Category Archives: Broken Horizons

Tag for posts that are part of the Broken Horizon’s series

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Interlude 4

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

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

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

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

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

The FBI was bound to arrive in minutes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interlude – Azma

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

Or maybe that was the fizzy liquor?

She took another swig to be sure.

It was half from the liquor.

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

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

None of them were her.

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Even the Artifax Sir?”

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

Interlude – Niminay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Interlude 3

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the executives stepped forward.

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

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

Interlude – Azma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They seem to be in fine shape.”

“Yes but they’re not moving.”

“That’s discipline.”

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

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

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

“And knowing our mission will help?”

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

Interlude – Niminay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mellisandra only heard part of what Brendan was saying though.

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

Mellisandra looked up as she stood.

And up.

And farther up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Interlude 2

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much did those weigh when set against Tessa though?

Interlude – Azma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even when those competitors were attempting to sabotage her efforts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interlude – Niminay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niminay sighed.

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

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

“What about the adventurers?” Niminay asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra

Somethings make the end of the world worth worrying about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Interlude 1

Interlude – Hailey MacGilfoyle / GM Burnt Toast

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

When she could.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No response. Unknown character. Null reference.

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

He was dead.

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

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

Sometimes there were a few breadcrumbs to follow.

Not for Kevin McConnel though.

He was gone. She’d failed another one.

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

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

Interlude – Amza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That they could prove.

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

The worrisome ones were the ones they eventually found later. 

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

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

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

Interlude – Niminay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interlude – Brendan Reingold / Mellisandra

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

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

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

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

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

Mellisandra jumped in place.

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

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

“Try pressing it now then,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“I trust you,” Mellisandra said.

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

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

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

“Why?” 

“I have a theory I want to test.” 

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

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

“Now. Go.”

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

“I was right! Do it again!”

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

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 21

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

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

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

“[Flame Shot]”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About fifteen minutes ago,” Starchild said.

Pillowcase stopped calculating.

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

“Pretty much,” Pete said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How weird?” Pete asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe not…” Alice mumbled.

“You’ve got an idea?” Tessa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Armies move pretty slowly,” Obby said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to bet they’re not? Pillowcase asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“[Flame Shot] [Multi-Burst]!”

“[Casting spell: Torment]”

“[Casting spell: Hungry Guardians]”

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

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

“Moreso than last time,” Alice said.

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

Intuition finally clicked into words

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

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

Tessa shook her head.

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

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

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

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

“Blood.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice chuffed out the fragment of a laugh.

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

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

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

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

Alice gave a more honest laugh at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tessa shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wish I could be there,” Lisa said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’d walk away from her eventually.

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

It was what everyone else did after all.

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 19

The fresh air of the overworld was better than sweet. It felt like a rebirth. Which, when Tessa paused to consider the idea, was somewhat appropriate as they’d just left the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].

“How long were we in there for?” Rip asked, cradling FOOF, her [Lil Gloom Drinker] pet as the party ran at a half jog away from the dungeon.

“A bit over an hour, I think,” Alice said.

“Is that usual?” Matt asked. “I mean that seemed pretty involved and intense for a beginners dungeon, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, that was definitely not a tutorial area,” Rip said. FOOF seemed content to cuddle into her arms and fearlessly observe the wide world the surrounded them. The moment fighting had broken out in the dungeon, the [Celestial Butterfly] had vanished back inside the black gem which had been at the heart of the egg it was birthed from.  It was a good move from Pillowcase’s point of view since a blow from more or less anything was likely to kill the fragile creature. 

Tessa wondered if the pet could be killed at all though. In the game at least, non-combat pets were simply immune to damage (and also unable to inflict any damage or draw any attention to themselves). There were many odd elements of the world like that which Tessa would have paid cold hard cash to know the answer to. In the case of Rip’s pet however she had no interest in experimenting to find out. Not with how much comfort they each seemed to be giving the other.

“The Ruins weren’t as complex as one of the old raids, but there was a lot more challenge to them than there should have been,” Tessa said.

“They did mention that the [High Beyond] dungeons were designed to be more interesting than the usual ‘walk through a few rooms of trash and then beat a big bag of hit points at the end’,” Alice said. “From what I remember the beta testers saying though, that involved more story elements and cutscenes, not ridiculous things like that [Mind Crusher].”

“My sister said the dungeon she ran wasn’t bad,” Pete said. “It was the same mobs as always, just a little harder fighting them when you can actually feel the flames.”

Tessa’s party of four had become a party of seven by combining with Starchild’s team. Thanks to party chat, the miles which still separated them weren’t a barrier to communication, only to Tessa’s crew providing Starchild’s team needed the help they needed.

“Why was your sister running a dungeon?” Alice asked. “I thought they closed them down in the normal realms?”

“They closed down the raids. They couldn’t close down the regular dungeons though,” Pete said. “Melissa or Feralfang, my sister, she was with a team that went to rescue a party that tried one of the new mid-level places, the [Crypts of Lost Flesh]. The mid-level folks got in trouble so a bunch of max level characters that had been hanging around fishing went in and crushed everything in the dungeon to get them out.”

“Why would anyone go into a place called the [Crypts of Lost Flesh]?” Rip asked.

“Maybe they don’t have any?” Matt offered, shrugging the metal shoulders of his entirely metal body.

“I don’t think they had even that good of a reason,” Pete said. “None of them had been drawn into the game before they went in. They just thought the warning message was a joke.”

“This catastrophe does sort of select for the unlucky and the monumentally stupid doesn’t it?” Alice asked.

“Given that we fell into a giant, obvious hole which one does that make us?” Lady Midnight asked.

“Don’t think of it as blundering into a big trap,” Obby said. “We’re explorers right? So what we did was discover a whole new dungeon using only our passive detection abilities.”

