Sarah asked.

“I called out to her when we were nothing more than burning embers,” Cynthia said.

“And when we came back, we came back together,” Tam said. “Any other separation is pretty trivial by comparison.”

“In answer to your other question,” Jim said. “Your keys are waiting back on my workbench. I have to fix one of the injectors in your Dimensional Manifold and you’ll be ready to roll.”

“I don’t have to start teaching to get one though do I?” Sarah asked.

“You’re working with the Border Patrol aren’t you?” Tam asked.

“Yeah, the new one,” Sarah said. “With all the new people from foreign worlds we’ve got wandering about,  it’s pretty easy for some of them to wander off the proviable edge of the world and wind up in realms they never intended to travel to. If they like it there that’s great! But not everyone is a fan of falling into burning hellscapes, as it turns out. Those of us who are familiar with the different realms are volunteering our time to rescue all the lost and missing people we can find. And to help the people who do want to try crossing into a new realm. So I guess I kind of am in teaching job too?”

“That’s related to what I’m going to be doing,” Cynthia said. “Earth’s atmosphere is great for us now, but some of the people from other world’s have different respiratory or other environmental needs. A whole bunch of people from my Fire Company are volunteering to teach folks how to work in environments that are dangerous to them.”

“I wonder if we’re going to be able to do enough?” Sarah asked. “There’s so many people just on Earth alone now, and we’re making contact with new worlds every day!”

“That’s part of what I’m tackling,” Tam said. “We’re a popular spot for other worlds to connect with now so we’re seeing a lot of immigrants, but at the same time we’re seeing a lot of people who lived their whole lives with no idea that there were other worlds out there suddenly feeling the itch to go out and explore the cosmos. Whether they’re immigrating or emigrating, there are always things people need to know about their destination and often the best sources for one group come from the other, so making those connections between people and having them document the information they’re trading so that everyone has access to it is going to go a long way towards realizing a piece of Charlene’s ultimate vision.”

“I thought this was Charlene’s vision?” Sarah said. “I mean, she knew the kind of calamity we were facing, wasn’t just having us here afterwards the goal she was shooting for?”

“I think that was only part of the goal,” Tam said. “Survival is the most basic of needs. Creatures will do almost anything to survive. Charlene wanted us to be more than that though. I think she felt that all us, human, spirit, everything that can be called an “Earthling” were ready to grow up I guess.”

“Sort of like when you first leave home as a kid and find there’s a great big world out there and you’ve got a place in it?”

“Yeah,” Tam said. “Except I think it’s more than just discovering a broad context to our lives. I think part of what she was hoping we would do is create the connections that can make not only our world but all the worlds around us better places to live.  Tyrants breed division and conflict between the divided groups because in closing ourselves off from each other we become smaller and easier for them to control. Charlene wanted us to go beyond that. She didn’t ask us to fight tyrants, she just asked that we take in those who were oppressed, and in doing that show them, and show ourselves, that we’re so much more than we ever imagined we could be.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 12 – Act 1

Anna sat with an angel and she was not afraid. It wasn’t the angel she was used to chatting with, which might have inspired a degree of concern, but against the backdrop of a warm and lovely day, and while surrounded a veritable horde of friends and allies, Anna found that she was able to relax and unwind as she sipped the drink the angel had brought.

“For a world which experienced an extinction level event, things are rather busy today it seems,” Jacqueline, the Guardian Angel, said. She gestured to the various people racing hither and thither in the space outside Anna’s office.

“We’re creatures of habit,” Anna said. “Yesterday changed the world, quite literally, and we are all trying to catch up with what that means.”

“But you must have had somethings in place already,” Jacqueline said. “It was your plan after all wasn’t it?”

“The broad strokes followed the scheme we setup,” Jen said. “The exact details though played out in a million different ways.”

“Not to mention the new relationships we have with all of the worlds which watched the final conflict,” Zoe said, as she threaded her fingers through Anna’s hand. Their wedding rings gleamed together as Zoe rested her other hand over Anna’s as well. “It turns out that apocalypses can reset a lot of expectations and cast one’s values into a whole new light.”

“Most of our work now is about managing those new relationships and helping them grow,” Anna said, offering Zoe a contented smile. “The Earth has a new beginning to work from, and new friends and allies. We’re sure to make mistakes, but we have a lot of history to draw on to help us avoid repeating at least some of the worst ones.”

“Charlene will be so pleased to hear you are doing well,” Jacqueline said.

“She really can’t come back?” JB asked.

“No, but she did want me to give you this,” Jacqueline said, and handed Anna an ornate scroll, sealed with a perfect circle of a clear crystalline substance.

“She’d mentioned before she left that you might show up afterwards,” Anna said. “I gather there’s some question about judging the work she did?”

“That’s my official reason for visiting this world, yes,” Jacqueline said, taping a sip of her drink. “I’m supposed to decide if your world is still in need of isolation and oversight.”

