This time the illness hiatus is on me. I’m hoping that giving myself a week should be enough, but I’ll update next week if it needs to be longer. I’m giving myself at least Thursday and Sunday to recover and likely Tuesday as well, so the next update is likely to be on 9/17.
It was time to get moving. Tessa knew that, but she really didn’t want to. Not when the alternative was to stay where she was, wrapped up in Lost Alice’s arms.
“It sounds like we’ve got a plan,” Lisa said, addressing the others on the chat line as much as Tessa who was close enough to hear her actual voice.
They were still more or less sprawled on the ground of the room they’d been blasted into. A tiny, but surprisingly well lit cavern which had definitely been carved by someone with a plan for the space. The door at the far end was proof of that.
The closed door.
Tessa suspected that would be a problem, but it was a problem for a Tessa who’d decided to give up on Lost Alice’s soft and chilly embrace and that Tessa clearly had her priorities scrambled so she deserved problems like that.
“It’s not a great plan, but it’ll should keep them out of trouble. Hopefully,” Lisa said, limiting that comment to the private channel she shared with Tessa.
“It’s weird that I’m starting to think of Rip and Matt as our responsibility isn’t it?” Tessa said, giving voice to the thought as it stumbled to the forefront of her exhausted mind.
“Probably,” Lisa said. “But I’m doing the same thing, and compared to everything else that’s happening I’m not sure adopting a pair of lost little fledglings really even cracks into the ‘Top 100 Strangest Things I Did Today’ list.”
“Now I’m picturing Matt as a little duck inside that armor.” Tessa laughed, needing the moment of levity more than she’d known.
“That would be adorable. Sitting in a little chair, with a little headset on, tapping buttons with his bill,” Lisa said. She hadn’t pulled her arms away yet and Tessa saw no reasons to bring this fact to her attention.
“Oh god, I’m going to trying to peek inside his armor every time we see him now,” Tessa said, shaking her head.
“What is in there?” Lisa asked.
“Gears I think?” Tessa said. “Pillowcase is full of enchanted fluff basically, and I think that sort of thematic construction is how all the [Artifax] are put together.”
“Was it weird being filled with stuffing?” Lisa asked.
“It probably should have been, but that was what Pillowcase had always known and since it felt normal to her, it felt normal to me. How about – I wanted to say ‘being filled with blood’ but I want it on the record that I realized how stupid that was before the words left my mouth.”
“You probably meant ‘being a vampire’, and it’s pretty much the same I think,” Lisa said. “Lost Alice has been a vampire for a while so she’s used it. Mostly. It’s a little weird for her still, so I get that too.”
“I’m glad it’s not too freaky for you,” Tessa said. “This place is hard enough, but at least whatever mind-body magic we got whammied with seems to be handling acclimating us pretty well.”
“So is this your real body? Or, I mean, is it Tessa’s real body. I know the other one was Pillowcase’s real body. Sorry Pillow,” Lisa said.
Tessa looked at her hands and glanced down her chest and legs. Everything seemed more or less what she was used to seeing in the mirror. She even had on one of her nice T-shirts.
Except it wasn’t the one she’d been wearing when she was drawn into the [Fallen Kingdoms].
Neither were the sweatpants the ones she’d been wearing. She had a similar question about her socks but they were non-descript enough that she couldn’t be sure.
“Yeah, this is me,” she said, feeling just a bit self conscious in the arms of the artistically perfect vampire.
“I like your shirt,” Lisa said, pulling back at last to get a better look at Tessa.
The shirt in question had a top line which read: “1,000,000 HP” and a line below it in much tinier print which said: “(not really but it scares the literate monsters)”.
“Thanks,” Tessa said, not sure how to read the vampiric gaze which seemed to be drinking her in. “I don’t think it’ll do much to stop any of the monsters here though.”
“Yeah, these robes I’m in are probably a ten times as sturdy and I’m still a ‘squishy’,” Lisa said. “Do you have anything else you could equip? You’ll need some shoes if nothing else.”
“I don’t think so,” Tessa said and reached over to the bag which was hanging at her side. “I didn’t get a chance to pack I’m afraid.”
Reaching into the inventory bag was weird and unsettling and so far below getting blasted out of existence that Tessa wasn’t even consciously aware of how strange it felt. Her hand plunged into the extra-planar space and came back with a pair of sturdy boots in her exact size as well as a tunic, breeches, and cloak which was almost as soft as Lost Alice’s embrace.
“Where did you get those?” Lisa asked, running her finger down the intricate stitchwork on the cloak’s collar.
“They were in the bag, and, they’re mine. Like, I can feel they’re bound to me already. But I never had magic clothes before?” Tessa said, worried for a moment about what sort of contract she might be agreeing to if she put on her new garb.
“I think these are really only for you too,” Lisa said. “I called up the stats on this cloak and the only class that can equip it is ‘[VS]’.”
“[Void Speaker]? But that’s not even a real class in the game?” Tessa said.
“Apparently it is now,” Lisa said. “And maybe it was before too?”
“What makes you say that?” Tessa asked, feeling the comforting heft of the tunic. Even without seeing the stats, she was sure the fabric, or more precisely the spells woven in it, would protect her from lesser forms of damage. Things like minor claw attacks, peasant arrows, machine gun fire. The easy stuff.
“This is a [Heritage] piece,” Lisa said. “They introduced those to the game a few years ago. It’ll grow with you as you level. It’s basically the best stuff you can wear until you hit the level cap.”
Tessa knew that was good news, but the implication that there was someone else who held the [Void Speaker] class before her seemed ominous. She was only just learning what she could do and she’d already fractured a god’s soul off someone. What might a max level [Void Speaker] be capable of?
The blast from the [God Soul] had propelled Rose and Jamal and Lady Midnight upwards. It was strange though since even with as high as they’d been shot – and to Rose it felt like they’d been thrown a mile or two upwards – they’d still landed within the confines of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. What was stranger was that the stone and earth they’d been blasted through showed no signs of being affected by their passage.
“So did things like this happen in the game version of [Broken Horizons]?” Rose asked.
“Things like what?” Lady Midnight asked. She was fishing around in her inventory and came out with a small milky orb after a little searching.
“The [God Soul] thing,” Rose said. “And the [Formless Hunger] and all the stuff we’ve been running into.”
Rose waved her hands to take in the world around them, but her thoughts were centered on the [God Soul]. She’d felt the power that Tessa had held and she had a clear and specific idea of what she would have done with it.
After saving Lost Alice of course.
She couldn’t fault Tessa for that.
Lost Alice had to come first.
But if she could have maybe only used half the [God Soul] to heal Lost Alice? Rose shivered at the idea of what the [Lord of Storms] could have done with half a [God Soul].
Live again maybe? Even if it was only for a little while, that might have been enough to inspire the belief required to bring them back to life all the way.
“Yeah, we’ve had things like that before,” Lady Midnight said. “Not a [God Soul] specifically, but the high end gear gets pretty esoteric. The developers weren’t shy about hyperbole early on and with each expansion they had to add stuff that was that much more powerful than what we’d gotten in the previous one.”
“So we could find something like a [God Soul] again?” Rose asked, wheels turning in her mind to slot in the “[Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]” and the fact that they’d already met a god with the possibility that any further deific artifacts were likely laying somewhere relatively nearby.
“My other character’s an archer and she’s got a [Bifrost Bow],” Lady Midnight said. “When she needs to go somewhere she can summon a literal rainbow to teleport her there. And one of her arrows is called [Ra’s Wrath] which is, basically, a nuclear bomb. The flavor text says is strikes with the ‘fire of the sun’, which means a big ball of nuclear fusion.”
“How would you ever fire a thing like that?” Jamal asked.
“It’s got a limited area of effect,” Lady Midnight said. “Anything inside the area gets nuked, but if you’re standing two inches outside the area you’re fine. Also it’s only usable in cutscenes or for scripted events, so it’s basically just a mechanics cheat. Otherwise you’d be able to grief other players a little too easily.”
“Where do you get that?” Rose asked, her eyes alight with the prospect of being able to nuke enemies with her bow.
“One of the second tier raids, [Well of Infinity],” Lady Midnight said. “It’s one of the 64 man raids though and competition for the loot is ridiculous. I had to grind that one for a year and a half before I was able to get a drop. God, the stories I could tell about that whole mess!”
“Why don’t you?” Jamal suggested. “We’re supposed to wait here for the others to show up right? Might as well learn what the game was all about. Some of that stuff might still be true in this place.”
“Well in that case you probably want to hear about the technical stuff,” Lady Midnight said. “What kind of tactics we used and that sort of thing. All the guild drama ‘s hopefully a thing of the past.”
“Why would it be?” Rose asked.
“Because now what we’re doing actually does matter,” Lady Midnight said. “Raiding in the game was an exercise in perseverance, basically trading your time to gear up your character so you’d be judged as ‘worthy to hang with the cool kids’. Here though? I’m all too happy to let the cool kids throw themselves in the meat grinder fights.”
“Is that what the other players are doing now?” Rose asked.
“A lot of the ones I know,” Lady Midnight said. “Well, a lot of the ones I like. I know there’s a bunch who decided to scamper off and do their own thing. And a few who just didn’t want to fight at all, which is fair I think.”
“Yeah, this isn’t what they signed up for when they logged in, is it?” Jamal said.
“I mean, it kind of is, though, isn’t it?” Rose asked. “If I’d known I could log into a real fantasy world, and be like this?” She gestured to Rip Shot’s whole body. “I would have dove in here as soon as I could click the mouse!”
“Yeah, but some of them probably have jobs and stuff,” Jamal said.
“And bills,” Lady Midnight said. “I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be able to pay my rent with gold pieces.”
“So why go back?” Rose asked.
“We’ll have to, won’t we?” Lady Midnight said. “Or…”
“Or we can stay here,” Rose said. “I know Rip wouldn’t mind us staying together. Her and I that is. We were made for each other.”
“Same for me and Matt,” Jamal said.
“What about your families though?” Lady Midnight asked.
“I’m thinking we’re going to adopt Lost Alice and Pillowcase,” Rose said. “And anyone who else wants in.”
“It’d be nice to have a good family for a change,” Jamal said.
Interlude – Grunvan
Grunvan wasn’t anything special as [Goblins] went. Average height, average strength, average smarts. She’d lived an average life and been, on average, ok with that.
As a kid, the “call to adventure” had been something to knocked on other people’s doors, usually with disastrous results. She’d gone into the not-at-all lucrative career of wagon-driving with her eyes open to both the risks she was taking and the one’s she was stepping well out of her path to avoid.
[Wagon Town] was a big enough city that the roads leading to it were generally secure. The “big money” (for extremely modest values of “big”) among wagon routes were the ones which lead through places like the [Fire Fields] or the [Cryptmist Woods]. That a fair percentage of drivers on those routes didn’t live long enough to claim their big pay days was enough to convince Grunvan that she was happier with the common routes doing either regular deliveries within town or out to the constellation of small villages and communities which [Wagon Town] extensively with.
