Author Archives: dreamfarer

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 4

It was a truth universally acknowledged, that an adventuring party in possession of far better things to do must be in want of a quest to squander their time, and resources upon. 

“And what, exactly, might your quest entail?” Tessa asked, mentally crossing her fingers that it wasn’t going to be some variation of an escort quest.

“We need to reclaim our ship,” Yawlorna said. “If we can do that, we can repair it and get the hell out of here.”

The other demons began murmuring among themselves at Yawlorna’s words but none of them took their eyes off Tessa or her party.

“Where does it need to be reclaimed from?” Tessa asked. There were more bad answers to that question than she could count and, given her party’s low level, almost no good ones.

“We do not know,” Yawlorna said.

Of course they don’t, Tessa grumbled on her private line with Lisa.

Don’t what? Lisa asked.

Quest with no known objective point, Tessa said. Those weren’t common anymore, but at one point early on they’d been a tactic the developers experimented with to improve immersion. Some players absolutely loved it, and were virulently against adding quests which offered any actual directions on how to do them. The majority of the playerbase seemed to disagree though.

“Our ship was damaged in the crash and we didn’t have the supplies to repair it,” Yawlorna explained. “Before we could collect what we needed, a raid from what you called the [Sunless Deeps] attacked us. We believe the raiders captured it as it disappeared some time during the battle.”

“How do you lose a whole ship?” Matt asked. “And where could they have taken it?”

“This word you use, ship, it is not exactly right,” Yawlorna said.

“But that’s what you called it?” Matt said.

“No. I said it was a ship,” Yawlorna said.

Uh, what is happening here? Tessa asked.

Translation limitation, Pillowcase said. We are thinking in English, and ‘ship’ is the closest match to the two different words being spoken in Nezzparin, their language.

It sounds like its a bad translation then, Tessa said.

If we focus on the word, the translation threads in our ears will perform a deeper analysis.

Tessa didn’t need to ask Pillowcase for an explanation of what she meant by ‘focus’ or how the deeper analysis would be performed. That knowledge already lived in her head, she just had to remember to recall it.

Pausing for a moment, she replayed Yawlorna’s words and heard, instead of English, the actual tones and syllables Yawlorna had spoken.

‘Ship’ was indeed close, but the word Yawlorna used was closer to ‘Portable Sphere Ship’ and referred to a particular class of vessel which, when traveling, looked like a steampunked up sailing vessel from Tessa’s world, and when at rest collapsed into something that resembled a crystal ball wrapped in bronze.

“I think I understand,” Tessa said. “You meant a ‘ship’, correct?” She was careful to use the more specific variant of the word and saw various people opposite her smile at her use of the proper word.

“Exactly,” Yawlorna said. “We had it guarded of course, but the things that came out of that pit…we barely survived where we had fortifications already installed.”

Tessa, Matt, and Obby explained Yawlorna’s story to the others quickly.

“That might be why they sealed the portal,” Rip said in their party channel.

Alice gave a short laugh.

“That’s probably why they had blood to spare.”

How are you holding up on that front? Tessa asked privately.

It’s not getting worse, Lisa said. It is so tempting to nibble on one of them a bit though.

Probably not the best idea under the circumstances.

I know. I’ll be good. For now anyways, Lisa said, forcing some levity into her voice.

“The forces that took our ship are beyond our ability to pursue, but if you truly cannot be killed, it should be simple for you to face them and recover our ship, no?”

“It depends,” Tessa said.

She weighed the costs and benefits of telling the demons specific details about how adventurers worked. She also weighed how much she could trust that what she knew from the game was still true in this ‘real’ version of the [Fallen Kingdoms].

“You want to charge us some fee? Negotiate a reward up front?” Yawlorna asked, her eyes narrowing at that to pick out whatever subtle trick Tessa might be planning and throw it back at her.

“No fees, no rewards,” Tessa said. “Quest rewards always suck. No, I said it depends, because there are a number of factors which could complicate things.” She continued on quickly as the mood of the assembled demons turned sour. “Factors such as did the people who stole the ship keep it or did they pass it on to someone else? Has it been moved to an area which is only accessible via travel abilities we do not possess yet such as being able to walk through solid stone? Or, worst of all, has it been destroyed, or did the person who took it make the repairs it needed and then pilot it away to another world themselves?”

“You say those as though the search for our ship will be impossible,” Yawlorna said.

“Not impossible. Far from it in fact,” Tessa said. “Just not particularly trivial. Also, there’s the very likely complication that the creatures who stole your ship are more powerful than all of us put together.”

“That’s not possible, you just don’t want to do it,” Hameziz said.

“They are only seven,” Yawlorna said. “If they faced a raid such as we did, they would not be able to withstand it any better than our warriors managed to.”

The demons gave a collective shrug of agreement at that, and some part of Tessa warned her that she should let their misunderstanding of what she’d meant linger.

Another part of her warned her that building any relationship on misunderstandings was a catastrophically bad idea.

And a third part felt like someone, somewhere, was watching her. She glanced around the room, but aside from the demons, only the other members of her party had their eyes on her.

“Your pardon,” she said. “I didn’t mean that the seven of us would be unable to handle some of the things which live in the [Sunless Deeps]. I meant everyone in this room, with fortifications, and the element of surprise, wouldn’t even come close to being able to handle some of things down there.”

“That’s not…” Hameziz began to say but Obby cut him off.

“I think we need to establish a baseline for our capabilities,” she said. “What do you say we do a quick spar? That should demonstrate things clearly enough.”

Hameziz raised an eyebrow and frowned, looking over to Yawlorna for direction.

“If you wish,” she said, directing the comment to Hameziz.

“So, you and me?” Hameziz asked. “What are the rules?”

“Hmm, how about no fatal or disabling blows from me, you’re free to do whatever you want,” Obby said. “We go for a minute, or until one of us gives up? We should know by then about how tough we each are.”

“Weapons?” Hameziz asked.

“Anything you want,” Obby said. “I’ll stick with my gauntlets though. If I use a sword I’ll have to put too much energy into not chopping you up to have any fun with it.”

“You’re serious?” Hameziz said, glancing again to Yawlorna, who nodded once more.

“Not usually,” Obby said. “But this seems fun, and it should cut through a lot of back and forth.”

“Well then, gimme my spear,” Hameziz said. “We’ll test out that immortality thing you’ve got going on.”

“Not likely,” Obby said, rising from her chair.

You sure about this? Tessa asked Obby privately.

Yeah, Obby said, They’re not that high level.

Tessa wasn’t sure how Obby could tell that since none of the demons were showing level indicators near their names, but long term players had a sense for things sometimes.

The first round of the fight was so brief that it barely qualified as a sparring match. Hameziz and Obby approached one another in a cleared out space in the main hall, Hameziz tried to lunge unexpectedly at Obby. Obby caught his spear, pulled him in and hit him so hard in the face that he did a complete summersalt before landing flat on his back.

“That…that was a cheap shot,” he said as Illuthiz and Balegritz helped him to his feet.

“It was, but points for trying it,” Obby said. “If you’re going to fight higher level foes, keep thinking like that, just don’t over commit so much.”

“I didn’t…” Hameziz started to say before Illuthiz poked him. “Well, we’re not done.”

“I hope not!” Obby said and raised her hands in relaxed fists.

The next exchange was more drawn out than the first, though Pillowcase suspected that was largely because Obby wasn’t particularly interested in ending it quickly.

Hameziz thrust with his spear and slid the attack into a nimble parry the moment Obby deflected it and moved it to launch her own attack. They clashed back and forth like that for several passes, with Obby offer commentary as they did.

“Don’t cross your legs when you retreat.”

“Watch for low strikes too.”

“Shove and jump back if you want to create distance.”

They were basic tips for spear fighting and despite Hameziz’s ability to engulf his weapon with the [Flames of Avarice] which suggested mastery of the weapon, he seemed to be benefiting from the instruction.

“Is this really a sparring match?” Yawlorna asked.

“Yes!” Hameziz said, as he corrected his stance as Obby had suggested.

“Not exactly,” Obby admitted.

“I think you’ve made your point,” Yawlorna said.

“I’m not sure about that,” Obby said. “Tell you what. One more round, but this time let’s bring in some more people.”

“You wish to fight with your friends?” Yawlorna said.

“Oh, no! Not on my side,” Obby said. “I mean more to stand with Hameziz.”

“They will likely kill you,” Yawlorna said.

“They won’t which is why I think you need to see this,” Obby said. “And, I’ve got gems to rez with if I’m wrong.”

“As you will then,” Yawlorna said. “Let’s see how you fare against three at once.”

“Make it six,” Obby said, gesturing to the nearest five demons and Hameziz.

The demons stepped forward, each smirking and eager to wipe away the arrogant calm they saw in the [Guardian] before them.

The fight wasn’t as quick as the first round, but it was less than a minute later when all six demons were laying on the ground, groaning in pain.

The rest had taken more than a couple steps back.

“That was quite the display,” Yawlorna said, calculations and analysis ticking away in the background of her eyes.

“Thank you,” Obby said. “I could probably handle twice as many before things got dicey. Three or four times as many and I’d go down without significant support. But to be fair, I’m only in a level 15 body at the moment and wearing level 15 gear. Once I level up a bit those numbers will change fairly drastically.”

“How so?” Yawlorna asked.

“At level 20, your troops will be down to a 2% chance to hit me and will be doing only about 10% of their usual damage. By level 25 I could be completely surrounded by as many of your troops as would fit in the space and they wouldn’t be able to damage me faster than my health can naturally recover.”

“So level 25 means you’re undefeatable?” Yawlorna asked.

“Undefeatable by your troops as they are now,” Obby said. “If you were helping them though, it would take more levels for me to reach ‘undefeatable’.”

“There are levels above 25?” Yawlorna asked.

“For adventurers? Yeah, we can go up to level 99,” Obby said.

“And the monsters in the [Sunless Deeps] are even stronger than that,” Tessa said. “Some of them, the most powerful bosses there, go up to level 150.”

“We have truly landed in hell,” Yawlorna said, sinking back into her chair.

Tessa wanted to reassure her, but on reflection she wasn’t sure Yawlorna was necessarily wrong.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 3

Tessa had a theory, but it wasn’t a theory she was particularly happy with, even if it promised to be the answer to one of the problems facing them.

Call up a map of this place please, she asked Lisa on their private channel.

I tried already, Lisa said. It says ‘no map found’.

In the game version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] which Tessa was familiar with, various areas existed without the in-game maps which the players could call up to get a reference to where they were. In some cases it was because the locations were tiny and no map was needed, in others it was because they were considered to be under a “fog of war” (though that mostly applied to specialized PvP zones), and then there were the places where the developers denied the players in-game maps to create a sense of ‘mysterious’ and provide ‘immersion’.

In theory the latter case was there to encourage exploration and discovery. It was meant to draw the players in and force them to navigate through a dungeon (typically) as their characters had to. Because the developers were sadists at heart, the locations without maps would also typically include such things are randomly reconfiguring mazes or series of isolated sub areas with interacting and random teleporters.

Tessa had never found that sort of thing fun, especially when she was faced with the potential of a running battle through new terrain against an enemy of unknown capabilities.

The lead demon just said this place is called the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grace], Tessa said.

Wait, we were just in there, Lisa said. It’s a low level dungeon. It can’t be this sprawling.

The devs did promise a ‘deep lore dive’ for the [World Shift] expansion, Tessa said. What if they meant that literally?

Lisa cursed and Tessa could only agree.

“We can stand here talking if you like,” she said, turning her attention back to the demons in front of her, “or we can go chat with your commanders, or we can head out, or we can fight. I’d rather not do the last one since it gains neither of us anything, and if you can talk then you’re not the xps we’re looking for.”

“XPs?” Illuthiz asked. Pillowcase was heartened to see that she’d shifted to a more casual stance, even if Hermeziz was still on high alert.

“Wow, you are from a different world,” Obby said.

“Adventurers in this world grow stronger through winning battles,” Tessa said. “There’s a point system related to how strong the foes are.”

“And you have points for us?” Hermeziz asked, wrinkling his nose in disgust.

“There are points for everything here,” Obby said.

“Monsters,” Hermeziz said. “You’re a bunch of blood thirsty killers.”

“Yeah, most of us,” Obby said. “You can take Pillowcase at her word though. We don’t want to fight you.”

“Or anyone who we can talk to instead,” Tessa said. “We need to be stronger because there are threats in this world which are far greater than anything we can survive now, and because it might be the only way for us to get home.”

“What do you mean?” Balegritz asked.

“We’re lost here too,” Matt said.

“You want to go back to the Consortium?” Illuthiz asked.

“No. Our world isn’t one where the Consortium has ever been. Or maybe even ever can be,” Tessa said.

