Category Archives: Broken Horizons

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

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 9

Tension. Pillowcase felt it resonating inside her like a harp string being strummed by a buzzsaw.

“They haven’t seen us yet,” Rip whispered. 

Pillowcase grinned. The whisper was silly. They were speaking telepathically. The [Soul Blights] weren’t going to overhear them no matter how “loudly” they spoke.

“Call when in position,” she said. Maneuvering took care. The three monsters had healed back up to pristine shape, but they were still on the alert. Fortunately the team’s plans had been right.

The [Soul Blights] weren’t sapient. They didn’t think, or plan. Not at the level a human did at any rate.

Tessa snorted. Thinking like a human wasn’t setting a high bar given some of the people she’d met.

That didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous though. The treatise she’d been encoded with gave her a detailed breakdown of their capacities and manufacture.

Their manufacture? Wait, what? Tessa paused behind one of the half height pillars which dotted the chamber where the [Soul Blights] prowled. Rip and Matt were still moving. 

She could stop them. 

Share what she knew with the rest of the team and allow them to digest it.

But how the hell do I know that the [Soul Blights] are manufactured? She didn’t have a good answer for herself. Or for the question, why did I only remember that now?

She could see the datasheet being spun into a thread of crystal and light. She could feel it being woven into her head. Far before she was even fully conscious.

Seriously, what the hell is this?

Pillowcase shook her head. 

Now was not the time to be lost in memory.

Are they even real? Tessa wanted to know. Probably. She probably wanted to know? Or not. Whatever was rattling around in her head, it felt like it went beyond simple imagination and the possibilities there were terrifying the more she looked at them.

“We’re set,” Matt said.

Pillowcase couldn’t see them from her vantage point. That was fine. She knew where they would be. She knew what she had to do.

“I have the shot lined up,” Rip said. “Waiting to see if they separate like you said.”

“They will,” Alice said. “They’re not roaming in sync.”

“Call a warning if they spot you,” Pillowcase said.

It would take between twenty seconds and three minutes for the [Soul Blights’] attention to diverge to the point where Rip could safely try to pull them. Pillowcase…

No. Tessa.

Tessa could use that time to put her head together.

How am I remembering Pillowcase’s life? How am I remembering things she can’t possibly remember?

Memory was information. Pillowcase had been made with all requisite information included. Every fact and thought had been carefully stitched in.

Why would anyone stitch in memories of memories being stitched into your head though? How would that help you be a better [Soul Knight]?

Pillowcase…

Pillowcase didn’t have an answer for that.

“None of them are looking at the others,” Rip said. “I’m taking the shot.”

There was no skill invocation, or spell casting. The idea with pulling was to draw the attention of all the target you wished to fight, so the shot from Rip’s bow came down to purely her skill. 

Pillowcase waited, her fingers leaving dents on the sword handle, as the first of the [Soul Blights] screamed and thundered towards Rip’s position.

“The others are alerted too,” Alice called. “They’re searching for attackers.”

Not a perfect result, but likely the best pull available given the [Soul Blights] status as an integrated combat unit.

These things were made to fight together? Are you kidding me? Why didn’t you share this earlier?

Pillowcase discarded the question.

The [Soul Blight] rambled by on the other side of the pillar and she sprang out, plunging her sword into its unprotected flank.

A solid hit. 

Good provoke effect.

The [Soul Blight] checked its charge and swung its momentum into a slashing strike Pillowcase caught on her shield. 

On its own, the strike could have punctured better steel than cheap metal Pillowcase’s shield was crafted from. At least on a direct hit. 

Deflecting the [Soul Blight’s] claw only required catching it at the right angle though, and recoiling for a fraction of a second to spread the force of the impact out.

Pillowcase stabbed the [Soul Blight] again, and felt the familiar glee of battle rising inside.

Chill, Tess said and brought the sword out to parry the attack from the other claw she was exposed to.

Pillowcase stepped back to buy a fraction of a second of breathing room and cast an evaluating glance at the other two [Soul Blights].

They were going to join the fight shortly. For the moment, they were stationary, probably expecting another attack from the other party.

“Pour it on,” Pillowcase said. They had a short time window where the only adversary they had to worry about was the one she had under control. 

“[Charged Shot!]

“[Casting Spell: Lesser Torment]”

Rip and Matt joined the fray in ernest and Pillowcase smiled. They’d waited for her to secure the [Soul Blights] attention. That was to be expected of Matt Painting. He was a Metal Mechanoid, an construct like her, but Rip was a native of this world. Her discipline was exceptional according to the data the [Consortium of Pain] had supplied.

You’re waking up, aren’t you?

Fight. Focus.

Tessa parried another claw strike and felt the impact ring through her arm. If it had been her human arm she guessed she would have fractured her wrist but Clothworks were made just a bit sturdier than that.

Without thinking, she swept her shield out, catching the other claw and clearing it away so they she could slash the head atop the worm body as it drew in a fiery breath.

No. Not you. Me. I’m waking up.

FOCUS!

Pillowcase launched herself backwards, avoiding the sputtering stream of fire from the [Soul Blight’s] interrupted breath attack.

As she rose she saw a twitch in the [Soul Blight’s] legs that she recognized.

The plan was that she would swivel around and block for the party but in the moment she was struck with a better idea.

Stepping forward, Pillowcase pulled her shield in close and thrust her sword up through head which was about to spew fire on her team.

The blade passed point first through the underside creature’s jaw and exited out the top of its mostly vestigial head.

The handle grew warm to her touch as the fire the [Soul Blight] attempt to spit out was trapped inside its mouth.

A design weakness. 

The creatures relied on magic to provide the ingredients but the fire was mostly a mundane chemical reaction from combining two reactive substances.

The [Soul Blight] tried to scream as it burned from within, but Pillowcase’s sword held its mouth pinned shut.

As the flames spread within the creature, Pillowcase saw the tendrils of Matt’s spell, [Lesser Torment] weaving around the destruction and encouraging its growth. In theory, the damage was illusionary but the illusions which could cause unavoidable, debilitating pain, seemed real enough to Pillowcase.

The [Soul Blight] was eventually saved from additional burning pain when its head simply exploded. Pillowcase wasn’t fooled that an injury like that was a serious one though. She’d seen Starchild literally smash a [Soul Blight] head like an overripe melon. The creature’s cognitive function, what feeble ones which existed, were distributed throughout its body and were largely tied up in its Fight or FIGHT response.

She parried and blocked another set of blows, as the other two [Soul Blights] finally turned to join the fray. They scuttled in, heading towards Pillowcase, who had made sure to stay directly in their line of sight.

That wasn’t sure enough though.

“[Casting Spell: Lesser Spirit Drain].” She centered the spell on the nearest [Soul Blight], confident that it would catch them both.

“Mark Prime!” she called, indicating the damaged monster. “Focus this one down. I’ve got the other two.”

“And I’ve got you,” Alice said. 

Tessa felt a distant pain as the undirected flames from the damaged [Soul Blight] splatted her. Alice let a bit of damage accumulate before she cast her healing spells, leaving room for Pillowcase’s own healing abilities to restore her and cement the monster’s attention where it belonged.

Fighting three of the aberrations at once felt glorious once again. As the battle joy rose though it met with a wave calm detachment.

Yes, this was where she belonged.

A battle like this was what she had been designed for. It was her original purpose. Why she had been given form and substance.

But none of that mattered.

Pillowcase, or Tessa, or whoever or whatever she was, her purpose wasn’t what someone else said.

She felt exhilaration at strength she’d never had before.

She felt pride at being able to protect people who were kind to her.

It was even pretty nice to hurt the damn things that had hurt and killed her once already. That wasn’t a great thing. It felt dark, and mean, and crueler than she probably should be. 

But it was her. 

I’m not perfect. Maybe I’m a little evil for enjoying killing these things. Right now though, maybe that’s what I need to be.

Surviving the attacks from all three of the monsters at once seemed to drive that assertion home. 

Everywhere was claws and flame. There was no possibility of blocking or parrying all of them at once. So Pillowcase did what she did best and simply tanked the pain and injuries.

“[Minor Light Stealing]”

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain]”

“[Heart Killer Curse]”

She cast her spells and invoked her abilities over and over allowing the [Minor Life Stealing] to draw a steady stream of regeneration from her foes, while the [Lesser Spirit Drain] stole a bit more and slowed the [Soul Blights], and the [Heart Killer Curse] damaged them and healed her slightly every time their attacks penetrated her defenses. 

It wasn’t easy, or pleasant, but after a few minutes of juggling maintaining the [Soul Blights] attention on her with her need to heal and cast, Pillowcase knew Tessa had been right.

They could handle this fight.

“The first one’s almost down,” Alice said. “Be ready for the other two to enter a rage mode.”

Pillowcase braced herself. She’d lost track of the [Soul Blight’s] health. It was hard to believe they were about to defeat one of the monsters that had repeatedly killed a much bigger party.

Well, maybe not that hard to believe. Tessa didn’t voice that thought to anyone else. Pete’s party had been through enough. They didn’t need anyone kicking them while they down.

Even if they were weak sauce compared to her team.

“[Multi-Burst!] [Charged Shot!]” Rip’s barrage landed like the hammer of a god on the damage [Soul Blight] and blasted it to pieces across the room.

Three cheers for magic clothes, Tessa thought, glad she wasn’t going to have to wipe a ton of gore off after the fight.

“Good shot! Now watch the others,” Alice said.

Pillowcase did more than watch though. She charged in close to hit once with a sword strike and the other with a shield bash. 

Whatever ridiculous, cheater move they were going to pull, she was not letting them get away from her.

She had them both well under control.

So of course the one that was defeated rose from the dead.

Fully restored to life.

“Are you kidding me!” Pillowcase wasn’t sure who screamed that, but was willing to put reasonable money on it being herself.

“How is it back?” Matt asked. “We just spend five minutes beating every bit of life out of it!”

“[Charge Shot]” Rip said. “Damn it’s not ready yet. Die you jerk. Freaking die!”

“These things can’t be immortal,” Alice said. “That’s ridiculous. Even the damn gods aren’t immortal in this world.”

“If this was still a game, I’d say it was a glitch,” Tessa said.

“A glitch or…oh crap,” Alice said.

“What?” Matt asked.

“It’s not a glitch,” Tessa said, arriving at the same conclusion Alice had. In hindsight it was obvious.  “It’s a mechanic. We’re not supposed to fight these things head on like this. There’s a trick we’re supposed to be using.”

“What’s the trick?” Rip yelled.

“I don’t know,” Alice said. “There’s nothing in here that we can manipulate is there?”

Tessa’s mind raced as Pillowcase redoubled her defense.

The room wasn’t empty, but there were no clear environmental hazards to use – no lava to lure the [Soul Blights] into for example.

No special enchantments in play either. Nothing that could be boosting the monsters and nothing she could see that would be able to depower them.

None of the things in the room looked like they would help at all.

They were doomed. They couldn’t win the fight.

Unless what we need isn’t in this room! 

“Alice! Get Starchild on the line! Ask them if the critters they fought on the way in had any special drops!”

Tessa’s spirit soared.

She was not going to lose.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 8

When faced with the unknown there is one decision which reasonable people should almost always make.

“Let’s leave too,” Alice said, when Tessa relayed the information Peter had provided about the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave].

Tessa couldn’t fault her. When they’d chosen to try for a dungeon, it had been with the idea that a dungeon near [Sky’s Edge] would be appropriate for characters of their low level. For that to be the case though, the dungeon needed to be one which was artificially created to be manageable for low level adventurers. The [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] was no such creation according to the players who had a line to the beta testers, and that made it both an unknown quantity and eminently sensible to flee from as quickly as possible.

“Leaving makes sense to me,” Matt said. “I mean, we can search for the dungeon entrance that Aie and Zibby found instead right? That dungeon was supposed to be a lot easier, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” Tessa said, “Going there and grinding on the mobs would be simpler and safer.”

She couldn’t deny the reasoning she was coming up with. She had died fighting the creatures that waited deeper in, and they were, usually, the weakest ones you’d find in a dungeon. Pressing forward again expecting things to turn out differently was almost the definition of insanity.

“You want to give this one another try though, don’t you?” Alice asked.

Tessa sighed.

“Yeah. I do.”

“There’s better treasure in here than outside isn’t there?” Rip asked.

“There should be,” Tessa agreed. “But that’s not why I think we should try again. If we chase after the ‘Best Loot’, we’re going to convince ourselves to charge into places we should never go. Being too greedy can and will get you hurt. Badly.”

“Why risk this place then?” Rip asked.