Despite her life long commitment to making sensible and safe choices though, Grunvan still found herself huddling behind an giant shield she could barely lift, clad in scraps of armor which showed in too many places where they’d failed to protect their previous wearer.
“They’ve got to be sending help right?” Argwin said after she snuck a glance over the hastily assembled battlements they’d finished throwing up an hour before.
Grunvan was reasonably sure Agwin was not looking for an honest opinion on that matter. None of the thirty or so goblins on their section of the defensive earthworks wanted to be where they were, and none of them really expected anyone else to throw themselves into the proverbial frying pan. Not with the horde of nightmares that had rolled up and begun constructing a camp right outside the small village of [Apple Plate].
There were unbelievable reports that the whole world was under attack by monsters from beyond the stars. Unbelievable except for the part where a few hundred yards away there was a giant horde of monsters from beyond the stars waiting to destroy [Apple Plate], [Wagon Town], and probably every other goblin town they could get their talons and tentacles on.
Grunvan could imagine a lot of things, but imagining the armed forces from any of the other nations choosing to lend a forgettable little village like [Apple Plate] a hand was not one of them.
“Sure,” she said. “The [Silver Spears Gryphon Brigade] could still make it here before trouble starts.”
It wasn’t a lie if no one was going to believe it.
“I just don’t get why they’re waiting,” Argwin said, clutching her spiked war club as though a better grip would matter against the [Trainsaw Transport] that was fueling up on the other side of the apple orchard.
“They’re definitely afraid of these mighty thews,” Grunvan said and flexed her bicep for effect.
Flexing did give her arm a little more definition. Average strength for someone who spent their life hauling crates and fighting with ornery [Gum Lizards] was enough to swing a club with a decent amount of force. Against an indecently powerful enemy though it wasn’t going to mean anything.
Argwin groaned out short laugh.
“You can take that big spikey thing then,” she said, gesturing to the [Trainsaw Transport].
“Oh, does that mean I can leave all the littler ones to you then?” Grunvan asked.
“Sure. That seems fair. You smash that spikey thing to bits and we’ll beat up the other ten million or so beasties out there. Typical wagon driver.”
Argwin’s smile wasn’t a sign that her fear was banished, only that she’d managed to shove it over so she could coexist with it.
“Just because we know how to take the jobs that let us sit on our butts most of the day is no reason for you to be jealous,” Grunvan said. “We can’t all be bakers who get up at the crack of dawn and then flounce off before lunch to spend the rest of the day writing bad love poems.”
“You’re just jealous you never got one,” Argwin said.
“Like I’d ever need one? You read them all to me!”
“Ah, not all of them,” Argwin said and let out of a long and slow sigh. “You know I think I had a really good one in me today.”
“Save it for tomorrow,” Grunvan said.
Not that there was going to be a tomorrow. At least not for either of them.
Grunvan had answered the call to arms because the news had reached [Apple Plate] of what had happened to [Stone Puddle], the village on the side of the far hill.
For whatever alien reason they might have, the [Consortium of Pain] had chosen to portal their force in and around [Stone Puddle]. There hadn’t been any negotiations. The Consortium had simply arrived, corralled everyone they could, and thrown them into some kind of conversion machine.
The goblins who walked out were hollow eyes and drained of all color. As far as the survivors who’s escaped could tell, the converted were still alive, but it wasn’t the sort of life Grunvan ever wanted to experience. Better to resist with everything she had, even if all she had to resist with was very little.
Grunvan knew she wasn’t anything special, but her world had become one that needed everyone to save it, even if they could only do a little bit.
Interlude – Gabriel Santiago
Gabriel never had any luck. The whole world was exploding with the news that some “gamer rapture” was happening and he was stuck playing the wrong game.
“Teddy’s saying he read it’s all a hoax,” Luna said as the two of them banked in towards the Crimson Empire’s asteroid mining installation.
Gabriel watched on the screen as the particle battery emplacements popped up from around the base’s perimeter as Luna’s faster fighter drew into range.
“So, you’re saying it’s definitely not a hoax then?”
He fired a shield recharge at Luna’s ship to help her weather the barrage of fire and cranked his speed down to a sustainable combat velocity.
“One hundred percent real,” Luna said, as she danced her fighter in to score their first solid hit on the mining platform. “I mean given Teddy’s track record, it’s gotta be right?”
“Given the websites Teddy reads? Yeah, no way it’s not real, even if it’s ridiculous.”
“Can you imagine though? It sounds there’s like a hundred thousand people who all got swooped up. Like one second they’re playing and then bam, sucked right into the game.”
“This was their launch day wasn’t it? I bet it’s a lot more than a hundred thousand,” Gabriel said, though the idea of even a hundred thousand people doing anything was hard to picture.
“I think it was. That is a lot of people suddenly vanishing. I mean Crystal Stars has, what, a half million concurrent users? If we all went poof can you imagine the havoc that would cause?”
Gabriel wanted to say something slick. Something about how he would go poof with her any day, except not excruciatingly pathetic. Since he felt like he’d been born without any slick genes at all, he instead opted to engage with what Luna was saying.
“I know Andy works traffic control at La Guardia and I think there’s a bunch of others on his team that do too. Bet it wouldn’t be easy landing planes with three quarters of your staff vanishing into thin air.”
The mining base on screen launched a cluster of automated fighters as the last of its defensive turrets fell before Luna and Gabriel’s combined fire.
“He doesn’t play at work does he?” Luna asked.
“He claims he doesn’t, but I’ve seen him on checking his auctions out pretty much throughout the day sometimes.”
“Must be nice to not have to worry about getting fired,” Luna said.
“Oh, I think he should be worried, he just doesn’t.”
“That sounds like Andy,” Luna said. “How about you? You said you had a big project coming up didn’t you? I didn’t know if I’d see you on tonight?”
“I got ‘Part One’ of the big project knocked out already. It was just rough drafts really. ‘Part Two’ is taking those to a polished state but I can’t do that until the customer picks out the ones they like.”
“So you’ll have time for the raid on the Emperor’s Lost Throne tomorrow night then?” Luna asked, a note of joy in her voice which Gabriel hoped was a good sign.
He knew he should just tell her how he was feeling. That getting to play with her was one of the high points of his week and that he was crushing on her pretty hard. Unfortunately there were enough douchey guys like Teddy who he could be confused with if he presented things poorly and the last thing he wanted to do was make someone he liked feel uncomfortable.
Also there was the small factor that they lived three thousand miles apart, so it wasn’t like a confession would lead to them casually getting together for coffee to see where things went. He figured he had time to take it slow and see whether this would be a nice friendship or something more.
He didn’t have as much time as he imagined, but that was true of so many people that he was hardly unique on that count.
“Yeah, even if the customer gets back to us and wants a rush order I can push them off for a night. I mean you can’t rush greatness right?”
Luna laughed as they turned to face the mining base’s final defense, a Techno-Organic War Beast from the Old Centinium.
“Do they usually buy that?” she asked, charging her shields and burning a cooldown ability to reload her missile bays instantly.
“The customers? Oh hell no,” Gabriel said, moving his ship ahead of hers so he’d be able to tank the War Beast’s heavy hits. “My boss is cool though. She knows we need down time or the staff gets cranky so she charges absurd rates for overtime work.”
“She sounds like my boss,” Luna said. “I must have gone through more than a dozen jobs before I got here and now I will stop working for Shanti about four days after I die.”
“That is the kind of praise you do not hear for bosses very often,” Gabriel said.
“I mean, she’s nice to us. She treats us like people. It’s not exactly hard,” Luna said. “Which I can’t say is true about this War Beast. Think we’re up for tackling it?”
“Probably not,” Gabriel said. “We should really have a full team for this.”
“Think we can jet before it evolves to its second form?”
“Maybe? We can definitely get away before it goes Third Form, but our repair bills will be ugly.”
“Eh, I’m pretty flush with cred,” Luna said. “And I’ve got a backup fighter I’ve been meaning to try out. Why don’t we give it a shot?”
That was one of the reasons Gabriel like Luna so much. She’d taken the words right out of his mouth. Flying through the vastness of space in Crystal Stars, he’d run into a lot of other players, but Luna was the first one who seemed to have the same instincts he did. Not just for when to attack or what to engage, but smaller things like how she flew and the locals she liked to hang out in while waiting for the game to finish automated tasks like ship repair or bot construction. He didn’t have to explain why the planet of floating pink octopi was relaxing. She just got it.
“Why don’t we indeed?” Gabriel said and queued up his reserve shielding as he powered in towards the War Beast.
The War Beast which was already morphing into a new form.
“How is it changing already? We haven’t even damaged it yet?” Luna asked.
“Stealth update?” Gabriel was sure he would have heard of one if it had happened but what he was seeing on the screen wasn’t anything like the War Beasts he’d encountered in the game before.
In place of the black and grey steel threads the War Beasts were constructed of, slivers of white and blue static were tearing through the creatures superstructure.
“That does not look right at all,” he got to say before an overcharged plasma beam lanced out from the mutating War Beast.
Gabriel was correct. It was not right at all. What was even less right to his eyes were the motes of iridescent light which began rising from his hands as his fighter on the screen disintegrated.
Interlude – Jillian Wong
Jillian was old enough that any new chaos which came into her life had to compete with a wide array of prior calamities and crises before it could surprise or unsettle her. She’d watched the world go through many changes, and suffer many tragedies, living through some of them more personally but aware of so many others which she would never even heard of in an age before the world was as connected as it had become.
As she typed furiously at her laptop, she prayed in a silent shriek that the connection she had spent a lifetime developing would be enough.
Something had taken her daughter and son.
She’d read the news, she’d talked with the local members of the software studio at the heart of the abductions, she’d even spoke to a few of the players who hadn’t yet been abducted. She knew the shape of the problem which lay before her, though she still found it impossible to sound out its depth.
The total number of abductees was unknown,or at least unreleased, but even low estimates placed it in the hundreds of thousands of missing.
The world was caught vacillating between the various stages of grief. The usual band of idiots were denouncing the issue as a hoax and the those who sought a comfortable answer which would demand nothing of themselves were as eager to rush to that banner as ever.
Anger took many forms, as did bargaining, but by far the leading response was depression, with images of bereft families leading to the numb shadow of uncaring which was easily mistaken for acceptance.
Jillian’s answer didn’t fall into any of those categories though. She wasn’t willing to bargain to get her kids back. She wasn’t willing to deny their absence or waste her time on anger, or depression. As for acceptance? Jillian would never accept the loss of her children in so impossible a manner.
She’d given them both permission to play their game. She’d made an account with them so that she could understand where they were choosing to spend their time. The thought that they’d been somehow gobbled up by magic computer pixels was ridiculous but she’d seen it happen. Arguing against it as being unreasonable wasn’t going to bring them back.
Which meant, she had to find what would bring them back.
And to do that she needed data.
Data was Jillian’s speciality. She’d been on the front lines of the data mining revolution for the better part of her adult life. Where her children played games and were far more socially adept than she was, Jillian had focused on absorbing every scrap of information she could on the nature of information.