“You’re a Consortium soldier!” Hermeziz shouted. “One of their elites. How could you come from a world where they’ve never been?”

“We’re each more than we appear to be,” Obby said. “And you should probably call your commanders in for the rest. They’ll want to hear it too.”

“And what will you do if we don’t?” Balegritz asked.

“Wait here until you do I suppose,” Obby said.

“Or just leave,” Tessa said. “Chatting like this is nice, and if we can form a working relationship it would be better for both of us, but we’re not the only adventurers out there, and they’ll get too far ahead of us if wait forever.”

“And what if we try to stop you from leaving?: Balegritz asked.

“Then we’ll fight, and no matter how things turn out, neither of us will win,” Tessa said.

“You think you can beat us?” Hemeziz asked.

“There’s seven of us, and three of you,” Matt said. “And we seem to know how this world works better than you do.”

“You have miscounted,” a new demon said.

It was good that the room they were speaking in had a high ceiling. When the new demon appeared behind Pillowcase, her invisibility melted away to reveal someone who’s horns could easily scrape the top of the tall room.

[Elite Boss] class, was Pillowcase’s analysis. Significant threat. Durable and hard hitting. Also resistant to most crowd control effects and will possess a minimum of two special moves. Standard tactical response; engage with a full squad and expect casualties.

The presence of a major foe was almost enough to distract Tessa from the dozen other demons who appeared flying outside the giant opera box they were standing in.

“Drop your weapons,” the Elite demon said.

It was a tempting command. Tessa wasn’t sure that the seven people in her party put together would be enough to take on an Elite, who were typically level 20 and higher, much less an Elite backed by more than twice her team’s number in support troops.

“No,” Pillowcase said.

“You are in a poor bargaining position,” the Elite said.

“That’s not a problem. We’re not bargaining,” Pillowcase said. 

“Curious. We will destroy you, you realize that do you not?” the Elite said.

“You may try to destroy us,” Pillowcase said. “As I said though, it’s not in your best interests.”

“You think you can tell tell [Commander] Yawlorna  where our interests lie?” Balegritz said.

“Yes. I do.” Pillowcase nodded. “You are ignorant of who we are and the goals we seek. As are we of you. It’s in no one’s interest for this to turn to bloodshed, least of all yours. If you slay us, we will recover. If we slay you, you will, apparently, stay dead.”

“Maybe we should test that idea,” Hermeziz said.

“No,” the demon [Commander] said, carefully scrutinizing Pillowcase. “I don’t think that would be wise.”

Finally! Tesa said, venting her frustration to Lisa.

Finally? Lisa asked.

The big one seems to be ready to talk. I mean really talk, Tessa said.

That’s good, Lisa said, concern etching into her voice. When the small army back there showed up I thought things weren’t going so well.

They could be going better, Tessa said. I take it you’ve been keeping things under control with Rip, Starchild and Lady Midnight?

Sort of, Lisa said. Lady Midnight’s been giving commentary on how tough the demons are and assuring Rip that we’re fine. Pete and Starchild have been pretty quiet. I think they’re talking things over between themselves.

“We cannot leave this passageway open though,” [Commander] Yawlorna said and turned to one of the flying demons. “Hazgromonde, fetch a crew. We need structural work done here. I want the top and bottom of that hole sealed within a half hour.”

“We are going to need to leave at some point,” Obby said.

“There are other exits,” Yawlorna said. “When we are done, you will be escorted out one of the minor ones. You have my word on that.”

Tessa wasn’t sure how much the word of a demon was worth, and Pillowcase had no solid suggestions, aside from noting that they didn’t have much room to protest if they still wished to avoid a fight.

“Before we go, one question,” Pillowcase said. “It was mentioned that the name of this place is the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. How do you know that?”

“There’s a library a few levels down. Most of it is ruined but we’ve managed to piece together a few maps of the area from what was left,” Yawlorna said. “Why do you ask?”

“We came here from what we thought was an entirely different set of caverns and they bore the same name,” Tessa said.

“Is it common to reuse names on this world?” Yawlorna asked.

“No. Not at all,” Tessa said. “In fact it strongly suggests that the caverns we were in are connected to this area somehow.”

“Maybe that’s where the pit leads?” Illuthiz said.

“I don’t think so,” Obby said. “That pit leads to the [Sunless Deeps].”

There was a collective intake of breath among the demons.

“How do you know that?” Yawlorna asked. “Have you been there?”

Obby seemed at a loss for words for moment, and Tessa thought she could guess why.

“We have access to fairly broad information about the world,” Tessa said. “It’s not complete, but it does cover most things that any other adventurer has discovered.”

“Sounds like a Consortium hive mind,” Hermeziz muttered loud enough for everyone to hear.

“A Consortium hive mind would never be willing to give information freely,” Pillowcase said. “At best they would sell it to you.”

That brought another pause, followed by a few nods and shrugs of agreement. The demons hadn’t exactly warmed to the adventurers but they seemed to at least accept that the adventurers were behaving too out of character to be affiliated with that particularly enemy.

“Come,” Yawlorna said. “We will gather so that all may question you equally.”

Tessa wasn’t sure what to expect from that but it turned out to be exactly what it sounded like.

Yawlorna lead the group of demons and adventurers down into the central hall, passing word as they traveled to various smaller demons to alert those who were not presently on duty to join them.

By the time they got to the central hall, it looked like several hundred demons had assembled there.

“I think there are more demons here than I have arrows in my quiver,” Rip said on the party channel.

“Isn’t your quiver endless?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, so?” Rip asked.

A squad of demons emerged from one of the side rooms, carrying thirty or so chairs. They arranged them in two groups in the center of the hall but well removed from the barricaded pit in the middle of the hall’s length.

The first group of chairs were plain seats, comfortable enough but without adornment. Those were placed in a group of seven and set to face the remaining chairs which were placed haphazardly in a half circle in front of the seven. 

Tessa and the others in her group were escorted to the seven chairs.

“Starchild and Obby, take the outer edges, Pillow, you take the center, Midnight and I will flank you and Rip and Matt can take the wing seats,” Alice said, solving the problem of who would sit where before they could stumble around looking foolish.

Pillowcase liked the arrangement from a tactical standpoint, but Tessa was praying that tactical concerns weren’t going to be an issue.

Opposite them, the demons seemed to take a much more free approach to seating with two or more demons sprawling together on the same chairs, while others stood empty. Yawlorna and Balegritz either by station or inclination, had chairs to themselves, while Hermeziz and Illuthiz shared one near them.

“You spoke of a working relationship between us,” Yawlorna began. “What do you envision that to mean.”

“As much or as little as each side is comfortable with,” Tessa said. 

It puzzled her how speaking to a eight foot tall demon woman with horns like a bull and muscles as solid as a semi-truck could seem natural.

Why aren’t I freaking out here? she wondered. How is this natural? Shouldn’t my heart be beating out of my chest?

[Clothwork] hearts are designed better than that, Pillowcase replied.

“We’d be comfortable if you weren’t here,” Hermeziz said. 

Illuthiz ground a knuckle into his cheek.

“Questions now,” she said. “Whining never.”

“He’s not wrong to worry,” Pillowcase said. “This isn’t a safe world. We mean you harm, but you don’t know us yet, and trust can only be earned through time.”

“You would be willing to earn our trust then?” Yawlorna said.

“Possibly,” Tessa said. “What did you have in mind?”

“You said you have wide knowledge of this world?” Yawlorna said. “If so then perhaps you can aid us in our quest to leave this world.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Ch 2

Fights don’t always go to the one who attacks first, but hesitating when the enemy is right in front of you was a fantastic method for getting yourself killed in Pillowcase’s experience.

“Wait!” Tessa called out as both her group and the demons in front of her moved to unleash their weapons and spells.

Oblivion’s Daughter was faster than Pillowcase but, to her credit, was also able to check her initial swing the moment Tessa called out.

Rip, Matt, and Starchild had been intending to hold their attacks until given leave to join the fray, but that didn’t stop Rip from letting out a confused “What?” in response.

The demons, who Tessa was certain hadn’t been speaking English when they came into the room, also paused, though in their case that involved pointing their spears at the two nearest targets and bursting into flames.

“Wait,” Pillowcase said aloud, again, for everyone to hear. “We don’t have to fight.”

“Who in Hezzlmin’s Charred Nethers are you then?” Balegritz, the nearest demon asked.

Balegritz was taller than either Pillowcase or Obby and seemed to out mass both of the put together. The flames which burned in his eyes were a soft shade of purple which blended nicely with the nimbus of blue flames which danced around his heavily armored form.

[Bruiser] class, Pillowcase thought. Enhanced toughness and durability with a focus on physical damage. Best slain with non-elemental magic damage. Physical weaknesses include navel, heart, and decapitation. Standard tactical response; hold and allow casters to finish off.

“I’m Pillowcase,” Tessa said, the name feeling at the same time silly and contrived as well as proper and well worn. “Ca you understand me?”

“Course we can understand you,” Hermeziz, the demon on Balegritz’s left, said. “Wait, you speak Nezzparrin?”

Inability to understand one’s enemies is a strategic weakness, Pillowcase said.

Am I omni-lingual now? Tessa asked.

My linguistics threads were designed to render my speech comprehensible to anyone who spoke a language the Consortium had documented. Some concepts may not translate well, and I will not sound like a native speaker in many cases but basic orders are a well tested area.

“We’re not speaking Nezzparrin,” Obby said. “We do have translation magic though.”

We do? Lisa asked. I’m can’t make out anything they’re saying.

It’s part of the [Artifax] lore, Tessa said. I’m guessing Obby picked up some other translation effect somehow.

“What are you doing here then?” Balegritz asked.

“The floor in the farmhouse above this room collapsed,” Obby said, wisely in Tessa’s view omitting the part about their party’s intent to hunt up some demon blood.

“The farmhouse?” Hermeziz asked.

Tessa gestured upwards to the hole in the roof. “Yeah, up there.”

“Flark,” Balegritz said. “That wasn’t there last time.”

“Did you run into any [Chaos Centipedes] lately? There are a few hundred up there on a fast respawn timer,” Pillowcase said.

“[Chaos Centipedes]? That’s were those things are coming from!” Illuthiz, the last demon, said, indignation stoking the green flames around her to noticeably brighter hue.

[Skirmisher] class, Pillowcase noted. Evasive and durable. Primarily a physical damage dealer, but with special movement and status inflicting abilities. Best fought with immobilization techniques. Weak points include legs, eyes, and decapitation. Standard tactical response; constrain and exploit opening if their focus deviates while other front line fighters dispatch.

“Yeah, we’ve seen a few of those things,” Balegritz said. “You don’t look like you fell down the hole though. How long have you been here?”

“A few minutes,” Matt said. “Didn’t you hear me hit the ground? It wasn’t quite.”

Tessa saw the game Matt was playing, trying to turn his earlier mistake to their advantage, but she worried that the demons might have noticed that his fall was a lot quieter than it should have been thanks to the vines Starchild conjured.

“See! I told you I heard something!” Illuthiz said. 

“Ok, you’re right,” Balegritz said. “Question is, what do we do with all of them?”

“We could have them climb up those ropes they’ve got there,” Hermeziz said. “How’d you get those setup if you fell?”

It was a reasonable question but the tone Hermeziz asked it in suggested he was feeling anything but reasonable.

“Magic,” Obby said, pointing to the remains of the vines from Starchild’s earlier spell as though that explained everything.

“We were going to check out this place a bit before we left,” Pillowcase said. “It’s not everyday that you fall into a brand new dungeon.”

“It’s not exactly ‘brand new’,” Balegritz said. “We’ve been here for years now. Ever since we crashed on this miserable rock.”

“Crashed?” Tessa asked. “You’re not from here?”

“Do we look like we’re from here?” Balegritz asked.

“Yeah,” Obby said.

“Pretty much,” Matt said.

“You’re not the strangest thing I’ve seen today,” Pillowcase said. “Probably not even in the top five.”

“I know, right?” Obby said. “At least these folks have a sense of style in their armor.”

Tessa thought she saw Balegritz beam at that, but Hermeziz narrowed his eyes while Illuthiz remained as calm and blank faced as Pillowcase was.

“So maybe we have them leave like they were planning to?” Illuthiz asked.

“Sure, that seems smart,” Hermeziz said. “It’s not like they’ll go and tell everyone and everything that we’re here.”

“Would that be a bad thing?” Pillowcase asked.

“Are you new here?” Balegritz asked. “Or have you not noticed that people like you are universally aggressive to people like me?”

How are negotiations going? Lisa asked.

They don’t trust us, Tessa said. Sounds like they think everyone else is universally aggressive towards them.

Decent odds they’re correct, Lisa said.

“There haven’t been many people like me around here until very recently,” Pillowcase said, removing her helmet so the demons could see that they were talking to an [Clothwork] rather than the human Tessa guessed they’d mistaken her for.