“But there’s more on your mind than that?” Jen asked. With the magic that suffused the world, her clockwork arms were more mobile and responsive than ever but she had leaned into the aesthetic even further so that small puffs of steam escaped and tiny lights flashed as she reoriented her fingers to sip from the glass in front of her.

The wine was good – heavenly if one were feeling in the mood for wordplay – but it was the aura peace Jacqueline radiated which felt like the real gift she’d brought.

“I suppose I just had to see for myself the wonders Charlene was talking about,” Jacqueline said.

“There’s plenty of them to see now,” Zoe said. “Everything is so new and fresh that there’s a lot of material world and the realms beyond it that are effectively unexplored terrain.”

“That is a pleasant perk of the renewal you managed to bring about, but the wonder Charlene spoke of is the change in the people of this world.”

“That was what we counted on,” Jen said. “We knew early on what the fate of the Earth was supposed to be.”

“We could have changed it too,” Zoe said. “Which was something we knew the High One wouldn’t be able to accept since to him fate was just another word for how he wished things to be, and he was too used to everything proceeding just as he desired as long as he could see the underpinning of how power was arranged within a world.”

“With that in mind, we were left with selling him and his allies on the notion that someone was going to claim victory over us and the only question was whether they wanted it to be them or someone else,” Jen said. “Once we had them convinced of that, we were able to play around with where we wanted the attacks to come, trying to make the High One’s forces focus on the areas that offered the most potential to resist the divine wrath he was going to throw at us.”

“We still lost some people, but they went down fighting,” Zoe said.

“And some were able to come back,” Anna said.

“Yes, the ones who chose to,” Jacqueline said.

“Do you know where the others are?” JB asked. “The people who didn’t make it back with the rest of us?”

“Yes. I do,” Jacqueline said, with a conciliatory smile.

“By spreading the fighting out as much as possible, we made sure as many people saw the kind of things that would let them believe in miracles and believe in us,” Jen said. “That’s what let us turn things around in the end.”

“It’s quite impressive. A whole world full of miracles, and its still standing. It’s unprecedented,” Jacqueline said. “How did you teach so many people at once I wonder?”

“We didn’t,” Anna said. “All it took was one of us to make the right miracle happen and everything else followed from there.”

“And what miracle was that?” Jacqueline asked.

“When the divine fire burned us, we were, for a brief moment, one with the force of creation. We didn’t have to perform a miracle at that point. All we needed to do was remind one another that we were already miracles,” Anna said. “Every day, with every breath we take, we are so unlikely, so impossible to replicate, such a collection of wonders that there’s no other term that can describe us better.”

“The High One tried to drown us in destruction, but in destroying what was, all he accomplished was to make room for what may someday be,” Jen said.

“And since this is our world, we’re the ones who get to chose what that someday is going to look like,” Zoe said.

“You in this room?” Jacqueline asked.

“No,” Anna said. “Even if we could, none of us would want that.”

“It’s impractical too,” Zoe said. “The material world alone is far to vast for any one group to control.”

“Most importantly though, having a single group, or worse a single person, in charge of everything is exactly what we were fighting against,” Jen said. “We don’t need one great and important figure in charge. We need everyone to have a part in determining what kind of world this is. The only reason we survived was because people saw all of the different ways we could be and all the different kinds of people who were out there. Without the ability to connect with each other like that, we never could have come together to bring our world back.”

“With that many voices, you will find disharmony and strife though,” Jacqueline said. “How do plan to deal with that?”

“Disharmony and strife aren’t inherently bad,” Anna said. “If people have the tools to moderate their disagreements, and return to a basis of mutual respect, disagreements can lead to deeper understandings on both parts.”

“The mutual part of that is important,” Jen said. “After what we’ve been through, people are a bit more open and accepting than they were, but there will be a lot of challenges going forward.”

“And how will you deal with those who oppose this change entirely?” Jacqueline asked. “Not everyone can be happy that the old world has been washed away.”

“No, not everyone is,” Anna said. “There are plenty of people already who are trying to reorganize those around them into the social structures they are familiar with the most.”

“In the last twelve hours, we’ve got hundreds of reports of would be proto-tyrants popping up and trying to reassert their old authority, or claim new control over people,” Zoe said. “It’s what’s keeping the Club’s associates so busy.”

“You are going to depose them as well?” Jacqueline asked.

“For the moment we’re focusing on getting the people they’re trying to oppress the information and support they need,” Anna said.

“And if violence breaks out?” Jacqueline asked.

“We’ll look for whatever answers are available,” Anna said.

“That might include responding in kind to the violence,” Jen said. “People have the right to make whatever choices they want with their lives, but we’re not going to let one group prey upon another. Genocide is no one’s right.”

“It sounds like you have your answers thought out,” Jacqueline said.