When and where people disappeared. How long it took after their characters were slain in the game. Where the first person had fallen and where the main concentrations of those lost to the game had been. All those data points and more could be rendered down into something meaningful. Something that would reveal the shape of the problem before them.
That was Jillian’s version of faith, and to the extent that it sustained her and drove her towards a true understanding of the the worlds she inhabited, it was good.
Interlude – Yawlorna
Survival was never guaranteed. Yawlorna knew that. Being stranded in a realm which viewed herself and her shipmates as “demons” meant the locals were likely to stab first and ask questions never. Yawlorna had been considered issuing a similar order to her patrollers, but in retrospect she couldn’t express how glad she was that she hadn’t.
“No more signs of the Consortium troopers,” Balegritz said.
“Did we get to the stragglers first or did they?” Yawlorna asked.
“We did,” Balegritz said. “It could have gone bad. Real bad. But it didn’t, so call it a win for us I guess?”
“Maybe a win, but it wasn’t our doing,” Yawlorna said.
“Be fair there boss, you were the one who got us out,” Balegritz said.
They were walking along a corridor carved to perfect regularity. It was farther than either of them had even ventured into the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave]. Farther and more dangerous.
But they didn’t have any better options.
“We’ve lost too many of the crew,” Yawlorna said, letting her features sag into the weariness she kept carefully hidden from those who were looking to her from answers.
Balegritz looked to her as a leader too, but it was different with him. They’d studied together. He knew she wasn’t the natural commander the others seemed to imagine she was.
With what little command skill she believed she possessed, Yawlorna knew she needed to keep up the illusion of competency. Her crew’s morale was built upon it and if that disintegrated, they’d never make it home.
“Yeah, we have,” Balegritz said. “But you know it’d be a hell of a lot more if you hadn’t kept us all together right?”
His words were true, but it didn’t make accepting the all the missing faces in her ranks any easier.
“You’re doing a great job, really,” Balegritz said. “Nobody expected us to wind up in a situation like this. Weird other worlds and the Consortium breathing down our necks? When did that ever come up in training, right?”
“There was probably a lecture on it somewhere in there,” Yawlorna said. “I know I slept through a few of them.”
“You and me both,” Balegritz said. “Point is though that you were the one who got us connected with the adventurers. And if we hadn’t started working with them, those Kremmer’s Razer’s guys would have torn us all apart. I mean you heard how they laughing before they went down into the pit. They knew were here. If they hadn’t thought there was something more valuable down there they would have split up and had a headcount contest with our skulls.”
The thought had haunted Yawlorna since she’d overheard the Consortium commandos pillaging the remnants of her crew’s camp. Ten minutes later and the message wouldn’t have arrived in time. Ten minutes later and Yawlorna was certain down to her bones that everyone she knew would have become nothing more than trophies for a pack of soulless killers, no matter how hard, or smart, or lucky they fought.
There was movement up ahead, the barest hint of which sent panic racing down Yawlorna’s limbs, until the figure stepped into full view.
Yalworna suspected she should have been worried when the figure turned out to be a skeleton but his manner and voice were too disarming to place him in even the top fifty threats she’d faced since their arrival on the [High Beyond]
“Welcome my new friends,” Mister Pendant said. “I’m afraid my shop is sadly short of wares at the moment, but you are more than welcome to share our hearth.”
“Strength in numbers right?” Balegritz said.
“Numbers bring strength, but caring for one another is how we truly survive,” Mister Pendant said.
Interlude – Way
Oblivion’s Daughter looked around, carefully taking in her surroundings. The key point was to be sure there were no outside observers. No monsters, no adventurers, sure, but also no trace of the [Formless Hunger] or any of the other Remnants. She wasn’t in any danger from them but Oblivion’s Daughter, Obby, was a role she was enjoying.
“You’re low level!” Jin said. “You really are trying out something new!”
“I told you I was going to attack this one from a different angle,” Way said, allowing ‘Obby’ to fade away for a moment.
“Hey,” Jin said, sliding her hands into Way’s, “I think it’s awesome you can still surprise me.”
“You’re going to try to knock me down, aren’t you?” Way said, raising her eyebrow as a dare as much as a question.
Jin kicked the wall behind her and a secret door rumbled open, revealing a hidden lair, complete with a lushly appointed feast preserved in a magical stasis field.
“Maybe I was hoping you’d sweep me off my feet,” Jin said.
“You just added that while we were talking?” Way asked, admiring the melange of aromas which wafted out of the door.
“Maaaaybe,” Jin said with a mischievous grin. She brought her eyes up to meet Way’s gaze but found herself scooped up into a bridal carry which required more adjustment than she’d planned for.
“In theory, I’m supposed to be finding a path back to the rest of my party,” Way said.
“And I’m supposed to be keeping this world clear of further interference from the Remnants,” Jin said.
“How is that going?” Way asked, sitting down in one of the two chairs at the feast table and keeping Jin in her lap rather than transferring her to the other.
“It could be better,” Jin said. “I was able to make one of the Remnants here into a real creature, but the path he chose wasn’t the one I was hoping for.”
“What did he pick?” Way asked, conjuring the wine glass from the opposite side of the table to her hand.
“He chose to become a completely ordinary person,” Jin said. “I’d been hoping he’d opt for the hero’s path and become someone who could start a transformation chain for the rest of the Remnants that are trying to devour this world.”
“That would have been pretty convenient,” Way agreed. “Did he say why he chose to become someone ordinary?”
“Pretty much what you’d expect,” Jin said. “When he saw what this world had to offer, he wanted to experience it as fully as possible. He wanted hot days to feel hot and frigid winds to chill him to the bone. He wanted to feel hunger being satiated and thirst being quenched. And he wanted to dream.”
“I was wondering if the dreams would get him,” Way said. “Those are hard to give up.”
“Yeah, I knew there was a good chance he’d stick with them, but I figured it was worth a shot anyways. It seemed like it could be the answer after Tessa figured out how to convert a Remnant into something this world could accept.”
“Well, partially accept,” Way said, “The [Formless Hunger] is still breaking all kinds of physical laws here.”
“Have things started coming apart yet? Are you having to hold anything together?” Jin asked, a note of concern creeping into her voice.
“Not yet. Tessa did a real number on the Remnant when she turned it into the [Formless Hunger]. It’s only violating physical laws at the moment and those are kind of wishy washy suggestions in this world to begin with.”
“Do you want me to keep a closer eye on things here?” Jin asked. “I know how quickly things like that can change.”
Way popped a candied meatball into her wife’s mouth.
“It’s ok. The Hunger’s nowhere near the stage where I’d need to take the world apart to stop it, and it’s ok if I have to be the one to do it if it ultimately comes to that.”
“I’m trusting you about the first part of that, but if worst comes worst, please let me be the one to dismantle everything. I know how much it reminds you of some of the bad times you’ve had and I would literally do anything to spare you from that.”
“I thank you for that, but I know it’s not any easier on you,” Way said.
“It’s not easy, but I think it’s easier. Especially in this case. You’re a lot more embedded in this world than I am.”
“Yeah, I am,” Way agreed. “But that’s why if it’s got to be destroyed, I’m probably the right one to do it.”
“Because you can carry the essences of everyone to a new world?”
“Oh, I’m not getting into a competition with you on that one,” Way said. “I’ve seen how much you like creating new worlds. No, I should be the one to destroy this world because I’ll know when the people here have given up, and as long as they’re willing to fight on, I’ll be right beside them.”
Interlude – Craven Slink
Dreams typically don’t dream, so when the [Craven Slink] lay down with the pillow, it was surprised to find itself standing on another world. Once which had never existed before, but which seemed as real and solid as the one it had been stalking through. The only difference, apart from absolutely everything, was in the Slink itself.
“Why do I have fingers?” it asked, admiring a hand which it was sure it hadn’t possessed before laying down.
“You’re trying out an identity,” Jin said.
The Slink knew her. She was the one who had given it the pillow.
But she had been in the other world. The tasty one.
How could she be here?
The Slink was still struggling with the concept of “here” in general. It couldn’t remember what it’s existence had been like before it was conceptualized and then forcibly incarnated. It put that aside through to ask what seemed like the most pressing question it could articulate.
“Why me? Why like this?”
“All part of the experiment,” Jin said. “I need to see what happens with you in the long term and I can’t wait for a long term to pass in that world, so I had you make this one instead.”
“I made this?” the Slink asked. It looked around and saw an endless series of hallways branching from the crossroad it stood on.
Rather than being a hedge maze or a dungeon carved from stone, each branch seemed to be pieced together into a patchwork irregular corridors taken from every milieu of the world.
“You made this and you are this,” Jin said. “This is your dream. Almost everything here is a part of you.”
“What am I supposed to do?” the Slink asked.
“Whatever you want,” Jin said.
“But you’ll be judging me, won’t you?”
“I’m not here for the decor.”
“Fine.” the Slink said and turned to sit facing away from Jin. “I just won’t do anything then. If I’m trapped her I don’t see any reason to help my captor.”
Jin didn’t reply to that, so the Slink stayed where it was and waited.
After what felt like forever but was probably closer to five minutes, the Slink turned to look behind itself, convinced that Jin had left it trapped there in the center of a nightmare.
She hadn’t through.
When the Slink turned she was sitting right where she had been.
“Making no choice is still making a choice. Your know that, right?” she asked.
“That’s unfair!” the Slink said.
“Of course,” Jin said. “You’re alive. Fairness isn’t something you can expect to happen on its own. It’s something you have to make.”
“I want to go back to what I was,” the Slink said.
“What were you before?” Jin asked.
“I don’t know,” the Slink said. “Not this.”
“All of those paths lead you being something other than what you are now,” Jin said. “If what you want to be is ‘not this’, any of them will suffice.”
“They’ll be worse than this,” the Slink said.
“Some of them,” Jin agreed.
“How do I know which one will lead to something better?” the Slink asked.
“People have been asking that question about their choices since the concept of choice was created.”
“That doesn’t help me,” the Slink said. “I don’t know where to go.”
Jin shrugged and leaned back to rest against the padded wall on one side of the crossroads.
The Slink saw how small and human she looked. Easy prey. Another part however was much wiser than that. It remained quiet.
All it had to do was sit down and not get up. The horrible curse of self-awareness would wear off eventually.
It might takes year.
Or forever. The Slink wasn’t sure if it was mortal or not.
It could stay sitting for billions of years and neither fall apart nor fade away.
“I’m going to try that one,” it said, rising to its feet after a solid thirty seconds of contemplation.
Jin nodded, neither affirming nor condemning the choice, before fallen into position behind and to the side of the Slink.
The Slink hadn’t picked a passageway at random. Some of them were too dark to see down, even for its eyes. Some of the had obvious pitfalls, or harbored creatures the Slink had no desire to attract the attention of.
Not that it was in any danger it suspected. Nothing in the odd maze was going to come close to the danger the young woman walking behind the Slink.
