Author Archives: dreamfarer

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 25

The path was clear, and it was quiet. No monsters assailed them. No traps delayed them. 

Tessa wasn’t the first to reach the [Vampire Queen’s] Throne Room. Oblivion’s Daughter had led the charge, venturing ahead of the refugees and the dungeon dwellers to ensure the [Hungry Shadows] weren’t lying in wait for them.

But none had been. 

Only emptiness filled the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].

At least until a stream of hundreds began to filter into the massive space.

“The windows are how we left them,” Lisa said. “Do you still think you’ll be able to turn one into a portal?”

Tessa searched the shining, stained glass windows and tried to call forth whatever gifts she’d been given.

“I’m pretty sure I can use my skills to make us more resilient,” Pillowcase said.

“And I’m not going to let any part of us get hurt if I can help it,” Glimmerglass said.

Glimmerglass wasn’t  a part of their private channel but she didn’t need to be. Not anymore than Pillowcase did. Not given their close close physical proximity.

“I think I can do this,” Tessa said.

Lost Alice was holding her hand and gave it a soft squeeze. 

“You’re a blessing,” Lost Alice said.

Tessa laughed.

“I haven’t gotten us out of here yet.”

“We’re here at all,” Lost Alice said. ‘That’s substantially better than I thought we’d be doing at this point.”

Tessa squeezed Lost Alice’s hand back, unbothered by the chill of the [Vampire’s] touch.

People continued to flow into the room. Yawlorna’s crew came in escorting a large contingent of children. More than had been in Sky’s Edge? As the crowd continued to filter in that became a certainty.

“Did we pick up extra refugees?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah, there were other towns that needed to evacuate,” Buzz Fightyear said. “Some of the lower level adventurers went out and helped them gather up.”

“Some of the dungeon’s inhabitants too,” Balegritz said, joining the conversation as the end of the Yawlorna’s party filtered into the [Throne Room].  “We didn’t know any of them were non-hostile, but I guess the threat of the Consortium and that Hunger thing was enough to convince they play nice.”

“I think everyone’s still shook up from the [Hungry Shadow] attack,” Rip said. “Almost nobody was talking after that.”

“The wounded are even being quiet,” Lady Midnight said. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing though.”

“It’s probably not,” Tessa said. “The [Hungry Shadows] leaving after they got a bite of just a few people is not at all in character for the Hunger.”

“Think it’s like a zombie bite?” Lisa asked.

“What, like they’re going to rise up as those shadow things?” Matt asked.

“”It wouldn’t be the first time there’s been something like that in the game,” Tessa said.

“Or the hundredth,” Glimmerglass added. 

“The is a common answer to that sort of problem,” Lost Alice said.

“Head shots for everyone?” Rip asked.

“What?” Matt said.

“She’s right,” Lady Midnight said. “When you’ve got a spreading, lethal menace you contain it. Whatever it takes.”

“We can do better than that though,” Tessa said. “And we don’t know they’re a spreading menace. Not yet.”

“We’re not going to have a lot of time to determine what their state is,” Lady Midnight said.

“How about the three of us, Lost Alice, you and me, do an evaluation of one of them while Tessa works out how she can get us all out of here,” Glimmerglass said.

“We’re not level capped here right?” Lost Alice said. “Are we going to be any help to you?”

“I think so,” Glimmerglass said. “You’re both [Grave Menders] so you’ve got access to different spells and skills than I do.”

“Someone should watch over Tessa though,” Lisa said.

“We’ve got that covered,” Matt said.

“No one will harm her in my domain,” Vixali said. She didn’t appear out of nowhere, but until the moment she spoke, her presence had been no more noticeable than a thin mist.

Tessa had noticed her, which was puzzling because she had the sense that she shouldn’t have been able to, but she couldn’t pin down either why she felt that should be true, or why she’d been aware of the inconspicuous [Vampire Queen].

“Well, nothing that can’t obliterate us in one hit anyways,” Qiki said. “If we’d known about level capping, we would have picked a better spot to setup court.”

“Nothing can stand against the [Formless Hunger]. No battlefield will avail us if it ventures to find us here,” Gray-of-Endless-Mist said. The [Shadowed Starstalker] surprised everyone who was present, even Vixali and Qiki who reacted with the iron calm which proved that though they were predators, they were sapient ones.

“Oh, sorry Gray, I forgot to tell you,” Obby said. “Those [Hungry Shadows] we fought earlier? Those are what’s left of the [Formless Hunger].”

“That’s…I’m sorry what?”

Tessa had never heard an Eldritch-Creature-of-Realms-Beyond-the-Ken-of-Humanity be gobsmacked before. She suspected no one had. Gray-of-Endless-Mists however was beyond perplexed and into thoroughly bamboozled.

“The [Formless Hunger] isn’t what it used to be,” Obby said. “It’s become something new. Something significantly more material. At least to the extent that you can call a shadow ‘material’ I suppose.”

This was old news to Tessa but even Rip and Matt seemed surprised by the revelation.

“I thought that [Hungry Shadow] thing was something it did to the Consortium troops it caught?” Rip said. 

“They were its farthest appendages so they were the first to go,” Obby said. “Things like that don’t have a lot of resistance being made more real though. Everything and everyone here are setup to be a part of this reality. There’s a pressure we all exert to have the things we experience be real too.”

“I do not understand that at all,” Matt said.

“Eh, it’s all kinda fluffy,” Obby said. “The short form, is that what Tessa did to the converted Consortium soldiers, she did to the [Formless Hunger] too, since they were all part of a greater whole.”

“Then we can fight it?” Gray-of-Endless-Mist asked.

“I wouldn’t recommend that,” Ironborn said. “We fought those creatures in a level restricted area and they were using abilities no other level 20 mob has. In an uncapped area there’s no predicting what they could hit us with.”

“How are you holding up with your new identity?” Tessa asked him, looking for any signs of the glitching which might suggest Ironborn was going [Disjoined] on them.

“So far so good,” Ashad said. “Ironborn was always basically just me in a suit of armor, so we’re basically thinking the same on everything.”

“Give a yell if you start having problems,” Tessa said. “I might be able to fix it if I have time to see what’s happening.”

“You can fix broken people?” Olwina asked. The [Sky’s Edge] [Blacksmith] clearly had other concerns on her mind but was trying to join the conversation around Tessa as gracefully as possible.

“Not in general,” Tessa said. “But I think I might be able to help the [Disjoined]. At least if I can get to them soon enough. I don’t know what happens if someone’s in that state for too long, or even how long ‘too long’ necessarily is.”

“Speaking of ‘too long’, how long will it take you to get us out of her?” Olwina asked. “And more importantly where do these windows lead? People are starting to get worried another attack might be coming.”

“I’m trying to figure that out now,” Tessa said. “Do you notice how the lighting changes in the windows when they’re closed? I think the location they’re drawing from slides from place to place while the window is closed. When they’re open though, like those two are, the scene stays static.”

“So if we don’t like a spot we can just close the window and pick a new one?” Olwina asked.

“The catch is we’re probably only going to get one chance at where a portal opens,” Tessa said.

“Anywhere would be better than here, wouldn’t it?” Vixali asked.

“Not necessarily,” Tessa said. “If we pick a spot which doesn’t have a portal setup to receive us, we may not be able to close the gate on this side.”

“Which would mean that the [Hungry Shadows] could just follow up through it too, right?” Rip asked.

“That’s one of the worries,” Tessa said. “The other is that, without a receiver, we can’t be sure where exactly in the location we’ll end up. We’ve got a lot of people to send through and if they wind up scattered over a few square miles that could be bad all around.”

We should send people through together,” Balegritz said. “Some who can fight to guard those who can’t.”

“Are you volunteering to act as bodyguards?” Vixali asked.

“Um, no, I was hoping some of the adventurers would come through with us,” Balegritz said.

“I will see about organizing that,” Starchild said. “Even if we have to send the adventurers through solo to guard the groups of people, we can stay in contact via the [Alliance] chat.”

“Thanks Starchild. See if Kamie and Battler can help with that. They’ve been acting as a liaison with people since this place started filling up,” Tessa said.

I think the injured are safe to move,” Lisa said on her private channel with Tessa.

Thanks. I’ve been kind of stalling till we found out what the answer was there,” Tessa said. 

It wasn’t good strategy. There were so many people gathered in the [Throne Room], and delaying their departure at all could have had catastrophic consequences. 

There were decisions Tessa did not want to force people to make unless they were completely necessary though, and leaving behind a loved one was at the top of that list.

With a sigh of relief that at least one nightmare situation had been avoided, she brought Kralt out of her inventory again.

“If you hurt me…!” the slime began but faltered. He didn’t have any viable threats to make and had managed to absorb a tiny understanding that making threats carried consequences all of their own.

“This won’t hurt,” Tessa said, scanning around the room for a window until she found one that had just changed.

Pushing through the crowd of people, she opened it before the scene behind it could change and was rewarded with the sight she’d hoped for. A the image of village shrouded in night lay on the other side of the window. A blue white glow pulsed from a ring of standing stones in the central square. 

It was the blue pulse she would claim she’d been looking for, but the darkness of the night was important as well. Between the [Vampires] and the [Shadowed Starwalkers] and the other dungeon denizens who were traveling with them, Tessa wanted to both be careful that their arrival didn’t spark a panic and that the dungeon’s peoples didn’t burst into flame the moment they reached the other side of the portal.

“Ok, this won’t hurt,” Tessa repeated, “but it might feel kind of weird.”

With that, she placed her hand against the slime and then reached inside it. She didn’t pierce the slime’s skin. Her hand moved out of phase with the creature and from it’s center drew forth and back into corporeal reality as sputtered ball of light, somewhere between a spark and a flame.

The slime dropped from her hand, not dead but transforming, it’s teardrop shaped body reconfiguring into the shape of a beared and bewildered human man.

Tessa was unconcerned about Kralt’s return to humanity. The god soul she held was blazing brighter than the sun in her vision. Looking inside it should have burned her eyes out but through the light she saw a vast, breathtaking darkness – a night sky of endless depth, with uncountable sparks filling it with quiet radiance.

In her hand, she held not a key like Ashad had said, but the entirety of the world she stood on. Though the god soul was a broken, failing thing, it still help the raw power of creation. Authority over all that is, and was, and could be.

Tessa felt cold fingers slide into her free hand and the world came back to her.

She wasn’t a god. She wasn’t the architect of the world. 

She was a part of it.

Just a woman.

With people who needed her. 

Glancing over to drink in Lost Alice’s warm nod of support, Tessa thrust the god soul into the proto-portal and opened the path to their better tomorrow.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 24

Azma

Azma wasn’t overly fond of the unexpected. She spent a fair bit of her time and mental prowess planning strategies for managing an unmanageable environment. That she recognized the impossibility of accounting for every possibility and was consistently able to cope with the chaotic tumults which arose around her was a considered source of pride.

“There is no managing this one,” she said. She’d taken off her warded goggles and was looking at the pit where [Sky’s Edge] had once stood.

The pit where her suborned troops were casting themselves into some subterranean labyrinth.

“The units who were not converted by the entity are requesting order from the local commanders,” Grenslaw said.

“The fleet’s interdiction field has not been lifted,” Ryschild said. “So far there is no sign of ship movement to suggest that the operation’s parameters have changed.”

Azma took in both pieces of data and paused.

It was tempting to issue immediate commands and claim control of the forces who remained. Tempting but likely suicidal. 

She’s gone over the indirect data. She’d seen how the [Formless Hunger] had reacted to her gambit. Her ploy with the containment units hadn’t failed. It had been sabotaged. Someone, had transformed the Hunger. They’d stripped away the [Transdimensional] element of its nature and made it, effectively, real.

Which was a disaster.

As a real creature, it could be fought and corralled and put to a number of valuable uses. As a [Transdimensional Entity] thought it was worth as much as the rest of the campaign, even including the dual [Arcanospheres] the planet offered.

Azma had been planning to use that value as a tool to unlock the support of several useful individuals. Without it, her options within the Consortium narrowed considerably.

“Put out a general order for reporting,” Azma said. “All functional carriers now have firewalled data collection points where each squad’s official reports can be collated. Unit commanders are to review their squads reports for accuracy as well as sign off on the summaries of any squads in their zones of operation.”

“Now’s the time for paperwork?” Sergeant Fiori asked.

“We can’t evacuate the troops yet,” Azma said. “Our own ships would shoot us down. Also, our troops are currently low on trust. Anything we say will be rejected summarily.”

“I thought commanders had [Control Overrides] for all of the forces in a mission?” Fiori asked.

“We do. I need these troops functioning at maximum efficiency though,” Azma said. “Activating the [Control Override] strips the troops of the ability to react with situation appropriate responses. Mindless zombies who are never distracted may be useful in some circumstances, but these are not those circumstances.”