Tessa paused and searched for her real reason.

“I think we can handle it,” Tessa said finding certainty in her words with each one she spoke. “At least the [Soul Blights]. And if we can beat them, we can push on and see what else we can handle in here.”

“You don’t like to lose, do you?” Alice asked, tiny crinkles of amusement at the corners of her eyes.

“There’s that,” Tessa admitted. She hated seeing parties give up on an objective, though she’d often been the one to encourage them to when she saw that they didn’t have the right makeup. 

This time felt different though. Their team wasn’t a perfect mix. They had the general bases covered but at four members they had open team slots for four more players, and the missing strength there wasn’t going to do them any favors in a tough battle.

But a successful team wasn’t necessarily a question of numbers. There had been people who’d soloed the most difficult content in the game, and small raid groups who’d done things no other group had managed. Who the people were mattered more than how many of them were present. At least sometimes.

“I think we need this,” Tessa said. 

“The win?” Alice asked with a look that was caught between curiosity and teasing.

“The experience,” Tessa said. 

“Are the [Soul Blights] worth that much?” Matt asked.

“Not really,” Alice said.

“She’s right. We’d be better off grinding up the centipedes if we wanted to level quickly,” Tessa said. “I mean the real experience of working as a team.”

“Go on,” Alice said, curiosity melting into intrigue.

Tessa took a breath and thought back to her time playing as Glimmerglass. Knowing what she wanted and putting into words why she wanted it were far from the same thing, but she decided to stumble through it as best she could.

“One thing that always seemed to distinguish the best groups from the rest was that they wanted to be the best. Not the best in the world necessarily, but the best they could be.” It felt like she was stating the obvious but the others seemed to with her, so she continued. “Back when I was playing originally, the only thing a lot of groups wanted was to clear a dungeon, or beat a raid boss, or earn a piece of loot, using the easiest tactics they could find.”

“That’s still pretty common,” Alice said. “Even AoL, my guild, tends to follow whatever strategy the top end guilds come up with for raids.”

“I can understand that,” Tessa said. “You were playing the game for fun. Going the easy route means more good stuff with less headaches.”

“That sounds kind of appealing,” Matt said.

“It is,” Tessa said. “But we’re not in a game anymore. This dungeon is proof of that. There aren’t always going to be strategies in place that we can follow. If we want to survive here, we’re going to have to be the ones who create those strategies for ourselves. Or we can wait and hope that other players take pity on us.”

“Yeah, that idea sucks,” Rip said.

“For the record, I don’t disagree,” Alice said, “but didn’t you say Pete was going to make up a community map so that everyone could share their information? Are you planning to trust the other players or are you working under the assumption that they’re basically scum?”

“Both?” Tessa said. “Sort of.”

She caught Alice’s eye roll and continued to explain her reasoning.

“People can be incredible in a crisis, and this definitely qualifies as a crisis, but relying on everyone working in the common interest is foolish if we’re not willing to pull whatever weight we can,” she said. “I’m happy to share any information we find. I think having all of us at max level might give us the best chance at whatever challenges the [Fallen Kingdoms] throw at us. Part of my concern though is that if we rely on other people to tackle the difficult stuff first, we’re allowing them to be the gate keepers as to whether information about hard challenges gets out or not. Maybe it’s selfish, but I’d rather be the one making that call.”

“Ok, and the rest of your concern is?” Alice asked. “You said the gatekeeping was only part of it.”

“Oh, right, that’s more personal I guess,” Tessa said. “It’s just…this matters. What we’re doing now? This isn’t like anything in our world. At my job, I can put in all the overtime I want. I can write the best code in the world. All the extra effort though? It doesn’t matter. The best I can do is avoid getting in trouble for being late, but even that’s not guaranteed. Here though? We’re in charge of ourselves here. What we do, how much we put into this, how hard we try? All that has a payoff.”

She glanced over at Rip and Matt, wondering if they could understand how soul crushing the adult world could be. Even if their experiences were different though, they two seemed to appreciate what she was saying.”

“We could choose to take it easy. We could let someone else solve this problem. And the next one. And the one after that. And maybe that’s the right answer. I don’t know. I just don’t think that’s what I want to be. I’ve tried it. I’ve lived it. And it sucks.”

“And if we can’t beat the [Soul Blights]? Or if the next thing in the dungeon is some level 99 nightmare beast?” Alice asked, her eyes searching for answers in Tessa’s.

“If we can’t win, then we can’t win. And that’s fine. If the next chamber past these guys has sixteen [Elder Dragons] in it, then hell yeah we book it out of there. That’s not giving up, that’s being realistic. It’s like the difference between a high jumper putting the bar another inch past where their best position, vs putting it up in orbit. I think the [Soul Blights] are something we can handle. They feel realistic if we push ourselves and learn from them. That’s why I want to continue on.”

“I agree,” Alice said. “I want to hear what Rip and Matt think though. We had a setback against the [Chaos Centipedes] but this is different. This place might be way too much for us. I think we’re taking a real risk here too, since the deeper in we go, the less we can trust that something’s not going to come along and switch the [Heart Fire] back so we can’t use it.”

“Can that happen?” Matt asked.

“Not in the game, but like Pillowcase said, this place isn’t playing by the game’s rules anymore,” Alice said.

“I still want to go forward,” Rip said. “I think we can do it too.”

“And if we can’t?” Alice asked.

“If we can’t then we come up with a new plan,” Rip said. “We try somewhere we can handle. Or we go back to town and find more people. Or whatever.”

“I like what Pillowcase said too.” Matt looked away as he said it, too embarrassed to make eye contact. “I think we can be good like you said. And I like that we could be the ones to make sure people are helped out by what we learn.”

“Seems like the the yes votes have decided it,” Alice said.

“This isn’t a voting thing,” Tessa said, reaching out but stopping short of taking Alice’s arm. “I don’t want to drag any of you into something you don’t want.”

“Except you’re not dragging me, and I never said my vote wasn’t yes too.” Alice offered Tessa a smile. “I think you’re right about our skill being important. And our mindset. All of the levels and gear in the world don’t matter if you’re not able to use them. I feel clumsy with Alice here. She’s so different from my main character, but that’s no excuse to suck with her.”

“Even though she’s a vampire?” Tessa asked and regretted the pun as the words left her mouth. They did earn her another eye roll though, so her regret was limited.

“Don’t remind me how hungry I am,” Alice said, flashing her fangs.

As weapons of terror went, they were a bit too tiny to be properly menacing. ‘Cute’ was the word that came to Tessa’s mind, which might have horrified the developer responsible for designing them, but she was going to stick with it.

“So, what do we do?” Rip asked. “I mean, how do we fight those things?”

“We’re not just going to run in there right?” Matt asked. “I mean that didn’t seem to work too well for that other party.”

Pete’s party had left arguing bitterly as Tessa had predicted. She’d been pleased to see that Pete was trying to be a moderating influence and had shutdown some of the worst of the bickering. Or maybe Starchild, his character, had? When she had some time to kill, Tessa want to follow up on that. Even within her own party, she saw people having different experiences with who their characters were. She could only imagine what the full range of possibilities might be.

“Running in is a definite no,” Alice said. “At least for now. I’m willing to bet there’s a strategy where we could make that work, but mindless aggression is not how you ‘git gud’.”

“We’re better off seeing if we can make a pull work,” Tessa said. “Sometimes monsters will alert each other when they sense an enemy, but the [Soul Blights] seem like they mind be a bit more bestial than that.”

“Maybe,” Alice said. “They are grouped together though. If they were loners by nature, we probably wouldn’t be facing three of them.”

“True. So decent chance the pull doesn’t bring just one of them?” Tessa said. “I’ll have to be ready for that.”

“What’s a pull?” Rip asked.

“Basically what it sounds like,” Tessa said. “Rather than running in to fight the monsters, we pull them over to fight us. In the right situation, you can pull them one at a time and have a bunch of easier fights than one much harder one.”

“Aren’t we looking for harder though?” Matt asked.

“We don’t need the fights to be hard, just the challenges we chose to tackle,” Tessa said. “Pulling is a tool in our kit, and being good at it can make all the difference sometimes.”

“How do we do it?” Rip asked.

“Well, basically, you get to be the star of this show,” Alice said.

Tessa watch the smile of delight break across Rip’s face as Alice explained what they needed her to do. 

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 7

They were in the wrong dungeon.

“So, according to Zibby, this place isn’t anything like that dungeon they ran through?” Tessa asked.

“Yeah,” Alice said with a sigh of vexation. “It sounds like we went in the wrong cave.”

“How many dungeons are there around here?” Matt asked.

They were assembled around the [Heart Fire], having respawned there rather than risk rising again on an active battle field. From the steady stream of people in the other party who were passing through the [Heart Fire], Tessa was confident she’d made the right call.

“Usually?” Alice asked. “There should be only one. Or two at most, but in that case the second one is usually an end game expansion on the original dungeon.”

“That can’t be what we’re in now, right?” Rip asked. She was sitting beside Matt and hugging her knees. Despite that though, so looked a little less stressed than she’d been before they started planning their next move.

“Right,” Alice said. “If this was a max level area, those creatures would have killed the entire group of us with their first couple of swings. In fact the [Over-Damage] would have destroyed all our gear too. So, no, this isn’t an end game dungeon.”

“It doesn’t even seem to be particularly beyond us,” Tessa said. In the distance a dying scream rang out as another member of the other party went down before the [Soul Blight’s] attacks.

“Seems to be beyond them though,” Rip said, hiding a smile. It wasn’t a kindly smile but it did speak to the rekindling of her confidence and for that Tessa was quietly grateful.

“Should we stop them?” Matt asked.

“Probably,” Alice said. “We don’t know what the story is with the [Hounds of Fate] and dungeon areas.”

“Can they not come in here?” Rip asked.

“According to the lore, they can go anywhere people can die,” Tessa said. “No wards or walls can keep them out, no locked gates or guard may bar their way. That’s in their description text if I remember right. On the other hand, in the game, they were a mechanism to keep players from roaming off the map when in ghost form, and in a dungeon there’s no problem with that, so the hounds aren’t really needed here.”

“Yeah, what is it with not being able to walk through walls as a ghost?” Matt asked. “I thought we could get back faster if we did, but nope, just crashed face first into the wall.”

“You tried to walk through a ghost wall,” Tessa said. “The [Dead Lands] resembles the living world, and the things in it are as solid to ghosts as material things are to the living. Again, that was just easier for the devs to code up I bet, but it also makes some sense. If ghosts could pass through anything then why wouldn’t they fall through the floor to the center of the planet?”

“I sent a whisper to the tank on that other team,” Alice said. “No response yet.”

“Let me try the melee fighter I talked to,” Tessa offered. “She was at least observant enough to notice that we’d joined the fray.”

“Ok, I’ll show Rip and Matt how to repair the damage respawning here did to their gear then,” Alice said.

Tessa smiled. She’d rarely played with other healers, since most parties only needed one. It was such a delight to be with someone who  thought about helping others that she wanted to reach over and kiss Alice. Since that wasn’t exactly an option though, Tessa settled for enjoying the warm feeling in her chest at the thought that she really wasn’t alone in this.

Starchild? We’re regrouping at the [Heart Fire] point. Can you get your party to regroup here with us? We have to be careful about the [Hounds of Fate].

Tessa added the last bit just in case word hadn’t reached them yet of that wrinkle in their new lives. In truth though she was more concerned about stopping them before they ground out all hope from themselves. Repeated deaths tended to fracture parties and lead to rage-quits more than anything factor. Except there was no “rage quit” option at the moment, so despair seemed the more likely result.

Hi, uh, Pillowcase? It was Starchild who answered back from the text lines in Tessa’s chat log, but they were speaking with a deep baritone voice. One they hadn’t spoken in during the fight. I can try to stop them but some of them aren’t listening so well.

Ouch, sorry there, I’ve been with a lot of parties like that, Tessa said. Are they friends of yours?

I mean, they’re not my enemies. Yet, Starchild said, with a note of exasperation in his voice. We met up after we all got dragged into the game, so this is the first we’ve played together. My normal group is either still back in the real world or they were playing their mains over in the regular zones.

So some of them got pulled in too? Tessa asked.

Yeah, a couple of my buddies and my sister got pulled in before I could warn them. Unfortunately they can’t get to us. There’s a quest they need to do but it’s locked out at the moment.

I heard about that, Tessa said. One of our party is in a raiding guild and none of them can make it here either, for the same reason.