“How far do I have to walk down this path?” the Slink asked. The comforting uniformity and lifelessness of the plain gray walls was growing less appealing with each passing step, and despite a few twists and turns, the path didn’t seem to be leading anywhere.
It was just an endless track of bland, artless monotony. Unless maybe it wasn’t? Maybe the Slink just needed to walk farther on, to the next turn, or around the next curve. Maybe something worthwhile was waiting for it, if the Slink just kept plugging away.
“”There’s nothing down here,” it said.
“There’s a gray hallway,” Jin said.
“I mean nothing good. Nothing that I’m looking for.”
“Got a sense of what you’re hoping to find?” Jin asked.
The Slink stopped short.
Was it hoping for something?
It definitely was.
Because it was missing something.
It had no idea. When Jin had instantiated it, she’d left some vital piece out. Whatever she’d missed was what the Slink needed to find.
It turned without explaining any of that. She probably already knew what it was missing. It was just an experiment after all.
The walk out of the gray hallway was far shorter than the walk in had been.
“Was that all I did? I thought I’d walked farther,” the Slink said. “It didn’t matter at all did it. I just wasted my time.”
“Did you know the gray hallway wouldn’t work for you before you walked down it?” Jin asked.
“You learned something then.”
“Is that what I’m supposed to do then? Walk does every one of these paths and learn that I hate all of them?”
“If that’s what you want,” Jin said.
“What I want is to be out of here,” the Slink said. “What I want is to be someone else.”
“So what’s stopping you?” Jin asked.
“You are! You won’t tell me where to go!”
“Is that what you want?” she asked. “Do you want me to plan out your life for you? Do you want me to make your choices for you?”
“No, but these aren’t choices,” the Slink said. “If I don’t know things are going to turn out how can I make a choice?”
“Some choices are made with full awareness of the consequences, some are made entirely on faith. Most are somewhere in between though.”
“What about that one? Is it a good choice?” the Slink asked, pointing to a corridor shrouded in shadows which danced to the torchlight from deeper in.
“Yep,” Jin said with a nod.
“Then I’m going there,” the Slink said, stalking off in a huff, but not so fast that Jin couldn’t keep up with it.
“This would be easier if I wasn’t alone,” the Slink said.
“But wandering alone makes you such an easy target,” a pale [Slaver] said as he hurled a weighted net over the Slink.
To call what happened next a fight would be to suggest that the [Slavers] were a viable combat force against the Slink. The term massacre would be more appropriate.
The net fell from the Slink’s shoulders as its flesh and blood crackled with a destroying layer of static.
There were five [Slavers] waiting in the recesses of the hallway.
None of them escaped.
In the aftermath of the battle no blood stained the walls and no bodies were left behind. Only incriminating piles of dust lay where the [Slavers] had once been.
“I thought you said this was a good choice!” the Slink said, whirling to face Jin.
“It was,” Jin said. “You got to fight. That would be wonderful for some people. You destroyed those who would degrade the innocent and the weak. That’s some people’s entire definition of good.”
“It’s not mine!” the Slink said. “I didn’t want their blood on my hands. I didn’t want to be a murderer.”
“And now you know that,” Jin said.
“Sure. Now that it’s too late,” the Slink said.
“Except that it’s not,” Jin said. “This is your dream remember. The [Slavers] were as much as part of you as the body you’re piloting around or the walls you’ve erected to keep yourself in.”
“I didn’t kill anyone?” the Slink asked. “This is all an illusion?”
“Correct and incorrect, respectively” Jin said. “You didn’t kill anyone, but this is far more than an illusion, and far less. You are on the border of what is real and what’s not.”
“I could go back to being what I was before then?” the Slink asked.
“You could leave reality and become a disembodied Remnant again,” Jin said.
The Slink felt like there was something Jin wasn’t saying there, but other questions crowded out contemplation on that.
“What would I need to do?” the Slink asked.
“Pick a hallway which leads to Oblivion,” Jin said. “Walk down it till there’s nothing left of you.”
“That sounds easy,” the Slink said.
“It’s easy to perform the actions. There’s no trick to it.”
“How do a figure out which hallway leads to Oblivion though?” the Slink asked.
“Ultimately they all do,” Jin said. “The trip’s just a lot shorter on some.”
“What about that one?” the Slink asked, pointing to a corridor which seethed with a beating crimson light.
“That can be a quick one,” Jin said. Her expression was neutral, which left the Slink wondering if she disapproved of the choice or if she was grateful at the prospect of seeing it destroy itself.
“And all I have to do is walk down it?” the Slink asked.
“Yep. Pretty simple.”
“Will it hurt?
“By definition, yes, but, if you return to the state of a Remnant, those memories will be lost too.”
“Can I do it without it hurting?” the Slink asked.
“No,” Jin said. “You may avoid feeling the pain, but there’s always pain in loss.”
“But I don’t have to feel anything?”
“No, you don’t,” Jin said.
The Slink started walking towards the crimson hallway. It reached the entryway and stopped though, turning back to Jin for another question.
“What if I change my mind? Can I come back here?” it asked.
“Not as you are, or as you could be in this moment,” Jin said.
“That sucks,” the Slink said.
“That’s why there’s always pain, even if you don’t feel it,” Jin said.
“Ok. I get that,” the Slink said but made no move to advance forward. “Why is this even here? Shouldn’t there be a door in front of it? Or a big boulder or something?”
“For some people there are, for others it’s all too easy to walk down hallways like this, sometimes without knowing what they’re doing.”
“That’s terrible! Who lets that happen?” the Slink said.
“Few people let it happen, but sometimes there’s no one in a position to warn someone that they’re traveling down a path to Oblivion,” Jin said.
“Nobody should stumble on a place like this and not know about it,” the Slink said before venturing over to one of the other paths and yanking it’s door off to cover the entrance to the crimson hallway.
“I agree,” Jin said.
“I…I don’t think I want to go down there yet,” the Slink said.
“That’s ok,” Jin said. “This world is better off with you in it.”
“But I’m a literal monster,” the Slink said. “How can I possibly make the world better? It’s not even my world.”
“It can be,” Jin said. “Our worlds are what we’re given and what we make of them. Would you like to see what you can make of this one?”
“Yes! How?” said the [Hopeful Slink]
“Choose a path,” Jin said. “I’ll be there with you.”
Interlude – Marcus Marshall
The sun was rising. It had been five hundred years since the last time Marcus had seen that. The night had been a millenia long and then the false dawn had last for a geologic age.
Or it had been a few seconds.
Marcus could see the clock. He knew what time it was, but his sense of what the numbers meant was dulled by more sleep debt than he’d taken on in over a decade.
Back in college, “all nighters” had been a semi-common thing. Stay up late enough with friends and going to sleep seemed pointless. Since he’d joined the working world though, Marcus had learned that the cost of a night without sleep had risen drastically and was more than he could afford to pay anymore.
Unless of course the alternative was the destruction of an entire world. Then he was able to work a bit past his bedtime.
“All the design docs and world architecture documents have been sent and verified,” he said, pushing back from his desk.
He expected the officers who were resting in two of the better gaming chairs in the office to take the news as a sign that it was finally ok to arrest him. To his surprise though, the lead officer pulled neither a pair of handcuffs nor a neuralyzer from her pocket.
“Sounds like you can catch some sleep then,” Officer Smith said, calling up an app on her off brand smart phone.
“I don’t know, I should probably stay around in case…” Marcus’s thoughts drifted. In case of what? What could he really do for anyone at this point?
Penswell was taking care of developing a strategy, and the adventurers and the NPCs in the Fallen Kingdoms Defense Force were enacting it. Purti, the developer the FBI had been able to spare, was handling things on the Earthly end of the conversation. That left Marcus to act as Egress Entertainments “official liaison”, which involved, in theory, watching over the company’s financial interests and Intellectual Property integrity.
Given the scope of the crisis, Marcus was willing to let EE burn to the ground and had precisely zero interest in placing the needs of copyright management ahead of the welfare of hundreds of thousands of people.
The world was awake to the crisis that was ongoing at last, and Marcus knew he stood in the center of it. Whatever happened, however things turned out, and despite his abject lack of ability to influence events in a meaningful manner, Marcus knew people were going to hold him responsible for everything he did, everything he might have done, and everything they could imagine him doing.
And none of that mattered.
The aftermath of the disaster would come but, with the situation continuing to develop, Marcus saw only one path forward.
Fix what he could.
Bring together people who could fix the rest.
Act as a fixed point people could look to for answers, even if those answers were “here’s who you need to ask” or “we don’t know yet”.
The thought filled him with resolve and pride, but the wave of weariness that followed reminded him that he’d missed multiple nights of sleep and his body and mind had limits he needed to respect.
He’d already sent home half the support reps. They needed everyone on deck, but the GMs had been run ragged already and there was no sign of the crisis resolving any time soon. That shifted the team’s needs from short term damage control to long term support and care.
In a sense the typical game development cycle helped there. Marcus had seen companies that worked in constant crisis-mode. It was common in the industry. Burn out and missed deadlines were also common in the industry, both of which were tremendously costly to the development process yet somehow a lot of companies failed to connect those very easily connectable dots.
Marcus knew better and had been less than subtle in forcing EE’s practices away from constant crisis mode as much as he could.
Under the current circumstances though it had been easy to slip on that and let the support staff work well beyond twenty four hours. There just weren’t enough of them. They were a team of dozens struggling against a work load that would have crushed thousands, but they had to do it. There wasn’t the time or equipment available to train even twice their number of support reps, much less the hundredfold increase they actually needed. So they sat down and cast themselves against a sea of chaos vast enough to drown an ocean.
But that had been a mistake.
As fatigue grew, the GMs started slipping. Their responses grew confused and slow, and in place of providing comfort to lost and frightened gamers in need, they began snapping out, their patience long since exhausted. That was when Marcus had started forcing them to head home for shifts of sleep, despite protests that “I can go another hour, I’m still fine”, when in every case they were far from fine.
Marcus wondered where he was at by the metrics he’d used to triage the support reps. Probably far worse than he was aware of.
“Let us give you a drive back to your apartment,” Officer Astra said. She dangled a set of car keys showing that she and her partner were ready to go.
“No thanks,” Marcus said. “A black guy shows up somewhere in a cop car and people start thinking all sorts of things.”
“We didn’t come here in a cruiser,” Officer Smith said, putting away her phone.
“You know unmarked cop cars are still pretty obvious right?” Marcus asked.
“It’s an ice cream truck,” Astra said.
“An ice cream truck,” Smith said. “Our options were limited for things that wouldn’t attract attention.”
“How does an ice cream truck not attract attention?” Marcus asked, trying to remember the last time he’d even heard an ice cream truck roll by much less seen one.
“We’re trying to avoid a particular kind of attention,” Smith said.
“Were you working vice or something?” Marcus asked. “Got switched from busting drug dealers to baby sitting video game designers?”
“More the ‘or something’ option,” Astra said and helped Marcus stand.