“As one of the potential mindless zombies, I thank you for that,” Fiori said.

“The paperwork serves a purpose beyond keeping them busy as well,” Azma said. “Soldier love to tell stories. In this case, those stories will naturally reveal the transformation our enemy has undergone. Once it’s clear that we are no longer fighting a [Transdimensional], we can open more communication channels and bring the local [Commanders] on board without them sending [Berserker] squads after us to satisfy protocol.”

“Some of the [Commanders] have reached that stage already and are requesting orders directly from you,” Grenslaw said.

“Have they tried to open communications with the fleet yet?” Azma asked.

“No. Several ships are in position for tight beam communications but no messages have been sent,” Ryschild said.

“Inform the commanders who request orders, that they are to bring their forces to our location,” Azma said. “We will be reviewing plans in person. No remote transmissions allowed.”

“That’s going to march a whole lot of them closer to danger,” Fiori said.

“We don’t know where the enemy has gone. So at this moment everywhere is equidistant from danger. Also, scattered we’re weaker,” Azma said. “Getting the troops together removes another issue as well, namely that transmissions can be intercepted. We don’t know what capabilities the entity retains but discussing our plans in the open presents too large a risk of the Consortium’s assets.”

That Azma considered her troops to be assets worth preserving was unusual in a [Supreme Commander] but then only an unusual [Supreme Commander] would be on the field Azma had chosen to join.

“Is there anything we should be preparing?” Grenslaw asked.

It was a polite method of asking ‘do you know what your orders are going to be yet or are you completely stumped by this frankly ludicrous turn of events?’

Azma wished the second possibility was an option for her. The thought of letting everything unwind on its own, of letting the whole world finally fall down, seemed so restful.

That wasn’t who she was though. 

Worse trials than the one before her had forged her into the woman she’d become, and none of those had been ones where she would have survived by taking an easy out. 

“Yes,” Azma said. “Before marching to our position, all troops are to be inspected, all wounds treated, and all weaponry recharged. If any squads have suffered partial personnel losses, their details should be communicated to the central data hub. [Commanders] are encouraged to combine like squads to reach optimal fighting strength under the command of whichever [Commander] has fewer forces to manage. If no viable options are present to restore the squad, or a chain of command for the combined squad cannot be agreed upon, we will handle the reassignment of those units when they arrive.”

“It sounds like you’re assembling as a fighting force again?” Fiori said.

“You have perceptive ears Sergeant,” Azma said.

“Will they be able to fight though?” Fiori asked. “They were routed pretty badly. That doesn’t tend to leave the regular forces in great shape. Even the speciality units like the [Artifax] may have command processing corruptions.”

“That’s why I want the troops brought here,” Azma said. “There are still too many of them to do full, individual reviews of, but a formation level review will tell me how far I can lean on them and expect the social cohesion of the group to keep them all functional.”

“Functional for what though?” Fiori asked.

“For the next stage of this campaign,” Azma said. “Our target has fled inside this satellite moon. We’re going to follow it in there. It’s either running to find something or it’s searching for an escape route Whichever it is, I want it.”

Byron

One of the great delights of Bryon’s life was watching other people’s plans implode. Under the current circumstances though he found himself at a loss for mirth.

“Why not just send an expendable ship in to verify that the moonlet thingy is safe to approach?” he asked, exhausted from listening to the endlessly whining from the Director of Xenobiology.

“This operation has turned into a total debacle, and it’s all on my accounts! I can’t afford to lose anything else!” Maldrax was capable of showing dignity, but apparently was choosing not to. 

Byron could see why. In a hurried effort to claim a prize beyond measure, Maldrax had gambled on taking control of an ongoing operation away from a popular and successful [Supreme Commander] and said operation was losing value faster than if the world in question had been set completely on fire. The timing wasn’t quite perfect to pin the blame on Maldrax, but that only meant that, when people went looking for someone to assign blame to, the blast radius would be large enough to include Azma, Maldrax, and everyone else associated with the incident.

Byron was outside that blast radius, because of course he was, despite being the one who’d engineered Maldrax’s takeover. If the blowback extended past Maldrax, it would reach no further than Byron’s pawn Whiteweather, who was blissfully ignorant that he’d been manipulated at all. 

Byron was safe.

He was sure of that.

He simply wanted to be more sure. 

Azma had been a potential problem for a long time. Not a direct threat, but Byron was cognizant of how deadly indirect enemies could be.

Which was why he was so diligent about eliminating them. Carefully.

Azma wasn’t dead yet though. 

Or at least wasn’t confirmed to be dead. 

Which meant she was definitely alive.

It was tempting to offer suggestions on how Maldrax could change that, but Maldrax was malfunctioning a bit too much to send in that direction.

At least not yet.

Byron was tempted to let the man melt down completely, and achieve the rare feat of being terminated while still in active command of a fleet. It would stop Maldrax’s whining which was becoming an ever larger and more desirable perk, but it would also cut Byron’s view into the evolving situation of the operation and Azma’s current state as one of the living. Worse, letting Maldrax self-annihilate would mean someone less open to Byron’s manipulations would be given command of the operation, and that would be no fun at all.

“The key, as I see it,” Byron said. “Is that you have an asset and a liability in play and your information concerning each of them is rapidly aging to the point of uselessness.”

“I know that!” Maldrax face bulged with a rage he couldn’t quite afford to spew onto Byron and they both knew it. “What I don’t know,” he added forcing calm into his voice, “is what options I have to alleviate that state.”

“Projected losses to date,” Byron said. He didn’t expect Maldrax to understand, in fact he hoped Maldrax wouldn’t. It was far more fun forcing a Director to beg for knowledge.

“How could money I’ve already lost possibly help me?” Maldrax asked.

“Given who the previous commander was, I believe you’ll find a discrepancy there between ‘Projected losses’ and ‘Reported losses’,” Byron said. “Azma is frugal with her troops and assets. You are under no such constraint.”

“I don’t understand?” Maldrax said, the stress of the day making him particularly thick.

Or perhaps that how he always was. Byron had to concede that Maldrax’s current behavior wasn’t that far out of line with his usual mode of operation. 

“The ‘Projected Losses’ for an operation are built into the operation’s budget. You’re not incurring any further costs by allowing them to happen,” Byron said. “Conversely any underrun in ‘Projected Losses’ is absorbed by Accounting for other projects that run over, so you can’t make any additional money for the operation by preventing losses.”

“Then why does that woman bother?” Maldrax asked.

“Currying favor with the accountants? Sentimentality? Who’s to know how the mind of so strange a creature works,” Byron said. “The important thing is that you can use the slack which Azma left you to discover the information you need about what has happened to our Transdimensional friend.”

“That could work!” Maldrax said.

“You may want to use some of your own people for that,” Byron said. “You’ll need sources who understand how to take the reading you need and whose results you can trust. That’ll cut down on the need to send multiple survey teams.”

It was also cut down on the forces directly loyal to Maldrax rather than the Consortium in general, which wasn’t likely to be lost on Maldrax.

“You make a good point,” Maldrax said, buying Byron’s argument without thought or question. “It will take time to get a proper team configured and outfitted though.”

“Then send in a low value crew for the initial pass,” Byron said. “Their results will be error prone and largely untrustworthy but even a small amount of verifiable data should be useful in refining what the actual team will look for.”

“We have ships holding position for emergency pick up it looks like,” Maldrax said. “Why would they bother with that? Oh well, I suppose it’s more of that woman’s inscrutable strategy. All the better for us though. I can have one of them move into place and begin reporting back immediately.”

“Excellent! That’s the kind of decisive action you need to stay on top of…” Byron began to say but cut himself off as Maldrax synched in the audio from the emergency pick up ship with the connection they were sharing.

“Yes commander?” a young ensign said.

“Wait!” Byron said. “Don’t make an open connection on a secure channel like this.”

“What is your current objective?” Maldrax asked.

“Direct observation of the troops,” the ensign said. “Of the troops. Direct. Of the troops. Observing. You.”

Byron moved to slam the cut off button for their channel but it was far too late at that point.

Behind him the shadows came to life and their eyes burned with purple fire.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 23

Lisa

Despite the screaming and death that surrounded her, Lisa felt remarkably calm. 

“That’s probably partially my fault,” Lost Alice said. “I’m not exactly bothered by bloodshed.”

“You’re also not turning into a feral killing machine,” Lisa said, sparing a glance down the hall to where Vixali and Qiki had moved out of position and were shredding [Hungry Shadows] to ash and bone fragments with their claws.

Lisa wasn’t sure if they’d wound up deep in the fray in order to protect the less combat capable human behind them or if the [Vampire Queen] and her [Castellan] had simply succumbed to their bloodlust. In either case they seemed to be committed to the battle.

“I’d say I don’t do ‘feral frenzy’, but there was that guy in the [Sunken Deeps],” Lost Alice said. “I suppose it’s more accurate to say I don’t do it often. It’s one of the reasons I started learning to be a [Grave Mender].”

“And I thought I was just making a brokenly powerful build combination,” Lisa said.

“Maybe you were? We create ourselves right?” Lost Alice asked.

Their philosophical reverie was interrupted as one of the [Hungry Shadows] got past Ashad/Ironborn’s guard.

One of the effects of the Shadows gaining intelligence was that they understood how to prioritize their attacks much better. With Ironborn’s Taunt no longer in effect, the Shadow didn’t waste any time on the wall of indestructible steel that was the tank in front of it. Instead it dove on Rip Shot, it’s nightmare maw of fangs gaping wide to tear out her throat.

Lost Alice held her healing spell on Ironborn rather than drop it, knowing she could apply a [Counter Death] on Rip to buy time if need to. It was a cruel choice. Rip would find having her throat torn out exactly as unpleasant as Rose would have as a human, but mitigating pain was a secondary consideration for a healer, falling well behind keeping the party alive and able to function.

The cruelty of the choice was also tempered somewhat.

Before the Shadow could land it’s attack, Tessa had her fist slammed into the back of the creatures mouth.

Her fist wasn’t glowing.

She hadn’t transformed back to Pillowcase.

She wasn’t even using any special tanking skills to avoid damage.

“God I love that idiot,” Lisa said to no one but herself as her heart unclenched from the scare of something happening to Rip.

Tessa’s forearm didn’t do particularly well against the Shadows fangs of course and she wasn’t quiet or calm once she recognized what a bad idea her action had been. Fortunately Matt had her covered.

“[Casting spell: Summon Nightmare Hound],” Matt said, the words a bit more hurried than a spell’s invocation should be. It was okay though, the [Nightmare Hound] in question was a good boy and came howling up out of ground anyways.

The [Hungry Shadow] was a roughly man-sized monster with flaming eyes and a mouth full of terrible, glittering fangs beyond count. It feared nothing and no one.

Which was a mistake.

Something isn’t called a ‘Nightmare Hound’ because it’s easily dismissed.

The good news for Tessa was that after the [Nightmare Hound] bit the [Hungry Shadow] into two pieces, it turned to ash and she was spared the problem of trying to extract her still-mostly-human hand from its mouth.

“Oww,” Tessa whined, cradling her bleeding arm in her good one. 

“I’ll get you in a sec,” Lisa said. There was some tiny chance the experience might incline Tessa to think of her own safety for at least a half second before charging into danger, but Lisa was mostly just focused on making sure the gaps in Ironborn’s defensive skills were covered with sufficient healing.

As a max level character, Ironborn should have had no trouble with the [Hungry Shadows]. Except the caravan was traveling through a series of corridors which were all in a level capped area. Because if they weren’t the max level Shadows would have devoured them in a blink. Ironborn wasn’t perfectly setup to fight under the level restriction, but at level 20 he was still stronger than any of the other tanks they had available.

Except for possibly Obby? Lisa heard Obby carving a path forwards for the caravan and wasn’t sure there was anyone up there supporting her.

“If she needs help, she’ll call for it,” Lost Alice said. “She’s as familiar with party tactics as you are.”

“Yeah for all the lowbies we have here, at least there are plenty of us who’re used to this kind of raid-level nonsense,” Lisa said.

“It’s helping me too,” Lost Alice said. “It feels like the practical experience we have from my memories and the indirect experience we have from yours is working together nicely.”

“I wish that were true for everyone though,” Lisa said.

Chatter from farther back in the line reinforced Lisa’s concern.

“We’ve got Shadows dropping from the ceiling onto people after twenty feet ahead of us,” Kamie Anne Do called out on the [Alliance’s] part line. “We can’t get over there in time.”

Chaos erupted on the line as people offered to try to help, or wanted to know where exactly the Shadows were, or shouted for their allies not to leave them.

“We need a leader,” Lisa said, again to herself. Talking on any channel was a waste in all the chaos. 

“Or to strike off with just our team,” Lost Alice said.