“Consortium!” Hermeziz yelled and charged his spear with a nimbus of green flames that Pillowcase instinctively braced against.

[Flames of Avarice]. Reduces healing capacity of the targets. Punctures through basic defenses. Best supplemental defense; destroy wielder before it can be deployed. I hate that stuff.

“Ex-Consortium,” Pillowcase said.

“Ex-Consortium?” Balgritz asking, putting a hand on Hemeziz’s shoulder to delay the impending attack. “How is that possible?”

“I was abandoned after a failed assault,” Pillowcase said. “My new animating force is unconnected to the [Consortium of Pain], and so I am no longer bound to them in any manner.”

“Still programmed for loyalty though I bet,” Hermeziz said.

“No more so than you’re programmed for evil,” Matt said, he’d stepped forward to join Obby and Pillowcase since he was the only other member of their party who could understand the demons.

“That’s an easy claim to make,” Illuthiz said. “Hard to prove though.”

“Not necessarily,” Pillowcase said. “If you have any [Master Enchanters] in your ranks, they should be able to examine my thread weave and see that the command compulsion enchantments are gone. In fact, if you talk to them, they’ll tell you that destruction of a constructs animating enchantment causes a complete erasure of binding spells on them, usually requiring a full recreation ritual to safely bring the construct back online.”

“How do you know we have ranks?” Hermeziz asked.

“Because you look like the people down there,” Matt said, pointing to the back of the room where overlook of the grand hall was.

Pillowcase wanted to put her helmet back on. It was nicer to have her hands free, but since the gesture was likely to heighten the demon’s suspicions, she opted to leave it off.

“Going back to your original point though,” Pillowcase said before the conversation drifted too far from where she wanted it to be. “You’re concerned with keeping this location a secret? It’s understandable, but likely no longer practical. The farmhouse we discovered is swarmed with low level monsters. They’ll draw other adventurers in and if there’s one thing adventurers do, it’s poke their noses into any strange thing they find.”

“Even if they get them bitten off?” Hermeziz said.

“Especially if they get bitten off,” Obby said. “If we disappear here, that’ll create a mystery which other people will definitely follow up on. If more people disappear after that, this will become a hub for higher and higher level players to test themselves against.”

“Also, if you kill us, we won’t have as much reason to be talkative the next time, after we respawn,” Matt said.

“Respawn?” Illuthiz asked.

“Yeah,” Matt said. “You know? How we come back after we die?”

“You do what?” Balegritz asked, though it was clear than all three of the demons were incredulous at the idea.

“When we die, we can come back again,” Matt said. “It just takes a while, especially if we don’t have the stuff to come back right where we fell.”

“You’re lying,” Hermeziz said. “Nobody comes back from being dead. Dead is dead.”

“Not for us,” Pillowcase said. “Though it is seriously inconvenient, so we’re not going to try prove it if you ask.”

Getting back to a [Heart Fire] would be difficult enough, but dodging the [Hounds of Fate] for the whole run might be impossible and Tessa was absolutely not willing to risk any of her new friends on the attempt when diplomacy was a much better answer.

“We could force the issue,” Illuthiz said, her tone light and casual, without the menace her words should have carried.

“You could try,” Obby said.

“But you don’t want to,” Pillowcase quickly added. “Like I said, your base’s location is too close to a village which has become a major land in the last day or so. Dealing with outsiders is going to be a thing whether you like it or not.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Hermeziz said. “If anybody else finds us, they definitely won’t like it.”

“Does it help you to lose members of your troop like that?” Pillowcase asked. “Do you gain anything from an unworkable isolation?”

“Yeah, we do. We stay safe from you and all the other ridiculous monsters out there that want to eat us, or drink our blood, or whatever you sick things do,” Hermeziz said.

Ouch. They’re worried we want to drink their blood, Tessa said to Lisa on their private channel.

Because of me? Lisa asked.

I don’t think so, Tessa said. It was part of a list of exaggerated worries.

Good. I’ll keep my mouth shut then, Lisa said. Hopefully my robes will keep me hidden too. I think they’re big enough that the demons haven’t gotten a good look at me yet.

I’ll be sure to warn them of who and what we all area, Tessa said. They already freaked out a bit when they saw what I was.

They don’t like plushies?

They don’t like the [Consortium of Pain]. Apparently they’ve met Pillowcase’s creators before.

“That’s interesting that we look like monsters to you,” Obby said. “You’re from another world entirely aren’t you?”

“I said we crashed here, didn’t I?” Balegritz said.

“Yes, but you don’t crash here from a world we could see in the sky above this land,” Obby said. “You’re from another reality. And somehow you slipped through to here.”

“I guess?” Balegritz said. “I don’t really know what that means, but I do know that this place is nothing like home. Everything is wrong here. Even the name of it.”

“What’s wrong with the [High Beyond]?” Tessa asked.

“Apart from the otherworlds reverb in your voice when you say those words?” Illuthiz asked.

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Balegriz said. “I mean, this dungeon like you called it. [The Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]? What kind of name is that for a place?”

Tessa stiffened. 

It was the same name as the dungeon her team had been in when Starchild called for help. 

But the developers wouldn’t have named two different dungeons the same thing.

So either they were in truly unwritten territory, or the dungeon they’d fallen into was bigger than any Tessa had heard of before.

Broken Horizons – Vol 4, Chapter 1

Tessa descended one hand hold at a time into darkness, keenly aware of the dangers which lurked below her and blissfully ignorant of the far greater forces moving across the two worlds she was a part of.

“Couldn’t we just fall to the bottom?” Rip asked. “I mean, we have healers with us right?”

“Apart from not enjoying the idea of breaking my legs, we also need to test the ropes in case we need to use them to exit quickly,” Tessa said.

“Obby didn’t break anything though,” Rip said. She was climbing down the same rope Tessa was on, and was strangely eager to reach the bottom and start fighting again.

Good call there on going down before Rip, Lisa said on their private channel. It was still tempting for Tessa to call her Lost Alice, but that was only force of habit. Strangely, once they’d announced their real names to each other, the text chat that appeared in the corner of Tessa’s vision had updated to reflect “Lisa” as the speaker when they were communicating privately, though it still showed “Lost Alice” when she spoke aloud.

 I think she’d leap from where she is if she thought it was a straight fall to the bottom. Lisa added.

You don’t think her arms are getting tired do you? Tessa asked.

She looks like she’s doing fine from here, Lisa said. Can you catch her if she loses her grip?

I think so. Pillowcase was built pretty strong from someone made of cloth and stuffing. How are you doing though?

Turns out Vampires are pretty strong too, Lisa said with a note of pride in her voice.

“If you folks want to jump, we can catch you,” Obby said.

“That seems like a great idea for breaking two people instead of one,” Lost Alice said.

“We won’t know unless we try!” Rip said.

Tessa was correct that Pillowcase was strong enough to catch and hold a falling elf. Where Pillowcase fell short though was in being just a bit too slow get a handhold on Rip before she fell out of arm’s reach..

“Wheee!” Rip yelled, though only on their group channel. In terms of externally audible qualities, her fall was more silent than a whisper.

“[Lesser Impact Absorption],” Obby said, invoking a [Guardian] skill which was more traditionally used as a damage shield while fighting tough opponents.

“Oof,” Rip gasped into the party channel and added “it worked!” after catching her breath.

“Well, that’ll save time,” Matt said and let go of his rope as well. 

This time Tessa didn’t even try to grab him. As a [Metal Mechanoid], Matt was a lot heavier than Rip and also a lot more inherently durable. In battle, Rip might have the edge in survivability due to her better armor and evasiveness, but for random environmental damage being a walking suit of plate armor was something of an advantage. Which was good because Tessa was pretty sure the [Lesser Impact Absorption] which Oblivion’s Daughter had used had been exhausted soaking the damage from Rip’s fall.

“[Grasping Vines],” Starchild called out as she shoved Obby and Rip aside.

Even with the insulation provided by six feet of vines sprouting up to cushion his fall, Matt still hit the ground fairly hard. Fortunately not hard enough to break anything but Matt did let out a small “oww” before getting to his feet.

“Ok, that was kind of…not bright,” he said. “I think I fell a hundred feet there.”

“Yeah! And walked away from it without a scratch!” Rip said. “I kind of want to climb up and do it again.”

“I will literally bite you if you come back up here,” Alice said as she and Tessa continued to descend.

Tessa was reasonably sure she was joking, but elves were full of yummy blood to a vampire and Lisa had complained about feeling hungry several times already.

“I said ‘I kind of want to’, I’m not going to do it,” Rip said. “I know we’re on a time crunch here.”

‘Time crunches’ gave Tessa a brief flashback to her workplace. According to the clock in her heads up display, she should have been at work hours ago. Had anyone noticed she wasn’t in yet? Were they calling to find out where she was? Had they fired her already?

Losing her job shouldn’t have been able to crack the Top 500 list of Tessa’s primary worries given the situation she was in but it managed to hit home nonetheless. For as believable as everything around her felt, and looked, and sounded, the sense of being cast out and abandoned by her employers was too real for her to ignore.

Wait, that’s not me is it? Tessa probed the edges of her fear while lowering herself down the rope. I’m not worried about losing my job. It sucks. If they fire me and I have all this to work with instead that’s my dream come true.

Correct. This is your dream. Your memory merely touched on my nightmare, Pillowcase said. When my unit lost, when I fell after the battle, all of the meaning I’d been give crumbled. I was no longer what I was supposed to be. I was nothing.

Tessa felt the existential dread Pillowcase spoke of. She remembered it. Knew it as her own. Pillowcase’s despair and fading light was unique to her life as a construct for the [Consortium of Pain] but it spoke in the same voice as the emptiness and misery in Tessa’s memories.

You ok? Lisa asked.

Tessa had paused her descent as she wrestled with the overlapping sensations from two lives. 

Yeah, she said, taking a slow breath to center herself. Just a bit of work related stress catching up to me.

You do a lot of rope climbing at work? Lisa asked.

Well, I do now it seems, Tessa said. I was just thinking about being fired.

You know you’re weird right? Lisa asked.

It’s been noted before, Tessa said.

But it’s a cute kind of weird, Lisa said which made Tessa’s heart do all sorts of wrong fluttering.

They finished their climb to find the others had drawn up a small map on the ground using bits of the vines which Starchild had summoned.

“I took a look outside the door after the last patrol went by,” Obby said. “It looks like the hallway outside leads off in these directions.  She pointing to a curving length of vine with a four way intersection to the left of the room they were in and a single side corridor to the right.

“Which way did the patrol go?” Alice asked.

“Towards the intersection,” Obby said. “From the sound of it, they turned right and went down some stairs or whatever’s over there.”

“Were they patrolling like an organized unit or just walking from one place to another?” Tessa asked.

“It was a patrol,” Starchild said. “They had weapons ready and they were being quiet and observant.”

“That’s a shame,” Tessa said. “This would have been a lot easier if the demons were mindless. Getting the drop on wary and alert mobs is a pain.”

“I think I see why you mentioned blood being a valuable piece of loot,” Lady Midnight said, getting a clear look at Lost Alice for the first time.

“It’s not my first choice of meal, believe me,” Alice said.

“[Demon blood] should be pretty filling, I’m hoping,” Tessa said. “It’s used in a ton of alchemy recipes and the lore has it as being saturated with magic, which is what vampires here are supposedly subsisting on primarily.”

“Wait, so vampires don’t need blood? They need magic?” Rip asked.

“Unfortunately the blood’s an important part of it,” Alice said.

“Think of it like you needing ‘carbon’ for food. Fundamentally that’s what most food is but it has to be in a very specific configuration. You can’t just chow down on a diamond,” Tessa said.

“That makes sense,” Rip said. “So how we do get their blood then? I mean apart from the whole hit them till they stop moving thing.”

“That’s pretty much how it’s done,” Tessa said. “The key it going to be working out how to hit them while not giving them the chance to hit us back very much.”

“We could use the side passages against them,” Obby said and went on to diagram her suggestion, putting small markers for each of them at various points along the vine.

With a map before them, everyone got in on the planning, one creative thought spurring another. It was Tessa’s favorite part of any dungeon run. 

At least when the dungeon run had been a purely recreational activity. 

With the outcome of their plans having potentially life threatening consequences, Tessa found the exercise a few degrees more stressful than usual. She took those feelings though, wrapped them up in a ball, and stuffed them down into the depths of her psyche. The last thing her team needed was someone taking away their optimism and confidence.

In what felt like a blink, they had a plan put together.

“So we don’t know exactly how strong these demons are, or what sort of special abilities they might have,” Alice said, going over the plan one final time. “Obby and Pillow will be the ones to engage with Lady M and me providing backup. You other three are going to start back at the ropes. If Obby or Pillow calls it out, you start climbing.”