I forgot how hard low level partying was, Starchild said. I was planning to get power leveled up to 50 or so at least tonight but at this rate I’m going to be lucky to hit 5 before the servers crash and wipe us all out.

The servers do what now? Tessa asked. Did you hear that was going to happen?

Oh! No! Sorry, it was just a joke people were making given how the servers always seem to crash a few times on the night of a big new release. We figured it would be the perfect icing on the cake if that deleted us too, since it would make this suck even more.

I’ll pass on the whole getting deleted thing, thanks, Tessa said, picturing what a disaster a server crash would be even without that. 

From the sounds of it there were still plenty of people who were logged in and hadn’t been drawn into the game yet. Those people had the best chance of being “saved” since for all anyone knew, there might be a time limit on the World Shift effect, assuming someone couldn’t figure out what caused the World Shifts to occur and stop it from happening again entirely. If the servers crashed though, the best case scenario was that they’d all be drawn in just like the people who’d been drawn in the support staff had tried to shut down one of the map servers where the World Shifts were first noticed.

Same here on not being deleted, Starchild said. My name’s Pete by the way.

Nice to meet you Pete, I’m Tessa. I’m guessing you got a bit more of a change than most of us when you were dragged here?

Yeah. I mean, I love Starchild, but I wasn’t really look to be her. Not like my sister was with her character. Fair is fair though, I think Starchild’s kind of puzzled by me too. Oh, my party is going to gather at the [Heart Fire] now. Finally got them to listen. Thanks for giving us a rally point. That seemed to help focus them.

There were a number of things in what Pete has said that Tessa wanted to unpack, but she knew the sort of patience most pick up groups were ‘blessed’ with. Starving toddlers who were also somehow on an extreme sugar high could almost measure up to the typical group of players. On a good day for the players.

We respawned there, but if your folks want to hang out in the [Dead Lands] to save on gear damage we can form an [Alliance] and chat on the shared channel there? Tessa suggested.

I’ll check with them, Pete said. There’s…dissention in the ranks. Give us a minute okay?

Sure, and good luck, Tessa said. She didn’t have to be part of their party chat at all to know what was being said. Even though it had been years since Tessa played, something never really changed. 

People had run into a bad experience, specifically one which showcased their weakness. It was a wonderful chance for growth and reflection…which no one ever took. Unless Tessa missed her guess, there were recriminations flying everywhere in the other party’s chat log. Who was at fault, what was holding them back, how each person was doing what they were supposed to and it was someone else’s fault that they were failing miserably, all of that would be erupting like a popping pimple.

Calm heads could bring things back together. Sometimes. The problem was, could any of them really manage to remain calm with everything that had happened to them today?

Some of them want to give up, Pete said. They’re saying we don’t have the right skills and that we’re too low level to take on something like this.

That’s always possible, Tessa said, though she didn’t think that was really the issue. 

Sometimes fights were too difficult for a party to tackle. She’d seen it often enough. Maybe the boss healed faster than the party could damage him. Or maybe the battle required mobile characters and no one had movement abilities. Whatever the reason, some fights weren’t winnable with some combinations of characters, or were winnable only with such effort and at such great cost that there wasn’t really a point to fighting them.

Far more often though, she saw things like she’d seen with the other party. People who were each trying to do their own thing, but without any thought towards coordinating with each other, or learning the details of the encounter.

Being beat once was no shame. A lot of the fights were designed around beating the party several times with awful surprises they’d need to account for on their next attempt. 

Failing to learn though? Sheer stubborn stupidity could see a party through sometimes, butr simply bulling through an encounter was never pretty and only very rarely the right answer. 

It sounds like they want to head back to town, Pete said. Maybe focus on grinding some of the monsters near there until we’re a little stronger.

Never hurts to level up on things you can handle. Tessa’s agreement was honest. She could see options for how they could improve, but that would only happen if they were open to working on themselves and coming together as a real team. Even without those changes though, they could tackle easier foes and simply take a slower road to greater power, which in turn could make up for their lack of effective cooperation. To a point anyways.

If you see anyone back in town, can you warn them that there are multiple dungeons out here? Tessa asked. We know of at least two, both low level, so there could be more.

Yeah, I can do that, Pete said. I’ll try find some paper to work with to sketch out maps. Maybe Mister Pendant will let me hang one in his shop so everyone can see what we’ve found out here so far.

That’s a good idea. We don’t exactly have the game wikis to draw on, Tessa said.

We can if we need, Pete said. Some of my friends are still online right? I’ve been asking them to look up stuff as I go. If you’ve got any questions I can pass them along for you. Mind if I add you as a [Friend]?

Not at all, Tessa said. I’ll add you too. The more we can stay connected and informed, the better off I think we’ll all be.

Yeah, I think we’re going to be stuck learning a lot of this the hard way, Pete said. From what my friends are saying, this dungeon wasn’t in the Beta at all.

Did the beta testers just miss it? Tessa asked.

No, Pete said, This whole place was different. There weren’t any cave mouths at all here. Whatever this is, its not something any of the developers put into the game.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 6

Pillowcase was filled with enough rage that it was surprising fabrics weren’t spontaneously combusting in her vicinity. As a ghost there were, perhaps, additional limitations on her ability to set the material world on fire but it still felt wrong that her rage was insufficient to overcome them.

“Returning to the [Heart Fire]. Will be back in the battle in thirty seconds,” Pillowcase didn’t waste time sharing her thoughts. The recriminations she could make against herself weren’t going to help the party fight better. They needed clarity and a lack of distractions.

Not that there was much of a party left.

Pillowcase had made it to the end of the room where the three boss monsters were located and had just started racing up the passageway back to the [Heart Fire] when she saw Alice’s health plummet to zero too.

It wasn’t a surprise.

Once the tanks start to fall, the rest of the party usually isn’t far behind.

It was why she couldn’t be weak. Why she couldn’t allow herself to fail. As long as she stood, they could recover from anything. When she frayed and ripped though? Everyone else suffered then too.

She tried to run faster, but despite the lack of a body to hold her back, and despite the  shame of her mistakes screaming for her to try harder, to redeem herself somehow, Pillowcase couldn’t find any more strength than what she was already using.

As she ran up the tunnel, heading towards chance to rejoin the battle, she thought of the second chance she’d already received.

She was a failure to start with. Before she’d woken up again in the [Fields of the Wasted] outside of [Sky’s Edge], she’d stumbled and fallen.

The Great Battle which she had been crafted for hadn’t ended in either victory or glory. The forces she’d fought with had pushed through feeble, weak foes. The militias of the [Fallen Kingdoms] were sad, pathetic things, as her teachers told her all militias were. There was no victory worth speaking of there, no reassurance that her construction had produced someone worth the materials she was sewn from.

Tessa shook her head. Was that even real, she wondered?

Her memories as Pillowcase had a sharpness to them which went beyond idle imagination. She didn’t have a continuous stream of them, not even as continuous as her own admittedly spotty human memories, but there were moments she could see that went beyond what her idle day dreaming had ever cooked up.

Whether or not Pillowcase’s memories were real though, the pain and anger she felt certainly was.

Tessa sighed as she ran. She could echo Pillowcase’s fears of being unworthy. It wasn’t like anyone at work made a point to commend her on a job well done, and her recent breakup hadn’t exactly been a giant confidence booster either.

“The other party is has two people down now”, Alice said on the team’s private channel.

Tessa could hear the flames in Alice’s voice. She was as angry as Tessa was. Maybe moreso.

That was a sobering thought. 

Alice had every reason to blame Pillowcase for dying. Pillowcase had been grand standing, taking on two of the [Soul Blights] at once and not staying in position to defend her team when they needed her. Worse, Alice had explicitly asked if Pillowcase could handle things and Pillowcase had been wrong when she said she could. If she’d avoided any of the mistakes she’d made, they could easily still be fighting, and winning, but she just wasn’t that good. Try as she might, her dead body wouldn’t let her deny it. 

Tessa felt the cold fingers of rejection reach slowly around her heart. 

What healer would want a tank who was made of tissue paper? Why would Alice waste anymore time with Pillowcase when there was a whole other party she could join. More people meant more safety. It wasn’t cruel. It was the sensible thing to do.

Tessa tried believing that and failed completely.

It was easy enough to believe that Alice jumping ship to the other party would be the smart move. Tessa swallowing that as a good thing for herself though? She just couldn’t. She…She didn’t work like that.

It was almost funny. She hated losing people just as much as she sucked at holding on to them. 

“We’re at the [Heart Fire] now,” Rip said, breathless even as a ghost. “Should we respawn here or bring it back and respawn where we fell?”

Tessa knew the urge to charge back into the fray but was also fully conversant with how bad of an idea that could be. 

“Respawn at the [Heart Fire], but wait for us there,” she said, repeating advice she’d heard countless tanks before her give. 

If only one of them had dropped, then rushing back into the fight might have been fine. As long as the backbone of the team was there, those who returned would be able to restore the strength the team had lost, sometimes even beyond where it had been when they died.

That only worked if there were enough fighters left on the field that the returning players wouldn’t simply be part of an inevitable collapse as the balance of power tumbled ever farther against them.  Adding fresh bodies to that sort of meat grinder meant creating an endless cycle of deaths.

The best method to break a cycle like that was to stop it before it began.

“Will the other party survive if we wait?” Matt asked. He wasn’t as breathless as Rip, though they’d both run the same distance, but there was a wariness in the question beyond simple concern for the other party’s well being.

“No,” Alice said. “They’re down to three now, another just fell, but Pillowcase is right. Wait at the [Heart Fire] after you respawn.”

“Ok,” Rip said. “What can we do to help while we wait?”

“Nothing,” Alice said.

There wasn’t any particular inflection to the word, but to Tessa’s ears it carried a foreboding weight of doom. 

“I’m sorry,” Rip said, her voice smaller than Tessa ever wanted to hear it being.

It was too familiar, that small voice. It was what Tessa heard in too many memories.

And it was, strangely, just what she needed to hear to pull her out of herself in the present.

“Waiting sucks, but it’s all part of the game,” she said reaching out to Rip in particular, though she sent the message for the whole party to hear.

“Yeah, it’s the price we pay for screwing up,” Alice said and Tessa winced.

She knew how those words would resound in Rip’s ears. Not “the price we pay” but rather than “price you pay”.

Rip was the first one to fall. Where other players might have been angry at Pillowcase or Alice for letting them be injured though, Rip had internalized it. Just like Tessa had been doing.

Other people had made mistakes, but for both of them the real worry was how their own mistakes were going to be held against them.

“And the price we pay when someone else screws up,” Tessa said. “Don’t worry Rip, none of this is on you or Matt. You two did everything right in there. Sometimes though, that can still get you killed.”

“Yeah, if anything this is on me,” Alice said, her tone gentler than it had been a moment earlier.

Did she see how Rip was taking her words? Tessa wondered, and then saw a sadder possibility.

“I don’t think any of this is on you either,” Tessa said. “Your heals couldn’t have matched the fire that took them. It was nearly an insta-kill for anyone except a tank.”

“I was healing the wrong person though,” Alice said. “I’m sorry. I’m just out of practice I guess.”

“It wasn’t you, really,” Tessa said. “You saw how Brick Spithouse was able to shield his team? Rip and Matt dropping is all on me. Your death is too. I shouldn’t have gotten distracted.”

Alice laughed, it wasn’t a mirthful sound but it was a good one.

“You were fine,” she said. “You were handling two of those things with no problem. And you turned them away from us! That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do with 99% of the mobs out there.”

“Yeah, you were great,” Matt said. “You had two of them on you and that other guy only had one.”

“That other guy, Brick, knew his limits. He’s probably still alive and kicking,” Tessa said.

“Nope,” Alice said. “He just got roasted by all three of them. He was the last to fall too, so their party is now officially TPK’d as well.”

“At least he held on to the end,” Tessa said, feeling vaguely jealous that a [Guardian] was that much tougher than a [Soul Knight].

“You used to be a healer, right?” Alice asked.

“Long ago, but yeah,” Tessa said.

Alice laughed again. “You’re still thinking like one,” she said. “You want to be the last one standing because you want everyone else to be safe right?”

“Yeah? I mean that’s what the job is, isn’t it?” Tessa asked.

“For a healer? Sure! Well, no, depending on the fight, sometimes even the healer is expendable, but the point is tanks are different,” Alice said.

“How so?” Matt asked.

“Take Brick as an example,” Alice said. “He survived till last because the monsters wiped out everyone else in his party first. He was focused on that one [Soul Blight] in front of him and he was holding on it like a champ. Meanwhile the other two were all over his healer, and me, and once we went down, the other damage dealers didn’t stand a chance.”

