Category Archives: Broken Horizons

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 29

All hell very rarely breaks loose. If it did, whatever problem that was occurring wouldn’t be able to get worse. All the hell would already be there, and if there’s one thing that’s universally true, it’s that things can always get worse.

Tessa had her mace drawn and her shield ready as she, Lisa, Obby, Starchild, and Lady Midnight charged over the first hill outside of [Dragonshire]. In the game, all the characters ran at the same rate, regardless of size or athleticism. In the real version of the [Fallen Kingdoms], Tessa could see that Lisa was only staying with them because she was sensible enough not to charge into a melee first when she was a healer.

That bit of well earned wisdom meant that the tank team managed to slam into the dozen  [Cursed Walkers] with Tess and Obby in front to start collecting the mobs attention properly. Unlike the damage dealing team, who’d been more or less instantly overrun.

“[Bastion of Blood],” Tessa called out, invoking one of her newest abilities.

An aura formed around her and wrapped dark tendrils around everyone in range that she recognized as a friend. The tendrils shielded the damage Rip and the others were taking at the cost of nibbling away at Pillowcase’s health. As tradeoffs went it wasn’t terribly enjoyable, but it was quite effective since Pillowcase took only a fraction of the damage that the others would have. 

“[Stalwart Shout],” Obby called out, her [Guardian] ability magically demoralizing the enemies to reduce their damage even further and lock the Walkers attention away from anyone who didn’t have a tanks enmity skills.

“What part of ‘wait for us before engaging’ wasn’t clear?” Lisa asked over the party channel as she and Lady Midnight began patching up Baelgritz, Rip, and Matt, each of whom was doing to less than half their health.

“We didn’t!” Rip said. “These things weren’t here two seconds ago!”

“They were, you just couldn’t see them,” Tessa said. “We’ll explain after the fight. And I’m going to lodge a complaint with the beta testers. They never mentioned the Walkers were ambush mobs!”

“The screaming has stopped. Are they okay?” Yawlorna asked. Telepathic conversation was a new things for space travelers, but they were adapting to it as quickly as Tessa and the rest of her team had.

“We’ve got the Walkers under control,” Obby said. “This is a big spawn of them, but I think we can manage it without Glimmerglass’s help. Maybe.”

“I’m watching you’re health bars. So far so good it looks like. I’ll hold off on tainting the fight unless you or Pillowcase drops below a third, or if anyone get knocked into critical health,” Glimmerglass said.

“Tainting the fight?” Yawlorna asked.

Tessa wanted to answer but six [Cursed Walkers] who were all equal level to her had decided that she was obviously the tastiest treat on the field. Their numbers were a serious issue, but their mindless ferocity was less a problem, largely thanks to Pillowcase’s reflexes and calm demeanor.

For Tessa, having a monster growling with rage six inches from her face was unnerving. For Pillowcase it was day that ended in ‘y’. The one’s she couldn’t block, she parried, the one’s she couldn’t parry, she trusted her armor to save her from, and the one’s her armor didn’t deflect managed to rip bits of her apart, but nothing so significant that Lisa couldn’t put her back together before the cumulative destruction became a problem.

“If Glimmerglass joins the fight, any enemy she touches will yield experience as though someone of her level had beaten it,” Obby said, unperturbed by the eight Walkers who were menacing her. 

To be fair, Tessa observed, [Guardian] abilities tended to reduce or eliminate damage to the tank, which probably made it much easier to fight and hold a conversation. It also sounded like a much more pleasant form of tanking than the one Tessa had chosen for Pillowcase. In theory that was balanced out by Pillowcase doing more damage than a [Guardian] would but neither tank really compared to a true damage dealing class.

“You’re holding up great,” Lisa said on their private channel. “Not much difference between you and Obby and she’s got five levels on the rest of us.”

Tessa knew Lisa was just being kind, but that kindness still gave Tessa a warm sparkle in her heart.

That she got to keep her heart firmly anchored in her chest was a pleasant surprise too, one that was largely driven by Rip rallying their damage dealers so that the [Cursed Walkers] began having a very bad night and would have regretted their life choices were they not both already dead and incapable of even basic sapience.

Lightning arrows, deadly illusions, and an enchanted oak staff were joined by the spears Baelgritz, Illuthiz, and Hermeziz wielded and all of them proved devastating to the Walkers.

Tessa was particularly impressed with the demon spears. She’d seen a fair portion of Rip and Matt’s growth, but watching Hermeziz fight was like meeting a new person.

The space travelers were big, not as tall as Yawlorna, but still impressive physical specimens. In their natural form, they moved with the surety that great strength brought. With levels to back their natural abilities up they’d gained an alarming amount of speed and a starkly beautiful sort of grace.

“Is it bad that watching Herm plunge a spear straight through someone’s head seems kinda pretty?” Tessa asked Lisa privately.

“I’m trying to tell myself that this feels great because the [Cursed Walkers] are definitely not people, and not because I’m losing it to blood lust,” Lisa said. “And I really hope I’m not lying to myself.”

“Are you starting to get hungry again?” Tessa asked, remembering Lost Alice making a meal of Mikkonel.

“Oh, this has nothing to do with me,” Lost Alice said. “I’m still nicely full. This is just my battle experience being a little corruptive. I think?”

“Or not,” Lisa said. “Alice makes this tolerable, but it’s not like I was all about the mass slaughter as a player.”

“Right there with ya,” Tessa said.

“Heh,” Pillowcase laughed. “You should see what the Consortium’s live combat exercises are like. Trust me, you’re all angels by comparison.”

It was darkly amusing that one of the Walkers left them open enough for Pillowcase to punctuate her point by crushing its head clean off its head with blunt force.

“Be not afraid, indeed,” Lost Alice said, repeating what angels seemed to say fairly often when they showed up. On reflection, Tessa felt like she was beginning to understand that sentiment, being both largely benevolent and terrifying at the same time.

“Was that the last one?” Rip asked.

“I think so,” Matt said.

“Stay still,” Obby said.

“How still?” Baelgritz asked, as he and his partners froze in place.

“You can relax,” Lady Midnight said. “Just don’t walk any farther away from town. You could trigger another ambush.”

“Okay. Good to know,” Rip said. “Could anyone explain what the hell that was. You know, for those of us who don’t want to get eaten again.”

“It was an ambush,” Starchild said. “It’s not something you usually see outside of dungeon areas, or exceptional monsters though.”

“Ambushes just appear out of thin air like that?” Illuthiz asked. 

“Unless you have special perception abilities, or you can bait them into revealing themselves before you’re within their perception radius,” Glimmerglass said.

“That will make this hunt a bit more challenging,” Obby said. “We could easily wind up engaging one group and triggering another one in the process.”

“It’s weird that the beta testers didn’t mention anything like this,” Tessa said. “Ambush zones aren’t unheard of, just rare, and they’re big news since they can turn into either great grinding spots or horrible murder machines.”

“Fortunately, we seem to be strong enough to weather the added challenge,” Starchild said.

“Oh, I bet that’s it,” Lisa said. “Most of the beta testers who do the low level content play through it solo right?”

“Yeah, but what does…oh, damn, you’re probably right,” Tessa said. “The beta testers didn’t see the ambushes because they probably only spawn for bigger teams like ours is now.”

“Does that mean we should break up?” Rip asked, a crack in her voice betraying her unhappiness with the idea.

“No. Not in the slightest. This is a good thing. Great even.” Tessa knew she should fight to keep the evil cackle out of her voice, but under the circumstances it was hard to deny the manic glee bubbling up within her.

“You’re thinking we turn this into a proper farm run, aren’t you?” Obby asked, delight bubbling in her eyes as well.

“I mean, we’ve got two tanks, two healers, a high level backup with healing, and a bunch of dps who are clearly unafraid of charging it devouring maws at the first opportunity,” Tessa said. “Are we missing any of the ingredients we’d need for success?”

“If we’re supposed to have a clue what you’re talking about, then I’d say we’re missing that,” Yawlorna said.

“What my girl here is suggesting is that we fight in a highly aggressive manner,” Lisa said, and Tessa felt a trill of joy at the reference to herself as Lisa’s girl. “Our original gameplan was to set up a static location, a camp, outside of the range of the Walkers. We’d then send someone in to attract their attention and lead them back to where we were all waiting.”

“That’s a standard monster clearing strategy,” Starchild said. “My [Grove] did it all the time when our woods were invaded.”

“It has the benefit that a lot of monsters, especially mindless ones like the Walkers, don’t notice that they’re numbers are being steadily thinned out,” Lisa said.

“Also, there’s less chance of fighting more than want, or more than you can handle,” Lady Midnight said.

“And ‘farming’ throws that idea away?” Yawlorna asked.

“Farming takes the opposite approach,” Obby said. “Rather than trying to limit the number of monsters we fight at once, we try to pull in as many as possible, or, in this case, as many as we can take without everyone dying.”

“I notice you said ‘everyone’ and not ‘anyone dying’ there,” Hermeziz said.

“Farming is more dangerous, at least when you’re doing it for xps like this,” Tessa said. “If we were all Glimmerglass’s level and just killing these things for their loot, then it would be safer than riding a bike.”

“More dangerous but the rewards are higher because you’re defeating more foes in less time?” Yawlorna asked.

“That and, in the game, and maybe here too, there were bonuses for killing monsters in quick succession,” Tessa said. “Those can be worth more than the initial defeat if you string together enough of them.”

“And if things go wrong?” Yawlorna asked.

“Then I’d have to step in,” Glimmerglass said.

“Okay,” Yawlorna said.

“Uh, what?” Balegritz said. “You’re fine with this idea?”

“You’re not?” Yawlorna asked, as though even the possibility of Baelgritz turning down a chance at mayhem was unthinkable.

“Oh, we’re all for it,” Baelgritz said.

“No. Not all of us,” Hermeziz said.

“Don’t worry, we’ll keep you safe,” Illuthiz said.

“Not if I keep you safe first,” Hermeziz said, scowling  but moving closer as Illuthiz mussed up his hair.

“Then, as I said, I’m in favor of the idea,” Yawlorna said.

“Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but weren’t you really worried about us getting Ill and her guys killed?” Rip asked.

“Yes. And I’m not necessarily looking to test out our supposed immortality, there not enough control measures in place for a proper experiment, but I’m satisfied that we’re in potentially less mortal peril than we were previously.”

“Yeah, that’s not the only reason though boss, is it?” Baelgritz asked.

“If this should give me a chance to study our new friend Glimmerglass in action, I admit I would not be disappointed,” Yawlorna said, and on her crimson demon skin, the blush was virtually unnoticeable.

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 28

People puzzled Tessa. It wasn’t confusion, or irritation, at least not in this case. 

She could see why Yawlorna would want to have Glimmerglass’s powers. Tessa had spent years working on developing those powers and while Glimmerglass had progressed beyond where she’d been the last time Tessa had played as her, Tessa was still quite proud of Glimmerglass’s achievements.

She wasn’t upset that Yawlorna had chosen to join them either, or that Yawlorna was basically taking up all of Glimmerglass’s time. Okay, the last bit was slightly irritating. In theory, Tessa should have gotten her fill of talking to herself when she was alone in her apartment after her breakup with Crystal. And it was a little weird to talk with Glimmerglass after they’d shared a mind space when Tessa had bonded the three of her selves together to rescue Lisa. Despite all that though, the idea of chatting with her favorite character ever still seemed kind of awesome.

“No offense,” she said, speaking to Pillowcase, who laughed in response.

“I am horribly offended,” she said. “How terrible, that I like me, rather than myself, or I.”

“I guess I haven’t gotten my fill of talking to myself yet have I?”

“I mean, we are pretty awesome.”

“We’re just saying that because we’re in love aren’t we?”

“Probably. My brain doesn’t have happy juice to bath in like yours does, but it seems like love transcends bodily limitations.”

“I know this stage doesn’t last forever. Or at least it hasn’t before.”

“All the more reason to enjoy it, right?”

“Yeah. I think if I’d been just myself I would have sabotaged the hell out of this.”

“I’m surprised adding me into the mix helped. I mean ‘emotionless soldier drone’ doesn’t seem like a winning ingredient to add to a relationship from what I can see in your memories.”

“It’d be terrible. Thankfully you are neither emotionless or a drone. And the soldier bit is kind of misleading too.”

“How so?”

“You’re not following orders at the moment, or living by any particular code except the one you choose for yourself.”

“How am I helping then?”

“You’re brave. So much braver than me. I’d mess this up because I’d pull away rather than risk being hurt again. Some of my breakups sucked on an epic scale. Okay, may not epic. I need to recalibrate basically everything to a new scale given all of this stuff we got dropped into. But they’ve still sucked, especially where I exposed myself.”

“Am I brave then, or ignorant? Maybe I’m just luring you into repeating previous mistakes because I don’t know any better?”