“But they’ll only call for a retreat if they’re sure we can’t beat the demons right?” Rip asked.

“How will they get away if they’re holding the demons off though?” Matt asked.

“We can slow them,” Tessa said. “Then when we climb, we’ll pull the ropes up with us. No ropes, no demons following us.”

“And if we can take them?” Rip asked.

“Starchild will take lead on target selection, since she needs to get into melee anyways,” Tessa said.

“I’ll move to support whichever of you seems to have the tougher foe,” Starchild said. “Eliminate the biggest threat as fast as possible  and our healers won’t run their magic dry trying to keep you two on your feet.”

“We appreciate that,” Lady Midnight said. “If we wind up with more mobs than the tanks can handle though we may need you to off tank any that get through.”

“With two tanks we should be fine, but good to have a third backup anyways. The demons are smart enough to peel off and try to wipe Lady M and me out first,” Alice said.

“If they’re that smart, can we talk to them?” Matt asked.

“Demons don’t speak,” Alice said. “At least in the game.”

“From the lore, most of them aren’t from the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Lady Midnight said. “So there’s no shared language there, and demons are always aggressive.”

“Yes. It’s hard to speak with a foe who tries to stab you the moment they lay eyes on you,” Starchild said.

“They’re supposed to be soulless monsters without any personality,” Tessa said. “That’s what makes them perfect for our needs.”

“I hope we’re ready for them then,” Rip said. “Because we’ve got another patrol headed down the hall outside.”

It was always tempting to take more time to plan, to consider more options, but Tessa knew that was a trap. At a certain point you just had to take the chance and the plan you have into motion.

“We’ll let them pass and engage them when they’re not facing us,” Tessa said.

“Yeah, the extra second or two should give us time to get aggro on the whole group,” Obby said, readying her sword.

“How many of them are there?” Tessa asked.

“Looked like three,” Rip said. “But I had to pull back from the door quick, so there might be more.”

“Three’s good,” Tessa said. “More’s doable too, so long as it’s not too many more.”

“They’re not going to know what hit ‘em,” Obby said.

Tessa prayed that would be true and went preternaturally still.

“We gonna check the overlooks?” a deep, and somewhat bored voice asked.

“Probably should,” another replied. “I haven’t looked in for a few days and the last thing we need is another nest of [Plague Rats] using them as a spawning den.”

Tessa’s mind whirled, wondering who she could be hearing. Demons didn’t speak English. 

Except, apparently, for the ones who came strolling into the room with their axes and spears at the ready. The smallest of them was easily seven feet tall and they all looked just as built for war, and as deeply confused, as Pillowcase.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Interlude 4

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

As riots went, the defection of the EE staff wasn’t as bloody as it could have been. Michael Kimmler, the company’s Vice President of Sales received a broken nose for trying to order the staff back to the seats when they rose en mass to prevent the server shutdown, and Craig Scott, the VP of Business Relations, was tossed through a glass door when he threatened to lock them all into the cafeteria.

In Kimmler’s case, the response had been a instant and visceral one. He said the wrong thing, to the wrong person, in the wrong tone and that person had a few dozen people who agreed with the position that Kimmler deserved a punch to the face. When Kimmler’s butt hit the floor and he stayed down, out of the crowd’s path, the matter was essentially settled.

Scott on the other hand had been the one to argue several times for “lowering head count” so the anger he received had been simmering for significantly longer than the current crisis. As the glass door in question was not made of candy glass like many movie doors were, Scott’s injuries were significantly more extensive than Kimmler’s, though none were especially life threatening, to the dismay of at least a hand full of the staff.

Hailey wasn’t concerned about either Kimmler or Scott’s predicament though. Nor did she join those of her coworkers who went to the IT labs to ensure the server monkeys didn’t follow the orders they’d been given. In her mind the real threat lay outside.

The FBI was bound to arrive in minutes.

“This isn’t going to go well,” Marcus said, staring out the ruined front door with Hailey.

“What? Like it’s going well now?” She wanted to punch him. A little violent release of her own seemed justified given the day and night and day she was having.

But Marcus was a poor target for her anger. She could see it in the tremble at the corner of his lips. He didn’t want this either.

“No, but all this? Calling in the FBI? The staff doing whatever they just did? It’s all going to make things worse.”

He wasn’t wrong. Hailey knew that. By framing it as a case of “mass disappearances”, the FBI was going to read it as “mass kidnappings” and that wasn’t going to engender anything like a calm, measured response. The EE staff’s action would be fuel for that fire, but the alternative was unthinkable.

“I’m going into the game,” Hailey said. She’d made the decision hours ago but the words tumbling from her lips were the first time she was consciously aware of it.

“Don’t even joke about that,” Marcus said. “You know we haven’t seen either of the GMs that we lost.”

“I’m not joking. I’m not going in on my GM account. I’m going in on my main. She’s all ready to log in.”

“What? Why would you do that? We cleared out all the pending logins! We made sure you all were safe!”

“Yeah. We’re safe. But everyone we ever played with? They’re not.”

Interlude – Azma

Azma beheld the gathered might of her empire and saw the destruction and ruin which it was about to unleash. It put bubbles of joy on her tongue.

Or maybe that was the fizzy liquor?

She took another swig to be sure.

It was half from the liquor.

Which was fair. The troops she had assembled weren’t exactly her empire. Technically they were property of the Consortium. For the duration of the coming conflict though she could use and expend them as she fit. In theory she could request additional resources if they were needed as well. The Consortium was concerned with results and, to an extent, they were willing to invest what it took to get those results.

Azma would never call on more troops or materiel though. Even operating under the strange and unfamiliar rules of the [Fallen Kingdoms], including the odd resonant echo whenever she thought or said certain words, Azma had no doubt that she would be victorious. The defenders might be able to match her troops, they might be able to overcome her engines of war, they might even be able to anticipate her battle strategies, but they were still laboring under an insurmountable disadvantage.

None of them were her.

“Sir! All bays report ready. Portals are locked and targeted. We can begin the operation at your command.”

“Excellent. We’ll start as soon as I finish this bottle,” Azma said, taking another short pull of whatever it was that had wound up in her hand. The fizzy part was pleasant but it was the firey kick that was managing to hold Azma’s interest.

“Sir?”

After Azma’s rather violent insistence that she be allowed to begin the invasion, she couldn’t blame her subordinates for being confused by her decision to delay when everything was at last in place.

All things have their proper time though, and as Azma watched the remote scans of the defenders marshalling throughout the [Fallen Kingdoms] she saw the positioning, readiness and mood of the pieces shifting inexorably into just the arrangement she desired.

“It’s good…wine? Harlac juice? Brandy? No. It’s something else,” Azma said. “But good stuff. Don’t want to rush it. There are moment you simply need to savor after all.”

“Is there anything you want to say to the troops? Anything they can do to prepare?”

“Yes. Tell them to picture what they want me to say about each one of them in the final battle report,” Azma said. “They know their part in the plan. They know why what they’re doing is essential. Tell them to envision how things will go wrong and how they, personally, are are going to rise to the challenge and make it all work out anyways.”

“Even the Artifax Sir?”

“Especially the Artifax. They’re crafted to think of themselves as elites. The best of the best, made to a perfect design by the finest builders the Consortium has to offer. I want them to think of themselves as something more than that. They need to understand that they’re not just the perfect troops. They’re my perfect troops.”

Interlude – Niminay

Niminay hated speeches. Giving them, listening to them, it didn’t matter. Words mattered but she’d always been one better suited to taking action.

“You’ve all heard this tale before,” she began, deviating from the script that had been prepared for her from word one. “The world stands in peril. A new threat has emerged, more dangerous than any which has been seen before. Blah, blah, blah.”

The convocation of adventurers gave a hearty chuckle at that. Somehow in the last decade there had been more world-ending crises than in the last ten millenia of recorded history. That the [Fallen Kingdoms] still remained as anything other than ash stains on a barren plain was due in no small part to the adventurers who were gathered before Niminay. 

“I’m not going to tell you that you stand between the end of the world and all we hold dear,” Niminay said. “You know that already. It’s where you always stand. What I will tell you is that you do not stand alone.”

The crowd didn’t chuckle at that. A gravity settled over the adventurers and Niminay felt the weight of their regard and expectations focus on her.

“We fought this foe before,” she said. “We rallied an army to hold them back and met them with a force unmatched in speed or might. We claimed victory that day and drove them back through their portals. We shattered their army and brought ruin to their vessels.”

A cheer went up which was carried by the crowd, but not for long. Everyone felt more was coming.

“We beat them but they are returning, and we all know what that means.”

“That we’ll beat them again!” one of the adventurer’s shouted, which drew another cheer from the crowds.

“Of course we will,” Niminay said, allowing a little of her own pride to shine through. “We don’t have a choice.” She let the smile fade from her lips as she continued though. “We know it won’t be easy though. The [Consortium of Pain] brought powerful troops to bear last time and they wouldn’t be returning if they didn’t have something better to hit us with.”

From Penny’s estimations, Niminay knew they could expect the next force to be at least 20% stronger than the previous one, with a more plausible chance of it being twice to three times as powerful. Niminay didn’t like those odds, and wasn’t overly eager to share them with the adventurers. Crushing people’s spirits was a terrible idea on the eve of a battle.

“The good news is that they aren’t the only ones who’ve been able to marshall a bigger army. I know that you are spread out, scattered around the world, but if you can hear my voice, then you are fighting with me, and I with you.”

Niminay gathered herself up, feeling the warmth of conviction burning in her chest.

“We have long been divided, playing games against one another, but for every squabble which separates us there is a deeper bond which holds us together. We are the children of those who fell, and though we fall and fall again, still we rise. Whether it be for love of this world of ours, or spite at those who would take it from us, or sheer stubbornness, we rise. Adventurers, soldiers, civilians, in this cause we fight with one heart which will never falter and never despair, no matter what may come.”

Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra

Brendan’s eyes felt like they were lidded with lead sheets. Despite Niminay’s rousing speech and the effect it seemed to have on the assembled adventurers, he could feel the merciless claws of fatigue dragging him under.

“I think I have to catch some zzz’s,” he said to Mellisandra. He’d heard noises earlier indicating him roommates had been up and making breakfast. From the silence which had returned to the apartment, he guessed they were off to work already, the same as he should have been hours ago. “Are you going to be ok without me for a few hours?”

“I think I should be,” Mellisandra said. “Damnazon and I are going to see if we can find a bigger group to partner up with.”

“Safety in numbers? I like it,” Brendan said. “I’ll send in an email to take a sick day today and tomorrow if we need. And I think I should be fine with just a few hours of sleep, so I shouldn’t be away too long.”

“Get as much sleep as you need,” Mellisandra said. “If we are linked in some manner, your rest may benefit me as well.”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to miss anything.”

“We’re still setting up,” Mellisandra said. “If anything happens while you’re away, it’ll be because the Consortium made their move early.”

“That’s more or less exactly what I’m worried about,” Brendan said. “If your world is influenced by how the game developers in my world set things up, I’m willing to bet there’ll be the first big event with the Consortium kicking off soon. The developers would want to introduce that sort of thing as early as possible.”

“If so, it’s surprising one hasn’t happened already,” Mellisandra said. “You’re already far beyond the normal length of time you would have been connected for, isn’t that true?”

“Yeah, but it’s for a good cause.” He smiled, and felt stupid a moment later when he remembered that while he could see Mellisandra (or at least an animated rendition of her), she couldn’t see him at all anymore.

On the screen, he watched as Mellisandra and her half-giant companion met up with a group of adventurers that seemed to include a goblin in their ranks.

“Rest and reclaim your strength then,” Mellisandra said as Damnazon began chatting with the other team. “It’s almost the first rule of adventuring – recover resources at every possible opportunity. Like you said, this is a good cause, and we’ll need to fight for it with everything we have.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Interlude 3

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

The last time Hailey attended a meeting in Egress Entertainment’s cafeteria had been for a party thrown in celebration of reaching their most profitable quarter since the game’s launch. That hadn’t been the result of a windfall. It had taken hard work and long hours to release Broken Horizons previous expansion, but the results had been worth it as the expansion drove EE’s revenue to new highs and preserved at least half of the jobs of those who’d worked on it.

Hailey had hoped to see another post-launch meeting in the cafeteria but not like the one which lay before her. Instead of a sea of convivial faces, with varying states of intoxication, and dozens of conversations drowning each other out, Hailey walked into a room that felt like a whisper filled morgue. 

Someone had ordered pizzas but the boxes sat alone and unopened in stacks on the counter. No one had any appetite it seemed. Or at least none of the support staff or Marketing or Human Resources or Sales. As Hailey scanned the crowd she noticed that no one from Development or IT was present.