Tessa chuckled.

“I like how you think Obby,” she said. “Have you managed to find out anything about the place yet though?”

At a half jog, Tessa’s team was several minutes away from the abandoned farm, but the distance was falling away with each step and being ready for what faced them seemed like a novel enough idea that it just might be worth pursuing.

“I keep offering to charge in and find out but for some reason the idea of being swarmed by demons doesn’t seem appealing to my compatriots here.”

“Sounds like a target rich environment to me,” Rip said, her smile sparkled around the edges of her words.

“See, and I’m hearing ‘torn apart by wild animals’,” Matt said.

“That’s the spirit!” Obby said. ”Oh, wait, we’re not the wild animals in that scenario are we?”

“That depends,” Pillowcase said. “What level demons have you seen?”

“Mostly level 5s,” Obby said, her words were slowed a bit as though they had to wade through a pool of curiosity. “There have been a few level 15s though, and we definitely haven’t seen all of the ones that are in here yet.”

Tessa wondered what she’d said that had intrigued Obby so much, but shrugged it off. It was a lot easier to work out that kind of thing out in person. For all Tessa knew, Obby had noticed some odd feature of the dungeon she was in and her curiosity had nothing to do with Tessa.

“Have any of them seen you yet?” Alice asked.

“Strangely, no,” Lady Midnight said. “We fell into a room which overlooks a much deeper cavern. Picture something like an opera box, but a lot bigger. We can see demons wandering about down below and we can hear ones moving back and forth outside the door to the room we’re in, but they’re not in a good position to see us.”

“Good. It sounds like you’re safe for now then,” Alice said. “Is the entrance to the room narrow?”

“It is. If they try to push in, it’ll be pretty simple for me to bottle them up there,” Obby said.

“The downside is that there’s definitely not enough room for a tank and a melee damage dealer to fight at the entrance,” Starchild said. “Rip and Matt, I believe your talents are better suited to this than mine are.”

“No worries,” Rip said. “We got your back!”

Tessa could feel the delight at being needed and important radiating from Rip. On reflection, getting a chance to actually save someone felt pretty incredible to her too.

Talking to the other team made all the difference too. Back in the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] when Lady Midnight had called and Tessa had been given a live feed to what sounded like a brutal murder, all of her thoughts had been panic. Tessa’s desperation wouldn’t have made a difference in the outcome of Lady Midnight’s fight but it had still felt proper. Like a lesser, more reasonable, response would have been left her culpable for Midnight’s fate.

Pillowcase had been pragmatic though, a cool, calculating voice, untouched by the agony Tessa had heard. To someone crafted for war, the sound of someone dying couldn’t be a blow to the psyche. 

I envy that it can be for you, Pillowcase said. As I was made, I could not form the bonds you have forged so quickly.

And I couldn’t have survived to make them if you weren’t there, Tessa said. But, you’re me.

We are each other, Pillowcase said. You have my memories, and I have yours.

Did you exists before I came here though?

Did either of us?

In other words are we a Boltzmann brain? Tessa asked.

Tessa had read about the idea of Boltzmann brains when she was fifteen and the idea had always intrigued her. Put simply, the idea was that everything we remember, all of our experiences, could be the result of a random ordering of matter and energy in the instant which we think of as the present. We could be nothing more than a transitory brain which winked into existence in an empty void complete with every memory and sense impression we believe we’ve ever had.

I don’t think that’s something we can worry about since it’s both unprovable and offers us nothing to act on, Tessa said. Acting as though there’s no world outside ourselves has a best case scenario of rendering everything meaningless and a worst case of devolving us into the worst monsters the world has ever seen. Better in every case to assume other people exist and that they matter.

Without you I wouldn’t have understood that, Pillowcase said. Without you I wouldn’t even have thought to ask the question.

But you’ve always had me right? I mean, you still feel like me. I don’t feel like I’m talking to someone else. I feel like I’m mulling over an idea in my head and writing both sides of a discussion around it.

Maybe that’s because while we have two lives worth of memories, and two points of view, there is only one will within us?

In other words, you want the same things I want, so there’s no conflict there like there can be with other people?

Perhaps more than that, Pillowcase said. My memories include being given a will which was then shackled to the will of my masters. That is not what we have. Our will is the same. We are one person, with two lives.

How could that work though? I made you up. Like an hour ago…wait, no, it’s been longer than that. How long have we been playing?

I woke many hours ago. It’s been at least half a day now. Before that I was not fully myself but I still remember both what I did and what was done to me.

If it’s been half a day since I created you, how could you be real? How can I see all these memories you have?

Because you were there. You are me. You always have been.

That’s not possible though. All I did was make some selections in a character creator.

You also dreamed up a backstory for me.

Yeah, one that just happens to match what you lived through? What are the odds of that happening?

What are the odds that we would be here at all?

Zero. Going by any rational statistical model, the odds that Tessa would find herself drawn into a video game she was playing were zero because there were too many basic laws of physics violated in the process. 

We need to understand the metaphysics then, don’t we?

Yes. We definitely do.

It was a tall order. Neither one had been a researcher by trade, but Tessa understood systems. She knew how to piece together their workings and discover what they were really doing from years of debugging code which could charitably be called sanity wreckingly bad.

If we can find a good setting for some quiet conversations, we should talk to the others about what they’re experiencing, Tess said. That’ll give us more data points to work from and it might help us pick out people who are having worse problems integrating than we did.

Starchild and Pete are an interesting case, Pillowcase said. They seem to be completely separate people, but they’re still harmonious with each other.

Yeah, it sounds like they’re as adjusted to this as we are, Tessa said. Is it weird that I’m thinking of you as a separate person now that we’re talking about how we’re both basically me?