It was tempting. Terribly, brutally tempting. As a healer main, Lisa had been on too many teams and seen too many people fall apart. It was a rough thing to fail, but giving up on people was even harder. 

Or it should have been.

Looking back, Lisa could see how jaded she’d become. [Broken Horizons] had lost a lot of its joy for her. 

And that was what Tessa, and Rip, and Matt had brought back. They were all terrified of the new world they found themselves in, but in some weird way, they were all happy to be in it together.

If the [Hungry Shadows], or the [Consortium of Pain], or the [Gods of Old] wanted to tear that down and spread misery everywhere? Well [Adventurers] weren’t good about fighting for their lives, but give them a treasure to win they actually cared about and they would string even the gods up and beat them like pinatas until the desired treasure appeared.

With a deep breath, Lisa felt her spirit move. 

She was an [Adventurer] now and her treasure was standing all around her.

Jamal

Jamal had a dog. He’d always wanted one and now he had the best one ever.

The [Nightmare Hound] seemed to be happy to have been gotten too. He gazed at Jamal with eyes the size of Matt’s fist, a swirl of light specks flickering in their vast darkness like a galaxy tumbling through space.

“I think he wants to eat more of the Shadows,” Matt said.

“I don’t want him to get hurt though,” Jamal said.

“We can just summon him back if he does,” Matt said.

“Yeah, but I don’t want him to get hurt,” Jamal said. 

The protectiveness wasn’t entirely based on empathy for the living nightmare. Keeping the Hound close meant that if any other Shadows got past Ironborn, there’d be someone other than Tessa to keep Rose from getting torn to pieces.

“It’s important that pets get sufficient enrichment,” Matt said.

“Okay, the Consortium did not teach you about that,” Jamal said.

“Huh, no, I guess they didn’t,” Matt said. “Apparently I can access your skills like you can use mine?”

Jamal wanted to laugh at the idea of the [Metal Mechanoid] taking up pet care, but, the current situation aside, it wasn’t all that hard to picture.

“Rip!” Lost Alice called out on their team channel, shouting over the chaos of the battle. “The people behind us need help. You’re fast enough to get to them. Go. We’ll back you up.”

Rose didn’t need to be told twice to go play hero.

“Me too?” Jamal asked.

“Yeah, your [Nightmare Hound] can pass through people. Send him along with Rip and try to push through the crowd as fast as you can without trampling people,” Lisa said.

“We can’t send them in there alone,” Tessa said.

“I know. Get moving too,” Lost Alice said. “We can’t coordinate all the [Adventurers] but if we lead by example they might start copying us. I’ll follow once Ironborn has the next few whittled down.”

“You can go now,” Ashad said. “I’ve got potions I can use to cover the gaps.”

“No need,” Starfire said. “[Casting spell: Verdant Regrowth]. I’ve got him. Go and save the others!”

“This should help,” Glimmerglass said. “[Casting spell: Lesser Solar Barrier].”

Jamal saw Matt’s body, as well as Lost Alice and Tessa begin to glow with a golden light. Rose missed the effect because Rip had already disappeared with a thunderclap as she ran over the crowd by running along a wall and around the bend.

Pushing through the crowd was challenging given the beefy bulk of Matt’s body. For someone who wasn’t a melee class, being so stocky seemed a bit weird, but Matt’s built-in skills explained that the size of his body which made for the inexpensive storage of magical energy. Having a body made by the lowest bidder wasn’t always the greatest thing, even if the original design was well into the super human range for most qualities.

While moving through the crowd was difficult, keeping track of where to go was not.

Rose’s fighting style was effective, efficient, and energetic.

What is was not was subtle.

By the time he got to her, three of the [Hungry Shadows] were drifting to ash and one more was stumbling back as a [Lightning Shot] burned a hole through the center of its chest. Rip however was being grappled by three other Shadows and was not having a good time of it.

“Okay boy, get ‘em,” Jamal said, which put a wolf-ish smile on the [Nightmare Hound’s] face.

It ran directly through the dozen people directly in between Matt and Rip. Before the Shadows could drag Rip to the ground, the Hound was there, knocking one off and tearing into another.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spectral Wounds],” Matt said placing a large and only somewhat illusionary gash through the Shadows arm and torse. The injury’s effects were limited, but they were enough for Rip to wiggle out of the Shadow’s grasp and place another arrow straight into the center of its body.

Matt wanted to cheer, but it was far too soon for that. As fast as she’d won free of the Shadow who was holding her, five more appeared.The horde of [Hungry Shadows] was seemingly endless.

Jamal didn’t let that dissuade him. He kept pushing through, casting spells and firing off attacks from his staff, but the melee was too chaotic and they were too outnumbered. They were going be overwhelmed and die again. Jamal wasn’t going to stop fighting, but he knew they were doomed.

Until the [Hungry Shadows] began fleeing.

And the [Alliance] chat went wild.

“They’re running!”

“We won!”

“Victory!”

“Good game!”

The voices on the [Alliance] channel were a cacophony of cheers that Jamal couldn’t help but be swept up in. 

“This isn’t right,” Tessa said, putting a hand on Matt’s shoulder to get his attention.

“What’s not?” Jamal asked on their team channel.

“The [Hungry Shadows] shouldn’t be running away,” Lost Alice said. “That’s not a good sign.”

“Maybe their boss figured they couldn’t beat us here?” Rose asked.

“We should check the wounded and see if anyone’s missing,” Tessa said.

That idea got communicated out to the other [Adventurers] quickly and it wasn’t long before the answer came back.

“We’ve got everyone still here,” Kamie Anne Do said. “But there were injuries.”

“On the townsfolk?” Lost Alice asked.

“Yeah.”

“Let me see them,” Lost Alice said.

Their team pushed through a few more small groups of people before they found a group who’d been too far away from the higher level adventurers to avoid contact with the [Hungry Shadows].

Four of the towns people were down, unconscious from wounds which oozed with purple light and were slowly draining the color from them.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 22

Tessa

Getting a team to run somewhere could be an exercise in herding cats. Rather than simply following the plan, it was always a case where people didn’t listen, or wanted to go somewhere else, or were busy taking care of whatever had grabbed their attention three seconds ago. Despite all that though managing a team was still heavenly compared to getting a camp full of diverse factions to flee from a place of tentative safety and rush into the unknown because of a threat which they couldn’t yet see coming. 

“We’re never going to make it,” Tessa said, her hands clenching and unclenching on their own. “They don’t want to leave.”

She was speaking privately to Lisa while trying to project a calm and certain expression so that people would continue to take her seriously.

Assuming they were taking her seriously at all to begin with.

Yawlorna seemed to be onboard, but Vixali looks like she was mostly interested in dinner, with Tessa as the main course. Neither of them presented the challenge Olwina did though.

“If we leave the [High Beyond], we’re never going to get our homes back,” Olwina said. It wasn’t an unreasonable point. The towns people had lost a lot. Tessa just knew they were going to lose a lot more if they stayed where they were.

“Maybe not,” Lost Alice said. “[Sky’s Edge] is already gone. Even if we can take back the [High Beyond] later, the land may not be able to support life for a while.”

“We need to get rid of the Consortium too,” Rip said. “As long as they’re around, you’ll be completely exposed here.”

“Why not go to one of the other cities though?” Olwina asked. “[Star Throne] or [Godston] have defenses. We could rally there couldn’t we?”

“The cities are still standing but their residents are all gone already,” Obby said.

“The Consortium?” Tessa asked.

“Nah, the major city areas had one-way gates setup to take them to the surface,” Obby said. “As soon as the Consortium showed up, the majority of the population bailed out through them. We’d probably find a few who stayed, but those would be the same people who thought a [Formless Hunger] was no big deal, or a hoax, or something equally ill-informed.”

“Wait, they have working gates that can take us to the surface? That’s great! That might make this even easier!” Tessa said.

“I’m sorry to rain on the parade, but the ‘had’ there was intentional. Once everyone who was going to flee was through the gates, the cities destroyed them. If they hadn’t the Consortium could have used them or, worse case, the Hunger could have.”

“Ok, shoulda seen that one coming. At least it’s sensible,” Tessa said. “And probably something we’ll need to do too.”

“You know where another gate is?” Rip asked.

“We do,” Tessa said. “Or at least something that can be turned into a gate.”

“How does one turn something into a gate?” Vixali asked. She was sitting on a small outcropping from the wall which she somehow managed to make look like a regal throne through nothing more than her posture.

“With this,” Tessa said and drew forth a slime from her inventory.

“You can’t treat me like this!” Kralt said, his teardrop shaped body vibrating with anger.

“They can and have,” Ashad said. He was sitting on a small ledge too, but as a slime didn’t have the same majesty the [Vampire Queen] did, so for him it was just a stone perch.

“You led them to me! This is all your fault!” Kralt said.

“You’d be being eaten by [Hungry Shadows] at the moment if he hadn’t,” Lost Alice said.

“Save your breath,” Tessa said. “He only cares about himself. Which is fine. It makes the rest of this a lot easier.”

“What…what do mean? What are you going to do to me?” Kralt asked. He was the size of a basketball and though he didn’t physically shrink at all, he did seem to grow smaller as his fear finally cracked out through the mantle of his planetary scale ego.

“He’s the key,” Tessa said. “Or he has one. It’s mostly worthless, but I think we can use it at least once.”

“A key requires a lock,” Vixali said, leaning forward with her gaze fixed on Tessa.

Being the subject of keen vampiric interest was unsettling. Tessa wasn’t sure she was human anymore, but whatever she was did not enjoy the idea of being devoured by a [Vampire].

Well, not by that [Vampire] at least.

Receiving that sort of attention from…

Tessa mentally slapped herself. Just because Lost Alice was inches away from her did not mean it was okay to drift off into happy day dreams. 

“You showed us the lock in question,” she said, casting her gaze off in the general direction of Vixali’s lair. It was partially in answer to the question but also so she wouldn’t have to try to win a staring contest with someone whose powers probably included a magically mesmerizing gaze.

“We have no gates,” Vixali said.

“The windows?” Qiki asked. She was floating behind Vixali. Tessa couldn’t tell if she could actually levitate or if it was a combination of supremely good body control and superhuman strength. The [Vampiric Castellan] made it look effortlessly graceful in either case.

“Right,” Tessa said. ‘You have portals to other places there.”

“But they’re no more than a visual effect,” Vixali said. “You can’t pass through them.”

“You can if you have a god soul to work with,” Tessa said. 

“Uh, aren’t those dangerous?” Matt Painting asked. He and Rip were standing close by to Lost Alice and Tessa. It should have looked like baby birds huddling near the mothers they’d imprinted on, but Tessa more had the sense of the two of them as some kind of honor guard. They’d certainly been ruthless when it came to fighting on her behalf, which in the back of her mind Tessa wondered about. She was endlessly grateful they’d come to help her, but it wasn’t the sort of thing two kids should have had to do, or the sort of thing she should be asking them to ever do again.

Which was why she needed everyone to get through the gate.

“The last god soul was almost too dangerous,” Tessa said. “I’m just praying this one will be dangerous enough.”

Rose

They were going to get into a fight. Rose knew this because Rip knew it. Rip was low level still but she had battle experience, both from ones she’d participated in and from the many more she’d heard tales of. In none of them did an enemy who’d been stymied by a small party decide that they’d drop the matter there so everyone could live and let live. The Hunger was going to attack again, and it would do so at the worst time it could find.

“What do you think will happen if we can make it to the surface?” Jamal asked. He’d insisted on staying at her side as long as they (and all the rest of the [Adventurers]) were on guard duty for the caravan of people trying to reach Vixali’s throne room.

“More fighting,” Rip said. “The Consortium’s all over the place down there from what people have been saying.”

“Yeah, but aren’t they all like max level? We can’t even get close to that,” Jamal said.

“Not right away,” Rose said. “Lost Alice was talking about getting some of her guild mates to help level us up though.”

“Aren’t they all busy fighting the Consortium though?” Jamal asked.

“I guess they’ll take some time out for us?” Rose said.

“You don’t think they’ll try to ditch us somewhere ‘safe’, so that we don’t have to do any more fighting?” Jamal asked.

“I hope not,” Rose said. “They haven’t left us behind yet.”

“I know, but, I mean, what if we’re not good enough?” Jamal asked. “I was talking with Battler X and she has five other characters who are all max level. Leveling her up is smart cause she already knows what the high levels are like.”

“That’s why they need us though!” Rose said. “You remember what Pillowcase and Lost Alice were talking about right? How we’re going to develop different abilities than the usual high level ones because we’re actually living this? They need people who don’t know how the game worked so that we won’t limit our thinking to that.”

“You can find the bright side in anything can’t you?” Jamal asked, unable to keep the smile from his voice.