“So are we supposed to have three tanks then?” Rip asked.

“No, not at all,” Alice said. “We’re supposed to work together. Which is why this is my fault.”

“I definitely do not see that,” Tessa said, though she liked the spirit Alice’s words seemed to be fostering in her team.

“Picture this, if the other party wasn’t there and those three things jumped on us, what would you have done?” Alice asked.

Tessa paused to consider that. She’d made it to the [Heart Fire] but was waiting to respawn until there was a lull in the conversation. As she did, she saw the ghosts of the other party come trudging by her. They each scooped up handfuls of flame and ran right back to where they’d fallen.

“If we’d stumbled on that encounter? I guess I would have grabbed all three of the [Soul Blights] attention with the [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell and tried to tank all three.”

“Right,” Alice said. “Now consider that you were doing fine on your own against two of them at once. Would a third have been able to drop you if I’d focused my healing on you?”

“Probably not,” Tessa admitted. “I still would have failed to save Rip and Matt though.”

“Maybe,” Alice said. “Or probably. That’s a cheap move the [Soul Blights] have.”

“It cost us pretty good though,” Matt said.

“Well, it’s out fault isn’t it?” Rip said. “We went off too hard on them and so we paid the price. Then everyone else died too.”

“No, that wasn’t you,” Tessa said. “You two did fine on your damage output. If you’d gone over me I could have gotten it back for at least a moment when I attacked. I’m pretty sure those things pick a random target when they do that move.”

“But we could have moved when they turned to us,” Rip said, though it sounded like she was less sure of that being an unforgivable sin as she had been before.

“True, and we can all be ready for that next time,” Alice said. “But ‘not getting a brand new fight perfect the first time’ isn’t really a mistake. If there’d been a big warning that the [Soul Blights] were going to do that, then maybe we’d have something to work on, but this kind of thing is typical of boss battles. Or typical of higher level boss battles. It’s just stupid that the devs threw something like that into a low level dungeon like this.”

“I wonder if the devs did?” Tessa said.

“What do you mean?” Alice asked.

“Well, Aie and Zibby ran this before us right? With just two of them and they were lower level? How did they beat those three things when ten of us couldn’t manage it this time?”

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 5

On the list of ‘Bad Ideas for Adventurers’, Tessa was sure that ‘sprint through a dungeon’ was somewhere in the top half or so. That it wasn’t higher was solely due to the fact that adventurers were capable of feats of such monumental stupidity that actions which were even vaguely reasonable, no matter how dangerous or ill conceived, simply couldn’t compete.

“There’s a fight up ahead,” she said over the group’s private chat channel.

The cave system of the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] followed the typical format of ‘hallways made of stone with the occasional room for big fights’ which games tended to favor. The walls sported a bit more set dressing that most, with veins of pulsing purple energy growing in number and wrapped around protrusions of increasing complexity as Tessa advanced.

“Be careful,” Alice said. “We don’t want whoever’s fighting to think we’re an ambush that’s racing in to join the monsters.”

“Good point,” Tess said. She slowed at the final corner and was about to call out when it occurred to her that there was nothing to suggest that both sides of the battle wouldn’t consider her an enemy the moment they saw her. It wasn’t impossible, or even improbably, to find two different groups of monsters fighting each other. As with many domestic squabbles though, the moment an outside presence appeared, the two sides were quite likely to put aside their differences and turn their collective wrath on the newcomers.

So stealth was called for.

Sneaking forward in armor wasn’t as difficult as she’d been led to believe. Unlike movie armor, the chain shirt she was wearing didn’t clank loudly as she walked, nor did the metal guards on her arms or legs.

Peeking around the corner she saw more or less what she’d expected to see. Several people were being murdered by a trio of monsters that looked like someone had glued scorpion limbs onto an earth worm and then rammed the head of an old man onto the front end of the worm. And the head was breathing fire.

“We have [Soul Blights],” Pillowcase said. “Three of them. And a party. Low level, I think. Move to assist?”

She didn’t turn to look at her team. Her attention was on the battle.

It wasn’t going badly. Or at least not as badly as Pillowcase had expected, but then she’d expected to see a massacre.

One member of the other team was down, but not dead. He was getting assistance from the party’s healer, while the three melee fighters each distracted one of the [Soul Blights] and the party’s primary spell caster rained down area effects.

“Go for it,” Alice said. “We’ve got your back and theirs.”

“Mark Prime!,” Pillowcase yelled the command so that the other party would have a chance to hear her declaration as the mystic symbol for ‘kill this one first’ formed over the leftmost [Soul Blight’s] head.

She considered calling out to the party to declare her intentions, but chose to stay focused on her target instead. If the other party was experienced, they’d quickly figure out what Tessa was up to and if they weren’t then she was going to have to carry the fight for them on her own anyways.

The [Soul Blight] she’d marked target her as Pillowcase charged in, but it wasn’t agile enough to avoid the charging thrust she rammed into it. The blow connected with all of her mass behind it and buried her sword up to its hilt in the center of its bulbous, squishy worm body. The [Soul Blight] wasn’t happy with being used as a pin cushion but it’s semi-amorphous anatomy also wasn’t terribly impeded by the hunk of metal lodged in its midsection.

Pillowcase drew back, dragging her sword out as she did so. The suction force which tried to hold the blade in place was considerable but the strength of even a low level [Clothwork] [Soul Knight] was even more so.

“[Rapid Shot]” Rip yelled as she unleashed a flurry of arrows into the [Soul Blight].

“[Casting spell: Lesser Torment]”, Matt said with a eagerness in his voice which both suggested he’d been dying to try out his new spell and that the worries which had plagued him on the trip to the dungeon had been cast aside once battle was before them.

Pillowcase paid that no mind, but Tessa filed it away for later. She was intimately familiar with the mental divide which might be lending Matt his courage, but embraced her own version of it and left Pillowcase free to act as instinct guided her.

That was a wise move as the monster in front of her was far from finished. Thanks to both the damage Pillowcase had inflicted, and the taunt effect on her strikes, the [Soul Blight] focused its attention solely on her and lashed out with a claw. Dodging wasn’t an option. The room was big enough but she wanted the enemies to stay in place. 

That left blocking.

The shock of the claw strike was familiar. It felt right for a creature which outmassed her by three-to-one. More importantly though, it wasn’t sufficient to pierce her shield, or punish the arm she had the shield strapped to beyond the arm’s limits.

“Who are you?” Starchild, the nearest melee fighter from the other party, asked.

“Helpers,” Pillowcase said. The middle of a battle was not the place for conversation. 

The [Soul Blight] reared back and spat a stream of flame which covered both Pillowcase and Starchild. Pillowcase used her shield to take the brunt of the attack but a fair bit of fire slipped through around the edges.

Burning was not a great thing for [Clothworks]. Pillowcase was more resistant to fire than her base materials would have been but it was still one of the attack forms which she was the weakest against. 

“[Casting spell: Minor Cleansing]” Alice said, dousing the flames before they could spread over more of Pillowcase’s body.

Burning wasn’t pleasant, but Pillowcase wasn’t afraid of it. She hadn’t been made to be afraid of anything.

“[Casting spell: Lesser Spirit Drain],” she said, a growl of anticipation accompanying the words. This was what she craved. This was what she was built for. To be at the heart of a battle. To contest against a worthy foe.

Pillowcase centered her spell on the middle of the three to catch all of them in its effect. That locked in the attention of the one fighting her and the one on the far side of the battle. Only the one she’d targeted remained glued to the other party’s [Guardian] since he had a headstart on influencing it’s actions.

“Thanks,” Starchild said. “You showed up at a good time.”

Pillowcase parried a scorpion claw which was aimed at Starchild’s head and punished the [Soul Blight] for leaving an opening with a blow to the appendage that hit for critical damage.

The [Soul Blight] from the far side of the battle, crouched down and leapt over the one in the middle as the one nearest to Pillowcase belched fire again. 

Pillowcase moved out of the path of the fire, blocking to mitigate the indirect splash of flame and then tumbling away as the leaping [Soul Blight] crashed down onto her position.

Rip and Matt unleashed another volley of attacks, which struck the first [Soul Blight] and left it shaking. Starchild capitalized on that and slammed her staff into the [Soul Blight’s] lowered head, shattering the inhuman visage like a watermelon. In the wake of Starchild’s swing, Pillowcase saw emerald fire scorching the air. 

Pillowcase adjusted her assessment. Starchild wasn’t a typical melee fighter.

The [Soul Blight] was impeded by the loss of its head, but it apparently didn’t keep anything critical within it. Without a mouth to shape its fire, it belched flames everywhere and began lashing out with its claws. 

Fire washed over Pillowcase again and she watched her health drop perilously. The [Lesser Spirit Drain] struggled against the ongoing damage and mitigated a fair amount of it but Pillowcase was still burning faster than her magics could repair.

A dozen steps away, Brick Spithouse, the other party’s [Guardian] was weathering the flames with only a tiny fraction of the damage Pillowcase was taking. He blocked an blow from the [Soul Blight] he had under control and threw attack after attack at it, most of which bounced harmlessly off the carapace of the creature’s limbs.

Spells and attacks slammed into all three monsters, but PIllowcase felt her vision narrowing to only the one before her.

It was a fatal error, and she knew it.

She had at least two of the creatures to deal with.

She had to stay alert on a broader level.

One of the [Soul Blights] stabbed her with its rear stinger.

That hurt.

Even apart from the poison it sent coursing through her, having a two foot long barb jammed into her chest was not pleasant.

“[Rapid Shot]” Rip called out, taking advantage of the momentary lack of mobility in the tail to blast it off the [Soul Blight’s] body.

“You ok?” Alice asked.

“Yes.” Pillowcase said, judging how quickly she was healing compared to the damage she’d taken so far.

“Good,” Alice said and began casting a healing spell on a member of the other party who who’d been slashed down to less than a quarter of their health.

Pillowcase’s own health wasn’t much better than that, but it didn’t trouble her. She had the monster’s attention and though they assaulted her with fire and claw, she was able to hold them off. 

Second by second they pressed her, but after extinguishing the flames on herself, and shifting to a defensive footing, Pillowcase was able deflect enough incoming damage to allow the life she was stealing from them to begin repairing her wounds. 

A fierce joy sang in her chest as she danced around the two horrors and held them bound to her will, daring them to do their worst, and laughing when they proved incapable of overwhelming her.

She’d turned her two playmates to face away from the other fighters and was just about back to being uninjured when the monsters went off script.

Together, the two creatures turned and vomited flame on the position where Rip and Matt were attacking from.

Pillowcase’s rage consumed her. Rip and Matt were supposed to be safe. She was doing her damn job correctly.

With a flurry of blow, provoking strike after provoking strike landed but nothing Pillowcase could do was sufficient to bring the monsters back to face her.

In desperation she leapt onto the back of the nearest one, trying to hurl herself in front of the flame stream but it was too late. In her party status display, she saw Rip and Matt’s health plummet to zero.

They hadn’t screamed. 

Much.

There hadn’t been time.

With grim precision, Tessa hacked at the [Soul Blight’s] neck. Starchild had crushed its head but she was determined to cut it off. 

The third [Soul Blight] escaped her notice. She was too focused on the one before her to care about it.

“I’m sorry!” Rip said. “We’ll be back in a second. We’re running to the [Heart Fire] now.”

She sounded panicked but not pained.

Pillowcase shook her head.

Rage wasn’t productive.

She’d injured the [Soul Blight] she was riding, but at some point she’d taken three more serious wounds and her own health was trending perilously low again.

Worse the third [Soul Blight] was menacing the other party’s healer.

Leaping from the back of the [Soul Blight] she was on, Pillowcase landed sword point first on the third monster. She’d claimed it as ‘hers’ and she wasn’t about to let it harm anyone else if she could.

It was a valiant gesture but foolish in its own way. This [Soul Blight] still had a functional stinger on its tail and used it freely, jabbing at Pillowcase repeatedly and forcing her to scramble off its back. 

“Gather behind me,” Brick Spithouse said to his team.

Pillowcase didn’t have to wonder why for long.

The [Soul Blight] he’d been fighting switched its target away from him just as the other two had done with Pillowcase. The other party wasn’t caught quite as unprepared as Rip and Matt had been but only one of them, the healer, was behind Brick. Fortunately for them, the healer was the one the [Soul Blight] chose to attack and Brick was able to use his shield and armor to prevent a repeat of Matt and Rip’s fate.

Pillowcase was envious.

And angry.

And distracted.