“Sure. You are. But the thing is they’re mistakes that should be repeated. Because they weren’t my mistakes. I trusted Crystal, and she hurt me, and it is so very easy to feel like that was my fault. Seeing my own memories through your eyes though? It’s incredible. It makes all the difference! Could I have done things different so she couldn’t have hurt me so much. Sure. It’s easy to wall yourself off. I could have kept her at a very comfortable distance, and been very safe from her doing more than lightly bruising my feelings.”

“But that wouldn’t have been love. You would have gotten nothing out of being with her beyond there being a warm body in the room.”

“Yeah. And that can work for some people. Sometimes emotional openness isn’t what a relationship is founded on. Heck sometimes it’s just sex and that works for everyone involved. And sometimes there’s not even sex in the equation. Everybody finds their happiness on their own path.”

“Yours takes an open heart though, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. Lisa’s probably going to hurt me too. And I’ll probably hurt her. We’ll make mistakes, and get careless as we get comfortable. It’s inevitable. I know it is. But, in this moment, I still want to take those hits. And I want to make amends when I make those mistakes too. What we’re feeling now is delightful. I’m still buzzing from the fact that we’ve slept together! But that’s the sexy, mind blowing kind of love. It’s fun and wonderful and a lot more satisfying than I remembered. But the kind that comes after – the kind that I hope comes after – the kind based on making the choices to hold together even when it’s not fun, even when we’re not at our best? I think, I hope, that kind of enduring love is what will help us both become stronger, become who we want to be.”

“I can see why you reach for it.”

“It’s a nice dream isn’t it? I think it’s the dream I’ve been chasing my whole life. As Tessa, and as Glimmerglass. I don’t even really know if it’ll work out. Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on what any relationship could be. Maybe it all needs to come from me. Maybe I believe love can help change me because I’m afraid to try on my own.”

“Maybe. I don’t think so, but what do I know? The only introspection I was build with was a self-diagnostic routines to make sure all of the spells woven into me were functioning properly. I shouldn’t know anything about love, or relationships, or even what I want. I wasn’t supposed to want anything. Or have a relationship with anyone. Or love at all.”

“Oh wow. But you did.”

“We did. You. Me. Glimmerglass. We’re all the same. I mean even when we’re separate and limited to just our own memories. I didn’t have the words to understand what I needed, I couldn’t even form coherent thoughts on what was missing, or what the constraints on me were holding me back from pursuing. Through your eyes though? It’s so easy to see. I needed the same thing you’ve fought for. You took blows I couldn’t even conceive of and you’re willing to take more. So I stand by my original assertion. We’re awesome.”

“I can’t tell you how scary it feels to try to agree with that.”

“We should probably try to work on that too.”

“Probably.”

Tessa felt a hand on her shoulder, and found Lisa nodding towards the road ahead of them where Rip, Matt, Baelgritz, Illuthiz and Hermeziz had formed a little mini-party that was steadily increasing the distance from the others.

“Think they’re a little eager?” Lisa asked on their private channel.

“Can you blame them?” Tessa asked. “This is the first time they’ll get to use their new abilities in a real fight.”

“Well, sort of a real fight,” Lisa said and nodded back towards Glimmerglass and Yawlorna who were still deep in their own private conversation.

“Is it weird that I’m kind of jealous of Yawlorna for talking with my other me?” Tessa asked. She felt a twinge of embarrassment to even ask that, both for claiming someone like Glimmerglass as herself – Tessa was still convinced she’d never been as cool as her old character was – and for revealing that she was even ‘kind of jealous’ which seemed petty and silly.

“It’d be weird if you weren’t,” Lisa said. “I’m resisting the urge to chat up your other self just to learn all I can about you.’

“Aww, that’s sweet. On both sides,” Tessa said.

“A bit stalkery though. I mean if I want to know something, I should just ask you right?”

“If you want to know something, you are always welcome to ask me. I like sharing like that with you,” Tessa said. “But I know it’s not always easy to just believe something because I say it. I mean I have biases too. Even if I want to tell you everything, I’ll probably forget things, or leave them out without thinking about them, or color things so I don’t look entirely terrible. So if you want to talk with Glimmerglass, please do. At the moment she’s got a different perspective on things than I do, so she can probably give you a good sanity check on anything that seems too out there about me.”

“It seems unfair though,” Lisa said and Lost Alice added, “You’re always talking to both of us when we chat, and none our other selves seem to be available like Glimmerglass is. You don’t have the same ‘second source’ to fact check the things I say.”

Tessa’s first reaction was to downplay the problem. She didn’t need to fact check Lisa. She loved Lisa. She would just trust this wonderful, beautiful, amazing woman and everything would work out fine because Love Conquers All!

A single breath in was all it took to dispel that particular nugget of love drunk lunacy.

To accept that inequality wasn’t fair.

And it was unnecessary.

“How about you introduce me to Cease All then?” Tessa said. “You two have been friends for a while right?”

“Sure, but it doesn’t seem quite the same,” Lisa said. “Cease didn’t mind meld with me, and, you know, isn’t another aspect of me.”

“At the moment, Glimmerglass is basically just a really close friend,” Tessa said. “The memories we share are a bit dim since we don’t have immediate access to the same mind space Pillowcase and I share. Plus Glimmerglass will probably share more of my biases than Cease will with you. So I’m getting a better deal here in a sense.”

“Might want to wait till you meet Cease before you feel to sure about that,” Lisa said.

“What’s she like?”

“Probably a little different than I remember,” Lisa said. “I’m used to dealing with Michaela. You’d be chatting with her and with Cease.”

“You’ve talked with them both several times now though right? Is Cease much different than Michaela?”

“I suppose not? Or maybe not with me. I think Michaela basically patterned Cease after herself pretty much. She can be a bit sarcastic though, especially with new people.”

“Oh no, not a sarcastic gamer girl!” Tessa said. “I can’t imagine running into one of those.”

“Oh great, you two are going to get along. This is terrible,” Lisa said.

“Better start pumping Glimmerglass for info then, or Cease and I will get ahead on the ‘conspiring with each other’ curve.”

“Think I can get a word in edgewise between her and Yawlorna?” Lisa asked.

The two had drifted far enough back from the main body of the party (defined as the group that had both of the tanks) that they were officially lollygagging.

“Glimmerglass always loved helping train up fledglings,” Tessa said. “I know it’s weird to think of Yawlorna as a newbie but if she’s serious about leveling up as a healer, then she’s basically level 0 at the moment in terms of what she needs to know about the role, and I’m guessing Glimmerglass hasn’t gotten to train anyone since I quit playing, which was like a century or more for her. Huh, I hadn’t done that math till now. I owe her such an apology.”

“She hasn’t seemed like she’s holding a grudge,” Lisa said.

“She might not be. But I bet it still hurt to be without her [Inspiration] for so long.”

“Talk to her then,” Lisa said. “After we get back obviously. We should be getting out of town in what, a minute or two?”

“Sooner if Rip manages to find trouble and we’ve got to run ahead and save the five of them.”

“Didn’t we promise we’d keep Balegritz and company safe?” Lisa said.

“That was before we knew that we could rez them,” Tessa said. “I mean, we should still try to keep them alive, but if I lose aggro I’m not going to have a melt down like I would have before.”

“That’s good. I can kind of picture you having a Tank meltdown. You actually care about the job.”

“Perils of working with people you like,” Tessa said.

From farther ahead than they had any business being came the inevitable cries of surprise and sounds of combat that set Tessa’s feet into a full out sprint.

“People you like and people you’d like to strangle,” Lisa said.

“Were we any better when we were starting out?” Tessa asked, feeling charitable largely because she’d foreseen the moment coming from the instant Rip’s crew starting pulling away from the pack.

“Oh I was much worse,” Lisa said.

“Same here,” Tess said. “Come on, let’s go pay forward some old favors.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 27

People are always capable of surprising themselves. In Tessa’s case, being surprised by Glimmerglass was a little weirder than usual.

“You can bring them back?” Tessa asked. “But they’re…”

And she stopped herself right there.

Yawlorna and her people “weren’t [Adventurers]”. That was true. Or it had been. But then they’d started gaining levels. Like an [Adventurer] would.

“I was working with Kellsgrith,” Glimmerglass said and then raised her hands in a calming gesture as Yawlorna’s shocked expression. “Nothing dangerous. Don’t worry. Just some analysis spells and a few very tiny wounds. Which Kellsgrith was fine with. I had her administer them to herself so that there wouldn’t be any danger of someone overdoing it.”

“You had her wound herself?” Yawlorna asked as though the question was so far beyond believable that it shouldn’t have been able to surprise her.

“Only a little bit,” Glimmerglass said. “Just a few small cuts on her arm. And a tiny little stab into her leg. We stopped before we tried the throat cut or the heart stab.”

Yawlorna drew in a deep breath. And then another. And then a third.

“Do go one,” she said at last, her face assuming a chiveled expression of only mild interest.

“Thanks to Kellsgrith’s help, I’ve been able to prove that our healing magics are more than superficially effective on your people,” Glimmerglass said. “I’m not sure if landing here converted your basic biological processes to be compatible with this world or if they always were, but your bodies follow all of the same physio-arcane laws as an [Adventurers] does.”

Yawlorna stared at Glimmerglass, waiting for her to continue. Tessa though recognized Glimmerglass’s pause for the anxiety Tessa knew all too well.

“I think you’ll need to break down what you mean by that,” Tessa said. It was so much easier to keep the gears in her head turning when she wasn’t the one who was on the spot. She wished she could bottle the feeling of clarity she had and guzzle it the next time she went too in depth on something technical and her brain froze up.

“Ah, right,” Glimmerglass, shooting a smile at her other self. “The short form is our spells that raise the dead should fine on you folks. Did you want to hear the longer explanation?”

Though she was vastly more powerful than Yawlorna, there was still the same nervous hesitation in Glimmerglass’s voice that Tessa knew must have come from her input to Glimmerglass’s personality. 

Or maybe self-esteem was something that didn’t necessarily increase as you improved?

“This may surprise you, but yes, yes I would,” Yawlorna said. “Especially since I was able to get one of these from Mister Pendant.”

She drew a notebook and a fine quality stylus from her pack and leaned forward on the chairs they’d assembled into a cozy circle, a (Mad?) scientists gleam in her eyes.

“I’m not sure how much you’ve worked out or what people have explained about the basic nature of our world, so just tell me to skip forward if I’m covering ground that’s old news to you,” Glimmerglass said.

“Oh I find listening to primary sources worthwhile no matter what topic they’re covering,” Yawlorna said.

“Okay, well to start then, this world has magic, obviously. That isn’t something that’s true of all worlds though, which is something we’ve only recently learned, thanks to Tessa and the other alternate selves who’ve joined us recently,” Glimmerglass said. “I could go into the theorycrafting that’s been spawned by that particular revolution for the next several years if we had time, but for the purpose of this topic the important thing is that we’ve been able to make some significant leaps forward in our understanding of the core rules that govern magic here because we now know that magic’s not a requisite part of reality.”

“And who is ‘we’ in this context?” Yawlorna asked.

“I can directly speak for the high level casters who are working with Penswell and the [Grand Coalition] focused on the mystical defenses of the [Fallen Kingdoms]. I’m sure other high caliber casters and scholars are reaching many of the same conclusions we have but with the world being under existential threat there hasn’t been much time to put together conferences and write up the proper academic papers.”

“I believe I have some notion of what that’s like,: Yawlorna said. “I would sell body organs for a chance to publish even one damn paper on the things we’ve found here.”

Tessa noted the wording and wondered if Yawlorna was limiting herself to her own organs or whether she’d offer any that were on hand that didn’t seem to be sufficiently needed by their present owners. Probably the former, but “publish or perish” was possibly a real thing in places other than Earthly academia.

“The principal insight that’s relevant here is that we always believed [Adventurers] responded to healing spells, especially life restoring ones, differently than regular people because we’d been switched on a separate magical paradigm,” Glimmerglass said. “Since magic is everywhere in this world, we believed that normal people must have their own set of magical rules they were bound by, while [Adventurers] worked under a different and disconnected set. Learning that it’s possible for people to exist without any ties to magic lead to several of us investigating whether [Adventurers] might not simply have some extra enchantments that allow things like [Resurrection] spells to work on them where they fail on normal people.”

“That sounds nice than presuming that the regular people lack souls,” Yawlorna said.

“That was a theory that was floated for years a few centuries ago. One of the good thing of encountering soul stealing demons though is that is proves very quickly that everyone has a soul, no matter how mundane they might be.”

“If you already knew that mundane people had an <eternal aspect>,” Yawlorna said, the word ‘soul’ translating oddly from the Nezzparin language Yawlorna was speaking, “what stopped you from simply fixing their bodies and reclaiming it?”