“We don’t,” Anna said. “We have some guiding principles, but we can’t know the answer to all of the situations that we’re going to face.”

“What about the situations you’ve already faced?” Jacqueline asked. “What is to become of those you set as your foes in this struggle?”

“That’s a mixed story,” Anna said.

“The Pure One High Command and the Preserver Leadership who remained on their homeworld are both claiming victory with images of the Ashen Earth to back them up,” Jen said. “We’re leaving the doors open for any more refugees who want to flee from their grip but the flow will be slowed for a while until word gets out that we’re still here and still welcoming the.”

“The troops who we saved from the High One’s final culling of souls prior to his ultimate strike, have generally undergone crisis of conscience in varying degrees,” Zoe said. “Some have petitioned for asylum already, and others had returned home. The rest are taking advantage of our amnesty offer to remain here until they are sure which direction they want to go.”

“And the High One?” Jacqueline asked. “What have you done with the god who destroyed your world?”

“Sadly, we didn’t carve him up and pass him out to everyone,” Zoe said.

“That is a typical use for a defeated god,” Jacqueline said. “By consuming the flesh of the divine, a measure of their power can be attained.”

“This world has seen enough of the High One’s power,” Anna said. “No, we let those he wronged be his judge and jury.”

“The High One poured far more power into the Earth than we needed to recreate ourselves and the rest of the planet,” Jen said. “We have an incredible surplus of magic still, and it seems to be growing rather than shrinking so it wasn’t hard to share the extra with the souls of those he’d sacrificed.”

“Ah, so you allowed them to be his executioners,” Jacqueline said, a note of sad understanding in her voice.

“Not at all,” Anna said. “He’s not dead.”

“What happened to him?” Jacqueline asked. “Where is he?”

“Right here,” Anna said, pointing to a small snow globe on her desk.

“I don’t feel anything from him,” Jacqueline said with an awed look on her face. The angel scrutinized the globe with eyes which looked far past its physical form.

“He’s turned entirely inwards,” Anna said. “They took his need to dominate others, his endless hunger and desire to be supreme and wrapped it around him. Now when he looks at his cage, he sees it as someone trying to escape his control. When he pushes for his freedom, he feels like someone is denying him what he is due. At every moment he feels all of the oppression he would chose to inflict on others, every ounce his will bearing down on them, making them feel smaller and less worthy, and the more he struggles against it, the stronger his prison becomes.”

“But that means that there remains a path out for him does it not?” Jacqueline asked.

“Yeah,” Jen said. “All he needs to do to be free is to truly and completely give up the desire to rule over others. If he can find true humility, and a true willingness to let others be as they are, then the walls that hold him in won’t exist anymore.”

“And until then, he gets to enjoy a hell all of his own making,” Zoe said.

“So the question remains, how will you judge us?” Anna asked. “Charlene said you might become our new Guardian if you thought it was appropriate.”

“I do not,” Jacqueline said with a shake of her head. “You will have no Guardian because you no longer need a Guardian. Charlene was right. You have grown, and you have proven that you can stand on your own. You will stumble, and you will fall. There will be terrible dangers and tragedies to come, but so too will there be victories and new beginnings. You stand on the edge of a new era, one with far greater responsibilities than you have known, one which will demand far more of you than has ever been asked before, but I believe Charlene was right. It is time for you to take that step. You are ready and you are everything she hoped you would be.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 11 – Act 4

The High One sat on his throne above the world, saw his forces falling in defeat in battle after battle, and felt joy radiating through his heart.

“Tell me what you see,” the High One said, addressing the Spider Goddess who stood by his side.

“The Earth resists your invasion,” Aranea said. “You are fought on every front, and by more defenders than you could have foreseen or accounted for.”

“Yes. That is exactly what is happening,” the High One said, his joy undiminished. “And will they succeed?”

“No. They will not.”

The High One’s smile deepened. Even the Earthly goddess could see that he held all the cards.

Standing to the side, a stone statue that had once been an angel looked on him with mute lips and a disapproving gaze. There was no menace in it however. The Potestates could never return to the Earth. The High One had been precise in his banishment. She could neither see what he was doing, nor hear his final pronouncement of the Earth’s fate. There were no corridors left open for her to send help to her former protectorate.

On reflection, the High One wished circumstances could have setup otherwise, but the Potestates had been too big a variable to be allowed to remain free. She could have tarnished the work he planned.

It would have been so nice for her to see the devastation he was going to inflict on the Earth though. Of all the creatures crawling on that miserable rock, surely she was the one most deserving of that of suffering, and the one most capable of understanding how complete his victory was going to be.

It was ok though. He would content himself with knowing that all of the other worlds the Earthlings had reached out to were watching the struggle unfold and would see, with perfect clarity, what it meant to blaspheme against his holy self.