She didn’t even feel the stab wounds that stole the last sliver of her health.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 4

Tessa stood before the entrance to the [Ruins of Heaven’s Grave] and could smell the death and terror that waited inside. Every sensible instinct told her to turn around and flee. Or almost every instinct. 

Let’s do this, Pillowcase whispered, her voice bright with anticipation.

Tessa closed her Clothwork hand into a fist and felt Pillowcase’s strength fill it. 

Yeah, let’s, she said, replying to no one but herself.

“It like they left the door open for us,” Alice said, gesturing to the decorated arch around the cave mouth which lead into the ruins.

“Monsters just inside?” Tessa asked, looking to Alice for confirmation of the guess.

“Probably just a couple at most,” Alice said. “Once we get past them, we should find the [Heart Fire] brazier. They changed dungeon design to put one of them at the start of each map so you can attune to it right after you zone in.”

“Are we going to be zoning?” Matt asked. “I don’t think we have yet, have we?”

“We should have when we left [Sky’s Edge],” Alice said. “And then again at the farm house, probably, but since it didn’t happen there, it’s probably not going to happen here either.”

“This place does seem to be more ‘real’, for lack of a better term, than the game version of the [Fallen Kingdoms],” Tessa said. “Hmm, which means we can’t rely on escaping any of the dungeon’s monsters but fleeing outside. There’s no zone line to cut them off from following us.”

“What do we do if we have to run?” Matt asked.

“Backtrack as far as you can go,” Alice said. “If you can make it out, head as far away as you can. Even if they can chase you, the dungeon’s guardians may not be willing go too far from home.”

“And we’re all going to do that?” Rip asked.

“Eventually yeah,” Tessa said. “Depending on the danger we encounter, I may need to stay behind to hold them off.

“We can’t just let you die,” Rip said.

“You can, and you will,” Pillowcase said, her tone more solid and serious than Tessa’s had been a moment prior. “If we can’t win a fight, then we have to make sure we lose as little of it as possible.

“Losing you isn’t ‘losing a little’,” Rip said.

“It is if I am going to be lost anyways,” Pillowcase said.

“But you can just respawn, can’t you?” Matt asked.

“If there’s a [Heart Fire] in there, and if it’s not surrounded by enemies,” Pillowcase said.

“We’ll take it slow, and act like we’re going for a full clear,” Alice said. “No progress on the main path until we clear any side branches that we find. That’ll prevent anything from getting behind us.”

“What if the things we kill respawn at the [Heart Fire] and then wait there for us?” Rip asked. She didn’t have an arrow drawn back but she did have one loaded into her bow and she was paying keen attention to the darkness in the cave’s mouth.

“They shouldn’t be able to,” Alice said. “The first thing we do when we get inside is find the [Heart Fire] and attune it for our use and not theirs.”

“We can do that?” Matt asked. “Can they do the same to us?”

“It never came up in the game, but I can’t think of a reason they wouldn’t be able to,’ Tessa said. “Of course to do that, they’d have to get past us, and if they can do that, then we’ll probably be dead which will mean we can ghost back to it before them anyways.”

“Let’s head in,” Alice said. “We’ve already talked about most of the likely scenarios inside. The sooner we find out which one’s we’ve got ahead of us, the sooner we can start working out plans to beat them.”

“Ok, follow me then,” Tessa said, leading her team into the ruins, despite the trepidation she felt.

***

Inside the cave, the found a long tunnel which stretched into the darkness.

“The game never had full darkness conditions, did it?” Tessa asked, noticing that Rip’s Elven eyesight didn’t seem quite as comprehensive as [Dark VIsion] the rest of the party shared.

“No,” Alice said. “They’d talked about adding that for immersion sake but the hassle of adding torches and personal light sources always put it pretty far down on the feature list.”

“I don’t think the standard list of gear includes a lantern,” Tessa said, peering into the darkness yet seeing the details of the tunnel easily enough. In the distance, around a corner, she thought she could see a flickering blue light, but while [Dark Vision] showed her a lot, it wasn’t great with colors. 

“I’ve got a lantern!” Rip said, rummaging in her pack.

“How?” Tessa asked. “I didn’t see any for sale in the shops we visited.”

“It was in the gear I started with,” Rip said. She waved her hand over the lantern’s face and it lit. Tessa watched the light spread around them as the lantern flickered from a small spark of illumination to being bright enough to light a room. What was strange was how the light shone from the lantern.

Rather than the lantern getting brighter (and therefor more difficult to look at), it was the room itself which was providing the local illumination. 

Looking down at her feet, Tessa saw that she wasn’t casting a shadow. The lantern light was somehow radiating from many different points within its sphere of effect. Tessa couldn’t quite process how that was happening, but it did make the environment easier to see than the sharp contrasts a regular lantern light would produced.

“A magic lantern. Neat,” Alice said. “We should probably check out our supplies to make sure we know what we’re carrying.”

“I think I see the [Heart Fire] up ahead,” Tessa said, and stated moving forward.

She was ready for a fight or, even more likely, an ambush. With the monsters acting more like actual creatures, it seemed almost certain that they’d set a few defenders around the [Heart Fire], both to keep it safe for their own use and because that was the most likely place where they’d be able to dine on some juicy adventurer flesh.

With her sword held in a middle guard position and her shield braced to counter any attacks, Tessa crept forward, listening intently for sounds of movement.

She didn’t hear anything, or at least nothing nearby.

Which made sense.

Everything nearby was already dead.

“What am I seeing here?” she asked as she stepped over the bodies of several weird sort-of moth-like creatures, stabbing each as she went by them.

The stabbing wasn’t strictly necessary. It was meant to help her detect if any of the [Gloom Drinkers] were either faking their condition or, worse, turning into undead versions of themselves, but it wasn’t a foolproof test. None of the moths stirred, but Pillowcase’s senses remained on high alert. The best time to spring a trap was after you’d convinced your foe that you were harmless after all, and the best defense against that was to never be convinced that you were completely safe.

“It could be set dressing,” Alice said as she picked a path through the [Gloom Drinker] bodies.

“Set dressing?” Matt asked.

“In the game, the developers would sometimes decorate rooms with dead bodies to add to the ambiance,” Tessa said. “And to hide the occasional undead ambush.”

“These are still oozing,” Rip said.

“Should I burn them to be safe?” Matt asked. He was holding Rip’s lantern in one hand, to allow her to keep both hands on her bow. 

“Let’s get the [Heart Fire] attuned first,” Alice said. “A lot of mistakes become less of a problem if we have a nearby respawn point.”

Around a corner, the tunnel opened into a wide ‘entrance room’ cavern, which was surprisingly clear of [Gloom Drinker] corpses.

Pillowcase paused, letting her full senses search out waiting foes.

She could see without issue in the darkness ahead, and her hearing seemed to be far sharper than it had been. Even with those two and an inexplicably better sense of smell (inexplicable because her nose was cloth and cotton as far as she could tell), she couldn’t make out the presence of any lurking foes. 

All she could see was the flickering light of the of the [Heart Fire], all she could hear was the snap and crackle of its burning, and all she could smell was blood and bile.

“No foes yet,” Pillowcase said as she stepped into the room, fully expecting to be attacked the moment she did so.

“I think the moths were setup as an early DPS check,” Alice said and then turned to Rip and Matt to explain. “DPS is short for damage per second, it’s a measure of how hard you and the party in general can hit consistently. To make sure you’re up to par for a dungeon, a lot of them will start off with an encounter that simply tests if you can do enough damage to even have a chance of getting through the tougher fights.”

“I get it, so if you can’t beat the moths, then you really have no business coming into this dungeon in the first place,” Rip said.

“Wouldn’t you find that out anyways later though?” Matt asked.

“Eventually,” Alice said. “The devs found that people weren’t as cranky if they lost a minute or two of play before they discovered that they couldn’t finish a dungeon rather than being a half hour into it before they had to give up hope.”

“Alice, could you check me on something,” Tessa asked. She was standing at the [Heart Fire] and wondering if even more had changed in the game than she’d been aware of.

“What’s wrong?” Alice asked stepping in closer to the brazier.

“I think I’m in range, but I’m not getting the option to attune the [Heart Fire],” Tessa said. “What am I doing wrong?”

Alice glances at the brazier, her expression turning puzzled and then wary.

“Nothing,” she said. “You’re not doing anything wrong. You can’t attune this one because it’s already attuned for our use.”

“That sounds good, but you look worried,” Matt said.

“It’s something unusual,” Alice said, “and anything unusual in a dungeon is generally dangerous.”

“Could it be a fake?” Tessa asked. “Maybe this isn’t a real [Heart Fire] and if we try to use it we’ll wind up in a prison realm instead?”

“That can happen?” Rip didn’t bother to hide her shock.

“In some places,” Alice said. “There’s usually some warning though.”

“Like a pile of dead bugs?” Matt asked.

“No, more like protection runes that define the area which is under the control of whoever’s put the redirect on the [Heart Fire],” Alice said.

“I didn’t see any runes in the tunnel,” Rip said.

“There weren’t any visible ones,” Pillowcase said. “None in here either.”

“It’s a low level dungeon, or at least it’s supposed to be,” Alice said. “They didn’t usually start hitting you with trap dungeons until level 20 or so, and even those weren’t too bad. You’d respawn in a prison, but the prisons are all empty and the doors are easy to knock down.”

“Maybe they’re just taking things easy on us here too then?” Rip asked. “Give us the first [Heart Fire] for free?”

“That doesn’t make sense with the moths in the tunnel though,” Pillowcase said. “Anyone who was defeated by them would be able to come here and respawn, and if they really weren’t able to fight through the [Gloom Drinkers] then they’d be stuck with no one option for leaving.”

“A design that traps players in the dungeon and doesn’t let them flee isn’t the kind of thing a developer would do, but it’s exactly what a real dungeon maker would design for,” Alice said, the thoughts that were spinning through her head deepening her frown the more connections she made.

“The smart play would be to leave and compare notes with Aiemethia and Zibby,” Tessa said. “They didn’t mention the [Gloom Drinkers] but if the moths are set dressing, then they might have overlooked them.”

“I just asked them,” Alice said. “We’re telepathic now, remember? They didn’t see any moth creatures when they came through, and they didn’t think to check the [Heart Fire] before they went on.”

“So this is a trap then?” Matt asked.

In the far distance, Pillowcase heard a dim cry and the sound of a blade striking steel.

“Or someone else is in here now too,” she said before turning to confer with Alice.

A shared nod was all it took.

They had answers to get and the only path to get them led onwards and inwards.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 3

The trip to the dungeon wasn’t a long one and that was a problem. Rose wasn’t worried about following Pillowcase and Lost Alice into it. Beating a dungeon sounded awesome to her, and beating it with them sounded wonderful. She just wasn’t sure if Jamal was ready for it.

I’m betting we run into nothing but low level stuff in there, she whispered to Jamal. Technically she sent the message to his character, ‘Matt Painting’, but she had a hard time remembering to call him that even though Matt, as a Metal Mechanoid, looked nothing like Jamal. There was just something about how he moved, from the little way he ducked his head when he spoke, even silently via telepathy, to how he tended to keep his hands in close to his body. 

They’d been friends for a long time, so Rose didn’t find it at all surprising that she’d know him no matter what body he wore. It just felt right.

Well, yeah, that’s all there better be, Jamal said. Everything here is supposed to be low level, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be lower than us.

Familiarity meant Jamal didn’t hold back or censor himself with Rose as much as he normally did with other people. People he trusted less. The others hadn’t gotten to see Matt and Rip get into one of their epic debates yet, and probably wouldn’t for a long time if Rose’s guess was correct, but at least the two of them could at least continue their usual repartee telepathically. 

We’re not that bad off anymore, Rip said. Anyways, this is a video game. We’re setup to win from the start.

Cause we got off to such a good start with those [Wraithwings]? Jamal said.

That was a fluke. Some kind of weird glitch.

This whole thing is a weird glitch. Jamal said. He was walking with his new staff held in front of his body, rather than using it like a walking stick.

Rose was doing the same with her bow, but that was because Rip Shot had indicated that it was better to keep it ready in case of a surprise attack. Apparently the time to unsling a bow, knock an arrow and fire it could mean the difference between getting in a clean shot and needing to parry with the bow instead. And bows were not meant for parrying. Rip Shot was very clear on that.

The fact that Rip Shot was clear on anything at all was something she hadn’t told the others. Jamal was open about “Matt Painting” having an existence beyond some flavor text in his backstory notes, but Rose wasn’t quite willing to divulge the same about Rip.

It was silly. She knew that. 

But Rip was special.