“Normal people’s souls are less bound to the material world it seems,” Glimmerglass said. “They can sometimes linger as the [Disembodied] but far more often the soul passes on down a road we can’t follow, and leaves behind at most an after-image in the ectoplasm which is what people often call a ghost. Those aren’t the people who died, just more or less distorted reflection of who they were at the time of death.”

“Why do I feel compelled to believe that your people have tried sticking those into revivified bodies already?” Yawlorna asked.

“Probably because you’ve talked with us for more than five minutes,” Tessa said.

“It tends to turn out as horribly as you might imagine,” Glimmerglass said. “The best case scenario is that the revivified person appears just like the original but fades out and ‘dies’ again in a few days as the ghostly impression on the ectoplasm of the [Dead Lands] fades away.”

“The worst cases dive right into the realms of body horror and nightmare,” Tessa said. “If those things linger they wind up as boss monsters that [Adventurers] need to destroy, and those storylines are messy.”

“But this won’t be our fate,” Yawlorna said. “If the worst comes to pass I mean.”

“It won’t be your fate if we have to resurrect you,” Glimmerglass said.

“I note that you didn’t exactly answer the question I asked,” Yawlorna said.

“If the worst comes to pass, you won’t be resurrectable because your soul will be bound in a [Torment Realm]. That’s a nightmare and a half, but until you’re fighting much higher level dungeon bosses, that’s not a scenario which should ever occur.”

“Of course. It was silly of me to assume that death was the worst thing this world might have to offer. Foolish really,” Yawlorna said, her notetaking not pausing or slowing as she spoke.

“There’s a lot to take in here,” Tessa said. “I’ve literally read the manual on this place, and all of the forum posts and wiki articles I could find, and it’s still a constant stream of surprises.”

“That’s comforting, or terrifying,” Yawlorna said. “Maybe both?”

“Well, the good news is that for as alien as this world may feel to you, you’re not intrinsically removed from it,” Glimmerglass said. “Once you started leveling, a lot of the same enchantments and metaphysical qualities that [Adventurers] possess began to manifest in you as well. You didn’t need to become something else, something like the rest of us, you just needed to have the same ‘extras’ added to you that us [Adventurers] got.”

“How sure are you that they got all of the same magical add-ons that the rest of us have?” Tessa asked.

“Oh, they don’t have all of them,” Glimmerglass said. “But then neither do you, or anyone else here. Heck I’m missing some too. The key is that they have the core set that every [Adventurer] shares no matter what race, job, or level they are, and that includes the response to restoration spells.”

Tessa could see the magic in her head as code. There were method calls like “pass through a level 50 gate” that she couldn’t hear or answer yet. On the other hand “pass through a level 20 gate” was a privilege she’d gained without even being aware of it.

“So you can resurrect us. Maybe. Probably. Does that mean you know what happens to us if we die here?” Yawlorna asked.

“In general terms, yes,” Glimmerglass said. “When you die, you’ll find yourself in the [Dead Lands] standing over your corpse. It’s a little surreal the first time it happens, but you get used to it pretty quickly.”

“It helps that while you’re dead, you’re not stuck like that,” Tessa said.

“From there you’ll want to find a [Heart Fire]. That’s where you can collect the power to resurrect yourself. Or, in this case, you can wait near your body and allow one of my spells to put you back in it.”

“What happens if we run off?” Yawlorna asked.

“My spell can bring you back to your body as long as your spirit is still available,” Glimmerglass said. “Which will be true as long as the [Hounds of Fate] haven’t gotten a hold of you.”

“They destroy souls?” Yawlorna asked.

“As far as we know, nothing can destroy a soul,” Glimmerglass said. “The Hounds carry them somewhere else though. Somewhere beyond. Somewhere we can’t contact them.”

“Can they be fought?”

“We don’t have any of our abilities as ghosts,” Tessa said. “You’ll hear them well before they get to you, but if they catch up and you’re not in the safety of a [Heart Fire Chapel] or back in your own body, that’s pretty much it. You’re done.”

Yawlorna sagged.

“I suppose that means there isn’t any hope for bringing back the members of my crew we already lost then?” she asked.

“I could tell you that nothing’s impossible, but the reality is probably that they either passed on to whatever afterlife you normally go to, or that the Hounds got them long ago and brought them to wherever they bring our people,” Glimmerglass said. “There’s usually time to resurrect dead [Adventurers] but not that much time.”

Yawlorna sighed.

“I’m not the first field promoted captain to lose crew members on a mission like this,” she said. “If there ever was a mission like this.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be this dangerous, was it?” Glimmerglass asked.

“A survey mission,” Yawlorna said. “Good for the students to get some practical experience under their belts before they started doing serious work.”

“We’ll help keep them safe from here,” Lisa said, putting a hand on Yawlorna’s massive clenched fist.

“I know,” Yawlorna said. “And I’m grateful for what you’ve done for my three chief idiots over there. And for offering us a place with you tonight. I think there’s only one more thing I need to know.”

“What’s that?” Glimmerglass asked.

“How can I learn to do what you do,” Yawlorna said, looking at the healer sitting before her.

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 26

Sometimes celebrations are well planned affairs with detailed guest lists and intricately arranged menus and events for the guests to enjoy. 

Other times the party just can’t wait.

“I would not have guessed that Hermeziz could lift Yawlorna off her feet like that,” Tessa said, taking a pull from the mug of ale which had less-than-mysteriously appeared in her hand at some point after her team arrived back at the [Great Hall].

“I would have bet a pile of gold he wouldn’t have dared to try,” Lisa said. She’d acquired a glass of wine from the same less-than-mysterious Baelgritz source as Tessa’s ale had come from.

Wine for the [Vampire], because of course Lost Alice was classier than Pillowcase.

Though, as this was the first ale Pillowcase had ever drunk, it wasn’t clear what her drink preference should have been. Flavor-wise, Tessa was pleased to notice that either the ale was very mild or Pillowcase’s taste buds were something of a token afterthought on a combat unit that technically didn’t need to eat.

Elsewhere in the [Great Hall], the infectious energy radiating off the new leveled up trio of space demon scientists had spread creating an impromptu festival for everyone.

Or everyone who hadn’t gone sprinting off to the chapel to take advantage of the [Sister of Steel’s] last few sparring practices of the day. Quick and easy leveling proved to be a popular passtime for [Adventurers] it turned out.

“Is it bad that Yawlorna’s looking over at us?” Lisa asked, offering the giant lady a friendly wave of her hand.

“We’ll find out in about five seconds I think,” Tessa said. 

She didn’t brace for impact, or shift to a fighting stance despite her instincts telling her that doing so would be a good idea. Yawlorna was a friend. A new friend who she couldn’t necessarily predict the reactions of. A very large, very muscular, very scary looking friend to be sure. The important part though, the part Tessa forced herself to focus on was the ‘friend’ bit. 

Tessa and Pillowcase had a shared experience set with authority figures and being fearful of their wrath but, with them both together, she knew it was something she needed to work on, and the big demon commander seemed like a fine place to start.

“You did this didn’t you?” Yawlorna asked without preamble as she pushed through the crowd and made it to where corner Tessa and Lisa had gravitated towards.

The truth was that it was Rip who’d been the most directly responsible but neither Tessa nor Lisa were even microscopically willing to throw their quasi-kids under that bus.

“Credit goes to your people,” Tessa said. “They worked hard for what they got today. We just let them know there was an opportunity they might want to try out.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Yawlorna asked. At her full height she loomed over Tessa like a mountain and Pillowcase’s estimation was that it would hurt roughly the same being hit by either one.

“We didn’t know they needed your permission to be off experimenting,” Lisa said.

“Permission?” Yawlorna sputtered. “This isn’t about permission! Do you have any idea how insufferable those three are going to be thanks to being the first ones to figure this out?”

“So, you’re not mad that we invited them to the sparring match?” Tessa asked.

“Mad about…? No! I’m mad you didn’t invite me first!” Yawlorna said. “It was hard enough riding herd on those three when I could at least put them all in the same headlock together. Now?” She shook her head in disbelief.

“You could go visit them tomorrow,” Lisa said. “They said they’re planning to hold a few extra sessions since the demand will be high.”

“Oh, I’ll be there,” Yawlorna said. “The problem I hear is that the lessons cap out pretty quickly?”

“Around level 20,” Tessa said. “Which is still fairly low for this area.”

“What level did they get to?” Yawlorna asked.

“They were about to give up at 10,” Lisa said.

“Then we congratulated them about leveling up,” Tessa said.

“And they kept at it till they hit 20 didn’t they?” Yawlorna asked.

“They tried to go farther than that but the rewards hit a huge diminishing returns at that point,” Tessa said.

“And what level am I in your weird system?” Yawlorna asked.

“You’re classed as a Boss,” Lisa said. “That means your levels aren’t quite like the rest of us. I think Bosses usually have between a 1.1 and 1.35 factor for their powers from what their level would normally suggest.”

“That’s at max level,” Tessa said. “Low level bosses get more swing since the base values are so small. Yawlorna’s probably at 1.5? Or maybe 1.8?”

“Oh yeah. Probably 1.8. Huh, which is weird now that you mention it,” Lisa said. “Look at her level. She’s level 16 now right?”

“Yeah. Oh, yeah, that’s new isn’t it?”

“What are you two talking about,” Yawlorna said. “What’s wrong with me?”

“”Nothing!” Tessa said. “It just looks like you’ve already been leveling up.”

“I’ve been what?”

“You’re level 16, and with the Boss modifier that’s closer to level 29 effectively,” Lisa said.

“So I can still handle my crew?” Yawlorna said, casting a dubious look at Lisa.

“Three on one odds wouldn’t be great but I’d put my money on you still,” Tessa said. 

“What’s more important, is that I’m pretty sure you weren’t level 16 when we first met,” Lisa said. “That would have been overleveled for the area you were camped out in.”

“Overleveled?”

“In the version of this world we saw as a game, everything is grouped up according to level. Even bosses will be around the same level as their troops so that the players know what they’re getting into when a fight starts.”

“And in the game, fights always started,” Lisa said.

“Where you were the things you were fighting were in the vicinity of level 10 if I remember right. A team that was challenged by those would barely be able to make tiny scratches on you as you are now,” Tessa said.

“I’m not disliking that idea,” Yawlorna said.

“In real life like this it’s pretty excellent,” Tessa said. “In a game though, not so much.”

“It’s still good news though,” Lisa said. “It means you can level the same as we do, even without special tricks like the [Sisters of Steel] sparring sessions.”

“But going to them is still the fastest option?” Yawlorna asked.

“Oh, absolutely. Especially given that everything here is calibrated around [Adventurers] being level 20 to start,” Lisa said. “You’ll have a much easier time if you skip up to 20 and then start following the usual leveling paths.”

“Huh, or will she?” Tessa asked.

“What do you mean? Am I going to be blocked somehow?” Yawlorna asked.

“No. Just the opposite in fact,” Tessa said.

“Oh, right, the Boss modifier still applies against non-[Adventurer] foes too,” Lisa said.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Tessa asked.

“If you don’t ask her first I will,” Lisa said.

“Ask me what? Yawlorna looked from the [Clothwork] to the [Vampire] and grabbed a passing drink without looking.

“It’s going to be night in a few more hours,” Tessa said. “There are undead monsters that come out on the hills to the east once darkness has fully fallen. We’re planning to hunt them.” 

“We had thought we’d need to do so very carefully,” Lisa said. “As a team of level 15s and below, we should have been able to handle one level 20 [Cursed Walker] at a time.”

“The problem with that approach is that its really easy to pull more mobs, or enemies, than you intend, and two or three Walkers would probably have eaten us,” Tessa said.

“So you’re mad then?” Yawlorna asked.

“By some measures, probably, but that’s fairly typical for [Adventurers],” Tessa said.

“When you can run right from being eaten alive and get immediate revenge on your killers, you approach problems somewhat differently,” Lisa said.

“Okay. I can see that,” Yawlorna admitted. “Still seems mad.”

“Thanks to the [Sisters of Steel] it’s become considerably less mad,” Tessa said. “With the whole party at level 20, it will be the [Cursed Walkers] who need to run from us. Except they’re not smart enough for that.”

“Why bother fighting them then?” Yawlorna asked.

“Two big reasons,” Lisa said. “Fighting them will provide the experience we need to level up more, and the higher level we get the more things we might be able to survive.”

“Then there’s the loot,” Tessa said. “Leveling up is one thing, but an [Adventurer’s] strength is also largely derived from their gear.”

“Why would the undead have gear you would want to use?” Yawlorna asked.

“As an incentive to fight them,” Lisa said. “It doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense, but this world seems to have been crafted with a lot of the game related effects built into it.”