Below the High One’s throne atop Earth’s celestial sphere, the battles for its fate raged on. A thousand at a time, his allies forces continued to fall, and from each soldier who fought in the High One’s name a light arose to streak upwards and join the other which swirled around the High One’s throne.

***

Anna stood flanked by librarians, and two researchers, but her words echoed as though the greatest army the world had ever seen was arrayed at her back.

“Surrender,” she said, offering Supreme Marshal Penk and his forces a second chance at survival.

“Why would we possibly do that,” Penk asked. “You don’t have anywhere near the forces to contest with us.”

“We are not your enemy,” Anna said. “Surrender now, or the High One is going to harvest your souls to fuel his cleansing of the Earth.”

It was the third time she offered the Pure Ones a path out of their fate, and it would be the last time such an offer was extended.

“That’s ridiculous,” Penk said. “He needs us as much as we need him. Without our forces, his attack would be trivial for you to undo. You’ve faced his might before, and he knows it.”

“We have,” Tam said, stepping through a portal of smoke and fire with Jen to appear beside Connie on Anna’s right. “But it was far from trivial.”

“He wounded our planet with his first attack,” Connie said

“And his second one required turning to another world for help to survive,” Tam said.

“The Earth is cut off from the other worlds now,” Anna said. “You have us blockaded, so there’s no reprieve to be found there.”

“But do you know what it cost the High One the last time he attacked us?” Connie asked.

“His people died by the billions in a sacrifice to his ego,” Tam said. “He weakened his own power base immeasurably out of nothing more than spite for us, and to unleash another attack he’d need even more power than he used the last time.”

“So tell me, where do you think he intends to get that power? And, on a purely unrelated note, how much value do you believe he places on your lives?” Anna asked.

“That’s not possible!” Penk said. “He is not a god of our world. He doesn’t have any claim over us. We are Pure!”

“About that,” Waverly, one of the researchers said. “You can ask these fine, and semi-immortal, Librarians here for confirmation, but you do realize that you’re fighting in this conflict in the High One’s name, don’t you?”

The Infinite Librarians nodded as a group, offering confirmation of her words, leaving Penk gasping for words.

“Sir, another one of our cruisers has been destroyed,” one of the Pure One’s techs said.

“The moment we stop fighting, the moment the flow of souls begins to dwindle, he’s going to snatch the rest of you up. All of you,” Anna said.

“This is a lie,” Penk said, but the haunted look in his eyes told a different story.

“You see the soul shards rising from your fallen warriors,” Tam said. “None are rising from the ones we’ve lost though. You know why that is. You know who is gathering up your dead. Who’s corrupting them and turning them into a tool for his own ends.”

“Sir, communique from the High One’s command,” the Pure One tech said. “He wants to know why the fighting has slowed.”

Silence reigned on the bridge for a long moment in the wake of those words.

The High One wasn’t supposed to be monitoring the battle directly. At least not as far as Supreme Ambassador Penk knew.

“How will surrendering help?” his tone was defiant and disparaging, but he stood with no resolve in his spine. The truth had eaten it away and on some level he clearly knew the doom which await himself and the rest of his people.

“If you forswear the High One’s cause and ally yourself with us, you won’t be a part of his dominion any longer,” Tam said. “He won’t be able to lay a claim to your souls, like he can right now.”

“We can’t turn against him though,” Penk said. “He will destroy us.”

“Yes. He will,” Anna said.

A new portal appeared. The last to open before the end. Through it stepped Sarah, and Val, and Ambassador Brams.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Brams said. “Better that he destroys us at this point.”

“What do you mean?” Penk asked turning to face his temporary ally. The one he’d planned on betraying the moment the fighting was done. The one who was the closest thing he had to a friend anywhere in the reality he found himself trapped in.

“As long as you’re allied with the High One it’s not just your forces here who are fighting in his name, and who fall under his dominion,” Val said.

“All of our people, everyone we left behind, everyone who has supported us, the High One can claim all of them,” Brams said.

“And he will,” Anna said. “That was his plan all along.”

“But he can’t win without us,” Penk said. “He needs us.”

“No he doesn’t,” Val said.

“He already knows he’s going to win,” Tam said.

“And so do you,” Anna said.

“How…?” Penk attempted to maintain a stoic expression but as the blood drained from his face, a sea of despair replaced it.

“The fate of the Earth. You’ve seen it haven’t you?” Anna asked. “You know there’s no avoiding what’s to come.”

“Which means all the High One has to worry about is where his grand plan will place him when the appointed moment arrives,” Tam said.

“And that moment is getting very close,” Jen said. “Any second now he’s going to sense the change in the tempo of the fighting, and then he will act with all the inevitability of an asteroid impacting the Earth.”

“Why would you do this?” Penk asked.

“Our plan didn’t call for this moment. Not originally,” Anna said. “The most sensible path was to allow the High One to claim all of you. To destroy the cancerous civilizations you have built.”