“I turned into an awesome catgirl [Archer], and then into a super lightning archer,” Rose said. “I know this is all ridiculously frightening and horrible, but it’s also deeply cool. You’ve got to admit that.”

“Hey, you were awesome before too,” Jamal said.

“But before I couldn’t hear creatures creeping up on us in the dark,” Rose said, her voice growing distant and wary.

“I’m not even going to question that,” Jamal said. “Where are they and how far?”

“There,” Rose said pointing down a side hallway the caravan of refugees didn’t need to pass down. “About a hundred yards away. They’re on the walls and ceiling too and they’re moving fast.”

“Incoming!” Obby said over the [Alliance] party line the [Adventurers] had put together. 

When the [Hungry Shadows] hit, it became clear how much they’d changed from the zombies or the [Formless Hunger] they’d evolved from. 

Gone was the disjointed movement and the unfocused meandering. When the [Hungry Shadows] arrived they flew forward guided by a single mind. There was no hesitation or confusion about what they were seeing.

Tentacles burst from the walls and floors, moving with them. 

And the dying began.

Thanks to Rip’s perceptiveness, she and Matt Painting were able to start striking back the instant the [Hungry Shadows] turned the corner and came in range. From various other parts of the caravan chatter burst onto the party channel that the [Hungry Shadows] were attacking from all sides.

“We’ve got this side,” Rose called into the chaos while Matt slung spell after spell at the encroaching hoard of [Hungry Shadows].

Behind them the villagers from [Sky’s Edge] were crying out in alarm and huddling back away from the obvious threats.

The obvious threats who were actually being effected by [Lightning Shots] and [Lesser Spectral Wounds].

Rose hadn’t thought about it before. The [Formless Hunger] had been impervious to damage. Even looking at it had nearly fried her brain. These [Hungry Shadows] though? They weren’t going down quickly or easily, but they were dropping as she and Matt blasted damage into them. They were smarter and faster but they’d lost something. 

That should have been reassuring, and it would have been, if the Shadows had been dropping quickly enough. For each one that fell though, the rest pushed farther forward.

“They’re going to be on us in about ten seconds,” Rip said. “We can’t hold them back.”

“You don’t have to,” Lost Alice said, stepping in front of them.

“Not alone,” Tessa said, stepping up to stand beside Lost Alice.

In her hands, she held Ashad’s slime body.

“Is this going to work?” Ashad asked.

“I was hoping we wouldn’t have to find out,” Tessa said. “Which one do you want to be?”

“Sizzleblam,” Ashad said. “No, wait, Ironborn, he’s just as geared up and we need a tank here.”

“I don’t know if I can switch you to any of the others later,” Tessa said.

“That’s fine. Do it!” Ashad said.

Rose saw a brief flash of rainbow light surround Tessa before she threw the slime at the far too close [Hungry Shadows].

The slime which was also wrapped in flashing light.

The slime which landed on the ground not as a teardrop blob but a tall man encased in an absurdly over-decorated suit of solid platemail.

“[Provoking Roar],” Ironborn bellowed, unleashing a skill which riveted the attention of the oncoming.

If Tessa couldn’t tank for the group, she’d apparently discovered a suitable alternative; summon a max level tank to handle the job for her. 

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 21

Lisa

Tessa wanted to talk. Later. So it was about more than the weather. Lisa tried to think of all the things that might be on Tessa’s mind that would warrant a private conversation but weren’t pressing enough to require immediate attention.

There were a lot of possibilities. Some of them terrifying and wonderful.

And some of them just terrifying.

The more Lisa thought about the more dreadful ideas floated into her imagination.

Had their latest crisis pushed Tessa into discarding some other portion of her humanity? Was she going to tell Lisa that her time was running out? Or that she’d been infected by the [Formless Hunger]? Or that she had to leave because she couldn’t keep getting hurt for Lisa’s sake?

The last thought was ridiculous and Lisa discarded it with a shake of her head. If she was going to worry about things, they were at least going to be sensible things, grounded in a semblance of reality.

“I’m sorry, I really want to stay and help, but I think I broke something back there. Every time I think about fighting, I start shaking and feel like I’m going to throw up,” the phantom Tessa in Lisa’s imagination said. “I’d keep going but I’ve been hurt so much coming this far that I think this whole thing might have been a big mistake.”

“She’s not going to say that,” Lost Alice said as she handled racing down the corridor just behind Tessa. “You know that’s not how she feels.”

“I know. I know. It’s just so easy to picture though.”

“She’s not Kelly,” Lost Alice said. “From everything we’ve seen so far, she’s more than willing to give as much to you as you give to her.”

“I know!” Lisa shouted, though only to herself. She felt like an idiot but the promised conversation was raising her hopes too high and her experience with high hopes was that they led to the worst disappointments.

“My heart’s too dead to break,” Lost Alice said and Lisa laughed at herself, a chuckle escaping the safe confines of her lips.

“Happy thoughts?” the real Tessa asked on their private channel.

“Don’t mind me, just losing my mind back here,” Lisa said.

“But it’s been such a stress free day so far,” Tessa said, playing into Lisa’s joking tone.

“I don’t suppose we’ve have any luck reaching the folks at the refuge?” Lisa asked.

“Not a peep,” Tessa said. “Lady Midnight’s been trying too. She says the static is the same they were getting when they tried to reach us.”

“So it’s the Hunger? Has it gotten to them already?” That wasn’t one of the terrible conversation options Lisa had thought to worry about, but the omission wasn’t surprising. There were just too many vectors for terrible events to remain consciously aware of them all.

“No. They’re farther away from it’s center than we were. And it was searching for me. And dealing with the Consortium trying to do whatever they were doing to it. We’ve gotta have a little time left before it starts moving on a random group of people like that.”

It sounded like Tessa was trying to convince herself as much as Lisa, but the logic was at least somewhat sound, and Lisa needed to believe it just as badly as Tessa did.

“We could send Rip ahead,” Lisa said. “She seems to have picked up some kind of long distance movement power.”

“You know if we even breath a whisper of that idea she’ll be off like a bullet,” Tessa said.

Lisa groaned inwardly.

“With no backup and no plan. Yeah, that’s not a great idea.”

“Maybe not at the moment, but if we work with her a bit?” Tessa suggested.

“We could turn her into a more effective child soldier?”

“If we manage to get out of here, I’m treating us all to a few years of therapy,” Tessa said. “Well, if I’ve got a job still. For all I know, they’ve fired me already. It’s been like two days now? Or just one? I’ve lost track.”

“I think we’ve been going for more than 24 hours but less than 48 now,” Lisa said. “Next time we hear from a GM we should check though.”

“I could try BT again, but there’s been static there too,” Tessa said. “I think there must be some membrane from the Hunger that’s in between us. Good news though; Obby, Glimmerglass and Starchild don’t seem to be cutoff. Lady Midnight said they’re making their best speed back too.”

“We were pretty luck with the people we’ve run into here,” Lisa said and added, “I’ve been pretty luck.”

It was sounded awkward and weird when she said it but Tessa seemed to understand what she meant.

“Me too.”

“Was that what passes for subtle on Earth?” Lost Alice asked.

“You have my memories don’t you?” Lisa asked. “I mean, you are me, aren’t you?”

“Are you under the impression that you’re lacking in sarcasm?” Lost Alice asked.

“Yeah, but I don’t use it on myself!” Lisa knew it was a lie, but yelling back at Lost Alice was easier than considering the implications of what she was tormenting herself about. 

“You know if you and I are all divided like this, we’re that much more likely to flub something up in our next fight and let Tessa get hurt again.” Lost Alice was teasing her, but that didn’t mean the barb was any less sharp.

“Maybe I should just be dead and heartless then right?” Lisa said, casting a barb back.

At herself.

“That would be for the best,” Lost Alice said. It was meant as a joke, the whole exchange an attempt to refocus Lisa’s thoughts away from the terror that had gripped her while Tessa was fighting for their lives and violating various of the local laws of physics. 

Sometimes though casual teasing can strike nerves that should have been long dead.

There was a sadness behind Lost Alice’s words and a flicker of another woman.

Lost Alice’s heart wasn’t beating but that didn’t prevent it from seizing up at the memory. 

Once upon a time, she hadn’t been lost. Once upon a time, there’d been someone she’d loved literally more than life itself.

Yawlorna

There was more to averting a tragedy than just glowering at it until the problem went away, but Yawlorna was impressed at how much effect a good glower could have. It helped of course that she happened to resemble a creature the former residents of [Sky’s Edge] believed to be far stronger than Yawlorna and her crew. That, coupled with an apparently genuine desire on the part of the [Vampires] to begin a peaceful coexistence with their potential food source, had bought time for a decent amount of dialog to take place.

Yawlorna was under no illusion that everyone was happy with the situation before them, or that the townsfolk held any deep trust or respect for either Yawlorna’s crew or the [Vampires] but there’d been progress where there could have been bloodshed.

“I can have my people work with the [Adventurers],” Vixali said. “If we setup combined patrols we can take advantage of their indestructibility and our heightened senses to make sure nothing gets the drop on the rest of us.”

“I like that,” Olwina the [Blacksmith] said. “We’ve got some materials we use to start creating defense works too, once we get the living quarters situation squared away.”

“I do like the sound of defense works,” Vixali said.

“We can help with those too,” Yawlorna offered. “We had some blood wards setup in our old camp. They weren’t enough to keep out the Consortium’s elite troops, but the regular riff raff stopped bothering us once we got them deployed.”

“Do they last long?” Olwina asked.

“A few weeks if they’re painted right,” Yawlorna said. “We can mix in silver dust if we need them to last longer.”

“I suspect we’ll need to supply you with some,” Olwina said. “We’re probably going to be here a while.”

That was, of course, the precise moment when a familiar band of [Adventurers] came barrelling into the cavern.

“We’ve got to go!” Tessa shouted, catching everyone’s attention and with four words undoing all of the calm that Yawlorna had worked so hard to build.

“Pardon me but, what?” Vixali said, her red eyes flashing with dangerous annoyance.

“We need to leave. Now,” Tessa said. “Pack up anything you can. We’ve got maybe ten minutes, tops.”

“Ten minutes before what?” Yawlorna asked, not bothering to hide her own grumpy annoyance.

“The thing that ate [Sky’s Edge]? It’s growing. It’s already taken over a lot of the dungeon above this area and it’s started spreading down fast.”

“The [Formless Hunger] is spreading?” Vixali asked, the annoyance in her eyes replaced with plain fear.

“Spreading and changing,” Lisa said. “It’s intelligent now.”

“What does that mean?” Olwina asked, Vixali’s fear jumping to her like a contagion.

“That we’re dead,” Vixali said.

“Aren’t you already…?” Yawlorna started to asked.

“In the colloquial sense,” Vixali added. “Are you certain of this? Certain enough to stake your life on it?”

“We already have,” Rip said. “We fought a bunch of them when we found Pillowcase and Lost Alice.”

“You…fought them? How?” Vixali asked.

“The Hunger took control of some of the Consortium forces,” Tessa said. “They changed into something else, [Hungry Shadows], while we were fighting them.”

“But you won, didn’t you?” Olwina asked. “Can’t we just stay here and fight them.”

“A lot of Consortium troops got converted,” Kamie Anne Do said, arriving with her team. “We found a few dozen and that was nothing compared to how many the Hunger got.”

“We ran into some too,” Obby said. Behind her, a small army of shadows crept along the walls. The [Shadowed Starwalkers] felt like predators to Yawlorna, but they were making no moves that could be interpreted as hostile, waiting patiently while Oblivion’s Daughter spoke for them. “The good news is they are beatable. The bad news is, they’re natural level seems to be well above 20, so outside of level capped areas they’re a nightmare, and there’s several tens of thousands already under the control of the central [Hungry Shadow]. So, yeah, we should leave.”

“Go where?” Olwina asked. “We just started setting up here because this was the safest place we could find. Where is left for us to run?”

“Deeper,” Vixali said. “The lowest reaches of the Ruins have always been unpassable. The creatures down there are powerful beyond reason.”

“That doesn’t sound like an improvement,” Yawlorna said. “Aren’t we just trading one death for another? I mean that might be fine for the [Adventurers] but the rest of us don’t do well once our major body parts start to go missing.”

“It is true,” one of the shadows said. “There are things in the lower reaches which even we fear.”

“They’re at least of this world, or this reality,” Vixali said. “We can reason with some of them. Offer payment for passage. In the worse case, we sneak past them and let the [Hungry Shadow] deal with them before they get to us.”

“It’s not going to be that simple,” Obby said.

“Of course not,” Yawlorna closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose.

“We can flee deeper, but there’s no safety there either,” Obby said. “The high level creatures? They’re all gone.”

“They are what?” Vixali asked.