“Crafted?”

“We met one of the dead gods,” Tessa said, though her memory of it was from Pillowcase’s viewpoint only. “Apparently this world was something of a group project for them, which seems to be why parts of it resemble the game we were playing.”

“So this is all someone’s fault,” Yawlorna said. “That’s good to know.”

“They’re inconveniently dead at the moment,” Lisa said. “So any complaints may not get you many answers.”

“When do they ever with gods?” Yawlorna asked. “You had something you wished to ask me though I believe? You want to take Bael, Illu, and Herme with you I’m guessing?”

“And you,” Tessa said.

“We thought it would be too dangerous since a [Cursed Walker] would have been able to one shot you all if things went wrong. With Bael and the others being level 20 now though, and since you’re effectively level 28 or 29, you shouldn’t be in that much danger unless something really unexpected shows up.”

“Like a group of people with a rag doll, a blood drinker, a metal man, and a overcharged cat girl showing up out of the blue?” Yawlorna asked. “Or would it be more like the lava snake you came riding back up from the depths of the Abyss?”

“To be fair, riding the lava snake wasn’t our idea,” Tessa said. “It was just that we needed to get back in a hurry and Darren insisted on helping us out.”

“That you know the lava snake’s name illustrates my point I believe,” Yawlorna said.

“So, does that mean you don’t want to come with us?” Lisa asked, a crestfallen note in her voice.

“Want to? Absolutely not,” Yawlorna said. “I have every confidence that going anywhere near danger with you will end in unforeseen disaster. Unfortunately, that disaster can probably land anywhere in a hundred mile radius and being near you seems to be the most likely option we have for surviving it.”

“Oh so you will come then!” Tessa said, bumping shoulders with Lisa.

“Whether or not I do, I know Bael, Illu, and Herm will tag along with you,” Yawlorna said. “So, yes, the four of us will join you – but only if I have your solemn oath that they will make it back here alive.”

“We’re going to have a team strategy meeting before we head out,” Tessa said. “Part of that is going to be specific plans for how we retreat. Keeping the four of you safe will be a key element of that.”

“The rest of us can all afford to die. We know you can’t,” Lisa said. “If we hit something too difficult for us to handle, we will absolutely buy you time to escape.”

“Yeah, just because we can’t beat something, doesn’t mean it’ll have an easy time killing us and getting to you,” Tessa said. 

“And, worst comes to worst, I can always bring them back,” Glimmerglass said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 25

War is hell. War games on the other hand can be quite a different story.

Since they had several new sparring partners to work with, the [Sisters of Steel] had set their next session up as an unusual castle defense scenario. 

One area of the room was sectioned off by a ten foot high wooden picket fence with a single entry point. Inside the fence, a raised walkway behind the fence allowed the defenders to fire upon the attackers while enjoying a fair bit of cover.

For a normal town defense scenario, the attackers would have some goal inside the ‘castle’, anything from simply getting enough bodies inside before the defenders could repel them to needing to wipe out all of the defenders and claim the castle for their own.

In the version the Sisters setup though, things were a little more complicated.

“I understand the castle walls but why do the attackers get their own wall?” Rip asked, pointing to the smaller, four foot high barrier the Sisters had put up.

“Aggressors will most often enjoy the benefits of their own defenses,” Mother Graymourn said. “In this case, they’ll need them in order to deal with the defender’s allies.”

“Allies?” Lady Midnight asked as she strapped on a [Heavy Iron Chestplate]. Tessa wondered about that but a quick check of Lady Midnight’s normal gear revealed that she hadn’t found an updated robe since the tutorial which meant she was missing a significant amount of defense. The [Heavy Iron Chestplate] offered none of the spellcasting support a healer would want but it would at least reduce the blunt force trauma she was about to endure.

“The castle’s defenders will need to do more than hold out against a simple attack,” Mother Graymourn said. “In this scenario, the defenders have won the support of a local member of the nobility who has come to break the siege they’ve been under. The Noble and their forces will setup on the far end of the room. Their goal is to get the noble to the castle alive and, ideally, unharmed. The attackers can win either by eliminating the nobleman or by taking the castle. The defender’s earn their victory either by securing the alliance with the noble or by using the distraction of their arrival to eliminate the attackers.”

“How many fighters will each side have?” Obby asked.

“We’ll vary it up,” Mother Graymourn said. “That and the composition of the three forces. Mixed teams I think for the first battle though. That’ll give us the best view of where you all are starting at.”

“How many of them can you take in one battle?” Lisa asked.

“I think we’ve got room for eight,” Mother Graymourn said.

“That’s perfect. Lost Alice and I can spectate. That should help us plan out our battle strategies for tonight,” Tessa said.

It was an honest and true sentiment. Tessa was sincere in wanting a chance to evaluate her team’s combat prowess outside of a battle that she was directly involved in. That it also happened to allow her to remain cuddled up with Lisa and spared her from the inevitable beatdown the [Sisters of Steel] were going to deliver was really only a happy coincidence.

From the faint smile which rippled across Lisa’s face, she harbored similar feeling regarding the arrangement.

“Eight? So that includes us?” Baelgritz asked.

“Unless the years and the miles have addled this old noggin, I’m pretty sure I can count correctly still,” Mother Graymourn said. “Presuming you’re willing to step into the arena that is.”

Baelgritz shot a worried glance to Hermeziz, who passed it along to Illuthiz. Illuthiz answered with a roll of her eyes and a resigned shrug of her shoulders. Tessa suspected Illuthiz didn’t have much hope for the whole ‘leveling thing’ to apply to them, but the three of them at least seemed willing to prove the point out like the scientists they were.

“Wonderful,” Mother Graymourn said reading their silent acceptance for the confirmation it was. “We’ll form up into the first set of teams in two minutes. Make any plans you want and check your gear. Keep in mind though, you’re not going to be on the same side once the spar begins.”

“If we die, I’m going to haunt you both,” Hermeziz said.

“Exactly!” Baelgritz said. “Even death won’t part us!”

“They’re not going to kill us,” Illuthiz said, her amusement at their posturing tempered only by the need to deescalate the other two before they got completely out of hand.

“They won’t,” Lisa said. “As a warning though, they’re not going to hold back much either.”

“Are you used to sparring matches where magical healing is available?” Tessa asked.

“That sounds unpromising,” Hermeziz said. Tessa had originally pegged him as the most belligerent of the three, but time and exposure had changed that view. Hermeziz bristled the most easily of the three, but his concerns didn’t seem to be unfounded. That he was as open as he was about his reservations seemed to be a strange sign of trust. Tessa suspected that if Hermeziz had decided anyone around them was an immediate danger he would have said absolutely nothing to alert them to his awareness of it. 

It wasn’t fair to analogize a sapient being with an animal, but, despite that, people shared more behavior patterns in common with supposedly “thoughtless animals” than they usually cared to admit.

In Hermeziz’s case, Tessa wondered how good a model a dog might be for predicting his reactions. He seemed to have a fierce and protective loyalty to Baelgritz and Illthuziz, and he seemed to prefer the threat carried by barking to escalating to actually biting. As long as he was grumbling, Tessa was willing to hazard the guess that they were still in safe waters. If he went silent though? Even with several new levels under her belt, she didn’t want to see what that would look like.

“Would it be wrong to make some wagers on the first battle?” Lisa asked on their private channel.

“Only if we tried to bet on our team winning,” Tessa said. She believed in her friends. She would fight and die with them. None of that changed the fact that she knew they were doomed. 

Oh, they’d be on separate teams, so one of their teams would win, but the chance that any of them would still be standing once the final victory was secured was effectively zero from Tessa’s perspective.

Lisa wiggled a little closer as the first spar got going.

Mother Graymourn had split the eight evenly between the defenders and the attacker, but had let them choose who they wanted to fight alongside. Rip, Matt, Lady Midnight, and Starchild had chosen to play as the attackers, while Obby, Baelgritz, Illuthiz, and Hermeziz assembled in the castle. 

To those teams, Mother Graymourn added a eight of the [Sisters of Steel] each, and setup another six as the allies. She took role of the Noble for herself, though she warned that the Noble was a noncombatant and so she wouldn’t be fighting and even a single attack against her would be enough to win a victory for the attackers.

Rip tried to take advantage of that the moment the battle began, firing a [Training Arrow] at Mother Graymourn for an instant win. It was a good idea, but also far too obvious to have a hope of working. One of the nuns near Mother Graymourn yanked the arrow from the air and hurled it back narrowly missing Rip only because Matt tackled her to the ground taking the both of them out of the fight for the first few moments.

That let them survive longer than Baelgritz and his crew though.

Rather than attack Mother Graymourn directly, the other [Sisters of Steel] among the attackers elected to make a frontal assault on the ‘castle’. Baelgritz, Illuthiz, and Hermeziz were defending the gate, and trying to take advantage of the full cover the position afforded. That prevented the first round of missile fire from targeting them, but when Sister Cayman burst through the gate, the three of them fell to a single spinning strike from the nun’s spear.

A minute later, the three plopped down on a spectator’s bench beside Tessa having removed themselves from the battlefield after the attackers were driven back. For authenticity they could have lain where they fell, but the prospect of being stepped on after losing so quickly didn’t seem to appeal to them.

“Well, that was worthless,” Hermeziz said.

“Also, not conclusive,” Illuthiz said, plopping down to sit between the other two.

“Yeah, we weren’t ready,” Baelgritz said. “We should play defense again next time.”

“Next time? We have to do a next time?” Hermeziz’s frown was audible in every syllable as he rubbed his collarbone.

“Want me to fix that up?” Lisa asked, beginning one of her healing spells.

“Can we stay on the bench if you don’t?” Hermeziz asked.

“You can stay, I’m going back in there,” Illuthiz said.

“Fine. Go ahead then,” Hermeziz said.

The next battle did see them on defense once more, but it did not see them last all that much longer. 

They opted to defend the gate again, but only the presence of one of [Sisters of Steel] with them preventing a repeat of the first round when Sister Cayman once again pushed through into the castle.

“How is she so fast!” Baelgritz complained, and Tessa felt all the sympathy in the world for him. 

“She’s higher level than us,” Tessa said. “But she’s not using raw speed. It looks like she’s doing what she did when I fought her. She makes really fast distracting movements but when she strikes, she’s slowing down her blows just enough to give her the control to move around your defenses. You had a good block there, it was just in the wrong place.”

“We should change up our order,” Illuthiz said. “Herm, how would you feel about taking point?”

“Terrible,” Hermeziz said. “I can’t keep up with that monster as it is. Being the first line of defense isn’t going to make that easier.”

“I know,” Illuthiz said. “We normally let Baelgritz take point, but you were on the [Fencing] team. I think we need your speed here.”

“I can’t fence properly with these clunky things,” Hermeziz said, gesturing with the [Blunted Long Sword] in his hand. “And even if I had a proper sword, I’m still not as fast as that woman is.”

“You won’t have to be as fast as her. Not if this idea works,” Illuthiz said.

After a quick question was tossed over to her, Mother Graymourn supplied Hermeziz with a practice weapon more to his liking. He wasn’t thrilled with it, the weight was wrong, the length wasn’t ideal, and against plate armor, light blades were a terrible idea. He had a whole litany of complaints, most of which seemed fairly reasonable, but despite them he still trod out onto the field.

And returned a couple of minutes later, once again defeated.

Tessa was pleased to see that they had survived Sister Cayman’s initial charge this time. In part that was because two of the other [Sister’s of Steel] had been there to help blunt Cayman’s attack. In part though, Illuthiz’s plan had worked. 

Hermeziz wasn’t a threat to Cayman, but that was only because she was able to disarm him fairly quickly. Even a fairly quick disarm however cost Sister Cayman a precious second in her attack and broke up her momentum. None of that was enough to allow them to steal a victory from her. Not that time, or any of the next half dozen until the teams got rearranged and they switched sides to try going on the offense. 

Offense proved to have it’s own headaches, with the trio being alternatively overrun by the allies in one round and then the defenders in the next as they surged out of the castle.

“This is the definition of insanity,” Hermeziz said. “We haven’t survived for even sixty seconds in any of these fights.”

“That’s true,” Lisa said. “But you are surviving for longer.”

“It feels like luck,” Baelgritz said.

“It is,” Tessa said. “But it’s luck your making for yourselves.”

Luck that was on course to turn into something much more from what Tessa could see.

They weren’t progressing despite their failures. Each failure was teaching them, and helping them learn. Beside their names, new numbers had appeared. 

Levels.

Just like an [Adventurer].

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 24

‘Sitting on the bench’ gets a bad rep Tessa decided. She’d been able to stow Pillowcase’s armor away and was lounging on one of the spectator’s seats watching Sister Cayman provide the same sort of instruction to Sister Hecte as she had to Tessa. The spectacle of the combat was far more amusing to watch from a position where she wasn’t being dunked in the water every few minutes, but the real joy was feeling Lisa leaning against her in relaxation.