“That was what looked sensible and safe, but we knew we could do better, that we could be better, than that,” Jen said.

“Anyone can be given a second chance, but you have to want to change,” Val said.

“You have to be open to admitting you were wrong, and be willing to start over,” Tam said.

“It’s up to you,” Anna said. “Take my hand if you want to follow a new path. We don’t offer any safety or security. It may not save you at all. But it is the right thing to do.”

“I…I don’t know if I can,” Penk said.

“I will,” the comm tech said, pushing her leader aside. “I have family back home.”

“I will too,” the navigation officer said. “I don’t care if we die. If this saves the man I love then that’s good enough for me.”

“We do as well,” Brams said. “Though it’s not like we had much choice. They have allies Penk.”

“Yes, the billions from Greenglim. We knew of them.”

“No. Far more than that,” Brams said. “Every refugee, every one they’ve given asylum to, more than we could have counted or imagined, they’re all standing with the Earthlings. We backed them into a corner and thought they’d give up, but they rose together. We were afraid of their guardian angel but we should have been fearful of the ones she was protecting us from.”

Penk laughed.

“All that against us, and yet still the High One is going to win,” he said. “Even if we unite with them, we know what will happen. We’re either fuel for the High One’s rage or victims of his malice. The Earth came together to stop us, but all their efforts are going to be in vain and take us with them.”

“We’re at the end,” Anna said. “It’s now or never. Take that one last leap. In the face of armageddon, in the face of a god’s wrath, do the one thing that seems impossible but is still within your grasp and have faith. Believe in us.”

***

The battle in the heavens and on the Earth below had turned. Across the mystic realms fires burned as pyres to mark the failure of the High One’s forces.

Above his throne though an ocean of souls as wide as the cosmos hung suspended. All the potential of every life that was lost swirled above the High One’s head as a storm fierce enough to tear asunder the fabric reality was built upon.

“Ah well, the time has come at last,” the High One said. “This has been fun but the Earthlings have had enough time to build up their hopes that they might turn the tide today. Fate must have its due though and so now they get to see the only thing left for them is despair.”

BURN

In the beginning there was darkness in the heavens and then came the word, and the word was the end of everything.

***

When the High One’s fire touched Supreme Marshal Penk he felt true purity at last. Pure, rarified, deified rage. The spark which landed on him did more than set his flesh on fire, it burned away at his essence.

Drowning in the agony of divine judgment, his eyes were opened for perhaps the first time in his life. The flames catapulted him to the end of the road the Pure Ones had spent their years racing down.

In an unendurable instant of pain, Penk saw everything the High One was. The absolute rejection of anyone lesser than himself and the absolute belief that everyone else was lesser.

And past all the pain, past the ego, and the rage, deep in the heart of High One’s inner truth, the cold serpent of ego forever devouring itself to appease an appetite which could never be satisfied with any amount of power, or worship, or dominion over others.

The High One had perfect purity because his hunger was the hunger of a void, an eternal emptiness where love, and self reflection, and compassion should have been.

He’d made himself into Penk’s vision of perfection, a truly Pure Soul, by removing everything which could have made him a person, everything which could have redeemed him.

Penk laughed as the world he was in ended in fire. Everything he’d done had been so blind and only when it was far too late, when his eye were dust and ash, only then could he finally see.

***

The High One felt the drain on his power as magics of the Earth fought against him, but he had plenty of power to spare and so the divine fires poured down refusing to be extinguished.

***

Anna burned as she’d always known she would. The fires from the heavens reduced the world to ash but flickered for an instant when they met the Winter inside her.

For all that she cherished her multicultural lifestyle, Anna was still as proud a daughter of the northern snows as she had been as a child. It had taken her a lifetime to discover the warmth inside her, but the frost? That had been there from the beginning. It was the armor the world couldn’t see, though sometimes others could hear it all too clearly in her voice.

Against that preternatural chill, the High One’s rage floundered for an instant. Anna was no deity, no cosmic power, but for a moment even the High One had to recognize how formidable she was.

Then all was ash and dust.

***

There was more resistance than the High One had expected, but that was ok. He was assured of victory. Any cost was worth it.

***

Tam’s mastery over the mystic arts was unparalleled on Earth. She’d pushed her talent father and harder than anyone else had ever dared go, but it still wasn’t enough to overcome the High One’s final gambit.

Instead of fighting the fire, she threw her arms open to it, drawing it into herself freely in a move that surprised but didn’t concern the High One.

Across the world, another heart burned in time with Tam’s and together they turned to dust.

***

The gathered souls of the High One’s fallen troops were long since expended, their power somehow sinking down into hidden depths. That didn’t stop him though. He had personal power left. Enough to finish the world before him. Enough to be supreme. That was all that mattered.