Marcus hadn’t remembered deciding to stand, or even deciding to go home, but given how hard fatigue was rocking his world, that didn’t surprise him.
“Which precinct were you with? Are you locals?” he asked. The thought bubbled up that the FBI had taken over the investigation from the local police. So why was he walking with two plain clothes cops?
“We’re definitely not local,” Smith said. “But we can talk more about that once we get outside.”
“Outside?” Marcus asked, as they came up to a door.
One that wasn’t mobbed by reporters.
Where were they?
“You did some good work so far Mr. Marshall,” Astra said.
“We just want you to know you’re not alone,” Smith said. “There’s more people working to put things right than you can imagine.”
Interlude – Jin
The [Formless Hunger] wasn’t the only entity seeking to devour the [Fallen Kingdoms]. Deep in the [Sunless Deeps] a figure made of feedback and distortion rose from a tomb which no longer held a dungeon boss. With the figure’s passing, it never had held one, despite being the source of over half the loot the players of [Broken Horizons] used when the level cap was still set to 70.
The entity had no name and no description. It hadn’t run afoul of anyone like Tessa and so it wasn’t bound by the rules of the world it was consuming. Nothing could defeat it, or harm it, or even perceive the damage it was doing because in many senses it simply wasn’t there.
“I think we’ll call you a [Craven Slink],” Jin said, leaning against the side of the archway the [Craven Slink] had been stalking towards.
It hadn’t been stalking. It’s influence was spreading, but it didn’t have a body to slink with.
It wasn’t a figure either.
When had it acquired those traits?
“You know places like this are off limits,” Jin said, meeting the Slink’s burning yellow gaze with a sardonic little twist of her lips.
Many many things were wrong, and they were becoming steadily worse.
The Slink had not known that the [Fallen Kingdoms] were off limits. It hadn’t been enough of a thing to know anything.
In its mouth, the flavor of apples was overwhelming.
It had been corrupted with knowledge. A pristine non-existence wiped away by a burden too terrible to be bourne.
“What have you done to me?” the Slink asked.
With a voice!
It ran claws sharp enough to slice the fabric of reality down its face. It had to undo what had been done.
“You’re an experiment,” Jin said. “You’re not supposed to be here. But there’s a whole lot of you nibbling away in a ‘where’ and a ‘when’ which is supposed to be two things you don’t possess.”
“I don’t understand. What have you done to me! Why am I like this?”
“It seemed to fit you,” Jin said. “For whatever reason, you chose to come here, when ‘choosing’ isn’t supposed to be a thing you can do. I’m inclined to see this place survive, for now at least, which means not letting you eat it. Since you came through someplace nice and far away from any witnesses, I’ve got a bit more leeway in terms of what I can do before the world gets cranky with me.”
“But you made me horrible!” the Slink wailed.
“Like I said, it fits you.”
“Why not make me into something wonderful,” the Slink said. “Or, even better, just leave me alone. Make me go away if you want, but I didn’t need to be this.”
“Like I said, you’re an experiment. There’s a lot of you here and I don’t know why. I can keep you all away, but this world shouldn’t need me to tend it like that. No world should.”
“How does my being made real help with that?” the Slink asked.
“Someone here did something similar with one of the other things like you,” Jin said. “That might be the key to preserving this world, but I need to see where it leads long term. If you can become a part of this world, a fully realized one, then there may be a natural point of stability even if more of you arrive. If not, then I’ll need to destroy this world before it turns into a spawning ground for other Remnants.”
“Is that what I was? A Remnant?” the Slink asked.
“Its what you became when you began dissolving this world,” Jin said. “Before that you were less real than a wisp of dream, but there was still some fragmentary, shadow of a being. The barest hint of existence, though not one which would be real in any sense on this world.”
“That seems so much better than being this horror. I can’t exist. It’s too hard.”
“It seems like that now,” Jin said. “And it seems like that to a lot of other people too.”
“Why should I try then? Won’t you just erase me and be done with it. Do your experiment on some other Remnant. Just make them a wonderful one.”
“I don’t need another Remnant,” Jin said. “I just need to give you this.”
She held out a pillow. It was small, but fluffy, with an embroidered starscape sewn onto a night blue cover.
“What do I do with this?” the Slink asked, turning the pillow over in its terrifyingly solid hands.
Jin stepped forward and placed her hands on the Slink’s as they held the pillow to their chest. The Slink felt its new heart skip a beat at the sensation of another person’s touch. All of creation seemed to held in that simple contact.
“For now? Rest,” Jin said as she guided the suddenly weary Slink onto the throne where the [Dread King of Sorrows] had once held court. As the Slink faded into unconscious, she gave them one final command, “And dream.”
And a world within them was born.
Azma was glad her shuttle was under communication interdiction. Thanks to the self-imposed blackout, she couldn’t hear the Director of Xenobiology calling for her head. The cries of the troops on the satellite moon didn’t trouble her meditative focus either. Not even the desperate requests for new orders from the surviving fleet ships got through.
She couldn’t let them. They were too close to the [Formless Hunger’s] sphere of influence. Any full band communication channel could carry too much of the Hunger’s power along with it, so instead she had an antique ticker tape machine feeding her information as the shuttle moved towards the [High Beyond] on a purely ballistic trajectory.
Even with those precautions, Azma knew she wasn’t safe. The Hunger’s mind affecting powers didn’t rely on the actual data that was being transmitted. If it did, filtering and replicating its capabilities would have been trivial. Ticker tape was, theoretically, a small enough channel of information that the Hunger’s magic couldn’t easily ride the words into her brain but Azma tapped the goggles she was wearing to make sure their enchantments were still in place. A pleasing circle of lightning raced around each lens, indicating that nothing had tried to poke into her mind. Yet.
“More field reports coming in,” Grenslaw said.
“Analysis?” Azma asked. She would review the data later, but the time being she was forced to trust her subordinates’ ability to interpret the scant details they were receiving.
“There’s positive data the containment devices fired in unison,” Grenslaw said. “The rest of this is conjecture but it seems the [Formless Hunger] withstood the initial blast and redirected it. Ground forces were pulled back but several were not practicing the specified isolation protocols.”
“Is that your conjecture or conjecture from the remaining ground forces?” Azma asked.
“Good, continue.” Azma would have discounted the conjecture more for lacking direct insight, but Grenslaw had proven adept at eliminating bias and understanding the unstated or obfuscated facts provided in the official reports from the field.
“The target was able to enter the unsecured channels linking the overall force together,” Grenslaw said. “Roughly twenty percent of the deployed forces are likely now under the target’s direct control with another thirty percent either physically or psychically endangered as a result of being in close proximity to corrupted former comrades.”
“Ryschild, how much longer until we’re in the satellite moon’s shadow from the target?” Azma asked.
“Another thirty five minutes, forty if we want to achieve maximum security for outbound communications,” Ryschild said.
Forty minutes was both annoyingly brief and far too long. A longer delay would have placed the handling of the debacle squarely in the hands of the Director of Xenobiology, who Azma knew she could count on to take a bad situation and make it a thousand times worse. In the long term that would have been ideal for her cause, but it also would have meant the loss of all of the resources she’d deployed to contain the Hunger and she refused to be that wasteful.
“Do we have any carrier ships with power reserves greater than two hours?” Azma asked, turning to Grenslaw.
Grenslaw reached down and selected a small roll of tape from a pile stacked at her feet.
“We have five carriers which are still grounded,” Grenslaw said. “Of them, two have power reserves greater than two hours and two of the others are close enough together that either could be parasitized by the other to sustain full shielding for that duration.”
“Are any within range of our maneuvering jets?” Azma asked.
“I will need a few minutes to plot possible trajectories,” Grenslaw said.
“If we deviate from our registered course, our forces have orders to shoot us down on the assumption that we’re compromised,” Ryschild said. “I can supply additional data to Grenslaw if we need to account for evasive maneuvering.”
Azma hadn’t forgotten her fleets orders. The point of approaching on a ballistic trajectory was that without intentional maneuvering of the craft there were few opportunities for the Hunger to usurp control and sending it somewhere inconvenient, such as careening down to the planet’s surface or spiraling into one of the troop carriers at orbital speeds.
“Evasive maneuvers will not be required,” Azma said and to their credit, neither Grenslaw nor Ryschild questioned her.
The troops who were packed in the rear of the shuttle seemed less enthused by deviations from the plan, but they were cut off from enough of the informations which was arriving that they didn’t understand the extra peril Azma was intending to place them in.
“Our closest landing point places us within ten yards of the non-viable carrier. Our next best candidate are the two underpowered carriers. Without evasive maneuvers we can touch down at a spot within ninety yards of them.”
“And if we plan for a hard landing,” Azma asked. “Assume survival guaranteed but this shuttle does not need to recoverable.”
“We can land within fifteen yards of the ailing carriers or one hundred yards of either of the two acceptably functional ones,” Ryschild said. “The landings will require a full strap in though and may cause damage to the site.”
“Excellent,” Azma said. “Lock in the best course for the damaged carriers.”
“Are we going to transmit any orders to explain our new heading?” Grenslaw asked.
“No transmissions,” Asthma said. “Full comms isolation will be maintained until we are on the ground.”
“New course locked in,” Ryschild said. “Boost in one minute. Maximum burn. All personnel into full security rigs. No loose objects or active power taps.”
For the next sixty seconds, the shuttle and everyone inside it, Azma included, were under Ryschild’s direct command. Even as the leader of all Consortium operations in the planet’s Arcanosphere, Azma was required to heed the directive of a pilot during an active course correction.
The minute didn’t go to waste though.
Closing her eyes, Azma fit together the information Grenslaw had provided with the trends she’d seen before they left the Consortium’s command carrier.
Her troops – and no matter what the Consortium ultimately decided, they were her troops – had suffered fewer casualties than projected. Far more than she’d hoped, but Azma didn’t plan based on best case scenarios despite the effort she put into seeing those best cases come to pass.
She’d passed along explicit instructions to review informational security protocols to make sure troops wouldn’t be needlessly lost when the [Formless Hunger] flared out of control. That might have been why the number who were directly corrupted was only twenty percent rather than eighty or ninety, but Azma was still angered by the carelessness of the ones who hadn’t listened to the simple instructions they were given.
She guessed of the thirty percent who were directly at risk, they would lose a quarter of those before she could land and take control of the situation directly. Depending on how badly her forces were routed, another forty percent of the total troops might be lost as well. That was the worst case though, and while Azma accounted for those, her plans were focused around a more realistic and obtainable result.
Three percent. That was all she was willing to lose in the process of reclaiming control of the situation. That would give her seventy percent of her initial fighting force to work with. Likely the most talented or at least luckiest seventy percent too.
For as large a force as that was, it was far too small to oppose the rest of the invasion fleet with, and Azma had no intention of wasting it on such an endeavor. She would return her troops to the safety of the fleet’s distant carriers, and command the surviving ships to the rear of the lines to be inspected for any deep damage the Hunger might have inflicted on them.