She had to share Rip with the others because, obviously, they could all see Rip, and hear her. Rip Shot was a mask that wouldn’t come off. And that was fine. Better than fine. The idea of people thinking of her as Rip Shot rather than the disaster-that-was-Rose-Marsden was something Rose had literally prayed for.

Maybe it’s not a glitch, she said.

How is us being here not a glitch? Jamal asked. Do you think someone actually coded ‘AbductPlayersToGameWorld.exe’ and added it to the expansion without anyone noticing?

Rose rolled her eyes. She loved Jamal. Really she did. And he was smart. Except when he was being stupid.

I’m not saying one of the developers was a wizard. I’m saying that us being here by accident seems a lot less likely than us being here because someone intended for us to be here.

Jamal paused for a step, considering that and then caught up with a few quick strides to bring himself back by Rose’s side. The party didn’t have a special ‘marching order’ like in Dungeons and Dragons. They just let Pillowcase take the lead so that anything that jumped out would try to eat her first and the rest sort of wandered behind her.

Although, Rose noticed that Lost Alice wasn’t really ‘wandering behind’ so much as ‘walking with’ Pillowcase.

Were they conferencing like she and Jamal were?

Ok, yeah, we talked about that before, Jamal said, bringing Rose back to the conversation they were having before she could get lost in speculation. Somebody might have brought us here on purpose. Or maybe they brought someone specific here on purpose and the rest of us just got dragged along for the ride.

Yeah but why? Rose could feel on some fundamental level that her coming to the [Fallen Kingdoms] hadn’t been an accident.

Maybe the world needs it’s ‘Chosen One!’ or something like that? Jamal said and Rose noticed that ‘Chosen One’ didn’t have the odd aural quality words with specific meanings in the [Fallen Kingdoms] tended have.

Huh, that’s interesting, she said to no one but herself, pondering how likely it was for a fantasy story not have a ‘Chosen’ hero or main character. 

The trip to dungeon wasn’t a long one though, and she really wanted to settle Jamal’s nerves though, so she packed away her thoughts on the absence of a Chosen One to continue her conversation with him.

I meant, why would it be someone else? Why couldn’t we be the ones who were supposed to come over here?

Because we have no idea what we’re doing? Jamal said. 

I shoot things with arrows and you blast them with spells, Rose said, it’s not that hard to figure out. And you heard Pillow and Alice. We’re doing fine so far!

We’re doing fine for new players, Jamal said. Look at Alice, she’s had years of experience and she’s still worried about being here.

She’s not worried, Rose said. She’s worried about us maybe, but you saw her in those fights. She was perfectly calm the whole time. She’s probably fought like that a million times or something.

I don’t think anyone’s fought like this before, Jamal said. I mean nobody has right? Forgot virtual goggles, this is like being in a VR body suit or something.

Yeah, but she still knows what to expect. And she’s so strong.

But she used to being stronger, Jamal said. I think Pillow was too. Some of the things they talked about, it’s like they’re looking forward to the things they know we’re going to have to face.

Do you think that’s what they’re doing now? Rose asked.

Huh? Jamal asked.

They’re walking together, Rose said. They must be planning our strategy right?

Maybe? Wouldn’t they do that with us though?

That’s true, and I guess they have before.

Do you think they like each other? Jamal asked.

Uh, yeah, I mean they get along fine, right? Rose said, missing for a moment the implications of Jamal’s question.

It wasn’t surprising. Her relationship to romance was either ‘it’s complicated’ or ‘not applicable’ depending on a lot of factors. 

It wasn’t that she didn’t understand it. She had characters that she liked seeing together in all kinds of media. Even people that she was happy to see couple up. 

It just wasn’t for her. 

Like with Jamal. She loved him. She’d told him that in 2nd Grade when some kids wouldn’t let him play kick ball with them. She’d meant it then and she still meant it.

But it wasn’t the kind of love that said ‘I want to date you’, or ‘I want to make out with you’. He was just nice to be around. Other kids called it ‘the Friend Zone’ but it wasn’t like Rose was locking him out of anything. She was more open and free with Jamal than she was with anyone else in her life. It was just that the things outside ‘the Friend Zone’ weren’t things she needed or wanted in her life. 

At least not for herself. For other people romance and sex were fine, and did she remember Alice saying she had a girlfriend back home?

She turned a more discerning eye on her two party members.

I think they’re just talking about the dungeon, she said. They’re keeping some distance between themselves and it looks like they’re pretty serious.

You’re probably right, Jamal said. They’re probably talking about old dungeons they ran. You know, comparing notes to figure out what’s waiting for us.

Pillow was pretty gung ho, Rose said. I’m guessing she’s got a good general sense of how things are setup.

Yeah, that’s probably why she’s not worried. The same with Alice.

We’ll get like them in time, Rose said, picturing being as badass as either Pillowcase or Lost Alice. 

She could do it. It had to be why she’d been brought here.

Rip Shot didn’t disagree, and that made Rose feel a little guilty.

At some point she would have to tell people about Rip. Explain that the she’d been borrowing Rip’s reserves of cool competence and skill to get through their fights. 

Rip didn’t seem to mind letting Rose being in the drivers seat though, and was fine with Rose enjoying the praise for the work that Rip did. If anything Rip seemed happy to be able to focus just on the fighting and leave the rest to Rose. Like they were friends. Or partners. 

It was how Rose had imagined, or at least hoped, they might be. Even though they were from different lives, and different worlds, when Rose had written up her short stories starring Rip Shot, she’d always imagined the [Elven] [Archer] as there in the room with her, helping craft the narrative and make it true.

We’re in this together, she said, whispering it unintentionally to Jamal.

Yeah. We are. And, seriously, that makes it a whole lot better, he said. I know I should probably say that I wish you weren’t stuck in here too, that you were back home safe and sound, but I’m glad your here. 

Same, Rose said and then added, I’m kind of hoping we’ll be here for a good while.

Jamal was quiet for a second before responding.

Seems like a safe bet, he said, his telepathic voice quite and falsely calm.

I figure we should be stuck here for at least a month right? Rose didn’t think it would take that long necessarily, or rather, she was worried it wouldn’t take that long.

Could be a month, could be longer, Jamal said. It might be that we can never go back.

Or that we never chose to, Rose said. She’d give up their old lives in a heartbeat but it still felt dangerous to say it. Like she was promising too much too soon.

She expected Jamal to say that they should wait until the moment came, if it ever did, before they decided. Or that he couldn’t ask something like that of her. Basically something noble and stupid like usual.

That would be nice, he said instead and gave her a quick nod of his head, Metal Mechanoids not having exactly have the most expressive of faces.

The thought sent a thrill down her spine. 

Getting to stay here forever? Getting to be Rip Shot, forever?

She didn’t deserve it, but like hell would she say no to it either.

Even if it turned out that the [Fallen Kingdoms] were miserable, a horror story from front to back, even if people found out that she really wasn’t Rip Shot, she’d still stay. She couldn’t ask Jamal to go back. He would be happy here, or at least happier, and that counted for a lot.

“I was wondering if we were going to have trouble finding the place,” Pillowcase said, coming to a stop as the path which was winding up into the mountains turned sharply around an outcropping.

“I don’t know,” Alice said. “Do you think that screams ‘I’m a dungeon, come inside me and die’ loudly enough?”

Around the corner, Rose saw what they were talking about. The path they’d been following ended at the mouth of a dark cave opening. Steam wafted from the entrance, curling in luminous green tendrils as though in walking into the cave you were walking into the maw of an ghostly octopus. 

Worse though were the skulls which were mounted along the arch of the cave’s entrance. They came in all shapes and sizes, each bearing silent witness to the dangers within.

Time was up. They’d arrived.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 2

Preparation was the key to success, which worried Tessa. Lost Alice, Rip Shot, and Matt Painting all looked like they were prepared, with new (if low level) spells, armor, and weapons. Their earlier battles had let them take the first few steps towards forging themselves into a real team. As a team, they’d even checked in with Aimethia and Zibby, who’d returned with a gaggle of lowbies in tow and a reasonably detailed map of the area, including the dungeon they’d discovered and towards which Tessa and her party was traveling.

All of that was great.

It was only Tessa herself who wasn’t ready as far as she could see.

Her armor was fully repaired, her new spells selected, and she’d even organized her pack so that the [Dram of Vitality] healing potions they’d found were within easy reach if she should need them.

Nothing about her kit was out of order. All of the chaos was inside.

Hey, Pillowcase, she tried telepathically whispering to her “other self”, wondering if she could speak with her subconscious (or whatever Pillowcase was) more directly. The words she whispered simply appeared in her private chat log though, the same as if she’d spoken aloud to herself, except in this case no one else could hear her. At least as far as she knew.

Are you going to step up when we get into the thick of things again? Tessa knew she wasn’t going to get a response but as a sort of walking meditation, it seemed like a reasonable method getting her head in order.

I don’t know what we’re going to be facing, she said. I don’t know if whatever skills I get from you are up to handling anything more complex than the centipedes.

She thought back to the fights at the farm. They should have been terrifying. Centipedes as long as she was tall were both disgusting and vicersally disturbing. They were weak by comparison to other monsters, but they’d still hurt her, and for all that the pain of their attacks was diminished due to Pillowcase’s Clothwork body, being chewed on and slashed by monster was scary and more painful than anything she’d run into as an Earthling.

She burned to talk about her concerns with someone. Well, with Alice in particular. Rip and Matt were proving to be solid and dependable, but the last thing they needed was for Tessa to fill them with anxiety and second thoughts.

Alice probably could have handled it, Tessa guessed, but there too the question hung before her; was dumping a load of concerns on Alice really going to do her any good?

Tessa remembered going into a new dungeon as a healer many times. There were so many things which could kill an adventurer and new dungeons could blindside even the most skilled of healers. It wasn’t a great feeling knowing that your party was counting on you to save them and that in many cases you could but only if you saw problems developing soon enough to react to them, and in some cases you just weren’t fast enough.

There were deaths which every healer would agree were not their fault. The person who decided that lava was a great thing to stand on while fighting? Typically they deserved the burning death which awaited them. Those were in the minority on a decent team though. Most of the deaths on a decent team were ones where a healer could say “if only…”

The last thing Alice needs is me dumping my problems on her too, Tessa whispered to Pillowcase.

She knew what her role needed to be. She was the one who’d boldly declared that they should head for the dungeon. She was the inspiring one. The hopeful one. She was the voice of confidence, urging them onwards to dare something new. She was the one they could depend on.

Until she wasn’t. That was what worried her. She knew from too many unpleasant experiences, both in game and in real life, that merely having a positive attitude wasn’t enough. You could try to believe in yourself as much as you wanted and if you weren’t ready for what faced you, all the forward momentum you tried to create would just make it hurt worse when you fell flat on your face.

But that had to be her private pain to deal with.

Didn’t it? 

If she didn’t hide it away, if she revealed that she was the weak link in the group, she’d be sewing doubts and fears which the others shouldn’t have to carry for her. 

Better that their bravery, and calm, and peace not be sacrificed to deal with her anxiety.

Right? 

I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m getting the jitters, Alice whispered to Tessa telepathically.

Alice had looked so calm and in control that her words were like a planetary collision, sending Tessa’s thoughts reeling off into entirely unforeseen orbits.

What part is bothering you? Tessa asked, her imagination pouncing on the idea that Alice had noticed how weak of a tank Tessa was and had grown rightfully concerned about Tessa making the kind of critical mistakes the party couldn’t recover from.

What would it take before they gave up on her, Tess wondered? Another total party kill? Or would they press on until one of the deaths turned permanent after a [Hound of Fate] caught one of them? Who would it be? Alice? That would be bad, but Rip or Matt would be even worse. 

It’s been a long time since I healed at low levels like this, Alice whispered. I don’t have any of the skills I’m used to, and these mobs are nuts. We beat the centipedes but they had abilities like a mob twenty levels higher would have. And they don’t attack in a set rhythm. They fight like real creatures. Probably because they are real now. I just…I just don’t know if I can keep you all safe like I’m supposed to.

Tessa’s thoughts went whirling so far beyond the grip of any gravitic hold she had on them that she let them fly free. 

I know what you mean, she said at last, letting honesty set them both free she hoped. I’m not enough of a tank. Not just my build, but me. Even with whatever combat daze Pillowcase give me that seems to carry me through these fights, I can feel all the mistakes I’m making. And there’s probably a ton more I’m not even aware of.

You’re doing just fine there, Alice said. Trust me, I’ve run with plenty of bad tanks, and you’re not one of them. I’m glad we fell in together.