“Gone. Not there. They can’t fight the [Hungry Shadows] for us because they left a while ago. Just after the [Formless Hunger] showed up,” Obby said.

It didn’t occur to Yawlorna to ask how Obby knew this. [Adventurers] possessed such a weird and inexplicable assortment powers that knowledge of a dungeon’s inhabitants didn’t register as even vaguely strange.

“Then there’s nowhere for us,” Olwina said. “We have to stand here and fight and die.”

“No,” Tessa said. “No one’s dying here. We’re getting out of here.”

“Out to where?”

“The surface. The Hunger’s going to take the [High Beyond] but it’s not going to get any of us,” Tessa said. “We’re going to go where we can all get stronger. Then we’re going to come back and show that chump what we can really do.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 20

Jamal

He wasn’t Matt Painting. Jamal knew that. Unlike Rose and Rip, who were two sides of the same coin, Matt and he were distinct people. Or somewhat distinct? They definitely shared a perspective on things, and Jamal apparently had access to the skills and abilities Matt had been crafted with, but each one had their own thoughts and desires. That seemed like something that could cause problems in the future but in the face of weird shadow-zombie-hunger minions, the two of them had a pretty easy time being of one mind on what to do.

“Get off her!” Jamal screamed before Matt began the incantation for a [Revealing Insight] spell. 

Neither of them really wanted to get to know the monsters before them much better, but neither was willing to gamble on being able to take the former soldiers down without as much damage buffing as they could get.

Ahead of them, the [Lightning Snakes] swarmed into the melee. Given that the snakes recognized Rip and and the unfamiliar glowing woman seemed to be helping Rip, it wasn’t hard for them to work out who to start biting. Unfortunately for them, even fangs charged with electricity didn’t impair the [Hungry Shadows] much.

The [Gloom Drinkers] didn’t fare much better, being even lower level than the [Lightning Snakes]. After their first pass and more than a half dozen losses, they pulled back, swirling around Matt either to offer him protection or request it.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spectral Wounds],” Matt said focusing on the [Hungry Shadow] that still had Rip’s arm in its mouth.

On the one hand, Jamal was unhappy he didn’t have any spells with solid impact behind them. Blasting the monsters away from his best friend was something his heart screamed out for him to do. On the other hand, the fact that his spells effectively couldn’t miss and had no blast radius for Rose to get caught in meant he didn’t have to worry about hitting her, so he focused on that while Matt focused on what he did best.

“Nice shot!” Rose called out on their private channel when Matt’s follow up [Torment] spell severed some critical piece of the [Hungry Shadow’s] psyche and left it to crumble to ash as the Hunger abandoned it.

Rip was on her feet and had an arrow nocked in her bow in an instant, but that was all the time it took for one of the other [Hungry Shadows] to turn its attention towards Matt.

[Dream Spinners] did get defensive spells. Jamal knew that. He also knew he had a few levels to go before he picked up any of the really useful ones. Matt was made of various magical metals, which should have helped but even low level foes were capable of shredding materials his body was composed of. 

What he needed was a tank. 

What he got was just a few inches shy of a berserker.

“No! No more!” Tessa screamed as she jumped on the [Hungry Shadows] back. With her free hand she clutched the back of its head and slammed the creature into the floor pummeling its face into the stone over and over again.

As a relatively unathletic human, her blows shouldn’t have hurt the [Hungry Shadow] much at all. As a burning rainbow who was powered up with the force of Pillowcase’s [Soul Render] ability the story was rather different. 

The Shadow made a squelching sound. The kind which immaterial beings are entirely incapable of. Blobs of what were hopefully just magic splattered the hall with each hit, quickly painting in a sticky ooze. 

Another [Hungry Shadow] leapt at Tessa from behind but Rip lit it up with shot after shot from her bow, the arrows flying faster than any human could have loosed them. The Shadow glowed from within under the barrage of lighting before exploding in a cloud of ash.

The creature in Tessa’s hands splattered once, twice, three times more before its structural integrity was fractured beyond the point of no return and it to turned to ash as well.

That left only one other [Hungry Shadow] Jamal thought.

That’s when he noticed Lost Alice had let her healing spell drop.

Tessa’s strength came from a combination of rage and borrowed magical ability. Lost Alice however wasn’t human at all.

“I did not know she could tear someone’s head clean off his shoulders like that,” Jamal said to Rose on their private channel, stunned for a moment at the sight.

“That’s makes two of us,” Rose said, her barrage of arrows paused in surprise.

“Are you ok?” Jamal asked.

“Yeah, her spell patched me up completely,” Rose said. “How about you?”

“Those things were pretty freaky,” Jamal said.

“I don’t like that,” Rose said. “They’re different from what the Hunger did before.”

“Seemed easier to fight though?”

“Maybe,” Rose said. “We don’t know what Tessa did to herself this time though.”

“That’s a good point.”

“Are…you…two okay?” Tessa asked. The glow around her had faded and she was panting as though she’d run a marathon at a dead sprint.

“Yeah, we’re good,” Jamal said. “What about you?”

“Let me take a look at her,” Lady Midnight said.

“What is her health bar doing?” Lost Alice asked.

“Nothing good,” Lady Midnight said, checking Tessa’s pulse and inspecting her face.

Jamal saw the green bar over Tessa’s head was wavering up and down. It never emptied but its movements were too erratic to be anything natural.

“You had a healing spell on her though?” Lost Alice said.

“Her health was doing this with the spell on her. I’m not sure what effect magic has on a normal human’s body, but I didn’t want to take the chance it was going to push her into a stroke or worse.”

“I’m ok,” Tessa said, gasping the words out with the partially breaths she was able to pull in. “That was just kind of a lot, all of a sudden.”

“You’re not okay,” Lady Midnight said. “Lie back and let me finish checking you over.”

“You’re a doctor?” Jamal asked. “In real life I mean.”

“No. I’m a nurse,” Lady Midnight said.

“Oh good! You know what you’re doing then,” Tessa said, and promptly passed out.

Tessa

Returning to consciousness was rather disorienting. For a not terribly brief moment, everything and everyone was unfamiliar. Scrambled bits of context swirled around in her mind and minor things like her own name and which planet she was on were entirely lost.

“Tessa, can you hear me?” The woman who was speaking was a stranger? No. A friend? Maybe? Someone familiar? Yes. A healer? Yes!

“Lady Midnight?”

“That’s right, can you tell me what you’re feeling now?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Tired,” Tessa said and Pillowcase added, “It’s like the aftermath of a severe [Main Drain] effect.”

“Pillowcase?” Lost Alice asked. “Is Tessa in there too?”

“Yep,” Tessa said. “The only one missing in here is Glimmerglass.”

Her memories were reassembling themselves faster than Pillowcase was used to. She recalled the Consortium’s damage response training. The exercises were fairly straightforward torture sessions, with the instuctors harming the troops via a wide variety of methods to familiarize them with the sorts of injuries they were expected to sustain and continue functioning through. Since Tessa was still on the floor, she would have failed the tests miserably but Pillowcase wasn’t going holding it against herself. In their current form they weren’t built for that sort of punishment.

They also weren’t built to be hugged as tightly as Lost Alice was hugging them.

“Don’t. Ever. Do. That. Again.” Lost Alice’s command was whispered but clear enough that Tessa felt her heart soar a little bit.

“Not planning to,” she said. “But I do need my ribs in one piece.”

Lost Alice released her hold and backed away but not far. She looked like she was waiting for Tessa to do the next self destructive thing on a long list of them.

Or like she just didn’t want to be too far away.

Tessa hoped it was the latter. 

Really hoped.

“We should talk. Later,” she said on their private channel and caught Lisa’s small nod in confirmation.

“The good news is your little nap there seems to have stabilized your health,” Lady Midnight said.

“Is that normal?” Matt asked. He and Rip were hovering behind Lady Midnight and were surrounded by giant moths and electrified snakes. 

Tessa shrugged inwardly and decided she’d ask about that later. 

“For a human? No,” Lady Midnight said. “I’m not sure ‘human’ describes our friend though. At least not ‘Earth standard human’.”

“Why do you say that?” Tessa asked, curious to hear if Lady Midnight could confirm her suspicions.

“I found this in one of your wounds before it closed,” Lady Midnight said and showed Tessa a tiny tuft of glittering stuffing. “The wound wasn’t bloody at all, it just had a bit of this leaking out. Also your vitals are excellent. Like excellent for a world class athlete and, no offense, but I’m going to guess you don’t have a collection of Olympic gold medals at home?”

“Does it count if they’re in a phone app for a sports game?” Tessa asked.

“Why would she have stuffing in her veins?” Rip asked.

“We drew on my abilities,” Pillowcase said. “Maybe that caused our bodies to merge as well?”

“That might have been what was happening with your health,” Lisa said. “If you were flipping between your [Soul Knight] max health and your [Void Speaker] total your health could go up and down without you being damaged.”

“That makes as much sense as anything else I guess?” Tessa said. “And supports your idea that trying that kind of thing has some cost associated with it.”

“Do you think you can stand?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Definitely. I’m feeling a lot more solid than I was before I caught my breath,” Tessa said. “How long was I out for?”

“A minute or less,” Lady Midnight said. “Fainting like that tends to have a short duration. You’re recovering from it faster than normal though if you feel like standing already. Do you think you can handle some liquid?”

“That would be good,” Tessa said, noticing how parched her throat felt.

“Try this then,” Lady Midnight said and handed Tessa a glowing blue bottle.

“A Mana Potion?” Tessa asked.

“It’s the only sweet drink I’ve got,” Lady Midnight said. “We want to make sure your blood sugar isn’t too low and the mana recovery may be good for you too if you’re right about what you suffered being similar to a [Main Drain] effect.”

“Should we let her rest for a bit first?” Lisa asked.

“Normally yes, you don’t want the patient to throw up whatever you give them,” Lady Midnight said. “In this case though we don’t have that luxury.”

“You think the Hunger is going to send more troops after her?” Rip asked.

“The Hunger!” Tessa tried to shoot up to her feet, but Lost Alice was too close by and too quick and too ready for that sort of foolishness.

“We took care of the zombies it sent,” she said. 

“I know, but it did something. Or I did something to it. It changed. It’s not what it was anymore!” Tessa said. 

“I know. We saw that,” Lisa said. “But we beat the things it turned those zombies into. We’ll be okay.”

“I don’t know,” Tessa said. “I think it’s smarter now. The zombies were like puppets but the [Hungry Shadows] had an awareness to them. I think the Hunger is aware now too, and if it was mad before, it’s going to be positively vicious now.”

“That’s going to be a problem then,” Rip said and gestured to the [Lightning Snakes]. “According to these guys, the Hunger managed to clear out a big portion of the upper levels of the Ruins. And it got a whole lot of the Consortium’s Troops.”

“So it has a lot more than five zombies to send at us,” Tessa said.

“Why is it sending them after you though?” Lisa asked.

“I think it wants me to kill it,” Tessa said. “But I have no idea how.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 19

Byron

Being a Director in the Consortium of Pain was a terribly exhausting job. Byron smiled gratefully that fools like Madrax Odful were willing to act as such convenient scapegoats in taking the roles when so little real authority came with the position.

Oh, it was certainly true that Director level positions wielded tremendous influence and were given enough wealth to bankrupt a small world or two but, in Byron’s view, settling for so little seemed like the mark of a small mind.

“Are you sure you won’t take an appointment as the fleet’s official [Tactical Analyst]?” Maldrax said as people behind him in the projection scurried back and forth as close to running as decorum would allow.

“I’m afraid I would make things far worse you my dear friend,” Byron said. There were several promising “unopened” worlds in the latest report from the field scouts. He found himself rather tempted to take a weekend vacation and go conquer one himself. All the fighting had given him a taste for a little mayhem, though only a little. Reasonable fellows avoided the sort of mayhem Maldrax had dipped himself into. Or at least they avoided it unless the payout was sufficiently likely and vast.

In Azma’s defense, Byron did have to admit that the payout on the current operation was likely to be vast. Lesser players would end their career and go into retirement following conquests not a tenth as valuable as the world Azma had been given to exploit. And that was without the [Transdimensional Entity]. With that as a prize, she’d be able to move on a level where she might even notice some of Byron’s minor pieces moving about.

Which, of course, was why he’d interfered. There were already quite enough players to worry about, and Azma didn’t show any sign of knowing when to check her ambition. 

“I don’t see how you could do worse than the ineptitudes they sent with me to handle things,” Maldrax said, unconcerned that the ‘ineptitudes’ he was referring to were swarming around the [Secondary Bridge] which was serving as the primary locus point for fleet-wide communications.

Byron hid a smile at the thought that all of Madrax’s personnel had been hand selected from the highest performing members of each of the individual disciplines. The problems they were experiencing were likely to be in part due to Azma’s lingering sabotage efforts, but could also be attributed to the hand which selected them being rather poor at the job.