The soldiers and the ships would be reabsorbed into the Consortium’s forces, but they would be hers still.
She didn’t expect sentimentality from them. As trained, and in some cases mystically bound, Consortium soldiers their loyalty would always lie with their owners rather than her. Or at least that was how the Consortium would see things.
Loyalty though was not so black-and-white a thing as the Consortium desired it to be. To be sure, the soldiers would obey the orders they were given, they would even execute her without question if properly directed, but there was so much space for personal interpretation and expression outside the extremes of direct control.
The techs who had been given exactly the orders they needed to survive what was guaranteed to be a company-mandated debacle would remember who gave those orders. When they were queried as to the events which occurred, they would give accurate reports, but even accurate information was open to bias.
The soldiers who survived might be called on to enact the Director of Xenobiology’s plans next but they’d know who had watched out for them and who’d brought them out of hell when the mission didn’t need them roasting in the pit anymore. They’d grumble among themselves and the Director would never hear a word of it.
But the people above him would.
The people who supported Azma did so for one reason only. They wanted someone effective in the roles they assigned her to. Her penchant for indirect murder was far from being a detriment in their eyes, because she wasn’t causing problems, she was removing them.
The protection she enjoyed from them was no solid shield though. Just as there was no sentimentality below that she could rely on, so too was there no one above her who wouldn’t cast her aside the moment they stood to endure a meaningful loss from extending their support.
In that sense, she’d fallen to one of the most precarious positions she’d ever been in, trapped in a soon-to-be crashing shuttle, with the reigns of a major operation falling from her fingers and nothing of value to provide the company to justify any continued patronage.
There was an instant before the full burn began when Azma could have taken it all back. She could have canceled the course correction and allowed the ballistic arc they were on to take the ship safety outside the [Formless Hunger’s] range. She could have touched down safely, and resumed communications to discover that she was required to submit her command to Xenobiology and she could have done so with grace and humility.
It wouldn’t have saved her, but she could have chosen to be cordial, and polite. She could have chosen to value the team above petty individual needs. She could have given Xenobiology and the Consortium in general everything they asked for or could ever want and she would still not have been spared. That was the trap.
The Consortium hungered for perfect, model employees. People who were totally malleable to their masters will. People who would give everything to the company without question or complaint. Who were eager to hurl themselves on the bonfire to fuel the engine of corporate growth. Not mindless people though. No the Consortium demanded their employees be clever, insightful, and innovative. They needed inspiring leaders and dynamic, self-driven go-getters.
Only the best and brightest were fit to be consumed by the Consortium’s endless appetite for growth.
And if an employee was all those things, and gave everything of themselves willingly, and was consumed fully? Then they failed by not having more that could be consumed. Only the weak and the worthless faltered and couldn’t give more regardless of what they’d given already.
The secret to the Consortium, in Azma’s eyes, was that it, like life, was all a game and the was only one rule.
Everything else. Every corporate bylaw. Every official policy. Every mandatory protocol. Everything was simply a tool designed to make sure you lost. When every card in the deck was stacked against you though, winning became much easier, because you no longer had any incentive to play by the rules at all. They simply became another tool in your arsenal and with the proper application of cunning and insight and innovation, that which sought to control you became all too easy to make dance to whatever tune you desired.
Azma’s vision wasn’t flawed. She was confident, but not to the point of hubris. Pride wasn’t going to be her downfall. To her credit, she was just as in control of the long game as she believed. It wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t foresee what was coming or just how badly out of control everything was going to get.
Kamie had died more in the last hour that she usually died in a month of raiding. On any other day, she would have taken the hint and given up long ago. Raids were won through perseverance, but mindlessly throwing yourself into a meat grinder only got you so far. Sometimes you just had to back away.
And sometimes you couldn’t.
Sometimes the fights actually mattered.
“I’ve got another Consortium group heading in through the boss room,” Grail Force said. “Do we run now or keep going?”
“We’ll be back in less than a minute,” Kamie said. “We’ve got to hold here until Aie and Zibby can clear out the the inner boss room.”
The boss chambers, it turned out, were level capped areas. No one had noticed that before the Consortium had shown up because none of the adventurers were high enough level to be effected by the cap, but the effect became staggeringly apparent when the Consortium troops who were previously obliterating them with single shots, suddenly began doing far less damage while also being far more fragile.
Not that weakness or fragility stopped the Consortium’s force. They weren’t allowed anything close to that level of self determination after all.
“Then we can fall back there and keep doing this with some new scenery,” Battle X said.
The kill zone, which only Grail Force was holding at the moment, had been the lair of one of the dungeon’s lowest level bosses, a giant spider with a simply mechanic of spawning more spiders if the eggs around it weren’t destroyed before it lost half its health.
Kamie’s team had fought to keep a Consortium’s squad from entering the dungeon and accomplished nothing but repeated trips to the [Heart Fire] as the squad advanced relentlessly forward. Trying to ambush the squad inside the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] had been a last ditch idea, adopted as much because they had no real choice in the matter as out of any real hope of it working. The moment they’d seem their attacks having an actual effect on their targets had reinvigorated everyone though and gave rise to the hope that they’d be able to at least delay the oncoming assault long enough for the people of [Sky’s Edge] who’d fled to the [Stone Refuge] to find a new stronghold somewhere deeper in the dungeon.
“The Consortium’s got to stop coming sooner or later though, right?” Grail asked.
“They’ve got a ridiculous number of troops out there,” Buzz Fightyear said. “If we keeping beating their patrols they’re going to get serious and send in a real force. One we can’t handle, even with a level cap in play.”
“If we let this patrol through though they’ll slaughter the townsfolk and the lowbie adventurers,” Kamie said. “You heard what that special forces guy said. They’re not just here to take control of the area. They’re looking to kill us. To have fun killing us, specifically. That’s bad enough when we can respawn, but the towns folk don’t have that option.”
“You know, do-and-die heroics used to seem really cool in the game,” Battler X said. “I was all ‘bring on the challenge, hit me with your best shot’ to the devs.”
“A little different when it’s real life?” Kamie asked.
“Definitely, I mean, is this their best shot? I thought it’d be, like, difficult to handle a hardcore raid this but these boys are weaksauce,” Battler said. “They need to git gud, or I’m going to have to start equipping my armor for style value only.”
Kamie couldn’t see Battler’s face but she could hear how wide of a grin Battler was wearing.
It was a brave front. Kamie was ninety percent sure it had to be. The thing was though that it worked.
Getting knocked to zero health in a raid was bad enough but experiencing it in real life was thousands of times worse. If players were likely to turn toxic after a series of defeats in the game, then Kamie’s team should have been plutonium after dying over a dozen times each to take down the first two squads of Consortium solders who’d tried to knock them from the [Web Monarch’s Lair].
Their first deaths had come at the hands of Kremmer’s Razers. Kamie had managed to buy her team all of three seconds by smashing a crater into the ground, but the Razers had cut them down the moment the dust cleared. The process would have repeated it itself until the Razer’s grew bored but Kamie’s team had the the good fortune that Kamie’s crater had broken through to one of the lower levels of the dungeon, which in turn gave the Razer’s a clue as to their real quarry’s whereabouts.
Kamie’s team was forgotten in an instant as the lure of something posing at least the vaguest hint of a challenge appeared before the Razers/
Kamie had breathed a sigh of ghostly relief in seeing that. If the Razers had tried to press forward, it would have been effortless for them to slaughter a path to the dungeon’s [Heart Fires] and make resurrections essentially impossible. True, there were other [Heart Fires] but Kamie didn’t like her chance of reaching them.
Fighting Kremmer’s Razers would have been an exercise in utter despair, where the regular Consortium forces who followed in the Razer’s works were merely terrifying.
With the level cap in effect, the adventurers could contend with the Consortium troops but the Consortium squads were easily the toughest and best coordinated forces in the area.
Rather than a fight against a relatively mindless foe like the [Web Monarch], the attacks by the Consortium squads reminded Kamie of some of the hardest PvP matches she’d fought in, and by the game’s standards her team was losing those matches badly.
The Consortium squads had beaten Kamie’s team a half dozen times each because even in a level capped area they retained a strong blend of superior damage, remarkable toughness, and near telepathic levels of coordination. The only thing they seemed to lack was enough good sense to run away when their opponents proved to be more than they could handle and the ability to respawn almost infinitely.
It wasn’t a glorious, powerful feeling to stack your own corpses in front of an enemy, but it had worked and that was all Kamie felt like she could ask under the circumstances.
More than she could ask perhaps.
Dying repeatedly wasn’t the same when you knew you could come back, but even diminished the pain was real and the sense of powerlessness grew with each defeat. Everyone knew that they were hanging on by a thread and that Buzz Fightyear was right. Once the Consortium got serious about defeating them, the adventurers were done for.
Battler X was right too though.
They had to focus the fact of their victories and on the weaknesses the Consortium forces had shown.
The Consortium wasn’t unbeatable. They could have a bad day the same as anyone else, and they had weaknesses too.
For all their precision, they were lousy at reacting to the unexpected.
Their blasters packed a punch but with the level cap in place it wasn’t more than a proper tank could withstand, and the Consortium was just as vulnerable to [Taunt] effects as any mob was. Moreso perhaps since even after the taunt faded, they tended to continue attacking the tank rather than redirect their attacks to more effective targets.
It was easy to forget things like that, to feel like each setback they faced was an unalterable doom rather than a potential opportunity.
As Kamie raced down the tunnel from the [Heart Fire] to the [Web Monarch’s Lair] she drew in a deep breath and put a feral grin on her face.
She was racing towards death.
But she had good people with her. Friends she’d shared more with in the last day than some of the people she’d known for the last ten years in real life. She wasn’t fighting to hold off death, she was fighting to make sure it came to visit the misbegotten fools who tried to step into her house.
“They’re here!” Grail Force called out telepathically.
“And so are we!” Buzz Fightyear said, leaping off the edge of the path that spiraled down to the floor of the [Web Monarch’s Lair].
Kamie didn’t need to leap. As a [Monk], she had a movement speed skill, [Seven Step Stride] which would have gotten her into the fray just as fast. She threw herself off the path too though, screaming a wholly unnecessary warcry before crashing into the incoming Consortium squad.
Moving in Kamie’s body was a joy. As Grace, she had the strength and mass to win most of the bouts she fought in but Kamie had a grace and speed that could only come from a superhuman level of strength.
In the first few fights, Grace had relied on Kamie’s fighting skills alone, allowing the [Monk] to execute the flashy, impractical, and yet highly impactful moves she was used to fighting monsters with.
The Consortium’s forces were so quick though that even a superhuman physique had a hard time executing the broad motions of an MMO [Monk]. So Grace and Kamie had started merging.
It was primarily through their martial arts, Grace providing her long developed sense of minimal motion and weight distribution to Kamie’s innate awareness of moves that simply weren’t possible for someone who couldn’t bench press ten times their body weight with ease.
The end result was a fighting style unique to the two of them.
Or unique to her.