Pillowcase’s cloth skin was several thousand times less sensitive than Tessa’s vastly more fragile human skin, but Tessa’s enjoyment of being in contact with Lisa came less from the tactile pleasure it provided and more, far more, from the the sheer joy of Lisa’s existence. 

Pillowcase had no reference point for being drunk on love. [Clothwork] didn’t have biological imperatives towards procreation, or any threads in their design to capture an understanding of emotional connections. As far as the Consortium was concerned, bonds between soldier units were handled under the auspices of the command and control spells which ensured their troops loyalty. 

Delving back into Pillowcase’s memories yielded a treasure trove of surprises though. She’d never been in love and she’d certainly never dated anyone, or been physical with another sapient being outside of combat exercises, but she had developed crushes. Lots of them.

Where romantic love was something that existed between people, a sharing each person gave part of themselves to, crushes only required a single, yearning heart. The Consortium was able to suppress unwanted behaviors in their troops, but the loyalty spells hadn’t been able to touch the deepest corners of who Pillowcase really was.

And so she’d loved. On her own. From afar. But even bound up in every sort of enchantment she’d loved.

“Resting with you like this is a balm to my soul,” Tessa said, though for Pillowcase the feeling was even more true.

“I just wish this wasn’t so fun,” Lisa said. “I want this to be super boring so it will feel like it’s lasting forever.”

“Fun does seem to go by too quickly doesn’t it?” Tessa asked, thinking blissfully back to the ‘fun’ they’d had before she switched back to Pillowcase’s body. 

It was very good that [Clothwork] couldn’t blush. Vampires could though and Tessa spied a delightful reddening of Lost Alice’s features.

“Maybe we should have more fun in our lives,” Lisa whispered. It was a private telepathic channel, but the whisper still made Tessa’s knees buckle.

So it was good that she was already sitting. Flopping onto the group as the result of a conversation that was inaudible to everyone else would have been weird even for her.

“Now?” she asked, a unexpectedly large part of her hoping for an affirmative.

“We shouldn’t,” Lisa said. “But god is it tempting.”

[Clothwork] stomach’s didn’t come equipped with butterflies, and yet Tessa discovered they turned out to be capable of spontaneously producing butterflies by the bushel with the right prompting. The right, lovely, [Vampiric], sensual prompting.

Like, for example, the soft hand that was tracing a path down from her ear to her collarbone.

“You have no idea how much I want to run to the [Heart Fire] and change back right now,” she said.

“You have no idea how much I don’t want to even let you get that far,” Lisa said and then sighed. “But the others will be here in a few minutes.”

“And I should probably stay with Pillowcase’s body until we’re done with questing for the night,” Tessa agreed, releasing her excitement and accepting her current fate.

“Something to look forward to then, right?” Lisa said, her voice less sultry but still wonderfully warm.

“Something to fight for,” Tessa said. “I feel like it’s getting easier and easier to forget we’re doing dangerous stuff here. Or, not forget. More like…”

“Like ignore?” Lisa said. “I think I know what you mean. It’s not confidence exactly. I’m still deeply aware of how tiny our powers are compared to nearly everything in this world, but the idea of running into an [Elder Sand Worm] or something doesn’t seem as frightening as it did when we landed here.”

“Denial maybe?” Tessa asked. “We’ve run into some awful stull and survived it so far, well most of the time, so maybe that’s making it easier to pretend the threats aren’t as bad as we rationally know they are?”

“I didn’t get a degree in psychology, but it sounds fine to my layman’s ears,” Lisa said. “Maybe not super healthy, but at the moment, I’ll take it.”

“Huh, you know, that’s an interesting idea,” Tessa said.

“What? That we should indulge in unhealthy behavior because this whole situation is ridiculous and we’ll snap otherwise?” Lisa asked.

“No, although maybe, I mean what’s healthy in one environment may be terrible in another right? Adapt and survive and all that. What I meant though is that there are a lot of people who played [Broken Horizons] and who had all sorts of backgrounds. We’ve lost contact with our Earth, but there’s still people here with skills that you’d primarily find on Earth rather than in the [Fallen Kingdoms].”

“Skills like counseling and therapy,” Lisa said as she made the same leap Tessa had.

“They’re probably already working with the people they know, but there are hundreds of thousands of players. The vast majority of us will probably never run into them. But they could help so much if we could find one!”

“I’d be afraid of them being swamped with work, but metal health isn’t something I’ve heard anyone else talking about,” Lisa said.

“Our world could use a lot of work there,” Tessa said. “Though to be fair, at least we have psychologists, and counselors, and an entire profession devoted to it. When was the last time you saw a psychiatrist in a game who wasn’t the ‘crazy evil villain’?”

“Fair point. I’m guessing [Clerics] generally fill that role here, but they don’t exactly have a Cure Mental Wounds spell to work with.”

“Maybe Glimmerglass could help us get in touch with one?” Tessa said. “She was working with Penswell during the big battle, and, I think, is still reporting in. She should have a channel to any global efforts the players apart from the fight with the Consortium.”

“Worth a shot. My guess is that a lot of those efforts are on hold until the Consortium’s invasion is sorted out. If we were higher level, we’d probably be getting drafted to help too.”

“Worst case we could get an update on how things are going I guess,” Tessa said.

Lisa giggled, and Tessa shot her a quizzical expression.

“Sorry, I was just picturing us getting hooked up with a substance abuse counselor and having to sit there going ‘Hi. My name is Lost Alice and it’s been 20 hours since I last drank blood.’ Probably not that funny, but it seemed silly in my head.”

Tessa heard the echoes of emptiness in Lisa’s words. It wasn’t being a [Vampire] that bothered her. It was what being a [Vampire] had led her to do. 

Lost Alice was a killer. All [Vampires] of her bloodline were. The actions a newly risen [Vampire] undertook when the world was nothing but a bloodrage and they couldn’t form coherent thoughts couldn’t be held against them though. 

Lisa, however, had killed of her own volition.

Mikonnel had been a traitor to the [Fallen Kingdoms]. He’d be holding the two of them captive in the [Sunless Deeps]. He’d planned to do horrible things to them. The world was no poorer for his loss. And she’d been ravenous.

None of that kept the choice she’d made from weighing on her though.

And nothing Tessa could think to say would change that.

But maybe she didn’t have to.

“I mean, you could have made it two hours ago instead,” Tessa said. “I did have liters and liters of blood to spare then. Now you’d have to be content with fluff.”

“Eww, I don’t want to drain my girlfriend,” Lisa said, that gloom that had wrapped around her forgotten at least for the moment. “And you do not have liters of blood to spare. Don’t even lose one if you can help it. You need your blood.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tessa said. “I’m just saying that I don’t mind the idea of being a tasty snack.”

Lisa stared at her for a long moment.

“Oh my god. Seriously? That’s the line you went for?”

Tessa tried to waggle Pillowcase’s eyebrows and knew she was failing miserably. That was okay, cheesy pickup lines delivered with both full and absolutely no sincerity had a magic that transcended facial expressions.

“I should bite you for that, but then you would win!” Lisa said, incensed at the unfairness of it all.

“I’m clever like that,” Tessa said. “I’m kind of hoping we can find a child counselor though.”

“Feel like regressing a few years?” Lisa asked, her words honeyed with sarcasm.

“Not for me,” Tessa said glancing over towards the door where the rest of their party was finally arriving.

“Ah, yeah, them,” Lisa said spotting Rip and Matt at the forefront of the procession. “That could be pretty good. Assuming we can talk them into it.”

“Lead by example maybe?” Tessa said. “I don’t mind sitting on a virtual couch and talking about all the stuff we’ve been through. Or, I guess, in a virtual support group circle?”

“Given the circumstances, I’m guessing the support group model would probably work the best,” Lisa said. “It might even be something we could just do with the whole party even before we find an official counselor to lead us.”

“That’s a good point. We could do an ‘after action wrap up’ with the whole team and try to make sure everyone feels comfortable enough to talk about the deeper stuff that’s bothering them.”

“Right. Make sure everyone knows they’re not in this alone.”

“Not even our space demon friends I guess,” Tessa said as Baelgritz, Illuthiz and Hermeziz came in at the end of party’s train.

They didn’t burst aflame the moment their feet touched the chapel’s floor, which Tessa took to be a good sign.

A better one came a moment later as Mother Graymourn stepped forward.

“Hail travellers!” she said. “The [Sisters of Steel] offer welcome to all who come with goodwill and brave hearts”

She addressed the gathering in general but the bow of her head at the end seemed to be directly most clearly towards Illuthiz.

“I think our…friends are here?” Rip said, pausing as though paging through several options on how to describe Tessa and Lisa.

Tessa waved, catching their attention.

“Yes. They’ve had quite a good sparring session already,” Mother Graymourn said. “If you’d care to join us for a round too, we’ll be resetting our arena shortly and you’re welcome to stay for that.”

“I really want to see the nuns vs demons battle,” Lisa said privately.

“It does seem kind of iconic doesn’t it?” Tessa asked.

“That and I’m dying of curiosity to know if Baelgritz’s crew can actually level,” Lisa said. “I mean what would they even level to? They don’t have classes like ours. Would they gain one? Would they rank up in species type to one of the bigger demon types?”

“I’m going to bet they can, and they’ll just get better stats, no species change though,” Tessa said with nothing to support her guess beside her personal sense for how she’d design things. “It’ll be fascinating to see though either way though.”

Baelgritz seemed to have a similar thought and raised his hand like a student requesting permission to speak,

Which Tessa remembered he sort of was. Yawlorna had described her crew as effectively a bunch of grad students who she’d taken along on a research trip that went horribly, horribly wrong. Despite his appearance, it finally clicked for Tessa that Baelgritz might be even younger than she was.

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 23

Tessa measured her life in segments broken up by what seemed like the usual milestones everyone else did. Going to school for the first time. Having her first period. Learning to drive. Graduating high school. College. Getting her first job. Moving out on her own. Those had all felt normal in part because of how spaced out they were. 

Hitting level 20 though? After no more than a few days from being “born” in the [Fallen Kingdoms]? 

On one level she knew she shouldn’t have been surprised. The low levels in the game had been accelerated over the years to allow players to catch up more easily. It wasn’t like she was the first person to reach the lofty height of 1/5th the level cap. Glimmerglass was still more than four times Tessa’s current level.

All of that paled though before the whiplash of finding herself at what had once been one of the most significant level breaks in the game.

Originally, the first ten levels had been setup so that the players could largely solo them. Then [Broken Horizons] took the kid gloves off and the enemies started getting quickly more difficult.

Level 11 through 19 were the early partying levels, which various much bemoaned locations where players would gather and die en masse as newcomers worked out the basics of fighting as a team.

By level 20, the theory went, those early growing pains were done and the players were ready to start taking on more focused challenges in the form of the games first group dungeons.

[Broken Horizons] design philosophy had shifted over the years, but Tessa had joined early enough that her low level experience was still informed by the original designers mindset and they’d had some wild ideas on what sort of challenges were appropriate for beginning players.

In their defense, they were clever enough to make the challenges ones that taught the players how to overcome them, which was part of [Broken Horizons] initial success. Rather than being a byzantine nightmare of random events that lead to complete failure after hours of effort, the torments the [Broken Horizons] dungeons put the players through were ones that had pretty clear paths to overcome, and even the failures often came with some reward that made future attempts more likely to succeed. They were still ridiculously difficult in many cases, but since that was something of a standard for the industry at the time, [Broken Horizons] had the distinction of being the most approachable of the MMOs on the market by far, and as a result it prospered where other games floundered. 

From Tessa’s perspective, those early, tortuous dungeons had been more than a series of ever higher hurdles to leap though. They were touchpoints she’d shared with BT and all of her other close friends. They were experiences that united her guild, and were shared by everyone who played the game at that point. They became the cultural landscape that all her fellow [Broken Horizons] players understood and which set them apart from those who weren’t a part of their society.

And it had all started at level 20.

She knew [Broken Horizons] had progressed beyond level 20 being such a defining milestone. Later expansions had added earlier, and easier, group dungeons in at lower levels to get people into the “fun” sooner, and had toned down the difficulty on the hardest content either directly or through simple power creep of new abilities and items being stronger than the ones that came before. That had made the game accessible to a far wider range of players, and had been something that Tessa had argued in favor of in more forum threads than she could remember, even as she felt the  twinges of nostalgia for surviving the early brutal encounters that some of the players claimed was the lynchpin of the game’s existence.

“This doesn’t seem real,” she said, marveling at not just her own stat screen but the shiny ‘20’ that was sitting beside Lisa’s name too.