If we had a connection back to your world that would let us read up on it, it might help to study the mental health issues people on your world have had with identity, but I don’t see anything in your memories which fits what we’re experiencing exactly. 

Also, whatever we have, or are, it isn’t causing problems so far, Tess said. If anything it’s solving them. If we have any kind of mental health issue then we probably fall into the ‘high functioning’ end of whatever diagnosis we’d be given.

I wonder what that means for the people who don’t have both their character and player halves fully responsive? Pillowcase asked. Alice, for example, said that she’s only herself and not her character at all.

That’s a good question, Tessa said noticing that Alice was staring down at the ground as they ran.

“How are you feeling?” Tessa asked Alice on a private channel for the two of them.

“Hungry”, was Alice’s reply.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 18

Tessa was done. She had nothing left. They’d fought the [Mind Crusher] till it was down to the last sliver of its health. She’d endured every attack it possessed, many, many times over. The fight however was still going.

“Just DIE!” she screamed, casting aside battle training, experience, and even basic tactics.

“[Multi-Burst] will be ready again in twenty seconds,” Rip said. “We’ve got this.”

“I’m out of magic, maybe fifteen seconds before I’ve got enough for another Spectral,” Matt said.

Both continued to attack as best they could, Rip firing regular arrows from her never emptying quiver and Matt directing a bolt of lightning from the end of his staff.

“I can get [Minor Blood Channel] up in ten seconds too,” Alice said. “Turtle up and we’ll keep fighting through.”

“Can’t! It’s regenerating too fast!” Tessa said. “We need another DPS.”

“No magic left to conjure one of those,” Alice said, her tone light. They were perhaps moments away from losing the fight despite pressing it to the very end, but Alice was able to view it with experienced eyes and that comforted Tessa more than anything else could have.

“Guess it’s time to do something stupid then,” Tessa said as she watched the [Mind Crusher’s] health ticking back up faster than her team could inflict wounds on it until it regained 10% of its health..

They’d been through this cycle seven times already, with each pass through hinging on the hope that they could save up enough resources to finally deliver a burst of damage sufficient to end the monster which was mindlessly tearing pieces out of Pillowcase as it had been doing for more than a half hour.

“Do it. I’ve got your back,” Alice said.

“[Soul Render].” Tessa invoked the skill she’d earned at 9th level and felt her wounds scream in pain as her durability plummeted.

Along with the pain however came an unholy amount of strength. Her tired and weary frame felt so much lighter and faster as violet shadows flickered to life like flames around her head and shoulders.

The seemingly untiring [Mind Crusher] contracted into itself for another [Death Spasm] but rather than avoid the attack, Pillowcase stepped into it smashing the monster away with a fantastic [Shield Bash]. The move cost her the use of her left leg when the [Death Spasm] fired but it was worth it to see the chunk of its health disappear faster than the monster could heal.

One blow wasn’t enough to end the fight though. With more work to be done, Pillowcase jumped off her right leg, and sailed through the air to land on the [Mind Crusher] sword first and began hacking away. 

Throughout thew fight, her blows had done little more than annoy the [Mind Crusher]. The damage she’d inflicted was akin to tiny paper cuts which her skills then dunked in lemon juice and salt. 

[Soul Render] changed that.

Where normally a [Soul Knight] was built for tanking, the class did have the option to switch to a more offensive mode. [Soul Render] cost the [Soul Knight] a large portion of the reinforcement magics they held, making them far more vulnerable to damage than normal. In exchange, Pillowcase’s blows hacked through the [Mind Crusher] tearing deep wounds into its endlessly regenerating flesh. 

The [Mind Crusher] tried to light her on fire again, but the flames didn’t diminish Pillowcase’s assault. They hurt worse than any previous attack, but Tessa noticed the pain was still somehow distant. It was present enough to alert her to the danger, but muffled, as though Pillowcase’s capacity to feel injury was less than a tenth of her own.

Another [Death Spasm] erupted from the [Mind Crusher], costing Pillowcase the use of her left arm. 

“Die! DIE!” Tessa pushed the irrelevant pain out of her mind. It was nothing more than distraction. Alice would heal her. She’d be fine. 

Except the [Mind Cusher] stabbed her in the right shoulder, severing the cords which gave her right arm vitality and motion.

As her sword and shield tumbled from her nerveless arms, Tessa knew that she was out of options. She couldn’t dodge or block the next [Death Spasm] and once she fell, everyone else was going to drop within seconds.

She readied herself to leap away nonetheless, but as she did she stumbled and went falling backwards to the ground.

She watched the [Mind Crusher] compress itself again but before its final [Death Spasm] could fire, Alice was there, standing as a shield in front of Tessa.

Tessa watched the spikes tear into the vampire and drop Alice to the ground as a bloody mess. That one attack had wiped out the entirety of Alice’s health bar save for a single point and the next would finish her.

“[Multi-Burst][Flame Shot],” Rip yelled.

“[Lesser Spectral Wounds],” Matt added.

And like that, the [Mind Crusher] was no more. The spell and the barrage of arrows tore through the tiny bit of health which Tessa’s attacks hadn’t been able to remove. 

Tessa felt Pillowcase’s innate healing abilities rally, though weaker than normal. She canceled the [Soul Render] stance to bring them back to their proper level and dragged herself over to Alice’s prone body.

There was less blood than there should have been given the horrible brutality of Alice’s wounds. It was a good sign, although the shape Alice was in looked from good.

“Glad…” Alice started to say and then had to pause to forcibly draw in a breath. “Glad I don’t need air to survive as a vampire.”

“That was incredible. Are you ok? Or, I mean, will you be?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah. I just need to rest a bit. Once my magic is back up to full I can fix all this.”