***

Val didn’t have ice or magic to fight the High One’s fire with. She wasn’t magical, aside from carrying enchantments which were long since exhausted and far too weak to stand against the High One’s assault.

In her heart she carried the love of an absent goddess, not as a talisman against misfortune, but as a reminder of the incredible life she’d led.

There’d been hard knocks and beautiful blessings, moment’s Val would treasure forever and ones she couldn’t wait to forget.

Val’s journey into the fire was the hardest of them all though, because where Val herself felt nothing but the divine power burning through her, she left behind someone was all too aware of her passing.

***

And so it was finally done.

The High One could barely raise his head, or rise from his knees, but below him the Earth was nothing more than a dead ball of ash.

He was alone. And supreme.

He’d had to consume everyone around him to finish it. All of their lives and all of his power. It didn’t matter though. He was supreme and there was no one left to challenge him, to make him feel like he was lesser. Like he didn’t deserve the privileges he held.

“Oh, but you’re not entirely alone,” Aranea whispered in his nearly mortal ear.

Fear.

The High One no longer burned.

He froze.

He had made a mistake.

A terrible mistake.

He had drawn the souls and power from all those around him, except he’d forgotten that the spider goddess wasn’t his to consume. She was the last vestige of Earth, the last piece he had planned to destroy once his victory was complete so that no remnant of that world would remain.

“I am victorious,” the High One said, trying to trap the spider goddess in a web of fresh lies.

It wasn’t his best idea ever.

“I could kill you now,” Aranea said. “It was one of my plans. When we got to this moment, or maybe before, I thought I might eat you. A part of me still wants to, but I think this will be a better fate.”

She gestured to draw his attention to the wide vista before them where the Earth hung dark and dead against a field of stars.

“I think you’ve had enough time to build your hopes up that you’re going to be able to win today,” Aranea said. “Now let’s show you what hope really looks like.”

***

From the surface of the Earth a tiny spark began to rise.

As the globe spun another spark flickered to life.

Across the boiled ocean, another flared. And then another.

One by one, to a thousand by a thousand, to millions, and then billions at once, the Earth was bathed in a divine radiance the High One had no control over.

Clouds appeared.

Green flashed beneath the shower of lights as the forests and jungles of Earth were restored, rising like a phoenix from their ashes. From the blasted soil, vegetation of every variety, including one’s never before seen on the Earth surged to life.

White settled down on the polar caps where snow and ice refroze from steam hot water vapor against all the rules of entropy.

In the vast spaces between the continent, the blue oceans refilled churning with mystery and life and cleaner than they had been in centuries.

The most impossible thing in the High One’s eyes though were the cities.

Not even rubble had been left. He’d specifically pressed his fires to burn every inch of concrete and every ounce of steel. There was to be no mark of the Earthlings left for anyone to remember them by.

And yet underneath the soft white clouds, he saw cities, vast and beautiful sprawling across the world and teeming with life!

The material world wasn’t alone either. In each of the mystical realms the High One’s diminished vision could penetrate he saw the same transformations taking place. Where death and emptiness should have reigned, life and joy were exploding everywhere.

And more than the Earth bore witness to the changes. All the other worlds had been watching too! They all were seeing the same things the High One was!

The Earth’s renewal.

It’s rise from the ashes.

And his failure.

“What…what is happening?” the High One begged, unable to process what he was seeing.

“A Second Chance,” Aranea said. “It’s what they do. It’s what they’ve been teaching everyone give each other this whole time. Did you really not foresee this?”

“But how?” the High One wailed.

“A miracle,” Anna said, her rising spark reaching the High One’s command bridge as she stepped back into the body she knew so well.

“More like billions of miracles,” Tam said, as she resumed her human form as well.

“This is all thanks to you,” Val said. “You gathered a force to unite everyone we’d brought together and they you showed them what a miracle looked like.”

“Did you really think we wouldn’t take that wonder and make it our own?” Sarah asked.

“We’re human. It’s what we do,” Connie said.

“Only we’re trying to be better than just that,” Jen said. “In the past we might have kept those miracles for ourselves.”

“We would have turned them inwards and sought dominion with that power just like you did.” Anna said.

“Instead though, we decided we were going to share this chance at a new world,” Tam said.

“And not just with the people who fled to our world for aid,” Val said. “We gave the power that we just took from you to all the spirits of all the people you killed to get it.”

“And they would like a word with you,” Aranea said as the sky around the High One blazed with the light of billions of souls who had one last thing they wanted to take care of before moving on.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 11 – Act 3

Supreme Marshal Penk was pleased. The assaults across the Earth’s mystical realms were proceeding exactly according to plan. He had known they would of course. They were his plans, so of course they were superlative ones, but more than that he’d seen the skein of fate that was woven for the Earthlings. He knew how and where each of them would fall, and he knew the glory his victory would bring.