“Now imagine if we’d been using XP scrolls or potions,” Lisa said, a mirthful gleam sparkling in her eyes.

“Wait, did you know this would level us up this fast?” Tessa said, detecting a hint of knowing mischief lurking behind Lisa’s smile.

“Not at first,” Lisa said with a shake of her head. “After the first time you took a swim though, I noticed how much our xps bars had gone up.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Tessa said. “We lost all of those earlier rounds, and I basically lost this last one too.”

“Ah but there wasn’t any winning or losing here,” Sister Acroghast said. “This is training. The only important thing when your training is that you’re learning, and you two caught on a lot quicker than most that I’ve seen.”

“But, it can’t be that easy can it?” Tessa asked, still astounded at how fast she’d progressed without ever being in any real peril.

“You’d prefer it to be harder?” Sister Cayman asked.

“Oh, don’t worry, it will be,” Mother Graymourn said. “You’re still relatively unskilled. You have the basics down, but you’ve got so much more growing to do. The more you do, the longer and harder you’ll need to work to progress. I dare say there’ll come a day fairly soon when we won’t have much to teach you and you’ll need to search out other teachers or tougher challenges if you want to continue improving.”

“There are other places we can level like this?” Tessa’s mind boggled at the idea. Leveling in [Broken Horizons] had always meant walking through oceans of blood and climbing mountains of enemy corpses, at least figuratively, though a few dungeons took a stab at making that literal. Giving out levels willy nilly seemed like madness.

“Didn’t the beta testers mention this?” Lisa asked. “I thought they called out [Dragonshire] as having a bunch of different leveling mini-games.”

“They did, but somehow none of them thought to mention that the mini-games were a rocket train for fast leveling. That was unbelievable.”

“Weren’t they mostly over level 20 when they got here?” Lisa asked.

“Ohhh,” Tessa said, understanding dawning on her. “The training programs here are to let people who played the [High Beyond Tutorial] area catch up to the ones who chose to buy the [Quick Start] option?”

Gamers, being among the least patient people on the planet, were often willing to pay for convenience benefits and, once Egress Entertainment understood that, the option of buying a higher starting level for a character had quickly been rolled out. For enough money you could be a character at the level cap who was equipped with a decent enough set of gear to take on the the lowest tier of the end game [Raids]. 

In practice, there were enough quests and unlocks that characters needed that it was more practical to simply bypass the “tutorial levels” and start at level 20 once the “real game began”.

Tessa had never seen the point of throwing money away to skip new content, but given that some people created alternate characters like they were trying to single handedly populate the world by themselves, she could see where the five hundredth time of being a lowbie might get a little old.

“Hey, would we be able to have some friends come by to join you for sparring, or do you need to work on you own training for a while?” Tessa asked.

“We’re here for everyone,” Mother Graymourn said. “It’s our [Holy Mission] you might say. We’ll probably do some more round of [Walk the Plank] then take a break and switch it up. Good training needs to cover all the basics after all.”

“You’re thinking we get the kids, and the others here?” Lisa asked.

“Yes, definitely, before a thousand other [Adventurers] show up,” Tessa said.

“That’s a good idea. If we can get everyone up to level 20, we’ll have a much easier time with the [Cursed Walkers].”

“That’s what I was thinking. We were planning to use the lowest level [Undead] out there to work up to level 20. If we can start at 20 though, we’ll be able to handle bigger groups out of the gate and even take on some of the boss spawns.”

“You say boss spawns, and I hear enough rare loot to pass them out as party favors afterwards,” Lisa said and then switch to the party’s telepathic channel. “Hey folks! How fast can you get to the [Chapel]?”

“We’re not far! What’s the matter?” Rip asked, fright dancing in her voice.

“It’s not what’s wrong. It’s what’s right. Check your party list. Notice anything interesting?” Tessa asked.

“We’re all still alive it looks like,” Matt said. “And nobody new on the list.”

“But you’re listed as ‘Pillowcase’ again,” Rip said.

“And you’re level 20? When did that happen? What did you find?” Lady Midnight asked, the greedy longing for experience points of any sensible [Adventurer] plain to hear in her voice.

“We found the [Sisters of Steel],” Lisa said.

“Okay, that sounds badass. Are they literally made of steel?” Rip asked.

It wasn’t a particularly unreasonable question given the world they were in.

“Nope. Flesh and blood,” Tessa said.

“Awww,” Matt, the [Metal Mechanoid] said.

“They’re wearing plenty of steel though,” Lisa said. “And don’t really care if you drop them into a ten foot deep pool while they’ve got all that platemail on. So Rip’s pretty much correct on the badass front.”

“We’re headed towards the [Chapel] now then!” Obby said.

“Is it okay if Baelgritz and his crew come with us?” Rip asked.

Tessa had the strangest sensation that Rip had decided to adopt the three space travelers as though they were a trio of adorable pets. Given that Rip had been the first to pick up an actual pet so far, and that her first thought had been to name it after a mind numbingly dangerous chemical, Tessa couldn’t rule out the idea that Rip was intending to add the demonic looking trio to her menagerie.

“Should we be worried about Rip imprinting on space traveling demons?” Tessa asked Lisa on their private line.

“I think they’ve already imprinted on you,” Lisa replied privately. “I’m more wondering if our demon trio is imprinting on her.”

“They’re adults though, aren’t they?”

“They are, I think, but they’re adults who’ve been in a rough situation for a long time from what Yawlorna said. Then we show up and show them just how much worse everything they were dealing with could be. And then we show that we can deal with it and keep them alive. That kind of thing leaves an impression.”

“And Rip was the one leading the team when they went to [Sky’s Edge] wasn’t she?” Tessa asked.

“I think so. She’s got a lot of drive. I don’t know how much of that they were there to see, but she leaves an impression quickly.”

“Think we should check with the nuns to see how they’ll feel about three demons joining the festivities?” Tessa asked.

“Probably not the worst idea we could have,” Lisa said.

As it turned out, and Tessa decided it probably shouldn’t have surprised her, Moth Graymourn was all too eager to meet Baelgritz, Illuthiz, and Hermeziz. Granted she’d been told that they were ‘travelers from a distant world who appeared similar to the [Underworlders] we know’ but Tessa was sure none of the nuns had missed that she was saying ‘they look like demons, but they’re really not’. 

“You say they may not be able to learn from sparring though?” Sister Acroghast asked.

“We’re not sure,” Lisa said. “We’re familiar with a fictitious version of them. In the fiction we know, they’re basically static. But these aren’t exactly like the versions we know. They’re lower level than we are, so it might be that they’re stuck there and can’t progress.”

“If they’re people like you say, I don’t believe that will be true here,” Mother Graymourn said. “They may not want to, they may have a terribly difficult time with it, but the one thing that’s true of any person is that they’re always able to change.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 22

Tessa could not, it turned out, ‘do this’, where ‘this’ was overcome an opponent who was twice her level. Giving herself over to Pillowcase’s reflexes helped a little. Practicing Lisa’s advice didn’t seem to help at all first, but after Tessa’s fifth dunking things started to change.

“I think I see what you did that time,” she said as Sister Cayman helped her out of the pool. “You’re not using that much more speed than I am, are you?”

“Nope. I’m moving slower than you in fact.”

“But you’re capable of moving much faster aren’t you?” Tessa asked. 

She’d done as Lisa had suggested. She’d put together a strategy for each match. 

Her first one had been a disaster. 

Too many thoughts, too much planning. She’d pictured a nine step process through which she would partially disarm Sister Cayman, unbalance her, feint for a heavy blow and then shield bash to knock Cayman off the plank. The plan had gotten as far as ‘begin trying to disarm your foe’ before Cayman had swept Tessa’s feet out from under her completely. 

Tessa’s second plan had simplified things a bit, trying to a more straightforward disarm. It had failed just as quickly.

Reflecting on her failures had brought her plan down to “block and attack” with the idea that the attacks needed to be real without overcommitting herself so that when an opening presented itself for an unbalancing strike she’d be able to take it without thought.

It was a good plan. It had failed, but it was still good.

“Speed isn’t everything,” Cayman said. “A fast hit thrown at the wrong target is worse than useless.”

“Being too slow isn’t working out all that great either,” Tessa said.

“That’s not what you’re having problems with.”

“I’m barely able to parry or block your attacks,” Tessa said, but she knew Sister Cayman was right. Jerking her arms and body around faster wasn’t going to make up the gap in skill between the two of them.

“You were doing better in our last exchange,” Sister Cayman said. “And it looked like you were slowing down there too?”

“I was. I thought if I stayed loose and kept my movement more constrained I’d be able to keep up with you better,” Tessa said. 

It was one of the early lessons that had been sewn into Pillowcase. Don’t waste motion. Spend the force you can exert as efficiently as possible. Ideally, which each defense, make the attacker pay. 

The Consortium saw combat as basically the same as any other business transaction. Both parties wanted something, and the goal was to make sure you spent as little as possible achieving your objective  while ensuring that your opponent lost everything they had.

“You’re on the right track,” Sister Cayman said. “Do you want to keep going?”

Tessa glanced at Lisa and then at the other nuns who were waiting. Lisa was a bit soggy as well. Even [Vampiric Reflexes] weren’t enough to keep her from being pitched off her plank, though Tessa noted that the team healer was having a better time keeping her footing than the team tank was.

“I’d be happy to, but should the other people get a turn too?” she asked.

“Oh watching this is much more fun than going for a swim ourselves,” Mother Graymourn said. She was passing around a ceramic jug which seemed to be holding tea based on the cups the nuns were pouring the contents into.

It sounds like you noticed something? Lisa asked privately.

Maybe? I think I know what she did to me this last time, Tessa said. She’s mixing up her heavy hits with her quick ones, but the ‘quick’ hits aren’t really any quicker than the solid ones. It’s disorienting and it’s making me focus on the wrong things. I’m trying to shift my block at the speed I’m perceiving her moving, but that’s not lining up with her real attacks.

So what’s your game plan to deal with that? Lisa asked, climbing onto her plank once more.

I can’t just slow down. If I’m too sluggish, she’ll land a regular old normal hit on me.

That’s what you can’t do. Think about what you can, Lisa said.

Pillowcase had several ideas on that subject, including calling in close air support, retreating to rearm with some long distance plasma bolters, and deploying mines along the planks. That none of these ideas were feasible wasn’t lost on Pillowcase, the Consortium simply had fairly specific ideas on how superior foes were to be dealt with.

What I can do is go more on the offensive, Tessa said. I leave more openings when I do that, but just like I can trust to my armor to protect me from the blows, I need to start trusting my dexterity to help me regain my balance. 

Sounds like its worth a shot, Lisa said. Remember; picture it working. Then stop thinking.”

Turning off her mind had been something Tessa was never good at. Sitting quietly had been impossible for her as a kid, and meditation had never accomplished any more for her than providing time for her to obsess over whatever anxiety was chewing on her mind.

Pillowcase was able to help there, fortunately. Fighting required a special kind of awareness, not empty headed, but empty, a distinction which Tessa didn’t immediately grasp.

With the plank beneath her feet though it started to come to her.

Cayman was on her own side of the pool, waiting for Mother Graymourn to call for them to begin. She looked interested but serene. This wasn’t anything of monumental importance to her. It was just training with a new fighter.

A tightness in Pillowcase’s chest released. Ego could be a terrible master, as could buying into the narrative that showing weakness or failing a test revealed unforgivable flaws.

In theory that bit of anxiety should have come from Pillowcase. She was the one who’d faced the constant threat of being recycled for parts if she couldn’t meet the Consortium’s strict testing standards. Pillowcase knew that wasn’t an idle threat either. Several of the [Clothwork] in her original production lot had been deemed defective and been instantly scrapped when their combat performance reviews came down.

Tessa felt the anxiety that had vanished wasn’t derived from Pillowcase’s memories though. It was derived from her own.

Pillowcase was used to trials overseen by severe, stone faced proctors, where each subtle flaw was noted and judged secretly. A [Clothwork] only discovered they had failed the tests when the command word was given for the them to shutdown permanently.

The [Sisters of Steel] were the polar opposite of that, with their jovial banter and a shared and open review of each bout that seemed to be focused on helping the loser improve rather than placing each failure on a scale that would eventually seal the loser’s doom.

Social failings weren’t an issue for [Clothwork] since they were built to work in whatever groups the Consortium saw fit to assign them to. Another solider was always welcome, where Tessa’s experience with groups had been far less welcoming at pretty much every stage of her life.

In Tessa’s world, it felt like, if they weren’t ostracizing her or belittling her then people were looking to take advantage of her, usually for things she was too naive to know to look out for.

But Sister Cayman didn’t seem to be like that. And neither did Mother Graymourn, or Sister Acroghast. The nuns in general seemed to just be interested in having fun. Tessa could see it in Sister Cayman’s smile and the easy, eager way she walked down the plank. 