Identifying actual talent took work, whereas identifying people who would agree with your proposals was a much simpler task for a Director to accomplish. 

“If I were to aid you and word of that got out, you know the credit for the operation would be tilted towards my division,” Byron said. “The last thing you want is for Gunridge to make a partial claim on your find.”

Director Gunridge wasn’t an enemy to Maldrax. Enemies were much simpler to deal with, and vastly easier to deny a claim on new treasure than friends and allies were.

“They’re saying we have troops marching to nowhere down there,” Maldrax said. “Why are they marching anywhere? We have transports precisely so no one needs to march.”

Byron could think of several dozen reasons why one would want to let the Consortium’s troops move from one point to another under their own power. Which of those reasons were a primary element in Azma’s planning was a mystery to him, and not one which he found himself overly invested in unraveling.

“Can’t you just recall them then?” Byron asked, knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that recalling troops from the field when you didn’t know what aim they were trying to accomplish was both the right decision and the surest way to provoke a mission-wide failure. 

“We don’t know,” Maldrax said.

“Nonsense,” Byron said. “You’re the Supreme Commander of the fleet now. They’ll do whatever you say.”

It was the reassurance Maldrax needed to hear while also presenting as empty headed an argument as Byron could bring himself to make.

“We don’t have the ships to recall them all,” Maldrax said. “That saboteur sent too many ships to the moonlet trying to secure the [Transdimensional Entity] for herself.”

“What about landing a carrier or two?” Byron said. A part of him was chortling at the idea that he might convince Maldrax to make such a foolish misstep while the rest was applauding Azma’s ingenuity. 

By stranding the troops on the planet surface, even if only temporarily, she’d managed to ensure they couldn’t be used directly against her. Moreover if she managed to return to power, she could complete whatever scheme she had for them and claim an unexpected victory, thereby cementing the idea that only she could handle the reigns of the operation properly.

“The carriers are too slow,” Maldrax said. “We know the defenders can teleport onto them. And, even worse, they tell me if we start pulling our troops away piecemeal that the remaining ones will be left open for a counterattack. We could lose the territory we’ve already won!”

Maldrax had never managed an “Opening” campaign, had never even been within three degrees of separation from one, so Byron could have forgiven him his dismal understanding of tactics and strategy. Could have, but didn’t.

“Whatever will you do then? Allow the troops to continue on with Azma’s plan?” Byron asked, digging into Maldrax’s ego. Byron didn’t need to tip Maldrax over the line into a failure inducing rage, but that was an outcome which Azma had likely discounted which made it all the more amusing to contemplate.

“I intend to give them new orders,” Maldrax said. “If I could find one competent [Tactical Officer] around here who could decipher what the hell that woman was thinking.”

“Have you had any communication with that woman yet or has she been eaten by the entity already?” Byron asked, knowing the answer to both questions was obviously no.

“We can’t even look in her damn direction thanks to that…” Maldrax’s words tapered off to nothingness as he went from skimming a report a nervous aide had handed him to reading the document with increasing horror.

Byron racked his brain to imagine what turn of events could have provoked so extreme a reaction. Nothing on the operation could have gone that far off course, so it had to be something personal?

“It’s gone,” Maldrax whispered.

“What’s gone?” Byron asked, still perplexed.

“The entity. It’s gone.”

“It’s moved? I thought this one just digging itself in a little deeper? Did it go fully mobile? Is it coming for the fleet?” That last possibility seemed dire enough to provoke the reaction Byron was seeing.

“No. It’s gone. Completely gone,” Maldrax said, dropping the paper and staring blank eyed into the wreckage of his career in the far distance. “It was digging deeper and then something happened. A containment unit exploded. It changed.”

“A containment unit exploding shouldn’t have had any effect on the entity. What do you mean it changed?”

“It’s not a [Transdimensional Entity] anymore,” Maldrax said. “We’re doing active scans now to confirm it. It was overtaken by some kind of wave and what was left behind wasn’t transdimensional anymore.”

“Where did it go?” Byron asked.

“Into the moonlet,” Maldrax said. “Like it was hunting something.”

Melissa / Feral Fang

Evacuating a village out of the path of a Consortium army should have been a nightmare. The villagers were already scared, and venturing deeper into the [Shadow Creep Woods] wasn’t doing good things for any of their nerves. Feral Fang had a number of unpleasant memories from encounters with the local monsters back when she was a mid-level adventurer. The likelihood of a panicked stampede seemed fairly remote despite all the spooky elements surrounding them though. It was harder to be scared of the forest when a small army of very scary [Goblin] [Assassins] was actively frightening all of the other scary stuff away so everyone could pass in peace.

“So I’m having a truly terrible idea right now,” Jesterix said as she marched at Melissa’s right side and tossed a ball back and forth with one of the village kids.

“No, you can’t change class to [Assassin],” Melissa said, “Even if they do get some very stylish hats.”

“What? No. I mean, ok, yes, those are some amazing and annoyingly class specific bits of gear, but this is a much better terrible idea,” Jesterix said.

“Better than the hats? Okay, this I’ve got to hear,” Melissa said.

“Our new friends are flushing all of the monsters out of the woods right?”

“Not all of them, but yeah, they are clearing a path for us pretty well. I don’t think they want to try the same thing with the Consortium though. Soldiers don’t tend to scatter when you hiss at them.”

“That’s true, but consider this; the monsters all respawn right?”

“At least the ones we’ve seen tend to.”

“And the Consortium troops are even as we speak marching along the forest’s border right?”

Melissa saw where Jesterix was going and had to agree, it was a really terrible idea.

But she was kind of onboard for trying it out.

“Could we direct the monsters that well?” Melissa asked. “I mean it’s easy to get them to run away from a bunch of max level [Goblins] but could we get them to run towards something specific?”

“I think it depends on how tough the soldiers are,” Jesterix said. “If they’re all max level like us, then the monsters will just run from them too. If the monsters are stronger than them though? I’m thinking feeding frenzy.”

“And no matter which is true, it’ll throw the army into chaos for a while,” Melissa said. “Except that could be bad right? What if they decided that they need to hunt the forest clean of monsters before they continue on. We want them to ignore the fact that we’re here right?”

“I said it was a terrible idea, didn’t I?” Jesterix said.

“What if you brought the dragons down from the mountains instead?” the young girl who was playing with Jesterix said.

“Oh, there’s no dragons in the mountain anymore,” Melissa said. “All the dragons from here flew south and setup stronghold in the [Caldera of Radiance] about six years ago.”

“Yeah, the only thing left up there are…” a dangerous gleam appeared in Jesterix’s eyes.

“Are the [Emberwings],” Melissa said, the same plan coming together in her head that was dancing behind jesterix’s eyes.

“Those are really dangerous aren’t they?” the young girl asked.

“They can be, but only if they’re provoked,” Melissa said.

“Yeah, then they tend to fly into things, explode, reform and explode over and over. It gets kind of annoying,” Jesterix said.

“And we happen to know exactly who needs to be annoyed just like that,” Melissa said.

An hour later Melissa was regretting her optimism. 

“We’re going to need to dive right into their camp to get the [Emberwings] to give up on attacking us and go after them,” she said, wheeling her broomstick mount around in a tight corkscrew to gain some distance on the dozen lava bodied bat monsters which were pursuing her.

“At least we’re bringing a lot of targets for them to shoot at,” Jesterix said, matching speed with Melissa.

“Yeah, but they’ve got a lot of people to shoot at us with,” Melissa said. She took a turn around one of the mountain’s spiky pillars without reducing her speed and heard at least a handful of [Emberwings] slam into the cliff face behind her.

“Think evasive thoughts then, since they’re just around that next corner, and they’ve got to have heard us coming,” Jesterix said. 

Melissa had to agree. Their descent from the mountaintop after stirring up the [Emberwings] had put every Fourth of July celebration she’d ever been to to shame. She fully expected to come around the mountainside into a faceful of artillery but instead what awaited her was a pure and precious gift.

The Consortium forces were in disarray.

Not because of any attack but because they’d come to a triple fork in the road around the [Shadow Creep Woods] and the army was arguing over which direction is was supposed to go.

The Consortium, it turned out, was very good at following orders, and when the orders they received conflicted with each other, they were very good at being conflicted too.

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 18

Grace / Kamie Anne Do

In Kamie Anne Do’s world any enemy you could defeat without losing all your hit points was a good enemy. Grace’s view was that the best enemy was the one you could defeat without taking any injuries. They both agreed that the [Disjoined Soldiers] didn’t fall into the category of ‘an enemy they really wanted to fight’ though, despite the increasing number of them which they are able to dispatch.

“Where are all these reinforcements coming from?” Battler X asked, fighting back to back with Kamie.

“The last wave were all with the 5th Gryphon squad. These ones are mix of the 5th and the 3rd,” Sergeant Pono said as she tossed her exhausted [Plasma Lancer] away and drew a knife  that was long enough to qualify as at least a short sword. Grace suspected the nimbus of vibrating blue energy around its edge was more than a shiny cosmetic effect, but knives had never been her thing.

“Are we going to see more of the 3rd roll in?” she asked, parrying a raking claw strike and counter attacking to break the [Disjoined’s] elbow in the hopes of taking the arm out of commission.

Her punch landed with more force than Grace’s human form ever could have delivered, enough to shatter the bones she hit. In any sort of reasonable fight she would have achieved her objective. What she was embroiled in was nothing like a reasonable fight though.

“We shouldn’t be seeing as many of them as we are,” Pono said. “We were supposed to be operating under [Apocalypse Security Protocols]. The Hunger couldn’t have gotten through those.”

Pono feinted at the soldier in front of her, forcing it back a half step, before spinning to her right and slicing a leg off one of the soldier’s Kamie was fighting.

“Is that what kept you safe?” Grace asked. She took advantage of the opening Pono created to boot the injured [Disjoined Soldier] back into the crowd, knocking down two others who were trying to capitalize on Pono’s momentary distraction.

“Don’t know that I’d call this safe,” Pono said.

“Fair point,” Grace said.

“You said we’re immune to them though?” Battler X asked. She had downed one but didn’t make the mistake of assuming it was going to stay down. Before the soldier could rise again or scramble away, she dropped a quick series of blows to make sure the body was definitely non-functional.

“I don’t know how,” Pono said. “It’s good that you are though. If the Hunger could get it’s claws into you, it could probably use all of the your powers, and then we’d be having more than a mildly bad day.”

“This is mildly bad?” Grail Force asked. She’d taken up a more secure location and was lobbing death down from above into the horde that was trying to push into the boss chamber the adventurer’s had selected as their battle arena.

“I haven’t lost any major organs yet, so, yeah, could be worse,” Pono said.

The other [Consortium Soldiers] who were still in possession of their own wits had been reduced to fighting with melee weapons as well but were acquitting themselves far better than their [Disjoined] comrades who’d been [Devolving] into forms with blades and spikes and bladders of acid under the [Formless Hungers] influence.

“You sound like an adventurer when you talk like that,” Battler X said. “You don’t have respawn points on your ships do you?”

“Our medtech is top notch but dead is dead,” Pono said. “Well, for people at my pay grade anyways.”

“You should definitely take up the adventuring life then,” Grace said. “Don’t even need dental when you could regrow your entire head.”

“That sounds handy, but I’m bound to my post. We all are” Pono said. “Duty before anything else and all that.”

“Seems like your former comrades disagree,” Battler X said, kicking a [Disjoined Soldier] over to Kamie.

“They’re only former because they had their comms open,” Pono said. “Against a [Transdimensional Entity] like a Hunger no amount of [Loyalty Compulsions] can hold someone to their duty.”

“Wait, [Loyalty Compulsions]?” Grace asked. “You mean when there’s magic forcing you to serve the [Consortium of Pain]?”

“It’s cheaper than yearly bonuses,” Pono said. She lost her knife by burying it in the head of the one of the enemies but in exchange she gained a freshly charged [Plasma Lancer] and was able to able to open fire immediately.

“Do we have anyone who can [Dispel] control debuffs?” Grace asked on the adventurer’s private channel.

“Yeah, I think so,” Grail Force said on the private channel. “Back at the refuge there’s at least a couple.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Grace asked, sure that everyone could see the same opportunity she could.

“Yeah, definitely,” Buzz Fightyear said. “Only problem is I don’t see how we’re going to get them back to the refuge. If we leave this spot, the [Disjoined] will be able to get to a place where they’re not stuck under a level cap.”

“And there’s a whole bunch more of them coming,” Battler X said. She’d pressed through the crowd enough to be able to look down the corridor which led into the boss chamber. 

Grace wasn’t thrilled by the intel but she wasn’t surprised by it either. The [Formless Hunger] didn’t seem to be the sort of monster that was able to learn from its defeats. 