“Ok, we’re going to get right down to business,” Marcus said. He was standing with a number of the companies other department heads and executives and had, apparently, drawn the short straw as the one to break the news officially.

“There is a problem with the new expansion…” he started to say and then shook his head. “A problem correlated to the new expansion.”

Hailey could see the invisible cords of the company’s lawyers wrapped around Marcus’s words. Admittedly any culpability was legally irresponsible, though Hailey couldn’t imagine EE was likely to survive the repercussions of their game eating the player base.

“We have determined that under certain conditions, some players are, for lack of a more exact description, disappearing after certain events occur in the game.”

A wave of objection swept through the crowd at the obfuscating vagueness of Marcus’s words. Everyone in the room knew exactly what the ‘certain conditions’ were but it was calling what happened to the player a ‘disappearance’ which set off warning bells in Hailey’s mind.

‘Disappearance’ suggested that they had no idea what happened to the players or where they were, and while the first might be true, the second provably was not.

“Once this meeting is done we will be sending out an in-game message to all players who are still logged in advising them of…” Marcus stopped, wrestling with the words he’d been given. “Advising them of the conditions which have been observed and the response Egress Entertainment will be taking.”

“What the hell is that? What are we going to do?”

Hailey twitched. The question could have come from her, but someone else had shouted it first. Joachim, one of her fellow support staff members.

“As of 12:00pm, Eastern Standard Time, Egress Entertainment will be shutting down the servers for Broken Horizons,” Marcus said. “The servers will be down for an indeterminate period of time while staff and federal authorities review the logs and server code to verify that Egress Entertainment’s assets are neither responsible for, nor play a relevant role, in the disappearances which have been reported.”

“Like hell you will.” This time it was Margret from Marketing who spoke up. “You can’t turn the servers off. That’ll drag everyone who’s still online into the game.”

One of the executives stepped forward.

“At this point we have no proof of that, and we will comply with all directives from the federal agents who are enroute to begin an official investigation into the matter. It is our fiduciary duty and it is the law. Is that clear.”

“No,” Hailey said, but it was only a whisper and a prayer. 

Interlude – Azma

Reviewing troops always put Azma in a good mood. If they were her troops, it was a chance to see just what sort of pieces she had to work with in the next game she’d been given to play. If they were other people’s troops, it was a chance to see how many of their toys she could break, ideally without them noticing.

“The Red Ravens are ready for deployment Sir!” Sergeant Eights said as Azma entered the frigate’s launch bay.

At the far end of the room, several hundred yards away, the dark maw of a transport portal stood silent and waiting, the spirits bound in the circle at its periphery forced into slumber by the insulated coils wrapped over them.

Waiting on tracks which lead to the portal, the frigate’s first wave of war machines were parked, as silent as the portal, but just as ready for activation with a moment’s notice. Most were light, agile craft, designed to supplement the frigate’s role during a “Market Opening Excursion”, but a half dozen of the Consortium’s one hundred meter tall [Fortress Crushers] were set for deployment as well.

More important than the machines though were the troops themselves. The “Red Ravens”. Azma hadn’t created the unit but she had inherited it from a rather unlamented [General] after he contracted a vicious case of [Spleen Detonating Plague].

“They look stiff,” she said as she wandered past the front ranks of the assembled unit.

Most [Commanders] knew better than to appear before their subordinates half intoxicated and carrying a carafe of liquor large enough to complete the job. Azma knew better too, but knowing something and caring about it were two different things.

“As requested, Sir!” Sergeant Eights said. Unlike his [Commander], he adhered to the same discipline demanded of his troops. Like most of the wiser staff members though he understood that his [Commander] in an inebriated state was still more competent than anyone else on the ship. It wasn’t so much that she applied special rules to herself either. Anyone else was free to copy her, provided they had the talent and skill to prove they were still well above her required level of effectiveness.

“Not the good kind of stiff,” Azma said, lingering to scrutinize a [Clothwork] soldier  more closely than decorum should have allowed. “They’re afraid.”

“Pardon Sir, but they’re [Artifax],” Sergeant Eights said.

“Yes, yes, no fear built in to them, just perfect Consortium design work in every stitch, rivet, and cut. Look at this one though and tell me what you see?”

Eights stepped beside the soldier Azma had singled out and tried to appraise it. No, her.

“She’s within specs Sir. Posture is perfect, attention focused, respiration regular.”

Artifax often weren’t built with a requirement to breath but many included it as an optional method of energy recovery and thermal exchange.

“Oh I agree,” Azma said. “She’s wonderfully made. Top of the line. Just what you’d expect for the Red Ravens. But look here around the corner of her eyes.”

“They seem to be in fine shape.”

“Yes but they’re not moving.”

“That’s discipline.”

“No. That’s fear. [Artifax] are supposed to be observing their environments constantly, even when at peace. She’s not doing that. She’s grimly focused on a point on the far wall because she’d afraid. Isn’t that right?”

“Yes sir,” Solider Four Seven Six said. “Am I to be decommissioned?”

“Not at all my dear,” Azma said. “You’re afraid because you’re better built than your makers intended, and because you don’t know what your mission is yet.”

“And knowing our mission will help?”

“Of course,” Azma said. “That’s what we’re here for. Sergeant Eights is going to tell you who the Consortium needs you to fight, and I’m to going to tell you, in detail, how you’re going win.”

Interlude – Niminay

Victory often didn’t come easily, but looking at the adventurers who’d gathered to hear her speech, Niminay was reminded that victory was something the people before her had managed to find despite the most impossible of odds.

“We know we’re going to die,” Glimmerglass said. As one of the few adventurers who was located in [Steel Breezes] and not present via an illusionary projection, Glimmerglass had managed to find a place as Niminay’s assistant. For the most part her help was invaluable but occasionally Niminay was struck by just how different the new breed of adventurers were from the people she was used to dealing with.

“Those don’t look like people with one foot in the grave,” Niminay said, nodding towards the rowdy crowd awaiting her.

“That’s because we don’t intend to stay in the grave for very long,” Glimmerglass said. “You need us, and we’re going to be there, no matter how times we’ve got to come back to handle things.”

“No one is guaranteed to come back though,” Niminay said. “The [Hounds of Fate] are always waiting to ferry souls away to their final rest.”

“Yeah, that is a risk, but you don’t get to be an experienced adventurer unless your ghost can run pretty fast.”

“I wonder that I need to make this speech at all then,” Niminay said. “If even death can’t dim your morale, I doubt any words of mine could bolster it.”

“You might be surprised,” Glimmerglass said. “Half of them are or were madly in love with you at one point. They know you’re not royalty, but trust me when I say that for quite a few of them, you are our Queen.”

“How? Why?” Niminay had a vague notion that she was well regarded, and a clear idea that she’d grown famous over her long career, but the adoration Glimmerglass spoke of seemed a more incredible thing still.

“Your example is what drew many of them to begin adventuring in the first place,” Glimmerglass said. “Getting to interact with you over the years was considered a special treat in adventurer circles.”

“Even when I was asking them to march into hell?” Niminay asked.

“Especially when you were asking them to march into hell. Giving someone inspiration is one thing, giving them purpose though? That’s far more precious.”

Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra

Mellisandra wasn’t alone, and, for her, that made all the difference.

“So you can’t see me anymore right?” Brendan asked.

“No. The scrying spell I was practicing isn’t mobile.”

“What did I look like to you when you were able to see me?”

“You looked like a human male. I didn’t see any armor or gear to suggest a class, and you’ve said your world doesn’t have them, right?” Mellisandra found that keeping up the conversation was easy enough. Despite the fact that she was moving through a crowd of over a thousand adventurers, she was effectively invisible to them, not through any spell or skill but merely by not being a part of their team or guild.

“Did I look real or, hmm, I guess you wouldn’t know what computer graphics look like, maybe it would be animated, or like a painting?”

“There was definitely distortion in the scrying image,” Mellisandra said. “You looked slightly hazy. As though you were painted with a blocky brush. Why? What do I look like to you?”

“Well, the interface I see you through makes you look like a cartoon, sort of.”

“I know what that is,” Mellisandra said. “I don’t know why exactly, but I can picture it, I think.”

“That’s not what you look like to yourself though, is it?”

“No. I look real to me. Just like everyone else here.” Mellisandra said and promptly bumped into a wall of steel.

“Oh! Sorry, I thought you were going to go around them!” Brendan said.

“Feel free to move me out of the way next time,” Mellisandra said, rubbing her nose.

“My control is terrible compared to yours,” Brendan said. “You’re much better at the fine controls. I can just help with the big movements I think.”

Mellisandra only heard part of what Brendan was saying though.

“Are you talking with your player too?” the wall of iron asked.

Mellisandra looked up as she stood.

And up.

And farther up.

The wall of iron she’d bumped into had a name hanging over her head. Just like all the other adventurers.

“Sorry if that’s a weird question,” Damnazon said.

“No. It’s not,” Mellisandra said. She knew she should tear her eyes off the woman in front of her. Staring was rude. Wasn’t it? Probably? But. Just. Wow. “No, it’s not weird, and yes, I was. You’re talking to yours too?”

“Geez, you sound like me,” Brendan said. “Sorry, I shouldn’t interrupt.”

“Quite a few of us are it seems,” Damnazon said. “And yes, I know that was a blunt way to ask, but blunt is how I am. Oh, sorry, that was for my player. She’s a little more timid than I am.”

“I’m gonna bet that’s more common than not,” Brendan said.

“Mine’s the same, I think,” Mellisandra said. “Which makes sense, their world sounds a lot safer than ours.”

“Yeah, we’re the lucky ones who get to fight off an invasion from beyond the heavens!” Damnazon said. “Well, lucky if we can find a group. I don’t think they’re sending soloists out to fight anywhere yet.”

“You don’t have a party?” Mellisandra asked, shocked that a tank who was so clearly burly wouldn’t have been snapped up hours ago.

“I had a team but they caught a small case of eaten-by-the-[Hounds of Fate]. So I’m kind of on market now.”

“Well if you’d like a [Wizard] teammate who’s still a bit short of max level, I’m all yours.” Mellisandra didn’t mean that to sound like she was flirting, but she didn’t not mean it to sound like that either.

“[Wizard] and [Warrior]? That sounds like a perfect match to me.”

Mellisandra felt a trill of delight sing down her spine. Sometimes it was so hard finding the people you needed, and other times they were just right there waiting for you.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Interlude 2

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

She saved seven of them. The lucky seven out of her final twenty accounts. The other thirteen were gone.

Hailey couldn’t process the tragedy of it. Couldn’t feel their loss as anything more that a weight of failure that hung over her like a mountain.

Would there be lawsuits? Would the families be staring at her from across a courtroom, broken parents hurling rage and tears at the one who’d let their children die? Or would they understand?

She’d tried. It hadn’t been enough, but she’d tried against the impossible anyways.

Those were concerns for another day though. The only thought that was still sharp enough to pierce the hollow space fatigue and stress had carved inside her was that the crisis wasn’t done. There were still people who needed her. Hundreds. Thousands of them.

But only one had a name she’d known since she was a kid.

Somewhere in whatever electric dream the players had been banished to, Tessa was struggling to survive. Tessa, the bright, cheerful, point of light she’d followed into so many late nights. The girl she’d left behind when their guild fell apart. The woman she could have saved if she’d just reached out sooner.

“Meeting. Now.” Marcus said, shouting to make sure he had the entire support team’s attention.

Hailey put down her headset and locked her computer. It was still running and her GM account was still logged in. Unless someone unplugged it, she wasn’t in any danger of being drawn into the game herself.

At least not unless she chose to make the jump herself.

So many people had though. And so many of them were missing.

Hailey knew the odds, and had seen what the price could be.

How much did those weigh when set against Tessa though?

Interlude – Azma

 Disobedience ran on a spectrum. Azma always made sure those assigned to her command were aware of that. She also made sure they understood the harshness they could expect for punishments based on the severity of their infractions. 

Those who were surprised by the stricter standards she maintained generally fell into two categories; the ones who were smart enough to keep that surprise to themselves and those who felt the need to protest, usually by citing the Consortium’s official regulations at her.

From the former category, Azma drew her command staff. She reasoned that even if they intended to disobey her, they would at least be smart enough to do so for profitable and compelling reasons. Azma had no interest in suppressing intelligent responses to changing situations even if those responses contradicted her orders. 

The latter category though? The underlings who thought they could dictate the terms of her authority to her? Those she educated.

It was a simple system, only complicated by the fact that she occasionally had to apply it to her “superior” officers as well. Their “education” tended to involve fewer applications of the onerous, menial duties she applied to recalcitrant underlings and more justified (in Azma’s view) homicide.

“Hello [Commander] Azma. I will be your new Executive Oversight,” [General] Miller said.