“Sorry you needed to do that,” Tessa said, pulling Alice up to a seating position so that the blood which was still flowing from her wounds wouldn’t pool around her face.

“I’m not,” Alice said, too weary from both the long fight and her critical wounds to keep her eyes open.

“That was amazing! We did it!” Rip didn’t so much walk over to them as bounce.

Matt was more sedate, showing the same weariness as Alice. “I’m sorry I ran out of magic there. I should have been more careful with it, then we would have had enough to take him down a lot sooner.”

“It’s not your fault,” Alice said, content to rest against Pillowcase for support while her magic recovered.

“We were under-leveled for that fight, and at half strength for a dungeon team,” Tessa said. “You two did the work of at least four people in that fight, maybe six depending on the team’s composition.”

“Without what you did though we never would have gotten through it,” Rip said.

“That’s our dear tank,” Alice said and slumped against Pillowcase. “Wow, you really do live up to your name.”

“I think you get the tanking credit this time,” Tessa said. “Body shielding as a healer? That takes some real guts. And look, I can see them, over there and over there, and over there.”

Alice laughed weakly.

“When I say no one’s gonna die, I mean No. One. Is. Going. To. Die. No matter what.”

***

Obby liked her newfriends and she sincerely hoped she wasn’t going to have to obliterate them. 

“That’s level 10 for us,” Pete said. “I think we can go through a few more until Lady Midnight reaches 10 and then we’ll be getting nothing for the [Chaos Centipedes].”

“An end to bug guts and green goo! Can it ever come!” Lady Midnight’s complaint was more in jest than serious but Obby could see Midnight’s humor was a bit forced around the edges.

“We could always try the [Chain Lasher] if you’d prefer?” Obby teased.

“You know what? I’m ok with that,” Midnight said. “We’re well past the level when Alice’s team fought that thing. Let’s see how we do. Worst case we run back to town as ghosts and respawn there instead of here.”

Strictly speaking, that wasn’t the worst case outcome, but Obby had no intention of squashing Lady Midnight’s enthusiasm. 

“”We’re ready for it whenever you are,” Starchild said, nodding her agreement to Obby.

“Ok then!” Obby cheered. “Let’s take the fight right to that thing!”

“There are [Chaos Centipedes] inside too right?” Midnight asked.

“Yep! Lots of them!” Obby said. There was a good chance the foes in the abandoned farm house would test her beyond her limits. There was a good chance her small team would fail and suffer an ignominious defeat. Obby wasn’t interested in self-destruction, but the prospect of being in that serious of a battle thrilled her to the tips of her toes.

Lady Midnight hefted the new [Staff of Scorching] she’d claimed from the last treasure horde. “Good. Let’s do this then!”

Obby gave her best war cry as she charged into the farmhouse. She was still level limited so that the others could earn experience but that seemed like a terrible reason to avoid waking up every creature in the area that she could.

***

Tessa didn’t mind supporting Alice. It was quite comfortable. Even to a Artifax body’s limited sense of touch, Alice still felt warm and solid and maybe a little too comfortable to have resting against her.

“We should divide up the loot,” Tessa suggested, not wanting to push Alice away but acutely aware that the temptation that was growing in Pillowcase’s breast was entirely one-sided given the fact that Alice was already taken.

“Hmm, yeah, I suppose we should,” Alice said, sitting up and stretching as the last of her magic returned. “Still more dungeon to go.”

“At least we hit level 10 though!” Rip said.

Level 10 had always been a noteworthy low level accomplishment in the game and they’d all gained class-defining abilities to go along with it. 

For Pillowcase’s reward, Tessa had been able to select [Knight’s Devotion], a unique ability which charged up based on the damage she took and then expended the stored energy for a variety of effects. The basic version granted a special damage shield with a limited duration but which could absorb twice as much damage as it had been charged up by. 

It took careful planning and timing to use [Knight’s Devotion] well, but from what Tessa had seen as Glimmerglass, a talented [Soul Knight] could turn an entire encounter around even with only the basic version of the ability as they rallied from the edge of death to be virtually unkillable as the rest of the party recovered. 

“Should we reach out to Starchild and her team?” Matt asked. “I mean, we could use some more damage dealers right?”

“We’ll need to backtrack a ways to meet up with them, but it might be worth it,” Alice said as she selected a pair of [Embroidered Bracers of the Arcane] from the treasure horde and glanced to the others for permission to claim them.

Tessa nodded her agreement (the more magic Alice had the better in Tessa’s view). 

“What about the problem with bigger parties running into tougher spawns?” Rip asked.

“That’s still a danger,” Tessa said. “I’m betting the [Mind Crusher] would have had minions spawning every few minutes if we had a full party for example.”

“So having them with us might make things harder?” Matt asked.

“Yes and no,” Tessa said. “We’d be facing more foes, but gaining more experience too.”

“More foes and tougher ones,” Alice said. “But, our ability to deal with them would be higher. With another healer and another tank, we’d have more flexibility and a bigger safety net to work with.”

“But we didn’t want to invite them before right?” Rip asked.

“I don’t think we were ready before,” Tessa said. “There’s a lot more to fighting that just throwing numbers at a problem. We’re still not as skillful as a great dungeon team should be in terms of coordination, but I don’t think we would have gotten through the [Mind Crusher] if we didn’t have the basics down.”

“What if they suck?” Rip asked.

“Then we split up again,” Alice said. “Some parties just don’t work out, even when the people in them are individually good.”

“Will it mean less treasure?” Matt asked.

“At this level? Not really,” Alice said. “We’re not getting Rare-Tier drops yet, just basic equipment and gatherables, and those drop for everyone. If we have seven in the party we’ll just get three extra drop chances per defeat.”