Or it has inexhaustible strength and simply didn’t care about the temporary victories Grace and her team were winning.

Either or both were possible, but Grace liked the first interpretation better.

“Maybe we don’t have to get them to the refuge,” Grace said. “All we really need is one of the dispellers to come to us as reinforcements, after all it looks like we’re going to be here for a while.”

No sooner had she said that than a wave seemed to pass through the [Disjoined].

“Whatever that was, I’m sure it wasn’t good,” Pono said.

Grace was inclined to agree with her.

The weird, hissing static in the [Disjoined] eyes and mouth was swept away by the wave. In its place a purple flame began to burn in their eyes.

“Brace for something bad,” Grace said.

And then the strangest thing happened; the former [Disjoined] began to flow out of the room, like a receding tide.

Something was calling them away.

Azma

The nice thing about an implacable foe was that they were so terribly predictable. Azma didn’t take that as an excuse to rest though. She was running a race against so many different forces that being able to ignore the [Formless Hunger] for a while only meant that she had time to plan out the moves she’d be taking in the hours and days to come.

She’d built up a variety of beautiful models in her mind, solid plans and wild alternates and subtle variations based on the range of responses from the Consortium and the defenders on the planet below. For the actions of those she commanded or could influence into action, she always assumed a statistically significant level of underperformance. Incompetence was a universal trait in her experience and while large, intricate plans were a path to victory in many cases, it was in all cases foolish to assume that the cogs which enacted those plans could be trusts with even the smallest degree of complexity. 

The only person Azma trusted to be able to see the scope of her machinations and keep the various threads straight was herself.

Which meant she was also the only one who could appreciate exactly how disappointing and terrifying it was what a fundamental aspect of those plans when horribly awry.

“Containment Unit 7 is showing a full burst detonation,” Grenslaw said. “Indirect telemetry suggests the personnel from Unit 7 were out of the blast radius when the burst occurred.”

“Good, good,” Azma said, paying only marginal attention to a result which she already knew was the only real outcome possible. “Has the Hunger overwhelmed Unit 7 yet?” 

The timing on the Hunger devouring the containment unit was slightly wobbly. It was possible the containment unit had expended it’s remaining charge in the burst and would fail instantly when the Hunger moved against it. Alternatively it might be able to put up a defense for a few dozen seconds. The more time the better since it would give the troops more time to leave the Hunger’s area of influence but ultimately all that was required was for the Hunger to shift itself out of position. That would leave it too far extended to reach the troops directly and they were all shielded for indirect contacts. Azma was ready for either eventuality but neither one required a change in her plans.

The report she received however did.

“Unit 7 is not being attacked,” Grenslaw said.

“That’s not possible,” Azma said, vague annoyance at the poor data collection available to them rising behind her eyes. “Whatever the Hunger seems to be doing near it is an attack.”

 “There is no sign of movement from the [Transdimensional Entity],” Grenslaw said.

“There’s…what?” Azma’s plans didn’t collapse then. She was used to incompetence and if she’d momentarily forgotten its prevalence in light of Grenslaw’s exemplary service, she still had it factored into several of her plans.

Also, denial is a powerful drug and a drug even the powerful can fail to avoid indulging in on the wrong occasions.

“Indirect telemetry shows no sign of movement,” Grenslaw said. “Shall I order one of the abandoned ships to perform an active scan?”

Azma paused, feeling her plans teetering.

If they used a downed ship to actively search for the Hunger, they would only get one set of responses back before they had to assume that the ship was contaminated after that.

“Yes. Do it,” Azma said. The cost was phenomenal compared to the data provided but if Azma couldn’t direct the Hunger, the value of a ship wasn’t going to play a meaningful role in her future.

It took a five second eternity before the answer appeared on Grenslaw’s monitor.

“No movement detected by an active scan either.”

Azma’s plans crashed down around her, brittle shards sending icy panic racing through her veins.

The combat squad she’d brought with her tensed.

The moment when the [Supreme Commander] learned that their careful plans had all failed was almost always the moment when Consortium leaders decided to vent their rage and disappointment in a bloody fashion.

Azma was the exception. 

She simply closed her eyes and began to think.

Had the initial analysis been wrong? Was it possible they hadn’t ever been dealing with a [Transdimensional Entity]?

No. Based on the Hunger’s destruction of the ships which its suborned, the first appraisal had been correct.

Was it possible the Hunger was faking? Playing passive to lure in more troops which is could take control of?

Again, no. That level of planning required capabilities which entities like the Hunger didn’t posses. Or rather couldn’t possess. A Hunger didn’t have a will. It was defined only be its hunger. For one not to respond to a chance to feed, it would have to no longer be a [Formless Hunger] at all.

Azma paused there, considering the implications of that thought.

Not a Hunger. 

No. Not a [Formless Hunger] any longer.

It had changed.

“Find another ship,” she said. “Do another active scan. I want a composition report this time.”

“The expected result for a composition scan of a [Transdimensional Entity] is a ‘Failed to Read’ error,” Grenslaw said. “I have one prepped now. Awaiting orders to trigger it.”

Azma smiled. Grenslaw was providing the proper feedback to ensure Azma wasn’t wasting a resource while also understanding that there was more to the request that was immediately apparent.

“Perform the scan,” Azma said. “I’m afraid it’s not going to be read failure.”

It was Grenslaw’s turn to take a moment of silence.

“The composition scan succeeded. Also indirect telemetry has provided new data,” Greslaw said, visibly stunned. “The [Entity] has begun to move.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 17

Tessa

Pillowcase was in agony. The static fire which wreathed Tessa’s hand was unbearable and no amount of healing magic that Lisa poured into her was enough to repair the damage it was doing.

[Transdimensional Integrity],” Tessa said invoking a skill only Pillowcase should have had access to.

The static fire on her hand shattered into a hail of immaterial glass shards.

“Stop hurting us!” she screamed and slammed her fist into the face of a zombie who surged up from the pile trying to drag her down. 

Her fist left a trail of light through the air as she swung it and on contact released a blinding explosion that hurled her back into the door where Lost Alice was standing.

The Hunger’s zombies were knocked farther down the hall but wasted no time returning to their feet.

In the melee, they’d lost their blasters. Tessa felt a flash of panic when she saw how close the weapons were to the zombies but the Hunger did seem to retain any awareness of them once the blasters were out of the zombies hands.

It did seem to recognize that something had changed though.

Tessa hadn’t seen the zombies look fearful before.

“They’re going to attack again,” Pillowcase said, and from the furtive, side-to-side steps the zombies were taking, Tessa knew she was right. “Sorry about losing focus there. I didn’t know pain like that existed.”

“I didn’t either,” Tessa said. “And you’re doing fantastic. Are you ready for their next charge?”

“No, but we’ll have to be,” Pillowcase said. “The woman we love is counting on us.”

It was not at all the right time for that particular admission to herself, and Tessa’s instinctive response was to slam a thick wall of denial around it. 

Except she didn’t want to. 

Pushing the idea to the back of her mind to deal with later didn’t work either. She was facing off against certain death and even with the tricks she’d been able to pull off, she hadn’t taken out a single one of the zombies. The least she could do was be honest with herself for a second about what she was fighting for.

The zombies screeched in static shredded rage as the Hunger whipped itself up to confront the new threat that Tessa posed.

It should have been terrifying. Real, agonizing peril fractions of a second away from becoming real.

Tessa turned to look at Lost Alice though and she didn’t feel afraid.

The woman she loved.

She was in love again.

She was able to love again.

With death bearing down on her, Tessa felt more alive than she had in years.

The five zombies charged as one, and reinforced by Lost Alice’s healing magic, Tessa stepped forward to meet their charge fist first.

The glow around her hand flashed through every color of the spectrum as it erupted from every point of her body.

>> [Transdimension Integrity] morphed to [Transdimensional Essence]

That’s when Pillowcase case took control again and Tessa’s body shifted into a near perfect fighting stance. 

The fastest zombie took a left jab to the throat. 

The one to his right lost the use of its left arm as Pillowcase spun around it, demolishing it with a corkscrew force as she put the zombie between herself and it’s compatriots.

The injury would have been enough to completely incapacitate any human foe but Pillowcase had learned her lesson. The Hunger didn’t care about the state of the zombies body and was more than capable of repairing incapacitating damage that didn’t involve removing large portions of the body.

Lacking a [Disintegrator Rifle], Pillowcase made due with Tessa’s glowing fists.

Shifting her weight back, Pillowcase used the zombies greater weight against it, hauling the creature off balance and spinning it into the wall beside them.

With all of the rising force she could find in Tessa’s body, Pillowcase surged upwards, her left fist carrying the whole of Tessa’s weight behind it in an unchecked uppercut.

Pillowcase knew it was impossible to hope that she could literally punch the zombie’s head off, and she was correct about that. The ghostly echo of the zombie’s form which was knocked free from its body though came as something of a surprise. 

The other four zombies who had been tearing at her leapt back at the same moment the zombie Pillowcase hit slumped in her grip and began crumbling to grey ash.

The static ghost screamed an inch away from Tessa’s face and wrapped clawed fingers around her throat.

“No,” she said.

And she didn’t burn.

Tessa had been afraid of them. Afraid of the violence they offered. Every time she’d encountered real violence in her life she’d been left sickened by it. What the [Formless Hunger] was doing was too much too though.

Tessa didn’t deserve this, and for once in her life she saw not only that, but that she was strong enough that she didn’t have to take it.

Pillowcase had her training to fall back on in the face of an assault, but Tessa found something all her own to face the Hunger’s minions with. 

“I’ve had enough of you!” Tessa said and wrapped her own hands around the static ghost’s throat, righteous rage surging through her.

The ghost went berserk. It thrashed like it had been the one lit on fire, and wailed loud enough that the stone walls began to visibly shake. 

Tessa didn’t let up. The Hunger wasn’t even real and it thought it deserved to hurt her? Just because she existed?

Beneath Tessa’s hands the static ghost’s flickering form of light began to darken, an angry purple-green spreading from where Tessa was teaching it the meaning of pain. 

The other zombies recovered at that and dragged Tessa off the static ghost, but the purple-green stain continued spreading through its body.

Four on one odds were still terrible odds even with the new found strength Pillowcase felt flowing through her but for a moment she cheered the idea that she’d at least managed to reduce the odds to only four on one.

Then the purple-green finished covering the static ghost’s head and it’s thrashing stopped.

But it didn’t fall to the ground.

Worse, a moment later when the stain spread through the rest of its body, the creature raised its head and gazed on Tessa with eyes of purple flame.

And then it smiled.

The Hunger wasn’t formless anymore.

It still wasn’t alive but it had become something more real than the thing it had been.

And from the teeth which filled its smile, it was still ravenous.

Rose

As rescues went, Rose wasn’t sure three low level adventurers and a bunch of [Lighting Snakes] and [Gloom Drinkers] were going to be enough to save anyone. 

Not even themselves.

That did precisely nothing to dissuade her though.

“We’ve got to get there faster,” she said to Jamal on their private channel as the sound of a battle in the distance reached them.

“Go!” he said. “If they’re fighting, there’s still someone to save.”

“You’ll have my back?” Rose asked.

“Always!” he said, and Matt added, “You’re our best friend.”

“Follow me and come in hot on that fight,” Rose said on the team channel for all to hear before invoking one her new skills, “[Lightning Dash]”

The corridor she was racing down blurred in her vision as she executed a movement somewhere between a burst of super speed and outright teleportation. 

Turning a corner wasn’t an option without using the walls as springboards and the dizzying speed made it impossible to even think about firing her bow.

None of that mattered though.

She had to reach her…teammates in time (teammates, definitely not “New Moms”, teammates). Willing herself to be faster than lightning wasn’t possible. Willing her body to turn into lightning wasn’t strictly speaking an option either, but Rose’s nerves were crackling with so much electricity as she ran that it seemed like the [Lord of Storms] was, maybe, giving her a little more juice in her skills than she should have been allowed under the strict letter of the world’s physical laws. 

When she arrived at the melee, she was greeted by an even more disturbing sight than she’d been expecting.

Tessa was being pulled down to the ground by four Consortium soldiers. 

And she was was glowing like a rainbow on fire.

That wasn’t disturbing though.

What brought Rose to a grinding halt was the fifth figure. 

It was like a shadow pulled from an oil slick. It’s eyes were purple flames and the ripples of color gave it features, which the Hunger had twisted into a cruel, laughing rictus. 

Then there were the teeth. The far too numerous teeth.

It was a [Hungry Shadow].

Obvious. Purely descriptive.

And present on Rip’s heads-up-display just like the name of any other monsters.

She didn’t need to debate if she should join the battle.

She didn’t need to question which enemy was her target.

And she didn’t need to hold back.

“[Thunder Shot],” Rip said.