“[General] Whitemore has been transferred to other duties?” Azma asked, offering Miller a pleasant smile of curiosity. She honestly was curious, though only as to whether Miller was aware of Whitemore’s true fate and whether he understood what it meant for his own position.

“[General] Whitemore is in the morgue,” Miller said. “Or at least the thirty percent of him which we’ve been able to identify.”

“He was so far from the front lines though,” Azma said. “So far from danger.”

And yet not far enough outside her reach to escape paying the price for irritating her.

“Yes. His loss will be felt by all,” Miller said, being careful to be looking down at his notes as he spoke.

Good. He knew better than to risk making the standard pleasantries into an indirect threat. It was a mark in his favor. As was his lie about Whitemore, who would in truth be missed by no one. Better the trite and forgettable fiction than a serious consideration for justice, in whatever nebulous form it might exist, should be served. Even directed outwards, towards the imaginary enemies who had eliminated Whitemore, that sort of passion had a tendency to cause more problems than it solved.

“But we will move on,” Azma said. It was as much a command as a banal reassurance, and to his credit Miller seemed to understand that.

“Yes. Always better returns than yesterday.” It was one of the Consortium’s many mottos. A directive to all of the staff to be ever striving to earn the Consortium more than they had earned before. 

As far as any of the members who were outside the decision making processes of the Consortium knew, the only allowed goal was eternal growth. Open a planet today? If you couldn’t open two tomorrow then you were worthless. And if you could, then you had better have three lined up for the next day.

Azma had never been foolish enough to dance to that tune. Her performance was measured against standards which she dictated, an arrangement she had crafted by delivering consistently above her nearest competitors within the Consortium’s ranks.

Even when those competitors were attempting to sabotage her efforts.

“And will the approvals for engagement be granted today, or does the delay Whitemore spoke of still remain?” she asked, as though the question was near irrelevant.

In a sense it was. She already knew the answer. She was only interested in discovering how Miller would present it.

“By morning, ship’s time, the approvals will be transmitted and on your desk,” Miller said. “The review of the world’s dual arcanospheres has been completed and you have been cleared for a doubled bounty on the conquest.”

“A pity Whitemore didn’t live to see the plan proceed forward,” Azma said.

“He seems to have lacked the vision to see the current scheme’s value,” Miller said.

Speaking ill of the dead was a social taboo in many of the cultures the Consortium had contracts with (or, in plain terms, owned). It was also as clear a signal as Miller could send that he had no interest in interfering in Azma’s prosecution of the war effort.

Azma smiled. Many people mistook her position as a subservient one. They thought she “worked” for the Consortium. Those executives who had survived their tenure as her superior were aware that the relationship was more a matter that the Consortium had resources and Azma allowed the Consortium to benefit from her use of them. 

At least for the time being. None of them wanted to think what would happen when the Consortium was no longer a useful tool at Azma’s disposal.

Interlude – Niminay

Niminay relaxed back in her chair as Penswell massaged her shoulders and neck, wondering for the thousand and first time why Penny had never gotten half the fame she deserved.

“You’ve been up for three days now,” Penny said. “Would you at least take a nap in the chair? We need you not to fall apart before the fighting even starts.”

“Elven meditation blah blah blah,” Niminay said. “You know I can get by without as much sleep as a human.”

Penny’s massage along the back of Niminay’s neck became, briefly, a commanding encirclement around Niminay’s throat.

“Not as much isn’t the same as none,” Penny said. “You know this as well as I do.”

“There’s still so much to do though.” Niminay couldn’t blame Penny for wanting to strangle her. It was part and parcel of their relationship. Niminay saved the world, and Penny saved Niminay from herself. Niminay was reasonably sure that, between the two of them, Penny had the harder of the two jobs. Especially since Penny was frequently the one who came up with the brilliant world saving plans which Niminay got the lion’s share of the credit for when she executed them. 

“Yes. There are many things to do. This is why we have many people to do them.” Penny’s massage returned to a more therapeutic mode of touch.

“It would be easier to believe that if I’d seen you get any sleep in the last twenty four hours,” Niminay said. She knew Penny was correct, but arguing increased the duration of the massage and Niminay wasn’t about to give that up a moment sooner than she had to.

“I’m just following the example of our fearless leader,” Penny said. “As are far too many of the commanders and staff that we’ve assembled.”

Niminay sighed.

“You may have a point there. If I get six hours of rest though will they follow suite or will they panic and work even harder?”

“If you get six hours of sleep they’ll panic for the first hour, then see that things are under control, at least until the first Consortium fleet shows up, and they will then delegate like they’re all afraid to do at the moment.”

“What about the adventurers?” Niminay asked.

“It hasn’t been that long since they started arriving,” Penny said. “Probably most of them don’t need sleep yet.”

“Are they integrated enough yet to handle dealing with delegates for a quarter of a day?”

“It’s always hard to tell,” Penny admitted. “Some of them are frighteningly well organized. Others seem to barely pay attention if you light them on fire. I think overall though their individual team and guild leaders have things under control. Most of the adventurers will be looking to the people they’re used to taking orders from for direction on what to do.”

“There are so many of them though,” Niminay said. “More than I’ve ever seen gathered before.”

“I know,” Penny said. “If what Glimmerglass said is true then there’s something different about them too. Some new spark empowering them.”

“I believe what she says, and that worries me.”

“Why?”

“Because the world has never called for this many champions before, and if we’re being given an army this vast and powerful to work with, what is the Consortium bringing that will require this kind of strength to fight?”

Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra

Somethings make the end of the world worth worrying about.

“Are you sure you want to join the other adventurers for the Grand Coalition? If a battle starts up, there’s no guarantee there’ll be enough tanks and healers to go around,” Brendan asked, trying to imagine how he’d arrived at a place where taking part in an epic battle between good and evil was something he’d rather have no part of whatsoever.

“From what I’ve been hearing from the other adventurers, it sounds like it’s not a question of ‘if’ a battle with come, just ‘when’ and ‘where’ with the leading candidates being ‘soon’ and ‘more or less everywhere’. That’s why I have to join up,” Mellisandra said.

“Damn. I really wish I’d played more,” Brendan said. “Maybe if I’d been there as inspiration, we’d have you at the level cap already.”

“More levels would be nice, but it’s not like there haven’t been other crises before. We’ll handle this one like we did the others.” Mellisandra had left her room at the Inn and was mingling with the crowd of adventurers outside a nearby tavern. 

That she was talking to an unseen friend wasn’t drawing any attention since roughly 90% of the other adventurers were doing the same. In those cases, their communication was with distant guildmates or party members. From what Mellisandra had been able to determine, none of them were in direct contact with their ‘Inspirations’, though more than a few, possibly the majority in fact, were reporting that they’d found “new inspiration” – something within themselves that tied them to something greater still, rather than the sense of their ‘Inspiration’ being granted by an external power.

“How did we handle the other ones?” Brendan asked. “Let the high level characters tackle it?”

“Sure. The parts of it that they could. But there’s always enough trouble to go around and all we can do when we’re faced with hard times is manage them with the tools and talents we have. It’s not perfect, and sometimes we’ll fail, but even then we have to believe that our efforts matter. Maybe we hold the gap for one extra minute, or knock off an extra one percent health from a monster, and maybe that’s enough for someone else to rally to the position, or someone else to take the monster down. It’s investing in little miracles that we can never be sure of the outcome of, but if we don’t try, we’ll never make it to see the big ones.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Interlude 1

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

The overtime never ended. Hailey thought she was on her nineteenth hour at work but it might have been twenty or twenty three. Had she come in early for the launch? Was it dawn yet? Was it noon? It didn’t matter. She had more players to reach out to. More people to save.

When she could.

Too many weren’t showing up in the system anymore.

Hailye looked at her call queue. There were so many entries in it that the quick count icon was pegged at “999+”. No one had ever expected there to be more than a dozen or so calls pending for the whole team at any one time so the use of three digits in the notification icon had been an extravagance by the call system’s developers.

A part of Hailey grimly wished they’d stopped at 666+ to indicate that, if there were ever that many calls in the queue, all hell had broken loose.

“Hailey, tell me you got your list done,” Marcus said. He looked like he’d been hit by a semi. Hailey felt that put him about three tiers better off than she was doing.

“Almost there,” she said. “Uncontacted accounts are down to twenty now. I’ve got no idea how many need follow up though. The pending count is broken.”

“Ok, just get those twenty done then,” Marcus said. “We’re having a full staff meeting in fifteen minutes. Mandatory attendance.”

Fifteen minutes to save maybe twenty lives. Or at least delay the inevitable.

She tried making contact with the next account on her list. Character name “Road Killer”.

No response. Unknown character. Null reference.

Hailey could translate that, in fact as much as she didn’t want to, she couldn’t help but see the real meaning of those words.

He was dead.

“Road Killer” or “Kevin McConnel” had been erased, or eaten, or whatever it was that happened to people whose luck came up on the wrong side of the cosmic coin flip.

Hailey searched the logs to see if there was any record of “Road Killer”, any links to friends, or contact information which had been left behind. 

Sometimes there were a few breadcrumbs to follow.

Not for Kevin McConnel though.

He was gone. She’d failed another one.

She ran a search for “Pillowcase”. She’d run the search a hundred times already, and just like each of those time the result came back the same. Pillowcase was online. Pillowcase was actrive. Pillowcase was ready to receive texts.

Hailey moved on to her next account, trying not to imagine running her search and finding Pillowcase was gone. She didn’t think she could bear it.

Interlude – Amza

Listening to General Whitemore engendered the most profound homicidal tendencies. Amza found it refreshing. Few others gave her produced such pure emotions for her anymore.

It wasn’t that Azma was questioning her loyalty to the [Consortium of Pain] in her desire to murder her superior officer as brutally as possible. 

Far from it. Azma knew exactly what the Consortium did to those who betrayed it. 

Or at least to the betrayers who were foolish enough to find themselves powerless with the Consortium’s grasp. 

If she were to betray the Consortium, she would be far wiser than that. 

Not that she had detailed plans drawn up and ready to go at a moment’s notice. After all those would certainly have been recognized and dealt with by her superiors, who were clearly more clever and insightful than herself, and not placed in their positions through a combination of nepotism and the antipathy of those even further up the chain of command for dealing with Amza or people like her directly.

In that regards, General Whitemore was the ideal superior officer. He was distant enough that Azma couldn’t eliminate him easily and yet near enough that she couldn’t go around him and instead eliminate any of the people who had given her current, rather disagreeable orders.

“Delays [General]? Really? At this stage?” She knew her protests would yield no results but reminding people of why she was going to eventually eliminate them was both therapeutic for her and effective at keeping them in line. 

“You should be enjoying this time off [Commander],” Whitemore said. “An extra day or two to get your forces in order should be just the thing to prevent another debacle like Commander Gernal suffered.”

Amza smiled. Suggesting that her forces weren’t already in order or that they could ever be as ineptly managed as that fool Gernal’s troops had been? For that, she would make his eventual disintegration particularly painful.

“The projected duration of this campaign is two months,” Amza said. “Surely the Regional VP’s office wishes to expedite matters. Otherwise however will I be able to be present for the Quarterly Review Meeting?”

That delays were entirely intended to keep her in the field so that the Consortium’s Quarterly Review could be held without her presence was not lost on Amza. She made too many of her fellow [Commanders]  and superior officers nervous when she had immediate and personal access to them. 

She’d never slain any of them at an official Consortium function.

That they could prove.

Sometimes drunken managers went missing through. It was part of the price of doing business. They weren’t anything to worry about.

The worrisome ones were the ones they eventually found later. 

Sometimes leaving the broken shell of an enemy was the only method of conveying the proper message to others though.

“I’m sure they’ll come through the approvals shortly,” Whitemore said. “Don’t youy worry your pretty little head about that.”

Amza’s smile deepened. Whitemore thought he was safe. It was always so much more fun when they thought nothing could touch them.

Interlude – Niminay

The only thing less fun than organizing a force to prevent the end of the world was dealing with hundreds of adventurers who were intent on doing the same thing. Niminay wasn’t surprised by this fact, but she was surprised at how many people were looking to her to handle the problem anyways.

“You’re a hero to them,” Penswell said. “Of course they’re going to look to you for support and guidance.”

“That doesn’t make sense though,” Niminay said. “Most of them are as powerful as I am.”

She gestured out of the command tent which had been setup on the fields outside of [Steel Breezes]. The capital of the [Kingdom of Fal’Crimas] had known war since its founding before the [Fallen Kingdoms] had fallen. Though enemies had broken its gates and battered holes in its walls, [Steel Breezes] had never fallen before them, which made it a fitting sight to gather the army which would be tasked with ensuring the entire world didn’t fall before the [Consortium of Pain’s] invasion.

Even a city as vast and well defended as [Steel Breezes] couldn’t house the army which was being assembled though.