“Which means a lot more chances for the item you need to drop,” Tessa said. “We’ll just need work out how we handle items that multiple people can make use of.”

“We can probably just go with random rolls and then alternate when it matters,” Alice said.

“That’s what my guild used to do too,” Tessa said, struck for a moment at how similar her party was to one of the ad hoc groups her old friends would throw together. A shiver of old pain came along with that thought. No. This isn’t the same. They’re not going to leave me alone here.

“Do you think they’ll still be interested?” Rip asked.

Before Tessa could venture a guess, a telepathic ping arrived and she accepted it.

Oh hi! Tessa? This is Pete again, I hate to be a bother, but is there any chance you folks might want to team up for bit?

Funny you should ask, we were just talking about that, Tess said.

I’m regretting that we didn’t stay with you folks for the [Soul Blight] battle, Pete said.

No worries, Tessa said. I think we needed to get through that on our own and get our teamwork down. At this point what we could use is some [Druid] melee power though.

That’s wonderful! And Starchild is totally onboard for providing that. We just have one little problem.

Tessa raised one of Pillowcase’s eyebrows. “Little problems” were never little in her experience.

And that would be? she asked.

Well, it turns out that there’s a dungeon beneath the abandoned farm house you went to and we don’t have enough rope to climb out. Also, there’s a lot of monsters down here.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 17

Just because she’d survived the [Mind Crusher’s] pulsed [Death Spasm] move didn’t mean Pillowcase was going to live to see the end of the fight.

“If I drop, fall back out of this room,” Tessa said. “We’re doing well enough on this run that we can regroup for a second without you all risking another death.”

“You’re not going to die,” Alice said through gritted teeth.

They’d been fighting the [Mind Crusher] for twenty minutes. Sitting at a keyboard for that long wasn’t an unreasonable commitment while battling a single tough foe. Big boss monsters could easily take that long, though typically the fights were concluded in half that time or less. Enduring all-out combat for that duration in person though was a very different story from guiding a character on a screen. 

Pillowcase’s body was designed for battle. The magics which supported her existence were highly efficient – beyond capabilities of even the best [Artificers] in the [Fallen Kingdoms] – but everything had limits and the weariness Pillowcase felt was no different from the exhaustion Tessa was familiar with from the few foolish times she’d tried to start an intense workout routine.

For all that Alice had replenished Pillowcase’s health to full, Tessa was still struggling to retain the sharpness of her reflexes and the vigor of her sword arm. To let either falter would be the same as handing victory to the [Mind Crusher]. 

“[Heart Killer’s Curse]”, she said, renewing the invocation on her most important personal buff.

Glancing over at Alice, Tessa saw her healer’s magic points were almost entirely drained. 

“You need to keep some magic in case this thing comes after you,” Tessa said, trying to ignore the fact that Alice was probably already below the level where she could throw heals on Rip, Matt, and herself if they had to flee.

“I don’t if it never comes us,” Alice said. She was out of breath purely from the drain of casting almost all her energy into healing effects.

“Let me go lower then,” Tessa offered, knowing that spacing out the healing they provided was one of the few option low level healers had for conserving magic in long fights.

“I can’t, it’s got too many hard hitting moves,” Alice said.

She was right, and they both knew it. 

The team had dropped the [Mind Crusher] to less than twenty percent of its total hit points and in the process weathered a trio of special abilities it possessed. [Death Spasm] had been the first, where its body bent and twisted into a writhing mass before compressing into a ball and then exploding outwards in an array of spikes in every direction.

It had done that for the first time at seventy five percent health and the damage had driven Pillowcase’s health so long that her entire bar had looked empty. Below twenty percent health the [Mind Crusher] seemed to be able to execute that ability as often and as quickly as it wanted.

The only time it didn’t do that was when it was levitating Pillowcase off the ground in rings of mental force using its [Psychic Crush] ability, or when it was lighting her on fire with [Lesser Pyrokinesis].

Overall it wasn’t the most enjoyable battle Pillowcase had ever fought, though she could remember ones which had been far worse.

“You could let it come for me,” Matt said, as he fired another [Lesser Spectral Wounds] into the creature. It was perhaps the one hundredth time he’d shredded the [Mind Crusher] with his magic and while it was his best spell, in a sense, twenty minutes had made it clear that neither he nor Rip were capable of ending the fight in an instant, no matter how well their attacks landed.

“No! I’m a better target,” Rip said. “We talked about kiting. Let me try that. I can use my [Rapid Step] to stay away from it.”

It wasn’t a bad idea. Pillowcase started working out how they might handle switching the monster’s attention cleanly between them, but Tessa cast that thought aside.

“We can’t risk it,” she said. “This thing can teleport. You won’t be able to outpace it, and if we lose you it’ll take twice as long to finish it off.”

“If you fall then,” Rip said. Even knowing she’s probably being able to rez after the battle if she got clipped, it was still brave offer on Rip’s part. Being torn to pieces by a winged nightmare might be something she could recover from but the experience was far from a pleasant one, and the hounds were always a possibility.

The [Mind Crusher] released another [Death Spasm] which Pillowcase caught entirely on her shield. She’d been expecting the move since the [Mind Crusher] could use it freely in its current state and seemed to be cycling back to it at regular intervals.

“[Casting spell: Counter Death],” Alice said, reapplying a fairly costly buff to Pillowcase and glaring at the rest of the party as if daring any of them to object.

Tactically Pillowcase knew that the move wasn’t optimal from a total party survival perspective, but had to concede that it was the best method of keeping one person on their feet. For a fairly limited duration, any single hit which was strong enough to knock Pillowcase to zero health would be prevented, but only the portion which would have killed her. 