Alice’s words were the ones Tessa should have been longing to hear, and they did fill her heart with a measure of joy but they didn’t magically banish the doubts from her head. 

Thanks. I think it’s a mark of how good a healer you are though that I haven’t made any terrible mistakes yet. I mean, I know you’re limited in what you can do, but your support has made everything so far so much easier. I’m glad to be with you too.

Tessa had been thinking of how Alice’s healing had kept the fights so much calmer than they might otherwise have been, but as she said the words she saw that they applied to far more than that. 

Having another player, one who was experienced and who was a contemporary rather than younger like Rip and Matt, or older like Aiemethia and Zibby? That had made a world of difference both to Tessa evaluation of their chance of success, and more importantly to her emotional well being. With Alice in her party, Tessa’s world felt a lot less scary. Tessa’s words said more than that though and as they echoed back to her, they sounded far more intimate than she’d intended them to be.

But not necessarily more than she meant.

Which was a problem.

Alice had a girlfriend already, and, however attractive both Alice the vampire character and Alice the human ghost might be, Tessa knew she was definitely not recovered enough from her own disaster of a dating life to be contemplating romance again. 

So what do we do? Alice asked, and for a moment Tessa felt like Alice had read her thoughts. Do we turn back? Or find something else to grind on for a while? Neither one of those feels right, does it?

Tessa breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever madness was playing around in the cotton balls that made up her brain, it hadn’t been apparent to Alice. That was perfect. Better to put those kind of thoughts off till later, and by later, never would fit the bill nicely.

No, turning back doesn’t feel right at all, she said. I think we need to do this dungeon. It’s probably the only way we’ll get over these jitters.

Yeah. Part of me knows that. Part of me thinks that part is out to get me killed though. Alice said.

Tessa repressed the urge to give Alice a hug. It was the mode of comfort she’d picked up from her friends, but among people in their mid-twenties things tended to work differently than for people in the early teens. Somehow even emoting a virtual hug seemed too intense with both of them walking so close together as they marched into the foothills of the mountains beyond the plain [Sky’s Edge] lay on.

Part of me agrees with both parts of you, Tessa said. And part of me still believes in what I said originally. We’re ready for this, and in the long run it’ll make us safer.

Well, more powerful at least, Alice said. I’m not sure if being able to go to the higher level zones and get mixed up in end game stuff eventually is going to be ‘safer’ exactly.

Safer than getting mixed up in it at level 1 anyways, Tessa said.

The [Wraithwing] attack had proven that the real [Fallen Kingdoms] they’d been plunged into did not care about playing fair when it came to setting up encounters. That line of thought led to a chilling end point though.

In theory the toughest monsters in the game were safely tucked away at the ends of the most remote dungeons in the game. In the game they were content to remain in their throne rooms, or atop their piles of loot. But what was stopping them from deciding to go for a stroll? Maybe stop by a the local tavern or the nearest walled city? Say with all of their minions from the dungeon in tow? 

Who, exactly, would be able to stop them if they decided to eat the aforementioned tavern or city? High level adventurers? Maybe. But what was the chance that there’d happen to be some nearby? Especially ones who were willing to fight and die over and over as typically happened when fighting a mega-boss in a new environment?

Worse, how many high level adventurers would be lost in a fight like that? [Heart Fire Braziers] weren’t indestructible, and a smart foe would make them a top priority, leaving dead adventurers with fewer options for escaping the jaws of the [Hounds of Fate].

We need to get to the level cap as fast as possible, Tessa said as grim scenario after scenario played out in her mind. Well, maybe not literally as fast as possible, she added, I’m still on board with the ‘no killing people’ rule.

Good, Alice said. I’m still a bit worried about what’s happening with your ‘Pillowcase’ personality. It sounds like the start of a disorder.

I get that, Tessa said. I guess I’m not worried because it doesn’t feel like I’m losing control. It’s not exactly deliberate either. More like when I need that side of myself, its there. Kind of like putting on a mask to be braver.

You said Pillowcase has different memories than your Earth life had though right?

Yeah, and they feel real too, Tessa said. I don’t know how to explain that. It might just be something I’m making up, like writing backstory for a character in an RPG as I need it.

It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing we’ve run into today if it turned out that they were real though, would it? Alice asked.

No, it wouldn’t. Probably wouldn’t even make it onto the Top Ten list for today.

So far they seem like a good thing, Alice said. Just keep an eye on it ok? Even if you’re able to keep a handle on your character, Matt might run into more trouble if its the kind of thing that can get out of control.

I would never get out of control. My whole purpose is to help keep things under control. It’s what a tank does, Pillowcase said.

Broken Horizons – Vol 3, Ch 1

As a programmer, Tessa had spent weeks ‘working the bugs’ out of a system before. Never before though had she used a sword and shield to do it.

“Oh god, was that the final wave of them?” Rip asked, panting with exhaustion. 

While their adventuring bodies were tougher than their Earthly ones, they did still have limits. Tessa saw Rip’s stamina was all but completely tapped out and the rest of the team wasn’t looking in great shape either.

“It was at least the last wave for now,” Alice said. “I’d say we’ve got about five minutes until the next respawn happens.”

“We could wait for them and keep grinding, but I think it’d be better to pull back at this point,” Tessa said. “We could use the rest and the chance to review the levels we’ve gotten.”

“Can we sort through the gear too?” Matt asked. “I think I saw a new staff drop off one of those last centipedes.”

With no one opposed, the group pulled back to an outcropping of rocks which looked to be a safe distance from the farm house. Matt and Rip collapsed against one of the rocks as soon as they could. Tessa didn’t blame them. The fights with the [Chaos Centipedes] weren’t difficult, not since they’d leveled up a few times, but going through so many of them in a row was taxing, especially for the two who had to do most of the work in putting down the monsters.

“That was crazy,” Rip said as they got the gear which had dropped from the monsters divided up. “How were there so many centipedes hiding under the farm house? It’s like they’ve got an army down there.”

“They probably do,” Alice said. “But a smaller one than it looks.”

“So we killed all of them then?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, several times over,” Tessa said. “Somewhere in those tunnels there’s a [Heart Fire] for the centipedes. You saw how they derezzed a while after they died? That’s what it looks like when someone uses a [Heart Fire] to reincarnate.”

“Wait, how can monsters use a [Heart Fire]? Don’t you need to be able to think to do that?” Rip asked.

“Not exactly,” Alice said. “All you need are the right instincts.”

“So does that mean there’s no way to make the farm house safe again?” Matt asked.

“In the game there wasn’t,” Tessa said. “No matter how long you grinded out the mobs in any given spot, they’d always come back.”

“Which is good for us, in a sense,” Alice said. “We made a decent amount of progress on those things without having to travel very far. We can head back to [Sky’s Edge] now and repair our gear.”

“Yeah, that’s not a bad idea,” Tessa said. “The armor pieces we’ve picked up for me are around half strength now.”

“Let’s get them fixed then before you’re wandering around naked.” Alice said.

“I thought they changed that?” Tessa said. In truth characters whose armor had been completely trashed never appeared in the nude. Broken Horizon’s rating wouldn’t allow that. Running a dungeon in a character’s underwear was not unheard of though, especially if it was new and things were not going well. Tessa thought there’d been talk about allowing the players to at least retrain the appearance of wearing armor though.

“They tried, but there was a bug that took off the model’s skin instead, so they rolled back that change and just never bothered trying it again,” Alice said with a shrug.

Tessa sighed. She knew she shouldn’t throw stones at other developers. They were working under ridiculous deadlines and had to deal with code that was probably some form of black boxed quagmire of “clever ideas” strung together by people who’d never met each other and shared a visceral distrust of their predecessors’ programming styles. To just give up on fixing something so trivial as letting character’s retain their armor though? That was a terrible sign for the stability of the overall codebase.

Why who knows what kind of catastrophe code that broken could lead to? Maybe it would randomly start eating users. But that was just impossible. Code could never do that. Tessa suppressed a laugh at her own train of though. It wasn’t a happy laugh. There was still a bit of hysteria lurking inside her it seemed.

“Where are we going to go after that?” Rip asked as they set off back to [Sky’s Edge].

“Not home,” Matt said, not sounding at all bothered by that fact.

“Huh, homes,” Alice said, her gaze going distant for a moment.

“We’ve got a few options,” Tessa said. “We could hang around [Sky’s Edge] for a while and see what’s happening with the other players. It might be good to collect what info we can from them, especially if any of them have spoken with a GM in the last hour or two.”

As best as Tessa could tell, it was close to sunrise in her original, Earthly timezone. In the [High Beyond] the sky was still the radiant and roiling rainbow masterpiece of cosmic wonder it had been, so local time was difficult to guess at. 

Given the state of [Sky’s Edge] when they arrived, Tessa judged that whatever the hour was, it was late. No one was moving in the town square, and the damage from the [Wraithwing] attack had been hastily patched up, suggesting that people had done what little they could and were getting their rest for the long day of repair and rebuilding which awaited them.

Well, most people. A few buildings still had lights shining in front of them or through their partially repaired windows.

“Doesn’t seem like there’s a lot happening here does it?” Rip said.

“Yeah, but Mister Pendant’s place is still open,” Matt said, pointing to the light over the shops front door.

“Good, he should be able to fix up our armor and weapons,” Alice said. “And buy the extras we have off of us.”

The pile of loot they’d collected from the hoard of [Chaos Centipedes] had indeed included a new staff for Matt. In fact it had included several, most of which were inferior to the last one which had dropped into their shared treasure pool. Since no one else used offensive staves, the best option generally was to convert them into money instead of allowing them to clog up valuable inventory space.

“We might as well do that with all the extra gear,” Tessa said. “Unless anyone wants to work on their crafting skills?”

“I wanted to try [Leatherworking],” Rip said. “I heard it was good for [Archers] to be able to make their own armor.”

“It can be a huge expense,” Tessa said. “Or at least it used to be. I think I remember reading that a couple of expansions ago they did a major overhaul on the crafting system and people seemed pretty happy with it. But most people were already at the max skill level weren’t they?”

“Some people were,” Alice said. “Most hadn’t bothered to work on a crafting skill at all though, since the old system was ridiculous and awful.”

“How did it work?” Matt asked.

“It used to be that you had to gather components from higher level zones than the final items you wanted to make,” Tessa said. “So to make level 10 boots, you’d need ingredients from a level 20 zone. And then once you had them it was random exactly what they would make.”

“Or if they’d make anything at all,” Alice said.

“So, wait, you’d like go to sew a sweater and wind up with a sock or something?” Rip asked.

“Not quite that bad, but there’d be several different types of sweater, basically junk, normal, good, better, and so on. Oh and it was possible for the sweater to just explode in your hands as you crafted it, destroying some or all of the ingredients,” Tessa said.

“The best part was that some quests wanted particular things, so if you made a ‘Level 10 Sweater of Awesomeness’, the quest giver wouldn’t accept it because they wanted a ‘Level 10 Sweater of Mediocrity’. You can see why a lot of people didn’t bother with crafting much.”

“What’s the new system like?” Rip asked, not bothering to hide her dubious expression at the old one.

“The new one has you working with ingredients the same level as the item you want to make,” Alice said. “If you develop a Gathering skill, you can find the components you need in the wild, or you can work just with the crafting skill itself and rework existing pieces of gear in order to skill up.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Matt said. “Why don’t we get started on that now?”

“In the game, we’d need to check in with the Crafting Guild for the skill we want to pursue,” Alice said. “They give you a primer on it and basic training to get you started.”

“I don’t see any Crafting Guilds around here?” Rip said.

“There’s not,” Alice said. “I checked for that earlier. It’s pretty typical though. The intro cities aren’t meant to be where you hang out long term, and the Crafting guilds are one of the draws to pull players on to the major hubs for each region.”

“So we’ve got to wait on that then?” Matt asked.

“I don’t know,” Tessa said. “That was the game. We can do more than our characters could already. Maybe we can develop skills on our own too.”

“Does anyone here know any crafting skills in real life?” Alice asked. “Sewing, knitting, metal working?”

“I know a bit about carpentry,” Matt said. “Rip does too.”

“Oh yeah, from the play last year,” Rip said.

“[Woodworking] wouldn’t be bad for either or both of you to work on,” Alice said. “Matt could combine it with [Enchanting] to make better staves for himself or improve on the ones we find, and Rip can do the same for her bows.”

“Improve on them?” Tessa asked. It wasn’t something crafters had been able to do six years ago.