Or rather the one which the leaders of the [Grand Coalition] were striving to make appear as though it were assembling.

A woman walked past the command tent carrying two wagons, one on each shoulder. Somewhere in the world she was shouldering that inhuman load, but the image Niminay saw, the one she could reach out and touch, was nothing more than a projection.

Behind the woman, an Orc gentleman in noble finery carried a glass wand with extreme care. The wand was unbreakable – Niminay knew because she’d tried to shattered it once – so the nobleman’s concern was less that he might damage it and more that he might set it off. [The Scepter of Heaven’s Disfavor] was a divine artifact and anything which could release the literal wrath of a god was worthy of respect no matter how many levels the person carrying it possessed.

“It’s not about how powerful you are,” Penswell said. “It’s about what you’ve done. They admire you and look to you because you have a history of being there when the world has needed you the most.”

“I’ve never done anything like this though,” Niminay said.

The figures around her were illusions, mostly, but they were still working as one combined force. With the sort of portal and teleportation magics high level adventurers had access to it simply made more sense to stage everyone in different locations, both to provide faster responses if the Consortium’s forces showed up somewhere unexpected and to prevent any single attack from wiping them all out at once.

“Neither have any of us,” Glimmerglass said. “We’re all used to working in teams of eight, with our largest efforts typically being up to six teams acting together.”

Glimmerglass was speaking of the tens of thousands of adventurers who’d risen to answer the [Grand Coalition’s] call for help. They were outnumbered by the regular armies of the coalition’s member states, but in terms of fighting power there was no force in the world which could come close to equalling them. 

“It’s fascinating to see so many of you gathered together,” Penswell said. “I was under the impression that the spark which drove adventurers to fight was a fleeting and rare thing. There have been other calamities where the vas majority of you have sat out from the fighting, citing a lack of inner power to fuel your abilities, and yet here you all are?”

“I’m not sure I can explain it,” Glimmerglass said. “For years I was driven by what we call our ‘Inspiration’, and then it faded. I’ve spent the time since then living a quiet, peaceful life. I didn’t miss adventuring but I didn’t dread the idea of returning to it either. It simply felt like I was on a long holiday and was free to focus on the other parts of my life.”

“So what changed? Why are you here?” Niminay asked.

“I was called,” Glimmerglass said. “Not by someone, and not by the Inspiration I felt years ago. I don’t feel anything external pulling me into this. It’s more like after years of living, my soul finally awoke. It’s like I became my own Inspiration.”

Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra

Soul mates aren’t supposed to be made of pixels. Brendan knew that, but after speaking with Mellisandra for close to two hours, he was having a harder and harder time believing it.

“I can’t believe you remember all of the things we’ve played through,” he said. “God I am so sorry for all of the stupid risks I took with you.”

Mellisandra laughed, the animated figure of her on his screen performing an animation which he knew had never been programmed into the game.

“I can’t believe you’ve seen all the stupid risks I’ve taken!” she said. “I had no idea there was someone who was scrying me the whole time.”

“Am I though?” Brendan asked. “I mean, I’ve been playing a game. I push a button and you run in that direction. I push the space bar and you hop up.”

Mellisandra jumped in place.

“Did you push this space bar just then?” she asked.

“No, which is amazing, but I guess it could be part of an idle animation?”

“Try pressing it now then,” she said.

“I don’t know. It feels weird. I mean, you’re alive. Or your such a good AI program that the difference is meaningless. I don’t want to control you. That seems creepy.”

“I agree. So let’s see what’s possible. If you could control me before when, in my view, I’ve been moving around of my own volition this whole time, let’s see if you’re a puppetmaster or whether it changes what I’m thinking too.”

“Are you sure? What if I am changing your mind? That sounds freaking horrifiying.”

“It is. Which is why I want to know now and not discover it at some worse time, let when someone else takes over your controls.”

“Ok. I’ll try to make you jump again,” Brendan said. “And that’s it. Anything else isn’t me.”

“I trust you,” Mellisandra said.

Brendan hit the space bar and watched his character stay resolutely in place.

“You didn’t move!” He wasn’t sure he felt overjoyed by the notion. Maybe because it was one more tiny bit of confirmation that he was speaking to a real person, despite her pixel-based appearance.

“Ok. Good to know.” Mellisandra sounded relieved. “Now let’s try something else. When I saw ‘go’, try to make me jump again.”

“Why?” 

“I have a theory I want to test.” 

Brendan wasn’t surprised, the Mellisandra he’d always envisioned when he played her was deeply analytical. 

“Say when,” he offered with his finger hovering over the space bar.

“Now. Go.”

This time she did jump into the air, higher than before. Brendan’s heart wanted to plummet into his gut but he held off his rising concern, waiting to hear what Mellisandra had been testing.

“I was right! Do it again!”

Brendan hit the space bar once more and watched Mellisandra almost bang her head on the ceiling of the inn room she was in.

“Yes! I knew it! You’re my Inspiration! You’re not controlling me, but if I’m open to you, we can do so much more than I can do alone.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 21

Tessa was disappointed when the attack arrived. Not surprised. Finding the abandoned farmhouse swarmed with [Chaos Centipedes] was hardly an unexpected occurrence. The trio of monsters which burst from concealment in the ground weren’t even particularly dangerous. Just annoying.

“Guess we better focus on clearing a path through these things,” Tessa said with a heavy sigh. She’d been enjoying the chance to chat with Lisa while they jogged from the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] to the farmhouse. Duty called though.

“Yeah, if we have to call on someone else to rescue us so we can go rescue Starchild’s crew, we’re going to lose all the cool point ever,” Lisa said on their private channel.

“[Flame Shot]”

To Pillowcase’s left, one of the charging centipedes exploded in shower of sparks which rapidly consumed all of the bits of gore as they burst outwards.

“Ooookay, I guess that’s a little overkill,” Rip said over the shared team channel.

One of the two remaining centipedes twitched as a thin lightning bolt blew a hole straight through it. It’s front half then caught fire while it’s back half was encased in ice.

“I didn’t even use a spell on that one!” Matt said. “That was just a basic attack!”

“Welcome to being higher level than your foe,” Alice said. “It sucks for them just as much as it sucked for us in that [Wraithwing] attack.”

Pillowcase shield bashed the last attacking centipede and then crushed it into paste with a swing of her mace.

“You might have to go though a lot more of those,” Obby said. “We kind of charged in and slaughtered about a hundred of them.”

“How long ago was that?” Pillowcase asked, calculating the likely population density based on the respawn time that she’d seen on their previous trip to the farm.

“About fifteen minutes ago,” Starchild said.

Pillowcase stopped calculating.

“So. All of them. All of them will be back then?” she asked.

“Pretty much,” Pete said.

“There don’t seem to be any down here at least,” Lady Midnight said.

“Yeah, I think the demons would eat them if the [Chaos Centipedes] burrowed too deep,” Obby said.

“How far down did you fall?” Rip asked. Another centipede sprang from a covered hole on the ground but a normal arrow shot turned it into a deflating mass of green jelly.

“About a hundred feet,” Obby said. “The ceiling in here is about twenty feet high too, so getting back up to the hole we fell down would be tricky.”

“Not to be morose, but what happens if you die in there?” Matt asked. “I mean, could your ghosts even escape?”

“Not a question I’m super eager to discover the answer to,” Lady Midnight said.

“I think they’d have to find a [Heart Fire] within that dungeon and if there’s none around that are attuned for player use they’d need to find one of the other exits,” Alice said. 

A cluster of centipedes were waiting inside the farmhouse but before Pillowcase could worry about them, her team needed to deal with the half dozen packs of centipedes that were converging on their position.

“What if there aren’t any other exits?” Rip asked. “I mean are some dungeons just cut off like that?”

“It’s not how any of the ones in the game were setup,” Alice said. “Even the ones that you could fall into accidentally had main entrances which were fairly obvious and easy to pass through as a ghost.”

“One of the early dungeons, I think it was [The Maze of Madness] was one you could get stuck in right?” Tessa asked. “But I think that was only true which you were alive. If you died, you got warped out to the [Heart Fire] that was outside the maze.”

“Ugh, I hated that one,” Lady Midnight said.

“Yeah, it sucked so hard they never made one like that again,” Alice said. “So many hours wasted in that stupid thing looking for the prize at the center and all it took was one death and all your efforts went poof.”

“Why?” Rip asked. “Couldn’t you just retrace your steps.”

“That was the ‘Madness’ part of the dungeon,” Tessa said, remembering the teams she’d tried to lead through the maze. She prayed the demon dungeon Starchild and the others were in wasn’t a modern repeat of it. “The maze was procedurally generated for each team when they entered. If you left, the next time you came back it would be entirely different.”

“Maybe we’ve got an advantage here then,” Rip said. “I mean, the place Obby, Star, and Midnight are is made out of stone right? So it can’t just shift around like something made of pixels and bits can.”

“Generally true,” Obby said. “Stone’s pretty solid. If you add [Chaos Essence] to an area though space can get a little weird.”

“How weird?” Pete asked.

“Take a look at the bottom of the room that we’re hanging over,” Obby said.

“It’s like a big bowl,” Lady Midnight said. “I can’t make out what’s at the bottom though.”

“That’s because there is no bottom,” Obby said. “The center of the room drops down, down, down, until it reaches one of the levels in the [Sunless Deeps].”

“Wait, what?” Alice said. “The [Sunless Deeps] aren’t in the [High Beyond] though. They’re in the old zones. Or at least attached to them.”

“What are the [Sunless Deeps]?” Matt asked.

“They’re a zone that was added after the first level caps raises went into effect,” Tessa said. “They’re basically the [Fallen Kingdoms] version of the underworld, with all kinds of high level mobs and raid areas. When I was last playing some of the best loot in the game was down there.”

“That’s still true,” Lady Midnight said. “There are special purpose accessory pieces from the raids there that haven’t been surpassed by anything yet.”

“So I’m hearing we’ve got loot to win!” Rip said.

“Anyone mind if I adopt Rip Shot?” Obby asked.

“We are nowhere near strong enough to do that yet,” Lady Midnight said. “The real loot hoards don’t start showing up until level 70 at a minimum. We’d be vaporized the instant we stepped foot in there.”

“Also, as a note,” Pete said. “Even if we could get the loot, we couldn’t wear it till we were level 70, so there’s really no point to heading there yet.”

“Yeah, this is supposed to be a rescue, isn’t it?” Matt asked. “Like we get them out and then all head somewhere we can handle.”

“Maybe not…” Alice mumbled.

“You’ve got an idea?” Tessa asked.

“We don’t have to fight to get through there,” Alice said. “Not if we have some high level players clear a path for us. This dungeon could be a link to connect us back up with the rest of the world.”

“Ah, sorry there,” Obby said. “I should have mentioned. The pit to the [Sunless Deeps] drops into a raid dungeon which wasn’t ready yet, so it’s cut off from everything else. There’s a grate over the pit which seals it from this end and the other side is disconnected from the normal passages through the [Sunless Deeps]. The demons have even painted the inner side of it with the blood from their fallen comrades to create sigils to make it unpassable by the usual short range teleport abilities.”

“That’s a shame,” Lady Midnight said. “We know there are a ton of level appropriate dungeons in the old zones. It’d be a lot safer tackling those than taking a chance on the ones here.”

“Even in known areas, the encounters may not be quite what you think they should be,” Starchild said. “With the [Consortium of Pain] attacking, there will be displaced monsters, and formerly safe refuges which have fallen into enemy hands.”

“We’re lucky there,” Obby said. “The Consortium is focusing a lot of their efforts at taking down the [Fallen Kingdoms] primary defenders. Not many people are looking to the [High Beyond] for strategic targets since it’s reasonable cut off and there aren’t many high level defenders here.”

“Are there any high levels here?” Tessa asked. “I mean there hasn’t been time for anyone to have level capped yet and even if they did, their gear would be junk wouldn’t it?”

“Players aren’t the only ones who are defending against the Consortium,” Obby said. “A lot of the native powers, good or bad, aren’t going to sit back and let a pan-dimensional company come in and stripmine that world for all its magic and resources.”

Tessa paused to think about that. A [Chaos Centipede] tried to interrupt her but it was less than successful. As were it’s fourteen friends.

“Oh wow. If it’s not just us, does that mean even the dungeon and raid bosses are joining the fight?” she asked.

“If their own manner,” Obby said. “Most aren’t going to fight alongside the players. There’s not enough trust there, and at least some of the ‘villains’ are intent on fighting the Consortium as much to gain more power for themselves as they are for defending the [Falling Kingdoms].”

“None of that is going to happen soon though is it?” Tessa asked, voice the question as intuition drove it into her mind.

“Why would you say that?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Armies move pretty slowly,” Obby said.