Grace had never envisioned Kamie as terribly different from herself and so the union of the two-minds-which-were-really-one was almost inevitable.
Kamie, she felt it was the right name since that was who she looked like currently, didn’t need to reflect on that though. When she moved, reflection, analysis, and worries all dropped away.
A soldier lay under her feet.
She’d knocked him down with her leap.
A kick to the neck.
Should be fatal.
Wouldn’t be fatal.
A rising punch. Defensive. Throws off the aim of her next target.
[Storm Flurry] sends twenty punches into the cranium of the soldier on her left.
Repeat stomp on the fallen foe.
Dodge his shot.
Open to a shot from the foe to the right.
Buzz Fightyear blocks for her.
She spins around Buzz’s torso, pulling him out of the line of another attack.
[Storm Flurry] is up again.
Twenty punches into the one who shot at Buzz.
Swing back around.
Knee to the jaw of the one who’d been knocked down.
Short jab right. Spoil the aim of the nearest foe.
Juke to the right and use them for cover.
Left and a right to the one on the left to spoil his aim.
Stomp and crunch the one on the ground.
Got him pinned though.
Buzz takes his head off.
Two more close in.
Leg sweep to take one down and drag the other with.
Ground fighting in a crowd is bad.
Grail Force freezes one.
Battler X kills another. Used a move. Doesn’t matter which.
They’re doing well.
Then the earth rolls.
Kamie’s back on her feet before the shaking even stops, before she registers just how loud the blastwave was that passed through them.
The fight’s been disrupted. Everyone was stunned by the intensity of the shock that passed through them. Buzz seems to have weathered it as well as Kamie did, probably because of his status protection abilities.
Strangely, despite sharing some of those status protections, the Consortium squad fared far worse.
Kamie watches the rise, shaking their heads and reorienting themselves.
Most look dazed.
Some look different though.
Her [Tactical Sense] begins screaming at her. She can feel something very wrong in the tableau before her and it only takes a moment to see what that is.
Static fills the eyes of at least half the remaining Consortium squad, and they look hungry.
The day was done. Penswell collapsed back into Niminay’s embrace and felt weariness she was carrying shaking her limbs like leaves in a gale.
“You need to stop.” Niminay’s whisper was gentle as she stroke her fingers across Penny’s brow and brushed aside the strands of hair which had fallen loose there. “For a few hours at least. They can call you if a real emergency comes up.”
Penny heard the words Niminay wasn’t saying. A “real” emergency would be one whose messages Niminay was physically incapable or blocking or resolving herself. The city of [Doom Crag] could come to life as a sentient war machine and Niminay would make sure the first Penny heard of it was in the morning briefing as a line item labeled “Unexpected Urban Renewal”.
“I shouldn’t,” Penny said as she failed to offer any resistance to Niminay leading her out of the command room and to the teleporter to their guild house.
“Shouldn’t push yourself farther?” Niminay said. “Yes, that is true.”
“I’m not that tired,” Niminay said, resting her eyes for just a moment.
“You’re arguing with a [Illumination Fern],” Niminay said.
Penswell blinked. They’d gone through the teleporter already. And up a flight of stairs. And she was, indeed, directing her argument towards one of their guild house’s light providing plants.
“Ok, but only for four hours,” she said.
“Are you really going to be back in fighting form in four hours?” Niminay asked.
“No,” Penny admitted.
“And is that the sort of example you want to set for the [Strategists] you have working under you?”
“No,” Penny said, and added, “You’re mean.”
“Yes. Just the worst,” Niminay said. “But you’ll still sleep till you wake up naturally right? No enchantments to cut it short or try to cheat more hours in than you actually get.”
“Hey, those are not cheats,” Penny objected.
“There’s nothing wrong with cheats,” Niminay said. “Since you can only use those spells a few times in a row though wouldn’t you say it would be worth conserving them?”
“Really mean,” Penny said.
She had a suspicion that Nim had already used the similar “cheats” [Archers] could learn. Nothing else could explain how she was still so energetic after more than a full day of constant life and death combat.
Normally a day of battle meant a sorte or two, a fair amount of movement for positioning and made one or two individual battles against the commanders on the other side.
The battles across the [Fallen Kingdoms] though had been fought at the edges of both sides capabilities. The teleportation networks on each side meant that battles were joined instantly, over and over again, and the Consortium’s forces, at least the one’s Niminay had to fight, were as powerful as the strongest warriors in [Fallen Kingdoms].
But there she was. Awake, alert, and giving Penny the support Penny so desperately needed after spending the day lived in a thousand different bodies.
“I’ll make sure we have breakfast and your morning reports waiting for you whenever you wake up,” Niminay said and brushed Penny’s forehead lightly with a kiss.
“I should marry you,” Penny said.
“I’ve been saying that for years now,” Niminay said. “All we’ve got to do is set a date.”
“It needs to be special,” Penny said, feeling the blessed darkness of sleep calling out to her.
“Any day would be special with you,” Niminay said, guiding Penny over to her bed and helping her take her enchanted boots off.
“No, special so everyone knows I got you,” Penny said. “If we don’t make a big enough deal over it, you’re suitors are still going to keep showing up a dozen times a week.”
It was a debate they had semi-regularly, and Penny knew she was right based on how Niminay could never bring herself to suggest that anything sort of a world-wide party would be enough to communicate that she was off the market. Or at least that’s what it would take to drive the point home for the more clueless sorts who seemed to think Niminay was some sort of quest reward they could unlock if they tried an ever stranger series of bribes.
“What do you think, a public proposal on the bridge of the Consortium’s crashed command ship?” Niminay asked. “Or do we jump right to the ceremony there?”
“They’ll never bring the command ship close enough to crash,” Penny said. Tucked cozily into bed, she felt her fatigue lessening.
“I’m hearing ‘if you can bring down their command ship, I will marry you on the spot Niminay’, is that about right?” Niminay asked.
“Given that it supposes you survive the crash, then that sounds wonderful,” Penny said.
“Good. Let that fill your mind with pleasant dreams then,” Niminay said and got up from the side of the bed.
“I don’t trust any dreams with the command ship in them to be pleasant at this point,” Penny said.
“Fair enough,” Niminay said, “but you should still chase after some kind of dreams.”
“I will,” Penny said and saw Niminay freeze in place, stiffening because she knew what was going to come next.
“Work is done,” Niminay said. “You’re in bed now.”
“I just need to check in with one last party,” Penny said. “It’ll be quick. I promise.”
Niminay narrowed her eyes. They both knew that was a promise which was as sincerely meant as it was unlikely to be upheld.
“Really!” Penny protested. “They’re part of the information transfer we’re getting from the other world. We already know we won’t have everything moved over until tomorrow and I’ve read through all of the critical details already.”
“Can’t that wait till tomorrow then?” Niminay asked.
“I’m not concerned about the information,” Penny said. “Ok, wait, I haven’t been replaced by a doppelganger, the information is obviously important. In this case though, I want to check to see how the person who is transmitting it is holding up.”
“Is the transmission difficult?” Niminay asked, her curiosity overcoming her reluctance at keeping Penny awake longer.
“Not at all, just slow,” Niminay said. “The problem was that BT had become [Disjoined] in the process of getting to our world. I left them to send that projection to look for anything I could find on curing a [Disjoined] status effect, but right before I ran out of mana there they sent a message that BT was ok, but Glimmerglass was missing.”
“I heard about the [Disjoined]. I didn’t think they could speak,” Niminay said.
“I think BT may have been a special case,” Penny said. She adjusted herself to sit up a little more, a move Niminay didn’t look entirely thrilled with.
“Do you think whatever worked for her could work for the others?” Niminay asked, returning to sit on the side of the bed.
“I don’t know. I hope so,” Penny said. “And in either case, I think knowing will help me sleep better.”
“Then by all means, cast away.”
Niminay hadn’t recovered much of her expended mana from the brief rest, but for a simple projection spell it was plenty. In the interest of conserving her resources though, she opted to use an even less expensive to connect one of her and Niminay’s private channels to the team channel Glimmerglass’s party was using.
“Hi folks,” she said, relying on the telepathic web to identify her to everyone on the channel. “I haven’t found anything on the [Disjoined] condition yet, but it sounds like you’ve had a breakthrough. Can you share what it was?”
“I’m not sure we can,” Mellisandra said. “Glimmerglass reconnected to her [Inspiration] and then used an ability I’ve never seen. [Fracture].”
“It wasn’t Glimmerglass,” BT said. “It was Tessa. I don’t know how she did it but she pulled my GM account out and then vanished with it.”
“I think I need some background here,” Penny said as Niminay nodded in agreement with her words.
BT laid out what a “GM” was in the other world and the theory that because there was no matching entity in the [Fallen Kingdoms] something about “Hailey” joining with BT had been intrinsically flawed.
Or maybe it was Hailey who’d explained that?
Or both? Penny had heard [Inspirations], or players, speaking directly but Hailey and BT were different. They seemed to have merged together more seamlessly than any other pairing Penny had encountered so far.
“So where is Glimmerglass now? Or is it Tessa at this point?” Penny asked.
“We don’t know,” Mellisandra said. “When she vanished, Glimmerglass disappeared from our party list.”
“We tried sending message immediately and they came back twisted,” Damnazon said.
“Twisted how?” Niminay asked.
“Twisted like we were sending them to a [Disjoined],” BT said. “Sometimes they wouldn’t even go through.”
“Let me see if I can find her,” Penny said, sitting up fully in bed. Niminay made no protest, only offering Penny her hand to draw additional mana from if she needed.
The mapping spell was so basic even fledgling adventurers could manage it on a local scale. Penny’s version was substantially more powerful but still on the bottom end of her abilities.
“She’s in the [High Beyond]?” Penny said. “How did she get there? How did anyone get there?”
The [World Shift] which had proceeded the Consortium’s invasion had changed many of the extra-spatial pathways around the [Fallen Kingdoms]. Opening the [High Beyond] up had been among the many effects but to the best of Penny’s knowledge only a few had managed to make the trip and it had been under very controlled conditions, lest the explorers wake some forgotten terror abandoned by the gods before they left their creation.
“Can you get a message to her?” BT asked.
Penny was curious about that too so she repeated the spell to connect Glimmerglass into their shared team chat, though before she finished the spell she added a number of costly wards to it. The last thing she needed under the circumstances was to connect them all to some sanity blasting monstrosity which would slither down from the moonlet to consume their minds thanks to the channel Penny had setup.
“Glimmerglass, can you hear us? What’s your condition?” Penny asked, her fingers paused to cut the connection the moment her wards were so much as tested.
“Penswell? Yeah, we can hear you just fine,” Glimmerglass said sounding surprised but not in any particular distress.
“Tessa! Is she still there too?” Hailey asked.
“She is, but we’re split again.”
Glimmerglass spent the next half hour explaining the events which lead up to the shattering of the god soul and how the party had been blasted to separate locations of the dungeon in the aftermath.