Against normal hits, the spell was laughably underpowered since it’s cost compared to a small hit was a bad trade, especially compared to a [Grave Mender’s] other healing spells. As the hits scaled up in damage though, [Counter Death] began to shine as it was capable of eliminating far more damage than any cure of a comparable level could heal. Also, and most critically, it bought the healer time. Even if Alice had a healing spell large enough to undo the damage a large hit carried, it wouldn’t matter if it landed after the blow killed Pillowcase since heals generally had no effect on corpses. Even the extra second or two [Counter Death] could buy where Pillowcase would be lingering at a single hit point might be all the opportunity Alice needed to turn the fight around.

“Fine,” Tessa said, suppressing a smile, “No dying then.”

She bashed the [Mind Crusher] as it tried to focus on a [Lesser Pyrokinesis] effect to light her on fire, breaking its concentration and sending it back into the air for what felt like the ten billionth time.

“Except for him,” she added. “I freaking hate flying things.”

“[Flame Shot],” Rip called out, blasting off one of the [Mind Crusher’s] wings for the ten billionth and first time. “I don’t know, that’s not getting old any time soon,” she added as the monster crashed to the ground again in front of Pillowcase.

***

Oblivion’s Daughter, or Obby, was never going to get tired from what Claire could see.

“Ha! Three more incoming!” Obby cheered, waving her sword like a pennant flag.

Around them, the bodies of [Chaos Centipedes] were piled into a continuously de-rezzing wall. As fast as one body vanished in a sparkle of light, another two were added to the pile.

“Are they ever going to stop?” Pete asked.

“Doesn’t really look like it,” Obby said. “What a great spot! Why did Pillowcase’s crew ever leave?”

“Maybe they had to rest to recover their magic?” Claire asked, steading herself with her hands on her knees before beginning her next spell.

“Are you holding up ok?” Obby asked. “You look a little tapped out there.”

“I could use a minute if we can catch a break from these things,” Claire said.

“Don’t worry about these three,” Starchild said. “I can support Obby, while you recover.”

The good news was that the slaughterfest outside the abandoned farm house had boosted them both up to 7th level. The downside was that the combat had been so constant, Clair hadn’t been select any new spells since 5th level, and there were a bunch of items in the group treasure pool that would have helped her but they hadn’t had a chance to divvy them up with the constant press of giant bugs attacking them.

You probably think the only thing you have to be afraid of is some bugs.

The words bounced around her head sending chills down her spine. 

The fighting with the [Chaos Centipedes] was normal. They were monsters, clearly not human. Violence against them didn’t strike Claire as fundamentally wrong in any sense. They were gross, they were dangerous, and they weren’t people. 

The Player Killers though?

They were like broken dolls. Things cast in the image of people, but warped into something else. Something horrifying and wrong.

The worst part though was the suspicion crawling under Claire’s skin that something in them had once been a person.  She couldn’t allow that to be true. That sort of violation wasn’t something she could process and thinking about it was going to get her and her new friends killed.

So she pushed it down.

Into the dark.

Deep under her skin.

You probably think.

The words wouldn’t leave her.

But she could ignore them.

For a while at least.

“I’ll take the two on the left, just hold off the one on the right okay?” Obby asked as she stepped forward to lure both her targets to attack her.

Claire appreciated the gesture on both Obby and Starchild’s parts. Fighting without a healer was dangerous and painful, but, based on how they’d been managing the centipedes, something both of them were capable of handling.

Unless more centipedes showed up.

 Which of course they did.

“Do you need help?”

“Nah, we’ve still got this,” Obby said. “Rest up to full. I’ll be a little battered once you’re ready but you can patch me up then. None of these things hit hard enough to drop me before you’re done.”

“I won’t last that as long as Obby, but neither will our enemies,” Starchild said and smote the centipede nearest her with green fire that reduced it to a cloud of ash.

“Nice Shot!” Obby’s glee was infectious and left Claire wishing she’d taken a class with some damage dealing potential so she could join in the fun.

“I killed one in the time you killed four,” Starchild said. “I believe the credit is all yours.”

“Bah!” Obby said. “It doesn’t matter how good we are in comparison to anyone except who we were, and what the situation we’re in calls for.”

“Says the tank who’s out damaging all of the dps in our previous party put together,” Claire said.

“Well, that doesn’t sound all that hard,” Obby said. “I mean, dead people don’t do a lot of damage normally. Uh, undead excluded there obviously. Seriously though, I think if you folks had come here first, you probably would have had a lot better time of it. I started off in [Starwatch Fort] and there were some really great areas around there for low leveling soloing.”

“Any of them viable for a party of three?” Pete asked.

“Yeah, probably, though a dungeon would probably be better,” Obby said. “I didn’t have to practice any tactics or mechanics at all.”

“It doesn’t look like you needed the practice,” Claire said.

“Eh, this stuff is still pretty easy so far,” Obby said. “And I’ve fought in a lot of other places beside this.” She punctuated her last statement by beheading the last centipede that was assaulting them.

Claire glanced around and saw they’d somehow earned a brief respite from the constant attacks.

From Obby’s hand a pulse of pink light caught her attention.

“Oh! Sorry, that’s my wife, I should take this,” Obby said and placed her hand to ear, apparently beginning a private call.

“We should divide up the treasure and equip the good pieces,” Starchild said.

“Will Obby need any?” Claire asked.

“Nope, I had a holiday starter pack,” Obby said, taking her hand from her ear. “It had a nice set of level 15 gear in it, so I’m good for a while.”

“Nice!” Pete said. “The rest should be easy to split up then. Would you like to take all the magical stuff and I’ll take the physical pieces?”

“No, you should grab some of the magical pieces too,” Claire said. “You’re still using a lot of spells when you fight.”