She wasn’t holding back, when they fought, Cayman was fighting to win. She respected Tessa’s skill, even if it was less than her own, and as a result she was using their battles as a chance to solidify the basics, which was something Pillowcase knew even the most advanced fighters needed to work on pretty much constantly.

Did Cayman have special moves that would have completely overwhelmed Tessa? Probably. 

Was she trying to humiliate Tessa and demonstrate much more powerful than Tessa she was? Absolutely not. 

This was training. It wasn’t about being perfect, or being able to dominate everyone else. It was about learning.

Tessa smiled back at last.

She didn’t have to be perfect. She didn’t have to win. All she needed to do was understand. 

She might not get even a single hit better than she was in this session, but that wouldn’t matter. She would carry everything she did, and everything Sister Cayman did, with her. She’d turn each blow, each block, and each fall over in her mind and draw out from them everything she could to make herself better and stronger.

But first, she had a fight to win.

More offense, she thought and Pillowcase breathed in bringing the world into focus.

Everything was now, and everything was here.

Cayman threw a triple thrust to start.

Same as their last fight.

Block.

Block.

Block and miss.

Hit to the head.

Dip and move into rising mace swing.

Miss.

Spear thrust to the left shoulder.

Off balance, but correct with a knee bend.

Use the bent knee. Surge forward. Offense. Shield bash.

Blocked by the spear.

Push through.

Cayman gave a step.

Overextended. Shift back. More offense. Mace swipe to the knee.

Blocked.

Hah. No surprise.

Spinning strike from the spear.

Very overbalanced.

Catch the spear with the shield and pull.

Cayman’s solid. Good for her. Also good for recovering balance.

Cayman kicked high. Shield caught part of it. Armor soaked the rest.

Reply with a high swing. Ring her bell with the mace.

Nope. She is too damn fast.

No. Don’t try to match her.

Not fast. Ready for the mace.

Spear strike to the back of the right knee.

How?

No. Don’t ask. Just attack.

Kick the spear. Straight punch.

Connected! Right to the face!

Oops. Gah. Head butt. Not expected. Balance not great.

There goes a leg.

Drop? No! Jump!

That’s higher than…

Spear hit, right in the gut, right after reaching the top of the leap.

No balance. No leverage.

Going in the pool.

Land in a handstand on the plank.

How was that possible in armor? 

Do. Not. Think.

Spear right in the back.

Face down on the plank.

Flip backwards and up.

Balance restored. Ground lost.

Also the mace. Where? Bottom of the pool, probably.

Spear to the head? Nope, dodged.

Shield charge!

Blocked.

Cayman’s stronger. A lot stronger.

Fall back. Literally fall. Trying to slide between her legs and get passed her.

Nope. Plank’s too small. She stops that with a boot to the chest.

She jumps back.

Jump back too.

Lots of space. Good for a spear user. Bad for a mace and shield fighter who’s lacking a mace.

Cayman nods towards the pool. An invitation to jump in and save her the trouble?

Yeah, hell no.

Turn with empty left hand forward and give her the ‘Come get some’ gesture.

Cayman laughs.

Laugh with her. Can’t help it.

Spear strike.

Blocked.

Spear slam.

Interrupted with a shield charge.

Shield charge interrupted with shoulder strike.

Falling back from the shoulder strike.

Grab the haft of the spear.

Going off the plank. Taking Cayman too.

Splash.

Fight’s done.

Or…

Is it?

Cayman’s swimming back up to the plank.

She dropped her spear there.

But…

Wait…

Mother Graymourn said the winner was the first person to step onto the other team’s side.

She didn’t say the fight stopped when someone fell into the water.

Swim!

Not for the plank.

For the other side!

Tessa pulled herself up from the water on the opposite side of the pool to find Sister Cayman a foot behind her with the most amused expression on her face.

“That was really good!” she said. 

“Does this count?” Tessa asked. “It’s not cheating is it?”

“Of course it’s cheating!” Sister Acroghast said. “That’s exactly what I was hoping you’d learn here.”

“I believe what my second-in-command means to say is that, finding a path to victory outside of the constraints that seem to be imposed on you is the lesson she was most definitely failing to mentor you in, and congratulations on picking it up on your own,” Mother Graymourn said. “Also, no, it wasn’t cheating. I never said you couldn’t swim around your opponent.”

“Not a great plan in general, but you totally got me with it,” Sister Cayman said. “I thought you were just going to come up like the other times.”

“Then I believe you’ve learned a lesson too,” Mother Graymourn said. “Opponents don’t stop being opponents until the battle is completely done, and sometimes not even then.”

“Yep, and if I learn it another hundred times, maybe it’ll stick,” Sister Cayman said with a bashful smile.

“I’m grateful for all of this,” Tessa said. “This kind of experience is invaluable.”

“More than just experience,” Lisa said. “Check your xps.”

Tessa glanced at the head ups display for her own basic stats. She’d been so focused the display, the chat log, and everything else had faded away completely, so she’d missed a few important things.

[Soul Knight Level 20 Achieved!]

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 21

Walking the plank was not, generally, supposed to be a pleasant experience. The narrow beam under Pillowcase’s feet though felt as firm as a football field of solid bedrock. That was the good news. The bad news was that Sister Cayman looked to be as sturdy as solid bedrock too, and she was having just as little trouble navigating the beams over the pool.

“The rules are pretty simple,” Mother Graymourn said. “The first team to have someone set foot on the other side’s ground win. If you get knocked off into the water, try not to drown. If you get killed, try to float long enough for us to fetch your body out. And, as always, remember to have some fun. Begin!”

That was it. That was the extent of the coaching the [Sisters of Steel] offered for their sparring session. The only help beyond that was Sister Acroghast taking a spot on the easternmost of the plank, leaving the central and western planks for Pillowcase and Lost Alice to defend.

Sister Cayman was nice enough to introduce herself as she and Pillowcase stepped onto the opposite ends of the central planks, but once they were locked in battle, the time for casual banter was done.

The planks were about half as wide as Pillowcase’s shoulder. Plenty of room for her feet, but it did require that she take a fighting stance with her right foot well in front of her left and her body twisted to present the shield in her right hand forward. It was a solid defensive position but with her weapon arm shifted back, throwing viable blows with her the practice hammer they’d lent her was challenging.

Sister Cayman had either fought battles in this particular arena before, or lucked into a fortunate choice of weapons. Spears, it turned out, were ideal for situations where direct thrusts were difficult to avoid and the stepping inside the spear wielder’s reach wasn’t a particularly simple option.

“Don’t let her drive you back,” Sister Acroghast called out over the ringing blows from the two handed maul she was using.

Pillowcase had been giving ground each time Cayman doubled up on an attack. It was easy enough to block the spears initial thrust. That’s what shields were designed to do and they were good at it even in the hands of a relatively low level combatant like Pillowcase. An experienced spear user like Sister Cayman was familiar with that too, and had strategies to work around it. When her first strike missed, as it was all but guaranteed to, she was able to follow it up with a series of probing, short range, thrusts, each following a new path around the shield.

Tessa knew her armor was good enough to protect her from blows with the force Cayman was throwing. She also knew that a successful hit could not only knock her off her feet and into the pool below  but also create larger openings even in the case were the first wasn’t enough to get the job done.

So, when the spear thrusts began to overwhelm her, she’d given ground, spending distance to buy time. 

And it had worked. 

Sister Cayman was clearly higher level than Pillowcase. Tessa would have known that even if she was stuck with her regular human eyes. Being able to see the “30” for Cayman’s level made things such much simpler and Tessa once again found herself wondering if she could keep Pillowcase’s vision even after she switch back to her human body.

Contemplations like that earned her a smash to the side of the helmet. The blow tipped her center of gravity to the side, but Pillowcase’s well designed footwork was enough to keep her on the plank.

“Stop trying to not lose,” Sister Acroghast said.

Tessa wasn’t sure who that was direct at. Sister Acroghast was facing her opponent when she spoke, but the advice seemed generally applicable.

Not that it was practical advice. Or even necessarily good advice.

It had the benefit of being simple to follow – all Tessa needed to do was tumbe off the plank and she would definitely have stopped trying not to lose. Somehow though, she didn’t think that was what Sister Acroghast had in mind.

Sister Cayman took advantage of Tessa’s confusion to get in a solid shot below the shield, stabbing Pillowcase’s leg so hard, Tessa though it was going to tear off. 

It didn’t, but it did leave Pillowcase balancing on one leg for a moment while fought to regain her balance.

Lacking any better options against a vastly superior foe, Tessa tried to hurl herself forward with the thought that if she could carry Cayman off the plank with her, at least she’d be protecting their side from an attacker as best she could.

It was a good plan, a valiant one even.

It just wasn’t good enough.

Sister Cayman saw the Pillowcase coiling for the charge and chose that moment to step forward and strike with her weapon as though it were a staff. One quick high blow that connected with Pillowcase’s shield was followed by an even faster low sweep which took her legs out from under her.

And like that it was done.

Tessa felt herself splash into the cold water and heard the cheer go up from the other [Sisters of Steel] a moment later when Sister Cayman stepped off the plank.

It wasn’t embarrassing to have been knocked off her plank by a level 30 [Guardian]. The math for a matchup between almost any level 30 against almost any level 15 was clear and decisive, so there was no shame in defeat. If anything Tessa felt proud at having delayed Sister Cayman for as long as she did.

Or she would have if Lisa hadn’t still been standing on her plank when Sister Cayman helped Tessa climb out of the pool.

“Well done, well done!” Mother Mayhem said. “Evaluations? Anyone want to comment on what they saw?”

“I saw that I picked the wrong weapons for this,” Tessa said.

“Don’t blame the tools,” Sister Acroghast said.

Tessa wanted to object to that, but she considered how spectacularly ill suited a two handed maul Sister Acroghast had used was for the battle scenario before them. 

And yet Sister Acroghast had chosen it in place of a spear and a sword and shield she’d been offered.

It was a bad call, but Tessa had written it off as Sister Acroghast trying to level the playing field a bit, since she outleveled Sister Cayman and the other junior members of the [Sisters of Steel] by more than Cayman outleveled Pillowcase.

Maybe it was more than that though?

“Pillowcase’s footwork was limited. I would guess this is the first plank battle she’s fought?” Sister Cayman said. “Also from the stance she took, she is probably used to having strikers gathered behind her.”

“Bah, that’s too easy to guess,” Sister Grigrin said. “She’s an [Adventurer]. Of course she hasn’t fought like this before and, wow, how shocking that she’s used to having other people handling the striker role for her.”

“Let’s give Sister Cayman a chance to speak,” Mother Graymourn said. “What was it about her footwork that led to your conclusions Sister?”

Tessa felt both mortified and fascinated by the discussion. Listening to people pick apart her incompetency in exacting detail was pure nightmare fodder, but, the conversation was so practical and analytical that Tessa was almost able to avoid taking it personally.

“Certainly Mother,” Cayman said. “When we started she squared off in a standard defensive stance. As we began our exchange though she stayed in the same stance, only retreating to buy distance as I pressed her.”

“Isn’t that reasonable?” Mother Graymourn asked, the question existing only to be refuted. “The plank limits movement. Keeping a solid base and maintaining her focus on defense against a superior foe are sound tactics, no?”

Phrased like that Tessa’s choices seemed reasonable, but the phrasing was a trap.

“Not in this scenario,” Cayman said. “Her stance was acceptable for balance, but removed her offensive options. Retreating as she did would have bought time for strikers to do their work, but with no backup and no offense, she would have inevitably been forced off the plank.”

“One she was backed onto solid ground, wouldn’t she have been at an advantage though?” Mother Graymourn asked.

“Her position would have improved, but the same move that took her off the beam would have let me claim a spot on their side,” Cayman said.

Tessa was able to picture that all too easily. Landing on solid ground would have been less of a fall but even more embarrassing. Falling into the water had looked like Sister Cayman got in a lucky shot. Falling when Pillowcase had plenty of support under her feet would have made it crystal clear that she was unable to hold Sister Cayman back in the slightest.

“What would have been a workable strategy then?” Mother asked, a pleased expression suggesting that she found Cayman’s analysis acceptable so far.

“With a shield forward stance, she could have pressed for a grapple, moving forward and claiming space with the shield rather than surrendering it,” Cayman said. “If that didn’t work, she could have used a pivoting backstep to reset our positions and switch to an offensive stance before using the impact force of her mace to destabilize my balance.”

“That would have left her open to your strikes though,” Mother Graymourn said.

“She possesses a good enough strength to body mass ratio to make avoidance a viable technique,” Cayman said. “Alternatively, her coordination rating is high enough that she could have relied on soaking the blows with her armor and compensating for the impact with body control.”