“That was added in too,” Alice said. “I’ve skipped doing it because my guild have a bunch of crafting freaks who take care of it for the rest of us, but since they’re on the other side of the world, it might be nice if we can find the guilds to unlock the skill enhancements. They let you do things like take a bow you’ve found and improve the damage it does, or its accuracy. The modifications aren’t much but it’s better than nothing, and at max level they can make a big difference.”

“I wonder if that’s what a lot of the low level players could do,” Tessa said. “Rather than going out and risking death, they can stay back in town and just work on their crafting skills to support the high level players.”

“That would work fine, if there were any high level players around,” Alice said. “Maybe back in the older zones that’s what the GMs are recommending to people, but until we get there, it looks like everyone is in the same boat that we are.”

“And we don’t really know that sitting at home and crafting is actually safe in the long run,” Rip said. Her brows were knit into a worried furrow, which Tessa misread for only a moment.

It took an aggressive puff of air from Rip for Tessa to see that she wasn’t concerned about being safe, she was concerned that the conversation was trending towards the topic of leaving her and Matt behind. 

It wasn’t an unreasonable concern. Part of Tessa still rebelled at the idea of bringing children into the kind of horrifically violent peril they’d already been through. Even against some of the lowest level mobs, Pillowcase had been incapable of keeping her party completely protected. But, reflecting on the short time they’d been together, Tessa knew thinking in terms of keeping the kids safe was coming at it from the wrong direction. 

Rip and Matt weren’t safe.

They would never be safe.

Not even if they were whisked back to Earth and the lives they’d left behind that very moment. 

Safety wasn’t a thing you had. It was something you created. Hiding away, refusing to engage with the world was one method of doing that, and maybe sometimes it was the best, or even the only option, but given where they were and what they’d accomplished already, Tessa knew her team could do better. They could be better.

There were risks out there, and mistakes they all were surely going to make, but it was better by far to stand together and face them than to leave anyone behind.

“Repairs and crafting sound good,” Tessa said. “But what do you say we go and take on that dungeon that’s waiting for us.”

Broken Horizons – Vol 2, Interludes 4

Interlude – Brendan Reingold

The fate of the world hung in the balance, the gates to the Outer Chaos had been flung open, and Brandon Reingold rose to the challenge by reading a comic book.

It wasn’t a even terribly good comic. He’d picked it up because he liked the characters but the writer was a talentless hack whose idea of drama was to kill someone messily ever other page. Brandon would have pitched the series except he knew the current team was being switched out for a writer and artist who’d done much better work and who tended to redeem even the terrible storylines the people before them came up with.

Over on his desktop, his character, Mellisandra, looked like she could use a comic book of her own. She’d been standing idly in her personal house for the last two hours. Brandon hadn’t noticed her fidget routine, but it had been looping for roughly an hour and fifty five minutes of that time. That was typical for characters who didn’t receive any input from their players. Broken Horizons had them perform little actions like tapping their feet or yawning to prevent them from looking like creepy lifeless automatons.

Mellisandra’s animations weren’t quite the normal ones anymore though. Instead of stretching occasionally, she had sat down on the floor into a cross legged pose and was pouring over a collection of spell books she’d accumulated in her travels.

At level 88, she was technically a high level character but in practice the gap between her and the actual top end of the player character power curve was far wider than the gap between her and a level 1 character. 

If Brandon had been playing her, she might have made some progress on closing that gap, but the GM he’d spoken with had been pretty clear on the need to both avoid combat encounters and to remain online. 

In theory, Mellisandra should have been left alone. It was late enough that dawn would destroy any chance at real sleep that Brandon had left. If it wasn’t his day off, he would have shut off his monitor hours ago rather than waiting fruitlessly for a notification from the GM staff that it was safe to shut down – or at least safe to go back to playing.

Brandon had been looking forward to the release of the World Shift expansion for months. Pulling an all-nighter seemed like a small price to pay for the chance to check out some of the new content early.

He knew he wasn’t going to get a “World’s First” or anything like that. He was a solo player primarily, so the raids in the new expansion weren’t anything he had a real hope of experiencing. He didn’t need those though. There was plenty of other content that came with each expansion. Content that might be considered too easy to brag about, but the story would still be cool. At least assuming the EE developers lived up to their past efforts.

Over on his desktop, Mellisandra had completed her spell review and was practicing some of her more advanced incantations. Not fully casting them of course. Her inn room only had so much space and filling it with fire would do no one any good. It was still a decent light show though.

Which was what attracted Brandon’s interest.

He stared for a few long minutes, watching the pyrotechnics in amazement. At first he was simply impressed by the depth and diversity of the new fidget animations. The farther Mellisandra went into her practice though the more clear it became that what she was doing wasn’t pre-scripted.

She was using the spells he’d selected for her. She was speaking dialog to herself. She was turning to stare at the computer screen.

“Brandon?” she asked, her face losing the generic expression it was usually animated with and taking on a confused look instead.

The comic dropped from Brandon’s hands.

She was real?

Interlude – The Pit Master

Nezzgrim had a simple life. In the [High Beyond] there were resources, and while his masters in the [Sunless Deeps] couldn’t ascend to the [High Beyond] in this age, they were still quite capable of creating servants who could. 

Some of the resources Nezzgrim had been tasked with collected were things like the [Magicrystals] which had long since been mined out of the lair he was overseeing. Magic was always useful, so long as it wasn’t tinged with the divine. Similarly the precious metals and gemstones in the [High Beyond]’s floating lands were quite useful to his masters’ ambitions. Mortals were both amazingly resistant to corruption and unbelievably willing to sell their principals for appallingly small amounts of wealth.

Which is what made them the best commodity of all.

As a [Pit Master], Nezzgrim was responsible for all of the wealth the motley force he’d been gifted with was able to assemble, but it was the tribute of mortals where he most often took a personal hand in the matter. He’d learned long ago that raising an army of supporters among the mortals was all well and good, but the outlay of effort and expense tended to make it a less than desirable avenue for pleasing his masters. It was far better, and far easier, to simply lure the expendable ones into environments where they could be safely captured, subdued, and then sent to the [Sunless Deeps] either alive or in bite sized chunks, depending on his mood and  the docket of orders he’d been given that week.

“A new party has entered the [Outer Crypts],” Slugzim said. Slugzim aspired to a role of [Chief Butler] serving under Nezzgrim and had taken on many of the duties involved without requesting a cut of the tributes as a more foolish servitor might have.

“Fascinating, Nezzgrim said. “I didn’t think we’d have another group so soon. Have the [Noxious Shamblers] regenerated from their last encounter yet?”

“No my lord,” Slugzim said. “They lie in ruin just inside the entrance.”

“And what is their projected recovery time?” Nezzgrim asked.

“They should possess the mana to reactivate within the next ten minutes,” Slugzim said. “They will await your orders for when to do so though.”

“Perfect. Let me see this new party then.”

A shimmering pool of red spun into the air between them and small figures appeared as the layout of the [Outer Crypts] rose around them.

The party was a larger one, with eight members, all clustered together for safety. Nezzgrim was familiar with their mindset. He’d watched too many earlier adventurers try to plumb the depth of his lair but watching this group brought new ideas bubbling into Nezzgrim’s mind.

“Order the zombies in the next corridor to remain inert for now,” he said, a new strategy unfolding in his thoughts.

The adventurers were surprised by this given how carefully they picked a path through the bodies littering the corridor ahead of them. 

“They’re coming up on the trapped door to the [Inner Crypt],” Slugzim said. “Should I engage the lock?”

“No, they’ve probably taken a key off of one of our earlier minions. Let’s alert the [Starborn Trolls] in the next room instead.”

“Should I have them attack now?” Slugzim asked. “They’ll be at a disadvantage fighting in the corridor.”

“Have one of them wait behind where the door will open,” Nezzgrim said. “Order it to slam the door shut the moment two of them are in the room. That is when the others will attack as well.”

“And the zombies too?” Slugzim asked.

“No, the zombies should animate just before the party reaches the door. I’ll give the signal.”

“And what about the traps?” slugzim asked. “If they go off they’ll damage the zombies as well.”

“Not if, when,” Nezzgrim said. “Order the zombie nearest the door to jump onto the pressure plate the moment someone approaches within five feet of them.:”

It was the an unfair sort of plan. Using the resources of several rooms against a single group was unreasonable, but it was exactly the kind of unreasonable which Nezzgrim felt confident would allow his to achieve his goal of collecting eight more treats for his masters.

It didn’t take long for his ideas to pan out. In the small projection, he watched a zombie surged to life as the party drew close to the door. Rather than attempting to devour them though, the zombie hit the pressure plate as commanded and scything blades slashed out across the corridor.

The result on the party was everything Nezzgrim could have hoped. The two in the lead raced to the door and found it open. The two in the back escaped the twirling blades with only minor injuries. The four caught inside the arcing blades screamed and tried to run as the swinging weapons cut deep into the health reserves.

The leaders raced into the room beyond, perhaps intending to hold the door for their friends, but they weren’t ready for the sheer force of a [Starborn Troll] slamming the door to block them in. They went down in a tangle of thrashing limbs as the rest of the trolls leapt on them, stripping away their weapons and binding them with scavenged ropes.

The ones outside the door didn’t fair any better.The four who’d been caught in the blades collapsed from their wounds and were collected by the zombies. The two who’d escaped the trap tried to fight the zombies, but in the face of the traps it was impossible, so they turned to flee.

Just not soon enough.

Nezzgrim saw one of the adventurer’s begging for their lives from the [Noxious Shambers] who had risen to cut off their escape. It was an odd image. The ones who made it into a dungeon like the crypts tended to made of sterner stuff.

Ah well, Nezzgrim thought, the wailing will just make them sweeter for my lords.

Interlude – The Nightmare Queen

Though she was master over all of the denizens of horror which stalked the [Fallen Kingdoms], the Nightmare Queen rarely received visitors.

True, an audience with her was the reward for a long and arduous quest line, but few saw that one through to its end, more was the pity. It wasn’t that she was lonely, her work was too consuming to allow her time for reflections like that, but some variety would have been appreciated.

At least on most days.

As dawn approached on a day like no other though, the Nightmare Queen was concerned and in no mood for new visitors.

Which was of course when they arrived.

“Hey,” a young woman said. Neither she nor her companion had been present in the Nightmare Queen’s  private study a moment earlier.

Except that they had been. Searching her memories, the Nightmare Queen discovered that they’d been announced and shown in with great deference but a complete lack of fanfare.

“Reality alteration?” she asked, knowing the answer as she did, her history rewriting itself to account as needed for the present circumstances. Probing the memories, they felt smooth and well aged. 

No one in the [Fallen Kingdoms] was supposed to have the power to overwrite her reality like that.

And yet the Nightmare Queen wasn’t afraid.

The lack of fear could have stemmed from the will of the one who changed reality on her, but the Nightmare Queen didn’t detect the incongruities an act like that might have left, or any compulsion to remain unafraid. The new arrival seemed to simply have no animosity towards her.

“You’ve got a bit of situation here  it looks like?” the other young woman said. She had chosen to be tall to contrast with the other’s shorter stature. And light of hair and feature to the other’s dark hair and eyes.

“Who are you?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“You guard the space between the real and the imaginary,” the first young woman, the dark haired one, said. “You know who we are.”

Her eyes drew the Nightmare Queen in, like a galaxy draws in planets and stars.

“My True Empress,” the Nightmare Queen breathed, awe feeling foreign for one such as herself.

“Yes, but not for the moment,” the young woman said. “For the moment we’re just travelers.”

“What has brought you here?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“You,” the light one said. “And what’s happening with you world.”

“We are under attack,” the Nightmare Queen said.

“By more than you know,” the dark one said.

“You can end the assault though,” the Nightmare Queen said. It wasn’t a guess, or even a request. The Nightmare Queen was to all intents and purposes a god above the gods of the Fallen Kingdoms and even she knew there were beings you did not make requests of.

“I don’t think we need to,” the dark one said.

“There’s more happening here than you know,” the light one said. “Other worlds effected and other forces at work.”

“What will you do then?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“Travel,” the light one said.

“We’ll walk in your world, bound by its limits, changing no more than anyone else might change there,” the dark one said.

“Why?” the Nightmare Queen asked.

“So that we can understand it,” the light one said.

“We don’t want to destroy your world,” the dark one said, “but that might be what needs to happen.”

The Nightmare Queen knew down to the last joule of her power that her guests were not making idle threats and if they chose to erase what was, there was nothing she nor anyone else could do to stop them.

“How can we be spared?” she asked.

“That’s what we’re hoping to find out,” the light one said. “Wish us luck.”