There had been costs for their victory of course. Penk’s plasma charred hand was the most grievous in Penk’s estimation but the loss of personnel would have to be played as the greater sacrifice when he addressed the people back home. Those who died would be given the recognition they’d had been denied in life as Penk spoke to their bravery, their determination, and most importantly, their Purity.

Spoke of those qualities in a generalized manner. Perhaps if one or two had no remaining family it would be worth elevating them as noteworthy martyrs to the cause, but the hero of the affair would and must be Penk himself.

His wound was a blessing in that sense. He would allow one photo of himself carrying his burned limb to circulate just as soon as the injury was fully repaired. People who see that he had give the war his all, but been restored by the power of his purity. They would hail him as a new…

“Jellyfish monster approaching from below,” one of his senior comm tech’s cut in, interrupting Penk’s train of thought.

Everywhere, the Pure Ones and their allies were pressing forward, overrunning or pushing out the Earth’s defenders. The invasion of the mystical sunken city was progressing in much the same manner, but for each step forward the Pure One’ pushed, no defenders arose to fight for the sunken city. It was annoying, if also predicted and accounted for.

“Report when the Electro-Netting had secured the creature,” Penk reported.

“Electro-Netting has been deployed sir,” the comm tech said. “The creature is still rising though.”

“That shouldn’t be possible,” Penk said. “We should be shocking that thing to the point where it can’t think straight.”

“The net does not seem to have landed on it,” the comm tech said. “I’m getting reports from the weapons team that the net is moving away from the creature.”

“It has homing drones to carry it to where it’s supposed to be! How did they miss with it?” Penk demanded, incensed that his meticulous instructions had not been followed exactly. Whoever was responsible for that lapse was going to return home as ash if Penk had anything to say about it.

“The drones have been disabled,” the comm tech said. “The net is being dragged away to allow the Jellyfish to continue it’s approach.

That wasn’t right. Penk knew what the chains of destiny were for the Earth. He’d even scryed the fates of the major actors in the battles and the Jellyfish hadn’t been slated to receive any aid.

Penk felt a surge of cold fear twist in his bowels. Did he have a backup plan, he wondered?

Of course he did. The Jellyfish was as large as a small town. The Electro-Net had been designed to incapacitate the creature but ultimately it had to burn, just like all other Earthly life. Had Penk been a trusting man, he could have relief on the High One’s divine wrath to cleanse the Earth and its realms, but Penk knew better than to trust such an impure being.

So he’d brought his own fire.

“Launch Annihilation torpedos, full salvo, hold back none of our reserves,” Penk commanded. “We’ll reconnect with Brams forces for a resupply after this ‘Atlantis’ falls. Our advance cannot falter. Destiny says we win this battle within the hour.”

“Sir? I’m getting a communique from Ambassador Brams forces,” the comm tech said.

“From his forces? Why isn’t he calling us directly?” It was inconceivable that the Preserver commander had been lost in battle. Fate dictated that they won, and none of the assault force’s commanders were foolish enough to take any risks which might leave them too crippled to enjoy their victory, must less carry the risk of actual death. The only explanation was that Brams was speaking through his underlings as a sign of disrespect.

That was fine. Penk was going to arrange for Brams to die anyway. If Brams gave Penk a better reason to proactively strike out at the Preservers then so much the better.

“Pure One Strategic, this is Preserver Central Ops, do you read us, over.”

“Preserver Ops? Where is your leader?” Penk asked, not bothering to hide the annoyanc in his voice.

“Pure One Strategic, we are experiencing unexpected resistance,” the unknown officer said, ignoring Penk’s questions. Penk was ready to demand Bram’s whereabouts until the next thing the officer said frozen him to the bone. “Our senior command is lost and our forward positions are being overrun.”

“What?” Penk couldn’t form a coherent thought longer than that.

“Senior command has lost contact. Ambassador Brams is not responding to queries. Be advised, we are looking at a tactical withdrawal at this time.”

“No! That’s impossible!” Penk shouted. “We don’t have time for that. The assault must conclude within the hour. We are on the cusp of victory. Do not withdraw!”

Penk’s thoughts were spinning. How could their attack have even been slowed, much less stopped or reversed?

“Pure One Strategic, be advised, withdrawal is non-optional. Enemy forces are too numerous and we do not have the equipment or manpower to withstand them.”

“That’s absurd! We know exactly how many humans there are in the physical realm, and we know what their capabilities are. All of this has been accounted for.”

Penk waited for a response but heart an explosion over the communication channel. When the Pure One officer spoke again he was less composed than he had been.

“Listen, we have no damn contingencies in place for these things, and it’s not just the humans. We’ve got things coming in here with four legs, and six, and eight. We’ve got people who look like you Pure Ones except wearing Earth uniforms. And we’ve got humans. All kinds of humans.”

“What are they doing?” Penk whispered as pieces of his perfect future began to flake away revealing the horrible mistake that lay beneath that illusory facade.