“Soaking the blows from a level 30 [Guardian]?” Mother Graymourn asked.

“Well, I wasn’t hitting that hard,” Cayman said, looking somewhat abashed to have missed a point in her otherwise solid case.

“Well, what do think Pillowcase?” Mother Graymourn asked. “What did Sister Cayman miss?”

“Not much,” Tessa said. “She’s right that I’m not used to fighting like this. I was designed for fighting with a full squad of other soldiers. Usually with a specific objective in mind, and usually against inferior foes. Bodies like this are costly to make so we don’t get thrown away casually. Not usually at least.”

“Think you can do better next time?” Mother Graymourn asked.

“I can try,” Tessa said. Pillowcase was used to training, but Tessa’s nerves still hummed with anxious energy.

“Good,” Mother Graymourn said. “Let’s get setup again then. I want everyone to watch Pillowcase this time. Check her footwork. Check her balance. She’ll try the suggestions Sister Cayman made. But Sister Cayman knows that. Be ready to make some new ones for the next round.”

Tessa was surprised that the other nuns were okay with giving her another turn. She’d guessed that she would need to wait for all of them to have a chance to cycle through, but it seemed like they were all more than happy to watch her step up for another dunking.

“You going to be okay?” Lisa asked on their private channel.

“The only thing that holds a bruise is my ego,” Tessa said. “I mean, I shouldn’t be surprised I’m losing to a level 30, but it’d be nice not to suck quite so badly.”

“That’s what training’s for,” Lisa said.

“I’ll try to remember that as I head into the water this time,” Lisa said.

“Nope. No negative thoughts. If you get knocked off, you get knocked off. Don’t plan for losing,” Lisa said.

“Just being realistic,” Tessa said.

“Don’t be. I know the game was basically a big math puzzle, but this feels a lot more like a real competition,” Lisa said.

“What’s the difference? Aside from the obvious lack of numbers I mean.” 

“In a real competition, mind set matters. A lot,” Lisa said. “And in training it matters more. This is brand new, so processing what’s going on is hard. Hard, but not impossible. You can get a jump on it by visualize how you’re going to win. You need to reach for that and fight for it, and then, however it turns out, evaluate what happened so you be aware of what’s happening more easily next time.”

“That sounds like iterating on a section of code,” Tessa said. “I can do this!”

Broken Horizons – Vol 8, Ch 20

If Tessa had felt superhuman before, Pillowcase’s body left her feeling godlike.

“There’s literally no effort to this,” she said, lifting her chin to the makeshift pull up bar Lisa had arranged. “Can we try making this harder?”

Tessa took a half moment on hearing her own words to shake her head in wonder. It wasn’t that surprising though. If workouts had ever been this easy, she wouldn’t have hated them with the passion of a thousand burning suns. 

Or may that was just the trauma of her Phys Ed courses speaking.

Considering it honestly, she probably wouldn’t have spent a lot of time on workouts if she had a body like Pillowcase’s because what would be the point? For a person made of cloth, getting ‘ripped’ was generally a bad thing. 

Plus it wasn’t workouts that increased her strength. 

“Hmm, you’re level 15 now and probably at least three times stronger than you were as a [Void Speaker]? Maybe more since [Soul Knight’s] are a melee class?” Lisa wasn’t really speaking to either Tessa or Sister Acroghast. She was lost in an analytical trance that Tessa had seen (and experienced) several times when a programmer was working on a complicated bit of code. 

It was neat to see that physical therapists could get into a similar headspace. 

Or maybe that was just Lisa.

“Climb on,” Tessa said.

“Uh, what?” Lisa asked, shaking her head free from her thoughts.

“I want to see if this will get any harder,” Tessa said. “Climb on my shoulders and we’ll see if I can do these with both our weights. It’s that or Sister Acroghast can help me out. That platemail looks nice and heavy after all.”

Lisa rolled her eyes at the suggestion that she’d allowed the armor clad nun to glom onto her girlfriend.

“Stop if it feels at all painful,” Lisa said, putting her arms around Pillowcase’s neck. “We don’t need to pulling a muscle. Or tearing your stuffing or whatever [Clothwork] do.”

Lost Alice’s added weight was noticeable, though not enough to make Tessa feel like she needed to stop. She knew she was somewhere over two hundred pull-ups and felt like she could do another two hundred easily.

“You’ll need some proper equipment if you want to do any real training,” Sister Acroghast said. “We’ve got some that should be fine for a level 15 melee fighter, but I know most of you [Adventurers] prefer to build yourselves up following your own paths.”

“This isn’t so bad,” Tessa said, referring only in theory to the physical exercise. The fact that a loving [Vampire] lady was literally hanging on her arm was rather more central to her thoughts.

“You’re not getting tired?” Lisa asked.

“I don’t think I ever could,” Tessa said. She wasn’t great at flirting. She knew that. And it was sort of unnecessary with a girl she was already with, but that was also when she felt the most comfortable trying it.

Sadly, Lisa’s response to it was to hop off Tessa’s back, and gesture of Tessa to stop, which Tessa did somewhat grudgingly. She’d never had much physical strength before and getting to revel in it was too glorious an opportunity to pass up.

“Then I think we’ve run as much the test as we need to,” she said. “Thank you for indulging us Sister.”

“It’s been fascinating,” Sister Acroghast said. “We don’t normally see people come in and change their entire species. Not to mention that I haven’t seen any [Clothworks] up till now. She seem to be quite well made.”

“For all their faults, the Consortium does demand quality in their elite troops,” Tessa said.

“It’s surprising they tossed you away so easily?” Sister Acroghast.

“The commander of the mission wasn’t exactly talented,” Tessa said. “His replacement managed to almost overwhelm the world in about a day rather than losing spectacularly in a single great big battle where they had the element of surprise and the option of orbital bombardment to support their effort.”

“But from the reports we’ve heard, those victories seem to have been overturned as well,” Sister Acroghast said.

“We heard about that too,” Lisa said. “Apparently there’s dissension in the ranks over a change in leadership.”

“Now that you mention it, that strikes me as weird too,” Tessa said. “They had magical mind shackles on us when I fought. It was why all of us fought at all in fact. The Consortium is very aware that people do not like following their orders, and they’ve had a long time to work out measures to ensure disobedience doesn’t affect their bottom line.”

“Perhaps some of the troops they brought aren’t under magical compulsions?” Sister Acroghast asked.

“It is a lot more troops than they used the first time,” Lisa said.

“In theory that shouldn’t matter,” Tessa said. “The protocols were clear that all troops were expected to show unquestioning obedience and the only ones who weren’t subject to a magical compulsion to ensure it were the ones with a long history of willing compliance.”

“So all of their armies are magical slaves?” Sister Acroghast asked.

“Not all, but a large portion,” Tessa said. “It’s horrifying beyond words, but there’s other things they do that are so much worse the plight of their troops tends to be forgotten.”

“We’re not going to forget it,” Lisa said, her hand on Tessa’s arm easing tension Tessa hadn’t noticed she was carrying.

She thought of the other [Clothwork] soldiers she’d served with as Pillowcase. The memories were so different from the ones she held as Tessa but the longer she was in Pillowcase’s body the more vivid they were in her mind’s eyes.

“I’m hoping we don’t have to see them any time soon,” Tessa said, images of what a fully equipped squad of the Consortium’s elites could do if they were set loose in [Dragonshire] painting nightmare scene after nightmare scene across the landscape of her imagination.

“Well, if you do, you’ll want to ready for them,” Sister Acroghast said.

“It’s going to take a long time for that to be true,” Tessa said. “The Consortiums elites can go toe-to-toe with the highest level [Adventurers] out there.”

“Which is why you don’t fight them toe-to-toe,” Sister Acroghast said. “Come along to the afternoon sparring session and I’ll show you what I mean.”

“Seems like an odd place to learn how not to fight, but I’m game,” Lisa said.

Tessa shot her a quizzical expression.

“What? I’m not melee fighting class. Seeing how to win a fight without needing to stab someone myself seems like a great idea to me,” Lisa said.

Tessa had to concede the argument made sense, so she followed Sister Acroghast back down to the corridor to the [Chapel’s] central room.

The wooden poles which had simulated a dense section of forest had been cleared away. In their place three long beams of thick wood were suspended over a pool of murky grey water.

“That wasn’t there before was it?” Tessa asked. 

On the far side of the room the [Sisters of Steel] were emerging from the residence wing on the far side of the pool and collecting the practice weapons they’d left in the racks there.

Bubbles in the pool gave the water the appearance of boiling stew broth but Tessa didn’t feel any heat radiating from it.

“It’s part of the magic of the chapel,” Sister Acroghast said. “The central chamber here is built from [Malleable Space]. It can be whatever the [Master of the Keys] wishes it to be. Within reason of course.”

“There’s a monster in there.” Pillowcase’s guess was more than a passing through. Threat evaluation was one of a tank’s primary duties, and she’d been given plenty of training across a wide variety of potential battlefields to teach her what to watch out for.

“More the simulacrum of one, and not a particularly dangerous one at that,” Sister Acroghast said. “This is meant to be training after all.”

“Training for what though?” Lisa asked.

Sister Acroghast cast a quick wave to Mother Graymourn who was helping one of the other nuns put on a gorget. Mother Graymourn nodded and gathered up a box full of armor before walking blithely over the middle plank of wood. That she did so without looking down, or slowing her pace noticeably told Pillowcase all she needed to know about how familiar the senior nuns were with this practice arena. 

“What happened to the other one and who’s this?” Mother Graymourn asked, nodding towards Tessa as though she were a newcomer.

Which she supposed she was.

“We’ve met already. I’m Pillowcase, this time in Pillowcase’s body,” Tessa said. “This is what we wanted to see the [Heart Fire] about. Or one of the things.”

Mother Graymourn blinked in surprise, cocked her head to get a different look at Tessa, and then shrugged her shoulders.

“It’s good look, but can those arms hold a sword?” she asked.

“Give me one and we’ll find out,” Pillowcase said. 

Tessa wasn’t that cocky. 

Except for all the times when she was playing and she felt like she was at the top of her game.

Of course with Pillowcase’s eyes, she knew she had to be a little careful.

[Dragonshire] was a level 30 town for the most part according to Tessa’s research on the beta. There were quests and challenges which would take a character to higher levels – up to 50 if they were willing to tackle the full extent of the local dungeon and grind for a while – but most of the town’s folks were either noncombatants or topped out around level 30 so that the [Adventurers] could grow beyond them.

Sister Acroghast however was level 55, and Mother Graymourn was level 60. Not near the level cap but both eminently capable of wiping the floors, the walls, and most of the ceiling with a level 15 [Soul Knight].

Not that they would in a sparring match.

Probably.

Generally, after the first couple of expansions, [Broken Horizons] hadn’t forced the players to waste time on battles that were scripted to be unwinnable or set against impossible foes. When the storyline called for a thing like that to occur, the game would insert a cutscene instead, so the player could at least watch a nicely rendered movie of their character receiving a colossal butt kicking.

Tessa hoped she wasn’t stepping into one of those.

Pillowcase found she kind of didn’t care.

“Is that for me?” Pillowcase asked, gesturing to the box full of armor.

“Yeah, but it looks like you’ve got your own,” Mother Graymourn said. “Does that have any [Retribution] style enchantments on it?”

“Not yet,” Pillowcase said. “If there’s anyone in town who could put one of those on though, I’d love to meet them.”

The popularity among tanks of an enchantment which damage anyone who damaged you with a melee attack wasn’t hard to explain. At low levels though the availability of magic like that was extremely limited.

“Can you swim in it?” Mother Graymourn asked.

“It wouldn’t be my first choice,” Pillowcase said. “I could probably manage long enough to climb out of that pool though.”

“And you know where the [Heart Fire] is, obviously, I think that’s all we need right?” Mother Graymourn asked, glancing over to Sister Acroghast.

“We should probably fill them in on the rules for this type of sparring,” Sister Acroghast said. “And Lost Alice will need some armor as well I believe?”

“I’m good with my own stuff too,” Lisa said. “These robes have their own enchantments, and I’ll need to learn to compensate for them being weaker than the metal stuff you all wear.”

Tessa was about to protest that Lisa should be able to stand safely behind Pillowcase, but stopped herself.

They’d already seen multiple scenarios where Pillowcase wasn’t able to keep Lost Alice free from harm. Pillowcase would always want to protect Lost Alice, but Tessa didn’t need Lisa to be helpless and dependent on her. 

In her heart, Tessa wanted Lisa to be as amazing as she could be, wanted to always hold her up and never hold her back, and it was the tiny seed of faith that no matter how far Lisa went, and how little she needed Tessa, she’d still choose her, still want her for who she was right now, just as she was, that promised to bloom into the love Tessa had spent her whole life longing for.