“True, I just wanted to make sure you had what you need,” Pete said.

“It looks like it won’t be a problem. There’s a lot more in the pool than I remember seeing drop but we went through so many of those things I’m not surprised. I think there’s plenty here for both of us.”

“That should give us a big boost,” Pete said. “We’re still wearing some level 1 pieces.”

“Same here,” Claire said. “And I’m feeling a bit better about our chances as a team too. Maybe even enough to head back to the dungeon if you two are up for it.”

That fighting also kept her from being able to think about whatever the hell the Player Killers were was something she wasn’t sure she was ready to share with anyone. She’d had traumatic shocks before. Distractions and waiting a bit weren’t a perfect answer but it was how she’d muddled through before.

Certainly it couldn’t cause any problems this time.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 16

The [Mind Crusher] did not care that Pillowcase stood before it with a restrained killing intent in her eyes. It did not care that others were arrayed against it, each wielding lethal power and a burning desire to live despite the battle wounds they carried. All the [Mind Crusher] cared about was the agony of starvation and how the party who had breeched the seal on its domain must inevitably slake its all consuming hunger.

From the [Perching Throne] it rested upon, the construct of madness and shattered psyches spread wings of balefire which cast its domain into murky shadows only creatures of darkness could see through.

“I lost him,” Rip called out. “I can’t see anything in here now.”

“I’ve still got him,” Matt said, the [Revealing Insight] spell he’d acquired blazing on the end of staff as he waited for Pillowcase’s sign that it was safe to begin combat. Matt wasn’t especially dark-aspected but, like Pillowcase, his [Artifax] body was designed better than to let a little thing like the absence of light diminish his visual acuity. 

“Rip, wait for his spell to hit and target on that,” Alice said. She was tucked off to the side of the two ranged damage dealers and well behind Pillowcase.

“This one doesn’t look like he’s going to be chatty,” Pillowcase said, her hand drifting to the sword she’d left sheathed as she’d tried to make peaceful overtures to the dungeon boss they’d discovered after fighting through a half dozen trash encounters.

The [Mind Crusher] flailed its tentacles in a silent roar. It didn’t understand the words Pillowcase spoke. It couldn’t, despite possessing excellent hearing and a mind which was an amalgamation of several formerly sentient creatures. The problem was the “former” part of that equation. The [Mind Crusher] wasn’t a failed experiment. It wasn’t even specifically evil. It was simply a horror. Something with an existence bounded by an overwhelming need to destroy and gifted with the capacity to do so against the lesser creatures it was set down amidst. The [Mind Crusher] held no will of its own to understand the evil its creators had constructed it for. It was simply deadly in the same manner as a virus.

“I’m still glad we tried talking first,” Alice said.

“I can keep trying?” Pillowcase suggested, though her fingers itched for the safety of a naked blade in her hand.

The [Mind Crusher] had seen enough.

The things in front of it were prey.

Delicious.

It sprang from the throne it drew sustenance from, intent on reaping the psyches of meals in front of it.  Choosing its target wasn’t hard either. They all spoke, so they all had minds which could be devoured but it was the one with the bow who seemed the most delicious, burning bright with intellect and yet showing all the signs of blind and helpless prey.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain]”

The [Mind Crusher] wanted to make Rip its first target but even before it left its roost, its attention was violently refocused to the one with the sword and shield as thread of spellcraft ripped away bits of its life.

It had to destroy her first. It knew this without questioning why or how it held that knowledge.

With claws dripping an elixir of distilled pain, it slashed at Pillowcase, frustration and rage rising at the claws skipped off the shield the [Soul Knight] interposed between them.

“No more talking! Fight!” Alice said, beginning the incantation for a healing spell.

“Mark Prime,” Pillowcase said as she slashed the [Mind Crusher] across the knuckles.

It was the worst wound the [Mind Crusher] had ever felt. The pain was irrelevant. It was the sheer insult that came with the blows. They had to be answered with blood. Nothing else would suffice.

“[Revealing Insight]” Matt said, loosing his newest spell.

The magic struck the [Mind Crusher] and it felt no pain. The spell had done no damage of its own. It had only left the [Mind Crusher] feeling…exposed?

If the [Mind Crusher] had been sentient, and capable of tactical thinking in that moment, it would have worried about a spell which appeared to do nothing. 

No one cast spells which have no effect.

Spells could be resisted of course, so there was never a guarantee that a spell would achieve its desired effect, but the one that had hit the [Mind Crusher] hadn’t missed its mark or been thrown off by the [Mind Crusher’s] own magic.

“I see it!” Rip said and loosed her first arrow.

The pain the [Mind Crusher] had expected arrived with the arrow shaft. It was a more debilitating shot that the sword slices Pillowcase was inflicting but it was only pain, and not a substantial amount of that even. The [Archer’s] arrow wasn’t anywhere near as infuriating at the constant nicks the [Soul Knight] was inflicting.

Fanning it’s vast wings, the [Mind Crusher] blasted Pillowcase back into the nearby cave wall, stunning her for a brief moment.

Bulky and ponderous though it might have appeared, the [Mind Crusher] wasn’t slow to follow up on the opportunity it had created. Twisting its body, it shot its right arm forward impossibly far and speared Pillowcase through the shoulder with its talons.

Then it began to drink.

“[Casting spell: Torment]” Matt’s invocation ripped into the [Mind Crusher] and sent shards of the proto-minds within it slicing through its body. The damage was unreasonable for such a low tier spell but the [Torment] spell wasn’t acting alone. It was guided to hit the weakest points of the [Mind Crusher’s] psyche by the [Revealing Insight] debuff Matt had placed on it.