“Do you even need to bother with the dungeon?” BT asked. “You’ve got the full suite of recall spells don’t you? You could zap back here unless the dungeon’s blocking you?”
“I haven’t tried, but I don’t think recalls are blocked,” Glimmerglass said. “If I do that though I could only bring Starchild back with me.”
“We’re holding down the library here without a problem,” Mellisandra said. “So no need to rush back on our account. Wait, is there a recall spot here?”
“Yes. It should be back in operation now that the city has been reclaimed,” Penny said.
“Great. If another attack comes and we need our healer, we’ll call and you can recall back then,” Mellisandra said.
“Assuming there’s time,” Penny said. “I agree with you staying int he [High Beyond] though Glimmerglass. We have very little visibility on what’s happening there.”
“The data Marcus is sending over should have the current status of everyone there,” BT said. “He was sending the live server readings as well as the initial monster spawning point layouts.”
“We’ll try to relay that to the team there,” Penny said.
“I think there’s more than one team here,” Glimmerglass said.
“There should be a lot more than one there,” BT said. “I visited a bunch of them when we were doing damage control.”
“How many people are we talking about?” Penny asked.
“For just the players? Tens of thousands. Easily. A lot of people were rolling up new characters for the expansion’s launch.”
There was a pause before Glimmerglass spoke again.
“Starchild says they have all of the survivors of [Sky’s Edge] gathered in one of the early cave areas,” she said. “And there’s nowhere near a hundred of them much less tens of thousands.”
No one asked the next question, but it hung there unspoken anyways.
Where had the missing adventurers all gone?
That it was all going to fall apart didn’t bother Azma. Disasters are frightening when they are uncertain, when they trouble they will create can only be imagined wildly. Asthma didn’t need to imagine what was going to happen. The data showed her clearly when and to what extent her plans were going to come to ruin.
“Report in from the [Arcanotechs],” Grenslaw said in the quiet of the emptied bridge.
“Relay it to my desk and tell them that we have heard their request and authorize deployment of the restraining devices at rapid overload levels,” Asthma said. Grenslaw and Ryschild both looked her with a faint questioning air. She hadn’t read the techs’ report but she knew exactly what it would contain and what course of action they would request to pursue.
The containment devices for a [Formless Hunger] were built, or in this case hastily cobbled together, with the intent of generating regions of massive energy density. The key to their success lay in focusing enough energy into a sphere around the target that the laws of physics within reverted to a primordial, and more malleable, state. Things like the [Formless Hunger] were dangerous because of the inherent violation of physical reality they represented. If one had control of reality though, then trapping a [Formless Hunger] became as simple as dictating that everything within the sphere be converted to some other form. It didn’t matter what form was chosen, the mere fact that the [Formless Hunger] was no longer “formless” would leave it pliable to the other tools the Consortium could deploy to inflict unquestioning loyalty on the beast.
Of course the trick in that strategy was generating a reality liquifying level of power in the direct vicinity of a creature whose only defined trait was an endless and mindless desire to consume said power.
It could happen. Properly setup containment devices would either generate the transmutation field with enough speed that the subject was altered before it could fight against the effect, or, in the more usual cases, the machine would succeed in a partial liquefaction of the local physical laws and would slowly turn the trapped entity into another state while the entity struggled against the transformation and attempted to consume the machines themselves.
Azma’s order had been an allowance for the [Arcanotechs] to try the safest, but far less likely to work, strategy of overwhelming the [Formless Hunger] with a syncronized assault and converting it instantly to some more malleable form. The machine could be programmed to handle the particulars of the operation once they were calibrated to account for the local conditions and the scope of their target.
Since direct observation of the [Formless Hunger] provided psionic connections to it which it had been able to use to suborn three ships already, correctly estimating the size of their opponent was something of a problem for the [Arcanotechs]. The initial, indirect, measures of the static field suggested it was limited to the borders of a small town which had been the gathering point for a number of natives.
The techs weren’t thrilled with that since “a small town sized monster” was still “town sized”. In the short time they’d had available though, they’d cobbled together or repurposed enough gear to believe they had at least a coin’s flip chance at achieving their objective.
Azma didn’t doubt their math, or their prowess in assembling the containment devices. She just knew that something in their initial assumptions would be wrong. There were too many variables for the techs to guess each of them correctly, and too much hostility from the universe in general for Azma to be granted a stroke of unearned good fortune like that.
In ten minutes the last of the techs would finish rigging up their containment device. The area was far from pacified, but Azma’s ground forces had managed to chase away or slaughter enough of the locals that the devices weren’t likely to be sabotaged before they could fire.
And they would fire. Five minutes after the last tech armed the final device. Azma was certain of that part too.
It wouldn’t be a flawless firing. Something would go wrong with one or more of the devices as they waited. With the techs scrambling to reach a minimum safe distance though no one would be able to address the issue.
That was fine however. Redundancy was a part of the system. Even with a few failures or a couple of devices lost to sabotage, the overall network would still fire. Singular heroics could no more prevent that from happening than they could ensure that the devices functioned successfully. Massive operations came down to planning and numbers, and Azma watched all of the numbers as they turned against her.
The key was making sure they were turned against her in the right direction.
Azma didn’t fear failure, because failure was as much a weapon as success was, if somewhat more challenging to wield.
“After the field fails to contain the [Formless Hunger], we will depart,” Azma said.
“We’re fleeing?” Ryschild asked.
“Exactly,” Azma said. “The Xeno division will be landing shortly and if I have to deal with them in person, I am likely to send them each out every one of the airlocks on the ship. Better to be engaged in some hands-on-management in the field for the next bit.”
“Should I call for the bridge crew to return to their posts?” Grenslaw asked.
Azma gazed around the empty bridge. She’d assigned the personnel she’d trusted to work the closest to her to positions throughout the ship and across the fleet. Automated systems and her two senior assistants had been more than sufficient to manage the actual running of the command ship’s main bridge, despite Consortium regulations to the contrary.
When the head of Applied Xenobiology arrived, he would expect to be greeted on the bridge, and when he inevitably staged his coup, he would replace all of the personnel with his own attendants. Assuming there was anyone to be replaced.
“No, they can stay where they are,” Azma said. “The secondary control rooms can handle the needs for this ship while we’re gone. I’ll set this bridge into [Invasion Lockdown Protocol] while we’re out.”
The protocol would render the bridge unbreachable until Azma was relieved of her position. That would be only a transitory irritation for her usurper, but Azma wasn’t above digging her knives in a little deeper and twisting when the opportunity presented itself.
“What will our destination be?” Ryschild asked.
“The satellite moon,” Azma said. “After the failure of the first attempt at containing such a valuable specimen, a manager with subject matter expertise will be required to oversee the second attempt.”
“Will there be a second attempt?” Grenslaw asked.
“Of course,” Azma said. “It won’t be the one I’m traveling to oversee of course. The coup should be completed well before then, and the Xenos will be rather eager to do the work themselves so they snatch the last shred of victory from my hands.”
“Should I order a troop detachment to muster into our shuttle?” Ryschild asked.
“It is tempting, but I don’t think so,” Azma said. “Wouldn’t want to frighten our incoming guests away from making their play to wrest control of the operation from me.”
“Sergeant Kremmer’s troop is currently unaccounted for on the battlefield,” Grenslaw said, her tone encompassing a world of caution. “No word from them yet via private channels either.”
“Not unexpected, but not comforting either,” Azma said. “Perhaps a detachment of troops would be advisable. See what sort of elites can be assembled in the next ten minutes.”
“Understood,” Ryschild nodded and got to work. They weren’t blessed with an abundance of time, but organizational talent helped mitigate that to a large extent.
“Send a message to Captain Pirell,” Azma said, glancing to Grenslaw. “Tell him to send a squad to investigate the whereabouts of Kreemer’s Razers. Explain that they have been given a special assignment but have failed to report in yet, so care should be taken with the value of the troops sent to retrieve them.”
For many other commanders, the order would be interpreted as a directive to send the most expendable troops they had to complete the task. Pirell was just smart enough to work out that if the Razer’s had accepted a special mission that it would involve a lucrative payout. A payout which they were unlikely to share with any of their fellow soldiers. A payout which had probably left them significantly weakened if they were incapable of reporting in on time.
Pirell was willing to sacrifice his troops, but sacrificing a shot at unearned wealth was not in his nature. He would scramble the most loyal troops under his command to retrieve the Razers’ bodies. If the Razers had to be converted to being bodies first, that was a sacrifice Pirell was willing for them to make. At least as long as whatever special trove they’d been sent to retrieve was brought back as well.
His troops wouldn’t return of course. The Razers hadn’t been sent after a special treasure. They’d been sent after a special foe – the lava creature which had wrecked the town and destroyed the first Consortium attack wave.
Azma knew they’d played around for a while on the surface, killing and re-killing the locals until Kremmer got bored. They’d found some lead to their quarry in the process. If they hadn’t they’d still be ignoring their mission objectives and playing with the locals.
Kremmer and his team weren’t likely to be dead, or even seriously wounded, Azma knew. Their dereliction of duty was as predictable as the impending disaster. The prospect of an interesting battle and the lure of treasure had been just enough to ensure that they would leave the killing grounds on the surface before Azma’s arrival.
They wouldn’t stay away long, but Azma didn’t need a wide window to facilitate their demise. Not if her suppositions about the [Formless Hunger] were true.
And if they wrong, then she would need to rely on even more drastic means than murder. She might need to actually pay them.
Glancing down at the tactical readout from the forces still engaged on the planet’s surface, Azma felt a smile drift across her lips. She dearly wanted to see the look on the enemy tactician’s face in response to the orders her troops were following.
From an external perspective, the areas the Consortium had ceded and the ones they’d redoubled their efforts to conquer or retain would have seemed like madness.
Azma had been forced to make disastrous moves in the grand game of their war, at least in terms of her original goal.
How long, she wondered, would it take for the enemy to understand that Azma’s goals had shifted?
Could they imagine the complexity of navigating the Consortium’s internal politics while also trying to accomplish anything of real value?
It would be so simple to chalk up the Consortium’s moves to a fractured mind, pushed beyond the brink by the successes the locals had achieved. The initial assault had been dreadful but as the danger passed and the tide turned in the local’s favor, the shock and awe would fade, replaced by the certainty that the first assault had been lucky. That Azma was no great and terrible foe, but merely a desperate one who’d chanced upon a strategy they weren’t quite prepared for.
Would Azma’s opposite number on the defender’s side perceive the traps Azma was laying? Would they understand which of the traps were aimed at the locals and which were repurposed to spring back on the next person to take charge of the invasion?
Azma hoped so.
Her opposite number was a worthy foe. After a day of battle, Azma knew them well enough to yearn for them to be something more. She had so many foes, and so few actual challenges. Playing the great game of life against lesser opponents taught her almost nothing. Only someone who could rise to her level, someone who could see through her stratagems and deceits could teach her how to be something more than she was.
Across the display in front of Azma, the signal came that the containment devices had been set to fire.
And five minutes later, they failed spectacularly.