The arrow which leapt from her bow converted from a simple wooden shaft to a stroke of electricity. It ripped into the [Hungry Shadow] and set it convulsing as the energy began to burn the Shadow from the inside.

That got the attention of the Hunger-Zombies that were tearing at Tessa.

Rip lined up her next shot and saw one of the zombies staring at her with eyes of purple flame.

They all had eyes like that.

“What is happening?” she asked on the team chat and was rewarded by finally hearing Lost Alice’s voice.

“Rip! You’re here? What are you doing here?” Lost Alice said.

“Rescuing you!” Jamal said.

“The Hunger’s coming for you!” Lady Midnight said.

“I think they noticed that!” Rose said.

“Are we too late?” Lady Midnight asked. “Can we get them out of there.”

“We’re not too late,” Rose said, firing more [Thunder Shots] into the melee around Tessa.

“Who needs help more?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Tessa! Help Tessa!” Lost Alice said.

“On it,” Rose said. “[Multi-Burst] [Charged Shot] [Thunder Shot].”

The barrage of skills turned into a storm of lightning that Rip’s Tabbywile’s eyes couldn’t see through for several seconds. 

The good news, as her vision cleared, was that her attacks had drawn the attackers off Tessa.

The bad news was that her first sight of them was three of the [Hungry Shadows] leaping off the walls and slamming into her.

She screamed as the first Shadow dug its claws into her, tearing through her armor and slicing a bloody furrow into her left forearm. 

Another one clamped it’s teeth onto her other arm, immobilizing it and denying her the ability to fire any more arrows.

“[Casting spell: Minor Blood Channel],” Lost Alice called her, her voice dead calm.

Rose felt the blessed relief of healing magic pour into her, but Rip knew they were still in serious trouble. She didn’t have the durability of a tank and the healing from Lost Alice’s spell was not going to keep up with the damage the Shadows could do.

[Soul Render],” Tessa called out and her voice echoed like the corridor was a grand stadium. 

And then she was there too. Glowing hands hauled the [Hungry Shadows] off Rose and bashed them with blows the Shadows couldn’t ignore.

The [Hungry Shadows] were crueler to Tessa than they’d been Rose. Without Rose’s moderate armor, Tessa was more fragile to begin with and the [Soul Render] stance she’d borrowed from Pillowcase reduced her defenses even further.

Blood flew in too many directions, but Tessa didn’t stop fighting. 

The [Formless Hunger] may have been the one who could take people over, but Tessa was the one who fought like a woman possessed. From what Rose could see, she had completely abandoned any sense of self-preservation and was intent on nothing more than destroying the [Hungry Shadows] before they could harm anyone else.

Even if that meant they killed her.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Blood Channel],” Lady Midnight said, catching Tessa a moment before her health emptied out completely.

“[Torment],” Matt Painting said at the same moment, sending one of the [Hungry Shadows] writhing to the ground as [Lightning Snakes] swarmed over the rest.

The cavalry had arrived at last!

Broken Horizons – Vol 7, Ch 16

Lisa

Protecting someone from their own foolishness wasn’t something healers were capable of. Lisa knew that. She also knew that fighting opponents who were level capped at 10 when Tessa was at best 6 or 7 and not a melee fighter was a recipe for a quick party wipe. The two of them were going to die, quickly and painfully, and neither of them knew where the nearest [Heart Fire] was. 

None of that changed what Lisa needed to do though.

Not given what she knew.

Tessa wasn’t fighting to win. Despite the odds against them though, she wasn’t being foolish or naive. She was trying to save Lisa.

Just like she had before.

Lisa choked back a bitter laugh.

They’d been together for less than two days was it? How was it possible there could have been so many chances for Tessa to put herself in danger? And why was she so often doing it for Lisa’s sake?

Lisa could have guessed the answer to that question but trusting her guess? That was something she’d never been good at.

“[Minor Provoking Strikes],” Pillowcase said, causing Tessa’s hands to glow briefly with a violet pulse of light.

“Don’t keep them on you!” Lisa said on their private channel, maintaining her healing spell to restore the damage Tessa was enduring. 

Being capped at a low level was saving them for a variety of reasons, since not only did it mean the Consortium soldiers couldn’t obliterate Tessa with each punch they threw, it also placed the fight in a realm where the healing Lost Alice’s spells provided was still overbearingly strong in comparison to Tessa’s health pool. Even strong magic had its limits though and five on one were well beyond what Lisa knew she could manage to mitigate for long.

“I have to tank them,” Pillowcase said. “If they go after you, we’re sunk.”

It was a lovely, protective sentiment, but Lost Alice could also see the tactical sense of it, even if Lisa didn’t want to consider Tessa’s loss as any part of a viable strategy.

Pillowcase threw one of the zombies into his fellow with enough force to send them both sprawling down the hallway. That left her with three foes for a moment, which she capitalized on by vaulting over the shoulders of one of them to place him between herself and the remaining forces.

Lisa wondered if she was going to use the zombie as a shield and almost dropped her spell when Pillowcase instead crouched to take the zombie down with a leg sweep.

The Hunger-Zombies seemed to be strong and very difficult to damage but coordination and rapid responses were not in their wheelhouse. They managed to land solid hits and cause serious injuries to Tessa but Lost Alice’s spell wasn’t about to let those linger for more than an instant.

Grabbing the zombie’s leg swept before it could hit the ground, Tessa hoisted the flailing thing up and closed ranks with the two she’d knocked away.

She turned the zombie into a battering ram as it tried to bring an overly ornate sidearm to bear for a shot. The space pistol flew out of the things grasp as Tessa slammed the zombie’s head into into the knee of one of its fellows.

It was an amazing show of force, spoiled only by two other zombies colliding with Pillowcase from either side, knocking her away from the injured zombies and bearing her back and down to the ground.

Pillowcase fought to escape the two as best she could, but they had a mass and strength advantage on her.

A static hiss of triumph rang from each of the zombies, but it was victory celebrated too soon. One the ground and overwhelmed, Pillowcase kept her head and used the advantages she still had at her disposal.

The zombies were strong and tough, but they were essentially mindless. With the Hunger directly controlling them, they could only react with brute force. They didn’t understand the body mechanics involved in wrestling or how their greater strength wasn’t great enough to withstand attacks at their joints.

Pillowcase broke three fingers on one of the hands that had grabbed her, which freed her to launch a crushing elbow into the face of the other zombie who was holding her. The physical trauma of the blow let her get both hands around the zombie’s head.

Tessa would have hesitated then. She would have wondered if the zombies could be reclaimed from the [Formless Hunger] and her natural reticence against violence would have made her look for some of the option. 

Pillowcase shattered the thing’s neck, twisting its head a full 180 degrees in one explosive jerk.

Lisa sucked in a breath, but Lost Alice held onto her spell. This wasn’t a fight they could afford to lose, and the zombies were doing everything in the Hunger’s power to kill them.

And the snapped neck wasn’t enough to stop them.

Pillowcase kicked free from the two injured zombies and rolled back to her feet, in time to see all five of them swarm towards her. 

There was a nice long open corridor behind her, but instead of fleeing, Pillowcase braced her feet against the wall and rocketed off from it, slamming into the zombies who were charging her. 

They all went feel into a pile again with the most disturbing element being the inhuman growling.

Which Pillowcase was making.

Lisa wanted to call out. Wanted to ask if Pillowcase, if Tessa, was okay. Wanted to offer a better strategy. Some method they could use to escape.

No words came to her though.

She couldn’t interrupt Pillowcase. Couldn’t distract her. Not when every fraction of a second was filled with critical moves and countermoves.

Pillowcase surged up from the pile of bodies, her hand rising into the shape of knife before she slammed it back into the zombies.

Lisa expected to see it to emerge covered in blood and perhaps holding a still beating heart, but what Tessa pulled from zombie she speared was even worse.

Around her hand, quickly eating away at it, liquid static hissed in a rage to match Pillowcase’s own.

Jamal

They hadn’t found Pillowcase or Lost Alice yet. That worried Jamal. The two teams were supposed to be moving towards a common meeting point. With the extra speed his team was pouring on, they should have run into the Pillowcase somewhere past the midpoint between them, but well before the point they’d reached so far. The only explanation seem to be that something had happened to Pillowcase, or Lost Alice, or both of them.

Jamal wasn’t gripped by worry though. He was well beyond worried and into terrified.

They should have had an easy method of determining what was going on with Pillowcase and Lost Alice. Their “team chat line” had kept them in touch with each other even when they were separated by miles of solid stone and the planet’s ionosphere. 

Which each racing footfall, he waited for some response to the questions Rose and he had been spamming the chat line with with, but only silence answered them.

The same kind of silence as when Pillowcase and Lost Alice ran into the [Formless Hunger].

“We’re going to make it in time,” Rose said. She was struggling to stay with the group. Jamal could hear it in her voice. She was faster than the rest of them, thanks to her class change, and she wanted to unleash that speed more than anything else.

“I hope she’s right,” Matt Painting said, speaking only to Jamal inside the confines of their shared head space.

“She usually is,” Jamal said. Believing in her was easy. In himself not as much.

“It sounds like she inspires you the same as you do me?” Matt asked.

Jamal thought about that before replying.

“You know, I think she does?” he said. “She’s always been the braver of the two of us, but I never felt weird about that with her. I just wanted to live up to the kind of things she could see us doing.”

“I never had someone like that,” Matt said.

“You were always alone?” Jamal asked.

“No. I was constructed as part of a mass order. The others in my production lot were always with me, but we were locked down from the moment we gained self-awareness.”

“That’s unbearably evil.”

“I’m know that now,” Matt said. “The control spells they use kept us from being aware of it though. The pain we all felt then was something we assumed was a part of being alive. It wasn’t until you revived me that I understood what they’d done to us.”

“So, can I ask, why are you talking to me?” Jamal said. “I mean like why now and not before?”

“I didn’t understand what had happened at first,” Matt said. “When I woke up I thought you were another control program. I wasn’t being ordered to speak for myself, so I didn’t.”

“Hey, you can alway speak for yourself,” Jamal said. “I mean, I’m still not exactly clear on what’s happened here but I am not your controller.”

“I know. It’s part of why I wanted to speak up. We’re joined somehow, but it feels symbiotic. I never had to be brave before. The spells took care of making sure I could execute any orders given to me. I don’t know if I have any bravery of my own, but with us together like this I feel like I’m able to borrow some of yours.”

“Can you feel my emotions? Or read my thoughts? It sounded like that was a thing the others could do,” Jamal asked.

“I don’t think I can do either of those thing,” Matt said. “I know you can read some of mine though.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Jamal said. “When did I ever do that?”

“When you cast spells,” Matt said. “I can remember the verbalizations and the equations, but you’re the one who speaks the words and performs the gestures.”

“I thought that was something the game was doing for me,” Jamal said. “Now that you mention it though, it did feel like my head was going funny each time I cast something.”

“I felt more awake while we were casting too,” Matt said.

“Maybe that was you taking control of your body for a bit to finish the spell off right?” Jamal said. 

“I don’t know. It felt more like I was talking with you. I think you did all the actual casting.”

“But I’ve never cast a spell before. I don’t think that’s even possible in my world.”

“You appear to have a talent for it in this one,” Matt said.

“What happens if you want to cast a spell though?”

“I supposed I’d have to be the one to speak?” Matt said.

“Can you?”

“Sure, you’re not controlling me,” Matt said.

“But I’m running with your body now,” Jamal said. “Isn’t that like keeping you in prison?”

“It’s not like the one I was in before,” Matt said. “And I’m not sure you’re directing our actions. I think it’s both of us.”

Matt’s body slowed and fell back to the rear of the pack.

“We just chose that together, didn’t we?” Jamal asked.

“That’s what it felt like to me too,” Matt said. “Trying drifting to the left and I’ll see about the right.”

They continued on a straight course.

“Did you feel conflicted there too?” Jamal asked.

“I did. But I still can’t see your memories or read your thoughts,” Matt said.

“What are we then?” Jamal asked.

“Two people who need each other?” Matt said.

“You’d be fine with anyone though,” Jamal said. “You’re top of the line.”

“That’s not true,” Matt said. “I’m a refurbished unit. I failed the initial tests for being a viable combat caster. They made me a training target after they patched over the deficiencies they found. The only reason I was deployed into a combat zone was that [Supreme Commander Gernal] was attempting to keep costs low by using low value troops as disposable assets. I’m supposed to be so much stronger than I am.”

“You’re strong enough for me,” Jamal said. “All this has been a lot to take in. I think having our strength grow slowly has helped me keep a better handle on it.”

In the distance the sound of blaster fire echoing down the long stone corridors.

Together they quickened their pace to a full sprint, along with everyone else.

“Let’s hope I’m strong enough for them,” Matt said.