“They’re coming at us from all angles,” the Preserver officer said. “We weren’t ready for this. They’re not fighting like we planned.”

“Sir,” the Pure One comm tech said, capturing Penl’s attention away for a moment. “The jellyfish monster is approaching attack range.”

“What?” Penk felt his breath go short and hoarse. How had the monster gotten that close? Hadn’t he ordered Annihilation torpedoes be used against it? Why was it still a problem?

“The Jellyfish monster has risen to be close enough to reach one of our lead ships with its tentacles,” the comm tech said. “The cruiser Perfection is taking evasive action.”

“Have them fire on it!”

“They are firing sir. The creature is being defended.”

“By who?”

“It looks like there are humans there sir. There are roughly 13,000 of them. They were hiding underneath the Jellyfish as it rose.”

“What happened to the Annihilation torpedos? Fire the rest of them. Now!”

“Our full complement of Annihilation torpedos were fired on the first vollet as per your instructions,” the comm tech said.

“What happened to them?” Penk dreaded what the response would be. The Jellyfish was a known issue.

Or it was supposed to be

If it was suddenly revealed to immune to Annihilation torpedos then they’d been wrong in the evaluation of it, which meant they were wrong in their evaluation of the entire assault.

“The humans and their allies captured the torpedos sir. They moved in front of the Jellyfish and apprehended our attack before the missiles cleared a safe range from our ships for detonation.”

“Where are they now?” Penk asked, knowing he wasn’t going to like the answer.

“We don’t know sir. We lost contact with, and control of the missiles the instant they were captured.”

“Pull back then. Tell Perfection to disengage. We’re not withdrawing. Let me make that clear. We are not withdrawing. We are moving to a better tactical position, but we will continue the battle. We must win this fight at any cost!”

“Sir, Perfection is not replying.”

“Tell them this is a direct order.”

“No sir, I don’t think they can reply. The Jellyfish had them.”

“Had them?” Penk asked, his brow knit in confusion.

“Telemetry is showing a cloud of debris at Perfection’s position. The Jellyfish was holding them but then they disappeared in a flash of Em radiation when the creature swung them.”

“EM radiation? What could do that?” Penk asked.

“Well, an Annihilation torpedo could sir,” the tech said. “Background scanning confirms that’s what the blast likely was.”

“Give me a visual on that,” Penk ordered.

A view screen shifted to show a live feed of the disintegrating ship. In the distance, there was another flash as the next nearest ship exploded as well.

“Manual override. Fleet order, detonate all remaining torpedos,” Penk said, unable to believe that no one had do that the instant the torpedos missed their assigned target.

On the view screen, he saw brilliant sparks of light race away from the destroyed ships, all in the same direction, but there were no more explosions.

“We tried that already sir.”

Penk snarled, but his day wasn’t through getting worse.

“Pure One Strategic, be advised, withdrawal has failed,” the Preserver officer said. “Our escape routes are cut off, and we are receiving reports that our forces around the material realm are being neutralized faster than they can report in.”

“How,” Penk said. “How is this all possible.”

“There’s too many of them,” the Preserver officer said. “The humans have too many reinforcements, tree people, and giants, and people who look like the humans but definitely aren’t. And they’re all fighting like madmen.”

“We knew about the Greenglim forces though!” Penk tried to keep from wailing. It was undignified but life wasn’t being fair. This was supposed to be his victory. “There’s billions of them but after the transit they were supposed to be too weak to fight.”

“Well, maybe the problem is that they’re not fighting alone!” the Preserver officer said. “I just shot a human who was wearing one of the trees like some kind of living armor. I don’t think I even killed either one of them. I can hear them burrowing through the ground! I don’t know where they’re going to come up! It could be anywhere! It could be…”

The channel went dead.

From the Sunken City, a new force sallied forth and Penk saw another of his group’s ships vanish in a flash of light followed by that same strange shower of sparks which all rushed away as though flying up to some unknown gathering point in the sky.

“What should we do sir?” The question perplexed Penk. He still had an overwhelming force at his disposal. The loss of Perfection and the other ships was less than 1% of the total he’d brought.

But it was supposed to be an easy win. He’d brought so many troops and so many weapons of war because he didn’t want to have to deal with the battle being a struggle.

Instead he was faced with a conflict that would have a real cost. One that by all rights he should still be able to win. Even with their allies the Earthlings were still outmatched.

Except they shouldn’t even have had a chance at all, and if they managed to make one for themselves, then what were the real odds that they’d being able to craft a victory as well.

Looking at his tactical display, Penk looked for an answer and saw that he had no idea what to do.

“You need to surrender,” Anna said as she stepped through a shimmering golden portal that had formed behind Penk. “You are being used and the High One is going to try to destroy us all. This is the only second chance you’re going to get.”