“[Flame Shot],” Rip shouted, targeting the [Mind Crusher’s] elongated elbow. The arrow converted to pure flame as it flew, blazing hot enough that it burned a quarter-size hole directly through the outstretched arm.

The [Mind Crusher] withdrew its injured limb and took to the air, wrapping its wings around its body as its regenerative capabilities mended its wounds.

“Thanks,” Pillowcase said. “I think it was pulling more out of me than health.”

“Probably draining your mental stats,” Alice said. “We’ll have to interrupt any channeled abilities like that.”

“Well, since we’re not trying to be friendly anymore…” Pillowcase said. “[Heart Killer’s Curse].”

Without warning the [Mind Crusher] warped down to stand beside Pillowcase and stabbed the tentacles which rimmed its head straight towards her face.

Pillowcase reacted quickly, pulling away and using her shield to bash the much larger creature to make even more space between them. For as fast as she moved though, the [Mind Crusher’s] head tentacles moved faster, each elongating like the creature’s arms had.

Most were blocked by her helmet and one was sliced off entirely as she parried with her sword but three others struck through.

And triggered the [Heart Killer’s Curse].

The terrible punctures in her cheek and throat closed as fast they were made. The curse ripped the [Mind Crusher’s] life away, damaging it and restoring Pillowcase in the process. Had it been capable of learning, it might have appreciated the dangers of fighting a [Soul Knight] but that was not part of its design. 

Despite Pillowcase’s defenses though the fight was far from over. Her party had barely taken off more than ten percent of the bosses health and hadn’t seen any of its more powerful abilities. Nonetheless a vicious smile crossed the [Soul Knight’s] face. 

Her team was solid and there wasn’t anything else in the world Pillowcase cared to ask for.

***

Elsewhere, the abandoned farm was exactly as occupied as the team of three adventurers who’d survived a player killer ambush had been promised. Oblivion’s Daughter was delighted to see the, in her view minor, horde of monsters that waited for them. Her companions however seemed less certain.

“Are you sure you’re going to get anything out of this?” Lady Midnight asked. “You’re 15th level now right? Aren’t these things too weak for you?”

“It’s no problem,” Obby said. “I’ll sync down to you and we’ll be on an even playing field.”

Artificially lowering one’s level was an option in parties but one that was typically only used by friends who were looking to play together. Under the circumstances, Obby knew it was a little odd to offer the same to perfect strangers, but she had goals that went beyond simple leveling.

“If any more of those player killer’s show up you can break the sync immediately,” Pete said, grateful for the offer and aware of what it might cost Obby. “It takes a minute to wear off, but we stalled them for about that long last time.”

“I don’t think we’ll have any problem with the ones we fought,” Obby said. “Something about how they died seemed pretty final.”

“Yeah. I’m still freaked out by that,” Midnight said with a shudder.

They’d finished the fight with the player killer squad in fairly bad shape, but they had finished the fight. At the end all three of them had been standing and none of the player killers were anything more than dissipated angry static on the wind.

“That makes three of us,” Starchild said. “Counting Pete and myself. I don’t mean to speak for you Oblivion’s Daughter. You seemed quite at ease with the battle.”

“To be honest, they were more than I’d expected,” Obby said, stretching her left arm across her chest with her right one. “It’s good you two were there, or I might have bit off more than I could chew.”

“If we hadn’t been there you probably could have avoided them,” Midnight said.

“Could have, probably wouldn’t have though,” Obby said and flashed a cheesy grin at her companions. “I’ve leveled up solo pretty quickly, but aside from the things I was grinding on I haven’t seen much of this place yet. Slowing down a bit is, I’m thinking, a great idea before I run into something I regret tangling with.”

“It sounds like if we go too close to the house, there’s some kind of chain monster that would fall into that category,” Pete said.

“Probably good to save that for later,” Obby said. “Though if Pillowcase and her team were able to handle it, I’d love to see how we can do once you two level up a bit.”

“I think I might have had enough dying and close calls today,” Midnight said.

“That’s fine too,” Obby said. “We’ll see how we can do with the the [Chaos Centipedes] first. I’ll be careful not to pull anything worse until we’re sure it won’t be a problem.”

“We may want to keep our excursion relatively short too,” Starchild said. “Alice extended the offer to join them once we feel comfortable going back to the dungeon.”

“There’s downsides to that though,” Midnight said. “Like we saw with the other party, as soon as we hit five members, the mob spawns scaled up a lot.”

“All the more glory for us!” Obby said and then shrugged. “If we feel up for it. There was also talk about meeting back at town for a broader planning session right?”

“Yeah,” Pete said. “We still have no idea what was up with those…things. I mean maybe those PKers were players like us but if so something went really really wrong when they got pulled over here.”

“Well, we’ve at least warned Pillow’s team,” Midnight said. “So we should be able to spread the word to the other players we run into in the field twice as fast.”

“I just wish the folks back in town we talked to sounded like they were taking this as seriously as Pillow’s team was,” Pete said. “They seemed to be stuck on the idea that they were safe because they were in town, but if those things could attack us without a PvP flag set, I don’t see why the town’s aura would slow them down either.”

“Our best bet is to grow stronger,” Starchild said. “If we’d been 15th level like Oblivion’s Daughter, they wouldn’t have presented any more danger to us than they did to her.”

“You can call me Obby, Starchild. I picked ‘Oblivions Daughter’ for sentimental reasons, but I know it’s a mouthful. Oh, and those things were dangerous to me too. I think they were closer to being event monsters rather than the usual variety.”

“The more I think about them, the creepier they get,” Midnight said. “Let’s go kick some butt. I don’t know I’m going to feel safe until we’re at the level cap.”

“Or back home,” Pete suggested.

“I’d rather be at the level cap,” Midnight said. “Or do you want to gamble on those things not being able to follow us back home too?”