“That’s what the in-game reason would have been,” Tessa said. “Out of game, EE likes to milk their expansions for all they’re worth. The whole war against the Consortium probably has two year of events tied to it so they can roll stuff out every quarter to give the players some new treadmill to grind on.”

“Maybe this fight is the first event then?” Lady Midnight said.

“Let’s hope not,” Alice said. “If Pillowcase is right, and this is still tied in with the dev’s original plan, then the first fights against the Consortium will be ones the defenders lose.”

“That makes sense,” Matt said. “If the defenders win the first big battle, then the war could be over before it starts.”

I wonder how much we can change the narrative the EE devs baked into the game? Tessa thought.

Or if it’s even present at all? Pillowcase responded.

It’s probably dangerous to assume it is and dangerous to assume it’s not, Tessa thought. We’ve really got to get back in touch with Burnt Toast. The support team should have data at this point on whether the events here are playing out following the plan the devs had setup.

Want to bet they’re not? Pillowcase asked.

After the [Wraithwing Assault]? No. No I do not want to take that bet.

You know I feel like we’re missing some other opportunity here though.

Tessa paused at the entrance to the farmhouse, the words for the [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell on her lips as she picked at the memory that was teasing around the edges of her mind.

“So how are we going to get them out?” Matt asked. “I mean I’ve got some rope in my pack but it’s not long enough to reach that far. I think.”

“I’ve got some too,” Rip said. “No idea why though. Is there something you can do with rope in the game?”

“It shows up in some cutscenes,” Alice said. “Our bags are supposed to carry a bunch of general purpose adventuring stuff so that we can pull out whatever trivial items are needed to make things seems realistic.”

“What we mostly need you to do is secure the rope and then defend it while we climb,” Pete said. “It didn’t make sense to try to climb up with the the [Chain Lasher] and the centipedes waiting for us or crawling down the hole to get us before we got to the top.”

“Oh, right, the [Chain Lasher],” Rip said. “Where is that…”

She was cut off by the monster in question leaping onto Pillowcase.

“[Flame Shot] [Multi-Burst]!”

“[Casting spell: Torment]”

“[Casting spell: Hungry Guardians]”

The last came from Alice, and between the damage Rip and Matt inflicted and the protection Alice provided, Pillowcase didn’t need to activate even a single one of her own abilities. Where once there had been a [Chain Lasher] only a shattered pile of metal links and dripping ichor remained.

“Sounds like you folks are having fun,” Obby said.

“Moreso than last time,” Alice said.

“Give us a minute and I think we can get you out of there,” Matt said.

Intuition finally clicked into words

“Unless we don’t,” Tessa said, the idea in her head seeming more plausible from each new angle she considered it from.

“You realize we only have lowbie level gold to pay you with right?” Pete asked.

Tessa shook her head.

“No. I’m not saying we leave you there. I’m saying we join you.”

“I thought we didn’t want to tangle with an unknown dungeon?” Rip said.

“I think it might be worth it,” Tessa said. “There’s some loot we can get in there that we haven’t seen much of yet.”

“Loot? What kind of loot?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Blood.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 20

The boundaries of Tessa’s world were fraying. The plains which stretched between the mountains where the entrance to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] had been and the abandoned farmhouse where the new members of her team were trapped should have been a broad, open field, but the wreckage from battles, both ancient and recent, which covered it blocked out the view in all directions, narrowing her world down to the small area around them. 

Somehow that helped though. There were enough problems close by without needing to consider the disaster which lay across the rest of the world.

“How bad is the hunger getting?” she asked Alice in their private channel.

“I can bear it,” Alice said. Her jogging was loose and easy, the same as the rest of them, but her eyes remained fixed on a spot on the ground a few paces ahead of her.

“Can I help?” Tessa asked. She could hear the determination in Alice’s voice, and knew from experience the kind of pain determination could be covering.

“How? Is there a lot of blood in your stuffing?” Alice asked irritation toppling into anger before she shook her head and reeled it back in. “Sorry, dammit. I didn’t mean to snap like that.”

“You should see what I’m like when I get hangry,” Tessa said, laughing off her momentary blip of panic at having said the wrong thing.

“I’ll be ok,” Alice said. “It’s my own stupid fault for picking [Graveborn] for my race.”

“I’m going to bet getting stuck living in Alice’s skin wasn’t exactly a factor in the selection process,” Tessa said.

Alice chuffed out the fragment of a laugh.

“She wasn’t supposed to be anything more than a one-off,” Alice said. “CeaseAll was supposed to come and power level me up to max and then I’d be able to prove that [Solar Priestess] are just as viable as [Grave Menders].”

“I’m sorry,” Tessa said, out of reflex but tinged with a measure of guilt too. Alice’s misfortune had turned out to be a windfall for Tessa, Rip and Matt, and that didn’t seem to be fair when it also came with an unslakeable thirst for blood.

“It’s not your fault. I’m just an idiot,” Alice said. “A hungry, cranky idiot. God, why am I getting twisted up about this of all things? Oh boohoo, I’m a cute vampire with magic and a huge pocketful of gold. Oh how dark is my life. Next I’m gonna start writing bleak poetry.”

“We’ve all gone through that phase,” Tessa said. “Well, maybe not the cute vampire part of it, or the gold, but if we get home I can show you a stack of bad poetry about twelve feet high. Or, you know, the ashes of it after I went and burned it all.”

Alice gave a more honest laugh at that.

“I’m sorry to hit you with that,” she said. “I think it’s just just starting to get to me.”

“Being here or being a vampire?” Tessa asked.

“Either? Both? All of it?” Alice said. “It’s…I don’t even know. If you’d told me about this a week ago I would have said ‘cool’ and been looking forward to it. If you’d told me about it ten years ago I would have sold body parts for it to be true. I should be so happy we’re here.”

“And with being a blood sucking undead?” Tessa asked. It wasn’t teasing, but she didn’t mean it seriously either. She just wanted to keep the smile on Alice’s face.

“That most of all!” Alice said. “Well, when I was a kid at least. I went through a hardcore fang phase. Nosferatu to Twilight. If it had fangs and an aversion to sunlight, I was so there for it.”

“Did you ever see Near Dark?” Tessa asked, remembering her own forays into vampire obsession.

“A classic,” Alice said. “I take it you were a fan too?”

“My first girl friend and I were entirely too into giving each other hickeys,” Tessa said. “It’s embarrassing to even think about it. I still can’t believe no one ever figured it out.”

“People are amazingly good at not seeing things they don’t want to,” Alice said. “Even when the reality is right there. Everyday.”

Her smile faded as she spoke, some private melancholy crowding out both the undead hunger and the brief moment of good cheer.

“What I see is someone who got stuck with a rotten deal and has been going above and beyond the call for a while now,” Tessa said. “We need to find a way for you to chow down like your body needs too.”

“I am not going to start killing random people and drinking them dry,” Alice said. “Tempting though that may be.”

“I was thinking more about collecting some blood from a monster. Or an animal. Or even a person if you don’t need that much.”

“There hasn’t been a lot of blood in the monsters we’ve fought,” Alice said. “Just ichor and bug guts. I’ve been watching for that.”

“It’s probably because of the T for Teen rating the game had,” Tessa said. “We’ll find you something though.”

“I’ll be okay,” Alice said. “We’ve got more important things to worry about at the moment.”

“More urgent maybe,” Tessa said. “You’re as important as the rest are though.”

Alice smiled.

“Everybody loves a healer, so long as no one ever dies.”

“Oh, I’ve been there too,” Tessa said, thinking back to the fickle mood of a party when she was playing Glimmerglass and things were well compared to the party’s mood if things turned against them. “But that’s not what I meant. Alice is great to have on the team, but you’re important too.”

“Thanks. It’s nice to hear that once in a while.” There was a surprising warmth in her voice. “My real name’s Lisa by the way, Lisa Chen. I don’t remember if I mentioned that yet or not.”

“Mine’s Tessa. Tessa Moore. I wanted to ask before, but we’d just met and…”

“And you didn’t want to feel weird?” Lisa asked. “Yeah, I kind of know the feeling.”

They ran on for a handful of breaths before Lisa spoke again.

“I haven’t asked the kids what their names are yet.”

“Me either,” Tessa said. “At first it was just the usual thing of ‘don’t ask under-age people personal info’, because this was all going to stop as quick as it started.”

“”Which is seeming less likely with every minute that goes by with no response from from the GMs,” Lisa said.

“Which I knew,” Tessa said. “I mean, there’s nothing their programmers are going to be able to do because there’s no way this has anything to do with coding, or the servers, or anything anyone in our world has any familiarity with.”

“Not even Russian Super Hackers?” Lisa asked. “That’s a theory that went around where CeaseAll is. She messaged me a little while ago to see how we were doing.”

“Please tell me no one took that seriously,” Tessa said.

“If by no one you mean about half the people at the bar Cease was at? Then, yeah.”

Tessa shook her head.

“This place has a terrible inclusion filter. The unfortunate and the stupid. And we’ve got a global crisis rolling in.”

“It sounds like people are working on that,” Lisa said. “Cease was saying that a lot of the high level players are being gathered together into an army like the one we saw in the intro video. Niminey’s out there calling everyone to join up.”

“Wait, like the actual Niminey? She’s alive in here too?”

“I think all the NPCs are,” Lisa said. “They’ve got Prince Brandoth, and Penswell, and a bunch of the Iconics leading the defenders.”

“Cease is still outside of the game though isn’t she?” Tessa asked. “Shouldn’t she be playing it safe?”

“Yeah, but my whole guild is there for the planning. Or you know everyone but me and the people who weren’t logged in. They don’t intend to fight on the front lines, but if the battle comes to them, everyone wants to be ready.”

“Oh wow. I wonder if EE can put a stop to any assault events they had planned? A big brawl in a major city like [Thaldinsforge] would be cool but so many people would get drawn in. I mean those things are deathfests under the best of circumstances.”

“I wish I could be there,” Lisa said.

“Me too. Even just as Pillowcase, though Glimmerglass would be a lot more useful.”

“It’s funny isn’t it?” Lisa asked. “What we’re doing here? These fights, and leveling up? It kind of doesn’t matter.”

Tessa wanted to object but she could picture the grand armies being deployed in the Fallen Kingdoms. She could see guilds banding together, people rallying behind characters with the power to challenge the gods themselves. She could see the whole world moving in a great tide of destiny while she was left on the shore. Too small and too far away to matter in the titanic struggle that was going to come.

“Maybe not,” she said and then brightened. “Maybe not, and maybe that’s a good thing.”

“How so?” Lisa asked, more intrigued than skeptical.

“If we’d been on our usual characters, we’d be swept up in the war with the [Consortium of Pain] right? But there’s hundreds of thousands of people fighting in that, so even if we had the best gear we’d still just be one small part of it, not all that important, and not able to choose our own destiny.”

“Whereas now, we can do whatever we want,” Lisa said, tasting the idea like hard candy.

“Yeah, what we’re doing now is happening because we chose to do it, and it matters because we’re the ones here to do it. I’m sure any of the other players could be the ones to rescue Starchild and her crew but none of them are here. That’s all on us.”

“Eventually we’ll out level this part of the [High Beyond] though and then we’ll be stuck down with the mid-levels in the older zones,” Lisa said.

“I hope so!” Tessa said. “Picture us warping down from the heavens to land somewhere like the [Pelgrathi Highlands]. You’ve got teams of mid-levels there who’s been staying in the taverns or running dungeons with the help of a bunch of high level players to keep them safe. Then we show up. Tell me any of them could handle the [Mind Crusher] fight we just went through? We’re going to be the most badass team of mid-level adventurers ever.”

“You paint a beautiful picture,” Lisa said. “But we’ll have to see how it turns out. I know a lot of groups who would snap up a tank like you in a heart beat.”

“We’re close to having a full group as it is,” Tessa said. “And I’d rather stick with you. PUGs were terrible when I wasn’t literally going to have my head chopped off thanks to people ignoring what I say.”

Lisa was silent for a moment which prompted Tessa to review her words in case she’d said something wrong.

“That’s just me though,” Tessa added. “You’ll have access to your guild once we’re back in the old zones. You can do a lot better than a PUG. Heck, you can probably have CeaseAll power level you then.”

Tessa could see the split that would happen. Lisa would take an invite as Lost Alice to a guild party and head off to shoot up to the level cap as quick as possible. Without a healer, Rip and Matt would have to leave the team to search for one who needed two more damage dealers. 

Tessa could try to stay with them, but when the inevitable offer for a team came it would doubtless be for one with only one openings, leaving her to choose between teaming with her young friends and advancing further to help keep them safe.

They’d walk away from her eventually.

They would have to. It was the only chance they’d have to improve.

It was what everyone else did after all.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Lisa said. “I think I’d rather stay with you.”